Say Yes To Michigan: A Physical Exploration of Sufjan Stevens' Third Album

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One year ago I published my write-up on Sufjan Steven’s Michigan, and in the three years I’ve spent running this blog it’s still the thing I’m most proud of. It took many hours, revisions, and relistens to hone that post to a point where the words accurately captured my affection for the record, and even then my relationship with the album has evolved in the past 12 months.

This fall I accepted a job in Detroit and moved out to the Great Lake State from my hometown of Portland, Oregon. While there are plenty of reasons why taking that job was an objectively-good career move, I’d be lying if I said my love for this record didn’t influence my decision in some way. 

So back in September I packed my belongings into my car and spent five days driving across the country to a state I’d never been to, where I knew nobody, and knew almost nothing about.

On my way across the state line, I stopped at the welcome center, took photos, and (of course) queued up Sufjan’s Michigan on my phone. I also made sure to keep my physical copy of the record handy for any photo opportunities that may present themselves, and I quickly realized that there would be many. 

Using a state map from the visitor center, I sat down with Genius, Google Maps, and my copy of the record to plot out how many different locations Sufjan names throughout the course of the record’s 66-minute running time. Turns out it’s a lot.

 What the process looked liked.

What the process looked liked.

While it’s far from comprehensive, I’ve gone out of my way to visit the sights, sounds, and feelings captured on Sufjan’s third record. I’m not going to pretend this is anything more than a glorified iPhone-quality photo gallery, but I view it as an amendment to last year’s Michigan write-up. It’s a physical manifestation of my love for the record and how much it has impacted my life both spiritually and literally. 

This post is a documentation of my life and how Michigan continues to intertwine with it every step of the way. 


Flint (For the Unemployed and Underpaid)

 City of Flint Water Plant

City of Flint Water Plant

 City of Flint Water Plant

City of Flint Water Plant

 

For the Widows in Paradise, for the Fatherless in Ypsilanti

 Ypsilanti City Hall

Ypsilanti City Hall

 

Say Yes! to M!ch!gan!

 Bagley Pedestrian Bridge

Bagley Pedestrian Bridge

 

Holland

 Holland

Holland

 Big Red Lighthouse

Big Red Lighthouse

 

Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head! (Rebuild! Restore! Reconsider!)

 The Spirit of Detroit

The Spirit of Detroit

 

Romulus

 Romulus Historical Museum

Romulus Historical Museum

 

Sleeping Bear, Sault Saint Marie

 Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

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They Also Mourn Who Do Not Wear Black (For the Homeless in Muskegon)

 Muskegon State Park

Muskegon State Park

 

Redford (For Yia-Yia & Pappou)

 The Redford Theater

The Redford Theater

 The Marquee of Redford Township

The Marquee of Redford Township

 
 Yours Truly Enjoying Sleeping Bear, running to the top, and only getting a little scared

Yours Truly Enjoying Sleeping Bear, running to the top, and only getting a little scared

A Very Sufjan Christmas

The following is a welcome post from our sister site A Very Sufjan Christmas. Follow us at @SufjanChristmas on Twitter or @SufjanChristmas on Instagram to enjoy daily song write-ups this December!


The holidays are our greatest gift. Regardless of surface-level differences in how we celebrate this time of year, the one thing we all share is tradition. It doesn’t matter if you observe Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or nothing at all, every one of us have rituals we use to get us through the winter. It’s the coldest, darkest, most inhospitable time of the year, and that’s easier to get through when we’re closer to other people, both physically and psychologically. Tradition is survival. Tradition is human.

That is the true meaning of Christmas. 

Not presents.
Or Santa Claus.
Or even Jesus.

Christmas represents universal tradition. A communal coping mechanism evolved on a species-wide level for the purpose of survival on both a physical and spiritual level. Over time, Christmas has been twisted to mean hundreds of different things. The truth is Christmas is what you make of it, and that’s what makes it the greatest holiday in the world. 

While Christmas has endured in the pop-cultural landscape for far less time than the holiday itself, it has still been around long enough for millions of different traditions to develop. From Coca-Cola popularizing Santa Claus to Montgomery Ward’s creation of Rudolph, there are a seemingly infinite number of touchstones that we share as a culture. Movies, TV, music, food, smells, shapes, and symbols all seep into our head from a young age, giving us a complicated, tangled web of connections and bonds to this complicated and tangled time of year. 

Oppositely, there are just as many individual traditions that we carry out on a much smaller scale. Whether it’s watching A Christmas Story with your family or making the same cookies every year with your roommates, there are both universal celebrations and personal ones. Among this delicate balancing act of traditions, vacations, gifts, and rushing around it’s important to slow down and have a personal escape during this hyper-communal time of year. For many people, one of the newest additions to this Personal Christmas Canon is Sufjan Stevens’ holiday music. 

While you may recognize him from his contributions to 2017’s Call Me By Your Name, Sufjan has been creating soul-affirming and critically-acclaimed folk music for nearly two decades. Aside from landmark artistic creations like Illinois, Age of Adz, and Carrie & Lowell, Sufjan has also displayed his personal devotion to the holidays with a catalog of two multi-hour Christmas compilations. 

