Best Of 2012

(strictly for fun ... and heated argument)

by Peter Jesperson



To my ears, there were more great records in 2012 than in recent years. At times, it seemed almost like a duel between the singers (Paul McCartney, The Unthanks, Sucre, Missy Higgins and Iris DeMent, among others) and the songwriters (Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Julia Stone, Ian Hunter and Paul Kelly to name just a few). 2012 is also remarkable to me for the fact that four of the best records were made by artists in their 70s - McCartney, Dylan, Cohen & Hunter.


1 Paul McCartney - Kisses On The Bottom

It’s pretty simple really. If you boiled it down to what my favorite thing in music is, it’s singing ... and Paul McCartney is my favorite singer of all-time. While I’m the first to admit he’s had his share of missteps, when he nails it, I’m helpless. As helpless as I was the first time I heard him sing “I Saw Her Standing There,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Kansas City” or “And I Love Her” in 1964; “Paperback Writer” or “Eleanor Rigby” in 1966; “Every Night” in 1970, “Winter Rose” in 1979, “Tug Of War” in 1982, “Calico Skies” in 1997 or “Dance ‘Til We’re High” in 2008. Throughout Kisses, Paul sings with such heart and special care that I am transported once again. An often unexpected selection of standards and expertly written songs, mostly pre-rock n’ roll stuff out of the Great American Songbook - from Irving Berlin’s “Always” to Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer’s “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate The Positive.” I was particularly WOW-ed by a song I’d never heard before called “My Very Good Friend The Milkman” (first done in 1934 by Fats Waller). I find one of the principle reasons these recordings are so outstanding is that Paul and his associates’ good sense in choosing the right keys for his vocal range at this stage of his life. If you’ve seen him live over the last decade, you’ll know what I mean. He doesn’t always avoid songs that he should these days. The album is a wonderful listen from top to bottom, further proof that McCartney is one of the greatest singers of the rock n’ roll era.


Addendum: From the pre-release publicity, I’d heard there were originals mixed in with the covers. Which, as I recalled on his otherwise brilliant album of classic rock n’ roll covers Run Devil Run (1999), didn’t work so well. When I got an advance of Kisses there were no credits so I tried to guess which ones the originals were. I was pleasantly surprised that I couldn’t - the originals were so well written, they fit seamlessly. Worth noting that the deluxe edition has two fabulous extra tracks, including a terrific re-recording of “Baby’s Request,” a kind of “Honey Pie”-style song Paul wrote and originally released on the criminally overlooked Wings album, Back To The Egg (1979). (



2 The Unthanks - Diversions Vol. 3 - Songs from the Shipyards

Right now, this band from Northumberland England are my current favorite on the planet; a folk group that transcends the genre and boasts two of the greatest singers of the 21st century - Rachel and Becky Unthank, not to mention the superb musical direction and piano playing of Adrian McNally. The group’s output is remarkable - Shipyards is their 4th album in 20 months! And the level of quality is consistently top notch. Diversions is an in-between proper studio albums series. # 1 and 2 were live. #3 is a studio recording. As the liner notes say: “Songs from the Shipyards is a Tyneside Cinema commissioned film ... The Unthanks were commissioned to create and perform a live soundtrack ... This record features ‘the best’ from that soundtrack.” As previously discussed in these ‘Best Of’ lists, I’m a mad Robert Wyatt fan and so are the Unthanks. Their recording of his “Sea Song” in 2007 is what first brought them to my attention. Here they cover another of his greatest songs - “Shipbuilding” (actually written by Clive Gregson and Elvis Costello) - and it is one of The Unthanks finest moments.


The Unthanks - Diversions Vol. 2 - The Unthanks with Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band

In their refusal to sit still, the Unthanks perform with brass arrangements on old and new songs and it works like a charm. How fortunate we are to have these restless and prolific artists in our midst!


