Reader's Choice: Kanye West: Late Registration
Over the past three polling years, you’ve gone 3/3 on hip-hop albums. Last year you picked Madvillainy and this year (2005), you’ve chosen Late Registration… which are so far apart, they may as well not be in the same genre. Madvillainy was MC’d by DOOM: a dude obsessed with covering his face; Late Registration was MC’d by K.West: someone who looks for any opportunities to get himself on camera. Madvillainy peaked at #179 on the Billboard 200; Late Registration debuted at #2 and eventually hit #1. Where Madvillain felt raw and straight out of the neighborhood, Kanye felt silky smooth and is known by his collegiate bear. Commercially and contextually the albums feel as far apart as a genre will allow, still this column is all about great music despite labels and genres, and the fact that you picked these albums in consecutive polls reinforces that. We’re here to highlight music’s best, and despite its differences, you have recognized Late Registration as the album of 2005… and it has legitimately been a game changer for the music world.
2005 was a tough year for music. The industry was getting killed by illegal and legal downloading, and full album sales were soft throughout the U.S. Questions swirled around the music scene, and people wondered if the album, as we know it, was dead. Late Registration was released and 2.3 million albums later, those questions were largely put on their ear. Kanye West became the music industry’s savior in the late 2005 music market (some viewing Late Registration as the only successful debut in the second half of the year). It was so good that people (critics included) gave West a temporary pass on his narcissistic methods, and for that pass you have to be AWESOME.
Everybody liked this album for different reasons. The album received critical praise on nearly every possible aspect. From drum licks to creative use of samples; from grandiose thematic elements, to brave horn sections; critics were in love. Kanye wove stories with his songs and effortlessly blurred lines between hip-hop and pop. The ability to merge pop music with hip-hop and make both genres so accessible is what drove this album to be such a cross sectional sensation. It didn’t matter if you were white, black, yellow, or red. Male or female. Pop or hip-hop. His blatantly long samples (which at times were big enough to feel like more than just samples) drew from diverse sources like Ray Charles and Shirley Bassey. His collaboration drew from industry greats of pop and hip-hop alike (Maroon 5, Lupe Fiasco, and Jay-Z). Kanye got everyone’s attention with the album, and if you liked music in 2005, you heard and loved this album… and that led to big sales.
Besides getting a printed tongue bath from almost every critic in the business, Late Registration won loads of mainstream awards in 2005. Some of that was due to the holdover success of College Dropout the year before. At the 2004 Grammy Awards, Kanye COULD have (and some say should have) won best album, but because of Ray, Ray Charles became a freight train that nobody was gonna slow down. So, voters put it off a year and Late Registration steamrolled the competition in 2005. The album ultimately went triple platinum in the U.S. and double platinum in the U.K.; Rolling Stone, Spin, Village Voice, and USA Today all listed it as their #1 record of 2005; and ultimately Late Registration solidified Kanye as one of THE forces throughout the industry.
PMA’s Pick: Sufjan Stevens: Illinois.
The bulk of the comments in last week’s poll revolved around the omission of Bloc Party’s Silent Alarm. Which is funny to me. I mean, I like Silent Alarm. I like it a lot. But you think of 2005 and only two albums really float to the top… Late Registration and Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois. With those two albums hanging out there, you’d be hard pressed to find anything that had a bigger impact on the scene. Anyway…
Illinois is a soaring 22 track album that is as much a product of crazy is it is genius. Stevens had already released the epic Greetings from Michigan, but Illinois was the record that made music snobs across the country collectively sit up and realize that maybe he was serious about that whole 50 states project. Illinois is a concept album, and when you see that some of song titles contain over 50 words in them, you could be inclined to think it’s a joke. After a serious listen though, it’s clear that Stevens is doing anything but joking. The album is thick with political allusions and bizarre name drops. It’s an audio history lesson of Illinois and its people. From John Wayne Gacy, Helen Keller, Mary Todd Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln, and even Superman to locales like Decatur, Savanna, Horseshoe State Park, and Shawneetown; this album somehow covers it all. Stevens did his homework here and has written a brilliant soundtrack to the state’s history.
Not everyone can get into this album. The topics are heavy and the songs included involve musical arcs that aren’t consistent with mainstream indie. Overall, the album is just weird… but the weirdest thing about Illinois isn’t that Stevens actually wrote an entire album about a singular state (he’d already done that). It’s not the subject matter that gets as dirty as pedophile serial killers or as graphic as bone cancer. No, the weirdest thing is that after listening to these bizarro songs, you want to hear them again, and again, and again! It’s messed up and awesome all at the same time.
Illinois didn’t do anything special for the music industry (that I’m aware of). It didn’t sell the most albums that year. It didn’t criticize an overriding political movement. It didn’t create or destroy a genre… still, it stands as one of the most wholly original and complete concept albums ever written. Stevens instrumentation and ability to delve into complex situations and story lines was applauded by critics and listeners alike. Pitchfork, Paste, Amazon, Entertainment Weekly, and the Los Angeles Times were just a few of the publications that named it album of the year. Still, it wasn't an album for the masses. It was one that impacted people personally, not on an aggregate level. It’s written in a very personal manner, and it comes across that way. I don't have a clue if Stevens will ever actually pony up another state (seriously... how do you record an entire album about North Dakota?), but if Sufjan can capture even a fraction of the lightning included in that 2005 bottle, it'll be a raging success.
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