Indie

The Best Bon Iver Songs, Ranked

Next week is the 10th anniversary of Bon Iver, the second album by the Wisconsin-based band who remains one of the most popular and artistically significant indie acts of the early 21st century. Bon Iver was the LP that solidified their status after the sleeper success of 2007’s For Emma, Forever Ago, eventually garnering the band the Best New Artist Grammy.

At the time many might have suspected that the head of Bon Iver, Justin Vernon, had peaked at that very moment. But in the past decade, he’s proven to be one of the least predictable and most adventurous artists of his generation, putting out albums that initially confound listeners before eventually shifting their tastes in decisive ways. While Bon Iver’s catalogue is relatively small — including four studio albums and one 1 EP in the past 14 years — Vernon has made each release count. Nearly everything the band has put out feels essential.

This makes counting down my favorite Bon Iver songs a little tricky. Many of these tracks I prefer in the context of their albums. Nevertheless, I am prepared to list my top 25 Bon Iver songs. After all we’re in Milwaukee, so off your feet as we dive deep into this band’s career!

25. “Creature Fear”

Justin Vernon is one of the most influential indie singer-songwriters of the last 15 years, and that distinction goes back to his 2007 debut, For Emma, Forever Ago. Before that record, a bearded, guitar-slinging dude from the upper midwest was expected to adhere to conventions laid down by the likes of Bruce Springsteen and John Prine, in which plainspoken, narrative-driven lyrics are relayed with a solidly masculine twang. Vernon completely subverted that. Instead of utilizing a manly growl, Vernon sang pained, free-associative wails from his upper register. And those sounds as well as the feelings they evoked took precedence over literal-minded lyrics. As Vernon explained to me in 2008, “With these songs, I was creating sounds first. I would create a space for the vocals, then transcribe vocal sounds and listen to what it sounded like. I would get lyric ideas from the sound of the voice. And I was actually able to pull out more meaningful stuff, personally speaking, because of that.”

Now, it must be acknowledged that Bon Iver lyrics often read as gibberish on the page. Take this verse from “Creature Fear”: “I was teased by your blouse / Spit out by your mouth / I was loud by your lowered / Seminary sold.” I have no idea what “I was teased by your blouse” means as a combination of words when I read them. But when I hear those words, I somehow understand that Vernon is suffering from an existential crisis, and he’s working through it in real time as this song unfolds, and it’s unclear whether he will ever find a way out to the other side. This isn’t songwriting, perhaps, as much as it is a magic trick. I don’t know how Vernon pulls this off. I just know that he does.

24. “Woods”

Even though the songs on For Emma, Forever Ago don’t really conform to the musical conservatism of modern Americana, the album’s signifiers — the cabin, the woods, the sensitive songs about heartbreak — caused critics and fans to put it in that camp anyway. So Vernon kept on rebelling against it on his next release, the 2009 EP Blood Bank. Much of the album resembles the fractured art-folk of the debut, but the final track truly set Bon Iver — and indie rock generally — on a new course. On “Woods,” Vernon experimented with Autotune, the symbol of aughts-era mainstream pop that the era’s indie partisans were most likely to uphold as the ultimate betrayal of musical authenticity. And now here was the guy being celebrated as an avatar for authenticity essentially disregarding such a distinction, in the process hastening the obsolescence of the pop-vs.-indie binary. (It’s not quite Dylan going electric, but it’s in the ballpark.) In Vernon’s hands, Autotune went from an instrument used to ensure musical perfection to one that exaggerated and sharpened psychic turmoil, rubbing raw the trappings of modernity until it disintegrated like malfunctioning circuitry in your eardrums.

23. “715 – CRΣΣKS”

By the time of 2016’s 22, A Million, nobody was confusing Vernon for a backwater folkie. Though that album’s exercise in Autotune perversion comes from a similar place as “Woods.” What separates “715 – CRΣΣKS” is Vernon’s amped-up anguish. “There was a lot of anger in there,” Vernon once said of 22, A Million, and you hear that fury in this abrasive, affecting track.

22. “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄”

On some days, 22, A Million is my favorite Bon Iver album. (On other days, one of the other Bon Iver records is my favorite.) Certainly, it’s the one that feels the most like a self-contained piece of work. Being very much a “geriatric millennial,” Vernon is among the few artists to make a “‘provocative’ and ‘difficult’ followup to a highly successful album” album — which was once common in the alt-rock era — in the modern age. But even by the standards of In Utero or Kid A, 22, A Million is a uniquely barbed peek inside the mind of a man who is slowly going crazy in the midst of becoming famous. This makes the record an experience akin to a first-person 3D movie.

