The National: 10 Songs That Defined Me as a Fan

Featured Image by ashton

When it comes to the question of who is my favorite band, I never hesitate to tell anyone that mine is The National. The band is comprised of singer/lyricist Matt Berninger, guitarists/composers Aaron and Bryce Dessner, with brothers Brian and Scott Devendorf on drums and bass (respectively). This list comprises of the ten songs that have made me into the die-hard fan who will rant about them at the slightest provocation.

10.) “Terrible Love” from High Violet (2010)

I pirated The National’s fifth record, High Violet, after I saw it written up by a music blog I followed. I had just reached that point in my adolescence where I was beginning to develop my taste in music and I thought, “Why not give this a shot?” “Terrible Love” sets the tone of the entire record, building off a thick, rippling guitar riff and moody piano before spiraling into a chaotic and dramatic climax. The dark nature of the music coupled with Matt Berninger’s lyrics set them apart from anything I had ever heard before.

9.) “Cardinal Song” from Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers (2003)

For the first two albums of The National’s career, all the members were doing this whole band thing part-time thinking that it likely wouldn’t go anywhere. Sad Songs shows a group struggling to find an identity somewhere between Americana and rock, but manage to yield some excellent tracks such as “90 Mile Waterwall” “Slipping Husband” and “Lucky You.” The solemn attitude of “Cardinal Song” is simply heartbreaking. Nothing sounds more defeated than Berninger crooning, “If she knows your paper/You know she’ll have to burn you.” If you don’t have significant feels by the time you reach the violin at the four minute, fifty second mark, then I don’t really know that you really have emotions.

8.) “So Far Around The Bend” from Dark Was The Night (Red Hot Compilation) (2003)

Dark Was The Night is a compilation album curated by The National’s Dessner brothers featuring many of The National’s collaborators like Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, Sufjan Stevens, and more. “So Far Around The Bend” is The National’s contribution, one I go back to frequently because it stands out so much from the rest of their catalog. It’s slightly too upbeat to find itself on their other albums Boxer or High Violet, and not folky enough to be found in their earlier Americana-influenced work. Matt Berninger creates a character that seems as whimsically oblivious to her problems as she is conflicted by them. “Take a bath and get high through an apple/Wanted to cry but you can’t when you’re laughing”

7.) “Sea Of Love” from Trouble Will Find Me (2013)

Sometimes all you need to make a great rock song is one excellent guitar riff and a finale of call-and-response pleading, “I see you rushing down/Tell me how to reach you!” “Sea of Love” marks the mid-point of The National’s sixth record, Trouble Will Find Me, and feels almost like a call back to their Alligator days. Their 2013 effort showed that even when the group was coming up with dramatic orchestral accompaniment, they could still throw down with the best of them.

6.) “Fake Empire” from Boxer (2007)

Boxer’s opening track begins in a seemingly unassuming manner, beginning as with an elegant piano progression that’s played in a rare 3/2 time signature. “Fake Empire”, however, possesses one of the most brilliant musical developments that I have experienced. The Kafkaesque nature of its lyrics, Bryan Devendorf’s signature drumming, and the epic horn section that enters for the finale makes it easy to revisit this song time and time again.

5.) “Mistaken For Strangers” – Boxer (2007)

There’s dark and moody. Then there’s dark and angry. Then, there’s Mistaken For Strangers. Following “Fake Empire” with a portrait of a couple trying to maintain their blissful ignorance to the world around them (“No thinking for a little while/let’s try not to figure out everything at once”), “Mistaken Strangers” delivers a heavy neurotic and self-conscious rock track about someone who has strayed so far friends and acquaintances fail to even recognize them as they stumble aimlessly through the streets as just “another uninnocent elegant….”

4.) “Abel” from Alligator (2005)

The thing about missing out on The National’s earlier work is that you don’t experience the intense and mind-altering experience of Berninger’s scream. Transitioning from that smooth, deep baritone to a vicious snarl displays his versatility as an artist and creates a new dimension to what the band is capable of expressing. Nothing is more explosive than the intro’s sizzling, interweaving guitar riffs wailing with Berninger howling “Well my mind’s not alright!”

3.) “Apartment Story” from Boxer (2007)

This track never fails to be a comforting force to me. Behind those rumbling guitars, Berninger sings of wanting to stay inside with the “rosy minded fuzz” of the TV before Netflix and chill was a thing. “So worry not,” Berninger sings reassuringly. “All things are well/ We’ll be alright/We have our looks and perfume on.”

2.) “England” from High Violet (2010)

This was my first love. “England,” the penultimate track of High Violet, is the sum of everything The National was attempting to accomplish on that record: more flow to the melody/lyrics and using more diverse instrumentation as a tool to move and develop the song. First the horns, then piano propelled by rhythmic guitar, vocals, drums, more horns, then some strings until finally the song simply explodes.

1.) “Mr. November” from Alligator (2005)

The closing track to The National’s breakthrough LP, Alligator, is likely a key moment in every National fan’s memory. It’s the moment during their live set where Matt Berninger descends from the stage to go right out into the crowd (see below) as he longs for the days when he “was carried in the arms of cheerleaders.”

Singer Matt Berninger crowd surfing during "Mr. November"

Photo by wheatln2

 What song by YOUR favorite band defines you as a fan? Tell us in the comments below!

1 Comment

  1. Bryana Natale

    December 2, 2015 at 11:45 am

    Really cool concept for an article. Its hard to pick just one song that defines me as a fan, as I have several ‘favorite’ artists and am constantly evolving as person/fan, but for today, I’ll have to go with “Last Hope” by Paramore.

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