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.
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