Religion, Christianity, and family have been a constant throughline of Sufjan’s discography, so the Christmas holiday proved to be both a fascination for Sufjan as well as a synthesis of all these themes. Releasing one EP a year from 2001 to 2011, Sufjan has birthed to exactly 100 Christmas songs over the course of one decade. Some original, some covers, some standards, each entry is lovingly-crafted and amounts to more than 4.5 hours of Christmas spirit. These songs are collected on Songs For Christmas and Silver and Gold, two releases that have warmed the hearts of indie fans and Christmas lovers alike. 


A Very Sufjan Christmas is a blog dedicated to every one of these songs. Much like we all celebrate the holiday season in our special way, every listener has a unique connection with Sufjan’s extensive body of Christmas-based work. As such, each post on this website will tackle one specific Sufjan Christmas song from a different writer’s perspective as we countdown the days till Christmas. Maybe they’ll talk about their experience with Sufjan, or their memories attached to that one song. Maybe they’ll just write about the music itself. 

These songs are a window into the traditions and lives of the writer. There are few albums that have opened this many spiritual doors for this many people, and that’s why these songs must be celebrated. These are the soundtracks to Christmases past and the inner lives of music fans the world over.

You’ll quickly find that each song is a beautiful work worthy of its own celebration. Whether this is your first experience with Sufjan, or you are a long-time fan, we hope you find as much connection, warmth, and joy in these songs as we did when we first heard them. We hope you connect with these stories and that they allow you to reflect on your own traditions and those of your family. Most of all, we hope you enjoy the music and we wish you a very Sufjan Christmas this year. 

Welcome to our Winter Wonderland. 

Love, Kyle, Taylor, and the rest of the A Very Sufjan Christmas Staff.

The Elephant Visual Album

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When I trace my musical history back to its origins, there are four or five key discoveries from my childhood that have gone on to become foundational cornerstones of my taste. I’ve written about many of them here from my first iPod and 2006 pop music to entire genres that I stumbled into by accident all thanks to people with better taste than me. I measure my life with music, and these events have all become part of my personal mythology; milestones that have gone on to inform not only my taste, but who I am as a person.

I was fortunate enough to grow up with a dad who cared about music. While that mostly relegated itself to me raiding his CD collection to rip classic rock albums onto my iPod, there were also a small handful of (then) modern bands that we bonded over as I began to show an interest in music. The shared section of our musical Venn Diagram has expanded over the years as my taste has continued to mature, grow, and spiral in unexpected ways, but the first “new” band my Dad and I found common ground with was none other than The White Stripes. 

Luckily, because my dad loved The White Stripes, this meant I had the band’s entire discography at my fingertips. He owned their studio albums, B-sides, singles, live albums, demos, side projects, you name it. As a result, I have a worryingly-deep connection to (and knowledge of) Jack White’s musical catalog.

Around this same time, I was also taking guitar lessons. Aside from the standard “starter” songs like “Smoke On The Water” and “Pipeline,” The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” proved to be low-hanging, easy-playing fruit for a 10-year-old Taylor. Between borrowing the CDs and playing the songs, I showed enough of an interest that my dad decided to take me to see the group on tour in 2003 for my second concert ever. 

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While I’ll admit that the 1.5-decade marination time of nostalgia plays a huge part in it, Elephant remains one of my favorite albums of that genre, this era, and my entire life. Hits and overplayed singles aside, there’s a lot to love about Elephant, and there’s a reason it remains the band’s most enduring release this many years later. 

Literally every track on Elephant hits. “Seven Nation Army” is an unparalleled anthem of the early-2000’s. “Hardest Button to Button” bears one of the best drumlines of the decade. “Ball and Biscuit” is one of my favorite songs of all time with its lumbering blues riff that slowly erupts into blistering guitar solos. There isn’t a wasted moment or an unpolished idea. Elephant is rock in its purest form. A feeling that can’t quite be put into words made by two people with two instruments. Perfect.

As eye-opening as Elephant was, sometimes your favorite albums can slide into the background of your life without you ever noticing. New music, other mediums, or life events can keep you from venturing back, and as embarrassing as it is to admit, this had absolutely happened to me with The White Stripes. It’s almost like taking art for granted. I’d listened to Elephant so many times, heard “Seven Nation Army” in so many different movies and TV shows and commercials that at a certain point it just kind of feels like “well, yeah, everyone knows this album is great, so what’s the point?” 

While my relationship with Elephant is ongoing, a chance encounter with a designer completely renewed my love for the record with a project that was crafted as lovingly as the album itself. Sometimes the classics are not only worth revisiting, but worth diving into on a microscopic level, and that’s exactly what Chandler Cort did with this beloved album. 

Creating what he calls a “visual album” Chandler transposed Elephant onto a 9-foot scroll that tracks the entire record second-by-second. Interpreting each instrument’s volume and the exact starting point for every word sung, Chandler’s creation is one-of-a-kind and unlike anything I’ve ever seen before in my life. There’s something to be said for standing face-to-face with one of your favorite records and taking in the entire thing as it towers above you.

While it’s impossible to translate the feeling of interacting with the scroll itself, I wanted to share this beautiful and original piece of art with as many people as possible. Not only was Chandler kind enough to let me share his incredible work on Swim Into The Sound, but he also sat down with me to talk about the process that went into making it as well as his personal background with the band. So without further adieu, I’m excited to present The Elephant Visual Album. 

Full-resolution PDF version of the Elephant Visual Album at the end of the article.
 

