Ten Tigers — Where to Start With Bonobo
With a career spanning over 20 years, 8 albums, and 150+ songs (including remixes, reworks and reissues), the question of where to start with Bonobo might seem like a bit of a daunting one to approach. We all have those artists who we have a feeling we’d love, but their discography is just so dense that getting into them seems borderline impossible (for me it’s Pink Floyd). Fortunately, I’ve been listening to Bonobo for a while now, and I feel fairly confident in giving you a whistle-stop tour of all the major landmarks.
This playlist features three tracks from each album — as well as three singles, for good measure — to give you the definitive primer on Bonobo’s extensive back catalogue. These aren’t always necessarily the most well-known or signature tracks from each release, and no doubt there will be some people who can’t quite believe I left out that track, but I figured if this list was going to be of any real value, the best way to approach it was by going with the songs that stand out to me as my own favourites.
Think of it like, instead of giving you the greatest hits, I’m showing you the hidden gems. The purpose of this list is to give you a primer, to get you familiarised with what’s available so you have a foundation to go and explore the rest of the 100+ songs I didn’t include.
Here we go then — let’s get started with Bonobo.
at a glance:
1) Ten Tigers
Ten Tigers is a bold track for me to open this playlist with (and name it in honour of too, actually). As far as I know, this isn’t one of the more well-known Bonobo tracks out there. Then again, that’s the whole purpose of this list, to show you the hidden gems, so maybe I’m not quite as bold as I make out. In any case, Ten Tigers is my favourite, and that’s why we’re starting here.
To be a little more objective though, I actually think this is one of the more accessible tracks from the repertoire. There’s a lot of Bonobo’s signature sounds going on, so I’d consider this to be a great point of entry in terms of getting a general feel for the kinds of places we’ll be going to on this sonic excursion.
If I were to describe this song in a single word, if we had literally 5 seconds and you needed to know RIGHT NOW what I thought about this song, I’d say “it’s just beautiful”. Melodically, it does a lot. I actually threw a list together a while ago of Bonobo tracks I’d never really listened to, and then drove myself mad trying to find this one because I’d been playing the whole thing on shuffle and the melody got well and truly stuck in my head. Maybe that’s why it holds a special place in my heart.
Nostalgia or no, this track does something truly special. It moves through this feeling of tension, suggesting phrases initially, before opening up to give the full truth. What I truly love about Bonobo is that many of his tracks paint themselves as soundtracks to conversations; there’s a genuine feeling of actors playing out roles across the space. In this case, I’m not really sure who the specific actors are, but they sound sad. I hope it’s not because they’re in a room with ten actual tigers.
Kiara is certainly more along the lines of what you might consider a cornerstone Bonobo track. What I love most about this one is that it really bites. It’s one of those tracks that makes you feel like you can do stuff when you’re listening to it, and who doesn’t love doing stuff?
Now I wouldn’t say this song is especially aggressive, but it definitely exudes big energy. If we’re to labour the conversation metaphor, then whoever’s talking here is certainly feeling confident. This is where we start hearing some of the other characteristic elements of Bonobo’s sound selection too; organic textures blended with very intentional synths. We got a lot of the former in Ten Tigers, but the latter is definitely a staple that we’ll be hearing a lot more of as we roll on through.
3) The Plug
Something that Bonobo does frequently is lay out these very peaceful, calming soundscapes, that grow and swell over time. The Plug has this really serene, jazz-like feel (nu jazz, if you will), that instantly evokes images of sitting outside a vintage coffee shop, basking in the sun.
Apparently all that coffee has gotten us restless though, because as the song evolves, it pushes out into a sense of motion, and we’re on the move. The tone gets almost mysterious in places, and it’s this rich layering not just of tones, but of ideas, that makes a song like The Plug such a great example of the type of exploration Bonobo undertakes in his music.
We rarely sit still for long on this ride, even though that shop was serving up some damn fine coffee.
4) Transmission 94 – Parts 1 & 2
The minute Transmission 94 comes in, there’s an instant sense that it’s going somewhere. Again, it’s this intentionality, of a desire to move through space, that makes a song like this so damn infectious. It inspires a feeling of motion, and that’s hard to not be moved by.
The best part of this analogy is that we genuinely do move through a lot of ideas and sounds in this track, though at nearly 8 minutes I guess that’s kind of to be expected. This is a truly progressive piece. Almost as if reflecting The Plug before it, Transmission starts with an energy that eventually mellows down into a jazzy valley of rolling drums and sprawling brass, before fading out into the mist. Exquisite.
Cirrus is aptly named. I get the distinct feeling I’m in a cloud jungle, moving from one cloud to the next, searching for something. Do you hear it? There’s something in the melody that’s looking for something.
