The Serpico Mixes: The Best of 2013 in Two Discs

In a joint collaboration with my weekday roommate and Bronx ally Skip Serpico, I’ll be discussing a mix CD a week. He makes them, I listen to them and provide my in the moment commentary. You, hopefully, read said commentary and maybe open up your musical horizons. You can come here every week for the Serpico Mixes. And you should also visit Skip’s site, Fission Spaghetti, for his musings on food and Saturday Night Live (and more!)

 Should auld acquaintance be forgot/ And never brought to mind?

Should auld acquaintance be forgot/ And never brought to mind?

Mix #19-20

Theme: The Best of…

 2013, I hardly knew ye. (image from 2013printablecalendar.net)

2013, I hardly knew ye. (image from 2013printablecalendar.net)

Following in the steps of the Golden Globes, this week’s Mix is a two-disc summary of Skip’s very best of 2013.

Disc 1

King Push by Pusha T- Such an excellent snare opening. A wonderfully aggressive spat of rapping over it as well. Sadly went for the robotic chipmunk voice, which should be retired immediately. Thankfully, it is such a tiny part of the whole that it doesn’t upend everything I liked here.

Worst Behavior by Drake- I thought this was two songs because I wasn’t watching my screen while listening to it. The “first” one, which ends at 2:30, I wish there was a little more…lyrical variety with because there’s something here I quite liked. Given how stripped down it is, thus front lining the lyrics, I’m not sure exactly what that would be. I think it must be just the emotional rawness of it.

The second, which runs for the last two minutes, featured an impressive minute long rap rant that was a bit more braggart but also more lyrically compelling. I’m not sure I can recommend it, per se, but there’s something undeniable here.

Black Skinhead by Kanye West My #1 song of the years. So unapologetically massive. Is Kanye convinced of his own genius? Probably. He’s right though. This song (and the whole album) is an absolute monster.

Forbidden Fruit by J. Cole ft. Kendrick Lamar- Nice to hear Lupe back in fine form after the disappointment of his previous album. Oh wait, that’s not him…oo, that’s embarrassing.

Anyway, aside from my confusion, the almost sung chorus is just not that good. I’m not calling for that move to be wished to the cornfield like the robo-chipmunk, but I’d be fine with a lot less of it in 2013.

Cinco Minutos Con Vos by Elvis Costello & The Roots- I must be an adrenaline junkie or uncultured swine because I got bored with this one. Some good Spanish though.

F.U.T.W. by Jay-Z- This is the best Jay-Z song of the year, but that might be damning it with faint praise. (I wanted that GREAT GATSBY album to be so much more.)

I did get a kick out of Mr. Carter saying he’s trying to get out from under this regime because, come on, when it comes to rap, this is his regime these days.

Melding of the Minds by Deltron 3030- A rap track played out over what sounds like the score from a late 80’s/early 90’s syndicated action show. Yes please. All day, please. Perfect use of the Zack de la Rocha voice/Rage Against the Machine sound for highest yield in limited deployment.

The Language by Drake- I don’t love the song, but the woman it centers on sounds like a delightful sort of lady.

Growing up with hair metal’s copious odes (and limited dirges) about life on the road and the groupies, it is weirdly neat to witness rap increasingly discuss the same phenomenon. I know Ludacris did it back in 2001 with “Area Codes,” but that was a one-off kind of thing. More and more, this is a standard tune in the hip hop singer’s musical arsenal.

Bound 2 by Kanye West- I don’t think the sample is a natural fit for the lyrical content, but…remember when I said Mr. West was a genius? Yeah. He is. Love the sample. Love his lyrics. Love the R&B singing interludes at 1:23 and 2:53. It is probably not Safe For Work though, be warned, despite the use of a light radio mainstay as the sample.

Villuminati by J. Cole- With the music sounding like a refuge from Janet Jackson’s mid-90’s heyday, they already had me buying in. Then J. Cole just comes in and buries it. Further still though, he casually throws out some homophobia followed by immediately assuring us it is cool because he’s fine with people being gay, honest. So…a good if morally compromised offering. Separating the art from the artist is something I can do relatively easily. Separating a piece of the art from the whole is a bit more difficult for me.

