ALARM’s 50 (+5) Favorite Songs of 2012

Last month ALARM presented its 50 favorite albums of 2012, an eclectic, rock-heavy selection of discs that were in steady rotation in our downtown-Chicago premises. Now, to give some love to tunes that were left out but that hold major water on their own, we have our 50 (+5) favorite songs of last year — singles, B-sides, EP standouts, soundtrack cuts, and more.

(Text by the ALARM crew. Presented in chronological order.)

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ALARM’s 50 Favorite Albums of 2012

Another year, another torrential downpour of albums across our desks. (Not literally — our insurance doesn’t cover that.)

As always, we encountered way too much amazing music. How does anyone keep track of it all? It’s good that we have this magazine, because our mushy brains can’t keep up…

(Text by the ALARM crew. Albums are in chronological order.)

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Review: Serengeti’s CAR

Serengeti: CAR (Anticon, 7/31/12)



“CAR.” What is that exactly? Chicago MC Serengeti makes a case that it’s all about a funk-fueled vibe under enough scratching to require a daily supply of new vinyl. With the help of Anticon producers Jel and Odd Nosdam, Serengeti (born in Chicago as David Cohn) has released the latest in his double-digit hip-hop discography.

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Q&A: Jel

Jel: Greenball 3.5Jel: Greenball 3.5 (Fieldwerk, 4/17/12)

“Ignition Key”

[audio:|titles=Jel: “Ignition Key”]

Knowing nothing about his sleeping patterns, Just looking at his discography, one gets the sense that producer/rapper Jel (born Jeffrey Logan) lives and breathes on beats alone — that for him, rest is but an afterthought. Ever since the 1997 formation of hip-hop duo Themselves, in which he partners with Adam “Doseone” Drucker, the prolific artist has put out multiple releases every year either under his own name, with Themselves, with other projects such as Subtle and 13 & God, or as producer for other innovative rap artists such as Serengeti. Oh, and he co-founded LA-based indie hip-hop label Anticon. No big deal.

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Video: Serengeti’s “Don’t Blame Steve”

Serengeti: Kenny Dennis EP

Serengeti: Kenny Dennis EP (Anticon, 4/3/12)

On the heels of today’s Kenny Dennis EP comes the video for “Don’t Blame Steve,” an overture by Serengeti’s super-fan alter-ego not to blame Steve Bartman for the collapse of the 2003 Chicago Cubs.

Rapping outside of Wrigley, Kenny Dennis offers blame to an assortment of journeymen and scrubs from different heartbroken Cubs clubs, including Paul Assenmacher, Jeff Pico, Damon Berryhill, Kevin Tapani, Mickey Morandini, Luis Salazar, and Mark Grudzielanek. Even local personalities Steve Stone, Dan Roan, and Bob Brenly aren’t safe from scrutiny. The only untouchable is Andre “The Hawk” Dawson, a local legend and the only MLB player ever to win an MVP award on a last-place team.

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Q&A: Serengeti

Serengeti: Friends and FamilySerengeti: Family and Friends (Anticon, 7/19/11)

Serengeti: “Ha-Ha” (f. Otouto)

[audio:|titles=Serengeti: “Ha-Ha” (f. Otouto)]

In July, Chicago local David Cohn, better known as independent hip-hop artist Serengeti, dropped his first solo album on Anticon. The record, titled Family and Friends, showcases Cohn’s informal rapping style, which gives the impression that he’s just chillin’ with you in a bar, rattling off stories about somebody’s junkie dad or a failed UFC fighter.

A follow-up to Cohn’s 2009 release with Illinois native Polyphonic, Family and Friends also explores new sonic territory with producers Owen Ashworth of Advance Base and Yoni Wolf of Why?. The washed-out breakbeats on tracks like “PMDD” and “Ha-Ha” complement the more experimental electro-pop mixes of “ARP” and “The Whip.”

Cohn recently took some time to chat with us about his solo release, his current collaborative projects, and his future in film-making.

How do different producers’ styles and strengths complement the many sides of Serengeti?

Well, I have many sides, so working with great guys helps with that. I like to see what each producer does and work within what they do. I used to rap over beats that were already done. Advance Base, Yoni Wolf, the Breakfast Kings, Polyphonic, Jel, and Odd Nosdam are really the only cats I’ve actually sat down to work with. I definitely prefer that way.

What were the biggest differences or adjustments in working with Owen and Yoni for the new album?

