On Experiencing Bon Iver at 20

Bon Iver announced a new album to be released later this year. I thought I’d take some time to reflect on what it was like to hear his first album when I was twenty.

I think most generations have some major cultural experience that it is hard to understand if you weren’t experiencing it in a particular age range, in a particular setting, and so on. This age range is probably about 16-24, maybe a little bigger depending on what it is, how much maturity the person has, and other circumstances again.

The reason you can’t be too young is that you’ll miss the “original,” and then those influences will permeate across a bunch of other artists, making it hard to understand what was so good about the original. I can’t for the life of me understand what is so great about the Beatles, but I imagine a young adult hearing them for the first time would have been as mind boggling as when I first heard Bon Iver.

There are a few reasons you can’t be too old. First, you get a little cynical about culture and art. Even when something groundbreaking comes around, you’ll find ways to compare it to other things you know: nothing original can be created. Second, life gets in the way. Maybe you listen to music while working out or driving, but you will rarely go in a dark room by yourself for 45 minutes when family, pets, children, jobs, housework, etc all demand something from you. This distracted listening won’t let you get in the right frame of mind for the experience.

Let’s set the stage. I was in music school for a while leading up to this. At the release of the album, I had changed majors, but a large portion of my friends were still music majors. We mostly listened to pretentious underground indie music: standard band instrumentation but using interesting, high-level composition techniques we liked to experiment with in our own music writing.

Before Bon Iver, the scene consisted of bands like Arctic Monkeys, TV on the Radio, Radiohead, Arcade Fire, Of Montreal, Animal Collective, etc. If you haven’t heard of some of these, they have big, highly-processed sounds. They use sampling and electronics. They tend to be bombastic and even grating.

The story behind Justin Vernon, aka Bon Iver, is that he had a very bad breakup, fell ill, and in general was depressed about his life’s prospects. He went into the woods of Wisconsin in total isolation (think Thoreau). Over the next year (I didn’t look up the exact time frame), he wrote and recorded the songs that would make up his debut album For Emma, Forever Ago.

It’s hard to explain just how shocking this album was. All the top bands kept shifting towards more and more technology as the technology got better. Each album had to be bigger and more grandiose than the last. Bon Iver went backwards. It is low-fi recording equipment, and acoustic guitar, and his voice. You can hear the creak of his floorboards at points. The whole thing is done falsetto, creating an even more fragile sound.

He poured everything into the album, and we understood it. We felt it. It sounds crazy, but I might have cried the first time I heard it. Ten years later, I still get chills listening to it. We talked about it all the time. We said: this is what music could be. This is why we love music. It can change people.

I know it’s one of those idealistic things people say that are rarely true, and that’s why it’s so hard to explain the moment. If you weren’t there under the right circumstances, then you missed it. I know people now that listen to it and say, “This is the most terrible crap I’ve ever heard.” I honestly get that. Even if you’ve never heard of him, Bon Iver forever changed the landscape of music. His influence is everywhere, and that makes listening to the original album sound dated and unoriginal.

Here’s one of the greatest moments on the album:

The album steadily builds to this track. The song itself talks about his pain. It builds into a climax on the line “What might have been lost.” This is a sentiment everyone can relate to—wondering what could have been, what if I did this one thing differently, how much is gone forever.

The subdued nature of the album up to this point doesn’t prepare you for how big and wild and raw the climax will be. This line leads into a powerful, dense chord with his primal wail of agony over it. One might say it is like a howling wolf.

This isn’t Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven,” where the words are sad. It isn’t just lip service in the form of a song. Vernon lets it all out in that moment. It’s almost tempting to turn the song off, because it’s too personal. It’s almost too embarrassing to witness that raw emotion to keep going.

That’s the connection he made with us. That’s what it was like to experience Bon Iver at twenty.


Music 2011

It’s that time of the year again. Here is my favorite music list from 2011. I’m embarrassed by the top 2 since they are the top 2 on lots and lots of lists out there. It seems rather uninspired for me to not find something else. I’ve divided the list into three sections. The top 10, then the pretty good but not great set (in order of how much I like them), followed by the bottom part which I found to be sub-par.

1. Bon Iver – Bon Iver
2. James Blake – James Blake
3. Chris Merrit – Songs from Brokeland
4. Bjork – Biophilia
5. Incubus – If Not Now, When?
6. O’Death – Outside
7. Matt Nathanson – Modern Love
8. Moonface – Organ Music Not Vibraphone Like I’d Hoped
9. Loney Dear – Hall Music
10. Wilco – The Whole Love

The Chris Merrit album is a placeholder. About half way through this year I was so fed up with how boring and unoriginal all the music that was coming out was that I decided to go hunting for someone I wasn’t familiar with. I ran into Chris Merrit somehow. I spent the next 2 months slowly going through everything he had ever put out. I’m not sure I found a single song I didn’t like. I listened to no new music during this time period. My favorite album if you decide to check him out is Pixie and the Bear. Please check it out. You won’t regret it. My description of him is “Ben Folds … but good.” The album listed did come out this year, but it is only a demo so I’d wait until the full mastered album comes out next year.

