Featured: Top of Home Page

Best R&B of 2006

John Legend

Mike Joseph's picks for the year's best in R&B include manly soul men, retro futurists, sex-you-up lyricists, and one funky Jehovah's Witness.

Most R&B fans would have called 2005 crappy. I -- being the optimist that I am -- call it transitional. John Legend carried us through most of the year, with a beacon of light showing up at the end of the year in the form of albums by Mary J. Blige and Anthony Hamilton. The Queen of Hip-Hop Soul blessed us with an album that contained very little in the way of overt hip-hop, as her songwriting and vocals have matured to the point where her legendary status is justified. Hamilton, meanwhile, dropped a second straight heater. It bode well for 2006, and, all things considered, the year in R&B wasn't too bad.

There were definite disappointments, especially for some of the genre's leading lights. Kelis, Janet Jackson, Beyonce, and Justin Timberlake all released mediocre albums. In Kelis's, JT's, and B's cases, tunecraft and melodicism were forgone in favor of what some might call "sonic innovation", but I call...well, never mind. Jackson, a veteran who should know better, decided that instead of making eclectic, fun albums, she'd make a Ciara tribute album. It smacked of desperation and laziness, and she wasn't the only R&B vet to go out with that desperate air. Monica put her golden voice to bad use on trendy "snap" music, while 1/2 of Lionel Richie's (admittedly decent) comeback album was spent trying to sound like a horndog 1/3 his age. This is to say nothing of the latest Jagged Edge and Jaheim albums, whose relative commercial failure (about 650K sold between the two) will hopefully shut the door on "thug" R&B.

On top of that, with the passing of Gerald LeVert, soul music lost a leading male singer for the fourth consecutive year (following Luther Vandross, Rick James, and Barry White). Damn.

But there's light at the end of the tunnel. Amel Larrieux and Van Hunt made fantastic (if not strong-selling) albums that pushed the boundaries of what soul music is supposed to be, while Cee-Lo joined up with producer Danger Mouse and drove a flatbed truck over those boundaries as Gnarls Barkley. The Isley Brothers and Prince maintained their legendary status with albums that were solid (in the Isley's case) and damn near spectacular (Prince). Britain's Corinne Bailey Rae made a strong bid to become the new millennium Sade. Ne-Yo and Jamie Foxx introduced the world to early-'90s R&B nostalgia and a generation of fans pulled out their copies of "12 Play" in celebration. Robin Thicke made the decade's best blue-eyed soul album thus far, and Legend, the man behind 2005's best R&B album, slugged the sophomore jinx in the jaw with an album whose quality way surpassed his above-average debut.

With sales of hip-hop taking a big hit in the past year, folks are turning back to R&B as the dominant "urban" music genre. If you include Timberlake's and Christina Aguilera's albums (which honestly were R&B albums), the genre accounted for nine platinum plaques this year to hip-hop's one (T.I.). While next year's release slate is almost completely unknown, there were a number of soul's biggest acts M.I.A. in '06, from Jill Scott to Erykah Badu to Usher. With Blige and Gnarls Barkley also already back in the lab, and long-awaited albums from the likes of Michael Jackson and New Edition on tap, 2007 just might be the best year for R&B that we've seen in a long time.

Artist: John Legend Album: Once Again Label: Sony iTunes affiliate: http://click.linksynergy.com/fs-bin/stat?id=aLczRZIEnRg&offerid=78941&type=3&subid=0&tmpid=1826&RD_PARM1=http%253A%252F%252Fphobos.apple.com%252FWebObjects%252FMZStore.woa%252Fwa%252FviewAlbum%253Fi%253D201870732%2526id%253D201870715%2526s%253D143441%2526partnerId%253D30 Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/l/legendjohn-onceagain.jpg US Release Date: 2006-10-24 UK Release Date: 2006-10-23

Display as: List

List number: 1

John Legend's debut, Get Lifted, positioned him as the male Alicia Keys. Blending traditional hip-hop/R&B with a sense of musicality that only someone who plays a piano can have, Legend won three Grammys at the top of 'o6, including Best New Artist. His sophomore set, Once Again, blows Keys to bits and eliminates any possibility of either the sophomore or "Best New Artist" curse. He removes the hip-hop influence to create a timeless album of classic tunes that is pure soul. With influences ranging from Stevie Wonder to Jeff Buckley, this mainly down-tempo set is the year's best treasure.

