It’s not the most conventional of Christmas tracks, but it’s a perfect slice of Sufjan’s trademark layered arrangement. I love this song.
It should come as no surprise to you that Sufjan Stevens is my personal soundtrack to the colder months. I can’t imagine a better backdrop to set the tree, sit by the fire, or read a good book under a blanket. That being said – the 10 disc collection of Winter and Christmas themed music put together by Sufjan and his pals does have a few tracks that are harder to bear upon repeat listening.
And, if your audience isn’t really versed in Sufjan’s compositional tendencies, simply blasting through the entire discography might garner more than a few requests to push the skip track button.
Enjoy it to your heart’s content. Be that with friends, foe, or in some cases a healthy does of heartache. My Sufjan Winter Spotify Playlist
A quick breakdown on the group.
Bryce Dessner is the lead guitarist for The National – and has collaborated with Sufjan before (Suf has done background vocals for The National and Dessner has done studio guitar work and compositions with Suf)
As near as I can suss out; essentially in 2011 a concert hall in the Netherlands commissioned Nico Muhly (composer) to write a piece about the Solar System. He reached out to Sufjan and Dessner who helped assist with that composition which debuted in 2012 (Sufjan has also composed music for his own short film The BQE and Dessner writes/composes music for film frequently).
So this album is essentially an evolution of that group of buddies now writing pop/synth/folk together about the planets and associated mythologies.
And in true Beatles format – “And James McAlister is the drummer”
One thing is clear – It’s amazing to me that Sufjan Stevens can still sing so effortlessly. The new group album isn’t for everyone, but there are amazing moments throughout if you’re willing to give it a listen. Here’s my favorite track (probably because it sounds the most like a natural Sufjan song).
This past year (well past by this point might I add) provided us with a slew of good to great music. There were new albums from Ben Gibbard, Muse, The Killers, and B.o.B. to name a few. They all made solid efforts in 2012, but they didn’t quite crack the top ten albums. Below is my list, long overdue.
01: Of Monsters and Men – My Head is an Animal
From the opening of the first track you can almost sense that this is a special effort. There is a quiet intensity, a captivating beauty, that threads through every melody and harmony on this wonderful debut album from Iceland. By the time you get to the final track you’re only thought will be to press play again.
02: The Lumineers – The Lumineers
Another brilliant debut album on the list. Bursting with raw emotion and well written lyrical vignettes this album is filled with driving drumbeats and folk fueled romance. Although a few of their tracks are more aligned with radio friendly airtime it’s when they slow down that their true talent shines through.
03: John Samson – Provincial
Many of the songs that appear on his debut solo effort closely mirror his top shelf work with The Weakerthans. While some reviewers this past year found this off-putting I find John Samson’s lyrical storytelling to be just as captivating with or without his regular band.
04: Mumford and Sons – Babel
Not much needs to be written about this band or this album. They’ve grown up from an indie darling quartet to a full on success recognized the world over. This album is a worthy continuation of their career.
05: Sufjan Stevens – Silver and Gold
I know; this is a Christmas album that’s actually a collection of five separate EP’s that were written over half a decade and they just happened to be released as a box set in 2012. I know all the reasons that this technically shouldn’t be on a list, but the entire collection is simply so good that it can’t be relegated to one month of listening every year. On top of that you can listen to each EP in chronological order and follow along with the evolution of his musical style.
06: The Walkmen – Heaven
On this album The Walkmen continue their waffling between being effortlessly cool and trying really hard to channel Bob Dylan. The magic is when both of those efforts combine into a single glorious song. This is their best album since Bows + Arrows.
