Friday, January 1, 2016

FBF's Top Twenty Blues Albums for 2015

Happy New Year to all!!!  This week, Friday Blues Fix presents our Top Twenty new blues albums of 2015.  This was a fantastic year for new releases and it was EXTREMELY difficult to narrow it down to that number.  There were over 150 new releases that I got to hear this year and nearly all of them were top notch.  I received most of them for review and in the upcoming January issue of Blues Bytes, all of the reviewers' Top Ten will be listed, including mine.  Today's FBF post will feature my twenty favorites (in alphabetical order) and, if you are interested, you can check Blues Bytes in a few weeks to see which of mine (and the other reviewers') made the Top Ten.

Bill Abel - Celestial Train (self-released):  If you're looking for the basic, hardcore Mississippi blues, this is an excellent place to start.  Abel, who has played with many of the area's legendary artists, can play anything with strings on it, and play it very well.  He switches from acoustic to electric guitar, dobro, and his own cigar-box guitars, mixing the Delta and Hill Country blues in equal doses.  This disc offers eleven tracks, seven originals and four covers and there's plenty for blues fans to enjoy on this release, which Abel is selling at his gigs and also at CD Baby.  Seek this one out at all costs.

Bernard Allison - In The Mix (Jazzhaus Records):  For Allison's first studio release in six years, the guitarist flavors his blues with funk, soul, and R&B, with a tantalizing mix of originals and covers from a wide range of artists (Colin James, Tyrone Davis, Freddy King, and a pair of his dad's songs).  Allison's mom even co-wrote one of the tracks with her son.  Allison doesn't completely move away from the powerful guitar work he's noted for (there's some particularly fine slide guitar), but there's more focus on the songs and the grooves this time around, which is a good thing.  Vocally, he's at the top of his game and really does an excellent job with these tunes.  When FBF talked to Allison earlier this year, he said that this album represents the music he grew up listening to and that this was the first real opportunity he's had to record it.  It's obvious from listening that this project was a labor of love for him.  Listeners will definitely agree.


Bey Paule Band - Not Goin' Away (Blue Dot Records):  This is twelve tracks of soul/blues heaven.  Though the band changed their name (from the Frank Bey and Anthony Paule Band), their sound remains as powerful as ever.  The band itself, led by the first-rate guitar skills of Paule, has a seamless musical rapport, but the presence of Bey, one of the finest soul singers currently practicing, and makes a great band even greater.  Anyone who calls themselves a soul/blues fan should have this CD in their collection, no question.

Jimmy Burns - It Ain't Right (Delmark Records):   From the first time, I heard Jimmy Burns, on his astonishing Delmark debut Leaving Here Walking, I have enjoyed his distinctive mix of the urban blues and soul of his adopted home of Chicago with the traditional blues sounds of his native Mississippi.  His soulful vocals are just the icing on the cake for me (he released some memorable 45s of Chicago soul and blues in the 50's and also performed gospel as a teenager).  On this disc, his fifth for Delmark, it all comes together perfectly.  It Ain't Right has fifteen tracks, mostly covers, and it's just not enough, with Burns covering tunes from Jimmy Reed, Percy Mayfield, Goree Carter, Bobby Stone, Little Walter, and a complete reworking of the Junior Wells standard, "Messin' With The Kid."  He even revisits his gospel roots with "Wade In The Water."  If you're a blues fan and you're not on board with Jimmy Burns (FBF covered him, along with his late brother Eddie here a few years ago), you are missing out on some of the best blues being produced right now.

Eddie Cotton - One At A Time (DeChamp Records):  Cotton had a pretty big 2015, winning the Band category at this year's IBC and releasing this gem of a CD, his second for Grady Champion's label.  He wrote all fourteen of these tracks and they mix blues and Memphis-styled soul (circa 70's Hi Records) in fairly equal measures.  The whole session has a relaxed feel and great interplay between Cotton and the band.  He's never sounded better vocally or on guitar, which is really saying something.  Check out "Ego At The Door," one of the best Hi Records singles that never was.  It's hard to top Cotton's two live discs at the Alamo Theatre, but this is easily his best studio release to date.  

