Ranking ALL of Bon Iver’s Albums!
Since the release of Bon Iver’s debut album 14 years ago, the direction, sound and image of the collective has constantly changed. More like a project than a band, Bon Iver initially started as Justin Vernon’s solo project, before becoming a collaborative endeavour. Progressing from folk figureheads to electronic trailblazers, Bon Iver’s sound is in a perpetual state of flux. Four albums down the line, one thing is clear: just when you think you’ve got you head around their artistic vision, a new track comes your way and you realise that there’s no point in trying to predict where they’ll go next.
4) i,i (2019)
As an album, i,i, bridges the gap between the maximalism of 22, A Million and the minimalism of For Emma, Forever Ago. Having set out to make a series of albums to represent the seasons, i,i is autumn – the season of transformation. For that reason, the album is also the end of the cycle, with its musical culmination used by Bon Iver as a means of piecing together remnants of past records.
Where 22, A Million may have lost listeners in its radicalism, i,i is less divisive. Instead, Bon Iver errs on the side of caution, mixing and matching aspects from their discography to create a collage of sorts. Indeed, the acoustic guitar and horns of Bon Iver’s first two records collide with the glitchy synths and electronics of the band’s new dwelling. The song ‘Naeem’ perhaps best depicts this collision: its choral foundation works with folkish drums and clever sampling, merging to disparate worlds.
Nonetheless, it still manages to retain a sense of mystery in spite of its more direct messaging. From tackling climate change (‘Jelmore’) to homelessness (‘U (Man Like)’), Bon Iver has an ability to make his lyrics as engulfing as the sounds they find themselves rooted in. I guess if you’re going to bow out of a series of albums, you may as well go out with a bang and rally people to action. Why not try and catalyse social change?
3) Bon Iver (2011)
Where For Emma, Forever Ago, was lonesome and upfront, Bon Iver is more complex and mature. Being the first album from Bon Iver as a band, the album is an extension of their debut, elevating the soft guitars, thundering drums, horns and digitised harmonies introduced.
Lush seems like an appropriate way to describe the record. Everything about it is buttery – the harmonies, the melodies, the journey. Bon Iver is all about that feeling of being transported somewhere bigger and better than your previous location, whether geographically or mentally, allowing you to lose yourself to the gentle beats.
Combining textural ambience with droning guitars, Bon Iver works to ground you in all that’s natural. Although Justin may have introduced more collaborators to the project, at no point does the album feel strained. Instead, the tracks flow like a body of water, ebbing and flowing between the upbeat (‘Calgary’) and the downcast (‘Michicant’). Despite the twists and turns, the flow of the album always retains a sense of smoothness. The infamous ‘Holocene’ is an obvious stand out moment on the album, with the puncturing ‘I was not magnificent’ lyric summarising the transcendence evoked by the album.
2) For Emma, Forever Ago (2008)
Okay, hear me out with this one. I get that a lot of people worship this album, but I feel like giving it second position on this list is justified. Because, yes, it is an iconic album, but just not quite as game changing in terms of its influence as 22, A Million was.
It goes without saying that For Emma, Forever Ago was an exceptionally strong debut album. With little more than an acoustic guitar, For Emma’s allure lies within its earnestness. Although the story behind the album reads something like the plot of a film: heartbroken and suffering from mononucleosis, Justin retreated to his father’s hunting cabin in Wisconsin, the themes of the album are deeply relatable and heartfelt.
Nine tracks long, For Emma is beautifully intimate. Somehow heartwarming in its storytelling abilities yet avoiding anything too confessional, Bon Iver invites us in whilst denying us the potential to outstay our welcome. ‘Creature Fear’ and ‘re:stacks’ exemplify this distance, with their preoccupation with loneliness and lost love being equal sources of isolation and comfort.
Whereas listeners have become used to Justin’s modulated vocals in later years, it is his falsetto and strained tone that makes the album emotionally explosive. Working with the simplistic melodies to create a collection of bruised songs, it’s the stripped back nature of the album that provides it with its grandeur. ‘Skinny Love’ may have been the song to break Bon Iver into the mainstream, but this era of Bon Iver deserves more than being synonymous with TV talent shows.
1) 22, A Million (2016)
22, A Million is undeniably Bon Iver’s most experimental album. Stating in a press conference marking the album’s release, Justin Vernon explained how he ‘needed it to sound radical’ in order for him to ‘feel good about putting something out into the world’. With such force and experimentation, however, comes great divide.
I am a firm believer that all of Bon Iver’s risks paid off. Toying with the concepts of the controlled and the uncontrolled, the album centres around the idea of organised chaos. From Justin’s glitchy and extremely modulated vocals in ‘715 – CRΣΣKS’ to the ballad like ‘00000 Million’, the tracklist is varied beyond belief. It’s as if the album was built not to work, and yet it just does.Having swapped out the minimalism of the former two records, 22, A Million is an amazing example of artistic reinvention.
Whilst Bon Iver could have easily gone on creating soul barring music, they took a risk and progressed from folk figureheads to trailblazers in their production techniques. With Justin having worked with Kanye West prior to the album release, I’d say 22, A Million marks his Yeezus moment, becoming sonically formative in terms of its influence on contemporary electronic music.
Words by Lucy Robinson