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Unlike so many indie rock bands that have stood the test of time, the best National albums have come later in their career. In fact, to start with the National’s self-titled debut would be to wholly miss out on what makes them such an exemplary rock band. That’s why I’ve ranked the National’s eight studio albums: to provide a roadmap for getting started with their work, as well as to show their creative progression and growth over the past 20 years.
The National’s Best Albums Ranked
8½. The Virginia EP (2008)
There’s not much to say about The Virginia EP, mainly because there’s not much on it. A rare miss for The National.
8. The National (2001)
The National’s self-titled debut album may be lacking compared to the rest of their discography, but there are some strong tracks to make it worth the listen.
Many fans of the National consider the beginning of the band’s career to be the release of their third album, Alligator. In fact, multi-instrumentalist Bryce Dessner hadn’t even joined the band by the time their self-titled debut album was recorded. It’s also clear that the band hadn’t quite worked out its sound yet, and frontman Matt Berninger was still searching for his voice lyrically and vocally.
That said, let’s not be too quick to relegate this record to the waste bin of musical history. There’s actually a lot here to enjoy. If nothing else, the album is a portrait of a new band feeling things out and exploring its potential.
The opening track, Beautiful Head, is by far the strongest track on the album, in many ways anticipating the mood and style that would solidify on Alligator. It even displays some early sparks of Berninger’s lyrical greatness:
You’re walking taller than you should.Beautiful Head
The air is thin around your beautiful head.
You’re saying things with your mouth to me
That I don’t recognize.
You’re aware of yourself lately.
Next, Cold Girl Fever is a nice, straightforward acoustic rock tune, only slightly marred by some misguided electronic elements. And American Mary is a lovely ballad reminiscent of the more tender songs of the Rolling Stones.
In the end, the debut from the National is somewhat forgettable. Still, it’s a listenable record with a few gems to make it worth revisiting.
- Beautiful Head
- Cold Girl Fever
- American Mary
- Bitters & Absolut
7. Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers (2003)
While still a tad uneven and disjointed, 2003’s Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers was a major step forward for the National.
Even more than the debut, Sad Songs reflects the band’s continuing uncertainty about its identity. Much of the first half of the album evokes a Wilco-like sound, rooted in acoustic guitar accompaniment and mellow arrangements. This is especially apparent on the album’s opening cut, Cardinal Song, the strongest track on either of the first two National records and a proof of concept for Berninger’s songwriting prowess.
Let her treat you like a criminal,Cardinal Song
So you can treat her like a priest.
Girls, forgive my human mind.
Girls, forgive me one more time.
Further evidence that the band was finding its footing can be heard on the characteristically melodramatic tunes 90-Mile Water Wall and Lucky You. Both tracks signal the self-aware moodiness that the National has become known for.
But perhaps the most striking aspect of Sad Songs is the gritty angst of songs like Slipping Husband and Available. Fans unfamiliar with the band’s early work will be surprised to hear Berninger’s unique “rock scream”—a talent he now reserves for rare moments in live performances.
Though the rest of the album is hit-or-miss, there is a lot of good on this record. More importantly, the band zeroed in on what worked and used those elements as the foundation for what would become their first great album: Alligator.
- Cardinal Song
- Slipping Husband
- 90-Mile Water Wall
- Murder Me Rachael
- Lucky You
6½. Cherry Tree EP (2004)
The Cherry Tree EP signaled a shift toward tighter songwriting and a more established sense of identity for the National.
Just a quick pit stop here. Or, more accurately, a stepping stone. In 2004, the National released the Cherry Tree EP, a brief outing that showed the first tangible signs that the band was destined for greatness.
Cherry Tree offers four excellent tracks, including two of my personal favorites: Wasp Nest and All Dolled-Up in Straps, both of which feature Berninger’s increasing tendency toward enigmatic lyricism.
But it’s the other two standouts that are important here. First, there’s All the Wine, a song so great that the band recycled it on their next full-length album, so I’ll save that for our discussion of Alligator. The other is About Today, one of the most tender songs the National has ever released and a precursor to the more introspective work to come.
6. Alligator (2005)
Alligator was the massive leap forward that the National had been working toward, and it launched their career in earnest.
It took the National two albums and an EP to bring all the elements together into a cohesive sound and aesthetic, but the resulting record, Alligator, was more than worth the wait.
The first 30 seconds of Secret Meeting, the opening cut off Alligator, set the stage perfectly for the band to show off the newfound cohesiveness of their whole approach. With a cymbal crash, tight high-hat punctuation, a clean arpeggiated guitar riff, and a rolling bass line as the setup, Berninger sings anxiety with novel clarity:
I think this place is full of spies;Secret Meeting
I think they’re onto me.
