2011: A simpler time. The Miami Big Three fell short in their first championship run as a superteam, bested by the miracle that was Dirk Nowitzki’s Dallas Mavericks; the Oscars had yet again shut the best film of the year (Moneyball, and it wasn’t close) out of every award; Twitter existed, but I was not cool enough to use it; and after a three-year stretch of recording sessions in a remodeled veterinary clinic in Fall Creek, WI, a falsetto-crooning folk-singer released his surprisingly expansive semi-eponymous second record, Bon Iver, Bon Iver, to near-universal critical acclaim. 

There is a longer article to be written about the way Justin Vernon’s many musical projects have intertwined with my personal history: from the first date that-wasn’t-really-a-date with my now-wife at their Mountain Park performance to our engagement soundtracked by “Tiderays”; from the cover of “Lump Sum” I arranged for my friend Claire to perform in college, to Justin’s solo performance of it in my hometown one day shy of a year after her death; from the first listen to “Skinny Love” on a dorm room bed through the decade-and-change of me desperately trying to make music that made me feel the way his did (for better and for worse). 

But this is not that article. 

Instead, this is a celebration of the recent decade-aversary of that sophomore album, a creative tipping point that transitioned Bon Iver from mythological cabin-dwelling balladeer to genre-transcending musical force. What better way to celebrate than with the second installment of our All-NBA/Musician mashup series, or as it shall be know from this day forwards: 

THE 2021 ALL-JVA (Justin Vernon [is] Awesome) AWARDS 

(To check out the inaugural Prince-themed installment, swing over to the 2021 All-NPA Awards)

This series of awards recognize fifteen of the top-tier Justin Vernon songs. In our previous All-JVA installment, we mirrored the All-NBA’s Guard, Forward, and Big positional breakdown with a requisite Opener, Closer, and three Middle tracks per team. However, given that Justin Vernon’s musical catalog is not quite as extensive as the Purple One’s, we’ve made a slight modification here: 

Each All-JVA Team will once again be required to have three (3) Middle tracks (tracks from any position from second to second to last on an album, or songs released as a non-album single). In addition, each All-JVA Team must have one (1) Bookender (an opening or closing album track), and, in honor of Justin Vernon’s extensive catalog of side-projects and features, one (1) single or album track by a primary artist that is not Bon Iver (for our purposes, a Non-Bon track). We’ll start things off with our bronze-medalists: 

Third Team All-JVA 

Bookender: Perth (Bon Iver, Bon Iver)
Middle Track One: Michicant (Bon Iver, Bon Iver)
Middle Track Two: Towers (Bon Iver, Bon Iver)
Middle Track Three: Jelmore (i,i)
Non-Bon: Gratitude (Big Red Machine, Big Red Machine

Appropriately, the Third Team All-JVA is a Bon Iver, Bon Iver heavy ensemble. The opening of “Perth” remains an emotional gut-punch ten years after it debuted in the album’s teaser trailer. Its pivot to militaristic folk-rock-anthem after the first minute now reads as a deliberate announcement of Bon Iver’s evolutionary musical mission statement, even if at the moment we were too caught up in the bombast to notice. 

“Michicant” and “Towers” are, for me, constantly shuffling between the #1 and #2 rankings off BI, BI, two sides of the same narrative coin with drastically different musical trajectories. Today, the unexpected production of “Michicant” elevates it just slightly (credit in large part to the sax playing of Mike Lewis and Colin Stetson). Tomorrow, the stripped simplicity of “Towers” may take the lead. It’s a constant oscillation. 

Closing out Third Team are a pair of tracks at the sonic terminus of the trajectory BI, BI set in motion: “Jelmore” (in spite of my dear friend Zach’s constant bullying) is a favorite from the most recent Bon Iver project, the distillation of Justin’s earlier simplicity of songwriting filtered through a gritty, fragmented synthesizer. It’s a story dis-and-reassembling mid-listen. 

