I found it appropriate to start with the King of the Blues when I decided to dive deeper into the history of that genre of music. B.B. King was, of course, a stellar guitar player, but he also never lost his distinct, powerful voice over the course of his 59-year recording career. Starting in 1949, Riley King recorded singles, moving to the LP format by the end of the 1950s, and released my approximation of 43 “canonical” albums from 1959 to 2008.
I pulled this list of 43 albums together from the series of studio albums beginning with B.B. KING WAILS and ending with ONE KIND FAVOR, adding in live albums LIVE AT THE REGAL and LIVE IN COOK COUNTY JAIL. The latter two are just too iconic to leave out, even though I don’t often add live albums to these lists. Omitted from the list are albums typically regarded as King’s first two full-blown LP releases, SINGIN’ THE BLUES (1957) and THE BLUES (1958), although they are quite good. As compilation albums of singles released throughout the beginning part of the decade, the records were left out due to my usual practice of avoiding compilations for these lists. And finally, I didn’t include A CHRISTMAS CELEBRATION OF HOPE (2001), because I really just don’t want to listen to Christmas albums.
What became apparent while listening to the 43 albums I’ll soon list below is that King rightly deserved his crown. Revered by many musicians, a number of whom he’d play with on later releases, King often stuck to a variation on his blues sound for periods of time. Releasing 43 albums in nearly as many years (there was only ever three years max between records, of course not counting the gap from 2008’s ONE KIND FAVOR and King’s death in 2015 at age 89), and much more if you consider live albums and such, means not every B.B. King record was revolutionary. But I don’t think the man ever made a bad one, and his music has taken on a “comfort food” appeal to me after a lot of time of it in my ears.
#43 — HEART TO HEART (1994)
Favorite track: “Glory of Love”
From the ’90s until the end of his career, King made a number of collaborative albums with a range of musicians, to say nothing of his successful ’70s live albums with Bobby Bland. HEART TO HEART is one of these albums, with jazz singer and pianist Diane Schuur joining the King of the Blues for an appropriately jazz-tinged record. As I’ve observed with many artists who entered their older age in the ’80s and ’90s, King did not escape the decades without a drop in quality in his albums. HEART TO HEART is B.B. King’s worst album because it doesn’t really feel like a B.B. King album. Schuur’s jazz influence is certainly not offensive in its own right, but the album nearly ends up being an easy listening bore. “Glory of Love,” while nowhere near as good as Otis Redding’s own cover version of the song, still lands favorably with me because of that association.
#42 — KING OF THE BLUES: 1989 (1988)
Favorite track: “Business with My Baby Tonight”
Ironically released in 1988, KING OF THE BLUES: 1989 represents the worst of King’s ’80s albums because of its overproduced sound that obscures both King’s guitar and voice. There was clearly some misguided direction in shifting King’s sound into a different, more poppy direction; King didn’t exactly shy away from some experimentation, and it really paid off with some of his ’70s albums. But as someone who just doesn’t really like that ’80s sound, this 1988 (‘89?) version of KING OF THE BLUES was ultimately pretty disappointing.
#41 — EASY LISTENING BLUES (1962)
Favorite track: “Easy Listening Blues”
EASY LISTENING BLUES is much better than anything else you might consider as modern “easy listening.” It’s an instrumental album, and it definitely takes on a more relaxed, even jazz-influenced tone than King’s contemporary albums. Lucille (the name King used for all of his guitars) is never obscured, as it was in releases like KING OF THE BLUES: 1989, but EASY LISTENING BLUES does end up settling into a bit of malaise without King’s focusing voice, a perfect emotional complement to the “singing” of his guitars.
#40 — LUCILLE TALKS BACK (1975)
Favorite track: “Have Faith”
The 1970s were kind to B.B. King, in my opinion. After the era most see as his best (the 1960s), he nevertheless played with the emerging funk and soul sounds to great effect. LUCILLE TALKS BACK followed on the heels of those albums, and hearkened a little bit back to the “low-down” blues sound of his late ’60s work. For some reason, though, it didn’t connect with me. Perhaps it was due to listening to it in a more disjointed nature (the record hasn’t been reissued on digital platforms like Spotify), but it never entered peaks or valleys so much as staying in a middle ground. Standout track “Have Faith,” I must admit, is a beautiful song.
