The assignment seemed, on its surface, relatively straightforward and simple: Listen back to the lengthy catalog of music produced by a band out of Ohio called The National and create a Top 10 List. If you asked someone with little knowledge of the band, or even someone who considers themselves a mild to moderate fan, they would say it’s the type of task a person could complete over the course of a few hours on a Tuesday evening in early December while sipping on a perfectly poured Odell IPA without breaking so much as a sweat. For those of us who (accurately) put The National in the upper echelon of bands currently making music, I’ll submit this was one of the hardest (and most satisfying) lists to assemble.
I’ll admit (sadly) I was a little bit late to the party when it came to The National. When the band was releasing its first two albums (and one EP) on their own record label as I wrapped up college and began my professional career, I failed to notice and, more importantly, failed to listen. Even after their first album on the new record label, Alligator, garnered significant critical acclaim and the band earned new fans across the globe, they continued to skirt on the periphery of my musical interests. It wasn’t until The Boxer in 2007 that I started to realize what I was missing out on…a point only further driven home by the band’s release of High Violet in 2010. I was now fully invested in anything and everything The National.
For this assignment, it was important to listen (again and again and again) to each album and EP throughout the band’s evolution to hear the development of their signature sound. After much deliberation and many iterations, what follows is one fan’s opinion of the best songs crafted/created/perfected by The National. As you read this list, there is a chance it will miss 1 to 4 of your favorite songs and that’s OK. The beauty of a band like The National is their combination of musicianship, songwriting, and emotion ingrained within each track that speaks to each individual listener in a different way.
We’ll start things out with songs that fell just outside of the Top 10…the so-called “Honorable Mentions”. They are organized by album rather than in the form of a countdown from 20 to 11 because it was just too hard to slot them into rankings. I was already spent from assembling the Top 10.
“Karen” – A song that represents how much fun it is to listen to a band like The National. I’ve probably heard this song a few dozen times and thought it was solid, not amazing. Over the course of the last few months and probably another dozen or so listens, my appreciation has grown to the point where I now consider it one of the stand out tracks from this album.
“Abel” – A song that really comes alive when you see it performed live. Berninger completely loses himself in the lyrics as the narrator trying to make sense of a life spinning out of control.
“Mr. November” – Another quintessential song you need to see the band perform in person. It’s what they used as the “last song before the encore” in each performance. Nothing like a crowd of thousands screaming “I won’t f*** you over. I’m Mr. November” while Berninger wanders through the crowd. At the onset of this assignment, I envisioned this one landing near the back half of the Top 10 but it fell just a little bit short.
“Start a War” – I love how this song builds…but doesn’t fully come to a climax. The just slightly offbeat drumming serves as a perfect counterpart to the vocal. It’s almost like you can feel the tension within the song. Awesome.
“Terrible Love” – Every time I hear the start of this one, I can’t help but think of the video up on Youtube that gives a behind the scenes look at the band. I think it really speaks to the conflicting love affair the band has with the life of “rock stars”. It’s an amazing way to start an album…probably the 2nd best way to start an album…deferring to the opening track from Boxer that will show up on this list very soon.
“Runaway” – It’s quite possible I wrestled with leaving this track out of the Top 10 more than any other effort from the band. It’s such an atmospheric, stripped down, beautiful, slightly melancholy song.
“Conversation 16” – I think when I first heard this song on the radio (if memory serves it was the 2nd or 3rd single from this album) I didn’t really take to it. Of course, my preliminary assessment turned out to be wrong again as I’ve grown to appreciate this song. The drums shine as always. The verses impress me more than the chorus here…not that the “I was afraid I’d eat your brains” isn’t creative.
“Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” – If I could hear this song done the way it was done as the encore at Roy Wilkins every time, this would have cracked the Top 10. Because I’m trying to judge the songs based on the studio versions, it falls just short. I don’t want to take anything away from this one as it’s an amazing combination of vocal harmonies and orchestral sound. Some songs had to miss out.
Trouble Will Find Me
“I Should Live in Salt” – This song represents what makes the band so great. Melancholy, somber and perfectly crafted.
“Graceless” – One of the most upbeat sounding songs from The National with lyrics that still paint a pretty cloudy and gray picture. It’s one of their most approachable (read: radio friendly) songs and still manages to sound like no other band out there today.
On to the Top 10!
10. “England” – High Violet
The song sounds as upbeat as any track from The National even though the lyrics don’t necessary follow that same optimistic path. The trumpets and strings provide the perfect backdrop. It slowly builds towards a sort of triumphant conclusion. One of many standout tracks from my favorite album.
9. “About Today” – Cherry Tree
Given the overwhelming quality of music released by The National over the last decade, it’s somewhat surprising to see a track from an early EP crack the list. I think that alone speaks to how amazing (and seemingly simple) this song really is. The drums in this one epitomize their unique sound. The violin is beautiful. Definitely a somber, melancholy track that still resonates with every listen.
8. “This Is the Last Time” – Trouble Will Find Me
After releasing an album like High Violet, it would have been hard for any band to come close to approximating that level of near perfection. Thankfully, The National are not just any band. I love how this one starts out with just the guitar and vocal. Something about the riff that makes my ears so happy.
7. “Slow Show” – Boxer
After initially leaving this one out of the Top 10, the song made a fierce rally and landed here at #7. It’s one of the rare “love songs” from the band it deserves to be recognized in this space. As has become commonplace, the drums are perfect. I think the line “You know I dreamed about you…for 29 years before I saw you. You know I dreamed about you…I missed you for 29 years” is perfect. One of my first “favorite” songs.
6. “Sorrow” – High Violet
I think this is a selection that other fans would take issue with but I’ve always thought it was one of the underrated stars from the album. The female backing vocal is a perfect complement to Berninger’s lead. It’s such a good song about a lost relationship and how sometimes you don’t want to forget about it…almost like the sorrow/despair feels right.
5. “Lucky You” – Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers
There were only two songs from albums pre-Alligator and this one lands in the Top 5. Once again the lyrics are about a failed or trying relationship…the type of theme that resonates more than others from the band. It’s depressing and perfect.
4. “Fake Empire” – Boxer
It may be because I’ve listened to The National almost non-stop for the last few weeks but I think this may be the single greatest opening to a song and, correspondingly, the single greatest opening song to an album of all time. Almost gives me goosebumps every time. The slightly off beat drumming and slightly off beat phrasing is on full display. The way they slowly add the other elements of the band into the song is simply genius.
3. “Bloodbuzz Ohio” – High Violet
There was a time in my relationship with The National when I didn’t think any song would be able to top this one. I’m having trouble articulating exactly what it is about this song that makes me so happy. It’s such a well-crafted thing of beauty. The line “I still owe money to the money to the money I owe” is lyrical perfection. All I can do is tip my cap to the band on this one.
2. “Slipped” – Trouble Will Find Me
This is one of two songs on this album that I continually go back to. Nothing about this song is optimistic or uplifting and that’s pretty much what you expect from The National. “That I’ll never be anything you ever want me to be” is such a good line. Interestingly this song is much more stripped down than most tracks from the band. I think that speaks to the quality of lyricism and the restraint of the rest of the band crafting a perfect soundscape for said lyrics.
1. “I Need My Girl” – Trouble Will Find Me
Believe me, I didn’t anticipate the top two spots coming from the band’s most recent release but after plenty of homework, the tracks fell where they were meant to fall. This is such a good love song without being overt and obvious. That guitar riff is pretty amazing too.