Best R&B Soul of 2021
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The 15 Best R&B/Soul Albums of 2021

In these challenging times, soul and R&B walked tall and carried a big stick, while also being a much-needed balm and source of warmth in 2021.

5. Genesis Owusu – Smiling With No Teeth [House Anxiety/Ourness]

Genesis Owusu Smiling With No Teeth

Smiling With No Teeth pairs sometimes shocking or downright dark situations against characteristics that seem their opposite: sprinting tempos and/or smooth grooves. The black dog motif, a lycanthropic condition that torments and lives within the narrator, tells its own tale here, a predator hidden among melodies. Chains fashioned as jewelry, depressive episodes refurnished into personal shelters. Instead of simply denouncing depravity, Genesis Owusu acknowledges its tempting power; how easy to get swept up in the primal rush. He embodies seven deadly sins simply through his vocal dexterity. Owusu growls in a lower register, flits in his tenor, yelps quite like a canine, and warbles in all types of Auto-tune.

At moments when the fog clears, Owusu bursts forth in moments of clarity as distinct as they are poignant. Of course, there’s the obvious “Don’t Need You”, the catchiest kiss-off dedicated, inexplicably, to our lowest moments. Sorry, depression, the “temples [are] at capacity”. The flip side of that sunnier disposition is what follows the midway point when the album relies less on metaphor and more on explicit, uncomfortable personal experience. Owusu rattles off microaggressions, tragedies, and abuse through often palatable means, like the pleasing rhyme scheme of “datable” to “debatable” or the Full House theme interpolation of “No Looking Back”. But as he smiles with no teeth, he continues to carry on the only way he knows how in an industry and world that still fail to grasp the true magnitude of what it asks of him. – Mick Jacobs

4. Jungle – Loving in Stereo [Caiola Records/AWAL]

Jungle Loving in Stereo

Jungle have stretched their musical muscles on Loving in Stereo. The British producers specialize in creating space for people to creatively move and groove to artistic backdrops with creative visual elements and muscular electronic instrumentation. Their rhythms bounce back in forth in loops and layers of reverberation on tracks such as “Talk About It”, “Truth”, and “What D’You Know About Me”. They invite listeners to trip over their own two feet in the best sense of the term.

On the more soulful tracks, such as “Dry Your Eyes”, “All of the Time” and “Lifting You”, the rhythms snake through a psychedelic tangle of sounds. These are tunes for the head as much as the body and offer a grander perspective on the dignity of human feelings, like putting a still life in a gilded frame. Overall, the songs on the new album are short. Most are under three minutes. However, one can easily imagine extended versions of each as they lend themselves to being set on repeat on repeat on repeat. It’s time to open the disco. – Steve Horowitz

3. Dawn Richard – Second Line [Merge]

Dawn Richard Second Line

Since 2011, Dawn Richard has followed her own idiosyncratic music, putting out a series of brilliant albums, mixtapes, and EPs that sought to explore and expand on the boundaries of pop, soul, and dance music. With her latest, Second Line, Richard continues to thrill listeners with some beautiful, fascinating music. Working with various producers, including Joe Beats, Kaveh Rastegar, J-Rick, Sam O.B., and Ila Orbis, Second Line is a gorgeous record with some fantastic, strange, esoteric sounds that play with house and club conventions. It’s a pioneering record and easily one of the best of the year.

There’s a concept or theme laced throughout Second Line; Richard pays tribute to New Orleans, her birthplace. The title refers to the traditional parades of New Orleans, hosted by the Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs. “Second Line” refers specifically to the group of people who follow the first line, reveling in the music and fellowship. For much of New Orleans culture and lore, music is an integral part of the narrative, and so it makes sense that in her homage to such a rich tradition, Richard creates a whirl of an album with a dizzying array of sounds. — Peter Piatkowski

2. Joy Crookes – Skin [Sony/Insanity]

Joy Crookes Skin

Joy Crookes emerged this year with a set of singles from Skin that announced her as a significant new pop/R&B talent. Songs like “Feet Don’t Fail Me Now”, “When You Were Mine”, “Trouble”, and “Skin” all sounded like instant classics, and indeed they have genuinely become just that in a short period. Add in a truly generational voice, and Crookes has it all and knocks it out of the park on her debut album. Crookes’ vocals have that completely original quality similar to other brilliant vocalists like Billie Holiday, Judy Garland, and Ella Fitzgerald. She doesn’t sound like any of those artists but is entirely distinctive. Once you’ve heard her sing, you’ll always know a new Crookes song when you listen to it. To transcend the pop/R&B landscape of corporate sameyness takes an exceptional talent indeed.

“When You Were Mine” evokes the nostalgic vibe of Amy Winehouse’s best tracks with the wistful horn tones and remembrances of how her man wasn’t quite such a great catch when he was hers. “Feet Don’t Fail Me Now” sports slinky rhythms, jazzy beats, and Crookes’ vocals surrounded by orchestral strings that bring the necessary pathos and dramatic intensity to the tune. Those two songs hit number one on the UK Asian Top 40 chart. Meanwhile, she goes in for some lovely soul-pop on “Trouble” and fills her album with an overall soul-jazz vibe, which is just about as perfect a combination as you can imagine. – Sarah Zupko

1. Rudimental – Ground Control [Asylum / Atlantic / Major Tom’s]

Rudimental Ground Control

London electrosoul collective Rudimental are among the UK’s best singles artists. Track after track racks up the streams and high-charting positions, as their songs have irresistible melodies, warm vibes, and killer beats, often of the drum’n’bass variety. Rudimental typically team with up-and-coming R&B singers for their bangers and groove-laden songs. They literally helped launch the careers of Emeli Sande, John Newman, Will Heard, and Mahalia through hits they loaded up onto their first two albums, Home and We the Generation.

This year’s bevy of singles continued in that same brilliant vein with “Be the One’s” smooth soul carrying over from 2020. “Straight From the Heart” greeted the new year with banging, deep beats, Nørskov’s sweet vocals, poppy synths, and percussive horns. Clearly meant as a club number, the track brought bright smiles and feelings during a very dark time. The group slow things on the wistful, nostalgic ballad “So Sorry” with Skream” that verges into dream-pop territory. “Remember Their Names” goes for gentle, skittering beats and impassioned singing from Josh Barry. It also has that slight nostalgic sheen and soulful vocals that make the music feel full of heat.

It wouldn’t be a proper Rudimental album if there weren’t a few excursions into hip-hop. After all, Dizzee Rascal was the best thing that happened to “Love Ain’t Just a Word” from 2015. Ground Control features the Game, D Double E, BackRoad Gee taking the MC duties on the grime-drenched “Instajets”, another absolute banger of a tune. Rudimental’s music broadly draws from R&B/soul, hip-hop, dance, pop, and drum’n’bass, giving them a vast palette to create new music. That and the continuous collaboration keep their music consistently exciting and innovative. – Sarah Zupko