Sufjan Stevens is so many people. Compiling this list, and hopping from holiday jams to S&M-club electronica to acoustic musings on death, was a complete and utter joy. Let’s get into it! Pace yourself!
Please note: This list includes every officially released song which credits Sufjan Stevens as a primary artist. It excludes live recordings, remixes, demos, and covers. This is a real tragedy, because man’s done some great covers, but I had to draw a line somewhere. Check out “Free Man in Paris” and “A Little Lost,” especially. Also excluded: the piano solos from the D-side of the vinyl edition of All Delighted People, his work with Sisyphus, and “Majesty Snowbird,” which never got an official release, quelle tragique. I should note, too, that Sufjan is co-credited on Planetarium with Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly, and James McAlister. If I’ve missed anything, if you see any glaring omissions on this list, please let me know.
Please also note: My mom’s dead and I’m gay, so you’ll notice some bias.
293. Super Sexy Woman
The first time I heard him sing she’s got superhuman lips for super suction, she’s got superhuman hips for super reproduction, I was so distressed that I nearly poured napalm on my limited edition Blue Marvel Illinois vinyl.
292. Siamese Twins
This is a fifteen-second, Chipmunked snippet of Sufjan spitting nonsense about conjoined twins being sliced apart, one of many such interludes on A Sun Came. But, hey, I’d rather listen to this than “Super Sexy Woman.”
291. Belly Button
We’re just going to get all the chipmunked spoken-word tracks from A Sun Came out of our system right off the top. In this one, Sufjan speaks of a boy who eats so much that his stomach explodes and maggots fly out of his belly button. Fun!
290. Satan’s Saxophones
289. Harsh Noise
Sufjan went full Homotopy to Marie for one night only in 2012, and this was the result. Call me a normie, but this just isn’t fun for me. I feel rather like I’m being chased through a sewer by a rabid clown.
288. One Last ‘Whoo-Hoo!’ for the Pullman!!
If I’m not mistaken, this is a childhood recording of Sufjan and his little brother adopting the personae of a Southern gentleman and a Southern lady and spitting flirtations at each other in ridiculous accents, and it’s genuinely hilarious, a real cut above the other such interludes on A Sun Came.
286. Good King Wenceslas
If you took an electronic toy programmed to sing “Good King Wenceslas” and then you had some toddlers hurl it down a flight of stairs and douse its circuitry in banana puree, this is the sound that would come out.
285. Rice Pudding
Part noise collage, part youthful garage-band improvisation, part romantic overture: I’ll feed you rice pudding at the benefit concert. Not a classic, but he was literally a teenager when he put this together, so we’ll let it slide.
284. I Am Santa’s Helper
Someone should have told Sufjan that it is not P.C. to sing, You are Santa’s slave.
283. Angels We Have Heard on High (0:52 Version)
Regrettably, I can’t hear this and not experience war flashbacks to that one week in the fourth grade where we all received cheap plastic recorders and none of us knew how to play them.
282. We Three Kings (Silver & Gold Version)
Once more does my anti-recorder prejudice blind me.
281. Halley’s Comet
I don’t want to be too critical of what is, essentially, a single note, sustained for thirty seconds, and fed through some sort of filter, but it lacks the texture of the other, similar instrumental interludes on Planetarium.
280. In the Beginning
Another very plain palate cleanser from “Planetarium.”
279. Year of the Asthmatic Cat
One time I was taking my one-eyed cat, Hillary Pawdham Kitten, who has chronic rhinitis, to the vet in an Uber. I would have just taken public transit, but she goes berserk when I put her in the carrier, so I find that it’s best to limit the amount of time she has to spend in it. Anyway, I was in the back of this Uber, and I was occupying one seat, and Hillary’s carrier was occupying the other, and halfway through the ride I happened to glance over just in time to see that she’d somehow clawed open a hole in the carrier, and forced her little head through. I reached over to push her back into the carrier, and she noisily projectile-sneezed bloody snot all over the interior of the Uber. This song is an accurate reflection of the psychological horror I felt in that moment.
278. Particle Physics
A slight, minute-long snippet of loping electronica, and the least Christmas-y song on the Christmas albums.
277. It Came Upon A Midnight Clear (0:47 Version)
A very fun Nokia ringtone. The robot voice spitting out Mer-ry Christ-mas at the end knocked me right out.
276. Interlude II: Subi Power Waltz
A little gossamer wisp of an idea, a low brass section providing some muscle for the high strings to skate over.
275. Ding! Dong!
An adequate number of dings. An adequate number of dongs.
274. Introductory Fanfare for the Hooper Heroes
Unusually flat for a Sufjan composition — he one-upped himself in the fanfare department a year later, anyway, ringing bells and blowing whistles all over the introductory moments of “Age of Adz.” But if you haven’t read Sufjan’s Hooper Heroes comic book, oh man, you gotta. Where else are you going to find alien teenagers fighting capitalism with magical hula hoops? Nowhere, that’s where.
273. A Conjunction of Drones Simulating the Way in Which Sufjan Stevens Has an Existential Crisis in the Great Godfrey Maze
Just a single note sustained for nineteen seconds, and a cluster of soft chimes, but it’s all very grand.
272. Holy Holy, etc.
A sweet, short acoustic interlude on Songs for Christmas. I like the vagueness of the “etc.”
271. In This Temple as in the Hearts of Man for Whom He Saved the Earth
A formless echo, serving as a nice palate cleanser after “Night Zombies” and before “Seer’s Tower.” Does its job on the record, is what I’m saying.
270. A Short Reprise For Mary Todd, Who Went Insane, But For Very Good Reasons
Less an individual song than a coda to the excellent “Jacksonville,” but even if it is just an excuse to keep listening to “Jacksonville” for another minute, I’ll take it.
269. Let’s Hear That String Part Again, Because I Don’t Think They Heard It All the Way Out in Bushnell
Again, just a coda to “Night Zombies,” but I am more than down to spend an extra forty seconds with “Night Zombies.”
268. Christ the Lord is Born
Another brief intake of breath on a disc full of wild ideas: just Sufjan alone at a piano, laying out a simple, unembellished melody.
267. Behold! The Birth of Man, the Face of Glory
The second disc of “Silver and Gold” is a wild, jumbled disarray of moods and sounds; “Behold!” just serves as a still, sober palate cleanser.
266. How Can The Stone Remain
From an obscure 2004 compilation called “Metaphysics for Beginners,” released on Redder Records. Interesting primarily for being an early experiment with robo-electronica at a time when Sufjan’s sound was still deeply — and almost exclusively, save for “Enjoy Your Rabbit” — steeped in acoustic folk aesthetics.
265. Year of the Boar
Not an especially great song, but a terrific sonic accompaniment for my favourite Tumblr post of all time.
264. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing (Silver & Gold Version)
I really do love the group sing-a-longs that form so much of Silver & Gold, but this one’s a little too flat and unembellished for my liking.
263. The Little Drummer Boy
Look, it’s not that the gentle, sleepy tone is unwelcome — like, there’s a reason “Songs for Christmas” goes over so well with the grandparents as turkey dinner background music, and this is it — but this one does fall a little flat. There’s no bite to the pa-rum-pa-pum-pum. No excitement. Lots of Christmas carols were engineered for quiet reflection, but not this one. This one’s for a hyperactive kid who can’t wait to meet Jesus and bang the shit out of his drum in celebration. Where’s that vibe?
262. Kaskaskia River
Interesting effects on this one! It sounds not unlike Sufjan threw a conventional banjo-and-guitar track in a blender, the shimmering of the strumming becoming fragmented, like a prism throwing out light and colour everywhere.
261. Inaugural Pop Music for Jane Margaret Byrne
Bright and cheery and expansive, perfectly befitting Chicago’s first female mayor; actually, the first female mayor of any major city in the United States, ever. Go Jane!
260. Bad Communication
The only inessential moment on The Age of Adz. Everything that makes the album great is present here, but too slight, a little stale. Like a tupperware container of “Impossible Soul” leftovers shoved to the back of the fridge and forgotten about.
259. Morning (Sacred Harp)
This one is subtitled (Sacred Harp), but I don’t actually hear any harp. What’s that about? The FTC has rules about false advertising, Sufjan. I do hear some accordion, though.
UPDATE: Crucial context from reader Zoe Tangara, thank you:
258. Jingle Bells (Songs for Christmas Version)
It’s “Jingle Bells!” For thirty seconds! Jauntily rendered on a piano! What’s not to love?
I don’t have an official opinion on which Christmas album is better, but I have to admire the cojones of Silver and Gold‘s weirder moments, like this one, where Sufjan ropes a choir of school children — or pitched-up adults? — into a minor-key nursery rhyme romp.
256. Movement V: Self-Organizing Emergent Patterns
The flutes that would animate “Get Real Get Right” to such grand effect are on full display, lending light and colour to what’s probably the jazziest moment on The BQE.
255. God’ll Ne’er Let You Down
A very early recording from Asthmatic Kitty’s 2001 To Spirit Back the Mews. I had to listen to this one on YouTube, and I suspect the audio compression did a number on the quality: Sufjan’s voice was flattened, and the banjos sounded cheap and chintzy. I can’t quite tell whether the lyrics — planes will crash, He’ll never let you down, so maybe there’s a crash coming to the ground, seek His face, He’ll never let you down — are supposed to be sincere expressions of faith or sly jabs at prosperity gospel types.
254. Hey Guys! It’s Christmas Time!
The verses are classic Sufjan, all nigh-whispered vocals and gentle acoustic strumming, but the introduction, the interludes, are these surging bursts of fuzzy mid-90s alt, as if to butch up the whole enterprise, the proverbial “HEY GUYS” to the verses’ gentle announcement of Christmastime.
253. All the King’s Horns
Very like the biblical, banjo-heavy arrangements of Seven Swans, but with an almost-playful density, instruments piling one over the other, building and building and building to a thrilling conclusion.
252. The First Full Moon
Another track from To Spirit Back the Mews, this is a scattershot but wildly endearing something-like-love song. The latter half, with its broken-machinery instrumentals and soaring vocals (do you meeeeeean it?) is especially earworm-y.
251. We Three Kings
The delicacy of the vocal arrangements makes for a real treat here, as do the xylophones in the coda, gently taking us home.
250. It Came Upon A Midnight Clear (0:39 Version)
One of a couple of renditions of “Midnight Clear” on Silver & Gold; this is the more traditional of the two, a pretty flurry of flutes.
249. Year of the Rooster
I am a Year of the Rooster child myself (1993, babey!), so I have a vested interest in this one. It’s just as energetic and mischievous and show-offy as the creature for which it’s named, even its central beat a clattering spectacle.
248. The First Noel
There’s something enchanting about how Sufjan refuses to bind himself to Christmas tradition, understanding that it doesn’t take many words or much time to convey the warm comfort of a favourite carol. This is just fifty seconds long, the words replaced by gentle la la la-ing, and yet, still, the arrow hits the mark.
247. We Are What You Say
“We Are What You Say” is the song that introduced the world to Sufjan Stevens — the very first song on the very first record — and it sounds like a sort of primordial soup, this wholly unrefined, shambling clutter of all the sonic ingredients Sufjan would one day employ to devastating effect. The lyrics are knotty and biblical, packaged in neat rhymes; the instrumentation is Celtic and Middle Eastern and Texan, and a million other things besides. It never quite coheres, but you exit, somehow, knowing exactly who Sufjan is.
246. Enjoy Your Rabbit
S. Amanda Clevinger has written the definitive piece on Sufjan and enjoyment of rabbits, and in lieu of a description for this sweet slice of chaos, I will direct you to her stunning essay.
245. Even the Earth Will Perish and the Universe Give Way
Perhaps the most bad-ass title in the entire Sufjan canon. Also, the blend of high piano and a low, synthetic string section is killer.
244. Year of the Sheep
So I actually have a longstanding phobia of sheep, borne of seeing a dead one on a class field trip to a farm when I was a wee little thing, cemented by seeing a trailer for that one cult horror movie where a bunch of zombie sheep rise up and destroy New Zealand. So this whole, like, spooky, foreboding, minor-key descent into hill, speckled with what may be actual recordings of bleating sheep? It’s scaring the shit out of me, which means Sufjan’s done his job well.
243. The Oracle Said Wander
What’s this Nirvana deep cut doing on a Sufjan Stevens album? By the two-minute mark, I was expecting Kurt Cobain to start singing, and I was disappointed when he didn’t.
242. Holly Jolly Christmas
You wouldn’t think that “subdued” and “grim” are words you’d ever use to describe “Holly Jolly Christmas.” And yet.
241. It’s Christmas! Let’s Be Glad!
This one’s actually pretty charming: It’s Christmas, let’s be glad! Even if the year’s been bad, there are presents to be had! A promotion for your dad! I can’t decide if the deliberately flat, out-of-key vocals work for or against the charm.
240. Idumea (Sacred Harp)
“Idumea” is a Presbyterian hymn written in the mid-19th century by Ananias Davisson, a singing school teacher from the Shenandoah Valley, during a time when — thanks, Wikipedia — “the center of participatory sacred music shifted geographically from New England to the rural South.” It’s an elegy more than anything, and one with more fear than hope: and am I born to die, to lay this body down, and must my spirit fly into a world unknown? The singers here are more congregation than chamber choir, rough and rustic and unrehearsed in the best way.
239. Happy Family Christmas
Big fan of the sonic 180 from the sombre, heartfelt plea for reunion with family to the warm chaos of celebrating with found family.
238. Jingle Bells (Silver & Gold Version)
There are actually two versions of Jingle Bells contained within this one track: we get about thirty seconds of what sounds like a mockery of every basic, self-serious indie rock bro, punctuated by the gleeful laughter of children, and then we get a gay, galloping group sing-a-long. It’s all very fun.
237. X-Mas Spirit Catcher
A busy-as-hell pop tune, rolling along with the propulsive insistence of a SoulCycle soundtrack, save for those gorgeous choral interludes.
