13 Essential Blues Albums You Must Hear

The blues is too complex and long-running an art form to be squashed into a list of 50 Essential Records, or 20, or God forbid, 13! I’ve provided a very personal list of records with one thing in common-- they are documents of the blues as black culture first and foremost.

Table of contents

Introduction

The music listed below is best understood in the context of Post-war Artists You Should Know: Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Jimmy Reed, John Lee Williamson (Sonny Boy #1), Rice Miller (Sonny Boy #2), T-Bone Walker, Albert King, B.B King, Freddy King, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Lowell Fulson.

By reading their bios and listening to their main singles, you can get a handle on a large percentage of the bedrock blues classics. So many other great artists' careers have flowed or intersected with these artists: Eddie Taylor, Jimmy Rogers, James Cotton, Hubert Sumlin, Luther Tucker, just for starters.

In fact, if you do this, and this is as far as you read, you will have learned a lot about the blues already. SERIOUSLY, DO NOT READ ANY MORE UNTIL YOU HAVE DONE THIS!

OK. I’m gonna assume it’s been several hours or even weeks later, and you’ve had your mind blown by the artists above, right? Awesome! Most of us don’t have the great good fortune to learn the blues from an uncle while sitting on the front porch drinking moonshine.

Nearly all white blues players and fans come to the blues as inquisitive rock fans. As an outsider to the blues begins to gain his or her bearings and dive into the hundred year-long history of blues recordings, he or she begins to get a notion of a basic canon of the greats.

But trying to see the history and context of the blues solely from these 78s or 45s is a bit like picturing a living panorama from a faded polaroid. What’s more, there have been a LOT of blues records since the early 20s.

Given that so many blues artists have very long careers (Charlie Musselwhite’s made 39, artists like John Lee Hooker and Lightnin’ Hopkins have made many more, etc) and that so many labels have come and gone with the rising, falling and rising again of blue’s popularity, it’s understandable that there are so many “Essential Blues Lists”. But there are two distinctions that they run over again and again that drive me insane.

Post-war versus Pre-war

Having Robert Johnson and Robert Cray on the same list, or Stevie Ray Vaughan and Blind Lemon Jefferson on the same list just doesn’t make sense. These artists are products of different worlds and different aesthetics, yet they are always jammed together on Essential Blues Recordings lists.

This is like having a list of the greatest Rock albums including field recordings of Appalachian murder ballads because they influenced Bob Dylan. We live with an electric, post-war sensibility, but the largely acoustic Pre-war blues is definitely worth studying even if you don’t even own an acoustic guitar.

In pre-war blues you can find haunting poetry and a huge variety of styles and voices. Taken together, pre-war blues is a primary historical source that creates a mosaic-like self-portrait of a people, touching on every facet of the black experience in America. Paul Oliver’s Blues Fell This Morning is a great way to begin to see the big picture of pre-war blues.

78s and 45s Collections Versus Contemporary LPs

When I was a kid, I loved to read Rolling Stone’s Encyclopedia of Rock Albums, which charted the arc of a band or artist through the history of their recordings. This makes perfect sense for David Bowie, The Beatles or The Who, but not so much for Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed or John Lee Hooker.

The original creative generations of blues artists either never made LPs or made them only after they were fully established as recording artists on 78s or 45s. The focus was on one or two hit songs (and necessarily, short ones in order to fit the time limitations of the medium).

Records were made in a matter of hours, not weeks, often with rudimentary and even improvised equipment. Each song seems like a postcard, describing the artist’s current situation. To get a solid idea of any great blues artist with one or both feet in the pre-LP era, listen to his singles chronologically (Stefan Wirz’s discography is great for this).

Stumbling on to a concept LP such as Howlin’ Wolf’s London Sessions is like walking into the last third of a movie at best.

A contemporary blues fan, confronted with a long-dead artist’s material repackaged in an LP, will impose the same standards fans impose on a contemporary blues or rock LP/CD: a search for some kind of coherent theme or “statement”, which cannot be retrofitted to a bunch of single released decades earlier and targeted to a black audience. This is just unfair to all artists concerned and confusing to a fan.

The First Blues Album? Hoodoo Man Blues

It wasn’t until the critical success of the Hoodoo Man Blues by Junior Wells in 1965 that actual new blues LPs of new material started being widely produced by blues artists of the time.

Hoodoo Man was an incredibly non-commercial, stark and unfiltered document of how a contemporary blues band actually performed in the smoky South Side clubs.

