1) John Lee Hooker, I'm John Lee Hooker. As Davis points out, Hooker would record for anybody that paid up front, and he was kind of underwhelming when I finally got to see him live in the late '70s, but he's one of The Guys -- his archetypal boogies and monochordal drones really signify. My favorite records of his are the ones he cut solo for Vee Jay, all included here, which I originally owned on a $1.99 Everest "Archive of Jazz and Folk Music" release.
2) Muddy Waters, AKA McKinley Morganfield. Muddy was another iconic voice and presence; when I first heard his music, it felt like it came from another planet. He was also a classic bandleader, and I was fortunate to see the last of his great bands (Jerry Portnoy/Pinetop Perkins/Luther "Guitar Jr." Johnson/Bob Margolin/Calvin Jones/Willie "Big Eyes" Smith) live three times. I've owned these sides in a few different forms, but this is my favorite: a vinyl 2LP that I found in a bargain bin in Albany. Great memory of this record: Listening to "Hoochie Coochie Man" through my college band's PA, with the Voice of the Theater speakers aimed out the window of my dorm room. These days, I listen to Alan Lomax's plantation recordings more, but this is some of the greatest music on Earth and I wouldn't want to have to live without it.
3) Howlin' Wolf, Howlin' Wolf/Moanin' In the Moonlight. Reading Wolf's bio and seeing a documentary about him a couple of years ago made him one of my all-time idols. (He did his night school homework off the bandstand, and actually paid unemployment insurance on his band boys.) This release is one of the few improvements the CD era brought to the blues canon, combining as it does the "rocking chair" album that influenced the '60s white blues claque so profoundly, and the (better, IMO) album that was the first music of his I heard (reissued as Evil in the early '70s). These days I listen to his Memphis/Sun stuff more (it's a little more raw, which I now see as an advantage), but his Chicago/Chess sides had Hubert Sumlin, whose electric picking possesses a certain delicacy that makes it instantly recognizable.
4) B.B. King, Live At the Regal. I probably listen to this less than anything else here -- its chitlin circuit showbiz veneer makes it almost more interesting as a sociological document than music -- but back when I was trying to unlock the secrets of the guitar, practicing the same lick over and over for hours at a time, this was an important touchstone. I'll never forget the first epiphany I ever experienced as a muso, when I was playing in my parents' basement and all of a sudden it felt like somebody else had taken over and I could actually play a lick that swung the way B.B. did. The two younger cats that used to sit outside and listen to me practice heard it too. "Who was that playing your guitar before?" they wanted to know.
5) Junior Wells, Hoodoo Man Blues. The first blues LP recorded as such (rather than just compiling a bunch of singles), this was the sound of relatively young (30s-ish) West Side bloods adding some "Brand New Bag" JB funk to their blues. The sound they make is brash, tough, and sassy, but also a lot sparser than other contemporary bands -- a plus, IMO. Buddy Guy has never sounded so pared-down fundamental. This was the template for the band I had with Hosea Robinson back in '98.
6) Little Walter, Hate To See You Go. An integral part of the soundtrack to my very dissolute third and final semester of college, when Bruce Wade was schooling me on musical structure. After bolting Muddy's band, the harp virtuoso purveyed a brand of small-band jump-blues that seemed more modern but hasn't stood the test of time as well, although it's been muy influential over the years. The cover pic of Walter's knife-scarred face gave an inkling that the men who made this music lived lives of real danger. The Blues World of Little Walter includes the original recording of "Rollin' and Tumblin'," Muddy's "headhunters" fronted by Walter and Baby Face Leroy playing and singing like the fate of the world depends on it.
7) Otis Rush, Original Cobra Recordings. St. Lester waxed rhapsodic on this release in the Village Voice, and with good reason. Rush's vocals were apocalyptic, his guitar taut and tense, and these sides proof positive (as if any more were needed) that the 45 rpm single was the perfect medium for this music.
8) Robert Nighthawk, Live On Maxwell Street. A '64 recording by a singer and slide guitarist who never stayed in Chicago long enough to make a big recording impact, this is the sound of electrified country blues at its most primal.
9) Robert Johnson, The Complete Recordings. When this appeared on CD in 1990, it became a top seller, emblematic of the post-SRV revival that (as Davis notes) for the most part just robbed the blues of its existential dread and made it The Music of Beer. That dread is amply present in Johnson's music, the final flowering of the Mississippi country blues, and its subsequent influence on rock is really beside the point. I spent a lot of time the last year or two I was in the Air Force trying to learn how to play an approximation of Johnson's style. Almost as good (and chilling) is the music of Skip James (my favorite is the post-rediscovery She Lyin').
10) R.L. Burnside, A Ass Pocket of Whiskey. In retrospect, the voyeuristic exoticism of the whole Fat Possum "these guys are really primitive (and _drunk_)" shtick seemed patronizing and almost like a new form of minstrelsy, but when it appeared, this collaboration between an "authentic" Mississippi bluesman and, um, Jon Spencer's Blues Explosion hit pretty hard and reminded me more than a little of Captain Beefheart's Strictly Personal, which these days I'll reach for (or Son House) in its stead.