This time of year I always post the best of the best cds from the previous year. 2014 was a tumultuous year in the blues, a year marked with highs and lows--new bands and new releases. How did we get along before Gary Clark Jr's "Live!" and John Nemeth's "Memphis Grease"? We also saw a bunch of important artists dying in the blues community. This year we lost three of my favorites in Johnny Winter, Finis Tasby and Joe Cocker. And I even changed my DJ gig to a new internet radio station--http://www.caldoniascrossroad.com/ Come by and check it out.
Don't worry about the numbers. Almost any of these cds could have been listed as # 20 or #1. But in my opinion these were the best blues releases of 2014:
20. (tie) Otis Clay & Johnny Rawls -- Soul Brothers" Catfood Records
This is a great soul blues record from two veteran singers with a talented sympathetic band and a full horn section. I love the way they cover Dave Mason's "Only You Know And I Know," but the other nine songs keep that high level of heart and skill.
20. (tie) No Refund Band -- "Current State Of Blue" Self Release
This is the second release from this Texas band, and CSOB is a big step up. Ricky Jackson & Mike Crownover wrote 8 of the 12 songs here--the originals are really good, and the covers include Eric Clapton's "Bell Bottom Blues," Leslie West's "Mississippi Queen," Gary Moore's "Still Got The Blues" and Jim Brady's "I Gotta Play." Any band brave enough to cover those 4 has major cojones, and this is a great band. Favorite track is "St Louis Bound."
19. Too Slim And The Taildraggers -- "Anthology" Underworld Indie Records
This is a band that has been out there making great music for almost thirty years. Stop and think on that for a second. The songs on this set are from the past 15 years. The quality of these 34 songs is staggering. Cudos to Tim "Too Slim" Langford for writing almost all these songs and playing guitar and singing like a banshee sometimes and an angel other times. Fabulous. Favorite track is "Cowboy Boot."
18. Low Society -- "You Can't keep A Good Woman Down" Icehouse Records
A happy surprise. This is a Memphis primer of how to do the blues right. Gut bucket blues vocals, blistering slide guitar, a solid rhythm section. Vocalist Mandy Lemons is going to be a big star. I'll bet Low Society is a terrific band to see live. Favorite track is "Crammed & Jammed."
17. George Taylor -- "Rain Or Shine" Self Release
Let me say up front I don't know if this is blues or country music. Doesn't matter--one listen and it belongs on this list. The most beautiful music I heard in 2014 no matter what you call it. As Texas as Buddy Holly, as honest as Hank Williams. Favorite track is "Harvest Moon."
16. Dave Fields -- "All In" Self Release
The number one blues-rock cd of the year. Eleven songs--only three covers--and Dave gives the deepest grittiest performances of his career on both guitar and vocals. A live cover of Led Zeppelin's "Black Dog," has been extensively re-imagined to expose its blues roots. I would have loved to be a fly on the wall in the studio--those walls were COOKIN'. Favorite track is "Black Dog."
15. Little Mike And The Tornadoes -- "All The Right Moves" Self Release
See my review June 2.
14. Tweed Funk -- "First Name Lucky" Self Release
See my review June 27.
13. Damon Fowler -- "Sounds Of Home" Blind Pig Records
See my review Dec 16.
12. Selwyn Birchwood -- "Don't Call No Ambulance" Alligator Records
This is such a fresh-sounding and energetic release--I hear it in all the reasons I got excited about the blues way back in the day. Selwyn comes out of Florida, and he was born in 1985. (I have socks older than that!) In 2013 he won the IBC and since then he has exploded on the blues scene. He plays a real good guitar and lap steel, and his voice is gritty and good. He was signed to Alligator Records last July. Favorite track is "Overworked And Underpaid," with great harp work by RJ Harmon. Joe Louis Walker guests on “The River Turned Red.” Looking forward to his next steps.
11. Walter Trout -- "The Blues Came Callin'" Mascot Music
This one makes a place on this list for two reasons--the playing on the cd is terrific, and the human interest story of Walter's liver transplant. The surgery was on May 26, and the cd was released on June 10. You can read about the liver transplant in detail at his website www.waltertrout.com. Read the story, but also go immediately and buy this cd. Walter has been a great blues musician for 25 years, and I hope he can share his gifts with us for 25 more. Great guitar playing, great singing on this one. John Mayall guests on Hammond B-3 and harp.