As the track progresses, there’s a sense that whoever (or whatever) is doing this searching is being joined by yet more searchers, a horde that twists into this huge cacophonous swell that brims over into a place of vast, open emptiness. It’s as if the trail has gone cold, and the rest of the song is spent trying to pick it up again — but to no avail. Cirrus is a track that conveys disappointment, without being disappointing. Not an easy thing to pull off if you ask me
There are certain Bonobo tracks that carry a shade of darkness to them. It’s never a sinister darkness, it’s more like mischief and mystery; chaos, but the good kind. Characters portrayed in these kinds of tracks are the morally ambiguous types you find in all the best stories, the compelling scamps who always seem like they know more than they’re letting on and have more to their agenda than might first appear.
Listen to how Kota progresses. The melodic shift around the middle feels like something is about to be let slip, before the facade is quickly hoisted back up.
Kota, who are you? What is your plan?
Maybe we’ll never know. I tell you what I do know though; there’s this little variation in the bass pattern as we approach the end that is just so satisfying to listen to. It works beautifully with the way the melody melts out, as if two opposing forces have been at odds with each other throughout, and it’s unclear by the end who actually came out victorious.
7) Light Pattern
This might sound a bit odd, but hear me out. Light Pattern gives me some pretty strong Mighty Boosh vibes, specifically from season 1, and specifically specifically, from episode 5, Jungle. I can’t really say why, and maybe there’s no need to. What both have in common is a sense of magic, a bottling of some kind of ethereal essence that can’t expressed in words, which is why it was expressed through light and sound instead.
Light Pattern belongs to a set of Bonobo tracks that make me feel very much as if I’m in the rainforest, and, aside from the abundance of sneks, this is where I always picture myself being when I envision the kind of place I’d feel truly at peace. If you’re part of that (admittedly niche) group of people, then I hope Light Pattern will be the portal for you that it is for me.
Ah man, Jets is one of those truly special songs to me.
This very clearly takes me back to 2018, cruising down the motorway in the sun, on the way home from work, windows down and feeling rather snazzy. I feel like, to borrow again from the Boosh universe, it’s just one of those songs where it’s impossible to feel unhappy whilst listening to.
If someone asked me to describe the sun—yes, the bloody SUN—using only music, I’d tell them to listen to Jets, and I have no doubt they’d get it instantly. This is a track that makes me feel like it’s okay to go just go and lie by the pool (or by the BBQ, depending on the time of day), and do absolutely nothing other than just be. If you’re in the UK, it’s looking like it might be getting sunny for the obligatory week of summer, so do me a favour — take this for a spin, and see just how much it does to improve the experience. I don’t think I’m being overly bold in speculating that Jets might just make it onto your Summer Jams 21 playlist.
I don’t tend to think of Bonobo as a purveyor of dance music so much (on the rare occasions I ever actually conceptualise his music in any kind of terms that aren’t bizarrely abstract), but Outlier certainly hints at that kind of flavour. If Jets is music for the sunshine, then Outlier is what I hear being played as the sun goes down on the beach front, once the wooden torches are lit.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Bonobo track if it didn’t take some interesting turns along the way, and Outlier most certainly does that, completely evolving in tone as it progresses to get to a place that almost feels unnerving (maybe those torches look like they’re about to fall over). The prolonged outro might not always be something you don’t skip (good sentence). But in the right setting, it’s the perfect fade out, and one that, at least for those not listening on shuffle, melts beautifully into Recurring.
Another track that has a lot to say without resorting to words, Recurring starts as a story of indecision. Do you hear what I mean? The melody paints a sense of feeling torn, of fighting against some urge to stay the same. It’s another one of these amazing tracks that doesn’t just progress musically, but narratively too.
The breaking point around the halfway mark clearly pushes our character into some kind of resolve, and the whole mood changes. There’s transformation, and things are never really the same after. Even though earlier motifs are revisited, they’ve changed in light of the shift that has occurred, and there’s it’s clear there’s no going back now.
Ain’t it always the way.
Heartbreak might stand out a bit in terms of the tone of this track selection, but only marginally; even by this point, I hope I’m conveying a real sense of the scope of variation that Bonobo brings to his sound. If not, don’t worry: we’ve still got a bunch of tracks to explore.
You might be tempted to suggest that the distinction arises from the contribution of Heartbreak’s collaborator, Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs, but I’m not sure that’s the case, at least not from what I’ve heard of Mr Dinosaur’s own repertoire. What I will say though, is that Heartbreak is a certified jam, and I don’t think I was alone when it came out last year in having to go and fetch me socks from across the room as they had been blown clean OFF. I’m not a huge fan of the breakbeat sound in general, but here it works flawlessly to create a sound that really does make you yearn for the dance floor.