The Visual Album and Its Creator: An Interview With Chandler Cort

Much like Taylor, I have a very distinct memory of my introduction to the White Stripes. I came to the party very late, as my parents found it borderline impossible to break away from anything outside of the typical 60’s - 80’s hits they grew up with.

There aren’t many specific events in my life that I would refer to as “life-changing,” but hearing “Rag and Bone” for the first time in my high school art class was absolutely one of them. My obsession with the White Stripes began with Icky Thump and worked its way back to the very beginning of the group’s discography until I had completely immersed myself in everything they had ever produced. The White Stripes were something I listened to exclusively for months. When I wasn’t listening to them, I found myself watching interviews with the members, reading about their history, and completely immersing myself in the group’s mythology. I had never quite felt myself become so taken by a band before.

Six years later, the White Stripes are still one of my favorite bands, if not my all-time favorite. Jack and Meg White have taken hold of a very big piece of my heart, and I don’t know if that will ever be able to be eclipsed.

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The way the project really came about was kind of funny. I was in my first infographics class at Portland State University, and we were told to make a timeline for our first project. The professor made sure he kept things very open-ended, so we had the choice to do an incredibly accurate historical timeline, or we could do something more whimsical like a timeline of the Harry Potter Universe.

I remember going on break one day listening to Elephant, and thinking “it would be funny to do an infographic on the number of times Jack White goes, ‘WOO!’ in one album.” So that’s where it really kinda started. I refined my guidelines a little bit further and decided that I would track the main instruments: guitar, drums, and piano, as well as the vocals. 

The process for this piece is something I feel just as proud of as the actual work itself. All of my research for this project was done entirely audibly. I printed all of the lyrics to every song, and I would sit down at my desk every day, listen to the song, and get the second-by-second timestamps for every lyric, and then go back through, and repeat the same process for the guitar, drums, and piano. This means I listened to every song at least three or four times in full, not counting pausing, rewinding, and playing again to make sure the time signatures were as accurate as possible.

In addition to the individual instrument timelines, each song also got a “genre gauge” that I had designed too. Because Elephant is such a diverse album, I feel like it was very important to describe how each song was different in comparison to the others. Every song was ranked on a scale of punk, blues, folk, and pop, with the end result being a circular graph that represented the track’s sonic texture. 

This was then translated into a second graph that I constructed to help best visualize the album in its entirety. I’d guess this project took somewhere between 40-45 hours total. It was truly a monster, which can be seen in the final 9-inch by 9-foot print. I remember people telling me in class that I was doing was ridiculous, and that I was crazy for even attempting something like this, which honestly just kind of pushed me to do it even more.

A lot of my design work has been very music-focused, and I have done very intense pieces about other albums I love, but I feel like this one is probably the most accessible, and the most interesting. I describe this piece as a visual album because I feel like it is the most literal visual translation of an auditory piece. I’m so happy that this piece has received the reaction it has, and I’m incredibly thankful that Taylor was moved enough to offer me this opportunity, and I hope to be here again someday. 

Until then everyone, be good, and love what you listen to.

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TalkRadar or: That Time A Podcast Changed My Life

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On May 19th of 2008 a file was uploaded to the internet that changed my life forever.

The decade-old file in question was a 49-minute MP3 that belonged to a video game podcast called TalkRadar. To describe something as innocuous as a video game podcast as “life-changing” probably reads worryingly-melodramatic, yet, as overwrought as it sounds, that’s what this site was built upon.

Despite the semi-recent addition of monthly new music roundups, Swim Into The Sound has always been, and will always be a nostalgia-based music blog. The mission statement for this site is to share the things that I love with other people, and that can take many different forms.  

While this blog was a little listless for a while there for a while there at the beginning, I’ve come to view Swim Into The Sound as a way to crystalize my own experiences into something that I can share. Truth be told, it’s as much for me to revisit and remember as it is for other people to read and understand. So it’s not like this is some selfless act, rather it’s me bottling up these experiences of enjoyment into something that’s (hopefully) palatable to a total stranger. 

Given this focus on nostalgia, I tend to write about things that have impacted me profoundly. Most of the time it’s easier to focus on smaller bite-sized pieces of content like reviews, but when I have the time, focus, and energy, I really do prefer to go deep and expel every thought in my head surrounding a formative experience. 

Sometimes in the past I’ve even used the phrase “life-changing,” but this write-up is different. I don’t want to lessen the impact of those other posts, because I stand by every word of them, but they’re life-changing in a way that provided me solace or comfort. The phrase “life-changing” isn’t a stretch, but it’s more that those albums helped me through tough times. They’re pieces of art that mean something to me on a personal level and have lingered with me for years. They’re life-changing in a less-drastic, more-reserved way. However, when I use the phrase life-changing in this post, I truly mean being-shifting

This podcast changed practically everything about me. It changed the way I write and the way I talk. It changed what I wanted to do with my life, and who I wanted to be. It changed the music I listened to, and what I found funny. It changed the way I held myself and behaved. It changed my philosophy and approach to the self. It has gone on to inform nearly every facet of my being down to the way that my brain is wired. There is no me without it. It’s absolutely embarrassing to admit, but this silly, stupid, vulgar video game podcast is foundational to my existence.