With Yoni, I went out to his pad in Oakland, and we did our tunes in a week. With Owen, I’d take the El to his house and work once or twice a week on stuff. No real difference, really — both fellas were very easy to work with. I’d been trying to get it up with Owen for a while, so once we had our first session booked, I was a tad anxious, like, “Don’t blow it.” We did “Flutes,” “PMDD,” and “Kenny vs. Spring” in about two hours.

Shaun Koplow from Anticon hooked up the Yoni thing, so I was again feeling anxious when I flew out there, although we’d done some shows together on a tour. This was different, staying in a pad and such. We had a goal of a song a day, and we did it. Both fellas were great to hang out with, and I’d liked them for a long time, so it felt like a step in the right direction. Thanks, Owen, Yoni, and Shaun.

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Guest Playlist: Serengeti

Serengeti: Friends and FamilySerengetiFamily and Friends (Anticon, 7/19/11)

Serengeti: “Ha-Ha” (f. Otouto)

[audio:|titles=Serengeti: “Ha-Ha” (f. Otouto)]

Native Chicagoan rapper Serengeti, a.k.a. David Cohn, has built a small but rabid following thanks to a unique, occasionally farcical style and a tireless work ethic. His latest album, entitled Family and Friends (out now on Anticon), enlists some notable producers: Yoni Wolf of Why? and Owen Ashworth of Casiotone for the Painfully Alone. The result is a hop-hop album free of undue posturing — operative beats stripped of excess ornament, a rapid, clear cadence — that captures the oft-neglected storytelling aspect of rhyming.

As his unorthodox sound suggests, Serengeti’s musical background is littered with non-rap milestones. And, as many of us can relate, his early musical education was composed of the stuff his parents played in the car and at home. We had him compile a playlist of such tunes. Without further ado:

Songs My Parents Liked That Stuck With Me
by Serengeti

Father and mother and I recently drove to NYC from Chicago. I was the first time I was in the same car as both of them in about 30 years. We listened to these songs a lot. I knew them all; it was great.

1. My parents split when I was very young. Mother would pick me up some weekends, and she’d always play this Mabel Mercer song, “Did you Ever Cross Over to Sneden’s.” Great song about longing to live on the other side. Alec Wilder wrote the tune.

“Did you ever cross over to Sneden’s / Where the white houses cling to the hill? / Did you ever cross over to Sneden’s? / Do you think that you ever will?”

2. Carmen McRae: “I’m Coming Home Again”

“The poets cried for dreams they never saw / The only certainty is nothing’s sure / And most things stay the same / Or go back where they came”

Written By Carole Sager and Bruce Roberts. Her voice is my favorite.

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João Orecchia: Eclectic Electro-Acoustic Collage

João Orecchia: Hands and FeetJoão Orecchia: Hands and Feet (Other Electricities, 11/10/09)

João Orecchia: “Sunshine Girl”

[audio:|titles=João Orecchia: “Sunshine Girl”]

Most musicians move to places to be surrounded by familiarity and comfort — cities with cheap rent, friendly clubs, and audiences with open ears. But when João Orecchia moved from Berlin, Germany to Johannesburg, South Africa in 2004, he did it for all of the challenges and adversity that he knew he would face.

As a white foreigner who creates skittery, experimental electro-acoustic sound collages, it could have been intimidating to face an audience that hugely consumes hip hop, techno, and the plethora of styles of South African folk music. He was leaving the embrace of Berlin, where experimental techniques have more traditionally been accepted.

“It was a major adjustment,” Orecchia says of the move. “At the same time, there’s something I love about the challenge of it. In Berlin, there’s a space for everything, and even the most off-the-wall shit is normal. Here, you have to work a bit harder.”

To be sure, working hard to find his own space wasn’t exactly something new to Orecchia. As an immigrant son of an Italian father and a Peruvian mother (the traditionally Portuguese first name is just a red herring), Orecchia grew up in Brooklyn amongst the noise of the multifaceted, multicultural melt of the punk, post-disco, hip hop, techno, and art rock that brewed there in the ’80s and early ’90s.

João Orecchia

But one of Orecchia’s most poignant music-related memories of his youth was not of a stained-brick punk club or a sweaty nightclub, but of the Italian restaurants and cafés to which his father, a musician himself, brought him to hear the music of his homeland. “My father used to sing,” he says. “We’d go to these Italian restaurants in the far reaches of Brooklyn, and he’d get up there with the guy playing his keyboard. He was pretty good too!”

