Sufjan Stevens's 20 Best Songs Ranked
As he releases 'Javelin,' we're revisiting the highlights of the songwriter's huge discography
Published Oct 05, 2023For a solo artist with such a varied catalogue that spans almost a quarter-century, Sufjan Stevens has largely flown under the radar, staying hidden from popular culture (except for that one time). Like any well-kept non-secret, he has a rabid fanbase, whose accounting of lore and inside jokes could be studied in academia — all while the artist himself remains stoically private, only offering glimpses of his life via photo transmissions on his Tumblr.
While not that much is concretely known about the elusive singer-songwriter's personal dealings, his lyrics are inversely influenced by some of the most personal aspects of life: the death of his mother, his relationship with God and his romantic proclivities.
Perhaps, like most great artists, his expression of self is best channelled through his music — a safe haven for his most intimate thoughts to be locked inside metaphor. So much of Stevens's catalogue seems distinctly for us, while some of it is expressly not.
Between mysteries, the now 48-year-old musician has offered up some of modern music's greatest songs. In an effort to parse his sprawling catalogue — as Stevens prepares to release his latest album, Javelin, dedicated to his late partner Evans Richardson — we're counting down the 20 best.
20. "The Greatest Gift"
The Greatest Gift (2017)
Released as the title track of Stevens's Carrie & Lowell outtakes album, the under-two-minute treasure that is "The Greatest Gift" is one that keeps on giving all these years later. Released a month before Christmas in 2017, the track could have easily fit right at home with the artist's many holiday songs — which do not appear on this painfully short list (sorry, "That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!"). Its hushed vocal tracks over a single acoustic guitar sing of increasing delight by abiding in peace and laying your life down for your brothers. "The Greatest Gift" is a distillation of Stevens's unique ability to preach lessons adjacent to his particular sect of spirituality, while also singing you gently to sleep as though you were a newborn baby.
The Ascension (2020)
Stevens has long sung about his complex relationship with Christianity, and on The Ascension's grand electro-orchestral closer, he addresses his homeland with the same pained reverence he usually reserves for God. Singing about "the sign of the cross" and "the wounds in your side," Stevens casts himself as Judas turning his back on the country he once worshipped. "I have loved you, I have grieved," he sings with a heartbreaking sense of detachment. "I'm ashamed to admit I no longer believe." Yep, we're definitely not getting albums for the other 48 states.
18. "The Runaround"
"The Runaround" is the only song in which Stevens's voice can be heard on the 2020 team-up with step-father Lowell Brams — Aporia, the otherwise instrumental project initially billed as a "new age" album, which was Brams's final output as the head of Asthmatic Kitty Records. It's a slow and mystical journey in its first two and a half minutes, variegated and arpeggiated synths drawing erratic orbits around a pair of distinct robotic voices before Stevens's own comes in for its commanding finale: "Give me a name / More than a flame / More than a metaphor / What are you waiting for / An open door?" It's the culmination of intermittent years of laborious knob-twisting, what some might call his "beep-boop" albums — among them Enjoy Your Rabbit, The BQE and, at the time, his other very recent collaborative electronic album, Planetarium. Those inclinations reach their peak in "The Runaround," and Stevens has largely laid the synths down to rest since.
17. "Death with Dignity"
Carrie & Lowell (2015)
An album opener to end all openers, "Death with Dignity" is the perfect song to begin a body of work born from the throes of grief. Like A Crow Looked at Me opener "Real Death" would address more straightforwardly two years later, it's impossible to put into lyrics how death is experienced, let alone translated into art. "Spirit of my silence, I can hear you / But I'm afraid to be near you / And I don't know where to begin" becomes both an admission of the unmoored artist and a reflexive apology for his uncharacteristically plain speech. Though that doesn't last long: Stevens sways through the rest of the song, dabbling in metaphor and heavy embellishment. There's even a bit of self-referential imagery, "amethyst and flowers on the table" mirroring the "goldenrod and the 4-H stone" in another of his songs about death, "Casimir Pulaski Day," which you'll find later in this list.
16. "All Delighted People"
All Delighted People (2010)
Nearly 12 minutes of pure indulgence, "All Delighted People" should be exhausting, even in a catalogue as long-winded and dense as Stevens's. But it works on the pure strength of Stevens's conviction, swinging from baroque flurries of woodwinds and strings to squalling walls of guitar, from gentle acoustics to stomping blues passages like lives were on the line. There are enough ideas on "All Delighted People" to fill an album or two, but Stevens's epic somehow never feels overstuffed. Its bombast is perfectly calibrated, put together with surgical precision by an artist who, at the time, seemed incapable of making a misstep.
15. "All the Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands"
Seven Swans (2004)
There's really no such thing as a non-Christian Sufjan Stevens album, but Seven Swans is still his Christian Album™, the record most preoccupied with God in all His forms. However, album opener "All the Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands" — which takes its title from Isaiah 55:12 — feels less like Christian worship music and more like a great secular embrace, a radiating sunrise that slowly fills the valley. That interpretive openness is the magic of even Stevens's most biblically specific music. Is he singing to God? To all earthly believers? To a loved one? To a friend? A pet? The universe itself? Regardless, the trees are clapping along.
