The Best Rhythm and Blues of 2011

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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Artist: Beverly Knight

Album: Soul UK

Label: Hurricane


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Beverly Knight
Soul UK

It was a great idea made better. UK-based soul singer Beverly Knight endeavored to honor British soul music, specifically a period from 1977 through 1996 (just as Knight was receiving her first accolades as a solo artist). With producers Martin Terefe and the Future Cut production team, Knight spotlights songs that represent the UK’s substantial contribution to R&B. Acts like Soul II Soul, Heatwave, and Jamiroquai have recorded some of the most soulful music to come from UK shores over the past 30 years. Knight’s tribute to their contributions, along with the work of ten other acts, is not only an excellent primer on British soul, but a consistently satisfying and rewarding album experience.

The peaks are plenty on Soul UK. Knight tears into Lewis Taylor’s “Damn”, brings rapper Roots Manuva along for a cover of “Apparently Nothin'” by Young Disciples, takes Roachford’s “Cuddly Toy” into Tamla Motown territory, and salutes one of the queens of UK soul, Jaki Graham, on “Round and Round” (written by former Heatwave member Derek Bramble). Freeez’s “Southern Freeez” is given a stylish jazz-disco makeover and Knight infuses Junior’s “Mama Used to Say” with a vigorous vocal. Soul UK is so successful that a sequel is in order, one that also culls from the catalogs of bands like Linx, Imagination, Incognito, and Light of the World. As Soul II Soul once sang, and Knight now reminds us, “It’s all about expression…”


Artist: Lalah Hathaway

Album: Where It All Begins

Label: Stax/Concord


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Lalah Hathaway
Where It All Begins

On the front cover of Where It All Begins, Lalah Hathaway replicates her father Donny Hathaway’s iconic album sleeves. Like her father, Lalah Hathaway is a compelling vocalist. Over the course of 20 years and six albums, she’s laid the foundation for her own legacy. If Where It All Begins is any indication, that legacy is secure.

The singer-songwriter bends and shapes her voice to a variety of settings on the album. The title track is quintessential Lalah, her voice alternately rumbling low and quietly scaling the melody over the groove. It’s the first of five songs that Hathaway co-wrote for the set. She accelerates the beat on the buoyant “My Everything”, while the high range of her voice is spotlighted to scintillating effect on “Lie to Me”. One of the album’s best meetings of lyrics and music arrives on “Wrong Way”, where Hathaway so brilliantly personalizes the words, they seem torn from the pages of her own life. Not inconsequentially, a pristine cover of her father’s “You Were Meant for Me” precedes “I’m Coming Back”, a song which could be interpreted as a conversation between Hathaway and her father. “There’s a part of me that lives in you,” she sings. Through her words and voice, part of Lalah Hathaway is also gloriously alive in each of us.


Artist: Mamas Gun

Album: The Life and Soul

Label: Candelion/Imagem


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Mamas Gun
The Life and Soul

Adele isn’t the only UK act who exported soul this year. The five-piece Mamas Gun merit as much praise as Ms. Atkins for keeping soul alive around the world. The Life and Soul is a laudable follow-up to the London-based band’s Routes to Riches (2010). Instead of repeating that album’s most successful moments, Mamas Gun worked with new producers and refined its sound on its sophomore effort. The band fuels funhouse cuts like “Reconnection” and “Rocket to the Moon” and provides soulful, simmering grooves on “We Make It Look So Easy” and “Sending You a Message”.

Of course, Andy Platts gives Mamas Gun its vocal identity. He doesn’t disappoint on any of the album’s 12 cuts, ranging from falsetto on “The Art” to scintillating caterwaul on “Get a High”. He shares vocal duties with Beverly Knight on “Only One”, a duet which would do Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell proud. The title track best embodies the strengths of the album itself: a melody that immediately hooks and a musicianship so strong that it should be winning awards somewhere. To borrow a line from “Heavy Hands”, The Life and Soul is a “blaze of color”, a warm and richly melodic set that’s the antidote to disproportionately dull and robotic alternatives.


Artist: Rashaan Patterson

Album: Bleuphoria

Label: Artistry Music/Mack Avenue


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Rashaan Patterson

Rahsaan Patterson takes his time between masterpieces. The 13 musical ideas on Bleuphoria began percolating in the wake of Wines and Spirits (2007). It’s been worth the 1,460 days. Bleuphoria is as original and musically absorbing as its predecessor. Patterson even connects the two: he closed Wines and Spirits with Janis Ian’s “Stars” and begins this set with “Are the stars out tonight?,” from his luminescent recasting of “I Only Have Eyes for You”. It’s an artful way to thread his body of work — the current album commenting on the previous — but then Patterson is among the most skilled and thoughtful artists currently working in popular music.

With producers Keith Crouch and Jamey Jaz, Patterson directs and stars in his own four-minute vignettes. Each song seems shaped by nighttime, lyrically and/or sonically. There’s the rock combustion of “Insomnia”, while “Makin’ Love” and its carnal bounce precedes the early morning bliss of “6AM”. Primed for the dance floor, “Ghost” could turn bodies out in ecstasy and the celestial grace of “God” (co-produced by Erik Reichers) and “Bleuphoria” could cool them down. Elsewhere, Patterson’s multi-layered voice is in fine form on the brilliantly biting “Easier Said Than Done” and the sweetly melancholic “Goodbye”. Whether Bleuphoria is a place or a state of mind, you want to be there.


Artist: Maya Azucena

Album: Cry Love

Label: Half Note/Azucena Songs


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Maya Azucena
Cry Love

Some albums are inextricable from their era. Then, there are albums that transcend time. Cry Love belongs to the latter category. Maya Azucena has fashioned an album that gives an expansive view of rhythm and blues. It’s a current production that, refreshingly, doesn’t trade in studio gimmickry, tired retro soul, stunt casting, or soulless vocal grandstanding. An actual band is the force behind the instrumentation. Save for a duet with Chris Rob on the stunning “Little Ghetto Boy”, Azucena co-wrote every song on the album and also contributed the self-penned “My Back’s Not Up Against the Wall”, a lilting reggae excursion that features dancehall legend iNI Kamoze.

Maya Azucena’s compositions with co-producer Christian Ver Halen, in particular, furnish some of the album’s very best moments, fulfilling the promise of the equally gripping, acoustic-oriented Junkyard Jewel (2007). “Near” is about as perfect a recording as you can find, with Azucena’s voice soaring over an Elysian groove. “Live On” is a soul-stirring testament to perseverance while “Run into the Light” (co-written with Steve Wallace) contrast’s Azucena’s impassioned vocals with an ambient soundscape. Both “Warriors” and “The Half”, which features electrifying guitar work by Vernon Reid, highlight Azucena’s vocal ferocity in different musical contexts. Because of these and other masterful moments, we’ll still be talking about Cry Love for years to come.


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