In this article, I’m going to provide you my list of the top 13 best blues albums you can find on vinyl. I’m going to also discuss different types of blues music that you can enjoy, and also go into detail as to why each album and artist that made my top 13 list is special and worthy of your time.
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History of Blues
The etymology of the term blues appears to have come from an old term describing the suffering that goes along with the after effects of alcohol; fighting the blue devil. So, originally, when someone said they had the blues, it meant they were hung over from too much drinking. If you’ve ever been hung over yourself then you have a pretty clear idea of what it means to have the blues. Eventually, the meaning evolved to describe any feeling of agitation or emotional sadness.
At some point, blues music became defined, not by its lyrical content, but by its basic chord structure which most, but by no means all, forms of blues share.
While sharing some similarities, blues music is as unique in style as the performers who play it and that unique style varies further depending on which region of the country you are in. Often, blues performers had to modify their style when they moved from one town to another in order to appeal to the tastes and expectations of listeners in their new area. You too probably have specific tastes when it comes to the style of blues you most enjoy.
Different types of blues
You may prefer country blues or Delta blues. Perhaps you enjoy the urban evolution of blues such as St. Louis blues, Detroit blues or, my favorite, Chicago blues. Then there’s boogie-woogie blues, Piedmont blues, Memphis blues, electric blues, blues rock and modern blues, to name a few.
Finding that “must have” blues album, it is truly a matter of taste. Since blues music has been around in some form since the late 1800s, passed down through tradition and modified to fit regional preferences, there is an extraordinary amount of variety and levels of talent within the world of blues players.
When it comes to blues music there’s no shortage of amazing records from which to choose based on which sub-genre you prefer.
What makes these albums “the best?”
The standard I used putting together this list was passion either in vocals, in instrumentation or both. By its very nature, blues music must be passionate, heartfelt and soulful or it’s just not the blues.
There have been more than a few artists who play a homogenized form of blues-based music and have been commercially successful but they lack the feeling that the greatest blues performers possess. Each of the records on this list is an example of an artist who “gets it” and gives it all to his or her art.
The Top 13 Best Blues Albums You Gotta Hear
Let’s kick off this list with Albert King.
Albert King – Born Under a Bad Sign
Albert King’s second album and his first with the legendary Stax record label, Born Under a Bad Sign is credited with reinvigorating the somewhat stale blues genre in the 60s. What makes this album unique is the incorporation of a little soul into what is overall a traditional blues record due, in no small part, to King’s backing band.
The credits include Isaac Hayes on piano, bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn and Booker T. Jones (of Booker T. and the MGs fame). The single “Born Under a Bad Sign” reached number 49 on the Billboard R & B charts, has been covered dozens of times over the years and is considered a staple of blues.
The record was originally released in 1967 but you may want to seek out the 1998, 180 gram vinyl reissue on the Sundazed Music label as it contains the bonus tracks “Funk-Shun” and “Overall Junction” originally B-sides to the singles from which this record was created. Born Under a Bad Sign is a must have record for blues enthusiasts and those who wish to trace the roots of later rockers who were inspired by Albert King’s work.
This is the record that started it all for Stevie Ray. SRV was a master of Texas Blues and his first studio album, Texas Flood, is chock full of some of his most recognized songs including “Pride and Joy”, “Dirty Pool” and the Buddy Guy penned “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
The original record, recorded in just two days, was released in 1983 on the Epic label. This would be a fine addition to your blues catalogue or you could seek out the more recent limited edition reissue, distributed by Scorpio Music using the original sleeve, barcode and catalogue number and pressed on 180 gram vinyl. The sticker on the front of the Texas Flood reissue touts its “High-Definition Premium Virgin Vinyl Pressing For Super Fidelity”. Maybe you want to just grab both and compare for yourself.