I’ve written about everyone on this list with the exception of O’Death and Incubus, so I’ll try to keep this short. I’ve hated Bon Iver for the past two years. He put out my favorite album of 2008, but everything since then has been blah for me and I was about to give up hope. Instead he puts out this self-titled album that really is deserving of the number one spot.

Incubus is well-known from the early to mid 2000 time period for their singles “Drive,” “Pardon Me,” “Dig,” and “Oil and Water”. They were known as a mildly experimental, but mostly mainstream alternative rock band. I’m no expert on their history, but it seems they broke up around 2008 with no intention of recording anything together ever again. Good thing they did, because this is by far their most mature effort. It is incredibly subtle and restrained. The songs have a lot of emotion and energy behind them and they didn’t just let it out in a burst of rock. It is carefully constructed and beautiful at times. I’m honestly surprised this isn’t on any of the lists I’ve looked at.

O’Death could be considered “alternative country”. It is a really fun, creative, and often dark side to folk/Americana style music. Maybe you could call it a darker sounding Mumford and Sons. They liberally use banjo and other instruments that got them the name “country” but it never sounds like country at all. They sound more like a rock band with folk influence. I highly recommend it. To me it is the most successful attempt at such a fusion I’ve come across (much better than M&S).

Now onto the list of artist I found pretty good and enjoyable, but there were too many faults to call any of them honorable mentions like I usually do.

Grand Hallway, Florence + the Machine, Fleet Foxes, Death Cab for Cutie, Dodos, Bright Eyes, Elbow, Decemberists, Son Lux, and Wye Oak

Some of my favorite songs came off of these albums, but some of my least favorite songs came from here as well. Grand Hallway is a fantastic band from Seattle and if you ever get to see them live I recommend it. They pack tons of musicians on stage including violins, piano, bass, guitar, vocalists, slide guitar, drummers, and more. They have a great powerhouse sound that only comes across properly live. The only other thing I’d like to say is that Florence + the Machine is Adele done right. See my midway rankings for my complaints about Adele. If you want to know what I was talking about then listen to F+tM to see someone who fixes all those mistakes.

Now on to the bottom. These albums fell short in a major way.

Iron & Wine, Adele, Radiohead, The Antlers, Cold War Kids, Coldplay

Iron and Wine, Radiohead, and The Antlers have all been at the very, very top of my lists in the past. It was sad to have such disappointment in them. The Radiohead album is pretty horrible in my mind. They take all the things I love about them and remove all of those aspects to leave you with a shell of boring. I’ve liked Coldplay in the past, but this was worse than radio pop nonsense earning it the lowest ranking spot. The Cold War Kids also have put out some fantastic things in the past, but this was like an attempt to mimic the Kings of Leon style and the fresh originality of their old stuff got snuffed out.

Lastly, I got the Kate Bush album, but couldn’t fit it anywhere because it was weird enough and I haven’t listened to it enough to conclude whether or not it is nonsense or amazing. She reminds me of Tierney Sutton on this album who I used to love listening to, so there is a bit of nostalgia stuck in there muddling things.

As a concluding remark, this year turned out OK. I definitely listened to stuff not from this year more than any year in the past as I got bored with the current stuff. The finds from the past that I ended up loving involve things as diverse as Iceburn, Arvo Part, and My Bloody Valentine.

Please comment with things you’d think I’d like that I missed (aren’t on the list). I’ve already been informed I should check out the M83 album and the Destroyer album.

Best and Worst of 2008

It’s that time again. This will probably be a long post, but I’ve spent a lot of time over the past week or so preparing this (estimating about an hour per album, then 37 hours of listening).

Top 10 albums of the year:
1. For Emma, Forever Ago by Bon Iver
2. Some Are Lakes by Land of Talk
3. The Slip by Nine Inch Nails
4. Punch by Punch Brothers
5. At War With Walls and Mazes by Son Lux
6. Third by Portishead
7. Visiter by The Dodos
8. Falling Off the Lavender Bridge by Lightspeed Champion
9. Oracular Spectacular by MGMT
10. Secular Works by Extra Life

Now to make this easier, basically every major top albums of the year list has already come out, so I know what is strange and what isn’t. Bon Iver, Portishead, the Dodos, and MGMT get at least nods from everyone. Land of Talk isn’t too surprising considering Justin Vernon produced it. NIN probably needs some justification. Well, I’m not a NIN fan, but this album released for download for free, so I said, “Why not?” Imagine my surprise when it blew me away. Lyrically it is quite introspective and philosophical. The songs range from hard rock, to electronica, to beautiful soft soundscape. It is truly an album by a virtuoso.

