Listen to our Best of 2011: Soul and R&B playlist on Rdio by clicking here.
1. The Weeknd
3. Raphael Saadiq
4. Frank Ocean
5. Charles Bradley
6. Toro Y Moi
7. The Stepkids
8. Mayer Hawthorne
9. Cee Lo Green
10. Aline Morales
12. Seun Kuti
13. Jill Scott
14. Gil Scott-Heron & Jamie XX
15. Jazzy Jeff & Ayah
16. Jahdan Blakkamoore
1. The Weeknd House of Balloons (OVO)
Yeah, my name's on the Polaris Grand Jury that voted for Arcade Fire. It's a fact that still amuses me, especially since the confirmed front-runner was so appositional in so many ways to the little mixtape that could ― the Weeknd's House of Balloons. But they're not polar opposites. Both are perfectly executed concept albums. Both are terrific, moody song cycles. The narrative of House Of Balloons, however, puts it in a whole different league. Abel Tesfaye comes across as coarse and boastful but also vulnerable and pathetic. He's only fucking 21 and very callow, yet also jaded by several years of partying. His state of mind can go up or down for him in a hurry. The perspective is not a pretty picture, nor a common one in Canadian music. Moreover the list of sonic enablers in his music ― the simple heaviness of dubstep, dramatic pop inspiration from the likes of Beach House and Siouxsie and the Banshees and his penchant for freestyling, which is especially effective considering his stream of consciousness wordplay. But who the hell knows what's really going on? Even after another album, single and several collaborations with Drake, everything remains a mystery about Abel Tesfaye. And we like it that way. But for how long?
2. tUnE-yArDs WhoKill (4AD)
One-woman musical force of nature Merrill Garbus seriously upped the ante with her second album. Fully realized production has had the largest impact on her sound, allowing her to stretch her creative impulses beyond the constraints of her previously almost entirely loop, guitar and vocal-based work. The newfound weapons in her arsenal, including punchy Afrobeat inspired horns, bold, slinky dub-indebted bass lines, densely layered, often complex percussion patterns and dynamic mix manipulation wonderfully compliment Garbus's powerful, acrobatic voice. Beautiful pieces like "Doorstep," with its sublime harmonies and reggae groove and the impassioned sway of "Powa" sit comfortably alongside invigorating hard-edged Afro-funk workouts like the quirky album standout "Gansta" with its jittery, serpentine bass and the hooky dexterous vocal looping of infectious ear-worm single, "Bizness." Garbus's arresting voice, able to switch between guttural shouting one beat and silky smooth falsetto the next, is a perfect vehicle for her raw and honest lyrics, which can skew to the dark side; this album is titled WhoKill, after all. There's a sense of danger that permeates the whole album, imbuing its joyous revelry with a feeling of the fragility of life and the passionate roar of living; that's a memorable piece of musical magic.
Scott A. Gray
3. Raphael Saadiq Stone Rollin' (Columbia)
Those of you who complain that there aren't any great R&B records being made these days, listen up. Formerly with soul trio Tony! Toni! Tone! and short-lived supergroup Lucy Pearl, Grammy-winning singer, songwriter and producer Saadiq won friends with his 2008 solo debut, The Way I See It. Stone Rollin' is a more up-tempo and even better album. Saadiq dislikes the "retro" tag, but he maintains an old-school R&B approach. He has a DIY vision too, not only writing and producing all the tracks, but playing bass, mellotron, keys, guitar, and even drums on most of them. Robert Randolph plays steel guitar on "Day Dreams," while full-blooded horn and string sections are employed judiciously. His vocals are convincingly soulful, and his eclectic influences range from Little Walter and Chuck Berry to Sly Stone and Stevie Wonder (as on "Movin' Down The Line"). The funky title track also spawned the sexiest video of the year. The over-rated Mayer Hawthorne gets more attention, but Saadiq is the real deal.
