The holiday season isn’t just the most wonderful time of the year; it’s also the most ritualistic. Every December, we perform the same activities, trying to capture the bliss of years past. You might spend hours decorating a gingerbread house or grooming a tree. I set the Sufjan Stevens Christmas playlist on infinite loop.
You've probably heard of Stevens' reams of Christmas material, but maybe you've never given it a proper listen. Here is everything you need to know.
Over the last decade or so, Stevens has released 100 Christmas songs. Some tunes are modern originals, while others are from auld lang syne (including "Auld Lang Syne.") The music is spread across 10 albums available for purchase in two volumes, Songs for Christmas and Silver & Gold.
Stevens' yuletide catalog transcends the treacly holiday tunes favored by easy listening radio stations and musty shopping complexes. It borrows hyperbolic enthusiasm of obligatory pop star holiday albums, while highlighting the season’s social, economical, and existential pressures. It exists in the emotional gray space between euphoria and bottomless depression.
To celebrate both the holiday season and Stevens' titanic ode to it, I, an unabashed fan, have ranked every single song that is on either of his two Christmas albums. This is perhaps the best compliment I can give the music: listening to these songs ad nauseam has not made me sick of them.
Songs for Christmas:
Silver & Gold:
I'll write in detail about the top 10 songs, but here's the entire list in condensed form:
|100||Particle Physics||Volume 8: Christmas Infinity Voyage|
|99||Eternal Happiness Or Woe Volume||Volume 7: I Am Santa's Helper!|
|98||Ding-a-ling-a-ring-a-ling||Volume 7: I Am Santa's Helper!|
|97||Jingle Bells||Volume 7: I Am Santa's Helper!|
|96||We Wish You A Merry Christmas||Volume 7: I Am Santa's Helper!|
|95||It's Christmas! Let's Be Glad!||Volume 1: Noel|
|94||Morning (Sacred Harp)||Volume 7: I Am Santa's Helper!|
|93||Jingle Bells||Volume 5: Peace|
|92||All the King's Horns||Volume 3: Ding! Dong!|
|91||Ding! Dong!||Volume 3: Ding! Dong!|
|90||It Came Upon A Midnight Clear||Volume 8: Christmas Infinity Voyage|
|89||We Three Kings||Volume 10: Christmas Unicorn|
|88||Happy Family Christmas||Volume 7: I Am Santa's Helper!|
|87||Holy, Holy, Etc.||Volume 1: Noel|
|86||The First Noel||Volume 4: Joy|
|85||O Come, O Come Emmanuel||Volume 1: Noel|
|84||Silent Night||Volume 1: Noel|
|83||Amazing Grace||Volume 1: Noel|
|82||I Saw Three Ships||Volume 2: Hark!|
|81||Auld Lang Syne||Volume 6: Gloria|
|80||X-mas Spirit Catcher||Volumne 9: Let It Snow!|
|79||Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!||Volume 7: I Am Santa's Helper!|
|78||Angels We Have Heard On High||Volume 10: Christmas Unicorn|
|77||Behold! The Birth of Man, the Face of Glory||Volume 7: I Am Santa's Helper!|
|76||Mysteries of the Christmas Mist||Volume 7: I Am Santa's Helper!|
|75||Break Forth O Beauteous Heavenly Light||Volume 7: I Am Santa's Helper!|
|74||Maoz Tzur (Rock of Ages)||Volume 7: I Am Santa's Helper!|
|73||Ah Holy Jesus (a capella)||Volume 7: I Am Santa's Helper!|
|72||Ah Holy Jesus (with reed organ)||Volume 7: I Am Santa's Helper!|
|71||Ah Holy Jesus||Volume 7: I Am Santa's Helper!|
|70||We're Goin' To The Country||Volume 1: Noel|
|69||Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!||Volume 2: Hark!|
|68||The Incarnation||Volume 4: Joy|
|67||Jupiter Winter||Volume 5: Peace|
|66||Go Nightly Cares||Volume 6: Gloria|
|65||Once In David's Royal City||Volume 2: Hark!|
|64||Make Haste To See the Baby||Volume 7: I Am Santa's Helper!|
|63||The Little Drummer Boy||Volume 4: Joy|
|62||Good King Wenceslas|
|61||It Came Upon A Midnight Clear||Volume 10: Christmas Unicorn|
