Introduction: The National Bracket
Part 1: Plan, Selection Process, Rules, Seeding
Part 2: Round of 64 (Tourney Days 1, 2)
Part 3: Top 32 & Sweet 16 (Tourney Day 3)
Part 4: Elite 8 & Final Four (Tourney Day 3)
Part 5: The Championship (Tourney Day 4)
Introduction: The National Bracket
The safe thing about top five lists is that you are not forced to isolate the best-there is safety in numbers. You may subconsciously have a hidden favorite in there, but you needn’t push yourself to that point by anointing one winner. In essence, choices are hard.
The National is a band that makes wonderful music: their catalog is so stacked that even a top five list would be difficult. To some, they represent the quintessential 18-35 male band-but they are so much more than even that coveted advertising label. They humbly eschew easy pop because that just is not them. Yet, each successive album has secured a bigger fan base of solid devotees. The majority of these albums are the definition of “growers”-the more you listen, the more you like them.
So what’s the best National song?
My friend Dan and I tried to answer that question (Note: Right away I would like to say that perhaps the most important takeaway from this entire experience is we’ve found a format to answer this. Each person has a different set of ears, keep that in mind). We tried to put to rout all that was not the best from a band that easily is among the best out there today.
A roughly 25 hour process that involved selecting the top 64 songs from the National’s recorded music, seeding those songs into 8 regions, and playing these matches in a tournament-style bracket. The rule of advancing was simple: after both songs were played, there followed a discussion and debate. The two of us eventually offered percentages favoring one song (with occasional help from a less-interested friend in the backseat of a long road trip). If a person was particularly passionate about a matchup and overtime was necessary, we played live versions and possibly had a read-off of the lyrics.
We were determined to answer our question.
This is The National Bracket.
Part 1: Plan, Selection Process, Rules, Seeding
This was not the first bracket Dan & I had thought of-but this was going to be the most complex. When we started to put the idea together in earnest, we were eating pizza at a happy hour in the Washington DC area. Within minutes, napkins had been converted to lists of the different albums and songs which were sure to make it.
While we had plans to go out that night, we ended up spending the next 4 hours at my apartment going through the different albums judging songs on their qualifications for the big dance. We went through each of the different albums, singles, eps-anything ever released by the National that was not a live version. We identified more than 100 songs and figured we needed to isolate 64 of those to confirm to the standard NCAA tournament (no play-in matches). Dan’s idea then became to break the bracket down into 8 regions of 1-8 seeds instead of 4 regions seeded 1-16. His argument was that there was pretty amazing strength in the field: there was no Liberty University in the field.
When populating the field, we had to be discerning (read: negative) towards anything that was on the fence. There were 40-45 songs we knew were going to make it, which meant about 20 spots for 60 songs. Unfortunately, as the National have matured it seems their music has improved. This meant that the albums which fared poorest were the oldest: The National (2001), Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers (2003) and the EP, Cherry Tree (2004).
We eventually arrived at our 64 making some hard cuts. Sad Songs was particularly hit: Murder Me Rachael, 90-mile Water Wall, Available (It’s hard not to think of many of these songs having their Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront moments yelling “I could’ve been a contender!”).
Meanwhile, The Virginia EP (2008) faired surprisingly strong for an EP with only seven real songs to offer. The heavyweights-Alligator (2005) and Boxer (2007)-both sent the full rosters and were ready for battle. High Violet (2010), the band’s first widely anticipated release, sent 10 of 11 tracks (Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks, despite its utility as a terrific way to end live shows, did not make it) and two b-sides. The most recent release, Trouble Will Find Me (2013), came in with a staunch 11.
Needless to say, getting to this point was not easy. Again, evening plans were ruined but we had our field.
The next night, before successfully going out, we came to the part where it got really tough: the seeding. Here we combined a bit of selection bias mixed with randomization.
For example, Dan & I both selected our list of top 8 songs that could be possible #1s. As we overlapped on four of the choices, those became the 4 highest #1 seeds (see green above).
We then used our remaining 4 picks each to populate the top 16. We each chose an additional two (see blue). Following this, we both chose the next 16 strongest songs (see yellow), and were left with the bottom 32. Dan then randomly assigned numbers to the relevant songs and by lottery ball process-or more specifically me drinking a beer and calling out numbers-they were assigned a seed based on their group.
For example, Cardinal Song was going to end up as a 3 or 4 since it was chosen by one of us in the second tier (not top 16, not bottom 32). When I said the number 7, the number Dan had randomly assigned to it between 1-16, we put in the appropriate slot. It ended up as a 4 in one region playing the number five seed Heavenfaced, which drew quite well as one of the bottom 32.
Eventually, we completed the bracket. The matchups-arguably the most exciting prospect of the tournament-were completely random. Enticed by a lot of first rounders and regions, the countdown was on. You see, it just so happened that Dan, myself, and our completely disinterested friend Nell were driving to Florida and back for New Years: the perfect opportunity to play it out.
A few final notes:
Rules: Higher seed goes second, that’s a rule and a second play advantage. Also, the tie-breaking is explained more in-depth when it first appears, but know that it involves live versions and if necessary consulting the lyrics.
Finally, a note on the regions. We decided to have a European bracket and a USA bracket for places where Dan & I had lived, traveled to, or had connections to the National. One bro-moment is that we caught a Lumineers’ concert in Minnesota and listened to Trouble Will Find Me on the road trip back there. The fact that that bracket had two Trouble songs, or the fact that England got a two seed in the London bracket, well that’s just how things work. It was time to play it out.
Part 2: Round 1
The seeding was set-time to start the road trip and get the matchups blaring. In the order they played out (once more, lower seed first), it began!
