The 25 Best Songs by The National

From their 2001 debut to their latest album, these are the band's best tracks

April 28, 2023 7:24 am
The National
The National
Graham MacIndoe

The National is like a leather couch at your grandparents’ house: comfortable, well-built and of an origin no one quite remembers. Saying Brooklyn is both true and a cop-out; its five comprising members all hail from Ohio and were in each other’s orbits, though it would take New York to bring them together in 1999. Over subsequent decades — itself a remarkable accomplishment for the modern genre — the band has evolved well beyond its initial scope and sound. The constant remains frontman Matt Berninger’s mystical-bordering-on-Dada lyrics delivered with a Folgers-thick baritone voice. But record after record, including First Two Pages Of Frankenstein, out today (April 28), the band’s sound and production have continued to be refined and elevated. Credit this to guitarists and brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner (another pair of brothers, Scott and Bryan Devendorf, round out the five-piece), who have orchestrated more creative arrangements and instrumentation.  

While the band seemingly puts out a new studio record on a three-year cycle (previously 2019’s I Am Easy to Find), Frankenstein was composed quickly during the band’s 2022 tour following its extended COVID hiatus. “When we finally came back together on tour, [Berninger] started writing songs in a very rapid-fire way almost overnight — these full-hearted, fully formed songs were just pouring out,” Bryce Dessner said in press materials for the album. Despite the condensed timetable from writing to recording, the National’s latest record is anything but rushed. Longtime fans of the band will appreciate the business-as-usual tenor of the songs — Berninger’s rich voice and the brothers Dessner’s layered guitars are as comfortable as sinking into gramp’s sofa. But initiates will appreciate the entry point of a who’s who of featured vocalists, which also lends the record a feeling of career recognition. Taylor Swift (with whom Berninger and the Dessners collaborated on her 2021 record evermore), Phoebe Bridgers and Sufjan Stevens all join Frankenstein tracks, proving that while you may not know a National song by name, your favorite artist certainly does. Our list samples from the band’s extensive catalog for the best songs from the past to the present day, assembling a retrospective on one of the country’s best bands. With its established legacy, the National, like quality leather, may show a bit of weathering, but they’re far from wearing out. 

25. “Tropic Morning News,” First Two Pages of Frankenstein (2023)

You want to know why The National has retained its popularity record after record? It’s epitomized in “Tropic Morning News.” The slow grove moves the listener immediately; Berninger’s voice, thickened with overdub, pushes you toward a chorus that bursts like a summertime rainstorm. Just when you think, “I mean, these guys are just OK,” its key-change bridge and confident guitar solo add a twist, raising its stakes. If this doesn’t inspire one to revisit the band’s back catalog, nothing will. 

24. “Fake Empire,” The Boxer (2007)

God, this whole album is amazing. Arguably the band’s breakthrough, it celebrated its anniversary with a play-through tour, the result of which was Boxer (Live in Brussels) in 2018. “Fake Empire,” which opens, displays the National’s ability to publicize private moments, and Berninger lets you overhear his private narration of a magical evening, the pair slipping “Tiptoe through our shiny city / With our diamond slippers on.”

23. “Conversation 16,” High Violet (2010)

A sleeper banger buried toward the back of High Violet, “Conversation 16” is, as its name suggests, about comfort in a long-term relationship and the vulnerability that comes from sharing the nooks and crannies of the soul. Of course, it’s dressed in much more shocking verbiage: “I was afraid, I’d eat your brains / ‘Cause I’m evil.” Put another way, I cannot stand your mother’s constant criticism of my career, and I should have told you like five years ago. 

22. “Lucky You,” Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers (2003)

There may be few more approachable ballads than “Lucky You,” from the band’s sophomore album. It opens with a single acoustic guitar before adding in a snapping snare drum and lush orchestration. Berninger is in his least oblique, lyrics-wise, but fans of the band’s hallmark literary writing will still find plenty to celebrate. “You wake up in the bed you make / I think you made a big mistake.”

21. “Don’t Swallow the Cap,” Trouble Will Find Me (2013)

This uptempo driver alludes to the death of writer Tennessee Williams. Its beauty comes from the play between the band’s multi-instrumental movement and Berninger’s monotone lyrics. Its narrator has no secrets left, an enveloping exhaustion coupled with isolation. And yet it feels somehow triumphant, claiming he’s “evergreen,” with “a bright white beautiful heaven hanging over me.” The end comes for us all, but the mindset in which we approach it varies.

