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John Kessler’s Top 10 Blues Albums Of 2015

Buddy Guy — 2014 Born to Play Guitar RCA  

You don’t have to read a book to learn the story of Buddy Guy’s life; it’s all here on this album. Back in 2008, Buddy Guy started collaborating with Nashville songwriter and producer Tom Hambridge, and four albums later that partnership is still flourishing, with a unique combination of Nashville songwriting sensibility and Buddy’s hard-core electric blues. At age 79, Buddy hasn’t exactly mellowed with age—he’s still a wild genius guitarist; his voice remains inviting and he tells his stories with utmost believability. He’s certainly on the short list of all-time greatest blues players, and this is my favorite blues release of the year.


Shemekia Copeland — Outskirts of Love Alligator

Shemekia Copeland has made quite a musical journey for a young artist. Her earlier albums shifted gradually from traditional blues, towards R & B and funk. Now, on her seventh release and third with Producer Oliver Wood, she has solidified her own niche as a tough-but-sensitive singer, able to bring a strong bluesy vibe to a sound that includes roots, folk and soul. Not restricting herself to traditional material has allowed her to wander all over the musical map, from ZZ Top’s “Jesus Just Left Chicago” to Jesse Winchester’s “Isn’t That So”.



Walter Trout — Battle Scars Provogue

Another autobiographical album, from the hard-rocking bluesman Walter Trout. It is a musical document of his life-and-death struggle with, and eventual triumph over liver disease. This is not a feel-good blues album, but it is a powerful piece of work, maybe his finest. You can sense Walter Trout knew these might be his last words; each song captures a moment of his battle and how it affected him and the people around him. Happily he has recovered and has resumed touring.


Robin McKelle — Heart of Memphis Doxie/Vizztone

After five more or less straight jazz vocal albums, Robin McKelle has turned her attention to Memphis-inspired soul music. As a soul singer she is not a shouter, her voice is slinky and subtle, with finesse honed by her experience singing jazz. These mostly original songs emulate the best of Memphis soul, without sounding formulaic. Al Green would feel right at home in this musical landscape. Key tracks include “About to Be Your Baby” and “Like a River”.


Danielle Nicole — Wolf Den Concord

Wolf Den is the first solo project for the singer and bassist with the band Trampled Underfoot. After wining the IBC challenge in 2008, TU had a #1 Billboard blues release with 2008’s Badlands. Without taking anything away from TU, Danielle Nicole was the main attraction, with a mournfully appealing voice and distinctive and solid bass grooves. This solo outing of mostly original songs, many co-written with New Orleans-based guitarist/producer/writer Anders Osborn, and Galactic drummer Stanton Moore adds some extra funk to her already considerable soul.


Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin — Lost Time Yeproc

Dave Alvin and Phil Alvin have been a musical force since the early '80s with The Blasters, a roots-rock band with garage-rock attitude. Dave left the Blasters, joining the alternative band X, and later, the country-folk band The Knitters. The brothers re-united in 2014 and seem happy to be back together playing feel-good, jumping West Coast blues, with hints of T-Bone Walker and Joe Turner, whose composition “Wee Baby Blues” is one of the best here.


Mike Henderson — You Think It’s Hot Here Ellersoul

One of my favorite obscure guitar geniuses, who can also sing the blues convincingly. Mike is an “old bull”—he takes his time, he’s not in a rush to show off his chops, which are considerable, especially on slide guitar. Backed by an ace band of Nashville cats —Michael Rhodes on bass, Kevin McKendree on keys and Pat O’Conner on drums — they lay down plenty of thick, swampy, decidedly southern sounding grooves. Muddy Waters’ “Mean Red Spider” and Henderson’s “Weepin’ and Moanin’” are stand-out tracks.


Various Artists — Muddy Waters 100 Raisin’ Music

Recorded in honor of Muddy Waters on occasion of his 100th birthday in 2013, this collection has John Primer up front on vocals, backed on different songs by Derek Trucks, Shemekia Copeland, Johnny Winter, Gary Clark, Jr. and James Cotton. John Primer played in Muddy’s band in the early '80s and is a perfect person to lead this project, as his voice and attitude are reminiscent of Muddy’s. It’s not all traditional, some of my favorite tracks lean towards “trance-blues”, especially the version of “Mannish Boy”.


Sonny Landreth — Bound By The Blues Mascot

 A truly original slide guitarist, Sonny Landreth sounds like no one else on the planet. His sonic signature is shimmering, shape-shifting and never at rest, due in part to his innovative way of fingering notes behind the slide, which he places on his pinky. On this release, Landreth focuses on blues standards that he learned early on, like “Walkin’ Blues” and “It Hurts Me Too”, as well as some swampy originals tunes like “The High Side”.


Boo Boo Davis — Oldskool Black and Tan

Boo Boo Davis is old school. He is from the tradition of bluesmen that write and play the blues based on first hand experience of a hard life in the Mississippi Delta. One thing that makes this release stand out is the simple yet effective backing of his Dutch band with John Gerritse on drums and Jan Mittendorp on guitar. Their grooves are unhurried and greasy, leaving plenty of room for the featured attraction of Davis’ voice, which drips with history and pure raw emotion. This entire album was clearly recorded in one take, the best and only way to capture the spirit of an old-school bluesman like Boo Boo Davis.

Also worth a listen:

  • Rhiannon Giddens Tomorrow is My Turn
  • Gary Clark, Jr. – The Story of Sonny Boy Slim
  • Joe BonamassaMuddy Wolf at Red Rocks
  • Billy Gibbons - Perfectamundo
  • Dudley Taft Skin and Bones
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.