It was Delmark’s best seller for many years but due to the distribution and cash flow problems faced by so many underdog labels, the actual numbers were pretty small. Kind of like The Velvet Underground, who did shows for only thirty people who later all went out to form bands-- this record was heard by all the right people who reacted to it with consequential actions of their own.

It brought Sam Charters of Vanguard records to Chicago to make the “Chicago/The Blues/Today” series and opened the floodgates to blues artists adapting to the LP format. By the way, you need to listen to those too!

Homemade Blues, Indie Blues, and Blues Documents

Some of my favorite blues records aren’t the most successful ones that are in most folks' record collections (and I’m not putting those down!): titles such as BB King’s Live at the Regal, Albert King’s Stax recordings (and let’s throw in New Orleans Heat!), Freddy King’s Shelter LPs, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, John Mayall w Eric Clapton’s “Beano” record, etc.

Major labels and major subsidiaries have been making blues LPs for years and there are lots of artists who did really well and made some great music: Stevie Ray Vaughan, Johnny Winter, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Robert Cray, and the last years of Muddy Water’s and John Lee Hooker’s careers.

But this list is just a sampling of the records that shine a light on self-contained blues subculture. In other words, by the time Eric Clapton did From the Cradle, it just wasn’t electric folk music anymore.

Many are self or indie-produced records by artists that were often well known to their local blues audience but not so well known beyond it. These records may not have had much distribution or promotion, but they do have something memorable and unique to say.

Luckily for us, so much of this is all on youtube. Alligator started out as this kind of label, but grew into something bigger. Just a few labels that created “documents” more than records: Isabel, MCM, Delmark, Fat Possum, Arhoolie, Rooster, High Water, etc. It’s pretty Mississippi and Chicago-- this list could easily be 100 records long.

It’s just a starting point to thinking about the blues more holistically, as it relates to black history more than rock history, and it’s in no particular order.

Johnny Littlejohn: Chicago Blues Stars

Arhoolie 1969.

As far as guitar tone, a perfect blues voice that just grabs you, and an overall massive sound together with a loose, club-date vibe (in other words, everything you want in a blues album!) this must be the holy grail.

He slashes in Elmore James open D styles, then plays some mean BB style/Elmore James standard tuning lead playing, and finishes with a haunting first hand account of the racism he experienced in “Nowhere to Lay My Head”.

After you hear this one you’ll definitely want to listen to his next one, Funky from Chicago as well as So Called Friends featuring Sam Lay on drums and Eddie Taylor on guitar.

Willie Williams: Raw Unpolluted Soul

Self-released 1972.

Blues fans will know Hubert Sumlin and Eddie Taylor from their prominent association with Howlin’ Wolf and Jimmy Reed, as well as the rest of the band: Earl Hooker and future Muddy bassist Ernest Johnson, Muddy pianist Pinetop Perkins and two great harp players, Carey Bell and Little Mac Simmons.

Willie was a singing drummer with a voice right out of a gravel pit and a loose, pure Chicago shuffle. You won’t believe the yin-yang approach of the mercurial Hubert and the driving, full chords of Eddie Taylor.

JB Lenoir: Vietnam Blues

Evidence, 1995 (includes Alabama Blues, 1966 CBS records and Down in Mississippi L & R records, 1966).

This is acoustic protest blues from a 50s Chicago blues star whose writing deepened from rockin’ good-time blues to a more personal songs that reflected the Civil Rights movement and acknowledged the loss of his brother at the hands of racist police.

These songs keep coming back-- Shemekia Copeland’s done “The Whale Has Swallowed Me” for example, and lots of folks have recorded “Voodoo Music”. Musically the guitar and voice is beautiful and unadorned-- Fred Below on percussion is an added highlight.

Son Seals: The Son Seals Blues Band

Alligator 1973.

The third LP issued by the then-fledgling Chicago label Alligator Records is gloriously messy, lo-fi, funky, and in-your-face. Son’s guitar playing was a straight-from-the-south, brutalized version of Albert King: incapable of beauty, but with teeth.

Son had a way of rhythmic phrasing that gave his notes incredible impact over and over again. This LP kicked off a great career for Son, whose fortunes rose along with Alligator’s. His band and production got slicker as he went along, and he made a lot of great records, but this is the one that does it for me.

Like Hound Dog Taylor’s recordings and Hoodoo Man Blues, this is a great document of what an actual scrappy, stripped down blues band sounded like in a ghetto club. To me that’s priceless, because it’s from a world that isn’t there any more.