Addendum: One of the elements that I always found most mind-boggling about the Unthanks is the level of perfection they reach on their studio recordings, the singing in particular is almost inhumanly perfect. I must admit I had a funny reaction to Diversions #1 and 2. Much as I love both, I heard flaws in the vocals - a natural enough thing in a live setting - but I didn’t want to admit it ... it was like I was in denial ... I wanted to remain under the illusion that they were not mere mortals! (


3 Bob Dylan - Tempest

I will always remember that the first time I heard Tempest was in a hotel room in Auckland, New Zealand and I must admit there’s a certain romance to that. But I really was overcome by both its greatness and how lucky I feel to still be getting great, new Bob Dylan records in 2012. The roll Bob has been on the last few albums continues. Better than the last one, Together Through Life, and on a par with Love And Theft and Modern Times, I played this album constantly. (


4 Julia Stone - By The Horns

If ever I have been bewitched by an artist, there is none more so than Julia Stone. I don’t find perfection here as I do, say, in the case of the Unthanks. I find fragility, confusion and jealousy, plenty of darkness and a whole lot of unlucky-in-love, all wrapped up in one of the most truly prodigious artistic talents I have ever encountered. And, in the course of the relentless risk-taking and subtle musical improvisation that Julia trades in (especially in a live setting), the flaws are somehow part of the attraction. So many great songs and performances on this record, it’s hard for me to single out any one track but Julia’s terrific cover of The National’s “ Bloodbuzz Ohio” surely leads the pack. Intelligent, poetic folk-rock music.


Addendum: Since 2006 Julia has made 2 solo albums, 2 Angus & Julia Stone albums (not to mention oodles of B-sides and bonus tracks and miscellaneous songs for soundtracks, etc.) and toured the world several times. There’s been a lot for fans to digest and it has all been done with style and class. With these Stones, everything always looks and sounds spectacular. I am utterly mystified by how overlooked Angus & Julia are in these United States. They are dripping with talent, it seems to ooze out of every pore. Multi-instrumentalist, Julia, is a commanding presence. I’ll never forget the first performance I saw them do. November 18th, 2008 at The Hotel Cafe in Hollywood. I had fallen hard for their first album and was almost sick to my stomach I was so excited to see them live. They were magnificent from the second they began but the moment most imbedded in my recall is during the song “Private Lawns,” as the instrumental break approached, Julia reached into the shadows on the dimly lit stage, pulled out a trumpet and proceeded to solo with great authority, beauty and no little spontaneous experimentation. Or a Julia Stone Band performance in the Masonic Lodge at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery (!) last June when she strapped on an electric guitar and took a raunchy solo on “Break Apart.” Or during another JSB performance I caught in the intimate Community Center in Byron Bay, Australia in September when she suddenly decided she wanted to do a song the band had never heard before. After a quick tutorial, they launched into non-LP track, “The River,” and delivered the single most thrilling segment of the night. Of course, sometimes Julia falls on her face when she pulls this sort of thing. And when she does, she laughs, dusts herself off and takes it in stride. But I have seen her triumph more often than fail and the payoff is exhilirating. (



5 Leonard Cohen - Old Ideas

I swear, the first ten times I listened to Old Ideas, I thought to myself, “This can’t be as good as I think it is!” With all due respect, his two previous albums had not been strong and one sensed that Leonard’s best recordings were behind him. How wrong that was! (


6 Lambchop - Mr. M

A rare occurrence, what I would call a perfect record. And hearing songs from it performed at McCabe’s in April was a revelation. Lambchop must be one of the tightest bands in the world right now. They use sound dynamics as well as anyone I can think of, daring to play quietly and with such subtlety that it’s breathtaking, then seamlessly connecting to louder moments that are majestic, euphoric even. It was one of the great concert experiences I’ve ever had. As cerebrally stimulating as it was uncommonly beautiful (melodies, as they say, “to die for”!). Kurt Wagner has now leapt to the top of the lyric-writing list for me - words that puzzle and challenge and make you laugh, even some catchy choruses … in some ways similar to Robert Forster or Vic Chesnutt; or, dare I say, Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan (interestingly, the last song of the show was Dylan’s “I Threw It All Away”). It was one of those shows where I literally gasped out loud several times. All clearly gifted musicians, they sounded like a mini-orchestra and, again, so unbelievably tight, it felt like I was like watching classical musicians. People refer to Lambchop as “Americana.” I really don’t know what I’d call this music ... brainy, melodic, prog-folk maybe? … but it sure ain’t Americana if you ask me.(


