BEST OF 2016: Don Wilcock’s Top 10 Blues Albums

By Don Wilcock

Blues recordings made a strong showing this year. The trend across all genres of music continues to marginalize artist income from recordings and depreciate the value of intellectual property. This forces performers to do live concerts to survive and reduces recordings to calling cards in order to create demand that puts asses in the seats. The CD then becomes of secondary importance, and less time and money are spent on them as “product.”

Blues, too, as a genre, is always in danger of being painted into a box of clichés. But none of these potential drags materialized in this year’s crop of CDs. And we, the listeners, are presented with a cornucopia of great music:

Alligator Records, the blues indie powerhouse label, scored big with Toronzo Cannon’s The Chicago Way, a strong debut by an artist who adds his own distinctive flavor to a post-war electric West and South Side Chicago legacy of great guitarists. But it’s his lyrics that truly make this edgy debut shine. The stress and pain of being a middle-aged black male in 2016 comes across strong, particularly on “Walk It Off,” dealing with a new guy who is putting his shoes under the bed of Toronzo’s lady. Cannon decides to walk it off until he can’t take it anymore and confronts this interloper the Chicago way… with a hand grenade.

The extremely talented Australian blues singer-songwriter-guitarist Fiona Boyes goes acoustic on Professin’ the Blues and does something Rory Block has been trying to do for decades – write songs that have the simplicity and homespun honesty of her Delta progenitors without copying them. Her songs here are as good as Willie Dixon when he was writing for Muddy Waters. The production by Reference Records, a much lauded audiophile label, is almost unprecedented in acoustic blues, and just the idea that a blonde Australian woman married to a biker preacher could come up with an “authentic” blues album that looks back and forward at the same time is a marvel.

Bobby Rush has been the chitlin circuit answer to Elvis Presley for 60 years. Not that he sounds anything like Elvis, but he is treated with the same kind of adulation in the south by both black and white blues fans. Porcupine Meat is a career-defining album, his first for Rounder Records, the premiere roots label, and it’s a marriage made in heaven. Producer Scott Billington has captured Rush’s unique personality, his ageless tongue-in-cheek sensuality and the good time vibes that have made him so adored. And having this album nominated for a blues Grammy may just signal that this tottering organization may have actually found its soul.

Bob Margolin was Muddy Waters’ long-time white guitarist. It’s been both his albatross and blessing. How do you find your own voice 33 years after Muddy’s death? He’s released CDs before that demonstrate he’s his own man, but on My Road he finds his muse. He somehow manages to pay homage to his roots (“Heaven Mississippi”) while finding himself in the process (“My Whole Life”). He’s a fine music journalist, too, so I admit a little bias here. He’s been a good mentor and friend to me for decades.

Both country music and blues have a long heritage of presenting the catharsis of women who show strength in the face of abuse. Wielding that power without losing one’s femininity is has produced some wonderful music. Three artists this year illustrate their beauty in this way: Janiva Magness on Love Wins Again, Cee Cee James on Stripped Down & Surrendered and Thornetta Davis on Honest Woman.

Magness lost both her parents to suicide and became a teenaged runaway. More than two decades into her career, she has put out an album about finding love, the giddy kind
tempered by a maturity that comes with surviving the game with her street skills. The sophisticated arrangements put her in a place one can only wish Billie Holiday had found. A near masterpiece.

Cee Cee James, too, has found happiness with her third husband Rob “Slide Boy” Andrews. To date, her releases have been punching bags for her depression over leaving one abusive husband and losing a true love to an early death. This time she faces her demons straight on and brings hard blues to a new bar height.

Thornetta Davis is a big-legged woman from Detroit who has captured the best of the Motor City’s under heralded cache of double down soul. Honest Woman isn’t your grandfather’s Motown here, children. This is Bessie Smith attitude with MC5’s kick-out-the-jams bravura. Davis knows she’s big and brash, and she’s not afraid to tell us just what she needs.

William Bell co-wrote Albert King’s “Born Under a Bad Sign” with Booker T Jones and is best known for his own soul classic “You Don’t Miss Your Water.” The first time I listened to This Is Where I Live, I was looking for Otis Redding-meets-Stax blues. This isn’t it. What it is is a mature straight-ahead voice delivering his own songs that grow on you like an ear worm. Oh, and the fact that he’s on Stax with all that implies production-wise doesn’t hurt either.

Both Kenny Neal and Walter Trout will be on my symposium, “Blues as Healer,” in Memphis on February 3 as part of the Blues Foundation’s International Blues Challenge. Each has faced health problems that they confronted head on in their music. Neal wrote about it on “Let Life Flow” from his Bling Pig album of the same name, and this year put out Bloodline on Cleopatra that illustrates his versatility above and beyond his Louisiana swamp-rock moniker. Wait until you hear him do “Funny How Time Slips Away.” His versatility and skill push the boundaries of blues into territories that put him in a class by himself.

Walter Trout’s self-released Battle Scars (2015) is as breathtakingly brutal as David Bowie’s Blackstar, except Trout survived to release Alive in Amsterdam this year, a rocking blues guitar forcefield that announces to the world he’s back and he’s proud.

Below are my Top 10 Blues Albums of the Year. I’ve put them in sequential order, but that’s purely for convenience. They’re all number ones:

1. Toronzo Cannon’s The Chicago Way (Alligator)

2. Bobby Rush’s Porcupine Meat (Rounder)

3. Fiona Boyes’ Professin’ the Blues (Reference)

4. Cee Cee James’ Stripped Down and Surrendered (FWG)

5. Kenny Neal’s Bloodlines (Cleopatra)

6. Williams Bell’s This Is Where I Live (Stax)

7. Walter Trout’s Alive in Amsterdam (Provogue)

8. Bob Margolin’s My Road (Vizztone)

9. Janiva Magness’ Love Wins Again (Elan)

10. Thornetta Davis’ Honest Woman (Sweet Mama)

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