Various Artists

Blues: The Essential Album

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The title of this two-CD compilation rather wildly overstates its importance, as does the subtitle "the most important artists, the classic performances, the key songs." Few would consider, for example, Little Esther's "Lost in a Dream" or Big Joe Turner's "S.K. Blues" among the greatest blues cuts of all time, and as significant as Helen Humes and Willie Love may be, few would consider them among the most important blues artists. Putting the over-hype to the side, this is a decent and wide-ranging, though unfocused, collection of 32 blues songs spanning the 1930s to the 1990s. Everything here is worthwhile, and a few of the cuts are indeed certified classics: Big Mama Thornton's "Hound Dog," Muddy Waters' "Still a Fool," B.B. King's "Sweet Sixteen, Pts. 1-2," Junior Wells' "Hoodoo Man Blues," and Canned Heat's "Goin' Up the Country." Plenty of other major blues performers are represented, too, including Robert Johnson, Memphis Minnie, Elmore James, Lightnin' Hopkins, Son House, Sonny Boy Williamson, John Lee Hooker, and Albert Collins. The track selection, however, seems on the arbitrary side, favoring lesser-known performances that aren't necessarily as good as the artists' more celebrated sides, and sometimes not nearly as good: no one would put "Lazy Poker Blues" among the Peter Green version of Fleetwood Mac's top moments, for instance. There are also some cuts that are not so much blues as blues-influenced (Tom Waits' "Get Behind the Mule," Doc & Merle Watson's "Mississippi Heavy Water Blues"). The irreverent flexibility of the apparent criteria for inclusion, however, does leave room for some enjoyable, seldom-anthologized items that make for welcome surprises, like Leadbelly's version of "Rock Island Line," Big Maybelle's lush and earthy ballad "Candy," Big Joe Williams' propulsive early-'50s track "She Left Me a Mule," and R.L. Burnside's 1967 recording "See My Jumper Hangin' Out on the Line." It's more a sampler for the casual yet adventurous blues admirer than the dedicated blues collector, and as such, wouldn't make a bad gift for someone who likes the blues but isn't particularly motivated to buy blues records.

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