For many people who listen to the National, and by guitarist Aaron Dessner’s own admission, the band’s career started in 2007. “When we were in the process of making Boxer we knew that we had one shot to enter the room and make a case for ourselves,” vocalist Matt Berninger said in an interview from several years ago. Until that point, the Brooklyn-based five-piece had flirted with alt-country (2001’s The National), angst-ridden rock (2003’s Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers), and a pastiche of the two (2004’s Cherry Tree EP). Nothing seemed to stick until the National released Alligator in 2005, which found the band staring down the barrel of real adulthood. There were still flashes of the band that screamed about bad husbands and cocktails to empty barrooms, but mostly Berninger was just sorry about everything that got him to that point.
Alligator closer “Mr. November” may have kicked the door down, but it was “Fake Empire,” the opening track of their next album, 2007’s Boxer, that really made an entrance. Those opening piano chords contain multitudes; they’re about apathy under George W. Bush as much as they became Obama’s campaign song. The whole album is the sonic equivalent of Jimmy Carter’s famous “malaise” speech, except Berninger implicates himself when he raises his glass to our crisis of confidence. On the album, he doesn’t know whether to pray for his friends or condemn them, he throws money and cries, and this time he promises it’ll be better. His lyrics are driven home by Bryan Devendorf’s studied, powerful drumming, and they’re given emotional depth by Aaron Dessner and his twin brother Bryce hocketing their guitars like light on water. As R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe said of the band when he saw them with Mike Mills at a 2010 concert, “It’s instantaneous. It touches you.”
The release of High Violet ushered in 2010, the Year Of The National. That was when they sold 350,000 copies of Boxer, landed a New York Times cover story, and felt on a more fundamental level that they had arrived. Despite the band’s crippling doubts and arduous songwriting process — “Lemonworld” was rewritten 80 times before they settled on the original version — High Violet is unquestionably their best work to date. It’s like Boxer in high-definition: Every lyrical and instrumental expression is outlined in even more painstaking detail. Back in March, when they announced their forthcoming sixth album, Trouble Will Find Me, they accompanied it with the statement that touring High Violet helped them get to the point where they could confidently release new material. “The songs on one level are our most complex, and on another they’re our most simple and human,” Aaron said. “It just feels like we’ve embraced the chemistry we have.”
Many of the songs on The National, Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers, and the EPs are good — “Murder Me Rachael” and “Available” in particular introduced The National to many of their most ardent fans — but they’re not great, and the band itself is divided on how their earlier material should be received. Regardless, including them on this list of the National’s 10 best songs would have come at the expense of other, better songs that appeared on band’s last three albums, so no songs from those early releases made it onto this list. Live cuts of songs that will appear on Trouble Will Find Me were also excluded, since they’re too low-quality to give an idea of what they’ll sound like on record. The songs that did make it are indicative of the National as we now know them, the band they’ve dreamed of becoming for 29 years.
10. “Rylan” (from a live session on CBC Radio’s “Q” Show)
One of the best parts about this song is that it was a surprise. The National were supposed to perform “I Need My Girl” (which will appear on Trouble Will Find Me) at Toronto’s CBC Radio as part of their session at the Glenn Gould Studio, but they changed their minds at the last minute. “We’re going to start with a different song, just to mess with it, ’cause it’s live. This song is called Rylan. Uh, R-Y-L-A-N,” Berninger ad-libs. Even before the song begins, Devendorf starts ticking away on the skins, foreshadowing the titular pedophile’s tragic ending. “They say you’re a pervert, you’re a vulture/ Don’t you want to be popular culture?” Berninger sings, shading his character with nuance worthy of good fiction. Still no word on whether the song will see official release, but at least the live recording is of superlative quality.
9. “Exile Vilify” (from the Portal 2: Songs To Test By OST)
This song is simply gorgeous. The swelling orchestra swirls around Berninger like windblown leaves as he walks alone down an empty sidewalk, contemplating the terrible things he’s done to get himself here. Those piano chords owe their cinematic grandeur in part to Badly Drawn Boy’s soundtrack work, especially when tambourines slowly shake out like fate over the chorus. Though it was technically made for a video game about robots, “Exile Vilify” carries enough weight to stand on its own as a transitional song between High Violet and Trouble Will Find Me. And then, of course, there’s the adorable sock puppet, staring sadly over his handler’s shoulder, winning Portal 2’s music video contest.
8. “Conversation 16″ (from High Violet, 2010)
For all intents and purposes, “Conversation 16″ closes out High Violet. “England” and “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” can’t touch the way the Dessners’ guitar riffs keep scratching like a dog at the back door, shifting uncomfortably around the rhythm section as Devendorf times his rim hits like a kitchen wall clock counting down to family dinner. He finally explodes around Berninger’s confession that he doesn’t know what to do with his kids, he likes flowers and coffee, and he’s evil to boot. Images of silver girls and black dreams lifted from Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy are downright chilling, but at the end of the workday “Conversation 16″ sustains the tension that married couples attempt to hide from their kids, the desperate fear that you might kill the one you love the most.
