Editor’s Note: Indie folksinger Sufjan Stevens released the raw and yearning Carrie & Lowell six years ago on March 31st, 2015. In her review, our own Sasha Geffen called it the “barest and most vivid music” that Stevens has ever released. To celebrate, we take a look back at our definitive ranking of Sufjan Stevens’ entire catalog, which we first published in September of 2020 and will continue to update in the years to come.
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.
With Stevens’ latest record out today, we’ve dived headfirst into the songwriter’s mountainous catalog, including his collaborative albums (but not his Christmas albums for obvious reasons). From A Sun Came! to The Ascension, here’s our definitive ranking of every Sufjan Stevens album.
10. 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.
09. 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.
08. 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.
Runtime: 75:59, 17 tracks
Oh, Great Sights upon This State: The cover of Stevens’ collaborative album with Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly, and James McAlister is a collapsed rendering of our solar system, complete with marbled planets, red flames beneath a black expanse of space, and the four artists’ names side-by-side in small print at the bottom.
My Little Hawk, Why Do You Cry?: There’s no better place to be lonely than this universe. Stevens makes this loneliness felt in “Pluto”, an ethereal serenade for everyone’s favorite not-quite-planet: “Loneliest passageway, orbiting castaway/ Beat your beauty at your breast/ Don’t surprise me, you monster, you mastery/ Make your very last request.”
Are You Writing from the Heart?: “Love, I hold you in as fantasy, blasphemy, fallacy and probably as fate” — “Mars”
I Can See a Lot of Life in You: “Moon” offers an interesting union of Stevens’ storytelling impulses and the existing classical framework of the album, bringing together two indigenous American myths involving rabbits and the moon before moving back into the instrumental territory of chimes and soft, rattling static. Its refrains pull things back into personal territory: “As I’m about to enter your world/ I give you light,” and, “As I’m about to enter the world/ I give you blood.”
Is It Real or a Fable?: Planetarium finds Stevens blending his usual fascination with Christian representations of God with Greek gods and their own stories. In “Jupiter”, these coalesce with the father of the speaker, blending God, Jupiter, and a third father into one blurry, self-adjacent character who stands in the midst of his own journey of understanding: “Outside in the parking lot, the current of wind and the light went hot / He held his head in terror.”
We All Know How This Will End: Stevens had already long been interested in classical, orchestral, and indie rock styles, and on Planetarium he got to expand on that interest in a collaborative venture with innovative and like-minded composers. The result is an album full of echoes, blistering drums, and swells of sound carving out their own shapes amid a lush orchestral canvas.
06. Michigan (2003)
Runtime: 65:58, 15 tracks
Oh, Great Sights upon This State: The cover for Sufjan Stevens’ third album looks like a postcard straight from its muse, the state of Michigan. It’s adorned with an eastern white pine tree, an apple blossom, and Lake Michigan, all painted by Laura Normandin of Martha Stewart Living.
My Little Hawk, Why Do You Cry?: Michigan’s most personal song is also its most despondent. “Romulus” delves into Stevens’ precarious relationship with his mother, who abandoned him and his siblings at a young age and fled to Oregon. She visits her family in Romulus, but her Chevrolet breaks down while she’s there, and Stevens and his siblings “prayed it’d never be fixed or found,” hoping she’d stay longer.
Are You Writing from the Heart?: “Even if I come back, even if I die/ Is there some idea to replace my life?” — “For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti”
I Can See a Lot of Life in You: Stevens and his publicity team may have promised 50 albums about 50 states, but we got only two: Michigan and Illinois. Michigan, in many ways, feels like a precursor to the unadulterated extravagance of Illinois, and that can be most palpably felt in the second track, “All Good Naysayers, Speak Up! Or Forever Hold Your Peace!”. Its 5/4 jaunt and vibraphones, piano, horns, and backup harmonies amalgamate into a buoyant song about governmental failures.
Is It Real or a Fable?: The City of Detroit has experienced both financial prosperity and economic collapse. Nicknamed the Motor City, Detroit was the epicenter of the automobile industry in the mid-20th century. But political negligence led Detroit’s population to exponentially decrease, and it transformed what was “once a great place” to what is “now a prison,” as Stevens sings in “Oh Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head! (Rebuild! Restore! Reconsider!).”
We All Know How This Will End: Although Sufjan Stevens already had two albums under his belt by the time of Michigan’s release, this is the record where Stevens cemented himself in the indie-rock canon. It received the attention it did largely as a result of publicity tactics, but it deserved that attention because it’s an ingenious work overflowing with subtle details and clever references. Michigan is an extraordinarily well-researched project that introduced us to Stevens’ more ambitious side while paying homage to the songwriter’s home state.
05. Seven Swans (2004)
Runtime: 46:19, 12 tracks
Oh, Great Sights upon This State: The artwork for Stevens’ fourth album features a painted white swan spreading its wings between words of ornately scrawled cursive. The calm painting of off-white shades is credited to Stevens’ brother, Marzuki Stevens.
