Bon Iver was founded in 2006 by singer-songwriter Justin Vernon. Their first album, For Emma, Forever Ago, was released in July 2007. Although it didn’t set the charts alight, critically, the reception couldn’t have been any better. The band has continued in much the same vein since then. They don’t court the charts, and it’s rare for them to make them. They do, however, inspire intense, almost reverential loyally among their fanbase and the music press… and for very good reason. Here’s our pick of the 10 best Bon Iver songs of all time.
10. Blood Bank
Bon Iver have recorded countless acoustic songs over the years. On the surface, Blood Bank is yet another in a long line. But dig around the lyrics, and you’ll find a song dripping in enough raw emotion to mark it out from the pack. Vernon might have drifted away from narrative storytelling in recent years, but here, it’s at its finest. His description of how a freezing night in the heart of a Wisconsin winter can suddenly take a romantic turn is particularly poignant: “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.”
9. Re: Stacks
After layering on the special effects and blasts of brass for most of For Emma, Forever Ago, Vernon stripped it all away for Re: Stacks. With little more than a pretty melody and a gorgeous chord progression to hold it together, this ballad about forcing yourself to move on even when you want to stay is, despite its surface slightness, one of the album’s very strongest tracks. If you’re looking for the mother of all breakup songs, this might well be it.
8. The Wolves (Act I and II)
Vernon leaves the lyrics of The Wolves (Act I and II) open to interpretation. Thanks to lines like “Someday my pain, will mark you,” most people think it’s about a relationship gone sour. Whatever it’s about, Vernon chose a particularly beautiful way to say it, stripping back the music to a few guitar wails and a couple of bone-chilling cries while adding just the right amount of autotune to elevate the ethereal quality. His voice, meanwhile, sounds like it’s been coated in molasses.
7. 29 #Strafford APTS
According to Song Facts, 29 #Strafford APTS was created from an acoustic demo that Vernon had made. “It was exciting,” co-producer BJ Burton has recalled, “because we hadn’t done this kind of thing with his music before, vary the speed and pitch, play with tape manipulation and deterioration. All those crackles on that song are from this weird tape machine I got in Greensboro, North Carolina, from some farmer’s wife for $200.” The result is one of the most bewildering, splendid songs on the album 22, A Million.
Vernon has described the horn-heavy closing track to Bon Iver’s eponymous second album as his favorite from the album. “I’m the most proud of that song,” he told Rolling Stone. “It’s definitely the part where you pick up your joint and re-light it.” He’s remained cagey about the lyrical meaning, but regardless of who or what it’s about, there’s no question about the beauty of the melody, the heartbreaking delivery, or those heavenly stabs of synth.
5. Skinny Love
As Paste Magazine writes, sometimes you write a song so good, it can be translated into any style of music. Skinny Love is one of those songs. It was the song that turned everyone on to Bon Iver and gave them a hint of what was to come. The lyrics are vague, but the word weary hoarseness of Vernon’s vocals on the chorus give the impression of someone who’s come to the end of another long, pointless argument in a long, pointless relationship. Released as a single in 2008, it hit No. 88 on the UK Official Streaming Chart Top 100 and has been certified 2x Platinum in the US and Platinum in the UK.
4. For Emma
With its horns, strings, and piping drums, the titular track to the 2008 album For Emma, Forever Ago is one of the first building blocks in the wall of sound Bon Iver have become known for. The album went platinum, and while the song failed to chart, it remain one of the most hauntingly beautiful and beloved in Bon Iver’s catalog.
Vernon, who’s said that Perth grew out of a rejuvenating experience he had in the Australian city, has described the song as “a Civil War-sounding heavy metal song.” With a marching drum, a children’s choir, and wailing guitar, it’s easy to see his point. A post-rock slice of grandeur that still manages to retain a sense of beauty for all its mad, jarring chaos, it’s a highlight of Bon Iver’s eponymous second album.
Woods consists of nothing more than a paragraph of verse, repeated 11 times: “I’m up in the woods, I’m down on my mind/ I’m building a sill to slow down the time.” If that sounds odd, it is. If it sounds boring, listen to the song. Vernon spins harmonies, layers textures, plays with autotune, and conjures up a wall of sound that’s almost frightening in its intensity. Described by Stereo Gum, as “the sound of Vernon springing out of his predetermined genre box, never to be contained again,” it’s a song that leaves Bon Iver’s indie folk peers coughing on their dust.
Few songs, in either Bon Iver’s back pages or anyone else’s, manage to conjure a sense of longing more elegantly than Holocene. Hushed, ethereal, and beautiful enough to hurt, it’s as close to perfect as Bon Iver have ever come Released as a single in September 2011, it reached No. 18 on the Bubbling Under Hot 100 Singles year-end chart and was named song of the year by various publications. It also managed to pick up nominations for Song the Year and Record of the Year at the Grammys.