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.


Review: Why?’s Sod in the Seed EP

Why?: Sod in the Seed EPWhy?: Sod in the Seed (Anticon, 8/14/12)

“Sod in the Seed”

Why?: “Sod in the Seed”

With the forthcoming Mumps, Etc. LP promising another new direction for indie-hop group Why? — this time with expanded orchestration — its Sod in the Seed EP comes to whet its fans’ appetites. And though its material is nearly all exclusive to the EP (only the title track is a repeat), at six songs and 17 minutes, it’s short and distinct.


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.


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.


The Groove Seeker: Tune-Yards’ Whokill

The Groove Seeker goes in search of killer grooves across rock, funk, hip hop, soul, electronic music, jazz, fusion, and more.

Tune-Yards: Whokill (4AD, 4/19/11)

Tune-Yards: “Bizness”

[audio:|titles=tUnE-yArDs: “Bizness”]

If you’ve ever seen Merill GarbusTune-Yards play live, you understand how resourceful and creative a musician she is. With a ragtag set of drums and ukulele close at hand, Garbus builds her songs from scratch by live-looping repetitive drum and vocal patterns. Crafty to say the least, her performances are a multitasking puzzle of pedal stepping and vocal-scat arranging, revealing compositions and melodies that are spontaneous but clearly logical.

As Tune-Yards, Garbus surprised many with a gem of a debut in 2009. That record, Bird-Brains, thrives on the same weirdness and DIY attitude that make Garbus’ live shows so enjoyable. Not only were the songs recorded using a freeware program, but the folk-inspired experiments are packed with field recordings, Dictaphone samples, and intermittent elements of R&B and hip hop, all loosely fastened down by Garbus’ versatile Afro-pop-influenced vocals.

Whokill, Garbus’ second album under the case-sensitive moniker (generally stylized as tUnE-yArDs), sees her trading in the Dictaphone for some full-blown studio time. Tracked and mixed by Eli Crews (producer for Deerhoof and Why?), with co-writing credits going to bassist Nate Brenner (Beep), the record shows definite growth from those lo-fi-recording days. Thankfully, a bit of studio polish doesn’t take away her charm and musical wit.  If anything, the new approach gives her avant-garde pop the right venue in which to be properly heard.

The Groove Seeker: Beep’s City of the Future

On a weekly basis, The Groove Seeker goes in search of killer grooves across rock, funk, hip hop, soul, electronic music, jazz, fusion, and more.

Beep: City of the Future (Third Culture Records, 1/18/11)

Beep: “Robo Pup”
[audio:|titles=Beep: “Robo Pup”]

San Francisco-based trio Beep has tapped into a fresh vanguard with its upcoming release City of the Future. The indie-rock-meets-experimental-jazz trio is commanding without being loud, making the dynamics and improvisational strategies of jazz accessible to a whole new audience. City of the Future contains pieces that advance rather than deconstruct in an accomplished style that forgoes any art-school tropes narrowly associated with the experimental tag.

Produced by Eli Crews (producer for Deerhoof and Why?), the record is marked by passionate percussion and a broad sense of what a melody can sound like. Making avant garde sound closer than ever to the present, Beep has found a sound that mixes the vibrancy of the modern rock recording with the experimental subtleties of a jazz record.