Music

The Best R&B of 2013

Elias Leight and Colin McGuire

The best R&B albums of 2013 feature long-time stalwarts and compelling new voices.

The best R&B albums of 2013 feature long-time stalwarts and compelling new voices, ones that harken back to the genre's rich past as well as those that project a bright future for it.

 
Artist: John Legend

Album: Love in the Future

Label: Sony

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John Legend
Love in the Future

John Legend said in an interview this year that he thinks Love in the Future might be his best record yet and there's a good chance he's not wrong. If Get Lifted, his 2004 breakthrough smash, sometimes felt like the chronicles of a young star obsessed with sex, this set sometimes feels like the diary of a grown man obsessed with his wife. And as everyone from the Beatles to Michael Jackson have proved, maturity can be one hell of an attribute to stumble across when it comes to songwriting.

"The Beginning..." has the balls to actually sample Sara Bareilles and then get away with it as the singer croons about the most important meal of the day with metaphors abound. "Caught Up", meanwhile, is moody and minimal, most likely a product of Kanye West's constant influence that runs rampant throughout the bulk of the songs. There's a reason for that, of course -- the singer noted that he's never worked closer with the Chicago rapper than he did here -- and the results are both exciting and interesting. Yeah, it's no secret that the guy knows how to craft a piano-based ballad that tugs at your mother's heartstrings, but who knew he could sound this...fresh?

Thus the reason for Love in the Future being one of the year's best: It's a surprise. While John Legend could have been on auto pilot from here on out, riding on the wings of "Ordinary People" and "Green Light" until the air becomes too thin, this guy had no problem exploring the fringe of worlds for which he's not typically known. If this set is supposed to put a cap on his first decade as a solo artist, the next ten should be awfully compelling. Colin McGuire

 
Artist: John Newman

Album: Tribute

Label: Island

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John Newman
Tribute

Released in October, John Newman's Tribute did well in almost every corner of the earth not named America, where it is still awaiting release. It's a shame, too, because this, a blisteringly emotional debut from the wise-beyond-his-years 23-year-old, needs to be heard worldwide. With a vocal style that borrows from fellow Englishman James Morrison and an accessibility not unlike Robbie Williams, Newman's tones are unique and versatile, a welcome change of pace in a world becoming far too reliant on cutting, copying, and pasting.

Yet while his next of kin might be an obvious revelation, his raw talent is almost unparalleled. If Newman can't win you over on the visceral "Losing Sleep", on which the singer resorts to a near-shout to get his point across, check out the warm funk of album-closer "Day One", an aggressive, moody three minutes as addicting as they are dark. None of this means he can't pull off the ballads, either. "Down the Line" gives little more than a piano, some strings and that voice -- that painful, longing voice -- and succeeds without doubt.

If 2013 was the year John Newman broke through into a good bit of Europe's broken hearts, 2014 ought to be the year the western world takes notice. The guy is a master at writing songs that beg to be played in arenas, and Tribute, if nothing else, proves that the artist behind them is certainly worthy of the stage. Colin McGuire

 
Artist: Kelly Rowland

Album: Talk a Good Game

Label: Republic

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Kelly Rowland
Talk a Good Game

Talk a Good Game shows Rowland emerging at long last from the shadow of her frenemy and former comrade in Destiny's Child, Beyonce. For this album, Rowland worked mainly with famed hit-maker Terius Nash, aka the Dream, who helped write Beyonce's mega-anthem "Single Ladies". But Rowland didn't aim for the big pop smash on Talk a Good Game. Instead, she worked to create an album about coming to terms with your lovers, your past, and yourself.

The album centers on the song "Dirty Laundry", a piano-driven ballad reminiscent of R. Kelly's "A Woman's Threat". "Dirty Laundry" gives Rowland the chance to voice long-held feelings and finally expel demons. She sings about being jealous of Beyonce's success, the difficulties faced by women in the recording industry, and a possibly abusive relationship. She faces her pain and takes an important step towards overcoming it. Talking the talk is one thing, but walking the walk is another matter entirely. On her latest release, Rowland does both.

At other moments on the album, Rowland samples Joni Mitchell, channels Stevie Wonder or '90s hip-hop soul, and brings in rappers (Pusha T, Wiz Khalifa) not as aids, but as foils. It's not a surprise to hear her bounce back with vigor -- after all, Rowland sang, "I'm a survivor" -- but that doesn't make it less enjoyable. Elias Leight

 
Artist: Trombone Shorty

Album: Say This to Say That

Label: Verve

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Trombone Shorty
Say This to Say That

Come for the Saadiq, stay for the Meters. No, but really: Trombone Shorty's Say This to Say That is without question the artist's most complete record to date, and none of it could have been possible without the help of the former Tony! Toni! Toné! leader or, for that matter, a reunited version of one of funk music's best-kept secrets. Troy Andrews might be a bunch of things, but above all else, he's a hell of a groove machine, and try as you may, there is no way you're sitting still while listening to the majority of this record.

"Long Weekend" is the song of his life, a throwback to a feel Bruno Mars made fashionable again with "Treasure". No cheeky video and pop-star push? No problem. The tune's unmistakable funk and stuttering drum fills every few measures more than make up for it. "Get the Picture" then slithers through with a perfect amount of laziness, recalling the heat of Stax Records and the soul of James Brown as Andrews makes his play for a headlining slot at a 1960s Apollo party. "Vieux Carre" is the best of what we know Shorty can do: A percussive, drum-line-esque backbone with enough bright horns to keep an attic out of the dark, even if nobody pays the electric bill.

Say This to Say That proves that the Saadiq/Andrews marriage is one made in rhythm and blues heaven. Turns out, Raph's touch has been the missing link between Trombone Shorty and a special kind greatness. Now, how long until we are blessed with whatever "That" may be? Colin McGuire

 
Artist: Jessy Lanza

Album: Pull My Hair Back

Label: Hyperdub

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Jessy Lanza
Pull My Hair Back

Canada's Jessy Lanza loves mixing electronic textures with R&B's frank expressions of feeling. Working with Jeremy Greenspan of Junior Boys, Lanza creates tracks oozing pinpoint, breathless falsetto, and thick, bludgeoning bass. The percussion, all manners of snaps, clicks, and flat, '80s-sounding slaps, keeps changing. This injects a shifty feel of unease into the proceedings, hinting at movement and tension beneath a calm surface.

The title track is a master class on funky minimalism. "Pull My Hair Back" starts with a slow stream of programmed drums, gradually incorporating things as it goes -- a synthesizer sustaining single notes for long periods, spare keyboard, something hollow sounding and unidentifiable. When Lanza climbs the scale and launches into the hook, she's joined by some low-end and a few other instruments, all playing simple patterns. It creates an undeniable explosion of emotion, but never breaks the mellow spell. The result for the listener is described by the title of another track: "Giddy". Elias Leight

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