Bon Iver albums, ranked

"For Emma, Forever Ago" and "Bon Iver, Bon Iver" up top, "22, A Million" and "I,I" down low.

"For Emma, Forever Ago" and "Bon Iver, Bon Iver" up top, "22, A Million" and "I,I" down low. Jagjaguwar

Bon Iver has never produced a bad album.

In fact, Justin Vernon's Grammy-winning indie-folk project from Eau Claire, Wisconsin, has never even dipped below "very good" territory, rendering the following exercise sorta superfluous. But dammit, as musicians continue to pour untold hours into producing Art, it's the solemn duty of the online music journalist to subject that output to highly subjective rankings. 

Ahead of Bon Iver's arena gig Thursday at St. Paul's Xcel Energy Center, we did just that. Feel free to agree with gusto or quibble mightily in the comment section. 

4. 22, A Million (2016)

Vernon's most splintered, experimental LP arrived during a fractious time in his life -- anxiety, depression, drinking. The glyphtastic song titles are barely decipherable ("21 M◊◊N WATER," "22 (OVER S∞∞N)," etc.), and Vernon's vocals are modulated to within in an inch of robotic. But a pulsating core of genuine beauty permeates through the squall of organic and digitized wailing. 

"It didn’t seem as obvious to me to pick up the acoustic guitar as often," Vernon told us at the time. "I wanted to keep a new language going."

Mission accomplished. 22, Million -- particularly on the back-end, with the gorgeous brass of "8 (circle)" and piano balladry of "00000 Million" -- challenged listeners while still producing some of the most human Bon Iver moments. 

3. I, I (2019) 

If 22, A Million slightly overstepped into sample-driven mad science, Bon Iver's latest arrives at a happy intersection between boundary-pushing and traditional songwriting warmth.

Released in August, I, I showcases some of Vernon's most powerful vocal work. Bon Iver lyrics have always been impressionistic vehicles for each song's underlying emotional thrust, and that's never more apparent than Vernon going full Hornsby as he sings his ass off amid notably breezier vibes. 

With the mythic nostalgia attached to Bon Iver's debut, it's easy to forget what a magical enterprise this continues to be. In a recent episode of the Song Exploder podcast, listeners get a behind-the-scenes portrait of the creation of "Holyfields." The process, as you hear Vernon explain it, almost borders on alchemy.

The fact there's enough mass-market appeal for an act this scrupulous to tour its latest album through arenas? Nothing short of remarkable. 

2. For Emma, Forever Ago (2008)

It's impossible to dissociate this album from its legendary origin story. In short: Vernon, heartbroken and mononucleosis-stricken, retreats to his family's remote cabin. He emerges with the nine songs that would form For Emma, a folk breakup album for the ages. 

We hear Vernon at his starkest, armed with little more than an acoustic guitar and some hazy production atmospherics. From the onset, his deeply melodious and soulful singing gripped fellow Midwestern indie sadbois, a pure rush of emotion even if you can't begin to understand "Only love is all maroon / Gluey feathers on a flume / Sky is womb and she's the moon."

This barebones artifact packed enough artful wallop to launch Vernon on a path to stardom, a world of jetsetting with Kanye West and rocking the late-night TV circuit. But first...

1. Bon Iver, Bon Iver (2011)

Our woodsy Wisconsin boy becomes an unlikely Grammy sweetheart. 

The dazzling sonic bloom of Bon Iver, Bon Iver came outta nowhere -- soaring horns, galloping drums, charging electric guitars, swirling synths. Critics swooned, with Pitchfork bestowing its Best New Music tag and a rare 9.5 out of 10 rating, as did the fuckin' Grammys; Bon Iver beat out Death Cab for Cutie, Foster the People, My Morning Jacket, and Radiohead for the 2012 Best Alternative Music Album prize.

Not only was the world gifted a classic album, but we also got the Bonnie Bear meme. Who could ask for more?  

Bon Iver
With: Feist
When: 6:30 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 3
Where: Xcel Energy Center
Tickets: $26-$97; more info here