07: Beach House – Bloom
Although not quite as captivating as their previous effort (Teen Dream) their latest effort provides the same breathy vocals and building crescendos that have become their trademark. This music would fit in almost any scenario.
mp3 : Beach House – Myth
08: Matt & Kim – Lightning
If you didn’t feel like dancing you will after a single listen to this album. Or you might have a seizure. It’s honestly a tossup. Matt & Kim put out a solid album this time around and their one weakness (vocals on slower tracks) is kept to a minimum this time around.
mp3 : Matt & Kim – Now
09: fun. – Some Nights
It began for most people when their song We Are Young was featured prominently in a primetime commercial (possibly debuted during the Big Game?) If you were daring enough to jump into the full album from that snippet you would find yourself treated to a modern day pop musical; complete with letters to moms, hanging out with friends, and pleas to find true love.
mp3 : fun. – All Alright
10: Jack White – Blunderbuss
I feel like I’m breaking an unwritten rule putting Jack’s first solo album this far down my list. The problem is that for every brilliant track on the album, there is another track that reminds you how great Jack White is when he’s surrounded by other creative people. This is a solid album, but it’s not his best effort. I’ll go ahead and label it the Josh Ritter effect whereby an album starts off brilliantly and then veers into head scratching territory.
Sufjan Stevens has quite simply done it again. In 2007 he released a box set of Christmas (and winter, and seasonal, and etc.) songs that spanned multiple eras, references, and were all presented in the many various compositional styles preferred by Sufjan. This time around he has dropped another 58 tracks filled with more of the same. And more of the same is more of subtle genius we have come to expect from him.
The full box set is broken into five separate parts that collectively form Silver and Gold (bandcamp) (amazon) (itunes). First on the list is the album Gloria which serves as a very effective jumping off point for those unfortunate few that are thus far uninitiated. This first album has a healthy cross section of Sufjan Christmas. There are original songs that would easily fit on his Michigan or Illinois albums interspersed with his take on classic tracks. Below are my two favorite songs from the first album although I would encourage you all to listen to the entire album.
Other standout tracks on Gloria include the sprawling 7+ minute Baracola and Sufjan’s interpretation of Silent Night. I’ll be back later this week with highlights from the remaining four albums in the box set. For those of you in the USA have a great Thanksgiving week / weekend. For those elsewhere, enjoy the music.
Sufjan Stevens has a new Christmas/Holiday album coming out this November. It is called Silver & Gold and will have a total of fifty eight songs. If you head over to his streaming page you can download the last track from the compilation for free in high quality digital format. Appropriately it’s entitled Christmas Unicorn and it sprawls for a full 12+ minutes. I would expect nothing less from Sufjan at this point. Take a listen below and then head over to his page to preorder the digital version or the vinyl limited edition if you have money to spare.
A few days ago I wrote a post about a track called Boeing 737 by The Low Anthem. In the lyrics of that song The Low Anthem intertwines the tragedy of the World Trade Center terrorist attack with hanging out in a bar with Philippe Petit (the man who strung a high wire between the twin towers). In that track there is a certain beauty found in what is ultimately a melancholy and utterly tragic experience. It takes a unique talent to capture the bittersweet emotions of certain events and forge from that fire something beautiful and worthy.
The Low Anthem succeeded with their song Boeing 737. Sufjan Stevens somehow paralleled his own short comings with those of John Wayne Gacy, Jr., in a heartbreaking song. The Weakerthans have a brilliant song called Night Windows which details the loss of a friend to the war in Afghanistan. And although this list could probably continue, I am often reminded of the following track by The Long Winters.
In The Commander Thinks Aloud, John Roderick, lead singer of The Long Winters, tells the story of astronauts on their way home from a mission. He details their euphoria, the return of gravity as they descend, and the amazing and breathtaking view they are afforded from their seats. And yet, just as they begin to descend, as he sings the line “Can you feel it we’re almost home? / Yay! Yay!” it all starts to fall apart. The song ends as the space shuttle Columbia begins to disintegrate and fall apart. Yet from this great tragedy; not only for the astronauts we lost (and their loved ones), but for the entire space program as well, The Long Winters have found a beautiful way to tell their story and commemorate this event.
It’s tracks like this that keep me blogging. Originally recorded for their 2005 EP Ulitmatum (amazon) (itunes), the original version of this song is filled with guitar distortion and feeback. The version I have posted today was recorded live in the WOXY Lounge (which no longer exists as both WOXY and their website went out of business and were closed permanently in 2010) and I believe it is the definitive version of the song. I am fortunate enough to have snagged this version a long time ago and I wanted to make sure it was passed around the internet a few more times. Enjoy the music, no matter how tragic it can be.