Top 100 Artists of the Decade: #38 Sufjan Stevens
The Top 100 Artists of the Decade list will be posted over the course of 100 days. On September 23rd, we will post one artist and continue every day until December 31st, when we will unveil our #1 artist of the decade!
Please read our introduction to learn about our nominating and ordering process.
#38 Sufjan Stevens
"Symphonic indie-folk pop" is a term rife with contradiction, but Sufjan Stevens works best with incongruity. The Detroit born multi-instrumentalist has one foot firmly steeped in the singer-songwriter tradition, but also eschews the genre’s connotations with the grand scope of his vision, orchestral arrangements, and adventurous approach to his albums.
Stevens is best known for his ambitious – though even “ambitious” seems like an understatement – project of making an album for each of the United States’ fifty states, of which he has completed two: Greetings from Michigan: The Great Salt Lake State and Illinois. However, the initial dizzying grandeur of this massive undertaking was sharply contrasted with Stevens’ disarming vocal delivery and songwriting. Of course, some songs were appropriately epic and monumental (see "Chicago" "The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts," and "Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head!"), but others on weighty topics such as love, faith, life and death, geographical history, and iconography were all filtered through detailed character sketches and intimate confessionals. Any worries that the fifty state albums would be unfamiliar to those who didn’t live in those specific regions of the country were allayed as Stevens succeeded in making each place and person very real to the listener, regardless of his or her location. These were incidents that happened in our backyards - songs about us and our families, neighbors, friends.
It seems neglectful not to mention Seven Swans, which was released between Michigan and Illinois. A meditation on faith and spirituality, the album was another example of Stevens operating outside of the laws of accordance. Following the lush and orchestral Michigan, it was a more spare and modest offering with little more accompaniment than Stevens’ voice and stark banjo playing. Though there is some debate about whether it is as strong as his other albums or not, Seven Swans defied most people’s expectations of what a “religious” album would/should be.
The demanding and elaborate nature of Sufjan Stevens’ ventures is ably met by his ability as a songwriter. The proficiency with which he deftly conducted an army of instruments and backing choirs on the fifty state albums is also apparent, albeit in a very different manner, on Seven Swans. Stevens’ albums pre-Michigan, A Sun Came and Enjoy Your Rabbit, are also examples of his skill and restless creativity. The former experiments with global music and tones, while the latter dabbles with electronica and conceptual songwriting (the songs are based on the symbols of the Chinese zodiac). But as far as the fifty states project goes, if the coming albums are anything like the ones already in the can, we have much to look forward to in the next 48+ years.
- Kevin Na
Check back tomorrow for the next artist! To see the full list of the Top 100 Artists of the Decade, click here.