|60||I Am Santa's Helper||Volume 7: I Am Santa's Helper!|
|59||Happy Karma Christmas||Volume 10: Christmas Unicorn|
|58||What Child Is This Anyway?||Volume 2: Hark!|
|57||The Friendly Beasts||Volume 3: Ding! Dong!|
|56||Up On The Housetop (featuring Vesper Stamper)||Volume 10: Christmas Unicorn|
|55||Hey Guys! It's Christmas Time!||Volume 4: Joy|
|54||How Shall I Fitly Meet Thee?||Volume 7: I Am Santa's Helper!|
|53||Lift Up You Heads Ye Mighty Gates||Volume 7: I Am Santa's Helper!|
|52||O Come, O Come Emmanuel||Volume 3: Ding! Dong!|
|51||O Come, O Come Emmanuel||Volume 5: Peace|
|50||Idumea (Sacred Harp)||Volume 7: I Am Santa's Helper!|
|49||Bring A Torch, Jeanette, Isabella||Volume 2: Hark!|
|48||Christ the Lord is Born||Volume 7: I Am Santa's Helper!|
|47||Coventry Carol (featuring Marla Hansen)||Volume 6: Gloria|
|46||Even the Earth Will Perish and the Universe Give Way||Volume 7: I Am Santa's Helper!|
|45||Away In A Manger||Volume 4: Joy|
|44||Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!||Volume 9: Let It Snow!|
|43||Ave Maria (featuring Cat Martino)||Volume 9: Let It Snow!|
|42||Alphabet St. (Prince cover)|
|41||Joy To The World||Volume 4: Joy|
|40||Only At Christmas Time||Volume 2: Hark!|
|39||The Winter Solstice||Volume 5: Peace|
|38||We Three Kings||Volume 3: Ding! Dong!|
|37||O Holy Night||Volume 3: Ding! Dong!|
|36||Mr. Frosty Man||Volume 7: I Am Santa's Helper!|
|35||Lo! How A Rose E'er Blooming||Volume 5: Peace|
|34||Lo! How A Rose E'er Blooming||Volume 1: Noel|
|33||Did I Make You Cry on Christmas Day? (Well, You Deserved It!)||Volume 4: Joy|
|32||Christmas Woman||Volume 7: I Am Santa's Helper!|
|31||Come on! Let's Boogey to the Elf Dance!||Volume 3: Ding! Dong!|
|30||Once In Royal David's City||Volume 5: Peace|
|29||Joy To The World||Volume 8: Christmas Infinity Voyage|
|28||Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas||Volume 10: Christmas Unicorn|
|27||Christmas Face (featuring Sebastian Krueger)||Volume 9: Let It Snow!|
|26||Santa Claus Is Coming To Town||Volume 9: Let It Snow!|
|25||Angels We Have Heard On High||Volume 8: Christmas Infinity Voyage|
|24||Sleigh Ride||Volume 9: Let It Snow!|
|23||The Sleigh In The Moon (featuring Cat Martino)||Volume 9: Let It Snow!|
|22||We Need A Little Christmas||Volume 10: Christmas Unicorn|
|21||A Holly Jolly Christmas||Volume 9: Let It Snow!|
|20||Holy, Holy, Holy||Volume 5: Peace|
|19||The Midnight Clear||Volume 6: Gloria|
|18||Get Behind Me, Santa!||Volume 5: Peace|
|17||Angels We Have Heard On High||Volume 2: Hark!|
|16||I'll Be Home For Christmas||Volume 9: Let It Snow!|
|15||Christmas Unicorn||Volume 10: Christmas Unicorn|
|14||Put The Lights On The Tree||Volume 2: Hark!|
|13||Christmas in July||Volume 5: Peace|
|12||Do You Hear What I Hear?||Volume 8: Christmas Infinity Voyage|
|11||Lumberjack Christmas/No One Can Save You From Christmases Past||Volume 6: Gloria|
|10||Carol of St. Benjamin The Bearded One||Volume 6: Gloria|
|9||Justice Delivers Its Death|
|8||Silent Night||Volume 6: Gloria|
|7||The Child With The Star On His Head|
|6||Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing||Volume 2: Hark!|
|5||Star of Wonder||Volume 5: Peace|
|4||Sister Winter||Volume 5: Peace|
|3||Barcarola (You Must Be a Christmas Tree)||Volume 6: Gloria|
|2||That Was The Worst Christmas Ever!||Volume 3: Ding! Dong!|
|1||Christmas In The Room||Volume 8: Christmas Infinity Voyage|
In defense of the selection:
I had two mindsets going into building this list:
1) Which tracks am I most likely to skip when I go through these albums every Christmas season (November 1 to December 26)?
2) Which tracks do I most often want to share with my friends and family who aren't familiar with Sufjan Stevens?
