the-15-best-soul-r-b-albums-of-2017

The 15 Best Soul/R&B Albums of 2017

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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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


10. Thundercat – Drunk (Brainfeeder)

By most all accounts, Kendrick Lamar’s
To Pimp a Butterfly couldn’t have happened without the brain trust of Thundercat. This much, we know is true. So, what do you after playing a key role in crafting one of the finest hip-hop releases in the past decade from arguably the most influential hip-hop voice the genre has today? Well, if you’re Thundercat, you get fucking weird. That’s what you do.

Drunk is so unapologetically unique that it deserves accolades simply for being different. Case in point: what other 2017 record has Isley brothers, Kendrick Lamar, Michael McDonald, and Kenny Loggins on it? Those last two names combine for a killer silky smooth duet on “Show You the Way”, a song that doesn’t sound like it could have possibly been produced a single day later than 1978. Conversely, “Walk on By”, the Lamar feature, is retrofitted eclecticism capped by a typically impressive verse from the rap star. But don’t let me big names fool you – “Captain Stupido” would make Frank Zappa proud and “Friend Zone” is synth-laden funk that’s just poppy enough to pass as accessible. Don’t get it twisted, though. Thundercat isn’t one to color inside the lines, and with Drunk, the canvass is bright. – Colin McGuire

9. Khalid – American Teen (Right Hand Music Group/RCA)

There’s no way this dude is 19, right? One of the buzziest names in all of R&B, Khalid did not disappoint with his debut LP,
American Teen, bringing his weathered crooning to life in ways that combine the best of schools both old and new. Perhaps the most exciting American R&B release of 2017, these 15 songs embody hope for the future of the genre, pushing things forward with an updated musical ethos all the while paying homage to its roots with Khalid’s grown-up vocals and mature subject matter.

Sure, some stories are tried and true – heartbreak, hopelessness, partying – but the singer makes them his own, reinventing the proceedings with his twist that speaks to a generation in need of a standout soul star. “Another Sad Love Song” highlights Khalid’s vague Caribbean vocal influences brilliantly, offering an upbeat, bright groove underneath aching words that create a dichotomy wise beyond his 19 years. Speaking of those 19 years, “8TEEN” confronts any age restrictions fantastically, the singer crooning about living with his parents and doing “the stupid shit that young kids do” over a subdued party tempo that leans as much on warm synths as it does simplistic electronic drums. And come on: “Young Dumb & Broke” just
has to be the anthem for all 2017 high-schoolers plagued by angst and Snapchat stories. If this is the future, thank God it’s in the hands of such a promising American Teen. – Colin McGuire

8. Moses Sumney – Aromanticism (Jagjaguwar)

For the introverts out there, Moses Sumney has heard your plea. “We have more than enough
Sea Change and Blood on the Tracks records for breakups and almost as many albums documenting someone’s new-found love — but where’s my album?” After two EPs, the Los Angeles-residing singer/songwriter released Aromanticism, a debut album that virtually guarantees it will not be confused with any other artist in your collection. Sumney’s lyrics skillfully juxtapose symbols of strength with things that are anything but, especially in songs like “Plastic”, where he repeatedly confesses “My wings are made of plastic.” In the straightforward “Make Out in My Car”, Sumney states that he’s not trying to bed someone. Instead, he’s fine just sticking to making out in his car. With Aromanticism, aloneness can be both a crutch and something sacred. In Sumney’s case, like the genre-less album itself, solitude can be a reason for celebration. – Sean McCarthy

7. SZA – Ctrl (Top Dawg Entertainment)

SZA is part of the TDE family, which means hip-hop fans know her voice well from appearances on tracks by Schoolboy Q, Isaiah Rashad, Jay Rock, Ab-Soul, Kendrick Lamar and others. But there’s her voice, and then there’s her voice – her personality, character, point of view. As great as she’s been at singing hooks for some of the best rappers of our day, it’s on her debut album
Ctrl that her unique outlook and approach have truly come to light. Her style of singing and songwriting is uniquely conversational and casual, using more real-world metaphors than just about anybody; not afraid to sing the real way people talk. The songs deal with love, sex, identity, self-confidence, anxiety, empowerment, tradition, and community – the whole gamut. Her music reaches in more directions than most R&B or even popular music, period — yet maintains a very singular sense of direction and self. – Dave Heaton

6. Jordan Rakei – Wallpaper (Ninja Tune)

Jordan Rakei’s sound is mellow and soothing, a late night sojourn or a lazy, sunny afternoon where you lay half awake with gentle breezes comforting your soul. Rakei’s voice is a marvel of ethereal smoothness, and yet his lyrics betray a more troubled soul caught in flames but seeking the redemption of true love. The production of
Wallpaper is lean with subtle washes and blips of sound carefully enveloping Rakei’s masterful singing. Rakei faces the darkness in his heart but seeks the light. Fans of SOHN, Moses Sumney, and Gallant will fall for this sublime musician. – Sarah Zupko


5. Syd – Fin (Columbia)

Fin, the breakout solo set from the Odd Future/Internet alum Syd, sounds like Elon Musk heard an Aaliyah album when he was young and has forever since obsessed over making an R&B record. Well, assuming he was born a female audio engineer in Los Angeles. But you get it. Anyway, it’s futuristic – flashy yet understated, danceable yet brooding, stepping two feet forward while keeping a mind that has respect for the past. All told, it’s as inventive as anything released in the genre all year.

