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Music

The 15 Best R&B/Soul Albums of 2019

Image by Simoneph from Pixabay

The year in R&B and soul brought brilliant returns from music legends alongside artists pushing the boundaries of R&B past any limits. It's a genre where retro and futurism nestle cozily side by side. Here are the 15 best.

15. P.P. Arnold – The New Adventures of P.P. Arnold [earMUSIC]

You may not know the name – unless you are a fan of British Northern Soul - but you have probably heard P.P. Arnold's voice. Arnold launched her career as one of Ike and Tina Turner's Ikettes. From there, she went on to release two solo albums on Immediate Records, a label owned by Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham. Arnold sang backup on Peter Gabriel's hits, "Sledgehammer" and "Big Time". In the early 2000s, Arnold toured as a vocalist with Roger Waters' band.

While P.P. Arnold does indeed have an impressive musical history, it all feels like a prelude to The New Adventures of…P.P. Arnold. Produced by Ocean Colour Scene's Steve Cradock, The New Adventures… has something for everybody: ballads, big and small; baroque soul-pop like Cradock's "The Magic Hour; dance-pop reminiscent of the 1990s; and even a few mid-tempo tunes written by Paul Weller.

All of this is wonderful, but it doesn't quite prepare a listener for the album's penultimate track, Arnold's mesmerizing recitation of a Bob Dylan poem, "The Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie". Dylan is known to have publicly recited this poem just once in April 1963. With musical accompaniment that includes a modular synth, trumpet, trombone, and string quartet, Arnold ties the threads of Dylan's words together in a way that is cathartic, electrifying and just a little bit mind-blowing. - Rich Wilhelm

14. Sequoyah Murray – Before You Begin [Thrill Jockey]

Before You Begin, the full-length debut album by singer/songwriter Sequoyah Murray, is a classic example of an album you might not get the first time you hear it. Maybe it's simply that too many genre lines are being crossed or that the combination of influences on Murray's work is so wide-ranging that it might take some time for most of our musical brains to process Before You Begin. In the end, though, Sequoyah Murray's work is worth the extra time one can make for it.

Murray's music draws on everything from 1970s soul to 1980s techno-pop, though enigmatic singer/songwriter Arthur Russell emerges as a major influence. There are many standouts on Before You Begin, but most evocative of all is "Blue Jays", a song that combines burbling electronics and insistent percussion with the viola of Uzuki Kakinuma, creating a beguiling musical backdrop for a song that is a gentle reminder for self-acceptance.

At just 22, Sequoyah Murray is clearly a product of many influences, but Before You Begin demonstrates that he also has a distinct musical vision that is all is own. - Rich Wilhelm

13. Allen Stone - Building Balance [ATO]

There are few voices in the world as smooth as Allen Stone's, and the singer proved that yet again on his 2019 release, Building Balance. The record is aptly titled: Stone of late has talked about a change in how he spends his time and with whom he spends it. Putting aside Lite beers for cozy nights at home with family. Notably, Stone recently married, and the relationship with his wife has seemed to help the artist's creative equilibrium.

Building Balance is brimming with love and wisdom. The singer has a stronger perspective than ever; he cares about people, repairing good relationships, and leaving the bad. "If one plus one is you and me, we can add another one for community," he sings on "Miscommunicate". And on "Brown Eyed Lover", he sings, "She's got everything you want / All my friends adore her / She reminds me of my mother." Stone, ever the adorer, has much to give. But on Building Balance he's shown that he's learned precisely to whom he should give it. - Jacob Uitti

12. Bryony Jarman-Pinto - Cage & Aviary [Tru Thoughts]

Proving once again that London might just be the low-key world capital of modern R&B music, Bryony Jarman-Pinto announced herself to the universe with a debut that pushes the genre forward unlike most anything else released in 2019. How so? Just have a listen to the Erykah Badu-ness of "Sun Kissed" before twisting down groove road toward "Sweet Sweet", a jazzy number that calls upon a similar genre-mashing artist like Somi.

Then there's "Saffron Yellow", which combines all the musical worlds in which Jarman-Pinto lives while calling London her home these days. It's all unique and wildly special — perhaps the best LP nobody heard this year. 'bout time to change that, don't you think? - Colin McGuire

11. Anderson .Paak - Ventura [Aftermath]

Anderson .Paak is the definition of Unexpected. You wouldn't expect such an artist to release two albums of stellar proportion in the span of five months, as he did with 2018's Oxnard and 2019's Ventura. You wouldn't expect an artist with such eclectic roots to be associated with Dr. Dre and Aftermath, but the pairing works seamlessly. And you likely wouldn't expect an artist to feature a legend like André 3000 on the opening track, risking personal creative diminishment. But damn if that isn't what Anderson .Paak did on his latest release.

