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The Best R&B of 2015

Modern R&B could very well be in the midst of a new, insanely fruitful Golden Age.

2015 was an intriguing year in R&B, if only because one of the genre’s biggest stars crossed into the mainstream so quickly that he couldn’t feel his face. Seriously, it was a year as eclectic as it was rich, as celebratory of the past as it was digging deep to find the future. When artists as classically indebted as Nigel Hall or Alabama Shakes can sit next to the innovative minds of Dâm-Funk or Rudimental, you know it’s been a fun, if not breathtaking 12 months of music. Here, we try to nail down ten of the year’s best offerings of a type of music that could very well be in the midst of a new, insanely fruitful Golden Age. — Colin McGuire

 

Artist: The Weeknd

Album: Beauty Behind the Madness

Label: Republic

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The Weeknd
Beauty Behind the Madness

2015 was Abęl Tesfaye’s year, there’s no denying that. Beauty Behind the Madness, the Weeknd’s predictably moody second full-length record, produced four singles, became the first album since 1989 to spend three weeks at number one on Billboard’s top 200, and as of this writing, sold more than 700,000 copies in the US. Leading the pack was “Can’t Feel My Face”, perhaps the year’s most ubiquitous smash that continues to hold up, no matter how much you want it to be played out. Opener “Real Life” reminds you why the Weeknd broke through in the first place — on top of a grandiosely macabre backbone, Tesfaye’s endearingly silky voice fits in as well today as it would have 20 years ago, when people like Tony Rich and Craig David had hits. Plus, the guy earns points for making Ed Sheeran sound pissed off on “Dark Times”. It should be fun to see what’s on the docket for record number three. With an album like Beauty Behind the Madness behind him, and his star shining brighter than he probably ever hoped, how sad can the Weeknd stay? In the grand scheme, this set might be the one we ultimately end up referring to as the Last One I Liked. And if that ends up being the case, it’s a great way to say goodbye.

 

Artist: Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats

Album: Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats

Label: Stax

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Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats
Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats

Nathaniel Rateliff’s first record with the Night Sweats was also his first record on Stax, the legendary Memphis imprint that gave us everybody from Otis Redding to Isaac Hayes. The guy wears that stamp of approval well on this fiery 11-song set that keeps the prestige of yesteryear alive. A song like “Wasting Time” is a shot of traditional southern soul, complete with a requisite twang that only furthers the effect of the groove’s lazy swing. Meanwhile, “S.O.B.” brings the traditional gospel arm of Stax up to date, fully equipped with handclaps and humming backing vocals. When it finally boils over into the type of blues-rock that Bo Diddley perfected and Rateliff demands “Son of a bitch, get me a drink,” you’re almost scared to see what happens if he never ends up quenching his thirst. It’s the sound of a guy who has knocked around the music scene for years and is sick of waiting for a break. With Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, he has to wait no more.

 

Artist: Jill Scott

Album: Woman

Label: Atlantic

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Jill Scott
Woman

It might take a while to warm up to, but once Jill Scott’s Woman creeps up on you, it never leaves. Clearly in a transitional phase personally, the record didn’t necessarily neglect the ethos that helped gain her a loyal and abundant following — “You Don’t Know” questions true hurt while “Fool’s Gold” illustrates how regretful the singer is for trusting in a former lover — but it also shed some light on a couple new issues as well, expanding her introspection even further within the very art she creates. Just think: when have you ever heard Jilly from Philly sing something like “I been doing my chores” to open an album, like she does here on “Prepared”, perhaps the set’s most revealing track. And for those who don’t like this new(ish) work-in-progress Jill Scott, there’s always “Closure”, which kicks up the funk, turns on the confidence and assures all listeners (in a hilarious manner, albeit) that there’s still people in this world she may never fully forgive. Right or wrong, it amounts to one of the best songs in Scott’s career, and more than 15 years in, that’s saying something.

 

Artist: The Internet

Album: Ego Death

Label: Odd Future/Columbia

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The Internet
Ego Death

For album number three, The Internet took its winning streak to new heights. Ego Death, mostly recorded in leader Syd tha Kyd’s basement in less than a month, is everything you’d hope an Internet record would be: Woozier than a fever dream yet more pointed than a Taylor Swift lyric sheet. The fantastic centerpiece, “Just Sayin/I Tried”, is nearly seven minutes of refreshingly current soul that sticks to flashes of neo-infused grooves best heard nearly 20 years ago from someone like Erykah Badu. Plus, the way Syd repeats “I don’t love you no more” is the sonic equivalent of a psychopathic killer staring you in the eye. Cold-blooded. Inevitable. Devoid of all remorse. Add in a killer Janelle Monae collaboration in “Gabby” — along with a slew of poignant, unforgettable lines — and what you have is one of the strongest R&B records of the year.

 

Artist: Lianne La Havas

Album: Blood

Label: Nonesuch

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Lianne La Havas
Blood

If Is Your Love Big Enough? merely introduced Lianne La Havas to the world, then Blood is an announcement of arrival. The production is more sleek, the grooves are more slinky, and that voice is more strong than even she thought it could probably be. Songs like “Green and Gold” and “Tokyo” pull form her newfound friendship with Prince with their super-heavy bass lines and undeniable atmosphere. “What You Don’t Do” is anthemic in nature, a singalong that’s heavy on piano and contemporary doo-wop to the core. What makes La Havas so irresistible, however, is her chameleon-like ability to thrive in multiple settings. “Good Goodbye” is as coffee-shop-ready as anything on her first album while “Wonderful” is spooky yet heartbreaking. Blood is a discovery of self, a tangible step toward a maturity that Lianne La Havas needed in order to evolve into something more lasting, something more interesting. Well, let the record show that evolve, she did.

