The National's 10 Best Songs: Critic's Picks

Graham MacIndoe
The National

Of the bands that came out of the Great Big Indie Rock Boom of the 2000s, The National are one of the few cases of a group that has gotten better with age. Though spawned in New York City around the same time as The Strokes and Interpol, these days, the five band members have moved on from the Big Apple and away from each other -- but that distant hasn’t made the group dissonant.

On their seventh studio album Sleep Well Beast, out today (Sept. 8), The National are as sharp as they always have been. Lead singer Matt Berninger’s obtuse wordplay once again marries with dark, electronic-tinged rock songs and at times, mournful ballads -- a now hallmark of the band.

Where does the new batch fit into the band’s catalog? Below, our picks for the band’s best 10 songs to date.

10. The National - “American Mary”
From The National (2001)

Even at the beginning, The National had a knack for writing blistering songs about romance gone wrong. In this ballad from the band’s self-titled debut, Berninger concludes “there’s nothing you can say to ever make me want you,” as the song lifts in grand fashion — a notion that would become a trademark when they’d all eventually quit their day jobs and make the band a full-time gig.

9. “Carin at the Liquor Store”
From Sleep Well Beast (2017)

Speaking of saying goodbye, this song from The National’s latest LP looks inward, with the words “forgone conclusion” wrapped around a chat with the titular Carin. Is it someone letting go? Groveling? Or as the narrator says, “walking around like I found dead John Cheever?” The blame game is a tricky one, and this latest ballad proves the band is still quite adept at writing perplexing confessionals that sound like little inside conversations set to music.

8. “Humiliation”
From Trouble Will Find Me (2013)

Beginning with a faint, driving drum beat, this The National song builds slowly over five minutes into something mesmerizing, thanks to Berninger’s stream-of-conscious spouting. Over the years, The National would start incorporating many more atmospheric sounds into their songs (“Sleep Well Beast” is probably their most experimental to date in that regard) and “Humiliation” is a perfect example of how many subtle sounds pair nicely with Berninger’s baritone.

7. The National - “Graceless”
From Trouble Will Find Me (2013)

Being graceless and faithless aren’t really qualities one aspires to have -- but for the National, it’s par for the course and fantastic song subject matter. Another uptempo rock song mixed with a heavy dose of self-deprecation, “Graceless” builds faster and faster until a final, epic release - a skill they have perfected over the last three albums.

6. The National - “Conversation 16”
From “High Violet” (2010)

Casual National fans would likely never describe the band as “hilarious” - but this fiery rock song from their fifth album is just that. How else would you characterize a chorus that finds Berninger crooning “I was afraid, I’d eat your brains.” The reason? It’s simple: “‘Cause I’m evil,” he concludes. It was a turning point, indicating not everything is about despair if you look closely.

5. The National - “Mr. November”
From “Alligator” (2005)

Over the years, The National have gained a reputation for being a stellar live band and if you’ve ever seen them perform “Mr. November,” the last track from 2005’s Alligator, you know why. The song allows for Berninger to go full spaz - it wasn’t uncommon for him to jump in the crowd and coax a crowd sing along right next to his pulsating throat.

4. The National - “Mistaken For Strangers”
From Boxer (2007)

“You get mistaken for strangers by your own friends,” Berninger sings often through the first single from the band’s 2007 breakout. It fast became the epitome of what this band is about: a driving drum beat surrounded by moody guitars, layered atmospheric sounds, and self-deprecation. This The National song would also go on to inspire the title to the band’s hilarious tour documentary from 2014. 

3. The National - “Start a War”
From Boxer (2007)

With The National, emotions are always heightened, always on the brink of utter collapse. It’s a fight or flight world and there’s nothing in between. And this “Boxer” tune exemplifies that notion quite well, because when you’re breaking up with someone, are you really starting a war? Nah, but it always feels like it.

2. The National “Runaway”
From High Violet (2010)

Another trademark of Berninger’s lyrics is that he likes to rhyme words with each other. Case in point: “I won’t be no runaway, ‘cause I won’t run” he confesses in this High Violet standout. This mournful ballad is peak National and is everything that makes the band great: A stark emotional moment wrapped around an intimate arrangement of piano, soft guitars and brass accents.

1. The National - “Fake Empire”
From Boxer (2007)

Is the glass empty or half full? Are relationships an exercise in misery or finding joy? Is reality what it says it is? These are questions that the band wrestles with all the time, and perhaps no The National song exemplifies this better than the opening number from “Boxer.” No one can ever imagine being half awake in a fake empire as a good thing - or even one’s own relationships as empires. But The National do. And perhaps being half awake in a fake empire is better than nothing at all. Probably not. But maybe.