The National’s 20 best songs – ranked!

As the beloved indie band debut new material and return to touring, we count down the best of their eight-album catalogue

20 Available (2003)

The band’s frontman, Matt Berninger, has expressed his hesitation about this song from their second album, Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers; it is definitely a rare nasty one. “You just made yourself available,” he sneers at a woman, disgusted that he has fallen for her tricks. But there is a thrill in that unfettered bitterness, while the seething, choked guitar points towards the Ohio band’s 2005 breakthrough, Alligator.

19 All the Wine (2005)

Berninger’s persona has become increasingly louche over the years, although he has not touched this hymn to drunken glory since. His inebriated bombast – “I’m a perfect piece of ass” – is matched by the aerodynamic feel of the band, who find a sense of weightless confidence in Aaron and Bryce Dessner’s bright, interlocking guitars and the cool snap of Bryan Devendorf’s drumming.

18 Exile Vilify (2011)

From the soundtrack to the video game Portal 2, Exile Vilify shows off the National at their most delicate and nuanced. The sensitivity in Aaron’s tentative, anxious piano refrain is echoed by Berninger, who drags his voice like a paintbrush through lines such as: “Have you given up? Does it feel like a trial?” Dissonant, droning strings offset the careful beauty of both.

Watch the video for Exile Vilify.

17 You’ve Done It Again, Virginia (2008)

During the National’s imperial phase, there was no one better at hymning isolation in poetic yet piercing imagery: “You’re tall, you’re long-legged and your heart’s full of liquor,” Berninger sings on this outtake from the 2007 album Boxer. It is a softly slumped tapestry of acoustic guitar, steady drums and mournful horns: “Me and everybody are just ice in a glass.”

16 This Is the Last Time (2013)

There is a particular type of devotional intimacy that the National do very well, minted on Boxer – with its sense of two lost souls hiding from the world – and revived here on Trouble Will Find Me. A softly awed Berninger promises to bring “Tylenol and beer” to buoy someone who can’t recognise their own worth; a warmly thumbed guitar burr and a barely there mist of strings convey his gentle touch. Let’s ignore the unnecessarily grand coda.

15 Ada (2007)

Beguilingly structured, Ada has no real centre. Instead, the sense that things aren’t right builds as Sufjan Stevens’ gorgeous piano, each flourish as light as a splash on the surface of water, offsets rumbling guitar, Berninger at his most plaintive, and sad, valedictory horns. Marla Hansen, the undersung backing vocalist of their early years, adds some beautiful light.

14 City Middle (2005)

Before he found his onstage groove, Berninger would sing hunched protectively over the microphone, or cower on the floor. City Middle epitomises these crushed songs. Its rumbling lull swells to a stormy lurch as Berninger tosses out oblique vignettes about the struggle to connect with increasing desperation. “I have weird memories of you pissing in a sink, I think,” is classic Alligator.

13 Abel (2005)

The National have always threatened to make a rock album, but their records tend increasingly towards the elegiac. Oh for an album of Abels, a triumphant song about losing one’s mind, scorched with Berninger’s screams, Devendorf’s trademark militaristic drums and stubborn guitar that hits with the frustration of kicking a wall.

Watch the video for Abel.

12 Sorrow (2010)

By the time the National had their mainstream breakthrough with High Violet, they were well aware that some quarters considered them middle-class music to wallow to. Berninger responded with Sorrow, personifying sadness as an unavoidable presence and also a comfort. “I don’t wanna get over you,” he sings over the band’s dense shudder. (If you want wallowing, they once played it for six hours straight for a piece by the Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson.)

11 Fake Empire (2007)

Their breakthrough song, thanks in part to Barack Obama using it on a campaign video. But despite its affiliation with a presidential run built on hope, Fake Empire was about disillusionment and wanting to leave the US, rendered in a futile escapist fairytale. Based around magnetic polyrhythms and with a frenetic, pointillist horn section inspired by Steve Reich, it also represents the growing influence of Bryce, who was building a reputation as a composer in his own right.