Opole: 8 Brainy versus 1 Fake Empire
Brainy is a good song that a lot of fans love. There is no denying that it’s a really good song. In fact, it got a very bad draw as an 8. Yet, that’s the luck of the draw. What is worse for the song, and what matters in this type of tournament, is that Brainy completely lacks a personal connection for the judging panel. I mean, I feel I’ve heard Brainy 20 times, yet every time I hear it about 2 minutes in I look to see what song it is. Meanwhile, the preeminent favorite Fake Empire starts up. The horns hit at 2:35 and we can call that Fake Empire’s finishing move, Mortal Combat style. Fake Empire advances.
Baltimore/DC: 8 American Mary versus 1 Slow Show.
American Mary is the name of the National’s website. That’s a plus, and the song is no slouch. That said, this is no real contest. Line upon line of golden genius comes out in Slow Show. It’s hard to see this song losing, and it may get the winning blue ribbon placed on its head.
London: 8 Tall Saint versus 1 Mr. November
Some really good lines in Tall Saint make us wonder where this song came from and why they haven’t played it more at shows e.g. “Heard a woman say stay down, champion, stay down!” It represents The Virginia EP so well-underrated and a bit unknown. Yes, this song is no devil and the fact is, it just got a really bad draw. Mr. November starts up and it seems like an elevated version of Tall Saint. It’s an angry #1 seed for a reason. Unlike a lot of the National’s songs, this is a clear pump-me-up that keeps rising with lyrics unabashed to confront and inspire your hidden ambitions. The English are waiting in the second round for Mr. November.
Minnesota: 8 Humiliation versus 1 All The Wine
Humiliation is a sneaky eight seed, yet it is not as strong as some of the other Trouble tracks that have made the big dance. This is another example of a song that has no real attachment, and therefore is a bit weak in the legs for advancing. The fact that we were thinking this as it plays was not a good sign, but what really killed it were the first few chords of All the Wine. The one seed just humiliated Humiliation and reaffirmed itself as the song you listen to when you are on top of the world. With a wingspan unbelievable, All the Wine for the win.
Martvili: 8 Racing like a Pro versus 1 About Today
Slight disagreement as I come in thinking that Racing like a Pro is a vastly underrated eight that can do some damage. It’s got a great refrain and some pretty substantive lyrics. Yet, About Today is one that hits home for Dan and this one advances as a better song-at least today.
Wisconsin: 8 Friend of Mine versus 1 Apartment Story
This is a bit of a reverse of the last matchup. I’ve got a strong connection to the delightfully escape-away-together-at-home lyrics of Apartment Story. This amazing song goes further as it also just walks the tightrope of trouble below it, always on the edge. Yet, Friend of Mine has a weird na-na-na and gets as close as I can remember to the National doing a 60s attempt at pop. Interesting jam, but Apartment Story advances.
Krakow: 8 Little Faith versus 1 Conversation 16
Nice little string break in Little Faith gives one faith in this High Violet number. Good song, however it’s going against a stronger Violet contemporary. Conversation 16 is amazing lyrically-after all everything means everything in this song. Dan mentions that one of the best National experiences he has ever had in concert was when they were playing Conversation 16 and it seals the deal: this confident liar advances.
Minnesota: 8 Anyone’s Ghost versus 1 Mistaken for Strangers
This to me was always the weakest number one and I was curious how it would fair in the first round. Obviously some may think that Anyone’s Ghost could do it, but the bridge in the song doesn’t do as much for the judging panel and in reality, it probably fits as an 8. Meanwhile, Mistaken shows up strong, showered and blue-blazered. Strangers in the second round.
Opole: 7 Cold Girl Fever versus 2 Green Gloves
Cold Girl Fever seems to have this cool 70s feel at times with interesting lyrics and is a definite older National sound. That being said, Green Gloves hits you with its opening. The strings mix with a soothing voice that could be used for a Tylenol ad, or as a substitute for Tylenol even. I am certain I do not know what the two seed is about at all. It is one of those songs that I am really okay if I never know, or can even guess at the meaning. I don’t want to spoil it. Put on your Green Gloves for the next round.
Baltimore/DC: 7 Gospel versus 2 Lucky You
Perhaps the best early matchup is this strong appearance by Gospel which tells a sweet, warm holiday story. The song is so warm it makes me want to go back to Christmas morning and enjoy time with my family, while listening to it. Meanwhile, Lucky You is a bizzaro Gospel in terms of meaning with similar sound. The fact is though that it is just a bit more mature lyrically. Whereas Gospel is all warm, Lucky You incorporates this dash of regret that makes the National the band they are. Unfortunately for the optimists, after a lengthy discussion Lucky You advances.
London: 7 Fashion Coat versus 2 England
Another amazing 7-2 matchup as Fashion Coat absolutely killed it. Listening to this old gem makes us want to walk through London wearing Joseph the Technicolor’s dream coat. Personally, I gig out at “read the foreign news to understand my nation” line. Such a strong fast paced seven that ends well…And then England-and this is coming from a fan-starts worryingly slow for a 2. It started so slow I was thinking that being in a car and moving was a huge disadvantage for songs like England. But, as the song slowly builds upon its wide foundation, it is able to put an ocean and a river between itself and its competition. With the energizing conclusion, England advances into the second round of the London bracket.
