A ranking of the expansive discography of Sufjan Stevens

Seven studio albums, seven hours of music

I still remember my first experience with the work of folk-rockstar Sufjan Stevens. I was sprawled in my full-sized bed over white sheets at 15 years old, streaming "Death with Dignity" on Spotify and sobbing over who I thought was the love of my life breaking my heart. Stevens’ music has always resonated with me, and after receiving critical acclaim from Luca Guadagnino's "Call Me by Your Name" he has found his way into the hearts of many LGBTQ+ individuals. Offering a homestead for emotional vulnerability, many young people find solace in Stevens’ confessional lyrics and sweeping melodies. 

Stevens' music has been a venue for me to fully embrace my emotions, and the nostalgia associated with his albums is unmatched. 

With a career spanning 20 years, Stevens has certainly solidified himself as an icon within the alternative community. I wanted to rank Stevens’ sizable discography in order to learn to appreciate his discography in its original format, but I decided to only review his seven solo studio albums. Cumulatively, "A Sun Came," "Enjoy Your Rabbit," "Michigan," "Seven Swans," "Illinois," "The Age of Adz" and "Carrie & Lowell" span nearly seven hours, so I had my work cut out for me. Cold brew and notes app in hand, I set to work on dissecting Stevens' discography:


1. 'Carrie & Lowell' (2015)


After numerous solo ventures into electropop, symphonic music and folk, Sufjan Stevens delves back into his signature breathy folk-rock sound on "Carrie & Lowell." At 11 tracks, the album garnered mainstream recognition, pulling Stevens from obscurity and throning him at the top of the alternative music community indefinitely. Writing about love, loss, death, abandonment, cautionary resistance, regret and hope, "Carrie & Lowell" is arguably Stevens’ most emotionally raw piece of work to date. The entirety of this album feels like we are gliding across a silver lake as Stevens guides us into another dimension on a canoe made of buoyant glass. When asked to describe the feelings that "Carrie & Lowell" invigorates, Blaze Radio Music Department Director Vaughan Jones wrote in an email that "(f)or me, 'Carrie & Lowell' is a perfect album."

"It’s the most in-depth look at a person and their emotions that I’ve ever heard, and the way that Sufjan expresses grief through painful and joyful memories alike is incredibly moving," Jones wrote. "I’ve always loved his more orchestral work, but 'Carrie & Lowell' is one of my favorite albums ever for the raw emotion and passion that (was) put into it."


Rarely do we, as listeners, get an opportunity to delve into such a cohesive project that depicts a range of humanity through beautiful writing. "Carrie & Lowell" is objectively Sufjan Stevens' magnum opus, with consistent lyrical themes supporting each other to sustain a strong body of work. Standout tracks from the album are "Death with Dignity," "All of Me Wants All of You," "Fourth of July" and "Carrie & Lowell." Because of the sheer brilliance of this album, "Carrie & Lowell" gets a 10/10 from me.

2. 'Illinois' (2005)


The second installment from the 50 states passion project, "Illinois" utilizes a diverse palette of instruments to guide the listener through an exploration of the Prairie State. This album is the second time Stevens has explored geography through audio, but it is the first time he has fully devoted himself to providing a symphonic illustration of such magnitude. Emily Sacia, a sophomore nursing student, said in a direct message that "(the album) makes me think of road trips!"

Similar to "Enjoy Your Rabbit" and "Michigan," Stevens’ "Illinois" is a work of art intended to be divulged in its original format. To listen to this album on shuffle would negate the explorative process that Stevens has crafted for us. Standout tracks are "Jacksonville," "Casimir Pulaski Day," "The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts," "The Predatory Wasp of The Palisades Is Out To Get Us" and "Out of Egypt, into the Great Laugh of Mankind, and I Shake the Dirt from My Sandals as I Run." Honestly, every song on this album is a highlight, which is why "Illinois" gets a 10/10.

3. 'Michigan' (2003) 


Following the release of Stevens’ "Enjoy Your Rabbit" and the subsequent release of "Run Rabbit Run," an orchestral rendition of the former created with Osso, Stevens released "Michigan." The first of a project in which he would make an album for all 50 states, "Michigan" features 21 tracks that explore the various cities and regions of the state with audible curiosity. A departure from his previous release, "Michigan" helped to define Stevens’ recognizable orchestral folk-rock sound. 


Some of Stevens’ best folk songs are on this album, including "Holland" and "Romulus." "Michigan" also contains beautiful songs with no written lyrics: "Redford (for Yia-Yia and Pappou)" and "Alanson, Crooked River." The standout tracks on "Michigan" are "Vito’s Ordination Song" and "Romulus," and the album itself gets a 9.7/10 from me.

