10 years ago today, Death Cab for Cutie released their first album since joining the big leagues signing with Atlantic Records. Death Cab, one of the most successful and consistent indie bands in this millennium, obviously received a decent amount of criticism for “selling out” and joining Atlantic’s long rolodex of artists, leaving it’s Barsuk and Pacific Northwest roots behind, because if there’s one thing that indie kids like more than being the first to discover a new band is getting pissed off when more people discover that new cool band and scoff at the band’s (usually) well-deserved success. Plans was the band’s first full-length album since 2003’s Transatlanticism, which with help from The O.C. and nearly every teen in American either wanting to be Seth Cohen or date Seth Cohen, elevated the band from the fringes of the emerging indie-rock scene from the Pacific Northwest into the Top 25 Most Played playlist of iPod minis across the country.
On the same day, a rapper named Kanye West who at that time still wore polo shirts, not Yeezy Boosts, dropped his second album, a follow up to the hugely successful College Dropout that pretty much changed the game for rap music . In his second album, Kayne not only had to divert falling into a sophomore slump, but also had to make an album that could somewhat hold its weight against College Dropout and 10 years later we’re still arguing which album is Ye’s best.
To compare Plans and Late Registration would be like comparing a glass of crisp, cold water and a slice of mouthwatering chocolate cake. Both are very good but but very different. Both albums stand pretty well on their own, but will always be overshadowed by the album that came before, the album that propelled both Death Cab and Kanye to the top of the indie rock scene and the rap (and arguably just the) universe. Still, critics have been reflecting on both albums, what the music meant to them at the time and also how the music reflected society at the time.
When both albums were released a decade ago, Death Cab for Cutie and Kanye West meant nothing to me. I downloaded “Gold Digger” on my iPod because I was 11 years old and wanted to listen to what the cool kids liked. I listened to “I Will Follow You Into The Dark” because I was an 11-year-old awkward girl who was starting to figure out how to find music on the Internet and was realizing that the music I liked tended to stray far from the Top 40 that I was mindlessly listening to. A decade later, Death Cab for Cutie and Kanye West have both become huge parts of my life, two of my favorite, most inspiring artists. The music I listen to when I write papers, when I walk to class, when I’m sad or happy or both. I didn’t even know that Plans and Late Registration were released on the same day until a few hours ago, but it all makes a lot of sense that two albums that introduced me to two of the artists that have shaped me the most as a music listener, writer and honestly, a person, were released on September 2nd 2005.
Plans is a sad album. Death Cab’s Ben Gibbard has definitely written sadder songs on different albums, but overall, the melancholy is much more prevalent on this record than on any other. It’s not just Gibbard’s lyrics, or his vocals which are just so good at conveying sadness. Plans is former Death Cab guitarist/producer Chris Walla’s best album. The lush sounds elevate the album from an average sad indie record from some Pacific Northwest band in the mid-aughts to the first album that DCFC released on a major label. On “Summer Skin” the bass line, coupled with the descriptive, heart-wrenching lyrics, makes for a double punch in the gut while simultaneously making the listener recall every single moment of their summer fling ending.”What Sarah Said” arguably one of the band’s best songs, features some introspective, incredibly sad lyrics: “love is watching someone die/so who’s gonna watch you die?” over steady drum beat and a bass line that sounds like it grew of out another great, sad Death Cab song, “Transatlanticism.” But the question is why is Plans so sad and why were we all listening to it? Gibbard helped make the early 2000’s indie kid go mainstream, or at least more normal. It was ok to be sad, it was ok to listen to something different. I remember in 2005 Green Day’s American Idiot was the cool album to listen to besides the truly awful hip-hop that dominated the airwaves at the same time. If a trio of guys in eyeliner who played music that existed on the fringe of society for so long was suddenly mainstream, it was time for indie to make it’s break. Plans represented that moment for indie, it was released on a major label and Death Cab’s music is inoffensive. We were listening to it because Death Cab make us feel less alone, made it ok to be sad. It still make me feel less alone and reminds me it’s ok to be sad.
Like Plans, Late Registration owes a certain amount of its brilliance to its producer, in Ye’s case Jon Brion. The soul-infused and much pop-ier tracks on this album barely resemble Kanye’s music today, but it’s important to listen to this album as a transition from the pink polo wearing Chicago rapper to the genre bending/fashion designer/husband to a Kardashian/musical partner of Paul McCartney that Kayne is currently. Featuring songs like “Touch the Sky” that can still, ten years later, make a party that much better and the hard-hitting and metaphor-ridden “Crack Music,” Late Registration sounds so different and so much better than the rap music of the day. In the Pitchfork review when the album first came out, the critic argued that the idea that Kanye was going to revolutionize hip-hop was mostly untrue and “not much has changed.” A decade later we can collectively laugh at that premature statement. Much like Death Cab making it ok to be sad by bringing their sad music to the mainstream, Kanye introduced the idea of consciousness to rap, after an era when gangsta rap dominated the charts and there was a constant content to see who was the hardest rapper. Today, it’s obvious that Kanye’s emotionally-charged rap changed the genre completely. Drake, whether or not he’s the one really writing the lyrics, shot up the charts with his confessional lyrics. Run the Jewels, despite their heavy hitting lyrics, gave a nearly 20 minute long interview giving teen girls advice, a far cry from the misogynistic rappers a decade earlier. Whereas 50 Cent was known for wearing his bullet proof vest, just in case, Chance the Rapper spent his summer bringing underprivileged kids from Chicago to museums around the city. A decade ago, Late Registration was just an incredibly different and great album from a burgeoning star. Today, it was a catalyst for the transformation of the entire rap industry to make it what it is today.