This write-up is Swim Into The Sound’s endgame. The thing I’ve wanted to write about since day one. The thing that I’ve been inspired by. The thing I’m still worried I don’t have the language to articulate properly. The thing that’s most important to me in the world. 

This is TalkRadar. 

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I’m sure you’re reading this and thinking that this all sounds like hyperbole, but I can assure you it’s not. I’m choosing my words very carefully, and I want this to come across as calm, collected, measured, and thoughtful. My ideal outcome would be for the podcast’s creators to read this and have some idea of the impact they’ve had on just one of their listeners, but at the very least, this is something that I feel must come out of me for the sake of my own mind… but before we get to that, I suppose I should start at the beginning.

Back in the 90’s and early-2000’s I had scant access to video games. My family owned an NES and (eventually) a Nintendo 64, but the consoles themselves were never in the house. Video games were practically a foreign concept to me, a delicacy. Something sacred that I enjoyed on the weekends, or in very concentrated doses. 

Whenever I got the chance to go over to a friend's house, I’d relish the opportunity to try out their newer, fancier games on consoles I’d never even heard of. Sony? How exotic. Dreamcast? What does that even mean? Super NES? My NES lacks descriptors all-together. 

New games and shiny consoles aside, when one of my childhood friends first introduced me to the concept of “cheats” it blew my mind. Not only do these “next-gen” games exist, but the idea that you can break them and turn the characters into bobble-headed freaks? That was quite the realization for an adolescent Taylor. My friend showed me a website called cheatplanet.com, a haven for game breakers that collected the cheat codes of (seemingly) every game in existence, and that’s where it all began. 

 A bastion of early-2000's web design.

A bastion of early-2000's web design.

Eventually, my siblings and I wore down our parents and games became more of a regular thing in our house. Even with this newfound access, there were still limits on how much we could play, and as a result, Cheat Planet became a loophole that I exploited on a regular basis. I’d print out the codes I wanted to try, memorize paths to hidden collectibles, and study screenshots from games that I didn’t even own. It was digital window shopping and the only way for a video game-starved kid to scratch that itch in a time before smartphones, Let’s Plays, and decent internet. 

One day a few years later I pulled up my browser, typed in cheatplanet.com, loaded up the site and everything changed… literally. Cheat Planet was gone, and something called “GamesRadar” was in its place. The cheats were still there, just pushed off to the side, so I didn’t care much at the time. In fact, GamesRadar grew on me and eventually became a destination all its own; a website with funny writing, wacky images, and topics that I found compelling as a young internet surfer. The website became my first bookmark and quickly grew to be even more of a destination than some rinky-dink cheat site. 

When I visited GamesRadar on May 19th, 2008 the most recent post at the top of the website was a small rectangle bearing a crudely-photoshopped image announcing the website’s inaugural podcast. Interested to hear the voices of the people I’d been reading for so long, I downloaded the episode and synched it onto my click wheel iPod. I didn’t know it then, but that one decision would go on to impact every day of my life from that point on.

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TalkRadar was life-changing in the (very literal) sense that my life would not be the same without it. There's a clear point demarcating my life before it and my life after it. I would not recognize myself if it weren’t for this podcast. Lots of those albums I’ve described as life-changing helped me through tough times, but TalkRadar helped me through life

It was the first podcast I’d ever heard; a low-quality, crass, and juvenile 49-minutes that left me wanting more. It was the most candid I’d ever heard anyone. It was the funniest I’d ever heard anyone. They were discussing things that I cared about, and joking around with each other in a way that I’d never heard before in my life. I suppose I don’t have to explain the appeal of a podcast in 2018, but a decade ago, this felt like a revelation.

As the weeks ticked by, the episode count grew and grew. I was a high schooler who didn’t drink, smoke, or do drugs, so I had nothing but time on my hands. I listened to each podcast attentively, and then relistened to them because I truly had nothing better to do. Plus by 2008, not only did we finally have video games in my house, I had a console in my room. I was living out my own childhood dream, and with a little bit of experimentation, I quickly discovered there’s no pairing more intoxicating than sitting down with a good video game and a long podcast. 

After listening to the first 20-some episodes dozens of times, the content began to seep into my brain and embed itself. I had stolen phrases that the hosts used, adopted their mannerisms, even memorized long stretches of episodes. If you’re thinking this all sounds borderline-obsessive, you’re probably right, but this was a level of time, dedication, and interest that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to attain again.

The music exposed me to more bands than I can count. 
The crass sense of humor single-handedly formed what I find funny.
The verbose speaking patterns of the hosts gave me a voice to write in.
The (often drunk) banter replayed in my head so much that I began to think in their voices. 

It’s impossible to quantify the impact that TalkRadar had on me because I’m still coming to terms with it myself, but hopefully it’s starting to become clear how much this means to me. Perhaps most importantly, TalkRadar presented itself at the perfect time in my life. I was an impressionable fourteen-year-old kid, this was the first podcast I’d ever heard, and my first interaction with this type of format on a weekly basis. This came before the great “Serialization” of podcasts in 2014, and it was new enough that it felt exciting. Up until 2008 I’d only ever listened to music, and the idea that I could sit in on a multi-hour conversation about video games once a week was a godsend. It was solace. It was comfort. It was a warm blanket that I could descend into and find reliable serenity in.

They are the ones that made me want to be a writer. They are the ones who gave me, an aimless high school student, something to give a shit about. They are the ones who gave me the voice that you’re reading right now. They gave me myself. 