12) The Sicilian
The Sicilian embodies what you might consider Bonobo’s ‘earlier’ sound, back when the Rhodes featured a lot more prominently. I’m not really the sort to lament change in an artist’s direction, and let’s face it, it’s not like his newer stuff is even a radical departure from the likes of Animal Magic or Dial ‘M’ for Monkey anyway. I’d actually go as far as saying that Bonobo is one of the few artists who’s able to innovate without alienating, and that’s not easy to do.
There’re a lot of sounds present here that wouldn’t sound out of place on later releases, though there is a distinct sense that this is from an earlier time. Bonobo’s evolution has been subtle and understated, but his sound has nonetheless evolved — as you’d expect over a career that, to date, has spanned over 20 years.
Also, to save you a search, the sample is from Ben E. King’s ‘What Is Soul?’
Although Kerala was the first time I properly listened to Bonobo, 1009 is the track that got me hooked. It’s actually a total accident they’re occurring next to each other on this playlist, but a happy one, and we like happy accidents.
So what was it about 1009 that caught my ear? I think it’s because the melody is certainly far from normal. There’re all kinds of things going on within to give the ol’ ears a treat; if you pushed me for a descriptor (what is it with you and your insistence?), I’d say that 1009 sounds ‘playful’, though as it progresses it takes on a more serious tone.
It’s interesting to speculate what might be going on here. Perhaps a joke got taken too far, or a character who typically presents themselves as easy-going reveals they have some much heavier stuff going on behind the scenes. The poor soul. I hope they find the peace they’re looking for.
Incidentally, this little round-up ain’t my first rodeo, and I’ve written about Bonobo a few times before now. I thought this’d be a good opportunity to go back through the catalogue, and I mean, way back — 3 years to be precise — and see what I’d written about Kerala way back in May 2018 (if you’re not blown away by just how long ago this was, think you could have finished a bachelor’s degree between when this was written and when I’m writing now).
What’s really crazy is just how little I’ve changed; I promise I didn’t read this old post before writing this one, which makes the similarity all the spookier. Though you could say I’m just consistent, and I’d be alright with that. Anyway:
“Those of you who are familiar with my writing will know just how much I love a song that tells a story, and Kerala does that just that. Bonobo’s selection of percussive elements and instrumentation take me to that place I always seem to want to go, which is the bloody rainforest. I genuinely have no idea why – It’s probably the one place in the world where the population of snakes drastically outnumbers that of humans (but don’t quote me on that, I’m no geographer).
There’s a story behind the ethereal vocal line, one that, if the parent album title is to be taken as a hint, is about leaving a place or a person behind. I don’t know who (or what) Kerala is, but to me she’s a person who’s truly wrestled with a difficult decision and ultimately made the choice that’s best for her. Good on her. Not a lot of us can bring ourselves to do that.“
The second of the three tracks on this list to occupy the realm of the rainforest jam, Ketto is the shadow cast by the Light Pattern. We’re in the heart of the jungle here, and it’s not clear from the outset whether we’re enthused or anxious about that fact.
There’s a real sense of mystery to this track, and yes, I’ll say it again: magic. It feels as though we’re about to stumble on some forgotten secret that maybe was best left that way. As if to add to this air of disorientation, the track splits almost perfectly in half, with the second section occupying a lighter, if still curious, space. It’s unclear whether the voice guiding us here is benevolent or nefarious, and the track slips away from us without ever really giving us an answer. How rude.
16) Stay The Same
Stay The Same might instantly stand out to you as one of the few tracks in this selection to feature a full vocal performance (the vocals in The Plug were sampled from ‘Double Lovin” by The Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation). It’s not that Bonobo is particular lacking for non-instrumental tracks, it’s just I feel the instrumental tracks provide a clearer picture of the kind of magic he weaves in the absence of lyrics, which for me is what makes his sound so captivating.
That being said, Stay The Same is the perfect example of how lyrics can add to this soundscape, with Andreya Triana’s soothing vocals adding rich, detailed focus to the dense atmosphere they occupy. It’s this soulful groove, moving through roving spaces of endless possibility, that makes Stay The Same feel like the title wasn’t intended to be taken literally.
17) Dismantling Frank
I don’t know what it is about Dismantling Frank, but it just feels like an old pal. There’s something so damn reassuring about this track, and having a track that reminds you things are probably going to be alright is always going to be vital, no matter what’s going on for you in your life (I hope you are alright though, and that things are going well for you).