Didn’t anybody tell you,
Didn’t anybody tell you
How to gracefully disappear in a room?
The band’s noticeable improvements in songwriting continue on Lit Up, a rocker with a communal chant-like chorus and a head spinning performance from drummer Bryan Devendorf, and Daughters of the SoHo Riots, a piano and acoustic guitar-driven number that ranks among the best softer tracks from the National.
All the Wine, a carryover from the Cherry Tree EP, is one of the first true classics in the National’s catalog, and it showcases Berninger’s penchant for weaving his sense of humor into otherwise serious themes:
I’m put together beautifully,All the Wine
A big, wet bottle in my fist,
A big, wet rose in my teeth.
I’m a perfect piece of ass,
Like every Californian.
While there’s no shortage of warmth on Alligator, some of the best moments on the record come in the form of cold-blooded rock numbers like concert mainstays Abel and Mr. November. Like Lit Up, these tracks give the band the space to let loose. There’s something supremely cathartic about Berninger’s shouts over Devendorf’s snare drum blasts: “I won’t fuck us over! I’m Mr. November!”
Alligator in an undeniably superb album, one that easily ranks among the National’s best albums. That said, much of the aesthetic heard here falls away on their subsequent LPs, replaced by a more polished sound and sonic experimentation.
- Secret Meeting
- Lit Up
- Daughters of the SoHo Riots
- All the Wine
- The Geese of Beverly Road
- Mr. November
5. High Violet (2010)
The 2010 album High Violet is one of the most beloved among The National’s dedicated fan base. And many of the record’s 11 tracks have become mainstays in the band’s live set.
High Violet opens with Terrible Love, a powerful sweeping number that is usually a high point of the National’s live performance. And yet, the original album cut becomes a bit less impressive compared to the alternate version released on the expanded edition of the album, which I’ll cover in just a moment.
Do yourself a favor: get your hands on some quality headphones and a HiFi copy of High Violet, and then listen to Sorrow. Not only is the performance outstanding, but the audio is mixed beautifully. Bryan Devendorf’s rapid-fire hi-hat sizzle comes through with sparkling clarity, while Matt Berninger’s clean vocal lazily flows over the accompaniment.
The haunting mood of Little Faith presages some of the sonic and lyrical darkness found on 2017’s Sleep Well Beast. It’s a perfect example of the thematic anxiety that pervades the album, especially on tracks like Afraid of Everyone, Conversation 16, and Terrible Love.
Then, there are classics like Bloodbuzz Ohio, England, and Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks which are among the band’s most beloved and are staples of their live shows.
Despite the weighty nature of the majority of High Violet, there are still moments of levity and even humor. On Lemonworld, Berninger sings
This pricey stuff makes me dizzy.Lemonworld
I guess I’ve always been a delicate man.
Takes me a day to remember a day.
I didn’t mean to let it get so far out of hand.
As you can see, even when the songs get lighter on High Violet, they’re still tinged with a sense of foreboding, or at least regret.
As I mentioned above, the extended edition of High Violet is worth checking out—if for no other reason than to hear the vastly superior alternate version of Terrible Love, which better reflects the intensity of how the song is performed live.
High Violet is a favorite for many fans, and rightly so. It has all the elements that make the National such a great band.
- Terrible Love
- Little Faith
- Afraid of Everyone
- Bloodbuzz Ohio
- Conversation 16
- Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks
4. I Am Easy to Find (2019)
While perhaps less sonically ambitious than its predecessor, I Am Easy to Find succeeds with its more approachable sound and skillful songwriting.
While the reviews of the National’s most recent effort, 2019’s I Am Easy to Find, were largely quite positive, they were clearly more mixed than for previous records. That said, I’m confident the album will age well, given some critical distance, and rank among the best National albums.
You Had Your Soul With You, the opening cut, actually continues the experimental approach found on Sleep Well Beast with its oscillating guitar intro and polyrhythmic drum part.
Yet, it’s the more immediately accessible tracks here that make I Am Easy to Find one of the National’s best albums. Quiet Light features a simple piano part juxtaposed with chiming guitar harmonica and a synthy bass line.
Oblivions, the most instantly infectious song on the record, continues the trend of prominently featuring outstanding female guest vocalists. This time, Mina Tindle, wife of guitarist Bryce Dessner, lends her lilting voice to provide a lesson in contrast beside Berninger’s crackling baritone.