Bert Deivert & Copperhead Run - Blood In My Eyes For You (Rootsy Music):  Deivert plays guitar and mandolin, but focuses on the latter instrument for this excellent release, on which he's backed by the Swedish band Copperhead Run.  He covers ten tracks that cover the blues from the early days of the blues (tunes by Son House, Big Joe Williams, four wonderful Sleepy John Estes tunes) to more recent fare from R.L. Burnside, Paul "Wine" Jones, and mandolin pioneer  Yank Rachell.  Deivert also contributes two originals that blend in seamlessly.  There's not a lot of blues mandolin albums out there, at least from new artists, which is a shame. For fans familar or unfamiliar with it, this is a great album that's worth finding.

Ronnie Earl & the Broadcasters - Father's Day (Stony Plain Records):  Earl's recordings are consistently fine, and have been since the late 70's.  For this release, his ninth for Stony Plain, Earl changes things up a bit.  Where most of his previous releases were largely instrumental, Father's Day features vocalists on all but one of the thirteen tracks (Michael Ledbetter from Nick Moss' band and Diane Blue).  Earl also employs a full horn section for the first time in years.  The tunes include covers from Otis Rush, Magic Sam, B.B. King, Van McCoy, Fats Domino, Brook Benton, and Rev. Thomas A. Dorsey.  While one might assume that the vocals might take away some of Earl's soloing space, that's not really the case at all.  He makes the most of his opportunities and you'll be hard pressed to find a blues guitarist who plays with as much intensity and soul as Earl.  This is a disc that should be in any blues guitar fan's collection.

Anthony Garaci & the  Boston Blues All-Stars - Fifty Shades of Blue (Delta Groove Music):  Geraci, longtime keyboardist for Sugar Ray & the Bluetones, stretches out on his own for this outstanding release, employing his Bluetones bandmates, including guitarist "Monster" Mike Welch, and vocalists Darrell Nullisch, Michelle "Evil Gal" Willson, who duets with Bluetones boss Sugar Ray Norcia on the title track.  Garaci wrote all thirteen tracks and there's not a bad one in the bunch.  Norcia sings six tracks and Nullisch takes three vocals, and Willson and Washington take a track apiece, while Garaci and band take center stage for two great instrumentals, including a tribute to the late David Maxwell.  This is a superlative set of modern blues that shows Geraci to be a fine songwriter and arranger.  

Buddy Guy - Born To Play Guitar (Silvertone/RCA Records):  Guy's releases have sometimes been hit or miss for me, but his last few, which have found him teaming up with producer/drummer/composer Tom Hambridge, have worked pretty well for the most part.  This latest release is the best of their collaborations, and one of Guy's strongest, most consistent CDs in recent years.  As usual, there are a few guest stars aboard (ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons, Fab T-Bird Kim Wilson, Joss Stone, Doyle Bramhall II, and Van Morrison), but they worked really well together.  It doesn't hurt a bit that there's a great set of original tunes, courtesy of Hambridge (who co-wrote a few with Guy) and Guy does an excellent job singing them.  The guitar part you already know disappointments there.  He sings and plays with a passion and conviction that belies his nearly 80 years of age.  Frankly, I just hope I'm still above ground at that age.  Guy has moved to the Senior ranks of blues musicians over the past few years, but apparently nobody has advised him of this yet.

Ghost Town Blues Band - Hard Road To Hoe (self-released):  During our Ten Questions With GTBB guitarist/singer Matt Isbell, I stated that I couldn't imagine a blues fan not liking this disc.  It's loaded with great original tunes and great music, and there's plenty for fans of traditional blues, blues-rock, roots, Southern rock, Hill Country, and even Memphis-flavored blues and soul.  I played this disc probably as much as any I listened to this year.  GTBB mixes those above-mentioned genres together so well that you'll find yourself hitting "Replay" quite a few times, and you'll probably be checking to see if they will be playing in a town near you.....their live shows are the stuff of legend.  By all means, check out this great disc.