#39 — THERE MUST BE A BETTER WORLD SOMEWHERE (1981)
Favorite track: “You’re Going with Me”
Although I haven’t really been able to find another definitive, editorial exploration of all of B.B. King’s albums, like this list is, THERE MUST BE A BETTER WORLD SOMEWHERE seems to be a frequent favorite. King entered the ’80s with a Grammy for the record (winning Best Ethnic or Traditional Recording in 1982), and in no uncertain terms, the record is good. But something felt missing across its just six tracks, and although it is what I set out to do by writing, well, anything, I can’t quite articulate why. The issue is that I am, of course, not a fully trained writer when it comes to the subject of music, but also because King would often make incremental changes across his numerous albums. So even though THERE MUST BE A BETTER WORLD SOMEWHERE may not sound terribly different than even some of the records ranked much more highly on this list, it may simply be the songwriting hooks of these tracks that just don’t quite catch me.
#38 — BLUES ’N’ JAZZ (1983)
Favorite track: “Sell My Monkey”
At some point in his career, King would be accused of selling out the blues and producing a version of the music that fit into the mold of “barroom blues” played by white musicians. Even though it’s my favorite song on the record, BLUES ’N’ JAZZ’s “Sell My Monkey” reminds me of that criticism. Recorded on King’s 57th birthday, and released with a birthday-cake-covered album cover, I would never accuse of BLUES ’N’ JAZZ of reaching the lows of those bands that give the blues a bad reputation. But it’s also simply not one of King’s best. I must say though, and this is probably because of its invocation of King’s birthday, but it is pretty crazy to me that King continued to play with such youth and vigor into his 80s, and even by the release of BLUES ’N’ JAZZ, he didn’t sound even close to stopping.
#37 — MAKIN’ LOVE IS GOOD FOR YOU (2000)
Favorite track: “I’m in the Wrong Business”
Released the same year as King’s last great commercial success, the Eric Clapton collaboration RIDING WITH THE KING, MAKIN’ LOVE IS GOOD FOR YOU was understandably covered up in the process. But it fits into the narrative begun with 1998’s BLUES ON THE BAYOU, which is to say that MAKIN’ LOVE IS GOOD FOR YOU was an emergence from the production style of King’s ’80s and ’90s album in favor of a more traditional and raw sound. “I’m in the Wrong Business” is as slick as any of King’s other upbeat, humorous songs, and while the rest of the album doesn’t reach its heights, MAKIN’ LOVE IS GOOD FOR YOU is simply a good time.
#36 — BLUES SUMMIT (1993)
Favorite track: “There’s Something on Your Mind”
Part of the aforementioned trend of collaborative albums King made towards the end of his career, BLUES SUMMIT features a different guest artist on each track. “There’s Something on Your Mind,” with Etta James, feels the most old-fashioned, and in this case, that’s a good thing. The guests assembled for BLUES SUMMIT are certainly blues veterans, making the title appropriate and belying the poppier or more high-profile nature of the guests to come on later releases.
#35 — B.B. KING & FRIENDS: 80 (2005)
Favorite track: “Hummingbird”
That was the case on King’s penultimate record, a celebration of his 80th birthday with various “party-goers.” A relative commercial success that ultimately earned a Grammy for Best Traditional Blues Album, B.B. KING & FRIENDS: 80 actually benefits from the eclecticism of King’s guests. “Hummingbird,” a favorite of mine, is given a new rendition with John Mayer, who I have to imagine was a big nerd and fan of the King of the Blues. Duets with Sheryl Crow and Elton John are less successful, but the return of Eric Clapton and Bobby Bland is welcome, and Gloria Estefan and Roger Daltrey keep up. B.B. KING & FRIENDS: 80 may not be technically superior to the last few albums it narrowly beat, and collaborative gimmicks sometimes don’t work. But the record is just a heartwarming testament to King’s influence and legendary status, one that was never impenetrable and clearly just allowed him to make a ton of friends and stand as a beloved figure of not only the blues, but also the entire music industry.
