When I took over the Soul/R&B section from Pop, Latin and World editor Rachel Devitt, my ensuing experience was an ear- and eye-opener.
First, I was stunned at how little R&B music comes out. I tallied a little over 100 new releases of note in 2011, a low amount compared to hip-hop and its 300-plus new releases. (It's the reason why I limited this best-of list to only 10 albums.) Blame it on the legacy of the Uptown Records and Bad Boy "jiggy" era, because launching a new R&B artist can still cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in imaging, marketing, and radio promotions. The R&B industry hasn't developed an underground market as strong as hip-hop. However, you could argue that specialty imprints like Shanachie and its quiet storm acts, along with Daptone and its retro-soul veterans, are pushing the industry in the right direction.
I also found that R&B tends to develop slower than other genres. Traditional soul, rhythm & blues, funk and smooth jazz artists like Maysa, Lalah Hathaway, Joe, and The Original 7ven (formerly known as The Time) continue to sell records, if the Napster playback charts are any indication. It doesn't matter that they have careers dating back a few decades. However, R&B hasn't completely sacrificed its voice in the pop conversation for loyal but conservative and aging fans.
Every few years, R&B makes an evolution that commands the rest of the music world's attention. Five years ago, it was T-Pain and his Auto-Tuned records; this year, it's the ambient R&B of The Weeknd, Frank Ocean and Drake. You could argue that they simply built on The-Dream's innovations (and, going back further, R. Kelly's) in syllable-extending crooning and diffuse, laptop-generated synthesizer backgrounds, adding disparate influences like '80s new wave, indie rock, dubstep and chillwave. Still, their collective emergence signaled that current trends would once again center on new urban pop, and we could set aside our think pieces on how electronic and hip-hop producers appropriate old '90s R&B and '80s post-disco synth-funk records for samples and remixes.
Unfortunately, The Weeknd's House of Balloons and Thursday, as well as Frank Ocean's Nostalgia, Ultra were unlicensed mixtapes, which makes them ineligible for this list. (Other notable mixtapes included J*Davey's Evil Christian Cop: The Great Mistapes, Teedra Moses' Luxurious Undergrind, The-Dream's 1977, and Estelle's AOM: The Prequel.) R&B mixtapes have steadily grown over the years, but in the past they consisted of demo material and freestyle singing over hit beats. 2011 is arguably the first year when they stood among the genre's best recordings. This is part of the continuum R&B shares with hip-hop, where the mixtape model has also become important. Symbiotically, the two scenes influence each other.
Drake epitomizes the R&B and hip-hop crossover. He's technically a hip-hop artist, but his Take Care is one of the best R&B albums of the year. However, this list is ranked according to personal favorites, and it wasn't my no. 1 pick. It's the same reason I left out Rihanna's Talk That Talk, which I didn't like as much as her last album, Loud. Hey, to each his own.