The Ten Best Blues Albums of the Year
1) The Igor Prado Band Blues and Soul Sessions/Chico Blues Records
2) Fred Kaplan Hold My Mule/Regal Radio Records
3) Rick Estrin and the Nightcats One Wrong Turn/Alligator Records
4) BB and the Blue Shacks Come Along/Cross Cut Records
5) Nathan James What You Make of It/Delta Groove Music
6) Lurrie Bell The Devil Ain’t Got No Music/Ario BG Records
7) R.J. Mischo Make it Good/Delta Groove Music
8) Milton Hopkins and Jewel Brown (Self Titled)/Dialtone Records
9) Dennis Gruenling featuring Doug Deming and the Jewel Tones/Vizztone Records
10) Magic Slim and the Teardrops Bad Boy/Blind Pig Records
The Next Ten
11) Doug Deming and the Jewel Tones featuring Dennis Gruenling/Vizztone Records
12) Billy Boy Arnold Sings Big Bill Broonzy/Electro Fi Records
13) Curtis Salgado Soul Shot/Alligator Records
14) The Elgins Volume 2/Devil’s Tale Music
15) Lil’ Ed and The Blues Imperials Jump Start/Alligator Records
16) The Mannish Boys Double Dynamite/Delta Groove Music
17) Red Lotus Revue Fourteen Stories/Self Released
18) The 44s Americana/Rip Cat Records
19) The Royal Rhythmaires Shuck and Jive/Self Released
20) Mud Morganfield Son of a Seventh Son/Severn Records
Best Live Album
Soul Live/Blues Live by John Nemeth These are actually two separate albums that capture the vitality of one of the bright young lights on the contemporary blues scene. These albums in my mind can’t be separated as Nemeth’s more soul oriented material has a lot of blues in it and his blues material is imbibed with his own brand of soul. These performances took place in the winter of 2012 and feature Nemeth’s stellar road band that includes on these recordings both A.C.Myles and Chris “Kid” Andersen on guitars.
Runner Up: James Harman’s Bamboo Porch Revue Live at Little Village/Gulf Coast Records - This was a tough choice as it has been nine years since James Harman put out an album. This intimate sounding live recording is a great place to hear for the first time a batch of Harman originals. The Alabama native and long-time Southern California resident is backed by his long time road band that includes Nathan James on guitar and percussionist Mike Tempo. There are various combinations of musicians that include the full band, quartet, trio and even an acoustic duo number. All material is presented with that patented Harman wit and wisdom.
Honorable Mention: Junior Watson Live from Outer Space/Blue Beat Music - This live recording was actually recorded at the Torre Alfina Blues Festival in Italy in 2007. Watson is backed by an Italian Band, The Red Wagons. They are up to the task and follow Watson through his every quirky muse. This set features some great song choices and, as you would expect, some very tasty guitar. This is some seriously swinging stuff. This recording has been kicking around for some time and has surfaced as a bootleg in Europe and elsewhere. This incarnation represents this material’s official, authorized release.
Best Soul – Blues Album
The Igor Prado Band Blues and Soul Sessions/Chico Blues Records - This band out of Sao Paulo, Brazil has knocked me out ever since I first heard them. Each release has a distinctively different flavor to it. Their last outing was their Delta Groove Music debut. That 2010 release featured vocalist Lynwood Slim. The album, entitled Brazilian Kicks, had a decidedly post war, west coast, jump, swing sound to it. Here on Blues and Soul Sessions the Boys from Brazil take the blues to Memphis and mine that often imitated but, until now, never quite duplicated Stax Records sound. Igor can comfortably channel Steve Cropper, Little Milton and B.B. King’s distinctive guitar stylings without sounding like he is trying to become the Rich Little of the blues. Igor’s younger brother Yuri on drums and Rodrigo Mantovani on bass make up the core band on which this album is anchored. This record also has some great guest vocalists including Curtis Salgado and Tia Carroll. I would love to hear more from the latter as she is an absolutely wonderful find. Sax Gordon also adds some great contributions here as his tenor tears a mean swath through several of the tracks giving these tunes some of that southern grease which many of us find irresistible. This record reminds listeners just how close blues and soul music was related back in the day. It is a fun album with some deep nasty grooves. This recording receives my highest recommendation.
Runner Up: BB and The Blues Shacks Come Along/Cross Cut Records - The Brothers Arlt from Germany have been moving closer to a soul-blues sound for some time. Come Along, their fourteenth album finds this band mixing the right ingredients to make this often elusive blues-soul sound work. This healthy sixteen song collection of tunes was all written by the band’s frontman, singer and harp player Michael Arlt and his guitar playing older brother Andreas. They are augmented by a three person backup group of male vocalists billed here as the Shackettes as well as a three piece horn section. In many ways, this album is the equal to the highly acclaimed Igor Prado Band’s album mentioned above. In some ways it surpasses that album especially in the originality department.
