Sam Bernstein managing editor
Wisconsin-based indie band Bon Iver shouldn’t be underrated. The band has won two Grammy awards, been on Kanye albums and performed one of the defining love songs of the 2000s (“Skinny Love”). But they are. They’ve never charted in the U.S., rarely receive any airplay on alternative radio stations and don’t have large-scale name recognition. Bon Iver deserves to be the face of alternative music, and the fact that they aren’t is puzzling.
The group has won two Grammy awards, winning Best New Artist and Best Alternative Music Album in 2012, and they’ve been nominated for three other awards, most notably Song of the Year, also in 2012. Bon Iver produced and provided vocals for three songs on Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, two of which (“Dark Fantasy,” “Monster”) charted on Billboard’s Hot 100. Bon Iver’s frontman, Justin Vernon, worked on two other Kanye albums, Watch the Throne and Yeezus.
Regardless of this more anonymous success, the band has never charted on the Hot 100. Their 2007 single “Skinny Love” charted in the UK, peaking at 88. Their 2016 album 22, A Million is admittedly not their best work, as it strayed away from the more wholesome sound they mastered on the two albums that preceded it. However, the two albums referenced are two of the best alternative albums of the 21st century. Both albumbs (2007’s For Emma, Forever Ago and 2011’s Bon Iver) defined a new, budding genre in alternative music called indie-folk, which is a play on traditional acoustic folk music with contemporary production and instrumentals. The records are two of the boldest, most unique albums of their time and did very well for themselves despite their untraditional roots. Both albums helped establish Bon Iver as a giant in the alternative music scene, solidifying them as one of the most purely talented bands in alternative music. For Emma, Forever Ago is one of the most important alternative albums of all time, as it is largely responsible for helping popularize a softer brand of alternative music.
So how is Bon Iver underrated? People know and love “Skinny Love,” and Vernon has found loads of success behind the scenes with massive artists, but, to put it bluntly, Bon Iver’s music doesn’t appraise the amount of fame it should. Vernon, the face of the band doesn’t have much name recognition at all. Vernon’s Instagram account only has 38,000 followers, which is far less than those in the same genre who aren’t nearly as accomplished as Vernon. While all of this might just be part of the plan for Vernon and Bon Iver, it is frustrating to see such a talented band go so under the radar. Bon Iver has never charted on the Hot 100, despite having radio hits like Skinny Love. Bon Iver’s most recent album, 22, A Million had songs with big name potential written all over it. “33 ‘God’”, which got over 50 million plays on Spotify, didn’t chart.
Indie-folk clearly garners some attention from the mainstream music world. Mumford & Sons, the current face of the genre, had massive success with their song “I Will Wait” in 2012. Passenger’s “Let Her Go” peaked at number five on the Hot 100 and is almost at one billion listens on Spotify. Sufjan Stevens, famous for his album Carrie & Lowell wrote and performed most of the soundtrack for “Call Me By Your Name.” Vance Joy charted with his single Riptide and The Lumineers charted with their single “Ho Hay”, Indie-folk is well known enough to enable Bon Iver to be one of the biggest groups in the world, but they aren’t. But they absolutely should be.
The success of “Skinny Love” is particularly interesting. While it does have all the elements a radio hit should have (a frustratingly catchy chorus, basic repetition, lyrics that are easy to understand and relate to, etc.), “Skinny Love” is incredibly different from other radio hits from its era. The song’s blatant vulnerability, from the low production quality to his yearning cries at the end of the track, creates a sense of openness and honesty that other radio hits simply don’t have. The song was recorded in Vernon’s father’s hunting cabin in Eau Claire, Wisconsin while Vernon was recovering from a breakup as well as a severe case of mononucleosis, so the song’s authenticity is truly genuine. The pain Vernon shares in the song is the pain he felt at the time of recording, which just hasn’t often existed in the recording of pop music. Bon Iver’s ability to make hits that are suitable for a mainstream audience while upholding the musical values that they strongly believe in makes them one of the more talented groups in the world.
Fans of Bon Iver and indie-rock know this better than anyone else: Bon Iver is beyond deserving of the success that they’ve had. The band’s diverse portfolio of music, from the calm, rustic sounds of For Emma, Forever Ago to the complexities of 22, A Million makes it possible for fans of most alternative genres to be drawn to them. Their biggest strength is their consistency, they haven’t had a song where they sounded off. This includes their little-known EP Blood Bank and their various feature appearances, of which “I Need a Forest Fire” with James Blake is the highlight.
Bon Iver deserves to be one of the biggest bands in alternative music. They have time and time again proven themselves to be a force in the alternative world, and they deserve to be at the top of the genre.