10. Robert Cray -- "In My Soul" Mascot Music
This is the first Robert Cray Band release since back in the 80s that grabbed my ear. Robert has been making great blues music for 4 decades now. The opener "You Move Me" and "Nobody's Fault But Mine" just blast my head wide open, and I can't stop listening until the cd is over. The band includes Cray (vocals/guitar), Richard Cousins (bass), Les Falconer (drums), and Dover Weinberg (piano/keyboards). An American treasure.
9. Old Grey Mule -- Have Mercy" Cotton Patch Disco Music
This is not your father's old school blues--this is a modern blues tornado duo. CR Humphrey (vocals/guitar) and JJ Wilburn (drums/vocals) mix a lot of Mississippi Hill Country blues with some zydeco. They make electric blues dance music. In previous years this spot on the countdown might have been filled by Moreland & Arbuckle or JJ Grey & Mofro. Like them, Old Grey Mule make great music. Favorite track is "Have Mercy."
8. Dick LeMasters -- "One Bird Two Stones" Self Release
Texan Dick has released a real home run--he says One Bird Two Stones "includes what I consider to be my best 11 original songs." Depending on the setting, he works as a solo artist, as part of an acoustic duo with Douglas Greer, and with the band Longneck Road. The guitar work, the songwriting and the singing here are all top notch. This record is a favorite of all the DJs at www.caldoniascrossroad.com/ Favorite track is "Three Fifty Seven."
7. Albert Castiglia -- "Solid Ground" Ruf Records
The best release from Albert so far in his career. Every time I put together one of these lists he's on it, and every year the cd is better than the one prior to it. Dave Gross produced, mixed and recorded, in addition to guesting on guitar and bass and mandolin. Other guests include Jeremy Baum on keyboards, Lou Bevere on guitar, and Debbie Davies on guitar and vocals. Throughout, the stars are Albert's guitar and his voice. An underrated songwriter. Favorite track is "Little Havana Blues (Arroz Con Mango)."
6. Gary Clark Jr -- "Live!" Warner Brothers
One of the anticipated releases of 2014 was this killer set. The Texan came through in a big way with "Live!" This is a seriously hot 2 cd set, and his guitar work burns and cooks every step of the way. Gary will have a long and glorious career and he might never touch these high moments again. Favorite track is "When My Train Comes In."
5. Ruthie Foster -- "Promise Of A Brand New Day" Blue Corn Music
I have been a fan of Ruthie Foster's gospel-influenced blues americana ever since 2006's "The Truth According To Ruthie Foster." Like Albert Castiglia, she gets better with every release. Evidently I am not alone in my admiration. Ruthie has been Best Female Vocalist in 2007, 2008 and 2013 from the Austin Music
Awards, a 2012 and 2009 Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Blues
Album, the 2010 Living Blues Music Award Critic’s Poll for Female Blues
Artist of the Year and recent Blues Music Award wins for Best
Contemporary and Best Traditional Blues Female Artist of the Year. Favorite track is "Let Me Know" featuring Doyle Bramhall II on guitar.
4. Alexis P Suter Band -- "Love The Way You Roll" American Showplace Music
This cd has been at the top of Blues Charts since it came out in August, and it led to the discovery of a major new vocal talent. Alexis has a one in a generation voice, and the APS Band can seriously play any kind of blues right alongside her. As BB King said, "It's a rare thing to share the stage with great talent like that young lady."
3. Keb' Mo' -- "Bluesamericana" Kind of Blue Music
Bluesamericana is my favorite cd in Keb' Mo' career. These songs came out of some troubled times in Kevin Moore's life, and the resulting cd seems to have brought forth both more sharpness in his playing and songwriting and more inner peace to share with his audience. Favorite track is "The Old Me Better."
2. John Nemeth -- "Memphis Grease" Blue Corn Music
This set is recorded in Memphis with the Bo Kays. Great band, great horns, and John brings great soulful singing and harp. Favorite track is the cover of Roy Orbison's "Crying." Sure it's over the top. But when John almost hits those high notes and the horns come in it gives me chills. Every time.
1. Johnny Winter -- "Step Back" Megaforce Records
The Texas guitar great left us in July, but this cd shows he left us with all his skills intact. Johnny's singing and playing are strong on every track. Favorite track is "Can't Hold Out (Talk To Me Baby)" with Ben Harper. Absolutely deserving of the top spot.
Before I stop writing, let me name my song of the year. It is "All Night Long" by Pork Chop Willie from the cd "Love Is The Devil" (2014, Self Release).