Ohio based rockers The National have been ever-present in rock music for the better part of two decades: forming in the late 90’s and releasing their self-titled effort in 2001, Matt Berninger and co. have been at the helm of seven records of varying quality, usually finding at least one of their albums in an album of the decade list. Thanks to their arty sombre work, The National have found themselves appealing to people both young and old which have helped them to remain both commercially and critically viable.
Of course, we can’t simply sit idly by and not ask the question: what’s their best record? Well, you won’t have to ponder for much longer as Transistor’s fantastic four Andrew (@weeandreww), Callum (@cal_thornhill), Josh (@jxshadams) and Kieran (@kiercannon) have helped to 100-per-cent-definitively rank their albums – will there be hot takes? Absolutely. Will there be an obvious loser? Probably. Will you be pissed off at us? Most definitely.
Quick disclaimer: This is, like, our opinion or whatever, dude. Disagree? The comments down below will house whatever rage you’re feeling.
7. The National (2001)
Andrew: The National’s self-titled debut actually isn’t as bad as its made out to be. It’s certainly no Pablo Honey in terms of quality, but in a similar manner to Radiohead’s debut, it pales in comparison with the rest of The National’s discography (apart from the sophomore Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers). If I’m honest, this isn’t a record that has stuck with me anywhere near as much as the rest of the band’s discography and I rarely find myself listening to this record.
However, it’s not a complete dud. On tracks like American Mary, you can identify the elements that the band have refined in recent years to make themselves so adored – in Aaron and Bryce Dessner’s interlocking guitar/piano parts, Scott and Bryan Devendorf’s airtight rhythm section and Matt Berninger’s hazy, weary baritone.
Callum: Although this record is being ranked last, it is simply because the others hold more personal and sentimental value. The National’s self-titled debut was, for me anyway, a record I went back to and picked up on vinyl to simply complete my collection. But now, it is a record I dabble in when catching the train or in need of background music. There are some tracks, for example, Theory of Crows that have stuck over the years with the lyrics “I’ll suck off investors, I’ll suck off VCs
I’m losing my posture from time on my knees,” that proved to be the core of The National’s witty and charismatic lyrics. A good foundation of what was to come for the Ohio alt-rockers.
Josh: It has been claimed that the band’s self-titled debut was made simply just because they could, and it shows. Whilst it undeniably has it charms in cuts like “American Mary” and “29 Years”, it lacks both the punch of their other earlier work and the sophistication of their later albums, opting for an alt-country twinge that never totally sits well with the New York group. “The National” is the sound of a band searching for their idiosyncrasies, rather than one fully formed and ready to turn heads – not offensively bad, but definitely less than essential.
Kieran: Grammy Award-Winning Band™ The National are a rare breed – they have yet to release a dud. Although their first two ‘forgotten’ albums (S/T and SSFDL) aren’t quite on the same level as the ones that followed, they’re still enjoyable in their own right. Those who were introduced to The National post-Alligator will be surprised by the Americana-tinged style of the tracks, but there are more parallels to their later material than meets the eye. 29 Years, for example, is essentially a lo-fi draft version of Slow Show, where the same “You know I dreamed about you / For 29 years before I saw you” refrain gets immortalised in its climactic outro. S/T is a solid album, although it’s rather eclipsed by what comes after it.
6. Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers (2003)
Callum: Murder Me Rachael, Available and Sugar Wife. With a fine collection of other The National tracks it could be easy to forget about these gems, but when we reminisce about their 2003 sophomore record we can see exactly why fifteen years later they are continuing to put out tracks that echo the sounds from this sophomore record. Very rarely will you see The National slip a Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers, which makes it a more ‘exclusive’ record for those daring to take a punt on them all them years ago.
Josh: There’s not much between their second LP and their debut, other than the permanent arrival of guitarist Bryce Dessner to the fold and a more formidable growl from singer Matt Berninger. The instrumental palette is widened and the lyrical tone sounds less despondent, and more whiskey-soaked, allowing The National to bear their teeth on what are, not coincidentally, the best tracks here: “Slipping Husband” and “Available” drunkenly shuffle with barely concealed bitterness until the rage erupts in one of Berninger’s trademark screams. What really lets “Sad Songs…” down though is its production: flat and lifeless, it ruins the good songs and only makes clear the flaws of the bad ones.
