best-rnb-soul-albums-2020

The 20 Best R&B/Soul Albums of 2020

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.

10. Kylie Minogue – Disco [BMG]

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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]

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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]

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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]

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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]

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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

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