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The Best R&B of 2014

With no small amount of soul and passion, the best R&B records of 2014 will make you feel the power of love.

With no small amount of soul and passion, the best R&B records of 2014 will make you feel the power of love.

 

Artist: Sam Smith

Album: In the Lonely Hour

Label: Capitol

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Sam Smith
In the Lonely Hour

In The Lonely Hour might not be the game-changing set a lot of us were hoping for, and perhaps the amount of hype that surrounded Sam Smith’s debut LP was so heavy it crushed the hopes of it ever being an instant classic. Even so, it’s still a worthwhile release, with Smith’s aching falsetto illustrating almost as much pain as some of the other powerful voices that dominate this list. In other words, maybe it is too polished, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t things to value.

Take the anthemic, unavoidable single “Stay With Me” as the most obvious example. Rising up with the help of a monstrous chorus that takes any listener instantly to church, it offers the type of effect a lot of us hoped the entire record would embody. Still, with the made-for-stadiums ballad “I’m Not The Only One” and the 1987 soul-pop of “Restart”, In The Lonely Hour has enough bright spots to remind everyone of the simmering potential Sam Smith promises with each croon. When you’re this good, sometimes “all right” is still better than most of what else is out there. img-869 Colin McGuire

 

Artist: Somi

Album: The Lagos Music Salon

Label: Okeh

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Somi
The Lagos Music Salon

but that voice. No matter how many times you listen to this record and walk away, each time you come back, you’re met with that reality: …but that voice. You can quibble with Somi’s The Lagos Music Salon being more of a jazz record than an R&B record, but why split hairs? When you create a set of songs this good, the act of genre classification is transcended. It doesn’t really matter which box you try to pack this stuff in; all that’s relevant is the pure quality, and in this case the pure quality is undeniable.

“Last Song”, a surefire candidate for Most Delicate Song Of The Year, is everything a great tune should be: passionate, affecting, irresistible, poignant, and versatile. So much so that by the time the second half kicks in, you can’t help but wipe away the tears that first movement brings in order to get a clear vision of the dance floor. “Ginger Me Slowly” kind of sounds like Jill Scott wrote it and then two A-list collaborators pop up to cement this record’s place among the year’s best as Common offers up a peaceful verse on “When Rivers Cry” and Ambrose Akinmusire, who released his own viable candidate for Album Of The Year in 2014, adds dashes of trumpet in “Brown Round Things”.

Jazz. World. Rhythm and Blues. Soul. Hip-Hop. Funk. Reggae. Caribbean. The Lagos Music Salon belongs in all of those categories for a plethora of reasons, not the least of which being — you guessed it — the feather-like, angelically passionate voice that Somi is blessed with. Argue all you want about placement, but in the end it all comes back to the same three words: …but that voice. img-869 Colin McGuire

 

Artist: Jhene Aiko

Album: Souled Out

Label: Def Jam / ARTium

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Jhene Aiko
Souled Out

Though 2013 saw Jhene Aiko’s popularity soar due to the release of her EP Sail Out, as well as her hit single “The Worst”, Jhene really came into her own in 2014 with the release of her debut album Souled Out, as well the singles “To Love and Die” and “The Pressure”. The concept album stands out as Aiko’s best release due to the storytelling as well as the production from No I.D. and Fistcuffs. Although it may be a bit too soft vocally and rather laidback in parts for some, the album holds up well, especially when the songs are directly tied to her own personal experiences. The most telling of these being “W.A.Y.S.”, which addresses her determination, as well as “Promises”, which tackles her feelings about her daughter and brother. img-869 Devone Jones

 

Artist: Banks

Album: Goddess

Label: Harvest

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Banks
Goddess

Being showered with praise can be a good thing — just ask Jillian Banks. After receiving a bundle of praise for her EP London last year as well as coming third in BBC Sound Of 2014, Banks got straight into working on her debut album Goddess, a record that is a triumph across the board. With trip-hop and electronic influences featured prominently, Goddess was praised for its blend of genres as well as her unique voice. Even though her album has certain variables working against it (extensive balladry, underutilized vocals, recycled material from previous releases), as well as unwarranted comparisons to contemporaries such as FKA twigs and Fiona Apple, Banks debut still rose above many of the releases in the R&B atmosphere this year with several standouts including “Stick”, “This Is What It Feels Like”, “Beggin’ For Thread”, and the title track. img-869 Devone Jones