7 Sucre - A Minor Bird

Sucre is a group that features Stacy (DuPree) King from the band Eisley. If it weren’t for the natural inclination to miss sister Sherri’s voice, this would be as good as an Eisley record for me. Sucre is Stacy, husband Darren King (from Mutemath) and secret weapon / composer / arranger / keyboardist Jeremy Larson. Together they’ve fashioned a stunning, focused record full of melody and wonder. And that focus was in spectacular view in their live performance at The Bootleg Bar last April. One of the two or three greatest performances I saw all year. (


8 Angus Stone - Broken Brights

Where Angus’s first solo record, Smoking Gun (under the name Lady Of The Sunshine - 2009) was simple, beautiful, sometimes rockin’ but a touch tentative, Broken Brights is a firmly committed, fully realized, wildly inspired technicolor experience overflowing with excellent songs in a variety of styles, including a slow rocker reminiscent of “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” One of those almost perfect records that just sounds like it was a blast to make! File under folk-rock. (


9 Missy Higgins - The OlRazzle Dazzle

This music came to me first as a submission to the label I work with. Missy’s manager sent a few rough mixes before the album was finished. I instantly loved what I heard. A deal with the label didn’t work out but the finished album became one of my most played records of they year. This is smart pop-rock music at it’s very best - well written, adventurously played and produced and the singing absolutely slays me. Her first two albums made her a sort of teen superstar in Australia. I found her taking the reins of her career for the third record and making it in Nashville with decidedly non-mainstream producer Brad Jones enormously inspiring. ( 


10 Ian Hunter & The Rant Band - When I’m President

Ian Hunter has been on a serious roll on his last three albums, beginning with 2001’s Rant. He’s currently making records about as brilliant as he’s ever made, either solo or with Mott The Hoople. Just listen to the title song here! “When I’m President” is an anthem, vital and true, unquestionably one of the greatest songs of 2012. (


11 Paul Kelly - Spring And Fall

A classic Paul Kelly album. A song cycle built around the “seasons” of a romance. Daring in its frankness, inspiring in its execution and simply beautiful in performance. Why this guy isn’t as big as, say, Bruce Springsteen, I will never understand. He’s every bit as talented.(


12 Various artists - The Songs Of Leonard Cohen Covered

A Mojo Magazine cover-mount CD that I played constantly, maybe more than any other music mag comp before. 15 artists covering Cohen songs from all eras, including Bill Callahan, Palace Songs and Father John Misty. Some following Cohen’s original arrangements, some doing reinterpretations. Michael Kiwanuka’s version of “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye” was one of my most played tracks of the year. But it’s not about any one cut here, it’s about the way this 15 song collection hangs together in a perfect sort of way. Well done Mojo! (


13 Iris DeMent - Sing The Delta

Iris’s first album of original material since 1996’s The Way I Should. Her writer’s block has clearly and marvelously disappeared! And what a singer she is! (


14 Black Swan Runners - An Aside

The Coco B’s under a new name. Power-pop at its finest! Leader / writer / singer Kevin Castillo is in top form once again. (


15 Now, Now - Threads

I love this record from start to finish. I came across this music while prepping for SxSW, going through a Paste E-Zine list of 25 bands not to miss. Their cool photo grabbed me, I clicked on a song link, heard 30 seconds of the song “Thread” and fell for them immediately. To me, reminiscent of Eisley and Tegan and Sara, though sparser, less words and more of a focus on the music. Dreamy, sometimes intense, Joy Division-ish stuff with excellent harmony vocals. Produced and mixed by Howard Redekopp, best known for his work with Tegan and Sara, New Pornographers and An Horse. Released on Chris Walla’s Trans- label. And I was delighted when I found out they are from my old hometown, Minneapolis. (


