On the most recent episode of Indiecast, Steven Hyden asked how I reconciled my love for Sufjan Stevens with a professed antagonism towards centrist, NPR-approved indie rock. For example, the recent output of legacy artists like The National, Wilco, and Animal Collective or even tasteful, contemporary A-listers like Boygenius and Big Thief. It’s a fair question coming from someone with a professed ambivalence towards Sufjan Stevens, since very little about the sound of his music is abrasive or antagonistic. Throughout nearly his entire career, most of Stevens’ songs could be stripped to a chassis of his plaintive vocals and a handful of banjo chords. There is nothing in his early years as raw and ragged as, say, Alligator, nor has he even appeared on any rap records a la Justin Vernon (though Mac Miller did sample The Age Of Adz’s “Vesuvius” on a song called “Donald Trump”…that came out in 2011). He’s dabbled in ballet and modern classical, while playing a massive role in 2009’s Dark Was the Night, still the most monolithic time capsule of tasteful, Obama-era indie rock.
Indeed, over the past month, I’ve struggled to find a throughline within Sufjan Stevens’ sprawling and always fascinating catalog; how does one square toting a banjo and Bible on 2004’s Seven Swans with the cynical, lockdown synth-pop of 2020’s The Ascension, the Boy Scout outfits of Illinois with the naked heartache of Carrie & Lowell, the abstract noise of Year Of The Rabbit with the urbane aspirations of The BQE? Turns out that focusing on the sound of Sufjan Stevens’ music obscures the bigger picture. In a recent Pitchfork interview, Kazu Makino of Blonde Redhead described Stevens as an Icarus figure a la Frank Ocean, Ryuichi Sakamoto, and Terry Riley, “flying too close to the sun,” capable of absorbing the pain, suffering, and joy of the world and expressing it as their own. “I always feel so sad for them. Like, why them?,” Makino queried. “Why do they have to bear that role of witnessing so much hardship and the difficulty of just being alive in this world and then translate it through music?”
This happened several days before the release of Stevens’ most recent album, Javelin; the most recent single was titled “Will Anybody Ever Love Me?” and, in lieu of any interviews, Stevens opened up about his battle with Guillane-Barré syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that has required him to undergo strenuous physical therapy to learn how to walk again. These were all posted on Tumblr, still his preferred method of mass communication. This is what I, and most others assumed Makino was referring to when she said, “I hope he’s doing alright, I hope he’s happy, and I hope he’s gonna manage.” Maybe she was, or maybe she was foreshadowing the heartbreakingly beautiful essay Stevens published on the release date of Javelin, dedicating it to Evans Richardson IV, his partner who died this past April. “Be kind, be strong, be patient, be forgiving, be vigorous, be wise, and be yourself,” Stevens wrote. “Live every day as if it is your last, with fullness and grace, with reverence and love, with gratitude and joy. This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
It’d be cheap and reductive and incorrect to say that Stevens’ music generates its power from quantifiable, real-life suffering. In the hours that passed between the release of Javelin and Stevens’ dedication, fans were already gearing up to be ripped apart and ready to call in a sick day, because that’s what we’ve come to expect from the guy. Whether he was telling other people’s stories throughout the aughts or his own from The Age Of Adz going forward, Stevens has tapped into a superhuman level of empathy and insight that imbues every song with a dizzying sense of stakes; there is no such thing as a Sufjan Stevens record that qualifies as “easy listening” or “Sufjan doing Sufjan as a bit,” the latter which prompted the original debate, as I’ve used it for pretty much every the National album over the past decade. But while Makino’s take helped clarify things in the present day, I feel like the best answer to my co-host’s question leads me back to something Stevens said leading up to the release of 2015’s stunning Carrie & Lowell, an album largely inspired by the death of his birth mother – “This is not my art project; this is my life.”