Part of an absolutely stunning run of Illinois tracks, "Jacksonville" is a joyous celebration of inclusivity: the titular Illinois city was a stop on the Underground Railroad, where Black slaves escaped the South, as well as the home of schools for deaf and blind people. The lyrics need footnotes in order to understand the references to Nichols Park and the Dewey Day parade, but the gloriously straightforward arrangement of banjo strums and marching band horns offer instant satisfaction.
13. "Should Have Known Better"
Carrie & Lowell (2015)
"Should Have Known Better" contains some of Carrie & Lowell's most harrowing memories of Stevens's dysfunctional mom, with references to grief and the "black shroud" of depression, plus a particularly wrenching recollection of "When I was three, three, maybe four / She left us at that video store." But, halfway through, the arrangement shifts hopefully, adding a quietly playful keyboard and pitter-pattering percussion (which practically qualify as upbeat within the context of the hushed C&L). As harsh as the memories of his mother are, the next generation has ended the cycle of mistreatment: "My brother had a daughter," Stevens sings in choral harmony with himself. "The beauty that she brings, illumination."
12. "Decatur, or, Round of Applause for Your Step-Mother!"
An aural tourist pamphlet for Decatur, IL, doubling as an apology to his stepmother, this duet with Matt Morgan is another example of Stevens's ability to somehow transcend his hyper-specific writing with pure feeling. There are really no alternative readings of "Decatur," but its featherweight, percussion-free float still somehow feels elastic enough to house whatever petulant road trip regrets your inner child might be clutching. Compared to the rest of Illinois, "Decatur" is a bit of fluff, but let yourself float away on its plucky banjo and easy melody and you'll be grateful for its gentleness. "Chicken-mobile with your rooster tail" is surely Online Editor Allie Gregory's most oft-quoted lyric during Slack conversations.
A Sun Came (1999)
Ostensibly Stevens's first album, A Sun Came is pretty much all over the place when it comes to genre (and instruments, for that matter, of which the artist himself played 14 here). But it is also home to some gems, including "Rake," an early prototype of what would become Stevens's signature arrangement style. Not only is this the only '90s entry from his catalogue on the list, it's one of only two that could fathomably be written about a female love interest. In an era before the confessional Sufjan lyricism fans would grow accustomed to, "Rake" was a rare bit of vulnerability, delivered raw and unfiltered.
10. "Chicago (Demo)"
Blasphemy? Perhaps. All I know is the first time I heard the "Chicago" demo in 2016, I was sure I'd never go back to the original. The Illinois version's layered voices and careful web of keys and strings and percussion and horns suddenly felt like too much, a proud pine threatening to topple under the weight of its ornaments. Stevens's "Chicago" demo captures all the heart-swelling momentum of its eventual form, but its stripped-back acoustic surge — undergirded by a droning organ — embodies the scrappy, wide-eyed possibility of its lyrics, nailing the youthful sense of discovery and promise at its core. Sometimes, you get it exactly right on the first try.
9. "Futile Devices"
The Age of Adz (2010)
The red herring to trump all red herrings, "Futile Devices" sounds nothing like the record that it introduces. My first time listening to The Age of Adz, I was genuinely frustrated that the album was such a departure from its spotless diamond of an opening track; with time, I've come to enjoy The Age of Adz on its own terms, but "Futile Devices" remains my favourite of its offerings. A perfect nugget of heartache that squeezes all of the nervousness, embarrassment, tenderness, forbidden longing and pit-of-the-stomach pain of your first gay crush into two minutes and fifteen seconds, "Futile Devices" is an exquisite punch to the face. Its tightly wound tangle of piano and acoustic plucks, Sufjan's ghostly echo of voice, the way it rises to a gentle peak without ever cresting — never has a song so accurately embodied holding your tongue in the face of love.
8. "For the Widows in Paradise, for the Fatherless in Ypsilanti"
Compared to the research- and reference-heavy songs of Illinois, this Michigan standout is far more anecdotal, having apparently been inspired by a high school football tournament at which Stevens noticed a lot of single mothers and grandmothers (but a distinct lack of men) in Paradise, MI. Really, it's all just an excuse for Stevens to deliver the chorus's powerful, mantra-like promise: "I'll do anything for you." The refrain is so sad and reverent that it memorably served as a funeral soundtrack in The O.C.
Seven Swans (2004)
Compositionally, Stevens is wont to front-load (typically) long-ass tracks with instrumentals, get all mercurial with it (see No. 18), dash in some camp woo-ooo-ing and blast you off into a new dimension, only to bring you back down to earth with a handful of verses packed with heartwrenching sentimentality or some otherwise deceitfully simple profundity, and then disappear back into the ether. "Sister" is the blueprint. (Its spiritual sequel, "Djohariah," an honourable mention, is written about another sibling and follows a similar song structure.)
