Listen: High Violet, by The National

What one record (yes, I still call them “records”) would you want with you if you were forever banished to a deserted island?

That question has perplexed college students and/or stoners for decades, inflating a turgid balloon of trifling yet enlightening conversation.

I think it’s healthy for that record to change over time. My first one was Thriller. We still had vinyl and grooves at the time, and those grooves were worn out—needled to death. My evolving answer to this question probably says more about my personality and growth as a human being than any other indicator could (in rough chronological order):

  • Shout at the Devil, Motley Crue (anyone know how to produce umlauts in Microsoft Word?)
  • Ride the Lightning, Metallica
  • Raising Hell, Run DMC
  • Straight Outta Compton, NWA
  • Bizarre Ride to the Pharcyde, The Pharcyde
  • Siamese Dream, Smashing Pumpkins
  • It’s a Shame About Ray, The Lemonheads
  • The White Album, The Beatles
  • Harvest, Neil Young
  • American Beauty, Grateful Dead
  • The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Bob Dylan
  • Still Feel Gone, anything else by Uncle Tupelo
  • Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco
  • Alligator, The National

This list allows one to trace my development from impressionable pre-teen to infantile teenager to open-minded college student to (ever so slightly) mature connoisseur of poppy but edgy alternative tunes.

A few Gossip Girl DVDs, some Bonnie Tyler...not a bad fate.

Today’s music scene is full of bands I’m supposed to like. I feel obligated to taste the buzz of Grizzly Bear, Bon Iver, Sigur Ros (modern umlaut help?), MGMT, etc. We’ve entered a whole new phase of sonic experiments mixed with viral media that reminds me of the rabid protestations of my older cousins who insisted I would fail in life because I didn’t “understand” Yes or Rush. I know that the “prog” in prog rock is short for “progressive”, but sometimes we just have to set aside our pretension and call weird “weird”.

This was supposed to be a review of The National’s new album, High Violet. It’s a pretty decent record. It’s a little progressive, while also old-timey and reassuring. It features the trademark non-standard rhythmic foundation of drummer Bryan Devendorf and the sultry drunken baritone of Matt Berninger. I like it. There’s an energy, a sincerity that at times exposes the bare wires of music’s magic.

But it’s not Alligator.

That’s the problem with the perfect record, the deserted island companion. While its definition to each individual is a moving target, there can only be one.

That’s the Catch 22 of lasting talent and influence. Produce only one worthy effort, and you and your fan base never grow; musical oblivion becomes your only companion. Consistently push into unexplored realms and find critical respect and discerning hipster cachet; but tread carefully, as you’ll potentially alienate your most ardent promoters.

On Wednesday, I’ll check out The National in Oakland, California, and hope they play more of the old stuff.

Add a comment naming the one record you could listen to over and over for eternity…

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