Exclaim!'s Top 10 Soul and R&B Albums

Best of 2018

BY Exclaim! StaffPublished Dec 11, 2018

As we rounding the halfway mark for the annual rollout of Exclaim!'s Best Albums of 2018 today (December 11), we're pleased to present the best Soul, Funk and R&B albums of 2018, in which vets like Neneh Cherry bump up against relative newcomers like the Internet and Jorja Smith.

The list is part of our ongoing rollout of the best of 2018 coverage, which already includes our lists of the best in Pop and Rock, Folk and Country, Metal and Hardcore and, just yesterday (December 10), our Top 10 Hip-Hop Albums of 2018

Top 10 Soul and R&B Albums of 2018:  
10. Kadhja Bonet
(Fat Possum)

Hip-hop fans may have recently discovered Kadhja Bonet thanks to her spellbinding features on Anderson .Paak's latest record, Oxnard, but the Los Angeles multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter has been making ripples over the last few years. Her debut full-length, the exquisitely self-produced, Childqueen, is a sweeping combination of melody and gentle instrumentation that recall the grandeur of soul standards.
Here, Bonet tells curious stories of human nature with confidence and precision, allowing experimentation to shine through her orchestral arrangements. Her music isn't easy to categorize, but it's strikingly weighty; the ominous bass and twisting vocal of "Delphine," sung from the perspective of an imploring lover, is emotional storytelling at its finest.
The care Bonet has put into Childqueen is exemplary; its careful interplay between her vocals and the instrumentation is a joy to hear. The deeply beautiful nature of this offering establishes Bonet as a force, committed to her vision as a truth-seeking polymath.
Anna Alger
9. Neneh Cherry
Broken Politics
(Smalltown Supersound)

Referring to our present geopolitical turmoil as Broken Politics is perhaps putting it lightly, but Neneh Cherry doesn't shy away from examining this world's ills in personal fashion on her fifth studio album.
For an effort that counts among its weighty lyrical subjects guns (the percussive "Shotgun Shack"), the refugee crisis (the arresting "Kong") and women's rights (the harp-laden "Soldier"), Broken Politics is a remarkably meditative listen. And while Cherry doesn't claim to have the answers, the least that this record does is provide listeners with a calm headspace in which to grapple with these issues themselves.
This mood comes courtesy of Kieran Hebden (aka Four Tet), marking his second straight go-around producing an entire LP for Cherry. This time, his work contrasts heavily with 2014's Blank Project, as minimal instrumentals featuring harp, piano, kora, steel drums and more leave room for Cherry's reflections at the fore.
Calum Slingerland
8. Bonjay
Lush Life

Much like the eponymous ingénue that Bonjay singer Alanna Stuart sings about on Lush Life's opening track, this LP is alluring, nuanced, mysterious and yearning. Stuart and Ian Swain have released an R&B opus that not only makes you want to dance but also keeps you on your toes. Its dancehall-inspired rhythms are both catchy and dark, foreboding and mercurial, the perfect backdrop for Stuart's curveball lyricism and sudden climactic high notes. Prime example: "Brick & High Beam," which mixes aching background moans and verses sung in a simmering delivery that's visceral and vivid, all preceded by a hushed intro refrain that's practically indecipherable. 
Swain is as accomplished an instrumentalist as Stuart is a singer, mixing bone-rattling percussion with an industrial tinge alongside pulsing keys, menacing horn belches and more. And yet, his greatest feat isn't that impressively wide range, but his strategic use of each element, which ensures it stays of a piece with the grim yet vibrant world that Stuart depicts in her lyrics. It makes Lush Life one of 2018's best R&B albums, and perhaps its most unique.
Kyle Mullin
7. Leon Bridges
Good Thing

Indeed, Leon Bridges has a good thing — his latest album's title is understandable. Though he forged a clearly defined classic soul identity with 2015 debut album Coming Home, Bridges tweaks the retro-soul formula a tad on Good Thing to prove that he's more than a nostalgia act.
There's an adventurous feel to the sophomore project that suits the singer-songwriter and musician from Fort Worth, Texas well; tracks like the country-tinged "Beyond" the '70s soul song "Bad Bad News," the honest storytelling of "Georgia to Texas" and the slow-burn of "Mrs." show he's maturing as an artist, evolving as a vocalist and destined to stick around for a while.
Ryan B. Patrick 
6. serpentwithfeet
(Secretly Canadian/Tri Angle)

Josiah Wise's debut full-length as serpentwithfeet is about love: queer, devotional and awkward. Articulated through passages that are as flowery as they are raw, soil is nakedly vulnerable and unabashedly dirty as it ruminates on everything from promiscuous sex to "the funk [his lovers leave] in the air" ("waft"). Everything's on full display here, and Josiah conveys it with a heart-stopping tenor and a vibrato that takes the oversharing to the amphitheatre, multiplying his voice to harmonize with himself as he addresses his unanswered desires in the dark to a half beat.
Trading out R&B's thump for eerie, subtler touches of baroque chamber music and avant-garde instrumentation, Wise emotes with a voice, a sound, and an intimacy the genre has never heard the likes of.
Tom Beedham

