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.
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