Between his lo-fi folk, baroque pop, symphonic instrumentation, electronica and now hip hop; his beloved label Asthmatic Kitty; his songs for the Christmas season, and his love for American geography, Sufjan Stevens is a virtuoso of innovation.
We like Sufjan here at Paste. His Sufjan Stevens Presents: Come On Feel The Illinoise was our favorite album of the 2000s. We’re even okay with you fumbling his name the first few times you mention him (SOOF-yahn).
So today, just one day removed from Casimir Pulaski Day, we bring you our favorite Sufjan Stevens tracks.
13. Illinois “Out Of Egypt, Into The Great Laugh Of Mankind, And I shake The Dirt From MY Sandals As I Run”
The particularly long track titles on Illinois are yet another lovely identifier of this fifth studio album. Even this instrumental track seems to tell a story.
12. The Avalanche “The Avalanche”
Sufjan recorded nearly 50 songs for Illinois, initially planning a double album. When the idea was scratched The Avalanche was born via outtakes and extra cuts. The pseudo-sequel to Illinois includes the iconic bonus song “The Avalanche” which is also available on Illinois vinyl set.
11. Illinois “Jacksonville”
Allusions to place rope their way through Stevens catalog, but none capture a town as effortlessly as “Jacksonville.”
10. Seven Swans “A Good Man Is Hard To Find”
This track shares the title of Flannery O’Connor’s collection of short stories, first published in 1955. Stevens retells the story from the viewpoint of the Misfit. It is a haunting take on an American classic.
9. Greetings From Michigan “For The Widows In Paradise, For The Fatherless In Ypsilanti”
Michigan received critical acclaim because of tracks like “For The Widows In Paradise.” The album is composed of lush harmonies from one song to the next.
8. The Age of ADZ “Age of Adz”
This eight-minute track is explosive. The Age of ADZ made our 50 Best Albums of 2010 as well as The New York Times Top Pop 2012 Anthems.
7. Illinois “Decatur, Or, Round Of Applause For Your Stepmother”
Stevens is as gifted a storyteller as he is a composer and arranger. Just listen to how he intertwines the audience through Illinois, the narrator’s uninspired relationship with his stepmother and the lesson of patience learned in the end. “Decatur” is a coming-of-age tale in the most innovative of ways.
6. Illinois “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.”
This haunting documentation of 1970s notorious Chicago-based serial killer, John Wayne Gacy, Jr. is eerily seductive. The track shifts at the closing of the ballad when the narrator turns inward to question his own behavior. The movement takes it past the metaphorical into the realm of morality and redemption.
5. Illinois “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out”
This song relates experiences from his childhood summer camp. The beginning flute solo puts us right on the floor with the child narrator. As he writes a letter home, he ponders the nature of the living.
4. Illinois “Chicago”
Youthful idealism and unabashed wandering emerge through a road trip to Chicago. This semi-autobiographical track was originally recorded in four different versions. In 2005 Stevens settled on this version, which has notably become one of his signature songs.
3. Seven Swans “To Be Alone With You”
Stevens breaks the 4th wall in “To Be Alone With You”—the song begins calm and patient before settles like a blazing fire that consumes everything in its path.
2. Illinois “Concerning The UFO Sighting Near Highland Illinois”
In this quiet, two-minute track, we find both wit and wisdom. It’s an extraordinary piece that counts the power of humanities imagination.
1. Illinois “Casimir Pulaski Day”
Our favorite Sufjan Stevens song interweaves the state holiday for General Pulaski into a fictional account of relentless lovers. One faces a chronic illness, the other wrestles with God’s judgment. The lyrics bode, “All the glory when he took our place, but he took my shoulders and he shook my face. And he takes and he takes and he takes.”