20. “Mr. November,” Alligator (2005)

Closing the band’s 2005 record Alligator, it’s filled with Berninger’s inscrutable lyrics and arpeggio guitar verse — that is, until an explosion of tremolo chorus and a shouted “I won’t fuck us over / I’m Mr. November.” Borrowing from an inside-baseball baseball phrase, it begs the question: Is Berninger an MLB fan? With the band’s hometown hosting a pro team, it’s possible.

19. “Once Upon a Poolside” (Feat. Sufjan Stevens), First Two Pages of Frankenstein (2023)

Putting Sufjan Stevens and the National in the same song is an indie-rock fan’s dream. On the opening track from Frankenstein, Berninger’s baritone sits like bourbon in the bottom of glass, thick and potent, while Stevens’ falsetto floats atop like the dissipating smoke from a cigar. It’s regretful, about a relationship teetering on the edge, with the lyrics “I thought we could make it through anything” holding real stakes despite the measured pace.  

18. “The Day I Die,” Sleep Well Beast (2017)

2017’s Beast sees the band flirting with drum beats a la Radiohead or “Babylon”-era David Gray. Over top, Berninger is the retrospective veteran rock star: Old flings are reaching out, but all he wants is “Valentine,” with whom there’s been a rift he’s trying to repair. “Just come outside and leave with me,” he sings.

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17. “Terrible Love,” High Violet (2010)

The fourth and final single from the band’s 2010 album, “Terrible Love” also leads the record, a slow burn which accelerates in driving beat, instrumentation and soaring chorus. Theme: bad breakups suck, or, in the National parlance, “It’s a terrible love and I’m walking with spiders.”

16. “The Perfect Song,” The National (2001)

This one is centered around acoustic guitar, but percussive, with a high-hat clash that pushes the song forward. Berninger’s almost spoken-word vocals aren’t perfect, but that’s the point, while also illustrating how far the band has come (and how large the production budgets have grown). Its early-aughts release will immediately place the band shoulder to shoulder with Modest Mouse and other “indie rock” artists of the era. 

15. “Rylan,” I Am Easy to Find (2019)

Fit in long enough and it becomes, if not easy, at least well-practiced. “Rylan” is an encouragement to break these long-standing patterns and live out of one’s truest self. Maybe that’s one’s sexuality; maybe it’s simply being more assertive in work or personal life. You might just find that those closest to you have been eagerly awaiting the arrival of the real you: “Rylan, did you break your mother’s heart? / Every time you tried to play your part.”

14. “Weird Goodbyes” (Feat. Bon Iver), Weird Goodbyes single (2022)

The National and Justin Vernon, the driving force behind Bon Iver, seem like brothers from another mother. The two already had a working relationship thanks to the duet side project Big Red Machine, which featured Vernon and National guitarist Aaron Dessner. And so the programmed backing beat of “Weird Goodbyes” is symbolic of Vernon’s contribution before Berninger joins his voice in a melancholic chorus. Yeah, it’s the National, but Vernon adds a dance element never before present.  

13. “Lean,” Hunger Games: Catching Fire Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (2013)

While most of the National’s lyrics imply rather than state, “Lean” is one of the few that Berninger has gone on the record regarding. And it’s one as relevant today as it was a decade ago: gun violence and the hopeless feeling that accompanies it. “Everybody needs a prayer, needs a friend / Everybody knows the world’s about to end,” he sings. 

12. “Secret Meeting,” Alligator (2005)

Peak Modest Mouse phase, and representative of the indie rock music of the time. The verses on “Secret Meeting” meander though suggestive lyrics that leave a taste of hope somehow. Can you make sense of “Didn’t anybody tell you, this river’s full of lost sharks?” And yet, it works.  

11. “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness,” Sleep Well Beast (2017)

There’s that midpoint of a relationship where a certain amount of intimacy is a given — say, a Postmates order or the thermostat setting — but to take it deeper is an exercise in intention. “Why are you hiding from me? / We’re in a different kind of thing now / All night you’re talking to God,” Berninger sings. It’s natural to withdraw and keep the “lonely secrets,” as he calls them, safe. But if anything, the song is an exhortation to open further, to bare more. 

