The Best R&B 2007

“Best” doesn’t necessarily connote biggest-selling or most commercial. If that were the case, this list would be altogether different. “Best” describes a work that sets a standard of quality, either within an artist’s career or across the broader landscape of popular music. On this year’s “Best R&B Albums” list, you will find albums that merit attention for the unique artistry each possesses, not because they sold half a million out of the gate.

Clearly, the careers of Ne-Yo, R. Kelly, and Alicia Keys will not suffer from their absence on this list. Keys’ As I Am shifted close to a million units in its first week of release and R. Kelly’s Trapped in the Closet video opera kept the bloggers busy and sales of Double Up healthy. Ne-Yo racked up more hits alongside his younger compatriots like J. Holiday and Chris Brown. Meanwhile artists like Jordin Sparks, Sean Kingston, and Chrisette Michelle relished their next-big-thing moment in the spotlight.

Evidently, it seems like the only routes to wide renown for recording artists are high-profile TV appearances or million dollar-marketing campaigns to saturate them in all forms of media. The appeal of Ryan Shaw and Maya Azucena, however, is not contingent upon video-ready songs or hollow cross-marketing. Their voices are the real thing, offering more substance than spectacle. True, causal listeners may not have even ever heard about Donnie’s The Daily News or Mavis Staples’ We’ll Never Turn Back, but that doesn’t mean those albums should be discounted from the conversation. In fact, at the risk of shameless self-regard, all of the albums listed henceforth should be in the collection of any discriminating fan of soul and R&B.

I don’t begrudge anybody a guilty pleasure or decry anyone’s adoration of said over-hyped superstars. All I know is that to hear Rahsaan Patterson exclaim, “Deliver me, oh love”, Jill Scott take on all the “haters”, or Sharon Jones wail about all the ways “to know a man’s heart” is to know the very definition of soul.

Artist: Rahsaan Patterson
Album: Wines and Spirits
Label: Artistry Music
US Release Date: 2007-09-25

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Twelve songs, 12 moods, infinite number of listens. There is only one unifying force on Wines and Spirits, and that is the artistry of Rahsaan Patterson. Among the innovators in contemporary R&B, Patterson is a true auteur. Each song possesses a cinematic quality, like watching different scenes in a movie with Patterson creating and rotating characters. That’s not to undermine the very personal nature of Wines and Spirits, for Patterson is remarkably honest in his work. Just check the lyrics on “Time” and you’ll get an idea of it. For sheer musicality, Rahsaan Patterson has delivered a solid, rewarding, and compulsively listenable album that is a must for any self-respecting fan of music.

Rahsaan Patterson – Oh Lord (Live)

Rahsaan Patterson: Wines and Spirits

Artist: Chaka Khan
Album: Funk This
Label: Strategic Marketing
US Release Date: 2007-09-25

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Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis did right by Chaka Khan on Funk This. They gave her the most consistently satisfying solo album of her 30-year career, which is no easy task considering her stellar work with the late Arif Mardin. The difference here is that Khan took her time in writing songs and selecting material that reflects her life in specific and profound ways. She handles Joni Mitchell (“Ladies Man”) and Jimi Hendrix (“Castles Made of Sand”) with equal aplomb while reigniting the hot funk of Rufus with Tony Maiden on “Stop on By” and “You Got the Love”. Most modern-day “divas” would quake in their stiletto boots next to Khan, even on just the first few notes of the self-penned “Back in the Day”. She has what most of them can only hope for: longevity.

Chaka Khan with Ledisi – You Got The Love @AOL LIVE

Chaka Khan: Funk This

Artist: Maya Azucena
Album: Junkyard Jewel
Label: Purpose
US Release Date: 2007-05-15
UK Release Date: Available as import

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The most soulful music is sometimes a simple recipe of stripped-down instrumentation and completely naked emotion. With nary a rhythm track in sight, Maya Azucena teamed with guitarist/producer Christian Ver Halen for Junkyard Jewel, an album that’s a rewarding alternative to the more programmed-driven strand of R&B that predominates the airwaves. Azucena’s blotter includes everything from house tracks to collaborations with Stephen Marley. It’s this spirit of artistic mutability that is the foundation for Junkyard Jewel. The spotlight here is mostly on Azucena’s elastic voice, which stretches into all kinds of shapes over guitar, percussion, and strings. She electrifies the words, taking no syllable for granted. It’s refreshing to hear lyrics that are inspiring and avoid falling into a heap of self-righteousness. Junkyard Jewel is pure, luscious nourishment for the ears.

Maya Azucena – Warriors

Maya Azucena: Junkyard Jewel

Artist: Mavis Staples
Album: We’ll Never Turn Back
Label: Anti-
US Release Date: 2007-04-24
UK Release Date: 2007-05-07

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Sometimes I feel like R&B has forgotten its roots. There’s more glossiness than gospel in the grooves these days. Not so with Mavis Staples. We’ll Never Turn Back finds her in the care of Ry Cooder, whose expert musicianship serves Staples well on her Anti- debut . There’s no artifice in this collection of 12 “freedom songs” that center on the Civil Rights Movement and the vision of Martin Luther King, Jr. The bulk of the material is traditional gospel songs rearranged with a bit of rhythm and soul. “99 ½”, “This Little Light of Mine”, and “Eyes on the Prize” are invigorating declarations of independence. It doesn’t take much looking around to see that the call of We’ll Never Turn Back must be heeded. To quote Staples, “99 ½ just won’t do”.