Buffalo: 7 You’ve Done it Again Virginia versus 2 Pink Rabbits
So, by this point we became well aware how evenly matched the 7 – 2 pairings actually were. The horns and piano combination of You’ve Done It Again Virginia is wonderful. The song got amazing karma by the fact that as we were listening to it, without saying anything for a moment, Dan and I both noticed a gigantic “Virginia Beach” sign on the side of the road. Needless to say, in this state you can reinvent yourself as a winner and even the song made us all think that we were just ice in a glass. Yet, then comes the slow moving Pink Rabbits. This two seed’s great advantage was going second and slowing down the competition to the extent that you almost forgot what you heard before it. Pink Rabbits adds in great lyrics and though they may not love a storm, these rabbits do love lightning and struck Virginia by advancing to the next round.
Martvili: 7 Wake Up Your Saints versus 2 Daughters of the SoHo Riots
Our first overtime was bound to happen at one point. To refresh, the overtime was something that was a little undefined but was going to involve at least 1) listening to live versions of the songs and if necessary 2) a dramatic reading of the lyrics with no music in the background.
The interesting part was that we didn’t expect it here: again 7 versus 2s were not supposed to be going full-tilt. Yet, the musical arrangement by Wake Up Your Saints really got us going with its embedded energy in a comparable way to Fashion Coat. Meanwhile, Daughters comes out sort of flat, but has such amazing lyrics.
The live versions proved indecisive largely because Daughters was able to hold on with the 2nd play advantage-we needed to have a lyric off.
Simply put, Daughters of the SoHo Riots rocks lyrically. Going second (again, big advantage) these hit the chords of a melodramatic spot that just wants to be avoided, but can’t be denied victory. I don’t have any questions, I don’t think it’s gonna rain, you were right about the end, but it didn’t make a difference. In a nail biter, Daughters advance.
Wisconsin: 7 Ada versus 2 Bloodbuzz Ohio
We were a bit emotionally drained by the last matchup. Yet, we were pretty satisfied by the strong runs of sevens and didn’t think there was going to be much more energy. And then, like a Phoenix rising from the ashes of 7s that had all come so close, gorgeous Ada starts playing. Personally, this song has been a grower itself as I feel like I first only listened to it about 7-8 months ago (not true, but it hit me around that time). Since then, it’s been coming on a lot since then and staying in my head. In a sense, this song is the National to a lot of people as it started as a bit of a glimmer with known potential that became such a solid beauty.
But Bloodbuzz? Bloodbuzz is the song trying to capture an amazing feeling: who needs an alcohol-fueled buzz when you’ve got family or friends. It is arguably the most recognized National song, and arguably the best thing about Ohio.
What’s funny is that these songs have notable parallels: lyrically there is the repetition of reason to reason in Ada and money to the money in Bloodbuzz. Also, both are great driving songs that build as they go on. However, Bloodbuzz is a distinct song on High Violet, yet Ada is…well it is such a complete Boxer song.
For the shocker, we didn’t even need an overtime. After Bloodbuzz ended, we looked at each other for a few moments with grins on our faces and decided that it was over. DOWN GOES BLOODBUZZ. ADA HAS ADVANCED OVER A 2. LONG LIVE THE CINDERELLA STORY.
Krakow: 7 Looking for Astronauts versus 2 Terrible Love
Looking for Astronauts is no Ada. It is a seven seed, and deserves to be a seven seed. Meanwhile, Terrible Love…well yeah, Terrible Love just crushed this.
Minnesota: 7 Cherry Tree versus 2 Graceless
Cherry has a nice pickup in it, but a little bit like Looking for Astronauts, it never stood a chance. Graceless may be best the song off of Trouble and has such an awesome intro that it’s got a good RPI factor (RPI being measured on how quickly Dan & I were able to dismiss another song after listening to the second song play. For example, “Wow, Slow Show’s RPI is great since it eliminated x only 8 seconds in). Graceless gets one moving, pumped, and we all want to know what the hell kind of science there is walking through windows. Either way, there is a science for that song advancing to the next round.
Opole: 6 Exile Vilify versus 3 I Need My Girl
Our first 6 – 3 was an interesting matchup in this Polish region. Here, Exile Vilify (a hidden track from High Violet) snuck in as a nice slow song with a bit of ambiguous meaning to us the listeners. It was hard to judge, but certainly had a nice melancholy sound and beauty. Meanwhile, one of the attention-grabbers from Trouble is Need My Girl. This is such a raw, emotional song-yet it remains a simple song lyrically. It does something without really trying. And on top of that, the brothers in this song excel playing guitar with such complexity and their harmonizing off of one another. Exile is a good song, but we both agreed that we Need My Girl in the next round.
Baltimore/DC: 6 Demons versus 3 City Middle
So Dan is a fan of Demons. He gets into it and appreciates the flavor of the lyrics. It definitely has something, and I even like the “When I walk into a room, I do not light it up, Fuck” line. But, the thing is-and here again is where the personal attachments are key, City Middle came on and spawned so many positive memories. This was the beginning of a randomization period as well (that is, I would just throw on a random matchup and not tell Dan what was playing next) and without knowing the favorites were up next, each song coming on sounded extra fresh. City Middle came on and it had a huge feeling behind it, like both it and the band wanted to prove something. City Middle advanced.
London: 6 The Geese of Beverly Road versus 3 Perfect Song
Interesting matchup for sure. Geese has an amazing ending lyrically as Matt Beringer is just appealing to be served the sky with a big slice of lemon. And of course, it’s a musically solid number-so solid that Dan nailed it when he compared this to a Fake Empire 2.0 (Note: Geese, off of Alligator and less polished, doesn’t comprise the exact harmony and completeness of the later Boxer’s Empire. But for the sake of a cool comparison, it’s called Fake Empire 2.0). Meanwhile, Perfect Song is uncut original good old National. Raw beginning, hit on the importance of music and the past…and yet, Geese advances. Upset city with a big slice of lemon.
