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U92 Year-End Review: The Best Albums of 2020 (10-6)

10. Okay Kaya - Watch This Liquid Pour Itself (Jagjaguwar)

Just from the cover, you could probably guess that “Watch This Liquid Pour Itself” by Okay Kaya probably won’t be your run of the mill singer/songwriter album. Said cover presents this naturalistic, green tinted, night-vision photograph of the singer (real name Kaya Wilkins) with a sort of blank look of curiosity on her face, as though she is an animal studying another creature for signs that they may be a threat. This pointed imagery ends up being the perfect parallel for an album whose most consistent themes are anxiety, longing, confusion, and, most crucially, isolation. Wilkins writing here is immediately idiosyncratic, from the vulgar first lines of opener “Baby Little Tween” (“I ride the mood, baby little tween, mood riding, riding on your d**k”) to strange but genuinely heartfelt metaphors like those heard on “Symbiosis” (“I can be algae, you can be fungi, we’ll call it symbiosis, it’s a trade off baby”). Between the sex jam for people who aren’t into sex, the upbeat ditty about life in the psych ward, and the closer which finds Kaya alone (well, with her parasite) in the zero-interaction ramen bar, the songs here are humorous and surreal but never in a way that’s insincere or detached. On this record, Okay Kaya creates a unique and timely listen about the necessity for human social interaction even when such things freak you out. Speaking personally as an introvert living in the year 2020, it hits close to home. - Griffin McMorrow

9. Mourning [A] Blkstar - The Cycle (Don Giovanni)
Mourning [A] Blkstar - The Cycle
R&B group Mourning [A] BLKstar has never been afraid to dive into politics and social issues. Released just five days before the Black Lives Matter protests over the death of George Floyd engulfed the nation, The Cycle features commentary on contemporary Black issues intertwined with anguished love songs, hypnotic beats, and jazzy horn sections. Despite being written as a series of sketches about the Cleveland storefront in which it was recorded, the music does not feel restricted to any one location; instead being introspective and reflective and reaching for universal themes. True to their name, Mourning [A] BLKstar have created a thematically dark album that often draws on wailing vocals to deliver songs focusing largely on the pains of love and loss. Overall, there is a desperate and urgent energy to the recordings the group composes  on this album, which manifest in both laments for the current state of society (“Devil Get Behind Me”) and in personal relations (“If I Can I May”), at times encouraging the listener to “rise up” and “hold on," both messages which proved to be essential in 2020. - Mason Lee

8. The Strokes - The New Abnormal (RCA Records)
The Strokes - The New Abnormal
Like most teenagers going through the alt phase in the early 2010's, The Strokes were in constant rotation for me growing up. This inherent nostalgia made hearing their comeback with “The New Abnormal” that much more exciting. This album definitely did serve as a cathartic throwback, calling back to some of their early 2000’s releases (and, by proxy, my time spent listening to them in 2013/14). However, the band here doesn’t just rest on those laurels as they (along with super-producer Rick Rubin) push their sound to add a sort of 1980's and 1990's feel and more grungy-rock balladry than was heard on their earlier releases -- playing more now with structure, polish, and texture than ever before. On this record the band sounds fresher than they have in years, solidly evoking the feeling of a fan’s first listening experience. - Maggie Robertson

7. Blu & Exile - Miles (Dirty Science)
Blu & Exile - Miles
The eccentric, innovative, and jazzy collective of emcee Blu and producer Exile comes together after an eight-year hiatus to create a new modern classic filled with true blue jazz and R&B tinged hip hop tracks speaking on ancestry, childhood, and artistic influences. Blu delivers on every front in the thought to paper department, painting incredibly smart and vivid images through each and every bar. He’s complemented greatly with Exile’s delicious and infectiously rhythmic jazzy beats, laden with shimmering pianos, hard hitting boom bap drums, attention grabbing horns, perfectly fitted features, and beautiful vocal samples. As the final result, Blu & Exile meticulously crafted a gargantuan masterwork in jazz rap that’s sure to be cherished for years to come. - Tristen Rodriguez

6. Jeff Rosenstock - NO DREAM (Polyvinyl)
Jeff Rosenstock - NO DREAM
DIY legend Jeff Rosenstock’s fifth full-length effort released under his own name was released without warning in summer 2020. Fans of Rosenstock will no doubt recognize the infectious power pop melodies, raw punk energy, and unmistakable streak of melancholy on this record. “NO DREAM” see’s Rosenstock sound as slick, punchy, and vibrant as ever, making it the perfect record for the summer, even as this summer was far from normal. Though the record was written before 2020 began, the various themes explored make it eerily fitting for a socio-political climate that at times may seem downright apocalyptic. Unlike some of the more meandering experiments on Rosenstock’s previous full-length “POST-,” the tracks on “NO DREAM” remain tight throughout, firing off one earworm after another through relatively straightforward rock instrumentation with only occasional songwriting embellishments. Lyrically many of the tracks here are bittersweet musings on nostalgia, love, grief and exhaustion -- both physical and emotional. But even the most downtrodden ballads on this album rip pretty hard at some point or another, many still rife with scream-along choruses and triumphant defiance. This all will come as no surprise to longtime fans, as Rosenstock is largely doing what he’s always done best on this record. However, the accessibility and timeliness of this project make it a great pick for new listeners and one of the best 2020 releases to soundtrack your next cry-moshing session. - Noah Spencer

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