The National deserve a place in this list purely for the final song of their encore at Brixton Academy last Monday. In a move that could so easily have backfired, the band played ‘Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks’, the last song on their ‘High Violet’ album, acoustic and without amplification.
Positioning themselves to make full use of the acoustics in the 5000 capacity venue, the audience remained deadly silent throughout, save for whispered singing and one dickhead behind me (but that’s a story for another time). On record the song is a beautiful quietly rolling lament gradually wrapped up in building layers of strings. In the live setting, stripped back yet further it became one of the live highlights of my year.
But that can’t really be the only reason The National have made it into our top ten artists of the year can it? No, there’s much more. For starters, there were plenty of other moments in that gig that add to their case – the huge video backdrop mixing pre-recorded images with footage shot live on stage, the unlikely singalong of “I was afraid I’d eat your brains” in ‘Conversation 16’, the great between-song banter and the arranging of Sufjan Stevens and Nico Muhly to appear on stage to recreate some of their contributions to ‘High Violet’. Plus, of course, there’s ‘High Violet’ itself, the band’s brilliant fifth album.
In the eleven years since they formed, The National’s rise has been nothing if not gradual – in fact, they’re a perfect case study to contradict anyone who claims that bands no longer enjoy space in which to develop. Critical acclaim for the band has grown considerably with each album release. Although this has never previously equated to chart success, it has led to 2007 album ‘Boxer’ (which peaked at 57 in the UK) selling over 300,000 copies worldwide.
The slow build of that album no doubt in part led to the sudden explosion of ‘High Violet’, which debuted at number five in the UK album chart, following a sold out show at the Royal Albert Hall. Though the choice of first single, ‘Bloodbuzz, Ohio’, should not be overlooked. Released as a free download in March, and one of the album’s standout tracks, it perfectly exemplified the understated rock sound of the album, building a buzz for the record, aided later by support from BBC 6music. It certainly spent several weeks on heavy rotation on the CMU stereo, too.
When the complete album finally arrived, it more than delivered on the promise of that one song. Opening with the broken guitar sound of ‘Terrible Love’, a track which builds to a peak you might think was too early, but the album continues to deliver consistently great tracks throughout, crafted slowly in the band’s own studio and with the help of more than 25 guest musicians, including Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, Efterklang’s Mads Brauer and the aforementioned Stevens and Muhly.
Now drawing to the end of their most successful year to date, the band rounded things off with the news that the ‘Dark Was The Night’ compilation album, which was produced by the band’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner in conjunction with AIDS charity The Red Hot Organisation and featuring 32 exclusive tracks by artists, including Arcade Fire, Cat Power, The Decemberists, Feist, and Grizzly Bear, had raised over $1 million to be distributed amongst various charities.