My Little Hawk, Why Do You Cry?: Like many of the songs here dealing with devils and Revelations and godly reckonings, “Seven Swans” isn’t quite so much sad as it is scary — and made even eerier by Stevens’ tiptoe-soft delivery toward the beginning — but there is an aching cleaving to be heard as the focus shifts from family and home into the echoing, ethereal crashes of something more terrible and holy.
Are You Writing from the Heart?: “What the water wants is hurricanes” — “Sister”
I Can See a Lot of Life in You: This would be an entirely different album without the electric guitar that makes up the first half of “Sister”. It’s the strange and, yes, electrifying centerpiece that anchors this largely acoustic album and revives some of its three-dimensionality halfway through.
Is It Real or a Fable?: On an album full of biblical retellings and religious parables, the best “story song” is the one based on a work of short fiction. “A Good Man is Hard to Find”, based on Flannery O’Connor’s story of the same name, works its way into the mind of a mysterious killer — an exercise Stevens would later repeat in “John Wayne Gacy Jr.” — as he reconciles himself gently to hell.
We All Know How This Will End: Sufjan Stevens and his banjo — a match made, as they say, in heaven. Stevens’ most overtly religious album is also one of his classics, a feat of consistent tone and sincerity, and the whispering strums of songs like “All the Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands” and “To Be Alone with You” are some of the most recognizable examples of his sound.
04. The Age of Adz (2010)
Runtime: 74:49, 11 tracks
Oh, Great Sights upon This State: The artwork originates from a major source of inspiration for Stevens: Royal Robertson, a self-proclaimed prophet from Louisiana. The painting of a red, black, and white warrior facing the viewer head-on is geometric and striking.
My Little Hawk, Why Do You Cry?: A lot of Stevens’ music situates love within the tragedies of fundamental misunderstandings and miscommunications. One of the album’s briefest confessionals is “Bad Communication”, which uses cut-together buzzes, blips, and warped vocals to patch together the ultimate transmission: “Don’t be so funny with me, I’m not laughing/ Oh, I love you, I love you.”
Are You Writing from the Heart?: “Words are futile devices” — “Futile Devices”
I Can See a Lot of Life in You: “Get Real Get Right” offers a compelling look at what can happen when the chaos of Stevens’ lyrical preoccupations with God and love (“A ring of fire, a ring of fire falling on your face”) find equally chaotic expression in sound. Synthesizers, flutes, and strange reverberations meet awesomely here in a frenzy of experimentation.
Is It Real or a Fable?: Before launching into the hectic bulk of the album, Stevens takes a moment with “Futile Devices” to flex his old habit of crafting a story through tender, adjacent images. He feels effortlessly himself in this quiet song, in scenes like, “When you play guitar/ I listen to the strings buzz/ The metal vibrates underneath your fingers/ And when you crochet/ I feel mesmerized and proud.”
We All Know How This Will End: The Age of Adz was a non-self-conscious effort to work through a dissatisfaction with stasis, an urge to explore new territory, and the terror of sickness as Stevens suffered from an intense viral infection. Through all of this, Stevens delivered his most experimental album yet, full of Brian Wilson-level complex orchestrations and confident strides into the realm of art rock.
03. The Ascension (2020)
Runtime: 80:30, 15 tracks
Oh, Great Sights upon This State: The Ascension certainly has the most colorful artwork of any Sufjan Stevens album yet, which is quite the feat considering the covers for both Michigan and Illinois. It evokes stained glass windows, and Sufjan Stevens’ name and the album title run vertically down each side, reminiscent of 2010’s The Age of Adz.
My Little Hawk, Why Do You Cry?: Sufjan Stevens recently described himself in an Atlantic profile as a pessimist. In “Tell Me You Love Me”, he makes this fairly evident, opening the song with the line, “My love, I’ve lost my faith in everything.” He wants to feel loved, but he finds that everything is fleeting, and he grapples with this sense of hopeless impermanence (“What’s the point of it if morning turns into night?”).
Are You Writing from the Heart?: “Don’t do to me what you did to America” — “America”
I Can See a Lot of Life in You: It’s difficult to say what tracks from The Ascension are underrated considering how new it is, but the second track, “Run Away with Me,” is an immediate highlight. Its ethereal synths and Stevens’ dreamlike voice create an atmosphere well-suited for its lyrics about escape and eloping with a loved one.
Is It Real or a Fable?: Most of the lyrics from Stevens’ eighth solo record are impressionistic, but “Goodbye to All That” takes us back to the songwriter’s birth year of 1975. “Here I am alone in my car/ Hopelessness incorporated/ I’m driving to wherever you are,” he murmurs in the intro. Though much of The Ascension focuses on Stevens’ feelings of powerlessness, “Goodbye to All That” finds him rejuvenated (“Well I’m just glad that I’m still alive/ For what hasn’t killed me will make me stronger”).
