Bon Iver is the pet project and brain child of American folk singer/songwriter/producer extraoidinaire Justin Vernon. He has, at the time of writing this, released three critically acclaimed albums and has his fourth effort i,i on the way; but what are his best songs? These are our top 20 Bon Iver songs:
20: Beth/Rest – from Bon Iver, Bon Iver
What typically strikes and intrigues you with Beth/Rest is just how different it sounds. Leave your folk songs at the door, because Bon Iver just crafted an 80s prom ballad. Justin Vernon claims it to be one of his proudest ventures ever, stating that he cried while recording the song; and it becomes increasingly simpler to understand why. Beth/Rest is such a rejoiceful moment in the Bon Iver discography and one which has rightfully earned its place on our list.
19: Holocene – from Bon Iver, Bon Iver
Bon Iver’s second biggest song behind Skinny Love (more on that later) is Holocene; and it is a typically gorgeous acoustic cut with lo-fi instrumentals and echoed tones of Justin Vernon’s vocals. Vernon describes the song as an “epoch” given the fact that Holocene is both the name of a bar in Portland but also a geologic era; he claims it makes you realise just how sometimes songs are “meant to be” and needless to say the results are stunning. It possesses perhaps his most poignantly heart-breaking lyric ever, in the form of “and at once, I knew I was not magnificent”.
18: Flume – from For Emma, Forever Ago
The song that birthed the stage name of a world famous EDM producer (genuinely), Flume is an enchanting acoustic folk ballad about a whole host of topics that include mass amounts of imagery. The chorus is stunning as Vernon speaks in an Icarus role about burning his wings by flying too close to the sun (“sky is womb and she’s the moon”) as well as using the idea that his life path is similar to a Flume; in that the path he is drifting down is a result of his actions and mistakes. It has a real campfire sound to it and was the ideal introduction to this log cabin record.
17: 29 #Strafford APTS – from 22, A Million
One of the more popular songs from Vernon’s third album 22, A Million is the “stoner country jam” (his words, not mine) 29 #Strafford APTS. It uses many of the folk influences he generated in his previous efforts while also possessing a gorgeous orchestral backing track to suit the stripped back guitar chords. The chorus is delivered with these shimmering reverbed vocals that give it such a serene presence, it really is such a sticky hook that ranks as one of Bon Iver’s best.
16: Michicant – from Bon Iver, Bon Iver
Childhood nostalgia takes centre stage with Michicant as Justin intertwines between memories of the changing of the seasons to fear to warmth. The progressive nature of the song is best displayed in the instrumentals with it starting off very minimalist, just Justin and his guitar; before branching away into jittery sounds and staggered horns, with each passing flicker moving the listener further into his mystical world.
15: 666 – from 22, A Million
Whether it be Vernon’s falsettos, the glamorous guitars or the lo-fi electro beat, 666 certainly isn’t no devil’s work. It has an angelic delivery and looks at his personal experiences growing up around religion; stating in the chorus that he has heard and learned all about religion and still chooses not to follow it. It’s dreamy electronic backing track can often put you in a trance, something that Vernon’s whimsical tones can snap you out of in a hurry.
14: Blood Bank – from Blood Bank EP
A heart-warming nature-inspired ballad about a blossoming love, the title track of 2009’s Blood Bank EP has a triumphant tone to it, something that doesn’t show up all that often in Bon Iver’s music. The mystery of love and both parties not recognising how much they love each other is an intriguing song topic and one which Vernon delivers beautifully over a simplistic but catchy instrumental with a progressive build.
13: Calgary – from Bon Iver, Bon Iver
Ah Calgary, the lead single from the difficult second album. What makes this such a stellar lead single is the powerful emotion it evokes, that eerie but in a beautiful way appraoch it takes. Justin’s vocals occupy almost a-cappella at times before being weaved together with the occasionally glitchy electronics and slow burner drum patterns. It has a truly gorgeous flow and cadence but it’s the sound that captivates you, that bridge is utterly breathtaking.
12: The Wolves (Act I and II) – from For Emma, Forever Ago
A heartbreaking breakup song that is as lyrically forthright as it is instrumentally diverse, The Wolves (Act I and II) is a regret-filled anthem in which Justin Vernon discusses isolation in a way only he knows. When looked at in terms of the two acts the title implies, the song takes different sonic ventures as it goes on. Act I is so steady, using mainly single string guitar chords and direct lyrics; while Act II builds with more passion into an experimental folk crescendo, using intense drums and wobbly vocal reverb before halting for a soft finale.
11: Hey, Ma – Single
Bon Iver’s first single since the release of 22, A Million came in the form of Hey, Ma; a nostalgic ballad about a child’s affectionate relationship with their mother. The chorus is gorgeously performed with harmonic falsettos and dainty vocal deliveries. The track is simple but so effective with it’s moving message that is eternally universal; the love of one’s mother is unbreakable and something that should be celebrated with the kind of beauty displayed on the song.
