Cherry-picking the best tracks from records, and jettisoning the filler is practically second-nature to the iPod generation. So when I say (Come On Feel The) Illinoise by Sufjan Stevens is far and away my favorite album released last year, you'll know how good it really is.
Densely-packed with countless melodic ideas and intelligently-written lyrics about weird and surprising themes, it's almost like listening to some sort of musical novel, and one that demands to be enjoyed, as the writer intended, from start to finish. Don't press shuffle. The fact that it's the second effort in Sufjan Stevens' seemingly-impossible (and now doubtful) task to record an album for every state in the union somehow makes Illinoise even more irresistible.
Stevens is releasing 21 outtakes and alternate versions from the Illinoise sessions in The Avalanche. As Illinoise was originally going to be released as a double-album, this acts more like its perfect companion than something just for the fans. It also contains some absolute gems. The opening tune (also called "The Avalanche") sets the scene with its fragile choral vocals, and alluring change of tempo, while "Dear Mr. Supercomputer" opens with a tight, syncopated intro and closes with a coda borrowed from Abbey Road-era Beatles. Aching piano instrumental "The Palm Sunday Tornado Hits Crystal Lake" sounds like a relative of Radiohead's "Pyramid Song." The three different versions of Illinoise-standout "Chicago" are also included, although none is up to the original.
The titles also remain as strange as ever. Try the soporific "Saul Bellow," named after the Nobel Prize-winning heavyweight author, or "For Clyde Tombaugh," a wall of sound dedicated to the astronomer who discovered Pluto. He's clearly walking a fine line between utterly pretentious and totally charming, but this latest release from the obviously talented Mr. Stevens safely keeps him leaning toward the latter.
The Avalanche is released by Amazon.