Real rock ‘n’ roll music may have been on the ropes in 2015, but many blues and blues-rock musicians continue to thrive and survive, with some veteran artists releasing the best work of (often) lengthy careers. Looking at the Billboard “Hot 100” singles, there’s not a single legit rocker among songs by Adele, Justin Bieber, and Drake; over on the trade magazine’s Top 200 albums list, you won’t find but one rock band in the first 20 spots, a Beatles’ CD reissue…
Yes, ‘tis a dire time commercially for rock ‘n’ roll, although there is still a great amount of it being recorded and released these days, usually by smaller indie labels. Blues music and its related sub-genres is growing in popularity but, like Rodney Dangerfield, it gets no respect in spite of the fact that the blues is the root influence of rock and country music alike. No matter, ‘cause around That Devil Music World HQ, we don’t care about labels or vintage – witness our list of the Rev’s fave reissue and archive albums for 2015 – we just want to listen to great music!
The Reverend’s list below of favorite CDs for the year isn’t necessarily a roll call of “the best” of 2015 – although several of these titles would certainly qualify on their merit – but rather those discs that spent the most time bouncing off your humble critic’s eardrums over the past few months. Forget about those other publications’ lists and their predictable choices…you can’t go wrong cueing up any of these fine albums when you need to satisfy your rock ‘n’ blues fix…
Gary Clark Jr. once again defied expectations with his sophomore effort, the album’s throwback musical vibe owing a debt of gratitude to Jimi Hendrix, Arthur Lee, and Sly Stone as Clark gets his soul groove on in a big way. The Story of Sonny Boy Slim isn’t, strictly speaking, a blues album – at least not as your grand-pappy would recognize it. Instead, it’s an entertaining, masterful, fluid collection of blues, soul, and funk guaranteed to send traditionalists into an apoplectic frenzy while the rest of us dance to the music. (Warner Brothers Records)
Shemekia Copeland is one of the best singers performing today, regardless of musical genre. That the daughter of legendary Texas guitarslinger Johnny Copeland could sing the blues was pre-ordained; that Copeland’s so damn good singing in other styles is pure joy. Copeland’s Outskirts of Love marks her return to Alligator Records, but she’s not singing the same old song, the album featuring a rich blend of blues, soul, and roots-rock that will astound the casual listener while rewarding Copeland’s long-time fans. (Alligator Records)
Guitarist Ted Drozdowski fronts the Scissormen, one of the leanest, meanest, bad-ass gang of juke-joint blues noisemakers to roll down the highway on four fiery, alcohol-fueled wheels in as long as the Rev can remember. Ted’s gruff, soulful vocals, erudite songwriting chops, and greasy six-string pyrotechnics, combined with the band’s percussive din, make the Scissormen natural heirs to the Delta and Hill Country blues traditions. Love & Life is the second Scissormen studio album, each song featuring an aggressive, primal sound that straddles the fence between traditional country-blues and highly-amped blues-rock. You won’t find a tastier slab o’ off-highway juke-joint blues than Love & Life anywhere these days… (Dolly Sez Woof Recordings)
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Blues music is the father to the entirety of American music, and in few places is this tradition stronger than in the state of Texas. Steve Earle’s Terraplane represents the latest fraternization between blues and country, a long and respected tradition that began, perhaps, with Blind Lemon Jefferson and runs in a line through Sam Hopkins to Bill Neely to Townes Van Zandt and beyond to Earle and even his son Justin. Terraplane offers up all that the singer’s fans have come to expect – whipsmart lyrics and storytelling; the singer’s immense charisma; and well-constructed, skillfully-performed, often adventuresome music. Earle has always drawn from the whole spice rack of Americana in creating his own unique musical gumbo; this time around he just throws a bit more blues flavor into the pot. No matter what you want to call it, Terraplane is one damn fine collection of roots ‘n’ blues music. (New West Records)
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ZZ Top frontman Billy Gibbons’ first-ever solo LP grows on you, kind of like kudzu – on first listen, my impressions were along the line of “what the hell was he thinking?” Two, three spins down the road and my interest was piqued, and by the fifth or sixth time putting Perfectamundo on the box, I found myself grinning in spite of myself. Gibbons expands his musical palette here, allowing his guitar greater freedom to soar into new territory while exploring different tones and textures with his lyrics and singing. Perfectamundo is an engaging, and entertaining – if surprising – solo debut from one of rock music’s legendary guitarists. (Concord Records)
