2020 Blues Albums
If 2020 will be forever remembered as the year of a deadly pandemic, it can also be thought of as a year that demonstrated the undying spirit of the blues. Releases from stalwarts like Savoy Brown and Robert Cray as well as newer voices like Whitney Shays and Shemekia Copeland shone as brightly as ever.
Altogether, it was a year of glorious surprises and traditions that haven’t outgrown their welcome and never will. A nightmare of a virus may have given us all the blues, but as usual, our favorite genre could be relied on to help ease the pain.
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Known as ‘The King of Slydeco,’ Mississippi-born, Louisiana-reared guitar legend Sonny Landreth is the rare blues musician who truly sounds like no one else. The style is instantly recognizable to his fans and likely to promptly convert those who aren’t yet fans.
As with any time-tested blues star, Landreth only grows in stature with each passing release. Blacktop Run is a much better album than it might have been years earlier. The songs that most attest to this are The high-octane ‘Groovy Goddess’ and the plaintive ‘Many Worlds.’
Robert Cray is a name and a sound well known to any true lover of the blues. Perhaps his most endearing quality for his fans is his resistance to change. In 2020, Robert Cray sounds as much like Robert Cray as he did in 1990. But the old adage of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it applies very much to this legend. That brings us to his latest offering That’s What I Heard.
The Gospel-influenced ‘Burying Ground’ may be the album’s best track because it reminds listeners of how much of Cray’s signature sound is rooted in his deep, resonant voice. Meanwhile, ‘Hot’ refocuses the attention right back to Cray’s guitar playing as a scorching demonstration of his ability to set the fretboard ablaze. All told, That’s What I Heard is a top notch effort.
Marcus King and his band have a gritty quality that many younger players seem to lack when they enter the world of the blues. It also doesn’t hurt that the band’s leader (also its singer and chief songwriter) has the shredding skills that guitarists of all ages would understandably envy.
Picking standout tracks is tricky. Everything works to some degree, but King’s vocal chops are more vividly on display when things slow down as they do on ‘Wildflowers and Wine’ and the soulful ‘One Day She’s Here.’
Born in the unlikely city of Paris, France at a time (1965) when the blues seemed to be in commercial decline, Bernard Allison may not have been the blues hero we were expecting, but if his latest album is any indication, he’s on a mission to prove himself capable of the job.
Songs from the Road not only packs extraordinary power, but, as its title suggests, it demonstrates his ability to transfix a crowd with scorching funk-tinged blues. Verbally and lyrically, he bears a resemblance to Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson and musically, he pays loving homage to a wide range of innovators. ‘You’re Gonna’ Need Me’ may be both the album’s funniest and saddest track. And the show-stopping closer ‘Slide Master’ makes the listener wonder what a joy it must be to check Allison out live. Songs from the Road will make a believer of you.
To anyone concerned with the current state of the blues, Whitney Shay’s latest release ‘Stand Up’ could have been delivered with you in mind. It contains the kind of raw, explosive power that any fan of the genre has come to expect, and in addition, it features a danceable bounce that will likely to appeal to fans more geared toward classic R & B. Altogether, Stand Up compares with the best work of the late Amy Winehouse.
The Album sizzles most when it charges at full-speed, keeping up with rock and soul, but never leaving the blues behind. ‘Boy Sit Down’ is very much a stand-out track with Change with the Time coming in a close second. If you’ve got a younger blues fan with birthday coming soon, Stand Up would make a lovely gift.
Having spent most of his career as an R&B songwriter (The Ann Peebles hit ‘I can’t stand the Rain’ is his best known song) the 78-year-old from Memphis, Tennessee has also dabbled in releasing vocal albums. A listen to ‘You Make Me Feel’ must provoke the listener to ask why he hasn’t released more.
For all his obvious skill as a songwriter, his resonant tenor rattles the soul just as much. Bryant is a rhythm and blues singer who doesn’t leave the blues behind. The best showcases of his talent include the tortured ballad ‘I’ll Go Crazy’ and the foot-stomping ‘Cracked up Over You.’ Bryant’s latest release contains more than a few echoes of old-school R&B and that is not a bad thing — at least not in Bryant’s capable hands.
Veteran singer/songwriter Dion DiMucci has seen enough dramatic shifts in his career’s direction to last a few lifetimes. He began as a doo-op singer, peppering the pop charts with such hits as ‘The Wanderer’ and ‘Runaround Sue,’ then moved in the direction of folk with the 1968 smash ‘Abraham, Martin and John.’
