2005 has come and gone, and, quite frankly, it was a down year for quality rap releases. In fact, I had trouble thinking of ten memorable releases. Admittedly, this was a busy year for me, and subsequently, my ear wasn’t to the underground as it has in past years. Despite the sparse output, however, there was enough quality to tide us over in ’05. It’s a ten album list, and there wasn’t much cerebral debate:

10. Atmosphere: You Can’t Imagine How Much Fun We’re Having

Honestly, I’d just about given up on Atmosphere. I didn’t really get them. They were nerdy, and their image was contrived. I was even skeptical of “You Can’t…” when I saw the sardonic album cover and title. In this case, however, my eyes deceived, because this back-to-basics banger sold me. There’s not much to it, really: Hard beats, tight rhymes—just the way I like it.

9. Paul Wall: The People’s Champ

Ah, the next great white hype. While some are put-off by his farcical fronts and debate the authenticity of his “hood-cred,” others just focus on Paul’s music. I like to believe I’m part of the latter, though sometimes I can’t help but chuckle when Paul raps about the disco ball inside his mouth which insinuates that he’s ballin.’ This is a tough inclusion for me because I’ve been slow in warming to albums which embody southern rap, but its infectiousness is undeniable.

8. Beanie Sigel: The B. Coming

Beanie, like the aforementioned Atmosphere, is an artist I had written off. He’d string us along with the occasional dope cut like “The Truth,” but he never quite lived up to the hype of his show-stealing performance on The Roots’ “Adrenaline!” This one won’t completely win-over many of the fans Beanie has disappointed over the years, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction. If Beanie keeps producing heartfelt, melancholic tracks like the hit single “Feel It in the Air,” he might yet supplant Scarface as rap’s resident manic depressive.

7. (tie) 50 Cent: The Massacre / Get Rich or Die Tryin’ Soundtrack

The omnipresent 50 Cent did just about everything in 2005. As Steve Juon notes in review of “GRODT Soundtrack,” 50 is about as powerful an artist and businessman you’ll find in the rap world. Amazingly, though, he still manages to produce some pretty damn good music, especially considering how downright obnoxious he’s been of-late, starting beef with anyone and everyone. These albums got about equal spins in my stereo this year, so it’s only fair to include both. “The Massacre” is full of the club hits we’ve come to expect from 50, as well as some choice street cuts like “In My Hood” and “Ski Mask Way,” and the soundtrack to 50’s flick was a good album in its own right, with “Hustler’s Ambition” and “Window Shopper” both topping the charts. His popularity is bound to fall at some point, but not in the foreseeable future.

6. AZ: A.W.O.L.

Yet another rapper seemingly crippled by the very expectations of his own talent, AZ always produces albums to little fanfare. He remains, however, a masterful lyricist, and though his beats are spotty at times because of his indie budget, “AWOL” is a solid start-to-finish listen. The gritty, Premier-produced “The Come Up” is, of course, the highlight of the album, leaving us to wonder why this collaboration hasn’t happened in the past. Regardless, considering the label politics AZ endured just to get an album released (it was originally titled “Final Call,” and slated for a 2004 release date), it’s quite apparent that his fans are the beneficiaries of his patience and persistence.

5. Danger Doom: The Mouse and the Mask

For all its hype—DangerDoom is the underground’s version of a supergroup—Danger Mouse and DOOM did a heck of a job living-up to almost impossible expectations. The premise is about as perverse as you’d imagine—the loose concept album is based around the stories of various cartoon characters from the Cartoon Network. But with heat like “Sofa King” and “Benzi Box,” you don’t have to be a nerd to like this one—just a hip hop head.

4. Little Brother: The Minstrel Show

Sometime during their meteoric rise to popularity, the guys from Little Brother were blackballed by the heads of some pretty important rap media outlets—namely BET and The Source. Unfortunately, a great album was nearly lost in the shuffle. With heat like “Hiding Place” and “Watch Me,” we can only hope that “The Minstrel Show” doesn’t go the way of Masta Ace’s “Disposable Arts”—that of an excellent, but ultimately overlooked concept album.

3. Common: Be

The hype for BE reached a fever pitch long before its release when Common and Kanye West appeared on Chappelle’s Show and performed “The Food.” Everyone wanted to know more about the previously-unheard track. As the album’s release drew nearer and Common dropped “The Corner” as the album’s first official single, it was on. “The Corner” features Kanye’s trademark chipmunk soul and Common spits raw street poems. After the more-miss-than-hit debacle that was “Electric Circus,” Common came back in a major way in 2005 with “BE” (with an assist from Kanye and Dilla).

2. The Game: The Documentary

Who said west coast rap died with Tupac? The Game dropped his debut, “The Documentary,” early in 2005 with almost universal appeal. Everyone from the ‘burbs to the hood and between knocked this album at some point. Of course, the affiliation with Dre, Eminem and 50 Cent didn’t hurt, either. Unfortunately, the release was overshadowed a bit by Game’s beef with 50, but make no mistake: There is some straight heat here. His name-checking wore on some, but the hits are undeniable—”Hate It or Love It,” “Westside Story,” “Dreams,” and “Church for Thugs,” to name a few. It looks as though The Game is here to stay—lyricism be damned. I don’t argue “The Documentary” is an artistic high watermark, but I bumped it as much (if not more) than anything else in 2005, making its ranking a strong one for me.

1. Kanye West: Late Registration

As with several of the rappers on this list, Kanye West had set fans’ expectations impossibly high after his brilliant debut, “The College Dropout.” Fortunately for us, Kanye lives up to that hype with “Late Registration.” The production is cleaner, Kanye’s raps are better, and the album’s theme is better explored. Like its predecessor, nearly every track from “Late Registration” could have qualified as a single. With no signs of him slowing down, just how good can Kanye West be? It’s apparent Kanye can easily reach the vaunted status of acts like Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest, and OutKast, all of whom have at least a triumvirate of classic releases to their names. The question, however, is will he crash under this immense pressure or rise to the challenge?