Exclaim!'s Top 15 Soul and R&B Albums

Best of 2016

BY Exclaim! StaffPublished Dec 6, 2016

Our Best of 2016 albums lists by genre continue today with our staff picks for the 15 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.
Top 15 Soul and R&B Albums:   To see more of Exclaim!'s Best of 2016 lists, head here.

15. Maxwell
(Sony Music)
Perhaps there's something about seven-year breaks. In 2015, Janet Jackson returned following a protracted studio silence with her strongest album in nearly two decades; this year, it was Maxwell's turn with blackSUMMERS'night, the second instalment in a planned trilogy of albums. If blackSUMMERS'night is not quite as musically consistent as its similarly named predecessor, it more than matches its lofty peaks, and sees Maxwell finding new ways to approach familiar themes of love, seduction, commitment and (romantic) loss.
"Class is in session tonight," coos Maxwell on mid-tempo "All the Ways Love Can Feel" over a soft disco beat, burbling synths and shimmering horns. Now 43 — and 20 years removed from his classic debut — Maxwell is still an expert seducer, but the grain in his voice has added a dose of urgency to his pleas on "III" or the slow-burning "Lost," where the singer still pines for a married woman whose "children are growing up." Lone single "Lake by the Ocean" remains one of the year's finest R&B tracks, and the lush "1990X" coyly takes the listener back to the Urban Hang Suite — particularly in the song's coda, where Maxwell's falsetto once again takes full flight.
Thierry Côté

14. Tanika Charles
Soul Run
Tanika Charles lived a lot leading up to the release of her full-length debut, Soul Run. She spent years working through a crisis of identity, surviving a smothering relationship in which she experienced a loss of self before she ditched her man and set off across the country from Edmonton to Toronto. She teased her solo prowess with an EP in 2010 as Ms. Chawlz, but after a couple of years' delay, she finally got out full-length Soul Run in 2016, under her own name — and damned if anyone is going to forget her after this.
Soul Run presents the world on her terms, with Charles's voice as commanding and honest as Sharon Jones in her delivery of lyrics drawn from her life story, while the likes of Daniel Lee (Hooded Fang, Phedre) and Slakah the Beatchild inject a little boom-bap hip-hop flavour into her deliciously retro soul and R&B instrumentals. Every bit as confident as Amy Winehouse's Frank, Soul Run quickly landed on the 2016 Polaris Music Prize long-list, and that's only the beginning of where this album might take her.
Alan Ranta

13. KING
(KING Creative)
After their 2011 EP The Story garnered praise from the likes of Prince, Erykah Badu and Questlove, among other genre icons, Los Angeles trio KING largely went silent, save for collaborations and a few single releases. The release of their debut LP We Are KING in 2016 showed the lengthy five-year wait was worth it, as they ventured further into their flighty, enveloping soul sound, which remains as vibrant as the record's cover.
If the trio's penchant for stunning vocal harmonies doesn't grab you, their lush production undoubtedly will, from the 8-bit sway of "The Greatest" to the punchy guitar and horn-led grooves that close "Oh, Please!" to extended mixes of the three tracks that first brought KING to everyone's attention. Both the lyrics and sonics are crafted as lovingly as ever five years later, and for a world that could use a little more of that, We Are KING serves as vital listening.
Calum Slingerland

12. Esperanza Spalding
Emily's D+Evolution
Esperanza Spalding's Emily's D+Evolution firmly establishes her as a visionary, unafraid to pursue her artistic aims to their fullest extent. The agility with which her alter-ego/muse — the titular Emily — dances between the norms of prog, metal, jazz and funk has drawn positive comparisons to such disparate geniuses as Prince, Cream, Flying Lotus and Joni Mitchell.
With her acrobatic vocals and fretless bass in tow, wrapped in rich layers of poetry asserting her individuality, Spalding pushes against musical boundaries (genre, vocal range) as well as social ones (gender, race, religion). She does this with both a sweet sense of whimsy and the conviction of a freedom fighter.
If you pass a stranger on the street and they are looking up at the sky, you may very naturally also want to look up, too. Spalding's new "play," the adventurous Emily's D+Evolution, tilts our heads back in this way too.
Peter Ellman

11. Laura Mvula
The Dreaming Room
(Sony Music)
"When your heart is broken down / And your head don't reach the sky / Take your broken wings and fly."
When it was released earlier this year, we didn't know yet how important or prescient Laura Mvula's The Dreaming Room would prove to be in 2016. "Come together, be brave," she urges later in the same song, the exquisite "Overcome" with Niles Rodgers, her voice skipping up and down a mountain of layered vocals and sing-song beats. It's just the second track on the album, but already we are swallowed whole, safely ensconced in The Dreaming Room's lush soundscape.
Even in the record's starkest moments — "Lucky Man," with its whispery flute-like anxieties and synth-and-drum marches evoking something cavernous and pained, the ominous and foreboding "Kiss My Feet" — there's a cinematic scope that's almost dizzying in its breadth. On the spacious and delicate "Show Me Love," bittersweet layers of regret and hope crescendo against an orchestral swell as Mvula's voice is pushed front and centre, like the moon pulling the night into daybreak.
Resilient, stark, luminous, it establishes the path out of dreamlike suspension and into something more decisive, declarative and celebratory: the triumphant and flawless dance-happy final track, "Phenomenal Woman."
Andrea Warner

