The Blues are the foundation of almost every important musical genre of the 20th century – from Jazz to Rock to Soul to Funk to Hip-Hop and beyond. As Willie Dixon so eloquently put it, “The Blues is the roots, everything else is the fruits.” Here are 20 Blues albums that should be a part of any serious music collection:
Robert Johnson – King Of The Delta Blues Singers
#1 – It’s hard to overstate the importance of Robert Johnson’s influence on the sound of modern music. His ghostly wail and precise finger picking style, combined with tales of hellhounds and cheating women, set the bar for what a blues singer should sound like (and, since rock was born out of the blues… well, you connect the dots). And his personal background is one of the most interesting and hotly debated stories in the history of music. An oft-told tale has Johnson meeting the Devil at the crossroads and trading his soul for the musical skills that would make him a legend.
But the songs are the real story here: ‘Sweet Home Chicago’, ‘I’m A Steady Rollin’ Man’, ‘Ramblin’ On My Mind’, ‘Stop Breakin’ Down Blues’, ‘They’re Red Hot’ and ‘Love In Vain Blues’ – along with nearly everything else he recorded in his short life – would go on to become standards, and have been covered by everyone from Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones to The Red Hot Chili Peppers and Eric Clapton. Johnson’s influence was particularly rampant during the mid-to-late 1960’s when many young rockers (including Jimmy Page, Keith Richards, and Clapton) turned to him for inspiration as well as material. And while Johnson had a deep influence on the British blues, his hold on musicians continues into the 21st century in the songs of the White Stripes and others. As long as music is being made, Robert Johnson’s influence will continue to resonate.
Howlin’ Wolf – The Chess Box
#2 – Howlin’ Wolf (aka Chester Burnett) is, as the Blues Hound says “a singer/persona whose ferocity has never been equaled and rarely even approached.” He stood 6 feet 6 inches tall and tipped the scales at more than 300 pounds and his personality filled every iota of that frame. The guy just rips. “I just be in the field plowing and songs come to me you know…” he says on one of the spoken word segments here. Wolf sowed a number of blues masterpieces for Chicago’s Chess Records, including ‘Smokestack Lightnin’ ‘Back Door Man’ ‘Spoonful’ ‘Killing Floor’ and ‘300 Pounds Of Joy’. These songs – covered by early rock luminaries such as the Grateful Dead, The Doors, Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix – represent just the beginning of this treasure trove. For proof that absolute musical intensity doesn’t require ear shredding decibels or quicksilver guitar work, fire up Howlin’ Wolf’s epic Chess Box.
Leadbelly – King Of The 12-String Guitar
#3 – Huddie Leadbetter, aka Leadbelly, had a voice as smooth as good liquor, and twice as dangerous. He didn’t mind telling it like it was, and his man-in-the-streets style made him something of a gangsta rapper before his time. Indeed, legendary Library Of Congress field recorder Alan Lomax discovered and first recorded Leadbelly while that latter was serving time in the notorious Parchman Farm Penitentiary for attempted murder. A multi-talented instrumentalist, he specialized in 12-string guitar. All of Leadbelly’s music transcends the Blues – it is music of the highest order. The songs that Leadbelly performed in his lifetime have been covered by an incredibly wide array of performers, including Pete Seeger, The Rolling Stones, Nirvana, and Van Morrison.
Billie Holiday – Songs For Distingue Lovers
#4 – To her core, Lady Day was a blues singer. A life filled with hard living, hard relationships, and hard drugs gave her first hand insight into what constituted the blues – and ultimately led to her early grave. But none of that should overshadow her accomplishments as a singer. In terms of vocal phrasing, Holiday stands as one of the finest singers of the 20th century – along with Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles and Marvin Gaye. Like those artists, her voice seems to come from within in the song, and any tune she put it to is instantly hers.
She sings like a woman whose heart was recently removed by way of her throat, so it wouldn’t matter if she were backed by Xavier Cugat or Carl Stalling – Billie Holiday always sang the blues. Here, she’s backed by Jimmy Rowles, Ben Webster and Barney Kessel, among other jazz musicians, but her voice epitomizes unendurable pain, endless struggle, and utter hopelessness. Songs For Distingue Lovers is as good a place as any to begin discovering the genius of Billie Holiday. Taking perversely happy songs and lending them her distinct touch, she turns tales of happiness and found love into gut wrenching takes on anguish and loss. Pure and bitter genius.