10: Lump Sum – from For Emma, Forever Ago
To be considered as one of the most personal songs of Bon Iver’s career is quite something given how open and specific Justin Vernon has been in his songwriting from day one; but that’s a title that Lump Sum thoroughly deserves. It’s a gorgeous, simplistic acoustic cut about emotional heartache and the stresses Vernon feels on a daily basis. His trip to the woods to record the For Emma, Forever Ago album is on the agenda mostly as he mocks people who doubted his move away from reality; making that “so the story goes” line so much more impactful.
9: Skinny Love – from For Emma, Forever Ago
Ah, the song that made a career. You’ve all heard Skinny Love before, whether it be Bon Iver’s original version or the endless covers it has been dealt over the years, but one thing remains a constant; Bon Iver does it best. Lyrically it is fairly self-explanatory but the wordplay he uses alongside the vocal deliveries is where he truly excels. That desperate cry for desire in the chorus just adds to the glow of the track, as does the chant-styled “my-my-my” on here. Skinny Love is a breakup anthem for the history books and the fact I only have it 8th on this list shows you just how stellar Bon Iver’s catalogue is.
8: 00000 Million – from 22, A Million
A vulnerable closer to 22, A Million, there’s a case to be made for 00000 Million containing some of the most poignant lyrics of Bon Iver’s career. It’s a song about inner struggle to fit in, anxiety and the vicious cycle of romantic relationships that turn sour; with Vernon using such incredible lines as “well it harms me, it harms me, it harms me, I’ll let it in”. It’s further proof that Justin Vernon is one of the most open and honest songwriters of the century, never afraid to convey his true feelings and turn them into art.
7: Perth – from Bon Iver, Bon Iver
Following up from For Emma, Forever Ago was always going to be a mean feat, but listening to Perth, the very first song on his sophomore eponymous record gives you a sense of grander ambitions. The serene folk elements still remain but there’s an array of instrumentals to suit, creating more of a prog-rock sound with crashing drums, shoegaze-styled guitars and heroic horn sections. It’s the ideal opener to what could have been a tricky second album.
6: 22 (Over S∞∞N) – from 22, A Million
If the title of this opening track to Bon Iver’s third album wasn’t enough to make you realise it was going to sound a bit different, then I don’t know what other warning could have been given. 22 (Over S∞∞N) is dominated by this looped electronic sound and a gorgeous edited sample of Mahalia Jackson’s How I Got Over; along with some deep lyrical matter of soul-searching courtesy of Justin Vernon. The echoed sounds and stuttered electronica sets the tone beautifully for the remainder of the album and makes this track a standout moment.
5: Faith – Single
The latest offering from Justin’s upcoming fourth album i,i is a joyous and uplifting ballad which possesses that powerful double-entendre sense of Faith that he so often discusses in his music. His warm, soothing tones in the track sound like a beautiful spring evening and when brought into more fruition with a colourful choral melody, the song really comes into it’s own. If this is the direction of the new album then count me in, count me in HARD.
4: Woods – from Blood Bank EP
A song that is somewhat of a rarity in the catalogue of an artist as famous as Bon Iver, in the sense that Woods is perhaps better known for the sampling of it than the song itself. It was used incredibly on Kanye West’s Lost In The World from his richly celebrated My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy album and it isn’t difficult to see why it worked. Woods is such a minimalist, emotive anthem that uses repetitive lyrics but gradually increased autotuned intensity to portray the desperate feeling of longing and desire that the song is talking about.
3: Minnesota, WI – from Bon Iver, Bon Iver
Minnesota, WI is an instant successor to the aforementioned Perth on Bon Iver, Bon Iver as it follows the instrumental patterns before venturing off on it’s own accord. It’s a storytelling anthem about the Hmong people who were forced to relocate when the Chinese built the Three Gorges Dam; which flooded the Hmong valleys. One of the places they relocated to was Minnesota, WI. Sonically it is a staggering performance from Vernon with impassioned vocals and sublime finger-picking guitar chords. Powerful is the word that comes to mind.
2: 33 “GOD” – from 22, A Million
Songs will rarely get more religious and beautiful than this. A reference to the perceived age of Jesus Christ upon his death, 33 “GOD” is an absolute monster of a song in every sense of the word. It is richly produced, heroic in it’s lyrical display and utterly captivating with it’s aurora. The Paolo Nutini sample ties into the biblical references as Vernon discusses the need for divine intervention and the frustration at himself for not letting faith take his hand through tough moments. This song always felt special from the very first listen, it just has a presence that demands attention, but as time goes on you realise it is an essential bookmark moment in Bon Iver’s artistry.
1: re:stacks – from For Emma, Forever Ago
A song about the damages and repercussions of a lost love, the stunning closer of For Emma, Forever Ago is at the top of my list of Bon Iver’s best songs for many a reason. The songwriting is so precise, so poignant and special that only someone with the emotive power of Justin Vernon could craft together. I could go on forever about the technical proficiencies of this song and the reason why it sticks out as so catchy and stunning in an age where we seem to have a bottomless pit of solo singers with acoustic guitars; but instead I will just leave you with this. The reason I have put re:stacks first is because of the spell it has cast over me, when things are tough and I feel heartache, this song is the shoulder to cry on. It has a one-in-a-billion sound to me and it’s the song that truly made me fall in love with Bon Iver’s music.