Kanye West, "Late Registration"
By now, almost everyone is pretty aware of what Kanye West thinks of Kanye West. If he's not telling you he's the greatest thing ever to happen to music, he's displaying outrage at being underappreciated. But the reviews for his latest record, "Late Registration," will leave Kanye with little to complain about: It appears that the critics love him almost as much as he loves himself. Entertainment Weekly claims that the record "rarely fails to engross at every step," and Rolling Stone, who gives the album a five-star review (an honor usually reserved for Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen), calls it "an undeniable triumph, packed front to back, so expansive it makes the debut sound like a rough draft." Time puts West on the cover and calls the album "one of the better-sounding rap records in history." The L.A. Times gushes that the record is "a 71-minute tour de force that mixes everyman tales with sonic invention -- a record that could change the musical framework of rap more than anything since 1992's 'The Chronic' by Dr. Dre" -- and that might be the mildest of the positive reviews. The ever hard-to-please indie kingpins at Pitchforkmedia seem hypnotized by West's new work, giving it a 9.5 (out of 10) and calling it "the year's most accomplished rap album, and in turn, he's done something that his heroes -- the Pharcyde and Nas, and father figure Jay-Z -- couldn't do: deliver on a promise the second time around." The surly New York Post gave the record four-stars, too, and called the record "a masterwork of concept, execution and production," and that "it should be the music's valedictorian in the class of 2005." Even the slights sound good: As Sasha Frere-Jones writes in the New Yorker, listening to "Late Registration" is "a bit like being chauffeured around in the fanciest car you can imagine by a driver who won't stop complaining about the mileage or the radio reception. You're annoyed, but at the same time you don't want the ride to end." Jon Pareles distances himself from the pack in the New York Times, criticizing Kanye by calling him a "hip-hop V.I.P." and suggesting that "a cool arrogance has crept into the songs." The Daily News wasn't thrilled by the album either, but called West a "fascinating figure," one that could never be considered "either simple or cliched." The Brits, meanwhile, are crazed over "Late Registration," with Q Magazine stating that "practically every track ... is a glorious pop song," and the Guardian describing West as being in "thrillingly subversive form, working in the production booth to undercut the tracks messages and shifting their meanings." But it's not as if Kanye really needed any encouragement -- he's already declared that he considers "Late Registration" to be "the best-produced record -- ever."
Death Cab for Cutie, "Plans"
Death Cab for Cutie's sudden fame after 2003's "Transatlanticism" was a surprise to just about everyone, the band included. As Rollling Stone writes, "Who thought these non-fashion-plates would become muses to The O.C., playing the Bait Shop the way the Flaming Lips once played the Peach Pit on 90210?" Now, with "Plans," the band has graduated to a major label and a huge national release, and with such a big change, says Time, "there's also supposed to be some evidence of maturity, and at least in this regard 'Plans' tries way too hard ... Gibbard pitches most of his morbidity in an assuring middle range; he doesn't sound like he's singing so much as throwing an arm around your shoulder and advising, like a high schooler playing the prematurely wise friend. It does not add to the appeal." The news on the album is mixed, but generally not so good. While the L.A. Times thinks that "throughout the record there is the sense that an intelligent mind is going to work on immutable emotions ranging from heartache to grief, finding no answers and little comfort in reason," indie review Web site Cokemachineglow says, "'Plans' is a shameless and famished record, the sound of pop slurping itself empty." And the usually rock-friendly Guardian savages the record: " Ben Gibbard's angelic vocals sag with the weariness of a man who's gazed at his navel all his life only to realise there's nothing but fluff and darkness ... 'Plans' flounders in the second half, where Death Cab run out of songs and try to fill the holes with busy keyboard bits ... After the first two songs, there isn't a memorable guitar part on the whole album." While the band's basic themes remain the same as on "Transatlanticism" -- the L.A. Times notes that "the record itself is a sad and touching meditation on death and distance, handled with a light melodic touch" -- the general critical response is underwhelmed, with Rolling Stone's take -- "They reach for an expansive, Abbey Road pop style, with mixed results" -- meshing with what Pitchfork (a 6.5 out of 10) summarized: "Four or five songs you'll treasure, four or five you'll tolerate, and a pretty good band sticking to their guns. In another sense, it would be nice if a band reaching for a larger audience had a sound that matched that sense of ambition."
Herbie Hancock, "Possibilities"
Whether you like jazz pianist Herbie Hancock's newest may depend somewhat on how much you'd like Hancock to actually play jazz. The album -- duets with artists ranging from Sting and Annie Lennox to Santana and Christina Aguilera -- is an experiment in pop/jazz fusion, and most reviewers echoed the Independent's take that, "Though every bit as cool, stylish and sophisticated as you'd expect from a Herbie Hancock project, this album of collaborations with pop and rock musicians does tend to drag somewhat." Some of the contributors fare well with the critics -- as the New York Daily News writes, "Paul Simon manages one of the most haunting and sure vocals of his career on a jazzy redo of his 1975 cut 'I Do It for Your Love.' Annie Lennox caresses 'Hush Hush Hush' with such sensuality and sophistication, one wishes she would move away from straight pop more often." And according to Billboard, John Mayer and Hancock "spontaneously combust on the highlight of the CD, the catchy, up-tempo leadoff number 'Stitched Up.'" But that's as far as the praise goes -- Christina Aguilera's version of Leon Russell's "A Song for You," comes in as the most contentious track on the album, called everything from a "show-stopper" (Billboard) and "surprisingly good" (Philly.com) to "death-by-melisma"(Independent) and an "object lesson in how not to sing" (NYDN). On the one hand, Hancock has made it clear that he wanted to make it an album along the lines of Santana's "Supernatural," but a number of reviewers note that there's also more than a slight influence from Ray Charles' posthumous duets album, "Genius Loves Company" -- which, like "Possibilities," was also released by the Starbucks music label, Hear Music. Most reviewers agree with the AP that the result "has none of the energy that those collaborations did." And while Billboard tries to argue the album's a "gear-shifting collection of pop tunes under-girded by a jazz sensibility that cultivates music free of genre borders," the majority consensus agrees with the AP: "At its best, 'Possibilities' is a decent cabaret album -- probably suitable background noise for cappuccino sipping." Either way, you can listen to the entire album at Real.com.