Again in keeping with geriatric millennial values, you have to take 22, A Million in as a piece in order for it to really pay off. Which is only a problem if you’re trying to make, say, a silly ranking of songs, as the individual tracks from 22, A Million tend to shine less brightly when taken out of context. (“It sounds like one long song” isn’t always a compliment for a record, but it is for 22, A Million.) On the album, “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄” is part of a mini-suite on Side 1 that appears to reflect unsparingly on a recent breakup. (Even Bon Iver’s anti-Bon Iver record has the key elements of a Bon Iver record.) Removed from the LP, it sounds a lot like an attempt to rip-off off Yeezus. Either way, the sound of Justin Vernon’s consciousness melting into oblivion is gripping.

21. “29 #Strafford APTS”

I’ve tried hard to refrain from talking about my own experience of living in Eau Claire in the late ’90s, for fear that it will come across as obnoxious. However, I can no longer hold myself back. Having lived in Eau Claire before it was known by indie heads as Bon Iver Land, I was aware of Strafford Apartments as a complex situated just down the street from the house I lived in during my junior year at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. I bring this up only to point out that even an album as surreal and druggy and insular as 22, A Million is still grounded in the reality of everyday life in northwestern Wisconsin. I can say from experience that Eau Claire is a very easy place to lose your mind, but there’s also enough space for you to eventually find it again without causing too much permanent damage.

20. “U (Man Like)”

When I lived in Eau Claire, there was an urban legend about how Ronald Reagan supposedly cut federal funding for mental institutions, which somehow caused a disproportionate number of eccentrics to be set loose on the city’s streets. As much as I want this to be true in order to support my thesis that Bon Iver’s music evokes the “weird, old heartland” aspect of living in that part of the country, it is almost certainly B.S. But here’s one thing I know for sure is true about Eau Claire: It’s a place where AOR radio rules. And because it’s a relatively isolated region, the stars of ’80s mainstream rock lingered there longer than they did in big cities. To the point where there was really nobody around to tell you that that stuff is supposed to be passé.

Even after Justin Vernon got famous, that influence never left him. So, when snarky music writers compared him to Bruce Hornsby around the time of the second Bon Iver record, he didn’t take it as the self-evident insult it apparently was supposed to be. (Why would he? Bruce Hornsby is great!) Instead, Vernon eventually absorbed Hornsby into Bon Iver, and together they made “U (Man Like),” a reimagining of AOR Eau Claire radio imbued with the region’s innate strangeness.

19. “Faith”

In the wake of 22, A Million, it seemed like Vernon was strapping dynamite at the feet of Bon Iver and lighting a match. But just three years later, upon the release of i,i, Vernon had seemingly arrived at a more settled place in terms of his own fame. He was now playing arenas, and that tour’s lavish setup — including eye-catching visuals devised by cool underground artists and a crystal-clear sound system promising 360-degree audio — made his band seem like a landlocked Pink Floyd. He was also writing songs like “Faith” that seemed custom-made for filling those cavernous spaces. Whereas in the past “Faith” might have stayed in its initial gear as an improvised guitar piece accented with odd synths and a disorienting string section, it now blossomed into a rousing U2-style anthem in which Vernon insists that “it’s time to brave” in a voice that demands to be heard by thousands of people.

18. “8 (circle)”

When I interviewed Justin Vernon in 2014 — roughly the midpoint between Bon Iver and 22, A Million — he said two things that proved to be prescient for the next record. The first was that he was no longer writing songs on a guitar, but rather an OP-1, a sampler-based synthesizer he called “the most important instrument that’s come into my life since I first picked up a guitar when I was 12 years old.” The second was that he wasn’t really writing songs per se. Instead, he was accumulating interesting moments discovered via the process of improvising for hours and hours. And yet by the time the album was released he was able to shape those moments into songs like “8 (circle),” which reimagines the stately backwoods prog of Bon Iver as a classic George Michael ballad.

17. “The Wolves (Act I and II)”

I think it’s reductive to suggest that Vernon spent the ’10s trying to escape the legacy of his first record, which swiftly garnered a mythology — lonely guy makes masterpiece in a cabin! — that will likely end up in the first graf of his obituary no matter what else he does in his career. But it is kind of shocking to go back to For Emma with ears attuned to Bon Iver’s later work and now hear the album as almost straight-forward and pop-friendly. Again, it should be stressed that it didn’t sound that way at the time. But the dual effects of early Obama-era nostalgia and Vernon’s accumulated left turns can make a song like “The Wolves (Act I and II)” seem as generous and even obvious as a Coldplay hit. For a guy who claims he made For Emma without any intention of the outside world ever hearing it, Vernon seemed to have a knack for crafting a climactic moment that was destined to inspire mass singalongs.

16. “Michicant”

Until recently, I was inclined to argue that the second Bon Iver album — which along with For Emma remains his most successful and accessible work — was a touch overrated. And then I revisited it earlier this year and was promptly humbled. If 22, A Million feels like the most complete Bon Iver album as far as being a complete visceral experience, Bon Iver is probably his best collection of songs. On “Michicant,” you hear Vernon fully coming into his own, taking the loner outsider balladry of the first record and blowing it out with an all-star supporting cast that includes ringers like pedal-steel wizard Greg Leisz and jacked-up sax man Colin Stetson.