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Sweden’s Graveyard began life in 2006 as a loud, sludge-rock doom metal outfit, but during the ensuing years the band’s musical inspiration has swerved more towards Cream and Peter Green’s original Fleetwood Mack and away from Sabbath. The new direction looks good on them, as Innocence & Decadence – Graveyard’s third album for Nuclear Blast Records (and fourth LP overall) – offers up a breakneck mix of hard rock and metallic blues that makes full use of leather-lunged frontman Joakim Nilsson’s Robert Plant-styled vox and guitarist’s Jonatan Larocca Ramm’s seemingly bottomless trick bag of tasty licks, leaden riffs, and screaming notes. Innocence & Decadence belongs in this year’s Top Ten, if only for the breathtaking “The Apple & The Tree,” which offers Nilsson’s vocals dancing on the razor blade of Ramm’s Mark Knopfler-influenced fretwork. (Nuclear Blast Records)
Although a stalwart Pretty Things fan, the Reverend’s expectations for The Sweet Pretty Things (Are In Bed By Now, of Course…) were not such that I was looking for the ‘Second Coming’. Still, the band’s first studio LP since 2007’s Balboa Island (not too shabby itself, in retrospect) features the core members in original singer Phil May and guitarist Dick Taylor, along with long-time guitarist Frank Holland (on board since 1999’s ...Rage Before Beauty). The result is an entertaining, energetic mix of guitar-driven garage-rock, psychedelic-rock, and blues-rock that blows away bands half the aggregate age of the Pretties. May’s old-school British R&B croon still has plenty of punch, and Taylor’s reckless fretwork cuts deep through the imaginative, musically-rich arrangements here. The new songs are instrumentally impressive, while a cover of the Byrds’ “Renaissance Fair” will have you reaching for the bong like it’s 1968 all over again. The Pretty Things are proof that rock ‘n’ roll is the fountain of youth, The Sweet Pretty Things… a tonic for what ails ya! (Repertoire Records)
More than a decade since the last Rolling Stones studio album (2005’s A Bigger Bang) and nearly a quarter-century since his previous solo effort (1992’s Main Offender), guitarist Keith Richards managed to leave listeners gob-smacked with Crosseyed Heart. The performances sound spontaneous – not like an unformed, meandering jam – but rather like a well-seasoned veteran band stumbling into the studio, laying down the session, and then heading out to the local watering hole for some liquid refreshment. Richards scratches the various musical itches that have plagued him for years now, experimenting with reggae (a brilliant cover of Gregory Isaacs’ “Love Overdue” mixing Island rhythms and doo-wop sentimentality), folk-blues (a spirited cover of Leadbelly’s “Goodnight Irene”), boogie-blues (the original “Blues In The Morning”) and, of course, rock ‘n’ roll. Although an altogether more laid-back effort than previous solo albums, Crosseyed Heart nevertheless lives up to Richards’ legend, displaying why Keef is rock music’s most notorious – and revered – guitarist. (Republic Records)
Beloved blues-rock guitarist Walter Trout almost died in 2014 and, after receiving a liver transplant, he spent much of 2015 recuperating from his dance with the Reaper. At some point, Trout entered the studio with a brace of new songs, resulting in Battle Scars. The album is Trout’s Inferno, a tale of redemption and rebirth that doesn’t shy away from reality but rings loudly with hope…it’s also the best album, in all facets, that Walter Trout has ever recorded, full of emotion and insight. (Provogue Records)
I don’t believe that Webb Wilder has every made a bad record – only good and great – and the Rev has heard every single one of ‘em! Still, Mississippi Mōderne is, perhaps, the best album Wilder’s made since It Came From Nashville. In the hands of a lesser artist, this ramshackle mix of garage-rock, blues, and old-school country music would sink like an over-inflated soufflé, and the album’s often over-the-top lyrics would lack in sincerity coming from a singer without Wilder’s charismatic personality. Backed by the grizzled veterans that comprise the Beatnecks, though, Wilder delivers a powerful and entertaining collection in Mississippi Mōderne. (Landslide Records)
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Alive Natural Sound Recordings, and both Datura4’s Demon Blues and Dirty Streets’ White Horse are worthy of inclusion here…plus, you can buy Alive’s releases through the Bomp Records store and often get vinyl/CD bundles for a price that won’t cripple you financially.
Other good stuff you may want to check out – albums by Barrence Whitfield & the Savages, British blues-rock band King King, the always eerie metallic Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats, and the debut album by the Arcs.
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