236. Year of Our Lord
Sufjan’s breath becomes the instrument here, electronically modified until it swells shapeless and sings like a string section. A harbinger of the things to come on Planetarium.
235. The Sleigh in the Moon
Oh, we love a good Cat Martino moment! And a flawless lullaby, to boot!
234. Do You Hear What I Hear?
This track appears on the eighth volume of Sufjan’s Christmas songs, a collection of tunes titled Christmas Infinity Voyage. The cover art depicts an enormous anime robot hurtling through space. Everything you need to know about the way this song sounds can be gleaned from that information. Any description I could provide would be redundant.
233. Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella
A Spartan rendering, just a single guitar and longtime friend Vito Aiuto’s vocals. It was recorded on a telephone — an analog telephone, mind you, in 2002, and that foggy, far-away texture adds a lot.
232. Alanson, Crooked River
Listening to this makes me feel like I’m a four-year-old in a sea of other four-year-olds and all of us are whacking xylophones with joyful abandon and none of us have ever been hurt.
231. Tahquamenon Falls
This, likewise, makes me feel like a young child in a sea of other young children, at a science museum, on a field trip, completely and utterly enchanted by wind chimes and echoes and whatnot.
230. We Wish You A Merry Christmas
This is a slow-motion disaster but, like, an endearing slow-motion disaster. Like you and all your best friends drunk off your asses on Christmas Eve, blasted past the point of coherency, belting it out red-cheeked and off-key.
229. Christmas Face
Sufjan’s friend Sebastian Krueger takes over on lead vocal for this short, sweet one. He records as Inlets, and there’s something unimpeachably boy band about his timbre.
228. The Palm Sunday Tornado Hits Crystal Lake
God, but I love it when Sufjan gets really, really literal. A solemn, basic piano line — and then, an electronic flurry! Discord swelling to crescendo! A melodic tornado, gale-force winds! Run for your lives!
227. The Vivian Girls Are Visited in the Night by Saint Dargarius and His Squadron of Benevolent Butterflies
Love the noise-collage aspects of this one, the iridescent strings being interrupted by static smudges, something that sounds like a siren, the tape kind of eating itself. Notable, too, for having one of the best titles in the Sufjan canon, and also for sending me down a Wikipedia black hole to read up on Henry Darger.
226. Riffs and Variations on a Single Note for Jelly Roll, Earl Hines, Louis Armstrong, Baby Dodds, and the King of Swing, to Name a Few
No doubt Jelly Roll, Earl Hines, Louis Armstrong, Baby Dodds, and the King of Swing (Benny Goodman!) would be tickled.
225. O Holy Night
The arrangement’s lovely, but something’s off in the vocal, a little dull and colourless.
224. O Come, O Come Emmanuel (1:03 Version)
One of three renditions of this song on Songs for Christmas, this one is a Spartan piano take with just a sprinkle of a capella singing as a garnish.
223. O Come, O Come Emmanuel (1:06 Version)
This, too is a Spartan piano take on “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” but it’s three seconds longer, which gives it the edge.
222. I Can’t Even Lift My Head
This was one of Sufjan’s contributions to a 2002 Asthmatic Kitty compilation CD, To Spirit Back the Mews. Lyrically, it’s as solid and striking as the valleys of Michigan. The instrumentation, though, is largely unremarkable, with none of the glittering weirdness of A Sun Came or the elegant restraint of Seven Swans.
Man, shout out to the deeply unimpressed Pitchfork review of To Spirit Back the Mews, though:
A thirty-seven track compilation issued by an obscure, preposterously named, Santa Fe-based record label owned and operated by Sufjan Stevens, a guy whose claim to fame thus far is the occasional Danielson Famile collaboration and a well-received but little-known full-length called Enjoy Your Rabbit. The disc, as it turns out, includes a large helping of unexceptional acoustic singer/songwriters, a couple of novelty pieces, and a handful of occasionally better-than-average lo-fi offerings. Thus, I’m left with the dubious task of distilling this bounty of unmemorable tracks into something you might want to read about.
Reader, if ever you feel discouraged, just remember: Oprah had to get fired from her TV station job at 23 in order to become Oprah. J.K. Rowling had to lose her secretarial job and subsist on public assistance in order to become J.K. Rowling. And Sufjan Stevens had to endure being called “unexceptional” and “occasionally better-than-average” and “[not] something you might want to read about” by Pitchfork in order to become Sufjan Stevens. No failure is final.
221. Ya Leil
A Sun Came is studded with unique moments like this one, a bouncy Middle Eastern folk number featuring Ghadeer Yasser on lead vocals, singing Ah ya eayni, ya layl (Arabic for “Oh my eye, my night”) and nothing else for nearly six minutes. I have a very limited frame of reference for this kind of music — I think the most similar piece I’ve spent any substantial amount of time with would be Ofra Haza’s Yemenite Songs — so I don’t feel qualified to speak on this one, exactly, except to say Yasser sounds gorgeous.
220. Ah Holy Jesus (A Capella)
Nobody even sings “Ah Holy Jesus” on this one. It’s just a minute or so of tuneful ooh-ing.
219. Ah Holy Jesus
Just not the same without the concluding three seconds of reed organ.
218. Ah Holy Jesus (With Reed Organ)
I have to admire Sufjan’s gumption in subtitling this one (With Reed Organ) when the reed organ shows up for, literally, three notes at the end of an a capella track. I crown this the superior instalment of the Ah Holy Jesus Cinematic Universe.
217. Happy Karma Christmas
Lest we forget that Silver & Gold is a proudly interfaith holiday block party.
216. Break Forth O Beauteous Heavenly Light
The mood evoked here is Sufjan as a beleaguered mid-1800s pioneer father of thirteen who runs a little log cabin church on a flat plain of fertile soil in, like, Kansas, and he’s trying to distract his brood from the bitter cold by having them gather around the upright piano and sing from the one single hymnal shared by the entire congregation.
215. Lift Up Your Heads Ye Mighty Gates
The closest Sufjan gets, anywhere on the Christmas albums, to sounding like a full-on midnight mass choir.
214. Only at Christmas Time
Last year, I was between jobs for a little while, so I took a seasonal gig as a sales-rep-slash-cashier at Indigo, Canada’s answer to Barnes & Noble, centrally located in the biggest mall in downtown Toronto. Now, this wasn’t actually half bad, as retail gigs go — so long as they staffed you on the second floor, which held all the books, and also the children’s section, so you could have interesting conversations with customers about books, and say hi to the cute kids scampering about. The first floor, on the other hand, was like, stationery, wrapping paper, home goods, candles and mugs and chocolates, so 90% of the customers were miserable commuters who just wanted to grab a Secret Santa gift for $10 or less and gtfo. And the managers invariably assigned more staff to the first floor, which I truly didn’t get, because nobody on the first floor was ever in a mood to speak to another human being, whereas the shoppers on the second floor were generally looking for specific books and in need of help to locate them. So to survive the mind-numbing drudgery of those first-floor shifts, I would do slow laps around the entire floor, pausing at the candle table on each lap for a brief sniff. These moments were my one reprieve on that busy retail floor. And that’s how I feel, listening to “Only at Christmas Time” — like I’m taking a hearty, generous huff of Crackling Firewood or Snowy Pine or Mulled Cider.
213. Movement II: Sleeping Invader
I’m struck by the clarity of the strings here — they’re allowed to swell and dominate the composition in a way that’s rare for Sufjan’s work. The horns sound like stab wounds in the smooth fabric woven by the violins.
I’m kind of fascinating by the moments on A Sun Came where Sufjan goes, like, full 90s alt. I talked about “The Oracle Said Wander” already, but I think “Demetrius” is a vastly more successful experiment with the sound, if only because Sufjan’s carefully madcap approach to arrangement comes through more clearly. Eventually, of course, all convention gives way to a sprint of Middle Eastern folk, a la “Ya Leil.” God, but A Sun Came is fun.
211. Waste of What Your Kids Won’t Have
A bonus track from a special edition of Seven Swans and, by the sound of it, a demo rendered with no more accompaniment than a double-tracked guitar. It’s small, and spare, a wooden-beam skeleton of a song, but aesthetically, at least, it sounds right at home at the end of the record. I think it may have influenced the writing of “The Mistress Witch,” too – it’s easy to trace a path to that song from this depiction of violence and poverty and childhood innocence lost.
210. Movement III: Linear Tableau with Intersecting Surprise
The title’s pretty apt, actually: there’s a steady rhythm that pulses through the piece, cyclical and unchanging, punctuated with little puffs of woodwind like the chugging of a train. As the song builds, the linearity remains and the intersecting surprises mount: bells! flutes! whistles! Never has a traffic jam sounded so sweet.
209. Marching Band
A Michigan outtake, channeling the apocalyptic mood of “Seven Swans” to lesser effect.
208. Year of the Tiger
I thought to myself, “This is so sweet; it sounds like a mama tiger singing her cubs to sleep.” Or a papa tiger, I guess! Let’s not make gendered assumptions about the distribution of tigerish emotional labour. And then I googled baby tiger gifs, and I spent the rest of the song scrolling through them. It was a spiritual experience. Highly recced.
207. Exploding Whale
Carrie & Lowell was originally just Oregon, and “Exploding Whale” is an outtake from the early days of the project, an ode to an infamous 1970 incident where a whale washed up on a beach in Florence, Oregon, and the Highway Department attempted to dispose of it by blowing it up, because why not?
The track couldn’t possibly be more different from the style of Carrie & Lowell, and I’ll always be curious about what a post-Adz 50 States album would have sounded like. But this isn’t my favourite; “Wallowa Lake Monster,” another Oregon outtake, makes better use of Sufjan’s electronic stylings.
206. Sleigh Ride
Pure, unadulterated sunshine. For the two minute and twenty-seven second duration of this track, I ceased to have clinical depression. Very into the clever, jovial genre-hopping and the final flourish of the squeaky toy.
205. In the Words of the Governor
Commissioned by Believer Magazine for its 2007 Music Issue, “In the Words of the Governor” sees Sufjan aping sleek early-millennium Franz Ferdinand, with a heaping spoonful of the Beefheart-y cacophony that inspired Alex Kapranos so much in the first place. Apart from a few strays on the Christmas albums, it’s radically unlike anything in Sufjan’s catalogue. He’s a capable enough chameleon to make it sound convincing, though.
204. Year of the Monkey
On Enjoy Your Rabbit, Sufjan challenges himself to tell stories without words, and here, he mostly succeeds. There’s a kind of horror-movie, Dutch Angle quality to the structure of “Year of the Monkey,” a clutter of electronic blips and beeps wound up and up and up until the climax comes, a great swell of low, deep horns. It sounds not unlike Curious George wreaking havoc and the townsfolk being forced to reckon with the aftermath.
203. Christmas in July
I’ll admit that this one doesn’t really gel for me, moving vaguely around a great idea and only really finding the core of it in the perfect second verse: But I’ll take the sun and I’ll take my kite, Christmas on the beach, Christmas in July. A perfect Sandals Resorts jingle tucked away in an ambling, endearing smudge of a song.
202. Woman at the Well
This one, from a 2000 Blue Bunny Records compilation, sounds like a very early attempt to incorporate a more electronic aesthetic into his 50 States-era folk sound. Hints of glowing synths slip through the acoustic arrangements of the chorus, like light glinting through thin fabric.
The bare bones of a lovely song, fully realized in the 2001 re-recording, which ranks a fair bit higher on this list.
200. Mysteries of the Christmas Mist
Cut to me running a Google search for “what’s it called when you plink on a high piano key repeatedly” in order to pretend I understand music theory for the purposes of this article. Fellas, boy, does he plink on that high piano key repeatedly, while the cymbals stir behind said piano like sheets of glassy ice. It works; it’s the sound of a winter storm.
199. Christmas Woman
I feel like you’d need a theology degree to understand this one: have you seen Christ the king suckling nurseries in snakeskin in the armored seat? I pride myself on having read the entire Bible cover to cover, twice, but I can’t make head nor tail.
198. Up on the Housetop
Bold move to rename the song, ditching “roof” for “house,” to accommodate those whose homes don’t have roofs, I suppose. Even bolder move to rearrange the song as a ’70s slow jam, complete with a stomp-clap bridge.
197. Interlude I: Dream Sequence in Subi Circumnavigation
It begins as a lullaby and quickly travels to a stranger place, somewhere airy and eerie and full of light. By about the last minute, we’re in a full-blown nightmare, the sound growing dark and crowded and chaotic.
196. Far Physician’s Son
Another short selection from that Blue Bunny Records compilation, released in 2000, here is a soft, searching ode to Saint Joseph, and also to his son, whom you may have heard of, a kid by the name of Jesus.
195. Presidents and Magistrates
Among the most overtly political of Sufjan’s songs, this is an eerie prelude to some kind of revolutionary overthrow. The blend of hissing chants — peace to me, peace to me — and careful, minor-key arrangement makes for a sharp thrill.
Elsewhere on Planetarium, the glitched-out vocals really add something to the song. Like, on “Earth,” the electronic warping clashes against the traditional instrumentation to evoke man’s destruction of the planet, the devastation of climate change. The logic behind deploying the effect in “Mars” is less clear, killing the song’s momentum just as it’s beginning. The finale fares better — I really do love the dissonant delivery of the things we do for love — but not quite enough for a full recovery.
193. Maoz Tzur (Rock of Ages)
Look: I’m not saying that Sufjan including a brief, spare piano rendition of this classic Chanukah song on Silver & Gold definitively proves that he is in a committed relationship with one Aubrey Drake Graham, but I’m not not saying that.
192. Year of the Dog
Interesting for the rare inclusion of vocal work on a primarily instrumental album, Sufjan’s voice flattened into layers and woven between synth lines.
