Justin Vernon, the man behind Bon Iver, has a spall, yet growing cannon of spanning 33 songs that somehow amazed us from the start. It took him nearly a full career of toiling in different styles to find his solemn, painfully innocent, endearing, and oh-so-very-high voice. A man with those unmistakable pipes, an acoustic and some autotune, it now seems that JV is everywhere having grown his empire from a few strummed ditties to a tastemaker that even Kanye West calls on for stylistic attention. He’s won Grammys, released three of the most prominent full-lengths of the new millennium, and even has his own creepy language/numerology movement going on these days. His music’s even been made the soundtrack to slow-drinking whiskey, which is pretty telling. Here we take a shot at ranking every single one of Bon Iver’s works.
It just don’t feel right to start at the bottom of this ranking list with a song off the self-titled best album in the canon of Justin Vernon’s Bon Iver project. But, it’s an instrumental tune of basically adjusting synthesizers, which intones very little.
The same frustrations of “Lisbon OH” apply to this track off Bon Iver debut For Emma, Forever Ago. “Team” has whistling in it, though, so it avoids the basement by a nose.
The first of Vernon’s pair of odes to autotune. Off the newest LP, this year’s 22, A Million, the complete unhinged use of the tool goes too far, thus coming in as the worst Bon Iver tune featuring lyrics. Good doesn’t always come of new technology, people.
The original full autotune moment comes on Vernon’s lone EP, Blood Bank. But Bon Iver’s favorite musical plaything is used solemnly and sparingly here, so that it seems more interesting than excessive.
It starts like an avalanche. All percussion and distortion and ghostly echoes signifying something new. The push-pull of 22, A Million’s weakest track is more piece of audio artwork than great song, but that in and of itself is sort of the point of Bon Iver’s New Way.
Another Vernon archetype is on display with this mellow tune, as the soft-speak cadence of a simple phrase is repeated like a mantra: “The math ahead/ The math behind/ Moon Water.” Throw in some glitchy swirling backing vocals and synths, rinse, repeat.
The stuttering acoustic stop-start of Justin Vernon’s first calling card to his Bon Iver project begins simply enough musically, alongside the earnest lyrical intro: “I am my mother’s only one/ That’s enough.” It really was enough; he had us from then on.
Second place isn’t always a bad thing. Here, the second best acoustic song on 2009’s underrated Blood Bank EP—coming in behind the titular track and one of the best tunes in Vernon’s songbook—sets quite a scene also with equally beautiful lyricism.
Kicking off with more of those pretty “oohs” and “aahs,” this song is more than just a cool title. Fragile a cappella gives way to a bluesy, almost spoken word verse that transforms into a captivating and uplifting chorus. It’s perfect evidence that this guy knows how to build a pretty perfect song.
A smothered and screwed-up trumpet might not be the best way to start a song, but Bon Iver doesn’t care about that. The oddball intro, spilled over from the preceding track on 22, A Million (since each Bon Iver album should be played through from start to end), gives way to a strong march of a tune that balances both beauty in vocal and lyric alike. Buttressed by brass and a steady drum thump, it’s another hearty Justin Vernon stew of sounds.
Reverberating sythns wah-wah their way as a backdrop of one of the coolest sounding tunes on Bon Iver’s self-titled masterpiece. They always come back, like us, to the sounds we heard first here on an LP when Vernon really came into his own.
“33 “GOD”” may be the most direct nod and influence of the mutual influence between Vernon and hip-hop’s current auteur Kanye West. It’s the closest thing to a true banger by a bearded indie rock hipster that writes music alone in a winter cabin.
Guitar plucks ring out like chimes. Rapid percussion hits. Then, just like that it’s all churning together until the rug gets musically pulled from underneath it all. Vernon vocally emerges, bathed in that glow of eerie frailty. “Never gonna break, never gonna break.” Please don’t ever.
It really is amazing how soulful Vernon can make a repetitive acoustic guitar riff. And when he lays down that silky smooth ethereal vocal down on top of it like a pearl on a pillow, it’s all over like on this track from For Emma.
Here’s one of the tunes where Vernon really changes the game with 22, A Million. He reapplies that well-tread, near-monastic chanting of one particular phrase. In this case, the layering lines, “I been caught in fire,” gets sliced and diced and accompanied by the same intermixed flute and banjo and twisting pitch blends.
Another of the gems off the Blood Bank EP, this furiously precious piano whirlwind of a song is like none other in the Bon Iver bank. That fast-twitch piano playing is interspersed only with some soft crooning to subdue it every so often. No real structure, no problem.
The striking kickstart of electric guitar and digital bleeps and bloops sets the stage for an unlikely swoop in of a simple guitar strum, but what comes next is a portrait of songwriting greatness with its swinging simplicity.
Any Bon Iver fan knows the feeling that hits them like those first lines of “Michicant: “I wasn’t afraid/ I was a boy/ I was a tender age.” A lullaby-like tune that even includes the sound of a handlebar bike bell, somehow nothing can evoke innocence like Justin Vernon really digging deep as with this track.
