Culminating with the release of Eric Clapton's eagerly awaited roots return From the Cradle -- the first straight blues record to hit number one on the Billboard charts -- the blues has enjoyed a healthy year. The strength and diversity of recordings available in 1994, from the most electric to the sparest acoustic Delta picking, proves without a doubt the blues is all right. Discounting box sets (which are rarely discounted and rarely sent to my desk) and re-releases, here's a top-ten countdown of some of the genre's finest new offerings:
10) Bloodlines, Michael Hill's Blues Mob (Alligator): Beautifully written urban blues dealing with everything from racial violence to the decay of the inner city to the frustration of a "Bluesman at Heart" forced to do the day-job thing. With the blazing electric slide of Hill at the helm, da Mob drags the blues screaming into the Nineties. Call it tough love.
9) Living the Blues, James Cotton (Verve): Master Cotton, his voice raggedier than ever, can still blow the hell out of his harmonica, ably displayed here with a variety of sidemen. The nimble hands of Lucky Peterson, John Primer, Larry McCray, Joe Louis Walker, and Dr. John provide the settings for the harpoonman's down-home eloquence.
8) In My Time, Charlie Musselwhite (Alligator): Musselwhite's stark acoustic-guitar meditations, dealing with matters existential, are presented beside his trademark good-times blues-harp party music.
7) Nothing But the Truth, Son Seals (Alligator): There's nothing flashy about Seals's blistering guitar playing, yet it hits you like a gutpunch. Team that with his rich baritone vocals and like-hell-I-can't positivity, and you've got modern Chicago blues at its best. The title track is a stunning tribute, musically, to the late Albert King.
6) Old, New, Borrowed, & Blue, Saffire -- the Uppity Blues Women (Alligator): This ain't no novelty, Jack. These ladies can play (especially Ann Rabson on barrelhouse piano). With some great old songs -- the raucous "Roll Mr. Jelly," and the haunting "The Clock" -- and some raunchy new tunes written by the trio, this release boogies like a Beale Street Saturday night.
5) Live Book -- Don't Start Me to Talkin', Roy Book Binder (Rounder): 'Cause once you get him goin'... But you won't mind hearing Book ramble on about his mentor, the Reverend Gary Davis, and other insights, especially when he picks that beatup six-string with such a deft and authentic touch.
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4) Groove Time, William Clarke (Alligator): The bari sax is belchin', fish is fryin', greens is bubblin', and Clarke is blowin' authentic Fifties blues harp on his mostly original tunes.
3) From the Cradle, Eric Clapton (Warner Bros.): God returns with some of the most vital material he's recorded since the Layla sessions. Raw and lovingly presented. Jerry Portnoy's harp is a welcome addition.
2) Keb' Mo', Keb' Mo'(OKeh/Epic): Singer-songwriter-guitarist Kevin Moore's debut record is a revelation. Though most powerful alone and acoustic, as on about half the tracks, Moore's songwriting is so intelligent and evocative that you can forgive some of the overdone arrangements. Oh, and the cat has an incredible voice, too.
1) The Next Hundred Years, Ted Hawkins (DGC): Hawkins occupies that place where music becomes religion, only purer. Busting with compassion and beauty and wit and insight into the big questions, Hawkins's songs explore loneliness, longing, loyalty, and mortality in a voice capable of expressing all of the above.