4. Frank Ocean Nostalgia, ULTRA (Def Jam)
"Nostalgic. It's a longing for the past. That's what this record felt like," says singer-songwriter Frank Ocean of a mixtape that snuck up on many in 2011. Fearless best describes the 14-track mixtape and, ultimately, the artist himself. His loose affiliation with the now-notorious hip-hop collective OFWGKTA (Odd Future) notwithstanding, his raw and laid-back approach to music shocked many ears to attention. Owing just as much to Coldplay and the Eagles as it does to Otis Redding and R. Kelly, Nostalgia, Ultra smashes pre-conceived notions of what R&B should be in modern times. Downbeat slow jams, kinetic dance grooves and inferences to casual drug use draw comparisons to another avant-R&B crooner the Weeknd, but it's somewhat unfair to realistically state that their musical approach is the same. What Frank Ocean does manage to accomplish is further prove that contemporary soul is undergoing somewhat of an identity crisis, where the lines of what is R&B have been blurred for so long that seemingly anything goes. If anything, Nostalgia, Ultra is a signpost for where soul music may be headed for a while ― dark, moody, borderline nihilistic ― but at its heart it's still ultimately about love and all the jacked up feelings and experiences that stem from it. Via his impressive ear for beats, layered lyrics and sophisticated production skills, Ocean sets himself as a powerful voice to watch in the coming years.
Ryan B. Patrick
5. Charles Bradley No Time For Dreaming (Dunham)
At least part of the joy in hearing Charles Bradley and the Menahan Street Band blow through No Time for Dreaming stems from Bradley's remarkable journey, from a down-on-his-luck chef and handyman to one of the most dynamic soul singers working today. Because he's now affiliated with Daptone Records and their revivalist aesthetic, Bradley can't escape comparisons to Sharon Jones and even his first hero, the Godfather of Soul, James Brown. Sure, there's a stylistic through line to be drawn here and fans of classic soul will be taken aback that such a sound is still being conjured today. That was the lure with Jones too, but once you saw her live and picked up her records, something idiosyncratic rose up into the air. The same can be said for Bradley, a powerful figure who has drawn upon his own struggle for survival to craft one of the most inspirational albums of the year. There's a weight to his pleading cries on "Why Is it So Hard" that's almost tear-inducing, as Bradley's voice kicks up from his life of poverty and tragedy (his brother was shot and killed) with defiance. It's not simply some compulsion to portray Bradley as some kind of hero though. No Time for Dreaming is heartening on every level, not just for its epic back-story, but as a platter that inspires music fans to keep the faith.
6. Toro Y Moi Underneath the Pine (Carpark)
Well, that didn't last long. If 2010 was the year chillwave became a viable music genre, 2011 will be known as the year it was sent out to pasture. The last 12 months saw flagship artists Memory Tapes, Washed Out and Toro Y Moi releasing albums that began to drift from the highly-processed, Super 8 sound that defines chillwave. But it was only Underneath the Pine's genre evolution that truly felt organic, logical and authentic. Petty music critic squabbling aside, Underneath the Pine is a highly listenable album anchored by playful choruses, twirling synthesizers and the fidelity… oh, the fidelity! From the brush-fire melodies of "New Beat" to the rubbery bass lines of "Still Sound" and gentle piano/drum machine duet of "Divina," Toro Y Moi seems interested in releasing music that is more affective than reflective. Sure, homage abounds throughout Underneath the Pine (Tropicália, Chicago house, Chapel Hill indie) but Toro Y Moi uses reference as an accent rather than a primer, as songs like "How I Know" and "Elise" do much to position himself as the poster boy for bi-genre romance. Underneath the Pine represents a musician with a thousand ideas swirling around in his mind and the brains to only use one at a time.
