What an incredible year of blues! Yes, we said the same thing at the close of 2012, 2013 and, well, you get the idea. Yet 2015 has topped them all for thrills and drama, and not just because this magazine celebrated its third birthday.
The biggest news of 2015 was the sad passing of BB King. The king of the blues had been ill for many years but it had never stopped him from touring. This time it was different, and when the news broke, so did our hearts. No other artist defines the blues like BB King. Not Robert Johnson, T-Bone Walker or even Muddy Waters. BB was the link between the Mississippi Delta and the 21st century. He not only represented the blues but he was instrumental in its development, from his early days in 50s Memphis to late-60s sophistication and beyond. He even made U2 seem cool for a brief period in the 80s.
While we suffered losses, we also enjoyed remarkable gains when Dr Feelgood legend Wilko Johnson and blues rock ambassador Walter Trout both defied what had seemed like certain death to emerge cured and firing on all cylinders.
We’ve witnessed the rise of BluesFest, the birth of the Lead Belly Festival, and even managed to get Van Morrison on our front cover. The music we love has also seen some mainstream exposure thanks to the rise of Austin, Texas resident Gary Clark Jr, a man who, like Jimi Hendrix, has fashioned blues in his own image.
It wouldn’t have been such a great year for blues without the 50 quality releases that we’ve selected as the best of 2015, which you’ll find on the following pages. Unlike previous years, this time we’ve numbered them in descending order and, for the first time, selected an album of the year. To hear highlights, try our Spotify playlist, specially built for TR+ members.
– Ed Mitchell (The Blues Editor)
REVIEWERS: Rich Chamberlain, Rob Hughes, Hugh Fielder, Polly Glass, Rev Keith A Gordon, Joel McIver, Ed Mitchell, Johnny Sharp, Patrick Wells, David West, Henry Yates
50. CROBOT – Something Supernatural
Blending sci‐fi tales with funky, bluesed‐up hard rock, the Pennsylvanians cut swaggering, razor‐sharp shapes with heavy‐ hitters such as Nowhere To Hide and the ferocious Legend Of The Spaceborne Killer. Make sure you catch them live because that’s where they really shine. PG
49. JARED JAY NICHOLS – Old Glory & The Wild Revival
A young blues gunslinger with bite, Nichols made a swaggering statement of intent on highlights Crazy and the sweet, swinging Can You Feel It. A bit Paul Kossoff, a bit Stevie Ray Vaughan and Joe Bonamassa – a lot of guitar hero fun. PG
**48. JEFFREY FOUCAULT – Salt As Wolves
**Jeffrey Foucault continues to craft effortlessly timeless, existential country‐blues. The rootsy groove of Left This Town and the brooding cynicism of Jesus Will Fix It For You were among the highlights of this album. PW
47. REBECCA DOWNES – Back To The Start
Always tasteful in delivery despite her huge vocal prowess, Rebecca Downes delivered a real punch to the gut with her debut album. Laughter From Her Room is a standout ballad with a subtle edge. JM
46. ROBIN TROWER – Something’s About To Change
Released on his 70th birthday, Something’s About To Change was dubbed by Trower as “a new chapter musically”, crossing his lifelong love of vintage American blues with the bucked hips of James Brown to sublime effect. HY
45. CEDELL DAVIS – Last Man Standing
Plantation‐raised and nearly 90 years old, there’s no doubt that CeDell Davis is authentic to the core – just like his new album, Last Man Standing. Check out the relentless grind of _Who’s _Lovin’ You Tonight for the gritty evidence. JM
44. DEBBIE DAVIES – Love Spin
Just in case you needed any reminder of the impressively prolific Debbie Davies’ guitar and songwriting chops, Love Spin showed that the former Albert Collins band member ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼remains a stellar creative force. RC
43. LEO ‘BUD’ WELCH – I Don’t Prefer No Blues
With just two albums released in 82 years, you could hardy describe Delta guitarist Leo Welch as being prolific. Fortunately, album number two’s rip‐roaring electric blues never failed to hit the spot – check out Cadillac Baby for a thrilling taste of his fiery sound. JM
42. CLUTCH – Psychic Warfare
Ohhh, this was good. The Maryland blues‐rockers really hit their stride on album number 11. From the blistering heavy groove of X‐Ray Visions to the uproariously fun likes of Sucker For The Witch, Psychic Warfare did brutal, beautiful things to bluesy ingredients.