On the other end of the spectrum are the Punch Brothers. They are sort of like a bluegrass band, yet fully compose their music. The first four tracks are a “suite,” and are more intricate and fully developed than most classical music I know (and I started college as a music major). It really deserves the number 4 spot, or maybe even higher.

I’ve raved about Son Lux before. His music is sort of like NIN, but more approachable. The only reason he is lower is that lyrical basically nothing happens. Lightspeed Champion is really amazing and did get some recognition on lesser known lists. He basically is what would happen if you had someone trained in rap and death metal have a revelation and start writing country music. Yes. It is the most unique sounding band on the list. Lastly, Extra Life has the most sophisticated artistic vision on the list. This group uses Renaissance and earlier melodies and incorporates it into modern “math rock.” This one will probably take the most listens to start to understand.

Honorable mentions:
Blue Lambency Downward by Kayo Dot
Fleet Foxes by Fleet Foxes
Dear Science, by TV on the Radio
Keep Your Eyes Ahead by The Helio Sequence

I don’t think anything needs justification there.

Bottom Five:
Conor Oberst by Conor Oberst
The Airborne Toxic Event by The Airborne Toxic Event
808s and Heartbreak by Kanye West
Perfect Symmetry by Keane
Liferz by Blood on the Wall

Let’s start with Blood on the Wall. I only got this because half way through the year, people who had nearly exactly the same list as me also had this. Big mistake. The thing I dreaded most about listening to the year again was the fact that I knew I had to listen to this garbage again. I almost deleted it from my ipod to pretend like I never got it in order to not have to review it again. Keane usually does stuff I like, but this time the lyrics are horrifically cliche and the music your standard pop. Even worse, they try to spice it up with all these random electronic effects which just makes a bad pop song near unlistenable.

The Kanye album is boring…and bad. The Auto-tune thing sounds very outdated and is used on every track. The background music is even worse with minimal drum machines often sticking out like a bad remake of cliche ’80’s music. Most surprising of all is Conor Oberst, though. I love him usually. Again with the awful lyrics. I never use lyrics to judge an album as I am much more musically than verbally inclined, but when they are this bad it is unavoidable. “He’s gonna DO IT. He’s gonna DO IT. He’s gonna DO IT by hand.” (referring to a post man delivering a letter). Or the upbeat country song in which the phrase “I don’t wanna die in a hospital” is repeated almost exclusively.

Enough of that.

Albums that were evaluated that fell somewhere in between:
Pretty Odd by Panic at the Disco, Some People Have Real Problems by Sia, The Seldom Seen Kid by Elbow, Modern Guilt by Beck, Quaristice by Autechre, Lost Wisdom by Mount Eerie, At Mount Zoomer by Wolf Parade, The Stand-Ins by Okkervil River, Viva La Vida by Coldplay, Another World EP by Antony and the Johnsons, Water Curses EP by Animal Collective, Volume One by She & Him, Rearrange Us by Mates of State, Narrow Stairs by Death Cab for Cutie, Attack and Release by The Black Keys, Vampire Weekend by Vampire Weekend, Lucky by Nada Surf, You & Me by The Walkmen

The attentive reader will note that it is not in alphabetical order and thus it actually is in the order that I ranked them (Pretty Odd being the highest non-honorable mention and You & Me being basically awful but not bottom 5).

As for the top 10 individual songs:
1. “Midnight Surprise” by Lightspeed Champion
2. “Head Down” by NIN
3. “Raise” by Son Lux
4. “Future Reflections” by MGMT
5. “Give Me Back My Heart Attack” by Land of Talk
6. “The Wolves (Act I and II)” by Bon Iver
7. “The Season” by The Dodos
8. “Broken Afternoon” by The Helio Sequence
9. “DLZ” by TVotR
10. “The Bones of You” by Elbow

Props go to The Helio Sequence, TV on the Radio, and Elbow for not having an overall top 10 album but having some great individual song. Also note the placement of Bon Iver at 6 despite having the number 1 overall album. I found this interesting. You just can’t beat Midnight Surprise. Look it up on youtube or something. It is an epic (something like 8 minute) song spanning all sorts of genres. Constantly changing keys and tempos and time signatures and styles and textures. Yet it all continues to flow. I hadn’t listened to the album as a whole in probably 8 months, so I was shocked that I forgot how great that song was and had to make it number 1.

