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Sufjan Stevens is a prolific singer-songwriter known for his unique style of combining folk, pop, and indie rock music. With a career spanning over two decades, Stevens has released several critically acclaimed albums that have earned him a devoted fanbase. His music is characterized by intricate melodies, poignant lyrics, and a haunting quality that stays with the listener long after the song is over. Choosing the best Sufjan Stevens songs of all time is no easy feat, as he has produced so many memorable tracks throughout his career. From the haunting “John Wayne Gacy Jr.” to the uplifting “Chicago” to the introspective “Death with Dignity,” Stevens’ songs have a way of captivating listeners with their beauty and depth. Stevens’ music often deals with personal themes such as loss, faith, and identity, but he also tackles broader societal issues such as race, religion, and politics. He has proven himself to be a master storyteller, weaving together intricate narratives that are both deeply personal and universal in their appeal. In this list of the best Sufjan Stevens songs of all time, we will explore some of his most notable works and examine what makes them so special. Whether you are a die-hard fan or a newcomer to Stevens’ music, this list is sure to showcase the breadth and depth of his incredible talent.
1. We Are What You Say
“We Are What You Say” is a high-energy, punk-influenced track by the Pixies that was released on their 2004 album “Trompe le Monde.” The song features driving guitar riffs, pounding drums, and raw, urgent vocals from lead singer Black Francis. The lyrics, like many of the Pixies’ songs, are enigmatic and open to interpretation, but they seem to touch on themes of conformity, identity, and societal pressure. Overall, “We Are What You Say” is a powerful and intense track that showcases the Pixies’ trademark blend of raw energy and unconventional songwriting.
2. For the Widows in Paradise, for the Fatherless in Ypsilanti
An experimental album of lyric-less electronica inspired by the animals of the Chinese zodiac might sound like a surefire recipe for mainstream success, but somehow Stevens’ second offering, Enjoy Your Rabbit (2001), failed to catapult him to fame. It was with his third, Michigan (2003), that his career and reputation stepped up a gear. Featuring songs inspired by places, events and people relating to Michigan, it was the first of what Stevens dubbed his 50 States project, through which he planned to release 50 albums inspired by each US state. In the end, he managed only two. “The whole premise was such a joke,” he told Paste in 2009, “and I think maybe I took it too seriously. I started to feel like I was becoming a cliche of myself.” Nevertheless, Michigan is an exceptionally ambitious record. For the Widows in Paradise … showcases his ability to craft rich stories from a snapshot, inspired as it was by a high-school football trip to the town of Paradise.
3. To Be Alone With You
With his fourth album, Seven Swans, Stevens did what few artists outside country music are willing to do and wore his Christianity on his sleeve. The album explores stories from the Bible, as well as Stevens’ more personal relationship with his faith – though he’s coy about the subject in interviews: “I feel like I’m doing a disservice to myself, and to my convictions, in speaking publicly about these things, because they’re too easily misconstrued. I find in music there’s a space and a language I can use to express things in ways I can’t describe conversationally. And it always leads to some kind of discussion about politics.”. Although To Be Alone With You is ostensibly (though not too overtly) about Jesus, many of Stevens’ listeners prefer to excavate from its lyrics an implicit queerness: “You gave up a wife and a family / You gave your ghost / To be alone with me.” It’s an interpretation fuelled by the ambiguous sexuality in a number of his later songs, too.
4. Casimir Pulaski Day
With the second album of his 50 States project, Stevens turned his attention to Illinois. “I wanted it to be kind of a historical survey,” he said, “but I didn’t want it to be heavy with information; I didn’t want it to be too political, and I didn’t want it to be too didactic.” You certainly wouldn’t learn much about Illinois from the album – its many local references are too specific, comprehensible only to those who already know it well – but it hardly matters. For those looking for it, the quirks and minutiae of Illinois run through the album. For those who aren’t, it pulses with the more universal themes of love and loss and existential angst. Casimir Pulaski Day houses all three. It’s named after the Illinois state holiday honouring Polish-born war of independence officer Casimir Pulaski, but you don’t need to know that in order for its opening lines to hit you like a punch in the gut: “Goldenrod and the 4H stone / The things I brought you when I found out / You had cancer of the bone.”
