In 2009, it isn’t a revelation that major media outlets cover only a small fraction of new releases. Nor is it a hidden fact that record chains and independent retail shops continue to shutter at an alarming rate. Within this loss, however, is an opportunity. The Internet, that ultimate democratizing entity, continues to afford independent artists—both new and established—a place to be heard, cultivate an audience, take risks, and, most importantly, just be themselves. Frustrated by the narrow selection at Best Buy and Wal-Mart, listeners are paying attention more than ever before to the conversations held in the online universe. Since the means for acquiring and learning about music rely more on recommendations between listeners, consider this year’s Best R&B List your ultimate word-of-mouth guide. However, not all years are created equal, especially in the realm of music. Perhaps it was too tall an order to sustain the stream of quality soul and R&B releases from 2008 into 2009. High-profile albums by Mariah Carey, Ginuwine, Whitney Houston, Trey Songz, Angie Stone, and R. Kelly tended to divide more than unite listeners, yet some of the best, most innovative music flew well below the radar. In this increasingly stratified musical climate, only a handful of albums revealed sound artistic strides while meeting critical and commercial success. (The strongest example tops our list.) What you’ll read below is the very best of 2009, a year where some of the brightest luster shone from the hidden gems.
In a year short on break-out stars in R&B, Melanie Fiona is one whose hype is well-founded. Arriving late in the year, The Bridge owes a debt to the retro-soul sensibilities that have influenced much R&B and pop since 2007. (Is it just a coincidence that she has the same pout as Amy Winehouse in the album artwork?) Eight of the twelve tracks owe something to another time, place, and producer but Fiona’s team, especially Andrea Martin, knows how to work the samples. “Jimmy Mack” hides inside “Please Don’t Go (Cry Baby)” and “Walk on By” owes a lot to Johnnie Taylor’s “I Believe in You”, but that hardly matters. This is bombastic, hand-clapping, foot-tapping fun. Already a chart-topper in Switzerland, “Monday Morning” is arguably the album’s most contagious cut, and also one of the few completely original compositions. Akin to “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley, its incessant beat is steeped in a slightly foreboding atmosphere. “It Kills Me”, the prequel to the story of “Monday Morning” in some respects, puts Fiona center stage for a dramatic turn in that time-honored tale of I love-but-can’t-stand-the-man. Of course you have heard this kind of song before but not with the heart and soul of Melanie Fiona bursting through the notes. Hers is a bridge you’ll enjoy crossing. Christian John Wikane
Did Betty Davis release a single this year? Did someone discover a track from the vaults? What else could explain that buzz-saw voice, sizzling over an equally molten rhythm section on “Time to Say Goodbye”? The answer is Shawn Lee, who not only has an ear for talent (that’s Karime Kendra melting the microphone), but simulates some of the tastiest soul and funk ever recorded. One of the most prolific writers, producers, mixers currently toiling in a studio, Lee masterminds Soul in the Hole, an homage to the music that is, as he writers in the liners notes, part of his musical identity. Born in Kansas, Shawn Lee takes a trip to a kind of soul-centric Oz on these 11 tracks. The album uncannily resembles a bygone era, let’s say 1970-1974, which makes Lee’s production work that much more impressive. These are original compositions, save an Al Green cover (“Something”). There are no sampling tricks. With some exceptions—sax, flute, trumpet, Wurlitzer, harmonica—Lee plays all of the instruments here, and even sings on a pair of cuts. Six guest vocalists round out the vocal duties, including Darondo, whose performance on “Stay Away from Me” is a match for Karime Kendra. Soul in the Hole is one of 2009’s best kept secrets. Christian John Wikane
Music Fan First is the latest strong record from underground soul king Eric Roberson. Eric Roberson’s fanbase may be small, but it’s rabid and pretty diverse. He’s your girlfriend’s favorite singer, and your homeboy’s too. On Music Fan First, Roberson does what he does best, recognizing that his fans will follow him wherever he choses to go. He gives them plenty of gifts, from inspired collaborations with his D.C. brethren Sy Smith and W. Ellington Felton to a playful, yet heartfelt tribute to “Howard Girls”. But it’s “She”, just about the most sublime three and half minutes you’re likely to hear this year, that really showcases just how dope Roberson is. A piano man in the grand tradition of Stevie Wonder, Roberson creates something beautiful and wholly his own with “She”. Tyler Lewis
There are few working bands in the 21st century that produce as thrilling a show as the Brand New Heavies. Like their studio albums, the Brand New Heavies concert experience is an excursion to that premium kind of soul that you don’t often hear, and realize how much it is missed when you do. Bookending their second decade of performing, the Brand New Heavies released Live in London to capture, definitively, what it is that makes this band one of the best funk-soul units to ever visit a stage near you. Recorded at the Indigo2, this two-disc set serves up all of the Heavies’ hits with an extra dash of splash. N’Dea Davenport’s vocal pyrotechnics are on full, glorious display. She takes Steve Wonder’s “I Don’t Know Why I Love You” to new heights and coos her way through “Sex God”. The band is deep in the pocket on “Jump and Move”, replete with whistles and some extraordinary horn-blowing. The musicality of the band’s earliest hits—“Stay This Way”, “Dream Come True”, “Never Stop”—is vibrant and nearly improves upon the more familiar studio versions. As both a primer on the band’s catalog and a keepsake for those who have witnessed the Brand New Heavies at work, Live in London is a stellar compendium of trunk-funk. Christian John Wikane
The Art of Noise consists of mostly unreleased songs that didn’t make his previous two studio releases, which is crazy since most of this represents the best work of DeVaughn’s young career. The mixtape is meant to be a tasty appetizer before the full course meal (his next official studio release), but there is so much to savor here. Raheem DeVaughn is one of the new urban griots, along with Lyfe Jennings. So what might at first blush sound like Marvin—he even concludes this mixtape with a brilliant cover of “Piece of Clay”—is really more Curtis Mayfield (“So Amazing”, “Cocaine Dreams”, “Hennessey Joint”). Either way, it works. Tyler Lewis