Buffalo: 6 Guest Room versus 3 Start a War
Guest Room is one of those Boxer tracks that may get overlooked until you realize how amazing it is. A beautiful melodic song, it is themed well and fits right into the place you want it to in your ears. Unfortunately, it got a bad draw by going against the track that literally sits one spot before it on Boxer: Start A War. This isn’t even a prize fight because Start A War does what a song is supposed to do-it’s the National finding their stride. It owns an idea of pushing something away while advancing a warning. It has got a melody that, if you mess with it, could start a war. It’s a staircase song-it rises and gets you somewhere. It’s a warning that you don’t mess with a three seed or you are going to Start A War. It advances.
Martvili: 6 This is the Last Time versus 3 Secret Meeting
A talented six versus an amazing guitar riffing three. This was destined for extra time. Lyrically, This is the Last Time has a lot going on. It also has a lot of rhythm and hidden arrangements jump up and out of nowhere with unexpected instruments. Meanwhile, Secret Meeting’s first 90 seconds are simplistically good. What songs should be if they don’t seek layers but just want to go after it. So we went to the live versions for both (a radio studio version of This is the Last Time & a live concert for Secret Meeting) and though Secret Meeting is the classic opener from Alligator, the disjointed lyrics add to the depth of This is the Last Time. Another 6 advances.
Wisconsin: 6 Blank Slate versus 3 I Should Live In Salt
Blank Slate has a good beat and grabs your attention. It is a definite “move the toes and knees”-type tune. Maybe not as good as some other songs that were already eliminated, but it’s opening performance puts it in contention. Dan at this point was really interested with what was coming up next because of this solid performance and our mutual feeling that the Virginia EP kept getting so close, but no cigar…then Trouble’s opening track starts with an amazing RPI (again, how quickly a song eliminates another). I Should Live in Salt simply is a hard 3: a great song that perfectly fits its seed. No other way around it-it advances.
Krakow: 6 Without Permission versus 3 Baby We’ll Be Fine
Another 6 from The Virginia EP starts off with promise, yet like the 5 before it is destined to fail despite its sweet story. The reason is that Baby We’ll Be Fine is perhaps one of the top 7-8 National songs lyrically. I’m so sorry for everything, including to the Virgina EP, but Baby We’ll Be Fine in the next round.
Minnesota: 6 Trophy Wife versus 3 Sea of Love
Trophy Wife is a catchy beat from earlier times. It’s got a certainly intriguing meaning, and it seems to do well capturing Sad Songs 4 Dirty Lovers. Unfortunately, it was going against a strong entry from Trouble, Sea of Love. This too is a catchy beat that builds gracefully and ends with aggressive energy. Sea of Love advances.
Opole: 5 Wasp Nest versus 4 Squalor Victoria
This was getting to the end of the first eight hours in the car and, frankly, neither of the two songs really jumped out for the win. That said, Wasp Nest is a beautiful song, but Squalor Victoria had home field second play and was more up-tempo. I know some National fans shocked to hear it, but down goes Wasp Nest in the first round.
Baltimore/DC: 5 Afraid of Everyone versus 4 Slipped
Interesting 4 versus 5 as it pitted two middle of the road songs from the National’s last two albums. The thing about Afraid of Everyone is that it has a great ending. In fact, it finishes so well that it stands far above the 3-4-5 lineup from High Violet of Anyone’s Ghost, Little Faith and itself. Meanwhile, Slipped is a dreary good song from Trouble that slipped in between Graceless and I Need My Girl. Slipped slips, Afraid of Everyone advances despite its paranoia in the last win of the first day of the tournament.
London: 5 Val Jester versus 4 Abel
Day 2 started off with us driving in a light rain, and the right song seemed to be Val Jester. It’s slow mover slotted in at #8 on Alligator. It is definitely on the somber side, and probably a soft five seed. Dan was again in the randomization phase: that is he didn’t know which matchups were up so he didn’t know what this five seed was up against. Then, right as the drizzle was already starting to lighten up and our coffee started to kick in, and we started moving faster, we hit the four seed. A little track also from Alligator that gets the people moving and won the match about seven seconds in with a great RPI, Abel shoots energy into your ears with such reckless abandon that I am going to compare it to someone’s first time on heroin. As we are driving we hear the line about water on the bridge. For all intensive purposes Dan & I hold our hands through this: he hits the accelerator knowing that Abel is going places. Day 2 was on.
Buffalo: 5 Santa Clara versus 4 Lemonworld
The energy from the last match continued into a really exciting 4-5 with the last remaining solid Virginia EP track, Santa Clara. This song has an amazing first 35 seconds, lyrically and instrumentally. It dies a little bit in its repetition, but it remains solid and then at the end, just when you think you’ve got a feeling for it, it picks up in some kind of weird National 7th inning stretch. Meanwhile, personally I had to throw my hat in for Lemonworld which has so many great lines: this High Violet song makes me want to meet a girl willing to throw flowers in my mouth while I’m on a table because for some unexplainable reason that may be the greatest image I’ve ever pictured. Furthermore, I can’t date a girl without thinking about wondering about the importance of the relationship she has with her sister now. That’s Lemonworld. Yet, Santa Clara was good enough to force an OT. Here, we ran into the problem that it was hard to find a live version. But, we did here and due to Lemonworld’s adaptability and different sound on its live version, it advanced. Great matchup.
