1. The National – High Violet (4AD)
The National’s High Violet is nothing short of a masterpiece. High praise, indeed, but now, months after its release, High Violet has proven itself to be the sort of album that sticks with you, that goes beyond the mere marriage of music and lyrics to something far more mythical. It gets under your skin, brooding and roiling in the dark, and shining a light on the basest and barest parts of the cobwebbed psyche.
On the album’s opener, Terrible Love, Matt Berninger sings, and very nearly screams, the final refrain, “It takes an ocean not to break,” as the band builds to pounding heights. This calls to mind imagery of waves swelling and sinking, making their way across a vast sea, on a journey to smash themselves against the rocks, spent and swirling in the undertow. And that’s what High Violet is, really: the testament of an uncertain voyage – with all its melancholy, longing, and unexpected violence – through the untamed oceans of the human experience toward final, blessed exhaustion.
Berninger’s rumbling baritone has never sounded more haggard, bemused, or offhandedly wry than it does here. He’s honed his lyrics down to the stark, brazen images of his own post-modern tall tale, held together with a loose, sinewy connective tissue of hard-to-encapsulate humanity: fear, longing, inadequacy, insomnia. And the music that surrounds him borders on the atmospheric, wafting and bellowing, building and sighing to peaks and troughs with deft and feverish precision. High Violet is that rare album on which everything – every note, every structure, every metaphor – just works.
What we said: “The National have pulled off a neat trick here – an immediate, commercial album that grows with each listen. While High Violet is patently as good as its antecedents, it is also very much its own beast.”