It’s the number of the beast, yes, but so much more. If hell sounds like this then heaven’s got it all wrong. “6s hang in the door/ What kind of shit to ignore,” Vernon espouses over a digital-style metronome backbeat. Throw in some record scratches, heavy drums and call-and-response vocal delivery and you have another example of the experimental bulls eye hit by Bon Iver on his most recent release.
Most songs don’t sound like a trip through some enchanted shire with a musical Baggins, but maybe more should. Little did we know what wonder was to come after Justin Vernon weaved his way through this acoustic trope full of tuneful tramping on For Emma.
This is where the list starts to really become heavyweight punch after heavyweight punch. One of the crowning jewels of Bon Iver’s Bon Iver, “Calgary” is the musical equivalent of the moon landing—it’s ethereal and beautiful and awe inducing.
More colon use, please Justin. And more songs like this, too. A straightforward strummer, this closer on Bon Iver’s debut from way back in 2007 never gets old, despite it’s brooding, yet deep-reaching simplicity.
Released as the first single about six weeks in advance of the new record, “22 (OVER SooN)” foretold the extreme sonic changes of 22, A Million. From the first twisted loop, the slow, sad acoustic songs from For Emma seemed so ancient, so quaint. “22 (OVER SooN)” announced a new era of Bon Iver, coming, “Soooon…soooon…soooon…”
Although this might seem like just another acoustic song from the Bon Iver catalog, the raw emotion proves it’s one of his best. Although Vernon moved away from narrative storytelling in his more recent efforts, the character in “Blood Bank” seem more real as he delivers the lines: “Well, I met you at the blood bank/We were looking at the bags/Wondering if any of the colors/Matched any of the names we knew on the tags/ You said ‘hey look at, that’s yours/Stacked on top of your brother’s/See how they resemble one other/Even in their plastic little covers.”
“The Wolves (Act I and II)” might be the pinnacle of Vernon’s early bare-bones approach with Bon Iver. Half the song has almost no music apart from single guitar strums, high falsetto cries, and the first touch of autotune. What at first seemed like an ember of musical adventure has grown into an empire of experimental earnestness.
This strangely titled tune is a puzzle within a puzzle of a phenomenal tune. Outside the grandiose piano melody and breezy musical and lyrical delivery is the importance of the meaning of those words. After an album full of numeric craziness overload, Vernon rides off into the sunset singing about a place, “Where the days have no numbers.” Well, playing a sample, actually. So apropos.
Justin Vernon really knows how to make a guitar sing. The electric riff here is as booming as anything on an already enormous self-titled album. Add to that the big bang musical theory imparted throughout and you have a tune too big to fail.
Oh, that echoing piano chord. “Climb…is all we know,” Vernon bellows over its top and soon you have a song laid out just like the lyric suggests. It’s a majestic ascension of a musical mountain, but one that never strains to surprise and smile on the listener for their presence in the setting.
Sometimes, you write a song so good it can be translated into any style of music. Here’s the soulful acoustic hit that introduced everyone in their dorm rooms and passers-by at coffee shops to what was to come.
There’s not one single thing on this song that’s not bewildering, fantastic, pretty, meta, existential, and interesting all wrapped up together. Vernon calls on sidekick S. Carey to help on vocals, which are purposely contorted in all kinds of ways into a cornucopia of sounds.
A true squall of sweet sounds, Vernon’s calling card could be a take on a New Orleans jazz march with its horns and piping drums and chanting string instruments. This titular track from the Bon Iver debut is the artist at his earliest attempt at creating that wall of sound we’ve all come to love.
Inspired by one of Vernon’s songwriting heroes, the incomparable Bruce Hornsby, this is Bon Iver’s version of that great old piano ballad “That’s Just The Way It Is.” The synths here are more modern, lifting the rest of the song on its shoulders along with the sorrowful delivery that makes this a legend within a legendary archive.
The mark of a good song is the memory it makes in an individual—that moment that plays and replays in your brain like a movie clip, always to the same soundtrack. For me, “Holocene” epitomizes that.
When my son was born, he couldn’t sleep for anything until he heard the slow burn of this tune. At less than a year old, I took him with me to see Bon Iver live, excited to share this one song with him and leave. He squirmed on the drive. He cried when we arrived. He fed on a bottle warmed on my car engine when the set started. But as the first notes of “Holocene” rang out, he froze. He smiled. With my baby boy in my arms, I ran into the gates, standing as much at the edge of the seating bowl as on the edge of infinity.
The song itself embodies that sense of looking and longing of that endless horizon. The xylophone’s an icicle melting; the acoustic guitar’s the steady, if still soft ground. Vernon whispers sweet nothings, and the sounds deliver us into the ether, maybe to sweet sleep like my little boy or into some subliminal space only God knows where.