 

Artist: Prince

Album: Art Official Age

Label: NPG

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Prince
Art Official Age

Having released more than 30 albums within a career that spans more than 25 years, Prince still managed to surprise critics with the release of his 33rd studio album, Art Official Age. Blending R&B, funk, rock, and many other genres, Prince demonstrates that he can still release music that is way beyond its time. Critics noted that Prince was very capable of being very creative, although for some that creativity led to the biggest flaws about the album as well. Many were rather surprised that his solo effort was more varied and outlandish than the collaboration with 3rdEyeGirl (PlectrumElectrum), which only proves even more that Prince is at his best when he’s left to his own devices. Case in point: “FunkNRoll”. The original on PlectrumElectrum is pretty good, but the remix, which appears on Art Official Age, is brilliant. img-869 Devone Jones

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Artist: Paolo Nutini

Album: Caustic Love

Label: Atlantic

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Paolo Nutini
Caustic Love

Paolo Nutini is like the Scottish Ben Harper; at least, he’s like Harper whenever Harper decides he wants to have soul — which, for the record, isn’t all that much. Nutini, however, is better at it. Way, way better at it. His newest LP, Caustic Love, is arguably the best R&B record made outside of the United States in all of 2014. It’s funky when it needs to be. It’s poignant when the performances demand it. And most of all, it’s soaking wet with soul, a 13-track journey through the depths of heartbreak, obsession, love, sex, and longing.

Single “Scream (Funk My Life Up)” is a retrofitted contradiction of naughty ideals backed by serious gospel textures that only grow in effect as the horns rise in volume and Nutini’s pop-rasp intensifies. “Fashion”, the irresistible Janelle Monáe collaboration, combines ’70s funk with modern day effects, led most of all by Monae’s quick-hit hip-hop bridge. “One Day” and “Better Man” then slow it down, bringing to the forefront Nutini’s Harper-esque croon that packs a much more affecting punch than the “Steal My Kisses” singer could ever hope to conjure up. There’s just no way you don’t feel a shimmer run up your spine whenever the Scotsman goes for it.

He’s always had that touch, of course, but never before has it sounded so refined than it does on Caustic Love. There’s an element of maturity splattered through the occasionally Motown guitars, funky bass runs and soul-stealing vocals that pop up with stirring consistency throughout this record. “Someone like you wasn’t meant to be defined”, Nutini asserts on the album’s spare closer “Someone Like You”, before adding, “Just there to be explored and then all the while adored”. If Caustic Love is the sound of Paolo Nutini exploring the limits of his abilities, let’s hope he never fully finds them. img-870 Colin McGuire

 

Artist: St. Paul and the Broken Bones

Album: Half the City

Label: Single Lock

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St. Paul and the Broken Bones
Half the City

It makes all the sense in the world that Ben Tanner produced St. Paul and the Broken Bones’ debut full-length, Half The City. Why? In his spare time, Tanner tours with Alabama Shakes as their piano player. And if there’s one single artist and one single group that comes to mind the minute you first hear singer Paul Janeway go for it on opener “I’m Torn Up”, that artist is Brittany Howard, and that band is Alabama Shakes.

That moment comes at about the 2:45 mark, and it’s electric. So electric, in fact, that each outlet in the house needs a surge-protector from there on out. From the Fame Studios fire that burns through “Call Me” to the heart-wrenching, Al Green-meets-Otis Redding-meets-Sam Cooke elasticity that pops up throughout the unforgettable ballad “Grass Is Greener”, and all the way to the double time, Motown-inspired structure of “Sugar Dyed”, this Alabama sextet deserves every bit of the buzz it generated. Muscle Shoals has rarely felt this authentic since Jimmy Hughes’ first sang “Steal Away”. It’s a testament not only to the raw talent of St. Paul and the Broken Bones, but also their ability to connect with a soul-starved audience on a profoundly roots-obsessed level.

