In this time of political unrest, racial strife, and pandemic, soul and R&B walked tall and carried a big stick, while also being a much needed balm and source of warmth in 2020.
20. Monophonics - It's Only Us [Colemine]
The Bay Area's indelible psychedelic soul, live-show phenomenon, Monophonics have just released their third full-length, It's Only Us. It combines the raw funk and sheer power of early soul masters with a touch of mind-bending effects in a dub-like vein. Singer Kelly Finnigan and company are calling it as they see it about the common day political state and the overwhelming sense of loneliness. Perhaps from the powers that be, perhaps not even in a political lean, but the theme strikes home for many of us in this day and static age. A proper soul record that smokes from start to finish is a fine way to mitigate the norms, social and otherwise. Simply said, if you can make it past "Chances" without a repeat, you're dead inside.
With one of the best songs of 2020 starting things up, Monophonics stretch an eight-song record to its wildest abyss. Combining spacey build-ups with shuttering vocal effects is just part of the buttery slickness, reminiscent of early Impressions mixed with latter-day Curtis Mayfield too, and a touch of Isaac Hayes, after the acid, of course. Using them as building blocks but completing the assembly in their own sonic fashion with horns aplenty and a rhythm section well-versed in the sanctifications of their predecessors but deep diving to make a sound their own. -- Scott Zuppardo
19. Swamp Dogg - Sorry You Couldn't Make It [Joyful Noise]
At 77 years-young Swamp Dogg's (Jerry Williams Jr.) custom brand of psychedelic, swampy soul and R&B has carried him far and wide since the 1950s. His latest offering Sorry You Couldn't Make It is drenched in all the above but pull away at the layers, and you'll come to realize Swamp Dogg is decidedly country at the foundation. Sure, he loves his horns, we all do, but his country roots are showing on this record, and it's glorious.
You can't fit Swamp Dogg into a box. He's more country than most, more funk than the rest, and has more soul than all of them put together. On this new record, he's laid down sad songs, love songs, songs about death, clairvoyant songs on all facets of the human condition in an emotive pocket that sucks you dry and reinvigorates in one fell swoop. Infectious rhythms, coupled with his silky, smooth delivery, lay the gravel for the record. Built upon by a dream-like backup band featuring Justin Vernon, Jenny Lewis, and key man, figuratively and literally, Derick Lee leading the band that was at times as large as 14 musicians. -- Scott Zuppardo
18. The Budos Band - Long in the Tooth [Daptone]
The title of Staten Island-based instrumental funk group Budos Band's upcoming 15th-anniversary album, Long in the Tooth, is a perhaps obvious but no less satisfying piece of wordplay that speaks to both the group's longevity and style. Evocations of the snake have long been key to Budos releases, fitting visual analogues for the group's serpentine style as they wind back and forth across the borders of retro cinema, golden age Ethiojazz, and psychedelic soul, all with a sinister edge. On Long in the Tooth, we find Budos Band on the attack once more with renewed fervor, fangs truly bared.
Long in the Tooth feels timely as a catharsis, but also mostly unexpected in terms of the immersive soundscapes and unspoken stories it contains. For a group halfway through their second decade -- one that could likely coast on its established fanbase and tried-and-true formula of psych-rock and soul -- this is no small feat. Daptone Records' most roguish staples have an enviable career and a sense of style that keeps on giving, and Long in the Tooth, for its ingenuity, is a vibrant continuation of that. -- Adriane Pontecorvo
17. Orion Sun - Hold Space for Me [Mom + Pop]
Hold Space for Me, the debut album from Orion Sun, neé Tiffany Majette, is an accomplished blend of soul and R&B, with a little hip-hop thrown in as well. Majette, a multi-instrumentalist and songwriter, builds her songs around her singing voice, which is quiet and clear. She tends to create low-key but strong melodies, making her songs a compelling listen that usually don't go for the big pop hook.
