2017 has been a banner year for soul music of all stripes with a number of momentous debuts. All the while, R&B keeps pushing forward.
15. Jessie Ware - Glasshouse (Island)
Sometimes, being rushed isn't all that bad. Jessie Ware was reportedly so desperate to finish Glasshouse before having a baby this year that she moved from songwriting partner to songwriting partner with something of reckless abandon. The thing is, it worked. Collaborating with everyone from Ed Sheeran to Ryan Tedder to Samuel Preston, the result wasn't only one of the best pop-R&B albums of the year, but it was also the strongest of Ware's career.
Take single "Selfish Love", the Benny Blanco/Tedder collab, that's soaking wet with the type of minimal production that ultimately lifts Ware's sultry vocals to heights she previously had never climbed. Conversely, opener "Midnight" harkens back to a straight-ahead soul best crafted in the early-to-mid 1990s, when finger snaps were all the rage and hooks with live instrumentation brought updated funk to the forefront. And shoot. If you don't think "Stay Awake, Wait For Me" is updated D'Angelo, you ain't listening. Ware said Glasshouse was her most personal album yet and it's hard not to hear what she's talking about after a mere handful of spins. All the more proof that sometimes, first thought, best thought is the best way to go. - Colin McGuire
14. Chicano Batman - Freedom Is Free (ATO)
The immediate impression you get upon hearing Freedom Is Free, the latest album from L.A.'s Chicano Batman, is that of an old, battered, obscure album from 1972 that you found in your cool uncle's vinyl collection. Or maybe it's something you discover while aimlessly browsing a flea market. The music here has that kind of authenticity. The thing is, it's brand new music. But it sounds like it wasn't recorded within 100 miles of a laptop. Chicano Batman -- a quartet consisting of Bardo Martinez (vocals, guitar, organ), Carlos Arevalo (guitar), Eduardo Arenas (bass, vocals) and Gabriel Villa (drums, percussion) -- make music that seems hermetically sealed from another time, yet their politics and social commentary are as vital as ever in this day and age. - Chris Ingalls
13. Chloe x Halle - The Two of Us (Parkwood Entertainment/Columbia)
Don't ignore them just because they have "YouTube sensations" in their Wikipedia entry. Don't judge me that I first heard of them when I saw them perform on a float in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, in 2016. Chloe x Halle are teenage R&B singers, blessedly considered to be Beyonce proteges, who have released a couple of cool EPs over the last few years, and then the fun and exciting The Two of Us this year. They don't want to call it an album and don't want to call it a mixtape. But whatever it is, it packs more ideas in 26 minutes than some singers manage in a career, and that's the truth. The 16 short songs feel almost improvised, with a fresh approach to harmony and playful use of imagery. Fleeting yet exhilarating in its creativity, The Two of Us is easy to disregard as not a serious album worthy of year-end consideration. But if you think that way, it's your loss. - Dave Heaton
12. Daniel Caesar - Freudian (Golden Child Recordings)
On his debut album, Daniel Caesar comes across as a hybrid between a classic-R&B sensualist and a gospel-influenced soul-searcher. His come-ons are tender, and so are his prayers. He has love on his mind, as perhaps an R&B singer should, yet his perspective on love goes deep. He has such a calm demeanor, and the music is so placid, that at first, the album can lull you into overlooking the complexity in his singing and songs, or how he has eternal matters on his mind. This feels like the arrival of a major new talent whose music is likely to deepen and broaden in scope over time. - Dave Heaton
11. Matt Martians - The Drum Chord Theory (Three Quarter)
In 2017 the Internet, one of the most interesting groups in recent years, spread out and released solo projects: Syd's Fin, Steve Lacy's Demo and Matt Martians' The Drum Chord Theory. That last one is groovy and low-key weird, like some underground chest of '70s soul some funk astronaut's been keeping in his basement. Renaissance man Matt Martians – a founding member of Odd Future, the Jet Age of Tomorrow and more – sings about heartbreak and taking acid, and who knows what else. The music sounds like those same topics and like a party. It twists and shifts, shines and distorts, and gets down. It's a "Diamond in da Ruff", as one song's titled. - Dave Heaton