Sufjan Stevens is an idiosyncratic guy. The banjo-picking, God-fearing indie rock icon has always been a private individual, usually letting his art do most of the talking for him.
So when you ask him what his favourite albums of the past year were, he’s not going to give you the straightforward answer that most would provide. Instead, he’s going to give you the albums that he was listening to most in 2021, not his favoruite albums that came out in the year 2021.
A man with eclectic tastes, Stevens has cultivated a list that spans genre, style, and multiple different decades as he comes to define his own 2021. If your Spotify Wrapped was heavily skewed by your diverse listening habits, so much so that your “favourite song of 2021” turned out to be a song from a number of years ago, then you’ve got a kindred spirit with Stevens.
Stevens’ picks range from all the way back in 1970 and up to the modern day, with a fair amount of deep dives provided by all albums. Here are the records that stuck with Stevens throughout 2021.
Sufjan Stevens’ 10 favourite albums of 2021:
….and the year that they actually came out.
1. La Planète Sauvage Motion Picture Soundtrack (1973)
Perhaps because he just came off the of ambient psychedelia of the Lamentations project, Stevens must have been in a bit of a hazy mood this year. How else can you explain his fondness to the soundtrack of La Planète Sauvage, the legendary 1973 animated film about… well, it varies from viewer to viewer, but it is definitely trippy (this will be a theme for Stevens this year).
Integrating progressive rock and funk into classical arrangements, the reverb-heavy sounds of the film have more recently found favour with hip hop producers like Madlib and the late J Dilla. Maybe this is indicative of where Stevens himself will be moving into sound-wise in the coming year.
2. Todd Rundgren – A Wizard, a True Star (1973)
It’s understandable that Todd Rundgren might have been on Stevens’ mind this year. He just got inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, an honour that the notoriously curmudgeonly Rundgren declined attend. Still, for many, the induction reopened a rabbit hole of Rundgren’s fantastically psychedelic music just ready to fall down.
A Wizard, a True Star is Rundgren at his most spaced out and ambitious. Integrating cutting edge electronic instrumentation, the singer largely abandons conventional pop in favour of highly experimental and hallucinogenic music. It’s a trip and a half, but it’s an album that perfectly illustrates Rundgren’s genius. The fact that he produced Grand Funk Railroad’s We’re an American Band and the New York Dolls’ debut album in the same year is just a testament to his prowess.
3. Beverly Glenn-Copeland – Keyboard Fantasies (1986)
What Stevens has appreciated over the past year seems to mostly align with texture and ambience. If you’re looking for a pioneer in the art of those styles, specifically the chill wave and New Age music movements, look no further than Beverly Glenn-Copeland, a composer and musician decades ahead of his time.
With just a Yamaha DX7 keyboard, a drum machine, and his voice, Glenn-Copeland created a gentle triumph that is an orchestra concert, a nature retreat, a spa day, and a therapy sessions all rolled into six songs. Keyboard Fantasies is also a triumph of DIY attitudes, even if it took nearly 30 years for Glenn-Copeland to find an appreciative audience.
4. Various Artists – Ladakh: Songs & Dances From The Highlands Of Western Tibet (1977)
Here’s one you won’t find on Spotify: a 1977 collection of traditional Tibetan folk music by musicologist David Lewiston, Ladakh: Songs & Dances From The Highlands Of Western Tibet is world music for the world weary. Insightful and uber-traditional, this album is perfect if you’re completely fed up with pop music of all kinds.
It was only once Lewiston’s collections began to be released by Nonesuch Records, a label better known today for The Black Keys and Paul Thomas Anderson soundtracks, that his work took on a greater global recognition. Some of his recordings were included on the Voyager Golden Record, but if you want something a little less far out, check out the wonderfully non-western sounds of Ladakh.
5. Peter Gabriel – Up (2002)
Peter Gabriel’s most recent album of new material, Up is a decidedly dense and at times unwieldy album. Gabriel had always had one foot in the experimental and one foot in the commercial, but in the years following So it appeared as though he cared less and less about appealing to broader audiences and more about consistently pushing himself as an artist.
That makes Up a rewarding and fascinating look into who Gabriel is as a person and as a musician, but it also makes the album a bit of an overlong mess. But, hey, it gets the Sufjan Steven seal of approval, and even the most skeptical of listeners can’t help but be taken in by the moments of beauty that creep in every once in a while.
6. Can – Future Days (1973)
Damn, Sufjan Stevens really was stuck in the year 1973 this year, wasn’t he? Stevens’ third pick from that year alone, Can’s Future Days is certainly in step with La Planète Sauvage and A Wizard, a True Star: it’s long, it’s experimental, it’s largely texture based, and it can be mind bending in either a sober or altered state of mind.
Can’s last album with vocalist Damo Suzuki, Future Days is far less concerned with groove and rhythm than the Can albums of the past. A strange haze hangs over the air as songs drift in and out of time, space, and mood. Stevens doesn’t really come off as a particularly heady individual, but his music choices this year sure were smokey.
7. Alice Coltrane – Journey in Satchidananda (1971)
Criminally underrated in her own time, Alice Coltrane was often overshadowed by the towering influence and sizable impact of her late husband, John. An accomplished and forward thinking musician in her own right, Coltrane explored spirituality in ways that few western musicians could match or even fully comprehend.
By 1971, Coltrane was already heavily into Hindu iconography and Indian classical music, years after the raga rock trend had come and gone in popular music. Instead, Coltrane channelled the genres through her own interpretation of jazz music, producing an album as pure as any religious script or reverential doctrine.
8. Sam Evian – Time to Melt (2021)
Finally, an actual album from 2021. By far the most conventional work included on this list, Sam Evian’s wonderfully wonky Time to Melt is at an impasse between folk, funk, and jazz, all wrapped up in a distinctly psychedelic package. Never has the overwhelming creep of death felt so fun!
If you’re not paying close attention, it’s easy to simply groove along to the trippy beats and heady sounds that Evian is able to produce, living somewhere in margins of electronica and bedroom pop. When you pay close attention, however, the darker themes that come to the fore leave you feeling more introspective than you ever thought a dance record could make you feel.
9. Ringo Starr – Beaucoups of Blues (1970)
Ringo goes country. It’s safe to say that Ringo Starr didn’t exactly have a strong idea what direction to go once The Beatles split up. He had a successful film career, he was participating in sessions with his former bandmates (minus Paul McCartney), and he had the freedom to play any kind of style he wanted. What Beaucoups of Blues proves is that ‘Don’t Pass Me By’ wasn’t a fluke – Ringo really did love country music.
He even went all the way to Nashville to be as authentic as possible, hooking up with producer Pete Drake and a bevy of top sessions players. It’s admittedly a strange record, but if you happen to be in the right mindset for it, Beaucoups of Blues can be a remarkably charming listening experience.
10. Lomelda – Hannah (2020)
Lomelda can make an awesome swirl of folk, indie rock, and lo-fi electronica when properly provoked. Hannah, despite being a conscious step back from the grandeur and wonderfully lush sounds of Thx that was started on 2019’s M for Empathy, carries through like an artist whose once again eager to prove themselves.
Once again unafraid to go big and bold, Hannah is still more restrained that the awesomely majestic heights that Lomelda’s best music can hit. That’s OK, though, because a rad album is a rad album through any context, and Hannah is most assuredly a rad album.