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Sufjan Stevens


Country of origin:

U.S.

Type of music generally:

A very individual indie blend of pop and folk, often experimental, with touches of electronica and influences ranging from classical to jazz

Status:

Most recent release, Carrie & Lowell Live (live, 2017); most recent studio release, Carrie & Lowell (2015)

See also:

Sufjan Stevens site

Wikipedia's entry on Sufjan Stevens

Comparisons:

He's unique in his orchestral experimental indie pop sound

Covers/own material:

Own

General comments:

For some reason I'm not fond of male-singers/bands...there are only a few that I enjoy...and Sufjan is one of them! There's something about that voice and his incredibly unusual musical arrangements that just ooze of brilliance. (lasherboy@gmail.com)

Sufjan Stevens is definitely in my musical pantheon. He's nuts, and he's utterly brilliant. (JoAnn Whetsell)

Comments about live performance:

I saw Sufjan Stevens live on his second round of the Illinois tour and it was a stupendous show: a mix of playfulness, earnestness, astonishingly powerful performances by Sufjan Stevens and the rather large band backing him, and a strong sense that everyone—musicians and audience alike—were having a wonderful time together. A delightful experience and one that I would highly recommend. (2006, Neile)

Recommended first album:

Illinois

Recordings:


A Sun Came

Release info:

2000—Asthmatic Kitty Records—AKR009

Availability:

Wide

Ecto priority:

Recommended

Group members:

Sufjan Stevens—vocals, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, banjo, sitar, flute, recorder, oboe, alto saxophone, piano, synthesizer, xylophone, bass guitar, percussion

Guest artists:

Jesse Koskey—drums (9, 10)
Marzuki Stevens—guitar (10); percussion (12)
Matt Morgan—guitar (5, 13)
Shannon Stephens—vocals (2)
Ghandeer Yaser—vocals (5, 17)
Katrina Kerns—vocals (21)
Megan Smith—vocals (21)

Produced by:

Sufjan Stevens

Comments:

Not his best album and not the one I would start with, but certainly worth listening to if you enjoy Sufjan's later work. There are some really good tracks, particularly in the beginning and middle (the latter half of the album gets a little too experimental for me). Of his recordings, this album is also the most obviously influenced by world music (particularly Celtic and Middle Eastern). (JoAnn Whetsell)

Enjoy Your Rabbit

Release info:

2001—Asthmatic Kitty Records—AKR003

Availability:

Wide

Ecto priority:

Highly recommended for fans of electronic music and/or Sufjan Stevens

Group members:

Sufjan Stevens

Guest artists:

Tom Eaton—trumpet
Liz Janes—voice
Mannar Wong—Chinese voice

Produced by:

Sufjan Stevens

Comments:

I'm not enough of a fan of electronic music to really enjoy this instrumental disc of 12 "Programmatic Songs for the Animals of the Chinese Zodiac" (plus 2 others). But it's Sufjan—moreover Sufjan experimenting—and he does lots of interesting stuff, and there are enough compelling bits to make it worth pulling it out and giving a listen every now and then. I particularly like the more melodic, less noisome songs like "Year of the Horse." (JoAnn Whetsell)

Michigan

Release info:

2003—Sounds Familyre—SF010/Asthmatic Kitty Records—AKR007

Availability:

Wide

Ecto priority:

Highly recommended

Group members:

Sufjan Stevens—oboe, English horn, piano, electric organ, electric piano, banjo, acoustic and electric guitars, bass guitar, vibraphone, xylophone, glockenspiel, recorders, wood flute and likeminded whistles, drum kit, various percussion, shakers, sleigh bells, tambourine, dramatic cymbal swells, singing, rhetoric

Guest artists:

Elin Smith—vocals (2-5, 11-13, 15)
Daniel Smith—vocals (15)
Megan Smith—vocals (2, 5, 8, 11-13)
Tom Eaton—trumpet (1, 3, 8, 15)
John Ringhofer—trombone and vocals (13)
Stephen Halker—trumpet (4, 8, 13)
Monique Aiuto—vocals (8, 15)
Vito Aiuto—vocals (15)

Produced by:

Sufjan Stevens

Comments:

Michigan is not as immediately accessible an album as Illinois. Its songs are quieter, a bit slower and more contemplative, though the second half beginning with the song "Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head" has more of the catchier songs that are closest in sound to the Illinois songs. The album rewards repeated listening. It is every bit as compelling as Illinois, and perhaps even more beautiful. The arrangements and orchestrations are absolutely gorgeous. In some ways, the album bridges the sounds of Seven Swans and Illinois, even though it preceded both. I love it more with every listen. (JoAnn Whetsell)