191. Lo! How A Rose E’er Blooming (1:45 Version)
Appearing on the final disc of Songs for Christmas, this version of the song is a simple piano rendition, beautifully rendered, rolling along happy and unencumbered.
190. Santa Claus is Coming to Town
Every performer on this track is having the time of their lives. For as long as I live, I will profoundly regret missing the Surfjohn Stevens Christmas Sing-A-Long: Seasonal Affective Disorder Yuletide Disaster Pageant on Ice. Stick around for a Sufjan-original final verse, which carries all the weird menace of the original.
189. Postlude – Critical Mass
The conclusion of Sufjan’s album-length ode to the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, “Postlude” is slow but not steady, a searching, uneven attempt to find beauty in concrete.
An outtake from Michigan, included on vinyl editions of the record, and it’s easy to see why. This is a sketch of an idea, beautiful and delicate, but there’s not much depth in the repetition of it’s not your fault, it’s not your fault, it’s not your fault.
187. Carlyle Lake
I’m a fan of the sweet, simple campfire sing-a-long vibe, and I’m sure it would sound great shouted aloud while linking arms with my friends, beaming up at the sky: Oh! Stop! Thinking of tomorrow! Don’t! Stop! Thinking of today! On the record, though, quelle tragique, it can’t help but fall a little flat.
186. Kuiper Belt
Reminds me a lot of Alec Holowka’s work on the score of Night in the Woods, especially toward the end when Mae starts squaring off against supernatural soul-devouring monsters and shit.
185. Make Haste to See the Baby
I’m not too keen on the initial swell of the organ, but the second section sounds still and serene, the way it feels to skate across a frozen lake in the mountains without a care in the world, and I like that.
184. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing (0:45 Version)
This is a short one — only 45 seconds! — but notable in that Sufjan’s instrumentation makes the song sound the way snow looks when it falls.
183. Angels We Have Heard on High
This version of “Angels” is sweet and short, a singing greeting card snapped open and shut, perfectly satisfying without overstaying its welcome.
182. Once in Royal David’s City (0:45 Version)
The last of the 45-second interludes scattered throughout Songs for Christmas, and probably my favourite, if only because the hymn imprinted itself upon my psyche when I was in high school and our concert choir sang it every year at Christmastime in a stately cathedral downtown. (Servabo fidem, bitches!)
181. Interlude III: Invisible Accidents
A delightful, playful little flurry that builds and builds to something really thrilling.
180. Movement IV: Traffic Shock
I was going to be a hater and write something about how this sounds like spaghetti being thrown at a wall to see if it sticks, but isn’t that exactly what a traffic jam is supposed to be? Rapidfire synth beatboxing colliding with Christmas music colliding with God knows what else?
179. Year of the Snake
This one can be a little cluttered at times, but I like the more spare passages toward the end, as the song unwinds in slow, serpentine fashion.
178. Jupiter Winter
Sufjan’s had a few successes with minor-key Christmas carols — the aching beauty of “Sister Winter,” the languorous, Radiohead-y take on “Let It Snow!” — but “Jupiter Winter” is too stultified to really hit its mark.
177. Mr. Frosty Man
This is a song about wanting to bang Frosty the Snowman. I am not going to say anything negative about it. You can’t make me.
I want to be locked in a sensory deprivation chamber with “Tides” piped in on a loop. Like, just float in some cool water in a dark little pod and zone out to the gentle, ambient pulse of this song. I feel like that would be very relaxing.
175. Black Hole
Thirty seconds that do exactly what it says on the tin: drag the listener headlong into a realm of bleak foreboding.
Conversely, this one sounds like emerging from darkness, floating forward, and letting the heat refine you into what you were always meant to be. Or, less dramatically, it sounds like the end of yoga class.
173. Eternal Happiness or Woe
Once again, Sufjan stretches the bounds of what Christmas music can be. Similar energies to the “Planetarium” interludes, but with a little more mechanical interference, the human voice being hammered into a thin, ringing sheet of metal.
172. Year of the Rat
Sufjan hits the mark yet again. The Disney Halloween movie aesthetic exudes tremendous rat vibes. I hear this, and I regress to childhood, to freaking the fuck out at the climax of The Great Mouse Detective, to Ratigan chasing Basil through that big-ass clock.
A one-off from a 2001 compilation record benefiting street-involved youth, “Damascus” directs the soft, folksy sound of Michigan at the Everglades — an early experiment for a Florida album, maybe?
170. Bushwick Junkie
Another song from the To Spirit Back the Mews compilation. The title’s not in great taste, but the song itself really works for me, dissonant and eerie and propulsive in the manner of the Beatles’ angrier late-period experiments.
169. Auld Lang Syne
War flashbacks to the time I was playing Silver & Gold on shuffle during Christmas dinner and this song came on and someone — an aunt, an uncle? — said, “Hey, this isn’t Christmas music! This is New Year’s music!” and then got up and switched the music to like… Michael Buble… or something…
168. Go Nightly Cares
Mood music for a wintertime feast in a medieval castle, and I’m all about it.
167. Year of the Ox
Ah, the ox: a noble beast, a workaday animal. Sufjan interprets the animal with the requisite mechanical, assembly-line backbeats and intermissions of robotic, glitched-out synths, but the jovial, bouncy little sprigs of high notes elevate the piece to a more playful place. The conclusion, too, is thrilling: a long, slow hiss of steam to signal the end of the shift.
166. Away in a Manger
A simple rendition elevated by Sufjan’s beautiful, breathy falsetto on the bridge.
165. Sofia’s Song
This is an obscure one, a rehabilitation of a college recording from “a world where the banjo was my journal, where Sofia Coppola was my imaginary confidant, and where singing out of tune was perfectly OK!” It’s far better than it has any right to be, endlessly endearing. You can listen to it here.
164. The Pick-Up
Somewhere, in an alternate universe, there is an episode of Mad Men where Don commissions this song for a group of car manufacturing executives, and Sterling Cooper’s creative team slaps it over some charming black-and-white footage of a family rolling down a highway to a state park for a picnic, and when Sufjan tenderly sings, “Kiss my mother on the face/In the pick-up,” everyone in the conference room tears up a little.
163. Lo! How a Rose E’er Blooming
Here, as on other Suf-canon favourites like “Decatur” and “We’re Goin’ to the Country,” Matt Morgan makes for a splendid duet partner, adding grit and harmony to the proceedings.
162. Sleepy Red Wolves
A bonus track from the DVD of The BQE. I like a lot of what’s happening here — no one has taught me more about the value of alliteration and assonance than Sufjan, and his delivery of yours will be feathered and fallow, unfarmed is *chef’s kiss*. That being said, I don’t know if it’s just the low-quality YouTube rip I listened to, but something is very off in the mix. The backing vocalists nearly drown Sufjan out in the bridge, rendering the whole section a soupy mess.
161. Joy! Joy! Joy!
Astonishing that the Silver & Gold sound was already fully developed by the A Sun Came era. Irrepressible! Irresistible!
160. Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas
Never has “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” sounded so triumphant! So epic! So suffused with complete and utter joy at having survived yet another long, hard year!
159. Star of Wonder
Not a rendering of the traditional hymn, but a completely new composition: a breathless, joyful, reverent story of staring up into the night sky and being overwhelmed completely by the majesty of God’s creation.
158. Holy, Holy, Holy
Is there anything prettier than those falsetto refrains that close out each verse? The delivery of God in three persons, God in three persons, God in three persons just sends me.
157. How Shall I Fitly Meet Thee?
I was about to consign this to the “nice, plain, indistinct piano renditions of Christmas carols” portion of this list, but then, out of nowhere, they hit me with the stunning choral arrangement. Well-played, ‘jan.
156. I Saw Three Ships
A really raucous, jovial take on a song too often rendered staid.
155. The Undivided Self (For Eppie and Popo)
True to its title, “The Undivided Self” serves as a kind of smooth, transitional moment in Sufjan’s catalogue, the more traditional instrumentation graciously and gradually giving way to a complex wash of electronica.
154. Black Energy
A bleak, yawning stretch of horror-movie scoring. Hearing it makes me curious about what the Planetarium live show must have been like, how it would have felt to hear this moment as a long breath out after the more complex pieces in the program.
153. What Child Is This Anyway?
Not an original composition, as the title might imply. Just a regular-degular-schmegular rendition of “What Child Is This?” featuring, as elsewhere on Songs for Christmas, Vito Aiuto as a duet partner. I don’t know why it’s indescribably fucking funny that he tagged “anyway” onto the title, but it is.
152. All Good Naysayers, Speak Up! Or Forever Hold Your Peace!
Not the most subtle call for the proletariat to unshackle themselves and rise up against the bourgeoisie until their blood runs in the streets, but definitely the prettiest. The percussive little bird chirps are a great touch, too.
151. Amazing Grace
A sweet rendition of a John Newton deep cut. I love the way the song seems to pick up voices as it moves along, as though Sufjan’s some un-sinister version of the Pied Piper, strolling through town, banjo in hand.
This tribute to Jason of and-the-Argonauts fame is one of my favourite moments on A Sun Came, largely because it sounds like every Car Seat Headrest song ever written tossed into a blender and puréed.
Following right on the heels of “Venus,” this song seems to serve as an expression of regret and fear after a sexual awakening, the proverbial wasp on the proverbial arm of the curious young lover. It’s fitting, too, given the way the planet’s name has been used — “Uranian” was one of the earliest euphemisms for men who loved men. And, as elsewhere on Planetarium, Sufjan leans heavily into grim Greek mythology: what are you now, castrated by your son, the odd spring scattered on the deep from Aphrodesia?
Let’s get into (extremely simplified) comparative religion for a second, shall we? In Christianity, Abraham’s aborted sacrifice of Isaac is said to prefigure the death and resurrection of Christ. Abraham’s faith in God was such that he felt certain God would eventually resurrect Isaac, and God, impressed by Abraham’s loyalty, allowed him to offer an animal sacrifice instead. Sufjan’s telling of the story supports this view, concluding with, “When the angel came, you had raised your arm; Abraham, put off your son, take instead the ram until Jesus comes.” But the Jewish interpretation of the story, long predating Christianity, is that neither God nor Abraham ever intended to kill Isaac, and that the incident was merely an opportunity to teach humanity that human sacrifice, particularly the sacrifice of children, was an unspeakable evil. Worth thinking about if you’ve only ever heard the Christian interpretation.
147. A Sun Came
Sufjan hasn’t looked at the sun for so long, he’s forgotten how much it hurts to. He also hasn’t looked at the Son of God in a while, and he’s finding that this, too, hurts.
146. He Woke Me Up Again
Elsewhere in this giant woolly mammoth of an article, I talk about how Judee Sill became a formative influence on Sufjan’s art. You can ctrl+f to read the full explanation (and a link to an interview with Sufjan, even!), but in essence, her music was equal parts religious and romantic, and her lyrics were often ambiguous, obscuring whether she was singing about a lover or about God. Sufjan leans hard into this idea in a few places on Seven Swans. “He Woke Me Up Again” is no exception, a playful double entendre about spiritual awakening, God taking the form of a man who keeps poking Sufjan awake in the middle of the night.
Of a kind with “Drawn to the Blood,” this is a moving, dark depiction of an abusive relationship. That refrain, especially — I want to kill him, I want to cut his brain, and when it’s over, I know I’ll feel okay — is gutting.
144. Once in Royal David’s City (3:40 Version)
On lead vocals, a celebrity cameo! Vito Aiuto, for whom “Vito’s Ordination Song” was dedicated, takes the microphone for this one, a rollicking, rootsy take on a song I’d only heard sung by choirs in cathedrals before.
143. A Winner Needs A Wand
Maybe the closest Sufjan’s ever come to a straight-up traditional rock sound — that guitar riff, seriously, is unimpeachable — but the flourishes of flute around the chorus let us know that this is still very much his show.
Inspired by indigenous American myths about the moon, this one samples the recorders from Vesuvius (I think? I’m pretty sure?) and moves gently, into a sedate instrumental coda, sounding the way falling asleep feels.
I’m interested in the intent behind the heavy electronic modification of the early vocals, conveying the friction of man-against-nature, clashing deliberately against the more naturalistic flutes and chimes. The second filter, though, transforming Sufjan’s voice into a grand, glossy echo, lands to far greater effect. I’m also partial to the bit where the horn section is rendered, somehow, into a buzzing swarm of bees.
140. Tonya Harding (In Eb Major)
I’m fascinated by Sufjan’s choice to record “Tonya Harding” twice, in two keys. It’s made me curious about what kinds of new qualities my favourite songs might take on if the light were to hit at a different angle. This one, the “alternate” version, is more melancholy, more subdued, a simpler tribute to a complex figure.
139. Movement VII (Finale): The Emperor of Centrifuge
A great showcase for Sufjan’s horn section here, appropriately grand and terrible for the monument to capitalism and urbanization that The BQE is commemorating.
138. They Also Mourn Who Do Not Wear Black (For the Homeless in Muskegon)
So many of the songs on the Fifty States albums function almost as short stories set to music: narratives with beginnings and middles and ends, with heroes and villains, backed by a broader sense of space and time. “They Also Mourn…” is notable because it slips from that mold. The song makes bold suggestions, but the structure feels ephemeral: everything spoken in sentence fragments, soft chimes carrying the tune along, gentle banjo buried in the mix, barely audible. He’s urging listeners to action, but the precise shape of that action is too blurry to grasp.
137. You Are the Rake/Rake (Greenpoint Version)
A re-recording of “Rake,” the second song on A Sun Came. And, honestly, a much better take on the song; the production is warm, kind, a group of friends singing in a circle and holding each other as their voices echo off the walls.
136. The Winter Solstice
Sounds like it should be scoring the final scene of a children’s Christmas movie, the moment where all the kids discover that Santa is real.
135. Dear Mr. Supercomputer
Sufjan laments the rapid rise of technology and the simultaneous slow decline of society, but never say he doesn’t have a sense of humor: God is dead, God is dead, oh my God, I can’t believe it!
