Best R&B of 2006

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
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US Release Date: 2006-10-24
UK Release Date: 2006-10-23

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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
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US Release Date: 2006-04-04
UK Release Date: 2006-06-19

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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
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US Release Date: 2005-12-20
UK Release Date: 2005-12-12

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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
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US Release Date: 2006-10-03
UK Release Date: 2006-01-31

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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
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US Release Date: 2005-12-13
UK Release Date: 2006-01-30

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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
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US Release Date: 2006-04-25
UK Release Date: Available as import

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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
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US Release Date: 2006-03-21
UK Release Date: 2006-03-20

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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
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US Release Date: 2006-02-28
UK Release Date: 2006-02-27

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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
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US Release Date: 2006-06-27
UK Release Date: 2006-06-27

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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
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US Release Date: 2006-05-09
UK Release Date: 2006-04-24

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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