It’s like a tide in a city lifts me and carries me around,
And oh, my mind is made up out of nothing, now.
If nothing scares you about me, and you never put me down,
Oh, my mind is made up out of nothing now.
You won’t walk away, won’t you?Oblivions
You don’t walk away, don’t you?
What’s so surprising about the album is how effective the National have become at exploring the softer side of their range, finding meaning in the quiet. In the warm hush of songs like I Am Easy to Find, So Far So Fast, and Light Years, truth is whispered, an audacious risk in an era when lies are often shouted.
It’s not all muted melodies and murmurs, though. Songs like Where Is Her Head and Rylan skillfully combine the Dessner twins’ knack for lush arrangements with the driving rock sensibilities of the Devendorf brothers’ rhythm section.
Time will be the judge of my ranking I Am Easy to Find so high on a list of best National albums. But it’s hard to deny the emotional impact of this collection even now.
- You Had Your Soul with You
- Quiet Light
- I Am Easy to Find
- Where Is Her Head
- Light Years
3. Sleep Well Beast (2017)
The title of the National’s Grammy-winning 2017 album perfectly symbolizes the ironic push and pull that pervades this incredible record.
The National have sometimes been referred to as “the American Radiohead.” While that’s a fairly reductive assessment of the band, Sleep Well Beast certainly strengthens this claim. It’s by far the most experimental album in the National’s catalog, and the sonic risks they take pay off, resulting in one of their greatest records.
In fact, there’s so much going on here, it’s best to just go track-by-track through the strongest cuts on the record, so let’s get started.
The opener, Nobody Else Will Be There, is the most straightforward song on Sleep Well Beast. It’s held together by an emotional piano part and features perhaps the most direct and accessible lyrics Berninger has ever penned:
You said we’re not so tied together,
What did you mean?
Meet me in the stairwell in a second
For a glass of gin.
Nobody else will be there, then.Nobody Else Will Be There
Nobody else will be there.
Next, the album shifts toward more familiar alternative rock territory with Day I Die, which spotlights yet another masterful performance from drummer Bryan Devendorf.
But it’s on Walk It Back that the band starts experimenting. Synths and other unidentifiable sounds float in and out of the mix as Berninger goes full Leonard Cohen, talk-singing lyrics shot through with resignation and self-doubt.
The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness, the lead single, will likely be the track that stands the test of time in the National’s setlist. Even with its jagged guitar work and syncopated rhythm, the song’s soaring chorus is sure to become a favorite sing-along at their shows: “And I can’t explain it, ah-ah, any other, any other way.”
On Born to Beg, things return to tenderness, only to be ripped back into reality by Turtleneck, a driving rocker that features some of the most overtly political lyrics in the National’s discography:
The poor, they leave their cellphones in the bathrooms of the rich,Turtleneck
And when they try to turn them off, everything they switch to
Is just another man in shitty suits that everybody’s cheering for.
This must be the genius we’ve been waiting years for.
Empire Line and I’ll Still Destroy You jerks back toward experimentalism, with synthesized elements taking over once again to great effect. The latter presents the National at their most avant-garde, sonically and lyrically.
Finally, Guilty Party calls back the themes and emotions set out in Nobody Else Will Be There. Only now, it seems the cautious optimism of the opening track has fallen away, replaced by begrudging acceptance of a failed relationship:
I say your name,
I say I’m sorry.
I know it’s not working.
I’m no holiday.
It’s nobody’s fault,
No guilty party.
I’ve just got nothing left to say.
It all, all catches up to me.Guilty Party
It all, all catches up to me
All the time.
The irony of Sleep Well Beast is that it manages to push the boundaries further than the band has ever done before, yet it’s also the most direct record of their career. It’s at times a challenging listen, yet the emotions and experiences conveyed are always immediately recognizable.
- Nobody Else Will Be There
- Day I Die
- Walk It Back
- The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness
- Born to Beg
- Empire Line
- I’ll Still Destroy You
- Guilty Party
2. Boxer (2007)
Boxer could have easily taken the number one position on this list. It’s a heartfelt masterpiece that solidified the National as one of the great bands of recent years.
This list would have been published days ago if I hadn’t spent so much time fretting over the placement of these top two albums. Many readers will be surprised to find 2007’s Boxer anywhere other than the number one position, but ultimately, the two best National albums are equally great.
Boxer opens with two of the National’s greatest songs.
