The National are perhaps the most seasoned members of the modern indie rock community. Since their formation in 1999, the Cincinnati five-piece have made amassed wide acclaim and recognition for their delicately-crafted, understated records that often require multiple listens to settle, but almost always include some deep emotional resonance ranging from the painfully melancholic, darkly humorous, and piercingly romantic . Between Matt Berninger’s iconic baritone voice, and eloquent, poetic lyrics, and the impeccable, ever-inventive instrumental work of siblings Aaron and Bryce Dessner, and Bryan and Scott Devendorf, The National have established a sound and style all their own. Each of the band’s seven studio albums to date have something to offer, and, at their best, showcase some of the best music in the genre.
7. The National (2001)
The National’s first-ever record is also their worst, and not just because of the cover, a sore thumb in their discography. Matt Berninger’s vocals are tantalizing as they’ve ever been, but the instrumentations are uninspired and bland, and the group don’t seem to have their sound nailed down yet. The record bounces back and forth between vanilla indie rock, and twangy country. There’s a couple nice melodies here and there, but this one is a largely forgettable outlier.
Highlights: “American Mary,” “Bitters & Absolut,” “Anna Freud.”
6. Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers (2003)
Within the first couple minutes of Sad songs for Dirty Lovers, The National’s follow-up to their self-titled debut, it’s already apparent that the band has matured and improved, musically and thematically. The music is more varied and lush, with the addition of strings and the production is glossier. This record lays the foundation the band would build their masterpieces on.
Highlights: “Cardinal Song,” “Murder Me Rachael,” “Available,” “Lucky You.”
5. Sleep Well Beast (2017)
The National’s latest record Sleep Well Beast is probably the most grim of their most recent string of releases (which is saying something). The music tilts more towards the electronic and technical side, and takes admirably strides into areas the band has never been before(“Nobody Else Will Be There” and “Walk it Back” sound like nothing else the band has written). Sleep Well Beast is engaging and atmospheric, but doesn’t have quite the same grandeur or potent, effective songwriting as their earlier releases.
Highlights: “Nobody Else Will Be There,” “Day I Die,” “Walk It Back,” “Guilty Party,” “Carin at the Liquor Store.”
4. Alligator (2005)
Alligator is, by miles, the warmest album in The National’s discography. The music is clean and sunny, and lovely, catchy melodies abound. Apart from the bright and pretty side, the album also features some of the Berninger’s funniest songwriting (“All the Wine”), and impassioned vocal performances (“Abel,” “Mr. November). Whether for a crisp, Autumn day, or a fine, Summer morning, this record is wonderfully appropriate.
Highlights: “Secret Meeting,” “Karen,” “All the Wine,” “Abel,” “Mr. November.”
3. Trouble Will Find Me (2013)
Trouble Will Find Me is probably the band’s most pristine and glossy record. It’s also the album that takes the most listens to really absorb, but is also the most gratifying because of that. Though many of the songs are most enjoyable when listened to in sequence, some of the most beautiful, unique (“Demons”), and romantic (“I Need My Girl”) compositions in the band’s discography are featured here. Trouble Will Find Me also takes the award for the band’s best cover.
Highlights: “Demons,” “Don’t Swallow the Cap,” “Sea of Love,” “Graceless,” “I Need My Girl,” “Pink Rabbits.”
2. Boxer (2007)
Boxer has the distinction of being The National’s most complex and abstract album, but it’s without a doubt an understated masterpiece. Few records capture than feeling of frustrated isolation quite as well as this one. Berninger’s lyrics are more beautifully poetic than ever before (“Slow Show” and “Fake Empire” are standout tracks), while his voice rests at a near-mumble, and the music itself reaches an inventive peak for the band (especially Bryan Devendorf’s drumming). The band are in full control here, and it shows through the sheer emotional rumble that runs through the album. In terms of slow-burn rock albums, it doesn’t get much better than this.
Highlights: “Fake Empire,” “Brainy,” “Squalor Victoria,” “Slow Show,” “Start a War.”
1. High Violet (2010)
In a natural follow-up to Boxer‘s understated, quiet sound, High Violet is a cathartic release and the crowning achievement of The National’s run. Whereas Boxer and Trouble Will Find Me take a few listens to really settle in, High Violet instantly captivates with its elaborate, monumental instrumentations. While Boxer embodies melancholy, High Violet oozes concentrated sadness. But the gloom is enveloped in the most stunning arrangements the band has even recorded (“England”), at times irresistibly catchy (“Bloodbuzz Ohio”), and others crushingly somber (“Runaway”). High Violet is easily The National’s masterwork, representative of a group built from the ground up into something enduring and wonderful.
Highlights: “Sorrow,” “Afraid of Everyone,” “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” “Lemonworld,” “Runaway,” “England.”