John Legend: Once Again

Artist: Van Hunt Album: On the Jungle Floor Label: Capitol iTunes affiliate: http://click.linksynergy.com/fs-bin/stat?id=aLczRZIEnRg&offerid=78941&type=3&subid=0&tmpid=1826&RD_PARM1=http%253A%252F%252Fphobos.apple.com%252FWebObjects%252FMZStore.woa%252Fwa%252FviewAlbum%253Fi%253D137270653%2526id%253D137270633%2526s%253D143441%2526partnerId%253D30 Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/h/huntvan-onthejunglefloor.jpg US Release Date: 2006-04-04 UK Release Date: 2006-06-19

Display as: List

List number: 2

I was one of the few people that heard Hunt's 2004 debut and didn't particularly care for it. Something possessed me to pick up a copy of Jungle Floor, Hunt's second album, anyway. Boy, what a good move that was. Not many folks are able to pull off a big blues-pop duet with Nikka Costa ("Mean Sleep"), then turn around and out-do the Killers at their own game ("At the End of a Slow Dance"), THEN create a thumping midterm jam that would fit right into any R&B radio station's format ("Being a Girl"). Musically adventurous and superbly written, produced and sung, Hunt's latest proves that eclecticism is indeed a virtue.Van Hunt: On the Jungle Floor

Artist: Mary J. Blige Album: The Breakthrough Label: Geffen iTunes affiliate: http://click.linksynergy.com/fs-bin/stat?id=aLczRZIEnRg&offerid=78941&type=3&subid=0&tmpid=1826&RD_PARM1=http%253A%252F%252Fphobos.apple.com%252FWebObjects%252FMZStore.woa%252Fwa%252FviewAlbum%253Fi%253D108791159%2526id%253D108791064%2526s%253D143441%2526partnerId%253D30 Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/b/bligemaryj-breakthrough.jpg US Release Date: 2005-12-20 UK Release Date: 2005-12-12

Display as: List

List number: 3

This album was released with less than two weeks left in 2005, so let's consider it a 2006 release. Let's also consider it Blige's best album since 1994's My Life. Despite a different producer on damn near every track, this album holds together musically because of one constant: Mary's voice, which is powerful whether she's expressing pain, sentimentality, anger, or sensuality. Thankfully, the record doesn't go over the top with cameos (unlike previous efforts) and the songwriting is top-notch. Not to mention the fact that she takes one of the best songs of the past 20 years (U2's "One") and makes you forget who originally sung it.

Mary J. Blige: The Breakthrough

Artist: Robin Thicke Album: The Evolution of Robin Thicke Label: Star Track Label: Interscope iTunes affiliate: http://click.linksynergy.com/fs-bin/stat?id=aLczRZIEnRg&offerid=78941&type=3&subid=0&tmpid=1826&RD_PARM1=http%253A%252F%252Fphobos.apple.com%252FWebObjects%252FMZStore.woa%252Fwa%252FviewAlbum%253Fi%253D193196686%2526id%253D193196673%2526s%253D143441%2526partnerId%253D30 Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/t/thickerobin-theevolutionofrobinthicke.jpg US Release Date: 2006-10-03 UK Release Date: 2006-01-31

Display as: List

List number: 4

There have been many reviews of this album comparing Thicke to fellow blue-eyed soulster Justin Timberlake. Those who make that comparison need to listen again. Not only is Thicke's creamy voice superior to Timberlake's, but he's an infinitely better lyricist (something which, admittedly, isn't difficult to be). The hip-hop-oriented tracks here (featuring the likes of Pharrell and Lil' Wayne) seem to be shoehorned in to guarantee Thicke chart success, but as the lilting ballad "Lost Without You" has proven, Thicke needs to ride on no one's coattails to be successful.

Robin Thicke: The Evolution of Robin Thicke

Artist: Anthony Hamilton Album: Ain't Nobody Worryin' Label: So So Def Label: Zomba Label: Arista iTunes affiliate: http://click.linksynergy.com/fs-bin/stat?id=aLczRZIEnRg&offerid=78941&type=3&subid=0&tmpid=1826&RD_PARM1=http%253A%252F%252Fphobos.apple.com%252FWebObjects%252FMZStore.woa%252Fwa%252FviewAlbum%253Fi%253D101625604%2526id%253D101625979%2526s%253D143441%2526partnerId%253D30 Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/h/hamiltonanthony-aintnobody.jpg US Release Date: 2005-12-13 UK Release Date: 2006-01-30

Display as: List

List number: 5

Yet another December 2005 release, Anthony Hamilton's effort harkens back to the days of the manly soul man -- there are echoes of everyone from Bill Withers to Teddy Pendergrass in his work. However, Hamilton also has the sacred/profane dichotomy working in full force, as evidence by the thunderous gospel song "Pass Me Over", which is followed several tracks later by the playfully ribald "Sista Big Bones". Of course, it also helps that the man is in possession by the greatest voice of his generation.

