From true legends to notable newcomers to acts in mid-career stride, the year's best R&B is much more than what your local Top 40 radio station would have you believe.
There are many tributaries leading to and from this music we call R&B. Depending on which stream you row down, or who's riding along with you in the boat, you're likely to have a different impression about what even constitutes R&B these days. This list merges those rivulets together, creating a nutrient-rich lake that honors the origins of R&B music, its evolution, and adaptation over time.
Above all, the albums on this list simply warrant your attention. From true legends (not named John) to notable newcomers to acts in mid-career stride, these artists prove that R&B is much more than your local station's Top 40 program version of it. Take any couple of songs from each album listed below and you will have one hell of a playlist. Oh, and don't forget to play the b-sides and deep cuts, too!
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List number: 1
Three voices: Nona Hendryx, Patti LaBelle, and Sarah Dash. To hear them harmonize is to experience one of life's greatest luxuries. It's a sound that's been missing from music for far too long, ever since the three individuals that comprised Labelle agreed to part ways in 1976 to pursue their own solo projects. After a few mini-reunions over the years, Hendryx, LaBelle, and Dash reunited for this proper, full-length album. Their unbridled potency is divinely intact on Back to Now. These sisters know a thing or two about soul.
For their first album in 32 years, Labelle recruited a suitably motley crew of producers, including Lenny Kravitz, Wyclef Jean, and Gamble & Huff. Labelle was never about categories and Back to Now reflects their versatility. The album is equal parts rock, gospel, pop, funk, and soul. It also continues the lineage of politically themed material that comprised some of their most memorable songs in the early '70s. Hendryx, the primary writer among the three, contributes some of her best work here, including "Candlelight" and "System". The latter, produced by Kravitz, features a series of vocal crescendos that never cease to astound. It's in the last minute-and-a-half of that song where the irrefutable greatness of Labelle is displayed. You will never hear three voices like this anywhere -- ever. Back to Now is, quite simply, a triumph.
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List number: 2
Exuberance, sanctification, joy, soooooul. These are the qualities that have defined Reverend Al Green over his four-decade career and remain gloriously alive on Lay It Down, his third album for Blue Note. Within two notes of the opening title track, there is no mistaking that voice: its tone still just seems to smile after all these years. When Green finds a cadence he likes, he locks into it, and caresses it with an effervescent phrasing. Hear the steady grooves of "Just for Me" and "I'm Wild About You", the way Green smothers them in his patented yelps and hollers. This is a man who is driven by the exultation involved with making music. No artifice, no hubris, no "Mr. Big"-type minstrelsy.
When I hear "No One Like You", aside from the goose bumps that invariably appear, I feel the pureness in how Green communicates his devotion. There's a certain wide-eyed wonder when he sings that song's title and suddenly he becomes that guy walking across the field on the back cover of Let's Stay Together (1972). Then, with a page from the book of "Love and Happiness", the song vamps seductively as Green purrs, "Evening sashay / Glass of wine." He is the master of suggesting eroticism without being overtly salacious. Lay It Down is a master class in the fine -- and endangered -- art of nuance.
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List number: 3
Soul music aficionados should know the name "Angela Johnson". For the better part of the past decade, the New York-based artist has cultivated a loyal following in the U.S., U.K., and Japan, first as one-half of Cooly's Hot Box and then as a solo artist in her own right. The powerful voice and stellar musicianship that defined her first two albums, They Don't Know (2002) and Got to Let It Go (2005), constitute just a small faction of this Renaissance woman's immense talent.
The release of her long-awaited A Woman's Touch project this year further revealed Johnson's dexterity at the control board and her acumen for production. Both emerging artists and beloved royalty from the independent soul scene were enlisted to sing Johnson's songs, which she wrote (and in a couple of instances, co-wrote) and produced specifically for each artist. She rocked out with Rahsaan Patterson on "Dream Flight", gave Maysa a stunning ballad on "More Than You Know", matched Marlon Saunders with Lenora Jaye on the coy "Wait on a Maybe", and took heartache to church on "Cryin' Over You", which found Johnson sharing the mic with Tricia Angus and Lisala Beatty. A Woman's Touch positioned Johnson as a producer whose discerning ear brings out the best performances of the artists she works with and suggested that a soul music collection is just not complete without the touch of Angela Johnson.
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List number: 4
Just hearing the name "Maiysha" gets me excited. Few artists have so immediately struck me as this soulful nightbird of song. To borrow a phrase from Jill Scott, Maiysha is "the real thing, in stereo". Her razor-sharp phrasing cuts across the cookie-cutter clatter that shapes the current charts. This Much Is True, her debut album, stands on the bridge where pop meets R&B, where a gospel-hued voice conveys carnal desire, where the simpatico between an artist and producer creates an astounding work.
