Blues Music Now Reviews

The Best Blues Albums of the Millennium

Here are Jeff Stevens' top blues albums of the millennium, in alphabetical order.

1. “Born Under a Bad Sign” — Albert King albert king

Here's where the Delta blues meets the Memphis sound. Albert King's first record on the Stax label was his best studio effort, producing classics such as “Laundromat Blues,” “Personal Manager,” “Crosscut Saw” and the title track. King is backed by Booker T. and the MGs, along with the Memphis Horns, who provide the swing to contrast with King's searing guitar. This 1967 album was strongly influential on rock guitarists such as Eric Clapton, who covered “Born Under a Bad Sign” with Cream. For some strange reason, “Born Under a Bad Sign” isn't widely available on CD, but all of its songs can be found on “King of the Blues Guitar” compilation, along with some bonus tracks.

2. “Chicago Bound” — Jimmy Rogers rogers

Muddy Waters' rhythm guitarist, Jimmy Rogers, steps out in front on this classic Chess Records album, which was released in 1970. Rogers is backed by Muddy's band, including Little Walter on harmonica, Otis Spann on piano and Willie Dixon on bass. The old man himself plays guitar on some of the tracks, which were recorded as singles from 1950 to 1956. Naturally, “Chicago Bound” is classic Chicago blues, but Rogers puts his own mark on the genre with his smooth vocals. Some of the great titles include “That's All Right,” “Sloppy Drunk” “ and Walking by Myself,”.

3. “Hoodoo Man Blues” — Junior Wells jr wells

Junior Wells is yet another of Muddy Waters' proteges to leave the great man and record a great Chicago blues record. “Hoodoo Man Blues” is credited to Wells, but guitarist Buddy Guy plays a prominent role as well. The album marks the beginning of a great partnership between the two men, which sadly ended with Wells' death several years ago. There's lot of great music on “Hoodoo Man Blues” — “Early in the Morning,” “Good Morning Schoolgirl” and “Snatch it Back and Hold It.” The 1965 Delmark Records recording also marked an important milestone as the first blues album ever released.

4. “Hot Wire 81” — Jimmy Dawkins dawkins

Chicago guitarist Jimmy Dawkins isn't as well known as some of the other blues legends on this list. That's a shame because few bluesmen, living or dead, can match the intensity of Dawkins' vocals and stinging guitar lines. To my knowledge, Dawkins has never released a bad record, but “Hot Wire 81” might be his best. Initially released on the French Isabel label, the album was difficult to acquire until it was reissued by Evidence Music in 1994. “Hot Wire 81” features Dawkins' version of the West Side Chicago sound, propelled forward by the rhythms of bass player Sylvester Boines, rhythm guitarist Rich Kirch and drummer Jim Schutte. Even more biting than the music is the social commentary provided by Dawkins' lyrics, including the moving “Welfare Line.”

5. “Howlin' Wolf” — Howlin' Wolf wolf

Chester Burnett, better known as Howlin' Wolf, was one of the most formidable figures in blues — a fearsome sight who stalked the Chicago blues stages at six feet, three inches and 300 pounds. His presense comes through on record as well, especially on the sides that he recorded for Chess Records. His second self-titled album, often called the Rocking Chair album after the cover image, was released in 1962. Wolf's trademark growling vocals are expertly backed by guitarist Hubert Sumlin, bass player Willie Dixon, piano player Otis Spawn and drummer Sammy Lay. Some of the best-known songs on the record were written by Dixon as well, including “The Red Rooster,” “Spoonful,” “Back Door Man” and “Wang Dang Doodle.” The graphic at left shows a two-for-one CD disc released by MCA which contains both “Howlin' Wolf” and “Moanin' in the Moonlight,” an equally great album.

6. “King of the Delta Blues Singers” — Robert Johnson johnson

There is no more mythical figure in blues than Robert Johnson, who, according to the legend, sold his soul to the devil at a Mississippi crossroads to learn to play blues guitar. Whether you believe the legend or not, there's something otherworldly about the recordings found on “King of the Delta Blues Singers,” which is the original Columbia Records collection of Johnson's recordings by Vocalion in 1936 and 1937. Later, in 1990, CBS Records released the two-CD box set, “The Complete Recordings,” which contained all 41 of Johnson's recordings, including alternate takes. The songs, which feature just Johnson's edgy vocals and bottleneck guitar, have inspired generations of musicians. Even if you've never heard the original songs, you've likely heard the many cover versions, including “Love in Vain” by the Rolling Stones, “Cross Road Blues” by Cream and “Sweet Home Chicago” by every blues band in the world.

7. “Live at the Regal” — B.B King regal

How does one choose among the great albums recorded by B.B. King, who deservedly wears the title, King of the Blues? After all, King is still producing great records, 50 years into his illustrious career. “Live at the Regal” gets the nod because it does a great job of showcasing all of King's great skills, including his powerful vocals and expressive guitar playing. Most importantly, “Live at the Regal” demonstrates King's showmanship and rapport with his fans, an ability that allowed King to bring blues music to a wider audience than just the hardcore fans. “Live at the Regal” was recorded in Chicago in November 1964 for MCA Records. A repackaged CD was released in 1997. The CD includes “Every Day I Have the Blues,” “How Blue Can You Get?” and “You Upset Me Baby,”

8. “Right Place, Wrong Time” — Otis Rush otis rush

Otis Rush's best album almost didn't see the light of day. “Right Place, Wrong Time” was recorded by Rush in 1971 for Capitol Records. For some unknown reason, Capitol refused to release the album and it was held captive until Rush was allowed to buy back the tapes and release it on the independent label, Bullfrog/Hightone Records in 1976. It would have been an injustice if “Right Place, Wrong Time” wouldn't have been made available. The album features some of Rush's best guitar work and vocals on standout tracks such as “Tore Up,” “Three Times a Fool” and the title track. One wonders if Rush would have had such a checkered career if he'd been treated better by Capitol and some of his other recording labels.

9. “The Chess Box” — Muddy Waters muddy

Any list of the best blues recordings of all time has to include Muddy Waters' work. When Muddy electrified the blues in the late 1940s, he created modern Chicago style blues and altered the course of American popular music forever. It's not so easy to pick an album, however, as Muddy's groundbreaking work for Chess Records was released in single form. Because one or two discs can't do justice to the great man's catalog, I've picked the three-disc box set, “The Chess Box,” released in 1989. “The Chess Box” includes most of Muddy's seminal work, including “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” “Mannish Boy,” “Hoochie Coochie Man” and “Got My Mojo Working.” It's a good starting point for anyone building their collection of Muddy's recordings.

10. “Too Bad Jim” — R.L. Burnside burnside

Not all of the great blues records were recorded decades ago. R.L. Burnside, along with fellow North Mississippi hill country bluesman Junior Kimbrough, released some of the most compelling records of the 1990s. Of course, the music had been played by the two men for years, but finally captured the attention of blues fans and punk rockers through the shrewd marketing by their recording company, Fat Possum Records. No CD could truly capture the sound of the juke joint, but “Too Bad Jim,” Burnside's second album, comes close. Writer Robert Palmer produced the 1993 album, recorded partly in Kimbrough's juke in Chulahoma, Miss., and does a good job of allowing the hypnotic, trance-inspiring rhythms of the music to come through.

Go to Steve Sharp's list.

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