#34 — DEUCES WILD (1997)
Favorite track: “Hummingbird”
This is the second of third appearances by “Hummingbird” as a favorite track. DEUCES WILD’s version, with Dionne Warwick, is marginally less good than the version with John Mayer, but the album on which it appears is also marginally better than B.B. KING & FRIENDS: 80. DEUCES WILD is another “guest” album, with a big-name collaborator appearing on each of the record’s 17 tracks. The result is one of King’s lengthiest albums, and maybe his longest full-stop. In spite of its prodigious size, or perhaps because of it, DEUCES WILD left a firm impression on me, with a range of experiences that kind of encompass the different approaches to the blues King had over the years. It’s still technically a middling (or I guess worst) album from him, but it holds a soft spot in my heart.
#33 — LET THE GOOD TIMES ROLL: THE MUSIC OF LOUIS JORDAN (1999)
Favorite track: “Is You Is, or Is You Ain’t (My Baby)”
LET THE GOOD TIMES ROLL: THE MUSIC OF LOUIS JORDAN, as may be clear, is a tribute album to jazz saxophonist and singer Louis Jordan. Because of his full-album dedication to the man, I have to imagine King was a big fan of Jordan, and that comes across. Because of the inspiration, LET THE GOOD TIMES ROLL definitely fits in with King’s jazziest blues albums, and he approaches it with a delicacy and warmth that is also really fun. “Is You Is, or Is You Ain’t (My Baby)” is just a really catchy song, and King’s rendition is the best track on LET THE GOOD TIMES ROLL. The album is not as electrifying as King’s best, but it’s a pleasant listen.
#32 — REFLECTIONS (2003)
Favorite track: “A Mother’s Love”
Even though they sandwiched B.B. KING & FRIENDS: 80 between them, REFLECTIONS and ONE KIND FAVOR (King’s last album) feel like companion pieces. REFLECTIONS is the work of a master who had proved his control over his craft time and time again, while ONE KIND FAVOR is a true, final rumination steeped in emotion. REFLECTIONS isn’t as compelling as a result, but its wistfulness and, fittingly, reflective tone are certainly felt. “A Mother’s Love” is a great song, and King had proved it already decades earlier. REFLECTIONS’ version isn’t as good, but it’s also a satisfying, late-career track.
#31 — MORE B.B. KING (1961)
Favorite track: “You’re Breaking My Heart”
Throughout the early ’60s, B.B. King was in a pattern of sameness, established by his singles and earliest albums of the ’50s. That sameness, I must be clear, was a consistent, beautiful blues sound. But for whatever reason, MORE B.B. KING was slightly more disappointing among its contemporaries in the trend. It could just be chalked up to song choice; best track “You’re Breaking My Heart” doesn’t really measure up to the track list of the albums preceding it or to come. There’s no way I could say it’s a true low point of King’s recording career, it’s just simply not a King album I would immediately put on; quite clearly, it’s the 31st one I would put on.
#30 — KING OF THE BLUES (1960)
Favorite track: “I’m King”
In much the same way, the same could be said for KING OF THE BLUES. I believe this record is widely celebrated as one of King’s best, and while I clearly don’t agree, I can see why. It’s a solid record, and King’s voice is absolutely perfect on standout track “I’m King;” his opening notes, particularly, are smooth as silk. But I must invoke that old stand-by phrase (at least in my repertoire): malaise. No single track on KING OF THE BLUES elevates it to greatness, even though it is a good listen. Ironically, KING OF THE BLUES is not the best album to demonstrate why B.B. King is, in fact, the King of the Blues.
#29 — MY KIND OF BLUES (1960)
Favorite track: “Catfish Blues”
MY KIND OF BLUES feels simpler than KING OF THE BLUES, and that’s to its benefit. As a fellow 1960 release, MY KIND OF BLUES feels like a rawer, more upbeat companion to KING OF THE BLUES. That wouldn’t necessarily make it better, but the fun of tracks like “Catfish Blues” and “Mr. Pawnbroker” pull the record ahead.
