Tag Archives: sufjan stevens

Acclaimed Albums – Carrie & Lowell by Sufjan Stevens

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 147/250Title: Carrie & Lowell
Artist: Sufjan Stevens
Year: 2015
Position: #220

At the end of 2015 I ranked Carrie & Lowell as my second favourite album of that year behind Father John Misty’s I Love You, Honeybear. That was a tough call as, honestly, there was less than a hair between my top 3 of that year. Even now, two and a half years later, it is incredibly difficult to rank them. However, there is absolutely no denying that Carrie & Lowell is an incredibly special album.

As someone who has been a loyal fan of Sufjan Stevens’ music for over a decade (and seen him live twice) a new album always produces a lot of excitement for me. With Carrie & Lowell it was even more so as it was a return to the folk roots that he abandoned for his previous album (The Age of Adz). Not only that, but this was going to be his most personal work to date. I couldn’t wait.

I was right to be excited. Carrie & Lowell is an album of outstanding beauty that has been created from Sufjan Stevens’ own pain and his love for both his mother and his step-father. There are still times where track from this album have the ability to make me feel tearful, and considering how many times I’ve played this album in the last 3 years that is no mean accomplishment.

As an album is an incredibly cohesive time capsule  for a short period in Steven’s life. His lyrical quirks and asides (such as the line from ‘Eugene’ about his stepfather calling him “Subaru”) with the beautiful arrangements that are at times sparse and at others lush just make this whole album sound like sonic therapy.

At the centre of all this are two tracks which, somehow, were even better when I saw him play this album live: ‘Fourth of July’ and ‘The Only Thing’. The former is about a conversation between Stevens and his mother as she lay dying in hospital. It’s a story about how, in the face of death, they were able to properly communicate their feelings of unconditional familial love.

Then there’s ‘The Only Thing’. A song that, if you are someone who has ever had the misfortune to come face to face with part of you that seeks self-destruction, speaks a strange truth. In essence, it is a song about all the ways you imagine topping yourself, wondering how much you care if you end up surviving and finding a reason to carry on.

There’s a similar song on St Vincent’s amazing album MASSEDUCTION called ‘Smoking Section’. For her the reason to keep going is love, for Sufjan it’s the beauty that can be found in nature and his own faith in God. I cannot imagine how hard it must be sing a song like that every night when on tour – must be like continually prodding at an open would.

Then again Carrie & Lowell, as an album, is an open wound. It’s made of some of the most beautifully and brutally honest songs that I have ever heard. Hopefully this has been the catharsis he needed.


In Review: Music Of 2017 (10-1)

Thanks for tuning in again. Yesterday I counted down my #20-11 albums of 2017. Let’s finish off that countdown and see who ended up at #1.

#10 – Utopia by Björk

This may be the happiest that we have heard Björk since she released Vespertine back in 2001. Where Vulnicura was an open wound, Utopia is a beacon of love and hope. As with all albums she has got a musical theme – this time it’s woodwind, bird song and glitch. Together these help to produce the heightened sense of nature that we’ve seen shades of in Medulla and in ‘Joga’ from Homogenic.

Sure, this album is a bit on the long side and might have been a bit higher if this had been a track or two shorter – but as long as Björk is healing and happy she can have as long an album as she needs. It might also mean that she’s back to her older prolific ways as well. One can only hope as, with Utopia, it feels like she is on her way towards transcendence.

Top Tracks: Arisen My Senses, The Gate, Sue Me

#9 – Rest by Charlotte Gainsbourg

When it comes to intent, Charlotte Gainsbourg’s Rest is the polar opposite of Utopia. With the recent death of her half-sister (and her feelings about the death of her father brought up as a result) Rest is an album that grew out of the anger that can result from grief. The lyrics are deeply personal and mostly delivered in an almost ASMR-worthy breathy French whereas and the music that goes with it is this grand atmospheric electronica.

Rest marked a first for Gainsbourg as she penned the majority of the lyrics herself; which paid off immensely as this is may go a long way to explaining why this is her best album. She’s always had one hell of a family legacy to try and follow-up and with Rest she has started forging her own path to truly become her own musician. Also, she’s a great actress – so she has that going for her as well.

