The Worst of Times, The Best of Times: A Year in Music

2019 sucked for me. I lost my job of more than a decade in May and then had a long series of medical issues then landed me in the hospital four times and had some long periods of waiting that prevented me from really seriously looking for a job and ate up most of my severance. I also missed several concerts and events I had planned because of the medical issues. It pretty much sucked. 

And yet…

I can’t say that it was a bad year. I helped launch a new publishing company and we put out our first book. I had five stories published both here and abroad. I completed a full season covering the Sixers for a local paper. To top it off I got to go to a bunch of conventions representing Oddity Prodigy Productions and that is something that doesn’t get old. I’m not a big fan of the suffering artist trope, but it sure did feel like that this year. 

As I sit here writing this on the morning of New Year’s Eve I’ve realized that that the thing that pushes 2019 into the ‘good year’ category is the music. It was an incredible year for me musically. 

It started in January when The Vansaders, the great rock band from Asbury Park, released Standstill. I wrote about the album after listening and being blown away. Almost a year later, I still love the way it soundtracks rock and roll melancholia in a way that to some degree perfectly summed up my year. The Vansaders just released a cool cover of ‘Spanish Bombs’ that I love and a new split 7” called Quixote is coming in February. I’m excited for it. Someday soon someone important is gonna pick up on this band and they’re gonna take off like a shot. 

Primetime Illusion by Trapper Schoepp

February brought Primetime Illusion by Trapper Schoepp. I’ve written about Trapper a few times for this blog and considering he mentioned he’s writing a new album in 2020, odds are I’ll write about him even more. I’m a fan and honestly, I just believe in the guy. Some artists just deserve a wider audience and he’s one of them. 

Primetime Illusion is easily the album I’ve listened to most this year. The big song, “On, Wisconsin” got most of the attention because of the Bob Dylan connection, but that almost feels like a disservice to the other 10 songs. After months of listening to it, I’m still not sure I could pick a favorite from the bunch. 

Beyond the album, Schoepp released a beautiful cover version of “Free Fallin’” in honor of Tom Petty. It’s a delicate and loving version of the song. I got choked up the first time I heard it because I still miss Tom and you can tell Trapper does too. 

I wrote about getting to see him this year up in Pennsylvania. I’d hoped to see him twice this year on his East coast swing, but unfortunately, game seven of the Sixers playoff series with Toronto coincided with the show I had tickets for. Based on the way the game turned out I 100% should have gone to the show. 

The Story Is… by Skinny Lister

I wear a Skinny Lister beanie a lot, in fact, I’m wearing it now. It’s the most comfortable one I own and easily the one I get asked the most about. I’ll admit that’s part of why I wear it so much. It gives me a chance to tell people about Skinny Lister. In March they released “The Story Is…” It’s their fourth full-length album and just a wonderful piece of music. The title track, in particular, has stuck with me since I first heard it. It’s where the title of my column about the album comes from. 

Skinny Lister’s true strength comes from their borderline manic live performances and I was glad to have gotten to see them this year. They opened for The Interrupters and much as I love the Interrupters I wish it had been the other way. Half a set isn’t nearly enough with this band. One of the songs on the album is called “Rattle and Roar” and the title alone sums up the live experience with them. 

They didn’t release a new album, but right around the same time “The Story Is…” came out I got to see and interview Wheatus. The interview was just a quick five or six question affair, but it was the first time I’ve gotten to talk with a band in that capacity. They were lovely, gracious, and interesting. Coming up this year they’re re-recording and re-releasing their debut album with ‘Teenage Dirtbag’ on it. I’m hoping they come around again. 

Union by Son Volt

Son Volt’s most overtly political album, Union, came out next. I meant to write about it and never got around to it, even after seeing them perform. It’s a good album, maybe a bit shy of great. The track “The 99” is probably the strongest on the album when taken on its own, but the whole record works better as a single piece. I think they captured the political mood and the vibe in the country better than just about anyone else this year. Unfortunately, that vibe is pretty rough and it can make it a hard listen. Hard but rewarding. 

The next big album for me was Hollis Brown’s mighty “Ozone Park.” It’s as broad and muscular a rock and roll album as has come out in recent years. The mighty “Do Me Right” is the big single from it, although “Bad Mistakes” is catching up now I believe. This is another record where every track is great. It came out a week before I took a long road trip and I think at least 50% of the time I spent driving down highways was soundtracked by these tunes. 

Ozone Park by Hollis Brown

Hollis Brown is another act that deserves a much wider audience. Their brand of rock and roll is the kind that gets into your soul and makes your feet move of their own volition. I caught them when they came to Philadelphia opening for “Vintage Trouble” and someday I hope to see them headlining. It’s a complete mystery to me how they’re not blowing the roofs off of basketball arenas instead of clubs still. 

No Man’s Land by Frank Turner

Frank Turner changed things up a bit and put an album of folk-laced rock called “No Man’s Land.” It’s a concept album of songs about women in history whose stories we should know. It’s a wonderful album full of gems and power. There was some controversy about it, but nothing that really overshadowed the music. It wasn’t his most critically well-received album, but I loved it. In particular “Sister Rosetta” and “The Lioness”. I hadn’t known Sister Rosetta Tharp before but have been listening to her music regularly since this album came out. She was amazing and the song is great. The Lioness is a cool-as-hell song about another person I’d never heard of. Folk music will always be a great love of mine and Turner is pretty damn good at it. 

