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Best of the Blues 2020: John Kessler's favorite songs of the year

KNKX blues host John Kessler shares his Best of the Blues list from the past year. Read more about his favorite songs from 2020 (and check out some runners up) below. 

Nora Jean Wallace, “Rag and Bucket” — Blueswoman

A modern Chicago blues singer with deep Delta roots, raised in a family of blues musicians in the heart of the Mississippi Delta — it’s fitting that Nora Jean Wallace would find her future in Chicago, working with some of the best in that city, like Jimmy Dawkins and Carl Weathersby. Her singing may remind you of Koko Taylor, a point noted by Koko, saying Nora Jean reminded her of a young version of herself. This is only her third album and the first in more than 15 years, so I hope this means we’ll be hearing more from this authoritative singer. It’s rare to hear a voice that embodies the pain and redemption of the blues as much as Nora Jean’s. “Rag and Bucket” is just one of several excellent tracks on this album, I also favor “I Can’t Stop” and “I’m a Blues Woman.”

Larkin Poe, “Back Down South” — Self Made Man

The Lovell sisters have created a moody tribute to some of the great Southern musicians who came before them, cleverly calling out Little Richard, James Brown and The Allman Brothers along the way. Forsaking their usual harmony vocals may seem an unlikely choice, as they sing exceptionally well together. But it puts the focus on the lyrics and Rebecca’s expressive vocals. Supported by minimalist percussion and grinding slide guitars, this is one of the best-written songs of the year, from a singer who I think is among the best of her generation. Other strong tracks on the album are the original “Keep Diggin’” and their cover of Blind Willie Johnson’s “God Moves on the Water,” about the sinking of the Titanic.

Shemekia Copeland, “Walk Until I Ride” — Uncivil War  

This one is a gentle, determined and angry protest song about some of the indignities of racism, and the promise of change. It made me think of The Staple Singers’ great songs that were anthems of the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s and 70s. I have to think this was made with them in mind, with a gospel chorus and tremolo guitar a la Pops Staples. This is just one of the protest songs on this unashamedly political album, which also includes some other gems like “Dirty Saint,” a tribute to the late Dr. John. Copeland’s cover of The Rolling Stones “Under My Thumb” also is fairly revelatory — hearing the song from a female point of view transforms it.   
John “Blues” Boyd,  “Blues in My Blood” 
— Through My Eyes

According to his bio, the two constants in John “Blues” Boyd’s life have been physical labor and singing the blues. After hearing him sing just a note or two, you know that this is a man who has paid his dues and is ready to let the blues take over. At age 71, after a lifetime of singing in clubs comes his first release, aided by one of the most important blues producers we have, Kid Anderson, who provides brilliant guitar support. On this album John “Blues” Boyd sings about his life, and there’s plenty of blues to go around.

Fantastic Negrito, “Chocolate Samurai”  Have You Lost Your Mind Yet?

An audacious genre-bender, Fantastic Negrito has already won two Grammy Awards for his modern blues releases — and he’s been nominated for this one. After a bad car wreck in 1999, this one-time R&B singer re-invented himself as a bluesman, playing what he calls “Black Roots music for everyone.” Aided by a thorough command of modern studio sonics and programming, Fantastic Negrito has created one of strongest grooves of the year. If John Lee Hooker was a young man making blues today, he might sound like this.

Chanda Rule + Sweet Emma Band, “I’ll Fly Away”  Hold On

This is a joyful re-imagining of a gospel song that has roots in the early 20th century, though it bears little resemblance to popular versions by Alan Jackson and Allison Krauss. With a horn-driven counter-melody, this is an airy and uplifting treatment of what might otherwise be a melancholy song. This album is a collection of songs from the African-American tradition of spirituals, from a singer who crosses boundaries between blues, soul and jazz.

John Nemeth, “Sometimes” — Stronger Than Strong

Nemeth is a rare talent, a clear-voiced tenor soul singer with potent harmonica chops. He developed his skills playing more traditional blues around Boise, Idaho, before heading to Memphis to refine his sound and draw on that city’s rich soul vibe. This release actually leans a little more toward blues than the last, and the uncluttered production leaves plenty of room for his vocal nuances and focused, intense harp playing to shine. Another outstanding song is “Chain Breaker."

Sonny Landreth, “Blacktop Run” — Blacktop Run

One of the living legends of slide guitar is out with another strong release that features his acoustic side. But being un-amplified doesn’t mean it’s laid-back, there’s plenty of groove to go around on this ode to the road. With more than 40 years in the music biz he’s technically a “grizzled veteran,” but his playing and approach still sound fresh and energetic to me. Another feature of Landreth unplugged is that you realize how damn good a guitarist he is. When he’s electrified, he has one of the world’s best slide guitar “voices,” right up there with Duane Allman and Ry Cooder. But a lot of technology goes into that electric sound — delays, distortion, amplifiers — so hearing him without those tools is a refreshing change-up. Another well-crafted song is “Don’t Ask Me.”

Rev. Shawn Amos with Ruthie Foster, “Troubled Man” — Blue Sky

Two gifted singers join forces for this raucous and lurching soul-blues tune. Punctuated by the Rev.’s aggressive harmonica, the song alternates between gentle reflection and pounding blues. Amos says it’s a poetic exploration of modern masculinity, inspired by Marvin Gaye’s 1972 song “Trouble Man.”

Also check out:
“Carry On,” Son of Dave — Single
“Juke Jive It,”  Miller & the Other Sinners — Rise
“Buried Above Ground,”  Eric Johanson — Below Sea Level
“Blue Delta Home,” Cary Morin — Dockside Saints
“Green Light,” Betty Fox — Peace in Pieces
“Blues for the Weepers,” Bettye Lavette — Blackbirds
“Are We Just People,” Trower, Priest & Brown — United State of Mind
“Worry,” Songhoy Blues — Single

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.