There's a sense of intimacy about the album as well. Some of that comes from Majette's tendency towards sparse instrumentation, but her confessional, personal lyrics also draw in the listener. Hold Space for Me is a confident debut record that shows Orion Sun is very much in control of what she wants to do. She seems to know that her voice is her great strength right now, and she lets it stay front and center through the whole album. -- Chris Conaton
16. Khruangbin and Leon Bridges - Texas Sun [Dead Oceans]
Leon Bridges and Khruangbin collaborate for Texas Sun, a four-song EP that is indebted to their home state. Since the Alamo and the problematic intent and effect of manifest destiny, Texas has stood for the lone cowboy image or the rugged individualism side of the American dream, but that discredits the vast diversity that represents the state today. A majority of the Texas population is non-white and has been for 15 years. On "Midnight", Bridges sings "midnight black on the outside" in a tale of driving across Fort Worth with classic American romantic imagery. It's a deft extension of Bridges' boilerplate political lyrics on songs like "Bad Bad News" from his 2018 album Good Thing.
It adds up to Texas Sun maybe being each artists' best work. Leon Bridges loosens up a bit out of his stuffy old-soul persona, and Khruangbin thrive in taking a more ornamental role amidst a loose pop structure. The downside is that the EP only lasts 20 minutes and highlights this as a more gauzy one-off rather than a definitive artistic statement. Texas Sun should certainly act as a template for both artists – though especially Bridges – to pursue more varied sounds to jolt listeners and themselves out of their comfort zones. -- Andrew Cox
15. Son Little - Aloha [Anti-]
Son Little (real name: Aaron Earl Livingston), one of many current artists remaking soul music in their distinctive way, gets right to work on his new album Aloha, hitting listeners with the super catchy and decidedly sexy "Hey Rose". "Hey Rose / Your soul is the picture," Little sings, "But your body is the frame / But the frame is exquisite / And you taste just like your name." While those lyrics could be the most disastrous romantic lines ever, Little conveys them perfectly, his raspy but likable voice accompanied by minimal guitar chords and handclaps. Even within the seduction, there is a sense of foreboding: as the song ends, the couple are "engaged in lovers games", but the singer then pleads, "can I hold you till these dark dreams fade?"
"Hey Rose" is one of those album-opening songs that is so engaging that it might take listeners a while to get beyond it and settle into the rest of Aloha. But as the album unfolds, it becomes clear that Son Little is doing his best to balance feelings of ecstasy and despair.
14. Jarrod Dickenson - Ready the Horses [Independent]
Jarrod Dickenson isn't from Memphis, but you wouldn't know it from Ready the Horses. Several of the songs on the Nashville via Brooklyn via Texas singer-songwriter's country-soul album wouldn't sound out of place on a Stax release from 1968. These tracks feature lively horn blowing, gospel organ grooves, and R&B riffs filtered through a rural sensibility reminiscent of that soulful stew from the Grind City in the past. The more acoustic songs serve as just the other side of the coin in the way those old Stax singles used B-sides to promote the softer sides of their artists.
Be that as it may, there's also something timeless about Dickenson's music. He's not retrofitting old styles for today. It's just that his newfangled compositions have deep roots in traditions. That's why it's surprising that Ready the Horses was recorded live in a studio on the southeast coast of England about three years ago. The album sounds new, even though it was initially released in the United Kingdom on a major label (Decca) back in 2017. Since then, he's put out more recent recordings in the US.
13. The Ruthie Foster Big Band - Live at the Paramount [Blue Corn Music]
On 26 January 2019, the Ruthie Foster Big Band took the stage at the historic Paramount Theater in Austin. Foster's most recent release centralizes the big band era as the artist moving away from her renowned blues persona. Backed by a guitarist, keyboardist, bassist, drummer, ten horn players, vocalists, and conductor, Foster was not to be outdone: her power is unmistakable throughout. Featuring several originals paired with timeless covers, Live at the Paramount finds the Ruthie Foster Big Band bringing the house down.
