15 Albums for December :: Day 1, Kanye West, 808s and Heartbreak

I have albums that I know will come out at least once a year, in December. I may gear them up for listening before that, but when December hits, they stay in heavy rotation. Something about them always conjures up feelings of colder temperatures, loneliness and isolation, and a nostalgic mixture of a festive holiday season coupled with happy memories. These albums document my experiences in December. Enjoy. 

Kanye West, 808s and Heartbreak
(Roc-A-Fella Records, 2008)
I will try as hard as I can not to veer into the realm of the intensely personal when making this list. It's going to be difficult, though. Many, if not all, of these albums touch on brutally personal themes and/or are entirely indicative of personal conflicts I was experiencing at the time of their release and 808s and Heartbreaks may be the single-most album that falls directly into this category. 

I'm not a huge Kanye fan; I found My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy to be overlong and overhyped (read the title for God's sake) and thought Late Registration was weighed down by stupid skits and guest spots. But as I was browsing the wasteland of new releases at the record store in late November, 2008 (Kanye has a thing for releasing albums near the end of the year), 808s and Heartbreak was the only release that intrigued me.

Kanye was in a reflective mood on 808s; his mother had passed away unexpectedly and his relationships were becoming increasingly volatile and public. So, he did what most people do in that situation: he withdrew into himself, discovered auto-tune, and made a record. 808s is definitely the oddball album in Kanye's backlog. It's confessional to a fault and darker than most listeners realize ("life's just not fair" he repeats breaking down on "Street Lights"). There are no club jams, unless you count the tribal rhythms of "Love Lockdown," but that's stretching things. And everything about it sounds and feels cold, distant, and utterly electronic. His vocals are masked under ten kinds of filters ("Real Bad News," "Street Lights") and even the beats sound minimal and melancholy ("Say You Will," "Heartless," "Amazing"). 

It's easy to read 808s as a phony cash-in on genuine suffering; Kanye, after all, doesn't earn much good will through his public feuds and juvenile antics. But 808s sounds like sadness pushed though a micro filter and disseminated into digestible parts, the only way true sadness can be dealt with; piece by piece, one day at a time, until it's small enough to manage. 808s and Heartbreak is the sound of Yeezey cutting himself open and asking for help the only way he knows how, very publicly but very reservedly. It's cold, bruising, and imminently listenable.