#28 — BLUES ON TOP OF BLUES (1968)
Favorite track: “Paying the Cost to Be the Boss”
“Paying the Cost to Be the Boss” is one of King’s all-time great songs, no doubt. Its original album, however, is not one of his all-time great albums. It should be noted here, with BLUES ON TOP OF BLUES, that this apparent criticism is almost a practice in splitting hairs. As I mentioned at the top of this article, B.B. King never made a bad album. But as notable as BLUES ON TOP OF BLUES may be, King simply made more engaging, if ever so slightly, records. There is one exception to the explanation of my lists, however. I build them with the idea that #1 would be the first thing I put on if requested, and so on. But BLUES ON TOP OF BLUES is definitely a great primer on King, as he was on the precipice of some of his greatest work.
#27 — BLUES IN MY HEART (1963)
Favorite track: “Your Letter”
One of three records King released in ’63, before a three year break between studio albums, BLUES IN MY HEART is the least good of those three records. But BLUES IN MY HEART is indeed an exercise in the emotional blues, with “Your Letter” especially displaying the wailing King was so good at in the earliest days of his career.
#26 — L.A. MIDNIGHT (1972)
Favorite track: “Sweet Sixteen”
Released among the more experimental years of the early ’70s, L.A. MIDNIGHT ended up being kind of a locus point between the celebrated, true-blue blues of the late ’60s and the soul and funk era of the early and mid-’70s. As far as I can tell, though (since L.A. MIDNIGHT is another one of those non-reissued King albums), it also included callbacks to King’s earlier work. The presence of one of King’s flagship songs, “Sweet Sixteen,” is a clear example, and it’s simply still one of his best. The rest of L.A. MIDNIGHT is different though, and that’s to its credit; it’s one of King’s most interesting, if also uneven, records.
#25 — LUCILLE (1968)
Favorite track: “Lucille”
B.B. King’s full “tribute” to his guitar(s) joined BLUES ON TOP OF BLUES (released the same year) as releases on the precipice of King’s greatest work. LUCILLE feels like a tighter yet deeper record than that other album, and its title track is just a pure guitar-based track with King’s great spoken-word exposition. It’s fleshed out with great little flourishes from drums, piano, and horns, and the tracks that follow “Lucille,” while not as good, are just good, satisfying blues.
#24 — THE SOUL OF B.B. KING (1963)
Favorite track: “Shake Yours”
THE SOUL OF B.B. KING is one of King’s rowdiest records, or at least the presence of “Shake Yours” alone makes it feel like that. It’s a great song, and defines THE SOUL OF B.B. KING, rather than as a “soul” or “blues” record, almost as a rock and roll record, in the ultimate ideal of blues-based rock fused with other “black” musical genres. It’s a really interesting artifact in the continuum of rock and roll in the early 1960s, which was constantly being redefined.
#23 — GUESS WHO (1972)
Favorite track: “Summer in the City”
GUESS WHO is another great example of the funk and soul influences on King’s blues in the ’70s. “Summer in the City,” with its groovy bass line, backing female vocals, and blaring horns, makes that clear. And while the album that follows that opening track isn’t as good, GUESS WHO emerges as one of King’s landmark releases. Why is it at #23, then? Well, it’s a testament to King’s body of work that an album I am positively smitten with does end up only in 23rd place.
#22 — KING SIZE (1977)
Favorite track: “Slow & Easy”
KING SIZE may feel slightly less hip than GUESS WHO, which certainly was a hip integration of sounds for a man of 47 years of age. Even at 52, though, King made a really groovy album that, to me, feels like a fusion of his late ’60s albums and the records he had just put out earlier in the decade. “Slow & Easy” is one of my favorite B.B. King songs, and KING SIZE rarely falters, with what it’s trying to do, across its ten tracks.
