the-15-best-soul-albums-of-2016

The 15 Best R&B/Soul Albums of 2016

2016 has been a banner year for soul music of all stripes with a number of momentous debuts and returns to form from veterans. All the while, soul music keeps pushing forward.

Artist: Corrine Bailey Rae

Album: The Heart Speaks in Whispers

Label: Virgin

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Corrine Bailey Rae
The Heart Speaks in Whispers

The Heart Speaks in Whispers was one of the year’s quietly great soul records, the kind of set that comes, kills and then goes away without the fanfare it probably deserves. Still, Corinne Bailey Rae’s third album was her most expansive yet, with a song like “The Skies Will Break” pushing her hummingbird voice above its driving kick drum in previously unheard ways as “Green Aphrodisiac” recalls Erykah Badu spaced-out vocals over Steely Dan smooth funk. Even “Been to the Moon” sounds like it was written on some faraway planet, all the while contradicting the coffee shop tenderness of “Do You Ever Think of Me?”. Yet that’s who Corinne Bailey Rae is: as versatile as she is imaginative, as talented as she is surprising. The Heart Speaks in Whispers is sonic proof that mastering all those elements of artistry doesn’t have to be nearly as loud as some may think. — Colin McGuire

 

Artist: King

Album: We Are King

Label: King Creative

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King
We Are King

King is a band with a memory, and We Are King shows what a sonically potent thing that can be. The record draws from a distinct lineage of modern black music performance, which it reveres more than it remixes.The band’s willingness to wander connects them to the improvisational jazz tradition, their warm regard for the analog synthesizer swipes the red curtain from Donna Summers’ Bad Girls, and Paris Strothers’ stunning instrumental command anchors the record as distinctly Minneapolis funk, à la Morris Day and the Time.

Elsewhere, the fingerprints of Sade, Janet Jackson and Erykah Badu smudge the lens through which King refracts the light of the world that came before them. In this way, We Are King is a sort of collage, or better yet, given its afro-futuristic scaffolding, a constellation. The stars, it seems to argue, ought to be revisited, not remapped. — Jezy J. Gray

 

Artist: Ngaiire

Album: Blastoma

Label: Self-released

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Ngaiire
Blastoma

Ngaiire’s second album is named after a cancer she had as a child; the songs are driven by experiences that emerge and drastically alter your life. Heartbreak is the main recurring one, but Ngaiire and collaborator Paul Mac have created songs that capture the raw emotions involved in a breakup in such a visceral way that the feelings hit you more than the individual circumstances. If Blastoma has an overriding concept, it’s more one of finding yourself in the lowest possible place and bringing yourself up. There are moments of deep sorrow; for example, a gospel song about how losing someone makes it feel like the divine can’t exist (“I Can’t Hear God Anymore”). There are songs that musically feel like victory even as they voice defeat, and end up feeling like songs of survival for it. And there’s a closing embrace that functions as a welcoming invitation to anyone’s who’s feeling like an outcast: “Fall Into My Arms”. At the center of this all, Ngaiire herself is a riveting presence, using fairly straightforward singing techniques like channeling pure feeling through every quiver of her voice, every movement from one note to the next. — Dave Heaton

 

Artist: James Blake

Album: The Color in Anything

Label: Polydor

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James Blake
The Color in Anything

In the era of superstars and intense media attention, James Blake has maintained a relatively low-key profile. He raised his head above the parapet a few times in 2016, including contributions to Frank Ocean’s Blonde and Beyoncés Lemonade, but his shining moment was his suitably understated third record, providing his trademark blend of futuristic soul, R&B, and electronics. Alongside fellow pioneers the xx, Blake introduced the trend for minimal, emotive electronica. Blake built his stark, minimalist sound on a bedrock of dubstep and the glitch influenced beats still underpin much of his work. With each release, however, has come a greater instrumental range, and The Colour in Anything is richly textured, with pianos, synths, and deep bass, yet it remains gloriously spacious in its production.

While a lengthy release, its creativity, and strong sonic narrative prevent it from ever dragging and the record manages to remains remarkably insular as Blake sings with often distorted emotion of alienation, longing and lost love. The album also calls on high-profile collaborators, including Justin Vernon and Frank Ocean, and was co-produced and mastered with Rick Rubin but Blake remains central, and his vocal is the greatest strength of his work, as shown on standout “Love Me in Whatever Way”. Although a raft of imitators has long followed in his wake, this record proves Blake is still one step ahead of them. — William Sutton

 

Artist: Alicia Keys

Album: Here

Label: RCA

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Alicia Keys
Here

The rawest — and some would say best — Alicia Keys album to date, Here marked a turning point for the singer/pianist that ultimately sparked a resuscitation of a career desperately in need of a jolt. These 16 songs (18, if you have the deluxe edition) are aggressive, real, and inspired, a stark departure from the Adult Contemporary leanings Keys had veered into with previous releases. “The Gospel” feels more Nas than Aretha with its hip-hop textures while “Pawn It All” spotlights the singer’s assertion that she “don’t give a fuck”. And this is all before an acoustic guitar-driven song like “Kill Your Mama” that recalls every bit of rebellion someone like Bob Marley stood for decades ago. It’s less piano, more attitude and a hunger that has been lost since the singer’s debut. A minor no more, Alicia Keys is reborn and Here was her birth certificate. — Colin McGuire