Beth McKee - Sugarcane Revival (Swampgirl Music):  On her latest release, Ms. McKee's roots are showing......her musical roots, that is, that encompass Louisiana, Texas, and her native Mississippi.  This time around, the singer/songwriter offers her best and most personal songs, all powered by one of the best voices currently practicing in the blues world.  She's joined by a standout set of musicians, including her husband, Juan Perez, on drums, guitarists Tony Battaglia and Subdude Tommy Malone, and former Evangeline bandmate Rhonda Lohmeyer.  The biggest challenge for most listeners will be in deciding which of these outstanding thirteen tracks is their favorite......the best kind of problem to have when listening to any disc.  McKee opted to go the Kickstarter route this time around, a trend that seems to be producing some excellent recordings these days, because it allows artists to do things the way they want to do them and record the songs they want to record.  This album has "Labor of Love" written all over it, and I think it's her best one yet.

David Michael Miller - Same Soil (Food For The Soul Records):  This is a superlative effort from the Buffalo-based singer/guitarist, impressively topping his previous release, the critically acclaimed Poisons Sipped from 2014.  Like its predecessor, Same Soil blends blues, R&B, soul, and gospel and pays tribute to the blues masters that influenced Miller......Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, etc....  He's as good a vocalist as you'll find these days, with soul and grit to burn.  Miller opened a lot of eyes and ears with his 2014 release, but Same Soil should be the disc that puts him on the Blues map to stay.

Andy Santana - Watch Your Step! (Delta Groove Music):  This one really grabbed me.  It's not only loaded with blues of the Chicago, Texas, and West Coast varieties, but there's also some great New Orleans-styled R&B thrown in for good measure.  Santana has been a part of the California blues scene since the 70's, but has recorded sporadically over the years.  Made up of mostly covers (including the Bobby Parker title track, a pair of Smiley Lewis tunes, and songs from Sir Mack Rice, Carol Fran, and Chuck Willis), Santana does mix in some cool originals, including a fantastic instrumental that features five guitarists....Santana, producer Kid Andersen, Bob Welsh, Anthony Paule, and Mighty Mike Schermer).  There's plenty of great music for blues fans, R&B fans, and old-school rockers to enjoy.

Ian Siegal - The Picnic Sessions (Nugene Records):  British blues-rocker Siegal teamed with Luther and Cody Dickinson, Jimbo Mathus, and Alvin Youngblood Hart for this riveting set recorded over a couple of days following the 2013 Mississippi Hill Country Picnic around Oxford, MS.  Marvelously ragged and relaxed, the five just sat around playing whatever stringed instrument was in reach and played whatever songs came to mind.....a few of which were written/revised on the spot.  Siegal's weather-worn vocals are charming and the music is mighty fine, all recorded at the Dickinsons' Zebra Ranch Studio using vintage equipment.  Hopefully, these guys will get together again after the next Picnic.

Sista Jean & CB - Requiem for a Heavyweight:  A Tribute to Odetta (Freckled Bandit Records):  This talented duo (singer Jean McClain and guitarist Carlyle Barriteau) pays tribute to the folk/blues legend with a dozen tracks recorded by and/or influenced by her.  As a child, McClain was influenced by Odetta and that is obvious as you hear her spirited vocals on these songs.  The styles range from blues to folk to gospel and most listeners will spot familir songs on here that they didn't realize were performed by Odetta years ago.  McClain's vocals are a big selling point for the disc, but you can't leave out Barriteau's guitar work.  He complements McClain so well with his understated guitar  The best thing about this duo is the way they let songs patiently unfold and develop on their own.  If you're a blues fan and you've not heard Sista Jean & CB, do so immediately.  You are missing a real treat.

Brad Vickers & His Vestapolitans - That's What They Say (ManHatTone Records):  I've been on board with the Vestapolitans since I reviewed their 2008 debut release and we did Ten Questions With Brad Vickers a couple of years ago.  The group has specialized in a tantalizing hybrid of blues, folk, rag, and old time rock & roll and they mix remakes of classic tunes with excellent original tunes.  Their new release is their sixth and to these ears, it's their best yet, with thirteen original tunes out of fifteen total.  I really enjoy the way that they recreate these classic music styles, breathing new life into classic music while remaining faithful to the original sources.  This is a very entertaining release.