“Nothin to Somethin” is low-key processed funk in the modern age, Syd’s lazy flow giving the performance a sense of trademark comfort and confidence that sets her apart from her peers. “Got Her Own”, meanwhile, is an addictive fever dream, lush with layered vocals and enough atmosphere to make the Weeknd blush. Two other highlights, “Shake Em Off” and “Insecurities”, tell all the story that needs to be told about Syd and
Fin. The former is a mildly defiant, aggressive meditation on angst while the latter is a softer reflection on self-doubt and courage that smooths things out until the track’s second half when the singer confronts her ex-lover briefly before blaming her own shortcomings for a breakup. It’s powerful, assured, poignant and not to be fucked with. Just like Syd herself. – Colin McGuire

4. Kehlani – SweetSexySavage (Atlantic)

Well, it’s a long way from PopLyfe to here. Born Kehlani Ashley Parrish, the mixtape princess nailed it on her major label debut,
SweetSexySavage, by staying true to what made her someone who continues to be so intriguing: a grit that grants her serious hip-hop flavor combining with a vocal elasticity as dynamic as it is impressive. Add a dash of delicious pop sensibility, and you have a star in the making.

Speaking of that pop-tastic acumen, a single listen to “Distraction” should be enough to distract you for the rest of the day with its “Do you, do you, do you, do you wanna be” centerpiece. Ditto for the scatting on “Piece of Mind” that opens the track with a deluge of sugar before the California singer reminds us who she is by asserting “feelings I had, man it was fucking scary.” This says nothing of lead single “Crzy”, where Kehlani reminds everyone, with glee, that she’s out of fucks to give by noting, “If I gotta be a bitch, I’m a be a bad one.” It wouldn’t work if you didn’t believe her, but you can’t not believe her. That’s why
SweetSexySavage is one of the year’s best. And that’s why Kehlani was always an artist to keep an eye on – girl group or not. – Colin McGuire

3. Curtis Harding – Face Your Fear (Anti-)

Curtis Harding may draw on the classics, but that doesn’t mean we’ve heard it all before. On Face Your Fear, Harding takes cues from old-school soul and funk while keeping both feet marching ever forward with slick production and an electric touch. While centerpiece “Need Your Love” is one of the grooviest tracks of the fall, it’s the songs before and after it that show off Harding’s artistic depth and versatility. The album opens with the sweeping cinematic drama of “Wednesday Morning Atonement” before Harding reaches Mayfield-esque high notes of the ghostly title track. Fuzzy guitars paint “Go As You Are” with heavy psychedelia, and the vibraphone-heavy hook to “Till the End” lightens the mood, setting the scene for a tongue-in-cheek take on vintage Motown sounds. Several tracks later, ballad “As I Am” ends the album on a strong note that lets Harding’s clear voice stretch out over a memorable melody. Face Your Fear is proof positive that Curtis Harding not only has style but knows how to use it to make a record that feels timeless even as a new release. –
Adriane Pontecorvo

2. Kelela – Take Me Apart (Warp)

Kelela is an R&B diva for our era, in touch with the rapidity, chaos, and ambiguity of the moment. Sometimes her music feels like a Janet Jackson disciple fell in with an out-there art-school crowd, hooked up with some experimental DJs, zeroed in on everything in her own heart and mind that needed to be said on record, and made a lusty, boundary-crossing soul classic full of heartbreak, inspiration, and mystery. She’s been waiting in the wings for this moment for a few years now, getting worthy attention for her 2013 mixtape
Cut 4 Me and 2015 EP Hallucinogen. A 2016 Wax Poetics feature called her music “rhythmic space sex music”, and that still seems like a nice description. But her proper debut album Take Me Apart moves beyond that tidy definition, outshining the previous releases in epic fashion and completing the picture of where Kelela is coming from. On Take Me Apart, she traverses a serious range of musical and emotional territory while coming off like an ambitious new superstar with a very particular and ingenious vision that’s all her own. – Dave Heaton

1. Sampha – Process (Young Turks)

British singer/producer Sampha has been greatly buzzed about in recent years; his debut album
Process didn’t disappoint. To the contrary, its mix of the soul-baring and the abstract can be astonishing. Process begins in space, at first seeming like an experiment in future-sounding soul/dance music. Then he shifts to confessional piano ballads about grieving his mother’s death, about figuring out his place in day-to-day life, about anxieties and pain — which then casts even the most seemingly out-there tracks in a new light. Taken as a whole, Process is exploratory in multiple senses. The music furthers current R&B/hip-hop’s dalliances with intergalactic sounds. His singing bridges open-hearted emoting with a cool sense of distance. His songs explore the depths of human frailty. – Dave Heaton

The 30 Best Songs from the 15 Best Soul / R&B Albums of 2017

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