41. CHARLIE MUSSELWHITE – “I Ain’t Lyin’…”
Blues legend Charlie Musselwhite wasn’t reinventing the genre with “I Ain’t Lyin’…”. Instead, he was simply kicking out a high‐energy live set of old‐school blues, backed up by a real crackerjack band that featured the fretboard talents of guitarist Matt Stubbs. KAG
40. THE KENTUCKY HEADHUNTERS WITH JOHNNIE JOHNSON – Meet Me In Bluesland
The Kentucky Headhunters are a juke joint band at heart, so as you’d expect, this long‐ lost studio session with legendary pianist Johnnie Johnson captured a truly electrifying mix of blues, R&B and rock’n’roll. A very welcome discovery. KAG
39. DUKE GARWOOD – Heavy Love
]This Londoner came of age with an album of whispering, desolate alt‐blues and midnight laments, brought to life by a voice equally capable of Nick Cave‐style malevolence (as on the brooding Hawaiian Death Song) or Jeff Buckley‐ish purity on (Sweet Wine). JS
38. CHANTEL McGREGOR – Lose Control
While Lose Control showcased young Brit star Chantel McGregor’s unique vocals and staggering guitar chops, it also charted a bold journey into prog and metal‐infested waters. This is as far from the 12‐bar as blues gets. EM
37. THE JON SPENCER BLUES EXPLOSION – Freedom Tower – No Wave Dance Party 2015
These New Yorkers’ punky, funky heavy blues template sounded as good as ever here. Whether echoing the Beastie Boys on Wax Dummy or channelling vintage Stones on White Jesus, it was a curled‐lipped, tight‐trousered invitation to get your groove on. JS
36. BILLY GIBBONS & THE BFG’S – Perfectamundo
The bearded wonder of ZZ Top unleashed his inner Cuban on the Latino‐tastic Perfectamundo to funky, sassy effect. Check out hip‐shakers such as Treat Her Right. PG
35. ROBERT CHANEY – Cracked Picture Frames
The Florida songwriter’s debut was a jet‐black night of the soul, where hushed acoustic folk‐blues decorated tales of battered wives, religious maniacs and traffic accidents. Deliciously dark and brilliantly bleak. HY
34. TOMMY CASTRO & THE PAINKILLERS – Method To My Madness
Recorded live in the studio and keeping only the raw blues, rock and soul influences that launched his career, Tommy Castro delivered his most dynamic and entertaining album to date. KAG
33. LEFT LANE CRUISER – Dirty Spliff Blues
An album of stompy, dirty blues, with lashings of swamp rock and hints of punk. With head‐shakers such as Tres Borrachos, the Indiana trio channelled the spirit of the Mississippi Delta via a 21st‐century garage. PG
32. BLACKBERRY SMOKE – Holding All The Roses
A glorious work of southern rock from the most generously sideburned men in Georgia. Let Me Help You Find The Door was the upbeat anthem, while Woman In The Moon unveiled new balladic depths. Their best record yet. PG
**31. DANIELLE NICOLE – Wolf Den
**The Trampled Under Foot star finds her feet – with a little help from Luther Dickinson – on her soulful solo debut.
Breaking out from the blues-rock band Trampled Under Foot, singer and bassist Danielle Nicole left her hometown of Kansas City and headed south to New Orleans for her solo debut. With producer Anders Osborne handling the guitar duties – with two guest spots from Luther Dickinson – and Galactic’s Stanton Moore on the drums, Nicole emerged from the sessions with an album that oozes soul and funk. The spirit of New Orleans permeates the greasy grooves of In My Dreams and How You Gonna Do Me Like That, while Nicole’s voice soars in the ballad Take It All.
How did you meet Anders Osborne?
I met Anders for the first time in June. I came down to New Orleans to do a songwriting session with him to see if we thought we’d work well together. Within three days we had written four songs – like, yeah, I think we’ll get along! Half the album was written solely by me and then the other half was a collaboration between Anders and I. He’s just such a talented songwriter and amazing arranger, so it really brought an entirely new perspective to the way I had originally seen the songs.
Did you enjoy playing with Stanton Moore?
