Well, in my own inimitable way, I've made it easy on you and compiled 25 essential albums that are representative of a wide range of the blues for your aural edification. They are mostly single CD releases (many of which can be purchased for under $5 on certain well-known online sites that I will not shill for, as I refuse to clutter my site with ads), but a few are double CD sets because they were originally released that way, or no release exists in a single CD that has the songs I find essential ( in any case, I have always included the least costly CD release). If you enjoy the single CDs but want to venture further, then by all means go out and get the extravagant archival boxed sets, just get an aggregate score review-wise from fairly reputable sites like rateyourmusic.com or allmusic.com.
Another thing I've tried to do in compiling this list is to remain in historical context whenever possible, meaning, I have tried to stay away from greatest hits packages that throw together random songs from throughout an artist's career; instead, I have made a concerted effort to offer actual albums with songs released in the space of a single session or a great live performance from one hot night so you can hear the performers in specific eras of their careers (most often in their prime). Unfortunately, that isn't always possible, particularly with great blues artists from the early 20th century whose songs are now only available in collections.
And if I've skewed this list to acknowledge some very early artists (Mississippi John Hurt, Lead Belly, Memphis Minnie, Skip James, Robert Johnson, etc.), I consider this an education or indoctrination or maybe even a proselytization of the blues. To know the roots of the rhythm affords one the opportunity of seeing how the blues spread in many directions and settled in so many styles. I also know 25 albums in no way gives one a true perspective of the blues, but it's a good place to start.
And so here's 25 essential blues albums in no particular order:
Albert King - Born Under a Bad Sign
Hey, any guy with fervent acolytes like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Clapton is a worthwhile listen on this, one of the great blues album. Of course, it helps when your supporting band members on the album feature Steve Cropper, Booker T. Jones, Isaac Hayes, Wayne Jackson and Duck Dunn. Outstanding tracks include the title number, "The Hunter"(of Led Zep fame), "As the Years Go Passing By", and the elegant "The Very Thought of You".
Mississippi John puts me in a good mood even when he's talking about killing his old lady (murder being a feature on many of his songs). But his style is so upbeat and he sings so sweetly that I don't think a jury would find him guilty of the crimes he sings about. His melodious finger-picking style of Delta blues and his conversational method of storytelling makes you want to go back to Avalon, Mississippi and sit on a porch with some moonshine and listen to the man play. The recordings are scratchy at times, but that only adds to the authenticity of the songs, like Nobody's Dirty Business (a personal favorite), Stack O' Lee, Spike Driver Blues and Frankie (a good girl whose man done her wrong, and so she shoots him).
Muddy Waters - Muddy Waters at Newport 1960
So many great Muddy Waters albums, so little time. But we are on a budget, after all, so this live album from 1960 packs a punch and offers up many of Muddy's greatest song played in his prime. The album itself has been praised as one of the greatest live blues albums ever, and I heartily agree. The real treats of the show, other than Muddy's low down growl, of course, is James Cotton's blues harp and the piano of Otis Spann, delivering show-stopping performances. "Hoochie-Coochie Man" and "Baby, Please Don't Go" are the big hits on this album, but I've heard that "Got My Mojo Working" actually got the crowd at Newport dancing in the aisles. If you have some expendable income, I suggest you also take a look at the superb remastered double CD set Muddy "Mississippi Waters Live: Legacy Edition featuring Johnny Winter on guitar and the ageless Pinetop Perkins on piano.
Willie Dixon - I Am The Blues
Purists and anal critics often deride this album as second-hand and only an echo of the originals. Certainly, Willie Dixon wrote these songs as a producer and staff songwriter at Chess Records, and they were then originally performed and made famous by the likes of Howlin' Wolf, Otis Rush and Muddy Waters, but that does not minimize the excellence of I Am The Blues, nor does it take away anything from how Willie sang his own damn songs, which was great. I consider this album the blues equivalent of Carole King's Tapestry, in which the songwriter took back their songs and made them their own again. The song list is monumental, including "Back Door Man", "Spoonful", "Hoochie Coochie Man", "I Can't Quit You Babe" and "I Ain't Superstitious", and Willie's band (featuring Dixon on bass, Walter Horton on blues harp and Sunnyland Slim on piano) is top-notch. This is literally an historical document of blues songwriting.