134. Now That I’m Older
Do you ever feel like a fraud when you give advice to a younger person? Like you’re not ready, you’re not qualified to offer guidance to anyone. Maybe you wait to cross some invisible threshold, some years in the distance, when you’ll finally attain the wisdom you want, when you’ll stop making dumb mistakes, when your own shortcomings will dissolve and you’ll be invincible. “Now That I’m Older” sees Sufjan living in this contradiction: confident in his newfound wisdom, and yet, still, feeling full of regret, wondering how to ever move forward.
Sufjan contributed “Borderline” to a 2004 issue of the music fanzine Comes With A Smile. In many ways, it’s a shallow exploration of the pain he would excavate over a decade later, on Carrie & Lowell: the nigh-impossible struggle, in a broken family, of attempting to maintain connection, love, and understanding. In the absence of words, the singer settles for tangible demonstrations of love: running the kids to the park, letting the others sleep in, slotting the family photos neatly behind plastic so they won’t go white with sun. But it’s not enough. It never is. Again and again he pleads don’t put up your borderline, but he must know that the borderline is already standing, has stood forever. The work of taking it down is a task so enormous he can’t quite grasp it.
132. From the Mouth of Gabriel
Man, so much of All Delighted People is about dismantling Sufjan’s traditional formula and hammering the pieces back together in new and novel ways. Lyrically, “From the Mouth of Gabriel” would fit right in on Seven Swans, but the glitching toy piano vibe is a sharp left turn away from the usual. A serviceable stepping stone to the more fully-fleshed experiments of The Age of Adz.
131. Say Yes! To! M!ch!gan!
Maybe the closest thing to a plainspoken, first-person tribute in Sufjan’s entire catalogue. The vocal melody is lovely — especially in the repeated phrases, I was raised, I was raised, in the place, in the place — but it’s not nearly as adventurous as its siblings in the Fifty States project.
130. Pickerel Lake
Sufjan tasks himself with the creation of a kind of Michigan Gothic here, singing of storms that peel the bark off the trees and leave animals dead in the wake of the wind. The little cloud of la la la‘s and spare banjo-plucking at the end makes for a nice coda.
129. The Incarnation
Mystical! Shimmering! Sombre! A minor miracle of production, layers arriving and shifting and leaving with little ceremony, a little like watching a storm pass swiftly overhead.
128. The Friendly Beasts
Gathering up a group of longtime friends for a gentle, loping singalong, this is one of the sweetest selections on “Songs for Christmas.” Shara Nova, playing the role of the sheep with the curly horns, is especially lovely.
127. Put the Lights on the Tree
An adorable and very sincere addition to Sufjan’s Christmas canon, with the whimsical instrumentation of Illinois‘s highlights. The tone is light, but the lyrical instruction to call your grandma on the phone if she’s living all alone packs a real punch.
126. City of Roses
Carrie & Lowell originated as Oregon, a continuation of Sufjan’s Fifty States Project, and “City of Roses” is a surviving scrap of that version of the record. A sweet, simple love letter to Portland, it sees Sufjan fantasizing about leaving his lonely East Coast life behind, all to follow delight to the City of Roses. Tonally, it’s wildly out of step with what Carrie & Lowell became, but it’s a lovely listen nonetheless. Really relate to the line that goes, It’s a little-known fact that I can’t cope, I’m the champion of repression.
125. To the Workers of the Rock River Valley Region, I Have an Idea Concerning Your Predicament, and It Involves an Inner Tube, Bath Mats, and 21 Able-bodied Men
I mean, the title alone elevates this song by at least ten places.
124. Get Behind Me, Santa!
A downright audacious concept for a Christmas carol! An argument in song on the ethics of commercialism! Alternating verses from a grumpy agnostic and Santa himself! Just buckets of fun. Wonderful contributions from the horn section. I love the line that goes, Why you gotta be so absurd? You make it sound like Christmas is a four-letter word!
This, from All Delighted People, is a tough one: the lyrics are stunning, particularly that last line — I’m not afraid of death or strife or injury, accidents, they are my friends — but the instrumentation feels almost improvised, formless and tuneless, winding this way and that without much regard for melody. These verses deserve stronger backing, I think.
122. I Went Dancing With My Sister
An outtake from Seven Swans, and I can sort of see why — it’s sweet, but very repetitious, and the looped melody isn’t quite engaging enough to carry the composition for four and a half minutes.
121. Ave Maria
Cat Martino’s vocals are nothing less than radiant; for this, and for powering through the entire Summer ’16 festival tour on crutches, she has earned my eternal respect.
120. The Perpetual Self (or What Would Saul Alinsky Do?)
There are few things I love more than Sufjan embracing full communism, and his ode to Alinsky is no exception. I’m fascinated by the stylistic flourishes here: it moves like a soundtrack selection from an early-2000s teen rom-com, peppy alarm-clock bloops shot through with banjos and shakers.
119. Happy Birthday
There’s a sweet, sombre almost Microphones-y quality to this one, from the soft fuzz of the recording to the stoic recognition of how hard it is to grow older. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he sings, “that life is anxious, life is mean.” Sometimes, when the prospect of a new year is more daunting than friendly, that’s all a person needs to hear.
118. The Transfiguration
In the early days of his career, commentators fixated on what they saw as a contradiction at the heart of Sufjan’s art: a Christian musician making indisputably Christian music — “The Transfiguration” is, after all, an explicit retelling of Matthew 17 and Luke 9 — and yet adamantly resisting any efforts to link him to the Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) scene. If you weren’t there, in the mid-2000s — if you weren’t subscribing to Brio Magazine, keeping tabs on Third Day’s haul at the Dove Awards, and loyally scrolling through Plugged In’s assessment of Pro-Social Content and Objectionable Content on the top secular hits — Sufjan’s resistance to the Christian Music label may seem inscrutable. But for those of us who suffered through the nadir of CCM, it makes sense. “The Transfiguration” is a thing of beauty, a moment of awed reflection handled with great care. There is no driving chorus, no push for worship-service royalties. Just a moment of close, intimate connection between mortal man and God.
117. Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!
Okay, potentially controversial opinion here, but the highlights of the Christmas albums are invariably the places where Sufjan gets really, really weird with it. Rendering the vacuous, cavity-inducing “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” as a mournful Radiohead dirge is the weirdest choice he could have possibly made, and I am all fucking for it.
116. Movement VI: Isorhythmic Night Dance with Interchanges
The flutes are just magic here, and the whole thing builds to a crescendo that sounds just like driving into New York City at night feels. You know, catching that first glimpse of skyline, allowing yourself to be a little blown away no matter how many times you’ve seen it before.
115. Prelude on the Esplanade
Okay, this isn’t going to sound like a plus, but the burial of that foreboding screeching of metal in the mix, suggesting a traffic jam without descending into cartoonish mimicry, is a minor compositional miracle.
114. Niagara Falls
This bonus track from the vinyl edition of Michigan is notable for being, I think, the only place in his discography that Sufjan mentions Canada. Apart from his stunning cover of the Innocence Mission’s “The Lakes of Canada,” which, regrettably, is not eligible for inclusion on this list. But, hey, let’s take a second and listen to it anyway.
113. The Midnight Clear
When Sufjan talks about his faith, he describes a deeply personal experience, unbound from orthodoxy and the dictates of the church. “The Midnight Clear” feels like this attitude set to music, Sufjan delivering the first two staid, solemn lines of the traditional hymn and then leaping into idiosyncrasy, chirping about delight and laughter and kissing.
112. For Clyde Tombaugh
A gathering storm of diverse, discordant instruments that lands, somehow, with total delicacy. And a fitting tribute to Clyde Tombaugh, the Streater, Illinois-born astronomer who discovered…
I’ll admit that writing about the Planetarium suite is a little more challenging than more of the other songs on this list. “Pluto” owes so much of its magic to Nico Muhly’s grand, sweeping string orchestrations, and I know approximately jack dick about contemporary classical composition. Hence my use of “grand” and “sweeping,” reducing irreducible complexity to two big, broad words. (And all this for the littlest planet! The planet that’s not really a planet at all!)
110. The Child With the Star on His Head
When we talk about Sufjan’s Christmas epics, clearly nothing is gonna beat “Christmas Unicorn,” but this is a satisfying treat in and of itself: a loose, languid jam, simultaneously lazy and praise-y.
109. Chicago (Acoustic Version)
I’m torn here, between the inherent greatness of “Chicago” and how relatively bloodless and indistinct it sounds stripped down like this. “Chicago,” in its original form, is a perfect song because it whips full-throttle across the entire known spectrum of human emotion, and that just doesn’t happen here. There are successful moments throughout, though — the soft harmonies on that final set of all things go‘s, especially.
108. Chicago (Multiple Personality Disorder Version)
I can’t find fault with the chaotic, Age of Adz-y instrumentation; it all sounds like the next step in the grand evolution of a great song. My beef is that it seems as though the vocals have not been altered one iota, and they jar against their new background instead of cohering with it.
107. I’ll Be Home for Christmas
Sufjan delivers this standard with an almost ghostly softness, everything from the gentle xylophone riffs to the background doo-wops landing featherlight. It lends gravity to the old Christmas standard, lifting the melancholy subtext — the song was first recorded by Bing Crosby in 1943, to honour soldiers serving abroad during the holidays — to the fore.
106. A Loverless Bed (Without Remission)
A dispatch from the slow, stultifying days after the end of a relationship, when the world’s been rearranged and your mind and heart and body are still scrambling to take root in this new reality. One of the strongest moments on A Sun Came, this one, with its slow-burn sorrow and jittery electronic breakdown, would be right at home on All Delighted People.
105. Dumb I Sound
If you’ve ever experienced rejection, you know the sick drop that follows, the moment when your own resilience flickers and you look deep within yourself and you think, fuck, and you think, they were right; I’m the worst. “Dumb I Sound” is a slow, lurching dispatch from the grey of that moment.
104. Coventry Carol
The most goth of all Christmas carols, a 16th century lullaby written from the perspective of the mothers whose babies were all slaughtered by King Herod. Fittingly, a chorus of women sing this one in perfect, sombre harmony.
103. Come On! Let’s Boogey to the Elf Dance!
Pure joy. No human being on this earth has done more for Christmas music than Sufjan Stevens has, and this is one of his most successful original experiments. Makes me want to run out and have a whole bunch of babies just so I can play this for them at Christmastime. Like, link hands with my entire brood and dance in a circle around a Christmas tree, Maypole-style.
102. Carol of St. Benjamin the Bearded One
I’m so struck by the simple, direct beauty of the things you want in life you have to really need; this is a matter of life. Is there a holiday that more starkly illuminates the gap between want and need than Christmas?
Though it didn’t surface until 2010, “Heirloom” is one of the first songs Sufjan ever wrote. You can hear it in the gentle simplicity of the song’s structure, the uncharacteristic resistance to flourish. And when your legs give out, just lie right down/And I will kiss you ’til your breath is found is so, so, so pretty.
100. Year of the Dragon
Of all the things to remark on here — and there are a lot, this track is capital-B Busy in the best way — I’m drawn to the low thunder of the bass drum buried deep in the mix in the mid-section, sounding for all the world like one of those big skin drums that keeps time when the silk dragons come out to dance on the Lunar New Year.
99. A Good Man Is Hard to Find
It’s a rare thing for Sufjan’s vocal to slip into a register this low and gritty, but he acquits himself beautifully. That high, thin synth buzzing in the background was a mistake, pulling focus from the grim, gothic tone, but the purely acoustic sections are lovely.
Fittingly huge in scope, with the more delicate moments swirling around each other like sandstorms on the planet’s surface. The autotune outro works for me, too, appropriately bleak and foreboding bent around that final electronic barrage.
97. Lumberjack Christmas/No One Can Save You from Christmases Past
Man, as soon as I heard those first few notes, I literally gasped aloud and said, “It’s that one!” The vocal melody on the verses is one of my favourites anywhere in Sufjan’s word, rendering these lines a glittering collection of indelible little gems. Bouncy, and fun, and sweet, with a gently melancholy coda that serves as a perfect complement.
96. Silent Night (Songs for Christmas Version)
Is it 44 seconds long? Yes. Is it the simplest recording of the song possible? Yes, just about. Does it immediately transport me to a cozy hearth, yank fuzzy socks up and over my ankles, and place a mug of steaming hot cocoa between my frozen little hands? With fat, fluffy marshmallows floating on the surface to boot? Yes. Perfection.
95. O Come, O Come Emmanuel (4:00 Version)
On Songs for Christmas, Sufjan presents not one, not two, but three renditions of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” This one, with its gentle banjo plucking and soft, shuffling tom-tom drums, is my favourite, and my favourite moment within it is Sufjan’s replacement of the traditional chorus: a simple, lilting refrain of rejoice, rejoice, rejoice.
94. Joy to the World (Songs for Christmas Version)
There are two versions of “Joy to the World” in Sufjan’s catalogue: one with lots of bells and whistles, and one with just a few. This is the latter, and it sounds absolutely beautiful: vocal harmonies sliding over one another like butter, a slow build to a quiet decrescendo, and Sufjan gripping the most important line — and wonders of his love, and wonders of his love, and wonders of his love — and repeating it without end, refusing to let it go.
93. Joy to the World (Silver & Gold Version)
I’m going to have to give the edge to the updated version, though, if only because the interpolation of the boy, we can do much more together bit from “Impossible Soul” is nothing less than a balm for my weary being.
92. That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!
Man, finally some representation for those of us who never knew anything but chaotic Christmases and shouting matches and stressed-out parents. All the stronger because it doesn’t joke, doesn’t shy away from the gut-wrenching feeling of being a little kid and watching, uncomprehending, as cruelty colonizes your special day. Our father yells, Sufjan sings. Silent night, holy night, nothing feels right. Ouch. But, like, a flawlessly executed ouch.
