John Kessler's top 10 blues songs of 2019
I’m trying something a little different this year. Rather than listing the top 10 albums, here are my favorite blues songs of 2019.
Here’s a brief summary of what I think makes a great blues song:
First, the singers must be compelling in some way. That doesn’t mean the voice has to be perfect, just appropriate for the context.
Next, a tight arrangement and fitting instrumentation. The song structure has to be inviting, and I am mostly thinking of the radio, where long arrangements with extended solos are not conducive to airplay.
Finally, and most difficult of all…it must be a well-written song. The lyrics must create interest. Obviously, lots of room for opinion on that, but I’ll settle on a single word: memorable.
When all three elements are there — singer, arrangement and composition — the song has the potential for synergy, achieving something greater than the sum of the parts. The song takes on a life of its own and lives in the mind of the listener, generating vivid imagery, emotions and moods, and sometimes physical reactions, like goosebumps or tears.
With that in mind, here are my picks for the best blues songs of 2019!
1.“Stand By Me,” Ranky Tanky (Good Time)
Ranky Tanky are jazz musicians who draw inspiration from the Gullah culture of their native South Carolina. Gullah culture was created by former enslaved West Africans, who settled along the southeastern seacoast, and influenced and was influenced by American folk styles, including gospel, blues and country. While their first album stuck to traditional songs, this second release also features many of their originals, including this one, which easily blends jazz, gospel and blues.
2.“If I Had a Hammer,” Tiffany Pollack & Eric Johanson (Blues in My Blood)
I never would have predicted that this would be one of my favorite songs of 2019, but this version gives me goosebumps every time I hear it. Louisiana musicians Pollack and Johanson transform the simple 1949 Pete Seeger folk tune into a funky blues anthem, with an uplifting message for our times.
3.“Rock Me," Jimmy “Duck” Holmes (Cypress Grove)
Haunting and hypnotic, this track sounds ancient and modern at the same time. At 72, Holmes is said to be the last purveyor of blues from the “Bentonia School,” which features unique guitar tunings, minor chords and a relentless driving rhythm that will remind you of John Lee Hooker. Juke-joint vibe with edgy production from Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys, and a stinging guitar solo from Marcus King, give this one extra mojo.
4.“We’re Gonna Make It,” Southern Avenue (Keep On)
The sister vocals of Tierinii and TK Jackson power this soul ballad on Southern Avenue’s second release, which has been nominated for the Contemporary Blues Grammy.
5.“Up on Broadway,” Van Morrison (Three Chords and the Truth)
Van Morrison’s sound hasn’t changed much since the 1970s — and that’s a good thing. He is still the impressionist painter of R&B, creating a late-night mood with a few suggestive lyrics and an easy, floating groove.
6. “Hey Hey Bobby Rush,” Bobby Rush (Sitting on Top of the Blues)
Bobby Rush has earned the right to be self-referential. At age 86, he has been churning out gritty, funky roadhouse blues for 70 years. When he sings “I’m a blues man, that’s all I know,” you believe him. This album also is nominated for the Traditional Blues Grammy.
7. “Before I’m Old,” Christone “Kingfish” Ingram (Kingfish)
Barely 20 years old when he recorded this debut release, Kingfish plays guitar and sings with poise well beyond his age. His talent got the attention of Buddy Guy, who became his friend and mentor. “Before I’m Old” tells his story of growing up in a small Mississippi town, and finding his way in the world. Kingfish has been nominated for a Grammy for Best Traditional Blues album.
8. “The Blues is Dead?” Jontavious Willis (Spectacular Class)
Here's another young (22-year-old) bluesman who plays and sings with the confidence of a seasoned vet. Like his mentors Taj Mahal and Keb Mo, Willis has a keen sense for music and history. He plays several instruments, and this song features his resonator guitar playing. This album also is nominated for the Best Traditional Blues Grammy.
9.“Kill or Be Kind,” Samantha Fish (Kill or Be Kind)
The last few years have seen the evolution of Samantha Fish from garage rocker to soul vamp. But rather than adapt to a new style, she makes that new style adapt to her.
These days she’s also a more self-assured songwriter, and this slinky R&B tune allows her some room to take chances with her voice.
10.“Different Kind of Love,” Adia Victoria (Silences)
Adia Victoria is not for blues purists. She brings her own aesthetic: dark, breathy, heavy, hypnotic, but still maintains a conscious link to the blues. I get swept up by the trance-blues vibe, and I hear distant echoes of Bo Diddley on the refrain “who do you love?”.