Blind Willie Johnson - The Complete Blind Willie Johnson
There is another album Praise God I'm Satisfied that is more concise and offers up 14 essential songs from Blind Willie, but I checked the 'net and the price is off-the-charts for some reason (most likely out of print or import-only). This compilation offers twice as many songs (a double CD) but the price is still reasonable. In any case, Blind Willie is as spiritual as you are going to get and still remain with the blues and not slip off into gospel music. And that voice! Good Lord, did that man have a set of growling pipes! Listening to "Nobody's Fault But Mine" is a religious experience in itself with that voice and glorious slide guitar. Led Zeppelin would reuse the song as well as "In My Time of Dying", but Robert Plant's absconding of Blind Willie's overtly spiritual lyrics are rather ironic. Eric Clapton would also borrow "Motherless Children".
Hound Dog Taylor - Beware of the DogThe fuzzy, fucked-up guitar of Hound Dog is infectious, and this posthumous live recording of Taylor burning down a Cleveland bar is one of the little joys of life. The banter of Hound Dog with a cigarette dangling from his lip, the sleazy slide on a cheap Teisco guitar played through a blown Silvertone amp (all bought at department stores!), and the gritty vocal barrage is wonderful! Listen to "Give Me Back My Wig", "Let's Get Funky" ("Looky here -- yeah, it's five minutes to two..."), a vicious version of "Dust My Broom", or "Freddy's Blues" and try not to crack a smile. I guarantee you'll wish you had been knocking back Buds at the bar during this performance of grungy house rocking blues.
At around $7.00, this perhaps the best Johnson compilation, and better than the Complete Recordings version that offers many takes of individual songs, some without enough variation to make it worthwhile, save for completionists. King of the Delta Blues Singers has nearly every great song Robert Johnson recorded, and its release in 1961 is considered a pivotal moment in the rebirth of the blues. "Cross Road Blues", "Traveling Riverside Blues", "Walkin' Blues", "Kind Hearted Woman Blues", "Hellhound on My Trail" -- it's a history of the blues in and of itself.
Both albums are five-star rated in my book, and both are essential, and they are available in a one CD compilation (only $5.99 online -- I checked!). So these two count as one. That voice! Listen to "Smokestack Lightnin'", the mischievous "Back Door Man" or the malevolent "Spoonful" and be amazed.
Elmore James - Shake Your Moneymaker: The Best of the Fire Recordings
At under $7.00 this is a worthwhile compilation, and for a few dollars more The Ultimate Collection is even better if you find you need more Elmore. If you want to see where Jeremy Spence and Peter Green of the original Fleetwood Mac got their influence, listen to a near note-for-note version of Elmore's "Dust My Broom". "Rolling and Tumbling", "The Sky Is Crying" and "Shake Your Moneymaker" are all blueprints for British Invasion Blues of the 1960s.
T-Bone Walker - T-Bone Blues
A basket of blues recorded in the mid-50s, T-Bones bright and brilliant jazzy lines flow effortlessly from song to song, and for under $5.00, you can't go wrong, particularly with Junior Wells and Jimmy Rogers sitting in on a couple songs ("Play On Little Girl" and "T-Bone Blues Special"). Of course, there is the standard "Mean Old World", and the great T-Bone version of "Stormy Monday" where Walker's precision note-for-note is on display.
