Ranked: Sufjan Stevens' Greatest Albums

Rough Trade Records

October 10th, 2023


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“Sufjan can seemingly produce intimate moments at the drop of a hat, reducing anyone to a mushy heap. It’s that moment in a basement in Rough Trade Covent Garden on Valentine’s Day 2004 that will always stay with me and forever, reminding me just how intimate a gig can be. It’s that moment a man-crush is born.”

Sufjan Stevens continues to leave an indelible mark on modern indie music, one of the most prolific singer-songwriter figures in the contemporary American canon. A routinely great artist, much of Sufjan’s universal appeal comes from his skills as a gifted narrator, pairing personal musings on love and devotion with commentary on American culture, whilst welding folk and electronica, the ambient and existential. Beyond his singer-songwriter prowess, we, of course, recognise Sufjan Stevens: the composer, who has turned his skilled hand to produce the most stirring scores for various collaborative soundtrack projects.

As Sufjan delivers his tenth studio album Javelin, another intricate statement in his expansive catalogue (and beautiful dedication to his late partner Evan Richardson) we are prompted to reflect on the story so far, the man behind the masterpieces and where each of his albums stack up within his remarkable catalogue.

Here to rank and review the indie icon’s impressive musical output, is longtime fan and Rough Trade buyer Jamie Moir, sharing a considered and personal reflection on all ten of Sufjan’s studio albums.

“It’s August 2003 and I’m a 23-year-old teuchter, moving from the Highlands to the sprawling, bustling, hardened metropolis of London. Armed only with gusto and a bindle full of CDs, one of which is the Rough Trade Shops Counter Culture 03, showcasing the best music of 2003. It quickly becomes a go-to where many a future favourite artist is consumed. I start music college forthwith, quickly befriending an Icelander who offers room within a truly humble abode in the heart of Hoxton. 2003 evaporates into 2004 and there’s discussion afoot in the kitchen; how to trap a mouse and plans for Valentine’s Day weekend.

Me: “Got a mouse in my room. How do I get it out?”

Icelander: “My dad used to chase rats with a shovel”

Me: “Okay, cool. Hey, are you up to much this weekend?”

Icelander: “I’m going to market with £2.37 and I will create enough food fit for a King for an entire week, whilst simultaneously laughing in the face of your pathetic, how do you say, “beans on toast”. You?”

Me: “I’m off to see this guy Sufjan Stevens. He’s playing Rough Trade in Covent Garden. Think I’ll take my camera, I’ve got a few snaps to use up before the roll is finished, and seeing as there is no dog to take a random picture of…”

Icelander: “Okay, cool. Let me know about the shovel”

There are around 16 or so people at the show, Sufjan (I think) is totally solo, armed only with banjo or guitar. Ben from Cornershop and his tiny children are there (it’s funny what you remember) to offer their support and lend backing vocals to one of Sufjan’s numbers. During another I get my camera out and attempt to considerately and discreetly capture a memory, only for the camera to automatically start rewinding, furiously whirring, having reached the end of the film. In any normal circumstances of a gig environment the noise would be masked easily, but this is a Sufjan show with 16 or so people, armed only with a banjo or guitar, in a basement in Covent Garden. He looks up – mid-song – to deliver a mix of smirk and eye-roll – and I just smile back, gesticulating wildly at the sordid contraption like a true Highland fuckwit.

Sufjan can seemingly produce intimate moments at the drop of a hat, reducing anyone to a mushy heap. It’s that moment in a basement in Rough Trade Covent Garden on Valentine’s Day 2004 that will always stay with me and forever remind me just how intimate a gig can be. It’s that moment a man-crush is born.”

10. A Sun Came (1999)

A Sun Came is the ambitious, often overwrought, debut album from a mid-20-year-old Sufjan Stevens. There is a lot to unpack over the sprawling 70+ minutes, with little in the way of filter. It mainly serves to showcase Sufjan’s two underlying strengths. Firstly, his musical ability (he plays no less than 14 instruments here) and secondly, his open-mindedness and approach to creativity. It’s a fascinating snapshot of what is to come, but is far from an essential listen.