To whit, the musician offers an array of genres and sounds on Ventura. He raps with Chance the Rapper-like bravado on "Jet Black", sings like Curtis Mayfield on "Make It Better", and produces the beat like Questlove and the Roots on "King James". All blended into a healthy mix to take with you and enjoy as you move about your day. And move, you will. Anderson .Paak is not for the stationary or the dull. While the nuances of his music are unexpected, that it inspires is anything but. - Jacob Uitti

10. Solange - When I Get Home [Columbia]

Another year, another exceptional Solange album. At this point, Beyonce's infinitely more interesting sister almost feels like the R&B Kendrick Lamar, with her no-fucks-to-give songcraft that explores the distance between pop and ambiguity in ways not often seen in the American wing of the genre. It's a masterclass in individuality and an inspiration in imagination.

Take "Almeda", which combines Southern roots with a message that might even make Childish Gambino smile. "Way to the Show" then hints at Janelle Monae futurism while keeping things strictly Solange, her subdued vocals taking a backseat to the hook, which will stick in your head for days. Then, there's "Time (is)", which, with an assist from UK crooner Sampha, provides a mesmerizing first half before kicking into some semblance of a groove that won't let go of your consciousness. - Colin McGuire

9. Mavis Staples - We Get By [Anti-]

The gift that is Ms. Mavis Staples keeps on giving decades after the Staples Singers. Her latest release, 2019's We Get By, is as stunning as any the vocalist has laid unto the world. The album opens with the mighty, "Change", a blues song so gravely that you can hear rock 'n' roll blossom from its raw emotion. On the second track, "Anytime", Staples sings wryly in her divine voice, "I'm a fighter, I'm a lover. There is no other way. Could be one or the other on any given day." In the album's titular third track, Staples croons with the songwriter, Ben Harper, about hope and the notion that things, if dark, will assuredly see light again, darling.

These themes continue throughout the beautiful, heart-filling 11-track record, which proves, yet again, that Mavis Staples is an American treasure. The Hall of Fame artist seems to live to sing and to remind her audience that it's going to be okay sooner or later. Perhaps that's why, at 80 years old, Staples is still thriving both atop the charts and in our hearts. - Jacob Uitti

8. Kehlani - While We Wait [Atlantic]

"Patience could've done us well," Kehlani sings on the Musiq Soulchild collab "Footsteps". "'Cause I could tell that all we lack was presence."

Wise words for a 24-year-old, even if that 24-year-old has been in the music business since she was about 14. Yet while age is typically nothing but a number, While We Wait marks the arrival of a fully developed artist confronting all the centuries-old rules of heartbreak. Not only is the former PopLyfe star tired of fighting, as she proclaims on "Footsteps", but she's also kinda pissed/kinda excited that "you make it way to hard to think that this could be what true love is" on "Feels", which is, appropriately, an entire mood.

Clocking in at only a little more than a half-hour, these nine tracks combine to form a forgotten value in contemporary music: less is more. While We Wait makes anyone listening that much more impatient to see what's next from such an essential artist. - Colin McGuire

7. Raphael Saadiq - Jimmy Lee [Columbia]

Gone is the throwback of 2008's The Way I See It. Rarely do the echoes of psychedelia that painted 2011's Stone Rollin' pop up. Instead, Jimmy Lee feels like Raphael Saadiq at his most real. Named after his brother and accompanied by a short documentary, it's tough not to see this collection as a peak in a career littered with them.

Just look at the moody storytelling of "Something Keeps Calling", which is elevated by its musical simplicity, moving out of the spotlight's way, allowing the singer to command the attention he deserves. But then, as Raphael Saadiq often does, he switches it up by bringing the block party with the hip-hop infused funk of "So Ready", which is accentuated with delicious bass riffage. It's no surprise, then, that the gospel-leaning "Rikers Island" feels like a giant exhale by the time the end of the record comes around, leaving listeners feeling like they just took one of the most introspective musical journeys they could take in 2019.

It's a voyage that makes us all hope he doesn't take another eight years before picking us up for another ride. - Colin McGuire

6. Brittany Howard - Jamie [ATO]

Jaime, the debut solo album from Brittany Howard, of Alabama Shakes fame, is more like a literary memoir than a musical album. The album is named after Howard's sister, who passed away at the age of 13 from a rare form of eye cancer. However, the album is not about Jaime. Rather, Jaime resurrects moments from Howard's history as direct informants to the present moment. Much as her other ventures, Jaime is musically boundless with tracks combining the best of funk, alt-country, blues, with even streaks of rap and contemporary R&B.

