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
11. Enjoy Your Rabbit (2001)
Runtime: 79:04, 14 tracks
Oh, Great Sights upon This State: Inspired by the cycle of the Chinese zodiac, Enjoy Your Rabbit reflects this conceit on its cover with the title spelled out in gold in both English and Chinese. The key image is all clear-cut colors and familiar shapes: the red silhouette of a bird, drifting against a pale, blue background somewhere above two symmetrical rabbits.
My Little Hawk, Why Do You Cry?: “Year of the Tiger” might be the most somber track, with a melancholy four-note vocal part working as its central motif. Other sounds bubble and burst around these vocals, creating for them an eerie and almost hypnotizing effect.
I Can See a Lot of Life in You: As an all-instrumental electronica record, Enjoy Your Rabbit is not really an album where much of Stevens’ most popular work lives. “Year of the Ox,” though, is a genuinely snappy song with an infectious, serrated rhythm, evolving at the end into a cleansing rush of static.
Is It Real or a Fable?: Enjoy Your Rabbit is all instrumental, so there are no lyrical stories to unpack. But tracks like “Year of the Rat” are notable for their ability to evoke a troubled sense of searching; versions of the same pattern repeat over and over, but gradually build in tone and intensity to a near-hysterical level.
We All Know How This Will End: Enjoy Your Rabbit came before Michigan and Seven Swans, but on a sonic level, with its ability to develop entire themes around glitches and synths, it most feels like a precursor to The Age of Adz. It can feel somewhat inscrutable at times, but even as Stevens’ second album, it spoke early on to his affinity for concept-based work, which would wind up quickly becoming a crucial side to his artistry.
— Laura Dzubay
10. Convocations (2021)
Runtime: 150 minutes, 49 tracks
Oh, Great Sights Upon This State: Convocations’ album cover, similar to the music itself, is stirringly hypnotic and mesmerizing. It’s simple yet evocative with its sky blue backdrop and swirling yellow pattern. This makes for one of Stevens’ more abstract album covers, reflective of the 49 ambient tracks within it.
My Little Hawk, Why Do You Cry?: Stevens’ latest album is a rumination on the five stages of grief, with each of its five volumes dedicated to a different stage. The second volume, Lamentations, focuses on depression, so it only makes sense that a track from Lamentations would hold the saddest material on Convocations. Specifically, “Lamentation III” strikes hardest, emulating the numbness that settles after depression’s initial shock with its sterile synth pads and soft chords.
I Can See A Lot Of Life In You: It’s difficult to pinpoint an underrated track on an album as new as Convocations, but the latter halves of records are more likely to be forgotten. The penultimate track, “Incantation VIII,” doesn’t deserve that fate. Its swooning wash of chords complement the descending melody, which serves as the track’s center of gravity, holding all of its moving parts together.
Is It Real Or A Fable?: Though completely wordless, Convocations follows a narrative arc, traversing universal themes such as loss, family, and community. Revelations, the record’s third volume, likely explores the final stage of grief: acceptance. Even without lyrics, the triumphant arrangements of “Revelation X” suggest an embrace of nature, facing death head-on and accepting the trajectory of life itself.
We All Know How This Will End: Two days after Stevens released The Ascension, his biological father died. Convocations is how the prolific polymath reckoned with his father’s passing, using each of the album’s five volumes to process his own emotions and reactions. Clocking in at two-and-a-half hours with 49 instrumental tracks, Convocations will remain one of the songwriter’s more challenging works, but that only stands as a testament to mirror the challenges Stevens confronted himself while creating this record.
— Grant Sharples
09. Aporia (2020)
Runtime: 42:06, 21 tracks
Oh, Great Sights upon This State: Sufjan Stevens’ collaborative album from earlier this spring has an abstract cover to say the least. With its title at the top and a strange illustration in its center, Stevens and his stepfather, Lowell Brams, are credited on each side of its cover, listed in a stark blue with yellow accents on a blistering orange canvas.
My Little Hawk, Why Do You Cry?: Aporia is one of a small handful of Sufjan Stevens albums that’s primarily instrumental, and only one of its tracks has a couple of stanzas. On top of that, most of this record rings out as hopeful and assured rather than dejected and dreadful, but its penultimate track, “Eudaimonia,” relies on ambient synthscapes and delayed guitar to tell its story. It’s completely wordless, but it feels slightly funereal all the same.
Are You Writing from the Heart?: “Give me a name/ More than a flame/ More than a metaphor/ What are you waiting for, an open door?” — “The Runaround”
I Can See a Lot of Life in You: Stevens and his Asthamtic Kitty co-founder, Lowell Brams, conceived Aporia as a new-age album. It plays like a newly recovered soundtrack to a classic sci-fi film, and “The Unlimited” acts as a thesis statement of sorts. It slowly builds from a humming drone to a triumphant ensemble, and it all fades away in an encompassing wash of white noise.
Is It Real or a Fable?: This nearly instrumental record, despite having few words, brims with a sense of optimism. “Climb That Mountain” suggests as much from its title alone, simulating a journey uphill through its builds and breaks. It starts in a quiet place, gradually adding layers of synths and Stevens’ vocalizations to reach the mountain’s apex.
We All Know How This Will End: Stevens’ collaborative efforts are frequently written off as less interesting than his solo work. Although Aporia might not be as memorable as something like Illinois or Carrie & Lowell, it still serves a purpose. These ambient, ethereal compositions made alongside his stepfather are suited for drifting off into dreams. At once peaceful and jarring, it perfectly sums up the meaning of the word aporia: an irresolvable internal contradiction.
— Grant Sharples