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Best of the blues 2022: John Kessler's favorite songs of the year

A collection of album covers.

KNKX All Blues host John Kessler is always on the lookout for songs that will stop you in your tracks and make you listen—or dance, or cry. A multitude of great releases in 2022 made it difficult to narrow down to the "top ten." This year’s list is full of beloved veterans and promising newcomers.

Buddy Guy — “I Let My Guitar Do the Talking”
Album: The Blues Don't Lie

At age 86, Buddy knows he’s nearing the end of his remarkable run, and has announced his farewell tour in 2023. All along, though, he’s kept growing as a songwriter. As ever, his guitar still bites and his voice can still move you. He’s not breaking any new ground on this autobiographical rocker, but he tells the story convincingly and plays his Stratocaster with the same brash attitude that inspired Jimi Hendrix in the 1960s. This album is full of other gems, like the title track and “We Go Back” with Mavis Staples.

Shemekia Copeland — “Too Far to Be Gone”
Album: Done Come Too Far

Shemekia Copeland is done mincing words. One of the most recognizable singers of the day is using her voice to speak out on social issues. Her last three releases are full of what can be described as “protest” music, although in our recent interview she denied being political, saying, “They're just about what's happening, you know? And some of those issues are uncomfortable.” Copeland is able to focus her commentary in the same hopeful way that Sam Cooke and the Staple Singers brought to their protest songs of the 1960s. Here she’s saying that with the progress that’s been made, there’s no turning back. Adding the ferocious slide guitar of Sonny Landreth gives this one a Led Zeppelin-ish feel.

Indra Rios-Moore— “I Won’t Back Down”
Album: Freedom Road

This was the surprise of the year for me. While Tom Petty’s original featured the jangly guitars and harmonies of Beatle George Harrison, Indra Rios-Moore pares things back to a jazz trio format, with the focus on her voice, which at times is frail and other times bold. Like some other songs originally performed by men, changing gender with a woman’s perspective gives this song new meaning as a protest song. Understatement is the rule throughout, with a ringing minimalist guitar solo.

Eric Gales — “You Don’t Know the Blues”
Album: Crown

Eric Gales is quite simply one of the best guitarists in any genre, and in the tradition of bluesmen before him, claims his territory with this bold release. This song features an airtight blues groove, and he mostly keeps it simple, giving brief glimpses of his other-worldly guitar playing. As the album title implies, Eric Gales is here to stake his claim to blues royalty.

Blue Moon Marquee — “Come On Down”
Album: Scream, Holler & Howl

With elements of gypsy jazz, mambo and vintage swing, this slinky song is loaded with ambience. The Canadian duo conjure up a haunting and infectious scene that may make you feel like you’ve stepped into a burlesque club run by Gomez and Morticia Adams. Duke Robillard’s production is clean and loaded with extra reverb.

Lady Blackbird — “It’s Not That Easy”
Album: Black Acid Soul

Although Marley Munroe has been in the music business for a few years, this is her debut as the jazz-tinged Lady Blackbird. Nothing I say can prepare you for her gripping voice, which evokes the soul of Nina Simone. Another understated production leaves her voice, in all its vulnerability and strength, out front in the mix.

Ledisi — “Knockin’”

There’s a good chance you’ve heard of Ledisi apart from this list. She’s been nominated for 14 Grammys, and won the award in 2021 for Best Traditional R&B Performance. She’s also an accomplished actress who has portrayed Mahalia Jackson, Gladys Knight, and Patti LaBelle. Here she’s fronting a band that includes George Porter, Jr. of the Meters and members of the Neville family. New Orleans royalty aside, this is a monster groove from top to bottom, and Ledisi matches that with attitude and vocal chops to spare. Wait until near the end to hear her unleash her high octave!

The Love Light Orchestra — “Come On Moon”
Album: Leave the Light On

Singer John Nemeth and guitarist Joe Restivo summon a smoky mid-60s vibe on this original with a big band blues sound. Atmosphere is the game here with reverb to spare in high fidelity. Nemeth’s impassioned vocal and Restivo’s blistering guitar are well matched in intensity and delivery. A classy production that goes from a whisper to a roar.

Bonnie Raitt — “Here Comes Love”
Album: Just Like That

It’s been six years since her last studio album, and while Bonnie Raitt is not reinventing the wheel here, she returns with a collection of songs that hearken to her earlier days, with the familiar combination of her sultry voice, greasy grooves and shimmering slide guitar. This is such a strong release that at least four songs were contenders this year. Bonnie Raitt keeps doing what only she can do, with love songs that break your heart, love songs that break your heart even more, and love songs you can dance to, like this one.

Drew Foust — “These Days”
Album: Good Thing

Another new discovery for this year from a young-ish North Carolina blues guitar player who found his way to classic southern soul. This straightforward original modern-soul production has a familiar feel, as it’s inspired by the Memphis/Stax sound of the '60s and '70s.

Other 2022 albums worth listening to:

  • Tedeschi Trucks Band— I Am The Moon
  • Yates McKendree— Buchanan Lane
  • Mavis Staples and Levon Helm— Carry Me Home
  • Diunna Greenleaf— I Ain’t Playin’
  • Janiva Magness—Hard to Kill
  • Fantastic Negrito— Black Jesus White Problems
  • Larkin Poe— Blood Harmony
  • Seth Walker— I Hope I Know
John has worked as a professional bassist for 20 years, including a 15 year stint as Musical Director of the Mountain Stage radio program. John has been at KNKX since 1999 where he hosts “All Blues”, is producer of the BirdNote radio program, and co-hosts “Record Bin Roulette”. John is also the recording engineer for KNKX “In-Studio Performances”. Not surprisingly, John's main musical interests are jazz and blues, and he is still performing around Seattle.