So, you want to listen to The National.
With a discography that dates back to 2001, it’s hard to know where to start. The indie rock giants have covered everything from the Obama Campaign to the everyday struggles of being a functioning human being—all with unrivalled elegance.
Here are 10 of their best songs to prove that no, not all of their music sounds the same.
‘All The Wine’ – Alligator (2005)
‘All The Wine’ is a heart-warmingly confident tangle of lyrics that provides words to the smug haze that comes from being a bottle of red deep into the night. It’s an inebriated yet endearing monologue filled with metaphors about mastering the art of feigned confidence (“I’m so sorry / but the motorcade will have to go around me this time”). ‘All The Wine’ is a rare insight into sunnier side of Berninger’s elusive inner workings, cherished by fans and critics alike.
It was with ‘All The Wine’ that a noticeable transition from bedroom studio to production powerhouse could be heard in all aspects of The National. From the Dessner brother’s melodic guitars to the backbone drumming and bass from the Devendorf’s, ‘All The Wine’’s unapologetic assertiveness proved that The National were more dynamic than anyone had expected.
‘Mr November’ – Alligator (2005)
In an ode to 2004 presidential hopeful, John Kerry, ‘Mr November’ describes staying afloat under the pressures of performing (“I won’t fuck us over / I’m Mr November”). It’s the only song in which Berninger adopts the character of someone other than himself, but in a way ‘Mr November’ is more about Berninger and the band than it is about anyone else.
It’s also a reminder that The National, at their core, are a garage rock band. Now there are sold out stadiums, suits, and unlimited glasses of wine, but for almost half a decade of the band’s early career, there wasn’t. It wasn’t until 2005’s Alligator that The National started to gain some recognition as indie-rock hopefuls, three albums after their initial formation.
‘Fake Empire’ – Boxer (2007)
2007 album Boxer, much like its predecessor Alligator, was met with some resistance upon its initial release. The National had been branded as ‘growers’—their music needing a few spins before you could begin to understand and appreciate its intricacies and complexities.
‘Fake Empire’, however, was an instant standout. Its now-iconic piano and swell of horns captured intimate moments of comforting simplicity. So inspiring that it was used to score the 2008 Obama campaign video, which then saw The National opening for the president in 2010, and later campaigning in their hometown of Ohio for his re-election in 2012. ‘Fake Empire’ single-handedly turned a fairly apolitical band into what some would argue to be a key player in the former president’s election.
‘I Need My Girl’ – Trouble Will Find Me (2013)
The National have always been a vocal and drum heavy band (I myself am guilty of unfairly favouring Devendorf and Berninger in this article alone). But it is in ‘I Need My Girl’ that we can truly appreciate the Dessner brothers for what they are: damn fine guitarists. Aaron’s hypnotic opening riff is echoed exactly by Bryce, creating a well choreographed feat so precise it only just avoids collision. ‘I Need My Girl’ is in no way the only example of their abilities, but it is one of their standout tracks.
The Dessner twins’ talents expand to producing, composing, curating and collaborating, but most importantly, they are the backbone of The National. It’s Aaron and Bryce who create sketches—hundreds of early version songs—and present them to the band, who then pick and choose ideas they want to explore further. It’s an arduous process, one that explains the long breaks between albums: “My brother and I write around a hundred of these [sketches], and they can be really all over the place,” Aaron explains, “They’re not intuitive. It’s not easy for us to write songs. There’s not one songwriter. It’s a collaborative process.”
‘About Today’ – Cherry Tree EP (2004)
The Cherry Tree EP, released in the turning point between Sad Song for Dirty Lovers and Alligator, started murmurs of praise about the ‘new’ Brooklyn quintet. The EP was the first release that saw The National iron out the creases and collaborate with each other in a way that just, for lack of a better term, worked. It was also when the five decided they would quit their day jobs to pursue the band full time.
One of the standout songs from Cherry Tree, ‘About Today’ is a heartbreakingly sweet goodbye to a relationship that has grown too distant to save. It almost seems too private to be privy to, with Berninger’s honesty almost catching you off guard (“Hey, are you awake / Yeah I’m right here / Well can I ask you about today”). ‘About Today’ is devastatingly simple—an early example of Berninger’s ability to effortlessly express intricate emotions. The song’s complexity instead comes in both Devendorf’s drumming and Dessner’s lead guitar, layered with strings and percussion that swell in and out of focus.