15. “Hey, Ma”

After the first two Bon Iver albums, it was natural to assume that they would follow the path of a band like Wilco, another middle American art-rock institution that has made a career out of playing with bedrock American musical forms and twisting and updating them with modern technology. But while Bon Iver has done that to a degree, Vernon diverges from Jeff Tweedy in one crucial, generational aspect: His conversance with hip-hop culture. On “Hey, Ma,” his vocal delivery verges on rapping without actually taking the plunge. It’s more like he’s unconsciously channeling that cadence in the context of an aching electro-folk ballad because it just happens to be a part of his DNA as a lifetime listener of that music. Bon Iver can draw on that influence without making a point of drawing it, in the same way that Vernon can evoke Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music with a particular guitar strum or vocal affectation without ever being fully grounded in that tradition, either. This, more than anything, is what has allowed Bon Iver over the years to evolve while also growing their audience in a manner few of their aughts-era contemporaries have achieved.

14. “Wash.”

On one hand, it is true that Bon Iver has had a striking evolutionary arc over the course of their career. But it’s also true that Vernon’s aesthetic — deconstructing song forms and reassembling them in ways that feel simultaneously comforting and alien — was there from the beginning of the project. You can hear it in a song like “Wash.,” in which Vernon locates an unlikely new midpoint between Steve Reich and Gordon Lightfoot.

13. “33 ‘GOD'”

Before the release of 22, A Million, I was among a small coterie of journalists invited to Eau Claire for a press conference to promote the record. This was the peak of Vernon’s “faces are for friends” only period, and it was unclear whether this event would be the sum total of his 22, A Million interviews. The collection of journalists represented a mix of national and hyper-local publications. (I don’t remember if Rolling Stone was there, but I know for a fact that the Chippewa Herald was.) At the start of the press conference, Vernon admitted that he was nervous, though he eventually did seem to relax himself. Frankly, he was more interested in promoting his new hotel, which was hosting the event, than 22, A Million. I think about that press conference whenever I hear “33 ‘GOD,'” which includes a shoutout to the Ace Hotel chain and not his own hotel. Seems like a missed marketing opportunity, Justin.

12. “Lump Sum”

A beautiful song about plumbing. At least I think that’s what it’s about based on the closing verse: “All at once rushing from the sump-pump / Or so the story goes / Balance we won’t know / We will see when it gets warm, ah.”

11. “Towers”

I’m joking about the plumbing thing, of course. But for all the fun you can have stripping the words out of Bon Iver songs and examining them like court testimony — the exact wrong way to listen to this band, by the way — there really are lyrics with a resonance that go beyond conventional logic and toward articulating an indescribable feeling or sense memory. For instance, I have a special connection to “Towers” because Vernon is referencing my freshman-year dorm, in which I had encounters that resemble the romantic fumbling he describes in the lyrics. And I feel like this is an especially accurate depiction of my life back when I was rooming at Towers North on the UW-Eau Claire campus: “Oh, the sermons are the first to rest / Smoke on Sundays when you’re drunk and dressed.” Being “drunk and dressed” wasn’t my literal reality, but it also sort of was.

INTERMISSION

As a native Wisconsinite I must share perhaps the most crucial summit in recent Wisconsin history.

10. “Naeem”

Another absolute anthem from i,i. Before Covid, Vernon had a plan to tour Wisconsin in the run-up to the 2020 election in order to rally support away from the guy running for president who won the state in 2016. I suspect this is the song that would have really inspired people in that scenario. It’s a call to action — apparently against climate change — that Vernon howls like a gospel ballad. “Well, I won’t be angry long / Well, I can’t be angry long.” he sings, not long after the line about falling out of a bass boat. Now, that’s the sort of populism that midwesterners can believe in.

9. “Calgary”

Vernon felt particularly proud of this song upon the release of Bon Iver, calling it an “accomplishment” with a strong “form, a repetitive idea, and a good cadence.” In other words, it sounds like a hit. At the very least, “Calgary” suggests that Vernon could have taken a different career path where he veered into more typical singer-songwriter territory — think of him as the unkempt John Mayer or the freak-folk Ed Sheeran — and had a lot more success in the short run, though it likely would have burned him out over the long haul.

8. “Flume”

The first song on the first Bon Iver record was also the first step for Vernon toward a new musical identity. It was where he tried out his falsetto, an effect he had previously attempted but it “never landed,” as he put it to Pitchfork. But it sure landed on “Flume,” and as he explained to me in 2008, it made him feel freer as a vocalist. “I’ve been influenced by black singers and singers I couldn’t sound like,” he explained to me. “Whenever I tried to do a dark note or a bent note, I would just sound like Hootie And The Blowfish.” “Flume” has a similarly bluesy vibe, but Vernon’s vocal takes it to another place, away from cringe-y bar-band rock and toward a spookier and more introspective vibe.