91. Wordsworth’s Ridge (For Fran Fike)
The strongest moment on Sufjan’s uneven debut, A Sun Came, and the closest his earlier work comes to revealing his later promise. The blending of disparate folk traditions really lands here, leading gently into a gorgeous interpolation of Wordsworth’s “The Prelude.”
90. We Won’t Need Legs to Stand
Though his faith informs his work on every record, Seven Swans is very nearly a worship album, and “We Won’t Need Legs to Stand” comes the closest, perhaps, to being a traditional hymn. The sentiment is a lovely one, and simple: When we are dead, we all have wings, we won’t need legs to stand.
89. Year of the Horse
The best Sufjan songs are the ones with multiple personality disorder, and this one is no exception. Across little continents of sound, Sufjan sketches out all the things a horse can be: a sturdy industrialist, delicate piano straining under a static imperial march; a childhood companion stuffed with cotton wool, rocking steady on a bed of lullabaic xylophones and A Sun Came-y flutes; a renegade sprinting impressively around a rote racetrack and then leaping the fence, making for a wide-open plain of sonic freedom.
88. In the Devil’s Territory
The most upbeat chronicle of descending into hell to do spiritual battle with Satan that I’ve ever heard. The little spiral of electronic frenzy that whisks through the mostly-acoustic midsection adds some nice flavour, too.
87. Movement I – In the Countenance of Kings
The beginning-in-earnest of The BQE and, I think, the most fully realized song in the suite. It sounds like the opening of a day, like waking up and meeting the world. Not to be confused with Sufjan’s ballet of the same name, choreographed by Justin Peck:
It’s impossible not to compare this one to “Djohariah,” that other, later gift from Sufjan to another of his sisters. We have the same sort of long, winding electric path to lead us in, the same pledges of devotion and loyalty in a violent, unpredictable world. “Sister” can’t help but come up looking a little grey against the explosion of feeling that is “Djohariah,” but it’s sweet, and simple, aided by an unusually deep and husky delivery from Sufjan.
85. The Henney Buggy Band
God, just a huge, fluffy, pink cotton candy cloud of a track. I’m a sucker for the horn riff that echoes throughout, as well as Sufjan’s dips into falsetto. I kissed you on the mouth, I kissed you on the playground is a divine little spark of joy in a song full of them.
84. We Need A Little Christmas
God, if any lesser-known Christmas carol deserves ubiquity, it’s this one. Sweet and fun and kind, with the benefit of not having been played to death. The rollicking, group-carol atmosphere adds a ton, too.
83. Opie’s Funeral Song
Sufjan gave a little speech about Opie on a few dates of the Carrie & Lowell tour, and I think I’ll let his words speak for themselves:
I remember in elementary school when my friend Opie was killed, and it was the first time I really experienced a death of a friend. And the grievance counselor came to school and said: “This was Opie’s desk, he no longer occupies the desk. Now he occupies heaven.” And it was really strange because there was this palpable physical and emotional vacancy where he was. There was this space, this energy beforehand, but now it no longer is there, which was really difficult for me to kind of manage that. And then as I get older, dealing with other deaths – friends and family, grandparents and my mother – and I started to realize that there’s all these vacancies that are created and yet I still feel this sort of weight – this heaviness from it. So it seems bullshit that there is a vacancy there. There is actually a palpable, physical weight which we carry around, at least I carry around, and I started to think it’s because even though they no longer occupy the physical space – they now occupy my space.
Once again, we dive into the moment of letting go after loss: if you won’t hold me, I have no objections… if you don’t trust me, it’s best that I drown. Oh, the soul-devouring logic of those relationships where your partner’s joy becomes your own, subsumes yours, even. Neptune serves here as a cruel reminder of this imbalance, just as he does in “All of Me Wants All of You,” when Sufjan sings about Poseidon.
81. Christmas in the Room
The concept here is so brilliant and so intuitive, I’m honestly astonished no one’s ever done it before. A couple forgoes all the usual trappings of Christmastime — no travel bags, no shopping malls, no candy canes, no Santa Claus — to spend a pristine, unvarnished holiday in each other’s arms. Honestly, it sounds ideal: no parties planned, no place to go, it’s just the two of us alone.
Okay! That’s what I’m talking about! Unlike the rest of Planetarium, this sounds like something I could get down to in a leather club in Berlin! When the beat finally drops! When Sufjan’s auto-tuned voice starts wailing TELL ME I’M EVIL TELL ME I’M NOT LOVE TELL ME I’M EVIL TELL ME I’M NOT LOVE! I can smell the sweat on the bodies around me! I can feel the grainy glitter raining from the ceiling! I’m living for it!
79. Saul Bellow
I’m kind of fascinated by the way this song unspools toward the end, the neat, steady construction giving way to a kind of disintegration. Like the solidity embodied by Bellow’s work turns to quicksand beneath the singer’s feet.
78. All the Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands
- If I am alive this time next year… deserves to enter the canon of Greatest Opening Lines of Any Song, Ever, if such a canon exists.
- As an opening track, similar energies to Mitski’s “Geyser,” no?
77. The Greatest Gift
Does anybody know how much it would cost to pay Sufjan Stevens to come to my bedside every evening and play this song for me as a lullaby? I’ve been having some sleep issues lately and the weighted blanket and lavender oil diffuser and little-spoon body pillow just aren’t cutting it.
76. Wallowa Lake Monster
A glimpse at an alternate-reality version of Carrie & Lowell, one where the story was swathed in metaphor and mystery. Fairy tales were invented to convey hard truths to children, proverbial sugar helping the medicine go down. “Wallowa Lake Monster” takes this tradition and runs wild with this, rendering the mother figure a Leviathan, a Charybdis, a Demogorgon. The composition is lovely, and ambitious, but it’s easy to see why Sufjan eventually turned away from this experiment in pursuit of a more direct emotional truth.
75. We’re Goin’ to the Country!
At the very end of the recording, you can hear Sufjan off in the distance, complimenting his friend Matt Morgan’s lead vocals: that was great! I’m inclined to agree. This is among my favourite Sufjan Christmas originals, a cozy wool sweater of a song.
74. Angels We Have Heard on High (4:03 Version)
Sufjan tenderly takes the carol apart and polishes the pieces and builds something newer, more delicate, deeply moving. The reconstruction of gloria, gloria, gloria as a call and response, Sufjan’s all-too-human voice answering back to the angels, is especially ingenious.
73. Justice Delivers Its Death
This is the second-to-last song on Silver and Gold, a final, sombre breath out that couldn’t be more different from the cocaine-and-Froot-Loops rush of the finale, “Christmas Unicorn.” It sounds for all the world like a Carrie & Lowell outtake; I could see it comfortably slotting into the track listing, echoing that record’s reckoning with mortality.
72. Oh God, Where Are You Now? (In Pickerel Lake? Pigeon? Marquette? Mackinaw?)
So much of Michigan is about the bottom falling out, about losing your job and your shelter and the industry that held your town together, about trying to find some way, any way, to move forward. By “Oh God,” the narrator is simply overwhelmed by circumstance, falling on his knees and pleading for relief: The devil is hard on my face again, the world is a hundred to one again. There’s no resolution here — only prayer, only pleading for grace.
71. No Man’s Land
There’s been a lot of discussion about the political implications of the national anthem this past couple of years, and I’d like to launch an official petition to replace the Star-Spangled Banner with this gentle, good-natured anti-imperialist bop.
70. Silent Night (Silver & Gold Version)
As immaculate a rendering of the song as ever’s been produced. The vocals drip like syrup over what must be delicate, finger-picked guitar, transporting you, lifting you.
Ah, yes, that most rare thing, the Sufjanian sex jam. The inspiration was his first sexual experience, at sixteen: Methodist summer camp, you show me yours, show me mine, sensitive thunder-clap, slip beneath sleeping bag spine. That sweet adolescent realism is buttressed by Sufjan just going the absolute fuck in on Greek mythology, the two colliding in lines like, Pull off your running shoes, sweet Callipygian. For those of you who don’t have classics degrees, “Callipygian” roughly translates to “one possessing fine, well-shaped buttocks,” and refers to the Venus Callipyge, which, I think we can all agree, is one fine piece of marble ass.
68. The Hidden River of My Life
The chorus bounces along with all the joyous ruction of a campfire sing-a-long at a children’s sleepaway camp. It’s very fitting, given this is a song about leaving the world behind and retreating into the elemental wild of yourself.
67. Sleeping Bear, Sault Ste. Marie
Three minutes of Sufjan traveling to the peak of the Sleeping Bear Dunes and encountering the vast beauty of creation and being gently whelmed by it all. Soft enough that it could be a lullaby, and sad enough that it could be a dirge.
Not to air out my relationship issues in a ranking of Sufjan Stevens’ oeuvre, but I do feel the need to say I’ve been personally victimized by the line that goes fall in love and fall apart, things will end before they start.
The final track on Planetarium and, dare I say, the best? It’s unlike the rest of the album in its reliance on simple, traditional instrumentation and production. I can hear a piano, a trilling guitar, some light distortion throughout, unlike the electronic epics of “Earth” and “Mars.” But it’s all the better for its absence of bells and whistles, a nice, soft epilogue to a galaxy-spanning suite.
64. Did I Make You Cry on Christmas Day? (Well, You Deserved It!)
The closest Sufjan’s ever come to an out-and-out diss track: I’m writing poems about you, and they’re not very nice. K-O.
63. Out of Egypt, into the Great Laugh of Mankind, and I Shake the Dirt from My Sandals as I Run
A perfect simulacrum of the steady rhythms of a locomotive engine. Close your eyes and you can see yourself sprinting alongside a departing train, desperate for one more goodbye, one more moment with the person you can’t bear to be without. A flawless, contemplative closer. All things go, indeed.
62. All For Myself
Fun fact: Kendrick Lamar sampled this song on his own track, “Hood Politics,” and Sufjan is therefore credited as a songwriter on said track. I don’t know if that means Sufjan would have been awarded a thanks-for-contributing Grammy if To Pimp A Butterfly had won Album of the Year, but if you needed one more reason to be irate about that whole fiasco, there you go.
61. Chicago (Adult Contemporary Easy Listening Version)
Right now, as I type this, I am stretched out on my bed in my coziest, warmest pajamas. My kitten is curled up in a little ball at my feet, eyes peacefully closed in sleep. It’s raining outside, hitting the window lightly and steadily. I am listening to Sufjan sing all things go, all things go in an impossibly soft voice, backed by slow, shuffling drums, and a bare suggestion of jingle bells. Does life get better than this?
60. The Avalanche
I’m sure I’ve said it seventy times in this article alone, but it bears repeating: it is nothing short of astonishing that Sufjan Stevens created Illinois and then had enough left over for a second album of damn near identical quality. “The Avalanche” opens this second album, building to a grand, fists-in-the-air clarion call to make it right! and make it yours!
59. The Lord God Bird
Sufjan’s contribution to an NPR project investigating the presumed-extinct ivory-billed woodpecker and the mythology that’s sprung up around the bird in its native territory. Commissioned right on the heels of Illinois, it’s essentially a work of musical journalism.
58. Adlai Stevenson
A pure and total joy to listen to. Deceptively simple, too: the irresistible melody of Adlai, Adlai only lands as beautifully as it does because these gorgeous, complex little swirls of flute are floating in the background. To say nothing of the cute handclaps that usher us into the chorus.
57. Enchanting Ghost
I read once that the difference between true love and infatuation is this: if they get a haircut and they’re ugly, it’s infatuation. I’ve also read that infatuation is a kind of obsession over ownership, a state of being in which you must cling to this person at all costs, where separation is unfathomable. Love, then, means being willing and able to let go, to release your claim on someone, to let them drift. So when Sufjan sings if it grieves you to stay here, just go, for I have no spell on you, let’s be clear, he’s singing about love.
56. The Upper Peninsula
The opening line — I live in America with a pair of Payless Shoes — is one of Sufjan’s very, very best.
55. Redford (For Yia-Yia & Pappou)
This is a little slip of a song, simple and short, and among Sufjan’s finest instrumental pieces. Whenever I’m feeling frantic, whenever I need music to remove me from my stress and send me to a more peaceful place, I reach for Michigan, and I reach for “Redford.”
54. Christmas Unicorn
One time, I asked a friend of mine when she knew she was gay, and she said, “I went to the Sufjan Stevens Christmas tour, and I was pretty high, right, and they started playing Christmas Unicorn, and when he sang, ‘You’re the Christmas Unicorn too, it’s all right, I love you,’ a thought came into my head unbidden, and the thought was, ‘I’m gay,’ and I just blinked and planted my feet hip-width apart and stared up at the ceiling and started wailing at the top of my lungs.”
53. Barcarola (You Must Be a Christmas Tree)
Among Sufjan’s finest original Christmas offerings, “Barcarola” is a desperate, searching lament for a lost love wrapped up in the soft sing-a-long timbre of a traditional carol. The arrangement erupts as the emotional waterline rises, rolling drums and a furious backing chorus swelling to a final, devastating blow: You said you needed me, but I know you needed to be clean of me.
53. Flint (For the Unemployed and Underpaid)
The starting shot that sets Michigan in cinematic motion, “Flint” gives emotional depth and narrative heft to everything that follows it. Sufjan’s narrator, simultaneously everyman and everybody, begins with the loss of his home, his job, his money; the challenge he now faces is to discover what, if anything, will keep him going.
52. The Seer’s Tower
The early-career knock on Sufjan was, if you can believe it, that his music wasn’t autobiographical enough. Sufjan was a writer of fiction before he was a maker of music, and many of the songs on the Fifty States albums take the form of short stories, with Sufjan serving as mouthpiece for a dazzling and wildly disparate cast of characters. But “The Seer’s Tower,” with its references to a traitorous mother, takes on new significance in light of the intensely personal revelations of Carrie & Lowell. The singer serves as a passive spectator at the end of the world, isolated in a high tower, as the “Emmanuel of mothers” swoops in with a sword, “dividing man from brothers.” Like “Wallowa Lake Monster” after it, Sufjan smuggles the intensely personal in the belly of the grand.
