Hailing from Ohio, The National officially formed in 1999 in New York (all the members ended up there eventually). Comprised of two pairs of brothers—identical twins Bryce and Aaron Dessner, Scott and Bryan Devendorf—along with frontman Matt Berninger, the group spent its early years releasing a couple albums and a mini-record: The National, Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers and Cherry Tree, respectively. The albums were full of melodies that contained dark and tension-filled themes.
But it wasn’t until they exacerbated that tension with more eclectic and electric instrumentation on 2005’s Alligator that more people started taking notice. With each successive release, their shows and praise have grown louder, too. We named 2007’s Boxer Album of the Year, and 2010’s High Violet landed at No. 11 in our list of the year’s 50 best albums.
Through it all, they’ve continued exploring their trademark themes: the white collar working world (“Squalor Victoria”), the search for love (“So Far Around The Bend”), continually increasing paranoia (“Afraid of Everyone”), fractured relationships (all of Sad Songs), the deterioration of youthful innocence (“Mistaken for Strangers”) and a generally bittersweet world (“Fake Empire”).
Now The National headline shows and festivals, compose songs for films and videogames, produce charity albums featuring indie greats (Dark Was The Night) and attract big-name stars to appear in their music videos (“Conversation 16”),
We’re here to list their 25 best songs. Feel free to tell us what we missed in the comments section below.
25. “Wasp Nest” – Cherry Tree
“You’re all humming live wires / under your killing clothes / Get over here, I wanna / kiss your skinny throat.”
One of the more stripped-down songs in The National’s collection, “Wasp Nest” uses spare acoustic guitars and poetic lyrics centered around an undeniable but dangerous woman.
24. “Fashion Coat” -Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers
“Everywhere I am is just another thing without you in it.”
One of the few slightly-upbeat songs off Sad Songs (and the shortest), “Fashion Coat” foreshadows the group’s more complex and dynamic sound that appears throughout subsequent records.
23. “Lit Up (remix)” – Lit Up EP
“I try to untie Manhattan.”
The remix to this party-worthy song features heavier drums and slightly more energy, making the chorus of “Lit up / Lit up / Lit up alright!” feel more ever-so-slightly more genuine and lively.
22. “American Mary” – The National
“Don’t be a nightingale / for anyone with space to fill.”
They got the name for their website from this song, so it deserves inclusion on that, alone. However, the song also contains more minimal interplay between sparse piano keys, bass lines, and subtle guitar flourishes.
21. “The Geese of Beverly Road” – Alligator
“Serve me the sky with a big slice of lemon.”
Another lighter track off Alligator, “The Geese of Beverly Road” provides a great example of The National expanding toward more of a chamber-pop sounds behind Devendorf’s bold drumming and more of the Dessners’ twin guitar work.
20. “Mr. November” – Alligator
“I wish I believed in fate / I wish I didn’t sleep so late / I used to be carried in the arms of cheerleaders.”
This is the track during which Berninger maneuvers himself through raucous crowds, screaming and repeating “I won’t fuck us over!” many times while literally standing on hands.
19. “So Far Around The Bend” – Dark Was The Night
“I’ll run through a thousand parties. / I’ll run through a million bars. / No one knows where you are living. / No one knows where you are.”
Bryce Dessner and Padma Newsome, who handles much of The National’s strings, are also part of a band Clogs, who produce mostly instrumental, classical-type songs. That influence can be heard in “So Far Around The Bend”’s charming woodwinds and violins.
18. “Lucky You” – Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers
“You coulda made a safer bet / But what you break is what you get.”
“Lucky You” twists the traditional ballad message. Instead of the main character confessing his gratitude for his “you” choosing him, he professes that “you” choosing him was probably “a big mistake,” but you’re stuck with him. Lucky you. Weird thing: it’s not sad at all, even though the message makes it feel like it should be.
17. “Daughters of the Soho Riots” – Alligator
“How can anybody know / how they got to be this way?”
Yet another song that could be filed under the “bittersweet” category (Hell, they all could), “Daughters” uses gradual acoustic arpeggios and spare electric tinges to highlight Berninger’s loneliness and regret, while at the same time feeling somewhat content.