Kieran: On their second album, The National start to move away from the country roots of their debut and begin to forge their own brand of indie rock. Containing some of their heaviest bangers to date (Available and Murder Me Rachael) as well as the debut appearance of Matt Berninger’s infamous screaming, SSFDL is significantly more fleshed-out than S/T but it still lacks the polish and songwriting finesse of the subsequent five albums. That being said, it’s the first time Matt’s lyrics really start to demonstrate his dark humour and wry observation – the unique ways in which he discusses life, love, and relationships.
Andrew: Once again, I’ll have to admit that I haven’t listened to this record nearly as much as the rest of The National’s albums since it’s almost a universally agreed fact that the first two National records are almost stepping stones for the greatness that soon followed. However, Sad Songs is undoubtedly a step forward from the self-titled.
It perhaps showcases the heavier side of The National which the band have flirted with throughout their career more than any other studio album, with Berninger’s groan turning into a full-bloodied scream on Slipping Husband, Available and Murder Me Rachael. However, especially on Rachael, it becomes apparent that these tracks deserve better production than they have on the record, and you can’t talk about Sad Songs without mentioning the undisputed-worst-track-ever-recorded-by-Grammy-award-winning-band-The-National – the somehow reggae-infused Sugar Wife. However, it’s on the tracklisting beside tracks as beautiful as closer Lucky You, so, ultimately, Sad Songs shows a band who have potential, but are sadly yet to fully realise it.
5. Alligator (2005)
Josh: This is where The National hit their stride, and it was helped by the fact their backs were against the wall where success had eluded them for years. The performances are powerful, the lyrics are powerful, and the track listing consistent: from “Secret Meeting” to the absolutely stunning “Mr. November”, it has something for everyone to latch on to and form memories from. The only reason it’s so low down in the list is that it pales in comparison to the heights the band have gone on to achieve off the back of this record, which in itself is a testament to its quality.
Kieran: The step-up from SSFDL to Alligator is astonishing. Within two years, their maturity and songcraft multiplied exponentially without losing any of their youthful energy. The best way to describe this album is it’s the pal who comes round to your house with a crate of booze when you’re feeling a bit shit, sits and drinks with you until you’ve forgotten what was wrong in the first place. It’s wild, raucous and (relatively speaking) fairly optimistic but also manages to be hard-hitting when it needs to be (see Val Jester). It’s also massively underrated – so many relatively unknown tracks like Lit Up, Secret Meeting and Geese of Beverly Road deserve to rank among the band’s very best. It’s possibly my favourite National album, and I’ve been searching for any reason to rank it #1 but the margins between Alligator and Boxer really are very fine indeed.
Andrew: Here’s where it gets interesting. Alligator is the first great National record, at the band’s third attempt, and the beginning of the Brooklyn five-piece’s ridiculously consistent run. More than that, Alligator marks the first iteration of what is now The National’s trademark sound. The Dessner’s songwriting is laser-sharp, and its marriage with Berninger’s occasionally hilariously honest songwriting (“Karen put me in a chair, fuck me and make me a drink”) is seamless.
The finger-picked guitar of Secret Meeting is the perfect introduction to the band’s most eclectic record yet. There are tracks as plaintive and stripped back as Daughters of the Soho Riots alongside massive rock songs like Abel, and almost everything in between. What is particularly enjoyable about The National is you can truly pick out each members’ contribution to each track and record and it must be said that drummer Bryan Devendorf is incredible on Alligator, and is the driving force behind some of the record’s best moments – none more so than the incredible closer Mr. November, where the life-affirming chorus is backed up by rapid-fire drumming.
If there is to be one criticism of Alligator, it’s an understandable one – the production isn’t flawless, and on certain tracks, the guitars especially can sound quite tinny – however this can be put down to the fact the band weren’t blessed with a huge recording budget, as this is more than rectified on later attempts.
Callum: All The Wine is as lyrically succulent as The National get and Alligator is the perfect example of Berninger and co.’s turning point. From a cult, nichely appreciated into a majestic, celebrated festival headliner. Teeing up the release of Boxer, the band transition from the delicate to the angsty and the record mirrors how The National construct their live show; just when you are settling into a steady theme of swaying shoulders you’re smacked in the face with fan-favourite Mr. November. Glorious.
