Best of the Blues 2021: John Kessler’s Favorite Songs of the Year



Christone “Kingfish” Ingram – “Another Life Passes”
Album: 662

At 22, Kingfish is a true blues prodigy who has been mentored by Buddy Guy. Since its first release in 2019, it has won seven Blues Music Awards and one Grammy nomination. And 662 was nominated this year for Best Contemporary Blues Album. Kingfish is an elite guitarist, but he put his energy into songwriting wisely, emphasizing that point and letting his guitar support the mood of the song. This song has a modern R&B feel to it, and Kingfish is clearly about the racial injustice and violence that is sadly a part of life in America, especially for young black men.

Amythyst Kiah – “Hangover Blues”
Album: Suspicious + strange

Amythyst Kiah grew up in eastern Tennessee and studied and absorbed the rich Appalachian music of this region. She also has an affinity for alternative rock, and when these two worlds meet interesting things happen. Acoustic guitars blend together at a very modern, cloudy and upbeat rhythm to support her intense and captivating voice.

Big Daddy Wilson – “The Hard Times Blues”
Album: Blues of hard times

Born and raised in North Carolina, Big Daddy Wilson joined the military and was stationed in Germany. Along with many other American jazz and blues artists, he felt that Europe was more hospitable to his ambitions to be a blues singer, so he stayed. After 30 years and several outings, he is now noticed by an international audience. Co-written by Eric Bibb, this lush, elaborate, and slightly psychedelic production supports Wilson’s deep and moving voice.

Lilli Lewis – “A Shoe”
Album: Americana

She is known as the “Diva of Folk Rock” and, of course, Lilli Lewis is an opera singer and classical pianist by training. As vice president of Louisiana Red Hot Records, she has also spoken openly about racial, gender and LGTBQ equity in the music industry. The New Orleans native’s music mixes American Roots-style okra. The soft production of this song contrasts with the subject matter, which deals with the history of slavery and the African-American experience.

Jon Batiste – “Crying”
Album: We are

The multi-talented singer and keyboardist has had a fantastically successful career, recording with artists like Stevie Wonder and Mavis Staples and with his own band Stay Human, which is the musical anchor of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. He also co-wrote the music for the film Pixar Soul, for which he received an Oscar. Unsurprisingly, this dark and brooding song is nominated for two Grammys – for the American Roots Performance and Song categories – and We are is also nominated for Best R&B Album and Album of the Year.

Sunny War – “The Age of a Man”

Sunny War perfected their remarkable guitar chops playing the streets of the LA area. After struggling with homelessness, she recently found her way into a true career as a touring and recording musician. The understated tone of this song conveys a palpable sense of melancholy and longing. This song has some unusual textures as well, combining sparkling acoustic guitar riffs that are countered by a modern brass section.

Robert Finley – “Souled Out On You”
Album: Son of sharecropper

The Louisiana native has been playing intermittently for decades, working as a carpenter along the way. When he became legally blind in 2016, he turned to the streets to support himself and was quickly discovered by the Music Maker Relief Foundation, who helped him make a musical comeback. Finley has since released three albums with producer Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys. The songs on the album are based on Finley’s upbringing on a harvest, and his emotional voice is a magnet that draws you into this soulful blues song.

The Black Keys – “Crawling Kingsnake”
Album: Delta Kream

The Black Keys revisit their roots on their 10th release, saying, “We made this record to honor the Mississippi country blues tradition that influenced us in our early days.” Based on a Junior Kimbrough version of John Lee Hooker’s “Crawling Kingsnake”, this song is gritty and crushing in the spirit of the hill blues, and the album is nominated for a Grammy in the Contemporary Blues category.

Jackie Venson – “Always Free”
Album: Love transcends

The Austin singer and guitarist is a fierce talent, able to play into the mind of Jimi Hendrix with a voice powerful enough to match that intensity. (She also has an alter ego as a “Jackie the Robot” musical DJ.) After a frustrating experience at Berklee College of Music studying piano and songwriting, she found her way into the guitar and thrived in as a writer and performer. This funky rock song shows off his crazy guitar abilities and rising vocals.

Eric Bibb – “Born of a Woman” with Shaneeka Simon
Album: Dear america

Eric Bibb said in our 2021 interview that this album is “an open love letter to the land of my birth … a message to my compatriots”. While not a protest album, Bibb does tackle some difficult topics, including, on this song, domestic violence. The addition of singer Shaneeka Simon really makes this song soar. Simon has sung with Bibb before, but this is the first time that she has shared the lead vocals, and I can’t wait to learn more about this powerful singer.

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