7. “666 ʇ”

The most ravishing track from the furious and gnarly 22, A Million era. Also includes Vernon’s most mission statement-y lyric of all time: “It’s not for broader appeal / fuck the fashion of it, dear.”

6. “Blood Bank”

A rare instance of a Bon Iver song with a clear lyrical narrative: Two people give blood. They sit in a car. It’s cold. They make out. The end.

I really like how this part shows the way the deep freeze of a Wisconsin winter can suddenly turn romantic: “Then the snow started falling / We were stuck out in your car / You were rubbing both my hands / Chewing on a candy bar / You said, ‘Ain’t this just like the present / To be showing up like this?’ / As a moon waned to crescent / We started to kiss.” But it’s not just the words of “Blood Bank” that resemble a Springsteen song. This is Bon Iver at their chunkiest and most approachable. It’s their “beefy flannel-covered dude at the bar who has a really big heart” song.

5. “Beth/Rest”

The discourse about the concluding ballad from Bon Iver — is this “sincere” or “ironic”? — seems extremely lame and tiresome 10 years later. (I’m not proud to say I got caught up in it. To atone, I’m giving my album review the Zero Stars Reviews treatment and pointing it out for your mockery.) Recently, I started buying up cassettes and playing them on a cheap boom box in my office. I’ve been partial to boomer rock tapes from the late ’80s, as that music seems a little extra melancholy when it sounds slightly warbly and sonically uncertain. When I hear “Beth/Rest,” I suspect Vernon was trying to achieve that “slightly warbly and sonically uncertain” feeling from listening to late ’80s albums on cassette. (Bon Iver was never a chillwave band except on this song.) It took me 10 years but I can say now that he absolutely nailed it.

4. “Skinny Love”

A strange conundrum of Justin Vernon’s early career with Bon Iver is that even though the lyrics on For Emma are pretty vague and even nonsensical, he was still often put in the position of having to talk about the former lovers who inspired the songs. One of the album’s most gutting numbers, “Skinny Love,” was put under the most intense microscope. Though the reason this song connected with so many people really boils down to how the hoarseness of his vocal on the chorus sounds a lot like an exhausted voice at the end of a long, pointless argument that comes near the nadir of a faltering relationship.

3. “Holocene”

I was living in Milwaukee when Bon Iver dropped, and there was a minor kerfuffle in local media over an interview that Vernon did with Pitchfork in which he elaborated on the reference to Milwaukee in this song, in which he sings, “You’re laying waste to Halloween / You fucked it friend, it’s on its head, it struck the street / You’re in Milwaukee, off your feet.” In the interview, Vernon called Milwaukee “a dark, beer-drunk place” where adults get wasted on Halloween in order “to forget about their childhoods.” Some people took offense to that, but to this day I think it’s one of the more insightful things ever said about that town. (Hi Milwaukee, I still love you.) Anyway, getting upset about that lyric misses the point of a song that literally nods to rebirth and the rapid grow of new life. It’s about falling down and getting up again. Get off your feet indeed.

2. “Perth”

The huge-sounding opener from Bon Iver existed in an embryonic state before the release of the first Bon Iver record. But Vernon is wise to hold on to “Perth” until he had the wherewithal to really take it to another level. (“I already knew that whatever record I was going to make, ‘Perth’ was going to be the first track,” he told Pitchfork in 2011.) Vernon likened the spindly guitar lick to Neil Young, but it reminds me more of Joni Mitchell’s distinctive tone from the Hejira era, only blown out to arena-size scale by those punishing double kick drums. No matter Vernon’s image at the time as a sleepy, mild-mannered folkie memorably lampooned by Justin Timberlake on Saturday Night Live, “Perth” proved that Bon Iver could also, well, rawk.

1. “Re: Stacks”

Why is this my No. 1? Since we’re talking Bon Iver, I figure my explanation should be achingly personal and embarssingly emotional. In short, this is the one that instantly puts me in a place where I feel like I’m either about to cry or like I just did cry, even if I haven’t actually cried. I have a distinct memory of listening to this song once many, many times in a row while taking a train from Chicago to Milwaukee. Let me tell you: That trip was not a barrel of laughs! But it was the most cathartic experience with Amtrak I have ever had.

You could throw me a surprise birthday party where all of my loved ones showed up to hand me a Publisher’s Clearinghouse-sized check for $1 million, and if you played this song for me immediately after that, I’d probably get choked up. Is it dusty in here? Why do I feel like laying down for 35 years? Damn! You got me, Bon Iver! I am now too much of a mess to type any more words.

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