Mavis Staples – 99 & 1/2

Mavis Staples: We’ll Never Turn Back

Artist: Jill Scott
Album: The Real Thing: Words and Sounds Volume 3
Label: Hidden Beach
US Release Date: 2007-09-25

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List number: 5

Jill Scott’s third installment of Words and Sounds was one of the more fully realized albums to arrive on shelves and mp3 playlists in 2007. Scott’s melodies echo through the arteries of the human heart on The Real Thing, touching on the universalities of love, longing, and pain. She isn’t afraid to explore the kinds of feelings that only awake at 3:00 a.m. when her man isn’t there (“Insomnia”) or her detractors draw their claws (“Hate on Me”). From the pages of her marble bound journal, Scott’s poetry flows smoothly over the rhythms and seeps into the mind. For seven years now, Jill Scott has brought listeners inside her soul. The Real Thing is yet another thrilling, intoxicating ride.

Jill Scott – Hate on Me

Jill Scott: The Real Thing: Words and Sounds Volume 3

Artist: Donnie
Album: The Daily News
Label: SoulThought
US Release Date: 2007-06-19
UK Release Date: 2007-05-22

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Donnie takes a good look at racism, sexism, homophobia, and a host of other ills in society on The Daily News. His courageous examination of subject matter not often found in four-minute pop songs is a compelling antidote to apathy. The brilliance of Donnie’s follow up to The Colored Section (2002) is how he makes stories about suicide and child molestation expertly tuneful and accessible. His church-schooled voice and Steve Harvey’s first-rate production bring a batch of harrowing stories to life. Donnie’s lyrics may not be radio-friendly but they are timely, especially in a year when headlines regularly rotated between “Don Imus” and “Jena 6”. The Daily News isn’t just an invitation to “read all about it”, it’s Donnie’s invocation to make a change.

Donnie – 911

Donnie: The Daily News

Artist: Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings
Album: 100 Days, 100 Nights
Label: Daptone
US Release Date: 2007-10-02
UK Release Date: 2007-10-01

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List number: 7

Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover. The artwork for 100 Days, 100 Nights is unabashedly steeped somewhere in the early ’60s. It is this era that the Dap Kings and their bodacious frontwoman cannily inhabit. Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings set the gold standard for the so-called “retro-soul” movement that reached its peak in 2007. While some groups seemed like pale imitations of the Funk Brothers and the Meters, the Dap Kings were the genuine article. The ferocity of Sharon Jones, too, could single-handedly squash other vocalists clamoring for a slice of the soul pie. Irrespective of genre, 100 Days, 100 Nights is an essential music-listening experience.

Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings — 100 Days, 100 Nights

Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings: 100 Days, 100 Nights

Artist: Amy Winehouse
Album: Back to Black
Label: Universal Republic
US Release Date: 2007-03-13
UK Release Date: 2006-10-30

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What do you hear now when you listen to Amy Winehouse? Have you forgotten even how to listen after the inundation of tabloid images and snarky commentary about the singer? Welcome to one of the more polarizing artists of 2007. Nearly 12 months ago, however, Back to Black was just a new album and “Rehab” had not yet become a punchline. Mark Ronson and Saleem Remi’s homage to ’60s Motown and girl-groups coupled with the raw elements of Winehouse’s singing voice — smokey, rough, and pained with attitude to spare — was an inspired match. Despite the worrisome reports about just how much Winehouse’s life imitates her art, Back to Black remains a provocative reflection of a woman who is no stranger to the blues.

Amy Winehouse — Tears Dry on Their Own

Amy Winehouse: Back to Black

Artist: Ledisi
Album: Lost and Found
Label: Verve Forecast
US Release Date: 2007-08-28
UK Release Date: 2007-09-03

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List number: 9

The first sound you hear on Ledisi’s Verve debut is wild applause, which is the sound that greeted Lost and Found upon its release in 2007. Ledisi might seem like a newcomer, but she’s been a stalwart on the indie-soul scene for nearly a decade. Her fans cheered her first album to receive major release while new listeners were taken by the voice that knows no boundaries. Lost and Found is but one shade of her versatile talent. Whereas other releases have found her traversing jazz territory, Lost and Found is Ledisi’s nod to straight-up 21st century rhythm and blues, best exemplified by the guttural pleading of “In the Morning” and the smooth swing of “You and Me”. Ledisi, who executive produced the album, may be an example in perseverance but Lost and Found proves it’s been worth the wait.

Video: In the Morning / AlrightLedisi: Lost and Found

Artist: Ryan Shaw
Album: This Is Ryan Shaw
Label: Razor & Tie
US Release Date: 2007-08-20

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List number: 10

Ryan Shaw’s voice is soul incarnate. This Is Ryan Shaw showcases just how reminiscent his tone is of Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett (he covers Pickett’s “I Found a Love”, along with songs by Ashford & Simpson and Holland/Dozier/Holland). Even though he’s well versed in vocal stylings more associated with artists on the Stax and Atlantic labels of 40 years ago, his powerful voice could emasculate the contemporary crop of smooth talkers and ladies men. This Is Ryan Shaw is anchored by the musicianship of Johnny Gale and Jimmy Bralower, who produced the album. The team also co-wrote “Nobody” and “We Got Love” with Shaw, sprinkling some first-rate original material throughout the album’s 12 excellent tracks. This Is Ryan Shaw positions its namesake as one of 2007’s undeniable artists-to-watch.

Ryan Shaw — We Got Love (Live on Martha Stewart)

Ryan Shaw: This Is Ryan Shaw