Hailing from the U.S. state of Michigan, Sufjan Stevens established himself as a vibrant voice among the new crop of American singer/songwriters at the turn of the millennium. Capable of writing quiet, whispered folk guitar songs in the same vein of Elliot Smith or Bon Iver, Stevens’ sound evolved until he became a studied storyteller, chronicling the histories of his home nation through ambitious, orchestral pieces that were often as informative as they were inspired. His music documents history, both personal and public, all weaved through his distinctive imagination and captivating words.
A man of many talents, Stevens can play just about any instrument he can find a use for. Throughout his career, he’s breezed effortlessly through folk-pop, lo-fi minimalism, and avante-garde electronica.
Here’s our pick of the best sufjan stevens songs.
12. Wallowa Lake Monster
Sufjan Stevens is revered for his depth of imagination, so what better place to start our list than a song about a mythical lake creature. Sometimes referred to as Wally, the first mention of the serpent, Leviathan-like monster that lives at the bottom of Oregon’s Wallowa Lake dates back to 1885. Stevens has a knack for combining fantasy with reality, and here they intertwine; the song is both a poem about Oregon’s Native American heritage and an allegory for Steven’s turbulent experiences growing up with a schizophrenic mother. Originally recorded for ‘Carrie and Lowell’ which further explores their turbulent relationship, this ambient number is a shimmering electronic soundscape full of haunting keys and layered choir vocals.
‘Chicago’, from Steven’s 2005’s breakthrough record ‘Illinoise’ (or ‘Sufjan Stevens Invites You to: Come on Feel the Illinoise’) is the song that put him on the map for a lot of listeners. He regularly ends live sets with this one, and it’s easy to see why. The song is as ambitious as the idea he proposed at the time – that he would write an album about all 50 U.S states. Although he later admitted the concept was a “promotional gimmick”, it’s believable given the epic, orchestral-like arrangements of much of the album. Propelled by strings and group vocals, ‘Chicago’ is a rare autobiographical number among a collection of songs that explores various figures from the state in great detail, and is instead a riveting tale about the freedom of escaping and moving to the “Windy City”.
10. To Be Alone With You
‘Seven Swans’ is Sufjan’s fourth record, and ‘To Be Alone With You’ is one of its most direct songs. The bulk of the record makes heavy use of Stevens’ masterful banjo playing, but this number is a simple, moody acoustic guitar effort that wouldn’t sound out of place on any Iron & Wine or Damien Jurado record. ‘Seven Swans’ is packed full of Biblical imagery, Old Testament stories and acts of faith. Stevens often explores themes about Christianity, and this song compares the sacrifices he’s willing to make for love (“I’d swim across Lake Michigan, I’d sell my shoes”) to those of Jesus, who “gave up a wife and family, you gave your ghost.” A powerful, stripped back song that demands careful listening.
9. Death with Dignity
‘Death With Dignity’ is Stevens at his minimalist best. Played almost entirely on a guitalin (a folk instrument that incidentally was invented in Illinois in the ‘60s), this song spares the backing vocals and strings of some of Stevens’ bigger sounding songs, and instead draws the audience toward its words. Another on our list from ‘Carrie and Lowell’, the light, playful plucking throughout the piece is juxtaposed with the starkness of the lyrics. Carrie, Steven’s mother, died in 2012 and the lyrics “I forgive you mother I can hear you, and I long to be near you” serve as a painful epitaph as the songwriter comes to terms with her death.
8. John Wayne Gacy, Jr.
2005’s ‘Illinoise’ earned Stevens comparisons to some of America’s most beloved composers, namely minimalist Steve Reich and jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi, because of its layered instrumentation, classical compositions and theatrical show tunes. But he was also talked about in the same breath as artists like Nick Drake and Neil Young because of the record’s acoustic numbers. ‘John Wayne Gacy, Jr’ profiles the titular Chicago-based serial killer with intricate detail. The use of ‘Jr’ points some blame for Gacy’s actions toward his father, an alcoholic who was often abusive. While the song avoids sympathy, Stevens harshly compares himself to Gacy as he sings “look beneath the floorboards for the secrets I have hid.” A serious song, with a mixture of hushed and falsetto vocals throughout.