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Years later I went to college for journalism (because that’s what they did) and the podcast moved on. Hosts came and went, but the podcast remained. Eventually rebranded as its own self-contained entity called Laser Time, the show that began a decade ago as a drunken post-work chat has now ballooned into a fully-fledged podcast network with over a half-dozen shows to its name. 

In 2015 the hosts joined Patreon, a subscription-based crowdfunding service, and I was first in line. Happily supporting them at anywhere from $5 to $15 a month (depending on my economic situation), I’ve been a devout supporter of theirs from the instant that they allowed it. I was happy to repay the hosts for the invaluable gift that they had given me. A true sense of self. A true source of joy. Something to aspire to, and something that will forever motivate me. It’s the closest to a “Thank you” I was able to get. I would have been lost without TalkRadar, and I would be lost without Laser Time.

Now a near-daily tradition, I find myself happily listening to the 6+ hours of content that the network produces each week and wondering where I would be without it. What kind of person I would have turned out to be, or what I would have been doing for all those long podcast-less nights back in high school. Maybe I would have turned out better, but who’s to say?

Unlike most posts here, this write-up doesn’t have a point. If I could get a reader to check out one of their many shows, that would be great, but I’m willing to admit that this post is mostly for me. I started writing this so many times that I finally just gave up and let it all come out, and that’s what you’re reading now. This feels like the most accurate way for me to explain the impact this group has had on me, and I still feel like it’s not enough.

Whether I like it or not, TalkRadar, it’s hosts, and the decade of material that’s come after, have all gone on to become the single most important, formative, and being-affirming thing that’s ever happened in my life. 

As I look back now, I can’t believe how lucky I am to have stumbled upon that first episode ten years ago. I’ve improved as a writer, grown as a pop-culture nerd, and changed as a person. There’s really nothing else left for me to do but say thanks. So to Chris, Brett, Mikel, Shane, Charlie, Tyler, Henry, Lizzie, and every guest, host, collaborator, and community member, I would like to say from the bottom of my heart:

Thank You.

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A Grand Celebration: Musical Serendipity, Distant Memories, and the Preciousness of Tradition. Words on Sufjan Stevens’ Michigan

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There are 48,193 songs in my iTunes library right now. That’s 5,139 albums, 336 gigabytes, and a little over 160 days worth of music. Amongst this staggering (and seemingly-unwieldy) amount of audio lies my most cherished playlist: a 20-hour-long mix creatively titled “December.”

“December” stands alone as a personal treasure, my crown jewel, and the flame that single-handedly ignites my holiday cheer. Grown and cultivated over the course of multiple years, the playlist is a wide-ranging mishmash of various Christmas albums, years-old podcasts, and even some “normal” music that I’ve simply come to associate with the holiday season after multiple years of repeated seasonal listening. My “December” playlist is a testament to curated obsession, self-enforced tradition, and the beauty of the Holiday season. It’s my Christmas spirit encased in a cold, unfeeling .xml file.

The cosmic joke is that, as much as I care for this playlist and the songs contained within it, it’s just that: a collection of random songs. Nobody aside from me would ascribe any particular value to the ordering of these tracks, but I guess that sense of uniqueness is what makes playlists such a sacred musical concept. The other thing that makes playlists so wonderful is their inherent sense of surprise and randomness: the feeling of discovery that comes with stumbling upon a great mix, or the inspiration a single song can carry that inspires you to create one of your own.

Listening to “December” has become a holiday tradition of my own, and as special as the playlist is to me, the entire thing was started by accident. Inspired by a single group of songs and a random iTunes shuffle, this seasonal institution has now ballooned beyond my control and only gotten bigger each year. This is the story of the inception of this playlist, spurred by an album that has severely impacted me and whose sentimentality has become a foundation of my personality.

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Discovery

Back in high school music was my escape… not that I had anything to escape from, but music was (and still is) my reality. My one truth. Every morning as I prepared for the day I would let iTunes run through a never-ending shuffle playlist of my music library. They were my last minutes of absorption. My final escape into the realm of sound before venturing out into the world. It was a ceremony that I relished and grew to hold dear over the years.

One cold November morning six years ago, The Shuffle Gods placed a Sufjan Stevens song at the top of the queue. Back then Sufjan was a curiosity; an artist that I’d heard about and always meant to get into, but perpetually found himself on my musical “to-do” list. Thanks to an overly-eager friend, his discography had been sitting on my hard drive, in full, for around a year at that point. In a way, I suppose seeing the full breadth of his work only made diving into his music that much more daunting.

On this fateful day, iTunes DJ (rest in peace) decided that it was finally time for me to hear a Sufjan track and “Oh God, Where Are You Now? (In Pickeral Lake? Pigeon? Marquette? Mackinaw?)” began playing. It was divine intervention. It was exactly what I needed to hear at the moment, and I became transfixed. “Oh God, Where Are You Now” immediately drew me in and hung in my chest like the first deep inhale of a cold winter morning. I was so floored by the song that I needed to hear what came next. I paused the shuffle playlist and embarked upon a search to find the record that this track called home.

This excavation led me to Sufjan’s 2003 album Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lake State which I promptly queued up and let play out. Turns out “Oh God, Where Are You Now?” was track 13 of 15, so while there were only two other songs that followed, I felt compelled to see this record out to its conclusion.

