While 2011 saw many of the heavyweights of the blues – talents like Buddy Guy, Charlie Musselwhite, Otis Taylor, and others – sitting on the sidelines, no doubt working on new music, the year provided blues fans with plenty of great new music from relative newcomers and veteran artists alike. These are the Reverend's choices for the best blues albums of 2011; if we overlooked one of your favorites, share your choices in the comments section. Don't forget to check out our separate lists of Best Blues-Rock Albums of 2011 and Best Blues Reissue Albums of 2011, 'cause there really was just too much great music this year to restrict ourselves to one list!
Over the past few years, one-man-band Ben Prestage has begun to build a name for himself with inspired, innovative songs and performances built on a Delta-inspired country-blues framework. As guest author Ken Bays wrote in his review of the album, "Ben Prestage knows how to do the one-man band thing without sounding like he's showing off, and he's to be commended for that. While his technical skill is impressive, it never sounds like he's trying to wow the listener; rather, his playing is always in service to the song. One Crow Murder is a fine disc that never settles into a predictable groove, and it's Prestage's most accomplished – and most idiosyncratic – album yet."
The Cash Box Kings are old-school traditionalists, following their Chicago blues muse to wherever it takes them, and with Holler and Stomp, it takes them into some pretty lively and entertaining territory. As guest author Steve Pick wrote in his review of the album, "the Cash Box Kings just don’t seem capable of making a wrong move. They have humor, invention, respect, and skill going for them, making Holler and Stomp a completely enjoyable blues experience. By going back further into the music’s roots, and exploring areas not normally considered part of the blues repertoire, they have expanded the possibilities of retro bands."
Blues guitarist Duke Robillard never ceases to amaze, both with his imaginative and entertaining fretwork, but also with the immense scope and diverse nature of his talents. As guest author Steve Pick wrote of the album "Duke Robillard is revered for his guitar skills and ability to work with a band to arrange old songs in exciting ways...he has a great grasp of blues phrasing, and he works in a sense of humor when appropriate, but over the course of 14 songs, his weaknesses do become apparent...but with playing this good, and a band this energized, and songs, most of them fairly unknown to all but the most ardent collectors, well worth hearing, Duke Robillard has added another enjoyable piece to his life-long musical puzzle."
Gina Sicilia is an immense talent with an incredible future ahead of her. If she were just a singer, she'd still be a star due to her range, command, and ability to wring every ounce of emotion out of a song. That she has developed into one of the best young songwriters in contemporary blues music is of equal significance. Sicilia has also found the perfect musical foil in producer, talented guitarist, and multi-instrumentalist Dave Gross, the two creating in Can't Control Myself a perfect showcase for the singer's talents. The result is a highly-entertaining album of substance, emotion, and enthusiasm that is guaranteed to please.
Here's what the Reverend wrote in Blues Revue magazine: "Considering just how damn good the Homemade Jamz Blues Band is on The Game, imagine how great the band is going to be another couple albums down the road. The Perry teens are bringing youthful enthusiasm and a fresh vision to blues traditionalism, and The Game represents another big step forward for this young Mississippi band."
Talented blues guitarist John-Alex Mason tragically died in late 2011 from complications suffered after an otherwise routine out-patient surgery. Before he left us, the blues veteran released the career milestone that is Jook Joint Thunderclap. As guest author Ken Bays stated in his review of Jook Joint Thunderclap, "in developing his own musical personality, he's recorded an album as rich, lively and just plain fun as anything that's come out this year. Ballads aside, it's so high-energy that you're practically exhausted – in a good way – by the time you finish its ten tracks."
Marquise Knox – 'Here I Am' (APO Records)
The third album from the teenaged blues guitarist is a marvel, a fully-mature collection of songs and brilliant performances that artists twice Knox's age attempt to achieve in vain. As guest author Steve Pick said in his review of Here I Am, "Marquise Knox at 19 has recorded as strong a blues record as any released in the past year. He is going to be a major force in this music for a long time to come. While he’s already a star in St. Louis, he still needs to establish a bigger name for him everywhere else. As long as he loves the music this much, this seems like a foregone conclusion."
The humble mandolin is no stranger to blues music, but seldom has it been wielded as masterfully as it is by bluesman Rich DelGrosso, who delivered a fine performance on this collaboration with singer and guitarist Jonn Del Toro Richardson. As guest author Steve Pick wrote, "Time Slips On By has almost no flaws to note. Richardson and DelGrosso have a rich rapport, and they employ highly talented players to help present their blues ideas. DelGrosso had only released one previous album as a leader, and Richardson has always recorded as a side-man, but these are two musicians with long careers ahead of them."
At a mere eight songs, A Part Of Me is too short. Considering the uniformly high quality of the songs and performances, a couple more tunes to extend the running time beyond that of a lengthy EP would have been wonderful. Principato is a pretty good songwriter, capable of expressing complex ideas and emotions in a few words, but it is his underrated skills as an instrumentalist that stands out on A Part Of Me. Principato doesn't sound like any other blues guitarist, and he doesn't settle for rehashing the same old licks and recycling sounds that were created decades ago. Instead, he's writing his own roadmap as he goes, and A Part Of Me is a welcome oasis on the journey.
Says guest author Steve Pick in his review, "Tracy Nelson makes absolutely no wrong moves in this stunning return to the blues of her youth. Victim Of The Blues is one of those records that instantly displays its warmth and pleasures, and then slowly reveals even more depth of emotion with each listen. After all these years, Nelson has only improved in her ability to express her passionate love for the blues."