‘Terrible Love’ – High Violet (2010)
There is much debate over which version of ‘Terrible Love’ is best: most opt for the original, but some prefer the slightly more refined alternate. There is no dispute, however, on the fact that it is some of The National’s best work.
‘Terrible Love’ is a slow burner, but the pay off makes it worth the wait. Its uneasy choruses come to an extraordinary climax, backed by furious guitars, drums, strings, keys, and of course, vocals. Lyrically, Berninger has included just enough to distinguish the outlines (“Last night I woke but / then I saw / The ship of woes / but didn’t want me to”), with the Dessner’s and Devendorf’s left to fill in the blanks. ‘Terrible Love’ is one of those songs that, on paper, seems illogical, but when you hear it, makes perfect sense.
‘Exile Vilify’ – Portal 2 OST (2011)
There is perhaps no more cinematic piece of work by The National than ‘Exile Vilify’, used in Portal 2’s 2011 OST. Opening piano chords, closely followed by stirring strings and comforting vocals, gently pull us through Berninger’s internal conversation—a dreamlike daze with just enough substance to seem tangible. ‘Exile Vilify’ naturally fits between High Violet and Trouble Will Find Me, smoothly bridging the gap in releases.
According to a spokesperson from the band’s publishing label, The National’s “Raw and emotive music evokes the same visceral reactions from its listeners that Portal does from its players.”
‘Graceless’ – Trouble Will Find Me (2013)
The first release from Trouble Will Find Me was always going to be harshly judged against the critical success of High Violet. ‘Graceless’, however, proved that The National had no intentions of sacrificing artistic integrity for commercial popularity, despite this album being the perfect time to do so. Instead, Trouble Will Find Me is lyrically one of the darkest albums the band produced.
‘Graceless’ captures familiar themes of self-doubt and inadequacy with a sophisticated desperation that only The National could pull off. Neatly punctuated by both Devendorf’s drumming and Berninger’s vocals, the track is subtly restrained in an oddly captivating way. Despite the vague lyrics, there is a sense of familiarity within it all. These are moments in which you would expect to be reacquainted with Berninger’s famously raw vocals, à la ‘Mr November’ or ‘Squalor Victoria’, but he instead surprises us with a collected grace (“put the flowers you find in a vase / don’t let them die on the vine it’s a waste”), which is equally—if not more—satisfying.
‘The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness’ – Sleep Well Beast (2017)
Pretty bold putting a brand new single in a top ten list from a band that’s been around since ‘99, no? I agree, but ‘The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness’ is not only a strong contender for The National’s longest song title, but for one of their best songs.
I’ll be the first to admit that the opening instrumental is slightly Linkin Park-esque, but, like many of their other tracks, it’s a foundation that is constantly built upon as the song progresses. The electric guitars from the Dessners are the real hero of the new sound, closely followed by Devendorf’s drum beat (which has been described as a sneakers-in-a-dryer wallop), pulling us along. It’s refreshing to hear Berninger using his highest register, with the choice of using layered vocals making the most of their rare appearance.
‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’ – High Violet (2010)
This list isn’t numbered, but if it was, ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’ would be number one. In fact, in any list of The National’s greatest achievements, I guarantee you that ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’ will nearly always be number one. It’s a classic mix of guitar melodies and keys shining through Berninger’s looming baritone, punctuated by Devendorf’s drum beat: so erratic it feels like it’s moments away from tripping over its own laces. Throw in some strings and brass and you have a textbook example of The National.
So what makes it so great? To be honest, I don’t know. I just know that everything about it works. I can’t listen to this song and pick out certain aspects and tell you why it’s good. It’s a combination of all of the above: a seamless relationship between the five members (and some) that has been fostered for almost as long as I’ve been alive. It’s the product of countless hours of writing, rewriting, recording, rerecording, and production that The National sweep behind their onstage confidence to share a sense of nostalgia for a place you’ve never been, but feel like you’ve lived in your whole life.