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Sputnikmusic Staff Rankings: The Top 10 National Songs


Preface:

It’s long been the subject of debate around this site: What are the best National songs?  Are they even possible to rank?  Have they ever even made a bad song?  While this list is unlikely to put an end to any longstanding arguments, it does represent the current staff’s carefully curated top 10 tracks for one of modern indie-rock’s most discussed and celebrated artists.  So if you are somehow just getting into the National (you’re at least ten years late!), these songs represent an excellent snapshot of the band’s best moments across seven albums and nearly two decades of making music.  As for everyone else, feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments section below!


(10) The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness

Image result for the national sleep well amazon

from the album Sleep Well Beast

“The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” could serve as one of the best introductions for newcomers to The National. The song navigates a wide variety of terrain and functions almost too well as an accessible track on an album noted for more experimental leanings overall. There’s even a guitar solo, a rarity for the band, as they let loose and truly surprise listeners more used to their downtrodden side. Matt Berninger releases his frustrations in the soaring chorus alongside female vocals and subtle orchestral arrangements, making for a truly special and cathartic moment in an album searching for understanding and closure. “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” is a rare track from The National, sounding free and embodying the band’s versatility brilliantly.  –TalonsOfFire

Listen to “The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness”:

(9) England

Image result for the national high violet

from the album High Violet

Hand a fan the contents of a deconstructed Boxer, increase the budget by a multiple of five, and point to the rafters as the intended goalpost, and they’ll build themselves “England.” Hand it to a hater, and they’ll do the same. High Violet was incremental emotional progress writ into noir-blue widescreen any lesser band would have exhausted by Boxer’s closer; that 2007 album was an album of conscious, artful restraint in comparison to its blockbuster successor, which was somehow more everything: funny, dour, uplifting, anthemic, cryptic, moving. But there is something pointed about the composition on “England,” how it is painted with a broader brush than the rest of the album, maybe even their whole discography: a steady uphill movement that confounds the usual locomotive motion or curlicue burrowing that could serve, in crucial moments, as a cushion against the existential earnestness. “England” is the sound of a band making good on a promise we never needed them to make, a mind’s eye imagining of a boorish ex getting his moment to build his little piano towards full-blown rock catharsis. It is a testament to the talent of this Little Band That Could that they grew up into a Big Band That Would, and I defy the hater who sees this any-lesser-band’s Coldplay moment as something approaching parody and not the goosebump-braided, victorious climax we wrought.  –plane

Listen to “England”:

(8) Secret Meeting

from the album Alligator

We begin the scene in media res: already a little tipsy, a little paranoid, a little spiteful. “I think this place is full of spies,” begins our reliably unreliable narrator, “I think they’re onto me.” As far as scene-setters go, this is one of Matt Berninger’s most self-damning, a smart curatorial move that slightly shifts our understanding of every succeeding moment, not only on “Secret Meeting” but Alligator. From the markedly dry way Matt unveils the “dull and wicked ordinary way” of his judgmental inner thoughts, to the admission of anxieties that plague him, turned loose like a shark on unexpected party-goers, it’s a narrative that, in hindsight, reveals the tight thematic contours that will shape The National’s output on domesticity, trust, friendship, et cetera; or more specifically, the lens by which we come to understand these issues as they relate to the overgrown boy at its center. But the actual damn thing is a study in concision and fleetness, of the world-building in the drunken noodle guitar that bends new rhythms around a percussive shuffle that mimics propulsion but more accurately depicts restlessness, slightly modulated at length until we’re caught unexpectedly in its climax; the yelps that descend upon the outro is the kind of nonsense that suggests profundity if you can stomach the two more fingers of whiskey it takes to understand it.  –plane

Listen to “Secret Meeting”:

(7) Fake Empire

Image result for the national boxer

from the album Boxer

There’s ample consensus that 2005’s Alligator blew The National’s sound and mythos wide open. Songs like “Secret Meeting” and “Mr. November” seamlessly harmonized their lyrical focus on individual neurosis and paranoia with a warm instrumental weave that points toward the greater universe. Yet I still feel that “Fake Empire,” the glorious and impossibly moving opener from 2007’s Boxer, is where the rubber truly meets the road: granular details like the spiked lemonade drank by Matt Berninger’s second-person addressee adjoin a comprehensive vision of social entropy. (Sing along, now: “We’re half awake…in a fake..em…pire…”) This dual scope, potentially muddled in less dexterous hands, is wrapped up in one of the greatest instrumental coups of this century’s slate of indie rock. Branded on the brain of every National fan is the moment where Bryce Dessner’s polyrhythmic piano is suddenly mapped onto Bryan Devendorf’s steady bass drum, “slowing down” the tempo of the song to a stately pulse. So delicious a rhythmic trick that “Mr. November” himself integrated it into a campaign vid (“Signs of Hope & Change,” YouTube it and feel weird), this ear-catching structural turn makes it easy to forget that this is a song not so much about changing the world as turning away from it. And yet we hear those horns circle each other endlessly and feel the weirdest, most abstract glimmer of hope at the end. Goddamn.  –robertsona

