40 Blues Albums

Seven of these 40 are actually films in Martin Scorsese’s Blues series from 2003, which I’ve wanted to see since then, but never made time for until now. Most of them were excellent. Of the 33 actual records I listened to, most were also really great, and six got a perfect score from me.

  1. Lead Belly, Where Did You Sleep Last Night: Lead Belly Legacy, Volume 1. What an easy album to listen to! Nearly every track is a toe tapper. The stories are deep–like much great art, it’s deceptively simple. The guitar is always sweet and smooth–also deceptively simple, but the more I listened, the more skillful the playing obviously was. Some really fundamentally amazing tracks here. Grade: A (6/1)
  2. Robert Jonson, King of the Delta Blues Singers, Volume 1. Easy to see why this is a classic! Not only does it have the smooth, easy power of blues in general, but these blues are…really blue. Like, black and blue. These songs are pretty violent. Check out the lyrics to “32-30 Blues,” which is all about threats of violence against women. Other songs on the album are similar. So, a pretty honest slice of poor Southern life nearly a century ago. His voice is a weird and wild miracle of tones–who else sings like this? Grade: A- (6/1)
  3. Elmore James, Blues Master Works. I’m really impressed by just how contemporary most of this sounds in some ways, and how early it sounds in others, but even then it’s clear how deeply James influenced early rock and roll–the 50’s sound we think of in that first generation of rock was heavily indebted to this man’s work. Still, it has even stronger staying power than much of that decade’s mainstream stuff. I want to throw a party now just so I can put this on for everybody–these are some solidly sweet jams right here. Bet it’d make a good road trip record, too. Grade: A (6/4)
  4. Howlin’ Wolf, Moanin’ in the Moonlight. If Elmore James inspired Buddy Holly and such, then Howlin’ Wolf’s far grittier, grungier sound inspired later Southern rock like CCR and the Black Crowes. Lots of harmonica here, and plenty of drawling to go along with it. Grade: A (6/4)
  5. Muddy Waters, At Newport 1960. No wonder this was recorded at a jazz festival–it’s a very jazzy album! In fact, Waters uses jazz flexibility to cover a pretty wide range of genres–this is a blues album that includes snippets of a lot of styles, so there’s no monochromatic tone here. A fun little ride! Grade: A+ (6/6)
  6. B.B. King, Live At the Regal. What a great sound each of these tracks has! King’s narrative quips between songs are almost as good as his golden singing, and the way Lucille wails…there are a lot of shades of blue in here, and some of them are pretty bright. The first one of these albums that I listened to twice in a row! Grade: A+ (6/7)
  7. John Mayall, Blues Breakers. This is solid and enjoyable, but already by this point in my listening, some of this relatively later work seems derivative, even generic. Loved the drum solo on their cover of “What’d I Say.” Grade: B (6/11)
  8. Albert King, Born Under a Bad Sign. I must be in a blues funk or something, because I thought this album was just meh. I liked it, but nothing–not one song–jumped out and grabbed me. And I listened to it twice to be sure! Grade: C (6/12)
  9. KoKo Taylor, KoKo Taylor. I know this is a classic, but it just didn’t do anything for me at all. It’s not bad–there’s nothing wrong with it–but this jazzy electric funk version of late blues just struck me as proto-disco more than what I wanted. Grade: C (6/13)
  10. The Blues: Feel Like Going Home. I watched this first film in the seven part Martin Scorsese documentary series that I’ve been wanting to see for 15 years…and why did I wait so long?! It was incredible. As much as I loved the interviews and performances (and Scorsese’s style of quick, smooth transitions that aren’t strictly connected but still make thematic and tonal sense), the best part was the final act, in Africa. So much great music was shared there. It makes me want to find some more old Putumayo collections and dig deeper into this aspect of music. What a joy! I can’t wait to see the other six entries in the series. Grade: A+ (6/18)      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7TfIIhkFUzo
  11. The Blues: The Soul of a Man. Great storytelling structure, mostly about three great musicians: Blind Willie Johnson, Skip James, JB Lenoir. All worth a further look! Grade: A (6/21)
  12. Keb Mo, Keb Mo. Wow, what a great sound! I can’t believe this came out when I was in high school and I’ve never heard of it until now. Most of this is a folksy kind of blues, often with a soulfully positive twist. Can’t wait to hear his other albums. Grade: A (6/21)
  13. Skip James, Devil Got My Woman. I was surprised that this was also such a folksy-sounding album–way more mellow than I would have expected. I loved this sound! Grade: A+ (6/23)
  14. Son House, The Original Delta Blues. Powerful–whether he’s sad or glad, he goes all in. The masterful guitar work–picking, pounding, and sliding–are matched by his vocal range–whispering and wailing, growling and crying, often in the same line. “John the Revelator” is haunting! Grade: A+ (6/25)
  15. Blind Willie Johnson, Dark Was the Night. Prototypical early blues sound. Not always my cup of tea, but these tracks are earthy, elemental, and ethereal all at once–maybe the pervasive gospel theme helps there–and it works more often than not. His original version of the track I just praised from Son House, “John the Revelator,” seems busy and fussy compared to the more sparse Son House cover, but the album’s title track takes the “haunting” title here. Still, this album’s frequent use of female backing vocals is rare in early blues, and I enjoyed it here. Grade: A (6/25)