The two songs that came after (“Redford (For Yia-Yia & Pappou)” and “Vito’s Ordination Song”) ended up forming a trio of incredibly potent and deeply-impactful wintery songs that told one coherent and eerie tale.

If the album and songs titles didn’t give it away, Sufjan is not a man who’s concerned with punctuality. While three songs may not seem like much, this final stretch of tracks that close out Michigan ends up coming out to 19 minutes of music. Back in high school, that gave me just enough time to complete my morning routine and get out the door on time.

I became fixated on these three songs, and for the remainder of that year, they became my morning ritual. The soundtrack for two months of sleepy-eyed morning preparation. A sacred custom that I ended up recreating the next year. And the year after that. And the one after that. In fact, for years these three songs were all that I ever listened to from Sufjan’s wide-ranging discography. This 19-minutes of music came to represent the beginning of the holiday season, a near-daily habit of lovingly embracing three folk tracks from an album I hadn’t even listened to all the way through yet.

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Obsession

Several years back I realized how silly it was that these three songs were the only ones I’d listened to from Sufjan in earnest. I repeatedly tried to dip my toes into the rest of his discography, and soon “trying Sufjan” became a yearly tradition as well. Year after year I attempted various entry points: whole albums, popular singles, even the rest of Michigan, but nothing ever grabbed me in the same way that those three tracks did.

Then in 2016, it happened: I became obsessed with Sufjan.

I don’t know how it happened or when it did, but it was as if a switch had been flipped in my head. Suddenly everything clicked all at once, and I found myself devouring his discography whole. I had his 5-hour Christmas catalog on repeat. I read every article with his name in the headline. I purchased enough vinyl to create a makeshift shelter. I couldn’t escape from Sufjan Stevens.

By the end of the year, I had racked up nearly 1,000 Sufjan plays, 82% of which occurred between November and December. Every listen up until that year had been relegated almost entirely to the final three songs off Michigan, but suddenly his entire discography had launched itself into the upper stratosphere of my musical consciousness.

In diving through the rest of his albums last winter I now have a firm understanding of who Sufjan Stevens is as an artist and where he sits on the musical spectrum. It turns out that he’s far from the sad, plucky folk singer that I had initially pegged him as. This year I’ve already exceeded last year’s numbers, and #SufjanSeason has become an official holidayin my house. So not only did 2016 signify a tipping point, it represented the beginning of a beautiful, rabid fandom that has opened the door to a new seasonal tradition and hundreds of hours of beautiful music. At the same time, I feel like I’ve only begun to scratch the surface.

Trinity

Sufjan Stevens has arguably made two near-perfect albums: both 2005’s Illinois and 2015’s Carrie & Lowell are widely considered masterpieces of the indie folk singer-songwriter genre. The former is a multi-instrumental masterpiece that showcases an astonishing array of sounds, topics, and textures. The latter is an instrumentally-bare folk album that finds Stevens meditating on life in the wake of his mother’s death. They’re both impeccable records that are worth diving into and worthy of their status as indie essentials, but neither are what this post is for.

Despite recognizing both Illinois and Carrie as “better albums,” I enjoy Michigan more, and I’m still grappling with what that means. While these later albums either swirl and flutter to life with a flurry of baroque instrumentation, or reserve all musicality behind a single veneer of raw guitar and vocals, Michigan lies somewhere in the middle. Packed with frost-covered horns, intimate acoustic guitars, and tenderly-delivered lyrics, Michigan is a chilly, introverted, and thought-provoking record that gently congeals into a cozy wintery panorama.

Like untamed cresting hills covered by a blanket of snow, the surface of Michigan is calm and uniform; a stark, raw, and silent beauty. However, much like that bed of new-fallen snow, once you begin to dig all sorts of unknowable intricacies begin to reveal themselves. It’s a winter wonderland of crisp sounds, all delivered in a singularly-grand package. It’s an album that’s whimsical and but also grounded in dissolution and the pain of existence. Michigan is what it would sound like if the Charlie Brown Christmas special took place in the 2000’s and the characters were all listless 20-somethings without jobs.

If I were to get someone into Sufjan Stevens, I’d still probably point them to either Illinois or Carrie & Lowell (depending on their taste), yet Michigan stands alone as an understated personal favorite of mine for many reasons. Perhaps it’s just thanks to my personal relationship with the album, but accidentally falling into Michigan’s embrace over the course of multiple years has allowed it to embody every warm holiday memory that I’ve ever experienced. It’s my favorite Sufjan record, a wonderful holiday offering, and one of the best in the entire genre.

The remainder of this post is a profile of Michigan and a (near-track-by-track) breakdown of what makes the album worthy of worship. I also adore this record so much that I took it upon myself to create a bunch of mobile wallpapers, so have at them.

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Wonderland

Cartoonishly pitched as the first album in a 50-part project covering every state, Michigan is Sufjan Stevens’ third official LP. Preceded by A Sun Came and the electronic Enjoy Your Rabbit, Michigan was far from Sufjan’s first rodeo, but it marked the first time that he seemed to land on a complete and definitive sound. Especially when compared to later albums, Sufjan’s first two outings are great, but end up coming off like a “first attempt” and a left-field electronic diversion that were merely used as stepping stones to later greatness. The entrees meant to hold us over until this: the main course.