10 Mr November (2005)

If Obama had the guts, he would have taken this track from their album Alligator as his campaign soundtrack: “I’m Mr November,” Berninger shrieks as the band go hell for leather. “I won’t fuck us over!” It used to be the cathartic closer to their live shows, the faithful yelling back, “I’m the new blue blood”, before they swapped it for the somewhat saccharine Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks.

9 About Today (2004)

From the Cherry Tree EP, their first great song. The rolling acoustic guitar, heartbeat percussion and floating strings barely stir from one motif, like someone holding their breath in fear. Worried he’s watching his relationship crumble, Berninger brings us into the sort of bracingly honest pillow talk no couple wants to have: “Hey, are you awake? / Yeah, I’m right here / Well can I ask you / About today?”

The National.
Melancholy to bathe in … The National. Photograph: Graham MacIndoe

8 Slow Show (2007)

Songs about wanting to leave parties are everywhere, but nobody has outdone Berninger for Slow Show’s perfect crystallisation of social anxiety: “I leaned on the wall and the wall leaned away,” he sighs, longing to go home to the one person who quiets his brain, as a churning drone winds through brisk acoustic guitar and dense harmonium.

7 Afraid of Everyone (2010)

The Bush-era disaffection of Fake Empire looked quaint by Afraid of Everyone’s standards, a song written in response to the growing polarisation of US life. Here, the social anxiety of old becomes true fear as Berninger frets that he can’t protect his family; Stevens’ eerie harmonium and Bryce Dessner’s forked-lightning guitar embody the threat.

Listen to Afraid of Everyone.

6 Brainy (2007)

On Brainy, distant lovers are caught in a tidal push and pull. Quite possibly the National’s most brooding song, it’s saved from being one-note by the dynamic arrangement – industrial, chiming guitar and racing drums – and Berninger making a mysterious case for his appeal: “I was up all night again / Boning up and reading the American dictionary,” he sings. “You’ll never believe me, what I found.”

5 Squalor Victoria (2007)

As with Slow Show, the paralysing sense of feeling like a letdown sears through this utterly despondent song, in which being “a professional in my beloved white shirt” isn’t fooling anyone. “This isn’t working, you, my middlebrow fuck-up,” Berninger mumbles at the end of its too-brief run time (though live, that’s the cue for a tempest of noise).

4 Karen (2005)

Eight albums in, Berninger’s lyrical tropes have calcified a bit (woman’s name, Replacements song, obscure cocktail, midwest town). Hark back to when they were gloriously random and often disarmingly raunchy: “It’s a common fetish for a doting man / To ballerina on the coffee table, cock in hand,” Berninger assures us to Karen’s off-kilter piano swagger.

3 Mistaken for Strangers (2007)

If Boxer’s Fake Empire swapped a disappointing reality for a fantasy, then Mistaken for Strangers rages at how it feels to take “another un-innocent, elegant fall into the un-magnificent lives of adults”; to feel less like a grownup than a suit filled with pennies. The arrangement is all furious pistons, Devendorf’s drums roiling like whitewater.

2 Lemonworld (2010)

On High Violet, Berninger briefly returned to the evocative non sequiturs of Alligator: “Lay me on the table, put flowers in my mouth / And we can say that we invented a summer lovin’ torture party,” he sang in a woolly monotone. The song itself tortured the band, who tried 80 versions before landing on this heavy, weatherbeaten purgatory. Melancholy to bathe in.

1 Baby, We’ll Be Fine (2005)

Listen to Baby, We’ll Be Fine.

Soon after the National formed in New York City, they were sharing rehearsal space with Interpol and catching early Strokes shows. They knew they couldn’t compete: “We didn’t own anything made out of leather, and Converse hurt my back,” Berninger recalls in oral history book Meet Me in the Bathroom. That self-aware uncoolness is arguably what made them. They took time to find their sound while working unfulfilling jobs: Baby, We’ll Be Fine is the apex of those years, and of their catalogue. It teems with moving parts, acoustic guitar pinballing like the frantic man at its centre desperately trying to find salvation in work, sauvignon and sex, and coming up short. “I’m so sorry for everything,” Berninger pleads, advancing a fallible masculinity that couldn’t hold a pose, and so, unlike those peers, never tired of maintaining a facade.

Contributor

Laura Snapes

The GuardianTramp

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