ALARM's 50 Favorite Songs of 2012

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, we have our 50 (+5) favorite songs of last year — singles, B-sides, EP standouts, soundtrack cuts, and more.

ALARM's 50 Favorite Albums of 2012

ALARM’s 50 Favorite Albums of 2012

Another year, another torrential downpour of albums across our desks. As always, we encountered way too much amazing music, from Meshuggah to The Mars Volta, Converge, Killer Mike, P.O.S, and many more.


Video: Menomena’s “Plumage”

Menomena: MomsMenomena: Moms (Barsuk, 9/18/12)

As the opener on Menomena‘s Moms — possibly the best pop album of 2012 — “Plumage” is a stark announcement of a resurgent duo. Down a key component when multi-instrumentalist/co-singer Brent Knopf left the quirky former trio, Menomena has come out no worse for the wear — and, in fact, has delivered some of its finest material ever.

Enjoy the video as Danny Seim and Justin Harris escalate an ever-advancing four-minute showdown.


Review: Menomena’s Moms

Menomena: MomsMenomena: Moms (Barsuk, 9/18/12)


Menomena: “Capsule”

At the beginning of 2012, when multi-instrumentalist/co-singer Brent Knopf left quirk-rock trio Menomena, the future of the Portland band felt uncertain. Knopf’s tenor perfectly complemented Justin Harris’s and Danny Seim’s vocals, and his guitar work helped structure Menomena songs into hook-ridden frameworks.

But within just the first few minutes of Moms, the first Menomena release as a two-piece, it’s quite clear that Menomena will be just fine. For the most part, the classic Menomena tropes remain: Seim’s sporadic and intricate drumming, Harris’s swelling saxophone and bass lines, and a swarm of slow-burning strings, sprinkling keys, and hazy harmonies. Even the unconventional guitar work is in place, making it almost feel like Knopf never left. There’s seldom a hiccup or misstep, with standout tracks like “Pique,” “Baton,” and “Skintercourse,” among others, serving as stepping stones through a lagoon of sweltering rock-outs and bipolar dirges.

Pop Addict: Nada Surf’s The Stars are Indifferent to Astronomy

Every other Thursday, Pop Addict presents infectious tunes from contemporary musicians across indie rock, pop, folk, electronica, and more.

Nada Surf: The Stars are Indifferent to AstronomyNada Surf: The Stars are Indifferent to Astronomy (Barsuk, 1/24/12)

Nada Surf: “Waiting for Something”

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The first thing that people usually think of when they hear the words “Nada Surf” is the mid-’90s post-grunge gem “Popular.” The track seemed to encapsulate everything that alternative rock in the ’90s stood for into a three-minute radio hit: humor, irony, hooks, cheekiness, and distortion. (It also helped that MTV played the music video nonstop.) And the band deserved the, well, popularity. The song was clever and catchy as hell. But, as is the case with many bands of that era who still had good songs/albums besides their hit (see: Superdrag, Better Than Ezra), Nada Surf has spent the rest of its career trying to get as far away as possible from that song.

To belittle the entire career of Nada Surf to a mere three minutes of one hit in the ’90s is completely unfair, though. Even though the band has lived in the shadow of “Popular” for the majority of its career, Nada Surf has quietly and steadily been putting out an array of solid garage-rock/power-pop-infused records. The Proximity Effect, from 1999, still hinted at the humor that “Popular” touched upon, but the album showed natural growth, with lyrics revolving around more “adult” problems, like seeking out a therapist or the emotional bankruptcy of living too fast. The album’s lyrical honesty and vulnerability is on par with Weezer’s Pinkerton.

By the time Let Go rolled around in 2003, Nada Surf had completely detached itself from the snot-nosed teenage angst of its lone hit single. Instead, a matured, weathered, broken, and fixed Nada Surf was at the helm, endorsing the same power-pop sensibilities it had on previous records, but now with added layers of acoustics, synthesizers, harmonies, and deeper, more meaningful songwriting. The Weight Is A Gift (2005) and Lucky (2008) followed in a similar (though slightly more watered down) fashion.


