SputStaff Top 10: Bon Iver Songs

Published: September 12, 2022

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For Emma, Forever AgoBlood Bank [Explicit]Bon Iver (album) - Wikipedia22 (Over Soon) [Explicit]I,I


Welcome back to the SputStaff Top 10, where we answer the music-related questions that keep you up at night. On today’s menu is Bon Iver, everyone’s favorite snowed-in log cabin dwelling acoustic guitar wielding vocoder falsetto warbler. You might remember the name from any number of mainstream pop artists who have featured him in their songs in a vain attempt to forcibly acquire indie cred (often stylized as “ft. Justin Vernon of BON IVER”). Vernon’s name has become virtually synonymous with the indie/folk genre, and he’s arguably one of the most popular and influential artists ever to grace that scene. Our staff decided to review his entire discography and enshrine his ten best songs to-date; no simple task but also one that we were excited to undertake. Scroll down to see the complete list (including five tracks that narrowly missed the cut) as well as a Spotify playlist where you can jam all of Bon Iver’s greatest songs in one place. Enjoy!



Honorable Mentions:

15. Skinny Love / Naeem  [TIE]

14. Beth/Rest

13. 8 (circle)

12. Faith

11. For Emma



Sputnik Staff Top 10 Bon Iver Songs:


(10) “29 #Strafford APTS”

from 22, A Million (2016)

I’ve always thought of “29 #Strafford APTS” (yes, it’s a mouthful) as the quintessential evidence of the hindsight realization that Bon Iver’s sonic about-face between the self-titled and 22, A Million wasn’t nearly as dramatic as it seemed at the time. This claim has two bases. First, there’s the fact that the opening duet of albums had their share of hints of where Bon Iver would eventually go: For Emma, Forever Ago with the experimentation ensconced in its rustic folk identity, and Bon Iver, Bon Iver as a substantial transition towards its follow-ups. Second, 22, A Million, for all the hype, isn’t composed solely of weird glitches and cold electronic atmosphere, there are still plenty of moments of frail humanity which harken back to previous output. “29 #Strafford APTS” is the most obvious of these digressions, full of hushed feeling and the kind of catchy vocals which demand to be sung along with even if you don’t know the words. This is simply a great, great tune which captures the essence of the continuity within Bon Iver’s varied discography. –Sunnyvale


(9) “Lump Sum”

from For Emma, Forever Ago (2007)

Justin Vernon doesn’t strike me as an artist who does just one thing very well, but nor does he seem like one of those artists with an infinite variety of interests. I’d say the guy has, like, three or four big sonic-conceptual threads running through his admittedly varied and shifting discography, and sometimes he’s kind enough to synthes- and crystall- ize these different modes of expression—different approaches to the act of giving sonic pleasure—in one fell swoop.

The beginning of “Lump Sum” provides such a moment: first, the odd balance between spiritual solitude and communal catharsis embodied in Gregorian chant; then, the subtly “electronic” feel of a solid four-on-the-floor bass drum beat; finally, the plangent strokes of acoustic guitar, about which I’ll refer to Sputnikmuser loveisamixtape, who said of the Grouper album Ruins that it is “both the blanket and the freezing cold”.

What’s really cool and edifying about such sequences is that they register both as the naturally-flowing experimentations of an immediately immensely confident (if heartbroken) singer-songwriter and as a formalized artistic correlative to the vacillations of his mind and heart.

And then there is maybe some third thing, something that has to do more with us, with me, than with Vernon or the nature of his artistry. I used to dream so often, as a kid, of myself as a participant in that scene from Peter Pan where Peter and the kids are all flying briskly through the night sky. The last 30 seconds of “Lump Sum” bring me back there. I don’t quite know how to articulate the rarity and gratification of that intensely personal experience.