Foster sets the album's tone by opening with her own "Brand New Day" and "Might Not Be Right". With the hushed background vocals and limited percussion, she delivers her vocal magnitude. "Brand New Day" regenerates a positive energy much as it did when it was first released in 2014. "Might Not Be Right" expresses her support of gay marriage despite homophobia's ubiquity. Perhaps not an entirely radical sentiment, her standpoint is subversive for the blues genre. More so, her message, "they speculate and hate / negative thoughts don't control my fate", is an enduring axiom. Foster's approach to blues was never to wallow in pessimism. She often illustrates, and do so readily on this release, how times of defeat make way for light. -- Elisabeth Woronzoff
12. Gregory Porter - All Rise [Blue Note]
All Rise represents the forefront of the evolution of contemporary jazz. Clocking in at just over 73 minutes (61 on the standard version), Gregory Porter makes apt use of "his longtime loyal bandmates, a handpicked horn section, a 10-member choir, and the London Symphony Orchestra Strings". While the sounds vary throughout the album, the songs share a lush, soothing, self-assured energy, whether Porter is singing about flying with "wings like an eagle" from God's grace on the high-energy gospel anthem "Revival", or potentially becoming a foolish martyr to an illusory love on "If Love is Overrated".
The album has a sort of ingrained humility that matches Porter's lyrical persona. It does not feel as if Porter is hiding any of his talents from the audience, but at the same time, he never seems to be self-indulgent. "Everything You Touch Is Gold" is quite the clever ode to a loved one that puts a subtle spin on the adage from King Midas who turned everything that he touched into gold. Porter's diction creates a more open-ended phrase than the traditional "everything you touch turns to gold". Did his lover turn his soul into gold, or was it already so, just waiting for her graceful presence to complement it? --Semassa Boko
11. Cassowary - Cassowary [Fat Possum]
With the release of his self-titled debut album, it is time to add Cassowary to the list of young artists who are moving 21st-century soul music in all kinds of intriguing directions. Cassowary is a thoroughly modern album that happens to be filled with music that might intrigue old school fans, especially those who are looking for new music that takes off in adventurous directions from musical touchstones of the past.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, the 25-year-old artist who calls himself Cassowary is a multi-instrumentalist with musical roots that dig deep in jazz, funk, soul, and hip-hop. Cassowary arrives at a satisfying conclusion with the final part of "114˚", reminding listeners of the jazz-based roots of both the album and artist, as well as demonstrating how vital the intersection of jazz, soul, funk, and hip-hop continues to be. -- Rich Wilhelm
10. Kylie Minogue - Disco [BMG]
Kylie Minogue is well aware of the irony of releasing a dance-pop album called Disco during a year when going out to clubs isn't a good idea or even a possibility. But with the release of her highly anticipated 15th studio album, following her 2018 venture with the cowgirl hat on Golden, the beloved Aussie pop queen wants us to envision disco—both her new album and the genre at large—as a state of mind.
Although dancing at nightclubs is not a reality right now, Disco and its fun-loving, dance-heavy production and themes have arrived at the exact right time to provide us yet another escape from a global crisis and American election turmoil. An artist like Minogue making a disco album is certainly nothing revolutionary or groundbreaking, considering she helped bring the genre to the 21st century with albums like Light Years, Fever, or Aphrodite. The difference now is that the singer has reached a stage in her life and career where appreciating the little things is more important than pushing boundaries. In the process of creating Disco, Minogue has captured the essence of what has always made her compelling: ignoring expectations and dancing the tears away. -- Jeffrey Davies
9. Don Bryant - You Make Me Feel [Fat Possum]
Don Bryant's third full-length LP You Make Me Feel is one that does just that. Feel the opening salvo of horns and salvation on "Your Love Is to Blame", soul-fired straight-right to the frontal lobe, the first of a one-two opening combination. The Octogenarian is laying down some of the hottest soul and blues on the planet.