51. The Tallest Man, the Broadest Shoulders (Part I: The Great Frontier – Part II: Come to Me Only with Playthings Now)
For some reason, I always thought the title of this song referred to Superman, even though “The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts” already existed? I thought Sufjan was just, like, really stoked on Superman. But no, alas, it refers to Robert Wadlow, the Alton native who, at 8 feet 11 inches, was the tallest person in recorded history. Wadlow doesn’t show up in the lyrics, though; if anything, though, it reads as a dispatch from the pioneers who migrated west and built little houses on the prairies of Illinois in the mid-19th century. It’s celebratory at first, in sharp contrast with the critique of settler-colonialism in “The Black Hawk War,” but the coda is more sober, as if the pioneers are begging for salvation.
50. The Black Hawk War, or, How to Demolish an Entire Civilization and Still Feel Good About Yourself in the Morning, or, We Apologize for the Inconvenience but You’re Going to Have to Leave Now, or, ‘I Have Fought the Big Knives and Will Continue to Fight Them Until They Are Off Our Lands!
If we’re going on title alone, the best in Sufjan’s discography. If we’re taking all other factors into account, an essential moment on Illinois and a splendid harbinger of the excellence to come.
49. Springfield, or Bobby Got a Shadfly Stuck in His Hair
It’s harder to spot Sufjan’s personality in “Springfield,” so ably does he trudge down the folk-rock road to perdition. This song belongs to a genre of its own, stories of callow men who suddenly find themselves drawn, by desperation or boredom, to some kind of sin. The difference between this and, say, “Atlantic City,” is the smallness of the deed — a bored-to-death husband, a momentary affair in an airport hotel, a wife who wields a knife but doesn’t, by song’s end, use it — and the attention to tiny, menial detail. It’s one of the most fully realized songs on The Avalanche and, as far as I’m concerned, could go toe to toe with the best moments on Illinois.
48. Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head! (Rebuild! Restore! Reconsider!)
The epic centrepiece — and, really, the most Illinois-y moment — of Michigan. His performance of the song on Austin City Limits in 2006 is worth checking out, if only for the aaaaaaadooooooooooorable intro, during which he dedicates the song to himself. Also worth absorbing: his essay about Detroit, tucked away in the liner notes of Michigan:
Oh Detroit, you complicated old man, nearly dead, with your shoulders arched over the river, polluted and grey, the threads of your shirt worn down with disease and car exhaust. You have grown fat and thin with industry, car factories, Motown music, riots, raids, transportation nightmares. You have eaten Coney dogs with relish and onion. You have built magnificent buildings only to burn them. Your children’s children have squandered their dowry. They piss on the streets. They throw trash in the trees and hang their laundry on ropes fit for hanging.
Oh Detroit, what have you done to the black man, his wife and kids, his cousins, his music, his hairstyles, his shoes with white tips, his pleated pants, his elbow slung out the car window, his basketball courts, his officers downtown, his nightclub, his shirtsleeves tucked over a pack of Pall Malls, his imagination, his industry, his sense of humor, his home?
Oh Detroit, what have you done to city hall, the public trains, the workers’ union, the Eastern Market, Boblo Island, the Ambassador Bridge? Where have you put your riches, where have you hid your treasure? Your concrete over-passes, your avenues as wide as rivers, your suburbs bloated with brick homes and strip malls and discount liquor stores and resale shops. Where have you hid our grandmother’s ukulele, the swimming pool out back, the lawn chairs, the car seats wrapped in plastic? Where are the rain shakers and the basketball nets? Where are the full court presses, the sneakers tied to phone lines, the windows broken in, the crazy old man on his porch yelling profanities, the old woman with the African statues in the stairwell, the kids with bikes with flat tires, the stray cats and guard dogs and prophylactics thrown in alleyways.
Oh Detroit, when you are dead and gone, who will care for your children’s children? They have run wild with the bastard boys around the streets, reckless car rides downtown, rigorous dancing, drug taking, knife-stabbing, pillow-stuffing, tail wagging restlessness. They have been drunk with this for years. They have been out of their minds. They have been left with nothing.
47. Mystery of Love
Look, we all know that “Visions of Gideon” was the better song, and Timothee “Little Nephew” Chalamet’s weeping the more indelible image, but “Mystery of Love” gave us this ICOOOOOOOOOOOOONIC-ASS GUCCI TUX MOMENT! SUFJAN SHOOTING OUT OF THE STAGE AT THE ACADEMY “OSCAR” AWARDS! FELLOW ICONS ST. VINCENT AND MOSES SUMNEY STANDING BY HIS SIDE! EMITTING A SONIC BLAST SO POWERFUL THAT ALL IN ATTENDANCE WERE INSTANTANEOUSLY STRIPPED OF THEIR WIGS! UNPRECEDENTED SLAYAGE!
LIKE! LITERALLY NOT SINCE ELLIOTT SMITH! FUCK IT UP!
ALSO, CHASER: WHEN LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA ANNOUNCED THAT THE SONG FROM COCO HAD WON THE OSCAR, AND ALL THE OTHER NOMINEES CLAPPED, SUFJAN JUST SAT THERE GOING, “OH THANK GOD, THANK YOU JESUS.” WE LOVE A HUMBLE ICON!
Pittsfield snuck up on me as I was writing this article. I didn’t particularly remember it from my past listens of The Avalanche, but this time around, it reached out and grabbed me and didn’t let go. It is a song for anyone who’s ever had to raise themself, for sons and daughters and children of parents who work too much and don’t care enough. It begins in a moment of realization, equal parts freeing and devastating: I’m not afraid of you anymore. The narrator goes about his day, fixing his own meals, washing his own hair, walking to school before sunrise, in the cold. His parent may call him lazy, useless, but he has his refutations ready: I can talk back to you now. And, again, lifting to a high falsetto that does suggest fear, I’m not afraid of you anymore. It’s a masterful, deeply moving moment.
45. Tonya Harding (In D Major)
The stronger of the two versions of the song, for sure. If the Eb Major version was a more straightforward tribute, D Major expresses a more complicated kind of remembrance. It’s not derisive, but it is deliberate, pointing directly at the elephants in the room when the other version skated right past them.
44. The Owl and the Tanager
A devastating portrait of queer adolescence, of all the violence and ugliness that threatens to swallow first love whole. A spiritual sequel to “Predatory Wasp,” almost, like a telling of everything that happened in the aftermath of that kiss and that sting. The ugliness of loving someone even after separation, even after betrayal; I’m bleeding in spite of my love for you.
43. All Delighted People (Original Version)
“All Delighted People” was the first slow surfacing of a new compositional spirit: an ecstatic praise song in a long tradition of them, and yet, a full and ambitious departure from the careful, literary construction of Michigan and Illinois. It was the moment that Sufjan shifted from making music about places to making music about an entire world. We’re all the better for it, and for the coining of a new idiom: I love you from the top of my heart.
42. All Delighted People (Classic Rock Version)
“Classic rock” has always been kind of a nonsense term, encompassing everything from Chuck Berry to Motley Crue, and it’s unclear where on the classic rock spectrum this thing was supposed to land. The label seems to refer less to broader cultural moments and more to Sufjan’s own history: if the (Original Version) is a glowing neon arrow pointing ahead to The Age of Adz, the composition of the (Classic Rock Version) has far more in common with the banjo-backed arrangements of Illinois and the oddball experimentation of The Avalanche. Both have their charms, but I find myself drawn more to the chimerical career mid-point that is (Classic Rock).
41. Age of Adz
The “Adz” is really a misspelling of “Odds.” That’s taken from Royal Robertson, he has all kinds of text in his work, and his visions are all written out in this messy script. He was a sign painter for a living before he was an artist, and his signs became double entendres, messages that had dual meanings, because of all the misspellings and grammatical mistakes. The Age of Adz is reflecting the subconscious, free association way of thinking that happens when you’re not censoring yourself. Royal’s work is very much about impulsive free association, and the lyrics on The Age of Adz also follow that.
It’s thrilling to see Sufjan move into the realm of “impulsive free association,” lyrics escaping a few words at a time in manic bursts of energy. There are bigger, grander moments on The Age of Adz, but the triumphant fanfare that opens the title track demands notice like little else.
40. Get Real Get Right
More than any other moment on The Age of Adz, “Get Real Get Right” feels like the project’s Theory of Everything, a rapid-fire dance track which sees sex and drugs and vice blurring with the divine. We can almost see the sinner in the club, bending over the counter in the bathroom; he looks up at his own pale, blue reflection, and the scales fall from his eyes.
It’s a song that’s also a gift, radiant with love for an older sister who’s endured far more than her fair share. It’s the sound of scooping your sister off the floor after a season of suffering and crowding her with compassion, telling her don’t be ashamed, telling her don’t hide in your room. It’s a proud encouragement onward, to victory, over any obstacle that may appear in her path. All this, and a sick eleven-minute instrumental lead-in. We love a maximalist moment!
38. I Walked
I don’t know that there’s such a thing as an easy break-up, but there’s something to be said for the particular agony of being forced to move on when everything in you is crying out to stay, to make things work. Moving through the world, going on dates, staring at each new person who circles into your orbit, and thinking, each time, “You’re not him.” I walked ’cause you walked, but I probably won’t get very far. Ouch.
37. I Want to Be Well
Like “Seven Swans” and “Impossible Soul,” the Summer ’16 tour was the absolute zenith of this song’s existence. It’s good enough on the record, but performed live, it becomes a kaleidoscope, a medieval purging of the body, a religious experience. If you haven’t pumped your fists in the air while chanting I want to be well! and I’m not fucking around! with several thousand other people, you haven’t really lived. When Bruce Cockburn sang about kicking the darkness ’til it bleeds daylight, he was predicting “I Want to Be Well.”
36. Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing
I don’t have an easy relationship with Christianity, and I generally don’t engage with Christian art, let alone 18th century hymns. In Sufjan’s hands, though, the songs I once encountered as weapons are rendered with gentleness, with care and love, tender feelings drawn out of each phrase. The most beautiful line, and the hardest-hitting, arrives on a soft, choral swell: prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love. This is a song about straying from God’s light, about knowing the extent of one’s unworthiness and asking, anyway, for love. It’s not traditionally sung at Christmas, which makes its placement on the tracklist all the more ingenious and deeply moving. He shifts, for a moment, away from the arrival of the Christ child and back to the modern, broken world, finding beauty in all of it.
35. The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts
The cover art of Illinois was originally to feature Superman, soaring through the air above Al Capone and the Sears Tower and that little billy-goat. The official excuse is that Asthmatic Kitty’s lawyers were worried about drawing the ire of the famously litigious DC Comics. But maybe the fat-cat-stuffed-suits at DC were just steamed about the existence of this song, a whole entire homoerotic ballad about Superman being a total beefcake and a gentle lover.
34. They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back from the Dead!! Ahhhh!
There is no way that slinging dissonant cheerleading chants over the menacing stabs of minor-key string section should work this well. And yet.
33. Size Too Small
Along with “Predatory Wasp,” Sufjan’s greatest contribution to Livejournal fanmixes about repressed gay men. In fact, I once gave it prominent placement on a playlist for an unrequited crush for whom I was pining. I now know that if you’re putting “Size Too Small” on your crush’s playlist, you’ve already lost, but I guess that was just a lesson I had to learn the hard way.
32. Drawn to the Blood
The terror of being harmed by someone you love. The disorientation of giving love and receiving only pain in return. The madness of knowing that the only person in whom you want to seek healing is the very person who inflicted your pain. “Drawn to the Blood” covers all this territory, and more! In just over three minutes! For only $0.99 on iTunes! A steal!
The poet Mira Mattai once wrote, “Death makes you a baby like love does: don’t go.” That’s the essence of “Eugene,” the narrator separated forever from his mother, retreating into the past to remember her, and remembering only her absence. All he ever wanted was nearness, and he never had enough of it, and he’ll never have it again.
30. Too Much
Sufjan dancing his tuchis off in neon tape and angel wings and caring not one whit whether he alienates Middle America is always going to be an indelible moment for me.
29. Decatur, or, Round of Applause for Your Stepmother!
“Decatur” is, maybe, a little more light-hearted and goofy than most of the songs at the top of this list, but absolutely no less deserving of its spot. For one, it’s literally impossible to be sad while listening to this song. The healing! The reconciliation! The gratitude! And it’s such a pleasure to bask in Sufjan’s flexibility with language, the rhyming of Decatur, alligator, operator, aviator debater, emancipator, congratulate her! The words never feel showy or pretentious, arriving as steadily as the ticking of a clock and slotting neatly into the slippery, surreal poetry of the song: civil war skeletons in their graves, they came up clapping in the spirit of the aviator. I mean, unimpeachable.
Deftly and delicately excavating the city’s past, both the good (Helen Keller! Refuge on the Underground Railroad!) and the bad (Andrew Jackson! The Trail of Tears!), in a clever, subtle subversion of small-town patriotism.
Before there was Carrie & Lowell, there was this: a distant mother smoking behind a locked door, and Sufjan crooning, quietly, I was ashamed, I was ashamed of her. It was one of his first attempts to reckon with the fact of her abandonment, and it makes for a subtle, stunning highlight on Michigan. His accompanying words in the liner notes, too, are worth your time:
Our parents do the best they can, under the circumstances. They do what they can, and it is always the very best. Who’s to say if you were not loved or touched. There was too much to do, there were too many children, too many meals to prepare, too many sheets to fold, too many socks to match, too many floors to sweep. Oh the terrible burden, each of us doing the very best we could. Try to imagine yourself in their shoes. Living their lives, mowing their lawns, hanging their laundry, cleaning their clothes, arguing their arguments. You would do far worse. You would fail completely.