Seven Swans

Release info:

2004—Sounds Familyre—SF013

Availability:

Wide

Ecto priority:

Highly recommended

Group members:

Sufjan Stevens—vocals, everything else

Guest artists:

Elin Smith—vocals
Megan Smith—vocals
David Smith—drums
Andrew Smith—drums
Daniel Smith—vocals and bass guitar

Produced by:

Daniel Smith

Comments:

Not as catchy as Illinois, and maybe even a bit more subdued than Michigan, but a thoroughly beautiful album. Still, it fits with those albums in sound; just quieter, more contemplative, and arguably with more Christian allusions. It took me a few listens to appreciate its beauty, but now I love it, and I find more to love with every listen. (JoAnn Whetsell)

Illinois

Release info:

2005—Asthmatic Kitty Records—AKR014

Availability:

Wide

Ecto priority:

Essential

Group members:

Sufjan Stevens—acoustic guitar, piano, Wurlitzer, electric bass, drum kit, electric guitar, oboe, Miriam's alto saxophone, Sunmin's flute, Daniel's banjo and/or Matt's banjo, Shara's glockenspiel, Laura's rickety accordion, a rented vibraphone, various recorders (tenor, soprano, sopranino, and Monique's alto), Casiotone MT-70, sleigh bells, shakers, tambourine, triangle, Baldwin electric church organ, vocals

Guest artists:

James McAllister—all sophisticated drum parts
Craig Montoro—all trumpet parts (muted and non-muted), singing on 16
Katrina Kerns—backup vocals (1, 3, 5, 13, 15, 19, 20)
Shara Worden—backup vocals (1, 3, 4, 10, 13, 15, 19, 20)
Matt Morgan—backup vocals (7)
Daniel Smith—backup vocals and claps (7)
Elin Smith—backup vocals and claps (7)
The Illinoisemaker Choir (Jennifer Hoover, Tara McDonnell, Beccy Lock, Katrina Kerns, Tom Eaton)—singing, hooting, hollering, and/or hand-clapping (2, 7, 9, 12, 16, 20)
Rob Moose—violin
Julianne Carney—violin
Marla Hansen—viola
Maria Bella Jeffers—cello

Produced by:

Sufjan Stevens

Comments:

Boy ecto if I ever heard it. If you haven't yet give it a listen. Musically eclectic. All over the map. But it caught me from the moment I first heard the piano riff on the first track. (Neile)

This is essential. Not just an essential album in Sufjan Stevens' catalog, but ecto essential. There is so much that is catchy and instantly compelling, and there's so much more that repeated listens uncover. And it really is an ALBUM. Whenever I pull out a single song, I find I need to hear the one before it and the one after, and I usually end up playing the whole album because that's really how it's meant to be heard. The first time I heard Illinois was the first time I heard Sufjan. I listened to the album from start to finish and then immediately played it again all the way through. Two years later, hardly a week goes by without my playing at least part of the album on my stereo or in my head. Yes, this is one of the few albums that I can't live without. And if you want to know why, just give a listen. That will tell you far more than I can. (JoAnn Whetsell)


The Avalanche

Release info:

2006—Asthmatic Kitty Records—AKR022

Availability:

Wide

Ecto priority:

Highly recommended

Group members:

Sufjan Stevens—vocals, everything else

Guest artists:

James McAllister—drums and percussion (2, 6, 9, 12-14, 19)
Katrina Kerns—backup vocals (1, 2, 8, 9, 10, 12, 14)
Craig Montoro—trumpet (2, 3, 6, 10, 12, 14, 19, 20), singing on 19
Shara Worden—backup vocals (1, 2, 8, 12)
Rosie Thomas—backup vocals (1, 2, 8, 12)

Produced by:

Sufjan Stevens

Comments:

I was not quite as head-over-heels with this release as I was with Come on, Feel the Illinoise! (my #1 album of last year, by the way).. But come on, there is still so much to love! "Adlai Stevenson", "The Mistress Witch from McClure (or, The Mind That Knows Itself)", "No Man's Land", "The Perpetual Self, or What Would Saul Alinsky Do?", and "Pittsfield" are some of the most complex and interesting songs I've ever heard. Sufjan's sweet, soft voice makes me melt a little. The flutes, horns, hand claps, bells, and rousing choruses help these songs become little transcendent music-miracles. (lasherboy@gmail.com)

