Gibbard's first album, You Can Play These Songs with Chords, was released as a demo, leading to a record deal with Barsuk Records. It was at this time that Gibbard decided to expand the project into a complete band, and recruited band members to join. The band has released six studio albums, four EPs, and one demo to date. Their most recent album, Narrow Stairs, was released on May 12, 2008 in the United Kingdom and was released on May 13, 2008 in the United States.
The four released the LP Something About Airplanes on August 18, 1998. The album was favorably reviewed in the independent music scene and in 2000 the band released We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes. Nathan Good left the band at some point during this album's production. His playing on “The Employment Pages” and “Company Calls Epilogue” was kept, but Gibbard played drums on all other songs. Good's replacement Michael Schorr would first appear on The Forbidden Love EP, released on October 24, 2000. In 2001, another LP was released, entitled The Photo Album. Limited editions of this album contained three bonus tracks, which were later released separately as The Stability EP.
In 2003, there was another change of drummer, with Jason McGerr of Eureka Farm replacing Schorr. McGerr would play drums on the next release, Transatlanticism, which was released in October 2003. Tracks from the album appeared in the soundtracks of the television shows The O.C., Six Feet Under, CSI: Miami and Californication. The 2005 movies Wedding Crashers and Mean Creek also included album tracks. In spring of 2004, the band recorded a live EP titled The John Byrd EP, named for their sound engineer. The EP was released on Barsuk Records in March 2004.
In November 2004, Death Cab for Cutie signed a “long-term worldwide deal” with Atlantic Records, leaving their long-time label Barsuk Records. Gibbard stated on the official website that nothing would change except that "next to the picture of Barsuk holding a "7", there will be the letter "A" on both the spine and back of our upcoming albums. After signing to Atlantic, the band was still nervous about corporate economics, and encouraged fans to download its songs from the Internet.
The first and second singles from the band's Atlantic Record release Plans were “Soul Meets Body” and “Crooked Teeth” respectively (which they performed on Saturday Night Live on January 14, 2006). The full album was released in August 2005. Plans was well received by critics and fans, and received a nomination for the Grammy Award for Best Alternative Album of 2005. It achieved Gold Status in 2006 after charting on Billboard for 47 consecutive weeks and was certified platinum by the RIAA at the beginning of May in 2008.
The band released a touring DVD titled Drive Well, Sleep Carefully, in 2005. Known for their contributions to animal rights, the band is supporting the activist group PETA in giving away copies of the DVD to promote animal rights. In early 2006, the band announced the upcoming release of Directions, eleven short films inspired by songs from the Plans album, each directed by a different person. The videos were posted one at a time at the band's website and the DVD went on sale April 11, 2006. The iTunes Store began selling the videos (formatted for iPod) early on March 28, 2006. Lance Bangs, P.R. Brown, Ace Norton, Jeffrey Brown, Lightborne, Autumn de Wilde, Rob Schrab, Laurent Briet and Monkmus, as well as Aaron Stewart-Ahn, are among directors that have contributed to the project. An episode of MTV2's Subterranean played these videos for the whole hour plus discussion with members of the band. In 2006, the band made their first appearance at Neil Young's annual Bridge School Benefit. The band completed their lengthy 2006 tour of the USA on December 10, 2006, finishing with a show at the Key Arena in Seattle, Washington.
The band released the first single,"I Will Possess Your Heart" from the album on March 18, 2008. It was met with plaudits from the band's official fan club, the DCFC Union, as well as some concern from more casual fans, saying the musical introduction, though powerful and emotive with the driving bass line, was too long. The radio edit version does not include the extended introduction. In an album review, MTV writer James Montgomery said that although "Death Cab for Cutie had gone insane," he also believes that it could make "an early contender for the best album of 2008." He also said that "Narrow Stairs is a great album, one that could make them very famous, but could very well also kill their careers. The album was their first album to reach #1 on the Billboard 200 chart on May 31, 2008. "No Sunlight" has been reportedly chosen as the third single from the album.
The band has said they will release an EP to accompany the album later this year.
Rolling Stone reviewed Transatlanticism and commented that it was "melodic, melancholy songs about feeling both smart and confused, hopelessly romantic but wary of love." Gibbard's voice was described as "plaintive boy-next-door" Entertainment Weekly commented on the music on Plans, saying "The lush arrangements are long on hothouse organs and pianos, but short on the squirmy guitars and squirrelly beats that, on Gibbard's best work, offset his sweet voice and borderline-maudlin poetics with a sense of emotional danger." The band's music on Plans was described by the Dallas Morning News as "a literate, whispery style, the kind of stuff that normally sounds better in headphones than in large venues".