Key track: A Sun Came

Sufjan’s second long-player, released a year or so after A Sun Came, is a song cycle based around the animals of the Chinese zodiac. It again displays the experimental side of Sufjan’s interest and approach to creating music, with this outing firmly rooted around electronica. There are obvious influences afoot from Arthur Russell and Autechre to (the eternally mentioned and referenced) Eno. Boiled down from years worth of material, the product is there for however the listener wants to digest and interpret it. Some will discover awe and wonderment, whilst others will merely wonder.

Key track: Year Of The Ox

Sufjan’s eighth is one for the modern ages, for it’s his most “pop” sounding album, but does its sheer length jeopardise any connection with the 30-second TikTok generation? By this point we’re all well aware Sufjan is an artist who is not afraid to take risks. Much akin to The Age of Adz – there is a lot to unpack here, but if you can give it the time and attention, you will come out… somewhat altered. The “if” being the key word here, as whilst taking risks with the sound, approach, and execution of music by an artist – there is also the risk in managing length. It’s the old adage of less is more, something that many Sufjan fans continue to debate to this day. The Ascension is the sound of an artist purposefully cut adrift, perhaps wanting to reestablish a connection more with himself than with an audience (old or new).

Key track: Video Game

Amassed during the pandemic and following the death of his father, this is Sufjan’s lockdown album. Given that most of Sufjan’s albums veer on the long side, it’s no surprise this album runs to 5 LPs worth, with focus driven mainly via the “five stages of grief” (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance).

Ambient music divides a lot of people, ranging from comments such as; “What’s the point of it?”, “It sends me to sleep” and “I forgot it was still ruddy playing, put on some real music for fuck sake” to “Does there have to be a point to everything?”, “Sleep is good!” and “Have you ever tried to, like, not think?”. Personally, I love an audio bath of soothing ambiance, using it mainly to drown out the noise of a commute with my nose in a book, free from lyrical or rhythmic intrusion that comes with most real music, nay, life.

So you’re either in or you’re out, darling. If you’re in then there’s more than enough here to get you through a paperback or two.

Ky track: Lamentation I

Sufjan becomes “bored with this voice” and “bored with the banjo”, so shreds the comfort blanket and steps once again into the (potential) abyss of experimental electronic music, but is this his most misunderstood album? Most artists would kill to hit upon a sound – and be all too happy to drive it into the ground, even at the risk of diminishing returns and being largely forgotten about. Some artists, however, fear nothing more than becoming stale, moribund, trapped.

Neil Young once quoted: “Heart Of Gold put me in the middle of the road. Travelling there soon became a bore, so I headed for the ditch (hence the “Ditch Trilogy” of Time Fades Away, Tonight’s The Night and On The Beach)… a rougher ride, but I saw more interesting people there…” and it’s this approach Sufjan steers back to on The Age of Adz.

It’s really not as frightening an album as it sounds on paper; I Walked, Futile Devices, Vesuvius and Too Much is merely Sufjan rebooted, like if Disney reworked Blade Runner, or is it more if Blade Runner reworked Disney? Whatever, enter with caution, but give it the time it deserves and you may be richly rewarded.

Track: I Walked

Sufjan’s fourth album is a stripped-back, more reserved, intimate affair than Michigan. The tracks within unravel effortlessly and quickly sink beneath the skin. The Dress Looks Nice On You is an anthem for the shy and coy, alongside the equally dainty To Be Alone With You, both of which have no doubt adorned many a mixtape. Sister musically brings to mind Smog and his Rain On Lens period, He Woke Me Up Again champions the joy brought upon by faith, whilst the title track slowly builds to cathartic mantra.

Ultimately speaking, there is something so alluring and powerful about Sufjan’s voice accompanied by a sole instrument that if it were the first thing you heard after surviving an apocalypse it would make everything appear instantaneously normal again.