“Lump Sum” above all sees Vernon firing on all cylinders in an effort to articulate the unspeakable: through his weird words, generic eclecticism, whisper-soft dynamics, and ineffable ear for subtly affecting decisions behind the booth (or wooden fireplace or whatever). Balance he surely does know. –robertsona


(8) “Blood Bank”

from Blood Bank (2009)

‘Blood Bank’ feels less like a follow-up to For Emma, Forever Ago than a kind of prequel. There’s no doubt, Emma was a confrontational album, one which bore its fair share of emotional epiphanies. Rarely, though, if ever, did it give you unfiltered access to the memories that informed its sense of heartbreak and tragedy. ‘Blood Bank’, by contrast, does just this, and with a narrative clarity that is exceedingly rare in the Vernon catalogue. What results is a song that is equal-parts painful and beautiful, an appropriate point of transition between the pain of the debut and the beauty of its triumphant follow-up. –BlushfulHippocrene


(7) “Blindsided”

from For Emma, Forever Ago (2007)

In discussing the results of this vote with fellow handsome staffer Winesburgohio, I postulated that the bridge section of “Blindsided” – “would you really rush out, for me now?” – was the greatest moment in Bon Iver’s catalogue. He rightly rebuked me by reminding me of the real Moment – I’ll cover it later on in this piece – but that part of “Blindsided”, the way the quiet and reserved verse section opens up into a gorgeously open melody, remains some of Justin Vernon’s finest work. It’s also an important song in the context of For Emma, Forever Ago, introducing imagery – “I crouch like a crow, contrasting the snow” that will pay off in a truly haunting fashion on “re:Stacks”. –Rowan


(6) “22 (OVER S∞∞N)”

from 22, A Million (2016)

As the opener to Bon Iver’s most obvious “new look” album, 22 (OVER S∞∞N) sets the tone with its shimmery electronic bent accompanying the artist’s most irresistible hook (you know the one: It might be overrrr, sooooon). Like many of the songs on 22, A Million, “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” feels like a trim little snippet of a tune, but it’s undeniably one of the most memorable numbers in Bon Iver’s discography, both for its catchiness and for the sonic shift it represents. –Sunnyvale


(5) “Perth”

from Bon Iver, Bon Iver (2011)

I remember the first time I heard “Perth”. I hated it. It was my first contact with Bon Iver and, at the time, I was pretty sure it was going to be the last one. Falsetto harmonies? Double kickdrum under sad trombones? What the hell are you trying to sell me, bro? It was my wife, in all her holy wisdom, who succumbed to Justin Vernon’s spells first, draggin me with her in due time, and making me pay a fortune for the vinyl, which now plays on a different layer than the rest of songs due to how many times she has dropped the nail on this magnificent opener. “Perth” became my entry point to the rest of Vernon’s work. Like some of you, I learnt about the cabin, the legend, and wished I could do the same: fuck off to winterland, eat deer and talk to the trees. “Perth” was the song of that Vernon that came out of the cabin being that new man, a triumphal hymn, and the first notes of that timid guitar never fail to freeze my blood in nostalgia. Eventually, “Perth” played when my wife was about to bring our daughter to the world. While I was just wiping the sweat and tears from my cell trying to find the perfect song, she just reached her shaky hand to hers and tapped a finger without even looking. “Perth” was her plan all along. –Dewinged


(4) “Flume”

from For Emma, Forever Ago (2007)

“Flume,” the opener to Bon Iver’s debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago, is the same way the album is: sad and comforting at the same time, perhaps frigid but way less barren than you’d expect a one-man show with that backstory to be, and beautiful withal. Detail-oriented as a motherfucker, this Justin Vernon guy immediately demonstrates that he’s got a lot of tricks up his sleeve: sadboy guitar strokes, sure, but also the densest and intensest harmonies this side of The Roches, odd little plinks of strings and synth pads, and dare I say the possibly instinctive knowhow requisite to cook up a form that fits the song’s function as the opener to a capital-B capital-A Breakup Album. There’s a part about 2:53 into “Flume” where a lady joins Justin on the song’s soft and wistful chorus and the song takes on a new personality because music is math, because the lady’s voice has a personality and now she’s singing on the song and two is a bigger number than one, or at least a different one. It’s like a sonically formalized rendition of the revelation Christopher McCandless has about companionship at the end of the Into the Wild movie, or like the ending to Ernst Lubitsch’s Angel, a way better movie, where the couple embroiled in a seemingly implacable battle just minutes ago consolidates again by the seamless gesture of Marlene Dietrich suddenly appearing onscreen to take Herbert Marshall’s arm in hers as they both exit the scene of the dispute–fade to black; two become one. But this particular movie isn’t over. Vernon knows the value of a pleasure retracted, and he knows that most of the time that “two become one” shit goes way wrong, and he knows he’s got a grip on us with that harmony, and he knows the emptiness we’ll feel when it and musical gestures like it are uprooted entirely and he knows that that emptiness will create in the listener a small-scale simulacrum of the swirling hydra of fuckshit he himself once felt in his stomach heart and dick because this girl broke up with him or whatever. And so Vernon marketh the sparrow’s fall by making you experience this brief but beautiful, so-so-beautiful dude-lady harmony before he inevitably reneges, backs out, lets her disappear for the rest of time. Think, therefore, how much the emotional arc of For Emma, Forever Ago wholly requires that “Flume” be really good and comforting and sad, and how very much all of those things it is. –robertsona


