10. Jorja Smith – Be Right Back [FAMM]
English pop/R&B singer-songwriter Jorja Smith broke out in 2016 with the stunning single “Blue Lights” and its interpolations of Dizzie Rascal’s “Sirens”. It racked up the Soundcloud streams, launched her career based on sophisticated jazzy soul-pop, and was the lead single from her 2018 debut album, Lost & Found. Since then, Smith has steadily released fabulous singles, cementing her sound while working with some fabulous dance producers to keep her music distinct.
Smith entered 2021 with a string of top-notch singles on tap, including the year’s lead-off “Addicted”, a spare ballad with gentle shuffling beats and Smith’s vocals out front slinking around the melody with her mellifluous singing. The track is tinted with regret and sadness as Smith laments a relationship that isn’t working where her love says they should be “addicted” to her. “Busstown” dips into some mellow afrobeats as Shaybo raps her verses alongside Smith’s dreamy vocalizing. Like all her music, the song illustrates Smith’s exquisite taste and musical instincts. Elements are kept to a sweet minimum, with every note and beat feeling natural and deliberate. – Sarah Zupko
9. Yola – Stand For Myself [Easy Eye Sound]
It takes an artist of considerable talent to create their own world through their sound, and Yola fully and confidently occupies that rarified air. Genre restrictions melt away as R&B, country, pop, gospel, and rock all intermingle and make something wholly her own. Constructed like a journey of self-empowerment, Yolanda Quartey’s sophomore LP begins with the need-to-be-heard-and-accepted anthem “Barely Alive”, and ends with the determination of the hypnotically powerful title track.
In between, we’re treated to the otherworldly disco beauty of “Dancing Away in Tears” (co-written with Dan Auerbach – who returns to the producer’s chair – and Natalie Hemby), the joyous resilience against the odds of “Diamond Studded Shoes”, the seductive soulful sway of “Starlight”, and the roof-raising Stax/Volt drive of “Break the Bough”. Brandi Carlile joins on the remarkable “Be My Friend”, a song that makes one think of early ’70s Free (not only because it shares the same title as one of their classics). It just solidifies Yola‘s genre-be-damned ambitions and ability to walk through fire to bring them to fruition. – Michael Elliott
8. Durand Jones & The Indications – Private Space [Dead Oceans]
Varied choices in instrumentation help Durand Jones & The Indications craft a new atmosphere in Private Space. The vibraphone makes a welcome appearance, especially at the hands of Joel Ross, a modern-day Milt Jackson who was jamming with Herbie Hancock as a high schooler and has already become a veteran jazz sideman at the ripe young age of 25. Strings are peppered throughout their second album, American Love Call, and an eight-piece string section gets plenty of air time throughout their third. The band members’ influences and interests are far-reaching. As a younger artist, Durand Jones envisioned carving out a career in classical music. As of now, though, he’s destined to deliver feel-good jams reminiscent of Stevie Wonder, like the album’s opening track, “Love Will Work It Out”.
As the pandemic wears on, we’re in dire need of something to get us on our feet and shaking our hips, and fortunately for us, Durand and the crew are no strangers to the art of getting bodies moving. Enter “Witchoo” as the perfect remedy. It’s a summer soul jam anchored by steady thumping bass, plus Jones and Frazer taking turns on vocals. It’s a banger that would feel equally at home in the club and your living room. “Reach Out” is nearly as delicious, boasting a 1980s dancefloor atmosphere built by a heavy dose of synthesizer and backup vocals from disco-innovating duo 79.5. – Richard Moriarty
7. Jordan Rakei – What We Call Life [Ninja Tune]
London-based neo-soul artist Jordan Rakei‘s latest album is an elegant, soulful collection of pretty ballads and lovely midtempo numbers recalling outstanding 1970s soul records by angelic-voiced crooners like Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, or Teddy Pendergrass. The beautiful sounds on What We Call Life embrace classic R&B with contemporary soul-pop, a fantastic melding that brings a freshness to a classic sound. A wide-ranging talent, Rakei has created a warm kaleidoscope of sounds on What We Call Life, content to stitch together disparate sounds and instrumentation to develop exquisite harmony.
Though the singles are high points on What We Call Life, the album cuts are just as compelling. The title track is a shimmery, ethereal ballad with cryptic, moving lyrics that smolder underneath the undulating wall-to-wall production. “Illusion” is a light, beguiling midtempo synthpop tune that recalls ’80s MTV pop. And the dark and moody “Brace” is a thick, gnarly electronic ballad that boasts a broad soundscape of dark stirring strings and synths.
The talent behind What We Call Life is overwhelming. Aside from being a gifted musician and lyricist, he also has a gorgeous voice, soulful and thrilling. Building on the excellence of his previous albums, What We Call Life is easily one of this year’s best albums. – Peter Piatkowski
6. Rochelle Jordan – Play With the Changes [Young Art]
As the world gradually reopened in 2021, people returned to spaces forever changed, physically and psychologically, by the (still ongoing) pandemic. Nightlife, one of the most missed qualities of pre-Covid days, is now back, too, but in a state far different than before, at least to those with the wherewithal to consider the risks it now poses. Rochelle Jordan, too, entered 2021 after a period of career stagnation, a purgatory she emerges from not entirely stronger than before (“Broken Steel”) but certainly more prepared to face it (“Count It”).
Cohesive, poignant, and most importantly, earwormy as all hell, Play With the Changes sees her reentering a new world and artistic stage with an admirable level of assurance. It kicks up the tempo on her R&B roots with bits of new jack swing, drum ‘n’ bass, and something like that of fellow Canadian Kaytranada (“Already”), tonal shifts she questioned for herself during recording. While one might use this new sound, especially upbeat dance tracks, to overpower such doubts, Play With the Changes directly addresses them.
Jordan deals with uncertainty using tactical precision, keen enough to pick up on problems but self-aware enough not to assume the answers. This calculated effort manifests in her voice, rarely ever raised – her candid lyricism and nimble cadence are enough to establish both her swagger and ethos. Rather than pine for worlds or relationships that are, at least for now, out of reach, Play With the Changes adapts to the ones we have already. Most importantly, it never explores how to shrink ourselves to fit within them, but instead how we can grow into them. – Mick Jacobs