That is precisely the reason why Howard is such an exciting artist; she is purposeful in her subversion of social norms as well as genre conventions. She uses Jaime as a platform to showcase the genre's best qualities, melded together to form an eclectic and inspired amalgamation. Jaime is as fun as it is meaningful, demonstrating a new perspective of itself to listeners after repeated listens. - Elisabeth Woronzoff

5. Emeli Sandé - Real Life [Virgin EMI]

In a year when we have witnessed images of children in cages in the US, the deep suffering of the Syrian and Yemeni people, rising knife crime in the UK, and rampant gun violence in the US, Emeli Sandé comes along with the right album at the right time. Real Life is a maximalist R&B/pop album with massive songs meant for the Royal Albert Hall, as is Sande's specialty. But the record also addresses “real life" while keeping hope alive. The world may be difficult and unbearable for many at the moment, but things can get better if we love and support each other, embrace the true beauty of multiculturalism, and tear down the borders between us.

"You Are Not Alone" speaks directly to those of us who are somehow different from the mainstream "norm"; in my case, a lesbian, music-obsessed, DIY, non-corporate, indie publisher. "Human" dissects the dark of our present reality but finds the commonalities that make us human beings. "Sparrow" and "Shine" are enormous anthems of empowerment and hope. If you need a real touch of warmth and love during these times, reach for Sandé's Real Life. Like the best soul music, it uplifts, refreshes, and makes you feel whole again. - Sarah Zupko

4. Jordan Rakei - Origin [Ninja Tune]

Origin is singer, multi-instrumentalist and producer Jordan Rakei's follow up to his superb 2017 album Wallflower. Musically, it's a vibrant and deftly blended mix of smooth jazz, classic soul, and cool funk with a sprinkling of 1990s R&B and hip-hop. If blending all of those disparate elements wasn't ambitious enough, Rakei also ties the songs on the album around a single unifying theme - that of our slow, submission to, ever more intrusive, advancements in technology.

As a result, lyrically, Rakei casts his net a little further on Origin, drawing on his wider anxieties and fears about the effect technology is having on the human experience. Fortunately, these broadly dystopian themes don't detract from the wonderfully vividly rich, hook-laden songs as Rakei wrenches himself clear of his comfort zone to dazzling effect. - Paul Carr

3. Durand Jones and the Indications - American Love Call [Dead Oceans / Colemine]

Durand Jones and the Indications deliver yet again with their sophomore release, American Love Call. It ends up a little slower, more somber than the group's first album, music to contemplate rather than to get down to on the dance floor. The group wears this new hat well, sounding every bit as old-school cool as ever while commenting on contemporary social issues in a way that shows as much consciousness as it does musical cohesion.

"Morning in America" opens the album, every bit as hefty in its subject matter as it sounds, belying its rolling midtempo. The song touches on political bureaucracy, the opioid crisis, heavy metals in Michigan water, and general inequities from coast to coast. Such range and care throughout American Love Call cement Durand Jones and the Indications' place in modern music - as artists working with today and yesterday in a way that shows a true understanding of both. - Adriane Pontecorvo

2. Jamila Woods - LEGACY! LEGACY! [Jagjaguwar/Closed Sessions]

The legacy of artist Jamila Woods is both assured and still being written. Woods is a stalwart example of dualism. She is both a poet and a popular musician (no easy feat). She is the teacher of traumatic history, and she is a celebratory, self-loving human being.

Her latest record, LEGACY! LEGACY!, is both a master solo release and a tribute to myriad heroes of color from history. Each title on the album is an all-caps name like thoughtful "FRIDA" (as in Kahlo), neo-soul "MILES" (as in Davis), or frenetic "BASQUIAT". But more than the song titles, the record displays Woods' delicate though sturdy voice, a tone so unique that you can't easily tire of it. "FRIDA" is a part-R&B and part-spoken word track about love. "SONIA" is part-ballad and part-devastating hip-hop song advising of men who aren't worth a woman's time.

These songs feel like individual baptisms as much as compositions; a series of rivers one can step in and cleanse off all that sullies. - Jacob Uitti

1. Michael Kiwanuka – Kiwanuka [Polydor/Interscope]

Nobody listens to complete albums anymore, or at least that is the conventional wisdom in some musical circles. Fortunately, there are still visionary artists in many genres who are creating album-length statements that are worth hearing. British soul/folk rocker Michael Kiwanuka, who released his self-titled third album in November, is one such artist. Kiwanuka is filled with luminous songs that probably sound great on their own, but sound even better within the context of the complete album.

One such song, the engaging "You Ain't the Problem", opens Kiwanuka and has already garnered radio play on some genre-bending stations. "You Ain't the Problem" and the equally upbeat, somewhat psychedelic second track, "Rolling" draws listeners into the album. From that point out, the album becomes a journey that ends with two lush but ghostly ballads, "Solid Ground" and "Light" that bring the album to a hushed, spiritual conclusion light years away from where it began.

From beginning to end, Kiwanuka sounds like a contemporary classic at the same time as it sounds like it would have been a classic 45 years ago. Or 45 years from now. - Rich Wilhelm

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