10 – 6

Artist: St. Paul and the Broken Bones

Album: Sea of Noise

Label: Records LLC

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St. Paul and the Broken Bones
Sea of Noise

With their debut album, Half the City, St. Paul and the Broken Bones stormed out of the Birmingham, Alabama music scene holding the torch high for traditional Southern soul built on the Stax and Muscle Shoals models. Paul Janeway emerged as a prodigiously talented singer and performer that moved massive live crowds at various festivals across the country. But rather than risk remaining a retro soul act, St. Paul and the Broken Bones went back to the drawing board to explore new sounds and a broader range of soul music. Sea of Noise shows this progression with its gospel choirs, more minimalist arrangements at times, and nice big slab of funk that they added into the mix. Janeway is also working on that difficult process of really finding his own unique voice and, in that way, Sea of Noise, feels like a restless, journeying sort of album that points the creative way forward for the band. — Sarah Zupko

 

Artist: Laura Mvula

Album: The Dreaming Room

Label: RCA

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Laura Mvula
The Dreaming Room

Moments of quiet beauty are generously scattered throughout Laura Mvula’s stunning new record The Dreaming Room. While her debut album Sing to the Moon proved to be a masterclass in 21st-century soul, no one quite knew what to expect from its successor. Deliriously eccentric, strikingly defiant of any genre limitations, and unbound by pop conventions, Mvula has given her admirers an intimate glimpse into her pain and passions, delivering one of the year’s best albums.

After the spacious elegance of Sing to the Moon, inviting Nile Rodgers or British rapper Wretch 32 to join her on the follow-up record, surely raised a few red flags and eyebrows within her fanbase. They’d have reason to be anxious, for the overindulgent, “more is more” approach clutters most sophomore efforts. Thankfully, these guest spots prove to be as unorthodox in their collaborative spirit, as the compositional structure of the songs around them.

Upon multiple spins, it is the album’s emotional centerpiece, “Show Me Love”, that resonates long after the “gospel-delia” funk of “Phenomenal Woman” has come to a close. Mvula sings, “You showed me love… of the deepest kind” as strings and lush choral harmonies soar to near cosmic heights. Her loss is unmistakably universal, but the raw clarity and anchored strength in which it is conveyed, prove to be uniquely her own. — Ryan Lathan

 

Artist: Michael Kiwanuka

Album: Love & Hate

Label: Polydor / Interscope

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Michael Kiwanuka
Love & Hate

Michael Kiwanuka seemingly came out of nowhere with 2011’s barrage of EPs and 2012’s excellent debut LP, Home Again, but if those moments combined to merely create a memorable introduction, Love & Hate promises the London-based soul singer has the potential to be around for a lot longer than the time it takes to exchange simple pleasantries. Part Bill Withers, part Marvin Gaye, the singer came into his own as a lyricist on the gospel infused “Black Man in a White World” while the sprawling title track evokes Gaye’s knack for backing falsettos and pop hooks. “Do I have to rule the world or will it come to me?” Kiwanuka asks on the slow-burning “Rule the World” as lush strings begin to creep in behind his pain. Hey, dude. We’re on our way. — Colin McGuire

 

Artist: Frank Ocean

Album: Blonde

Label: Boys Don’t Cry

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Frank Ocean
Blonde

The circumstances of Blonde‘s release — delay after delay, weird clues, an exclusive release wrapped up in a label battle — set expectations for the album high and built a cult ready for it before its release. All of that is worth ignoring, to focus on the music, but at the same time the messiness of the release is not unconnected to the purposeful messiness of the music. Blonde is a meandering, sometimes almost freeform R&B album that unites form with content, in the sense that it deals so richly with memory and time and the shifting forces within human lives at the same time that the songs shift, turn, confuse and reference themselves. The hype around the album tends to portray Frank Ocean as some kind of eccentric genius that emerged as if from another galaxy. But Blonde itself feels completely human, representative of the perpetual changing, often befuddling human heart and brain. Like he says on “Futura Free”, the stunning, one-thought-to-the-next final track: “Sometimes I feel like a god but I’m not a god.” — Dave Heaton

 

Artist: Gallant

Album: Ology

Label: Mind of a Genius

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Gallant
Ology

At times, Gallant may be a bit self-indulgent, but there is something sexy about the whole thing. This is markedly true on his discussion of his molecules betraying him in “Talking to Myself” as he oooh-hoo-hooos about being “Earthbound and scatterbrained”. The song shouldn’t work. Too much emotion is shooed in. But Gallant’s high pitched vocals voice suggests he sings out of an inner need to open up, no matter what the cost. Actually, thinking has little to do with it. The song would be more accurately titled, “My Feelings Betray Me”. What makes this even funnier is that Ology is on the Mind of a Genius record label. Of course, being a genius doesn’t just mean one has to be intellectual; it could mean one who has artistic talent way above the norm. Gallant has a solid claim on this definition on this album. While calling him a genius at this point may be an exaggeration, Gallant does have solid songwriting, singing, and studio chops. His first record reveals a felicity with language, a charismatic manner of singing, and a deep understanding of what makes a song work well beyond his years. Each track works on several layers. One can listen to it, make love to it, or just move to the beats. — Steve Horowitz