John Earl Walker - Mustang Blues (Walkright Music):  Walker recorded this CD after a couple of years of tribulation for him and his band.  He lost his home and nearly all of his possessions during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and his longtime rhythm guitarist passed away the next year.  This is his sixth album of powerhouse blues-rock and his most inspired.  Walker's been on the music scene for over 50 years and is one of the most underrated guitarists out there.  He really turns in a solid set of tunes on Mustang Blues as well, including a slow blues about his struggles with the storm ("Superstorm Sandy Blues"), the humorous title track, and several unique and personal views of familiar blues topics.....infidelity, revenge, and making changes in life.  There's also plenty of opportunities for him to show off his string-bending skills.  We dug deeper into this new album, and Walker's other music, when he sat down with FBF for Ten Questions.

Leo "Bud" Welch - I Don't Prefer No Blues (Big Legal Mess Records):  When Welch signed with Big Legal Mess to do his gospel/blues album Sabougla Voices, he agreed to follow up with a straight blues album.  The 83-year-old Welch grew up playing the blues at picnics, parties, juke joints, and clubs, but eventually began playing in the church while retaining that down home blues sound.  That quality is likely what made his gospel album so compelling to blues fans.  If that's the case, they should be beside themselves with this release, which keeps the raw urgency of its predecessor as Welch offers his interpretation of some old Mississippi blues classics with his grungy guitar and his gritty vocals front and center.  Even with guest musicians like Jimbo Mathus and Sharde' Thomas on hand to assist, it's hard to get past Welch himself.  It took a long time for Welch to finally get the opportunity to record, but he's made the most of it, and hopefully, he'll get the chance again soon (Go here for FBF's look at Welch's music from this past summer).

Webb Wilder - Mississippi Moderne (Landslide Records):  I've been hearing about Webb Wilder for years down here in Mississippi.  The Hattiesburg native got his career cranked up in the mid 80's and he appeared regularly in the Magnolia State.  He has also lived and worked in Austin and Nashville and has absorbed the music and influences from all three locales.  Throw in a taste of British Invasion-era rock & roll and you've got a potent mix.  Mississippi Moderne is Wilder's first release in six years, and like it's predecessors, it shows that the line between Robert Johnson, Chuck Berry, and Buck Owens is pretty thin.  In fact, there's samples of all three styles present on this release, both originals from Wilder and covers from the likes of Johnson, Otis Rush, Frankie Lee Sims, Charlie Rich, Conway Twitty, and Ray Davies.  How's that for diversity?  If you're new to Wilder's musical charms, this is a good place to start, but odds are that you won't be stopping there.

Mike Zito & the Wheel - Keep Coming Back (Ruf Records):  I was saddened to hear that Zito was leaving Royal Southern Brotherhood to focus on his solo career, but if he keeps making albums like this, I should be fine.  This set features some of his most honest and personal songs (three of the ten were co-written with Anders Osborne, who also guests on one of the tracks), dealing with events that marked his past, present, and future life.  He's always been a top notch songwriter, but these are among his best.  He's always loved rock and country and those genres have always been a big part of his blues and that's the case on this release as well.  He owns one of the best voices in the business, capably handling the soulful tunes and the rootsy rockers with ease, and can blow the doors off the place with his guitar.  This is essential stuff, especially for blues rockers.

Honorable Mention (also in alphabetical order)

Barbara Blue - Memphis Blue:  Sweet, Strong, & Tight (Big Blue Records)
Omar Coleman - Born and Raised (Delmark Records)
Crooked Eye Tommy - Butterflies & Snakes (self-released)
Chris Daniels & the Kings - Funky To The Bone (Moon Voyage Records)
Tinsley Ellis - Tough Love (Heartfixer Music)
Samantha Fish - Wild Heart (Ruf Records)
Jeff Jensen - Morose Elephant (Swingsuit Records)
The Peterson Brothers (Blue Point Records)
Kern Pratt - Broken Chains (Gigtime Records)
The Ragpicker String Band (Yellow Dog Records)
Duke Robillard - The Acoustic Blues and Roots of...(Stony Plain)
Mr. Sipp - The Mississippi Blues Child (Malaco Records)

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