A Bon Iver Mixtape

Does anyone else remember the days before streaming services? Before playlists? If you wanted to get someone into a certain band, or play them a selection of the artists you’d be watching live at the weekend, you couldn’t just drag every song they’d ever written into a playlist and send it to them over email. Nope. You really had to think about it, to distil that feeling you wanted to give them down into a few tough choices.

Tapes had two sides, both 45 minutes long. You had that long to say what you needed to say and then it was time to move on. We’re bringing that challenge back in our mixtape. 45 minutes to convince someone why they should like a certain band, artist, genre, or era.

I was trying to think of an artist I could cover here that we haven’t talked about very much on Picky B’s and I had instantly ruled out Bon Iver because I just assumed we never stop banging on about Justin Vernon on this website. A quick check on PickyBs.com and I was shocked to realise we’ve only written 2 proper articles about the band/group/one man music machine and so with me very excited to finally see them live again I thought why not try and condense the last few decades of music into 45 minutes. (I’m sure every other one of the Bastards would pick a completely different set of songs)

Flume – ‘3:39’

Kicking things off is the first song I imagine many people ever heard from Justin Vernon, the opening track of debut album For Emma, Forever Ago. ‘Flume’ is subtle, it’s extremely simple in its melody, structure, and Justin’s vocal, but there’s something immediately haunting and emotional about it. You can’t quite put your finger on it yet, but there’s something in here that’s unlike anything you’ve heard before. I also wanted to start with something very accessible before the chaos that’s soon to follow.

715 – CRΣΣKS – ‘2:10’

Now we go headfirst into for me the most emotional track that Bon Iver has ever released. Entirely created using layers of vocoder this is a song that makes grown adults bawl their eyes out at obscure lyrics that don’t really make sense at all. It’s sort of the definitive example of the emotional power of Justin Vernon’s vocal, one of the defining voices of a generation that somehow still cuts through the electronic sound he puts his voice through.

Perth – ‘4:22’

Straight into the opener of the self-titled second album, for me this was probably the track where I really ‘got’ the fuss over Bon Iver. This album was more of an entry point for a lot of us, the expansiveness of the sound, the musicality and layers of instrumentation adding so much depth to everything. ‘Perth’ really builds in such a satisfying way, I love that moment where the brass comes in suddenly. This is the first track so far that for me is way more about the musical landscape that’s created than the haunting vocal we usually focus on with Bon Iver records.

666 ʇ – ‘4:12’

Back to 22, A Million, undoubtedly Bon Iver’s defining record (or at least according to this Picky Bastard), and ‘666’ which continues the more guitar led sound we heard on ‘Perth’ but taken in a different direction completely. It’s the juxtaposition of the organic sounds of live instrumentation and the more metallic sounds that make this such a great record. Drums clatter around scratches of samples and vocal snippets blare in next to subtle wind instruments. If you’ve made it this far and still enjoy the music then you’ll be set for the rest of the mixtape. For everyone else, there might be something else but chances are high you already know you’ll hate it.

Holyfields, – ‘3:07’

Latest album I,I managed to be both Bon Iver’s most accessible album yet and full of songs like ‘Holyfields,’ that to the uninitiated will sound very strange. I love the use of strings here, the very high pitch moments to the gorgeous flowing moments that follow. It’s a really beautiful song that was absolutely a highlight for me on the latest album.

Friends – ‘3:08’

A left field choice, but in the year when 22, A Million was my Album of the Year, this collaboration with Francis and the Lights was my favourite song of that year. I love hearing Justin singing on a more straightforward example of one of his songs, or at least it teases you with being straightforward. The moments where the song layers back over itself with seemingly hundreds of voices is a thrill and feels like such a poignant record for everyone involved.

8 (circle) –‘5:09’

I haven’t gone for very many cheery records have I? ‘8 (circle)’ could be the closest to a standard ballad that Bon Iver has ever come to, not musically of course, it’s still layers and layers and chaos by the end; but stripped back this would still work. As it stands it’s one of the best single tracks that Bon Iver have ever delivered a self-contained, emotional from start to finish and utilising pretty much every musical skill that Justin Vernon has as a writer, singer and musician.

Calgary – ‘4:10’

I was going to include I,I’s ‘Faith’ here but realised I’ve basically picked about 6 Bon Iver tracks that sound the same. Instead, here’s ‘Calgary’ which opens with very low key synths and gorgeous vocals before it develops into one of the more earthy guitar led moments of their career. By the end you have scuzzy guitar lines clashing with Justin’s delicate voice in such a satisfying way. The ‘So it’s stoney on the lake’ lyrical section in the second half so satisfying after the steady build up.

Creature Fear – ‘3:06’

I can hear OG Bon Iver fans frantically calling me out for taking this long to return to the debut album, but now that I have it’s probably for the best track from that album. It’s maybe the first moment on For Emma where the pleasantness of the surrounding music falls away and gives way for something more dramatic. It sounds huge in comparison to the acoustic sound that comes before, but it’s interesting to compare the relatively slight sound Justin is layering here compared to elsewhere on the mixtape. A true highlight for me.

Blood Bank – ‘4:38’

‘Blood Bank’ truly stands out, not just in this small collection of songs I’ve chosen, but in Bon Iver’s entire discography. It’s the only song you could describe as ‘Indie’ really and while I’m pretty sure Justin Vernon never intended to front an Alternative Rock band, he makes a very good go of it here. ‘Blood Bank’ is by far the most accessible record and a brilliant entry point for anyone who is turned off at the thought of some of the more chaotic music earlier in this playlist. The lyrics even make proper sentences in this song.

Beth/Rest – ‘5:17’

Why am I ending a mixtape about one of the 2010’s most renowned acts with a song that sounds like a cover of an 80s power ballad? Because ‘Beth/Rest’ is fantastic that’s why. Music to make music geeks cry, that’s what Bon Iver is when it all comes down to it. Me and the other Bastards can come up with loads of reasons why these songs resonate with us, but it’s that cross section of being in awe of the quality of music you are hearing and the soulful heartbreaking way that Justin Vernon sings the songs that makes it work. ‘Beth/Rest’ achieves all of these things perfectly and ends up as a shining example of the power of Bon Iver’s music.

Words by Sam Atkins

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