5. Charles Bradley
Black Velvet

One of the great pearls of wisdom Gang Starr's Guru gifted us before his passing was the key to longevity as a vocalist: it's mostly the voice that gets you up. So for all the pummelling drums, funky horn blasts and compelling cover song choices on Charles Bradley's posthumous Black Velvet, as ever, it's the man's voice that pulls it all together and yanks us in.
A cocktail of well whiskey, bummed cigarettes, heartache and only two hours of sleep, Bradley's voice serves as a big, loud, bluesy conduit for raw emotion. The Menahan Street Band puts in overtime to fill in the blanks, and make this 38-minute salvage of the best Bradley left ring out like a proper musical statement, but they're smart enough to get out of the way of the Screaming Eagle of Soul, who opens with a wail and elevates from there. And, man, when Bradley belts out a peppier, deeper "Heart of Gold," you wonder if his voice was the one best suited for Neil Young's classic song.
Luke Fox
4. Georgia Anne Muldrow

Georgia Anne Muldrow has been a prolific vocalist in the Los Angeles music scene since 2005, with over a dozen albums and myriad collaborations to her credit. Yet, she seemed to step off the path a bit leading up to Overload, taking an uncharacteristically long pause after 2015's hip-hop oriented A Thoughtiverse Unmarred. Sure, she was still working behind the scenes, but the break between realizing her own releases seemingly recharged her creative mojo, the sharpness of her artistic vision, her je ne sais quoi.
Whatever it was, this year's Overload saw her return to top form, delivering the perfect album for her first full-length on Flying Lotus's Brainfeeder label. Speaking truth and spreading love, she revelled in her cerebral funk fusion, future jazz, hip-hop, psychedelic soul, neo-R&B goddessery. While many would sound swamped under all those influences, they're but patches on a warm quilt to Muldrow, whose Overload exudes the strength and style of Erykah Badu, Nina Simone and SassyBlack.
Alan Ranta
3. Kali Uchis

"But why would I be Kim? I could be Kanye in the land of opportunity and palm trees."
That single passage from Kali Uchis' sultry track "Miami" sums up the ambition that drives her throughout her debut LP, Isolation.

Born in Virginia to parents from Pereira, Colombia, Uchis speaks to an immigrant perspective of the American Dream. She herself has hustled: at age 17, she spent months working on music while living out of her car. Now 24, she vows to live fast, never die, take your money, and raise the price. But she never loses sight of the American Dream's vampiric reality, calling out exploitative labour and social and wealth inequality on "Your Teeth in My Neck."

Uchis is resilient, a no-nonsense boss of her own destiny; her fantasies of riches are frames in the storyboard she has meticulously laid out for her life. Album guests Kamasi Washington, Damon Albarn, Kevin Parker, Tyler the Creator, Bootsy Collins and more contribute to a sound that dances between R&B, bossa nova, doo-wop, funk, hip-hop, love-struck balladry, reggaeton and Brazilian jazz, which Uchis sings in English and Spanish. But with self-assured skill and poise, she manages to stand out even amidst Isolation's most venerated contributors.
Leslie Ken Chu
2. Jorja Smith
Lost & Found
(FAMM/The Orchard)

Twenty-one is a tender age for such a soul-baring and poised album as Lost & Found. Hailing from the West Midlands city of Walsall, Jorja Smith had a most impressive 2018, contributing to the Black Panther soundtrack and nabbing a Critics' Choice at the Brit Awards ¾ and her debut album impressively lives up to its hype.
Smartly eschewing any high-profile guest appearances, the one-time barista emerges as a singular artist over Lost & Found's 12 lustrous tracks. Given Smith's melange of soul and jazz, with a sheen of pop appeal, the comparisons to Amy Winehouse or Adele are expected but ultimately disingenuous, given hypnotizing cuts like the title track and "On Your Own," on which she reveals a lyrical candour and vocal maturity beyond her years. Smith's also a stunningly perceptive storyteller when she turns her focus outward;  "Blue Lights" is a heartrending take on police brutality and racial profiling, while her freestyle on "Lifeboats" attacks privilege and the refugee crisis with an adept bite. Lost & Found was Jorja Smith's propeller into stardom, but its authenticity makes her ascent all the more satisfying.
Matt Bauer
1. The Internet
Hive Mind

Distance makes the band grow stronger — after releasing their acclaimed album Ego Death, the Internet bandmates took a three-year hiatus to explore their own solo ventures. Then, having purged whatever freestanding brilliance had been brewing in their respective heads, the group reconvened on Hive Mind, a soulful, cohesive effort on which each member pushes their respective limits.
True to the album's name, Hive Mind showcases the band's collective intelligence; no one artist stands out, meaning they all do. Throughout the record, Christopher Smith's playful, sometimes furious drums punctuate Steve Lacy's poised and bluesy guitars. Patrick Paige II's bass moderates the temperature of the album; without saying a word, Paige subtly dictates the mood of each track and his bandmates happily follow his lead. Matt Martians' spacy, futuristic synths provide balance: the Internet reach to the past for heavy doses of funk and touches of disco throughout Hive Mind, but Martians' futuristic flourishes keep the sound contemporary and fresh. All of their efforts provide a plush foundation for Syd's feathery, come-hither vocals to stand on.
Ultimately, though, it's the selflessness the band display that is the hero of this project. Each artist is performing at their best but is happy to complement, rather than outshine, the others. It's refreshingly free of ego and plays like a jam session between friends. Laid-back and grounded in old-fashioned musicianship, Hive Mind is a feel-good album that not only stands out in 2018, but is sure to transcend time.
A. Harmony

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