Honorable Mention: Curtis Salgado Soul Shot / Alligator Records - Like many of our readers, I am a long time fan of Curtis Salgado. Not only that, when a couple of years ago I found out he was going into the studio with the Phantom Blues Band, I couldn’t wait to get my ears around this CD. When I heard an advance release of this record last spring, I declared, “It was the best soul–blues album I have heard in years.” It was. I just hadn’t heard the summer releases by The Igor Prado Band or B.B. and the Blues Shacks yet.
Best Roots Americana Album
The Blasters Fun on a Saturday Night / Rip Cat Records - This is the first Blasters album in several years and is also the best album they have put out in the new millennium. If anyone wonders if these guys still have it after all these years, those doubts will be erased after the first few seconds and then long forgotten by the time you are only part way through your first spin. The band touches on several American roots music idioms including soul, country, blues, doo-wop and even little norteña. As you might expect from the Blasters, vintage rock and roll along with some rockabilly are thrown into this concoction to make for a tasty musical experience.
Runner Up: Rick Holmstrom Cruel Sunrise (Deluxe Edition) / MC Records - Holmstrom remains one of the most interesting and adventurous musicians on the blues scene today. This CD can be purchased as a single disc or in the Deluxe Edition format where disc two has Holmstrom and his band doing instrumental takes on a wide variety of material that includes everything from Ellington’s In My Solitude to Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues. Holmstrom’s band is Jeff Turmes on bass and Stephen Hodges on drums.
Best Instrumental Album
Fred Kaplan Hold My Mule/Royal Radio Records
Best Album Debut
Red Lotus Revue Fourteen Stories/Self Released
Runner Up: The Royal Rhythmaires Shuck and Jive/Self Released
No Sophomore Jinx
The Elgins Volume 2
Runner Up: The 44’s Americana
Best Reissue Single Artist - Contemporary
Barrelhouse Chuck 35 Years of Chicago Blues Piano Volumes 1 & 2 / Viola Records - These two discs, which are being sold separately, feature a virtual who’s who in the blues field over the past three decades.
Runner Up: Gary Primich Just a Little Bit More/Old Pal Records - This two disc set features a roundup of some of the late harmonica player’s best sides as well as seven previously unissued tracks featuring Primich as side man to “Omar” Kent Dykes. Both the sides by Primich and Dykes feature a group of first call, Texas session players. This career retrospective of one of the best harp men to grace the contemporary scene is a wonderful tribute to a major talent whose legacy was sadly cut short.
Best Reissue – Historical (Box Set)
Maxwell Davis Wailin’ Daddy: The Best of Maxwell Davis 1945-1959/Fantastic Voyage Records - This three disc compilation is part of a series of reissues entitled, The Architects of Rock and Roll. It is appropriate that the first in this series be a look at Maxwell Davis as he was a tenor saxophone giant, bandleader, arranger, producer and talent scout. This 89 song collection includes Davis fronting his own orchestra as well as work he did with Big Joe Turner, T-Bone Walker, B.B. King, Amos Milburn, Floyd Dixon, Lowell Fulson as well as a host of others. Davis’ reach and influence as it relates to west coast post war blues is without rival with the possible exception of Johnny Otis.
Runner Up: Johnny Otis That’s Your Last Boogie/Fantastic Voyage Records - This three disc compilation is the second installment of The Architects of Rock and Roll box set series. These 83 tracks span Otis’ career from his early days in Los Angeles fronting his own big bands and smaller combos as well as his work with Jimmy Rushing, Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers, Illinois Jaquet, Wynonie Harris and a host of others. By the time this box set is done you can hear seminal recordings by Etta James, Big Mama Thornton, Little Esther Philips and others. This compilation represents the most comprehensive overview ever released of one of the most important careers in rhythm and blues music.
Bharath Rajakumar’s work on both Junior Watson’s and Fred Kaplan’s 2012 CDs is what helped give both these recordings their rich, retro lo-fi sound. I have spoken to many musicians over the past year who have said that they would love to work with this Montreal based talent.
Best Original Album Art and Design
The Blasters Fun on a Saturday Night / Rip Cat Records: The original artwork that graces the cover is a Phil Alvin original piece. Not only is this guy one of the most instantly recognizable vocalists in the pantheon of contemporary music, he plays guitar, piano and harmonica on this record that he co-produced with Rip Cat Records founder Scott Abeyta. Speaking of talent, the liner notes were written by Mike Eldred and he says more with less and puts you in the mood to have fun on Saturday night or any night of the week even before the CD comes blasting out of your speakers. Amy Norris is responsible for the art direction and design.
Runner Up: Nathan James and the Rhythm Scratchers What You Make of It. The cover shot by Peggy Derose features a close up of Nathan’s duel handled washboard that he made complete with L.E.D. lights. Nathan wrote the very descriptive liner notes to this his tenth album and Delta Groove Music debut. Not only does the multi-talented musician give readers an overview of his tenth CD but some interesting insight to each of the album’s fourteen tracks. The artwork and design is by Joshua Tempkin who also did the artwork for the Phantom Blues Bands 2012 release, Inside Out.
- David Mac