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The Best Blues Albums of 2013


Another year is coming to a close, and 2013 had a bumper crop of worthy blues music for the discriminating fan. It was tough restricting ourselves to just a mere ten "best blues" albums for the year, especially considering that talents like Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite, Lurrie Bell, Devon Allman, and the Fabulous Thunderbirds, among many others, released stellar albums in 2013. Nevertheless, custom dictates a "top ten" list, and these are the albums that spent the most time on our stereo as the "best blues albums of 2013." Want more blues? Check out our lists of the year's best blues-rock and blues reissue albums!

Buddy Guy – 'Rhythm & Blues' (Silvertone Records)

Buddy Guy's Rhythm & Blues
Photo courtesy Silvertone Records

The attempted "mainstreaming" of blues legends by loading their albums down with unnecessary guest stars from the pop and rock worlds is a novelty that has worn out its welcome. You have to admit that Chicago bluesman Buddy Guy gets the most out of the guests on his masterful Rhythm & Blues set, however, the old lion pushing talents like singer Beth Hart and guitarist Gary Clark, Jr. into brilliant performances, although the presence of Kid Rock and Keith Urban raise a noticeable "meh" from this critic. Suffice it to say that Kid Rock needs Buddy Guy more than Guy needs the erstwhile country rapper, but regardless of the many guests that infect Rhythm & Blues, Buddy Guy shines the brightest, his guitar still biting deeply, his voice as soulful as ever.

Corey Harris – 'Fulton Blues' (Njumba Records)

Corey Harris' Fulton Blues
Photo courtesy Njumba Records

The wonderful thing about acoustic bluesman Corey Harris is that you never really know where he's going, musically, from album to album – you just know that it's going to incorporate some fine Delta-inspired blues in amidst the other musical influences. Fulton Blues is typically eclectic, offering up some Chicago style R&B, some old-school country blues, a little bit o' Piedmont blues, and that particular lyrical magic that comes from Harris's intelligent story-songs…not to mention inspired covers of Skip James and Robert Petway tunes. One of the best of Harris's many albums, and that's saying something...

David Bromberg – 'Only Slightly Mad' (Appleseed Records)

David Bromberg's Only Slightly Mad
Photo courtesy Appleseed Records

Singer, songwriter, and guitarist David Bromberg has built a lengthy career by being undervalued and too-frequently overlooked. A skilled multi-instrumentalist with an intuitive feel for traditional musical styles like blues, folk, and gospel, he displays the full range of his talents with the amazing Only Slightly Mad. Stylistically, the album is eclectic as hell, and in the hands of a lesser artist these wide-ranging songs would taste like so much artificial sweetener, but Bromberg pulls it off with ease and aplomb.

Duke Robillard Band – 'Independently Blue' (Stony Plain Records)

Duke Robillard Band's Independently Blue
Photo courtesy Stony Plain Records

In the hands of a less talented musician, bandleader, and arranger, the wide swath of material displayed on Duke Robillard's Independently Blue would come out of the oven a tasteless mess of notes. Robillard is a traditionalist, however, a skilled instrumental stylist with a deep knowledge of, and respect for the history of the blues. As such, the performances throughout Independently Blue are inspired, wired, and more entertaining than just about any blues album you'll hear this year, the music ranging from 1920s-era bluesy jazz and 1950s styled Chicago blues to rockabilly-tinged blues-rock tunes.

Homemade Jamz Blues Band – 'Mississippi Hill Country' (self-produced)

Homemade Jamz Blues Band's Mississippi Hill Country
Photo courtesy Homemade Jamz Blues Band

Self-produced and financed by the band via a Kickstarter fundraiser, the Homemade Jamz Blues Band's Mississippi Hill Country represents a career milestone, the album displaying a wide range of styles and influences, from 1960s era blues-rock and '70s soul to the 1990s sounds of R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough. Throughout it all, the band evinces a strong identity, the material relying more on subtlety and talent than on the novelty that often plagued their youthful performances. Frontman Ryan Perry's songwriting showed enormous growth since the band's 2010 album The Game, and all three of the Perry siblings have improved as musicians, resulting in the best album of the trio's still-young career.