Anthony Hamilton: Ain't Nobody Worryin'

Artist: Amel Larrieux Album: Morning Label: Bliss Life iTunes affiliate: http://click.linksynergy.com/fs-bin/stat?id=aLczRZIEnRg&offerid=78941&type=3&subid=0&tmpid=1826&RD_PARM1=http%253A%252F%252Fphobos.apple.com%252FWebObjects%252FMZStore.woa%252Fwa%252FviewAlbum%253Fs%253D143441%2526i%253D145548264%2526id%253D145549091%2526partnerId%253D30 Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/a/amellarrieux-morning.jpg US Release Date: 2006-04-25 UK Release Date: Available as import

Display as: List

List number: 6

The wispy former lead singer of Groove Theory released the third album of an impressive and unappreciated solo career with this effort. Representing the best of indie soul, it pits Larrieux's cooing voice against arrangements that were airy and rock solid simultaneously. Recorded in tandem with Larrieux's producer/husband Laru, songs like the playful, lighthearted "Trouble" and the thumping "Earn My Affections" make me wonder why this lady isn't selling millions of records.Amel Larrieux: Morning

Artist: Prince Album: 3121 Label: Universal Amazon affiliate: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/redirect?link_code=as2&path=ASIN/B000E97HIA&tag=popmatters-20&camp=1789&creative=9325 Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/prince-3121.jpg US Release Date: 2006-03-21 UK Release Date: 2006-03-20

Display as: List

List number: 7

Don't look now, but Prince is pushing 50, he's a Jehovah's Witness, and he still makes the sexiest music of anyone breathing. Religious conversion doesn't mean that the man has lost his freak flag; he just hides it better. 3121 is a lean, mean collection that proves that the man hasn't lost a step since 1978. A spare, minimalist groove turned "Black Sweat" into his greatest single in at least a decade, and the rest of the album is no slouch either.Prince: 3121

Artist: Ne-Yo Album: In My Own Words Label: Def Jam iTunes affiliate: http://click.linksynergy.com/fs-bin/stat?id=aLczRZIEnRg&offerid=78941&type=3&subid=0&tmpid=1826&RD_PARM1=http%253A%252F%252Fphobos.apple.com%252FWebObjects%252FMZStore.woa%252Fwa%252FviewAlbum%253Fs%253D143441%2526i%253D132663601%2526id%253D132663588%2526partnerId%253D30 Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/n/neyo-inmyownwords.jpg US Release Date: 2006-02-28 UK Release Date: 2006-02-27

Display as: List

List number: 8

While Jamie Fox's Unpredictable opened up the market for early-'90s R&B nostalgia, Ne-Yo took it to the next level. Any of the songs from In My Own Words could've popped up on a Guy, Silk, or Shai album circa 1992, with their tinkly keyboard arrangements and the sex-you-up lyrics. Believe it or not, this is not a bad thing. While he has a decidedly average singing voice, Ne-Yo's got an ear for great lyrics and hooks, as evidenced by the huge hits "So Sick" and "Sexy Love", as well as DeBarge-swiping album tracks like "Stay" and "It Just Ain't Right".

Ne-Yo: In My Own Words

Artist: India.Arie Album: Testimony: Vol. 1, Life & Relationship Label: Universal Motown iTunes affiliate: http://click.linksynergy.com/fs-bin/stat?id=aLczRZIEnRg&offerid=78941&type=3&subid=0&tmpid=1826&RD_PARM1=http%253A%252F%252Fphobos.apple.com%252FWebObjects%252FMZStore.woa%252Fwa%252FviewAlbum%253Fi%253D166709597%2526id%253D166709488%2526s%253D143441%2526partnerId%253D30 Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/a/arieindia-testimonyvol1liferelationship.jpg US Release Date: 2006-06-27 UK Release Date: 2006-06-27

Display as: List

List number: 9

Yeah, she can be self-righteous to the point that you can't help but roll your eyes. But India's gifted enough that even if you roll your eyes, you feel bad immediately afterwards. R&B's queen of positive stays true to the album title concept, with lyrical pats on the back that are almost reminiscent of an Oprah episode. However, her rich, creamy voice puts these occasionally corny platitudes over. Besides, who else can do a record with Akon, then turn around and do a record with Rascal Flatts, and have both of them sound completely natural?India.Arie: Testimony: Vol. 1, Life & Relationship