At the end of August Jesse Malin’s new album “Sunset Kids” and it is stunningly good. I went to a record release show and that Jesse and Derek Cruz performed in Philadelphia and you could tell right from go just how much they believed in the record. After listening to it, I believe in it too. It has been my default album since it came out, meaning if I’m not sure what I want to listen to, I just put it on and most of the time it turns out to be exactly what I wanted. 

Sunset Kids by Jesse Malin

I saw Malin again last month in Sellersville, PA, after having more time to marinate in songs, and hearing them with a full band just made them more powerful. Malin always puts on an incredible show but he’s taken it to a new level with this record. 

It’s hard to write about it without it sounding like I’m looking through a thesaurus to find synonyms for “awesome”, but it really is as fine a piece of music as anyone has put out in a long time. From deeply personal songs to good old fashioned rockers, it’s got everything. You should pick it up when you go to your local record shop to get the other albums I’ve mentioned. 

Right Here Where You Left Me by Avoid One Thing

The last big album that I wrote about was the most surprising one. I had no idea “Right Here Where You Left Me” by Avoid One Thing was coming. Up until I saw a post from artist Nan Coffey on facebook, I didn’t know Joe Gittleman, bassist for the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, had a side project. Sometimes side projects can be a little indulgent and boring, but that was far from the case here. From the moment I put the record on, not really knowing what to expect, I was blown away. 

Not only did I instantly love “Right Here Where You Left Me”, but it also changed the way I perceive the Bosstones. After hearing the record I could see how much musical influence Gittleman has on the band I love most in this world. It was a cool experience, but more than that it’s a great album. 

By my count, there are at least four instant classic tracks, “Enemy”, “Turning Down the Radar”, “Solitary Man”, and “Better Left Alone.” The rest of the songs aren’t far behind. I had hoped they might play an opening set at the Bosstones annual “Hometown Throwdown” this year it wasn’t to be. We did get treated to an acoustic version of ‘Solitary Man’ by Dave Fredette before nights two and three though, and like the song says “It will have to be good enough.” 

The Walker Roaders by The Walker Roaders

Speaking of the Hometown Throwdown, a late entry to this list of awesome 2019 music is the opening act from night one, “The Walker Roaders.” The band features James Fearnley of the Pogues, Ted Hutt from Flogging Molly, Marc Orrell from the Dropkick Murphys, as well as Brad Wood, Bryan Head, and Kieran Mulroney playing Pogue-Style Irish trad-punk. I picked up a copy of their eponymous debut at the show and I can see it’s going to live on my turntable for a while. They were wonderful and hilarious live, and the album is just as good. There is nothing better than falling in love with an opening band. Nothing. 

Western Stars by Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen released a California inspired album “Western Stars” which I’m still not totally sure about. I support artists doing new things, but nothing on it grabbed me beyond “Tucson Train.” If you like Bruce, it’s worth checking out. Your mileage may vary. If you dig that Laurel Canyon sound, there’s a lot there. 

Beans on Toast dropped “The Inevitable Train Wreck” and Big D and the Kids Table released “Strictly Covered.” I haven’t had time to really sit down with either album and really listen to them, but my first pass-through of both has me excited to get to know them. 

The Specials released “Encore”, which I dug, but somehow didn’t stick with. I’m going to try and get into the album a bit more soon, but it didn’t really grab me. Nothing bad, just nothing that jumped out at me. 

Locally, I got pretty heavily into “Gutterbrawl” by Eyebawl. They’re a grunge/punk band out of Wilmington that are a hell of a lot of fun. I saw then play in-store at my local record shop. It was an acoustic performance, which was a bit strange but still pretty cool. 

Years ago I loved a local band called Swingline that featured a friend of mine Tim, and a dude named Joe Castro. I rediscovered Joe’s music a few years ago at a Joe Strummer Tribute (I find a lot of new artists at Joe Strummer Tributes, a credit to his lasting legacy). I’ve followed him since and he put out an EP called “Wake Up, You’re Rocking” this year with his band Mighty Joe Castro and the Gravamen. It’s a fantastic collection of rockabilly songs that are a joy for your earholes. In particular, I love “Easy Listening”. If you like rockabilly or rock and roll in general, it’s worth your time. 

There was plenty of other stuff I bought or enjoyed. I’m currently listening to the Manfred Man version “Handbags and Gladrags.” It’s a song written way back in the ’60s that I didn’t know until the Bosstones used a clip of the song from Waysted’s cover in their Hometown Throwdown Promos. The Bosstones played it as their new cover each night of the Throwdown and I’m deeply in love with it. There have been so many songs like that over the year that I couldn’t even begin to list them. That’s the best part of music, new or old, it sticks around just waiting for you to find it. 

I thought about wrapping this up by picking a top album of the year, but as I write and listen I realize that that’s just not possible. I can say that my top four are “Ozone Park”, “Primetime Illusion”, “Sunset Kids” and “Right Here Where You Left Me”. The rest aren’t far behind. It was an incredible year for music and I’m excited for what 2020 will hold. 

I guess that’s the lesson. No matter how bad things get, artists like Trapper Schoepp or Jesse Malin are there for us, carrying us through the tough times with their sonic love and justice. Truly the best of times and worst of times.


Some of my favorite concert pics from this year:

Trapper Schoepp
Son Volt
Skinny Lister
Jesse Malin
The Interrupters
Hollis Brown


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