#5 - The Rocket Summer
Hello, Good Friend (The Militia Group)
Despite the atrocious cover art, The Rocket Summer's Hello, Good Friend ended up being one of the biggest releases of the year for me. The Rocket Summer isn't really a group, rather the moniker adopted by young, multi-instrumentalist Bryce Avary. 2003's Calendar Days featured too-cute bursts of indie pop that you couldn't help but sing along to. Hello, Good Friend doesn't stray too far from the path, but it brings more to the table: a fuller sound complimented by a new sense of immediacy in the vocals (featuring Avary's odd new snarl). After a quick, quiet opening track, the album is kickstarted by "I Was So Alone," a track that pumps me up like no other. The song isn't hard by any means, but Bryce puts every ounce of energy his tiny frame can muster into it, forcing me to pump my fists and yell along with every lyric. Hush. The track is followed by "Around the Clock" and "I'm Doing Everything (For You)," which constitutes which I refer to as a "trilogy of awesome," and definitely my favorite one-two-three punch of any record this year. Bryce's aforementioned snarl is at first amusing, but later essential; an otherwise so-so track like "Goodbye Waves and Driveways" becomes heartwrenching when he belts out a simple lyric like "Because I love you and you love me." Bryce may be young, and the lyrics may be simple, but don't mistake this for child's play. The simple honesty in these thirteen tracks add up to one of the more impressive albums of the year.
Key Tracks: "I Was So Alone," "Never Knew," "Around the Clock"
#6 - Mae
The Everglow (Tooth & Nail)
Mae's sophomore album headed in a much different direction than 2003's Destination: Beautiful, a so-so pop-punk record that seemed to hint at so much more. The Everglow was released in March, and while it was never an album that dominated my stereo, it was one I kept listening to on a regular basis throughout the year. Mae is an acronym for Multisensory Aesthetic Experience, which is what they're trying to provide with this album. The Everglow is a concept record of sorts; the intro to the album instructs the listener to have the illustrated booklet handy. In simpler terms, The Everglow is an album designed to be for more than just your ears. They want you to listen, read, and most importantly, feel. Following the intro, the first song is a piano ballad ("We're So Far Away") that would sound right at home in a Disney animated film. While it's a great song (even with the amusing thoughts of Aladdin it creates in my mind), it is very much unlike the songs that follow. At first listen, it doesn't sound much different than their previous album. It's with repeated listens that the truth is revealed: the upbeat songs pack more punch, the ballads are much better written, and the whole album has the type of cohesion that is necessary for this type of ambitious project to work. Even at a full hour in length, my interest in this album never faded, as the finishing tracks are just as interesting as the openers. Even the vague Christian overtones failed to knock it down a notch. Honestly, I didn't spend much time with the illustrated booklet; it's unnecessary. The emotion present in the recorded work forces listeners to connect the tracks to their own thoughts and memories. That, to me, is truly the sign of a multisensory aesthetic experience.
Key Tracks: "Ready and Waiting to Fall," "The Everglow," "Someone Else's Arms"
#7 - Kanye West
Late Registration (Roc-a-Fella)
Leaking onto the net shortly after my 21st birthday, Late Registration immediately became my hot summer party record. His previous album, College Dropout, was a very unexpected favorite of mine in 2004. While Dropout had plenty of killer songs, much of it lacked the cohesion to make it a great album. Late Registration remedies that with the help of uber-producer Jon Brion (best known for his work with... Fiona Apple?!). Brion and West co-produced nearly all of the tracks, providing for a consistant, flowing album that easily tops any other rap album released in 2005. Guest spots are better and more essential than on Dropout, with knockout performances by Nas, Lupe Fiasco, Common, and the ruler himself, Jay-Z (with one of my absolute favorite lines: "I'm not a businessman, I'm a business, man"). Still, this is the Kanye West show, and he makes that clear from the start. West's rhymes are always topical and often hilarious, not to mention braggadocious (on the climactic "Gone": "Damn 'Ye, it'd be stupid to ditch you, even your superficial raps is super official"). But is it really bragging if you can back it up? West can, and generally does over the course of twenty-one tracks. While not perfect (the skits are bad news, the tracklisting is as bloated as nearly any other rap disc), Late Registration is one of the best rap albums in years. For me, it was the soundtrack to some of the best times in my life this summer. That alone helps it make my top ten; the immense quality of the disc is just icing on the cake. Over five minutes into "We Major," West interjects the question, "Can I talk my shit again?" Yes, please.
Key Tracks: "Gold Digger (ft. Jamie Foxx)," "Diamonds from Sierra Leone (Remix) (ft. Jay-Z)," "Touch the Sky (ft. Lupe Fiasco)"