Best R&B Soul Albums of 2023
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The 11 Best R&B/Soul Albums of 2023

In these challenging times, the best R&B and soul albums walked tall and carried a big stick, while also being a much-needed balm and source of warmth.

11. St. Paul & The Broken Bones – Angels in Science Fiction (ATO)

Fatherhood has inspired some of the most poignant songs in pop music. Whether inspired by love, hope, or tragedy, singers have turned to song to explore the relationship between fathers and their children. While many of the songs we readily remember about fathers speak to the longing and regret of fatherhood, the songs on St. Paul & The Broken Bones‘ new album are inspired by impending fatherhood. When he discovered he would be a father, lead singer Paul Janeway wrote letters to his future daughter, and these songs would eventually find their way onto the new record Angels in Science Fiction. Like much of pop art in the last few years, the work on the album reflects Janeway’s powerful feelings of parenthood but also melancholy and angst that seems to have grown from social unease.         

Building on the sound of St. Paul & The Broken Bones’ 2022 album, The Alien Coast, the music on this record is lovely and lilting, moving, and melancholic. While the sounds on the 2022 record were far more divergent and varying, there’s far more unity in the aural aesthetic of Angels in Science Fiction. As much as The Alien Coast may have looked to the world’s anxiety in 2022, mirroring that angst with a jangly psychedelic soul, the mood on this record is reflective and contemplative. Janeway speaks to his then-future child directly through song, sharing his hopes, fears, and love. – ​Peter Piatkowski

10. Sampha – Lahai (Young)

On his second LP, Sampha brings in sweet, lilting sounds that contrast with his moodier debut release. Lahai (named after the singer’s grandfather) explores sunnier themes and sounds, inspired, in part, by fatherhood. Though he suffered a significant loss, which informed much of his first album, Lahai takes a more hopeful tone after the birth of his daughter in 2020. The confessional songs on Lahai bring to mind the deeply personal records of 1970s singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell, Marvin Gaye, and Curtis Mayfield, and yet the album feels thoroughly modern, finding the warm marriage between low-key instruments and electronics.  

The highlight of Lahai and its peak is the expansive “Dancing Circles”, which brings together all of the wonderful elements of the album. The lyrics – at once anxious yet yearning and hopeful – tell a story of the complex emotions Sampha feels, his angst reflecting social concerns (“Talk about crime / Government lies like ain’t nothin’ new”), yet he sums up his feelings by crooning, “Dancing, come close / Hold me, hold me so much so we both let go.” As his ethereal tenor sways, it see-saws with a tic-tocking piano, adding a slight, subtle bit of sass and soul to a beautifully introspective song. The song draws to a close with some skittering drum programming.  

The warmth found in the blend of synths, studio effects, and electronic sounds with more natural-sounding instrumentation gives the record a welcoming, inviting timbre as if it were a loving embrace. The songs glide smoothly, often finding poignance and empathy in thoughtful, ruminative pianos (“Can’t Go Back”) or the achingly beautiful orchestral interlude, “Wave Therapy”. Sampha references 1970s soft soul with “Jonathan L. Seagull”, a shimmery ballad that takes its name from the seminal, inspirational novella Jonathan Livingston Seagull.  

In the chaos of the pandemic and the years after, Lahai is a kind refuge – a musical safe space in which the singer allows for his vulnerability and emotion to shine without guile or shame. – Peter Piatkowski

9. Jamila Woods – Water Made Us (Jagjaguwar)

Jamila Woods is a 34-year-old poet and singer from Chicago, but she sounds much younger. There is a freshness to the persona she presents, who has not been jaded by her limited experiences. She directly addresses the topic of love from a personal perspective on her latest album. She’s ambitiously self-reflexive in her search for truth and beauty. You would think she’d know better. Love is magic and mysterious. One can analyze love from a myriad of perspectives and still not be able to understand it. While Woods offers kernels of wisdom, she doesn’t comprehend the phenomenon anymore at the end of the record than she did at the start. Love is love. The rest is art.

Water Made Us is full of creativity. The music takes on many forms, just like the water referred to in the album’s title. The songs are not just liquid, solid, and gas; they are blood, wine, and soul. Big enough to contain oceans of emotions and as small as a teardrop. A scientist would call water a universal solvent because it dilutes everything. But Woods also knows the opposite is true. H20 is also the world’s most important building block. – Steve Horowitz

8. Niecy Blues – Exit Simulation (kranky)

It’s been a long road traveled to Niecy Blues‘ Exit Simulation, her debut LP, and a breathtaking and immaculate creative statement. In a just world, this record will lay down fire and love in innumerable hearts and minds. One moment (“IIII”), we’re in hypnagogic pop territory; the next (“The Nite B4”), it’s pure electronica with Neicy Blues’ voice either blissed-out murmurs or pure rising ecstasy reaching so high it grabs at the hems of angels’ robes. Then it all shifts again (“U Care”), and we’re listening to Amy Winehouse-style dark jazz at its most introverted and contemplative.

Particularly in this current cultural moment, there are a lot of artists genre-hopping, grabbing at sounds without any interest in coherence, respect for context, or insight into the histories that forged them. Niecy Blues’ work, by contrast, is a cascade of dimensions and allusions. This is what true creativity looks like. Niecy Blues’ opens up a breathtaking imaginative landscape within each song through which the narrative moves like water, pausing or circling one detail or another, plunging past obstacles, vanishing through cracks to emerge in wondrous new terrain. Exit Simulation is the sound of thrilling discovery and, hopefully, the start of a long and rewarding journey in Niecy Blues’ company. – Nick Soulsby

7. Meshell Ndegeocello – The Omnichord Real Book (Blue Note)

Go to instrument manufacturer Suzuki’s website, and you’ll be able to pick up a similar Omnichord that Meshell Ndegocello used to create her Blue Note debut, The Omnichord Real Book. The site assuredly states, “anyone can easily play chords, including those who are new to musical instruments and those who are less adept with traditional instruments.” Of course, that doesn’t mean that anyone could generate a transfixing, 80-minute work of full funk, experimental rock, and traditional jazz. That can only come from an accomplished multi-instrumentalist, who 30 years into her career, can still make an album that sounds like it could have been a triumphant sophomore follow-up to a trailblazing debut album. 

Ndegeocello wrote much of The Omnichord Real Book in her attic on the Omnichord. The loss of her mother and father is addressed, but the album is not an elegy; instead, the absence of her family is just a portion of the experiences she addresses. Experiences as a Black woman. Experiences as a bisexual. Experiences as a restless artist. At close to 80 minutes, The Omnichord Real Book isn’t an album you can listen to on a commute. It’s demanding work, with all 18 songs serving a distinct purpose. With each subsequent listen, The Omnichord Real Book reveals a new layer of riches. – Sean McCarthy