“Gratitude,” the first single from JV’s recent Big Red Machine collaboration with Aaron Dessner (one half of The National’s Dessner Twins), is the other end of the songwriting continuum, loop-based, and stream of consciousness; one simple idea unfolding into untethered emotional catharsis over distortion-heavy loops. The DNA of “Wolves (Act I and II)” is here, though its campfire context has been replaced by glitch heavy electronics. I genuinely shouted the first time I heard “Gratitude,” and it remains for me among the upper-tier of Non-Bon JV projects. 

Second Team All-JVA

Bookender: Blood Bank (Blood Bank)
Middle Track One: 715 – CR∑∑KS (22, A Million)
Middle Track Two: iMi (i,i)
Middle Track Three: Lump Sum (For Emma, Forever Ago)
Non-Bon: I Need A Forest Fire (James Blake, The Colour In Anything)

Whether deliberately or not, “Blood Bank” stands as one of Justin Vernon’s more overt flexes: “Abstract Lyricist Tries Bob Dylan-Type Storytelling On For Size–Destroys It.” The literalism of “Blood Bank” was as disarming on first listen as Vernon’s unwillingness to deploy his vocal super-power throughout the track, discarding his For Emma falsetto for a rough-edged chest voice that came as a surprise to all but a few lingering DeYarmond Edison fans

Behind that initial shock was a blueprint to a Bon Iver that could have been: the snow-bound, world-weary Wisconsin storyteller. Many of my favorite JV tracks were yet to come at this point, but I can’t help imagining the incredible songs that doppelganger Bon would have given us. 

Instead, we got “715 – CR∑∑KS.”  If 22, A Million era Bon Iver is defined by its cacophonous experimentation, “715” is its thesis statement: a brilliant demonstration of the contorted beauty that can stumble out of that noise. It’s the apex of Vernon’s vocal-synthesis obsession, a literal magic trick to watch performed live, and constantly teeters on the First-Team border.

Along with it is newcomer “iMi.” Spiritually an opening track, but skating by on something of a technicality (“Yi” is little more than a 30-second introduction, but that’s good enough for our purposes), “iMi” announced a new iteration of Bon Iver much like “Perth” did a decade prior. Warped by layers of tape decay and pitch-shifting, the track cycles through various vocalists before Vernon emerges, only for him to quickly be joined again by his new cohort. Ironically, the i,i era of Bon Iver is the band in its most collaborative format, and “iMi” perfectly articulates the creative potential of that decentralization. 

Though technically a James Blake joint, “I Need A Forrest Fire” feels of a piece with this latter period of Bon Iver, preoccupied more with the emotional impact of a warped sample than the comprehensibility of a lyric. Blake and Vernon are a perfect pair for this sort of composition, both vocalists whose inherent emotionality can clearly render a feeling whether or not we can decipher the words they are singing.  “I Need A Forrest Fire” is a masterclass of disjointed melancholy, and one of the songs I return to most out of this year’s JVA Award winners. 

And then there’s “Lump Sum.” It’s an impossible track for me to rank. I go long stretches without being able to listen to it, then weeks where playing it is a daily ritual. I can’t separate my love of the song from memories of Claire pantomiming innuendo to Vernon’s misheard lyrics. I can’t hear Justin’s voice without hers. “Lump Sum” will probably never be my favorite Bon Iver song, but it’s certainly the hardest for me to let go. Second Team All-JVA feels at once too low and too high. So it goes. 

First Team All-JVA

Bookender: Re: Stacks (For Emma, Forever Ago)
Middle Track One: Skinny Love (For Emma, Forever Ago)
Middle Track Two: The Wolves (Act I and II) (For Emma, Forever Ago)
Middle Track Three: 666 ʇ (22, A Million)
Non-Bon: Alaskans (Volcano Choir, Repave

Much like “Michicant” and “Towers,” I often think of “Skinny Love” and “Wolves (Act I and II)” as inextricably intertwined. Though less narratively linked than the BI, BI duo, both tracks capture what is perhaps the defining characteristic of Bon Iver (at least through the earliest portion of his career): an unrestrained, near-overpowering catharsis. Contrary to the longstanding joke about JV and his gentle warbling, there is a roughness to both tracks, “Skinny Love” with its drunken strumming and “Wolves” with its mumbling, mournful chorus. Neither has lost an ounce of impact in the thirteen years since I first heard them, and I don’t expect that to change anytime soon. 