Top Tracks: Deadly Valentine, Ring-a-Ring O’ Roses, Lying With You

#8 – Planetarium by Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly and James McAlister

On his own Sufjan Stevens released two amazing songs this year (‘Mystery of Love’ and ‘Tonya Harding’), but with Nico Muhly, Bryce Dessner and James McAlister he took part in one of the more ambitious albums this year – an album that take’s it’s cue from the Solar System and all the cultural baggage attached to it.

Over the course of 76 minutes you go on a folktronic trip around the cosmos with the Sufjan’s tender voice and Muhly’s arrangements for company. Despite it’s length and scope Planetarium became one of my most played albums of the year – thanks in no small part to the amazing singles ‘Mercury’ and ‘Saturn’.

Much like with Joanna Newsom’s Ys, this is an album that needs a lyric booklet with annotations in order to fully grasp all of Sufjan Steven’s references or as a sign post as to how certain musical elements became attached to certain planets. As with astrology a lot of this album is up for interpretation and that’s why I love it.

Top Tracks: Saturn, Mercury, Moon

#7 – Plunge by Fever Ray

With The Knife disbanding a few years ago and it being 8 years since the release of her debut solo album, Plunge was not an album I expected to be seeing in 2017. It’s also an album that I had no idea I needed in my life.

There really hasn’t been another act who have been able to take up the mantle of The Knife’s cold and utterly unique style of electronica. Silent Shout still stands out as one of my favourite tracks of all time with ‘Neverland’ being a track that can get me up and dancing to the point that my glasses go flying across the room.

Plunge is like Silent Shout screaming through a megaphone after taking a hit of Viagra. It’s erotically charged, highly political and expansive in it’s innovation. It’s got such confidence and (loving) aggression that demands your attention. The scary thing about this album? It still feels like Fever Ray is trying to squeeze herself into an album sized box – who knows what she’ll be able to do next.

Top Tracks: To The Moon and Back, IDK About You, This Country

#6 – I See You by The xx

This album was released on January 13th, which means that in some drafts of my favourite albums of 2017 I managed to forget that this was even eligible. It was such a strong album to start the year out on that it’s a real testament to the quality of releases in the rest of the year that this fell to 6th.

Ever since their debut album I have had a huge affection for The xx . They are able to create music that feels intimate and yet expansive. They create songs that become caverns to fill with electronics, reverb and echoed guitars – which makes them perfect for a great set of earphones.

With I See You it feels like they have opened up more as a group to let us get to know them. Songs like ‘Replica’ and ‘Performance’ are achingly personal whilst ‘I Dare You’ (an early candidate for song of the year) feels like the most they have ever reached out to their listeners. It’s a shame that they got kicked out of the Top 5 towards the end of the year, but that’s just how it goes I guess.

Top Tracks: I Dare You, Replica, On Hold

#5 – 50 Song Memoir by The Magnetic Fields

How did this work as a concept album? I know that this is an album by the same man who gave us the excellent 69 Love Songs, another concept album that should have crumbled under its own weight, but I don’t know if I had expected him to pull this off just as well as he did.

The idea behind this album is that each song represents a different year in the life of singer-songwriter Stephin Merritt’s life. We start out in 1966 with a song about his birth and follow his life through key events in either his life (including his relationships, mental breakdown and an ode to his pet cat) or the world around him (including the Stonewall riots, the Vietnam War, and a creepy song about the AIDS crisis). After listening to this a number of times, I think I now this man more than a lot of people in his life.

This album is the ultimate time capsule not just because of the topics he addresses, but also because the music draws on what was contemporary to him at the time. Because of this, the latter 15 songs do feel a bit more out of time, but these are also when his own music was starting to take off, so he’s starting to make reference to himself.

I know I probably get more from this album because of the shared social history of being gay men, but there’s no denying just how well this ambitious project was pulled off.