Wisconsin: 5 Heavenfaced versus 4 Cardinal Song
Heavenfaced is an okay five seed from a really pretty amazing album, Trouble Will Find Me. Something lacks in the song though, and I’m not sure what. It’s sweet and all, but something is lacking. Meanwhile, Cardinal Song is an early complex National song. Off of Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers, it starts off uber-slow and with a list of direct instructions about love that seem like a depressing mix of Tyler Durden from Fight Club and Al Pacino from Scent of a Woman. The true strength of the song is the instrumental bridge which leads to basically a separate song hidden at the end. The simple fact is that what makes this second song so great is that it’s about 4 minutes and 30 seconds into Cardinal Song, and that’s why it advances in a rather weak matchup.
Martvili: 5 Sorrow versus 4 Lit Up
Okay, so great lyrics on Sorrow if you want to face heartache. Also, this song has an amazing connection because of the 6 hour version the band decided to perform at the New York Museum of Modern Art-major cool points. Unfortunately, Lit Up has that Abel-feel with really incredible pump-up levels. It is probably an underrated 4 and its RPI topped out as Sorrow was eliminated about 26 seconds into Lit Up.
Krakow: 5 All Dolled-up In Straps versus 4 Don’t Swallow the Cap
Something about Matt Berninger’s voice in the verses in All Dolled-up from Cherry Tree is so dark and deep that it shouldn’t be allowed near children or schools. And yet, when the light refrain mixes in you love this sneaky good five seed. The song also has an amazing ability to display a description in your mind; it really is a powerful song on a few levels. Yet, Don’t Swallow the Cap has such a great rhythm, and Dan & I both see a beautiful bright white heaven hanging over us as this song gets going. Here, the four seed had the advantage of home field play and ended up taking it down.
Minnesota: 5 Runaway versus 4 Karen
I knew the final matchup of round one was going to be a complex one. Runaway has never done much for me personally, but I wanted to hear Dan out and he described it this way: the slow horns in the back do not overshadow the song but move it. Moreover, there is sense that there is a heartbeat going along with the song as it works to its close-powerful stuff. Meanwhile, as I defended Karen I found that I was defending a few great lines and the musical arrangement. This debate went on for several minutes, reading of lyrics, live versions (Runaway and Karen), and the solicitation of Nell in the back who voted slightly for Runaway. Eventually, Runaway advanced for two reasons: it was easily more appreciated by National fans and there was indeed something unique about the song itself.
Part 3: Round of 32 and Sweet 16
ROUND OF 32
Opole: 3 I Need My Girl versus 1 Fake Empire
This was a very strange situation. Dan and I both really like I Need My Girl. As we sat, listening to the song, we enjoyed it. We knew that Fake Empire was right around the corner. When Fake Empire came on, I realized the brilliance of the song in a new way: it can own the weather. We were driving in the sun the day before when we heard it, and now we were driving as it was cloudy and overcast from the earlier rain. When the piano started, the surroundings somehow became part of the song. You can’t match the perfection of the percussion as it picks up. Fake Empire advances.
Baltimore/DC: 5 Afraid of Everyone versus 2 Lucky You
A more even matchup was next as Afraid of Everyone remained the escalating song that could swallow another song’s soul soul soul. Yet, Lucky You has such a killer ending and is a very visual song that puts you right there-you just feel lucky listening to it. Interestingly enough, Dan wanted a live showdown which led to a great live rendition of Afraid of Everyone on Letterman-and Letterman’s praise. Next, a stripped down version of Lucky You was performed on the Daytrotter session. I lobbied hard for the two seed with its bleeding sarcasm, and Nell in the back also came in support of it. Unlucky for Afraid, Lucky You advances.
Krakow: 3 Baby We’ll Be Fine versus 1 Conversation 16
Interesting matchup of lyrically-strong songs. It seemed the three in this one always maintained its B+/A- level. In other words, it’s a song that set out to be solidly good but never experimented to become something more. Meanwhile, Conversations 16 has the memories for the judges (a live show in Buffalo will always be in Dan’s brains), and it is such a confident liar lyrically that it could have just fooled us into thinking it was better than Baby. Perhaps it was the second play, but in any case Conversation 16 advances to the sweet 16.
Buffalo: 3 Start A War versus 1 All the Wine
Start A War is a great song. Unfortunately, it is not All the Wine. All The Wine has a ridiculously high RPI. Within seconds of starting the #1 seed, we were apologizing to Start A War saying that we were so sorry but the motorcade will have to go around this time. In fact, as a bit of external events weighing in on the decision/providing insight, Start a War actually played as we were sitting in a traffic jam for a while. We were stuck and feeling trapped. Meanwhile, by the grace of karma, cars got out of the way and the roads opened up just as the Wine started pouring. We blared All the Wine because we were in a state after sitting and not moving: what better song to hear than the one meant for being champions and owning the moment. All the Wine to the sweet 16.
London: 6 The Geese of Beverly Road versus 1 Mr. November
A bit similar to the Buffalo and Opole matchups, it was so unfortunate that such a heavyweight was going up against such a positive song. As a six seed, Geese showed a lot of gumption and scrap. Once more, they almost got away with it, and they were totally geniuses. Unfortunately, whenever you think you can fuck with Mr. November, you are going to be fresh out of that big slice of lemon you so richly want. In his best clothes, and into the next round, goes Mr. November.
