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U92 Year-End Review: The Best Albums of 2020 (20-16)

20. Sufjan Stevens - The Ascension (Asthmatic Kitty)

On this highly anticipated release from one of the most celebrated songwriters of his generation, Sufjan Stevens comes back after a five year gap (not including collaborative projects like “Aporia” and “The Decalogue”) to deliver one of the most immensely cathartic and gargantuan musical experiences this year has had to offer. Acting somewhat as a spiritual successor to his fan favorite record “The Age of Adz," this record is a deeply introspective album that sees Stevens tackle faith, career, love, idolization, and a myriad of other topics. These themes are brought to the forefront with some career-highlight writing from Stevens. Meanwhile, his return to electronic and synthetic composition provides an ethereal canvas to each and every track. While sharing fundamental similarities to the formerly mentioned “Age of Adz," the synthetic makeup here is approached with a cynical and pessimistic edge that bolsters Stevens’ performances. Yet again Sufjan Stevens delivers an emotionally cathartic (dare I say cinematic?) experience that proves to be one of the best comebacks of 2020. - Tristen Rodriguez

19. 100 Gecs - 1000 Gecs and the Tree of Clues (Dog Show)
100 Gecs - 1000 Gecs and the Tree of Clues
On this victory lap of a remix album, Laura Les and Dylan Brady as 100 Gecs invite a slew of friends and collaborators to rework and retool songs from their 2019 breakout album “1000 Gecs." At the time of its release, that album felt like a revelation. When the remixed version of “ringtone” released early this year featuring the likes of Charli XCX, Rico Nasty, and Kero Kero Bonito, it felt like a revolution. Some may say that statement is hyperbolic, but when these three artists -- who would most likely never work with each other in another context -- came together for this powerhouse of a remix, it kind of displayed how just about everyone kind of wants to get in on the fun of the Gecs bizarre, hyperactive, and idiosyncratic sound. Being a remix album, the sounds here are varied, you have the blissed out pop odysseys of A.G. Cook’s “Money Machine” remix or either of the versions of “ringtone” on here, being tracked side by side with rap breaks from the likes of Injury Reserve, a Eurodance take on “xXXi_wud_nvrstøp_ÜXXx," and even a full fledged early 2000’s style emo take on “Hand Crushed by a Mallet” featuring (appropriately enough) Fall Out Boy. This album is feverish, head-turning, exhaustive, addicting, and unabashedly fun; 100 Gecs have fleshed out such a distinct voice in the brief couple of years they’ve been active that one should have no reason to expect anything less from the duo at this point - Griffin McMorrow

18. Eartheater - Phoenix: Flames are Dew Upon My Skin (PAN)
Eartheater - Phoenix: Flames are Dew Upon My Skin
Alexandra Drewchin’s music under the moniker Eartheater has always been difficult to pin down. Her music is that of constant change and rebirth, so it’s logical that for her fourth album, she chose the ultimate symbol of regeneration as the title figure. Composed, produced, and arranged by Drewchin, “Phoenix: Flames Are Dew Upon My Skin'' is an immaculate sounding album, effortlessly blending beautiful strings and guitars with abstract electronic sections and environmental sounds such as that of volcanoes and lightning storms. The text seems labored over with deep extended metaphor and motifs of pressure, love, fire and rebirth constantly reappearing throughout the project allowing the listener to endlessly dig and decipher their meaning. Fittingly, the album ends in a near identical place as it started with “Faith Consuming Hope” featuring many of the same lyrics as “Airborne Ashes," tying together the themes of the project, and further cementing the cyclical rebirth that is present all throughout “Phoenix." - Anthony Wells 

17. R.A.P. Ferreiera - Purple Moonlight Pages (Ruby Yacht)
R.A.P. Ferreira - Purple Moonlight Pages
Philosophical, conscious, eccentric -- R.A.P. Ferreira (formerly known by alias Milo) comes through with a cerebral and studied jazz rap record that stuns with references and nuggets of profundity comparable to the density of Immanuel Kant. That’s perhaps a bit of an exaggeration. However, Ferreira’s consistent, esoteric and heady bars make the comparison more apt than one might first think. Regardless, Ferreira constantly bends the conventions of rap, teetering along the line of spoken word and poetry throughout the duration of the album. The production features a collection of original instrumentations that is reminiscent of The Roots’ catalogue as well as other jazz-rap legends. Yet, Ferreira takes those blueprints and expands on them to build an ambient atmosphere of incredible immersion. “Purple Moonlight Pages” features some of Ferreira’s best work to date and is a great record to get lost in. - Tristen Rodriguez

16. Lianne La Havas - Lianne La Havas (Warner Records UK)
Lianne La Havas - Lianne La Havas
This self titled record marks a triumphant return for La Havas after she had a relatively silent few years following 2015’s “Blood.” Here she sounds as fresh as ever, returning with her unique blend of indie folk, jazz and neo-soul all anchored by her earth shaking voice and virtuous guitar work. Idiosyncratic touch stones for this record range from Joni Mitchell, to Al Green, to Destiny’s Child, and sonically all can be felt in spades. This album is also Havas at her most conceptual; flexing her talent as a songwriter through these 12 tracks that depict the stages of a relationship, from early romance to eventual demise. It is absolutely captivating, with each song being more sultry, enchanting, and engrossing than the last; from pontificating about making a baby with a new partner and “throwing your life away” on the track that begins the story’s arc to the opening lines of “Bittersweet,” which details the final moments of the relationship (“please stop asking, ‘do you still love me?’ Don’t have much to say, let’s speak in the morning”). As a self titled record it feels like Havas knows the quality of what she’s put together here (you don’t attempt a cover of Radiohead’s “Weird Fishes” until you’re sure you’ve made something great). She attaches her name to the title to ensure that she is known now not only as an excellent songwriter and performer, but as a storyteller. - Griffin McMorrow

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