When you consider Bruce Iglauer’s remarkable story in starting and running the label, it’s easy to feel that Alligator Records deserves as much as any label to properly celebrate its 40th anniversary. Iglauer funded his own recording of Hound Dog Taylor and the HouseRockers, working nearly every aspect of the process. Starting out able to produce only one album a year, eventually Iglauer turned Alligator into one of the most respected blues labels around. Forty years is enough time to produce a surfeit of good music, but somehow the label’s staff has compiled a two-disc set, Alligator Records 40th Anniversary Collection that’s a fitting tribute.
Opening with Koko Taylor’s “I’m a Woman” is a fantastic choice. The song, which plays as an answer song to the “Hoochie Coochie Man”/“I’m a Man” tradition, also defies expectations of Alligator fans who might consider the label more of a guitar haven, while Taylor’s a vocalist. At the same time, it honors a pivotal moment for both the label and Taylor. After Chess Records had shut down, the highly regarded Taylor moved to Alligator, releasing a string of Grammy-nominated albums and giving the label a national star. As nice as the track is for historical context, it’s more important to note that it’s simply a devastating performance.
The fact that the song stands out in this compilation is even more noteworthy given that high quality of nearly every song here. Some of the picks are obvious. Lonnie Mack and Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Double Whammy” reveals two guitars blending well and simply having fun. “T-Bone Shuffle” by Albert Collins, Robert Cray, and Johnny Copeland was a memorable point in each artist’s career, but it holds up as highly listenable. Of course, Mavis Staples with “Step Into the Light” from 2004 delivers a strong gospel-based performance.
It’s not just that big names that keep this collection rolling, though. Smokin’ Joe Kubek and Bnois King hold their own with “Have Blues, Will Travel”, matching a fun lyric with a driving boogie and complaining lead guitars. Janiva Magness delivers a quirky, funky vocal on “Slipped, Tripped and Fell in Love”.
But cherry-picking the individual highlights doesn’t convey the success of the compilation (which includes extensive and insightful liner notes). The two-discs manage to make two key points. First, they develop a sense of the Alligator sound—a politely aggressive traditional blues burst – even as they undercut it by showing the label’s flexibility with acts like Buckwheat Zydeco or roots artist Anders Osborne (neither of who sound out of place even if they don’t sound like, say, Albert Collins). Second, the comp shows the label’s deep history even while revealing its ongoing relevance. Some of these tracks do reach back nearly 40 years, while others have just been released in 2011. Contemporary artists like Corey Harris and Marcia Ball deliver new sounds that hold up well next to the music of their predecessors.
It’s a challenge to distill 40 years into 38 tracks, especially if you want to show yourself looking forward as much as you are backward. It makes it even harder to capture an aesthetic center without sounding repetitive. Alligator Records 40th Anniversary Collection manages to do all that, honoring the label the way it should.