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11 Albums to Help You Explore the Blues

11 Albums to Help You Explore the Blues
Orin Zebest

I've spent the past few weeks debating the merits of Vinyl (seven reasons) versus CD (five reasons) for those of us that still collect music (my final verdict is that both have great qualities, but CD is still better).

It's been a fun little debate, but it doesn't really matter how you listen. It doesn't even matter if you have an actual collection. Digital. Analog. CD. DVD. Youtube. Spotify. Radio. Whatever. The important thing is the music itself. The art. In other words, what really matter is WHAT you are putting in your ears.

So rather than rile up another debate this week, lets see if I can't help expand your musical knowledge. Read on and I'll help you start your journey down the road of one of America's great musical contributions: The Blues.

See also: - Record Store Geek: You Can't Grow Up on Rock Alone. Nine Swingin' Jazz Albums. - Record Store Geek: Five Signs That You May Be a Music Junkie.

What Do You Know About the Blues, North Dakota Boy?

I don't claim to be the ultimate blues historian or anything, but I can tell you this much:

After twenty-six years in record stores, I've listened to a shitload of blues (and experienced them a few times as well). New. Old. Fast. Slow. Up and down.

I've spent more than a few hours in the clubs -- I even started dating my wife after a visit to the Rhythm Room -- and I've seen all levels of players. I've bought and sold CDs and LPs to and from some of the biggest blues fans in the Valley. I've got a very solid blues collection (on CD and LP).

In a nutshell, I'm a blues fan. Hopefully that qualifies me to recommend some albums.

What you will see listed is stuff that I actually own and play frequently (unless otherwise noted), so it will lean towards my blues preferences, which are generally more upbeat and guitar-driven. However, being the responsible record store geek (oxymoron alert) that I am, I'll try to cover as many bases as I can.

You ready to get the blues?

11 Albums to Help Start a Blues Collection

There I am with collection again.

Truthfully, I don't care how you listen to these, but if you want to learn more about the blues, dial 'em up and give 'em a listen. Like I said, it's not all inclusive by any means, but if you don't find something you like, it's safe to say that you probably ain't a bluesman (or blueswoman, as the case may be).

1. Robert Cray, Strong Persuader

When I was a child, I rocked like a child. Consequently, I was listening to rock radio in college. Then one day, I heard the song "Smokin' Gun" off of this album. I thought, "Hey, that's not rock, but I sure do like it." So I bought the album (you had to do that in those days if you wanted to hear it). Loved it. Still do.

Twenty-eight years later, I consider it my first step on my blues journey. That's why even though it might not make my ultimate Desert Island blues list, I'm starting this list with it (even though I'm begging for harassment from blues purists).

2. Robert Johnson, King of the Delta Blues

Here's the artist that a blues purist would have listed first. The legendary Robert Johnson. The one that sold his soul at the crossroads (that's hearsay, I wasn't actually there). You might have heard the song (ramped by Cream and nine zillion other rockers).

But here's the trick. Although I appreciate Johnson, and own the Complete Collection of his songs (there were only a handful), I don't really listen to a truckload of Delta blues, or any sort of acoustic blues. Nevertheless, you might really dig it, and there's no way I can write a list like this without the all-time King.

 

3. Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Paul Butterfield Blues Band.

In case you didn't know... Rock and Roll came from the Blues. The English artists that we now call legends revived the Blues and turned it up a notch. So the line between blues and blues-rock can sometime be hard to define. I'm trying to stick to blues here.

I say this because some would say that a 60's band with two white guys on guitar (Mike Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop) isn't really a blues band. I would understand their point, and you won't see any Stones, Clapton, Vaughan, or Allman Brothers on the list, but in this case, I think they're wrong. I think this album, and it's follow up, East-West, are two of the best blues albums ever made.

Once you hear the opening cut, "Born in Chicago", you'll be right there with me.

4. Albert King, Born Under a Bad Sign

You may have heard Albert's guitar work and not even known it. That's probably because it wasn't Albert playing it, it was Eric Clapton (Ol' Slowhand would be the first to tell about the influence of Albert and others.)

Backed by Booker T. and the MGs, this 1967 release is one of the all-time electric blues classics. When we'd play it at the store, it would sell. Almost every single time. Try "Crosscut Saw" and see what you think.

5. Howlin' Wolf, Howlin' Wolf/Moanin' in the Moonlight

My favorite Blues artist of all. Three hundred pounds of heavenly joy. I used to imagine heaven as a place where I could be instantly transported to any time/place/moment. If that were the case, when it comes to the Blues, I'd ask to be put right in the middle of a juke joint to watch The Wolf at his peak.

Having not run into that situation yet, I'll have to stick to the recorded music. Wolf's first two albums are available on a two-for-one combo CD, and it's nothing short of amazing. It's hard to pick a song, but let's go with "Evil."

6. Muddy Waters. Hard Again

As is the case with Robert Johnson, you can't have a Blues collection without Muddy. Some would say At Newport, but like I mentioned, I like it better when the Blues rocks, so I'll go with 1977's Hard Again.

Johnny Winter showed up to help resurrect Muddy's career, and the result was a this rollicking little output. You'll recognize the opening notes of "Mannish Boy"... and then you'll realize you need to hear the rest.

 

7. Taj Mahal. Taj Mahal

Taj's debut album, recorded in 1967, is so great it's fuckin' great. I've listened to a zillion times, and I have never tired of it in the slightest. Wicked slide by Taj, better lead by Jesse Ed Davis, and great rhythm by Ry Cooder and Bill Boatman provide me a big dose of my beloved electric blues. But it also has an old sound.

Give "Diving Duck Blues" a run. "If the river were whiskey, and I was a diving duck..."

8. Willie Dixon. I Am the Blues

You wouldn't believe how many classic blues songs Willie Dixon has written that were made famous by other people, both contemporaries and followers. He's like the Bob Dylan of the Blues. This album is Willie doing some of his very best. Check it out. See if you can name at least one classic rock group that did each of these songs.

9. Bobby "Blue" Bland. Touch of the Blues

Bobby has one hell of a smooth voice, and it's essential we have a Blues crooner on the list. I could have used his quintessential Two Steps from The Blues, which is a truly a classic, but I like this one better. Almost every tune is solid, including the slower ones, but if I had to put one on a playlist, it'd be the wicked "Road of Broken Hearted Men"

10. Koko Taylor. Koko Taylor

I can't forget the ladies... and for me, the first lady of Blues is Koko Taylor. I could have easily said Etta James, but I saw Koko live at the old Rocking Horse, and it left an indelible impression on me. This Chess set (including eight Willie Dixon songs) features some seriously cool blues jams, including the infamous "Wang Dang Doodle".

11. Etta James. Tell Mama

I may have listed Koko first, but Miss Peaches is a Blues badass for sure, and she needs to be on this list. She alternates between hard and soft, sassy and demure, as well as any artist in any genre.

If you are a woman, then I guess I'd say you may want to start with the magnificent At Last album, featuring the oft-heard title cut, but the ultimate Etta for me is this upbeat Muscle Shoals output from 1967 (hell of a Blues year, eh?). The title cut is just as good, and the rest of the album is wonderful.

There it is, a dose of the Blues for you as we head into "winter" (being a Nodaker, I have to use quotes on that word when I say it in Arizona.) I could have made it thirty titles, and I shudder to think about the omission of T-Bone Walker, Sonny Boy Williamson, Magic Sam, Albert Collins, and many more, but it's a good start.

Have an excellent day. Thanks for reading.

Steve Wiley is Up on the Sun's resident Record Store Geek and Jackalope Ranch's Parent Hood.


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