Top Tracks: ’92: Weird Diseases, ’81: How to Play the Synthesiser, ’76: Hustle 76

#4 – The Navigator by Hurray for the Riff Raff

The Navigator stands here at number four as the highest entry by an act who I had never even heard of before 2017. It’s an album that I am not sure I would have even come across if it wasn’t for the people on the Acclaimed Music forum, so a big thank you to them for making me aware of this album.

As an album it follows a loose concept of frontwoman Alynda Lee Segarra travelling to Puerto Rico (where her family come from) and protests against what the Puerto Ricans have had to deal with. The encroaching poverty and being dumped on by the United States in general… and this was all recorded before Hurricane Maria. She also sings of how the area she was brought up in New York has since been gentrified. As with all things, there are bright spots on this album. Despite everything Puerto Rican culture has continued to flourish and spread with an ever present optimism that can be found on tracks like ‘Living In The City’.

Taken as a whole, The Navigator is a delicious blend of Americana, folk and Hispanic influences. It’s an album whose poignance has only been enhanced by events over the summer and should really be on more ‘best of’ lists.

Top Tracks: Pa’lante, Living in the City, The Navigator

#3 – Mental Illness by Aimee Mann

2017 has been a year where the spectre of my depression reared its head and stuck around for a solid 10 months. If there was one track that exemplifies where my head has been for large parts of this year, it would be ‘Simple Fix’. It’s a song about endlessly repeating the same cycle of events and not being able to find a way out of it, despite there being a simple fix available.

In this album, Aimee Mann has gotten herself into the headspace of people with depression and other related mental conditions. In keeping with this theme, it is one of the more stripped back albums I have heard of hers, although it still very much a production of light layers.

Listening to her tell stories of people going through different things has been a fantastic comfort to me over the course of the year. It has allowed me to wallow a bit when I felt the need to wallow, but has also found a way to make me feel normal again. With more albums like this we would be on our way towards mental illness being more and more de-stigmatised; something we still have a long way to go on.

Top Tracks: ‘Simple Fix’, ‘Good For Me’, ‘Patient Zero’

#2 – Melodrama by Lorde

The older I get, the fewer pop albums are finding their way into the higher places on my list. Is this just me ageing out of contemporary pop or has my opinion of rival genres eclipsed my once favourite genre? I don’t know the answer to this, but I do know that I’m glad Lorde is around to showcase how mainstream pop and art pop can be a marriage made in melodramatic heaven.

It’s hard to deny the talent present here in Lorde’s songcraft and singing. There is so much confidence just excluding from her as she veers between ballads (‘Liability’) and dark electropop (The Louvre). Of course a lot of praise needs to be piled onto producer Jack Antonoff who has helped bring this album to life.

Of all the songs on here though, it is hard to deny the greatness of opening track ‘Green Light’. This has been my most played song of the year and I am still not sick of it. There is just so much joy and abandon in this song about the break-up of a relationship that it’s hard to not dance along (much like how she did when she sang it on Saturday Night Live).

As much as I loved her debut album, Pure Heroine, her second release has more than delivered on the promise of this young artist. I guess sometimes it just takes a New Zealander to show the rest of the world how pop is done.

Top Tracks: Green Light, Sober II (Melodrama), Perfect Places

 #1 – MASSEDUCTION by St Vincent

I have been an ardent follower of St Vincent since she first released her debut album back in 2007. With the release of each of her albums there has been a big change in my life around about the same time. Her music has provided solace, rallying cries and everything in between as I have needed them.

With the release of MASSEDUCTION she somehow manages to continue her streak into three near faultless albums, with this one bring the third of hers to find its way to the top of my end of year list.

I don’t think there are many other artists out there who still put as much work into track order as St Vincent does. Individually the songs are excellent, but she knows exactly how to make her album flow. Motifs from one song bleed into another, themes rise and fall and at the centre of it there is her.

She’s not exactly elusive, but this is the first time in an album where it feels she is allowing us into her inner sanctum. Even though I don’t list it as a top track, ‘Smoking Section’ feels like an incredibly important song in terms of getting to know her as an artist. It’s like ‘Severed Crossed Fingers’ and ‘I Prefer Your Love’ from her previous album in that she is allowing us to watch her emotions bleed out in a beautiful catharsis.

