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The Best R&B of 2014

Colin McGuire and Devone Jones

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

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/s/sam-smith-in-the-lonely-hour-2014-200x200.jpg

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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. Colin McGuire

Artist: Somi

Album: The Lagos Music Salon

Label: Okeh

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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. 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. Devone Jones

Artist: Banks

Album: Goddess

Label: Harvest

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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. Devone Jones

Artist: Prince

Album: Art Official Age

Label: NPG

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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. Devone Jones

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