16 Kathleen Edwards - Voyageur

I have to thank my pal, Kent Liu at Concord records, for turning me onto this album and Kathleen in general. The song “Empty Threat” was one of my most played of the year and I have since gone back and fallen for her previous albums. Fantastic, melodic, pop rock singer-songwriter stuff! (


17 Peter Buck - self titled

A fantastic and eclectic debut solo album from an artist no one expected would ever even make a solo album! (


18 Tom Lark - self-titled (EP)

Completely un-ironic, sincere pop-rock quintet, everybody sings beautifully. Leader Shannon Fowler is one of those artists I would call ‘gifted,’ equally strong as a musician, songwriter and vocalist. I first heard them at a showcase in Auckland, NZ in September and was most impressed. Saw them two more times in Brisbane the following week and I was hooked. In the states for CMJ the next month, they stopped off in LA and did two shows - one as great as what I’d seen before; the other, not so strong; but if I could roll the dice on one new band right now, I’d do it with Tom Lark. (


19 Sarah Blasko - I Awake

A live driven selection. I have been a fan of Sarah’s for a while now but had never seen her perform. She came to LA in November, played the Hotel Cafe and was devastatingly great. A voice unlike anyone I’ve ever heard before - thick, throaty and dramatic with perfect pitch. (


20 The Walkmen - Heaven

Same lineup for twelve years. They continue to develop and evolve and change but it’s still that singular, identifiable Walkmen sound. Each record has been strong and they continue to refine their art as they go. Heaven is a mature work, more focused than ever. (


21 Mark Eitzel - Don’t Be A Stranger

Mark’s best in quite a while, from the songs to the singing to the gorgeous production. One of post-punk’s most arty pioneers and emotive vocalists, you can frequently hear Mark’s influence on newer art-rock artists (like The National for instance). (


22 Shoes - Ignition

One of the records I was most shocked by this year on first listen. I’ve liked most everything they’ve ever done but Ignition is their best in quite some time.  These guys were a HUGE deal to my circle of musical cronies and I when they burst onto our radar with their prototypical DIY album, Black Vinyl Shoes, in 1977. It is such a warm feeling to hear how strong this new record is, like hearing from an old friend. Again, Power-Pop at its finest! (


23 Dan Stuart - The Deliverance of Marlowe Billings

A remarkable record from a remarkable artist, coming into his own all over again. This is serious stuff but that’s not to say he lacks a healthy sense of humor about it all. A rock n’ roll artiste in the finest sense of the word, I listened to this record constantly. (


24 Neil Young - Psychedelic Pill

Shocking, really, how Neil can continually go back to the Crazy Horse sound and still make it sound fresh and vital. (


25 Best Coast - The Only Place

The catchiest band in the land. Short bursts of pop-rock that somehow sound vintage and modern at the same time. (


26 Neon Trees - Picture Show

This one is especially meaningful for me as it’s the first band my 10 year old boy, Autry, turned me onto! This is what I would call classic, modern Top 40 music. Excellent pop-rock that you want to sing along with, sturdily built to withstand repeated listens. Featuring one of the best front-men in eons, Tyler Glenn, who’s voice sounds to me like a perfect blend of Rufus Wainwright and Gaz Coombes. (


27 Steve Almaas - Trailer Songs

This album was a constant companion of mine throughout the year. I kept coming back to it again and again. I love its eclecticism. “Your Life To Live” is a favorite and one of my most played songs of the year, reminding me of the great Thunderclap Newman. The sly Stones’ “Prodigal Son” reference on the intro of “Two Black Swans” is a real treat, among many others on this consistently great record. (


28 M. Ward - A Wasteland Companion

Another fantastic album from an artist I admire immensely. He forges his own path and has created a successful career in a time when that isn’t an easy thing to do. (


29 Gaz Coombes - Here Come The Bombs

A blast of a record and first solo outing from the Supergrass front-man. It covers some new ground and is also reminiscent of where he came from. Somewhat uneven but promising much for the next installment. (


