Music

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

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