Blues is music that gives expression to deep human emotion, both anguish about what’s happening and hope that things will get better. Appropriate music for 2020. In the midst of all the heartache and upheaval that the pandemic has brought, artists have been releasing great music. Every one of these albums is worthy of your attention. Aside from the broad groupings, they are just in alphabetical order, because, how do you compare electric with acoustic blues or blues-rock with blues-Americana? Enjoy.
Here’s Our Top 10
Rory Block, Prove it on Me
Acoustic blues master, Rory Block gives us another terrific album celebrating the blues artists of yesteryear. This time she’s focused on women blues artists, and exploring some of the more obscure material. This 10-song set that features Block’s intricate guitar work, and her singing, nicely phrased and bluesy vocals.
Shemekia Copeland, Uncivil War
Again collaborating with Will Kimbrough, Copeland uses her powerful voice to great effect as she rails against the forces of disunity in the United States, the legacy of slavery and gun violence. With the help of Duane Eddy, Jason Isbell, Steve Cropper, Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, and Jerry Douglas, she delivers a punchy appeal for love and unity in a nicely varied musical feast.
Dion, Blues with Friends
With liner notes by Bob Dylan and a stellar cast of blues musicians – Van Morrison, Paul Simon Patti Scialfa and Bruce Springsteen, Joe Bonamassa and Jeff Beck…the list goes on – Dion’s new album is pretty special. His energy and passion for the blues has clearly not diminished even in his 81st year. Every track is a highlight and it’s an album you’ll want to return to again and again. As Dion says, “The blues is a beautiful form of music that God gave to us.”
Grainne Duffy, Voodoo Blues
Ireland’s Grainne Duffy packs a mighty blues punch with her passionate and powerful vocals, well-crafted song-writing and top-notch guitar chops. She’s the real deal and this album, surely her best yet, is sheer class from start to finish. If you don’t know Grainne Duffy, remedy that as soon as you can.
Catfish Keith, Blues at Midnight
In this, his 19th album, multiple Grammy nominee Catfish Keith focuses entirely on his own original songs. It’s a “best of” essentially, with songs culled from his forty year career, and if you’re any sort of blues fan at all, it’s a treasure trove of complex finger-picking, slide playing, good tunes and good fun, all done in the spirit of the first generation of blues and roots music. Catch our interview with Catfish here.
Larkin Poe, Self Made Man
The Lovell sisters’ latest album takes over from 2018’s terrific Venom and Faith. If anything, the rockin’ blues on offer is even more raw and arresting. This is modern blues at its best and you gotta love the fabulous vocals of Rebecca, the glorious harmonies of the two of them and Megan’s sensational lap steel work. We loved God Moves on the Water, which you’d swear was a cover of an old blues song, but this original testifies to Larkin Poe’s authentic feeling for the blues. Exhilarating, invigorating stuff. Full review here.
Marcus King, El Dorado
First rate set of bluesy, soulful Americana from a man whose guitar chops and richly textured vocals are making a lot of people sit up and take notice. The band graced Eric Clapton’s Crossroads festival last year and this album is sure to enhance its reputation even more. Produced and co-written with the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, there’s a fine balance of approaches here, from powerful blues rock here in The Well to the late-night blues of Wildflowers and Wine to the 70s Southern rock of Sweet Mariona.
Robert Cray Band, That’s What I Heard
Another excellent offering of blues, R&D and soul from the ever-consistent Robert Cray and his band. 12 song of both originals and covers of songs you may not know, all delivered with Cray’s sweet vocals and his clean as a whistle guitar tone. There’s a nice dash of gospel as well with Burying Ground.
Walter Trout, Ordinary Madness
After 27 albums and a career spanning five decades, what has the 69-year old Walter Trout left to say? Plenty, it seems, going by this terrific album, one of his best. Eleven songs, recorded at Doors’ guitarist Robbie Krieger’s studio in California, Ordinary Madness sees Trout in stellar form, wielding his Stratocaster as only he can and imposing his big personality on every track. Full review here.