7. The Stepkids (Stones Throw)
Long-time friends and musical journeymen Dan Edinberg, Jeff Gitelman, and Tim Walsh never really put much stock into the idea of launching a project all their own, until some chance downtime and a series of jams sessions revealed they might just be their own favourite band. With an encyclopaedia of favoured sonic influences to choose from, the newly formed Stepkids put aside the straight-laced musicianship that came with opening shows for Lauryn Hill and backing duties behind Alicia Keys and set off down a far more ambitious trail through the adventurous retro sounds of '70s psychedelic funk, rock and soul. Throwback harmonic verses, while evident throughout their eponymous debut trip, are as varied as the compositions they help guide and complete, flipping from the ghostly tones breezing through the reverb-heavy synth wails of "Suburban Dream" to the Mayfield-esque retro soul and prog-leaning flare of "Wonderful Fox" and "Shadows On Behalf" respectively. The trio's whole-hog immersion into the nuanced audio inflections of four decades ago adds an impressive gleam of authenticity to their compositional approach, and makes moments like the cocky, tight-pant-strutting "Santos and Ken" and rustic, orchestral "La-La" that much more substantive. While the number of divergent styles present on the record might be a sign of the Stepkids still finding their feet, a further nod to the notable songwriting prowess of this talented Connecticut-based threesome.
8. Mayer Hawthorne How Do You Do? (Universal Republic)
In 2011, the retro-Motown vibe of How Do You Do? ― the sophomore offering and major label debut from Ann Arbor Michigan's Mayer Hawthorne (aka Andrew Cohen) ― could easily be dismissed as a cliché. What sets Hawthorne apart from the now seemingly endless neo-soul pack however, is an almost obsessive attention to not only the authentic Motor City soul aesthetic, which is none too surprising since Hawthorne got his start on the taste-making Stones Throw label (synonymous with compilations of obscure funk and soul and underground hip-hop. The fact is that How Do You Do? is simply loaded with as many great songs as have graced any notable release this year. Admittedly, the F-bombs and an appearance by a crooning Snoop Dogg seem a tad calculated. Get past that though, and you're in for a deceptively easy-going and terrific listen. "A Long Time" might just be the most affecting number: a bouncy mid-paced anthem offering re-assurance to a troubled 21st century Detroit, where Hawthorne's funky falsetto is as invigorating as it's comforting. "Get To Know You" is a slow grooving confection perfect for upcoming winter nights and funk brother Dennis Coffey drops by to lend guitar to the perky "Stick Around," which sounds like a great, lost Holland-Dozier Holland gem. While How Do You Do? may not point the compass for soul music's future, it's a delightful pause in its evolution.
9. Cee Lo Green The Lady Killer (Elektra)
The runaway success of "Fuck You" overshadowed the rest of The Lady Killer, and only seemed to cement Green's reputation as a one-hit wonder ― albeit, one that actually has two hits, the other he got by being the voice of "Crazy" with Gnarls Barkley, another song so massive that the group never outgrew it. But even a cursory listen to The Lady Killer shows that Green is not a one-trick pony with a killer voice (one that's confident enough to duet here with Philip Bailey of Earth, Wind and Fire). He's a retro-referential genre jumper, to be sure ― one minute he's doing jump-up '60s R&B, the next he's into '70s funk, then he's Michael Jackson in the '80s, and sometimes there's a '90s Europop sheen to his take on soul music. But he's never just trying on different suits for gimmicky effect: Green is just as much a songwriter as he is a powerful singer, and what The Lady Killer has over every other modern competitor is a genuine commitment to hooks with actual chord progressions. These days that seems like a small detail in a larger package, but Green knows it makes all the difference in the world. And if you can't be bothered to notice, well, fuck you.