Oh man, he’s insanely talented. He’s like an encyclopaedia of drumming. I’ve always been a real simple bass player. I’ve taught myself to keep it very basic and I think that actually complemented Stanton in the studio. He was simple where it needed to be simple and busy where it needed to be busy. He gave the song exactly what it needed. As a bass player I wanted to make sure I had the fundamentals down, the melody, the groove. When we were doing some funk, it was so in the pocket it was out of sight.
How is the new material translating live?
It’s great. I spoke with Anders about this. He said, “What do you hear on the record?” I wanted to keep the album to something I could pull off live. I didn’t want layers and layers of guitar work because I only have one guitarist. I didn’t want huge sections of horns because I don’t travel with horns. Even though it was in New Orleans, we didn’t have any horns on the record and I’m okay with that. I think it still sounds great, it still represents the sound of New Orleans very well, with the Kansas City twists in there from my writing.
How did Luther Dickinson get involved?
He’s a friend of Anders. He’s like, “I could reach out to some of the southern boys to guest on the record,” and when he mentioned Luther, I was like, “Oh my God, I would love that!” He plays a lot of slide work and it’s a lot more rootsy than traditional blues. I Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody’s Home, that’s a tight funk song and to have his slide work on there, Luther just knocked it out of the park.
30. OTIS TAYLOR – Hey Joe Opus/Red Meat
Taylor continued to defy expectations with a concept album built around the garage‐rock antique Hey Joe. The resulting album was an exhilarating, uneasy and ambitious collection of pure trance blues. KAG
29. ROYAL SOUTHERN BROTHERHOOD – Don’t Look Back
Adding new guitarists Bart Walker and Tyrone Vaughan, Royal Southern Brotherhood kept on truckin’ with Don’t Look Back, the album offering their trademark blues, soul and funk, with a jolt of blues‐rock electricity. KAG
28. DAVE ALVIN AND PHIL ALVIN – Lost Time
The reunion of ex‐Blasters brothers Dave and Phil Alvin bore more fruit with their second red‐hot collection of blues and roots standards. Their musical chemistry always produces combustible results. DW
27. ROBBEN FORD – Into The Sun
Infused with the warmth of a summer’s day, guitar genius Robben Ford put his songwriting in the spotlight on this gorgeous album. One of the highlights was Breath Of Me, a seductive duet with ZZ Ward. HY
26. SEASICK STEVE – Sonic Soul Surfer
With home‐made instruments, the dirtiest guitar tone you’ll ever hear and that treacle‐rich voice, Seasick Steve’s seventh album proved without a doubt that creativity, vivacity and passion are not the sole preserve of the young. DW
25. MALTED MILK & TONI GREEN – Milk & Green
An odd couple on paper, the hook‐up of Gallic bluesers Malted Milk and Memphis diva Toni Green proved a tight fit. On this album, they aced covers like Ann Peebles’ classic Slipped, Tripped And Fell In Love, and cut some serious rug with originals such as Just Call Me. HY
24. SWAMP DOGG – The White Man Made Me Do It
A scintillating comeback from the R&B veteran once known as plain Jerry Williams, who lay down his own personal gospel (race, politics, love, lust and more) across slinky southern grooves and soulful blues. RH
23. DANI WILDE – Songs About You
Blessed with tracks like heart‐wrenching slow‐ burner Cruel World and the Nashville country‐ drenched Let Me Be Your Sunshine, Songs About You was eclectic, emotive and effortlessly superb. RC
22. VINTAGE TROUBLE – ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼1 Hopeful Rd
The Californians merged bluesy beats into soul‐rock frames for their third LP, which was so stylishly in‐the‐ past it could be a long‐lost 60s/70s soul gem. Try Another Baby or My Heart Won’t Fall Again. PG
21. JJ GREY & MOFRO – Ol’ Glory
The Jacksonville, Florida roots‐rocker delivered his best record yet, brimming with blue‐eyed soul, insouciant blues and lascivious funk. The seven‐minute title track somehow felt too short, and that’s a rare thing. PW
20. DAN PATLANSKY – Dear Silence Thieves
The South African guitarslinger who shot onto the playlists of blues aficionados with his hard-rocking seventh album.
He spent his formative years emulating Stevie Ray Vaughan in a bid for guitar heroism. He also remained largely confined to his native South Africa, pushing six albums in a country not exactly known for its blues. Now he’s put his homeland on the blues map thanks to game-changing seventh LP, Dear Silence Thieves – a sharp, funky spread of moreish blues-rock tunes. We catch him on tour with Joe Satriani to find he’s not resting on his laurels just yet. “We’ve just recorded a new album, Intro-Vertigo,” the affable singer/guitarist enthuses, “which we’ll be launching in Europe and the UK in May.”
