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.

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

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