4. Trouble Will Find Me (2013)
Kieran: This is where the rankings get *really* tough. The beauty of The National, who have consistently matured and adapted over the years, is that the run from Alligator through to Sleep Well Beast is crammed with five records whose individual merits are all sufficient to see them take the #1 spot. Ranking them objectively is incredibly difficult and fans listen to the band for such a wide variety of reasons that an argument could justifiably be made that, perhaps, TWFM deserves to sit at the top. It’s one of their most candid and accessible records, but it certainly isn’t lacking in genius. Matt’s lyrical poetry is in fine form on Graceless as he delivers the line “god loves everybody, don’t remind me” with a hefty dose of sarcasm. There are countless gems to uncover throughout, like the perfectly timed key change on This Is The Last Time, but in my opinion Fireproof and Slipped are comparatively weaker tracks – hence TWFM stays at #4.
Andrew: Anyone at all familiar with The National will know that they’re hardly a band for parties or sunny days at the best of times. This reputation is largely justified – thanks, in no small part – to Trouble…, easily the gloomiest record the band have put out. If you were to assign a mood to this record it would be anxiety, which seems to permeate every kick drum and guitar lick on the record.
This is personified on Don’t Swallow the Cap, arguably the best track the five-piece have ever recorded. The track isn’t heavy, but moves at breakneck pace, with a breathless guitar line propelling Berninger’s frantic, stream-of-consciousness delivery which details a 4am drunken panic attack. The track is backed up by some rapid drumming and a haunting string score, adding up to the kind of track only The National could make.
Personally, when I think of Trouble.., its stunning ballads are the first tracks that come to mind. The five-piece are rarely as stripped back as they are on tracks like Slipped, I Need My Girl and Pink Rabbits, with Berninger’s heart-breaking lyricism taking centre stage with lines as stunning as “I was falling apart / I was a television version of a person with a broken heart”.
Callum: In my opinion, this is where critics realised that The National were far more than an underappreciated, cult-followed, niche band. Some of their most heartfelt tracks feature on this record and have been echoed back all around the world since it dropped in 2013. Kicking things off with, yep you guessed it, a hearty ballad in the form of I Should Live in Salt; what follows is an accumulation of brilliance which makes it extremely difficult to choose just one highlight. Dabbling in the poetic, e.g. Pink Rabbits and I Need My Girl as well as the abstract lyricism of Graceless, this is without a doubt one of the greatest records since the turn of the millennium.
Josh: “Trouble Will Find Me” is a strange album, and, in a way, arguably the most “National” album of all in their discography. At first it is an uneven listing, with some of their best tracks ever recorded rubbing shoulders with some of their worst (looking at you, “Don’t Swallow The Cap” and “Fireproof”), and the whole record has a grey, almost lethargic sheen to it; like a fog smothering a skyscraper in the Financial District. But over time, it grows and opens up, allowing some of Berninger’s most striking lines to cut right to the bone: “You didn’t see me, I was falling apart, I was a white girl in a crowd of white girls in the park” from Pink Rabbits is a personal favourite, and it sums up why this album is so good; because you don’t see it at first.
3. Sleep Well Beast (2017)
Andrew: The newest entry in The National’s discography saw a pretty seismic shift in the band’s songwriting. Sleep Well Beast is far more electronic than its predecessors, and for the most part, it is a remarkably subtle record. The National’s 7th LP is characterised by tracks like Walk It Back and Empire Line, subtle tracks that establish a mood and atmosphere and stick with it for their entire run time rather than building to any sort of climax.
This could easily have backfired and come off as boring, but by this point in their career, The National are masters of atmosphere, and these tracks are all the more fascinating for their refusal to build to a crescendo. Walk It Back in particular features a brilliantly piercing guitar line courtesy of Bryce Dessner while a lengthy vocal sample plays in the background.
That is the record’s mood for the most part. However, there is one beautiful outlier in the form of Turtleneck: a track that just scrapes the three minute mark where the band really lets their hair down. Berninger’s ragged vocals fire shots at “another man in shitty suits” currently occupying the White House, but the track’s best moment comes when the Dessner twins trade guitar solos on the ferocious bridge.