Dion’s latest venture, Blues with Friends, features yet another change in direction. As its title suggests, it’s a blues album that features a number of stunning cameo performances from noted stars of the blues world.
As admirable as Dion’s efforts are, his vocals, while pleasant, lack the sheer power needed to give these songs the sheer grit they deserve. Anyone searching for the singer’s best work should remain in the realm of mainstream pop.
Having said all that, Dion’s ‘friends’ do a more than capable job of compensating for the weaknesses of the the album’s star. Standouts include the plaintive Can’t Start Over Again (with Jeff Beck) and ‘What if I Told You’ (with Samantha Fish). Sometimes, having friends in the right places helps a great deal.
When two extraordinary Chicago bluesmen combine efforts, the results are predictably breathtaking. So it doesn’t take a Gypsy soothsayer to announce this new album by guitarist and vocalist John Primer & harmonica master Bob Corritore is a top notch effort.
If the title track doesn’t send shivers up your spine, it’s time to have your spine examined. The sheer energy between Primer and Corrimore are enough to create magic. And the album’s other highlight is the soft, slow ‘Rambling Blues.’ Much more than a platform of musical skills, this album reminds us how dark, dangerous and reckless the genre can become when done right. A Gypsy Woman Told me is a truly stunning album.
The next time you lament the death of the blues due to the neglect from younger generations, just give a quick listen to Memphis Loud by Victor Wainright and the Train and rejoice.
Memphis Loud is not album without flaws. The blues here can get a little gimmicky and cute from time to time, and Wainright’s voice could use a greater sense of heft. But it seems likely that both problems will work themselves out in time.
Until then, this effort will serve as a solid building block for what may someday become a brilliant career. Standout tracks include the soulful B.B. King tribute ‘Thank you Lucille’ and the hilarious album closer ‘Money.’
Rhode Island isn’t typically thought of a hotbed of the blues, but the strong presence of Roomful of Blues, a revival jazz/blues band plants a giant feather in the cap of America’s tiniest state.
If nothing else, ‘Roomful’ serves as an undeniable reminder of how the blues can sound with a solidly skilled horn section. This band packs a powerful sonic punch that could fill any room.
The clever ‘Phone Zombies’ is as brilliant and funny as the blues can get, while also commenting on the contemporary world in a way that few blues song do.
The same could be said of ‘Watch Your Back,’ a darker form of satire than ‘Zombies,’ but also clever and salient enough to the album the color it needs.
All in all, Roomful of Blues’ (kind of) self-titled album would be a nice introduction to anyone unfamiliar with the band — or anyone who doubts the sincerity of revival bands. These guys are the real thing.
With a pandemic spiraling our world into crazy and dangerous directions, it was only a matter of time before the blues world captured the malaise and committed it to glorious sound. St. Louis’ Mike Zito’s Quarantine Blues is that album and has a power that will outlast even the stubborn Coronavirus.
Zito’s guitar work shines most on the hard-driving ‘Don’t Touch Me,’ but the standout track may be the closing track, ‘What it used to be’ a soft and poignant ballad at a time when such a thing is desperately needed.
It’s often said that every blues song is basically about a good man feeling bad. Quarantine blues is about a good world feeling bad. But somehow Zito’s blues make us feel better.
Joe Bonamassa’s credentials are well known to any fan of the blues — especially those whose tastes revolve around tasty guitar work. Although not quite aged enough to qualify for ‘legendary’ status in the blues world, he’s established himself as a reliable presence, releasing album after album of gems.
So it should come as no shock to learn that Bonamassa’s latest effort is as consistently solid as anything he’s ever created. The hard-hitting ‘Lookout man’ best demonstrates how heavily the guitar hero can rock while still remaining true to the blues world. Meanwhile the equally rollicking ‘I Thought She Wouldn’t Do it’ adds some funky drums into the mix. All told, Royal Tea, is exactly what a fan of Bonamassa has come to expect. Great guitar blues with exemplary craft.
When two time-tested veterans of the blues world combine forces, the results are often explosive, brilliant and reliably enjoyable. This is very much the case with Elvin Bishop and Charlie Musselwhite’s deeply satisfying 100 Years of the Blues.
This is their first release together, but ‘100 years’ sounds as effortless and organic as something you’d expect from friends with a decades-long history of collaboration.
‘Good Times,’ as its title would suggest, pines for days gone by with a wistful, gentle breeze of a sound. The same can be said of the delightfully shuffling ‘Old School.’
But ‘What the Hell’ — a challenge to current political/social polarization — may be the album’s standout track. It proves that, even when steeped in a century of tradition, the blues is as fresh as this morning’s snow fall.
