The definitive ranking of Sufjan Stevens' original Christmas songs

edited 2017-12-07 04:30:48 in General Media
Before the ranking, a few notes. I'm counting two songs that weren't written by Sufjan himself, but were written by his collaborators, specifically for his Songs For Christmas project, because I feel that's close enough. I'm also counting traditional songs that Sufjan rearranged significantly—but rather than make up my own criteria for how much synth noodling makes your arrangement of “Good King Wenceslas” significantly different from the original, I’m just looking at the copyright info and including the songs with “traditional, arranged by Sufjan Stevens” or “music by Sufjan Stevens, based on traditional”, or whatever.


  • For once, or maybe twice, I was in my prime.

    Best of the best

    • “Star of Wonder” — Made me tear up when I first heard it in 2006. Can still move me to this day.
    • “Christmas Unicorn”— A big, dumb song that perfectly encapsulates Christmas in all its contradictions. Stupid and sublime, sacred and profane, despairing and hopeful, and it has the utter audacity to turn into a Joy Division cover for the finale.
    • “Sister Winter”— I don’t care what anyone else says: this is a song about seasonal depression, and about finding a way through it. Starts off melancholy, perhaps comically so, and builds up to a huge, moving climax.
    • “Christmas in the Room”— A lovely song about finding the beauty in simple things. This one really ought to be a new holiday classic. If there were any justice, everyone would be doing cover versions of “Christmas in the Room”, and it would get played on the radio until we all get sick of it… No, wait, that would be the worst. Nevermind.
    • “X-mas Spirit Catcher”— The energy and dynamics of the above post-rock epics, packed into just four minutes. 

  • For once, or maybe twice, I was in my prime.

    Super great

    • “Get Behind Me, Santa!”— A funky romp with jaunty horn riffs and cool organ licks.
    • “Christmas Woman”— A very Stereolab Christmas. Jittery and fun; deserves better than being relegated to the trash fire of I Am Santa’s Helper.
“Jupiter Winter”– Stately and majestic, and easy to overlook because the rest of Peace is so good.
    • “All the King's Horns”— An anxious banjo rhythm and ominous vocal melodies. The lyrics say that Christ came to raise the dead, which is great because the music sounds like we’re all about to die. 
    • “Ding! Dong!”— An off-kilter instrumental with overlapping flute and recorder riffs. Basically an intro for “All the King’s Horns”.
“Come On! Let's Boogey to the Elf Dance!”— Completely manic. Perfectly captures my memories of being eight years old, riding a sugar high from eating too many Christmas cookies, and excited for upcoming present.
    • “Christmas in July”— The ending makes me think of driving on a December night, stop lights and Christmas decorations blurring together as they zoom past your window.
  • edited 2017-12-07 04:30:37
    For once, or maybe twice, I was in my prime.

    Regular-grade great

    • “Lumberjack Christmas / No One Can Save You from Christmases Past”— A jaunty earworm that turns slightly ominous at the end.
“Put the Lights on the Tree” [Official release] — Happiness and melancholy mingle, to odd effect.
    • “Put the Lights on the Tree” [Leaked version] — Lacks the manic flutes from the official release. Perhaps this version is more tonally consistent, but I’m a sucker for manic flutes.
    • “Hey Guys! It's Christmas Time!”— For once, Sufjan rocks out.
“The Winter Solstice”— Uplifting instrumental, and a fine ending track for the Peace EP.
    • “The Child with the Star on His Head” [Leaked version] — Verses are kind of slow. The song only goes anywhere during the chorus and finale. But the extended full-band jam at the end definitely lifts the song up a few notches.

    • “The Child with the Star on His Head” [Official release] — Starts off the same at the leaked version, but the guitar solo after the second chorus is completely different, and instead of the whole band jamming, there’s a much longer synth-drone freakout. It’s very impressive, but I have to dock some points because now the trumpet solo (after the first chorus) gets zero follow-up and sounds really out of place.
  • For once, or maybe twice, I was in my prime.


    • “Only at Christmas Time”— Quiet, simple, and nice.
    • “We're Goin' to the Country!”— Ditto.
    • “Did I Make You Cry on Christmas? (Well, You Deserved It!)”— A very fraught portrait of domestic unhappiness. Scares me with how mundane and plausible it is.
    • “Barcarola (You Must Be a Christmas Tree)”— Another post-rock sing-along. Starts slow but builds to a genuinely grandiose climax.
    • “Angels We Have Heard on High”— Sufjan rearranged it enough to make it something new. Some of the changes make me roll my eyes (“Shepherds why this jubilee? Have you seen a flying saucer?”) but the overall mood is inspiring, and the finale soars appropriately.
    • “Carol of St. Benjamin the Bearded One”— Starts as a flute-heavy cover of “Carol of the Bells”; the part Sufjan wrote is gentle and longing, and ends on a whimper.
“It's Christmas! Let's Be Glad!”— Sounds like it’s trying too hard to be happy, and I can’t tell if that’s intentional or not.
    • “The Incarnation”— An atmospheric electric guitar instrumental.
    • “Up on the Housetop” — A unique rearrangement. Jaunty and mischievous.
    • “The Midnight Clear”— A unique rearrangement of “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear”. Not bad, but not a standout, either.

  • For once, or maybe twice, I was in my prime.

    Just kind of there:

    • “Christmas Face”— Actually written by Sebastian Krueger. This one is just a brief coda to the EP, so the just-there-ness is sort of okay.
    • “That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!”— The just-there-ness is not okay, because this is clearly supposed to be sad.
    • “Happy Karma Christmas”— Slow, quiet synth-pop.
    • “Justice Delivers Its Death”— Slow, quiet folk. A unique rearrangement of “Silver & Gold”.

    • “The Sleigh in the Moon”— Actually written by Cat Martino. An airy song that floats and never goes anywhere.

    • “Mysteries of the Christmas Mist”— Plinky, clinky pianos and harpsichords and zithers(?). 
    • “I Am Santa's Helper”— A goofy sing-along. Not bad per se, but it frustrates me because it feels like it should be the end of the I Am Santa’s Helper EP, but then the EP just keeps going WHAT THE HELL SUFJAN

  • For once, or maybe twice, I was in my prime.


    • “Particle Physics”— A glitchy synth interlude. The rare forgettable track on the otherwise unforgettable Christmas Infinity Voyage.
    • “Eternal Happiness or Woe”— A drone interlude.
    • “Even the Earth Will Perish and the Universe Give Way”— An organ and piano interlude.
    • “Make Haste to See the Baby”— An organ interlude.
    • “Behold! The Birth of Man, the Face of Glory”— A piano interlude. It’s possible I’m being too hard on these interludes from I Am Santa’s Helper. They’re the cement to hold the EP together; it’s not the cement’s fault that half the bricks are made of crap.

    Outright bad:

    • “Happy Family Christmas”— Sufjan tries to be the Danielson Famile, and the results aren’t pretty. A vaguely “off” choir gives way to lo-fi garage rock. The first indication that I Am Santa’s Helper is going to hurt.
    • “Mr. Frosty Man”— More garage rock. More hurting.
    • “Ding-a-ling-a-ring-a-ling”— Dumb.
  • edited 2017-12-07 04:31:33
    For once, or maybe twice, I was in my prime.

    Song that Sufjan gave away the rights to for a contest prize, and which Alec Duffy and Dave Malloy, the right holders and possessors of the only existing recording of the song, will let anyone listen to—but you have to listen to it, in person, with them, which means I’ll probably never get to hear it unless they relent and release it on the internet, because they live in Brooklyn:

    • “The Lonely Man of Winter” — Probably lame.
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