In the end, this was such a close run thing between St Vincent and Lorde for the top spot that it would be the fraction of a percentage point. Still, it’s good for St Vincent to, once again, be sitting at the top.

Top Tracks: Los Ageless, Sugarboy, New York

It’s Good To Share & It’s Good To Win

Full disclosure, I was going to do another album write-up (it has been a month after all), but here I am in mid-August and the 2015 of the albums list is yet to materialise. Instead I’m still cleaning out the back catalogue of bucket list cross-offs with something more positive than my recent teaching post.

List item: Share something you love with someone else
Status: Completed

Okay, so this is a bit of a easy one. Still, it’s one of those things that I probably should do more often and I acutally got proof of it this time!

I think I have mentioned before that I love Sufjan Stevens. This also means that when it is Christmas time I tend to play his Songs for Christmas albums ad nauseum. If you are in the mood for a strange Christmas metaphor that ends in a festive cover of Joy Division, then ‘Christmas Unicorn’ really is the song for you.

As a Sufjanatic I guess I feel it is my duty to share his music…


List item: Win an award
Status: Completed

Okay, so this happened a while ago now but I am still super proud of this. I know some people think work awards are a bit lame, and I would normally agree if I had not won one, but this felt like all the extra work I had been putting in had been noticed.

I didn’t accept this gracefully either. Where everyone else sheepishly got up on stage, accepted the award and then walked back down… I went a bit further. Like, holding it above my head and nodding my head as if I was some faded rockstar receiving a lifetime achievement award. It got some cheers from the back, though.

Professional behaviour kinda flies out of the window when I am super-psyched.

The thing is, I had an all day meeting that day. My line manager (thanks to advance warning) got me to come over thinking it was something properly mandatory and business-like and there it was, divisional awards.

Okay, I’m lame. But as someone who doesn’t win things this was a major deal :).

In Review: Music Of 2015

It’s the end of 2015! What a year it’s been for me. Marriage. Honeymoon in Japan. It’s going to be one of those years I will always remember.

Also, what a crop of music! I guess the older you get, the more artists you love begin to culminate. Still, for my music taste, it has been exceptional. So I figured why not pre-empt future updates on the Acclaimed Albums list, and a possible expansion of that list when I reach 100%, by going through the music of 2015 followed by a Top 20?

Did Not Chart

I listened to a lot of music this year. According to Last.fm, this might be the most varied I have ever been when it comes to sheer number of different tracks. This means that there are quite a few albums that did not crack my personal Top 20.

One I am going to rather obviously point out is Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly. This is the album that will appear on the next update of the list.  I know that this makes me some sort of musical philistine, but this is where I am with rap albums. No matter how acclaimed or important it is… I just can’t get to the heart of it. Also, the liberal use of the n-word just makes me plain uncomfortable. I did like ‘King Kunta’ though.

Now, for the main event. My Top 20 albums of 2015!

Platform 1#20 – Platform by Holly Herndon
#19 – Wildheart by Miguel
Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper#18 – Panda Bear Meets The Grim Reaper by Panda Bear
#17 – Endless Vacation by Annie
Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit#16 – Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit by Courtney Barnett
Blackbirds#15 – Blackbirds by Gretchen Peters
How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful 1#14 – How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful by Florence + The Machine
#13 – Hairless Toys by Roisin Murphy
Have You In My Wilderness#12 – Have You In My Wilderness by Julia Holter
Natalie Prass#11 – Natalie Prass by Natalie Prass
Currents#10 – Currents by Tame Impala
M3LL155X#9 – M3LL155X by FKA twigs
#8 – In Colour by Jamie xx
Emotion#7 – Emotion by Carly Rae Jepsen
Divers#6 – Divers by Joanna Newsom
Vulnicura#5 – Vulnicura by Bjork
Froot#4 – FROOT  by Marina & The Diamonds
Art Angels#3 – Art Angels by Grimes
#2 – Carrie & Lowell by Sufjan Stevens
#1 – I Love You, Honeybear by Father John Misty