Congratulations! You’re in our Top 20 albums!
It feels awesome because this is the first year we’ve really gone on tour in the UK. Just to get that far feels brilliant. We weren’t really known here before, and I think that’s why it means so much to us. Playing the Borderline in London for the first time was a massive highlight.
Album opener Backbite in particular made people sit up and listen. Did you see that coming?
Not at all. When you’re writing for an album, the ones I think will never be big always end up being the biggest songs. Backbite was a classic example. Until [publicist] Peter Noble suggested it, I never thought it would be the first single. I’m glad we listened to him! It was a pretty quick song to write, but it initially had quite a different, slower feel to it.
You told us that BB King would be your dream duet: you must have been gutted when he died…
That was one of the saddest days for the blues industry, and for music in general. Even if you weren’t directly influenced by him, you are influenced by him because if you were influenced by a more modern player, his or her heroes will trace back to BB King. So I think we’ll see him still coming through in the modern world. And he was very open to the blues progressing – he wasn’t just stuck in that ‘blues police’ old world.
Has touring with Joe Satriani made you want to up your shredding ante?
[Laughs] He’s such an inspirational guy, and he honestly is one of the nicest, most down-to-earth human beings I’ve ever met. And he’s so consistently good – I don’t think there’s such a thing as a bad night for Joe Satriani.
And he’s such a blues fan himself…
Absolutely. You notice a lot of his support acts have been blues-rock guys, people like Matt Schofield and Oli Brown. And watching him warm up backstage, it’s pretty much all classic blues stuff: he’s one hell of a blues player!
What are your Christmas plans?
Me and my wife and daughter will go to the seaside for two weeks. So it’ll be a sunny Christmas – it’s the hottest time of the year in South Africa.
19. MIKE ZITO – Keep Coming Back
You don’t quit a band like Royal Southern Brotherhood unless you’ve got an ace up your sleeve – and Zito duly played it with this set of whip‐cracking, warts‐and‐all originals. Blues‐rockers such as Chin Up were songs to scream in the face of a Wall Street banker, but the clincher was the rueful, reflective I Was Drunk, Zito’s most eloquent retelling of his period on the brink. HY
18. LAURENCE JONES – What’s It Gonna Be
He’s been tipped as blues’ bright young hope for several years, but it was in 2015 that fresh‐ faced Brit blueser Laurence Jones really showed that he can cut it with the big boys, and it’s all thanks to this, his stonking third album. The stop‐ start riffathon that is the title track showed reassuring musical maturity. Joe Bo and co, watch out. RC
17. BETH HART – Better Than Home
Having established her blues credentials playing with Joe Bonamassa and Jeff Beck, Hart swallowed a Memphis soul pill and put her heart on her sleeve. It was a risky move, given her struggles with bipolar disorder, but she was certainly in full control on the gently teasing Might As Well Smile, the cleverly deceptive _Tell Her You Belong _To Me and the potent and personal title track. HF
16. MIKE VERNON – Just A Little Bit
A famed producer recruits a Spanish backing band and records a cross section of blues and rock classics. It shouldn’t work, but this set from Clapton/John Mayall/David Bowie knob‐twiddler Mike Vernon and Los García was a treat. Vernon’s channelling of Fats Domino on Kansas City and his toe‐tapping take on Bloodshot Eyes were highlights. RC
15. STEVE EARLE & THE DUKES – Terraplane
Steve Earle’s ‘blues’ album Terraplane offered all that the singer’s fans have come to expect – whip‐smart lyrics and storytelling, with skilfully performed music. Earle has always drawn from the whole spice rack of Americana in creating his unique musical gumbo. This time he just threw a bit more blues flavour into the pot. KAG
14. KEITH RICHARDS – Crosseyed Heart
Twenty‐three years is a helluva gap between albums, but Richards’ solo return was worth the wait. Recorded with trusty back‐up troupe the X‐Pensive Winos, this set was finely weighted between bluff rockers, raw ballads and grizzled old blues. The songs – wry tales of sex, outlaws, hidden stashes and falling from trees – sounded as lived‐in as the Stone’s husky voice. RH
13. LEON BRIDGES – Coming Home
