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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.

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Artist: Bilal

Album: A Love Surreal

Label: eOne


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List number: 5Bilal
A Love Surreal

The man born Bilal Sayeed Oliver was listening to John Coltrane's A Love Supreme as the seeds for this record were planted, and yes, it shows. In fact, not only does it show, but it single-handedly leads to the suggestion that A Love Surreal may just be the artist's most expansive set yet. And for a guy who loves stretching the parameters of traditional soul music beyond its accepted incarnations, that's quite the notation.

"Butterfly" is the closest to free jazz Bilal has ever gotten, and that's not to suggest he's never been close. Backed by a sparse piano, the singer transforms his commanding falsetto into shapes impossible to categorize and at nearly seven minutes, it redefines the word progressive in the rhythm and blues vernacular. "West Side Girl" picks the beat up, but keeps the simplicity front and center, assuring its spot among the most accessible tunes here. "Winning Hand" then trots along with its glove-like groove and layered vocals to remind listeners that there's far more to digest than a mere first taste.

Then again, that's what makes Bilal -- and, for that matter, A Love Surreal -- so fascinating. He's not bound by the rules of tradition, nor is he a product of expectation and environment. Mr. Oliver is his own person indeed and there may not have been a more transcendent R&B record throughout all the calendar year. Surreal isn't just the right word; it's the only word. Colin McGuire

Artist: Raheem Devaughn

Album: A Place Called Loveland

Label: Ingrooves


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Raheem Devaughn
A Place Called Loveland

Raheem Devaughn believes that a man singing love songs in falsetto has eternal appeal, and that the formula doesn't need to change much -- only receive a few updates here and there. He puts his money where his mouth is. A Place Called Loveland is Devaughn's fourth album, and he's become more comfortable over time, making this release one of his most concise and tuneful.

The song "Pink Crush Velvet" illustrates all Devaughn's abilities. It's got two components -- a rising and falling synthesizer buzz that updates the up-and-down melody from countless Stax ballads and a big set of keyboard notes reminiscent of Prince's "The Beautiful Ones". Devaughn orchestrates his own call and response, moving between pleading, precise falsetto, and a lower, more earthly register. He shows impeccable vocal control and a modern sensibility, but the old folks will understand it too, despite -- or because of -- its risqué content: "Pink Crush Velvet" does not refer to flowers or upholstery.

There are a handful of other songs, including "Wrong Forever" and "Complicated", that achieve a similar trick, building around structures that have grounded soul for more than 50 years, but changing a beat here, or a bass sound there. By attaching himself to tradition but remaining unafraid to tweak it to suit his needs, Devaughn ensures his longevity. Elias Leight

Artist: The Internet

Album: Feel Good

Label: Odd Future


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The Internet
Feel Good

With Feel Good, the Internet quietly released one of the most ambitious -- and appealing -- R&B albums of the year. This is their second album, and hopefully now the group will be known for something besides containing the one girl in the rap group Odd Future (also Odd Future's DJ). Syd tha Kyd is both those things, but she's also part of a project that creates impressive, distinctive work in its own right.

Feel Good runs the gamut from neo-soul to classic funk to murky, wandering tunes -- one song title here is "Wanders of the Mind" -- that morph and evolve in front of your eyes (and ears). The three-and-a-half minute single "Dontcha", all sputtering bass and sweet, high vocals, is the ear candy that invites you in.

This can be a bait and switch, though: three of the songs are longer than seven minutes here, and one stretches past ten, reinventing itself several times. The bass frequencies are suitably thick, the rhythm flickers, synthesizers and electric keyboards lurch and buzz, unfolding easily and unhurriedly. If Aluna George seem the epitome of the modern, harbingers of what is yet to come, the Internet represents a gentler bridge to the future. Their path is built around a sturdy, all-encompassing, timeless concept: exploring the possibilities of groove. Elias Leight

Artist: Janelle Monáe

Album: The Electric Lady

Label: Bad Boy


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Janelle Monáe
The Electric Lady

You can't have a Best Of R&B list in a year Janelle Monáe decides to put out an album... and not have her on the list, can you? Well, even if you could, The Electric Lady is good enough to make sure that doesn't happen. Fun, smart, bombastic, and wildly ambitious, the set establishes the singer as a force that not only will be around for a while, but also as an entity imperative to pay attention to, no matter what year, no matter what setting.

Trying to pick highlights is like deciding who the best player on the original Dream Team was. There's the Solange collab "Electric Lady" that transports listeners right back to the mid-'90s radio soul of Brandy and Monica. There's "Givin Em What They Love", which features a cameo from Prince, stopping by to remind the universe that the two are forever kindred musical spirits. Then, of course, you have the Migel duet, "PrimeTime", that proves Ms. Robinson can slow it down with both triumph and tradition. Oh, and if you thought she only works well in a couples setting, there are plenty of singles to go around -- see the intergalactic funk of "Ghetto Woman" or the serious vocal chops featured throughout "Look Into My Eyes" if you still have doubts.

It's a wild ride, The Electric Lady, but would you seriously expect anything even remotely tame from such an individual artist as Janelle Monáe? At one point, you feel like you are tuned into AM radio while the next, you're wondering if Blackstreet will be lingering around the corner, and even then it's not long until you begin to think the whole thing is just one big soundtrack to a weird dream. But then again, that's what she does best: Weird. And dream. Colin McGuire

Artist: AlunaGeorge

Album: Body Music

Label: Island


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Body Music

It's hard to think of something sounding more up-to-date, or even futuristic, than Body Music, the debut full-length from AlunaGeorge. Only the three-song EP released in advance of the album gave away the surprise. Body Music sifts through various strains of electronic dance, hip-hop, synthesizer funk, and R&B from the late '90s and early aughts, when the genre was simultaneously at an experimental and commercial peak. The music of AlunaGeorge is omnivorous and forward moving, suggesting that the past is interesting -- after all, it spawned the present -- but not a source of constraints or rigidity.

Who needs guitars in 2013? Body Music is thin, propulsive, and mostly created by the machines. There's sing-song chanting in "Best Be Believing", vocal distortion in "Bad Idea", pure swagger in "You Know You Like It", touches of Aaliyah homage, moments of layered vocals cohering in a sugary rush. The only misstep is a cover of Montell Jordan's 1995 hit "This Is How We Do It". But AlunaGeorge smartly makes the tune a bonus track. One thing doesn't seem to be so different in the future: love songs, and interpersonal relationships, remain paramount, so R&B, in some form, will always have a place. Elias Leight

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