Note that many great bands were not reviewed due to time and monetary constrictions. If you have a top band that you think I overlooked please comment! (I’ve gather from other lists that Deerhunter and My Morning Jacket I have to check out).

Land of Talk

I find this pattern rather interesting. What is the best album of the year so far? Of course, it is Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago. It is a hands down win for me. The new Land of Talk album Some are Lakes is really fantastic. It is quite genre defying. Often times your ear tells you that a song is in well-defined key. The problem is that there is so much dissonance and chaotic melody that it is an oversimplification to say that it is “really” in a key. At no point does your ear yell at you, though. It sounds perfectly natural. Like I said, it is amazingly original in sound.

The lyrics are often very blunt and challenging. I love the no-nonsense of them. There is no fluff here. Some examples:

We’ve seen how sick winds blow,
But i’ve got your boat for a night.
And I’ll love you like I love you then I’ll die.


One way road
Don’t care what I find
A little thunder’s good,
I thought maybe you would
But it’s okay,
We all feel left out
Sometimes growing up,
it can get you down.

So here is where the interesting part comes in. This is the only album that I think can rival Bon Iver. But Bon Iver is the name of Justin Vernon’s project. Who produced Land of Talk’s album? That’s right. Justin Vernon. It almost seems unfair that he could knock his own album off of the number one spot by producing another band’s album. At the same time it is fascinating that everything he touches can be so good. I wouldn’t be surprised if many prominant top 10 or 50 lists (KEXP or Pitchfork) considered both of these in the top 5.

Best and Worst 2008…so far

It is half-way through the year, so I’ll sum up the best and worst albums that have released so far. Of course, this is my opinion and I’ll get on to NCG tomorrow. Just thought I’d list without too much commentary. If you want to contest one of them just comment.

Bon Iver: For Emma, Forever Ago
Elbow: The Seldom Seen Kid
Lightspeed Champion: Falling off the Lavender Bridge
Portishead: Third
Son Lux: At War with Walls and Mazes

Coldplay: Viva La Vida
Extra Life: Secular Works
Mates of State: Re-arrange Us
Wolf Parade: At Mount Zoomer

Black Mountain: In the Future
Death Cab for Cutie: Narrow Stairs
Nada Surf: Lucky
The Black Keys: Attack and Release
Vampire Weekend: Vampire Weekend

So this was off the top of my head. I may be missing stuff. Things to note. This is of the stuff I listen to, so none of it is truly bad. That’s why I labeled it “disappointments.” It is more they didn’t live up to their past accomplishments, or the hype was more than the delivery.

Other notes: The Black Keys, Black Mountain, and Wolf Parade are usually spoken of together. I find the first two to be rehashing of prog rock in an unoriginal and boring way. The Wolf Parade style is very original and complicated at times allowing it into the “good” section. I’d say that of the greats, Bon Iver and Portishead deserve an “extra great” section for defying all convention and being at the same time able to move you beyond belief. Yes, the new Death Cab album is horrible.

Things I haven’t heard, but probably should due to hype: The Dodos, The Magnetic Fields, Devotchka, Panic! at the Disco, Sigur Ros, She & Him, and uh, Scarlett Johansson recorded an album?!?

Vote for a Direction

There are many ways I could go for the next couple of weeks. All are fascinating to me, so I’ll let you decide. Vote now!

1. I could lay out in simple terms my favorite Millennium Problem: The Hodge Conjecture. I wrote this up last winter, and it is for all levels. It is conceptual and basically no details rear their ugly head. So if you’re interested in what these million dollar prize problems are like vote 1.

2. Several art related things that are well worth analyzing/discussing have come up.
2a. Literature: My Gravity’s Rainbow Challenge is well under way or I never really discussed my thoughts on my first Haruki Murakami experience.
2b. Film: I saw my first Pedro Almodovar film. Other directors worth discussing that have come up recently are Harmony Korine, Werner Herzog, Shinya Tsukamoto, and Shyamalan’s newest The Happening.
2c. Music: Who has popped up this year as exceptional (Bon Iver, Son Lux, Extra Life, etc) and who has let me down (Death Cab). I have a harsh opinion people don’t want to hear.

3. Philosophy: The standard philosophy of mind and language that I’ve been reading, or some ethical debates (more on Sam Harris maybe?).

4. Choose your own adventure: Anything you’ve seen or heard of lately pertaining to math, physics, philosophy, or art that you think I may be able to shed some light on. I have an article entitled “Noncommutative Geometry for Pedestrians” that I’ve been looking for an excuse to read. Also, I have a library system and netflix, so basically any book or film you bring up I should be able to get my hands on.