– It’s true that he did record and release the album Rainmaker in 1980 using his real name, Kevin Moore, but Keb Mo’s 1994 self-titled second album is widely considered his debut. With a modern take on traditional Delta and country blues, Keb Mo takes a modern, acoustic look at the origins of the genre during a time when electric guitars were the norm.
His mastery of the instrument, his playing style and sense of rhythm is refreshing. His vocals on this album are pleasant and soothing when they need to be, as on “Victims of Comfort”, soulful on “Has Anybody Seen my Girl” and he channels the bluesmen of yesterday on his covers of the Robert Johnson songs “Come On In My Kitchen” and “Kindhearted Woman Blues.”
The original release of Keb Mo came out on the Okeh label in 1994 but, like most great blues records, it was re-mastered and re-released as a European limited edition on 180 gram vinyl in 2008 and again in 2015 on “180 gram audiophile vinyl” by the Music On Vinyl label. For a nice change of pace, traditional blues in a modern style, check out Keb Mo’s self-titled “debut” album. You’ll be glad you did.
In 1983 a magical moment in blues history was captured live when Albert King and Stevie Ray Vaughan partnered to perform a few tunes on a television program and we, the listeners, are the fortunate recipients of their meeting. The audio from this record is originally from CHCH-TV in Ontario, Canada and includes not just music but some banter between Albert King and Stevie Ray between songs.
The album was officially released in CD format by Stax in 1999 and reissued on vinyl by Stax in 2010. But if you really want something special (as if the musical collaboration contained on the record isn’t special enough), pick up the 2018 limited edition reissue, re-mastered and pressed on translucent red vinyl with a black swirl. Wow, a record that looks good and sounds good!
In Session is a live to tape recording so you get the high-energy performance that goes along with that. There are only four songs on the LP, three of which were previously recorded by King but they do jam on the Stevie Ray classic “Pride and Joy”. Personally, I think their take on “Call It Stormy Monday” is worth whatever you pay for this record.
Buddy Guy: Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues
First of all, if you don’t already own this album in some format, stop what you’re doing, run to your local record store and buy it… NOW! Actually, don’t go anywhere just yet. Let me tell you why it’s so great. It had been nearly 10 years since Buddy Guy’s last record when Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues came out in 1991.
Listening to this release, it sounds to me like Buddy had something to prove, so tremendous is his power and angst and, frankly, his blues emotion on this record. It is everything a Chicago style electric blues album should be. The single “Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues” just screams with emotional intensity. Way back when I was a DJ on college radio, the single was included on the CMJ (College Music Journal) top 100 compilation and it got massive airplay around the country.
It’s unusual to hear a blues song in regular rotation on college radio but that’s the power of Buddy Guy. The ten songs on this record include performances by special guests Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Mark Knopfler. It’s no wonder it won Best Contemporary Blues Album at the 1992 Grammy awards. But if you want Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues on vinyl, you’ll have to look for a European pressing on the Silvertone label. It’s not terribly rare but it could take a bit of hunting to track one down. I assure you, it’s worth it.
BB King: Blues is King
There are those who will say the BB King’s album Live at the Regal is his best recording. While that argument may have merit, I’m going to say King’s record Blues is King is just a shade better.
Recorded in 1966, nearly two years after Live at the Regal, Blues is King was captured at a relative low point in King’s career. He was on the hook for nearly $100k to the IRS, musical tastes were changing and audiences were moving on from blues to the soul sound being churned out at Motown.
The British invasion was in full swing and BB King had moved from the grand Regal Theater to the small nightclub where Blues is King was recorded. In this intimate setting, the King of the Blues played and sang his heart out, wailing, bending the notes for all they’re worth and occasionally breaking a string. It’s all captured on this record. Whether he was just reacting to the club’s responsive audience or whether it was the trouble in his personal life, the listener can FEEL his blues on this record.
