This article was originally published in 2020, but we’re updating it for Sufjan Stevens’ birthday on July 1st.
Sufjan Stevens has come to be one of the quintessential voices in contemporary indie rock, but it’s not a title he earned overnight. The songwriter is known for being prolific, having written eight solo studio albums, several collaborative albums, original material for Luca Guadagnino’s 2017 film Call Me by Your Name, and even multiple Christmas albums.
He writes, performs, and records most of the music himself, sometimes playing more than 10 instruments on a single record. He even once vowed to make an album for each of the 50 US states (though, we all know how that turned out). Throughout each of his records, he’s explored banjo-led folk, electro-pop, grandiose indie rock, glitchy experimentalism, and instrumental new-age music. Stevens is the epitome of a musical polymath.
What’s impressive about someone with as many albums as Stevens is that he’s never done the same thing twice. Sure, he’s explored the same genre more than once, but he always surfaces with different results. He’s released electronic records such as Enjoy Your Rabbit and Aporia, but one is a glitchy record revolving around the Chinese zodiac while the other is a new-age-inspired album.
He’s created folk albums like Seven Swans and Carrie & Lowell, but the former was written on banjo and explores his Christian faith while the latter is a personal rumination on the death of Stevens’ mother and the turbulent relationship they had. He’s made two albums entirely about the states of Michigan and Illinois, and the differences between those are fairly evident.
We’re diving headfirst into the songwriter’s mountainous catalog, including his collaborative albums (but not his Christmas albums for obvious reasons). From A Sun Came! to A Beginner’s Mind, here’s our definitive ranking of every Sufjan Stevens album.
— Grant Sharples
12. A Sun Came! (1999)
Runtime: 72:18, 19 tracks
Oh, Great Sights upon This State (Album Art): The original artwork for Sufjan Stevens’ debut is simple and bare: a black-and-white photo of Stevens himself with his name and the album title written in cursive at the bottom. Its 2004 reissue, on the other hand, has way more pomp to it. In this version, a man in a toga (is that Sufjan?) fights off a pink-and-green monster with a spear as the sun rises in the background.
My Little Hawk, Why Do You Cry? (Saddest Song): The characteristically sad songwriter isn’t exactly new to writing songs about unrequited love, and “Dumb I Sound” is a paragon of that. “But you want to be with someone else/ And I can’t believe how dumb I sound/ And I will put my face over the ground and love you,” Stevens croons over a chorus of percussion, recorder, and piano.
Are You Writing from the Heart? (Standout Lyric): “She’ll shoot a super fart/ The deadly silent kind” (“SuperSexyWoman”)
I Can See a Lot of Life in You (Most Underrated Song): A Sun Came! is certainly one of Stevens’ less popular releases, as he would outdo himself on later records such as Seven Swans and Illinois, so you could argue that most songs from this album are underrated. But “Rake” encapsulates the hushed style that the songwriter would come to be known for in his later years. He clearly saw the potential of this song himself, too, as he released a reworked version of it, titled “You Are the Rake,” for A Sun Came’s 2004 reissue.
Is It Real or a Fable? (Best Story Song): Although Stevens is quite the storyteller himself, his musical rendition of an excerpt from William Wordsworth’s autobiographical poem The Prelude is nothing short of alluring. “Wordsworth’s Ridge (For Fran Fike)” tells a tale of the English poet stealing a boat and taking it into a nearby body of water (“I tip my oar to raise the stroke/ The wading swan, the image broke”).
We All Know How This Will End (General Analysis): On the indie artist’s debut, Sufjan Stevens was still finding his footing. A Sun Came! is far from being a bad record, and you can hear the songwriter toying with styles he would subsequently dive into more fully on his later works. Even though this may not be his best album, his blueprint still remains. He plays a sweeping total of 14 instruments here in typical Sufjan fashion, and he merges manifold styles in an eclectic manner, something he would approach with every album following it.
— Grant Sharples