It's a credit to Sufjan's talent that he takes a bunch of songs that didn't make the cut for the Illinois album and alternate mixes of some that did, and out of them he makes a listenable, enjoyable collection that is really nearly an album in its own right. (JoAnn Whetsell)


Songs for Christmas

Release info:

2006—Asthmatic Kitty Records—AKR028

Availability:

Wide

Ecto priority:

Highly recommended

Group members:

Sufjan Stevens—electric and acoustic guitars, banjo, drums, recorders, reverb, sleigh bells, stocking stuffers, glockenspiel, electric organ, mistletoe, Gloria in Eggshells Faygo, various bells, electronic keyboard, piano, oboe, electronic piano, bass, organ, that creepy Christmas feeling, gold, frankincense, myrrh, telephone, tambourine, flutes, shakers, bravado, sad feelings, nostalgia, eggnog, percussion, positive feedback, negative feedback, Christmas cheer, loneliness, irony, tidings of comfort & joy, four slightly out-of-tune pianos, Hammond organ, Rhodes, weird synthesizer sounds, mashed potatoes and gravy, bass guitar, chestnuts roasting on an open fire, figgy pudding, apologies, cranberry sauce, funny synthesizer sounds, vibraphone, vocals, backing vocals, narration

Guest artists:

Matt Morgan—vocals (disc 1, tracks 2, 4, 5, 7); electric guitars (disc 1 tracks 2, 3, 5-7); lead vocals (disc 1, track 3); banjo (disc 1, track 4)
Vito Aiuto—backing vocals (disc 2, tracks 2 & 5); elfin chuckles, reindeer giggles (disc 2, track 2); vocals (disc 2, tracks 3 & 8); acoustic guitar (disc 2, tracks 3, 8, 9); lead vocals (disc 2, tracks 4, 6, 9); guitar (disc 2, tracks 4 & 6); holly, ivy (disc 2, track 5) ; creepy vocals (disc 3, track 7); The Doves on "The Friendly Beasts"
Monique Aiuto—backing vocals (disc 2, tracks 2, 5, 8); elfin chuckles, reindeer giggles (disc 2, track 2); vocals (disc 2, track 3); holly, ivy (disc 2, track 5); creepy vocals (disc 3, track 7); The Doves on "The Friendly Beasts"
Marla Hansen—backing vocals (disc 2, track 2); vocals (disc 5, tracks 2, 7, 9, 10); viola
James McAlister—drums (disc 2, track 2; disc 5, tracks 2, 4, 6, 7); percussion (disc 2, track 2); celeste, wind chimes, vibraslap, Christmas cheer (disc 5, track 7)
Laura Myers—backing vocals, Christmas cheer (disc 3, track 2); The Cow on "The Friendly Beasts"
Colin Stevens—backing vocals, Christmas cheer (disc 3, track 2, 4)
Denison Witmer—vocals, acoustic guitar (disc 3, track 3, 4); The Donkey on "The Friendly Beasts"
Shara Worden—vocals, high notes, Christmas cheer (disc 3, track 4), angelic vocals (disc 3, track 5); The Sheep on "The Friendly Beasts"
Bridgit DeCook—vocals (disc 4, tracks 1-4, 7)
C.J. Camerieri—trumpet (disc 5, tracks 2, 4, 6, 7, 9)
Ben Lanz—trombone (disc 5, tracks 2, 4, 6, 7, 9)
Rob Moose—violin
Naho Tsutsui—violin
Maria Bella Jeffers—cello

Produced by:

Sufjan Stevens

Comments:

Five Christmas EPs recorded between 2001 and 2006 as gifts for family and friends are packaged together in one box as a gift for fans. As if the music weren't enough, the box set includes lyrics, guitar, chords, stickers, a cartoon, and two essays (one by Sufjan; one by Rick Moody) He doesn't make fun of the holiday, but he has fun with it. This album is equal parts holiday and holy day, reverence and cheer. (JoAnn Whetsell)

The BQE

Release info:

2009—Asthmatic Kitty Records—AKR 278

Availability:

Wide

Ecto priority:

Highly recommended

Group members:

Sufjan Stevens—everything not listed below

Guest artists:

Tim Albright—trombone
Hideaki Aomori—clarinet
Mat Fieldes—upright bass
Casey Foubert—electric guitar
Josh Frank—trumpet
Alan Hampton—upright bass
Marla Hansen—viola, vocals
Jay Hassler—bass clarinet, clarinet
Maria Bella Jeffers—cello
Ben Lanz—trombone
Olivier Manchon—violin
Rob Moose—violin
Sato Moughalian—flute, piccolo
Damian Primis—bassoon
Theo Primis—French horn
Jody Redhage—cello
Kyle Resnick—trumpet
Yuuki Matthews—bass, beats
Beth Meyers—viola
James McAlister—drums & percussion, drum programming, sequencing, synthesizers, sound effects, etc.
Matt Moran—drums & percussion
Arthur Sato—oboe
Alex Sopp—flute, alto flute, piccolo
Hiroko Taguchi—violin
Amie Weiss—violin
Michael Atkinson—conducting

Comments:

This is the music to Sufjan's multimedia work (commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music) about the infamous Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE). It's about color and texture, sometimes dreamy and at other times cacophonous. I prefer the music alone to watching the DVD with the accompanying film. It recalls his past and previews his future (the swirling woodwinds in track 6 and the electronic bleeps in track 7 illustrate this well). I like it more with each listen—all the beauty, chaos, and life that it captures, like its namesake. (JoAnn Whetsell)

All Delighted People EP

Release info:

2010—Asthmatic Kitty Records—AKR075

Availability:

Wide

Ecto priority:

Recommended for fans

Comments:

This EP (which is just under an hour long) is a bridge between Sufjan's earlier albums (especially the pre-Illinois ones) and The Age of Adz. As such it's a mixed bag. I prefer the less noodly, experimental and electronic stuff (the classic rock version of the title track). (JoAnn Whetsell)

The Age of Adz

Release info:

2010—Asthmatic Kitty Records—AKR077

Availability:

Wide

Ecto priority:

Recommended

Comments:

This album is hard to get into—it's long, it's weirdly electronic, and it's more experimental in terms of songwriting than his previous albums, though less electronic and experimental than Enjoy Your Rabbit. At first it can sound like chaos. But that chaos makes more sense when reading about the album's inspiration, schizophrenic artist Royal Robertson. And while I don't think all the electronic effects add to the songs, they've become less jarring over time while Sufjan's palette of string and woodwind flourishes have become more prominent. It took a while, but I enjoy this album quite a bit now. (JoAnn Whetsell)

elecronica squall that drowns almost everything, but I look forward to the acoustic remix if it ever comes. (adamk@zoom.co.uk)

Wanted to like it, but didn't. (lasherboy@gmail.com)

I'm in the middle—there are a couple of tracks here I love (especially "Too Much"), and others I skip over. (Neile)


Silver & Gold

Release info:

2012—Asthmatic Kitty—AKR610

Availability:

Wide

Ecto priority:

Highly recommended

Group members:

Sufjan Stevens—everything else not noted below

Guest artists:

Aaron Dessner—acoustic guitar, mandolin, vocals, upright bass, percussion, hospitality (Gloria disc)
Bryce Dessner—acoustic guitar, classical guitar, electric guitar, ukulele, percussion, vocals, guitar face (Gloria disc)
Marla Hansen—vocals, viola, sunsets, watercolors (Gloria disc)
Clara Klaus—vocals, art school, French (Gloria disc)
Olivier Manchon—saw, violin, more French (Gloria disc)
Richard Reed Parry—upright bass, vocals, tundra (Gloria disc)
Brian Wolfe—drums/percussion on "Barcarola (You Must Be a Christmas Tree)"; drum warfare on "Christmas Unicorn"
Gabriel Kahane—piano, reed organ, guitar, vocals (I Am Santa's Helper! disc)
Sayard Egan—vocals on "Idumea"
Elin Smith—vocals, electric organ, Norwegian utility (I Am Santa's Helper! disc)
Daniel Smith—wood flute, vocals, drums, stamina (I Am Santa's Helper! disc)
Lily Smith—vocals, violin, good cheer (I Am Santa's Helper! disc)
Ida Smith—vocals, marimba, good cheer (I Am Santa's Helper! disc)
C.J. Camerieri—trumpet on "The Child With the Star on His Head"
Casey Foubert—bass guitar, noodle guitar, and extra shredded wheat on "The Child With the Star on His Head"
David Stith—sexy yowl (Christmas Infinity Voyage disc)
Sebastian Krueger—vocals, electric & acoustic guitars, clarinets, autoharp, percussion, jurisprudence (Let It Snow disc)
Nathan Lithgow—bass guitar, drums & percussion, vocals, transportation, good cheer (Let It Snow disc)
Cat Martino—vocals, piano, omnichord, acoustic guitar, herbal tea, coconut oil, endurance (Let It Snow disc); choir (all discs)
Alex Sopp—flutes, bells and whistles, vocals (Christmas Unicorn disc)
Vesper Stamper—many voices/many rooms, many hats, multiple tasks, great strength (Christmas Unicorn disc); choir (all discs)
Sonya Hofer, Rosie Thomas—choir (all discs)