There’s nothing wrong with pinning your influences tight to your sleeve, especially if you happen to be blessed with the same gospel croon as Sam Cooke. This old‐school debut went beyond mere retro‐soul nostalgia though, the twentysomething Texan taking his cues from Cooke, Otis Redding and Bobby Bland to fashion a modern classic that’s full of horn‐rich R&B, sassy blues and tender entreaties. RH
12. VAN MORRISON – Duets: Re-working The Catalogue
The title may reek of a cynical marketing ploy but Morrison did exactly what it said, picking songs to reinvigorate with a typically eclectic bunch of singers, from contemporaries such as PJ Proby, Chris Farlowe and Steve Winwood to current stars like Joss Stone and Michael Bublé. Best of the old: Bobby Womack on Some Peace Of Mind. Best of the new: Clare Teal on Carrying A Torch. HF
11. HENRY GRAY AND BOB CORRITORE – Blues Won’t Let Me Take My Rest Vol.1
Chicago blues’ greatest living pianist and one‐time Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf sideman Henry Gray has been collaborating with Bob Corritore, the world’s finest harp player, for a couple of decades. This addictive release brought together a number of recordings cut over the past 19 years. While Gray handled the vocals on most of the tracks, guest singers included Nappy Brown, Tail Dragger and Robert Lockwood Jr. This record was a blast from beginning to end. EM
10. THE GRAVELTONES – Love Lies Dying
While 2013’s impressive Don’t Wait Down was a thoroughly head‐caving introduction to Jimmy O and Mikey Sorbello, this year saw the Australia‐born garage‐blues duo raise the stakes on an album whose attitude was neatly summarised by its standout track, Kiss & Fuck Off.
Recorded at London’s Orgone Studios under producer Jaime Gomez Arellano, O noted that the 13 tracks “seem to get along with each other real well”, and it’s true: there was a savage coherence to Love Lies Dying, which found blues, rock and soul chewed up and shat onto analogue tape, topped with the frontman’s hellish shriek, and driven by berserker drums.
With moments like World On A String and Can’t Tell A Man, The Graveltones filled the gap left by the newly ‘arty’ Black Keys, and ensured that their gigs this year pinned punters to the back wall. They were worth the tinnitus. HY
9. SONNY LANDRETH – Bound By The Blues
The slide master’s genre‐blurring instrumental forays of recent years had been mind‐expanding, but sometimes you couldn’t help wishing he’d come back down to earth and turn in a no‐frills blues album. With Bound By The Blues, Landreth scratched our itch in style, on an album he described in issue 22 as “just guitar, bass and drums, like we play every night”.
Needless to say, with Landreth involved, this was never going to be “just guitar”, and the fingers that featured prominently on the sleeve were also the stars of these 10 tracks. On originals such as The High Side and the tear‐it‐up improv of finale Simcoe Street, the southern maestro’s touch and phrasing were spellbinding. He even managed to fuel‐inject musty standards like _Key _To The Highway and Dust My Broom.
We’ve got full respect to Landreth’s free‐roaming muse, but let’s hope he stays shackled to the blues for another few albums at least. HY
8. KING KING – Reaching For The Light
King King frontman Alan Nimmo approached the Glaswegian band’s third album in the belief that he’d be “crucified” for merely matching 2013’s Standing In The Shadows. When it arrived in May, Reaching For The Light confirmed that we wouldn’t be needing the hammer and nails after all, thanks to a set of heavy, heartfelt songs that ran the gamut from the right‐hook rock of Hurricane to the gospel stylings of Lay With Me.
The four‐piece have long been figureheads of the domestic scene – witness their annual board‐sweep at the British Blues Awards – but Reaching For The Light gave King King a little more traction, upgrading them to bigger venues and even earning a Best New Band nomination at the 2015 Classic Rock Roll Of Honour. “Most important,” noted Nimmo, “is that we’ve got a great album people can listen to and enjoy. That’s what really matters – and that’s the truth.” HY
7. SONGHOY BLUES – Music In Exile
Respect to Songhoy Blues for having the gumption to record an album at all – as obstacles to creativity go, the band’s displacement from their native Mali three years ago by Islamic extremists takes some beating. That Music In Exile was so damn good was a raised middle finger to circumstance.