Skip James - Complete 1931 Recordings in Chronological Order
If you are interested in acoustic Delta blues, or guitar picking perfection at all, then you do yourself a disservice not listening to this album. James was noted for both unconventional chording structures and ethereal falsetto voicing, and that unorthodox nature drifts just as surely through his piano-playing as his picking (listen to the piano on "If You Haven't Any Hay Get on Down the Road" or "How Long Buck" -- they are fascinating).Devil Got My Woman", "Cypress Grove Blues", "Hard Time Killin' Floor Blues" and "I'm So Glad" (famously adapted by Cream) are all essential blues tunes, and even currently popular musicians like Hozier revere Skip James (great version of "Illinois Blues").
You can't play blues harp without having listened to Little Walter (and having listened to him, realize you don't know what the fuck you are doing). And for $5.99 it's like a Mel Bay book for the blues harp. Listen to the sustain and quiver on "Sad Hours", "Mean Old World", and the mournful "Blues With a Feeling". It is truly sad that his great version of "Rollin' and Tumblin' is not available on this or His Best: Chess 50th Anniversary Collection, but the jumping "My Babe" almost makes up for it.
Memphis Minnie - Essential Recordings
An essential album containing her best songs (this is a 2 CD import, but I found it online for $8.99). Sad that her main claim to fame is for receiving writing credit on Led Zeppelin's Volume IV, and that otherwise she is relatively unknown outside of blues circles. But Minnie was a guitar-picker extraordinaire, and along with her husband "Kansas Joe" McCoy churned out some remarkable blues: "Bumble Bee", "When the Levee Breaks" (the Led Zep version mentioned previously), "Black Cat Blues" and "I'm a Bad Luck Woman".
Like Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, jail seemed to bring out the best performance from B.B. King. He explodes on stage, and having seen the dear departed B.B. four times myself I can say that is a very cool thing. Like many great performers, B.B. King is at his best live, and his studio recordings are great but don't do the performances justice. The jail session is raw and biting, and King is at his growling, gritty best. However, some would argue that King's Live at the Regal is his best concert album, and I won't debate the point (hence, I've included both here). It is sonically better sounding and a far jazzier blues set. Great horns.
One of the original and best blues belters, and just as musically important for her work with Louis Armstrong and Bennie Goodman. Listening to "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out", "Tain't Nobody's Business If I Do" or "St. Louis Blues" transports one back to the Roaring Twenties, and Bessie brief recording career between 1923-1933.
John Lee was prolific and his career was incredibly long, so it's hard to nail him down to one album or one compilation. But I'm John Lee Hooker is as good as it gets, even though it may be more costly than the other albums I have referred. The nineteen songs on this compilation are the best cross-section of Hooker I have heard. From the immortal intro riff of "Dimples" to backstreet crawl of "Boogie Chillun" (and his reference to Hastings Street in Detroit's old "Black Bottom") to the malicious "Crawlin' King Snake" (which Jim Morrison so famously borrowed), John Lee's jangley rhythms and downright dirty leads are beloved by guitarists.
It isn't often that the words legendary and mythical are used in the proper context for musicians, but I can only think of one other blues musician, Robert Johnson, who has as many myths and legends surrounding him as does Lead Belly. From questionable birth records to barroom brawls and prison knifings to his time on the chain gang to how he got his nickname, Lead Belly is an exemplar of the Old Blues Tradition, and this 3 CD anthology (for a paltry $12.99!) is more than the blues but a historic artifact of Americana: "House of the Rising Sun", "Goodnight Irene", "Cotton Fields", "Gallis Pole" (or "Gallows Pole"), and "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" (that caused Nirvana's Kurt Cobain to go out on a search to find and buy Lead Belly's guitar).