10. Aline Morales Flores Tambores E Amores (Independent)
Aline Morales debut dropped on us like an early spring thaw or an Indian summer in November. The warmth she brought with Flores Tambores e Amores had all the elements of Tropicalia's sound ― samba, psychedelic rock, bossa-nova, jazz and funk ― but most importantly it had its soul. Rather than render homage to her roots with stagnant repetition, Morales solo record demonstrates respect for Tropicalia's spirit. Her already impressive palette further includes elements of forro, MBP and eclectic instrumentation while her innovative compositions kindle our interest with its unexpected turns and bold arrangements. A percussionist at heart, Morales demonstrates a remarkable flair for songwriting. She strikes a nice balance, giving her record a loose reflective vibe, fizzing with late '60s defiance that comes across as energetic and progressive. Flores Tambores e Amores will undoubtedly bring the Toronto-based Brazilian further recognition along with well-deserved praise for her contribution to contemporary Brazilian music in Canada.
11. Beyonce 4 (Columbia)
Learning of Beyonce's pregnancy was the key to unlocking the mysteries of 4, her fourth solo record. Okay, maybe Bey wasn't pregnant during its recording but 4 is a meditation on being all grown up. Here is where she figuratively let's her hair down a little (as much as a top-tier pop star can), and it's a side of Beyonce we've never really seen. 4's context is marriage, a break from her long-time father-manager, being ready for a child and, finally, looking down at the life she's made for herself, at the top. It builds on the pop sheen of her past records but turns the dial way down; the songs here ― like "Countdown," "Run The World (Girls)" ― are still catchy, but in a more leftfield way than her previous work, and there's an abundance of ballads. More than just another Beyonce record, 4 is a significant musical footnote in the way it weaves in a litany of black musical references ― from soul to funk to NOLA-style marching bands to dancehall to straight-up hip-hop. But because it's less frothy and more comfortable, 4 has caught some critical flack. In a time when youth and its trappings are vaunted, Beyonce's made the most mature record of her career: A good starting point for her inevitable, post-baby comeback.
12. Seun Kuti From Africa with Fury: Rise (Knitting Factory)
The younger Kuti son sounded even more assured on his second album. The energy of his first album is intact, but its groove is more three dimensional thanks to Brian Eno. His transformation comes with a light touch and the barest coating of dub on top of each clearly articulated instrument in Egypt 80. Seun's way with a hook is better than on his first effort and he's improved his melodic ideas on tracks like "You Can't Run." If his originality is still in question, he gladly stays loyal to the family brand while finding his own voice. This album represents an advance in Afrobeat in that Egypt 80 sounds more powerful and modern than ever before. As well, unusual songwriting ideas such as the spacious "Rise" show that Seun already possesses the sense of variety to with his super uptempo righteousness to make an album-length statement worth remembering.
13. Jill Scott Light Of the Sun (Warner)
"I'm a queen on my throne, I'm magnificent," proclaims Jill Scott on "Shame," three cuts in on her fourth studio offering The Light Of The Sun, and she spends the rest of the album ― arguably her finest since her 2001 debut Words and Sounds, Vol.1 ― proving it. The Philadelphia-born Scott's breezy duet with Anthony Hamilton: "So In Love," a wonderful Philly soul update, was Sun's hit single this past summer, yet it barely hints at the sombre, emotional undercurrents that make this such an empowering experience and one of the best pure soul releases of 2011. Since her last offering, 2007's The Real Thing, Scott experienced a divorce, a brief relationship that produced a child as well as acting stints including the starring role in The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. That backdrop of emotional and professional shifts is at the core of such tracks as "Le BOOM Vent Suite" and "Womanifesto." The former is a funky nine minutes-plus opus of romantic dismissal with Scott determining "I gotta do what I gotta do son" while the latter is an imperial spoken-word throwback to her poetry roots. Closing with the sultry soul/jazz/blues pulse of "Rolling Hills" that flawlessly encapsulates its theme of resiliency and self determination, The Light Of The Sun affirms Ms. Jill Scott's standing as a modern soul queen.
