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The Best Louisiana CDs of 2001 

1) Bluerunners -- Le Grand Bleu (Louisiana Red Hot Records). Tradition and innovation are blended to perfection in the finest album to date from the Bluerunners, who've channeled their early punk leanings and matured into a rock band that proudly incorporates their Cajun heritage into superb songs. In the bittersweet wail of "Cankton Bound" and the French two-step of "Happy Rabbit," frontman Mark Meaux sounds like Bob Dylan on the banks of the Vermilion river.

2) Dr. John -- Creole Moon (Blue Note). Mac Rebennack comes up with another brilliant New Orleans song cycle to complement Gumbo and Goin' Back to New Orleans, with pronounced south Louisiana influences courtesy of guests Michael Doucet and Sonny Landreth. Dr. John's artistic output is so consistently high it's easy to take him for granted, but this is a landmark album from a local legend and piano wizard who's still got soul to burn in his sixth decade of performing and recording.

3) Rob Wagner Trio -- Rob Wagner Trio (Valid Records). Tenor and soprano saxophonist Wagner's debut CD is refreshingly unpretentious, and imparts a warm, living-room vibe filled with Wagner's memorable original melodies and thoughtful, layered solos. His rounded, bottom-heavy tone is a perfect foil for the organic wooden sound of James Singleton's upright bass playing and drummer Kevin O'Day's stellar muted tom-tom work. And the cross-generational pairing of Wagner and O'Day with veteran Singleton speaks volumes about the fertile crop of young jazz artists who are making their mark on the New Orleans jazz scene.

4) Supagroup -- Rock 'n' Roll Tried to Ruin My Life (Independent). Two guitars, bass, drums and sledgehammer riffs powering songs about sex, partying and rock 'n' roll, with nods to AC/DC and Guns 'n' Roses. This is hardly rocket science, but it's not dumbed-down power-chord posing, either. It takes smarts to make arena-worthy hard rock with this many hooks (and this much humor), and while they don't take themselves seriously, the Supagroup brother tandem of Chris and Benji Lee are dead serious about their craft.

5) Boozoo Chavis -- Down Home on Dog Hill (Rounder). Shortly before his death in May, Boozoo Chavis recorded Down Home on Dog Hill, a final testament to his idiosyncratic genius and immeasurable contributions to zydeco. He was the John Lee Hooker of zydeco, ignoring conventional song structure and meter, and constantly coming up with quirky and fresh accordion lines. Besides a handful of typically humorous Chavis originals like "Keep Your Dress Tail Down," Chavis puts his own stamp on R&B nuggets like "The Twist."

6) Tom McDermott -- The Crave (STR Digital); Tom McDermott & Kevin Clark -- New Orleans Jazz Brunch (Summit). Pianist McDermott applies scholarly knowledge, virtuoso chops and a fan's enthusiasm to The Crave's eclectic solo piano program, which runs the gamut from Brazilian composer Ernesto Nazareth to interpretations of Dr. John's "Dorothy" and a James Booker-inspired "Tico Tico." New Orleans Jazz Brunch, his duet album with trumpeter Kevin Clark, features similarly inspired playing, but in a swinging and breezy set of standards fitting the album's title.

7) Anders Osborne -- Ash Wednesday Blues (Shanachie). Osborne has a gift for creating new musical textures with each successive album, and he kept that streak alive with the diverse moods of Ash Wednesday Blues. He scorches the tuba, sax and slide guitar-driven funk anthem "Stoned, Drunk and Naked"; pays homage to Mardi Gras Indians in the bohemian barrelhouse blues song "Ho-Di-Ko-Di-Ya-La-Ma-La"; is blissfully whimsical in "Stuck on My Baby"; and moves over to piano for the introspective title track. Soulful contributions from Davell Crawford, Cyril Neville and Keb' Mo' add to the diversity.

8) Lazy Lester -- Blues Stop Knockin' (Antones). His contemporaries like Slim Harpo and Silas Hogan are long gone, but vintage Louisiana swamp blues lives in Lazy Lester. He still drawls like Jimmy Reed gargling with bayou water, and blows piercing country harmonica solos that are models of economy. Here he reprises old Excello nuggets such as "Sad City Blues" and the title track; Lester's backed by a roadhouse Austin band featuring Jimmie Vaughan on guitar, who plays deadly turnarounds recalling his vintage Fabulous Thunderbirds work.

9) Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys -- Happytown (Rounder). Bandleader Riley faced the unenviable task of recording his first CD after the death of his guitarist and longtime friend Jimmy Domengeaux. Happytown was the result, and it's a moving, melancholy and ultimately hopeful meditation on adversity and loss, sang and played with guts. This is Cajun music with an edge, sharpened by the deft studio effects of producer C.C. Adcock.

10) Mahalia Jackson -- Recorded Live in Europe During Her Latest Concert Tour; In Concert; Sunday Morning Prayer Session (Sony/Legacy). After its superb work with the Louis Armstrong catalog, the Sony/Legacy label reissued these three pearls from New Orleans gospel legend Mahalia Jackson, all featuring previously unreleased material. Sunday Morning Prayer Session is a superb greatest hits-style primer, In Concert captures her at the height of her vocal powers (accompanied by pianist Mildred Falls), and Recorded Live in Europe During Her Latest Concert is a bittersweet performance from the twilight of her career.

click to enlarge The Bluerunners' Le Grand Bleu showed the band channeling its early punk leanings and maturing into a rock band that proudly incorporates its Cajun heritage into superb songs.
  • The Bluerunners' Le Grand Bleu showed the band channeling its early punk leanings and maturing into a rock band that proudly incorporates its Cajun heritage into superb songs.
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