A The National Mixtape

  • Does anyone else remember the days before streaming services? Before playlists? If you wanted to get someone into a certain band, or play them a selection of the artists you’d be watching live at the weekend, you couldn’t just drag every song they’d ever written into a playlist and send it to them over email. Nope. You really had to think about it, to distill that feeling you wanted to give them down into a few tough choices.

Tapes had two sides, both 45 minutes long. You had that long to say what you needed to say and then it was time to move on. We’re bringing that challenge back in our mixtape. 45 minutes to convince someone why they should like a certain band, artist, genre, or era.

Today, I have 45 minutes to tell you why you should love The National. It’s not easy to condense your favourite band of all time into a length shorter than any of their 8 studio albums, so I apologise to all of the classic songs that didn’t quite make the cut. Full playlist on Spotify can be found at the bottom of the post. Here I go:

‘Fake Empire’ – 3.25

It would be rude not to start with the greatest opening song on any album ever. ‘Fake Empire’ is the introduction to my favourite album of all time, and it was my introduction to The National as well. And really, I can’t think of a better song to introduce them. It has everything that makes them special. The measured intro, the sweeping instrumentation, the steady but uplifting crescendo, and, of course, the exemplary lyrics.

‘Stay up super late tonight, picking apples, making pie, put a little something in that lemonade and take it with us.’

What an opening line.

‘Mr November’ – 4.00

I’ll get in early to dispel those doubters who think The National are simply a depressing band. They’re not. And listening to ‘Mr November’ should assure you of that. It is one of the most rousing, inspiring, and relatable songs I’ve ever heard. There are times in this one when the band go full throttle, and if you ever get the chance to see Matt scream this one on a live stage you will not regret it.

Interesting factoid – I chose the particular video above for a reason. Watch it. Those who know me might recognise my trademark dance move from a guy in the second row, stage left. Those who don’t know me, look for an idiot constantly sticking his hands in the air.

‘So Far Around The Bend’ – 3.42

This single from the Dark Was The Night compilation comes in at this point as I think it tops off a first three songs that show the three main sides of The National. From the super serious, to the angry release, and on to the fun and free sound of ‘So Far Around The Bend’. For a band who are so often dependent on control, it is great to see them let loose with a bit of a jam.

‘Available’ – 3.20

Some people can never let go of the past. And even now, so many years and albums down the line, you will hear some The National fans say that they wish Matt would go back to the old ways and start screaming again. When they say that, they’re referring to ‘Available.’ The most angsty and angry song The National have on offer and a great indication of how special their early music was, despite how many people write it off.

‘I Need My Girl’ – 4.05

From the angriest song on offer, we head to one of the saddest and most heartfelt. If I was simply listing my favourite The National songs here, I am not sure that ‘I Need My Girl’ would have quite made the cut. But in terms of introducing the scope of the band and trying to win over new fans, I don’t think there is a more immediate and relatable song I could have picked. Gorgeous.

‘I’ll Still Destroy You’ – 5.15

I will never quite get my head around how Sleep Well Beast became the least appreciated album from the band since their first two. It’s a stunner. And ‘I’ll Still Destroy You’ has everything that makes it so special. Lyrics are so central to The National, so it is no faint praise when I say that this song was when Matt Berninger hit his absolute lyrical peak. Musing on fatherhood and how even the best intentions can lead to ruin, Matt makes poetry out of ordinary human anxiety. And the addition of electronic elements to their normal sweeping builds makes this song a career standout.

‘Afraid of Everyone’ – 4.19

The National have always been about a certain kind of angst and anxiety, that kind that troubles most of us, those of us who know we are relatively privileged but still can’t shake the things that make us shit ourselves. On ‘Afraid Of Everyone’ they took this to another level. Everything about this song screams irrational and ineradicable fear, but nothing more than one of my all-time favourite one liners from Matt: ‘I’ll defend my family, with my orange umbrella.’

‘Rylan’ – 3.43

‘Rylan’ takes its place on this mixtape for a couple of reasons. One, it is the best representation here of how good The National are at making a simple and effective pop song. But ‘Rylan’ also has a really special place in the hearts of fans of The National, popping up in live shows for years, changing all the time, and only appearing on a studio album once it was ready in its perfect form.

‘Baby We’ll Be Fine’ – 3.21

By this point, I had started to think of this mixtape as an ideal 45 minute set at a festival. ‘Baby We’ll Be Fine’ would be the old classic they return to before heading off for a few minutes and tricking us into thinking there would be no encore. It’s a perfect song. One of the best opening verses in music history, and the best evidence I can offer of just how clever a songwriter Matt is. It might take years for the real, true meanings of this song to become evident to the listener and I won’t ruin them for you. But it hits me like a train.

‘Nobody Else Will Be There’ – 4.40

‘Nobody Else Will Be There’ would be the moment when, hit hard by ‘Baby We’ll Be Fine’, the grateful crowd crack out their lighters and finally let the tears fall.

Can you tell I’m missing gigs? This is actually the longest I have gone without seeing The National since 2009. Help me.

This song, though. It is, quite simply, beautiful. The evolution at two minutes and fifty seconds is just one of the most mesmerising moments in the band’s back catalogue. I fucking love this song.

Slow Show’ – 4.08

There’s no way I could have made it through these 45 minutes without ‘Slow Show.’ It’s my favourite ever song. I have been listening to it for around fifteen years now and it still raises the goosebumps on my arm every time I hear it – still brings an ugly lump to my throat.

‘You know I dreamed about you for 29 years before I saw you, you know I dreamed about you, I missed you, for 29 years.’

If there’s a more beautiful way of telling someone you love them I’m yet to hear it.

‘About Today’ – 4:10

Everything The National does should end with ‘About Today.’ Every set. Every album. Every practice session. Every time they walk to the shop together to get some milk. Every time they call their mums. It’s the perfect ending to everything. Ideally, it would be the live version in the video above – but that would have unfortunately taken me above my 45 minute limit so I’m including the version from The Cherry Tree EP. It is just so achingly beautiful and poignant, and does everything that the best music does. Should be considered an all-time classic song.

So there you go – 45 minutes of The National. I’d love to hear what you think, whether you’re a fan already or not.

I could definitely do this again and use 45 minutes of different songs and still be just as happy with it, but I was particularly sad to not make space for ‘Wasp’s Nest’, ‘Apartment Story’, and ‘Guilty Party.’ But what would have been your must haves? What did I miss?

Words by Fran Slater

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