Slots 100 through 80 were fairly easy – "Particle Physics" and "< a href=" http://youtu.be/T_gL2WjjOpA">Eternal Happiness or Woe" are straight-up ambient songs that would kill the Christmas mood, either alone or with people. And sadly, the chunk of Volume 7 gets the short end of the stick; I don't mind listening to it once in a while, but I could see scenarios where people look confused while listening to a freak folk Christmas song called "Ding-a-ling-a-ring-a-ling." That being said, "Mr. Frosty Man" prevailed to the top 30, simply because of the line "He's got a friend called Coolio, Vanilla Ice, and Ice Cube."
The rest of the list is based on what I intuitively believe would appeal to the most people, with the top 10 being ready for airwaves across these great United States Stevens once planned to praise with individual concept albums. That was a simpler time.
Feel free to discuss in the comments whether "Come On! Let's Boogey to the Elf Dance!" should get a higher slot than "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."
One more thing before the Top 10: I want to give honorable mentions to some selected tracks:
15. Christmas Unicorn [Volume 10]
This 12-minute (no, really) Silver & Gold closer has Stevens proclaiming he's a "Christmas unicorn." He's a really long list of Christmas concepts mashed up into one majestic creature. It's like, a marketing firm hired Stevens to create a new Christmas character and a jingle, and after he sang this song, the marketing department — confused and dumbstruck — fired this peculiar man.
It's possible that this is an implicit admission that making all this Christmas music was a crazy idea. But he ultimately embraces this, and suspects that you all secretly love his Christmas albums (guilty as charged), and he invites everyone to shamelessly indulge in the spirit of Christmas, unicorns, and Joy Division.
12. Do You Hear What I Hear? [Volume 8]
I know I said I sorted this list out by what I believe would appeal to the most people. But rules are meant to be broken sometimes. This is probably the craziest cover of this song, and doing a 180-degree turn right after the more reserved "Angels We Have Heard on High" on Volume 8 is why I gave it such a high ranking.
It's like a Warp Records artist invaded the studio and made this, which ends with four minutes of auto-tuned vocal runs, chanting, and electronic tribal drumming. I like to play this for people just to see how they react, after being comfortable with Whitney Houston's version for two decades. If Hasbro ever decides to make a Transformers Christmas special, I hope they use this song for the montage where the Autobots decorate Cybertron.
42. Alphabet St. [Volume 8]
I know what you're thinking: Why is the cover of Prince's "Alphabet St." that high on the list? It is not about Christmas, it's about trying to get someone to sleep with them via the sexual magic powers of a '67 Ford Thunderbird. Answer: Stevens can do what he wants, when he wants – he's scoring a slow motion rodeo as of this writing, for goodness sake – so it would be foolish to question him — or Prince, for that matter.
The Top 10:
10. Carol of St. Benjamin The Bearded One [Volume 6]
What first sounds like a remix of Mykola Leontovych's "Carol of the Bells," transitions into a pretty somber song.
Having had no context before this feature, I always pictured Ben as a mystical creature in plaid, basically Al Borland, roaming through a snow-filled forest. But I enjoy the message in the first (and last) verse: If you want something, it ought to be for a good reason. It's a message that shares similarities with...
9. Justice Delivers Its Death [Volume 10]
The penultimate song of Silver & Gold has Stevens taking a 180-degree turn on Johnny Marks' original song, and criticizing its ideas of silver and gold being inherently pleasurable. This is the perfect soundtrack for YouTube videos of Black Friday shoppers fighting discounted waffle irons. (Thankfully, someone already had this idea.) It's not a happy song by any means, but it does bring a metaphorical and honest light to the unfavorable parts of the holiday season: avarice over selflessness, the yuletide existential crisis that Charlie Brown suffered in December 1965.
8. Silent Night [Volume 6]
This track is probably the best example of why I prefer Stevens' arrangements of Christmas music over other artists'. He keeps the lullaby feel of the hymn that people know well and transforms a couple major chords into minor ones, giving the song a more haunting vibe. He's made similar arrangements with other Christmas tunes (see both versions of "Joy to the World," one of which contains a short refrain of "Impossible Soul" from Age of Adz, and "Away in a Manger"), but "Silent Night" is my favorite.
7. The Child With The Star On His Head [Volume 8]
The longest Christmas song from Stevens (15 minutes and 30 seconds) is a slow jam where he relates baby Jesus to technological advances and the trust "we put in things." Which is to say it may be the most Sufjan Stevens-esque song of all.
The chorus has a catchy melody that may cause you to hum repeatedly. But around the five-minute mark is where things get interesting. A drum machine replaces the live drums; there's a guitar solo, possibly two or more that are layered over each other; computer buzzes and wails slowly hit; everything begins to sound sinister and chaotic. Then the instruments disappear and we're left with ambient noises for five minutes, until a high-pitched buzz builds up, nips your eardrums, then cuts out.