5. John Wayne Gacy Jr
The album’s most straightforward song is also its most profoundly disturbing. Its subject is Illinois’s infamous “Killer Clown”, so called because he dressed as a clown for fundraisers and children’s parties, and sexually assaulted and murdered at least 33 teenage boys in the 70s. Stevens takes us through Gacy’s childhood, his local popularity, and his violent crimes then, as if unwittingly recoiling from the horror of it all, he draws out a languished, falsetto “oh my God”. The most shocking moment comes when he empathises with Gacy. “And in my best behaviour,” he concedes at the song’s close, “I am really just like him / Look beneath the floorboards / For the secrets I have hid.” The song, he says, is “a remark about potential more than anything else. We’re all capable of what he did.”
6. That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!
Never one to do things by halves, in 2006 Stevens took the Christmas album tradition and ran a marathon with it. At just over two hours long, his five-EP box set Songs for Christmas comprised 44 songs, both traditional and original. Recorded over six years and originally given as gifts to friends and family, the set sandwiched faithful renditions of songs such as Joy to the World between Did I Make You Cry on Christmas? (Well You Deserved It!) It was wistful, banjo-led 2003 ballad That Was the Worst Christmas Ever! that he most regularly performed on his 2006 tour, while throwing inflatable Santas into the audience. After its opening lines conjure scenes of festive idyll, things quickly take a less blissful turn: “Our father yells / Throwing gifts in the wood stove / My sister runs away.” Merry Xmas everybody!
7. I Want to Be Well
In the five years between the release of Illinois and its eventual follow-up, The Age of Adz, Stevens suffered from both a mysterious chronic illness and a growing unease with his own artistic identity. The illness, a viral infection that affected his nervous system, made it difficult for Stevens to even climb stairs, and rendered him hypersensitive to loud noises. It was debilitating – but so was his growing psychological angst. The BQE, a live mixed-media project undertaken in November 2007 (and named after a road the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway), crippled him in a way he couldn’t understand. “In all honesty, that piece is what really sabotaged my creative momentum,” he said. “It wasn’t Illinois so much. I suffered sort of an existential creative crisis after that piece.
8. Futile Devices
“Futile Devices” is a song by American singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens. It was released on his 2010 album, “The Age of Adz”. The song is known for its minimalistic and intimate sound, with Stevens’ delicate vocals accompanied by soft acoustic guitar and occasional electronic flourishes.Lyrically, the song deals with themes of love and longing, as Stevens sings about the pain of unrequited love and the hopelessness of trying to keep a relationship together when it is clear that it is not meant to be. Despite its melancholic subject matter, “Futile Devices” is a beautiful and moving song that showcases Stevens’ gift for songwriting and his ability to convey complex emotions through his music.
9. Should Have Known Better
“Should Have Known Better” is a song by American indie folk band Sufjan Stevens. The track was released in 2015 as part of Stevens’ seventh studio album, “Carrie & Lowell.” The song has been hailed as one of Stevens’ most personal and emotional compositions, with lyrics that deal with themes of regret, grief, and self-reflection. The track features Stevens’ signature finger-picking guitar style and delicate vocals, with minimal instrumentation that creates a haunting and melancholic atmosphere. The lyrics reflect on Stevens’ relationship with his estranged mother and the memories of his childhood, with the chorus lamenting, “My brother had a daughter / The beauty that she brings, illumination.”
10. The Only Thing
“The only thing that keeps me from driving this car / Half-light, jack knife into the canyon at night,” confesses Stevens in the opening line of The Only Thing, is looking at the constellations of the stars. In contemplating his own self-destruction, Stevens tries to comprehend the self-destruction he witnessed in his mother, who suffered from depression and schizophrenia and walked out on him when he was barely a year old. “I’ve always had a strange relationship to the mythology of Carrie, because I have such few lived memories of my experience with her,” he told Pitchfork. “At the time [of her death], part of me felt that I was possessed by her spirit and that there were certain destructive behaviours that were manifestations of her possession.”