26. Visions of Gideon
I saw Lorde earlier this year, expounding on heartbreak to 10,000 people. She introduced one of her songs by painting a picture for us: you’re in a room with someone, and you know it’s over, and they know it’s over, but you can’t move, you don’t want to move, because as soon as you move, as soon as you leave the room, it will be real, and you’re not ready for it to be real yet, you don’t want it to be real. “Visions of Gideon” is that moment trapped in amber. Your reality has fallen so far short of your expectations that you can’t comprehend words like over. It’s not real; it can’t be real. It’s a bad dream. It’s a video.
25. Carrie & Lowell
In the sea of grief that is “Carrie & Lowell,” the title track stands out as a season of hope — not free of pain, not entirely, but more concerned with sunlight and pillow fights and lazy Sunday mornings than anything else on the record. It’s a adult’s sentimental sinking into childhood memories, and it ends the split second he recalls violence instead of innocence.
24. Vito’s Ordination Song
A tribute to Sufjan’s longtime friend Vito Aiuto, who serves as a pastor and as one half of the Welcome Wagon. A tribute, also, to those friends who, through commitment and time and closeness, slowly become the great loves of your life. This song glows with devotion, with mutual care — rest in my arms, sleep in my bed — but it’s hardly romantic. Remember when Hanya Yanagihara wrote, “Why wasn’t friendship as good as a relationship? Why wasn’t it even better? It was two people who remained together, day after day, bound not by sex or physical attraction or money or children or property, but only by the shared agreement to keep going, the mutual dedication to a union that could never be codified.” A grand design, indeed.
23. Seven Swans
The definitive version of “Seven Swans” — the only one that matters, in my view — is the one Sufjan performed live on his 2016 summer festival tour. The sparse instrumentation and foreboding piano was swept aside in favour of loud-quiet-loud electronic bombast, all the better to score Sufjan’s unveiling of a pair of enormous, intricate Victoria’s Secret angel wings at the song’s zenith. I like the recorded version of “Seven Swans,” but I think the live version is among his greatest achievements. Fortunately for all of us, a half-dozen or so festivals streamed Sufjan’s sets, and those sets are available for download, in broadcast quality. Here, to tide you over, is a fan recording of the Red Rocks show.
22. Death With Dignity
What strikes me about “Death With Dignity” is that Sufjan attempts to approach grief in a very distant, abstract way — through images of nature, mostly; flora and fauna as metaphor. But he can’t quite keep it up. The beautiful poetry is punctured by these blunt, ugly proclamations: I don’t know where to begin. I’ve lost my strength completely. I’ve got nothing to prove. This is a failure of a song, and all the more compelling for it. Sufjan’s singular ability to transcend language deserts him here, and he’s left to punctuate these bursts of art with the plain vocabulary of loss.
21. No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross
The double entendre was lost on me, at first. I was thinking of shade as a reprieve on a hot, bright day, and so the song rang like loss of faith. Like looking up, at the nadir of your despair, to find that the cross you prayed to couldn’t shield the sun from lighting up your skin. I understood the feeling, and it was beautifully expressed, but it was unbearable to me. I didn’t want to dwell in the moment where the bottom falls out.
But there’s a second meaning here, a less obvious one: in literature, a shade is a ghost, an undead spirit that follows you, torments you. So when, after a long spiral of drinks and drugs and sexual self-harm, Sufjan sings there’s no shade in the shadow of the cross — maybe that’s not the admission of defeat I thought it was. Maybe it’s the diametric opposite. Maybe he’s stepped into a cool, dark place where evil can’t touch him.
20. Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois
Illinois remains Sufjan’s most high-profile project, and the place where new listeners are usually instructed to go; “Concerning the UFO…” is a wardrobe without a rear wall, a fitting point of entry into something new and strange and lovely. I’m reminded of a close friend who, last year, underwent a long-awaited top surgery. He was lying on the table, waiting for anaesthetic, when the doctor asked him what he’d like to listen to as he went under. He chose this song. He fell asleep to the gentle, ambulatory trills of Sufjan’s piano, and he woke up in a new body.
When we think about healing, about recovery, we tend to think of softness. Rest and sleep, gentle touch, warm water easing out the sting. But anyone who’s ever recovered from anything knows that removing yourself from pain can feel as painful as the pain itself. It’s a counterintuitive notion. It’s certainly not what we want from healing. Why does it have to be so hard? goes the refrain here, as Sufjan’s quest to get better sends him spinning through sulphur and volcanic ash. The line between recovery and relapse is almost invisible, and we can feel that conflict within the singer here, struggling against his worst impulses and toward the light.
18. All of Me Wants All of You
There’s a line in “Fourth of July,” Sufjan singing in the voice of his mother, that goes, It was for the best, though it never felt right. Intimacy of any kind, with any person, demands an understanding of this contradiction. To love someone is to make yourself vulnerable, to accept risk. You will love people who disappoint you. Who fail you. Who hurt you, even. Love means having to say you’re sorry, over and over and over again. This is a reality Sufjan knows all too well. “It was in our best interest for our mother to abandon us,” he said, in a 2015 interview. “God bless her for doing that and knowing what she wasn’t capable of.” So much of love is just navigating through the pain we inflict upon each other, negotiating the gaps between feels right and for the best — morally, ethically, emotionally best.
In “All of Me,” Sufjan finds himself within this divide. There is someone he loves very much. He can feel this person traveling away from him, even at night, even next to him in bed. Should we beat this or celebrate it? He doesn’t know. Staying would hurt, he knows that; what he doesn’t know is how much it would hurt to leave. This is what holds him in place. The best he can manage, now, in this moment, is to turn his options over in his mind, shifting crucial words around: all of me wants all of you swings over to all of me thinks less of you and back again. Which possibility feels right? Which one is for the best?
17. The Mistress Witch from McClure (or The Mind That Knows Itself)
There’s a strong case to be made for Illinois as one of the greatest creative endeavours of our young millennium, not least because he followed it with a second album, The Avalanche, of 21 “outtakes and extras” that very nearly rivaled the main body. The relegation of a masterwork like “Mistress Witch” to this supposed heap of frass just feels like showing off. This is a childhood horror story delivered in irrepressible little bursts of melody: the word Ill-i-nois poured out like honey in the first verse, the breathless stepping-up-the-stairs of oh. my. god. Sufjan was aiming to be an author before he went into music, and this song is a reminder of his gift for narrative.
16. Sister Winter
You don’t often hear Christmas carols rendered in minor keys. The music of this holiday is, to a song, focused on happiness, on gratitude, on belonging. What Sufjan accomplishes with “Sister Winter” is something more honest, an illumination of the gap between expectation and reality. I’ve begun to worry, right, Sufjan sings, where I should be grateful, I should be satisfied. His narrator is trudging into December after a year of loss, and the whole season seems grey and bleak and joyless. He apologizes for his sadness. He wishes his friends the best. And he finds something like communion in the end, the song lifting itself up as he gathers himself to his friends. It’s a masterful bit of songwriting; the lilting melody of the chorus, like a bit of sobbing set to song, is one of my favourite moments in Sufjan’s entire catalogue.
15. The Only Thing
Of the many, many useless things you can say to someone who’s just endured a devastating loss, “It’s not the end of the world” has to be one of the very worst. When you lose, you become acutely aware that the world is not going to end. Time passes. The Earth spins. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. And you are not prepared for any of it. You never imagined a future that included this loss. You don’t know what to do with yourself, but you know you have to do something.
Or do you?
That’s where the real trouble lives, in the cruel, seductive lure of or do you? What if you just… stopped? Stopped fighting, stopped struggling, stopped trying to figure out how to live in a world cratered by loss? Do you even care if you survive this?
It is terrifying, draining, awful to live in the land of do I care if I survive this? I hope you never have to. Sufjan’s chronicle of his own stay there makes for a devastating listen. He’s clinging to life, contemplating suicide, clutching at survival by reminding himself of blind faith, God’s grace; that, mercifully, is enough to carry him into the next day, the next song. But there is the unresolved question of what he’ll do once he’s emerged from the valley of the shadow. He’ll see her everywhere, and he’ll feel her everywhere, and he won’t, at any point, forget.
14. John Wayne Gacy, Jr.
And in my best behaviour, I am really just like him; look beneath the floorboards for the secrets I have hid, and the slow, audible sigh that follows, is the finest line Sufjan has ever rendered. It’s a knife of a lyric, somehow more brutal than everything that came before. It resonates on a higher frequency for queer listeners, I think. We’re all too aware of the monsters who came before us, and we worry if that monstrosity lives in us, too.
Quick aside: I gave my dad the digital download code that came with my vinyl edition of Illinois and he put it on his iPod and I got a call from him a week later and he said, “I listened to that Suff-jan album” and I said, “Oh yeah? What did you think of it?” and he said, “That John Wayne Gacy song…” and then he made a noise like he was shuddering and then he said, “What the heck was that all about?”
Oh, well. He liked it more than the time I took him to see Animal Collective, at least.
13. The Dress Looks Nice on You
A perfect confection: sweet but substantial, airy but firm, featherlight but real, rooted in the earth. Perfect for nervous kids at middle school dances. Equally perfect for people who’ve been married for decades. Especially perfect for lesbians. Wonderful. Without flaw. Great to make out to. Also, the banjo dropping around the one-minute mark is among my favourite moments anywhere in Sufjan’s catalogue.
12. John My Beloved
You know that one passage of Siken’s “Litany in Which Certain Things Are Crossed Out” which goes like
Same energies as “John My Beloved.”
11. Come On! Feel the Illinoise! (Part I: The World’s Columbian Exposition – Part II: Carl Sandburg Visits Me in a Dream)
Honestly, it was really considerate of Sufjan to give us two songs before this one — the gentle “Concerning the UFO” and the fully instrumental “Black Hawk War” — to strap the fuck in for the magnificent flex that is “Come On! Feel the Illinoise!” He holds nothing back, spans centuries, dips in and out of the waking world. He ascends to the top of a mountain he’s been climbing his entire life, and he plants his flag on it, and he sounds his barbaric yawp, and dozens of instruments besides. If you don’t like this song, you don’t like Sufjan.
10. Blue Bucket of Gold
“There are people we need so much that we can’t imagine turning away from them,” wrote Hanif Abdurraqib, the greatest living music writer, in an essay on Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors. “People we’ve built entire homes inside of ourselves for that cannot stand empty, people who we still find a way to make magic with, even when the lights flicker and the love runs entirely out.”
Your family is supposed to be your grounding, foundational experience of love. So when your father hits you, or your mother walks out without explanation, the foundation cracks; everything that comes after is disrupted. You may find it hard to trust people, hard to see vulnerability as an asset. You may brick yourself up and away from love while still needing love very, very badly. You may struggle to believe in love at all, like some mythical gold mine, abundant in theory but impossible in practice.
I lost my mother in 2015, but I’d completely stopped speaking to her in 2012, and I’d run away from home — literally, barefoot, across the front lawn in the dead of night to my friend’s waiting car — two weeks before my high school graduation. The death of a parent is very nearly the worst thing that can happen to a person; the death of an estranged parent, it turned out, was shattering in ways I could never have prepared for. It’s grief without object, grieving for something that never existed. It’s a struggle to forgive life, forgive your mother, and move forward. It’s a daily effort to believe in your capacity for love, to remember that the home inside you cannot, should not, stand empty. It’s an impossible feeling, and one that “Blue Bucket” captures with surgical precision.
9. To Be Alone With You
Sufjan talks about listening to Judee Sill’s “Jesus Was A Crossmaker” constantly as a child, over and over until the tape wore thin. He was fascinated by the ambiguity of her lyrics, the way love and faith blur to the vanishing point. She wants the love of God; she wants the love of this man. Here, Sufjan borrows a page from Sill’s book, and writes a love song to God. Not a praise song, not something you’d sing in church; something you’d sing alone in a room with the person you love.
8. Should Have Known Better
On Carrie & Lowell, the Kübler-Ross model moves in reverse. “Should Have Known Better” sees Sufjan after his walk through the valley of the shadow, regretful of some choices he made on that walk, but facing forward with an attitude of graceful acceptance. When he sings Nothing can be changed, the past is still the past, a bridge to nowhere, there isn’t resignation or defeat in his voice, but hope.
Kafka once, in a fitful diary entry, urged himself to “start seeing what you are instead of calculating what you should become.” Sufjan arrives, in this song, in the same place: don’t back down, concentrate on seeing… And see he does, so many reasons to continue: the breakers in the bar, the neighbor’s greeting, my brother had a daughter, the beauty that she brings, illumination.
From here, though, the record is very nearly a straight path from acceptance through depression, bargaining, anger, and denial. It’s a bold choice for a document of grief, to begin with an earnest effort to recover and to track the subsequent assaults on that recovery. Every song is essential to the success of that arc, not least among them the shining light of “Should Have Known Better.”
7. For the Widows in Paradise, for the Fatherless in Ypsilanti
I read once that Sufjan was inspired to write “For the Widows…” by the sight of a group of military wives in the stands at a grade-school soccer game. Their husbands abroad, shooting people or being shot, these women congregated in a little cluster to watch their children play. I don’t know if I’m remembering the story correctly, but still, it’s the image this song evokes: the kind of love forged in moments of communal suffering, when relief is impossible but empathy is abundant, when salvation can be a carpool, a sympathetic ear, a macaroni salad. “For the Widows…” is Sufjan’s most beautiful love song, but it’s less for romantic partnership than for boundless love, love for an entire world.
P.S. I found Sufjan’s rendering of the story:
I noticed when we went up there to play a football tournament in high school, I noticed that there was all these single mothers and women and grandmothers but there weren’t any men, and so I had sort of devised a story in my mind that they had all died in the war and that they were all widows. But they were really a very happy and optimistic community and they all seemed to be working together, and it was, like, women of the world take over.
