The Best Rhythm and Blues of 2011

It's an interesting time to be a fan of R&B. These are commendable examples of artists continuing to push R&B into the 21st century, while also respecting and exploring its roots.

It's an interesting time to be a fan of R&B. There are more options than ever before to acquire new music. However, artists seeking to build or maintain a fan base have to develop creative ways to keep audiences engaged. In the age of social networking and hyperlinking, word of mouth is a powerful tool but can't be exclusively relied upon. How many times have you been on the receiving end of the comment, "I didn't know (insert artist) had a new album."

In case you missed any of the following releases, here's a recommendation: do what you can to buy or at least sample them. They are commendable examples of artists continuing to push R&B into the 21st century, while also respecting and exploring its roots. They are a mixture of veterans and newcomers, those who are known the world over and others on the path to renown, some who started their own independent labels and some who've been allowed to grow within the structure of a major record company. They all have soul. Christian John Wikane

Artist: Ledisi

Album: Pieces of Me

Label: Verve Forecast


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Pieces of Me

"(It's) the same Ledisi, but she ain't walking, she's flying", sings Ledisi on "Bravo". The one-named powerhouse has many good reasons to be flying, and it's not just because of the newfound love she sings about in the song. In fact, even when she's telling the "haters" to "Shut Up", she sounds happy. 2011 marks Ledisi's third release with Verve Forecast, establishing a trio of records that represents the singer's breakthrough from independent sensation to a worldwide entertainment force.

Pieces of Me continues to build on Ledisi's prolific partnership with producer Rex Rideout, while also bringing in additional producers to diversify her sound. Phatboizz comes aboard for the wrenching "I Miss You Now", where the singer pines for her lover. Sampling Grover Washington's "Black Forest", KayGee concocts a rhythmic bed underneath Ledisi's cleverly deployed wordplay on "Coffee". Salaam Remi produces his own writing collaboration with Ledisi on "BGTY", which features Remi and Vincent Henry handling no less than seven instrumental parts. Jaheim duets with Ledisi on "So into You", one of four writing/producing collaborations between Ledisi and Rideout. The song exhibits a natural rapport between the two vocalists and suggests that another duet should be considered for either artist's next project. Pieces of Me captures Ledisi in her element and loving every minute of it.

Artist: Daryl Hall

Album: Laughing Down Crying

Label: Verve Forecast


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Daryl Hall
Laughing Down Crying

Philadelphia is among the world's most significant geographical centers for soul music. Daryl Hall has long been an ardent ambassador of the city and its sounds. Though his partnership with John Oates in Hall & Oates spawned a spate of unforgettable pop hits in the '70s and '80s, Hall's roots are undeniably rhythm and blues.

On Laughing Down Crying, it's evident that Hall has survived the mercurial pendulum swing between joy and sorrow. He dedicates his first solo album since Can't Stop Dreaming (1996) to his longtime friend, producer/bassist T-Bone Wolk, who passed away in February 2010. "Problem with You (Bone's Last Ride)" features Wolk's last-ever recording and concludes an album that finds Hall seriously contemplating the different facets of relationships. The nocturnal tone of "Eyes for You (Ain't No Doubt About It)" contains a soulfully sensual vocal by Hall. The singer pleads for rescue on "Save Me", whose central melody bears a passing resemblance to the gospel standard "Wade in the Water", and continues with the soul workout that is "Message to Ya". Hall is at his best on "Lifetime of Love", which deftly bridges pop and soul the way so many Hall & Oates hits did. Through his own personal journey, Daryl Hall has created an artistic triumph that reflects the universality of love, pain, and healing.

Artist: Van Hunt

Album: What Were You Hoping For?

Label: Thirty Tigers/godless hotspot


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Van Hunt
What Were You Hoping For?

In following their muse, artists sometimes challenge the expectations of listeners. The muses let Van Hunt loose on What Were You Hoping For?, the artist's first official release of new material since On the Jungle Floor (2006). Now free from major label constraints, Hunt has crafted a provocative set that is beyond category yet constitutes a seamless musical statement. The statement is that Hunt's witnessing a culture in decline, and he's doing whatever he can do to shake people out of their complacency.

Van Hunt approaches his work with a creative integrity embodied by many of his influences: the Stooges, Thelonious Monk, and Bach. The joy in creating without restriction is evident on every track of What Were You Hoping For?. He addresses socio-political issues on "Designer Jeans", winks at gender conventions on "Cross Dresser", and takes a somewhat existential turn on "It's a Mysterious Hustle". "Plum" boasts a spacious, aquatic groove, contrasting with the jagged and boisterous soul of "Eyes Like Pearls". While the title track's loping rhythm is of a piece with "Falls (Violet)", they express vastly different scenarios. Bold, progressive, and sometimes whimsical, What Were You Hoping For? definitely has rhythm and occasionally some blues...but you've never heard them quite like this.

Artist: Patti Austin

Album: Sound Advice

Label: Shanachie


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Patti Austin
Sound Advice

The world of music is better because Patti Austin is in it. She possesses a flawless instrument, a voice that has illuminated jazz, pop, gospel, and R&B melodies across more than five decades of popular music. That swath of time is the source for Sound Advice, a covers album that benefits from Austin's fresh approach to songs that are embedded in our collective consciousness.

Co-produced by Patti Austin with Greg Phillinganes and Gregg Field, Sound Advice attests to Austin's power in making the familiar seem new. "You Gotta Be" by Des'ree becomes a full-on gospel production, while the hint of gospel glimpsed in the Rolling Stones' recording of "You Can't Always Get What You Want" is explored to its fullest expression in Austin's rendition. Tackling "Give It Up" by the Jacksons, the singer retains the sumptuous sway of the original before adding touches of Carnival to the mix. Arguably, the most audacious recasting is Austin's take of Depeche Mode's "Enjoy the Silence", wherein she emphasizes the introspective nature of the lyrics in her interpretation. "By the Grace of God" and "Round and Round" highlight the vocalist's own composing talents, which are showcased in the company of songwriters like Brenda Russell, Bill Withers, and Paul McCartney. Whether her words are her own or Bob Dylan's, Patti Austin sings the truth in every syllable.

Artist: Goapele

Album: Break of Dawn

Label: Skyblaze/Decon


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Break of Dawn

Goapele makes music that seems recorded in the future, not in the sci-fi vein of Janelle Monáe, but in a mode that's sleek and spacious. Three albums into her career, the Oakland-based artist has a distinctive sound that's advanced the state of R&B ever since she debuted on Columbia with Closer in 2004. Having left the label in 2005, Goapele's third release arrives on NYC-based Decon Records via her own Skyblaze Recordings.

Remarkably, Break of Dawn is a fluid listening experience even with seven different producers adding their own touch to the nine songs on the album. Goapele effortlessly navigates through each environment. The understated eroticism of "Play" opens the set, as Goapele's voice flows like warm syrup. She lays down an incendiary vocal on "Money", intoning "Baby, baby, baby, I love you" with a growl that reveals yet another texture in her pliable voice. Break of Dawn concludes with three delicious minutes of "Milk and Honey". Goapele transforms the song into an aphrodisiac, with the Bedrock-produced arrangement luring the listener in like a fly to a spider's web. Break of Dawn brims with such musically seductive delights.

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