The Best R&B of 2012

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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List Number: 10

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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List Number: 9

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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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

Miguel
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

5 – 1

Artist: Michael Kiwanuka

Album: Home Again

Label: Interscope

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List Number: 5

Michael Kiwanuka
Home Again

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

 

Artist: Ralph “Soul” Jackson

Album: The Alabama Love Man

Label: The Rabbit Factory

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Ralph “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

 

Artist: Jessie Ware

Album: Devotion

Label: Island

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Jessie Ware
Devotion

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

 

Artist: Lianne La Havas

Album: Is Your Love Big Enough?

Label: Nonesuch

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Lianne 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

 

Artist: Frank Ocean

Album: channel ORANGE

Label: Def Jam

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Frank Ocean
channel ORANGE

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

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