#21 — RIDING WITH THE KING (2000)
Favorite track: “I Wanna Be”
I don’t always give props to something just because it accomplished what it set out to do, but as a slightly more conservative step in the sound of the ’70s, KING SIZE is totally enjoyable. And as a powerhouse collaboration, as a statement of where the blues and rock and roll had been taken by the end of the 20th century, RIDING WITH THE KING is a solid experience. On perhaps King’s “heaviest” song ever, “I Wanna Be,” he reveals just how much more energy he had in him…and how much better of a vocalist he is than Eric Clapton. Clapton admirably and wisely takes a “back seat” in this ride with King (even though he’s driving on the cover), and if Clapton gives the album a rockier side, King keeps it grounded with the blues sound that Clapton, in some ways, shifted away from. RIDING WITH THE KING was a big seller, and I appreciate the leveraging of Clapton’s fame to elevate King, then 75. It’s a fun ride with Clapton and King, for sure, and certainly King’s best collaboration with another artist.
#20 — MIDNIGHT BELIEVER (1978)
Favorite track: “Hold On (I Feel Our Love Is Changing)”
God, have I mentioned I love King’s ’70s albums? They are just phenomenal fusions of black music and excellence, and they don’t lose the spirit of blues music and its emotional core. MIDNIGHT BELIEVER is not an exception for this sentiment, and its standout track “Hold On (I Feel Our Love Is Changing)” is the prime example. Besides it, though, the title track and “When It All Comes Down (I’ll Still Be Around)” can continue making the case. If the blues is meant to stir your soul, MIDNIGHT BELIEVER is the blues, baby.
#19 — B.B. KING IN LONDON (1971)
Favorite track: “Ghetto Woman”
Although its title makes it sound like a live album, B.B. KING IN LONDON is indeed the product of a studio. And what a product it is. Working with a number of British musicians, including Ringo Starr, King made a moody piece of blues music that feels as rooted in America as anything else he made. It’s probably because the British musicians he worked with and influenced worshiped the blues. “Ghetto Woman” is the best song on B.B. KING IN LONDON, but it falls squarely in the middle of a record that, with its subtler tone, is a really interesting evolution of the albums that preceded it.
#18 — THERE IS ALWAYS ONE MORE TIME (1991)
Favorite track: “The Blues Come Over Me”
B.B. King started the ’90s, fittingly, like how he basically started the ’70s with IN LONDON: with a groovier and quieter, yet still emotional, record. THERE IS ALWAYS ONE MORE TIME is a vast improvement over King’s previous record, KING OF THE BLUES: 1989, and the general “vibe” of blues music in the ’80s. “The Blues Come Over Me” is affecting, but “Mean and Evil” has some great growling to it, and “Fool Me Once” has the self-aware humor that King did so well.
#17 — LOVE ME TENDER (1982)
Favorite track: “One of Those Nights”
In fact, I’m not so sure why I’m so unkind to King’s ’80s work, when on the whole the ’90s weren’t as good for him. Because a record like LOVE ME TENDER, in spite of my bias against the decade in which it was released, is a great success. Appropriately, it’s a tender, soulful blues record with lows (in the good, blues sense) and soaring highs. “One of Those Nights” is the best example of that, transitioning from a gentle introduction to a big ol’ chorus and then back into the verse’s groove again. I love LOVE ME TENDER’s cover art too.
#16 — SIX SILVER STRINGS (1985)
Favorite track: “Memory Lane”
Apparently regarded as a “mixed bag,” between two studio sessions, one with producer David Crawford and another with Ira Newborn and a strange connection to the John Landis movie INTO THE NIGHT (1985, three songs of King’s ended up in the movie), SIX SILVER STRINGS nevertheless ends up as one of King’s best. Sure, there are some ’80s cheese and synths, but remarkably, they work! “Memory Lane” is one of my favorite King songs; his vocals sync up so perfectly with the bloopy sounds, reminiscent of MIDI instrumentation. In spite of its name, this is not necessarily a song that showcases Lucille too well, but as I’ve claimed before, King’s brilliant voice had at least an equal part in crafting the emotional resonance of his music. It’s an unlikely success, but SIX SILVER STRINGS also puts the lie to, admittedly, my own perception that large swaths of King’s work sound alike. Also: the cover art notes the album as King’s 50th, but I don’t know what math went into that. Maybe it included live and compilation records?