10. dvsn
Sept. 5th
(OVO Sound)
Toronto duo dvsn deliver R&B, deconstructed. Sept. 5th is shaped for the post-Drake musical world; vocalist Daniel Daley and super-producer Nineteen85 (Paul Jeffries) represent OVO Sound with a take on soul music that's as imminently comfortable as it is purposefully urgent. The duo pace themselves nicely across 10 tracks of moody electro synths, married to empathetic, minimalist tales of love, yearning and predestination.
On vocals, Daley stays in the pocket, servicing Jeffries's muted percussive effects, calming harmonies and pleasing vision. The album denotes where R&B music exists in a modern age, while at the same time pulling back from the overdone ethereality the genre has obsessed over in recent years. While still maintaining a haunting vibe, the album possesses memorable, Top 40 gravity with an underground strut. dvsn let the music breathe and speak for itself, though, and it's an assertive, refined and viable voice.
Ryan B. Patrick

9. Jamila Woods
(Closed Sessions)
That Chicago's Jamila Woods wasn't a bigger breakout artist in 2016 is somewhat baffling. Having featured prominently on big tracks from Chance the Rapper ("Sunday Candy") and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis ("White Privilege II"), she should've had mainstream exposure enough to attract curious ears aplenty to her brilliant debut, HEAVN.
First off, the production is utterly gorgeous and consistently detailed, taking the most interesting aspects of a variety of modern rap production styles and making something more spacious, groovy and progressive out of them. Combined with vibrant future soul arrangements and Woods' calmly expressive, velvety voice, the whole experience is as blissful and soothing as it is musically compelling — which, hopefully, should relax the listener into taking an open-minded listen to her deceptively pointed lyrics.
It's a clever, subversive approach to writing politically charged music, and a smart way to convey the unique beauty of her cultural experience, which she does with an efficient elegance in both song form and as small experiential anecdotes shared between tracks. Timely, socially perceptive and mostly importantly, just damn good music that pushes its genre forward, Jamila Woods' HEAVN is easily one of the year's finest releases and an accomplished statement that signals the emergence of a major new artistic voice.
Scott Gray

8. Charles Bradley
On the gospel-tinged opening track to Changes, "God Bless America," Charles Bradley says in his distinctive rasp, "America you've been real honest, hurt and sweet to me. But I wouldn't change it for the world."  
Pain, acceptance and gratitude have immeasurably shaped the artistic outlook of Bradley, whose well-documented journey has been narrated by great highs and lows. Here, on his third album, he conveys emotion rivetingly, belting about heartbreak, social injustice and passion in a love letter to the ever-changing tides and contexts of love. 
Bradley's brawny, husky voice is utterly satisfying, his James Brown howls goosebump-inducing, especially when paired with doo-wop ("Crazy for Your Love), squealing saxophone ("Nobody but You," which samples Seals & Crofts's "Summer Breeze") and smouldering grooves ("Ain't Gonna Give It Up"). The album's most poignant moment, though, comes in its title track — a Black Sabbath cover — that beautifully coaxes out the blues roots of the original while bringing new, heart-wrenching meaning by its dedication to Bradley's late mother. 
While Bradley's soulful style is warm and familiar, his perspective makes it both current and intoxicating. Here, vintage is not antiquated, but rather used as a vehicle to push things forward.
Yasmine Shemesh

7. NxWorries
Yes Lawd!
(Stones Throw)
Anderson .Paak might be one of the few people who'll be able to look back at 2016 fondly. Undoubtedly a contender for new artist of the year, he was a noteworthy guest on Kaytranada, ScHoolboy Q and A Tribe Called Quest's albums, amongst many more. When not crashing everyone else's studio sessions, .Paak took the time this year to complete and release both his solo album Malibu and this joint collaboration with Knxwledge, Yes Lawd!
Knxledge's dusty, crate-digging production here is meticulous, and the texture of the record is as much a star as its vocalist. Yes Lawd! feels like a split-second photograph that caught a particularly magical moment in Anderson .Paak's ascension. As if it were created without expectation, its brilliance precedes the pressures of success, so whether or not we ever hear another NxWorries album seems beside the point; Yes Lawd! is about recognizing the wonder in what you happen to have in a given moment.
Michael J. Warren

6. NAO
For All We Know
(Little Tokyo Recordings)
London R&B star NAO took the world by storm this year with the self-described "wonky funk" heard on her debut LP, For All We Know. Her cooing vocals and stratospheric range combine with smart guitar licks, infectious beats and exquisite production to get listeners dancing. Her songs are dramatic, exploding into unforgettable choruses as on single "Girlfriend," but intimate voice memos from her time as a backup singer hold the whole thing together, showing the history of her career up to this point.
NAO's multifaceted nature is plenty evident here, from the delicate "Blue Wine" to the relentless groove of the "DYWM" refrain. "We Don't Give A" is full of attitude and funk-inspired bass, while "Fool to Love" is rhythmically off-kilter, with a smooth vocal hook. NAO is an artist working on her own terms, and by doing so, she has created an endlessly inviting sound and an unforgettable debut.
Anna Alger