Love Game by Eminem ft. Kendrick Lamar- Is this Eminem? Whoa!

To be clear, I like a lot of Eminem’s offering, but for a while now, I could divide his songs into “heavy emotional themes” and “dumb sales chasing songs.” This one is neither and feels like a breath of fresh air and I love when an artist can surprise me.

I think it might also be an extended metaphor on the nature of the music industry and fandom, which is doubly impressive.

Oh, it is also the second song on this mix that references Ma$e. That’s weird, right?

Numbers on the Boards by Pusha T- This song is a case of diminishing returns. I still enjoyed it, but after track #1 on this album, it feels a little…same-y.

Cinco Minutos Con Vos (Remix) by Elvis Costello & The Roots - Some accomplished lyrical gymnastics here, but little emotional content or really something that blows my hair back.

Too Much by Drake ft. Sampha – The first 43 seconds had my attention. It was downright pretty. After that I kind of spaced out on the rap lyrics. So I forced myself to revisit it and I’m very glad I did. It is a song with a lot on its mind and it is well delivered by Sampha. The singing portions (“Don’t think about it too much…”) is just a bonus, gravy, hot fudge, etc.

Retrograde by James Blake- It takes about :58 seconds for anyone to say anything on this track—besides “ooo-OOOO-ooo-ooo—and I was pretty gone by then. Nothing that followed drew me back in.

Primetime by Janelle Monae- Hey, a female voice! On that alone, I sat up and took notice. It is also a very different song: a duo, as it turns out, an actual instrumental track with chord progressions and everything, and so on. I’m not sure I’d seek it out, but on this mix it works very well. A pace changer/palate cleanser effectively deployed.

Tripwire by Elvis Costello & The Roots- I’d say no one is recording R&B songs like this right now, but then, here’s this song. Again, if I was to describe my musical wants, I probably wouldn’t describe this song, but I like it in the context of this mix and totally fell for its throwback sound.

Never Be the Same by Bilal- I had troubling staying with this offering. Very easily distracted from it, even with the “we’re like crabs in a barrel” metaphor he floats but, sadly, does not commit to.

To The Last by James Blake- A little too ethereal for me to really get a hold of or sink my teeth into. Sadly just didn’t do it for me.

Disc 2

Sacrilege by Yeah Yeah Yeahs- I was a little frustrated by this song. I like it, to be sure, I just wanted a little something else to really put it over the top. Given that I don’t know what that something is and I really like what is here (the vocal distortion effects are well used and timed out, the main vocals are strong, the music track is well arranged), that is probably unfair of me, but there it is.

Who Have I Become? by Best Coast- I was not impressed with this one on a first listen. I felt it “ok” but nothing special. Something happened on the second listen though. I just “got” it I guess. A really strong Best Coast song for me.

We Exist by Arcade Fire- For Canadians, Arcade Fire feel very English to me here.

Like the rest of Reflektor, this definitely challenges whatever vision of Fire you might have in your hand. I’m personally on board for the synth-y sound, the breathiness, and the backup chorus, but I also recognize it is a step or so out of time with music now and could appreciate someone not finding it particularly good. Especially because it is definitely too long.

Appreciation by Jimmy Eat World- A lot of Damage, the new Jimmy album, feels like them but still a bit different. This song, on the other hand, feels pretty in line with some of their earlier “pop savvy” offerings. It would not feel out of place on Clarity or, especially, Bleed America. That’s the era I fell for Jimmy Eat World so that suits me just fine.

Drove Me Wild by Tegan & Sara- Like so much of this album, this feels like summer to me. This is a song to be played over car speakers as you drive somewhere in the late summer, windows down, after dark.

In the winter, it is pretty damn good, too..

Lyrically/vocally, it also works for me. It is a story of common tragedy, of trying to maintain dignity in the face of personal disappointment and Joey Burns’ voice is understatedly humane, a nice match of content and delivery.