Q&A: Phantogram

Phantogram: NightlifePhantogram: Nightlife (Barsuk, 11/1/11)

Phantogram: “Don’t Move”

[audio:|titles=Phantogram: “Don’t Move”]

A few years ago, Josh Carter and Sarah Barthel took to recording their own music in a barn in upstate New York. Though it was never intended for the masses, the music made an auspicious debut via the 2010 album Eyelid Movies on Barsuk, and a loyal Phantogram following materialized — and continues to grow ever larger. In addition to praise from unexpected sources (Questlove, Big Boi, Fitz and the Tantrums, Kings of Leon), the duo’s popularity has risen from a years-long tour stint, loaded with sold-out shows, international bookings, and major festival appearances.

And in the midst of the tour hustle and bustle, Phantogram has managed to pull off yet another standout release in the form of Nightlife. Carter’s minimalist guitar lines, hip-hop beats, and assorted loops and samples weave the perfect melodic backing for Barthel’s breathy singing and, at times, his own reverb-laden vocals. The synths and drum-machine beats draw similarities to Eyelid Movies, but the new record holds its own as a mini-LP — and also holds fans over until the next full-length release.

Here, ALARM speaks with Carter about performing live, his collaboration with Barthel, and Nightlife.

What do you like about recording in a barn versus a recording studio?

It was circumstantial, really. We lived up in the country in upstate New York, and it’s what we had. My parents had a barn on their property, and I had been collecting a lot of recording equipment and learning how to record myself. Instead of having to pay a lot of money to go into a studio, we just did our first album ourselves, and the new record as well.

You have a long, diverse list of musical influences. What non-musical influences impact your songwriting?

Dreams definitely impact my lyric writing and our songwriting. Often when Sarah and I get together to work on music, we kind of come up with imaginary plots that would be in a movie. We think very visually when we’re writing.

What are your roles in songwriting?

I write the lyrics. I make the beats and I write most of the music, but often Sarah and I get together and write. Sometimes she’ll come up with something on the piano or guitar and bring it to the table, or I’ll make a beat or write something on guitar or piano, and we’ll bring it together.

Sometimes we just jam over a basic drum-machine rhythm and vamp for a few hours and write that way. Often when I write lyrics too, I’ll bounce them off Sarah and see what she thinks of it; so, sometimes even though she isn’t writing the lyrics, she’s connected to them anyway because she’s there while I’m writing them.


Pop Addict: Phantogram’s Nightlife EP

Every other Thursday, Pop Addict presents infectious tunes from contemporary musicians across indie rock, pop, folk, electronica, and more.

Phantogram: NightlifePhantogram: Nightlife EP (Barsuk, 11/1/11)

Phantogram: “Don’t Move”

[audio:|titles=Phantogram: “Don’t Move”]

In 2010, the electronic-pop duo Phantogram burst on the scene with its impressive debut offering, Eyelid Movies. The duo, comprised of Josh Carter and Sarah Barthel, brought a fresh perspective to the indie scene, showcasing an album that was both elusive and grounded at the same time — simultaneously experimental and catchy. It was so well received, in fact, that Carter and Barthel were able to quit their day jobs and tour relentlessly in support of the album. Alternating between vocal duties, Barthel and Carter concocted an assortment of beat-heavy drum loops, ornamental guitar work, bipolar synthesizers and samples, and two-headed harmonies. Phantogram was one of the best new acts of year. And so the question remained, as it does with every notable debut act: could they follow it up?

With the six-song Nightlife EP, Phantogram builds on what made Eyelid Movies such an achievement in saturated digital pop. Yet again harboring a swath of soundscapes and sonic concoctions, Phantogram has constructed a record that fleshes out its strengths. Between Carter’s guitar work, Barthel’s keyboard work, and both of their vocal and sampling duties, the duo has positioned itself as one of indie’s most beloved new entities.