Backed by a drummer, a couple of horns and Duke Jethro playing bass and keys on the Hammond B3 (Louis Satterfield’s bass was overdubbed after the fact) BB King masterfully weaves his way through “Waiting on You”, Gambler’s Blues”, the Willie Nelson classic “Nightlife” and seven more.
We also get to hear King chat with the audience a bit and how he handles the aforementioned broken string during “Blind Love”. BB King is known as the King of the Blues and this record gives us a glimpse into a night that just may have been a little bit bluer than the rest. Look for the original release or the 2016 limited edition European release of Blues is King on 180 gram vinyl.
When it comes to blues music, John Lee Hooker is in a class by himself. Best known for the songs “Dimples” and “Boom Boom”, John Lee didn’t do a lot of band recording mostly due to the fact that backing bands couldn’t keep up with his unique playing style.
His earlier recordings are just him playing guitar and stomping the beat on a wood block. He also didn’t record many albums, sticking mostly to singles and often recording under an alias (John Lee, John Lee Booker, John Cooker, etc.) in an effort to make more money without voiding his recording contract. It Serve You Right to Suffer (changed to It Serves You Right to Suffer on re-issues) is both a full length album AND it has a backing band that can actually keep up with John Lee’s musical idiosyncrasies.
Originally released in 1966 on the jazz label Impulse!, this record contains seven JLH originals plus his terrific cover of the Barry Gordy composition “Money” which, by the way, includes the addition of a nifty trombone part played by William Wells. Finding the original mono recording in a gatefold sleeve isn’t terribly difficult and there have been numerous pressings put out over the years but if you’re looking for a slightly better sound then seek out the 2017 re-mastered stereo re-issue on 180 gram vinyl.
It was once available exclusively through Vinyl Me, Please, a vinyl record subscription service and online store. It Serve You Right to Suffer is a slightly different John Lee Hooker than we’re used to and any pressing of this record will make a fine addition to your collection.
Jimmy Reed: Jimmy Reed At Carnegie Hall
There have been few blues artists as influential as Jimmy Reed and his impact on the genre that would come to be known as rock and roll cannot be overstated. The Rolling Stones cited Reed as a major influence and his songs have been covered by Etta James, Elvis Presley, The Grateful Dead, Van Morrison, The Yardbirds and The Steve Miller Band to name a few.
I don’t normally choose “Best of…” albums as must haves but in this case I’ll make an exception. Jimmy Reed At Carnegie Hall/ The Best of Jimmy Reed is a two record mono compilation in a gatefold sleeve. Disc one, in spite of the insinuation, is a studio recreation of a Carnegie Hall performance and not a live recording. Disc two was originally released separately as The Best of Jimmy Reed. Backing musician credits include Lefty Bates on second guitar, drummer Earl Phillips and the great Willie Dixon on bass.
There are 23 songs in the collection and they include all the Jimmy Reed classics; “Ain’t That Lovin’ You, Baby”, “Baby What You Want Me To Do”, “Hush-Hush” and “Bright Lights, Big City”. Jimmy Reed At Carnegie Hall/ The Best of Jimmy Reed was re-mastered and reissued on 180 gram vinyl in a 45 RPM format back in 2004 but I would go for the original 1961 mono release on VeeJay Records in the gatefold which the reissue lacks.
Born in 1977, Joe Bonamassa has been performing since he was 12 years old. In 1989, he opened for BB King roughly 20 times. Prodigy? Perhaps. Since 2000 he has released 12 studio albums, 16 live albums and three collaboration albums. With all that material from which to choose, Sloe Gin made the list of must-have records for a couple of reasons.
The first reason is the title song “Slow Gin”. It is a cover and one of seven covers on the album. The original is from the 1978 album Read My Lips by Tim Curry. Yes, THAT Tim Curry. The Bonamassa version is much different than the original and one of my favorite songs overall from his catalogue but the Tim Curry version is good too (and I’m a big Tim Curry fan). Second, the four original tunes on this record show a maturity not found on his previous releases.