5 – 1

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Artist: Jamila Woods

Album: Heavn

Label: Closed Sessions

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Jamila Woods
Heavn

In 2016 there wasn’t a lack of timely, topical music, especially in the world of hip-hop and R&B. But Jamila Woods’ debut album stood out, for anthems of solidarity, empowerment and justice like “Blk Girl Soldier” and “Vry Blk”. Family, heritage and identity are central to the songs, with all of their personal and historical resonances and complications. The musical vibe on HEAVN is neo-soul, you might say, but she has a lot of tricks up her sleeve, from flipping someone else’s familiar phrase or melody to skipping towards jazz. Woods hails from Chicago, and the city is a big part of the picture here, from stellar appearances by fellow hometown rising stars Chance the Rapper, Noname, and Saba to a literal and metaphorical tribute to Lake Michigan and Lake Shore Drive (“LSD”). The rewards of the album are many, they run strong and deep. — Dave Heaton

 

Artist: BJ the Chicago Kid

Album: In My Mind

Label: Motown / Universal

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BJ the Chicago Kid
In My Mind

Bryan Sledge, BJ the Chicago Kid, has been around for years now, singing the hooks on great hip-hop tracks and releasing his own mixtapes. But his major-label debut In My Mind is his most significant work yet, his first real statement as an artist. He has a few rappers returning the favor and making guest appearances — Kendrick Lamar, Big K.R.I.T., Chance the Rapper — but mainly this is Sledge’s showcase, with sweet and gentle, persuasive singing on a diverse selection of songs. Most songs are centered on love, but take various approaches to what that means, from swagger to sweetness, from declaring that the world needs more love to multiple sensuous dedications to women — specific women and women in general. The album as a whole is a passionate, funny dedication to love and all its entanglements: sex, faith, peace, life. — Dave Heaton

 

Artist: Dawn Richard

Album: Redemption

Label: Local Action

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Dawn Richard
Redemption

Redemption is the final album in a trilogy that overall navigated more emotional and stylistic ground than many artists manage in a career. As their titles indicate, Redemption is overall more optimistic in tone than 2015’s Blackheart, but it’s just as ambitious, with pervasive club beats, blissed-out musical dreamstates and futuristic funk ‘n’ soul, all coming from the fertile, driven creative mind and voice of Dawn Richard. More optimistic does not mean shallow or happy — this is music of struggle. The album starts with communal love-making and takes off from there, into songs of strength, bravery, survival, rising up to overcome lies and boundaries and ignorance. It’s triumphant music rooted in human frailty and strength, channeling forces of light. “Lemme see your eyes”, she beckons, “I wanna see them glow”. — Dave Heaton

 

Artist: Solange

Album: A Seat at the Table

Label: Saint / Columbia

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Solange
A Seat at the Table

It’s outer-space minimalist soul music from a voice most commonly heard among angels. Anyone paying attention already knows that Solange’s third record marked a crossroads not only in her professional life, but also in her personal one, but who knew change could sound so rich? “F.U.B.U.” uses spare horns and keys to beef up the nonchalant groove as Beyonce’s younger sister rises her voice and takes all the power back while “Don’t You Wait” is a night of neon lights and a muted guitar line that might make Knight Rider blush. And then there’s “Weary”, which is darkly beautiful, and “Cranes in the Sky”, which attempts dancing sadness away on top of a slinky, percussive feel that gives you all the reason to think it actually is the remedy she needs. Cosmic, defiant, complex and irresistible, Solange didn’t just get A Seat at the Table; she owned the room that houses it. — Colin McGuire

 

Artist: Anderson Paak

Album: Malibu

Label: Steel Wool

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Anderson Paak
Malibu

2016 was a year when a lot of my favorite sung vocals were sung by rappers. Hip-hop and R&B are every day growing into each other, melding together. Somewhere in the middle of that nexus lies Anderson.Paak. He was ubiquitous in 2016 on tracks by hip-hop artists (Schoolboy Q, Mac Miller, Domo Genesis, A Tribe Called Quest and more). His duo Nx Worries, with hip-hop producer Knxwledge, released their debut album. And on his second album Malibu he continued to develop his own rich, luxurious version of old-yet-new-sounding soul music. There’s consistently a Curtis Mayfield vibe in his singing, but also his own funk-and-hip-hop-driven energy and personality. He puts grit into love ballads, optimism into hard-luck street anthems, mysticism into swagger, and a sense of classicism to music that’s also newborn-fresh. — Dave Heaton

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