Key track: The Dress Looks Nice On You

Sufjan’s tenth solo long-player runs with a pinch of all that has come before. It opens with Goodbye Evergreen – equal parts Seven Swans starkness, equal parts Age of Adz spectrum of sledgehammer. You’re not entirely sure what lies ahead, and may choose to casually clock the overall length of the album (“just shy of 42 minutes, okay, cool”), though any initial reservations are quickly extinguished during the double-whammy of A Running Start and Will Anybody Ever Love Me?, each ranking amongst the best in Sufjan’s arsenal, the latter sounding like it could easily nestle amongst Carrie & Lowell. Everything That Rises only solidifies proceedings, and you’re now nearing halfway to muttering the word “Classic” again.

My Red Little Fox builds musically with festive tinges of Xmas Sufjan (no Xmas is complete without a dusting down and airing of Sufjan’s seasonal selection box that is Songs For Christmas), Shit Talk acts as cornerstone for the album, whilst Neil Young’s There’s A World (pulled from Neil’s Heart of Gold featured Harvest album, the very same that led him to take the ditch) brings everything to a close – back again in Seven Swans territory, Sufjan stripped bare, able to hold, able to dexterously connect once again.

Track: Will Anybody Ever Love Me?

After instantaneously detonating his creative canvas and leaving many a genre and mood strewn heavy over the hillside during his first two long players all it takes is the solitary sound of a piano and that voice for Sufjan to hit pay dirt. Flint (For the Unemployed and Underpaid) opens the album most believe (and still to this day assume to be) his debut. The pace is caressed gently upwards during the following All Good Naysayers, Speak Up! Or Forever Hold Your Peace! and you’re instantly now obsessed with this “new” artist.

You’re able to trace back “experimental Sufjan” during tracks such as Tahquamenon Falls, Alanson, Crooked River and Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head! (Rebuild! Restore! Reconsider!) but they are balanced exquisitely by a mind now able to masterfully simmer down and execute delectably – powered by the “song-based Sufjan”, if you will. It’s akin to Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil at the crossroads, the leap in arranging, consideration, weight, awareness and prowess on Michigan is that large, for it’s here that the touchpaper is first lit and the foundation to the temple of Sufjan is laid. Recorded and produced entirely by Stevens, it’s a truly astonishing development from someone considered a largely unheard-of experimental artist up to this juncture.

Key track: For the Widows In Paradise, For The Fatherless In Ypsilanti

If Michigan was the bob ‘n weave, Seven Swans a quick jab to the right then Illinois is the swift uppercut, landing that knockout blow. Delivered just as the world aligns itself with all things SOOF-yahn, it’s the album upon which the temple is duly erected.

Taking the state of Illinois as subject matter in which to leap off of (in similar fashion to Michigan) this sprawling 70+ minute venture is littered with many rubbernecking, stone-cold classic, Sufjan lines. It is a technicolor production, brought to you in association with the lucid, playful mind of Sufjan Stevens. From the melodrama of Casimir Pulaski Day (“the things I brought you when I found out you had cancer of the bone”), to the rhyming of “debater” with “emancipator” and opening couplet of “our stepmom we did everything to hate her, she took us down to the edge of Decatur” on Decatur, or, Round of Applause for Your Stepmother! to delivering one of the most chillingly evocative moments in popular music under the guise of “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.“. It’s a weird peak, the ability to juxtapose a heart-wrenching melody (with deceptively simple arrangement) over lyrics based around one of the most renowned, morbidly fascinating, serial killers to ever stink the place out. It’s a lullaby from the mind of Stephen King, with the sobering last line in which Sufjan turns the tables on himself, recounting – “and in my best behavior I am really just like him, look beneath the floorboards, for the secrets I have hid”… Maybe he’s trying to understand the similarities in both of their upbringings, and why it is that one turns out to make classic albums, and the other a mentalist. Or maybe we just check beneath Sufjan’s floorboards and there is jackshit there. Who knows. What we are fully aware of, however, is that Sufjan can deftly make dark, darker.

