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.

6. Kelela – Raven (Warp)

It’s hard to believe it’s been six years since Kelela dropped Take Me Apart, one of the most ambitious and bracing debuts of the 2010s. Kelela subverts expectations with Raven — instead of a follow-up designed to make a splash, much of Raven feels like ripples, designed for a late-night headphone trip. “Let It Go” and the late-night club vibe of “Contact” exude a controlled calmness, seamlessly meshing ambient sonic structures with confessional soul. 

Water imagery permeates Raven both lyrically and musically. Sonically, listeners are given enough space to absorb all of the subtleties of Kelela’s mesmerizing vocals. At a filler-free 60 minutes, Raven is a beautiful, intense, and immensely enjoyable experience that’s as transfixing in a packed club as it is in a bedroom. – Sean McCarthy

5. Jorja Smith – Falling or Flying (FAMM)

Falling or Flying is a charming, likable effort, with Smith showing off an arresting talent with effortless ease and poise. Working primarily with the gifted duo DameDame (Edith Nelson and Barbara Boko), Smith has released a modern contemporary pop/R&B album boasting innovative and imaginative production. Falling or Flying works on many contradictions, the most significant being that it’s an emotionally resonant album despite its largely tech-heavy sound. Though it took several years for audiences to receive the album, it was well worth the wait.  

Though Falling or Flying sounds like a quintessentially London pop record, with its flourishes of house, dance, and skittery Black pop, Smith fled the Capital to make the album. If quitting London for her native Walsall was necessary for her creative forces, the relief she experienced is palpable when listening to Falling or Flying. Her caramel-sweet vocals are dreamy and understated and reflect tranquility and confidence. Smith applies that aplomb to her soulful warbling and shares her thoughts and feelings as a songwriter, co-penning every track on the album. 

Like most 21st-century R&B records, Falling or Flying is a luxurious listen, topping at 16 tracks. But instead of overstaying its welcome, it leaves its audiences satisfied, even wanting more. The power of the record lies in its understated simmer. Instead of wailing over high-octane tracks, Smith pitches her jazz-influenced croon low, her thoughtful voice caressing the lyrics, programmed beats, and atmospheric synths. The record is a quiet yet unequivocal triumph. – Peter Piatkowski

4. Quantic – Dancing While Falling (Play It Again Sam)

If there’s one constant in producer and musician Will Holland’s varied repertoire, it might be best expressed as warmth. Whether dabbling in retro funk, Colombian coastal folk, tropical jazz, or dubby pop, Holland, usually under the moniker Quantic, infuses everything he creates with a balmy kind of love. In Dancing While Falling, he continues to bring the light in troubled times, circling back to his early roots in 1960s and 1970s funk and soul with a new sophistication and, perhaps, slightly softer contours from 20-plus years in high-energy circulation around the globe.

Permeating the entire album is a sense of community in terms of sound and production. Beds of luscious orchestral arrangements, gospel vocals, and tempered electro-disco beats combine into buoyant soundscapes, often undergirding sparkling contributions from featured singers like Andreya Triana, Rationale, and Connie Constance. Their voices make for powerful bridges between the vintage vibes and contemporary pop sensibilities integral to Quantic’s overall palette. – Adriane Pontecorvo

3. Gabriels – Angels & Queens (Atlas Artists / Parlophone)

The gorgeous, supple, soulful vocals on Gabriels’ debut album Angels & Queens belong to Jacob Lusk, an American Idol alumnus who came in fifth on the reality television competition show. Instead of languishing in has-been, C-list purgatory, he’s a crucial element in one of the year’s best albums. Gabriels – Lusk along with musicians Ryan Hope and Ari Balouzian – released a brilliant album of gospel-hewn soul, old-school R&B, and electronic-laced jazz. Angels & Queens is brief – seven songs -but it packs a wallop, finding euphoric soul and divine inspiration. There are influences of Motown, Stax, as well as Northern Soul. Gabriel isn’t merely reviving soul music but recasting it in their own image.  

Just listen to the magnificent vocals on “Mama”, which begins with Lusk’s plaintive crooning, which is elevated by the majestic, dramatic piano and programmed beats, with the song meandering until it’s broken up with stunning wordless vocalizations of Lusk and accompanying choir. It’s a regal, high point on the record that is elegant and powerful – a strong encapsulation of the trio’s sound: smart, beautiful, and innovative. – Peter Piatkowski

2. Jungle – Volcano (Caiola / AWAL)

British soul-dance duo Jungle have been nothing if not consistent: their album covers feature the same band logo, just with different background colors; their music videos are all one-shot choreography pieces shot by band member Josh Lloyd-Watson; and the music, without exception, is richly rewarding. The duo had hits, but there was something about the kinetic energy in the lead single “Back on 74” that simply connected, unlocking a new audience to discover Jungle’s wild sound. It doesn’t hurt that Volcano, the group’s fourth studio album proper, is one of their most eclectic, moving from the skittering hard dance of “Holding On” to the lush mid-tempo disco of “Palm Trees” to the hip-hop indebted flute funk of “Problemz” without a hint of effort or strain.

The vocals are looped and run through filters while the instruments come through clear as a bell, almost as if Jungle is signaling that one element shouldn’t outweigh the other. Even the dance troupe used in the music videos has been consistent throughout their tenure. Volcano is a bit of a party, a bit of a groove, and totally a vibe, drawing strains of dance music’s past together to craft something that sounds like they could be writing its future. Jungle have always been bubbling with great ideas, but this Volcano finally let them explode. —Evan Sawdey

1. Durand Jones – Wait Till I Get Over (Dead Oceans)

Stepping away from his band, Durand Jones & The Indications, Durand Jones has proven his star power and charisma on his solo debut album, Wait Til I Get Over. For his solo work, Jones looks to classic soul and R&B, but it steps away from dance-floor material for music is a celebration of rootsy soul, gospel, rock, and jazz.

It’s a fabulous record that recalls masterful works by Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and Bill Withers. Braiding stirring songwriting prowess, sparkling production, and beautiful vocals, Jones has created one of the most assured and brightest debut albums in quite some time. Though the record has hallmarks of throwback soul music, it cannot help but be concerned with topical social issues. There’s a joy to much of Wait Til I Get Over, but Jones also eulogizes Sandra Bland, George Floyd, Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor, and Danny Ray Thomas, reflecting the angst of cultural disquiet.  

A musical autobiography or memoir is the best way to describe Wait Til I Get Over. These are deeply personal songs that chart the different kinds of emotions he’s working through, whether it’s to do with the affairs of the heart or the turmoil of the outside world; it’s also a wildly ambitious record that takes its musical cutes from Black American popular music. The sum of all these great parts makes for a thrilling listen. – Peter Piatkowski