Fake Empire begins with what is now an instantly recognizable syncopated piano part, leading into the first verse of a lyrical masterpiece. To be reductive, it’s a political song. Yet, Matt Berninger cleverly turns the political into the personal. And when the Devendorf rhythm section comes in and Berninger moves into the second verse, the song begins a steady crescendo that erupts in a flurry of horns:
Turn the light out,
No thinking for a little while.
Let’s not try to figure out
Everything at once.
It’s hard to keep track of you
Falling through the sky.
We’re half awake in a fake empire.
But one instant classic wasn’t enough. Mistaken for Strangers is the sound of four bandmates positively bursting with creative energy. From Devendorf’s whirlwind drumming to Berninger’s breathless lyrical screed, three and a half minutes is barely enough to contain everything this song offers up.
Other favorites like the beloved Slow Show and Apartment Story present a rare moment of unmitigated sweetness from Berninger. Apartment Story finds him hiding behind the couch with his partner, ignoring the outside world and finding solace in their “rosy-minded fuzz.” And Slow Show adds a knowing and humorous self-deprecation to the mix, while remaining a beautiful love song:
I want to hurry home to you,Slow Show
Put on a slow, dumb show for you,
And crack you up.
So, you can put a blue ribbon on my brain.
God, I’m very, very frightening.
I’ll overdo it.
Boxer closes on a similar note with Gospel. Once again, Berninger finds a strange beauty in the mundane, calling to mind David Byrne’s approach to romantic lyrics with lines like:
I’ve got two armfuls of magazines for you.Gospel
I’ll bring them over.
So, hang your holiday rainbow lights
In the garden
Hang your holiday rainbow lights,
And I’ll, I’ll bring a nice icy drink to you.
I’ve only pointed out a handful of great songs from Boxer here. But, just like my number one pick, there isn’t a weak track on the record. There’s little doubt that Boxer will stand the test of time. On Gospel, Berninger sings, “Let me come over, I can waste your time, I’m bored.” If only we all could turn our boredom into such riveting and touching art.
- Fake Empire
- Mistaken for Strangers
- Squalor Victoria
- Slow Show
- Apartment Story
1. Trouble Will Find Me (2013)
Trouble Will Find Me is the National at their best: creating emotional rock that always offers a sense of familiarity and empathy.
While Boxer may have a strong case for best National album, 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me just edges it out in my book. It has all the elements you want in an album from the National: anxiety-fueled lyrics with a touch of humor, expert musicianship, and melodic hooks you sense you’ve known all your life.
The album opens with I Should Live in Salt, the kind of anthemic set piece you might expect to find on one of the best U2 albums.
But it’s the songs dealing with anxiety and self-aware neurotic tendencies that really shine here. Demons is the most direct example, but most of the best tracks on Trouble Will Find Me address these themes from less obvious angles.
On Don’t Swallow the Cap, always a hit in live performances, Berninger sings his way through what appears to be a drunken night of self-questioning. The chorus, lovely as it is, sounds more ironic than earnest, especially with the Dessner brothers singing the more honest lyrics in the background:
I’m not alone (dead seriously)Don’t Swallow the Cap
I’m evergreen (don’t swallow the cap)
Into the bone (pat yourself on the back)
I’ll never grieve (too seriously)
And if you want (dead seriously)
To see me cry (don’t swallow the cap)
Play Let It Be (pat yourself on the back)
Or Nevermind (dead seriously)
Graceless is held up by a chugging rhythm that seems to pull Berninger’s vocal into greater intensity as he ostensibly reflects on psychiatric drugs:
Is there a powder to erase this?
Is it dissolvable and tasteless?
You can’t imagine how I hate this.
Even the love songs on Trouble Will Find Me are clearly from the perspective of a neurotic. The beauty of I Need My Girl comes not only from the chiming guitar but from the sincerity of the remorseful lyrics:
I’m under the gun againI Need My Girl
I know I was a 45-percenter then
I know I was a lot of things
But I am good, I am grounded
Davy says that I look taller
But I can’t get my head around it
I keep feeling smaller and smaller
When people criticize the National for being brooding and melancholy, they’re most likely thinking of this record. But such a reductive assessment neglects both the humor and self-awareness that runs through this spectacular record.
The songs on Trouble Will Find Me comprise the foundation of the National’s set list for a reason: each track is overflowing with recognizable and sympathetic emotion. If you listen honestly, you will leave this album feeling as though there is at least one other person out there who understands you.
- I Should Live in Salt
- Don’t Swallow the Cap
- Sea of Love
- This Is the Last Time
- I Need My Girl
- Pink Rabbits
- Hard to Find