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The 11 best Bon Iver songs

Why have a Top 10 when you can have one more? Here are our 11 favourite Bon Iver songs, ranked

One winter in the mid noughties, Justin Vernon took to his father’s cabin in rural Wisconsin to chop wood, write songs and deal with his demons. When he left, he would go on to become one of the biggest figures in indie and pop in recent years. The tale is by now very familiar, but Vernon still continues to take Bon Iver on a vast journey.

Next week this path leads to the UK, where he plays Leeds, Glasgow, Manchester and London. Here we look back through his work and pick just 11 of our favourite Bon Iver tracks.

11. Marion

(i,i, 2019)

With his patchwork of samples and experimental vocals, the Bon Iver of recent years is a far cry from the cabin and guitar image Vernon created in the late noughties. But the last full-lenth i,i did open a little more space for this simpler songcraft, and ‘Marion’ proved that this decision was to powerful effect, reminding us of Vernon’s ear for goose bump-inducing chords.

10. Beth/Rest

(Bon Iver, 2011)

A surprise ending to the self-titled second LP, ‘Beth/Rest’ is drenched in 80s dry ice power balladry. Yet it worked, lending’s Vernon’s huge voice a tad more melodrama. The guitar solo is perhaps a little extra but it certainly adds to the era he was going for here. It can also be enjoyed stripped to the bone, thanks to a 4AD/Jagjaguwar session, which really highlights the pop sensibility of Vernon’s vocals.

9. Hey, Ma

(i,i, 2019)

A scintillating track of many components that fits together into a complete purging puzzle, ‘Hey, Ma’ reflects on Vernon’s home life while reminding us to call our old dear. Though it’s not all warm nostalgia (“Full time you talk your money up/While it’s living in a coal mine), that melody that hits is one of his best.

8. U (Man Like)

(i,i, 2019)

Another strong addition from i,i, U (Man Like) is a piano ballad collaboration with Bruce Hornsby (if the name doesn’t ring a bell, maybe the opening notes of this will), so there’s another 80s feel here albeit a little subtler. Hornsby’s voice adds a little gruff to Vernon’s especially soulful falsetto here, and backing from Wye Oak/Flock of Dimes’ Jenn Wasner can be heard here too.

7. Perth

(Bon Iver, 2011)

Bon Iver’s second album dedicated each of its track titles to cities that had become meaningful to the band, and this one penned for Australia’s City of Lights is a standout. More specifically, it nods to the home of Heath Ledger, who died while the actor’s friend Matt Amato was with Vernon shooting a music video. How it shifts from the delicate opening guitar to the wailing lick and crashing double pedals is immediately moving.

6. Flume

(For Emma, Forever Ago, 2008)

The opening track on Vernon’s landmark debut, ‘Flume’ feels, well, forever ago now. The metal rattle of his cheap Silvertone acoustic adds something ineffable to the warm chord structure of the song. It’s familiar, immediate and flawed; and all the better for it. Famously written while Vernon was a cabin recluse healing his heart (or so the story goes), when the vocal harmonies come in towards the end there’s a crystalline sense of relief.

5. Blood Bank

(Blood Bank EP, 2009)

Originally written for For Emma, this brooding slow burner needed a home of its own. There’s something quite striking and visceral about the imagery of white snow contrasted with the red blood of the donation centre where he meets the subject of the song; meanwhile a gentle beat pulses throughout like a reminder of the heart pumping.

4. Blindsided

(For Emma, Forever Ago, 2008)

Though Vernon once admitted that ‘Blindsided’ detailed in clear terms his attempt to sneak into the construction site of a credit union in Eau Claire (Bike down, down to the downtown/
Down to the lock down, boards, nails lie around), the musicality of the song paints it in lucid romanticism, its snowy scape numbing but later thawing its wistful, bittersweet tone.

3. 29 #Strafford APTS

Bon Iver’s 2016 third album 22, A Million saw his biggest shift in sound, with tape manipulations, vocal twists and plentiful horns. This enigmatic but beautiful track from it is at its core a familiar folk ditty that recalls sharing a smoke with a friend, but it is at once far more than that. Its production is rich and wide, but in a moment can close in to feel intimate to the point of deterioration.

2. For Emma

(For Emma, Forever Ago, 2008)

Though much of For Emma, Forever Ago is emotively hushed and silent, its title track seems to revel in its earnest chord strums and long brass notes. Though Vernon has admitted Emma was not really a real person but rather a symbol of past grievances he’d been holding on to, the line “Go find another lover/ To bring a… to string along!/ With all your lies/ You’re still very lovable”, still feels like a rallying cry to go out there and live again.

1. re:stacks

(For Emma, Forever Ago, 2008)

For some, ‘Skinny Love’ will always be the emotional high point of For Emma. But for others, its closing number ‘re:stacks’ will always mean the most. It’s one of Vernon’s most refined moments of lyricism, while somehow alluding to the Dead Sea Scrolls and using a rhyme as simple as “racks” and “stacks2 at its core. Like the rest of the album that leads up to this moment, it’s haunting melody leaves us vulnerable and exposed, but Vernon ends by assuring us “Your love will be/ Safe with me”.

Bon Iver is touring the UK from 19-26 October, including two nights at OVO Wembley Arena. Limited tickets for Bon Iver are available here.