Rev. John Wilkins, Trouble
John Wilkins’ second solo album of gospel blues is, quite simply, terrific. Eleven inspirational songs, including some classics like Wade in the Water and Grandma’s Hands are pulled off with considerable aplomb by Wilkins, his three daughters on backing vocals, and a fine quartet comprising Kevin Cubbins on guitar, Jimmy Kinnard on bass, Steve Potts on drums and Rev. Charles Hodges on organ. Sadly John Wilkins passed away on October 6, four days before his 77th birthday. Full review here.
And here’s the next 10
Elvin Bishop & Charlie Musselwhite, 100 Years of Blues
Two blues veterans collaborate to great effect with twelve classic sounding blues numbers, although just three of them are covers – of songs by Leroy Carr, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Roosevelt Sykes. Raw, authentic, loose and hugely enjoyable.
Albert Cummings, Believe
An album to savour from blues rock guitarist and singer, Albert Cummings. Recorded in Muscle Shoals, with the legendary Jim Gaines producing, we get six originals and five covers, including the delightful cover of Van Morrison’s Crazy Love, delivered with a laid-back bluesy vocal performance backed up with some lovely gospel vocals. There’s also a terrific version of Wolf’s Red Rooster with some muscular guitar work and vocals to match.
Sonny Landreth, Blacktop
It only takes you to hear a few notes before you recognize that it’s Sonny Landreth. His sixteenth album is exhilarating stuff, with slide playing that is jaw-droppingly good, deadly accurate, sometimes amazingly quick and always with that characteristic Landreth tone. This is a richly textured album from the hugely talented Landreth and his band, which is impressive the first time you hear but repays repeated listens in spades. Full review here.
Eliza Neals, Black Crow Moan
Honest-to-goodness blues rock from the talented Ms Neals, choc full of attitude, sass, top-notch musicianship, and downright good fun. One of the best blues rock albums you’ll hear all year, with Eliza Neals and her group of musicians playing straight out of their hearts and souls. Read our review here.
Fabrizio Poggio, For You
Italian blues harp player, Fabrizio Poggi’s 23rd album. For You is a remarkably sensitive and inspirational work of gospel blues which draws you in magnetically and keeps you in wonder throughout the ten tracks of mostly traditional songs. Fabrizio says that “together we can make it,” and that the music is “for those who feel lost when the wind of life blows too strong…for all those who are worried, who feel lonely and lost.” The songs, with their spiritual nature, are indeed songs of succour, of hope, of encouragement. Full review here.
Bobby Rush, Rawer Than Raw
Now well into his 80s, Grammy Award winning bluesman Rush moves away from soul-blues territory to give us a pared-back acoustic set of blues classics and original songs. It’s a raw and hugely enjoyable tribute to the blues history of Mississippi, featuring simply Rush’s guitar, harmonica, stomping feet and authentic blues vocals.
Chris Smither, More from the Levee
At 76 years young, Smither can still be relied upon to create great music. Featuring that rhythmic, insistent finger-picking and foot stomp, and Smither’s laid-back vocals, along with his trade-mark intelligent lyrics and quick wit, More from the Levee gives us 10 more songs from Smither’s 2013 New Orleans Still on the Levee recordings. They’re all good ‘uns, as good as any in the Smither canon, all ready for you to pull up a chair on the porch and relax into his good-natured musical charm.
The Sunnysiders, hailing from Croatia, are Boris Hrepić Hrepa and Antonija Vrgoč Rola, who have been performing together for the last ten years and have three previous albums. Their latest release, The Bridges, mixed at Ardent Studios in Memphis and featuring guests artists Manu Lanvin, Norman Beaker, Lorenzo Piconne, and Yogi Lonich, offers ten excellent tracks of blues and bluesy Americana. Full review here.