6. Fourth of July
A friend of mine, Rachael, came to visit me this June, and on our way to Fran’s for breakfast we got talking about “A Little Life,” Hanya Yanagihara’s epic about a suicidal survivor of child abuse. It’s received a deluge of critical acclaim, but it’s widely reviled, too. When I gave it to another friend for Christmas last year, I literally included a note that said, “You might hate this.” (He wasn’t a fan. He made it eleven pages in, looked up the plot summary on Wikipedia, and texted me a :[ face. I don’t blame him!) Detractors feel the book is next door to torture porn, that its depictions of abuse are exploitative, that its conclusion is anti-recovery. “See, I’ve read the Wikipedia article,” Rachael said to me, on that walk. “And it sounds absolutely miserable, but everyone I’ve spoken to says it’s the most incredible, life-affirming story, and I almost want to read it because I want to know how that’s even possible.”
How can a work which fixates on death — in which the narrator longs to die, in which he gets worse instead of better — ever affirm life? Elsewhere on Carrie & Lowell, Sufjan sings graphically of suicide methods, of sexual self-harm and addiction; here, as he imagines a conversation with his late mother, he utterly collapses under the weight of his grief. The song fades out as he repeats, we’re all gonna die, we’re all gonna die, we’re all gonna die. And yet, the album was acclaimed, regaled as critical art about life and death, beloved by all who listened to it. (Well, nearly all; the friend who put down “A Little Life” after eleven pages, incidentally, also found Carrie & Lowell lacking.)
What binds Carrie & Lowell and “A Little Life,” in my mind, is the same quality which pulls each back from the brink of mawkish, indulgent trauma tourism. Their grappling with the fact of death, their serious consideration of questions like do I care if I survive this?, ultimately serves as resonant confirmation that life is very much worth living. When Sufjan sings we’re all gonna die, he renders the phrase an affirmation of life, a sentiment to be shouted aloud on a summer day.
On the last page of “A Little Life,” an adoptive father reflects on his son’s life and death. He acknowledges that this death was inevitable, that we all die, eventually, and sometimes tragically. And he thinks, It isn’t only that he died, or how he died; it is what he died believing. And so I try to be kind to everything I see, and in everything I see, I see him. Where have I heard that one before?
5. Futile Devices
I’ll begin, as I often do, with the great 21st century philosopher Taylor Swift. A fan wrote to her once, on Instagram, soliciting advice about an unrequited crush. “He’ll never like me back,” said this fan. “He has a girlfriend, and she’s pretty.” I’m sure she was predicting advice along the lines of what Swift’s songbook taught, re: high heels, sneakers, cheer captains, bleachers, etc. I’m sure she was looking for a push: Go for it! Be brave! Speak now!
Instead, Taylor told her — politely, and with featherlight compassion — to shut up. To say nothing. To understand that her love would never be returned, and to be okay with that.
“I want you to remember that what you are doing is selfless and beautiful and kind,” Taylor wrote. “You are loving someone purely because you love them, not because you think you’ll ever have your affections reciprocated. You are admiring something for its beauty, without needing to own it. Feel good about being the kind of person who loves selflessly. I think someday you’ll find someone who loves you in that exact same way.”
This contradicts virtually everything we are told about love. Every book, every movie, tells us the same thing: your bravery will always be rewarded. You will speak your truth, make your feelings known, and receive all the love you want. The only obstacle before you is your own fear, and you have the power to knock it loose, to barrel forward. It is your responsibility to declare your feelings. It is your fault if you’re lonely.
In “Futile Devices,” Sufjan comes to much the same conclusion that Taylor did: I would say I love you, but saying it out loud is hard. So I won’t say it at all. You can read the line as tragic. Maybe you should. But there’s something almost fascistic about declaring that love only matters if it’s spoken aloud — notarized, requited, scribbled in skywriting. I want to insist that love matters, period. Love matters when words fail you. Love matters when they don’t love you back. Love matters in small, unremarkable exchanges: I sleep on your couch, you bring the blankets; you play guitar, I listen to the strings buzz; you crochet, I feel mesmerized and proud. Love matters. Love always matters.
I think it’s a mistake to read “Futile Devices” as a failure. To read silence, or inaction, as failure. The narrator rests on the couch, drowsy, near sleep. His friend plays for him, a gentle song, acoustic, a lullaby. Love is in the room. And that’s enough.
4. Casimir Pulaski Day
Many, many places I could pause, but let’s take a moment with this one: all the glory that the Lord has made, and the complications you could do without. Recently, lost in grief, I thought about everything I’d lost, and how heavy, how painful, that loss felt. And then I thought, “If I could somehow go back in time and give up all the good in order to avoid the pain of losing it, would I do that?” I wouldn’t. Of course I wouldn’t.
3. Impossible Soul
In lieu of a description of “Impossible Soul,” please have this picture of me experiencing “Impossible Soul.” (I’m the one with the short brown hair and the tank top, visibly transcending this mortal plane.)
Actually, you know what? Let me talk about this picture a little. This was taken in July of 2016. In the spring of 2015, I’d lost my mother; she told her employer that she was going on vacation, and she never returned. In the spring of 2016, her car was discovered, abandoned, on a sidestreet in a suburb of San Francisco, totally empty save for a handwritten note in the glove compartment. Coming to terms with my mom’s disappearance had been one thing; reckoning with the car, the note, the more permanent absence would prove much harder. I spent a lot of that spring lost at sea, searching for anything that might help me stay afloat.
In the spring of 2015, Sufjan released Carrie & Lowell, a record about the death of his mother. He toured it for over a year, flying to concert halls all over the world for sombre, navy-blue reflections on life and death and loss. I missed every single one of those shows. I didn’t even listen to Carrie & Lowell until the call from the police, until the car. And when I did, I threw myself upon it, wrapped myself up in it, gave myself space, at last, to feel everything I needed to feel.
By July, though, I was just waiting for something to give. I was sad, and I knew that some part of me would always be sad. But I didn’t want to be too sad about how sad I was. I hungered for a breakthrough, something, anything. When the opportunity to see Sufjan on tour presented itself, I leapt at the chance.
Now, I knew that this tour would be different from the normal Carrie & Lowell shows. This was a tour of festival sets, and nobody really goes to Coachella to, like, stand still and think about mortality, you know? Also, I imagine that touring the world and singing about grief every night wears on a person. I imagine he was ready, after all that, to finally fucking party.
So for these sets, Sufjan transformed Carrie & Lowell‘s spare acoustic arrangements into fuzzy electronic jams. He led the crowd in chanting WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE with all the vim and vigour of WE WILL WE WILL ROCK YOU. And he closed each night with all twenty-five minutes of “Impossible Soul,” peppering the performance with costume changes and wild props: a shimmery disco-ball suit, a coat and helmet made of balloons, a priapic silver ladder.
The night I saw him, he hopped onto the speaker in the space between the stage and the steel barrier. Silver streamers sprouting from his head, he looked me in the eye and he sang what had, by then, become my favourite line of the whole song: In the right life, it’s a miracle! Possibility! Do you wanna dance?
And I made this face:
I’m never going to forget that moment. How could I? In that moment, in the radiant, glittering swell of “Impossible Soul,” I saw a way to survive, and I was full of joy.
2. Go! Chicago! Go! Yeah!
Let me preface this with an important point: the full, proper name of “Chicago,” as per the back of the vinyl, is “Go! Chicago! Go! Yeah!” I will die on this hill. I am, as a point of fact, presently dying on this hill. But I digress!
Earlier this year, I began taking testosterone on a daily basis. I’d been forewarned about the likely effects: my voice would deepen, my hair would thicken, and my muscles would rearrange themselves beneath my skin, giving me a set of rippling sheet-rock abs despite my being allergic to physical activity. All this to say: I’d done my homework. I’d spoken to my doctor for years, weighing pros, cons. I was prepared, I thought, for anything this treatment might throw my way.
Three months in, I discovered I could no longer cry.
For weeks, pressure had been mounting in my personal life. I’d scrawled, repeatedly, in my diary, God, I just wish I could have a good, long cry about this. It’s not that I liked crying — who does? — but I’d leaned on it as a form of release, a bit of catharsis. Without it, I felt repressed, incomplete. I’d still get that stinging heat behind my eyes, the tension in my cheeks, the sirens of distress spinning blue and red in my brain. Everything, in short, but the water. The tears wouldn’t come, and I couldn’t understand why.
I only made the connection when I read an offhand comment on, I think, Twitter: a woman saying, “I wish I could just pop a testosterone supplement before hard conversations so I wouldn’t start crying in the middle! Haha!” And I was like, Hold up. And I did some rudimentary Googling and, sure enough, I found scads of trans guys bemoaning that, upon starting testosterone, they’d lost the ability to cry. It was a predictable byproduct of the hormonal transition, but it felt insane to me. Like losing a basic, essential function of the human body, like not being able to breathe, not being able to eat. The months wore on, and I didn’t cry, and I longed to, desperately.
And then one afternoon I found myself on the train from San Francisco to Mountain View, in a seat in a far corner, tucked away, out of view. I threw on Illinois and I gazed out the window at the unbroken stretches of sub-city floating along the tracks. I zoned out. I thought about nothing.
And then I heard I fell in love again, and I just lost it.
For months, the tears had hidden themselves away, and here they were now, cascading down my cheeks, pooling up on the lenses of my glasses. All things go, all things go. It was as though Sufjan had descended from the sky on his Victoria’s Secret angel wings, alighted into the seat next to me, and said, “Okay. You’re doing this. Right here. Right now. This moment, this corner of the CalTrain, these six minutes and four seconds. Let it out, bubelah. Let it all out. Feel everything you need to feel.” I cried and cried and cried, and the song came to a close, and the train moved out of the fog and into the clear air of the valley.
“Chicago” is about failure. It is about being a complete and total fuck-up. It’s about breaking things and going broke and giving your heart to people who don’t deserve it. It’s about losing the war and limping off the battlefield and looking for something, anything, to hope for — and finding it. It is the More Life monologue set to music and issued in jubilation. It gave me my tears back, and for that, I will be forever grateful.
1. The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades is Out to Get Us!
Two years ago, I lay on a tattooist’s table as he etched gossamer-thin lines and pointillist dots into the skin of my arm with a needle so thin it had to be held by hand. This wasn’t my first tattoo. I’d had a line of blocky script printed on my forearm a year prior, and on my shoulder, a simple line drawing: two hands, a hospital bracelet, the cover art of the Antlers’ Hospice. Neither tattoo had caused me even the slightest pain — thank you, Justin Murphy of Bellwoods Tattoo! — but the wasp was different. The wasp hurt like hell. The wasp bled. It itched, and it wouldn’t stop itching, no matter how much ointment I rubbed into the skin. It made sense, in a way. Of course it would sting.
I still remember the day I was stung by a wasp in the fourth grade, sitting and eating in my backyard, beneath my family’s Japanese maple tree. I even remember what I was wearing: a halter top with pink and orange and green stripes, from Gap Kids. The wasp crawled beneath the fabric and found itself trapped and stung me four times in an effort to free itself, and I wailed and screamed and couldn’t take my shirt off to get rid of the fucking thing, because we had company. It was far from the most traumatic injury of my childhood — that’d be the time my friends and I poured dishwasher detergent (!) on a trampoline (!!) and sprayed a garden hose over it (!!!) because we thought it would be fun to jump in the bubbles (!!!!), and then I slipped, because of course I did, and I got a foot stuck in the springs of the trampoline, and I had to be rushed to the hospital with an ugly, swollen, purple foot, and then I had to hobble around in a cast for two months. Funnily enough, though, I don’t recall the pain of the fractured ankle. But I recall the wasp in such vivid, precise detail that I still flinch when I see one of those little fuckers today. In that way, the sting was a kind of foundational pain, something that would dog me forever, always sending me running at the first sign of black and yellow.
In Sufjan’s lyrics, the foundational pain reveals itself here: Touching his back with my hand, I kiss him; I see the wasp on the length of my arm.
What follows is not more words, but a slow descent down a sonic staircase, a low horn announcing each half-step. The song explodes, then, into a high, transcendent storm of strings, as Sufjan sings, we were in love, we were in love.
In a single moment, reality meets metaphor, seamless, and the result is a flash of white-hot pain. A hand cradling the small swell of a back. The kiss; the immediate reprisal, a wasp alighting on bare skin. In the aftermath, nothing is left but incomprehension, a little boy wailing in his swim trunks in a damp back-seat: I can’t explain the state that I’m in, the state of my heart, he was my best friend.
Let me be very clear: this is a song about gay childhood. I won’t engage with any of the facile arguments to the contrary. I remember the wasp trapped under my shirt like I remember my mother screaming at me, calling me a “fag-loving, homo-loving, gay-loving piece of shit,” saying, “You will never hear God’s still, small voice.” Absorb enough of these stings and the mere act of loving or being loved will look to you like a liability. You’ll grow up lonely. You’ll want nothing more than love; you’ll fear love more than anything.
There are more ambitious songs in Sufjan’s catalogue, sure, and songs of greater cultural consequence. But “Predatory Wasp” is his finest moment. His masterpiece. The song that first drew me to him, and the song that will never, ever let me go.
I would like to be brave enough, someday, to press a kiss to someone’s face and not flinch. Not imagine the kiss as an act of violence — against myself, against the person upon whom I’m inflicting love. I’m not there, though. Not yet. And until I arrive, I need “Predatory Wasp.” I need this song because I need to feel human. I need this song because I need to know that love is still possible. I need this song because I need to remember that the sting is not, never was, my fault.
Correction: An earlier version of this post implied that Sufjan only has one sister, Djohariah, and stated that she is younger than him. In fact, Sufjan has three sisters, and Djohariah is older than him. The Niche regrets the errors. Many thanks to Lowell Brams for bringing this to our attention.