#15 — BLUES ON THE BAYOU (1998)
Favorite track: “Darlin’ What Happened”
As much as I just praised an “unconventional” King album, I also really appreciated the numerous efforts King made, after an album or two of something different, to get back to the down-and-dirty blues. BLUES ON THE BAYOU is one of the most successful of those “comeback” albums, with new renditions of some of his older songs and new songs from ol’ Riley himself as well. “Darlin’ What Happened” is one of those older songs, but with the slight, deeper age in his voice, its character takes on a new dimension. That’s the case with the whole album; from BLUES ON THE BAYOU on, King really seemed to reckon with is own life, image, and career…and also hang out with some friends.
#14 — ONE KIND FAVOR (2008)
Favorite track: “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean”
That reckoning came to an end with B.B. King’s final album, ONE KIND FAVOR. On par with the great “last albums” like Johnny Cash’s “AMERICAN” sessions, ONE KIND FAVOR is a fitting goodbye from the King of the Blues, who died seven years after its release. Simple, raw, and bluesy as all hell, some credit must go to the keeper of blues tradition, producer T Bone Burnett. Final track “Tomorrow Night” is nearly ONE KIND FAVOR’s most compelling track, but its fellow bookend, opening track “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” represents a lively yet morbid recall of King’s entire life. Sometimes, undue significance is placed upon an artist’s final work or moments. But in this case, ONE KIND FAVOR deserves special mention as the conclusion to an incredible career.
#13 — LIVE & WELL (1969)
Favorite track: “I Want You So Bad”
As with B.B. KING IN LONDON, LIVE & WELL’s title may lead you to believe it’s a live album. And in one respect, you’d be right. LIVE & WELL is one of those hybrid live and studio albums that were somewhat common in the ’60s and ’70s. Five of its tracks were recorded live, and the other five were recorded in the studio. Together, they form a formidable record of King’s prowess by the end of the ’60s. By 1969, King had ever so slightly updated his blues sound with rock influences and the emerging take on soul music, and LIVE & WELL feels like a living document of that transition. “I Want You So Bad” is classic B.B. King, and it starts off the “well” side that, while better than the “live” side, still comes on the heels of an electrifying opening.
#12 — THE GREAT B.B. KING (1960)
Favorite track: “Sweet Sixteen”
If I sounded dismissive of some of the early ’60s albums earlier, it’s only because some run together. Nevertheless, they’re still great listens, even as they take a back seat to some of the more standout releases of that time. Included in that “upper echelon” of albums is THE GREAT B.B. KING, as succinct a blues statement from the era you might find. There were some better albums just before and just after, but with songs like “Sweet Sixteen,” “Quit My Baby,” “Sneakin’ Around,” and “Ten Long Years,” THE GREAT B.B. KING hits you over and over with some of the best King ever had to offer. The great B.B. King indeed.
#11 — B.B. KING WAILS (1959)
Favorite track: “I Love You So”
Remember when I said there were better albums just before? Well, B.B. KING WAILS was one of those two better albums; it was his first full-fledged LP, THE GREAT B.B. KING his third. If THE GREAT B.B. KING was a succinct blues statement, WAILS was just as succinct, but better. “Sweet Sixteen” does a lot to make THE GREAT feel like a masterpiece, but the cohesion of WAILS just puts it over the top. “I Love You So” is a lively, beautiful song; King’s singing on the track ranks among his best vocal performances. This incredible, spritely record (ten tracks, 26 minutes long) never lets up, and although I’ve mentioned time and again that King was always striving to “get back” to that original blues sound, with these earliest records King already displayed an incredible talent for synthesizing the jazz and pop sounds of the day with the blues. B.B. KING WAILS is a phenomenal “debut” album (although King had already been recording singles for a decade), and deserves the utmost appreciation.