With producer Scott Jacoby, Maiysha turns in 13 electrifying performances chock full of melodic climaxes. In mere seconds of "Over My Head", Maiysha wields a magnetizing power that doesn't subside until the live-jam blues of Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer" closes the album. She takes a thrilling ride across rock terrain on "Wanna Be" and unleashes a torrent of emotion on the exquisite, blue-light-in-the basement number "Hold Me". "I'm just doin' what I got to do," she declares on "Matter of Pride" with a rich and delicious vibrato. That kind of determination has paid off: Maiysha is a star already born. Those who don't know that have some catching up to do.
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There's a lot of "feel good" on Jim -- the handclaps/bird song/piano combination on "Another Day", the way Lidell intonates "good thing" on "Green Light", the rhythmic fever that infects him on "Out of My System" -- but good is too modest an adjective for the kind of stew Lidell stirs together on his third album. Written and produced by Lidell and Dominic "Mocky" Salole (with a little help from Justin Mitchell Stanley and Gonzalez), Jim is the most joyful and gripping foray into the land of R&B this year.
The influence of 1960s soul music is obvious but the Commitments Jim is not. Lidell is fascinated by sound and what makes Jim superior to other retro-leaning projects is the way Lidell mixes so many different elements together within the parameters of one song. Just consider the line-up of instruments Lidell controls on "Little Bit of Feel Good": finger cymbals, Marrocan sax, recorder, harmonica, off guitar, talk box. That's not even counting the eight other instruments and back up vocalists (including Nikka Costa) that create this collage of sound. Even when Lidell pares the production down on "Rope of Sound", there are numerous concepts at work. "Genius" is often bandied about wantonly these days, but it suits Jamie Lidell very well.
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List number: 6
Neo-what? Please. It's 2008. We've come a long way since head wraps and ankhs accessorized what was, at best, a soulless sobriquet that, in retrospect, didn't mean much of anything. "Re-boot" everything you think you know about Erykah Badu. New Amerykah is a bold benchmark in her decade-long career, a complete work with striking Sibylline attributions.
Badu co-produces the majority of the tracks here, anchoring her melodies in a musical past that includes Roy Ayers/RAMP, Eddie Kendricks, Switch, and Curtis Mayfield. Things are bleak in the 4th World War yet Badu is emboldened by perseverance ("My People", "Soldier") in the face of a social apocalypse ("Amerykahn Promise"). The rhythms are contagious even if the lyrics reflect very real cultural ailments. When Badu tackles addiction on "The Cell", for example, she moves the body as much as she provokes thought and reflection. Meanwhile, the evocative "Me" stands as one of the most clear-eyed, honest, and poetic articulations of one's autobiography I've ever heard. Despite the images of skulls, syringes, and sinister looking dollar signs, Badu leaves listeners with a "special ingredient" for our sweet tooth with "Honey". After an hour in New Amerykah, how does one not feel compelled to "re-fresh, re-start" the surrounding world? Standing just outside the door to 2009, it is a new day and that elliptical "new key" dangles closely within our grasp.
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List number: 7
Incognito has long rooted its sound in the nexus where soul, jazz, and dance meld together, carving a unique niche in the R&B world. On the career-defining Tales From the Beach, Incognito mastermind Jean-Paul "Bluey" Maunick assembles a well-endowed cast of musicians and vocalists, including Imaani, Tony Momrelle, Joy Rose, and Maysa Leak. The title says it all, really, for Maunick and his coterie deliver a set of songs that transport listeners to sunnier vistas and groovier places. Imaani lays down a characteristically cool performance on the horn-driven "N.O.T." and Tony Momrelle leads the percussion work-outs of "Happy People" and "Freedom to Love" with his molasses-dipped vocals. The chunky bass line of Maysa-fronted "I've Been Waiting" is reason enough to embark on the journey to Incognito's paradise.
Woven throughout the 16-song set is the guiding force of Maunick, whose musical ingenuity is sorely underappreciated on U.S shores. This album is a testament to his unfailing vision to make the world a better place through the power of music. "Love, Joy, Understanding", sung by Imaani, is also the subtext of this album. Whether or not you subscribe to that Utopian idea (that means you, misanthropes), Tales from the Beach offers a fluid, funky, and seamless listening experience.
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List number: 8
I think Nikka Costa might finally be getting her due. Having snipped the strings from her ties to music behemoths, Costa returned to music in 2008 after a three-year hiatus with Pebble to a Pearl, an album that boasts 12 (a)rousing music workouts and expresses the full range of Costa's singing and songwriting. Like her brother in arm, Jamie Lidell (who guests on the absolutely brilliant "Bullets in the Sky"), Costa summons the R&B of the '60s and '70s on the album but keeps the reverence in check. "I'm so sick of tryin' to consume / Another one trick pony singin' in my livin' room," she sings on the explosive "Keep Wanting More", perhaps referring to the numerous -- ahem, Duffy -- acts that feign soul for credibility.