Wisconsin: 3 I Should Live in Salt versus 1 Apartment Story
Good matchup here-and to be honest most from this point there weren’t going to be slouches. As we started discussing Salt, we said how we both had heard Matt Berninger’s explanation of the song on NPR and how it was largely about the relationship with his brother. This lead Dan & I to talk about how taking away the mystery of the song, and knowing exactly what it’s about, can lose the mystique that makes a song great. In other words, if you know what is behind the curtain and perfectly understand something, where’s the magic? And that is why Apartment Story advanced. It is a song I strongly argued that I understood-the comfort of two people happily dancing together on a wire above something chaotic and toxic below (metaphorically of course). Yet, I could be entirely wrong. But believing in my understanding and my interpretation, along with that amazing melody, makes that Story so damn good.
Martvili: 6 This is the Last Time versus 1 About Today
This is the Last Time was a really good song from the first round. A sneaky six that deserved to advance and has a sort of Cardinal Song thing going on-a hidden song made of different lyrics and instruments at the end. Yet, Dan launched into About Today and the emotionally heavy reasons how it can floor people. I bought it, and in addition, this song has a really good beat. Again, About Today advances.
Minnesota: 3 Sea of Love versus 1 Mistaken for Strangers
What’s cool about Sea of Love is that right in the middle of the song, you hear the words Trouble Will Find Me. How cool for a band to hide the name of an album in a random lyric from a song that’s not even the main single! The National are awesome, keep this in mind. Anyway, this song remains a hard 3-it’s a great song from beginning to its aggressive fist-pumping end. Plus one additional point for the use of the harmonica. Speaking of names, Mistaken for Strangers is also the name of the band’s documentary-very cool. This was going to a live-off with this version of Love and this version of Strangers. Mistaken really brought it live as it was somehow cleaner and slower, yet just as badass. It advances.
Baltimore/DC: 3 City Middle versus 1 Slow Show
Again, City Middle is a good three seed. It deserves its spot and has some good connections and makes one want to embrace a night. Yet, Slow Show has an incredible RPI and is simply a better song. In fact, the fact that Slow Show incorporates the song 29 Years from The National into the end of it, well that’s just amazing. Slow Show for the fast win.
Opole: 4 Squalor Victoria versus 2 Green Gloves
Time to get real: Squalor Victoria is a repetitive song that is not as strong as other Boxer songs. Meanwhile, Green Gloves is deeper and has a more emotional vibe. Bing bang boom, put your Gloves on for the next round.
Minnesota: 5 Runaway versus 2 Graceless
Runaway deserved to get into the next round without a doubt as it is a solid song. However, Graceless shows a surprisingly strong RPI with a great beat and pump-up feeling. Again, who the hell knows what walking through windows means, but I like the entire feeling of being Graceless around New Years Eve. God loves everybody, and I’ll remind you that Graceless advances.
London: 4 Abel versus 2 England
As expected, a strong start for Abel as it flies out of the gate. It is playing far above its four spot and talent level with the Florida sun and trees flying by. A perfect setting for this scrappy Alligator single that just wants to let you know that even if the mind isn’t ready, the song is. Meanwhile, England again starts off slow-a quintessential builder. Who doesn’t love the idea about not trying to make corrections…but the fact is, as this song was playing I, its defender, was enjoying it more than getting ready to debate. Abel’s energy had won the day and the round.
Buffalo: 4 Lemonworld versus 2 Pink Rabbits
Lemonworld still has great lyrics, yet Pink Rabbits still has home second play advantage with perhaps almost as good of lyrics. Here, the same slow pace of Pink Rabbits again was used to perfection as it slowed down the already rather slow pace of Lemonworld. It advances into the sweet 16 not like Abel (furious and fast moving), but more like an image that the first couple of beats of the song sound like: an old man popping into a room with a crutch and a limp.
Krakow: 4 Don’t Swallow the Cap versus 2 Terrible Love
Again, the Trouble leader Cap is a great melody-it’s a four spot with heart. Terrible Love may not have as quick of a beat, but in this matchup of singles off of the last two albums, it has something very unique. That is, it has this drop before it comes at you with full force. In other words, the song is not the traditional National builder (e.g. England) or even the National full-forced song (e.g. Abel): this one grinds and grinds like the little engine that could (listen to the first 1:35). Then, it appears to give everything it has (1:35-2:00), runs out of steam but desperately clings on to what it had built (2:00-2:45). Then suddenly in one last futile attempt it gives everything it’s got (2:45-4:00) before it is able to erupt and finally get over the hill. You know, this song is sex. It’s pretty awesome sex…or Terrible, I don’t know. Either way, as the last song of Day 2, it advances.
Martvili: 4 Lit Up versus 2 Daughters of the Soho Riots
Lit Up starts off with legs: it is the bad blood of the party and it’s a great song to get us going on our way back from Florida to the DC area. After a very challenging first round matchup against Wake up Your Saints, Daughters has a good start. It is a solid two and we decide that it goes to overtime with two really pretty good versions. Here, the second play home advantage cannot do the trick though as Lit Up advances with the upset.
Wisconsin: 7 Ada versus 4 Cardinal Song
We start with the wannabe-Cinderella story outta nowhere, the beat outta Boxer, the leave-it-all-up-in-the-air Ada. This track comes in flying with a piano and voice reminding us that this seven seed has got its competition speechless for more than a minute, and that it ought to go out in the hallway if they think they’ve got an easy win. Such. A. Good. Song. Meanwhile, Cardinal’s second play is again that very slow start building towards the second part of the song. It’s powerful, but not powerful enough to stand up to Ada and her horns at 1:38. Yes Ada, I think everything counts a little more than we think, including a birth in the sweet 16 for this glorious seven seed.
Opole: 2 Green Gloves versus 1 Fake Empire
Wow. Talk about shit getting real in a hurry. Green Gloves going first is a different feel and it remains a good song with that warm feeling, playing up the hands element. Meanwhile, Fake Empire comes on and for me, its RPI is slightly weaker. Yet, something about this song makes you conscious of everything going on around you. You find it hard to keep track of yourself, falling from the sky and listening. Fake Empire advances to the elite 8.