6. "Impossible Soul"
The Age of Adz (2010)
Hell yeah, it's 25 minutes long! Hell yeah, it has five parts! Hell yeah, it took four years to complete!
In 2010, it had been five years since Stevens delivered his opus in Illinois, a baroque pop masterpiece that would become the final (official) 50 States album whose runoff inspired another, entirely separate, highly respected compilation album in The Avalanche. In other words, he had his own very large shoes to fill. So, after a debilitating viral infection that affected his nervous system (can this guy catch a break?), Stevens switched gears completely, cranking the experimentation knob up to 11 with The Age of Adz, for which he donned sweatbands, LED light strip-adorned clothing and plastic jewelry on tour, looking something like a deranged megachurch aerobics instructor — the early-2010s were a confusing, exciting new time! Taking up nearly a quarter of the album, and all of Side D on vinyl pressings, "Impossible Soul" is the perfect, imperfect closer for a body of work characterized by disparate influences, complexities and contradictions. Never has Stevens been more lost in the sauce, and never has he simultaneously been more opulent. More is more. The world is abundant. Plus, we get "stuuuuuupid man in the window"!
"Romulus" is named after a suburb of Detroit, and it also shares a name with the founder of Rome, who was abandoned by his mother as a child. Essentially a proto Carrie & Lowell song, right down to the Oregon reference, Stevens chronicles his heartbreaking childhood relationship with his mom — who comes and goes, phones from afar, and drops the ball during key moments, including one chronicled in the tragic final verse: "We saw her once last fall / Our grandpa died in a hospital gown / She didn't seem to care / She smoked in her room and coloured her hair." Even when acknowledging that he's ashamed of her, the tender major-key ballad conveys warmth rather than judgment.
4. "Fourth of July - Live"
Carrie & Lowell Live (2017)
Carrie & Lowell, as monumental as it was upon release, was nearly thwarted by its live companion in 2017, the songs contained within an album dedicated to Stevens's late mother having been given the space to breathe, morph, evolve and emerge entirely new. Less a dirge two years after its initial release, "Fourth of July" became a celebration of life for attendees of the Carrie & Lowell tour. With Stevens borrowing from his Adz days, he begins the song as a piano-accompanied duet (shoutout to Dawn Landes's incredible backing harmonies on this version), only to enact a surprise six-minute death-rave for concertgoers in its final minutes before tweaking the original refrain, "We're all gonna die," with the grief-hardened post-script: "But I'm still alive."
3. "The Dress Looks Nice on You"
Seven Swans (2004)
Stevens was arguably at his vocal peak in 2004 for Seven Swans, an album best understood as what lies at the intersection of Christianity and banjo. Those elements, however, never stood a chance against the songwriter's prowess on "The Dress Looks Nice on You." It's his "Hotel Yorba," his "Maps" — a sweet, simple-yet-effective bit of sentimentality that transcends its less-secular counterparts, with its hooky chorus, subtle harmonies, and eschewing of form against the primarily homogenous backdrop of traditional-leaning folk songs.
2. "The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us!"
The first time I heard "The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us!" as a trying-desperately-to-be-jaded teen, I thought it was too twee and saccharine — the gently whispered vocals! The Disney-lite woodwinds! The self-consciously poetic language! The second time I heard "The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us!" through headphones alone in my room, I almost burst into tears. Like "Futile Devices" would do five years later in fewer words, "Predatory Wasp" captures the heart-fluttering confusion of young love — the diaphanous boundary between best friend and soulmate — like few songs in the history of recorded music. Unlike the teenage shame and shuddering tension that skirts the edge of "Futile Devices," though, "Predatory Wasp" explodes with childlike joy, exalting the kind of love that can't be tainted by the grown-up world that looms over it. The shadows come in its rear-view perspective, the knowledge that you can't capture that sort of innocent freedom ever again. But put on "Predatory Wasp" and you'll feel, briefly, like maybe you could.
1. "Casimir Pulaski Day"
Stevens doesn't waste any time in getting straight to the point, with the opening lines bluntly referring to "cancer of the bone." Instrumentally spare but thematically rich, the quietly devastating acoustic ballad "Casimir Pulaski Day" chronicles the futile attempts to pray away a friend's cancer. There are lusty memories of neck-kissing and blouse-almost-touching, a fraught relationship with a guilt-ridden father, and the unsolvable paradox of why terrible things happen to good people.
Stevens has always sung about God, but unlike so many other Christian songwriters, his music equally appeals to secular listeners because of his willingness to grapple with religion's lack of satisfying answers. He's not so much singing about a Christian God as he is addressing life itself when he celebrates "all the glory that the Lord has made" and acknowledges the way "He takes and He takes and He takes." Life is beautiful and terrible and tragic, and "Casimir Pulaski Day" achingly dwells on its most euphoric highs and terrible lows. In a career full of soaring strings and horns, squalling electronic experimentation and grand orchestral opuses, all he really needs is an acoustic guitar and his angelic, quivering coo to deliver his most breathtaking emotional gut-punch.