He focuses a bit more on song structure and vocalization and just a bit less on his phenomenal guitar-playing ability. It’s still present but this record demonstrates more feeling within the notes rather than trying to squeeze in as many as possible during his leads. It’s apparent from the opening track, the Chris Whitley tune “Ball Peen Hammer”, a quick yet powerful semi-acoustic number. Bonamassa hasn’t made many missteps in his career and you’ll find many of his albums enjoyable. But if you’re just starting your collection of Joe and you don’t already have Sloe Gin on your shelf, go out and find the 2009 European release on 180 gram vinyl. It’ll sound great on your turntable.
Muddy Waters: Fathers and Sons
First, Muddy Waters is considered by some to be the greatest blues artist ever. And with a pedigree that includes the songs, “Got My Mojo Working”, ”I Just Want to Make Love to You”, “Forty Days and Forty Nights” and “Hoochie Coochie Man”, who can argue.
Through the early and mid-50s, Muddy Waters’ singles were frequently on the Billboard R&B charts. However, by the late 50s, his singles success was drying up. He continued to perform live and his recorded performance of “Hoochie Coochie Man” at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival was nominated for a Grammy. In 1968 he tried his hand at recording a “psychedelic soul” blues album that didn’t fare well, to say the least.
Shortly after that fiasco, Muddy Waters returned to his roots and in 1969 released Fathers and Sons, a two disc set in a gatefold sleeve with one record dedicated to studio recordings and the second recorded live in concert at Super Cosmic Joy-Scout Jamboree, Chicago, Illinois, on April 24, 1969. The backing band for the studio album includes Michael Bloomfield joining Muddy on guitar, Paul Butterfield on harmonica and bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn from Booker T and the MGs.
Highlights include the songs “Sugar Sweet” and the aforementioned “Forty Days and Forty Nights”. On the live side, “Baby Please Don’t Go”, “Honey Bee” and “Got My Mojo Working”. You could call Fathers and Sons the first album of Muddy Waters’ second act as his subsequent albums, for the most part, did very well. The original was released in 1969 by Chess Records and several later reissues are available.
In 2006 a re-mastered stereo pressing of Fathers and Sons was released in Germany on 180 gram vinyl using “Audiophile Mastering”. You’ll find it on either the Speakers Corner Records label or Chess.
Irish guitarist Gary Moore got his start playing pretty heavy music in various bands, his own band and as an occasional member of Thin Lizzy. Suddenly, in 1990, he released Still Got the Blues which turned out to be a near perfect fusion of hard rock and blues.
The title track of the record hit number 97 on the Billboard Hot 100 and is the only one of his singles to chart on the Hot 100. Still Got the Blues features some pretty impressive talent as well; Albert Collins, Albert King and George Harrison all made contributions.
The Jimmy Rogers song “Walking By Myself” and Gary’s own “Texas Strut” are real scorchers and, of course, “Still Got the Blues” is a heck of a soulful rock/blues song with a wicked guitar lead (which, by the way, I always thought sounded like Lionel Richie’s “Hello” but that could just be me). Still Got the Blues is the album that marked Gary Moore’s style change.
Moore was one of the finest electric blues guitarists in the business and the record does not fail to impress. Virgin released the vinyl version in Europe, South America, Australia and everywhere but the U.S. so you may have to hunt around some to find it. But do your best to find it at your local or online record store so you can add it to your collection of blues on wax.
Susan Tedeschi: Back to the River
One of the great modern female blues artists is singer/ guitarist Susan Tedeschi who, with her husband Derek Trucks, has put out an impressive catalogue of blues-based tunes. Her 2008 album Back to the River is about the finest example of modern blues rock I’ve heard and continues to be a favorite. If you’re familiar with her work then you’ve probably heard her vocal style described as a blend of Janis Joplin and Bonnie Raitt.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the title track “Back to the River” which, by the way, Tedeschi co-wrote with swamp rocker Tony Joe White (of “Polk Salad Annie” fame). She also wrote or co-wrote all of the tracks on this album (the vinyl release does not include the Allen Toussaint song “There’s a Break in the Road” which is found on the CD). Back to the River was Susan Tedeschi’s second release on the Verve Forecast label and her work on it shows a level of growth and maturity not found on her earlier releases.
