Greg Johnson, CBA President
For the past several years I have made a tradition of naming my top ten favorite albums of the year in this column in December. As I have stated before that my choices can differ from day to day, there are just too many great recordings to choose from. And that means there are a number that could’ve been included on any other given day. I also made it a point that all choices had to be released in 2016. That left out a true favorite that came out in late November 2015 that I didn’t pick up until January, but I have to abide by my own rules here, so Jonn Del Toro Richardson’s Tengo Blues couldn’t make the list. But do pick it up, it’s a fantastic disc. The same for two local artists that were released in 2016 and could easily make the ten selections tomorrow or another day: Lisa Mann’s Hard Times, Bad Decisions and Mitch Kashmar’s West Coast Toast. Tough choices to make, but here are the albums in no significant order that have found a significant time on my play list and continue to do so.
Top of the heap this year, with no question whatsoever from my mind, is our own local hero Curtis Salgado’s latest The Beautiful Lowdown. Whenever I think that Curtis has reached his peak he amazes me by putting out something even more incredible. This is a flawless disc with great local and national talent behind him. It is soulful and deep. Every track knocks it out of the park. It won the Muddy Award for National Recording, I highly anticipate that it will be up for several Blues Music Awards as well.
If there is any one album that bleeds and breathes the blues this year it has to be John Blues Boyd’s The Real Deal. This is pure authentic traditional blues to its very core. The Little Village Foundation is doing great leaps by bringing forth lesser known artists and putting them in the forefront with a backing band that dreams are made of that often includes Kid Anderson, Jimmy Pugh, Rick Estrin, Big Jon Atkinson, and Aki Kumar. They did so last year with Wee Willie Walker (who also has a sensational new live album this year) and they have hit gold again with John Blues Boyd. I knew from the very first listen months ago that this was going to be one of my selections for the best albums of the year. It’s just that damn good!
I have known Dave Muskett for a number of years and always enjoy his performances. Perhaps that may be why I have been enchanted with his Recorded Live At The Slippery Noodle Inn release with the Dave Muskett Acoustic Blues Band. It is a simple and raw recording, capturing all the good times feel of his show. He offers great playing, superb songwriting and the sound is spot on.
As I have stated before, I am a sucker when it comes to a soulful vocalist. One artist who has been on my list before reappears here with another masterful soulful performance — Johnny Rawls’ Tiger In A Cage. Whether he is singing his own original material or a cover by The Rolling Stones or Sam Cooke, Johnny Rawls knows how to do it right with a voice that just drips soulful blues manna.
Another soul vocalist returning is Dave Keller. His previous release Soul Changes from 2014 still remains one of my most favorite discs of the decade. His latest, Right Back Atcha, is a winning follow-up. Not only does Keller have the perfect voice, he is a gifted songwriter who says the words of love in his lyrics that you wished that you could speak to yours on the spur of the moment. One listen to a song like “Deeper Than The Eye Can See” speaks volumes: “If you could see my insides, like an x-ray machine, all my feelings and you’re all my dreams, your love goes deeper, deeper than the eye can see.” Wow!
One album that completely took me by surprise this year that I can’t stop listening to is Peter Karp’s live album The Arson’s Match. A collection of songs he had written earlier in his career that had little distribution are brought back to life on stage with a band that includes a dream cast with Dennis Gruenling on harmonica, Dave Keyes on piano and a guitarist named Mick Taylor that just happens to be one of my all-time favorite players. Karp’s own guitar work and vocals are simply captivating.
Yet another album that I knew would be included as soon as I heard it for the first time early in the year is Janiva Magness’ Love Wins Again. Janiva is again singing songs with deep meaning from her life’s experiences, but things are so much brighter nowadays since she has found true love. And it’s reflected in her lyrics. Though there are hardships also present, she lets us know that as long as there is love everything will work out in the end.
Salem-based Gabriel Cox’ debut disc a couple years ago was such a wonderful surprise. He has an amazing voice and his songwriting skills are off the chart. His sophomore release I Surrender displayed that the first recording was no fluke. He has the goods and it makes me anxious to hear what he will come up with next. From the opening call and response a capella of “Willie Brown II” to the beautiful closing title track, Cox has my full attention.
Luther Dickinson stepped away from The North Mississippi All Stars, taking a number of his previously released songs and took another look at them. Blues & Ballads: A Folksinger’s Songbook, Volumes I & II places them into an acoustic atmosphere, recorded live in the studio and working on the concept that the greatest works of art are never truly completed, but something that lives and grows over time. And it all sounds fresh and new all over again. Absolutely brilliant!
Doug MacLeod is another friend whose new releases are always something I look forward to. Even more I love his performances as he never uses a set list and plays exactly what may be on his mind at the time. Filled with great storytelling, every show is unique. Live In Europe captures just one of those nights where everything is clicking. But that could be almost any night when it comes to Doug as I have seen him perform more times than I can count and he has never given anything other than a remarkable show every time out. So a live album is the perfect setting for him, as it is his natural element.
Let me repeat, this is a list of recordings that I have been listening to repeatedly. They are the ones that came immediately to mind when putting this list together. But there are so many others that could also fall into here on any given day. Tedeschi Trucks Band, Bobby Rush, Fiona Boyes, Terry Hanck, just so many wonderful albums from 2016. But this is my list and I’m sticking to it. If there’s something here you’re not familiar with, check them out. They may surprise you.