30 Bright-Little-Field - Treatment Bound - A Ukelele Tribute To The Replacements

On paper this seemed like it would be nothing but a novelty. But due to the palpable love and care for the material, it’s actually much more than that. A solid and fun record that reminds us just what great songs these are! (


31 Rumer - Boys Don’t Cry

On paper, a Rumer covers album seemed like an excellent idea though maybe not the wisest follow-up to her brilliant debut. Particularly exciting was hearing her do Jimmy Webb’s obscure ode to songwriter P.F. Sloan and the sadly overlooked Clifford T. Ward’s “Home Thoughts.” (


32 Trapper Schoepp & The Shades

Catchy, spirited Americana from Milwaukee. (


33 Adele & Glen - self titled

The first album by longtime collaborators and outstanding rhythm section, Adele Pickvance & Glen Thompson, best known for their work with the later-day Go-Betweens and Robert Forster solo. Well constructed, inspiring pop-rock.(


34 Farrar, Parker, Johnson, Yames - New Multitudes

Another excellent excursion into putting old Woody Guthrie words to new music. (


35 The dB’S - Falling Off The Sky

A strong and welcome comeback from one of my favorite bands of all-time! (


36 NRBQ - We Travel The Spaceways

Terry Adams and the all new line-up are still doing it in classic Q style.



37 Carole King - The Legendary Demos

A thrilling, enlightening, long overdue and just plain great release ... still, one can’t help but wonder why there are so few when there must be zillions to choose from and why they picked some of the titles of lesser interest.(



The Go-Betweens - Quiet Heart - The Best Of


Live Shows (in LA except otherwise noted):


Tommy Keene - The Silverlake Lounge 1/24

James McCartney - The Viper Room 1/27

The Jayhawks - The Avalon 2/2

Elliott Brood - The Echo - 3/3

The Parson Red Heads - The Troubadour 3/7

Busby Marou - The Echo 3/11

SXSW 2012 - White Violet, Max Gomez, The Mastersons, Buxton, Ponderosa, Kalen Nash, Grandfather Child, Tom Morello, Wild Moccasins, Big Star Third Concert, Tommy Stinson, Tristen, The dB’s

Paul & Dan Kelly - Largo 3/20

Sucre - The Bootleg Bar 4/12

Nathaniel Rateliff - The Troubadour 4/18

Missy Higgins - Nokia Theater 4/19

Lambchop - McCabe’s 5/5

Shelby Lynne - McCabe’s 5/18

Leslie Stevens - The Troubadour 5/23

Julia Stone - Masonic Lodge at The Hollywood Forever Cemetery 6/1

Tristen - The El Rey Theater 6/28

Missy Higgins - The Troubadour 7/19

The Everyday Visuals - The Silverlake Lounge 8/7

Tegan and Sara - Warner Records 8/24

Going Global Music Summit (music conference)

- Wellington, New Zealand - Matt Langley, Family Cactus, The Eversons, Sunken Seas, Disasteradio, The Golden Awesome 9/6

- Auckland, NZ - Two Cartoons, Five Mile Town, Tom Lark, Clap Clap Riot, The Wyld, She’s So Rad, Glass Owls, Artisan Guns, Popstrangers, Von Voin Strum 9/8

- Christchurch, NZ - Mel Parsons, Ashei, House Of Mountain, Ipswich 9/10

BIGSOUND (music conference)

- Brisbane, QLD, Australia

We All Want To, Halfway, Tom Lark, Transistor, Caitlin Park, Winter People, Catherine Britt, Tom Lark (again!), Adele & Glenn, Saskwatch, David Bridie, Courtney Barnett 9/12 & 13

Jonathan Wilson - (venue?) Sydney 9/15

James Thomsen, Suzy Connolly, Sam Shinazzi - The Petersham Bowling Club - Sydney 9/16

