A friend of mine was once in a lift with Bret Easton Ellis and Sufjan Stevens. Just think of the story he could have woven out of that if he'd plucked up the courage to say even a single word! He could be forgiven, I suppose, for being a touch star-struck to have managed anything more than a whimper of repressed delight. Me, I'd have gone for some Glamorama-based punnery.

I, though, have an equally drab Sufjan story inasmuch as it once again involves no interaction with the great man other than being in the same room as him. I saw Stevens play one of the most beautiful, funny and intimate gigs I will ever experience, around the release time of 2004's Seven Swans album. By then, he was already on to album number four but he was still unknown enough to be playing a Glasgow pub the size of an average living room, to about 50 people, sequentially going through the Seven Swans record and weaving a - probably at least partially fabricated - tale about moving around the US as a child with his family. I shed tears a few times that night (whether it was through laughter or being heartbroken time and again by Stevens' incredible, beautiful, soft and sensual voice is neither here nor there) and although Seven Swans would still be one of my all-time favourite records, that show definitely cemented it somewhere in the top five.

He's an enigma, our Sufjan. He's moved from the world pop of A Sun Came to the synths of Enjoy Your Rabbit to the reverential folk music of Seven Swans; from the abandoned "50 States" projects of Michigan and Illinois where he created fantastical stories around historical figures and made some of the best symphonic pop of the last ten years, to the ambitious, orchestral work of the BQE and finally to the right-turns of All Delighted People and Age of Adz wherein we found a Stevens wracked with worry and battling with his many sides to create epic and schizophrenic electronic songs that still managed to sound like himself while also being entirely and utterly new, and deserving of their place in his canon of song.

Can we ever hope for new solo Sufjan Stevens in 2015? Yes, he's been busy with commissioned pieces, helping out The National on tour and releasing records with Son Lux and Serengeti as Sisyphus, but what we'd really love is an album all of his own. In the meantime, here's what we're calling an essential playlist (translated: here are some songs of Sufjan's that I adore and I think you'd like too).

'Oh God, Where Are You Now? (In Pickeral Lake? Pigeon? Marquette? Mackinaw?)' and 'Seven Swans'

Never one to hide his complex relationship with God, Stevens has addressed his religious beliefs many times in song. On the lush former track taken from 2003's Michigan, Stevens pleads for guidance or a sign to show him along the right path, the music appropriately choral and gentle. With 'Seven Swans', though, the Lord is clear and present and not to be doubted as the song moves from quiet banjo strumming to a frightening crescendo. These two tracks best represent Stevens' inner turmoil regarding belief, the conclusion being satisfyingly ambiguous.

'Year of the Dog'

When Stevens revisited Enjoy Your Rabbit in 2009 with the help of Osso, he came up the gorgeous string-laden Run Rabbit Run. Better than the original's electronic experimentation, the finest moment was the thrilling screech and scrape of 'Year of the Dog' which nodded towards the influence of Arthur Russell and contemporary classical on Stevens' music and hinted at the direction he was about to take.

'Movement III: Linear Tableau with Intersecting Surprise'

The soundtrack to a realised film, the BQE was first performed in 2007 and finally released in 2009. It's something of a hit and miss affair if I'm being honest, yet it's an endlessly fascinating project: Stevens' music is often all about the personal or persons and here there is none of that, no guiding hand telling you what to feel. Yet it's still very moving in places, no less on this movement where the light and airy woodwind is the star of the show.

'You Are The Blood'

Recorded for the Dark Was The Night benefit album for the Red Hot Organisation, this track is a fine example of Stevens' knack for a great cover song. He takes the Castanets original and drags it somewhere else entirely, burbling electronics and ominous brass crashing into one another time and again. It also acted as a signpost for the music we'd find Stevens making on Age of Adz...

'I Walked' and 'Age of Adz'

When people talk of 2010's Age of Adz album being a shock, musically speaking, they must be suffering a mental block or deliberately forgetting the music of Enjoy Your Rabbit or 'You Are The Blood'. Basically, it was a bunch of people not getting precisely what they wanted from Sufjan Stevens. Rather than chuck ten variations of 'Chicago' at us, Stevens addressed head-on his difficulties with song writing on this stunning record. It's his most personal and direct album, and the music reflects the inner chaos Stevens had been feeling in the five years since his last "proper" album. While 'I Walked' bridges the gap between folk music and electronica in the most beautiful of fashions, 'Age of Adz' is turmoil writ large: every instrument and voice he could find is on this track, a gigantic, messy paean to trying to make some kind of artistic statement.

'Casimir Pulaski Day'

Alongside religion, historical characters, and places Stevens also has a knack of making songs about everyday life and domesticity incredibly touching. Taken from Illinois, 'Casimir Pulaski Day' celebrates a state holiday while weaving a spellbinding tale of illness, adolescent awakening and death. Dripping in harmonies without ever sounding trite, this is the sort of thing Stevens does effortlessly.


One of Stevens' most personal songs, it was saved from the cutting room floor thanks to The Avalanche and its collection of Illinois odds-and-ends. A collection of childhood memories transplanted to a drab state town, stardust is scattered thanks to bells, choral harmonies and gentle synths and what we have at the end is one of the loveliest songs in the Sufjan oeuvre.

'The Lakes of Canada'

If you're a fan of Sufjan Stevens, then you might swap out this top ten for another ten songs entirely. Or we might share some personal favourites, who knows. This last track, though, deserves a place for so many reasons. Firstly, it shows - despite his initial protestations - that Stevens is something of a daredevil. The Take Away Shows crew somehow manages to persuade him to climb to a rooftop to do his take on The Innocence Mission's 'The Lakes of Canada' whilst plucking magnificently on his banjo (oh don't!), being buffeted by the wind and nearly frozen to the spot thanks to the temperature up there. The song itself is wonderful; the original, already brilliant, transformed by soaring voice and terrific playing and it just chokes me up and makes me laugh every single time. A performer, stripped bare and at the, ahem, height of his powers.