A disclaimer on what qualifies for a “best Sufjan Stevens albums” list is in order, as his catalog is rife with collaborative works, soundtracks, live recordings remix albums, album-length EPs, and “mixtapes” – to the point where even I forgot that he made a Christmas-themed hip-hop tape featuring Kitty Pryde, Busdriver, and Heems from Das Racist. Believe me, I’d love to hash out where Chopped And Scrooged deserves to rank relative to Seven Swans, but I also didn’t want this project to last another two months. For now, let’s just keep it to the thirteen studio albums credited by Wikipedia, the compilations, and the soundtracks.
18. Convocations 
If it hasn’t already happened, one day we’ll get “Best Pandemic Albums” lists that truly drive home what a catastrophic and residual effect 2020 had on our collective psyche. This won’t encompass “albums that were released between 2020 and 2021,” or, “albums inspired by lockdown” (i.e., pretty much every album released from 2021-2023) but rather the humming subgenre of the actual “pandemic album,” where artists use their unfortunate surplus of time to purchase synths, download recording apps, and gin up an interest in ambient music. Such a pursuit was nothing new for Sufjan Stevens, nor was exploring the relationship with his birth father, yet Convocations is unmistakably a “pandemic album,” a massive 5-LP collection of soft synth drones begun after the death of Rasjid Stevens, which occurred two days after the release of The Ascension. Putting aside its tragic genesis, even in 2021, music critics were unwilling to carve out the time required to give Convocation an honest assessment, as it’s pretty much the only Sufjan Stevens project from the past 20 years to not get reviewed by Pitchfork; try not to think about the hourly rate of the four souls (according to Metacritic) who did tackle this 150-minute behemoth.
17. Year Of The Rabbit 
I’m no expert on noise music, so it’s hard to recommend Year Of The Rabbit as anything other than a noise album only of note because Sufjan Stevens made it; in 2001, it was notable for being a noise album made by someone from Danielson Famile, which now feels as charmingly antiquated as St. Vincent once being known as “that woman from Polyphonic Spree.” The title is misleading, though – rather than trying to make noise albums for each individual animal of the Chinese Zodiac, Sufjan knocked it out in one try. Work smarter, not harder.
16. The Decalogue 
In the decade between The Age Of Adz and The Ascension, Sufjan Stevens made two ballet soundtracks and one proper studio album. I can’t think of anyone this excited about the ballet since Homer Simpson assumed it was a bear riding around on a cart. Anyways, of all the ballet soundtracks inspired by the Ten Commandments, I’d say that The Decalogue has a good claim as the best of the bunch.
15. A Beginner’s Mind 
If you start rattling off a list of adjectives that describe Sufjan Stevens’ music, how long would it take to get to “fun”? There’s certainly a streak of humor that comes through in his Christmas albums or the Illinois extended universe, but it’s been largely crowded out by the devastating emotional payload that surrounds the creation of (and engagement with) his 2010s output. A Beginner’s Mind, Stevens’ joint LP with protegé Angelo de Augustine, seems like an intention to reconnect with a more playful side, a quasi-concept album where each song is inspired by a specific film, ranging from cinematic classics for snobs and/or slobs (Wings Of Desire, Point Break) to pure late-night TV junk (Hellraiser III: Hell On Earth, Bring It On Again). Yet, this low-stakes endeavor ran into controversy on the Silence Of The Lambs-indebted “Cimmerian Shade” with a lyric about “autogynephilia,” a term frequently adopted by anti-trans bigots. It’s a frankly shocking lapse of judgment from an artist who otherwise has otherwise been a beacon of light and hope for queer listeners, and almost certainly not one made with ill intention; it’s an unfortunate reminder of the mistakes that can be made in a beginner’s mindset and the reason most people fear that state as they age.
14. A Sun Came 
A Sun Came fits squarely into the subgenre of “albums before The Album” – specifically in the early aughts, think Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers, M83, Von, Feel Good Lost, and such. There’s something truly uncanny about hearing a legacy band in their formative stage, particularly when all of these “albums before The Album” have been virtually written out of their respective creators’ history. The later work allows you to hear genius in chrysalis as opposed to “potential,” while also pondering an alternate scenario where the artist takes the public indifference to heart and never makes the next step, robbing us of, say, Boxer or Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming years down the road. Seriously, the next Sufjan Stevens might have just released their 3-star/B-/6.4-type debut.
But more than any of the aforementioned, A Sun Came is odd for how different it isn’t than what came after; even with Sufjan recording to a 4-track, A Sun Came finds a lot of his stylistic tics intact – the flute trills, the effusive song titles and bulky song lengths, boasts of the man playing several dozen instruments. Plus there’s the added bonus of Sufjan dabbling in genres he wouldn’t dare touch going forward,” such as the sludgy guitar freakout of “Demetrius,” which more or less predicts …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead’s future endeavors in proggy art-rock. Also, a Sufjan Stevens song called “Super Sexy Woman” with the following lyrics: “She is super-duper smart / I like her for her mind / She’ll shoot a super fart / The deadly silent kind.” Though I have to admire the existence of the only Sufjan Stevens album that could reasonably be compared to early Ween, A Sun Came ultimately suffers the fate of all “albums before The Album,” having the sound in place but not the vision.
13. All Delighted People 
Artists of Sufjan Stevens’ stature, longevity and, let’s just say distinct artistic sensibilities tend to endure at least some kind of significant backlash along the way. All Delighted People is Stevens’ most critically derided work and probably the only one. Despite surprise-releasing 60 minutes of music for $5 on Bandcamp – in a year where surprise releases were genuine shocks to the system and Bandcamp was still novel – All Delighted People was perceived as an act of hostility, an actualization of Stevens’ increasingly dour look on the traditional album cycle. Hence, the decision to call an hourlong work an “EP” and distract from the rollout for the feverishly anticipated The Age Of Adz, which was already announced and still a month away. There is essential music to be had here, such as the aching, minimal ballads “Arnika” and “Heirloom,” but they’re ultimately overshadowed by what most considered a bridge too far in Stevens’ already extra artistry, i.e., the interminable guitar soloing and aimless largesse that pushed “Djohariah” to 17 minutes and made the “classic rock” version of the title track feel twice as long as its 11-minute original. Oddly enough, the beloved, 25-minute song that came shortly thereafter only confirmed All Delighted People as more of a data dump than a burst of true inspiration.
12. Aporia 
Stepfathers are one of the more reliably villainized roles in artist biographies, but consider the unusual case of Lowell Brams – Sufjan Stevens’ adoptive father encouraged his musical development from the age of 5, making him mixtapes, introducing him to Bob Dylan, buying his first keyboard and, also, co-founding the Asthmatic Kitty label that has released nearly every Sufjan Stevens project to this day. Pretty good return on investment, so we can’t begrudge an album like Aporia functioning as a literal retirement gift, a 40-minute, collaborative project between Stevens and Brams that’s largely jamming on analog synthesizers but is likely the most uplifting work in his catalog; the mere existence of Aporia makes you wish you had a dad like Lowell Brams, or better, the capacity to be more like him.
11. Planetarium 
So this dude can just churn out a 75-minute pop-classical project about the planets but not a 40-minute folk album about Wisconsin? So it is with Planetarium, Stevens’ collaborative work with the most literal and figurative star power, created alongside Bryce Dessner of The National, another guy that long abandoned their Rust Belt roots with an aim to imprint themselves in New York City’s avant-garde composer scene (exemplified by co-headliner Nico Muhly). As a piece of music, it’s just fine, but Planetarium strikes me as a more fascinating document of the ambition and envy that informs the Midwestern drive to either reject or embrace the coastal elite.
10. The BQE 
I’ll just quote the All Music Guide review here – “a ‘symphonic and cinematic exploration of New York City’s infamous Brooklyn-Queens Expressway’ that included a self-made Super 8 mm film, a full orchestra, and a small army of hula hoopers performing live in front of a sold-out Brooklyn Academy of Music.” Obviously, this is nowhere near Sufjan Stevens’ most essential works, but it’s all the more remarkable for being “business as usual” for the guy.
9. The Ascension 
Thinking back on September 2020 – no more Tiger King or The Last Dance, no more applause for essential workers at 7 PM, no real end in sight – there seemed to be an equal split on what type of art was deemed necessary for all of us to press forward. It was a boom time for disco and hardcore, two genres almost entirely reliant on a physical, communal presence, which lent credence to the belief that people wanted the exact opposite of what they were currently experiencing. Others deemed demanding art like The Ascension as “the album we need right now,” an 80-minute, downtempo synth-pop opus about Sufjan Stevens’ loss of faith in a wide array of mass institutions. I suppose my initial reaction to The Ascension put me in the former camp, as I gravitated towards a few spectacular songs (such as the title track) and found the rest to be punishingly repetitive, the first time that such a notoriously religious writer actually felt preachy and cynical.
But that’s why I was more excited to revisit The Ascension than any other album on this list; like most popular culture from that time that was likely created before the pandemic, it begs to be divorced from an immediate context when there was only one lens through which art could be evaluated. Three years later, it’s no less of a chore to actually listen to, but I’ve developed a kind of grudging respect for its goals – from its adoption of pop music’s didacticism (i.e., song titles like “Run Away With Me,” “America,” “Tell Me You Love Me”) to a complete overhaul of instrumentation (I hear that you and your hand have sold your banjo and bought Prophet synthesizers), The Ascension was a necessary overhaul for an artist that had grown weary of his god, his country, and, most crucially, the persona of “Sufjan Stevens.” “I don’t wanna be your personal Jesus,” he snarled on “Video Game,” an essential reminder for anyone who hears Javelin or Carrie & Lowell and sees Stevens as an artist doomed to suffer for our sins.
8. Songs For Christmas / Silver And Gold [2006 / 2012]
As of this writing, I’m 43 years old and the average life expectancy for a male in California is 76. Let’s assume that the things I’m currently doing that tend to prolong one’s life (regular exercise, no drinking or smoking) and the things that work against it (eating approximately two pounds of candy corn every October, regular consumption of Diet Mountain Dew) are a wash. Since I met my wife in 2019, we have listened to one or both Sufjan Stevens’ massive Christmas albums every single time we’ve decorated a tree and/or had the in-laws over for dinner. So while, say, “Lumberjack Christmas” or “I Am Santa’s Helper” or “Come on! Let’s Boogey to the Elf Dance” might not reach the artistic heights of “Chicago” or “Death With Dignity,” I’m virtually guaranteed to hear them at least 33 more times in my life. I can’t confidently say that about Illinois.
7. The Avalanche 
I imagine that even the most devout “50 States Project” truther wouldn’t argue that Illinois left them wanting more of the same in 2005; surely, Ohio or Indiana would be subject to diminishing returns if they were given a similar, 70-minute slate of florid, flute-filled theatrical pop. But here we have the aughts’ The Aeroplane Flies High, a treasure trove of B-sides and alternate takes from an artist with seemingly no limit to their generosity (or confidence). I’m not sure what I’d cut to make room for the title track or “Springfield, Or Bobby Got A Shadfly Caught In His Hair” or any of the other gems that compensate for pure filler like the three extra versions of “Chicago,” nor is it clear that Illinois might’ve benefitted from being a double album. But The Avalanche is the most bittersweet album to revisit on this list, something that seemingly promised Stevens being hard at work on his next all-American masterpiece, when it was actually the end of an era.
6. The Age Of Adz 
A colleague expressed how excited he was for Javelin based on its “quick turnaround,” and mind you, The Ascension dropped in 2020. He’s not really wrong, though. Since Illinois, proper Sufjan Stevens albums have reliably appeared every five years, leading each one to feel like its own contained universe rather than connected dots on an artistic trajectory. But in retrospect, Sufjan Stevens’ most divisive album is actually the only one that feels like a transitional work, amplifying both the maximalism of Illinois and the personal disclosure of Carrie & Lowell with all the messiness such a description entails. That very messiness leads The Age Of Adz to be considered a kind of Contrarian’s Choice amongst Sufjan Stevens diehards, and trust me, I appeared on a podcast where we talked about this album for nearly two hours. Despite some of the most explosive arrangements of his career (the title track represents the first time his orchestral largesse truly toppled over since A Sun Came), The Age Of Adz is easily the darkest, most disturbing Sufjan album, inspired by the schizophrenic, self-proclaimed prophet Royal Robertson, whose artwork graces the cover. Sure, Carrie & Lowell also tackled “death, disease, illness, anxiety, and suicide” (as Sufjan described the themes here), but they were expressed with grace and dignity. “Vesuvius” likens his creative process to falling into a volcano, a fitting metaphor for an album that still feels too hot to touch.
5. Javelin 
The early word on Javelin was “return to form,” which filled me with ambivalence, even as someone who was cool on The Ascension. Putting aside his Christmas specials, Sufjan Stevens had never repeated himself or really ever made an artistic move to satisfy anything other than his own artistic whims. “Return to form” brought to mind late-period R.E.M. or U2 or, in the current day, bands like The National or Interpol who have more or less evolved into fan service.
But while Javelin doesn’t really do anything new, it’s a Sufjan Stevens album without precedent, one that satisfies both the “quiet” and “maximalist” factions by paring back the indulgences of The Ascension while honoring the orchestral grandeur that he presumably shelved after The Age Of Adz. If not a masterpiece on the level of Carrie & Lowell or Illinois, Javelin is a masterful work that could very well be the best introduction for newcomers; just about everything Sufjan Stevens has ever done well, he does here.
4. Seven Swans 
Minimal and overtly based in scripture, Seven Swans is the type of album that almost always appears in the UPROXX lists made by Steven Hyden (i.e., ones involving artists whose career started before 1995) – an outlier dabbling in religion and/or mysticism, typically popping up in their “wilderness phase.” Such is the nature of Sufjan Stevens’ inimitable career he not only released Seven Swans immediately after his critical breakthrough, but it was actually more acclaimed than Michigan. Besides being one of the best “dawn of springtime” albums of the 21st century, Seven Swans served as an unexpected liaison between proper indie rock and the more alt-leaning kids in Christian youth group; whereas the Cohen family allowed me to see The O.C. as a document of Jewish excellence, its soundtrack included “To Be Alone With You,” a whispered banjo ballad that’s pretty explicitly about Jesus and could just as easily be dropped on a mix CD for your crush.
3. Michigan 
The early days of the Trump presidency were going to be profoundly demoralizing anyway, but the fiction of journalistic neutrality wasn’t helping. I’m not even talking about Fox News or Alex Jones or what have you, but rather the “MAGA safari” that became mandatory in 2017. You know, a journalist from the Washington Post or New York Times would parachute into some city in the Midwest devastated by deindustrialization and offshoring and try to figure out how the Blue Wall turned Red. There would inevitably be a solemn picture of a husband and wife in their 60s staring towards the window of their local greasy spoon, sympathetic and generally decent people until they let slip some dog whistle stuff about immigration. Very rarely did anyone willing to reckon with the Democratic policies that led to NAFTA and prolonged union busting that ultimately gutted these places; most of the time, you’d be left with the sense that the strategy going forward was on some Dril shit, figuring how to leverage just the right amount of allowable racism to win back this type of voter.
Compare this to Michigan, Sufjan Stevens’ critical breakthrough and one of the most empathetic and devastating accounts of Midwestern decline ever put to tape. Lyrically, the references to K-Mart and Payless Shoe Stores situated Stevens along the lines of Magnolia Electric Co. or Ghosts Of The Great Highway in 2003, but rather than emulating the former’s rough-hewed heartland rock, Michigan curiously leaned on the egghead minimalism and post-rock that was also sprouting up throughout the greater Chicago area. Who knew you could honor the widows of Flint with a glockenspiel and a banjo? This would be a crowning achievement for basically any artist, except for the fact that Stevens did the same thing on an even grander scale two years later. But for many, Michigan is the album closest to their heart because it resembles Roger And Me more than musical theater and evokes the broken dreams of people who lived in Vermont or California or Kentucky, hoping that their lives could be documented as beautifully as it is on Michigan.
2. Carrie & Lowell 
For all of the effort critics put into figuring out why certain music resonates and endures, it’s probably understandable that they avoid the most obvious and, therefore, boring question – how old were you when this album came out? But before I talk about Carrie & Lowell, let’s discuss Radiohead. Every now and again, someone on Twitter will ask, “is it just me or is In Rainbows low key underrated?” And it will get a ton of traffic because, to a certain extent, In Rainbows kinda is underrated – at least in how it’s rarely considered The Greatest Album Ever Made (OK Computer) or a revolutionary work of art that completely transformed rock music, ushered in the 21st century and inspired a book that you should certainly buy right this moment (Kid A). There are plenty of acceptable reasons why In Rainbows could be considered Radiohead’s greatest album – I’ve read that it’s their sexiest album (what’s No. 2?), it’s their leanest, etc. But the anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that In Rainbows is the millennial choice for the best Radiohead album, the one where they had the ability to sculpt its legacy in real time, freed from the received wisdom of their elder siblings. This is not an isolated phenomenon and the difference between people who think Boxer or Trouble Will Find Me is The National’s masterpiece, or Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not or AM for Arctic Monkeys.
So it is with Carrie & Lowell, an album that not only arrived a decade after Illinois but more or less eradicated everything that had tied the latter to a long past era of indie rock; no more cheerleading outfits, no more extravagant song titles, no flutes, no choirs. Whether it’s the peak of Stevens’ catalog, “Death With Dignity” nonetheless announced a dividing line between his theatrical razzle-dazzle aughts and the cinematic devastation that would define his second phase (especially his contributions to Call Me By Your Name). But while Carrie & Lowell is Stevens’ most powerful work, it’s also the least versatile. Has anyone ever been able to finish a work day or clean their house after hearing “Fourth of July”? Yet even amidst a mid-decade mini-boom for legacy artists reinventing themselves as raw documentarians of tragedy (Benji, A Crow Looked At Me), Carrie & Lowell is the one whose songs have managed to outlast the initial shock value, providing solace and guidance when nothing else can possibly serve as a substitute.
1. Illinois 
For the past 20 years, Sufjan Stevens has mostly maintained an enviable, comet-like presence: returning every so often to bless us with a flash of brilliance, never staying in the same place long enough to serve as the light around which all things orbit. Illinois, of course, is the exception. Coming off Michigan and Seven Swans, 2005 was Stevens’ capital-M Moment and Illinois was operating on a summer blockbuster scale; it was even released on the 4th of July. Pitchfork chose it as their album of the year, whereas Paste named it the best album of the entire decade. It’s nigh impossible to think of any other time during the 21st century – hell, even the past 50 years – where an album like Illinois could double as zeitgeist.
And I don’t blame anyone for hearing “2005” when revisiting Illinois, or at least the indie-coded mass culture that thrived during that time – The O.C., McSweeney’s, Wes Anderson, Little Miss Sunshine, freak-folk, banjo-core, blog-rock. But I also hear John Wayne Gacy and Abraham Lincoln, young love and slow deaths, indigenous land acknowledgments and tributes to Chicago’s skyline, zombie disco and The Music Man, people crying in vans, crying in hospital wards, crying tears of joy. Maybe the 50 States Project was a gimmick all along, or maybe Illinois captured the whole of American life so vividly that any follow-up was doomed to be redundant.