We All Know How This Will End: Sufjan Stevens’ latest effort recalls 2010’s The Age of Adz in several ways, from its electronic ethos to its similar album artwork. Just as that record was a dramatic shift from the extravagant indie rock of Illinois, The Ascension is a complete left turn from its predecessor, Carrie & Lowell, but that’s not a fault whatsoever. On The Ascension, Stevens shrouds his work in a frigid darkness, toying with metallic sounds and drum machines while whispering most of his lyrics. As a result, it sounds like a balanced blend of both The Age of Adz and Carrie & Lowell.
02. Illinois (2005)
Runtime: 73:59, 22 tracks
Oh, Great Sights upon This State: True to the album itself, the cover of Illinois feels both inviting and melancholy, centering the nighttime Chicago skyline under the poster-style declaration: “Sufjan Stevens invites you to: Come on feel the ILLINOISE”. Scattered about the scene are a few lyrical elements specific to the scenes Stevens paints of Illinois: a string of UFOs, a man in a suit, a goat, and Superman.
My Little Hawk, Why Do You Cry?: “Casimir Pulaski Day”, one of the most stripped-back songs on the album, is wrenchingly delicate in its handling of grief and all the confusion and anger it brings. Through a series of snapshots, Stevens crafts a story surrounding the narrator’s friend’s death from bone cancer, winnowing the details down to only the most necessary and stunning: “On the floor at the great divide/ With my shirt tucked in and my shoes untied/ I am crying in the bathroom.”
Are You Writing from the Heart?: “Only a steel man can be a lover/ If he had hands to tremble all over/ We celebrate our sense of each other/ We have a lot to give one another” — “The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts”
I Can See a Lot of Life in You: “The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts” doesn’t live in public memory quite as vividly as “Casimir Pulaski Day” or “Chicago”, but it feels like an uncanny summation of a lot of what makes Illinois such a unique album. Where else could stammering electric guitar solos, church-style choral orchestrations, and Superman all collide so perfectly?
Is It Real or a Fable?: Illinois is full of characters and their stories — personal, historical, imagined, and all combined — and perhaps nowhere do these feel more self-contained than on “Decatur, or, Round of Applause for Your Step-Mother!” The story about the narrator and his siblings trying in vain to hate their stepmother on a trip to Decatur benefits from a low-key duet with Matt Morgan, a choir elapsing into a literal round of light applause, and many outrageous rhymes and location-specific images (“Civil War skeletons in their graves/ They came up clapping in the spirit of the aviator”).
We All Know How This Will End: A love letter to a state, a research-heavy concept album, a personal collection, an exercise, a genre-bending experiment — there are plenty of musicians out there who could handle one or two of these things and call it a day, and here Sufjan makes a point not only to do all of them, but to do them all with a sure and discerning hand. Illinois marks one of the first times when listeners could really see him playing to the maximum of all his intricate strengths.
01. Carrie & Lowell (2015)
Runtime: 43:35, 11 tracks
Oh, Great Sights upon This State: This album cover, similar to the original artwork for A Sun Came!, is fairly minimalist. It’s an old photo of the titular Carrie, Stevens’ mother, and Lowell, his stepfather and the co-founder of Stevens’ label, Asthmatic Kitty.
My Little Hawk, Why Do You Cry?: Carrie & Lowell centers on the death of Stevens’ mother to stomach cancer and how he reckons with it. He and his mother scarcely had a relationship, and now that she’s gone, Stevens feels an acute sense of loneliness and helplessness. This is all laid out on the album’s gutting opener, “Death with Dignity”. “I forgive you, mother, I can hear you/ And I long to be near you/ But every road leads to an end,” he whispers in the song’s final verse. Sung over harp-like guitars and faint piano, “Death with Dignity” establishes the tone for the remainder of the record.
Are You Writing from the Heart?: “What’s the point of singing songs/ If they’ll never even hear you?” — “Eugene”
I Can See a Lot of Life in You: Although songs like “Death with Dignity,” “Fourth of July,” and “The Only Thing” are well-deserving of their popularity, “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross” has earned its share, too. Over a backdrop of hushed guitar, Stevens quavers, “There’s blood on that blade / Fuck me, I’m falling apart.” It’s one of the shortest tracks on Carrie & Lowell, and after one listen, you’ll just want to hear it again.
Is It Real or a Fable?: The entirety of Carrie & Lowell reads like a somber autobiography because of its incredibly personal narrative. The titular track explores Stevens’ childhood and Carrie and Lowell’s relationship itself. Near its end, Carrie unexpectedly returns home from Oregon (“Carrie surprised me / Erebus on my back / My lucky charm”). But her return is only temporary (“Ephemera on my back/ She breaks my harm”).
We All Know How This Will End: Carrie & Lowell echoes the sparse, acoustic-led compositions heard on Seven Swans, but it goes into much more personal detail. Stevens wrestles with grief and sorrow, reminiscing on what he and his mother both had and didn’t have. The arrangements are bare; he’s often backed by only a handful of guitars and keys, letting each lyric resonate with impact. It’s a poignant treatise on grief, death, and family. Consequently, it’s his most profound work yet.