One only needs to hear the heaviness of Costa's breath in the closing seconds of "Keep Wanting More" to appreciate her commitment to her material, which ranges from blues ("Love to Love You Less") to funk-rock ("Can't Please Everybody") to spirited foot-stompers ("Stuck to You"). While producer Justin Mitchell Stanley alternately keeps the grooves loose and tight and Costa brings vitality to every word sung, Pebble to a Pearl issues an irresistible edict to the listener, to quote the name of her record company: Go Funk Yourself!
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List number: 9
Seeds of inspiration were planted in the hot southern soil when Lizz Wright visited her native Hahira, Georgia. That sojourn figured prominently in creating one of the most stunning releases of 2008. Wright holds this listener rapt in the way she inhabits each note on The Orchard, her dusky alto soaking up the stellar production by Craig Street. She adds shades to a musical canvas that's become more colorful ever since Wright's debut, Salt (2003), introduced her to jazz audiences. The Orchard is a compelling mixture of soul, blues, and introspective acoustic numbers lusciously burnished by the inimitable intimacy of Wright’s honeyed vibrato.
"Coming Home", which opens The Orchard, is the gateway to Wright's personal revelations. The hypnotizing, Latin-influenced "This Is" and rock-hued "Leave Me Standing Alone" are but two of the six extraordinary tracks where Wright teams with songwriting partner Toshi Reagon while frequent Shawn Colvin co-writer John Leventhal collaborates with the vocalist on the sublime "Another Angel". Wright also brings her singular style to a handful of stripped-down covers, including Ike and Tina Turner's "I Idolize You" and "Thank You" by Led Zeppelin. In the span of only three albums, Lizz Wright has evolved comfortably within her understated but powerful vocal craft. To spend time with The Orchard is to savor an album of impeccable quality and soulful distinction.
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List number: 10
I had no idea what to expect when I played Livin' It for the first time. Names like Daryl Hall, Amos Lee, and Raheem DeVaughn stared me in the face from the CD inlay, so I knew Mutlu Onaral, who goes only by his given name, had to be someone. I could not have predicted how smitten I'd be with Livin' It, one of the underappreciated gems of 2008.
The Philadelphia-based singer-songwriter pledges allegiance to lush Philly-soul on his debut. Producer T-Bone Wolk (Hall & Oates) immerses Mutlu's acoustic guitar-based melodies in scrubbed and sparkling music environs, keeping the ever-soulful vocals up in the mix. This is an album made for repeat buttons and it's no coincidence that all of the songs on Livin' It were arranged by Mutlu and Wolk. There's a comfortable synergy the two share best reflected on the sweeping title track, the exquisitely recorded "Mama's Not Coming Home", and the single-that-wasn't "Think It Over". If there is one reason to explore Livin' It, it is to relish that trio of songs. Mutlu and Lee also make very natural compatriots and "Make It There" suggests that both artists reserve time for future collaborations. It will be a challenge to equal or better Livin' It on the follow-up. Doubtless, Mutlu and T-Bone Wolk will find a way.
Janelle Monáe: Metropolis: The Chase Suite (Special Edition) (Bad Boy/Wondaland). We need Janelle Monáe. The reason why we do is because of a mini-magnum opus entitled Metropolis. She inhabits an android named Cindi Mayweather, who is marked for disassembly by the evil warlords of a futuristic city called Metropolis (based on Fritz Lang's 1927 film classic). Following a mid-2007 EP release on the independent Wondaland Arts Society, the first of four suites of Metropolis was expanded with two new bonus tracks in a joint venture with Bad Boy this year, though it's the original five-song suite in which Monáe's greatest strengths are deployed. An intoxicating cocktail of funk-rock, with dashes of new wave and Broadway mixed in, Metropolis is among the most musically ingenious releases this year.
Van Hunt, Popular (Unreleased). At the outset of 2008, Blue Note was slated to release Van Hunt's third album, Popular. Those lucky enough to hear an advance of the album were gravely disappointed when news arrived that Hunt parted company with the label. The album -- Hunt's most innovative, so far -- remains unreleased but you can visit Hunt's MySpace page to sample tracks from what should have been a highly acclaimed release of 2008. Every listen unveils new details in the construction of the songs. Even now, I just realized that strings figure in the background on the exquisite "N the Southern Shade" after hearing it more than a few dozen times. Sonically, lyrically and conceptually, Van Hunt kept the meat on the bones. Go ahead, take a bite.