Best of the Blues 2021: John Kessler's favorite songs of the year
Many of these artists were new discoveries for me this year, which gives me much hope that blues music has a bright future. Blues is certainly evolving as a musical form, and it’s a very interesting time to be a listener and a fan.
Christone "Kingfish” Ingram — “Another Life Goes By”
At 22 years old, Kingfish is a bona fide blues prodigy who has been mentored by Buddy Guy. Since his first release in 2019, he has earned seven Blues Music Awards and a Grammy nomination. And 662 has been nominated this year for Best Contemporary Blues Album. Kingfish is an ace guitarist, but he has wisely put his energy into songwriting, making that the focus and letting his guitar support the mood of the song. This tune has a modern R&B feel, and Kingfish speaks plainly about racial injustice and violence that are sadly a part of life in America, particularly for young Black men.
Amythyst Kiah — “Hangover Blues”
Album: Wary + Strange
Amythyst Kiah grew up in eastern Tennessee and studied and absorbed the rich Appalachian music of that region. She also has an affinity for alternative rock, and when those two worlds meet, interesting things happen. Acoustic guitars blend with a very modern, murky and driving beat to support her intense and riveting voice.
Big Daddy Wilson — “Hard Time Blues”
Album: Hard Time Blues
Born and raised in North Carolina, Big Daddy Wilson joined the military and was stationed in Germany. Along with many other American jazz and blues artists, he felt that Europe was more hospitable to his ambitions to be a blues singer, so he stayed. After 30 years and several releases, he has now come to the attention of international audiences. Co-written by Eric Bibb, this lush, elaborate and slightly psychedelic production supports Wilson’s deep and soulful vocal.
Lilli Lewis — “One Shoe”
She’s known as the “Folk Rock Diva,” and sure enough, Lilli Lewis is a trained opera singer and classical pianist. As VP of Louisiana Red Hot Records, she has also been outspoken on racial, gender and LGTBQ equity in the music industry. The New Orleans native's music mixes a gumbo of American Roots styles. The gentle production of this song is in contrast to the subject matter, which deals with the history of slavery and the African American experience.
Jon Batiste — “Cry”
Album: We Are
The multi-talented singer and keyboard player has had a fantastically successful career, recording with the likes of Stevie Wonder and Mavis Staples and with his own band Stay Human, which is the musical anchor of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. He also co-wrote the score for the Pixar movie Soul, for which he received an Oscar. Not surprisingly, this dark and moody song is nominated for two Grammys — for American Roots Performance, and Song categories — and We Are is also nominated for Best R&B Album and Album of the Year.
Sunny War — “Age of a Man”
Sunny War honed her remarkable guitar chops playing on the streets in the LA area. After grappling with being homeless, she has recently found her way toward a real career as a touring and recording musician. The understated tone of this song conveys a palpable sense of melancholy and longing. This song also has unusual textures, combining sparkling acoustic guitar riffs that are countered by a modern horn section.
Robert Finley — “Souled Out on You”
Album: Sharecropper’s Son
The Louisiana native has been playing on and off for decades, working as a carpenter along the way. When he became legally blind in 2016, he turned to busking to support himself and was soon discovered by the Music Maker Relief Foundation, which helped him stage a musical comeback. Finley has since made three albums with producer Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys. The songs on the album are based on Finley’s upbringing on a crop share, and his emotion-laden voice is a magnet that draws you into this soulful blues song.
The Black Keys — “Crawling Kingsnake”
Album: Delta Kream
The Black Keys revisit their roots on their 10th release, saying, “We made this record to honor the Mississippi hill country blues tradition that influenced us starting out.” Based on a Junior Kimbrough version of John Lee Hooker’s “Crawling Kingsnake,” this song is gritty and grinding in the spirit of hill country blues, and the album is nominated for a Grammy in the Contemporary Blues category.
Jackie Venson — “Always Free”
Album: Love Transcends
The Austin-based singer and guitarist is a ferocious talent, capable of playing in the spirit of Jimi Hendrix with a voice powerful enough to match that intensity. (She also has an alter-ego as a music DJ “Jackie the Robot.”) After a frustrating experience at Berklee College of Music studying piano and composition, she found her way to the guitar and blossomed as a writer and performer. This funky rock song shows off her mad guitar abilities and soaring voice.
Eric Bibb — “Born of a Woman” featuring Shaneeka Simon
Album: Dear America
Eric Bibb said in our 2021 interview that this album is “an open love letter to the country of my birth … a message to fellow patriots.” While not a protest album, Bibb does address some difficult subject matter, including, on this song, domestic violence. The addition of singer Shaneeka Simon makes this song truly soar. Simon has sung back-up with Bibb before, but this is her first time sharing the lead vocal spotlight, and I can’t wait to hear more from this powerful vocalist.