Because in the end, you’d be hard pressed to find a more authentic-sounding R&B record released in 2014. Much like his fellow Alabamian, Janeway’s voice is a weapon of mass destruction, its howl endless and its power immeasurable. Sometimes, the best soul music can be found within the depths of low-fi production and raw, intense emotion. St. Paul and the Broken Bones embody that formula. Half The City perfects it. img-870 Colin McGuire

 

Artist: Jessie Ware

Album: Tough Love

Label: Interscope

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Jesse Ware
Tough Love

After releasing a stunning debut grounded in ’90s R&B and soul, Jessie Ware stepped up her game by taking a lesson from the alternative R&B crowd by recruiting amazing producers and songwriters in order to create a solid sophomore record. The main reason Tough Love works so well is simple: her voice adds a vulnerable, human touch to each and every song. Standouts include the folk-influenced pop of “Say You Love Me”, the up-tempo disco vibe of “Want Your Feeling”, and the beautiful ballad “Kind Of… Sometimes… Maybe”. Although she isn’t as experimental or left-field as some of her contemporaries, Ware still has the ability to craft a song effortlessly with pure emotion without sounding cringe-worthy, which leaves her second studio album sounding just as brilliant as her debut and in some ways, even better. img-870 Devone Jones

 

Artist: FKA Twigs

Album: LP1

Label: Young Turks

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FKA Twigs
LP1

After two well-received EP’s, in 2014 FKA twigs’ released her debut album, LP1, which became one of the most critically acclaimed albums of the year, and for good reason. With an eclectic mixture of genres and influences ranging from electronica to garage, as well as a list of producers that are currently at the pinnacle of R&B (Arca, Paul Epworth, Sampha), LP1 is a stand-alone body of work in among the sea of releases this year. Whether it’s the slow-burning sorrow of “Pendulum” or the introspective, time-shifting track “Video Girl”, there isn’t one song that doesn’t entice. Unlike many artists who have only just decided to experiment with R&B, FKA twigs has been doing it for years, and has only now been recognized for pioneering a radically brilliant slant on urban music. img-870 Devone Jones

 

Artist: Mike Farris

Album: Shine for All the People

Label: Compass

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Mike Farris
Shine for All the People

If Mike Farris’ Shine for All the People is supposed to be the sound of redemption, the former Screamin’ Cheetah Wheelie meets his goal and then some with these blisteringly gritty ten songs. Reportedly coming back from a pill addiction, this crowdfunded set is one of the most palpable releases of the year. It’s palpable because of the pain that trickles through his voice, yes, but palpable also because of how insanely soulful the entire production feels.

Backed by a gospel chorus, J.B. Lenoir’s “Jonah & The Whale” embodies everything great about classic rhythm and blues music: piercing horns, a killer groove and Farris’ Sam Moore-esque croon that improvises with an impressive level of grace. Add in a searing organ solo and you’re transported to Memphis, walking down East McLemore Avenue with Booker T. Jones. “Power of Love”, one of the singer/guitarist’s originals, then recalls Albert King being “Born Under a Bad Sign” in the most authentic of ways, its murky structure slinking along the swamp with precession and feel. By the time no less a standard than “This Little Light” closes it out, you’re praying the guy opts for basking in its shine for just a few more songs, even though you know the set is at its end.

But alas, that’s part of the greatness of Shine for All the People: it leaves you wanting more. With a career that’s seen as many ups as it has downs, these songs feel like a victory lap, a much-earned breakthrough that announces the 46-year-old as a head-turner in the soul/gospel lexicon. One listen and you’ll be hooked. His voice will suck you in, but his intangibles force you to stick around. Better yet, they make you believe. Believe in Mike Farris believing in himself, and you’ll believe that the classic soul sound continues to thrive in the present day. img-870 Colin McGuire

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