10. “Pink Rabbits,” Trouble Will Find Me (2013)

Getting dumped sucks, and getting dumped by a person you knew was trouble from the start is even worse. “Pink Rabbits”’ lilts its mourning of the guy or girl who personifies chaos and the resulting heartbreak. “Well, I love a storm, but I don’t love lightning / All the waters coming up so fast, it’s frightening,” Berninger sings. At least it was fun while it lasted.

9. “Guest Room,” The Boxer (2007)

Some may take “Guest Room”’s lyrics as nostalgia for a past love from high school, a longing for when they were being “ruffians, going wild and bright / In the corners of front yards, getting in and out of cars.” But a deeper listen suggests the partner is a stand-in for youth itself. Ain’t no more summer breaks when you’re an adult. 

8. “Oblivions,” I Am Easy to Find (2019)

On one of the best songs on 2019’s Easy to Find, Berninger is joined by French folk singer (and the National guitarist Bryce Dessner’s wife) Mina Tindle in a duet about the uncertainty of marriage. “Do you think you can carry me / Over the threshold / Over and over again until oblivion?” Tindle asks. It’s a powerful examination of the fears that anyone has walking down the aisle.

7. “Light Years,” I Am Easy to Find (2019)

A slow-moving benediction which closes Easy to Find, “Light Years” is sparsely instrumented with prominent piano and backing strings. The real highlight is Berninger’s pairing with longtime David Bowie collaborator Gail Ann Dorsey. Yeah, it’s another song about loss, but more about death, with a reminder to show those we care for their importance now, before it’s too late. “Oh, the glory of it all was lost on me / ‘Til I saw how hard it’d be to reach you / And I would always be light years, light years away from you,” the pair sing. 

6. “Green Gloves,” The Boxer (2007)

On “Green Gloves,” Berninger mourns the loss of past relationships. Does it have something to do with substance abuse, as they’re “somewhere, getting wasted”? Or is it just a maturation, when one realizes a choice between arrested development or full-on adulting? There’s sadness, but a fondness, for those childhood friends even as paths diverge: “Hope they’re staying glued together / I have arms for them.”

5. “Guilty Party,” Sleep Well Beast (2017)

The end is here. “It’s nobody’s fault / No guilty party / We just got nothing / Nothing left to say,” Berninger sings. Over a programmed drum loop that snaps with ADHD intricacy, his voice drags out the vocals with a despondency matching the lyrics. Some relationships are just destined to close. 

4. “Sea of Love,” Trouble Will Find Me (2013)

“If I stay here I’ll never leave / If I stay here trouble will find me / I believe,” Berninger sings, a Dear John letter as the narrator exits a relationship. It’s regret, but it’s final, laced with a fear of commitment and maybe even intimacy. It’s an anthem to the great one we leave anyway, knowing full well the opportunity won’t come again.

3. “About Today,” Cherry Tree EP (2004)

Odds are high that when most people heard “About Today,” they’d never heard of the National. Part of the soundtrack of the 2011 mixed martial arts movie Warrior, it’s equally as noteworthy as Tom Hardy’s mumble-mouthed charisma and the second coming of Nick Nolte (for which he’d receive an Oscar nomination). The film’s climax is scored with the song, which wrings pathos from the onscreen violence like blood from a cut forehead. 

2. “Your Mind Is Not Your Friend” (Feat. Phoebe Bridgers), First Two Pages of Frankenstein (2023)

Berninger is no stranger to providing vocals to the songs of others (see: Caroline Spence’s “I Know You Know Me” and many, many others), but “Your Mind,” the first released track from Frankenstein, is the first in which anyone has received a feature credit on a National full-length record. Bridgers, whose fans are legion, is kind of the perfect premier for the band, joining in the chorus for harmonizing vocals, singing “Don’t you understand? / Your mind is not your friend again.” It’s half exhortation, half encouragement for a friend in pain.

1. “Bloodbuzz, Ohio,” High Violet (2010)

Your favorite band’s favorite National song, “Bloodbuzz” was the lead-off single from High Violet. Its insistent drum beat pushes you even while its modest chording builds tension. We leave home for places far away, but there’s a missing piece wherever we came from, even as it continues to change without us: “I still owe money to the money, to the money I owe / The floors are falling out from everybody I know.”

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