Callum: 2017’s dark and enigmatic Sleep Well Beast ties together everything The National has ever released, but with a subtle yet gracious twist. Using samples, electronics and most importantly cutting lyrics to portray love, loss, and desperation; the Ohio outfit delve deep into one’s core and submerges itself in a portion of self-deprecation. In the quieter ballads, for example Carin at the Liquor Store and Guilty Party, we are offered a voyeuristic glimpse of where relationships have faulted – but, the hastier tracks like Turtleneck reminds listeners of their tongue in cheek abilities. Similar to Mr. November in terms of style; Turtleneck, however, refers to Trump as “just another man, in shitty suits, everybody’s cheering for.” Classic.
Josh: Only The National, the musical epitome of the underdog, could provide one of their greatest this late into their career. The band’s embracing of electronics into their otherwise consistent chamber rock proceedings gives each song an unusual yet captivating flavour, with eerie vocal samples and skittering drum machines bouncing between Berninger’s voice and secret weapon Bryan’s drums, often revealing themselves to be a welcome addition. Whilst it may stumble off a bit towards the end with one too many slow burners, “Sleep Well Beast” is proof enough that The National still have plenty of fight left in them.
Kieran: Their latest and most experimental album to date, Sleep Well Beast was a radical departure from pretty much everything else they’ve released. Plenty of electronic bleep-bloops, unconventional song structures and – wait – is that a guitar solo?! The sense of freedom is palpable, as the band eschewed the tedious and meticulous sort of recording process they endured for High Violet in favour of a much more freeform and avant-garde approach. The record evokes feelings of winter and hibernation – saying no to the party invitations, closing the windows and shutting out the world until everything makes a bit more sense.
For this reason, it’s melancholic even by Ntl standards, but this doesn’t mean there aren’t moments of tenderness. On album highlight I’ll Still Destroy You, Matt sings about his daughter – “Put your heels against the wall / I swear you got a little bit taller since I saw you” – a bittersweet remark about the downsides of being on the road, missing out on important stages of your kid growing up. It’s an intriguing new direction the Cincinnati sad dads are heading in, and it’ll be fascinating to see how it pans out.
2. Boxer (2007)
Callum: The only record by The National to warrant an official, full-length live recording (Boxer Live in Brussels), so that means something, right?! For me, though, as brilliant as Boxer is, it is an accumulation of banging tunes as opposed to an iconic album as a package. The two year period between Alligator and Boxer allowed The National to develop from a somewhat angst-saddled outfit into a maturer, emotion charging, dinner party band. Of course, you can’t drop Available or Mr November when you’re in red wine territory, but you definitely CAN pull out Guest Room.
Josh: And this is where it becomes controversial. “Boxer” is often considered to be the point where the band finally broke through and became the sad dads we all know and love today. Everything about the group that has remained steady well into the present was firmly established here: Berninger’s baritone croon, the lush orchestral arrangements, the driving guitars, the powerful drums. It all comes together in a glorious mix that nearly lasts the entire LP, with “Squalor Victoria” and “Slow Show” being definite highlights; unfortunately, like most National albums it stumbles towards the end with one too many slow songs after a balanced entrance that contrasts their enthralling energy with their gloomy tendencies. “Apartment Story”, “Racing Like a Pro” and “Ada” to their best to save a sludge of the second half, but not enough to make it the crème de la crème.
Kieran: This is it. Boxer. The album that arguably defines The National and captures their essence in a way no other album has managed so far. In terms of their progression musically, it’s difficult to exaggerate how important this record is. Its use of lush orchestral arrangements and synths lifts the melodies to new heights – and despite the grandeur on the fanfare at the end of Fake Empire, on other tracks the devil is in the detail. Green Gloves, for example: the keyboard part playing in the background of the final chorus brings the song to a subtle but incredible climax. The genius is that you don’t even notice until you listen to it a few times and really pay attention.
The album’s track order is perfect as well – slower tracks arrive at just the right time to let off some of the pressure built by upbeat, rapid-drumming songs like Apartment Story. The decision to end on three fairly low-key tracks – Racing Like a Pro, Ada and Gospel – could be considered a bold move, but in reality there’s no better way to wind down the album. The explosive nature of Mr November was the ideal way to end Alligator, just as Gospel is a fitting way to reflect on Boxer as a whole. It’s the very definition of a slow burner, but trust me folks – it’s well worth sticking by it.
