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Acoustic strums, gently articulated melodies, flutes, horns, plucked strings, swelling orchestration—Michael Kiwanuka’s debut album, Home Again, takes a rich, diverse approach to soul, influenced by both jazz and folk. Kiwanuka projects from the dead center of all the instrumentation with a strong, clear voice that can be bluesy, weary, resigned, aching, and redemptive in equal measure. Often he’s the only singer, so Home Again provides direct, personal communication with the listener, like Kiwanuka set up a small travelling band in your living room and let loose. Sometimes songs blend together and Kiwanuka doesn’t assert himself enough—a large and varied set of instruments doesn’t always make for impactful writing, and he doesn’t have a huge, strange voice like Van Morrison (who also favored an eclectic approach to soul in his prime), so Kiwanuka has to be careful not to get lost in pleasant meandering. He’s not home yet, but he’s certainly heading in the right direction. Elias Leight
4Ralph “Soul” Jackson
The Alabama Love Man
There’s so much that goes into making Ralph Jackson’s The Alabama Love Man such a memorable release that it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why these eight songs resonated so well. Was it the throwback sound that was heard best during the days when the Stax and Muscle Shoals recording studios were churning out some of the greatest music ever made? Was it Jackson’s weathered, invigorating approach to his brand of groovy, retro-laden rhythm and blues? Or was it simply just the result of what turned out to be a fantastic combination between the solo artist at hand and a wonderfully capable backing band?
It doesn’t matter, really. The only thing worth debating is exactly how good The Alabama Love Man is, and considering how unexpected this release was in 2012, that’s a necessary debate to have. From the opening chords of the excellent “I Can’t Leave Your Love Alone” to the final notes of “I’ll Take Care of You”, there’s something about these performances that bleeds authenticity in a way that most other contemporary artists fail to achieve. “Searching” echoes influences from the best backing track Booker T. and his MGs never wrote and “There Must Be a Reason” leans on doo-wop in such a successful way that you have to wonder if there’s anything Jackson or his band can’t do in the R&B realm.
Al Green. Wilson Pickett. Otis Redding. The Alabama Love Man draws from each of those legends and even does its part in adding to the improbable story of Ralph “Soul” Jackson himself, having now navigated his way through a career that spans half a century. “Show me that I matter / To you / For just one second,” he sings at one point. It’s an ironic utterance for a guy who’s been floating along the undercurrent of soul music for so long now. If nothing else, The Alabama Love Man granted Jackson that wish. Colin McGuire
While a singer like Britney Howard (see #7) steeps her voice in gravel and fire, Jessie Ware moves lightly, often accompanied by clouds of her own multi-tracked self. She sets the tone of the album immediately—synthesizers stab and fade slowly, hanging in the air as if it’s too much effort for them to disappear, and the guitars dart and flicker with taught, delicate funk. The percussion is always changing, sometimes little more than a succession of pops and clicks, sometimes borrowing a skittering throb from dance music, a light wobble from dubstep, a flatness from ‘80s pop, a thin double-step Motown beat, or a steady hip-hop thump. While things fade in the middle section, Ware comes back big at the end with “110%” and “Taking in Water”. The first of these songs is a feathery rush, a slight sugar-high that won’t dissipate. Then Ware hits right back with opposite sentiments in “Taking in Water”, self-conscious and self-sacrificing, fraught, cheesy, and completely sincere. She moves between her most full-throated singing and emitting little wisps of vocal that seem to escape her almost against her will. It’s a versatile one-two punch that shows Ware’s stealth and power. Elias Leight
2Lianne La Havas
Is Your Love Big Enough?
A British woman in her late teens/early twenties writing emotionally charged soul music about having her heart broken sounds familiar, doesn’t it? How about a powerful lady who often uses her vocal chops in an understated manner while saving the bulk of her power for the live instrument she refuses to be seen without? We’ve heard that before, right?
Actually, the brilliance of Lianne La Havas’s full-length debut, Is Your Love Big Enough?, lies within the line she so elegantly straddles between being neither an Adele nor Alicia Keys knockoff. Sure, the power is there (“Lost & Found” provided the R&B world with its greatest musical moment of the year as her final recital of the track’s chorus maxes out the volume control and the emotive nature of the performance is nothing less of heart-stopping), and yes, the technical abilities she offers up with her electric guitar are surprisingly savvy (see the title track’s infectious opening riff or the yesteryear pop influence of “Age”), but it’s what lies underneath all the gloss that truly sets La Havas apart from other newcomers and soul starlets. At 23 years of age, the levity and maturity she exudes is far beyond logical comprehension.
It’s that precise element to her crooning that carries Is Your Love Big Enough? across the finish line before her contemporaries even begin the last leg of their race. Whether it’s the remarkably clever combination of Willy Mason’s weathered voice in “No Room for Doubt” or the pop perfection of “Forget”, the 12 songs that make up this collection announce the arrival of a true player in the soul music world. Forget the comparisons with those who came before her—Lianne La Havas is her own woman with her own brand of excellence. Is Your Love Big Enough? is proof that she’s in a class by herself. Colin McGuire
Frank Ocean does whatever he wants on his official debut album. His musical decisions are brash and confident; his character falls in and out of struggles with love and lust but seems startlingly self-aware about it all, so things never get overwrought. Ocean can sing pieces of self-empowering wisdom—over a combination of organ, keyboard and strings that doesn’t often appear on an R&B album—and then turn around and pull off a love song for Forrest Gump. There’s a strange tune about crack addiction, a guitar cameo from John Mayer, some spoken bits of dialogue, and sounds from cars and airplanes. Ocean gets Andre 3000, a member of the hip-hop establishment, to rap a verse; he also taps Earl Sweatshirt—a youngster generally associated with havoc and irreverence—for another contribution. Ocean stitches everything together with his emotive voice, an undeniable knack for choruses, quick interludes, and a rough narrative framework. He absorbs pop, soul, funk, and hip-hop from the last 40 years and molds it into his own fresh creations. Elias Leight