Mississippi John Hurt – 1928 Sessions
#5 – Mississippi John Hurt’s story reads like a blues fairy tale. A farm laborer from Avalon, Mississippi, Hurt recorded a number of sides in 1928 for the Okeh label. But the great depression effectively ended his recording career before it gained any traction, and he returned to Avalon to resume working as a laborer. In 1963, record collector Tom Hoskins pieced together clues from Hurt’s songs, found him in Avalon, and convinced him to resume his music career. Hurt was instantly recognized as a lost treasure, and began a healthy touring and recording schedule, releasing three albums and playing to coffeehouses across the country. Alas, his re-found fame was cut short when he passed away in 1966. 1928 Sessions captures Hurt in his young glory before he went into deep freeze. His finger picking is absolutely unparalleled in the history of Blues music – just listen to ‘Frankie’ for evidence. A mellow, soulful singer, Hurt’s laid back style makes him instantly recognizable and thoroughly enjoyable.
Bessie Smith – The Complete Recordings, Vol. 1
#6 – The “Empress Of The Blues” possessed a voice powerful enough to cut through the hiss and scratch of primitive recordings and leap across the chasm of time. No other singer from the 1910’s & 20’s still sounds as fresh, vital, and imposing as Bessie Smith. She was one of the first stars of recorded music, and it wasn’t uncommon for her more popular sides to sell nearly a million copies. The majority of her songs were recorded before 1929, when the Great Depression essentially put the recording industry out of business.
The Complete Recordings, Vol. 1 is the first set in a series that collects all of her recorded work on 5 two-disc sets. The music here was recorded between February 1923 and April 1924 and features her mostly just accompanied by piano. From ‘Downhearted Blues’ all the way through to ‘Hateful Blues’ Smith’s voice is equal parts iron and velvet, and she sings like a woman who would – and has – spit in the face of the devil himself.
Before she died in 1937 – at age 43, from injuries sustained in an automobile accident – she laid a foundation of blues songs that have influenced generations of female singers, including Billie Holiday, Janis Joplin, & Norah Jones. But there’s only one Bessie Smith, and she’s right here, waiting to reach out across nearly 100 years’ time and tell you just how it is.
Reverend Gary Davis – Harlem Street Singer
#7 – Davis was born partially blind and lost his sight completely before he reached adulthood. He turned to the church in part to cope with this burden, and in 1933 was ordained as a Baptist minister. In the late 50’s he found favor with the secular folk crowd, and began to have an influence on players of that era including Dave Van Ronk, Bob Dylan, and eventually, Jerry Garcia. His picking style was born out of a badly broken and poorly set left wrist that forced him to finger his notes at an odd angle. But his vocal intensity was no accident – Davis sang with a fire that matched the brimstone in his songs. Harlem Street Singer displays the eclectic mix of song styles – ragtime, marches, gospel, field songs, and more – that he brought together through his incomparable voice and singular style.
Big Bill Broonzy – Trouble In Mind
#8 – Though not as often-referenced as other blues giants, Broonzy was a pioneering artist and influence on many of the men whose shadows he would come to stand in. Trouble In Mind is an excellent collection of singles he recorded during the 30’s for labels such as Vocalion, Columbia, and ARC, and it’s an excellent place to delve into his work. Broonzy brought a well-developed sense of humor to a genre that could have used more of it. But only someone with his slick genius could consistently put a smile on your face while singing the genuine blues.
Skip James – The Complete Early Recordings Of Skip James – 1930
#9 – Early Recordings is one of the scariest albums ever recorded in any genre, under any circumstances. James’ unearthly wail is the sound of a tormented spirit corkscrewing away from its earthly body. When he sings “Jesus is coming to this world again/Coming to judge the hearts of men“, he sounds like a leering devil who sees all your sins and gleefully knows how you’ll be judged. The quality of these recordings is terrible, but the sheets of hiss and scratch sound like black rain and actually add to the overall creepy effect. Refreshingly spared the digital sanitization that almost every other reissue of the compact disc era has undergone, this is a hair-raising journey down the darkest side street of the Blues.