Listen to “Fake Empire”:

(6) Pink Rabbits

Image result for the national trouble will find me

from the album Trouble Will Find Me

“Too many crescendos” was a complaint levelled at Trouble Will Find Me more than once by critics. I can’t say I disagree – in amongst some of the National’s most wonderful songs, you’ve got stuff like “Heavenfaced” which just starts to fatigue, and you can count on your hands exactly when Bryan Devendorf is gonna kick up the drums a notch behind the lilting piano. It’s interesting then that “Pink Rabbits” follows that exact same formula, and its position as a penultimate track should have doomed it to be an exhausting listen more than anything else. But man, there’s some magic here. It embraces the criticism by having miniscule crescendos peak and trough every few bars; Berninger’s voice rises and falls by microtones, one of his finest ever performances, gently swaying back and forth over the rolling waves his bandmates are providing. I’m usually having trouble keeping composure by the time the big climax arrives – “was so surprised you wanna dance with me now, you always said I held you way too high off the ground” – but if anything it’s the quieter, restrained catharsis of the final minute which drives the song home like a stake in your heart.  –Rowan

Listen to “Pink Rabbits”:

(5) Mistaken for Strangers

Image result for the national boxer

from the album Boxer

Few vocalists can connect the profound to the mundane like Matt Berninger. On Boxer, it’s rare for him to deviate from a tone that could form a synchronicity with the pit-pat of shoes hitting the sidewalk, eyes rarely glancing upward for any reason other than navigation, headphones on. Little lyrical bits of “Mistaken for Strangers” sound like off-hand observations that dissipate quickly, but leave a sting. Like, “surprise, surprise, they wouldn’t wanna watch.” (In reference to angels having no interest in this character’s gradual resignation.) Or, “showered and blue-blazered, you fill yourself with quarters.” There’s a couple possible meanings here, but in conjunction with the song’s themes, there is an obligation for appearance that also exhibits a certain cheapness and lack of humanity. Whatever, we can extract what we choose, but Berninger’s delivery is a somber sort of unassuming philosophizing that allows a listener to project their own mid-to-late-20s disappointment and eventual loss of friendship retention (see? now I’m doing it). Dancing alone rarely feels so justifiable as when the witching hour is looming and the National are playing.   –JohnnyOnTheSpot

Listen to “Mistaken for Strangers”:

(4) Terrible Love

Image result for the national high violet

from the album High Violet

“Terrible Love” vaguely resembles the quiet-loud-quiet-loud anthems of the 90s from bands like Pixies and Nirvana, but is something else completely. It begins the best album of the 2010s, High Violet, with a two-chord intro and Matt Berninger declaring, “It’s a terrible love that I’m walking with spiders,” as sustained piano chords and a quiet guitar melody begins. The song then builds to a stunning, practically wall-of-sound chorus before quieting down again. The explosive chorus and outro set a new standard for the band, with the alternative version of the song having one of Bryan Devendorf’s finest drumming performances of his career. As Matt Berninger sings “It takes an ocean not to break,” you realize the song embodies both the calmness and the explosive energy of the sea. With a huge emotional resonance and cryptic, quotable lines, “Terrible Love” stands as one of the band’s most passionate and raw songs that sounds wholly unique.  –TalonsOfFire

Listen to “Terrible Love”:

(3) Conversation 16

Image result for the national high violet

from the album High Violet

“You’d never believe the shitty thoughts I think,” Matt Berninger discloses to us somewhere in the second verse of “Conversation 16”. In this instance and in others throughout their discography, it’s like The National are daring us: “To ballerina on the coffee table cock in hand”? “I was a white girl in a crowd of white girls in the park”? And here, famously, “I was afraid I’d eat your brains”? These are all capital-S capital-T Shitty Thoughts, hyperbolized and abstracted not to become universal but for the opposite effect—to become weird. To me, this is the lyrical appeal of The National, wrought large; “Conversation 16” simply happens to be the most arousing, funniest (“Have my head in the oven so you’ll know where I’ll be”), silliest and most serious example of The National’s alienating and alienated approach to the broken community they depict. You have to give it up to the band for looking this long and hard at people’s incommensurabilities without the galvanizing possibility of relating them to us or them to them or us to us. Give a big shoutout, too, to background vocalists Richard Reed Parry and Marla Hansen for anchoring their register of sordid detail to the heavens.  –robertsona