That's in part due to piping hot producer and songwriter Scott Bomar who scored the delightful movie Dolemite Is My Name and co-wrote the album opener with Bryant's wife of 50 years, bonafide legend, Ann Peebles in mind. Another part, the backing band featuring members of the ultra-legendary Hi Rhythm section — Howard Grimes, Archie "Hubbie" Turner, and Charles Hodges, who played on hits by Al Green and Ann Peebles — with members of St. Paul and the Broken Bones, the Bo-Keys, Gregg Allman Band, the HamilTones, and the Sensational Barnes Brothers – culminating with the brilliant singing and songwriting of Bryant. -- Scott Zuppardo
8. Ariana Grande - Positions [Republic]
Because Positions isn't really about the seasons of Ariana Grande's soul, because the sex isn't with anyone you might recognize, it's hard not to see this as a victory lap, a lightweight capstone to the monstrous recent run of albums that minted her as pop's empress. Positions is about craft. But what craft! Her sly way of writing about sex seems anachronistic in the "WAP" age ("hard to think when I'm under you," she flutters on "Obvious").
"My Hair" finds her approximating Diplo's distant-chipmunk trick with her whistle register, which she banked on early in her career but nowadays pulls out merely as an afterthought. There's a string section throughout, in case you were wondering if those still exist, and they're not the sad MIDI kind we get on a lot of pop ballads but the Nelson Riddle kind that sweep and swoon around her voice like one of her sumptuous dresses. You can hear the tension on the individual strings as they illustrate her sighs and innuendos. There's a real sense of a budget, of humans at work. -- Daniel Bromfield
7. Lianne La Havas - Lianne La Havas [Nonesuch]
Lianne La Havas' eponymous third record suggests that she knows that there is more to existing than just the bare facts. There is a larger design. This mix of spirituality and sensuality has her declare "I'm born again" on the album's opening track "Bittersweet". She repeats the sentiment to declare that she's not content with being passive as things happen to her. La Havas is now taking an active role in shaping her life. She may be reborn, but she's not a baby.
"Bittersweet" sets the theme of the album. The lyrics are matched by the music: sophisticated, stylish, and intimate. Even when La Havas raises her voice, she restrains herself from taking things to extremes. There is something smooth, soft, and refined about the material. It's tasteful without being slick. There is a formal elegance that evokes being chic without limited to being fashionable. -- Steve Horowitz
6. Childish Gambino – 15.3.20 [RCA]
The true pleasure in watching Donald Glover evolve as an actor, musician, and cultural critic is anticipating his disruption of expectations. In each manifestation, and with each cultural contribution, Glover deliberately defies intention and probability. As Childish Gambino, the recent release 3.15.20 is an astute cultural examination of the current political and social situation while also avowing love and humanity. The rollout of 3.15.20 was a little clunky, first appearing on donaldgloverpresents.com then disappearing only to have a few tracks stream continuously. Regardless of whether this was a tactic to score more attention, the result is perfectly timed.
As COVID-19 forces individuals into accepting the digital connection and subsequent social disconnect, society is ensconced in the digital realm more than ever. Glover wasn't exactly predicting social distancing, but 3.15.20 is prophetic in its criticism of the exceedingly blurred overlap between humanity and the digital. A disconnect Glover defines as exasperated by the current health crisis and the underlying oppressive social norms. -- Elisabeth Woronzoff
5. Jyoti - Mama, You Can Bet [SomeOthaShipConnect]
Jyoti's (aka Georgia Anne Muldrow) Mama, You Can Bet! is a revelation -- of time, of rhythm, of sound. It takes the free-ranging jazz sensibilities of her previous outings under the Jyoti moniker (follows 2013's Denderah and 2010's Ocotea) and gives them a next-level boost. The legendary Alice Coltrane gave her this nickname, and Muldrow certainly puts all of her musical wisdom and power behind it.
This time, she adds depth through what is perhaps her best instrument, her voice. This acts as a contrast to what we've been fortunate and accustomed to hearing from her in the realm of R&B, hip-hop, and spacey funk. Is there a "post-funk" label we could apply here? If so, maybe we should.
Artistically, the real soul of this album, and the key to its conceptual underpinnings, rests with Muldrow's nimble retooling of two Charles Mingus compositions. Take the seductive wail and brassy sway of Mingus' "Bemoanable Lady" and then listen to Muldrow's "gee mix" in which she snips it, chops it, and flips it, adding crisp percussion along with a haunting and swirling shriek. Pianist Jason Moran, of Washington D.C.'s Kennedy Center, recruited Muldrow for a live set dubbed "Muldrow Meets Mingus". Well, this is Mingus meets Funkadelic. Transformed into loops, "The Revolution" has been digitized, undulating, and cyclical, so that "now" is intertwined with "then". The result asks us to reconfigure our conceptions of "time".