Music Monday: Illinois by Sufjan Stevens

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 36/250Sufjan_Stevens_-_IllinoisTitle: Illinois
Artist: Sufjan Stevens
Year: 2005
Position: #84

At some point in everyone’s life there is a certain album that you will have a love affair with. An album that is able to stir emotions so primeval and fantastical that even the thought of starting the first track gives you goosebumps and, depending on the person, makes you tear up in joy that once again you are about to travel along your favourite road, and time will just seem to stop around you until the final track is coming to a close. For me that album is Sufjan Stevens’ indie-folk master class Illinois.

So what is it that makes Illinois such an indispensible listen? Is it the fact that it is a fantastically crafted concept album that never dulls? Is it because of Sufjan’s innate ability to create varied songs that somehow maintain a common ground? Maybe it’s a mix of these two, with the further contributions of insane song titles and the wide variety of instruments that are layered on top of each other to make a lush production, that made this incredibly nuanced album the top rated of 2005.

Each track is resplendent with references to the aforementioned state of Illinois, paying homage to everything from individual districts, its famed serial killer John Wayne Gacy, Jr. and its landmarks. Yet Sufjan is somehow able to include enough of these knowing references, something that is sure to mean a great deal more to Illinoisans, and make this more about the people who inhabit the state rather than just a simple tribute. Such an angle of human interest thus makes these tales culturally universal whilst still anchored in the state itself.

Such an angle of human interest forms the backbones of some of the album highlights such as ‘Casmir Pulaski Day’ about a girl dying of leukaemia, the track itself named after a Illinoisan public holiday, which is so genuinely touching that it can induce tears. Also an obvious highlight is the road trip song ‘Chicago’, which most will know from its appearance in the indie-comedy Little Miss Sunshine as well as a reference in the Snow Patrol song ‘Eyes Open’, whose refrain of “I made a lot of mistakes” helps to provide a great feeling of escapism and freedom. Then there is ‘Decatur’ which is actually an incredibly sweet song about someone trying desperately to hate their stepmother but in the end being able to reconcile with her.

Some of these songs may sound saccharin but Sufjan’s lyrics are so intelligently put together with beautifully crafted melodies that the album becomes somewhat of an addiction on the third listen. Songs like ‘Come On! Feel The Illinoise!’ and ‘The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades is Out to Get Us!’ reveal multiple layers as the stories unravel further and further until suddenly these yarns become as vibrant as the sumptuous melodies that form their backdrop.

From this Sufjan Stevens truly emerged to the masses, but not so much that his albums felt robbed of their uniqueness. Illinois managed to get enough notice to inform those with an ear to the ground, but not to everyone, meaning that the first listen still feels like finding a diamond mine untapped by none other by yourself.

Listening To Your Heroes

List Item: See your favourite singer live
Progress: Completed

The identity of my ‘favourite singer’ has changed a number of times as my musical taste has developed since I first took proper notice at the age of eight. Before the music I listened to was more based on what I heard either of my parents playing, liking it and then running with it. This would go a long way to explain why a five year old boy became mildly obsessed with Enya and The Human League (thanks to my mother and father respectively).

In 1998 I started to develop my own separate taste which centred around pop (much like it does now) with my first favourite bands being B*Witched and Steps. Both of which I actually got to see before they split (and how luck was I to see both Daphne & Celeste and Atomic Kitten as supports…). I still have the programmes lying around in a box somewhere.

Anyway, neither of those bands feature in my current list of favourites. Nowhere near the Top 100 to be honest. That is a battle now played out between Bjork and Sufjan Stevens; two singers who are rather different from each other and that I am lucky to have seen. Rather than taking pictures of gigs I actually choose to enjoy them and buy the souvenir T-shirt afterwards.

So, whilst I am waiting for them both to tour again (now I have the free time to see them) I can recall the amazing times I spent with my musical heroes (Bjork and Sufjan not Steps and B*Witched).