  16. Magic Sam, West Side Soul. Odd that this came out in 1967, because it sounds mostly like basic 1950’s rock to me–lots of Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly riffs and whatnot. A safe, pleasant, and pretty unremarkable album. That being said, I actually liked his cover of “Sweet Home Chicago” even more than Robert Johnson’s original! Grade: C (6/25)
  17. Junior Wells, Hoodoo Man Blues. Great guitar work here, but fairly narrow–nowhere did I hear the variety evident on most of these records. That’s a major flaw for a record so often given to instrumentals over lyrics. Speaking of lyrics, one track is called “Hound Dog,” and even though it’s not a cover of the Elvis track, I couldn’t help comparing two songs with the same name. Junior Wells came in second. Still, the writing and singing is strong overall. I enjoyed it. Grade: B- (6/27)
  18. Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, The Peacock Recordings 1949-1959. A little more original than some of the other 50’s blues albums I’ve heard, but still derivative. The best thing here is the lyrics, especially on “My Time Is Expensive.” At first I though the line “You are a married woman and I have a family too” would be a paean to fidelity, but the follow up showed a more pragmatic concern: “We can’t waste no time darlin, I got other things to do.” That plus an earlier line–“So you’ve been bound to get together–we better do it fast”–reveal the singer to want the affair to be quick, so he could get back to his other commitments. Pretty darn funny. Some truly sad tracks are enriched by great writing, also, especially “Sad Hour” and “Dirty Work at the Crossroad.” Grade: B (6/27)
  19. The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band. I liked this a lot more than I thought I would. This guy knew his stuff! A few of these recent albums have been heavier on instrumental tracks. Excellent cowbell! Grade: B+ (6/27)
  20. Albert Collins, Ice Pickin’. This guy knows how to have fun! The chatty breaks in songs, the voices–he loves what he does. Some of the most impressive variety of any album so far. I’d heard “Master Charge” before and enjoyed it, and it’s a good fit for the album. Very strong–if I listen again, this one might go even higher. Grade: B+ (6/27)
  21. Slim Harpo, Best of Slim Harpo. I liked the nasal twang in his voice–he gets billed as swamp blues, but along with that harmonica, some of these songs could have come out of Nashville. I also like the bits where he talks in the middle of songs–other guys above have done that, too. A cool blues thing. Not quite as great as I hoped, since I really love “Raining in My Heart,” but solid. Grade: B (6/28)
  22. Muddy Waters, Folk Singer. Not sure what I expected from the title, but not this. It starts out the way you’d expect from a classic blues legend–one can imagine the smoky club–but you soon notice how intense it is; this is a moody, emo, pseudo-goth kind of blues. The stripped down nature, especially compared to most of these records I’ve heard now, makes the existing elements pop out more–the bass and drums resonate deeper. Still, some tracks get ponderously pretentious, they’re trying so hard to be deep (I’m looking at you, “Cold Weather Blues”). Some of this album is The Cure on Disintegration, but much of it is just The Cure on Seventeen Seconds. A handful of bonus tracks on a recent edition add much needed life to this often dour effort. (I thought “I rub my John the Conqueror root” was a dirty joke, but nope.) Grade: B- (6/28)
  23. J.B. Lenoir, Down in Mississippi. An album full of blunt 60’s protest songs (like “Vietnam Blues,” “Born Dead,” “Tax Payin’ Blues”) but which ends with an upbeat party track (“Feelin’ Good”). And it works! As with the best albums on this list, lots of variety is united by solid quality from end to end. Grade: A- (6/29)
  24. The Blues: The Road to Memphis. I noticed the very different directing style right from the start–this is much more of a traditional documentary…and it’s often boring. The personalities and stories are great–I loved learning about Beale Street and WDIA radio–but the transition segments are too slow and there wasn’t as much variety and depth in the musical choices as the first two films. Grade: C (6/29)
  25. The Blues: Warming By the Devil’s Fire. Yes! The series comes roaring back with this awesome entry! A nostalgic coming-of-age story about director Charles Burnett’s own childhood, the historical recreation is interspersed with actual performance and interview footage (one bit of Son House was also used in episode 2). Fantastic stuff–every artist was wonderful. I either learned new stuff or gained a deeper appreciation for the ones I knew. Some great female artists here, too. Grade: A+ (6/30)
  26. Mississippi John Hurt, The Best of Mississippi John Hurt. I love the simple, acoustic guitar sound, and his voice, and the songs are just magical. This is old, grassroots, gospel folk blues, just what I like. Grade: A+ (7/2)
  27. Rosco Gordon, The Original Sun Recordings. I was looking forward to this one, but it was only so-so for me. Another pop-heavy 50’s sounding record, it’s good at what it does, but this sound just doesn’t do much for me. Oh well. Grade: B- (7/2)