Andrew: While Alligator was undoubtedly a huge step forward for the band, Boxer was the record when the world really took notice of The National, and for good reason. In 43 incredibly concise minutes, the five-piece announced themselves as the band everyone knew they were capable of becoming. The piano part that opens Fake Empire and the record is now nothing short of legendary, and the track’s politically-infused lyricism is as relevant now as it was in 2007.
Boxer just feels like the trademark National album. From the legitimately threatening Mistaken for Strangers to the brilliantly bullish Apartment Story (“we’ll be alright, we have our looks and perfume on”) this is a band on top of their game.
Perhaps the quintessential National track is Slow Show, a ballad beautifully incorporating acoustic guitar and piano, with Berninger describing his social anxiety at a party and his desire to rush home to his partner, with a vintage lyric “can I get a minute of not being nervous and not thinking of my dick?” If you ever find yourself doubting why The National are such indie royalty, just look at how moving their tracks can be while Berninger sings about his penis.
1. High Violet (2010)
Josh: Here we have the only National album that doesn’t stumble once throughout its 48 minute long run time – the closest the band have ever come and probably ever will to a perfect record. It’s almost ironic then that it starts tentatively, with an echoing muted guitar strum to test the water before jumping straight into one of their most moving songs, “Terrible Love”, that features a monster of a chorus that feels like it was designed for the larger crowds the group found themselves playing for after “Boxer”. Nearly every song builds to a climax or a certain moment that takes your breath away: the repeated mantra at the end of “Afraid of Everyone”, or the joyous crescendo of “England”, or the final, reverberating chorus of delicate closer “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks”. Everything just works, and works staggeringly well at that. What more could you ask for?
Kieran: When I first started dabbling in The National, in all honesty, I wasn’t sold – that is, until I heard the opening drumbeats of Bloodbuzz Ohio. High Violet is the album that got me utterly, utterly hooked on the band. It’s an explosive, cathartic wall of sound and it’s so compelling I still find myself struggling to turn it off without listening to the entire album front-to-back. Terrible Love is the perfect way to start an album (although plenty of debate has raged about whether the alternative version on the extended edition is better) and is a case in point that the band have mastered the art of the opening track.
It’s much more polished and painstakingly produced than Boxer or Alligator, to the point where Lemonworld was rewritten 80 times in order to achieve the perfect sound – although the final version ended up resembling the original demo. I absolutely loved High Violet (still do), and although it got me into The National – Alligator and Boxer made me stick around.
Andrew: High Violet is a flawless record. As much as I love them, if I was to nit-pick, I could criticise Sleep Well Beast and Boxer, but High Violet is a different beast. There’s not a weak track to be seen in the track listing. Hell, there’s not even a weak chorus, verse or bridge.
To discuss the actual songwriting of High Violet, it’s easily the most cinematic National record. It’s almost the antithesis of Sleep Well Beast in that it is thoroughly anthemic: High Violet is personified by colossal climaxes – such as “it takes an ocean not to break” on Terrible Love, “your voice is swallowing my soul” on Afraid of Everyone and the huge wordless crescendo of Bloodbuzz Ohio. Remarkably on a record with moments this huge – it’s not at all disjointed, the flow is incredibly natural and even the less ambitious songs on the tracklist, such as Little Faith and Lemonworld, serve as small but vital parts of the beautiful canvas.
Arguably the record’s most dynamic track is penultimate number England, which develops from a world-weary piano riff into a colossal emotional epiphany – worthy of closing just about any album. However, what comes after is one of the most beautiful tracks in the band’s discography – Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks, a stunning acoustic track which features Berninger singing in an uncharacteristically high octave, seemingly suggesting there’s nothing this band and album can’t do.
Callum: Another accumulation of The National’s musical prowess here. High Violet is home to the commercially wonderful Bloodbuzz Ohio, but it is elsewhere that we find the ripe, unpicked fruit. From front to back, this record oozes powerful emotion and tracks perfect for all aspects of life – predominantly the themes of abandonment (Anyone’s Ghost and Conversation 16) and pining for the second coming of what has gone before (England). Teetering on the magnificent, majestic and all round.