Jessie Mae Hemphill: Feelin’

Good 1987, High Tone/High Water

This is music from another time and place-- timeless and elemental. She linked the John Lee Hooker styles with a highly local, archaic fife-and-drum folk tradition she learned from her father Sid Hemphill.

High Water did a great job of recording the underground blues talent in the Delta in the 80s. Her acapella version of Lord Help the Poor and Needy plus truly remarkable originals (My Daddy’s Blues, Go On Back to Your Used to Be, Eagle Bird), sometimes recorded only with guitar and drums should not be missed. She Wolf is also great.

Sonny Rhodes

Sonny Rhodes: I Don’t Want My Blues Colored Bright

1977 Advent, 1994 Black Magic.

Sonny Rhodes in later years switched to lap steel but his debut LP shows him dead-on on the six string. This is a swinging Oakland band drawing on the huge blues talent pool there, spearheaded by the blues great Lowell Fulson.

He’s a really great songwriter and singer, but what I like about this record most is the straight from the bandstand quality it has.

Bee Houston and his High Steppers, The Hustler

1970 Arhoolie

This unhinged blast of gutbucket guitar and soul machismo is kind of the Texas version of the Son Seals record listed above, with horns, swinging tempos and a soul influence.

But the furious and chaotic guitar is what makes this record such a wild ride. There are times it almost falls apart but seems to hang on by force of will!

Bobby King The Chaser

1975, MCM.

The three kings? Make way for Bobby! Compared to Son Seals and Bee Houston, Bobby’s leads sound orderly and even pre-composed. His tone and his voice is great and he plays in a completely unique style, with bits of BB and Little Milton but very much his own man.

The title track and his totally original reworking of “My Babe” shows you just how distinctive he was as a guitarist. This is South Side neighborhood blues done live-- doubtlessly Bobby knew everyone in the bar.

Jimmy Dawkins Hot Wire 81

1981, Isabel.

Hot Wire 81’s sparseness is haunting. The use of space with the rhythm guitar just playing one chord every four beats along with the dead-on rhythm section of Sylvester Boines and Jimi Schutte created a unique canvas for Jimmy’s brooding and tense leads and fills.

All For Business and Fast Fingers both on Delmark are also really great documents, each with a unique sound

RL Burnside Too Bad Jim

1998, Fat Possum.

Fat Possum was a great reminder in the 90s of where the blues really came from and what it was all about. RL’s hypnotic, droning guitar is rhythmically uncanny and gets in your head. This is a great primer for North Mississippi Hill Country blues.

Mary Lane Appointment with the Blues

This record is hard to find but shows Mary Lane at the top of her powers with a stellar West Side Chicago band led by Johnny B. Moore, who started out as the “human jukebox” of the West Side and blossomed into the heaviest traditional blues guitarist of the 90s. To me his playing was situated somewhere between the looseness of Mighty Joe Young and the precision and chordal attack of a Luther Tucker.

Mary grew up singing in Arkansas juke joints and has a deep blues history-- she even sang with Robert Nighthawk! She always drew a crowd on the South and West Sides of Chicago.

Her show poster bills her as “Sweet Singing”-- she’s not a shouter in the Koko vein but has her own understated and plaintive delivery shown by this youtube link.

Koko Taylor: I Got What It Takes

Alligator 1975.

This is another record that didn’t need a producer, just an engineer to hit record while this tight, hard-working, funky blues band showed that yes, they do have what it takes. This record kicked off Koko’s profitable and successful association with Alligator, which continued until her death in 2009.

This is a great example of Sammy Lawhorn’s unique and chill-inducing guitar playing-- he had the reputation as unbeatable on the South Side. Check out Blues Never Die here.

Robert Nighthawk: Live on Maxwell Street 1964

Rounder 1991.

Robert Nighthawk was a bridge figure between small-combo acoustic country blues and the early electric Chicago blues in the 40s. He penned “Sweet Black Angel”, which became BB King’s “Sweet Little Angel” and mentored Earl Hooker, considered the best guitarist in Chicago by his peers.

This makes the list not because of it’s document nature-- just a reel to reel recording of Robert, Carey Bell, and blues guitarist Johnny Young playing on a Sunday on Maxwell Street, an open air market where there was always live blues. Check out his unique slide playing and vocals here.

The Moral:

So when it comes to the blues, we need an “artists you should know” for pre-war blues, another for post-war blues, and then a list of of actual Blues LPs that were manufactured as such.

Is that too much to ask? Probably. But now you’re ready to make your own list!