4. 'The Age of Adz' (2010) 


Sufjan Stevens’ sixth studio album comes five years after the release of his previous solo studio album, "Illinois." An exploration into sound, "The Age of Adz" utilizes all of the production techniques Stevens has perfected over the years. The opener, "Futile Devices," received mainstream visibility when it was included in Luca Guadagnino's "Call Me by Your Name."


Standout tracks from this album are "Futile Devices," "Get Real Get Right," "Vesuvius" and "I Want To Be Well." Because of the thoughtful production choices that occasionally result in chaos, "The Age of Adz" gets a 9.4/10 from me.

5. 'Enjoy Your Rabbit' (2001) 


Sufjan Stevens’ second solo studio album follows him as he dives into superbly executed electronic production rather than his typical folk-rock sound. "Enjoy Your Rabbit" features 14 songs, with 12 representing each animal in the Chinese zodiac. Transitionally, this album is a continuum of the primary track, utilizing electronic production to create a journey through the zodiac. "Enjoy Your Rabbit" is not an album that you just put on at a dinner party with some friends; it is an experience from start to finish that demands to be listened to with intent. This album offers a journey through noise that no listener should reject.

 

Stevens engages with the concept of the album and general human emotion through blasting crescendos, sunken quietness and digital disarray. Listening to the obvious translation of the personality of each animal of the zodiac to Stevens’ deliberate production choices is something otherworldly. The ambiance of "Year of the Sheep" reminds me of a group of bleating lambs calmly perusing a mountainside somewhere high above our earth, while the flourishing bravados of "Year of the Dragon" feel like a journey through the clouds on the back of a wyvern.

Standouts from this album are "Year of the Tiger," "Year of the Rooster," "Year of the Dragon," "Enjoy Your Rabbit" and "Year of the Dog." This album is adjacent to perfection but has its obvious pitfalls ("Year of the Monkey," "Year of the Boar," "Year of the Rat") that would make a listener turn it off after a brief listen. Therefore, it gets a 9.3/10 from me.

6. 'A Sun Came' (2000)


A mixture of various sounds and textures from different geographies, Stevens invites us into his realm which feels almost Celtic. He delves into so many instruments that the listener doesn’t know what sound to expect next. In my opinion, this album acts as a showcase of Stevens’ masterful musical confidence, perfected during his time at The New School.

Some of the songs are too campy and chaotic to fully enjoy ("Demetrius," "Rice Pudding," "SuperSexyWoman," "Leil" and "Satan’s Saxophones"). However, this album is home to some of the best songs in Stevens' discography ("Rake," "Dumb I Sound," "Jason"). The latter portion of "A Sun Came" offers the listener a consistent and subdued Stevens; a mixture of twangy guitar and cautious piano allows his poetry to glide across the compositions with ease. 

Kendall Jackson, a freshman education major at NAU, illustrated her relationship with the album with the phrase "literally makes me feel like a peasant girl" through a direct message. The interludes are a nice touch to this album, but some of the songs are simply too experimental for the average listener to want to digest. This album gets a 8.3/10 from me.

7. 'Seven Swans' (2004) 

Continuing with his folk sound, Stevens’ fourth solo release "Seven Swans" feels more interpersonal than what we have heard before; this album is truly Stevens in his most open and emotionally vulnerable state. The 12-track album spans three-quarters of an hour, yet somehow feels like a full three-hour listen. An array of folk songs act as a hindrance to Stevens on "Seven Swans," as many of the tracks do not hold defining features that cause the listener to want to revisit the entire album. Instead, Stevens’ audience flocked to the notable "To Be Alone With You." 

Overall, Stevens’ prolific confessional lyricism isn't enough to keep this album afloat as it sputters from the overabundance of banjo. Many of the tracks sound extremely similar, making it increasingly difficult to not want to skip through to the best song: "To Be Alone With You." Due to the overly used banjo and lack of diversity in sound, "Seven Swans" gets a 6.5/10 from me. 

Sufjan Stevens' music has been a place of comfort for me for five years now. His prolific work has offered me opportunities to turn inwards and explore myself through his lyrics. After his booming success off of Guadagnino's film, Stevens has been introduced to a new crowd of listeners. My hope is for Stevens' career to continue to flourish in the new decade and for him to release another electronic album. Other great bodies of work from Stevens are "All Delighted People," "The BQE" and "Love Yourself / With My Whole Heart." Below is a playlist with my favorite Sufjan Stevens songs from these albums.



Reach the reporter at stellefs@asu.edu or follow @samtellefson on Twitter.

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