There are those who believe the blues is a musical idiom that can only be mastered by Americans. English blues band, Savoy Brown has been proving this belief wrong since the mid-sixties. Their latest effort may suggest the outfit has gathered a little dust over the years. But as any fan of the genre knows, a little dust only makes the blues go down better.
The title track seems to serve as the band’s anthem. Both lyrically and musically they vow to keep going and going, providing the listener with ample incentive to keep listening and listening.
Another of the album’s standouts include ‘Rocking in Louisiana.’ Fueled by a swamp-rock attack that Creedence Clearwater Revival would envoy, the track reminds us (as CCR did) that a true fondness for Louisiana blues can live in the hearts of those born and raised elsewhere.
Meanwhile the stunning ballad ‘Crying guitar’ features as gentle and warm a touch as its descriptive title would imply. Overall, it’s pretty clear that Savoy Brown ain’t done yet. If this album is any indication, they’re just getting started.
Having celebrated thirty years as a band, Ronnie Earl and his Broadcasters have seen more than their share of changing times. But their latest release contains a number of songs that could have only seen life in the current day.
The most obvious example of a timely song is ‘Blues for George Floyd.’ With a self-explanatory title, it pays gentle homage to a fallen citizen and victim of ignorance who has, for deeply sad reasons, been very much in the news of late. Another touching example is ‘Black Lives Matter.’
Rise up features other demonstrations of this band’s ability to revive the past, recognize the present and brace for an uncertain future. At the rate Ronnie Earl & the Broadcasters are keeping up with the times, we can expect to hear great music from them for another thirty years — at least.
Don’t let the title of Jeremiah Johnson’s latest album fool you. ‘Unemployment Highly Annoyed’ hints that The 48-year-old guitarist/vocalist isn’t a happy man. And the album — like any blues release — does feature its share of downers. But the title track isn’t one of them. Inspired by the current pandemic and the subsequent lockdown, it’s actually, an upbeat plea for us all to ‘calm the hell down’ and ‘have a little faith/ in the human race.’
‘Love and Sympathy’ follows in a similar vein, urging the listener to keep love alive in times of turmoil and distress.
The album’s closer, ‘Rock and Roll for the soul’ is just that. A toe-tapper that puts Johnson’s guitar skills on vivid display with raucous rock and roll that doesn’t leave the blues behind. All and all, ‘Unemployed Highly Annoyed’ will do more than please you. It will inspire you to live a more full life. What more could you want from a blues album?
California-born blues guitarist Kirk Fletcher has the kind of soulful, ebullient vocals that make us briefly forget what an extraordinarily gifted guitar whiz he is. Thankfully, Fletcher is happy to remind us again and again with solos that bend that mind as deftly as he bends strings.
‘Struggle for Grace’ offers the best showcase of the bluesman’s pipes, demonstrating his range, his power and his warmth. In time, it may rank as one of the very best blues songs of all time.
But any listener seeking guitar wizardry would do no better than the wounded ‘Heart so Heavy.’ Clearly, Fletcher wants us to feel every note and with the aid of his stunning technique, we do. Not that sheer technical mastery is the only tool in his shed. More than anything else, he lets his soul lead the way. This is a lesson he seems to have learned from the greats of the blues. Let’s just hope some younger fans can give ‘My Blues Pathway’ a listen and learn the same lesson from him.
With the world of contemporary blues so dominated by guitar heroes (and to a lesser extend harmonica stars) it’s good to be reminded how expressive a blues instrument the piano can be with the right pianist at the helm. And in case you’re wondering, Johnny Iguana is the right pianist.
As euphoric and full of joy as its title would imply, Iguana’s Chicago Spectacular! Earns its titular exclamation point with rousing and energetic blues anthems that echo the very best of the genre’s piano pioneers.
‘Lady Day and John Coltrane’ pays homage to a pair of jazz greats in the most stylish way imaginable, combing jazz and the blues with a maturity you may have forgotten was possible in the blues.
‘Shake your Moneymaker’ packs the album’s most powerful punch as Johnny Iguana bangs the keys into impressive submission.
When all is said is done, it’s hard to imagine anyone getting a better introduction (or re-introduction) to the amazing sounds of blues piano at its best. A truly memorable effort.
It’s seems like only yesterday that Shemekia Copeland was hailed as a prodigy of the blues, an incipient star in a genre often neglected by those of her generation. But Copeland has recently turned forty and her voice shows all of the gravity and none of the rust of a blues elder statesman. Uncivil War would not have been possible by a less time-tested voice.