What would a top 10 be without a slow, scary space jam about baby Jesus.
6. Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing [Volume 2]
The one word that comes to mind whenever I hear this song is "community." Stevens open with only his voice and trusty banjo. As the song progresses, more instruments and singers join, until it's a chorus of la-la-la's. It feels like he wandered and sang down an empty street, the townsfolk gradually leaving their holiday obligations, succumbing to the spirit of the moment. Then they all went to Olive Garden for soup, salad, and bread sticks.
Even though this is a Christian hymn, Stevens' rendition feels welcoming to everyone.
5. Star of Wonder [Volume 5]
Prior to figuring that "star of wonder" was a reference to the Christmas star that led the Three Wise Men to baby Jesus, I kept envisioning this as a song about two people lost in space and finding each other. The lyrics are still a little too cryptic to unpack. But this song's biggest draw for me is the production. You'd think this track involved about 15 to 20 people, but the credits reveal it was four. Most of the luscious sound came from Stevens playing 11 different instruments himself. Even though it's not that amazing of a feat (everyone does multitrack recording these days), "Star of Wonder's" sound in the last half overwhelms me every time I listen to it.
4. Sister Winter [Volume 5]
Winter can be a crappy season. The days feel shorter, the cold air stings your skin, the snow has dog pee in it, and sometimes it can feel as if there's painful distance between you and the people you care about. Even if that distance is just a few, snow-covered blocks.
This Stevens song captures the winter depression, but also the love between friends old and new.
Christmas song or not, it's gorgeous any time of the year. I get goose bumps from Stevens and Marla Hansen's falsetto chorus, the string section, the horn section, the build-up (it seems like there are many moments like that in Sufjan's Christmas tunes), and the cool down.
3. Barcarola (You Must Be a Christmas Tree) [Volume 6]
Real talk: I get choked up almost every time I listen to this song. It's probably because of "Barcarola's" sad, slow melody (a barcarola is a folk tune sung by gondoliers, distinct for sounding and feeling like you're riding a gondola, and boy, this boat ride sure is slow.)
The lyrics feel like a check list of rich holiday memories: being indecisive while writing a gift wish list, conversation with parents, and falling in love in the soft Christmas glow.
I would probably never want to go back to the days past, but "Barcarola" manages to conjure memories with such ease. It feels good to look back sometimes.
2. That Was The Worst Christmas Ever! [Volume 3]
Christmas doesn't always live up to our expectations. What you thought was going to be exciting turns out to be mundane, the happy time at the dinner table you concocted in your head actually becomes a fight over overcooked turkey.
In the same way the Illinois classic "Casimir Pulaski Day" had a narrative, this one does too, albeit in a subtler way. At first, the kid in the song does the standard things kids do while on winter break: shoveling snow and riding sleds. But when Christmas day comes, his abusive father throws the gifts in a fire, causing his sister to run away, testing the kid's faith.
It is the saddest Christmas song in his catalog (though not the saddest of all Christmas songs – thanks, Tom Waits). It's also one of Stevens' most memorable, thanks to its simple chords, the repeating "Casimir"-like sound, and Shara Worden's vocals that keep going until her voice is all that's left.
1. Christmas In The Room [Volume 8]
When you take away all the superficial qualities of Christmas — the lights, the décor, the presents, the TV specials, the Christmas movies, Black Friday, Boxing Day, and the pageantry — what is there left to care about? (I mean, aside from, you know, the religious aspects at the center of the holiday season, should they carry importance to you.)
After years of recording so many (perhaps too many) Christmas songs, it seems that Sufjan found the answer: each other.
And I mean "each other" in the communal sense. Sure, "Christmas in the Room" is basically a love song about two people who have no desire to do anything special for Christmas, but there's no limit to love for your fellow, multiple neighbors (or strangers.)
"No gifts to give, they're all right here / inside our hearts, the glorious cheer," sings Stevens, verbally (and kindly) smacking us upside the head, reminding us that people — be it the family you haven't seen in a while, the friends who support you, your lover – are the most important part of the Christmas season.
Stevens didn't produce all these songs alone; he had his friends by his side from the first album to the 10th. "Christmas in the Room," his best Christmas song, is a thank you to that community, from family to fellow musicians to fans.
Stevens put this song up on the public domain, so you're welcome to share his song with the people who help you throughout the year. Let's not forget that we're all in this — his yuletide roller-coaster of emotions — together.
Happy holidays, and have a happy new year.