Albert King – Born Under A Bad Sign
#10 – “He can take four notes and write a volume,” guitarist Mike Bloomfield once said of Albert King. His minimalist blues styling is in a perfect setting here, backed by the Memphis Horns, Booker T. & The MG’s, and many other Stax/Volt luminaries. More a collection of singles than a proper album, Born Under A Bad Sign influenced a who’s who of rock, including Clapton, Hendrix, Peter Green, and others. More importantly, it fused soul, R&B and the Blues into a stout mixture that would reinvigorate interest in a sagging genre and ensure that King would be forever (and rightly) known as a Blues legend and one of the most influential musicians of all-time.
Mance Lipscomb – Texas Sharecropper & Songster
#11 – Beau De Glen Lipscomb’s nickname was short for “emancipation” but he sang like a man welded permanently to the chain gang. His acoustic Texas blues style didn’t find an audience until the 1960’s – by which time Lipscomb had been performing for nearly 30 years – but he was still quite prolific, recording nearly 90 original songs before passing away in 1976. Texas Sharecropper And Songster compiles the better part of two of his early-60’s albums for the Arhoolie label, and it’s an excellent introduction to one of the most gifted and original voices to sing the Blues.
John Lee Hooker – Alternative Boogie: Early Studio Recordings 1948 – 1952
#12 – Start with the voice: a slow drawl that’s as thick and sweet as molasses. Then there’s the backbeat: driving things along at a casual but insistent rate – like a ‘57 Chevy cruising down smooth, freshly-laid blacktop. The combination would carry Hooker to a magnificent career that spanned nearly 60 years and see him cross over to rock audiences time and again in ways that must have left his contemporaries wondering and envious. This collection contains early, alternate versions of songs that Hooker would go on to re-record, and it’s an impeccable look at the formative years of a Blues genius. To hear a fine slice of the other (funk/rock) side of Hooker, be sure to check out 1974’s excellent and underrated Free Beer And Chicken.
Lonnie Johnson – The Complete Folkways Recordings
#13 – Lonnie Johnson is the Velvet Underground of the blues. A bluesman’s bluesman, his wide-ranging influence sits in inverse proportion to his meager popularity. Luminaries such as Robert Johnson and Bob Dylan have cribbed from his phrasing, picking, and knife-edge vocals. After Mississippi John Hurt, Johnson is the most laid back singer on this list, but he still sounds like a man singing like his life depended on it.
Muddy Waters – At Newport 1960
#14 – At the 1960 Newport Folk Festival, Muddy Waters wasn’t yet a Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame inductee or Chicago Blues titan – he was simply a man with a band trying to impress a whole bunch of white people. This soulful yet blistering set did the trick, and then some – igniting interest in electric blues and sending Waters on his way to all those accolades. “Put A Tiger In Your Tank” is a perfect example of the barely restrained ferocity that marks the whole set. The band featured Otis Spann on piano and James Cotton on harmonica, and they provide the underpinning for Waters’ smooth growl. Muddy made many exceptional albums throughout his career, but none surpass the locomotive chug of At Newport 1960.
Blind Willie McTell – The Definitive Blind Willie McTell
#15 – “Nobody can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell” sang Bob Dylan in his song named and written for this blues titan. Virtually ignored in his lifetime, McTell wrote songs like ‘Three Women Blues’ – “one for the morning/one for late at night/I got one for noon time/to treat your old daddy right” that sound like a cross between Luther Campbell and Robert Johnson. That is, impeccably sung tales of love, lust and betrayal. And – like virtually every other name on this list – McTell has a long list of disciples (including Taj Mahal, Nirvana, Dylan, and White Stripes) and sings like he’s haunted by the very hounds of hell.