#10 — MR. BLUES (1963)
Favorite track: “A Mother’s Love”
“A Mother’s Love” joins “Hummingbird” and “Sweet Sixteen” as repeat favorite tracks on this B.B. King list, as we crest the top ten with MR. BLUES. While containing fewer bops than the previous two albums on this list, this sub-30-minute album still packs a lovely, bluesy emotional punch, and creates a more cohesive tone across its 12 tracks. It’s slight, but it’s there: MR. BLUES just simply has a richer tone, and I don’t fully know what to attribute that to.
#9 — CONFESSIN’ THE BLUES (1966)
Favorite track: “See See Rider”
B.B. King came back from a three-year hiatus between studio albums with a clearly evolved artistic statement in CONFESSIN’ THE BLUES. Still as brief as the records that came before (the album only ran 28 minutes), CONFESSIN’ THE BLUES still somehow conveyed an epic sense of scale, with its short blues tracks nevertheless packed with a wider diversity of sound and stronger hooks. “See See Rider” is great, of course, but “I’m Gonna Sit in ’Til You Give In,” “I’d Rather Drink Muddy Water,” and “Goin’ to Chicago Blues” are also favorites.
#8 — TAKE IT HOME (1979)
Favorite track: “Take It Home”
TAKE IT HOME is “simply” a continuation of the sounds on KING SIZE and MIDNIGHT BELIEVER, but somehow, with his final album of the ’70s, King also pulled out one of his great triumphs. While not his best record of the decade, TAKE IT HOME, clearly, is still one of his best ever. “Better Not Look Down” is a really fun pop song that nearly takes home (get it) the favorite track honor, but the title song is a groovy, emotional ditty. There’s some funny stuff on the record too, like “A Story Everybody Knows.” TAKE IT HOME is just ultimately an album that provides a diverse array of experiences, all within the blues-soul blueprint of King’s ’70s work, and it’s a real pleasure to listen to.
#7 — INDIANOLA MISSISSIPPI SEEDS (1970)
Favorite track: “Hummingbird”
Widely regarded as one of King’s best albums, and indeed believed as his best work by the King of the Blues himself, INDIANOLA MISSISSIPPI SEEDS owes both its title, sound, and energy to King’s hometown. It also includes his best rendition of “Hummingbird.” That aside, though, INDIANOLA MISSISSIPPI SEEDS enters the pantheon of King’s greatest albums not because of its overt precipitation of the funk-soul sound of the ’70s that I love so much, but because its placement in time and approach make so clear the through line to those genres, by way of the blues. B.B. King made a blues album with INDIANOLA MISSISSIPPI SEEDS, and by virtue of it being released in the ’70s (barely, I guess), I equate it to the music to come. But that’s because, in some ways, the blues were bastardized by a different approach, those barroom bands I mentioned earlier, and the blues of course has more in common with funk than that. If that’s the perception you have of blues too, cleanse yourself with INDIANOLA MISSISSIPPI SEEDS.
#6 — LIVE AT THE REGAL (1965)
Favorite track: “You Done Lost Your Good Thing Now”
Regarded as King’s best albums, one of the best blues albums ever recorded, and indeed one of the best live albums ever, LIVE AT THE REGAL is too monumental to discount from this list in spite of my general practice of avoiding live albums for these lists. Why is it so great? Well, as mentioned alongside INDIANOLA MISSISSIPPI SEEDS, one might have a different perception of the blues than it really is, or was. LIVE AT THE REGAL corrects that in spontaneous glory, flowing from standout track to standout track with absolute ease. The absolute joy in playing the blues, an apparently “sad” process, is so clear in King’s voice, and his band is totally on the ball. Every song ramps up the way the best live songs do, and that’s most apparent with “You Done Lost Your Good Thing Now.”