You’ll see what I mean about the Rhodes being a main character in these earlier excursions, and there’s no denying just how much life it brings to this track. Again, that’s not me bemoaning its absence further down the road, I just feel like it really worked hard in those early days and deserves the recognition. Well done Rhodes.
18) Bambro Koyo Ganda
I could write a lot about Bambro Koyo Ganda; it’s probably one of the most outstanding tracks in the repertoire, and conveys so much in such a short space of time. But the video is such a captivating piece of visual work, it actually says a lot more in considerably less words. And I’ve done plenty of words so far, I think we’re both due a break to watch a nice video, right?
19) Sugar Rhyme
I originally had Silver here as the third track from Animal Magic, but on a whim I decided to go back and swap it out for Sugar Rhyme — a track I confess I haven’t spent much time with, but one that for some reason just really caught my ear at the time of writing.
This truly doesn’t sound like anything else Bonobo has ever done, and may well be emblematic of it’s place on the first album, but I’ll be damned if it’s not an interesting groove. And when I say groove, I do actually mean it in the literal sense — that rolling growl is for sure an impetus for motion, with the melodic knots twisting over it like a tightrope across a precipitous drop. If there was ever a track to embody abyssal funk, Sugar Rhyme would be it.
20) Nothing Owed
What I really like about Nothing Owed is that both the sentiment and sound lend themselves perfectly to those do-nothing days we all deserve every now and again (and should probably take more of to properly rest and recharge, and yet here I am writing this on a Saturday). Who doesn’t love a good lazy day? Lounging around, free of troubles, owning nothing to anyone expect yourself to get that well-needed rest. Nothing Owed is sleepy, comfy, and warm, and it’s all the reason you need to give yourself a proper break.
21) Ibrik – Mixed
Wedging Ibrik in between two songs that proceed it by almost twenty years really ought to juxtapose the true progression that’s been made in that timespan, especially when you consider just how unique in texture Ibrik is compared to the majority of songs in this selection.
The cascading melody, the bleeps and bloops, the irregular-yet-still-regular percussion, all collide in this truly unique soundscape that feels both weightless yet grounded, open yet compact, motivated yet hesitant. There’re all these ideas going on, yet it never feels cluttered or messy. It’s an arrangement that feels as though it all came about very organically, like capturing lightning in a bottle. And if it was all intentional, then I guess that’s even more impressive.
Scuba is another track that I consider within that cabal of tracks like Kota, that have that edge of darkness to them. Scuba sounds like we’re up to something, like we’ve got business to attend to that might not necessarily be above board. Chances are whatever we’ve got planned is underwater, otherwise we’re gonna look pretty wild turning up in a full scuba suit.
What I truly love about this track is the ‘gotcha!’ moment about 2/3rds in, where the whole tone of the track switches to one of warmth and positivity. Turns out it was all just a big joke, and even when the punchline from earlier repeats itself, it’s now much lighter in the context of this new revelation. What a trip that was ey?
We’re back in the rainforest for the third and final time, for one of my all-time favourite Bonobo songs. Noctuary is heavy with atmosphere, painting one of the most vivid sonic pictures you’re likely to ever have heard. It’s very hard to not be transported by this track; the mere act of closing your eyes conjures very clear images of somewhere that is — yes I’m saying it again — mysterious and magical.
If you were looking for the take-home message of how I’d describe Bonobo’s music, I think we can agree that that’s going to be that ‘it’s magical, mysterious, and evokes profound feelings of atmosphere through provocative use of musical characterisation.’
Nowhere are these themes more present than in Noctuary, the concluding chapter to our jungle excursion — a conclusion which, by the tone of the ending measures, is certainly one of the cliff-hanger variety. Certified movie magic.
I was in two minds about whether to close this list on Linked or Noctuary, but in the end Linked felt like it provided the most closure. Incidentally, I debated opening this list with Linked too, which might give you some idea as to just how important I think this track is in terms of really getting a sense of Bonobo’s sound.
By this point, I don’t think there’s much that will really surprise you in terms of sound choices; all the staples are present and correct. But what this song does is tap a previously untouched reservoir of energy. I feel like Linked is a beautiful synopsis of Bonobo’s career to date, where the initial measures feel like they’re all building up to the huge payoff that occurs at it’s conclusion. It’s not huge by the standards of some of the more traditional ‘bangers’ out there, but in the context of what’s proceeded it, the apex of Linked is monumental indeed.
A fitting end to a playlist that spans such a wide range of sounds and emotions, I’m sure you’ll agree.
more playlists for bonobo fans:
Playlist image by Sam 🐷 on Unsplash | Banner image by Yoal Desurmont on Unsplash