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The Best R&B of 2012

Elias Leight and Colin McGuire
Frank Ocean

R&B was as vibrant and diverse a genre as any in 2012, a year that saw the rise of breakout acts and the returns of old-school vets.

R&B was as vibrant and diverse a genre as any in 2012. This year saw the rise of breakout acts as different as Frank Ocean and Alabama Shakes, while old pro Ralph "Soul" Jackson and one-time Next Big Thing Cody Chesnutt made welcome returns.


Artist: Maceo Parker

Album: Soul Classics

Label: Razor & Tie


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Maceo Parker
Soul Classics

At 69 years old, Maceo Parker is one of the most overlooked soul music treasures in all the land. He has the resumé to back up his unparalleled credibility, and it goes without saying that his enormous amount of technical talent continues to allow him to be taken seriously as a major player. In fact, that's what made his Soul Classics so impressive: after about half a century in the music business, the former James Brown sax man can still groove with the best of 'em.

Recorded live at the Leverkusener Jazz Festival in Leverkusener, Germany, the buzz surrounding each performance seeps through the speakers with inspiration and intrigue. Aretha Franklin's "Rock Steady" doubled as a raw version of a Steely Dan B-side as the funk becomes inescapable and the production unquestionably clean. Brown's "Soul Power" highlighted Christian McBride's bass work and Cora Coleman-Dunham's drumming expertise, combining to create the most strikingly moving moment of the bunch. Even Parker himself surprised with his affecting vocal performance on the slowed-down "Yesterday I Had the Blues", defying odds by dispelling the myth that funk can't also be sad.

Then again, that's what Maceo Parker is so good at doing: defying the odds. His big break came when James Brown wanted his brother to join his band as a drummer, remember, and at first, he had no interest in Maceo. No matter. The saxophone legend worked his way into the Godfather's group and the rest is now history. Soul Classics was a pretty poignant reminder that just when you begin to count Maceo Parker out, he reminds you of how much better the R&B world is with him actively working within it. A soul music treasure, indeed. Colin McGuire


Artist: Gary Clark Jr.

Album: Blak and Blu

Label: Warner Bros.


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Gary Clark Jr.
Blak and Blu

This might not have been the Great Major Label Debut that most fans and critics were expecting, but that's not to say there weren't any great moments on Gary Clark Jr.'s first LP for the big boys. In fact, the guitar prodigy's uneven Blak and Blu probably had more exceptional instances than any other collection in 2012. So, what's the problem? The few missteps were both lazy -- as in the too generic to be smooth title track -- and awkward -- as in the corny attempt at pop prominence that is "The Life".

Still, his sheer talent peers through single "Ain't Messin Round" with its Stax sounding verses, and the unadulterated shredding that occurs during the latter parts of "When My Train Pulls In" is a good reminder that this guy is probably going to be here for a while. The most expansive moment, of course, comes with "Third Stone from the Sun", a 9:38 psychedelic jam that is so far removed from "The Life" that you have to wonder exactly whose idea it was to ask Clark to do anything but lean on his guitar abilities throughout the entire record.

Blak and Blu was by no means the greatest R&B-influenced record of 2012, but by no means was it the most disappointing, either. If nothing else, it served as a proper introduction to the masses for the guitar-slinging supposed savior, and while it didn't necessarily live up to all the hype that surrounded it, the album certainly made a case for Gary Clark Jr. as a legitimate artist. Blak and Blu might not be great, but there's certainly nothing wrong with being pretty damn good. Colin McGuire


Artist: Cody ChesnuTT

Album: Landing on a Hundred

Label: One Little Indian


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List Number: 8

Cody ChesnuTT
Landing on a Hundred

It's an interesting time to be a fan of soul music these days. The retro revival continues to reign supreme, while the landscape of mainstream R&B seems to be evolving by the second with the interchanging pop trends that creep into every Top 40 hit. What makes Cody ChesnuTT's Landing on a Hundred so intriguing is the fact that with this, he's shown the ability to incorporate both elements of the music into a formula that is as transfixing as it is accessible.

From the expansive, upstroke-heavy opus that is "Where Is All the Money Going" to the undeniable heavy funk of "I've Been Life", the singer struck gold with his late-year release after nearly a decade that was unfortunately spent cooling off the fire that was ignited when he burst on the scene with The Headphone Masterpiece in 2002. "What Kind of Cool" and "Everybody's Brother" slow it down enough to showcase the singer's smooth side and "That's Still Mama" is a fantastic dose of old school soul with a horn line as powerful as it is memorable.

Actually, powerful and memorable are two adjectives that fit ChesnuTT well with Landing on a Hundred. “I was a dead man / I was asleep/ I was a stranger in a foreign land / Til I met thee,” he croons on one of the album's best tracks, "Til I Met Thee". The sincerity is palpable as it finally feels like this one-time Next Big Thing has properly followed up his near-perfect debut. With any luck, we won't have to wait another decade to hear some more from wherever it is this came from. Colin McGuire


Artist: Alabama Shakes

Album: Boys and Girls

Label: ATO


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List Number: 7

Alabama Shakes
Boys and Girls

Alabama Shakes write songs that show a deep appreciation for older soul of the southern variety. Many musicians inspired by soul from the late '60s and early '70s go for the smoother, swinging end of the spectrum popularized by Detroit and Philadelphia, but not the Shakes. They like to build simple rhythms based around symmetry and easy progressions, then move towards screaming crescendos, piling up guitar, cymbal crashes, organ, and lead singer Brittany Howard’s raspy sandbag of a voice. Occasionally, songs slip in a little more groove, or a hint of rollicking sweetness appears. Howard has immense power, like a female version of Eddie Hinton, the kind of thing you hear when listening to Etta James and Sugar Pie Desanto singing "In the Basement". But she’s smart enough to know that eruptions gain strength relative to quiet spells, so there are also moments of hanging back in melancholy. The Shakes sometimes get too caught up in their ability to build to explosions and forget the importance of brevity, but they show that there’s no reason why this set of sounds had to go out of fashion. Elias Leight


Artist: Miguel

Album: Kaleidoscope Dream

Label: RCA


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List Number: 6

Kaleidoscope Dream

On Kaleidoscope Dream, Miguel has one thing on his mind: sex. Sometimes it’s desperate, sometimes dangerous; there may or may not be substances -- and feelings -- involved. He gives advice to lovers one moment, begs for affection the next; he admits his own selfishness, then dismisses it because everyone else is selfish too, and tops it all off by asking a girl how many drinks he has to buy her before she will go home with him. He’s monomaniacal, but unpredictably so. The music is electrically charged with thick, fuzzy guitars indebted to the '80s, and the violent sparks in the riffs function to make Miguel’s sweet hooks sweeter. “Arch & Point” and “The Thrill” show that this formula works, and several songs that depart from this mode end up being throwaways. One of the biggest surprises is the title track, which rides a snapping rubber band baseline, a hollow beat, and bursts of backing vocals. For most of the album, Miguel is beating down your door with his cravings; here, he’s slippery, slinky and alluring. Elias Leight

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