#5 — LIVE IN COOK COUNTY JAIL (1971)
Favorite track: “Sweet Sixteen”
On the other hand, one of King’s other most praised albums, LIVE IN COOK COUNTY JAIL, takes a slower approach to live blues. Part of the famous trend of prison shows and live albums, ostensibly started by Johnny Cash’s AT FOLSOM PRISON (1968), LIVE IN COOK COUNTY JAIL perhaps benefits from its import. The image of King playing his soul-stirring music for a crowd of inmates, a crowd by the way who boos as the female “MC” mentions various government officials in the audience, is just so powerful. I think it’s incredible that King, or whoever, kept that introduction in, because you get the effect of King winning over a recalcitrant audience. It’s something he was surely skilled in, as someone who would often perform more than 200 dates a year. But the music is, of course, not secondary, and indeed “Sweet Sixteen,” a song I’m intimately aware with, takes on a new dimension on LIVE IN COOK COUNTY JAIL. The same can be said for the record’s other tracks, mostly made up of old King hits; in their new, never recaptured forms, they yield one of the greatest blues albums of all time.
#4 — FRIENDS (1974)
Favorite track: “Friends”
FRIENDS is nearly the pinnacle of the ’70s B.B. King sound I’ve been describing this whole damn article. I’m just enamored with it, OK!? Listen to the record’s title track, and you’ll get what I’m getting at. It’s just extremely catchy, and King approaches the material with great verve and clarity. FRIENDS is one of those feel-good albums that, as it is doing as I write these words, can get you moving in your seat or on your feet. It’s not pure bubblegum pop, though, of course. Every song on the record is tinged with the sadness and cautious optimism of the blues, and that still comes through with the presence of the soul and funk contingent. FRIENDS was a brave step in broadening the horizons of the blues, even though I imagine that broadening would sometimes invite criticism from the “die hards.” However, even when King veered from the late ’60s period that made him a legend, he never lost the sense of the blues.
#3 — TO KNOW YOU IS TO LOVE YOU (1973)
Favorite track: “I Like to Live the Love”
But the record preceding FRIENDS, TO KNOW YOU IS TO LOVE YOU, was simply a better distillation of what I’m describing here. A near-perfect progression of eight soul-stirring and catchy songs, TO KNOW YOU IS TO LOVE YOU is certainly an underrated B.B. King release. That could probably be said for a few of my favorites here. “I Like to Live the Love” is eminently beautiful, and the way King weaves a falsetto through his backup singers’ voices is brilliant. The beat is pounding, ever-present, and augmented by horns and keyboards. Sure, Lucille is not in center stage, but you hear her, enriching the whole experience. If I’m focusing on one track more than I usual would, it’s because “I Like to Live the Love” is an otherworldly experience, and certainly not one King is known for. That sentiment can be expanded to the whole of TO KNOW YOU IS TO LOVE YOU, a wonderful record from a wonderful musician.
#2 — B.B. KING SINGS SPIRITUALS (1960)
Favorite track: “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”
Perhaps precisely because he was known as the King of the Blues, I am so fascinated by when B.B. King became the king of something else. For example: B.B. KING SINGS SPIRITUALS. King’s second LP was, yeah, a gospel album. I love gospel music, but it’s also so much more than that. King chose his material well here, because his traditional hymns conjure the whole weight of blackness in America. Well, I don’t know if that was his intent, but when we’re talking the blues, we have to talk about it. It had been co-opted for too long, and while SINGS SPIRITUALS is not a typical King blues album, I love it dearly for the same reasons I love COMPLETELY WELL (spoiler) or TO KNOW YOU IS TO LOVE YOU or LIVE IN COOK COUNTY JAIL. B.B. KING SINGS SPIRITUALS is, fittingly, a religious experience, and I’m an atheist.
#1 — COMPLETELY WELL (1969)
Favorite track: “So Excited”
Ultimately, though, I must come back to the “style” of blues King was known for. COMPLETELY WELL often pops up as an all-time King great, and with that sentiment I must align. This is a perfect fusion of sounds for the time, on the eve of the ’60s and the many complicated things that decade represented. “So Excited” has an incredible groove and a rousing, guitar-based chorus, and yes, the album is cemented by its closing track, the big hit “The Thrill Is Gone.” COMPLETELY WELL was a lengthier album for King at the time, and it benefits from this scope. He did something different with the standards and traditional songs, breaking into new territory with crossover appeal and a real commitment to Lucille. Want to get into B.B. King, and the blues in general? You could do a lot worse than starting with COMPLETELY WELL.