Listen to “Conversation 16”:

(2) The Geese Of Beverly Road

from the album Alligator

There was a time I would proudly proclaim Alligator as my favourite album of all time. In fact I did just that to a friend in a music store in Sydney one time, proudly holding the record in my hand like it was treasure, both of us there to burn off the remaining money we hadn’t spent on our trip to Thailand. The fact that the vinyl I bought that day was lemon-coloured just completed the circle in my mind: this was an album you could laugh at, stay indoors for a week with, measure your life by.

It must have been me that changed, because Alligator has never dipped in quality in my mind, especially not with songs like “The Geese of Beverly Road”. In the album’s closing pentalogy of drunken reveries and singalongs, “Geese” is the moment of transcendence you think you glimpse through the alcohol haze, the masterplan for your life which just makes so much sense until you forget all of it the next morning. It also just might be the best The National ever sounded on a recording. You can hear Berninger’s wry smile as he swears to not having any cake, his stubborn refusal to give in while demanding the sky with a big slice of lemon, and you can see the sweat covering Devendorf’s drumkit after his finest stickwork in the discography. “Mr. November” is more epic and “City Middle” more dramatic, but there’s nothing else here or anywhere quite like “Geese”, where every note of sardonic humour just serves to underscore the genuine love at the core.  –Rowan

Listen to “The Geese Of Beverly Road”:

(1) Mr. November

from the album Alligator

My favorite part of “Mr. November” is when that veneer of control finally cracks. Overwhelmed by a foundational rupture of faith, a crisis of confidence relayed in snippets of mid-30s ennui and drunken self-recriminations over the course of the previous twelve tracks, the band finally boils over in that last couplet. “I won’t fuck us over / I’m Mr. November / I’m Mr. November / I won’t fuck us over,” Matt Berninger shouts, the most telling moment coming when Bryan Devendorf’s typically martial beat suddenly accelerates forward, running together beyond the tempo in a hectic blend of snare, kick drum, and careening cymbals as if the brakes were cut. “This is nothing like it was in my room / in my best clothes/ trying to think of you,” the song begins, a realization that even the best-laid plans are susceptible to the same fuck ups always lying in wait, the same failures. That this understanding ends in a frantic refutation of that premise, the archetypal man shaking his fist at an uncaring world, is the only proper conclusion for an album like Alligator.

The best song on the band’s best album (folks, this is a fact) is lyrically simple and sonically violent, a rarity for the National. That it nevertheless is subject to so many different interpretations – it’s about John Kerry! Err, Derek Jeter! No, it’s Matt’s anxiety about living up to the expectations of a new label! – is the beauty of this tabula rasa. In a Vice interview, Berninger confirmed that the song arose out of Kerry’s failed 2004 bid for the U.S. presidency, but that ties too neat a bow on things. “Mr. November” is a nervous high schooler, wondering if his grades are good enough, if the girl is going to say yes. It’s that late ‘20s office drone stuck in a dead end job and worrying that he peaked too early. It’s the emotionally stunted husband, wondering if this is it, if this is the last fight that will good and truly send his crumbling marriage and, subsequently, his life, into a ditch. “Mr. November” says that no matter how prepared you are, how good you used to have it, defeat is always around the corner. The best you can do is scream and rage against it, and, if you’re lucky, come through the other side, maybe not in the arms of cheerleaders but hopefully wiser.

I don’t think the narrator of “Mr. November” has a happy ending – Kerry certainly didn’t. But the National made it through their crucible and on, better and more resilient than arguably any other band this millennium. I can’t think of a more encouraging sign than that.  –klap

Listen to “Mr. November”:


Bonus Coverage: The National By The Numbers

presented by our resident statistician, macman76
(with commentary by Sowing)

Figure A: The National Album Ratings: Per Album, By Year:

TheNational_Plot_by_Year

It’s an interesting thought to ponder: with so much quality material released over the years, how has each National album held up in the eyes of Sputnik’s community?  There’s a clear set of favorites: Boxer, High Violet, and Alligator have hardly wavered, other than a clear ascension that appears to be correlated to the band’s own rise in popularity between 2007-2010, with High Violet‘s celebrated release coinciding with the conclusion of that trend.  Since then, they’ve all been the clear top dogs.  Trouble Will Find Me, even with its 4.1 avg, finds itself as the middle-of-the-road representative – although it is trending slightly upwards.  Sleep Well Beast is still quite young, but has joined it as a highly rated album that, in the context of the group’d discography, finds itself as merely the 5th-highest rated.  Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers has seen its ups and downs, but finds itself in 2018 garnering just about the same kinds of rating that it was in 2008 – go figure.  The site has also systematically distanced itself from the group’s debut/self-titled effort, as its average rating has plummeted by-the-year over the course of the decade. It is currently pulling in ratings below its 3.0 avg, further pulling down its cumulative average.  See the below chart (Figure B) for each album’s “Trve Fan Rating” – which is basically what each album’s mean rating would be if you were to go exclusively by only those who have rated every LP in the band’s discography.

Figure B: Trve Fan Ratings:

band album mean usage_mean mean_rank
The National Boxer 4.593284 4.524705 1
The National Alligator 4.500000 4.472958 2
The National High Violet 4.511194 4.457057 3
The National Trouble Will Find Me 4.289552 4.264037 4
The National Sleep Well Beast 4.169403 4.041387 5
The National Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers 3.658209 3.690351 6
The National The National 2.962687 2.858949 7




SowingSeason
07.01.18
Now you have the cold hard facts.

Willie
07.01.18
Cool. Never bothered with these guys. I'll at least check out the top 10 songs.

Sinternet
07.01.18
1 is 1 good job needs Available though

Pheromone
07.01.18
No Slow Show is an absolute tragedy

SowingSeason
07.01.18
Here was the Top 15 cutoff, for those curious:

(11) Apartment Story
(12) All the Wine
(13) Sea of Love
(14) Exile Vilify
(15) Slow Show

So consider the next 5 in line as "honorable mentions."

klap
07.01.18
Slow show not on here is an injustice but I’ll allow it

TalonsOfFire
07.01.18
If possible Sowing could you please add quotes around the song name at the beginning of my System blurb? I just noticed the minor mistake now.

Apartment Story not being in the top 10 is the real injustice imo, I had put it #2 just after Terrible Love (alternate version)

Gyromania
07.01.18
Shocked that "Fake Empire" made it on here. It's been my favourite from Boxer since day 1. Never seemed to get enough attention imo

Gyromania
07.01.18
"Slow Show" and "All The Wine" should be top 10. Would also have "I Should Live in Salt" and "This Is The Last Time" on mine

TalonsOfFire
07.01.18
Fake Empire is their #1 song on iTunes, their most viewed Youtube video, and their most played song of last.fm users.

TalonsOfFire
07.01.18
Yea I had All the Wine on my list. This is the Last Time almost made mine, that one's amazing.

ComeToDaddy
07.01.18
No Slow Show is an absolute tragedy [3] but most of these are pretty spot on. Only one I'd disagree with is England, that's closer to my bottom 10 than the top 10. Stoked to see All The Wine at 12 though, that track doesn't get nearly enough love

TalonsOfFire
07.01.18
wtf England is incredible

SowingSeason
07.01.18
Yeah England was even higher on my own list lol. To each his own but that track is drop dead gorgeous.

DoofusWainwright
07.01.18
No Sorrow. No Slow Show. No Slipped. No Lemonworld. No Brainy. Allwould make my top 10.

anarchistfish
07.01.18
Available is in my top 10

TalonsOfFire
07.01.18
Slipped would be in my bottom 10 (outside the first two records) but I still really like it. This band is unreal with how many fantastic songs they have.

Sinternet
07.01.18
i knew i loved you fish

ComeToDaddy
07.01.18
Yeah I'm undoubtedly in the minority with England. Also just wanted to say, now that I've had a chance to read the writeups, they're all brilliant. Especially the one for Mr November, props fellas

plane
07.01.18
“Slow Show” will always remind me of a terrible indie movie from 2007 and I know it’s petty but fuck it.

butcherboy
07.01.18
10. All the Wine
09. Mr. November
08. Don't Swallow the Cap
07. Sleep Well Beast
06. Mistaken for Strangers
05. Slipped
04. Demons
03. Sorrow
02. Bloodbuzz Ohio
01. Lemonworld

Gyromania
07.01.18
Which movie?

Gyromania
07.01.18
"Demons" and "Mistaken" always bored me. Some of their best lyrics tho.