The album reached number one on the Billboard Top Blues Albums chart and was nominated for a Grammy in the Best Contemporary Blues Album category (she lost to her husband). Plus, it’s a personal favorite of mine. So, put the needle on the record, sit back and enjoy the evolution of blues as performed by the formidable Susan Tedeschi.
One of the most explosive electric blues albums you’ll ever hear was created when R L Burnside teamed up with punk blues band The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion to create A Ass Pocket of Whiskey. Now, I know what you’re thinking. Blues and punk? That’ll never work. But work it does and the proof is contained on A Ass Pocket of Whiskey.
Blues man Burnside languished in relative obscurity for decades until he was “discovered” by Jon Spencer in the early 90s while performing in New York. Burnside began opening for the Blues Explosion and occasionally sat in with the band until the collaboration in 1996. Spearheaded by Spencer and targeting his audience he nonetheless made the album all about R L Burnside.
The results are intense. Opinions vary as to whether the album is good or not. I think it’s fantastic as do U2 front man Bono, Iggy Pop and numerous music critics. On the other hand, one critic from Living Blues called it “perhaps the worst blues album ever released”. Is this a traditional blues record? Yes and no. Burnside and the gang crank out 10 tunes including the perennial John Lee Hooker favorite “Boogie Chillen”. It is electric. There are more screams than you’re used to on a blues album but A Ass Pocket of Whiskey is a fine example of what can happen when old meets new. I would recommend a preview to be sure it meets your tastes but for me A Ass Pocket of Whiskey is an essential addition to your blues collection.
Bettye LaVette: I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise
This record tends to be more soul than blues but I felt it need to be mentioned. I fell in love with Bettye LaVette after watching her perform the Who classic “Love Reign o’er Me” at the 2008 Kennedy Center Honors. I simply had to hear more. That brings me to the 2005 album I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise on which LaVette sings in a soulful, bluesy, impassioned way, songs written exclusively by women. The album title is taken from a lyric in the Fiona Apple song “Sleep to Dream” which is included on this record along with songs from Sinead O’Connor, Dolly Parton, Roseanne Cash and Lucinda Williams.
Bettye LaVette starts with a blues base, but she mixes in a strong sense of R&B and gospel as well. While not your typical blues album, it is Bettye LaVette’s interpretation of the lyrics and the baring of her soul that puts this record on the blues spectrum. You’ll find more traditional blues on her 2002 album A Woman Like Me but that one is only available in a CD format and we love our vinyl (I’m looking at you ANTI Records). 2005s I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise is available as an LP on the ANTI label and I highly recommend you listen for yourself and prepare to fall in love with the raw emotion that is Bettye LaVette.
Blues, blues and more blues
Obviously I could go on and on about which blues records you must have in your music library. There are a number of terrific compilation albums out there that give you samples of the many sub-genres found within the blues category but I’ve stuck with full albums by solo artists and collaborations.
Additionally, I’ve omitted a number of artists who are known primarily as rock musicians even when the blues influence is strong in their material such as Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Jack White and Eric Clapton.
Also missing are some of the earliest performers of recorded blues including Arthur “Big Boy” Cruddup, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lead Belly and the rarely recorded Robert Johnson. There is certainly no disrespect intended. Their work should certainly be represented in your collection.
This is by no means a comprehensive list of all forms of blues music. The blues has a long, rich history and one could make a career out of researching, exploring and collecting all it has to offer. I encourage you to seek out examples of blues music in all its forms to get a sense of where it began, the evolution it has taken and where it’s going next.
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