There’s more than enough material here to make two outstanding albums, hell, maybe even three (especially when you discover the Avalanche compilation, the off-cuts from the sessions). Call it a double album if it helps you fully digest the contents (Sufjan refused to call it such), for it’s so incredibly rare to get so much worth out of a single album, a truly staggering creative well to have tapped. It’s usually a case of less is more in many walks of life, with more usually equaling less, but in Illinois’s case, it’s simply more is more. There is just enough steam generated in the first two-thirds of the album to let the final third gently coast into the station marked. Classic.

Illinois is a true artistic triumph – akin to a Hollywood actor doing two or three commercially successful films in order to do indulge themselves in an independent art house film, knowing full well it won’t ultimately affect their star quality whatever the outcome. Sufjan is the flip, delivering an outstanding album just at the right time of his career, filling that tank up effortlessly, now free to take a road much less travelled. It’s a feat many artists dream of, let alone get anywhere near to achieving.

Key track: Chicago

If Illinois is the result of a scientist locked in his basement, able to exquisitely blend all manner of materials to near perfection over 70+ minutes – then what of Carrie & Lowell? Well, this is the product of a distillery. 11 pure single malts (no ice, you cretin!). Each one boasting a similar, yet distinct flavour; pending the barley, pending the peat, pending the cask.

Make no mistake Illinois and Carrie & Lowell could easily trade places, it’s an incredibly tight call – but there is just something so masterful in Carrie & Lowell. Delivered at a time when Sufjan seemed somewhat cut adrift during the decade that passed between the high critical and commercial acclaim that surrounded Illinois to this new longplayer, the timing (again) is near perfect. Sometimes artists just have to go from A to B via C. Dude’s not a robot. Carrie & Lowell’s production goes more with the feel of sound, rather than Illinois’s grandiose, Technicolor spectrum, which makes complete sense when basing an album lyrically around the untangling of family matters, as opposed to a sprawling, bustling, hardened metropolis. It’s a deceptively simple album, with the subtlety of electronica mixing sumptuously with the skeletal instrumentation, gently simmering the senses to induce a floating, celestial feel throughout.

Selecting just one track from Carrie & Lowell as a highlight is incredibly tough, Death With Dignity, Should Have Known Better, Drawn To The Blood, Fourth of July, Blue Bucket of Gold echo like standards from the Great American Songbook of the 21st Century – although anyone attempting to (re)capture the atmosphere here with the risk of a cover version is immediately put in a similar danger zone as say, Nick Drake, or Elliott Smith, for there’s something indescribable about the gravitas of feeling and raw emotion within, mixed with equal parts production, that makes this Sufjan album so unique.

Key track: Should Have Known Better


Other Mentions…

It’s well worth your time to explore the full diversity of Sufjan’s colossal catalogue, and the various acclaimed scores and collaborative projects he’s worked on. Here’s a few of our favourites.

Call Me By Your Name (2017)
Sufjan Steven’s joins forces with the late and legendary Ryuichi Sakamoto contributing three original songs to the majority compositional tracks on this phenomenal score to Luca Guadagnino’s acclaimed film. Produced with his trademark poignancy and intimate feel, Sufjan penned the songs by using the script, the book, and the conversations with the director about the characters.

A Beginner’s Mind (2021)
14 songs (loosely) based on (mostly) popular films. One of Sufjan’s most unique projects and another collaborative success is his 2022 album with LA-based songwriter Angelo De Augustine. A transformative collection of tracks giving new meaning and life to old classics.

Planetarium (2017)
Teaming up with The National’s Bryce Dessner, classical composer Nico Muhly and drummer James McAlister, the supergroup compose a conceptual album exploring the solar system via a string quartet and a consort of seven trombones. Sufjan’s voice is the flight map around the cosmos to a complex but beautiful backdrop of lush piano ballads and electronic backbeats.

The Decalogue (2019)
Sufjan’s career has taken him into various areas, including scoring several ballets and collaborating with New York City ballet choreographer Justin Peck. The Decalogue is one of these, featuring pianist Timo Andres. A pensive and absorbing score of piano ballads to get lost in, conjuring images of dynamic dancers.

From sufjan.com

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