Published Dec 08, 2015Our Best of 2015 albums lists by genre continue today with our staff picks for the 10 best soul and R&B albums this year.
Click next to read through the albums one by one, or use the list below to skip ahead to your favourites.
To see more of Exclaim!'s Best of 2015 lists, head here.
Top 10 Soul and R&B Albums:
- 10. Janet Jackson - Unbreakable
- 9. Ibeyi - Ibeyi
- 8. Young Fathers - White Men Are Black Men Too
- 7. Thundercat - The Beyond/Where the Giants Roam
- 6. THEESatisfaction - EarthEE
- 5. Leon Bridges - Coming Home
- 4. The Weeknd - Beauty Behind the Madness
- 3. The Internet - Ego Death
- 2. Miguel - Wildheart
- 1. D'Angelo & the Vanguard - Black Messiah
10. Janet Jackson
"Hello / It's been a while / Lots to talk about." Indeed, it's been seven years since Discipline, but Janet Jackson more than makes up for it on Unbreakable, a quietly confident reunion with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and her finest album since The Velvet Rope — perhaps even janet. Unbreakable has its share of catchy, upbeat tracks like "Burnitup!" or "Gon' B Alright" — an uncanny homage to Sly & the Family Stone — but its power derives from more subdued moments: the graceful "After You Fall"; the quiet storm of lead single "No Sleeep"; the deeply affecting "Lessons Learned," about an abusive relationship.
Best of all, Unbreakable reestablishes Jackson as a singular creative force while staying clear of forced attempts to shoehorn contemporary pop trends into her sound. In fact, Jackson acknowledges and embraces the passage of time, most notably on "Broken Hearts Heal," a heartfelt and nostalgic tribute to her brother Michael. "I've come a long way / Got a long way to go," sings Jackson on the gently uplifting "Well Traveled." Let's just hope it's not another seven years before she returns.
No other record sounds like Ibeyi, the self-titled debut from French-Cuban twins Lisa-Kaindé Diaz and Naomi Diaz, easily the most enchanting, exhilarating and confounding album of the year. The duo sing in English and Yoruba, their harmonies the kind that only exist between siblings, fluttering up, sweetly kissing the most skyward reaches of their registers and then suddenly bursting forward in joyful collusion, as they do on the dynamic, genre-defying "Ghosts."
The connective tissue of the record is its rhythmic pulse: the ghost of their father, the late, revered Cuban percussionist Anga Diaz, whose death is also the driving action of their moving tribute to their mother, "Mama Says." Naomi took up his signature instrument, the cajón, after he died when the twins were 11, (she also plays batá drum) and this ever-changing but ever-present beat makes Ibeyi all the more an immersive, spellbinding and heartbreaking experience.
8. Young Fathers
White Men Are Black Men Too
Titling an album White Men Are Black Men Too during one of the most racially tumultuous periods in recent memory might seem like the height of naïve optimism or even pandering, yet the sophomore offering from Edinburgh's Young Fathers heralds an uncompromisingly conscious call to sonic unity in troubled times.
Alloysious Massaquoi, Kayus Bankole and Graham "G" Hastings streamline the harsher textures of 2014's Mercury Prize-winning Dead with brighter vocals and pop flavours on "John Doe" and "Nest," but WMABMT is hardly a glib concession for radio airplay. "Old Rock N Roll" and "27" are potent examples of the Fathers' lyrical growth. The trio navigate striking aural territory, sometimes all in one song — check the choir and bleeps that grace the electro-throb of "Shame" or the mesmerizing "Dare Me," which shifts from velvety crooning to a saturnine requiem. Both eclectic and accessible, Young Fathers transcend boundaries and expectations with WMABMT.
The Beyond/Where the Giants Roam
Thundercat's long EP/mini-album The Beyond/Where the Giants Roam could be mistaken as a soundtrack for a redemptive, funk-riddled fever dream. So flowing, cohesive and powerful is this 16-minute showcase that when this triumphant collection ends, a revisit feels necessary.
"Hard Times" sets the scene with a vulnerable yet direct introduction to the album; "Song for the Dead" traverses from lurking drums to cacophonous tidal rises, shifting time signatures and revisiting rhythms along the way; centrepiece "Them Changes" stomps around to funky, wah-inflected bass.
Thundercat seems to have his fingers in everything nowadays — he impressed on Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly and Kamasi Washington's Epic — but The Beyond/Where the Giants Roam proves he's got more than enough to say on his own, and stands easily among the best soul, R&B and groove albums of the year.
Expanding on the rich mosaic of sound they artfully assembled on 2012's awE NaturalE, the talented duo of Stasia Irons and Catherine Harris-White have developed a chimeric masterwork of vivid vibe conception. These adventurous sonic explorers are less concerned with crafting traditionally structured songs than they are with painting an expressive and descriptive backdrop that draws from the instrumental toolboxes of R&B, hip-hop, jazz, funk and electronic music, then spicing up that livable landscape with plentiful hooks and poetic lyrical introspection.