Squint and you could see the western masters: a dash of John Lee Hooker groove on Nick and Soubour, a whiff of Hendrix guitar‐sorcery on Ai Tchere Bele. Yet these were blues songs dragged across the plains of Africa, with rhythms evoking dusty desert all‐nighters and incomprehensible vocals that nevertheless spoke of loss and defiance.
With Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs on board as the ostensibly unlikely co‐producer, and with a starring role in recent indie documentary film They Will Have To Kill Us First: Malian Music In Exile, the band even ended the year infiltrating hipster playlists. Who’d have thought it? HY
6. SAMANTHA FISH – Wild Heart
It seems an awfully long time since Girls With Guitars. In 2015, the Kansas City gunslinger is nobody’s wide‐ eyed ingénue, and this fourth album was a departure in every sense, bottled on the run at sessions in Louisiana, Mississippi and Memphis, and whipping out the rug with new producer Luther Dickinson and a country‐led sound. “Record to record,” Fish told us in issue 22,“I feel like I’m light years away from the one before.”
The 26‐year‐old might be one of the Ruf roster’s brightest jewels, but she wasn’t afraid to bring emotional tarnish to Wild Heart, spitting and sighing through songs so personal you felt like you were snooping through her diary. Rockers like Bitch On The Run and Show Me only emphasised the fragility of cuts like Lost Myself, and when Go Home spun its tale of shattered childhood, you felt your lip quiver. It’s the sound of an artist swimming upstream. HY
5. WALTER TROUT – Battle Scars
Delight at the return of a hale and hearty Trout was tempered by fears that his post‐op 42nd album would be a mawkish group hug. As Trout himself told us in issue 25, that’s how it started: “I’d sit down to write, and every time it came out flowery and smell‐the‐roses, all this bullshit…”
Battle Scars was born when Trout dug deeper, frogmarching himself back to the liver ward of the Nebraska Medical Center where he’d skirted death last year. Such was the atmosphere bottled by this concept album that when tracks such as Omaha played, you were right there with him at 3am, kept awake by an IV machine, one eye on a phone that never rang.
The lyrics were no picnic – nor the sirens and shouts of “code blue!” – but the songs were hooky, virtuosic and every shade of blue, pushing beyond 12‐bar protocol and threatening to infiltrate the mainstream. It was a true comeback special. HY
4. JOHN MAYALL – Find A Way To Care
The Godfather was all over 2015 like a rash, exhuming a set of vintage Bluesbreakers bootlegs for release as Live In 1967, then reminding us of the enduring lead in his 82‐year‐old pencil with Find A Way To Care.
The album was born of frustration – Mayall having parted ways with the Eagle label to hook up with Walter Trout producer Eric Corne’s Forty Below Records – but the payoff was a fresh perspective. Mayall fused high‐velocity originals like No Guarantees with revitalised covers, from Lightnin’ Hopkins’ I Feel So Bad to Muddy Waters’ Long Distance Call.
In issue 24, Mayall admitted: “I make my living basically from the road – I’ve never had a hit record.” Maybe so, but studio work plainly holds a fascination, and his creative instincts endure. True to that album title, it was impossible to be ambivalent. HY
3. GARY CLARK JR – The Story Of Sonny Boy Slim
No pressure, then. As the press frothed itself silly over 2012’s Blak And Blu, the Grammys came calling and that ‘saviour of blues’ tag was trotted out in every magazine article (there it is again), 31‐year‐old Gary Clark Jr found himself tasked with creating a follow‐up album amid the circus.
The Texan’s solution was to shut out the clamour and reconnect with his roots, recording in his native Austin and “just making noise”, whether that was the aptly named Grinder, the falsetto soul of Hold On or the hip‐rock of The Healing. As he told Classic Rock: “I just let it all go.”
The Story Of Sonny Boy Slim will probably burn off the duller end of Clark’s fanbase, but for the broader‐minded blues fan, it’s a thrilling confirmation of an artist who is his own man. “I’ll never be Freddie King,” he told us. “I’ll never be Robert Johnson. I’ll never be Muddy Waters…” HY
2. BUDDY GUY – Born To Play Guitar
And then there was one. In July, the last man standing stepped up to fill BB’s cavernous shoes with a record whose title might have sounded cocky were it not so unequivocally true. “The album is titled Born To Play Guitar,” Guy shrugged in issue 24, “because I was born to play guitar.”