7. Futile Devices
Fans of Sufjan Stevens had to wait five years for new material after 2005’s epic exploration of the Prairie State. What they got was 2010’s ‘Age Of Adz’, where his focus had shifted to his own personal experiences more than those of American history. ‘Futile Devices’, then, is somewhat misleading as the first song on the record. It’s a gentle introduction to the album — a finely picked electric guitar riff, with Stevens double-tracked vocals over the top. It sounds more like a Paul Simon or Alex Chilton song than the rest of ‘Age Of Adz’, which was hailed upon its release for embracing keys, electronic loop sound and programmed beats.
6. Visions of Gideon
Steven’s has said he always felt “resistant to work in film”, which he put down to feeling “suspicious of the role of music in cinema.” That was, until in 2017, when Italian filmmaker Luca Guadnino approached him to contribute a song for his upcoming film ‘Call Me By Your Name.’ He even suggested Stevens narrate some of the film, but instead they agreed his best contribution would be new music. Stevens made two songs, and ‘Visions of Gideon’ plays as the film ends. A departure from his usual style, this song is a moving, layered, sonic soundscape charged with emotion and built around a lyrical refrain of “I have loved you for the last time”. To capture the emotion in the film’s final scene, the song played in actor Timothée Chalamet’s earpiece.
5. Fourth of July
Our number five pick is another from the brilliant ‘Carrie and Lowell.’ Led by reverb heavy piano notes and washy, droning synths, the song starts like the instrumental sections of Radiohead’s ‘Kid A’, or something the Postal Service might write. A simpler, lullaby-like piano riff chimes in, and matches the notes Stevens sings. Sufjan’s mother Carrie is once again the subject; ‘Fourth Of July’ plays out like a conversation the two of them had from her bedside. “It was so terrifying to encounter death and have to reconcile that,” Stevens has said about the song, inspired by his trips to see his mother in an ICU unit.
4. Mystery of Love
‘Mystery of Love’ is the second song Stevens contributed to the ‘Call Me By Your Name’ soundtrack, and a firm favorite among his fans. It was nominated for a Best Original Song Oscar, which led to a live performance of it alongside St Vincent (who used to be part of Steven’s band) and Moses Sumney at the glitzy award ceremony. Religious imagery is once more used, as Stevens sings “feel my feet above the ground, Hand of God, deliver me.” It’s a light, graceful number about falling in love, matched by a rich production and whispered vocals. It floats along thanks to a deft combination of strings, guitars, piano and mandolin.
3. Should Have Known Better
Sufjan uses a 12-string to play ‘Should Have Known Better’ live. It’s one of his most sparse songs, and the instruments throughout seem to be handled with kid gloves to fit the dark subject matter he’s exploring — childhood abandonment. 2015’s ‘Carrie and Lowell’ has been described as Stevens’ most personal record, and maybe none of its songs fit that description more than this one. While the song’s delicately plucked strings set the tone of the opening half of the song where he mentions “when I was three, three maybe four, she left us at that video store,” the second half introduces layers of gentle banjo and synths as the words become more accepting and optimistic. As he describes how his “brother had a daughter, the beauty that she brings”, the song comes full circle on its theme of parenthood.
2. The Only Thing
Our second place pick is the standout song from ‘Carrie and Lowell.’ ‘The Only Thing’ contains some of Sufjan Stevens’ darkest lyrics, and finds him ruminating suicide after the devastating loss of his mother. Stevens has described how “becoming reckless and hazardous was my way of being intimate with her.” The songwriter’s salvation comes from astrology, mythology, and faith. “Signs and wonders, Perseus aligned with the skull, Slain Medusa, Pegasus alight from us all” are some of Sufjan’s most profound words. The song has been described as miserable, but its darkly contemplative lyrics are somehow playful, and the result is a warm, optimistic sound reminiscent of Cat Stevens’ ‘Tea for the Tillerman.’
Recommended: Our curated list of best Cat Stevens songs.
1. Casimir Pulaski Day
The clean, finger-picked acoustic notes that begin ‘Casimir Pulaski Day’ sound like something from Neil Young’s ‘Harvest’ or ‘After the Gold Rush.’ Stevens is a known fan and has covered the Canadian folk hero during live sets, and the influence can be heard in this song. Casimir Pulaski Day is a holiday celebrated in Illinois in memory of a Polish cavalry officer, and this song takes place during it. It’s perhaps the most intimate song from Stevens’ 2005 release about the state, and places a personal story in the middle of it. It’s a song about losing someone close to you and questioning your faith, moved along by a beautifully arranged guitar and banjo combo. A soft horn section joins in and carries the song to its quietly optimistic outro. It’s Stevens at his elegant best, and deserves to take our top spot.