Watermelon Slim, Traveling Man
Bill Homans’ rugged, gritty blues in a generous 18 song package of live performances from 2016 in Oklahoma. It’s just Homan and his twangy resonator on a set of originals and old blues covers, including Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. It’s raw, sittin’-on-the-porch blues, all slide guitar and rasping vocals – old school blues.
Lucinda Williams, Good Souls Better Souls
Williams’ raspy, edgy growl adorns a bluesy, gnarly set of apocalyptic songs which explore a world coming apart. Full of punk-rock energy, as Jesse Malin said of it, “It’s like Muddy Waters meets the Stooges. It’s a badass record.” It’s real and it’s raw and no Williams takes no prisoners – certainly not Trump who is firmly in her sights in Man Without A Soul.
“Help me stay fearless,” she sings towards the end of the album, “Help me stay strong.” Her prayer’s been answered in this album.
And our final 5
Joe Bonamassa, Royal Tea
Joe Bonamassa is absolutely at the top of his game in this tribute to the British rock that has always inspired him. Ten songs, written by Bonamassa and a group of top-class writers like Jools Holland, Dave Stewart, Bernie Marsden, and Pete Brown, and featuring Bonamassa’s hugely talented band, it’s a feast of blues and rock best played with the volume turned up as loud as you can take it. Full review here.
Robert Jon & the Wreck, Last Light on the Highway
Southern rock with a blues twist. Eleven toe-tapping numbers with some tasty guitar work and the fine vocals of Robert Jon. First rate set of songs from a band clearly enjoying itself.
Betty Lavette, Blackbirds
Soulful collection of songs from Lavette, now in her 8th decade, ably backed by Steve Jordan and a fine band. Her voice is raspy and world-weary, but more than able to wrest emotion, blues feeling and joy from the songs as needed. She includes a fine version of that ultimate protest song, Strange Fruit.
Cary Morin, Dockside Saints
Cary Morin is a fine fingerstyle guitarist and songwriter, whose music is characterized as acoustic Native Americana with hints of blues, bluegrass, and jazz. These 12 songs in his 7th album add Creole, Zydeco and Cajun touches to their bluesy feel. Very cool.
Victor Wainwright & The Train, Memphis Loud
Raucous boogie-woogie and horns-driven soulish blues from blues award winner and Grammy nominated Wainwright and his band. It’s toe-tapping stuff, never a dull moment, as Wainwright and the Train barrels down through the tracks. Wainwright is a terrific pianist and singer and the band are quite masterful.
And three live albums worth mentioning, two from Irishmen, both sadly no longer with us. which capture the dazzling talent of each man.
Gary Moore, London
The guitar legend at the top of his game in a small club performance at London’s Islington Academy on December 2nd, 2009, with beloved Moore favourites like Still Got the Blues and Parisienne Walkways.
Rory Gallagher, Check Shirt Wizard
Previously unreleased, this blistering 20-song set is from four shows in England during an early 1977 tour across the UK in support of Rory’s then latest album Calling Card.
Straight to You Live, Kenny Wayne Shepherd
We’ve all been starved of live music this year, so this release from The Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band is especially welcome. Available on both DVD and CD, this 2019 show from the famous Leverkusen Jazzstage captures the seven-piece KWS band as a finely honed unit delivering a performance full of energy and verve. Not to be missed.
A Special Mention to:
Bob Dylan, Rough and Rowdy Ways
I thought long and hard whether to include this in the main list. It’s not a blues album per se – songs like I Contain Multitudes and I’ve Made up My Mind to Give Myself to You are, like the rest of the album, quite brilliant, but definitely not blues songs. On the other hand Black Rider and GoodBye Jimmy Reed are for sure. And then there’s the gothic 17 minute Murder Most Foul which may not be blues in form but in lyrical content pretty much is. As is the rest of the album, really, with its apocalyptic overtones and searching questions like, “Is there light at the end of the tunnel?” In any case, it’s a majestic piece of work from the 79 year-old, something of a masterpiece.