“666 ʇ” is the most recent Bon Iver song to make the First Team, and the lone track from my favorite of their records (which I’ll choose to look at more as a testament more to the cohesive brilliance of 22, A Million than my fumbling the ball on these rankings). Justin opened with this song the second time I saw him perform, at what was ostensibly a solo show in a small theater in Northampton, MA. I remember him starting to play before the lights came up, though I may have that wrong. It stands as the best single-song performance I’ve ever seen and the best show I’ve ever been to. 

A trio of Volcano Choir tracks made my Non-Bon shortlist (see below) but “Alaskans” ultimately rose to the top. It’s beautifully restrained in its production (centered on a guitar, a piano, Vernon’s raw vocal performance, and a mumbled Bukowski reading under layers of reverb) and is emblematic of that side-project’s uncanny balancing act of proximity and distance–impossibly close yet never able to fully comprehend. A blurry sort of intimacy.

At the top of my Bon Iver/Justin Vernon draft board is “Re: Stacks,” maintaining its position since first listen back in 2008. 

For as much as Vernon’s experimentation in production and storytelling has been his hallmark, the simplicity of “Re: Stacks” in both respects so effectively serves the song that it elevates even higher than its more intricately crafted or uniquely contrived peers. 

It’s a testament to JV’s lyrical obscurity that one of his more linearly narrative tracks (second to “Blood Bank”) remains this difficult to follow. But here the anchor of plot gives added weight and purpose to that familiar wash of his airy vocal; a simultaneous feeling of immediacy and universality. I listen to “Re: Stacks” and I am transported somewhere else: a cramped bedroom in Middletown, a snowy house in Woodstock, a shoreline in Westport, an overlook in Deerfield, a rooftop in Queens. I float between them. I am grounded and impossibly light. 

I know there’s more to that transportive feeling than just the music. I know that the ways in which Vernon and his songs have inextricably woven themselves in and out of moments in my life are as much a product of what happened to be playing in the background of those moments as they are a consequence of the pure emotive power of his music. 

I also know that the list of artists who could shoulder that emotional load is not very long. And as sappy as it sounds, through whatever combination of coincidental resonance and fated connectivity, I feel incredibly lucky that things lined up for Bon Iver and me. 

Some Essential All-JVA Honorable Mentions: 

  • Bookenders:22 (OVER S∞∞N)”, “Beth/Rest”, “Flume”, “Woods”
  • Non-Bons: “Tiderays” (Volcano Choir), “Island IS”  (VC), “I Won’t Run From It” (Big Red Machine), “Wedding Song” (Anaïs Mitchell), “Wait For Me” (AM)  “Air Stryp” (BRM), “Almanac” (VC), “love long gone” (DeYarmond Edison), “The Last Prom On Earth” (Gayngs), “Faded High” (G), “Husks And Shells” (VC), “Sleepymouth” (VC), “Cool Knowledge” (VC), “Dancepack” (VC), “Almanac” (VC) “Monster” (Kanye West), “ivy” (Taylor Swift), “Exile” (TS), “dead anchor” (DE), “first impression” (DE) 
  • Middle Tracks: “8 (circle),” “U (Man Like),” “Calgary,” “Blindsided,” “Babys,” “Heavenly Father,” “Wash.,” “Salem,” “10 d E A T h b R E a s t ⚄ ⚄,” “AUATC,” ”Brackett, WI” 

If you want more Bon Iver: Nate’s Top 50(ish) Justin Vernon Songs