Produced by:

Sufjan Stevens

Comments:

This box set is so hard to review. 58 tracks spread over 5 discs, and even more than its predecessor Songs for Christmas, it really runs the gamut of Sufjan's eclectic musical interests. Meaning there are original songs, traditionals, traditionals with new verses, folk, electronica, general weirdness, even a cover of Prince's "Alphabet Street." There's something here for everyone, but likely few people will enjoy everything (you can check out the entire set for free on Bandcamp and Spotify). Personally I like the "Gloria" and "Christmas Unicorn" discs best, but I like Songs for Christmas better. (JoAnn Whetsell)

Carrie & Lowell

Release info:

2015—Asthmatic Kitty Records—ARK099

Availability:

Wide

Ecto priority:

Highly recommended

Group members:

Sufjan Stevens

Guest artists:

Casey Foubert, Laura Viers, Nedelle Torrisi, Sean Carey, Ben Lester, Thomas Bartlett
=

Comments:

Sufjan Stevens is back to form, with an album that follows clearly from Seven Swans and Illinois. It seems having a topic works really well for him—here the life (and death) of his mother. This album has a shape and an energy that the work in between these albums doesn't to have. I also enjoy the sound a lot more than the intervening albums. (Neile)

Carrie & Lowell Live

Release info:

2017—Asthmatic Kitty

Availability:

Wide

Ecto priority:

Highly recommended

Group members:

Sufjan Stevens

Guest artists:

Casey Foubert—vocals, guitar, lap steel, bass, piano, ukulele, synthesizer
Dawn Landes—vocals, guitar, guitalin, piano, synthesizer, vocoder, percussion
James McAlister—drums, percussion, electronics, synthesizer, piano
Steve Moore—vocals, synthesizer, bass synth, trombone, Casiotone, piano
Gallant—featured on "Hotline Bling" encore

Produced by:

Sufjan Stevens; co-produced by Lisa Moran, Aaron Craig, and Alex Craig

Comments:

This album (a recording of a November 9, 2015, performance at North Charleston Performing Arts Center in South Carolina; full video available at https://vimeo.com/215185438) includes all 11 songs from Carrie & Lowell, plus an instrumental from Michigan and 2 songs from The Age of Adz. It is sometimes acoustic, sometimes electronic, and overall I find it more intense and affecting than the studio album (which I think is beautiful). I don't care for the 12 minute electronic noise blast of "Blue Bucket Outro" and the "Hotline Bling" cover is only sometimes amusing, but these are small quibbles, and as they are the last two tracks on the album, they are easy enough to skip. The rest is gorgeous. (JoAnn Whetsell)

Further info:

Sufjan Stevens' recordings appear on several compilation albums. Songs only available on compilations include:

  • "The First Full Moon," "God'll Ne'er Let You Down," "Bushwick Junkie," and "I Can't Even Lift My Head" on To Spirit Back the Mews (2002)
  • "What Goes On" on This Bird Has Flown: A 40th Anniversary Tribute to the Beatles' Rubber Soul (2006)
  • "She Is" on Dream Brother: The Songs of Tim & Jeff Buckley (2006)
  • "Variation On 'Commemorative Transfiguration & Communion at Magruder Park'" on I Am the Resurrection: A Tribute to John Fahey (2006)
  • "How Can the Stone Remain?" on Metaphysics for Beginners (2006)
  • "Opie's Funeral Song" on Mews Too: An Asthmatic Kitty Compilation (2006)
  • "Free Man in Paris" on A Tribute to Joni Mitchell (2007)
  • "You Are the Blood" on Dark Was the Night (2009)
Collaborations include:

  • "Worried Shoes" with Daniel Smith on I Killed the Monster: 21 Artists Performing the Songs of Daniel Johnston (2006)


Thanks to JoAnn Whetsell for work on this entry.

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Entry last updated 2017-06-09 00:51:14.
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