All of these familiar musical elements are warped by the heat of their experimental psychedelia — made woozy, off-kilter, alien — but it's all brought back to earth by the velvety warmth of Harris-White's gorgeous, expressive voice and the soothing cadence of Irons's buttery flow, both of which are well-paired with guest appearances by Ishmael Butler of Shabazz Palaces and Meshell Ndegeocello. Compelling and enchanting from start to finish, EarthEE is a stirring statement from a bold and gifted group actively redrawing the boundaries of alternative music.
Scott A. Gray
5. Leon Bridges
Sure, you can call Leon Bridges a throwback artist, but his style comes straight from the soul rather than from the closet, as the Texas-based singer is more than just vintage clothes and a Sam Cooke vinyl collection. Leon Bridges is more Jack White than Lenny Kravitz, more Raphael Saadiq than Michael Bublé.
Coming Home, Bridges' debut album, possesses genuine, heartfelt delivery that transcends genre, era or trends in music. Although he's essentially a crooner in the purest sense, as expertly demonstrated on tracks like "Smooth Sailin'" and "Twistin' & Groovin'," Bridges allows the pure funk of "Brown Skinned Girl" and naked desperation of the gospel-tinged "River" to show off his grit, substance and personality. Coming Home is an impressive debut from an artist who proves that it's not important where your style comes from, as long as you have the chops and the charm to back it up.
4. The Weeknd
Beauty Behind the Madness
You couldn't go anywhere this year without hearing Abel Tesfaye's unique vocal inflections. Beauty Behind the Madness, the Weeknd's second studio album, is the full realization of the young artist's genius coalescence of seduction and pop melodies.
Few have gone broke selling fantasy, but Tesfaye deals in revisiting your actual late nights/early mornings. Aspects of those tales can be problematic, giving rise to some compelling conscious objectors, but that abrasiveness rarely falls flat when all the other pieces are in place. And were they ever: Pink polo Kanye showed up on "Tell Your Friends," Apple premiered "Can't Feel My Face" at its annual developer's conference of all places, "The Hills" soundtracked our summer transgressions, and "In the Night" will carry this wave well into 2016.
Left in the acclaim's wake is the guarded mystique that once surrounded Tesfaye; the slow peeling away of those layers has become an event itself. This is how superstars are formed.
Michael J. Warren
3. The Internet
In a year where R&B, as a genre, was still sorting out its post-millennium distinctiveness — see: Miguel, Leon Bridges, Janet Jackson — the controlled experiment put forth by six-piece collective the Internet was a musical treat. Former Odd Future members Syd tha Kyd and Matt Martians parlayed their love for mid-'90s American R&B and UK acid jazz outfit Jamiroquai into the refined soul of album Ego Death.
Much like the album meaning — creating art sans conceit or pretense — the band delivered a sonically satisfying effort that mines old-school efforts and then place it in a latter day context. Ego Death's metatextuality reframes soul in a way that acknowledges the genre has been subsumed by mainstream hip-hop elements, yet weaves an effective through-line between traditional sounds and modern, receptivity. Not many are playing in this space; the enjoyable Ego Death finds the band extending themselves, soaking up the room.
Ryan B. Patrick
For Miguel, R&B is a lushly eclectic jungle where he prowls like a kingly lion. This summer, he reigned over the genre with his third LP, Wildheart, which is adorned with a photo of him crouching next to a woman on all fours, both of them poised to pounce in sync with the LP's rhythms. The sexy soundtrack peaks with "The Valley," whose porn shoot-evoking lyrics would be raunchy enough to make even Rick James blush, and "Coffee," which evokes the euphoric mood of two beautiful creatures rousing, and re-arousing, themselves after a post-romp hibernation.
But don't mistake the unbridled desire showcased on this album for uncivilized sleaze. Miguel doesn't just titillate with Wildheart; he also reaches out for love. On "Face the Sun," he sings about "belonging" to a girl who is "his only one" as Lenny Kravitz provides accompanying guitar wails. That sentiment is deepened on the aptly titled "Simplethings," (a bonus track on the must-have deluxe edition), on which Miguel's whispered yearnings for a lady to merely lay and laugh with him turn into a full-on roar. Wildheart makes 2015's other R&B releases sound tame and timid by comparison.
1. D'Angelo & the Vanguard
The weeks leading up to Black Messiah's release in December last year were troubling and tragic: a grand jury ruled not to indict Darren Wilson over the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO; a Staten Island jury ruled similarly for Daniel Pantaleo, a police officer responsible for the death of Eric Garner in New York; and two police officers shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice twice in a Cleveland park, killing him.
In the midst of grief and despair, Black Messiah's release, after 13 years of waiting, felt like a balm. It was a poignant, powerful and purposeful response; though the record was close to done for two-and-a-half years, D'Angelo expedited its release to respond to the tragedies.
From the chugging riffs of "Ain't That Easy" and lyrics that reference "casting out the wickedness" to the embrace of the opening strings on "Really Love," there's a sense of resoluteness and hopefulness pervading Black Messiah. The playfulness of the songs brings levity to dark times, while the all-analog recording lends it both warmth and a timeless feel.
A year removed from its release, the album still feels absolutely critical, even in D'Angelo's absence; rather than touring heavily, doing interviews or promoting it otherwise, he's withdrawn from the spotlight, leaving it shining on an empty stage, beckoning more to fill the space he's made in a world that often feels like it's trying to close those spaces down and fill them with darkness.