Copeland’s latest release is a breathtaking journey through the past of Black America, beginning with the horror show of slavery and ending with the current day’s unending chaos. ‘Apple Pie and a .45’ is the most riveting track, detailing the nightmarish recent tale of a madman who opened fire on a black church.
But the album’s most inspirational track may be ‘Give God the Blues,’ a gospel/blues hybrid that simultaneously reminds the blues listener of the genre’s spiritual past and takes us to the present by asserting that the ugliness of humanity does not come from above.
Uncivil War is a staggeringly ambitious album and because Shemekia Copeland has the skills to see it home, it may be the year’s best blues album.
The plaintive voice of Chris Smither has served him well for decades. His unique blend of folk and blues could not possibly belong to anyone else and, for anyone unfamiliar with the legend, ‘More From the Levee’ would be a wonderful place to start.
Nearing his 80th birthday, Smither’s voice shows wear, but this isn’t a bad thing. The man sounds every year his age and his latest effort works precisely for this reason. This isn’t something for a listener seeking a lightweight piece of pop fluff. This is the blues.
“Let it Go’ is an almost painful listen. After all, what could be more heartbreaking than a man facing the demise of his car. Sure, there’s humor laced in this tale, but we get the feeling Smither means it. Indeed he sounds like he means everything. This is the voice that couldn’t give witness to a lie if Smither wanted it to.
The album closer, ’Father’s Day,’ is a heartwarming song that wins the listener over completely. Chris Smither may have a better album in him yet, but that’s hard to imagine. ‘More from the Levee’ is just that stunningly good.
Described by its creator as a ‘straight vintage-style blues album.’ Blues Bash is just that. A vintage party that evokes the kind of old-school shindig where you could picture James Dean cutting the rug with Marilyn Monroe. In times like these, it’s vital to get the occasional reminder of how fun the blues can be.
The track that grooves and swings the hardest is ‘Ain’t Goin’ to Do It.’ It’s the kind of song you play when the party slows down a little and needs a jolt to keep your friends from reaching for their car keys. Not that this blues bash ever threatens to slow down. In fact it stays on its feet all the way through.
Also of note is Give Me All the Love You Got, a surprisingly heartfelt ballad that engages in that age-old blues tradition of begging for a woman’s affection. It seems to work every time, it rarely works better than it does here.
With guest vocalists Chris Cote and Michelle Wilson, Blues Bash is as much fun as you’d expect an album called Blues Bash to be.
Tackling the legendary works of Jimmy Rogers, Larry Williams and Jimmy Nolan is no easy undertaking, but Grammy nominated vocalist and blues harpist Kim Wilson is up for the task. The full-voiced tenor has created an album that has its share of weaker moments, but on balance, Take Me Back is a strong work and fine introduction to the fan who’d never before experienced his output.
Although Wilson’s voice is the album’s centerpiece the finest track Strollin’ satisfies most when it allows his harmonica to do the singing. His work here is tasty, emotive and, at times, downright chilling.
Much the same can be said of the upbeat Rumblin’ another slice of instrumental sweetness. On this song, Wilson’s harmonica must be heard to be believed. If there’s a finer blues harpist around these days, he or she must be well-hidden. Take me Back does just that. It returns the listener to the vintage day of the blues, when all it took to get a juke joint jumping was a good man playing a great harmonica.
If the late Frank Bey isn’t familiar to you, the opening (and title) track of his final album serves as a fine introduction. Through ‘All My Dues are Paid’ we learn of Bey’s humble and hurtful beginnings as a poor and black young man raised in the Jim Crow south. We also learn that the wounds of his upbringing, far from killing his spirit, has fueled it.
As a vibrant collection of songs, ‘All My Dues are Paid’ continues to fuel it — even beyond the singer’s passing of roughly five months ago. In addition to the buoyant title track, stand outs include the inspirational ‘One Thing Every Day’ and Bey’s stunningly poignant cover of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine.’ The Georgia-born singer may be gone, but the music he left behind will undoubtedly inspire an army of future blues fans. ‘All My Dues are Paid’ is a truly special album.
Recorded in Memphis by the Idaho born and bred Nemeth, Stronger than Strong engages the listener for all the reasons any great blues album engage the fans. It features a good man feeling bad and sharing his anguish through both vocals and his harmonica.
But then again, Stronger Than Strong isn’t just an exercise in navel-gazing and indeed, the upbeat love ballad ‘I Can See Your Light Shine’ offers the best illustration of the blues at its happiest.