Artist: Gnarls Barkley Album: St. Elsewhere Label: Downtown iTunes affiliate: http://click.linksynergy.com/fs-bin/stat?id=aLczRZIEnRg&offerid=78941&type=3&subid=0&tmpid=1826&RD_PARM1=http%253A%252F%252Fphobos.apple.com%252FWebObjects%252FMZStore.woa%252Fwa%252FviewAlbum%253Fs%253D143441%2526i%253D152471409%2526id%253D152471339%2526partnerId%253D30 Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/g/gnarlsbarkley-stelsewhere.jpg US Release Date: 2006-05-09 UK Release Date: 2006-04-24

Display as: List

List number: 10

While plenty of folks will carp that this is a pop or even an alternative rock album, no one can create a sound like Cee-Lo's heavenly wail and NOT be called soul. Besides, let's face it: this is no less soulful than your average Parliament/Funkadelic album. What St. Elsewhere IS, however, is strange. Danger Mouse's way with a sample and a beat is retro and futurist at the same time, and Cee-Lo just might tie Lauryn Hill as the best MC who is also a singer (or is that singer who is also an MC?) ever. Even without the world-beating single "Crazy", St. Elsewhere is an adventurous, experimental thrill ride.

Gnarls Barkley: St. Elsewhere

Music


Books


Film


Recent
Music

Dancing in the Street: Our 25 Favorite Motown Singles

Detroit's Motown Records will forever be important as both a hit factory and an African American-owned label that achieved massive mainstream success and influence. We select our 25 favorite singles from the "Sound of Young America".

Music

The Durutti Column's 'Vini Reilly' Is the Post-Punk's Band's Definitive Statement

Mancunian guitarist/texturalist Vini Reilly parlayed the momentum from his famous Morrissey collaboration into an essential, definitive statement for the Durutti Column.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

What Will Come? COVID-19 and the Politics of Economic Depression

The financial crash of 2008-2010 reemphasized that traumatic economic shifts drive political change, so what might we imagine — or fear — will emerge from the COVID-19 depression?

Music

Datura4 Take Us Down the "West Coast Highway Cosmic" (premiere)

Australia's Datura4 deliver a highway anthem for a new generation with "West Coast Highway Cosmic". Take a trip without leaving the couch.

Music

Teddy Thompson Sings About Love on 'Heartbreaker Please'

Teddy Thompson's Heartbreaker Please raises one's spirits by accepting the end as a new beginning. He's re-joining the world and out looking for love.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Little Protests Everywhere

Wherever you are, let's invite our neighbors not to look away from police violence against African Americans and others. Let's encourage them not to forget about George Floyd and so many before him.

Music

Carey Mercer's New Band Soft Plastics Score Big with Debut '5 Dreams'

Two years after Frog Eyes dissolved, Carey Mercer is back with a new band, Soft Plastics. 5 Dreams and Mercer's surreal sense of incongruity should be welcomed with open arms and open ears.

Music

Sondre Lerche Rewards 'Patience' with Clever and Sophisticated Indie Pop

Patience joins its predecessors, Please and Pleasure, to form a loose trilogy that stands as the finest work of Sondre Lerche's career.

Film

Ruben Fleischer's 'Venom' Has No Bite

Ruben Fleischer's toothless antihero film, Venom is like a blockbuster from 15 years earlier: one-dimensional, loose plot, inconsistent tone, and packaged in the least-offensive, most mass appeal way possible. Sigh.

Books

Cordelia Strube's 'Misconduct of the Heart' Palpitates with Dysfunction

Cordelia Strube's 11th novel, Misconduct of the Heart, depicts trauma survivors in a form that's compelling but difficult to digest.

Music

Reaching For the Vibe: Sonic Boom Fears for the Planet on 'All Things Being Equal'

Sonic Boom is Peter Kember, a veteran of 1980s indie space rockers Spacemen 3, as well as Spectrum, E.A.R., and a whole bunch of other fascinating stuff. On his first solo album in 30 years, he urges us all to take our foot off the gas pedal.

Film

Old British Films, Boring? Pshaw!

The passage of time tends to make old films more interesting, such as these seven films of the late '40s and '50s from British directors John Boulting, Carol Reed, David Lean, Anthony Kimmins, Charles Frend, Guy Hamilton, and Leslie Norman.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.