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Best Albums of the 2010s: Number 1 - "High Violet" by The National

Sometimes things are just right. Sometimes you just know. Sometimes you don't need to hear it again to confirm whether or not you just heard something that cannot be improved. In that spirit I give you the 2010 masterpiece by The National. 

This is a perfect album, that somehow manages to save it's finest moment, and indeed the finest moment of their career until the very last song. I wonder if this could happen in 2020, but ten years ago streaming hadn't achieved the dominance it had now, and fortunately The National are a band with a strong enough following and reputation to still demand respect for the album as a form.
From the opening of "Terrible Love", which starts like a machine warming up and builds to a cacophonous crescendo, it grabs your attention with music that is melodic, interesting, intriguing and noisy. This album may be a classic, but it doesn't sound classic. It by turns opaque, beautiful, uplifting and heart-breaking. Unusually for an album of so much quality it is easy for me to pick a highlight, but that is simply because one song towers above the rest. More on that later.
"Sorrow" cleans up the sound and continues the misery and melody mix, along with the always interesting rhythmic work of Bryan Devendorf. His drumming throughout this record, and indeed their work as a whole, merits special mention. Rarely playing the traditional rock beat, his heavy use of the floor tom, (for which I am a sucker), no doubt plays into my love of this album, and the band in general. It is always interesting and serves the song.
The depth of quality fails to relent with "Anybody's Ghost". Is it just me or do many of these songs linger in the mind better than anything else they've done? Even so-called lesser tracks such a "Lemonworld" and "Little Faith" and  stand tall with their melodies and rhythmic variety.
The double whammy of "Afraid of Everyone", (with it's guitar work that calls forward to "The System Only Dreams In Total Darkness" from "Sleep Well Beast"), and "Bloodbuzz Ohio" are career highlights for many other artists, but we're still getting warmed up at this point. 

The championship run starts with "Runaway", with the gentle acoustic guitars leading us toward a beautiful chorus. The strings and then horns slide in discreetly as the whole song keeps building without overwhelming, the melody rising like a boat on the tide until the pulse just fades out.

A steady start again, but much more urgency in "Converstion 16" which keeps pushing on toward the finale. Have the words "'Cause I'm evil" ever sounded more beautiful?
Our penultimate stop is "England". Oh no, what's this? Another slowly building, mid-tempo wistful beauty lightly leavened with strings and horns? Don't mind if I do. Then at the four minute mark it just builds and builds ratcheting everything up before dropping us carefully back down and into the of the greatest songs of the century, never mind the decade.

No band better captures the dichotomy of uplifting melancholia better than the National, and no track better exemplifies this than their masterpiece album and it's career high point closing track, "Vanderlyle Cry Baby Geeks". Without fail, every time this song gives me goosebumps when the chorus comes in.  A Gen X "Bridge Over Troubled Water"?  Quite possibly.
As the spiritual successors as a band to R.E.M, (they share a tendency for confusing and sometimes impenetrable lyrics), and as an album to "Automatic For The People", there is a danger of such critical lauding leading to over-hype.  In the case of last years "I Am Easy To Find" I think that proved to be the case, but not many bands have had a better four album run than "Boxer", "High Violet", "Trouble Will Find Me" and "Sleep Well Beast".

If they never climb these heights again, then their status as one of the premier purveyors of intelligent and inspiring music will remain secure. 

"Go ahead, go ahead throw your arms in the air tonight....."

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  1. Can't argue with your choice. Really good review to prove your case.

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