Evolution: It’s what has sweetened The National’s sound over two decades of actively making music that persists in its ability to tug at all the right existential-dread heartstrings.
After the recent release of the band’s latest album, I Am Easy to Find (which has received attention both good and bad), it’s an interesting time to be a fan of The National — is it getting better, or is it getting worse? And how many more albums about male angst can The National make before it gets old?
(As I Am Easy to Find proves, it has yet to get old — although the inclusion of several female vocalists certainly rattles up the formula.)
I fell in love at first listen with The National in 2015 when I heard “Start a War,” and I’ve been a loyal devotee ever since. Maybe it’s just my unwitting obsession with sad men singing about sad things, but maybe it’s something more than that. Moved by the band’s latest release, I found myself turning back to its massive discography, and that made me wonder: How do these albums do when pitted against each other? After doing just that, here are the resulting rankings!
8. The National (2001)
Best tracks: “Cold Girl Fever,” “American Mary” and “Theory of the Crows”
If there’s a single album out there that truly encompasses the term “growing pains,” the band’s debut album The National is a top contender for that honor (or, rather, lack thereof). I want to love everything The National makes. But it’s painfully clear when you listen to the album all the way through that the band was still finding its footing. The overall sound is tinny guitar rock blues — not particularly unique but also not horrendous. Were the album to be described in a single word, it’d hands down be “underwhelming.”
7. Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers (2003)
Best tracks: “Murder Me Rachael,” “Patterns of Fairytales” and “Lucky You”
Much of the criticism that The National warrants can also be applied here. The title Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers sounds like the soundtrack to an early-2000s made-for-television rom-com, and the actual music matches up with that ambience. While it makes for good background music, and some of the songs venture into Certified Banger territory — there’s just something about the way frontman Matt Berninger asks Rachael to murder him — this album is more of a work-in-progress bridge to smoother musical ventures than it is a masterpiece in its own right.
6. Alligator (2005)
Best tracks: “Daughters of the Soho Riots,” “Abel” and “Mr. November”
Let’s be honest: This album is another stepping stone. But it’s also where The National started to really find itself, with its composition becoming more complex and its lyrics all that more jarringly poetic. Berninger stopped mumbling as much and started belting more often, finding himself as a vocalist as much as the band was finding itself as a whole. Weirdly enough, however, there’s an upbeat tone running throughout the album — maybe the band was celebrating its departure from the classic rock box. It’s endearing to hear Berninger try his hand at screaming vocals in “Abel” and actually succeeding.
5. I Am Easy to Find (2019)
Best tracks: “Oblivions,” “Where Is Her Head” and “I Am Easy to Find”
When pitted against the seven other LPs by The National, its eighth doesn’t really do much in terms of ingenuity. More than anything, it just feels like an (admittedly lackluster in comparison) continuation of the technological complexity that marked Sleep Well Beast. Even though it’s a solid addition to The National’s canon, the things that make it stand out aren’t done by the band itself — guest female vocalists and a connection to an avant-garde short film are great, but the soundscape is more or less unremarkable.
4. High Violet (2010)
Best tracks: “Terrible Love,” “Sorrow” and “Conversation 16”
High Violet marks the halfway point in The National’s career thus far — the band has been active since 1999 — which is fitting, considering the group’s emotional urgency that hasn’t let up since the release of this album. This is when The National became sleek instead of a little ragged, although this doesn’t make it any less rough around the edges lyrics-wise. Like all the other albums in the top four of this list, High Violet doesn’t boast “filler” tracks either — it uses its space wisely. It’s evidence that even if there are growing pains in the beginning, there is always gold at the end of a violet-tinged rainbow.
3. Trouble Will Find Me (2013)
Best tracks: “Don’t Swallow the Cap,” “Sea of Love” and “I Need My Girl”
With Trouble Will Find Me, The National persisted in its newly found devotion to an audible electronic polish — one that has marked the group’s sound ever since High Violet. If anything, the polish only got shinier. Evolution is all the more prominent here; this 2013 album sounds like a marginally better and — quite impressively — gloomier High Violet. Of course, that’s a good thing: The seasoned listener knows to expect anguish from The National, and on Trouble Will Find Me, the band delivers magnificently. Trouble found The National; a thought-provoking listen found its audience.
2. Boxer (2007)
Best Tracks: “Fake Empire,” “Mistaken for Strangers” and “Brainy”
Enamored as I am by what The National has been doing in its second decade, Boxer serves as a reminder that the band has never been bad, or even at all disappointing — it’s just gotten better. It’s good to remember your roots, and Boxer is a root of which the band should be proud. Less artsy than what The National has been doing these days but no less anxiety-ridden, there isn’t a single mediocre track on the album. It’s bona fide alternative rock ‘n’ roll, haunting not in its experimentality but in its relative sonic simplicity.
1. Sleep Well Beast (2017)
Best tracks: Literally all of them, but “Day I Die,” “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” and “Turtleneck” are standouts
I am of the opinion that Grammy-winning Sleep Well Beast is the best album ever made — at the very least, it’s one of my all-time favorite albums. It’s something of a concept album, with the lyrics constantly referencing the “beast” motif and a sense of self-destruction. Notably, the album features “Turtleneck,” which sounds unlike anything The National had released prior. Overall, Sleep Well Beast feels like the flawless, aesthetic brilliance the band had always been striving for — and damn, it did it well. Keeping with the “technologically decorated” trend that has defined the band since High Violet, the album could have very well been a victim of its own ambition. Yet it succeeded, and that’s the magic of it.