Bo Diddley – Bo Diddley Is A Gunslinger
#16 – Of all the great blues artists, Bo Diddley most directly influenced the formation of rock-n-roll from the blues. His hits – including ‘I’m A Man’ and ‘Who Do You Love’ – contained a propulsive beat that foreshadowed the sound of rock, and not surprisingly, dozens of rock greats have covered his songs. His trademark square-bodied guitar (and matching glasses) makes Diddley an instantly recognizable figure. In fact, he’s been recognized by nearly every hall of fame that’s associated with music. And who could forget his classic ‘Bo Knows’ Nike commercial with Bo Jackson? Still going strong after 50 years in music, he recently headlined a concert fundraiser to benefit the victims of Hurricane Katrina. [Editor's note: Bo Diddley passed away in June of 2008]
R.L. Burnside – Wish I Was In Heaven Sitting Down
#17 – The most recently made album on this list by 32 years (Albert King’s Born Under A Bad Sign was made in 1968), Wish I Was In Heaven Sitting Down is nonetheless the real deal. Fat Possum Records has carried the blues torch proudly into the 21st century, and R.L. Burnside was perhaps the label’s most exciting artist until his death in late 2005. He puts on a fierce display of blues virtuosity here – melding Muddy Waters electrified intensity with Howlin’ Wolf’s larger than life presence, Skip James’ deathbed dread, and a healthy dose of modern effects like scratching and sampling. ‘Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues’ ‘Got Messed Up’ ‘Chain Of Fools’ and others prove that – even if Burnside is no longer with us – grimy, honest blues are alive & well.
Magic Sam – West Side Soul
#18 – Mississippi-Delta born Sam Maghett died in 1969 at the age of 32, and before he had a chance to establish himself as a great bluesman. Now considered the undisputed king of Chicago West Side Blues, his recorded legacy boils down to two great albums, West Side Soul and 1968’s Black Magic. Like Robert Johnson before him, Magic Sam left a towering if abbreviated take on the blues that continues to thrill listeners and influence musicians of every persuasion.
Jimmy Reed – Blues Masters: The Very Best Of
#19 – Covered by a wide range of artists including The Yardbirds, Neil Young, Elvis Presley, and the Grateful Dead, Reed is one of the most influential musicians to ever pick up a guitar. The quality and thoroughness of this compilation is as much a tribute to the excellent work of Rhino records as it is to Reed himself. Too many blues greats are undermined by shoddy and inferior ‘greatest hits’ packages that have more holes than a rack of bowling balls, but The Very Best Of Jimmy Reed hits all the high points, and there are plenty. Reed died at age 50 in 1976 from complications related to alcoholism, but his place in music history (not to mention his plaque in the Rock & Roll hall of fame) had been long ago secured.
Lightnin’ Hopkins – The Complete Prestige/Bluesville Recordings (Box Set)
#20 – Texan Sam ‘Lightnin’ Hopkins strayed beyond the usual blues topics (bad women, tough times, hard liquor, etc) and reported on the happenings of his day, including aerospace travel, the wars in Vietnam and Korea, and natural disasters of all shapes and sizes. Worth the splurge, this seven disc box collects 12 of his albums from the 1960’s. Considering that he recorded more than 50 albums in a nearly 40-year recording career, this is a great way to start getting acquainted with a Blues legend.
Other Shades Of Blue…
Bukka White – The Complete Bukka White
Buddy Guy & Junior Wells – Buddy Guy & Junior Wells Play The Blues
Tommy Johnson – Canned Heat (1928-1929)
Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup – That’s All Right Mama
Elmore James – Shake Your Moneymaker: The Best Of The Fire Sessions
Charley Patton – Pony Blues
Otis Rush – Cobra Recordings: 1956-1958
Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown – Original Peacock Recordings
Sonny Boy Williamson [II] – One Way Out
Pink Anderson – Ballad And Folksinger – Vol. 3
Etta James – The Chess Box
Furry Lewis – Shake ‘Em On Down
Willie Dixon – I Am The Blues
Lightnin’ Slim – Rooster Blues
Albert Collins, Robert Cray & Johnny Copeland – Showdown!
Son House – Father Of The Delta Blues: The Complete 1965 Recordings
Memphis Minnie – The Essential Memphis Minnie
T-Bone Walker – The Complete Imperial Recordings: 1950-1954
Smoky Babe – Hottest Brand Goin’
6 More Greats That Didn’t Quite Fit…
Ali Farka Toure
10 From The Next Generation(s)…
The Allman Brothers Band
Stevie Ray Vaughan
Steve Miller Band
British Blues (Bluesbreakers, Yardbirds, Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, Rolling Stones, Faces, Led Zeppelin, Pretty Things, Downliners Sect, Kinks, etc)
A Few Great Blues Compilations
Martin Scorcese Presents The Blues (Box Set)
Chess Blues (Box Set)
The Great Bluesmen (Vanguard)
Anthology Of American Folk Music (Box Set)