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James Cotton – 'Cotton Mouth Man' (Alligator Records)

James Cotton's Cotton Mouth Man
Photo courtesy Alligator Records

James Cotton has earned his enormous reputation honestly and, unlike some of his colleagues in the blues, he's never seemingly been one to crank out product just to make a buck and thus dilute his legacy. Even by the lofty standards set by such undeniable blues classics like High Compression or Harp Attack!, however, Cotton Mouth Man is a considerable success. Cotton's voice may be shot, but he has the talented Darrell Nulisch to cover that base, and his harp playing has lost little of its power or distinctive artistry, even after better than five decades of abuse. Cotton Mouth Man is a worthy addition to the harp legend's canon, an album that I believe time will judge to be as classic in status as any of Cotton's earlier triumphs.

Mark Robinson – 'Have Axe, Will Groove' (Blind Chihuahua Records)

Mark Robinson's Have Axe, Will Groove
Photo courtesy Blind Chihuahua Records

Writing in Blues Music Magazine, the Reverend said that Mark Robinson's "2010 debut Quit Your Job, Play Guitar was one of the year's best records, but the guitarist's sophomore effort, Have Axe – Will Groove, surpasses all expectations, delivering a high-wattage jolt of blues, rock, soul, and Southern-fried funk that enhances Robinson's reputation as a gifted songwriter and guitarist with a fluid technique that he applies effortlessly to a myriad of styles," concluding that "Robinson proves with Have Axe – Will Groove that he's a talent to be reckoned with, and you can climb on the bandwagon now or wait until he's a festival headliner...it's your choice!"

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Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters – 'Just For Today' (Stony Plain Records)

Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters' Just For Today
Photo courtesy Stony Plain Records

Recorded live in a handful of venues in guitarist Ronnie Earl's home state, Just For Today features the guitarist's longest-lived Broadcasters line-up celebrating the Broadcasters' 25th anniversary. And what a celebration it is! The album offers up thirteen red-hot performances, a mix of Earl's thoughtful originals and a brace of inspired covers, delivered with all the power and passion that have made Earl a popular concert draw. Just For Today is an excellent representation of the underrated, but never under-achieving talents of Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters as the crew romps across a set list that includes blues, boogie, and a taste of jazz.

Seasick Steve – 'Hubcap Music' (Third Man Records)

Seasick Steve's Hubcap Music
Photo courtesy Third Man Records

If you've yet to discover the immense charms of Seasick Steve, Hubcap Music is a great place to start. The album's carefully-crafted mix of country-blues, roots-rock, and Southern soul is delivered with the fervor a true believer, the instrumentation is truly inspired, and the guest performances are understated yet significant. Hubcap Music is delightfully entertaining, with many musical layers and textures, Seasick Steve definitely an underrated talent worthy of your consideration.

Various Artists – 'Remembering Little Walter' (Blind Pig Records)

Remembering Little Walter
Photo courtesy Blind Pig Records

Any recording that can boast of the talents of Charlie Musselwhite, Mark Hummel, Billy Boy Arnold, James Harmon, and Sugar Ray Norcia is never going to be bad, but throw in backing players like guitarists Nathan James and Little Charlie Baty and you have a heck of a party goin' on! That's what you get from Blind Pig's tribute to the Chicago blues legend Little Walter Jacobs. Produced by Hummel, no slouch in the harmonica department himself, Remembering Little Walter offers up eleven scorching tracks that honor the late blues harp maestro, live performances of his best and biggest songs. If you love blues harp – and who doesn't? – you just have to hear Remembering Little Walter, an album so good that even those lunkheads at The Recording Academy nominated it for a Grammy® Award.

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