5 – 1

Artist: Alabama Shakes

Album: Sound & Color

Label: ATO

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Alabama Shakes
Sound & Color

Sound & Color was the first Alabama Shakes album to hit number one and it’s well-deserved. It’s a decidedly more groovy set than 2012’s Boys & Girls, and while leader Brittany Howard still has that grit within every single note to ever leave her mouth, here more than ever is a sweetness that reels you in almost instantly. Have a listen to the falsetto-laden “Future People”, where the spacey jam spreads out just enough to let her words resonate, and take note on how affecting Howard can sound, even if she’s not spittin’ and sweatin’ mad. Still, make no mistake: Brittany Howard can still transfix any audience with her power. “Gimmie All Your Love” and “Dunes” highlight how demanding her presence is on any record of which she is part (just listen into her chuckling during the former’s first explosion to understand exactly what that means). And don’t forget that title track, which both sways and vibes like early-era D’Angelo. If 2012 was about the rockier side of soul for Alabama Shakes, 2015 certainly flipped that formula on its head, turning up the sound while exposing a seemingly infinite amount of colors.

 

Artist: Andreya Triana

Album: Giants

Label: Counter

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Andreya Triana
Giants

“And I’m singing low / Low and sweet / Giving more soul / Give it all to me”, Andreya Triana sings on “Gold”, Giants’ second track and you immediately know that there’s going to be no sophomore slump for this London native. With a voice that kind of sounds like it might just be deeper than the Atlantic Ocean, Triana’s talent is unmistakable and her knack for the dramatic makes her an artist impossible to ignore. “That’s Alright With Me” recalls 1970s Motown with its grandiose chorus and vintage textures while “Keep Running” is fuzzed out bliss anchored by an organ riff that sounds like it was ripped directly from a Nintendo game. “She’s five-foot-nine and oh, she’s never had to work a day,” the singer asserts over some well-placed finger snaps and lush vocal harmonies, making each word slur in the space between lazy and boozy. It’s delicious ear candy for anyone who enjoys a world view that comes complete with an extra helping of wary.

 

Artist: Nigel Hall

Album: Ladies and Gentlemen … Nigel Hall

Label: Feel Music Group/Round Hill Music

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Nigel Hall
Ladies and Gentlemen … Nigel Hall

Nigel Hall’s Ladies and Gentlemen … Nigel Hall comes Ivan Neville tested and Questlove approved and for good reason. There’s a silly smooth soul in the Washington singer’s voice, but there’s just as much face-melting funk in his fingers. “Don’t Change For Me” might just be the grooviest track of 2015 that you probably didn’t hear, a slinky-yet-powerful drum beat forcing the Ugly Face onto any listener with two ears and a pulse. The Isley Brothers’s forgotten 1972 classic “Lay Away”, featuring Quest on drums, is updated with a fuller sound but just as much soul. And single “Gimme a Sign” takes R&B music back to a time when wasn’t just a genre, it was a lifestyle, its guitar recalling that of Steve Cropper and his work on pretty much every Stax Records single between 1962 and 1965. What makes Nigel Hall great is his attention to both the rhythm and the blues. What makes Ladies & Gentlemen essential is its commitment to a classic soul music ethos that rarely sounds this exciting in the modern day. It’s authentic. It’s undeniable. It’s… Nigel Hall.

 

Artist: Rudimental

Album: We the Generation

Label: Atlantic

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Rudimental
We the Generation

It’s the perfect blend of house and soul. For their second album, Rudimental brought in so many guests, it’s hard to pick a favorite. Is it the title track, which features Mahalia and an explosion of horns that tastefully help the hook bloom? Or is it the funky Lianne La Havas collaboration, “Needn’t Speak”, which leans on some jazz trumpet and the singer’s delightfully feathery verses? How about “Never Let You Go”, a song that brings the great Foy Vance into the mix in full spaced-out mode until the drums and bass kick in and turns what starts out as a moment of sadness into a celebration of love? Whatever you pick, there’s no denying how much fun this English quartet has in bringing R&B into a newer, more modern world that values discotheques just as much as it does a solid rhythm section. If nothing else, We the Generation reestablished Rudimental as some of the most forward-thinking artists in the genre.

 

Artist: Dâm-Funk

Album: Invite the Light

Label: Stones Throw

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Dâm-Funk
Invite the Light

It’s been said — and rightfully so — that Dâm-Funk is like the “soul equivalent of Kendrick Lamar” in terms of his boldness of vision and the ability to construct a complex concept album full of catchy grooves. Just listen to Invite the Light’s “I’m Just Tryna Survive (In the Big City)”. Once Q-Tip picks up the mic, the proceeding guest spot (a spot that feels so quick, you’ll miss it even if you don’t blink) proves how well certain hip-hop voices work with the guy born Damon Garrett Riddick. Even “Just Ease Your Mind From All Negativity” could easily be found on a Snoop Dogg record, partly because the Snoopzilla opens the track with such seamlessness. The best, most mind-twisting collaboration comes in the form of “Acting” with Ariel Pink and a truly fascinating groove that at first glance sounds impossible to even comprehend. And then there are tracks like “We Continue” and “Somewhere, Someday”, which recall someone like Prince before he became a symbol. It’s wildly ambitious and unquestionably original. The soul equivalent of Kendrick Lamar, indeed.

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