5. Rihanna
With the release of chart-toppers "Bitch Better Have My Money" and "Work" right before ANTI's highly anticipated drop, many expected the album to be another predicable, hit-heavy pop album. What came instead was a refreshingly understated R&B record that further cemented Rihanna's place both as a superstar and an artist.
Alongside radio-friendly anthems like "Kiss It Better" were quieter, more vulnerable tracks that sent this album to an unexpected realm. Opening with "Consideration," featuring fellow badass female SZA, Rihanna let her patois-inflected vocals shine; tracks like "Needed Me," "Love on the Brain" and Tame Impala cover "Same Ol' Mistakes" defined the album's conflicting themes of self-assurance and loneliness.
Undeniably sexy, expertly produced and thematically cohesive, the excellent ANTI is Rihanna at her best.
Courtney Baird-Lew

(Arts & Crafts)
BADBADNOTGOOD have the ability to orchestrate quirk, but the experimental schemas of their track structures boast a distinct level of sophistication, too. Their technical prowess is unquestionable; the now-quartet have captivated over the last three years, and IV only serves to cement the reputation these Torontonians have garnered.
A balanced mix of slow, hazy grooves and upbeat, effervescent compositions make up BADBADNOTGOOD's fourth full-length release. The record fuses a smoked-out sonic palette to the freewheeling spirit that has marked the group's previous releases.
IV offers swathes of sounds that are coyly underscored by a range of influences, all liberally peppered throughout the record. Its eclectic instrumentation invites listeners to jazz-forward lounge music that is accessible even to any fair-weather enthusiast. It's a sophisticated party, but everybody's invited.
Corinne Przybyslawski

3. Frank Ocean
Frank Ocean's 2012 debut studio album, Channel Orange, established him as one of music's guiding lights, a sage, mysterious figure with a voice like butter and an ability to turn life experience into songs that simultaneously evoked sunny California and dark, nagging anxiety. How do you follow that?
For four long years, he didn't. Then, in August, he delivered the spread-out, languorous Endless, and a day later, Blonde, an album so stripped of the maximalist thump of Channel Orange that it was almost confounding. Blonde features no "Pyramids," no "Bad Religion"; it's an intimate, textured album devoid of showstoppers and awash in synth warble, reverb, vocal manipulations and ambiance. Ocean's in search of truth here; though it feels at times like he's trying, Kid A­-esque, to disappear, it's all in an attempt to accurately recreate the spotty nature of memory's narrative as he explores feelings from his childhood and relationships from his teens.
Looking for truth in music doesn't always bear fruit, but for four years, Ocean searched his soul long and hard — as a result, Blonde yields sweetness that surpasses even that of the peaches and mangos of days gone by.
Stephen Carlick

2. Anderson .Paak
(Steel Wool/OBE/Art Club/EMPIRE)
Most things that occur in January are soon forgotten as the year chugs ahead; albums that drop so early tend to drift toward whatever cavernous abyss our New Year's resolutions end up in by June. But Anderson .Paak's velvety effort Malibu managed to resonate all year long. Plush and gutsy, the record struck the perfect balance between looking back and moving forward. Its lush, intricate instrumentation gave it a vintage charm, but .Paak's spry, nimble delivery kept it modern and fresh.
A standout amidst crooning clones, .Paak's gravelly vocals and chewy lyrics make Malibu change shape with every listen. It's a bright, flirty, well-rounded project that will maintain its weight years from now. With impressive efforts from BJ the Chicago Kid, Solange and Maxwell to name just a few, 2016 will no doubt go down as the year R&B got its soul back. And the effervescent Malibu will be credited with having led the charge.
A. Harmony

1. Solange
A Seat at the Table
Whether you were invited to sit at the table or not, it should be fairly recognizable to anyone: A Seat at the Table is a revolutionary body of work.
Rooted in black feminism, the surprise-drop album finds Solange unapologetically addressing issues facing women of colour in everyday life while opening a dialogue to discuss the realities of living in a black body in 2016. That Solange confronts micro-aggressions ("Don't Touch My Hair"), cultural appropriation ("F.U.B.U."), racism and even death also makes A Seat at the Table something of an emotional rollercoaster, despite being delivered in happy shades of neo-soul, funk and classic R&B.
As Solange highlights the dangers inherent to the black experience, she opens a dialogue to speak on mental wellness and the effects of depression and anxiety. Songs like "Cranes in the Sky" (which was written in 2008 but remains utterly relevant in 2016) are crucial, journal-like entries to self-healing, while "Mad" talks anti-resistance movements and self-identity. 
To suggest A Seat at the Table is simply a musical recording would be unjust — rather, it's an experience strengthened by compassion, understanding and empathy, as Solange masterfully turns music and emotion into powerful anthems poised to lead us through all of life's uncertainties, no matter how unassailable they seem.
Erin Lowers

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