(3) “The Wolves (Act I and II)”

from For Emma, Forever Ago (2007)

The magical thing about “The Wolves (Act I and II)” is how it sits perfectly in the middle of the Venn diagram between beards-in-a-winter-cabin Bon Iver and Yeezus-drums-vocoder-singing Bon Iver. The first half is some of the most elegant, heartbreaking acoustic music to come from Vernon’s pen, culminating in the best moment of his discography (“can’t you find a clue? when you eyes are all painted Sinatra blue”). The second half is somehow even better, foreshadowing the experimental departures Vernon would take with “Woods” and on. As Vernon asks “what might have been lost?” on repeat, a question without an answer, the effects distort his voice more and more, taking us further away from any sense of closure and into the wilderness with the wolves all around. –Rowan


(2) “re:Stacks”

from For Emma, Forever Ago (2007)

Every time “Re:Stacks” comes on these days, the initial melody fills me with a sense of nostalgia. Maybe that’s expected, as it’s a tremendous closer to one of the defining albums of its era. But I’d say it’s more than that. The tune is sad as hell, sure, fittingly given the subject matter of the record it kisses off so gloriously. That sadness, as it often does, mixes with the overwhelming sonic beauty to create a kind of bittersweet feeling hard to distinguish from some sort of primordial joy (“sad songs, they say so much”-as Elton John might put it). For a famously emotive vocalist, “Re:Stacks” is undoubtedly one of Justin Vernon’s most emotional pieces, both as a gut punch and a cathartic release, and for that fact alone it deserves mention among his finest creations. –Sunnyvale


(1) “Holocene”

from Bon Iver, Bon Iver (2011)

“Holocene” opens up with those fingerpicked guitars and you know shit’s about to be a movie. The song is named for a bar and venue in Portland, Oregon–Bon Iver, as I call him, apparently had a rough go of it one night there–but it’s also a reference to the period of geological time from the last Ice Age up ’til now, and the movie that those fingerpicked guitars tell you “Holocene” is about to be is a movie about the bar and also a movie about the ice melting for 11,000 years. From opener “Perth” right on to slick sophistipop ripper “Beth/Rest,” Bon Iver (2011)’s spiritually remedial power tears through the listener at every conceivable scale, and “Holocene” is the resplendent summit of its aesthetic of miles miles miles of bucolic expanse and of total surrender to ineffable forces so powerful they can only be evoked, not understood. And evoke “Holocene” does, so that every infinitesimal sonic element adds a crucial bit of shading or contour to the grand visuals that inevitably accompany any close listen: those aforementioned guitars pinging back and forth like crosshatchings of wheat; shuffling drums and tiny handclaps chronicling the movement of water across rocks. If bats could echolocate with “Holocene” blaring from their mouths like little BlueTooth speakers with wings, the world they’d witness would blow their minds with such benevolent violence that all we humans could see for days would be a cascade of bats constantly unfurling from the sky, a horrifying phenomenon straight out of yes a damn movie that would be sure to bring both to us and to the bats some level of fundamental displeasure were it not for our mutual assurance that the whole spectacle would be soundtracked by the wonderful, inimitable “Holocene”. –robertsona


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