14. Gil Scott-Heron & Jamie XX We're New Here (XL)
Long after his arrival on the New York scene where he empowered generations of listeners marrying political, humanist and musical expression, Gil Scott-Heron and British electronic music modernist Jamie XX have created an alter-ego from I'm New Here, Heron's shocking and stately 2010 release. It offered fans one last swatch of blackened poetry from a frail legend who spent 16 years away from music battling HIV, addiction, and jail time. We're New Here marries sound and sentiment that is equal parts "bluesologist" (a term Gil repeatedly used to describe himself) and futurist. Musically and poetically, it is breathtaking. The multi-layered collaboration between Gil Scott-Heron and Jamie XX may well be one of the most intriguing and touching albums of this century. Tragically, its highly anticipated release occurred mere months before Gil Scott-Heron's death. Gone but certainly not forgotten, his legacy lives on in the body of work he left us. For a soul music icon to confide in a digitizer to re-contextualize his music takes not only trust, but insight and brilliance. Gil was the epitome of all of these things and more. Decades after Gil Scott-Heron sprung onto the scene at 125th and Lenox, he still had it. May Jamie XX continue to symbolically carry Gil Scott-Heron's proverbial torch with the release of more innovative albums in the future. Rest in peace, Gil.
15. Jazzy Jeff & Ayah Back For More (Independent)
With limited opportunities for Canadian R&B artists at domestic record labels, talented artists have had to take deep breaths and take their fate into their own hands, often leveraging their digital savvy to make their mark. While the Weeknd may be the most prominent example of this reality, it would be criminal to overlook Jordanian-born, Toronto-based R&B singer Ayah. After all, it was a MySpace message Ayah sent to legendary Philadelphia DJ Jazzy Jeff of Fresh Prince fame a few years ago that began the relationship coming to fruition on this impressive free downloadable album, a follow-up to her 4:15 project. Recorded at Jazzy Jeff's home studio, Back for More features the renowned DJ/producer recruiting top-notch session musicians such as James Poyser and Pete Kuzma, best known for their work for the Roots and Jill Scott respectively, to add their expertise over the polished sheen he applies to the classic samples he often uses as song foundations. Given this esteemed company, Ayah's confident and assured strut into centre stage throughout and on a narrative tour de force like "The Game (Somebodies)" can't be denied. Already a proven singer and songwriter, Ayah's themes of self-reliance and striving are especially resonant given the circumstances in which the album came to be and firmly ensconce the co-billing with her luminary collaborator.
Del F. Cowie
16. Jahdan Blakkamoore Babylon Nightmare (Lustre Kings)
The Guyanese-born, Brooklyn-raised Jahdan Blakkamoore had been toiling away for quite some time, working in a range of genres, gaining ground with the Subatomic Soundsystem as well as his band Noble Society. He also released a strong debut solo album, Buzzrock Warrior. But then there was that track on Major Lazer's debut, "Cash Flow," and Blakkamoore drew some well-deserved attention. Still building, this year he released Babylon Nightmare, his finest outing to date. "All Comes Back to One" lopes towards greatness, with an organicism and energy that seems to reach back to '70s rockers tunes. The track has since been remixed and refixed in dubstep, jungle and soulful styles. "Mountains to Climb" is classic roots and culture, whereas "Down in the Ghetto" has a dubby, '90s feel, at times sounding like Blakkamoore is channelling a little bit of Buju. Drawing on his band Noble Society, he adds some smooth funk and a little hip-hop swagger on "Against All Odds" and "Right Way" sees Blakkamoore toying with a singjay style. "Soul Survivor," a one-drop number alongside Princess Menen, demonstrates Blakkamoore's singing voice as well as dancehall delivery. Blakkamoore can produce strong one-drop as easily as ruff and ready dancehall, but he's also comfortable when there's a bit of head nod-worthy bass. Reggae purists as well as those who liked that aforementioned Major Lazer record will all find something to enjoy on this wide-ranging album. It's a record that truly demonstrates how much variety there is in Jamaican music, while keeping it conscious throughout.