7. “Brainy” (from Boxer, 2007)
One of the more abstract songs on a pretty abstract album, “Brainy” might ultimately be about someone trying to pretend they’re smarter than they are. But of course it’s about other things, too: “The part about boning up is also a mixed metaphor, for um, you know, lust, and also studying,” Berninger awkwardly explained to Paste when Boxer came out. Devendorf thwacks his drums with the thick sounds of fingers flipping through a dictionary as it shuts, a minor guitar tone curling underneath like sexual tension. It builds ominous pressure behind Berninger’s continual taunts and come-ons (“Let me call you love, brainy, brainy, brainy”), and by the time the saxophone and strings overwhelm the end of the song, it’s clear his intentions are ominously more than academic.
6. “Lemonworld” (from High Violet, 2010)
As mentioned earlier, “Lemonworld” is the song that almost wasn’t. It was originally going to be called “Wrath” or “You And Your Sister”, and it wasn’t until engineer Greg Calbi (Bruce Springsteen, Yo La Tengo) gave the National his stamp of approval that they accepted it. Even then, Berninger complained, “Now it’s the ugliest, worst-mixed, least-polished song on the record, and it took the longest to get there.” He sings nearly horizontally, as though sprawled out on a couch at a suburban swinger’s party while he watches his wife flirt with someone else’s husband. “So happy I was invited,” Berninger says, sounding anything but. Thoughts of the war tug at his subconscious, like the violins that surface for just 20 seconds during the bridge, but he never quite gets around to making small talk about them.
5. “Green Gloves” (from Boxer, 2007)
“Green Gloves” builds over a classic the National template, following the sequencing of any climactic moment. Each element is dropped in slowly, judiciously, building in increments over the chorus until they’re blown out into an organ-laced cacophony. Bryce’s fingers slide over his guitar strings like hands working their way into latex gloves, eventually unfurling into the piano-laden chorus as Berninger reveals his grand plan to “get inside their heads.” The whole song sinuously spreads out like a “drop of ink in a glass of water,” tinting everything with the heavy-handed strikes of the keys until everything suddenly drops out for a beat before the verse. It creeps into your head like his fingers between the sheets, fondling the edges of a subconscious that wonders, right before you fall asleep, if someone else is there.
4. “Mr. November” (from Alligator, 2005)
“I’m the new blue blood/ I’m the great white hope,” Berninger declares, like an overwrought Patrick Bateman. “I used to be carried in the arms of cheerleaders,” he adds, as if there were any doubt. Then he abruptly disintegrates with frightening suddenness, screaming “I WON’T FUCK US OVER! I’M MR. NOVEMBER! I’M MR. NOVEMBER!” as Devendorf’s drum fills roil in the background. Even eight years later, anyone who still refuses to vote on principle after listening to Berninger tear himself apart like that — especially after the National printed T-shirts with Obama’s name above the words “Mr. November” — shouldn’t be allowed to listen to music anymore.
3. “Fake Empire” (from Boxer, 2007)
If you listen to the National’s discography chronologically, this song comes immediately after “Mr. November.” Our president obviously chose this song for the feeling it evokes over the lyrics, which are less than inspiring. The bouncing hi-hat and staccato horns imbue the song with hope, like onlookers joining a marching band as it parades down the street. But everyone might be too half-awake to do anything about it, too busy celebrating the idle pleasures of picnicking with spiked lemonade and tiptoeing in a city too shiny to be real. Despite its real-life context, if the underlying message of “Fake Empire” is the future, it’s not an optimistic one.
2. “Afraid Of Everyone” (from High Violet, 2010)
With accordions murmuring alongside a faint, Twilight Zone-y warble, “Afraid Of Everyone” has the most chilling opener of any the National song. And there’s Aaron again, toe-tapping his guitar in the background like the Feds waiting on your doorstep. It’s the cooing choral voices in the background that continually sends chills racing; that is, until the goose-stepping drums kick in, sadly kind of funny behind the image of Berninger defending his family against very real threats with his large umbrella. Perhaps most importantly, the song’s mounting tension sets up High Violet for the immense release that comes next with the band’s opus, “Bloodbuzz Ohio”.
1. “Bloodbuzz Ohio” (from High Violet, 2010)
“Bloodbuzz Ohio” is the beating heart of High Violet and the apotheosis of the band’s career. You see Berninger born aloft by a swarm of bees, flinging his beer bottle over the cliff where he’s parked and watching it smash onto Devendorf’s unstoppable drumming. He still owes “money to the money to the money I owe,” takes off his shirt when he probably shouldn’t, and still has no love for his Midwest hometown. Despite this, pianos galloping around the foot of his love hold promise for the future even if we, like Berninger, know he’ll never actually change. And that’s the great sadness of the National, and anyone that makes music as catharsis, which is the only kind that’s consistently compelling. For the National to keep getting better, they can’t let their problems go away. But for the moment that doesn’t matter, because he’s on a blood buzz, and so are we.
Listen to this playlist on Spotify.