John Kessler shares annual list of top 10 blues albums
Our holiday tradition continues. All Blues host John Kessler shares his top 10 blues albums the year. See which artists made the cut below, and listen to All Blues every Saturday and Sunday at 6 p.m.
Boz Scaggs, "Out of the Blues" — Concord Records
Boz started with the blues, singing with Steve Miller in the 1960s before his own massive success in the 70s with radio hits such as “Lowdown” and “Lido Shuffle.” His last three releases have been part of what he describes as a trilogy exploring his musical roots. As the album title suggests, the blues is a big part of that, and he covers Bobby Blue Bland and Jimmy Reed here, but the best tracks are the originals, written by Scaggs or his musical partner Jack Walroth. Stellar instrumentation includes Jim Keltner on drums, Willie Weeks on bass and guitars from Ray Parker Jr., Doyle Bramhall II and Charlie Sexton.
Marcia Ball, "Shine Bright" — Alligator
“It is a ridiculously hopeful, cheerful record,” Marcia Ball said about her latest release, which also marks her 50th year in the business. Along the way, she has made some great music as a pioneer of Louisiana swamp rock and roadhouse rhythm and blues. Produced by Steve Berlin of Los Lobos, the album is one of Ball’s strongest works, and features nine of her new original tunes. There is a decidedly positive and upbeat vibe here, exemplified by the funky and driving title tune, and a call for social justice on “Pots and Pans.”
Buddy Guy, "The Blues is Alive and Well" — RCA
Time has not hobbled Buddy Guy. He has just become wiser over the years. Ace producer Tom Hambridge has again assembled a collection of original songs that allow Buddy Guy to tell his story of a life lived in the blues. His guitar still stings and sings — remember, Buddy Guy has been a guitar innovator all along, inspiring people such as Jimi Hendrix to look for new ways to coax sounds out of wood and metal. Appearances from Jeff Beck, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger spice things up and there is a sense of passing the torch in a duet with young British guitarist James Bay.
Ry Cooder, "The Prodigal Son" — Fantasy
Ry Cooder has always drawn upon the rich history of American and World music, bringing obscure gems from the past into present day. As rock and disco ascended in the 70s, Cooder remained a champion of roots music and was called a “communal historian” by Rolling Stone for his ability to revitalize traditional music. Cooder’s inspiration for The Prodigal Son comes from early gospel and folk sources, and though the titles may be unfamiliar, you will appreciate a virtuoso guitarist at work, as well as his way of using traditional music as a sly commentary on today’s world.
Victor Wainwright, "Victor Wainwright and the Train" — Ruf
Wainwright has made his mark as a honky-tonk and boogie pianist, winning awards from the Blues Foundation for “Piano Player of the Year” in 2016 and “Entertainer of the Year” in 2017. You can hear his traditional roots, but this collection of original rock and southern soul features surprising arrangements and fierce piano playing surrounded by swampy guitars and a horn section.
He brings to mind other soulful Southern pianists such as Dr. John and Leon Russell. And with this release, Victor Wainwright is on his way to being considered among those names.
Ranky Tanky, "Ranky Tanky" — Resilience Music Alliance
This is a wonderful debut from a group of Charleston, South Carolina, jazz players. But Ranky Tanky cannot be put in a category; they have created their own. This is a modern interpretation of traditional Gullah music, a culture that arose among descendants of slaves in coastal Georgia and the Carolinas. Drawing on everything from traditional spirituals to children’s songs, this is a raucous and celebratory release. (Technically, this came out at the end of 2017, but didn’t reach our airwaves until this year, and is too good to miss.)
Janiva Magness, "Love Is An Army" — Blue Elan
Janiva Magness just keeps on being herself, and it couldn’t be better. Her success has freed her from the “blues singer” label, as she sings on “Hammer” — "when they say too black, too white, too blues, they’re just words anyway." Working with her longtime producer and co-writer Dave Darling, Janiva has delivered another collection of personal and emotional songs with mostly upbeat grooves. As ever, her voice is the center of attention, an ideal vehicle for her uplifting and empowering lyrics.
Greyhounds, "Cheyenne Valley Drive" — Bud’s Recording
A great example of “the sum of the parts is greater than the whole," Greyhounds are two extremely talented players who joined forces to make something unique. At first glance they seem like an odd match — keyboardist and singer Anthony Farrell is a superb groove-maker and soul singer, while guitarist-singer Andrew Trube brings a Texas twang and a slightly twisted sense of humor to the game. The result is truly original, lush and psychedelic 21st century soul.
Larkin Poe, "Venom And Faith" — Tricki-Woo
Combining drum machines, foot stomps and claps with spare-but-gritty electric guitars, Larkin Poe take a minimalist approach to roots and blues. Singer Rebecca Lovell is loaded with attitude, and sister Megan is an able counterpoint on slide guitar and harmonies. While Larkin Poe may wander into rock territory, their swampy Southern roots are unmistakable, and they maintain their connection to blues with a haunting version of Skip James’ “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” and their own “Bleach Blonde Bottle Blues.”
Colin James, "Miles To Go" — True North
With a knack for re-vamping traditional blues with vitality and originality, Colin James has added a modern kick to trad-blues. You may not recognize some of the titles from originators like Muddy Waters, James Cotton and Arthur Crudup, but you may rediscover them after hearing James’ crisp and flawless guitar work and convincing vocals. He is supported by some of Canada’s best bluesmen, including Steve Marriner on harmonica.