Why have a Top 10 when you can have one more? Here are our 11 favourite National songs, ranked
The National’s evolution has been so natural that each step is almost imperceptible. Each album, from their 2001 self-titled debut right up to this year’s surprise release Laugh Track, has left a thread for the next to follow, finding a path to a new destination. By the end, the change is startling, but the journey was just one logical step after another.
The constants are notable, from Matt Berninger’s debonair croon to the urbane despair of his lyrics, the Dessners’ tasteful guitar work to Bryan Devendorf’s metronomic drumming. We’ve gone back to the start and pulled out the absolute best songs by The National.
11. ‘Start A War’
The National’s breakthrough albums, Alligator and Boxer, were made for walking through a nocturnal metropolis, isolated in a crowd. Introduced by the prettiest guitar line, ‘Start A War’ edges forward, into the kind of soundscape that the band would later make their calling card. It never explodes like it threatens to, instead swelling and receding. Lyrically, it’s one of Berninger’s best, particularly the line, “You were always weird but I never had to hold you by the edges like I do now.” It’s a brutally sad acknowledgement that things have gone south but you’re not ready to give up.
10. ‘Slow Show’
Berninger has pleaded for people to stop playing ‘Slow Show’ at weddings (mainly because of the penis reference), but it’s hard to deny. One of the most romantic songs in the band’s arsenal, it perfectly encapsulates that feeling of wanting to escape the world and hide out at home with the person you love, just goofing around and making each other laugh. “You know I dreamed about you for 29 years before I saw you” is an achingly lovely line that would have been corny in anyone else’s hands.
9. ‘All Dolled-Up In Straps’
(Cherry Tree, 2004)
There are phases in The National’s catalogue and bridges between each phase. If Phase One is their debut and Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers, then the Cherry Tree EP is the bridge to Alligator and Boxer. Not only does it tease ‘All The Wine’ from Alligator, it also dips its toes into the internal darkness, conflict and self-possession to come. ‘All Dolled-Up In Straps’ has all of that in spades as the narrator is torn apart inside by obsession and paranoia. It’s elegant, brooding and a clear turning point for the band.
8. ‘Hard To Find’
(Trouble Will Find Me, 2013)
I don’t think about ‘Hard To Find’ often. Much like old grief, it slips your mind only to creep back from its hiding place every now and then to leave you devastated and useless. It’s such a simple sentiment, the feeling that life in a place stops once you leave. Berninger imagines an old connection that’s been severed, yet still seems so real and close, but realises that finding them will only make them disappear. The idea that they’re still where we remember them, frozen in aspic, is more compelling than the desire to seek them out.
7. ‘Afraid Of Everyone’
(High Violet, 2010)
When The National lean that extra bit harder on their brooding insecurities, they can occasionally tip right over into menace and paranoia, never more so than this standout from High Violet. As a new parent in an unstable, violent world, Berninger’s fears overwhelm him, wondering how he can possibly protect his family with just his “orange umbrella” and “star-spangled tennis shoes”. It’s sheer panic, exacerbated by the threatening guitar stabs and ominous strings. It’s hard to think of another National song where music and message mirror each other so perfectly.
6. ‘Mr November’
Anyone who’s been to a National show over the last 17 years knows that ‘Mr November’ is coming and when it does, it’s all going to kick off. A possessed Berninger seems to spend every show whipping himself into the frenzy required to let loose at the songs end, charging into the crowd and often out the doors into the foyer, panicked roadies trying to keep up and stop the endless mic cable getting tangled up. It’s sheer catharsis, not just musically but thematically, as Berninger draws a line between the pressure he felt over the band’s big break on Beggars Banquet and the hopes pinned to John Kerry in the 2004 US presidential election.
5. ‘Daughters Of The Soho Riots’
Berninger has a gift for romantic tragedy. On this gorgeous moment of quiet from Alligator, he resigns to “Break my arms around the one I love and be forgiven by the time my lover comes,” suggesting self-inflicted wounds and wandering affection. As the moment of reckoning arrives for this relationship, he dismisses his actions with a shrugged: “How does anyone know how they got to be this way?” and countering: “You must have known that I’d do this someday”. For all they could have tried to avert it, this was always how it was going to end.
4. ‘Fake Empire’
Barrack Obama gave the band a helping hand, featuring their song of alienation and disillusionment in one of his campaign commercials. It makes sense on many levels, its triumphant orchestration suggesting better times ahead, while the lyrics about sleepwalking to oblivion evoke the country’s descent under the previous administration. As the lead track on Boxer, it signals the evolution of the Dessners’ arrangements, from those regal horns fighting with Psycho strings to the judicious snare hits right before it all lifts into orbit. A truly stunning piece of work.
3. ‘Terrible Love (Alternate Version)’
(High Violet – Extended Edition, 2010)
The version that opens High Violet is fine indeed but feels strangely understated when compared to the fireworks display featured on the album’s extended edition. It all seems to be about to explode, before pulling back, almost like he’s regaining control just to lose it again in the biggest way. That final denouement is just stunning, Bryan Devendorf’s drumming taking centre stage and pushing the song over a cliff. The National don’t do many fist-pumping moments, which makes this one all the more special.
2. ‘The Geese Of Beverly Road’
Alligator is dense, dark and oppressive, which makes its one ray of light seem dazzling. ‘The Geese Of Beverly Road’ stands out immediately with a gorgeous orchestral intro, before Bryan Devendorf’s martial drumming and the Dessner’s intertwining guitars raise the stakes. It’s a moving ode to the endless possibilities of youth and as beautiful a song as the band have ever written, a constant shiver down the spine that never relents.
1. ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’
(High Violet, 2010)
In a way, The National’s mainstream breakthrough was a curious one, mostly because they’re not a band that writes hits. They create gorgeous soundscapes and songs that dig deep into your heart and soul with words vivid enough for thousands to tattoo them on their bodies, but they don’t really do hits. ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’ is the exception that proves that rule, the catchiest, most majestic song in their cannon, the one that feels made to be shouted back at them by a cavernous room full of devotees. It’s their ‘Mr Brightside’.