With eight albums and two EPs under their belt over a 20-plus year career, The National have rarely missed. Ever since the band hit their stride with 2005’s Alligator, they have been one of the most consistent purveyors of indie rock the genre has to offer.
That said, even their most ardent fans won’t argue that every release has been flawless — but every time Matt Berninger, the Dessners, and the Devendorfs put out something new, you’re almost guaranteed a handful of tracks will become new favorites. With their ninth full-length, First Two Pages of Frankenstein, announced for an April 28th release via 4AD, now’s the perfect time to look back at all those past albums and put together a list of their top tracks.
Of course, the same factors that have earned The National such lasting greatness make choosing their 10 best songs a formidable task. If every album has at least a few top-tier tunes, how do you narrow it down to just the toppest-tier? You could theoretically make a list that only included tracks off Boxer and High Violet and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone arguing against you. Go look at the various Reddit fan rankings and see if you find a single user that shares the exact opinion of another. (Okay, so that just describes Reddit, but the point still stands.)
So in an effort to be fully representative of all this beloved band has to offer, we were forced to make some tough cuts. The result is a list of 10 songs you might not fully agree with, but you won’t be able to deny includes some of the best music The National have released. (Scroll to the end for a playlist of every track.) We’ll see if that all needs to shift once Frankenstein drops; a good bet says it just might.
— Ben Kaye
10. “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness”
After their longest gap between releases, The National teased an aggressive turn on Sleep Well Beast with lead single “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness.” Opening with heavenly harmonies, the mood switches quickly to urgent drums and heavy piano as they’re sliced up by Aaron Dessner’s squiggly guitar — which burst into one of the biggest solos in the band’s catalog. Layers of horns add beauty to the weighty political overtones in Berninger’s baritone, including the bellowing frustration, “I can’t explain it/ ahhh any other, any other way,” a hook built for live feedback. Darkly propulsive, the track is arguably one of the band’s most widely accessible, becoming their first effort to top Billboard’s Adult Alternative Songs chart. — B.K.
You know how there are songs that whenever someone says a specific word, that song starts playing in your head? That’s what “England” does for many. The combination of piano and strings, with guitar layering over a patiently thundering bass drum, anchors the most cinematic track The National has ever recorded. When the horns hit a little over two minutes in, it makes the hairs on your arm stick up. But the true beauty of “England” lies in its restraint, with the band slowly working toward the chant-at-the-top-of-your-lungs grand finale. — Spencer Dukoff
08. “Mistaken for Strangers”
A nervous energy suffuses the first single of 2007’s Boxer, whose title also serves as the name of a 2013 documentary about the band. It’s the kind of chord progression that makes the listener picture Matt Berninger looking over his shoulder, filled with paranoid visions. “You get mistaken for strangers by your own friends” he sings, before delivering the devastating line, “Oh, you wouldn’t want an angel watching over you/ Surprise, surprise, they wouldn’t wanna watch.” It’s one of the better live songs if you ever have the chance to catch The National live in concert. — S.D.
07. “Light Years”
I Am Easy to Find is one of The National’s knottier records, loaded with guest vocalists and electronically atmospheric compositions. Tucked at the end of this swirling journey is a straightforwardly beautiful songs, “Light Years,” existing both as an outlier on the album and a perfect closer. A haunting soundscape orchestrated by the Dessners washes under the forlorn piano while Berninger sings of sorrow without pity. Sometimes love is lost and the realization that it was never even within reach is both heartbreaking and cathartic: “The glory of it all was lost on me/ ‘Til I saw how hard it’d be to reach you.” No one does melancholy like The National, and “Light Years” is one of their most elegantly sorrowful. — B.K.
06. “I Need My Girl”
“I Need My Girl” is a love song for the anxiously attached. Matt Berninger seems to have everything he could’ve wanted: a steady rock star career and a wife and daughter waiting for him at home. But even when he’s feeling “good and grounded” and walking with his chin held high, the insecurity prompted by physical distance always looms close behind. As he repeats the song’s title in the chorus, he invites the listener to commiserate in the bittersweet satisfaction of finding something that’s too good to lose. — Abby Jones
05. “Slow Show”
“Slow Show” is a study in contrasts: anxiety and horniness, self-loathing and powerful love, the steady beauty of the music and the lyrics’ racing thoughts. Even the composition can be split into two parts, the first climbing in urgency on raising guitars, and the second breaking down into reverie on a descending piano riff. Here, Berninger’s narrator fully detaches from the party and his “mistake in my life today,” surrendering his brain to where his heart wants to be. “You know I dreamed about you/ For 29 years before I saw you,” he sings, and the whole song gets lost in his dream. — Wren Graves
04. “Terrible Love (Alternate Version)”
Both the original and alternative takes of “Terrible Love” have their advantages, with the former setting a perfectly dreamy mood to open High Violet and the forceful latter making more of an impression as a standalone track. Lyrically, Berninger has rarely done more with less; the surreality of, “It’s a terrible love and I’m walking with spiders,” covers so much more ground than a concrete image ever could. Meanwhile, the lines, “It’s quiet company,” and “It takes an ocean not to break,” evoke a novel’s worth of emotions in fewer syllables than a haiku. — W.G.
03. “Mr. November”
There are a lot of different interpretations of this standout track from 2005’s Alligator. Is it a political rallying cry? A sports metaphor? Something else? No matter the original intent, “Mr. November” goes down as one of The National’s best thanks to its caustic urgency, showcasing the full breadth of Berninger’s vocal range as guitars and drums clatter behind him to produce gorgeous chaos. At a bare minimum, it’s about experiencing pressure and doing your best to overcome adversity. And if you crank this one up as loud as it can go, you’ll come away feeling like you won’t fuck everyone over, too. — S.D.
02. “Bloodbuzz Ohio”
If High Violet was The National’s career-making effort, you can hear it all on “Bloodbuzz Ohio.” Singing about an American sense of untethered nostalgia, Berninger finds a new melodic quality to his rich timbre, delivering one of the most iconic lines about debt ever sung: “I still owe money to the money to the money I owe/ The floors are fallin’ out from everybody I know.” Those lyrics would just be pithy wit if not for the Dessners and Devendorfs underneath them, however. Bryan Devendorf’s drums in particular, beating a riff behind the Dessners’ tense guitars and the low bellow of horns, seem to be propelling the band into a new tier of greatness — one from which they’ve yet to come down. — B.K.
01. “Fake Empire”
“Fake Empire” can play tricks on you if you’re not too careful. Its title alone references a country swathed in deceit, calling to mind when America’s Gen X faced a harsh coming-to-terms with the fact that their so-called leadership wasn’t much of one at all. What happens when the people you’re expected to blindly trust fail you time and time again? When an unjust system’s mask of credibility starts to slip?
Ironically, “Fake Empire” accidentally became an unofficial anthem of neoliberalism upon its release; Barack Obama used an instrumental of the track in a campaign ad for his 2008 presidential run, and it was also played during the Democratic National Convention that same year. The band went along with it, albeit perhaps hesitantly: “When [Obama’s administration] first asked permission to use ‘Fake Empire’ we wondered, ’Do they know it’s about how fucked up America is and wanting to leave?’” Aaron Dessner recalled at the time.
But maybe that’s the point of “Fake Empire”: to forebode the dangers of moving through life blindly in a daze. — A.J.
The National’s 10 Best Songs Playlist: