The 20 Best Sufjan Stevens Songs

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The 20 Best Sufjan Stevens Songs

Sufjan Stevens is hard to pin down. A spiritual songsmith, he has continually found ways to smuggle his faith into secular indie-folk albums for the better part of the last 20 years. He has made one of the best albums of the 2010s in the thoughtful Carrie & Lowell, and one of the best albums of the decade before it in the sprawling Illinois, which really put Sufjan Stevens on the map (both figuratively and literally, as began his marketing spoof to make an album for all 50 states). He has made a film score, a collaborative album about the mysteries of the planets and the universe, an EP in honor of the apocalypse (All Delighted People), a collection of Christian musings (Seven Swans) and two massive Christmas albums, among many other releases. He never ceases to surprise us.

Now, the singer/songwriter is back with his stepfather and longtime collaborator Lowell Brams (yes, of Carrie & Lowell fame) for a new album called Aporia, which the pair decided to release early on Tuesday in light of ongoing events (It was originally scheduled to debut this Friday, March 27). A whopping 50% of record sales will go straight to projects benefitting people who have been affected by the coronavirus outbreak, including No Kid Hungry and Partners in Health. To celebrate the arrival of the record and commemorate Stevens’ ever-growing, hearty catalog, we’re counting down our favorite songs by the prolific artist. Without further Adz-do (See what I did there?), here are the 20 best Sufjan Stevens songs.

20. “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 takes 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. —Kristen Blanton

19. “All of Me Wants All of You”

Sufjan has never been one to shy away from his lustful tendencies. On this Carrie & Lowell lullaby (a sexy, dreary one, but a lullaby nonetheless), Stevens puts his passion on full display, as he has again and again throughout his career and would do perhaps most elegantly on his original Call Me By Your Name tracks a few years later. This song feels like a precursor to the music he wrote for the film; it’s prickly yet warm enough to bask in the hot Italian sunshine, and it’s obsessive. But it ends with an unfortunate realization: “All of me wants all of you” becomes “Now all of me thinks less of you.” Sometimes lust, even love, isn’t enough to sustain an otherwise empty partnership. —Ellen Johnson

18. “All the Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands”

It’s not a “Best Sufjan Stevens Songs” list without a banjo track. With ”All the Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands,” we get an intricately-layered and looped love letter to (almost certainly) Jesus, as Sufjan is wont to do. It’s the opening track for an album that is often slept on in comparison to other, more flashy records in the Sufjan Stevens discography. But in any case, the song has no problem standing firmly on its own. —Annie Black

17. “The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts”

From a purely musical perspective, lyrics aside, “The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts” is one of the most interestingly-composed songs on Illinois, and possibly one of Sufjan’s most interestingly-composed songs overall. It has an angelic chorus, brass instruments, quiet, contemplative sections, propelling loud guitars… what more could you ask for? —Annie Black

16. “The Seer’s Tower”

There’s a finality to “The Seer’s Tower” thanks to the eerie electronic organ and the broken choir tones of backing vocalists Katrina Kerns and My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden. Sufjan’s work is often synonymous with his faith, and therefore, his hopeful outlook even amid hellish darkness. All that optimism is missing on “The Seer’s Tower”—the world’s end is coming and we’ve negligently brought it on. He explores this apocalypse with a notable verticality, drawing on the hubristic fall of the Tower of Babel. Above the seer’s tower (or the Sears’ Tower, a skyscraper in Chicago and the tallest building in the world at the time of the song’s writing), Sufjan’s brethren see possibility. He only sees destruction. And, when it’s all over, Sufjan goes to the deepest pit he can find to mourn in silent sleep, like a trumpeter who fell on deaf ears. Sufjan wouldn’t be this fatal if he wasn’t sure about it, and in the desperate times we live in, it’s only a matter of time before something topples that godforsaken tower. —Austin Jones

15. “Tonya Harding (In D major)”

No shade to the equally wonderful stripped version in Eb major, but “Tonya Harding” whirls in the wintry landscape of its D major arrangement—and it should, because Sufjan tried to write a song about its titular American superstar for 30 years. There’s something endlessly sensitive about Sufjan’s character studies, whether it’s his parents or a serial killer, and “Tonya Harding” is perhaps his most pensive. That isn’t to say it’s forgiving; no, Sufjan sees Tonya for what she is: complex, jilted and courageous. In an icy veil of keys and reverberated voice, Sufjan explains how Tonya reached the brink and the strains she must have felt when compared to her competitors, from Kristi Yamaguchi’s red carpet beauty to Nancy Kerrigan’s effervescent charm. Yes, we can blame Tonya for her behavior—but behind all the celebrity gossip and invasive sensationalism there’s an American talent who just needed a little more polish. “Well this world is a bitch, girl / Don’t end up in a ditch, girl,” Sufjan offers, as if he’s Tonya’s fairy godmother. It’s a shame Tonya wasn’t a fan of Sufjan’s portrayal, though she never actually listened to it. “You all disrespected me and it hurt,” she said in a 2018 New York Times interview. “I’m a human being and it hurt my heart.” If only she knew there were people like Sufjan rooting for her, a flawed American hero of an alternate, honest history. —Austin Jones

14. “Should Have Known Better”

“Should Have Known Better” is a reminder that the past will always come back to haunt you. It’s not necessarily an optimistic outlook, but it’s sung so beautifully you may just forget about the lingering past traumas buried deep in your consciousness. “The past is still the past,” Stevens reminds us. “The bridge to nowhere.” The entire tune is tinged with regret, but as the old southern idiom goes, “If ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ were candies and nuts, we’d all have a merry Christmas.” There’s no changing what’s behind us. —Ellen Johnson

13. “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross”

“No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross” was the first single from Carrie & Lowell, simultaneously one of Stevens’ simplest and most shocking songs in years. After the ambitiously bizarre Age of Adz, fans expected his next full-length to build on the electro-pop niche he was clearly capable of carving out, as well as a genuine follow-up to his psychedelic live show that became famous at the time. Instead, he gave us a delicate folk song with spare production, not unlike some of his seminal work in the early years of his Asthmatic Kitty label. And it was great. Sufjan’s already proven he can master almost any genre if he sets his mind to it, even if no one’s asking for it. But we all know where Sufjan really shines: with just his voice, a guitar and his gentle musings on faith, childhood and sexuality. His lyrics are dagger-sharp on “No Shade,” a preamble to the interplay of self-destruction and familial love explored throughout Carrie & Lowell. It’s a breath of fresh air among the continually evolving styles of his contemporaries like Tame Impala and St. Vincent who went bigger and bigger with each release. Scaling back can be just as show-stopping. —Austin Jones

12. “Visions of Gideon”

The final scene of Call Me By Your Name—where Elio (Timothée Chalamet) sits in front of the fireplace, tears welling in his eyes, processing in real time what had happened to him that summer—is heartbreakingly important. There’s no other song that can match what that scene evokes. There is no other musician who could have written a song for that scene. It is only “Visions of Gideon,” and it is only Sufjan Stevens. —Annie Black

11. “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out To Get Us”

The brilliance of Illinois isn’t its Illinois-ness, it’s its American-ness and more broadly, its human-ness. When you hear Stevens singing about bee stings and young love at summer camp, it’s hard not to get that mushy feeling you felt about your own first love (and perhaps even subtle discomfort from remembering the countless insect bites of your childhood). After a grand instrumental breakdown, Stevens sings joyously and almost defiantly, as if he’s trying to reassure himself, “We were in love! We were in love!” It’s nearly impossible to divorce Stevens from his benevolence, and it’s absolutely impossible to separate him from the memory of this early best friend and love interest. —Lizzie Manno

10. “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. —Kristen Blanton

9. “Futile Devices”

At first, hearing Sufjan’s voice with vocal effects was a bit jarring, but for a jumping off point into The Age of Adz, this song was about as close to what we knew at the time to be “classic Sufjan.” That was comforting, in a strange way. Sufjan sums up the entire track with arguably one of the most important lines he’s ever written: “And words are futile devices.” When you feel a certain way, sure, it’s good to say it out loud. But when it comes down to it, the feelings are what really matter. —Annie Black

8. “Come on! Feel the Illinoise! Part 1…”

The 1893 World Fair was a spectacle of human achievement. It celebrated the cultures of various states, territories and countries and displayed the best of technology, architecture, science, engineering and art up until that point. Sufjan Stevens claimed he would do something similar in making 50 concept albums, each devoted to an American state, but after making two albums—one for Michigan and another for Illinois—he admitted this 50-state promise was nothing more than a “promotional gimmick.” On 2005’s Illinois, he referenced that famous world fair much more explicitly—given that it took place in Chicago and became a big part of the city’s history—in the incredibly wordy “Come on! Feel the Illinoise! Part I: The World’s Columbian Exposition – Part II: Carl Sandburg Visits Me in a Dream.” On the surface, it’s a zany horn-and-piano-led pop song—albeit a very pretty, tuneful one—but it’s actually a philosophical musing on progress and emotional authenticity. In the first half, Stevens cleverly unmasks the fair’s facade of a peachy, peaceful world that could only improve, and in the second, Stevens discusses artistic authenticity with legendary Chicago writer Carl Sandberg. As tedious or up in the clouds as that sounds, let me quickly assure you that this is no gauche show tune (or Slade rip-off)—it’s an artful pop masterpiece. —Lizzie Manno

7. “Death With Dignity”

“Death With Dignity” features one of the most chilling yet comforting melodies in the history of Sufjan Stevens. As the opening track on Carrie & Lowell, the sound of it is like a balm to me: When I hear those first few polite pluckings, I know I’m about to hear an album I hold very dear. What follows the beautiful instrumentation is a series of stacked metaphors about hens and chimneys and semi-precious gems. But before you have much time to think about what it all means, Stevens hits you with the line, “Is it real or a fable?” It’s ultimately about the untimely death of Stevens’ mother (who, if you’ve paid much attention to his music, you know had a complicated relationship with her son), but it also possesses a fleeting feeling about death in general—and the potential for beauty in it. “What is the song you sing for the dead?” Stevens asks. That melody sounds a little different for everyone. —Ellen Johnson

6. “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.”

Sufjan’s most lyrically difficult song is also my favorite. When he wants to, Sufjan really knows how to throw a punch, and interestingly enough it’s aimed at the audience on “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” He’s courageous enough to say, in many ways, he’s very similar to a serial killer—fragile, abused and misunderstood. You are too, whether you want to admit it or not. Opening with discordant piano, which never truly resolves itself throughout the track, Sufjan’s poetry and guitar work is sensuous, growing more frantic as he rushes through Gacy’s story. —Austin Jones

5. “To Be Alone With You”

Spiritual or not, you can’t deny the beauty in this track from Seven Swans. A simple chord structure with even simpler repetitive lyrics, “To Be Alone With You” represents the peace and stillness you can find in religion, a theme Sufjan comes back to time and time again. —Annie Black

4. “Mystery of Love”

When I heard that Luca Guadagnino asked Sufjan to write original songs for Call Me By Your Name, I was immediately sold on every single aspect of the film. Who else could create something so touching, so pure, for Elio? This song is truly what it is to feel new love, whether it’s for the first time ever or for the first time with the right person. —Annie Black

3. “The Only Thing”

Within a couple of seconds of this song I’m always, without fail, covered in goosebumps. This sweet, quiet melody puts me straight in my feelings—we’ve all felt what Sufjan feels here, questioning self-destruction in some way, because, sometimes, that’s easier than confronting pain. —Annie Black

2. “Concerning the UFO sighting near Highland, Illinois”

Beginning with absolutely gorgeous piano, this song kicks off Illinois just as an overture prepares an audience for a ballet. Throw in some flute and Sufjan’s haunting vocals, and you might just forget for a second that this song is about aliens. —Annie Black

1. “Casimir Pulaski Day”

There is one moment in one song in the world that gives me chills every time I hear it. When the narrator looks at the body of the girl he loves after she finally succumbs to cancer, he thinks for a moment that he sees her breathing. Then he sings about God: “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.” He’s trying to reconcile the generosity of Jesus allowing himself to be sacrificed on the cross with a god who would let a young girl die from leukemia. And the only conclusion is a chorus of angels whose weeping turns into something like joy as a triumphant trumpet kicks in. There are so many details that lead to my inevitable goosebumps: the guilty sexual explorations of teens who’ve been taught the importance of abstinence (“I almost touched your blouse”); the strict and distant father who makes a big display of his grief; the ineffectual laying of hands and praying; the cardinal hitting the window. Because the characters seem so real, so does the sorrow. I feel deeply for the dying girl and the boy who can’t understand the Why of it all—because none of us really can. —Josh Jackson

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