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.

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