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.

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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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