His father’s voice can be heard on two tracks on Orecchia’s album Hands and Feet, his first release available as a non-import in North America. Whereas Orecchia explored homelessness on his debut, Motherless Brooklyn, on this album, he tackles the more personal issue of his identity.

“My first sense of identity was that I was a Peruvian-Italian,” he explains. “Growing up in Brooklyn, speaking English at school, it started to change. Then I was in Berlin for around five years, and the question ‘where are you from?’ obviously came up all the time. ‘I’m from New York.’ ‘So you’re American?’”

This confusion was compounded by what he calls life changes, whether it was moving to another continent, turning 30, or experiencing the passing of his father a couple years ago.

“Some kind of imperfection or bad timing is the thing that inspires me most.”

The album is bookended by his father’s voice singing the pop standards “When I Fall in Love” and “Arrivederci Roma.” The vocal tracks themselves were culled from recordings that his father cut in Italy in the 1960s and contrast Orecchia’s off-kilter manner of scratchy blobs of musique concrète, humming synths, and tinkling toy instruments.

“He went to the US in his mid-20s wanting to be a singer,” Orecchia says of his father’s early years.  “There were some strange straight-out-of-a-mafia-movie stories around that. He recorded those two songs straight to vinyl, hoping to get discovered. When he died, someone sent me a CD with the two songs and some old photos of him. First I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to do a modern kind of duet with him?’ That’s how ‘When I Fall in Love’ came about; then the other just seemed to fit so well as an ending, and it tied the whole idea together for me.”

Other tracks reveal Orecchia’s sense of mixing strange acoustic instruments with strange electric ones (a new favorite is a Namibian toy trumpet that plays pre-recorded beats), collaborations with artists such as South Africa’s Spoek Mathambo and Chicago rapper Serengeti, and maintenance of a pungent sense of melody.

The electronic waltz of “De Los Muertos” wouldn’t sound out of place if it appeared in a dusty Tim Burton flick, whereas songs such as “Midnight Serenade” and “Gold to Green” could have been culled from a video-game soundtrack.

João Orecchia

The joy that many musicians, including Orecchia, find in accidents and mistakes is ever present; his songs are filled with random bursts of stuff that would sound out of place on any other record, like hissing or chimes or a little girl singing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” but they weave organically here. “Some kind of imperfection or bad timing is the thing that inspires me most,” Orecchia says.

Often instrumental and dreamily frantic, the modern sound of his music makes it no surprise that Orecchia has found some work in television commercials; the average South African may have heard Orecchia’s music in one of a number of commercials for which he’s composed. These have been for companies that include Nedbank, Vodafone, Netflorist, and Beacon Chocolate.

The spot for the latter is a surreal, computer-animated tour of a fantasy factory where robotic cows and anthropomorphic bees create the eponymous chocolate, accompanied by the click-clack of Orecchia’s music-box-inspired soundtrack.

Besides commercials, he also has composed for theater productions and independent films, such as the 2004 German documentary Fremde Nachbarn (Foreign Neighbors) and the 2008 short film Fuzzy John. Perhaps his strangest gig yet was composing the war cries for a 2008 snowball-fighting tournament / visual-art experiment that was held in downtown Johannesburg.

“Basically, these crazy Swiss guys took the snowball fight to the level of a serious sport with teams and rules and everything,” he says. “It’s meant to be bizarre and a lot of fun, and I think the idea of bringing it to Africa amplified that quite a bit.”

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Serengeti channels Bill Swerski’s Superfans in video for “Perculators”

A new music video for “Perculators” by Chicago rapper Serengeti, produced by Jel (Themselves) and Odd Nosdam, can be seen below. The video pokes fun at Chicago stereotypes, complete with Chicago-style dogs and old-school references to Chicago athletes such as Horace Grant, Maury Buford, and Bill Buckner.  The chorus of “those are the Bs on the Bears” is particularly brilliant.

More collaborative projects by Jel, Odd Nosdam, and Serengeti are soon to come, with a project in the works for 2011.

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Weekly Music News Roundup

Serengeti and Polyphonic sign to Anticon; Isis, Tera Melos, and The Dead Kenny Gs announce tour dates; a release date is announced for the Bygones album; Ben Folds goes a cappella; Bastard Noise releases a five-disc CD set.  This and more in the roundup… Read More

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