Cymbals Eat Guitars

Pop Addict: Cymbals Eat Guitars’ Lenses Alien

Every Thursday, Pop Addict presents infectious tunes from contemporary musicians across indie rock, pop, folk, electronica, and more.

Cymbals Eat Guitars: Lenses AlienCymbals Eat GuitarsLenses Alien (Barsuk, 8/30/11)

Cymbals Eat Guitars: “Rifle Eyesight (Proper Name)”

[audio:|titles=Cymbals Eat Guitars: “Rifle Eyesight (Proper Name)”]

A couple of years ago, Staten Island-based Cymbals Eat Guitars released Why There Are Mountains, an arresting, noisy display of off-kilter rock songs mixed with a few hooks and left turns. For many listeners, the album came out of left field. Its raucous guitars, crashing drums, and frantic vocals made Cymbals Eat Guitars an instant sensation in the indie-music scene, and soon, it was one of the most respected bands — and one of the best surprises — of 2009.

Now, two years later, the band that’s often touted as being “on the rise” has returned with its second effort. Lenses Alien, the band’s first offering since signing to Barsuk, looks to establish the band as a staple in indie rock.

Lenses Alien picks up where Why There Are Mountains left off, and builds indispensably upon the recklessly nurtured garage rock that the band has seemed to perfect in its short career. Pinpointing the band’s sound is a tad difficult — the music has elements of the PixiesPavement, and Pinback — but it keeps in step with tried-and-true lo-fi methods. Indeed, with Lenses Alien, Cymbals Eat Guitars has added another chapter to the musical styling of its solid debut. With album opener “Rifle Eyesight (Proper Name)” clocking in at more than eight minutes, and riveting tracks like “Keep Me Waiting” and “Shorepoints,” the band seems intent on hitting listeners with the full force of its grunge-meets-pop capabilities.

Say Hi

Guest Spots: Say Hi on the big break that wasn’t

Say Hi: Um Uh OhSay Hi: Um, Uh Oh (Barsuk, 1/25/11)

Say Hi: “Devils”

[audio:|titles=Say Hi: “Devils”]

Seattle-based singer/songwriter Eric Elbogen, a.k.a. Say Hi, just released his third full-length, Um, Uh Oh, since shifting to a one-man operation with a shortened name (formerly Say Hi To Your Mom). According to a Barsuk press release, the album is the “result of the last ten years of Eric Elbogen’s experiences with failing at relationships, both musical and otherwise.” Who better to tell a story of a tragic missed opportunity in Hollywood in the late ’90s? Read on, and see how Elbogen manages to effortlessly weave the title of his new album into his prose.

How I Squandered The Biggest Break Of My Life
by Eric Elbogen

It wasn’t until I moved out of Los Angeles, California 11 years ago that I realized how much of the rest of the country conceives of that city as nothing more than a velvet-roped landmark next to the Pacific Ocean, overflowing with actors and the sorts of people you see on Entourage. A common question I fielded once I moved to New York was whether or not the reason for me having been born in LA was because my parents were in “The Industry.” I’d usually make an attempt at dryly turning the tables, asking if the inquisitor’s parents were gangsters (if they were from New Jersey) or tobacco farmers (if they were from anywhere south of the Mason-Dixon). Nevertheless, there is one anecdote I collected from the 23 years I spent in La La Land that, I suppose, makes the aforementioned question a valid one.

On an unremarkable day at some point in the late ’90s, I left the sheltered micro-hills of UCLA to return to the smog-shrouded sprawl of the San Fernando Valley, in which I grew up. A friend of mine had started working for a casting agency, and was trying to round up a bunch of folk to be extras in a then-untitled film. I wanted the money and had the day free of classes, so I took the trip. At the time, I had been playing music in one of my pre-Say Hi bands and was still naïve enough to think that rockstar-dom would come knocking any day, that said rockstar-dom would immediately, completely, and utterly solve the entirety of my woes, so I scoffed to myself at the multiple hours of us extras waiting outside in a parking lot under a sun-blocking overhead tarp and on splintery high-school, cafeteria-style benches (remember, this was LONG before the existence of “Angry Birds”).