Technically a concept album, Michigan is a love letter from Stevens addressed to the state in which he was born and spent a majority of his childhood. The album is a comprehensive look at The Wolverine State, addressing everything from the common points of reference (The Great Lakes, popular sports teams, and overwhelming poverty) to intimate portrayals of what it’s like to live there. All of these tales are sung from the perspective of someone who has a deep, personal, and profound understanding of the area which makes them feel supremely genuine and heartfelt.

Michigan’s first track “Flint (For the Unemployed & Underpaid)” kicks the album off by tackling the exact issue that the state conjures for most people: joblessness. Beginning with a series of arid, ruminating piano chords, Sufjan soon enters singing from a whispered first-person perspective that depicts a dreary future of sadness and uncertainty. Jobless and homeless, the narrator finds himself “pretending to try” but secretly resigned to dying alone. Halfway through the track, a singular trumpet pairs with the established piano melody as Sufjan repeats his death-defying mantra over and over again until the final line is cut off mid-sentence. Shortly after this abrupt end, a hum of ambient noise consumes the song, and the next track begins.

It’s a haunting piece and a stark way to open a record. Most people don’t want to think about losing their job and dying sad, homeless, and alone on the street, yet on Michigan, these ideas are not only commonplace, they’re scene setting. An introduction. The first taste that transports the listener, giving them a sense of place and, hopefully, a similar sense of hopelessness that allows them to empathize with the remainder of the album. This dark opening salvo is contrasted even further by it’s following track “All Good Naysayers, Speak Up! Or Forever Hold Your Peace!” which is a jubilant and bouncy stream-of-consciousness song that explodes with a brassy baroque chamber arrangement.

Here we’re introduced to the “concept” of the album as we realize that every song is sung about the state from different perspectives. This framework allows Stevens to show both the good and bad of Michigan, rapidly shifting from broad sociopolitical issues, then zooming all the way down to hyper-detailed illustrations of interpersonal drama.

Mid-album cuts like “The Upper Peninsula” are down-to-earth groove-centered depictions of rural lower class America. Sufjan finds himself tackling divorce, detachment, and the mundanity of day-to-day life in between Payless Shoes and K-Mart name-drops. Similar sounds are later revisited on songs like “Jacksonville” and “Neighbors” off Illinois but end up focusing on much different song topics.

Even a cursory glance at the album’s credits reveal the shocking amount of instrumentation at play on each of these tracks. Sollum banjo plucks serve as the background on “For the Widows in Paradise, for the Fatherless in Ypsilanti.” Horns and trumpets emerge at unexpected times but are used so precisely that you probably won’t even notice them upon first listen. Instrumental tracks like “Tahquamenon Falls” are jaw-dropping scenic soundscapes that brim with cascading xylophone notes that dance around your head like snowflakes.

Even “traditional” folk arrangements and piano ballads have never been as poignant, soft-spoken, or heartfelt as “Holland” where single isolated piano notes poke up from a whirling frozen mass of sound. Eventually, a backtracked pair of falsetto vocals emerge to echo the song’s chorus, and it paints a vague picture of a couple singing alone in a house with nothing but a guitar, a piano, and each other nearby.

Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head! (Rebuild! Restore! Reconsider!)” is the album’s sprawling ornamental 8-minute centerpiece that begins with a single, rapidly-rung bell. Soon a piano enters the mix, then a guitar, then Sufjan himself. The entire track builds around the beat of that bell until dozens of individual instruments all combine into this massive, extravagant, and decadent force of nature.

Things get personal on the banjo-plucked “Romulus” as Sufjan recounts several strained interactions with his mother even though he recognizes that he would do no better in her position. This dynamic would later be revisited and fully-addressed on Carrie & Lowell, but, “Romulus” is still a striking portrayal of a frayed relationship as well as the joys and frustrations that come along with family.

Finally, “Sleeping Bear, Sault Saint Marie” is an epic, swelling biblical track that escalates in delicate crescendos that all climax into one massive, breathtaking wall of sound. Accompanied by Megan Slaboda and Elin Smith, this late-album cut features an awe-inspiring instrumental mixture of organs, cymbals, and warm brass instruments. A careful and measured track that slows down to nothing then explodes to life.

The entire album sounds like a snow-covered log cabin. It feels like a warm cup of hot chocolate on a cold, grey, rainy day. It smells like a freshly-cut noble fir. It tastes like a home-cooked bowl of soup. It’s the warm wool blanket enveloping your body. The cinnamon-sprinkled cookies that just came out of the oven. The glowing lights that dance and twinkle above your head. It’s musical soul food. It’s wholesome and full-bodied music that makes me want to be a better person. It’s absolutely flawless.

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Despair and Grace

Circling back to the jumping off point of this post: I still remember hearing “Oh God, Where Are You Now?” for the first time and being struck with a strange sense of deja-vu. The track instantly evoked something deep inside of me. It made me feel everything that I’ve described up until this point and also came with a strange sense of familiarity. It felt like a piece of a past life that I’d lost and now recovered. I carefully studied the album artwork, and it looked like a long-lost Christmas album. The majestic snow-covered pine tree, the elegant deer, the warm red lettering, all captured in Laura Normandin’s beautiful brush strokes over a rich parchment. Everything about Michigan felt picture-perfect.