London: 4 Abel versus 1 Mr. November
Abel gets the people going if the people aren’t already going. It’s a pump-me-up-let’s-go-and-do-something sound and you just want to be given a reason that you are not as bright as you could be. In another sort of strange parallel to its competition, the lyrics in Abel (track 10 on Alligator) have a repeated feel right from the start: my mind’s not ready! Mr. November (track 13 on Alligator) does something similar at the start: in my best clothes! Yet, Mr. November also scores points because while the song possibly has one of the coolest titles of all-time, it also drives the listener right to the edge and walks away suddenly (listen from 1:20-1:45) multiple times! Only Mr. November can pull that kind of shit and get away with it. Thus, in this legitimate slugfest from two great Alligator tracks, he’s got to advance being carried in the arms of cheerleaders.
Minnesota: 2 Graceless versus 1 Mistaken for Strangers
Graceless comes in hot, as expected. Though we listened several times, it’s a song that each play gives you something new. For example, there seems to be an Alice in Wonderland reference going on in the lyrics as he’s taking the medicine, going missing and looking through the glass. Then again…walking through windows? Who knows, maybe that’s a nod to the Jabberwocky. Yet, as Mistaken comes on giving everything it’s got, something about Graceless’s free-flowing, rhyme-heavy and carefree attitude stayed strong in our minds. No overtime necessary as the 2 seed moves into the elite 8.
Buffalo: 2 Pink Rabbits versus 1 All the Wine
Pink Rabbits had lost its perch of second play advantage by this point in time. It hits the spot every time by slowing down the pace, making throw away references to Morrissey, and pulling needles from a doll. Yet, All the Wine comes on with its still great RPI and it remains such a strong powerhouse. All the Wine for the win.
Baltimore/DC: 2 Lucky You versus 1 Slow Show
We had another good matchup with the one seed showing some great RPI early on into its play. What is especially hard is there is a great user-made Lucky You video connected to Poland-strong personal connection for everyone in the car. Additionally, our fellow traveler Nell, who was becoming increasingly interested in the tournament as it waged on, said she supported Lucky You here. Alas, as non-voting member, Dan & I make the agreement that you can drive a car across our heads in 5 minutes and into the next round for Slow Show.
Krakow: 2 Terrible Love versus 1 Conversation 16
Here was a good old fashioned High Violet showdown on this two against one matchup. Another great thing about Terrible Love is that with the style of the song, it may not catch you in the first 20 seconds, or with a certain set of lyrics, but at a different point throughout the song each time you get hooked. It’s got this weird magnet that pulls you. Yet, it does lack depth lyrically which is exactly where, the less great melodically, Conversation 16 cleans up. In fact, the song is so good that Dan & I do not know what all the troubles are for: Conversation 16 advances with a mutual support of about 60-65%.
Martvili: 4 Lit Up versus 1 About Today
We all knew Lit Up was coming in hot, and it again fits the mood of the car as an energizer. Also a note, the way the song ends with a sudden drop finishes it so well. You’re Lit, and you’re done. Meanwhile, About Today is a big drop in energy but we go to OT and hear the big guns from both sides. First, the live version of Lit is the band’s television debut in the UK and for a little while, this song is the only good part of us. Meanwhile, we choose the live version of Today from the Virginia EP-an 8 minute masterpiece. This song rocks socks off, no joke. It’s a great trump card, and saves the day for About Today, which advances.
Wisconsin: 7 Ada versus 1 Apartment Story
Crazy good matchup of the A-level competition (on many levels). Ada starts like a seasoned pro, and works in so many instruments you want the National to play this song at Carnegie Hall with a full orchestra. At one point Dan makes the comment that this is the best 7 a tournament has ever seen, certainly this tournament. It’s hard to argue with grapes in your mouth. Meanwhile, Apartment Story plays back with its charming rhythm and vibe. We go live, have to. Ada, to the surprise of only the deaf, but likely even they heard the sound of the laughs through the walls, dominates. It was hard to dismiss Apartment Story personally, but the momentum for Ada was so great it advances. And you know what, Ada the judges have been hoping you know your way around.
Part 4: Elite 8 & the Final 4
Buffalo/Minnesota: 2 Graceless versus 1 All the Wine
Graceless came in as the last new song: that is it was the representative off of Trouble Will Find Me. It was the winner of Minnesota which in retrospect, was a fairly solid region. Not the strongest, but fairly deep. Yet, when All the Wine started after Graceless, Trouble found Graceless since, as usual, All the Wine took the judges to another level. In fact, it put us in a state. All the Wine, with high beams shining on its back, advances to the Final 4 with no doubt.
Opole/Martvili: 1 About Today versus 1 Fake Empire
Now, despite there being two #1 seeds, Fake Empire had the second play advantage as it was one of the top #1 seeds from the onset. Therefore, About Today, came in having just spent its amazing 8 minute effervescent live version that captured emotion and energy in a way few songs can. Yet, its recorded version fell flat against the dominance of the #1 track from Boxer, and arguably the #1 track in the tourney by the way it had decimated opponents. Fake Empire was no longer staying out super late picking apples; it was getting up early and picking fights. It advanced to the Final Four looking to win.