4. Mourning [A] BLKstar - The Cycle [Don Giovanni]
The Cycle is the latest from Mourning [A] BLKstar, an Ohio-based collective boasting three lead singers, horns, and insistent, portending grooves, There's no way not to recognize this band's roots in Afrofuturism; it's also impossible to hear them as anything other than starkly original. And for anyone who's kept up with them since their debut, the mood has gotten noticeably darker, something The Cycle makes clear.
This album's spring 2020 release exposes music that can't help but seem like a reaction to the current moment. It demands an end to systemic racism and its representative monuments, alongside the inequalities brought to center stage by COVID-19, render this country once and for all as a nation forced to finally take a look at the rotten stench of economic and racial apartheid. Part of The Cycle's in-the-moment feel also comes from the fact that this is largely a live-to-tape record, capturing the buzz and hum of their Cleveland, Ohio studio and using that undercurrent to fantastic, vibrating effect. The Cycle is necessary, secular gospel for the healing of a truly damaged nation. -- Bruce Miller
3. Thaba - Eyes Rest Their Feet [Soundway Records]
Well-polished and blissfully full, Thaba's Eyes Rest Their Feet is a stream of cool, downtempo melody. It balances emotional grit with almost uncanny sonic finesse in different ways from the low-gravity bouncing of faux-retro opener "Old Tapes" to the eerie, slow-motion finale "Brew". It's hard to have to know that Seremane's passing came as he and Cyr were on the brink of more, to hear such unique collaborations and wonder what could have been.
Eyes Rest Their Feet's opening line is a gloomy piece of realism: "Sometimes your dreams will die / Those that were worth a fight." Khusi Seremane sings it about love, but it's as true about any given dream. Thaba consistently sound like a dream, moving as they do at strange speeds, through electronic vapors. It is full of hypotheticals, but none so worth discussing as what the duo has already realized. For whatever the long-term dream might have been, what Thaba offers here is striking in its affective impact.
2. Thundercat - It Is What It Is [Brainfeeder]
Stephen "Thundercat" Bruner has always been poised as the modern era's answer to Jaco Pastorius. For better or worse, though, Bruner's prodigious chops, flashy technique, and apparent hunger to express himself across a vast range of styles have always taken a backseat to the zany personality his records exude. With It Is What It Is, both Bruner's bid for bass-icon status and the eccentricity of his presentation become subordinate to the unabashed loveliness of the songs. For the first time, Bruner wrangles a sense of flow out of his reflex to throw everything and the kitchen sink into his music. Moreover, It Is What It Is honors the legacy of classic R&B/soul. But, where so many others are content to just mimic the production aesthetic that made classic soul records from the '60s and '70s so vibrant, Bruner keeps one foot anchored in the present. Remarkably, Bruner has managed to breathe new life and color into one of the most fertile musical traditions one can draw from.—Saby Reyes-Kulkarni
1. SAULT - UNTITLED (Black Is) [Forever Living Originals]
The first of two "Untitled" albums released this year by British trio Sault was announced to "mark a moment in time where we as Black People, and of Black Origin are fighting for our lives," according to their Twitter feed. Member and producer Dean "Inflo" Wynton Josiah's sparse production leaves no note to waste for nearly an hour. In their Tweet announcing their album, Sault mentioned George Floyd, but (Black Is)'s reach is global, urging us to remember the lessons of Rwanda and Uganda. Repeated declarations of "rise up" reverberate throughout (Black Is).
The soothing voices heard throughout (Black Is) and inviting synth and percussion still reveal the wounded, bruised heart of the album. The deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor brought thousands of people to march not only in the United States but around the world. While we are still waiting to see if meaningful change will come, (Black Is) serves as an inspiring, and essential documentation of a time when sitting on the sidelines no longer became an option. -- Sean McCarthy