Memphis Slim & Buddy Guy - Southside Reunion
One of the coolest things about the blues is to blindly stumble upon an absolutely amazing album , and that's what happened with this one (bought at a flea market for a buck!). Since I haven't touched on boogie-woogie piano blues yet, I can't think of a better release than this one, even though most blues lists aren't even aware of it. The sound is stellar (a key here, since really good early albums from Pinetop Smith are scratchy as hell and Pinetop Perkins is best heard jamming alongside Muddy Waters), Buddy and Memphis are incredibly in sync (the clarity of piano and guitar are out of this world, really), Junior Wells lends a stellar set of lungs on the blues harp, and the backing band is out of this world. Listen to the interplay between Slim and Guy on "You Call Me A", the delightful barrelhouse of "When Buddy Comes to Town", the most laid-back version of "Rolling and Tumbling" I've ever heard, and "Jamming at the Castle" featuring a boogie-woogie barn burning with everyone lighting it up.
Hey, would you look at that: I was just speaking of Junior Wells and Buddy Guy! Imagine that? This is as Southside Chicago as you are going to get. And although this isn't a live recording, you can smell the moldy odor of stale beer emanating from the floorboards above your torn Naugahyde bar stool, and lit cigarettes perched in ashtrays piled high with butts -- it's the type of performance one can only pray for in a bar...in Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, or wherever you drink your beer. Personal favorites are "Hey, Lawdy Mama", "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl", "We're Ready", "You Don't Love Me, Baby" and the best version of "Hound Dog" this side of Elvis.
Of course, everyone remembers Albert's immortal line from Adventures in Babysitting: "Ain't nobody leaves this place without singing the blues", and Albert could say the same for this stellar excursion into blues guitar. It's the sort of album that made John Lee Hooker sit back and say, "I'm an Albert Collins freak!" The banter on "Snowed In" as he bitches about his truck being stalled in winter and proceeds to use his guitar to mimic a wheezing engine is worth the price of admission. Collin's perceptions of the inner city soon makes you realize this is as urban as blues gets, From "When the Welfare Turns It's Back On You" to "Master Charge", it's lively, witty and the guitar is an ice cold pick to the heart.
This compilation features the 1958 Chess release Bo Diddley and the 1959 Checker release Go Bo Diddley, and covers just about everything you need for an exploration of the "Bo Diddley beat" and its extrapolation into what we now term "rock 'n' roll". This double CD was $8.00 online, so affordable and rocking at the same time! And the players on these albums! Willie Dixon on bass, Otis Spann on piano and Little Walter on harmonica among them, and the songs are like a play list from many early rockers: "I'm a Man", "Before You Accuse Me", "Who Do You Love", "Bo Diddley" and "Little Girl".
Son House - Original Delta Blues
I found this online for a mere $4.99, and a damned delight it is for under five bucks! The slide stings and buzzes like a hive of hornets, and a Capellas like "John the Revelator" or "Grinnin' in Your Face" are just as spellbinding with Son's whoops and claps. If you're looking for authenticity in blues, start here. It's front porch of a shotgun shack-style deep Delta stuff, like "Levee Camp Moan" or "Pearline", and the soul-rending sadness of "Death Letter" will teach you how to weep and moan (I don't know why, but even Jack White covered that song).
This a 20 song compilation from Chess Records (at only $4.99 online!) that will give one a great overview of the man who became know as Sonny Boy Williamson II (as opposed to Sonny Boy Williamson I who was another bluesman altogether). Many of my favorite blues harp tunes inhabit this album: "Help Me" (with the murky Wurlitzer in the background), "One Way Out" (co-written by Williamson and Elmore James, and made famous by the Allman Brothers), and if you listen to "Bring It On Home" you will hear Robert Plant's nearly note-for-note copy from Led Zeppelin II. Almost as notable are the guitarists who recorded along with Sonny Boy: Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Rogers, Robert Lockwood, Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page.
My first album suggestion would have been Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee at the 2nd Fret due to the hilarious repartee and asides from these twin sons of different mothers, but for whatever reason the CD is ridiculously priced ($17.25 and up on several sites). Not much of a deal for ten songs. In any case, The Essential release gives you forty songs to listen to (available for as low as $8.42 to boot!).