Krakow/London: #1 Conversation 16 versus #1 Mr. November
Another 1 versus 1. High Violet’s best lyrics versus the best energy Alligator can muster. More than some of the other Elite 8 matchups, this seemed like it could be a toss-up. Conversation 16 doesn’t disappoint for certain as it always makes one think and raises provocative questions and begging not to ask what the troubles are for…yet then Mr. November starts up. There is a debate over what the song is actually about. Is it political in nature? Is it a guy who used to be the champion of high school and now has lost that winning stature? Is it some kind of mix, something different, or nothing like it at all. The fact is that the guitars after the pauses in singing create a wonderful tension for anyone listening. Then, listeners are once more treated as the song explodes into repeated moments of unequaled energy. No Mr. November, you won’t fuck us over in the Final Four.
Wisconsin/Baltimore/DC: #7 Ada versus #1 Slow Show
The surprise of the tournament versus the #1 RPI of the tournament. Dan & I love Slow Show for its guitar, its lyrics, and the fact that even if some lines are corny (lean on the wall and the wall leans away), there is something so perfect about the idea of trying to hurry home and be simplistically stupid to amuse the one you love. It’s a beautiful, beautiful song that walks on the boundaries of concern and hesitation. There is hope, passion, self-deprecation, humor and an amazing rhythm. And somehow, you sense that it is all coming within the first 15 seconds. Ada is an amazing song, this tournament has proven it. But Slow Show has been gearing up for this for 29 years before it happened. The Final Four is set.
So, Nell in the back was very quick to laugh and point out that the Final Four were actually just the top four agreed upon seeds-yet it took us nearly 20 hours to get to that point…Well Nell, that’s not why you play the game! We had over 50 amazing matchups, a Cinderella, and discussion to rival anything done on music in my life before.
Also-looking at these final songs-none were weak and all were the kind that inspire. 2 Boxers, 2 Alligators. It was time to push play.
Europe: #1 Mr. November versus #1 Fake Empire
Mr. November went first by random chance. The song has such a strong gut feeling. You can beat a song to death by overanalyzing it, and that’s why these sections won’t drone on too much more, but Mr. November seems to have a sound that cannot be beaten to death. It’s resilience in the face of adversity. It played 4 minutes and 1 second of that resiliency to perfection: hard.
Fake Empire came out and did what it does. Dan thought its RPI was as high as ever, though I was leaning and hesitant. I wanted OT, as even through the horns of Boxer’s #1 track, Mr. November remained in my mind.
Dan was worried as there are some hit and misses with Fake Empire’s live version. We selected the version of Fake Empire performed on Letterman on July 24, 2007 and according to the late night host it was their television debut. Simply-they hit it out of the park. While Mr. November was the man among Fall’s boys, Fake Empire took the year to itself. Proof? Barry Obama’s campaign used Fake Empire because it caught the tide of the 2000s in just under 4 minutes. They felt it represented hope, change, and the zeitgeist of America. Whatever your politics, this version, and generally the serious width and depth of the song are too good. Fake Empire is the song of the decade and, in a bloodbath, it goes to the championship.
USA: #1 All the Wine versus #1 Slow Show
There was another fantastic matchup for the final spot in the final. On one side, and going first by random draw, was All the Wine. Again, this song owns a moment. If you climb a mountain, if you are selected as 1 of 100,000 applicants, if a supermodel chooses you out of a crowd, whatever: this is that song. This is you, owning that moment.
But, strangely, as this competition went to live versions-which were both amazing-something appeared about All the Wine that only Slow Show had been able to draw out of it. All the Wine was fantastically deep, although it was not wide.
In essence, it again aimed to do one thing, and it succeeded and it may be the best song ever at doing that. Yet, Slow Show is a more complex and far reaching song. Slow Show, in its live version and acoustically bare showed overall it was the better song. At least at this moment. This was an agreed upon decision (around 53-54% on both sides), but probably the hardest of the tournament.
No one wanted to celebrate this outcome because the failure of All the Wine seemed such an antithesis to what it is. Meanwhile Slow Show, determined to win at its own pace and entirely encapsulating the National’s humble yet marked ambition in one song, hurried home to the championship ready to try and crack up the Fake Empire. It was set.
Part 5: The Championship
We needed a break. We had just finished a long road trip and listened to one band, almost exclusively, for the majority of three out of five days. In no small way were we worried that our judgment at the time might be cloudy or rushed. We had a large choice. So Dan & I decided to think of all that we had accomplished, and meet back in mid-January to decide the championship.
Then, one winter day, the match was played.
We came in knowing the songs well and the match-up was between a song that embodied the 2000s versus a song that embodied the band.
Fake Empire played first, because of its leadoff position on Boxer (this album subsequently became the real winner of the tournament).
In a sense, the details on percentages are less important than before. While there was a discussion about how maybe it would be best to just avoid choosing a winner, we realized we had come too far not to finish the marathon. At mile 26.1, we saw the light and that it would likely be the slightest of victories before collapse.
Fake Empire’s arrangement and melody is a song you would want to take with you as the last song you could ever hear. Its melodies and arrangement, coupled with instruments that an artist like Beethoven could even incorporate, lead to a spiritually moving and motivational piece. Yet, while the lyrics are undeniably important, the message is the undercurrent to the actual melody and sound. Fake Empire could have different words, and may have a different meaning, but be just as powerfully motivating.
Meanwhile, the sap in us all instantly recognizes that the National hits on so much more with the non-political message in Slow Show. It’s an idea that love is possible. You find something, you believe in something, and you try your damnedest to make the hardest thing in the world simple.
The arrangement may not be able to move mountains, but the voice and the meaning strikes a chord more apparent in other National songs. In a sense, the song is also more in touch with music’s heart-less refined but more vulnerable.
Love trumps politics, and Slow Show trumps Fake Empire. Slow Show is the National Champion.