After 47 minutes of splendor, the most brilliant moment of Michigan comes with its final three-song stretch that winds from “Oh God, Where Are You Now? (In Pickerel Lake? Pigeon? Marquette? Mackinaw?)“ to “Redford (For Yia-Yia & Pappou)” and “Vito’s Ordination Song.” These three songs stand on their own as a singularly-impactful and world-shaping experience that are intertwined with some of the fondest, warmest, and most intimate memories of my entire life.

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Oh God, Where Are You Now?” begins with Stevens addressing God directly. Paired with a barely-distorted guitar line and a gently-played piano, our narrator finds himself questioning his faith as he whispers the title of the track and begs for God to touch him. Sufjan’s voice intertwines with a hushed group of backup singers comprised of Megan Slaboda, John Ringhofer, and Elin Smith as they collectively ask “Would the righteous still remain? / Would my body stay the same?”

Soon all four vocalists combine into one extraordinary force, all singing over a sparse, mounting piano melody and finger-plucked guitar. Midway through the song, after repeating the same set of heaven-bound lines, all of the vocalists break into a makeshift wordless chorus as they sing along to the now-established tune set by the piano.

All of the instruments all flicker and shimmer as if being played from a distant memory. The piano is patient and carefully tapped. The guitar gleams and quivers, faint and serene. You can hear ambient noise trickling in between the quiet pauses as if the entire of the studio was breathing and coming to life at that moment.

Near the end of the track, Sufjan’s vocals become more prominent and press up against the backup singers as they all revisit the chorus for a third time. Soon a mighty brush of cymbals erupt. Horns emerge from the corners of the mix and play along with the group’s established melody. The piano picks back up, newly energized and boisterous. Soon another pair of horns emerge and add splashes of light to the song’s bigger picture. Every element is working in tandem, taking turns, all adding on to the song’s resounding and soul-affirming chant of “La da da, da da da.”

Then everything quiets to a hum. The horns and cymbals carry the song out with long, colorful streaks. It’s both somber and gorgeous. It’s warm and cozy, a melody that you can slip away into and tuck under yourself like a blanket. A massive tide consuming your soul at a glacial pace. Then, after nine minutes and 24 seconds, it’s gone. Silence.

Picking up exactly where “Oh God” left off, the very next thing the listeners hears are the timbred piano strikes of “Redford (For Yia-Yia & Pappou).” You can make out the distant wooden creak of a chair or a floorboard, and again, your mind is transported back to a remote snow-covered cabin in the middle of the woods. Far-off vocals echo through the top of the mix like specters haunting the lone pianist. Still, the melody continues, the reflective musician is barreling towards his destination with more confidence and determination than ever before.

In the final seconds, Redford’s piano ceases and the ethereal vocals make their last wail before being claimed by static silence, and then the song ends. “Redford” is a momentary meditation before the album’s final impact. The first part of a one-two punch. A connecting piece that serves as the bridge between the album’s two defining works.

Next, the final track unveils itself. “Vito’s Ordination Song” begins with an elongated and heavy organ chord, as if the pianist from the last song had suddenly been brought back to life. It sounds wholesome and church-like, evoking the feeling of both a funeral and a sermon.

Sufjan returns from the instrumental abyss and quietly recalls “I always knew you / In your mother’s arms.” Swiftly navigating toward noisy imagery of marriage, happiness, and warmth as the organ continues beneath his deliberate vocals. Then after a three-song absence, a set of drums enter the fray. Booming in comparison to the sense of quiet softness we’ve been basking in over the past 15 minutes, the drum keeps time while making way for a subtle horn arrangement and heart-beat-like organ passage.

The album’s cast of backup vocalists rejoin Sufjan for one final time, duetting and echoing the same sentiments as the song’s first verse but now full and exploding with liveliness. The group of singers land gracefully upon a final chorus that ferries us along for the remaining four minutes of the album: “Rest in my arms / Sleep in my bed / There’s a design / To what I did and said.”

It’s soul-crushing, heartbreaking, and beautiful. It evokes such a varied range of emotions in me that it feels truly herculean to into words. It is winter. It is Christmas. It is heavenly. It is transcendental. It is every happy moment that I’ve ever experienced over the past decade. The soundtrack to the warm memories that exist only in my head. It’s the reflection of my entire life.

The same way that you feel when you gather with your family to watch that beloved Christmas movie. The way that you feel in the embrace of a loved one. The feeling you get when leafing through an old photo album of memories now long-past. The people you spent your life with. The recipes you made together. The ones that never got to share them. It is love. It is life. It is loss. It is everything and nothing more.

These songs make me unspeakably thankful for the life that I’ve lived, and the life I’m going to lead. They are truly perfect pieces of art. To completely break the flow, I initially wrote this while listening to Michigan for the first time this year, and teared up as I wrote this… Definitely a first for this blog.

In many ways, this three-song stretch is the reason that I created this website. A location for me to document, wholly and lovingly the things that bring me unimaginable joy. The beautiful thing is, everyone has their own three-song stretch. Some little thing that makes you happy. Maybe it’s something that nobody else knows about. Perhaps it’s so esoteric that it feels silly to share with anyone, even those closest to you. But I encourage you to share it. It’s something that you hold dearer than anything else in life. A genuine treasure. A piece of your soul crystallized externally. For me, that’s Michigan. It’s a work of art, a masterpiece, and my life.

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