Julia Stone - The Spiegeltent - Brisbane Festival 9/19 & 9/20

Julia Stone - Community Center - Byron Bay 9/21

Nick Lowe with Eleni Mandell - The Troubadour 10/3

Tim Easton - Hotel Cafe 10/16

The Whigs - The Bootleg Bar 10/18

Tom Lark - House Of Blues - Foundation Room 10/22 & The Echo 10/23

Buxton - The Satellite 11/1

Mark Eitzel - The Echo 11/4

The Parson Red Heads - The Satellite 11/10

Sarah Blasko - Hotel Cafe 11/14

Curtiss A - The Belmore - Minneapolis 11/29

Trapper Schoepp & The Shades - The 7th St. Entry 11/30




On a very sad note, in February, dear friend and musician Bob ‘Slim’ Dunlap suffered a severe stroke. His recovery has been slow at best but he’s being well cared for and we are all hopeful that he can get better, a little or a lot. We are raising money for him via a series called Songs For Slim. Please lend a hand if you can to this great man who has given others so much. For details:




In the Can’t Not Mention Department

In the ongoing saga of my obsession with the music of the southern hemisphere, I was fortunate to be invited back to BIGSOUND music conference ( in Brisbane (Australia) as well as New Zealand’s Going Global Music Summit ( The latter was a particularly profound experience. Along with nine other people from various countries and positions in the industry, I went to Wellington, Auckland and Christchurch. We traveled in a pack, bonding and learning from one another, while speaking to folks already in the music business and others hoping to get in. NZ is an amazing place, landscapes so beautiful they looked like paintings, tons of great bands and consistently the best live sound I’ve heard in years.

Then on to Brisbane & BIGSOUND, so well curated and organized, it’s a model of how to run a true, artistic music industry gathering. Between the two conferences I saw about 40 bands. So many great ones I’m not sure where to start but Halfway, Tom Lark, Transistor, Two Cartoons (with special guest Martin Phillips from The Chills!), Courtney Barnet, Caitlin Park and Saskwatch were among the best of what I saw. Keynotes by Steve Earle, Ben Lee & Ian Haug (from Powderfinger) were other highlights.

Speaking of highlights, in a real dream-come-true, I got to work in a recording studio in Brisbane for a couple of days with one of my current favorite bands on the planet, Halfway ( They were just starting their 4th album with producer and former co-leader of The Go-Betweens, Robert Forster and asked if I would sit in and offer my two cents, which I was happy and thrilled to do!

On my first two trips to Oz, my only glimpses of Sydney were from the airport so I rectified that this time, spending a couple of days there with the Laughing Outlaw folks, Stuart Coupe and Vicki Wilkinson, and seeing several of their bands at a wonderful Sunday afternoon gathering at the Petersham Bowling Club (built in 1896!).

From there, I went to Melbourne for a sort of music biz power lunch with friends: Dave Laing from WB Australia and all ‘round music maven; Bruce Milne, founder of groundbreaking Aussie punk/new wave label Au Go Go Records and the gent who I owe so much to for putting out the first two Dan Kelly albums on his label Infidelity; Mary Mihelakos who, among many other things, is the ‘Den Mother’ of the Aussie Barbecue (“taking Australian music to the world”!); my dear friend and band manager extraordinaire, Bernadette Ryan; and the great Tim Rogers, lead singer of the mighty and long-running rock n’ roll band You Am I. I’ll tell ya, sitting next to Tim for an hour and a half was a blast, he’s a mix of artiste and stand-up comic, a very warm and interesting conversationalist. Did a little record shopping of course (astounding to note, Melbourne actually supports 51 record stores!).

I was also lucky that the stars lined up for me and I was able to catch Julia Stone live three nights in a row - twice in the spectacular Spiegeltent at The Brisbane Festival and once in the intimate Community Center in Byron Bay. To be honest, the first show wasn’t all that great but the other two knocked my socks off. The ups and downs are just part of the equation with this exceptional artist. A word about Byron Bay - as I said to Jennifer, if you looked up ‘Paradise’ in the dictionary, they could well have a photo of the place next to the description!