Reverse Running by Atoms for Peace- The music here, I like quite a bit. I like the variety of percussion, the basic electric guitar picking, and how it feels “solid” somehow, the kind of sound that just fills your headphones.

I like the vocals a lot less. The lyrics, I think, are written well enough but the delivery system…very displeasing to me.

Doin’ it Right by Daft Punk At a minute I was just about ready to quit. The repetitive lyrical and musical opening almost convinced me that would be all I’d get.

The non-robotized vocals, however, came through to catch and hold my attention. Sadly, the robotized ones very go away for very long. By the end, they integrate into the whole fairly well, but by frontloading the song with a solid minute of it, they imprinted it on my mind. Thus, I couldn’t stop moving them forward, even when the vocals I did like were obviously supposed to be in the foreground.

Another is Waiting by The Avett Brothers- This album did not get great reviews, but if the rest of it is like this, I think critics are wildly off the mark. Different than, say, “Die, Die, Die,” but still distinctly Avett Brothers and undeniably listenable.

She Said No by The Olms- This is another song that musically and lyrically landed with but something about the vocals stuck in my throat more than I’d like. In Atoms for Peace earlier though, my problems with the vocals overwhelmed my enjoyment of the complete product. Here, I was able to overlook them and appreciate everything else.

Temple by Kings of Leon- After the admitted disappointment that was their last album, I was pretty relieved by how much I enjoyment their 2013 offering. This does a nice job of showing off why. It is clearly the Kings, but it also offers enough different to perk you up and to show they are growing their sound without giving up on what worked for them.

Falling by Haim- Perhaps a bit more “dance-y” than what I normally search out in my pop music, there’s still a lot here that I like. Besides knowing the rest of the album is very good, I also am drawn in with a lot of the vocal production here, the layering of them, the echo effects, that sort of thing. It’s showy but in a way that serves the song, not creates a distraction or upstage.

I Say by the Ocean by Queens of the Stone Age- Every now and again, I really like a Queens of a Stone Age song. This is one such song. I expect I will not encounter another for about 2 more years.

Welcome to Japan by The Strokes- Vacillating on this one. Dismissed it on first listen, found it lyrically lazy in places. On second listening, couldn’t find those places again. Leaning towards a recommend. The end of the song, last minute or so, in particular is persuasive.

Demon to Lean on by Wavves – The opening here feels very Weezer with the simple guitar strumming. Which is good. Better is what the band does after the song fully kicks in, employing casinets, a drum machine heavier guitars, real drums (I think), and a great set of rock and roll vocals and a karaoke, everyone singing at once ready chorus.

Everlasting Arms by Vampire Weekend- As a kid raised with a great love of Paul Simon—Graceland was the first album my Dad ever sat me down with and said, “I think you’ll really like this if you listen to it” and was also the first CD I bought for myself—I’m pretty much in the tank for Vampire Weekend from moment one. That said, I think this album has been their best yet.

Anyway, I mentioned Simon because this is another one of theirs that feels very evocative of his work. Which, as I expect you’ll be able to guess, means I love it.

Silent Treatment by The Joy Formidable- The verses are a bit bland to me, but the chorus just works so perfectly I’m powerless against this song. I recommend it fully.

Never Wanted Your Love by Shem & Him- Oof…no. Too cutesy from top to bottom. Feels like something a fourth grade choir might sing at their concert.

My Heart Belongs to You by Johnathan Rice- Maybe it is so residual blowback from the last one, but this one, with its 50’s girl choir and slide guitar, did nothing for me. I didn’t dislike it, per se, but it did not engage me at all.

New Mexico’s No Breeze by Iron & Wine My least favorite Iron & Wine song ever.

Ragtime by Neko Case- Oh thank goodness. Redemption. Glad to end this mix on a relatively up note. After those last few I was worried.

The mid-tempo-ness fits the theme of the song well and make the brief moments where it cranks really pop. Especially the horn parts. Jenny Lewis is game, as usual, using that chameleon voice of hers to set the stage nicely and upend it at the right moments.