Tuesday, June 10, 2008

2006 Illinoise by Sufjan Stevens

This selection was recommended by a former student Rachael Reavis, who is now a PhD student at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Illinoise, or Come on Feel the Illinoise, which is the full title of the album, has been my most unusual pick to date. Here are some excerpts from my email announcing the 2006 choice:

An amazingly talented young man, playing folksy, lilting compositions that are very difficult to classify. A real original. This is his second album about a state--the first was MICHIGAN, about the place of his birth. For Illinoisans on the list, there are songs about Chicago, Jacksonville, Metropolis, and Decatur.

This year's choice is somewhat unlikely for two reasons. First, I have pushed the limit on Criterion #2. Some of the topics of the songs are clearly unhappy (e.g., the serial killer John Wayne Gacy Jr.), but in many cases the music is cheerier than the subject matter. Banjos are often featured, and it is hard to make a banjo sound sad. One or two cuts are a bit solemn, but the overall tone of the album is quite joyful. You often feel like dancing.

Second, Stevens is a devout Christian, and, as many of you know, I am not. There are many religious references on the album, but to my ear, they blend well with the music and the subject matter. Furthermore, if it is Stevens' religious faith that gives him his thoughtful, philosophical tone, then I am thankful for it.

It is difficult to find good videos of Stevens' songs because his live performances are sometimes a bit ragged and he often presents his music in varying forms. Below is a reasonable live version of the very popular song "Chicago," which he does here in its more energetic big band arrangement. You will notice that Stevens is wearing a large pair of multicolored wings.

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