Guy’s polka‐dot Strat was on screaming form with moments like Back Up Mama, while he stretched out on the trippy psych‐rock of Crazy World and the country kiss‐off to his former mentor, Come Back Muddy. Guest stars abounded, but the critical partnership was with producer Tom Hambridge. “The way I record with Tom,” Guy told us, “it reminds me of my days at Chess.”
At the age of 79, the man’s early fire remains an inferno, and with albums of this calibre, his role as daddy of the genre remains far more than a purely ceremonial one. Play on, sir. HY
1. SHEMEKIA COPELAND – Outskirts Of Love
Tackling subjects such as date rape and homelessness, yet with a deft touch and upbeat tone, Copeland’s eighth album is a mature masterpiece of modern blues.
Recorded in Nashville with her tried-and-trusted songwriting/production dream team of John Hahn and Oliver Wood, Shemekia Copeland’s Outskirts Of Love is a sure sign of an evolving artist. Across the seven albums that preceded it, Copeland, daughter of Texas blues icon Johnny Copeland, has stepped in and out of almost every genre under the sun, weaving country, gospel and more into her bedrock of blues. It’s a mix that has paid dividends, hence the record’s place at the top of our chart. Not only is it a musically mature album, it’s also one that pulls no punches. Lyrically it hits hard, especially when dealing with issues like date rape (on Crossbone Beach), but it still retains Copeland’s trademark uplifting sound and never fails to leave the listener with a smile on their face.
There are also brave choices in cover versions, most notably by taking on Devil’s Hand, one of her late father’s famed recordings. In fact, not only does she take the song on, but she makes it her own. Now that’s the sign of a true artist, and also a worthy Album Of The Year award winner.
Outskirts Of Love has been voted our album of the year. How does that feel?
At first I didn’t think I was reading the email correctly. I kept looking at it and just went, “Oh my God!” I’m ecstatic, this is a wonderful thing. I’ve always said that not getting honoured doesn’t make you less of an artist but when it does happen, it is a wonderful thing.
Why do you think this album has connected with so many people?
I don’t rush. What I put out into the universe is very important to me. I want to have something to say. I won’t just put a bunch of songs on a record – they all have to mean something. The best thing about making records is seeing all of the different reactions, and people don’t know how to react to this record. They don’t know what to call it. Everyone sees it differently. Some people say it’s a modern-day blues record, some say it’s Americana, some say it’s gospel. That’s the type of record I want to make, where people can’t put it in a box. If people ask me what I am, I say I’m a very proud blues singer and I want to see this music evolve and grow.
The type of record I want to make is one people can’t put in a box.
Lyrically, you’ve tackled some heavy issues on this record.
We’re always touching on issues like jaded politicians and religious hypocrites. On this record it was date rape and homelessness. These things came up in general conversation in the three years between records. To me, that is a big part of evolving. If in 100 years’ time someone found my record, I would want them to know what was going on in the mind of Shemekia Copeland in 2015.
Yet despite some of the subject matter, the record is still incredibly positive and uplifting.
There’s a real art to that, lyrically. Cardboard Box in particular is a song about homelessness and is a very dark song lyrically, but the music is very much upbeat. We did that for a reason. When you talk about a dark subject, you don’t want to depress everybody – you need the right mix. The same with Crossbone Beach, a song about date rape. The best part of these songs is that the outcomes are positive. In the end of that song, payback is a bitch. The guy that did it got his, and that’s what mattered.
A cover of Devil’s Hand, one of your father’s songs, is on there as well. Why did you choose to record that song?
For every record, I’ve always done one of my father’s songs. This one seemed perfect for this record. I’ll be listening to his music and when it’s time to make a record, I always know which one I want to do – it hits me like a ton of bricks. I feel great about that song. I feel like I have done what he would have done to it if he had lived. It feels like an extension of him.
Is taking on one of his songs a daunting experience for you?
No, it feels so natural. It’s always done in one take. It’s like he takes over my body and says, “Okay, this is how it’s supposed to be done.” I think he lives through me in so many ways.
What’s coming up in 2016 for you?
We’ve got some shows on the books and I’m hoping to come and spend some time playing in Europe and the UK. Today’s music industry is difficult because the art of making music doesn’t get treated like an art any more – everybody just wants it for free. I just pray that God keeps me safe and healthy so I can keep on making records for as long as records exist.