Didn't know "Fake Empire" was so popular, always seemed kinda ignored around here, and most people irl usually talk about "Green Gloves" or "Slow Show"

klap
07.01.18
I dont get England either

Rowan5215
07.02.18
great efforts by everyone to pull this through, well done all

I like that one year on the graph where Alligator and Boxer are indistinguishable from one another and then HV is just poking out from beneath, seems to sum it up for me lol

Gyromania
07.02.18
High Violet is my least favourite next to Sleep Well. And agreed that "England" is meh

Rowan5215
07.02.18
am I allowed to say I don't get the last two albums in general, or will this site excoriate me

klap
07.02.18
Trouble will find me grew on me a lot but it’s def a step down imo. I wasn’t into the new one except for a few songs

TalonsOfFire
07.02.18
Alligator, Boxer, and HV are definitely the three best. TWFM is my most listened to though, even tho it isn't quite as strong as those three it's still amazing and I feel like there's so much to it, really perfecting their style in many ways. I don't understand why some people think it's too safe.

ThyCrossAwaits
07.02.18
Does nobody remember “Exile Vilify”? Song is amazing

neekafat
07.02.18
Want more lists like this plz, preferably with bands I've actually heard but yknow

klap
07.02.18
Exile vilify was in our top 15

AngryJohnny
07.02.18
No Apartment Story? come on guys

Nice to see Secret Meeting though and 2 is 1.

Also how is Bloodbuzz Ohio not even top 15?

SowingSeason
07.02.18
There was some discussion as to whether to put Apartment Story or System at #10 but ultimately System won out.

Demon of the Fall
07.02.18
There's some good stuff here but I'm disappointed with the absence of Slow Show or Runaway (although I may be alone on the latter).

Jom
07.02.18
(More features like this please + good job to all) * agreed hard = nice

Winesburgohio
07.02.18
fucking phenomenal work lads

Winesburgohio
07.02.18
uhh
1) Brainy
2) About Today
3) Gospel
4) All the Wine
5) Don't Swallow the Cap
6) Murder me, Rachael
7) Hard to Find
8) Mistaken for Strangers
9) Start a War
10) Bloodbuzz Ohio

---

11) England
12) Looking for Astronauts
13) Cardinal Song
14) You Were a Kindness
15) Terrible Love

plane
07.02.18
Honestly making this list made me re-realize just how good The National really are.

thecheatisnotdead
07.03.18
"Nobody Else Will Be There" should be here.

Gyromania
07.03.18
Always thought Bloodbuzz was boring. A lot of that album is meh. Surprised this list doesn't have Sorrow or Lemonworld. Far and away the best two on HV imo.

plane
07.03.18
"Nobody Else" was on my list. Stunning tune.

Gyromania
07.03.18
That and "Dark Side" would be on mine. I think "System" is actually one of the weaker cuts on SWB but serves as a good representation of what the band is all about

Clumseee
07.03.18
Don't love System or Rabbits. Otherwise, pretty solid list. Geese is my #1.

anarchistfish
07.03.18
I wanna know if Available was on there

Divaman
07.03.18
Just can't get into these guys.

Chambered79
07.03.18
Missing sorrow

RadicalEd
07.05.18
this is not a bad list, although Apartment Story and Humiliation really should be in there.

theBoneyKing
07.05.18
Wouldn't put "Secret Meeting" or "System Only Dreams" so high but otherwise an acceptable list. Band has upwards of thirty 5/5 tracks so there are tons of acceptable top tens.

RadicalEd
07.05.18
Conversation 16 and Geese are to me the two obvious "weak songs" on here (by that I mean they are 4,5/5 songs)

theBoneyKing
07.05.18
Not having "Slow Show" in the top ten is a disgrace though

plane
07.05.18
Secret Meeting is my favorite National song

theBoneyKing
07.05.18
Secret Meeting’s amazing but they probably have 40 better songs.

plane
07.05.18
oh ok

Gyromania
07.05.18
Get rekt plane

mallen-
07.06.18
Mr. November not about Derek Jeter, how dare you klap

Seriously though, Baby We'll Be Fine and Guest Room are the band's most underrated songs

TalonsOfFire
07.06.18
Yea Ghost Room is amazing, I had that in my top 10.

plane
07.06.18
Bab We’ll Be Fine was top 10 for me

NoRemorse87
07.06.18
I got married walking on "Slow Show", even if Matt didn't want to.
We had both 29 years when we met first time.

JWT155
07.10.18
Apartment Story is 3!

JWT155
07.10.18
#1*

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