Another strong example is the dance track ‘Sweep the Shack.’ It’s a simple tale about a man who’s eager to finish his day of work to get back into the arms of his beloved. Nothing complicated here, just good old fashioned blues you can shuffle to. It’s a fine enough album closer to make you forget that Stronger that strong is at times a little uneven.
A strong opening track has a way of steamrolling the listener into submission. And it’s hard to think of a more powerful opener than Bobby Rush’s ‘Shake it for Me.’ Nearing his 90th birthday, the Louisiana-native’s voice and guitar have never sounded bolder and more vibrant.
More surprisingly, the rest of the album sways just as sweetly and gallops just as hard. If ever there was a bluesman suited for a bare bones recording style, it is Rush. Even at his advanced age, he needs little to no enhancement to his sound to shine. His voice, guitar and harmonica are enough to shake you to the core. Among the album’s best tracks are the Howling Wolf cover ‘Smokestack Lightening’ and the surprisingly sensitive ‘Honey Bee, Sail on.’ For the Bobby Rush fan Rawer than Raw is essential. For the non-fan, it is also essential — and a likely tool for conversion!
Born Xavier Amin Dphrepaulezz in an orthodox muslim household, the eccentric artist whose stage name is Fantastic Negrito has a sound and musical approach all his own. Trying to categorize it would be a waste of time. ‘Have you lost your Mind’ contains elements of rock, funk, hip-hop and jazz. But undergirding it all is a floor of blues that somehow holds this glorious mess of an album together.
‘Platypus Dipster’ may be the album’s best track — and the strangest. But then again, strange is a word the listener would likely use a lot when describing Fantasic Negrito. ‘Have you Lost Your Mind Yet’ is not for those who prefer their music — blues or otherwise — performed in a more straightforward, conventional manner. It is weird music that revels in its weirdness. If you’re ready to dive into something out of the ordinary, it’s close to a masterpiece. If not, you may want to stay away.
Combining hip-hop with the blues is something a fair number of artists have dabbled in over the years, but G Love and his band Special Sauce, have made it a career for over two decades. For anyone who suspected they were a mere novelty, The Juice provides the most vibrant evidence to the contrary.
Cameos from time-tested veterans of the blues make the album shimmer most and the relentlessly upbeat ‘Birmingham’ (featuring Robert Randolph and Keb’ Mo’) may be the best example. Also vital is Diggin’ Roots with Ron Artis the 2nd. G Love’s sound isn’t for everyone, but those who want their blues to go down with a side order of fun would have a hard time finding a better album than The Juice.
A British blues/rock duo and husband and wife, When Rivers Meet have the kind of frenetic sound that the blues needs. They are raw, unpolished and ragged. In other words they know exactly where the blues lives.
In terms of song quality, We Fly Free is uneven. Songs like ‘Battleground’ and what seems to be a Hendrix tribute ‘Kissing the Sky‘ bustle with speaker-rattling vigor, but others simply don’t. Still fairly new on the scene, it’s possible that they’ll grow more consistent as time goes by. For now, their 2020 release We Fly Free is a good, but not fully great album. If you buy it, enjoy at its best, but prepare for a release that doesn’t always stay there.
A recent inductee into the Blues Hall of Fame, Bettye Lavette’s name may not be as familiar to some as other greats, but make no mistake, this blueswoman is deserving of the highest praise available.
Born in Michigan in 1946, Lavette’s vocal stylings owe as much to mainstream R&B that the blues, but her sweet, silky voice belongs as much in this genre as her harder-edged sisters. Think of her as a softer, more intimate Etta James. ‘Romance in the Dark’ is as erotic and romantic as its title suggests while also containing a slice of bitterness. If it’s not the album’s best track it’s a close second to her cover of the stunning Billie Holiday classic ‘Strange Fruit.’ Overall, Blackbirds is a very compelling piece of work.
Young sisters Megan and Rebecca Lovell seem to be on a mission to revive lagging mainstream popularity of the acoustic blues by performing mostly recent pop and rock hits. The result is a searing collection of tunes that each carve their way into the listener’s soul in a dazzlingly different way.
The classic Hellhound on my Trail gets the album off to a rousing start, but things only get richer and more alive from there. Their cover of the Phil Colins 80s hit ‘In the Air Tonight’ will bring a rattle to your bone, but so will almost everything here. Picking a favorite would be tough, but the soft ballad ‘Bell Bottom Blues’ (first made famous by Eric Claptain) is nothing short of heartbreaking. Kindred Spirits may be a mixed bag for the fan of traditional blues, but for the fan ready to welcome a new approach, this album is an early Christmas present.