  28. Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Gospel Train. Dang, I really wanted to like this one. I enjoyed the clips in the 4th film in Scorsese’s Blues series, but the pervasive organ sounded intrusive, and her singing didn’t connect with me, either. Grade: C (7/2)
  29. Keb Mo and Taj Mahal, Tajmo. Not sure what I expected, but this was a lot of easy fun! If this is contemporary blues, then today’s blues is an upbeat fusion of everything from old fashioned slide guitar to bluegrass and rockabilly. Each song was a radio-friendly package of adult contemporary sweets, and that’s not faint praise–I liked relaxing and being energized at the same time. The cover songs are really decent, too. Grade: B (7/9)
  30. John Lee Hooker, The Real Blues: Live in Houston 1979. Lots of fun at the outset turns to brooding melancholy later in, but the intensity works here much better than on Muddy Waters’ Folk Singer album. His voice is the perfect blend of gravel and gravity. I was mesmerized the whole way through! Grade: A (7/11)
  31. John Lee Hooker, The Healer. This album from the 80’s has a lot of collabs on it, and it mostly works. I enjoyed it, but it lacked the immediacy and intensity of the live album I heard right before it. Still, a strong, polished, fun ride. Grade: A- (7/11)
  32. The Blues: Godfathers and Sons. Structurally, this one is lot like The Road to Memphis, following a protagonist and a growing crew as they work towards a big new musical gig meant as a reunion/Renaissance. This film works a bit better than that previous one, though the music itself often seems to get short shrift. Still, the infectious energy–and pure, rapturous joy–of the music in the final act would be impossible to miss! The song the created at the end was a really cool bit of fusion, though–always cool. [note for future viewings: major language warning] Grade: B (7/11)
  33. Skip James, Complete Early Recordings. There’s some great stuff on here, including a few tracks that he would re-record later, and good thing, because the sound quality here is pretty awful. It gets in the way. Other than that, the things I loved on Devil Got My Woman are all in evidence here: the guitar, the lyrics, the vocals…all amazing. “I’m So Glad” is an especially special treat. Grade: B (7/12)
  34. The Blues: Red, White and Blues. Meh. This format was the opposite of other episodes–instead of following a main character’s story, this was a rambling collection of interviews–more like sound bites, really, as most segments are just a few seconds long–creating a scattershot mess of ideas. Little substantial information is delivered–most of this is just British musicians acknowledging the influence of Americans. Some good music here, sure, but not all of it, and it’s always in the background. This entry doesn’t really add much at all. A final segment asks the subjects–including frequent figure Eric Clapton–if British blues makes a difference in blues overall. No, and the fact that the question is asked at all shows how peripheral this is. *yawn* Grade: D (7/12)
  35. The Blues: Piano Blues. The frame here is a meld of some earlier entries: mostly interviews, but longer than the previous entry’s “scattershot mess,” and they’re between director Clint Eastwood and a host of historical worthies (mostly Ray Charles–and bonus, apparently Eastwood plays the piano!). Light on history and info per se, most of the joy from this one is watching old guys hammer on the keys like the legendary masters they are, interspersed with largely black and white footage of them (and their deceased mentors) absolutely shredding it on the piano. Seriously, I never got tired of watching those fingers fly–it was something special to behold. Grade: B+ (7/13)
  36. T-Bone Walker, T-Bone Blues. Here’s a solid classic! I haven’t really liked most of the 50’s-era stuff here, but this was better. Having just watched Piano Blues, I paid a lot of attention to that instrument here, and how it worked with the other instruments. Walker’s droning whine was a sweet compliment to the other components, and I enjoyed the deep richness in variety here–the sub-genres present on many tracks, and even within the songs themselves. This is a great bridge between first generation and more contemporary blues. Grade: A+ (7/13)
  37. Blind Lemon Jefferson, King of the Country Blues. Like the old Skip James record a few entries above, the constant static from the age of this one was an almost impossible distraction, but behind that was a fairly solid roots blues album. Many of the tracks here seem pretty monochromatic, though–too much of the same. Grade: B- (7/14)
  38. R.L. Burnside, Too Bad Jim. A solid, more recent album, it still doesn’t really distinguish itself. Fun to listen to, though, undeniably. Grade: B (7/14)
  39. Guitar Slim, Sufferin’ Mind. Another blues album of 50’s-era proto-rock. This sound doesn’t do much for me, but this album does it better than most. Worth listening to. Grade: C+ (7/14)
  40. B.B. King, Singin’ the Blues. I wanted to end this project on a high note, and this album seemed like a good bet. I’ve been underwhelmed by a lot of 50’s-era blues on this list, but this album was far and away the very best one of those. I didn’t quite love everything, but it was a terrific record, and on every track I could appreciate the massive quality of guitar, piano, and vocals. Definitely a solid end to this blues adventure for now! Grade: A (7/16)

 

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