This was the year that tastemakers finally rediscovered R&B. The lion's share of the credit goes to Frank Ocean and The Weeknd, whose reputations have swelled since their mixtape releases last year. The latter's just-released Trilogy compiled three EPs (House of Balloons, Thursday and Echoes of Silence), and the former's channel ORANGE is already topping every pop list in the universe, and deservedly so. It is fearlessly poetic. Predictably, given the renewed attention paid to the genre, Miguel's Kaleidoscope Dream has benefited, too: His "Adorn" is arguably one of the year's best songs. More surprising is the recognition given to Dawn Richard's Armor On, a mini-album she released via Tunecore with her management (and some promotional help from mentor Diddy and Atlantic Records). It's fair to say those records capitalized on a cultural moment.
It's fair to wonder if the people who think R&B has gotten good again will subsequently engage with the rest of the genre or continue to dismiss the lot of it, as the New York Times recently did in their appreciation of British sensations Jessie Ware and AlunaGeorge. The piece described R&B as something that either "lives in hip-hop's shadow" or is just bland "adult contemporary" that "mostly aims to remind listeners of the music they grew up on by polishing up its rough edges." Anyone who simply listens to the R&B that Pitchfork recommends on a given week will undoubtedly hear some great music -- Jessie Ware's Devotion is an undeniably terrific album. But they'll mistake the forest for the trees.
Soul musicians are having conversations with the rest of the music world just like everyone else. They aren't locked in a prison of their own making, hacking out facsimiles of Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye for a dwindling audience. (At least the good ones aren't.) The dialogue between soul and hip-hop is a two-way affair. The Detroit funk of J Dilla, Amp Fiddler and Dwele informed Sa-Ra and J*Davey, which in turn informs Frank Ocean. The contemporary R&B industry that we often ridicule (sometimes rightly so) for being too oversexed and fascinated with aesthetic surfaces led to The-Dream, who clearly inspired The Weeknd; it also produced Whitney Houston, who clearly inspired Jessie Ware (she has said in interviews that Whitney is a hero of hers). And let's not forget that Ocean began his career writing for the likes of Brandy and John Legend under his real name, Christopher Breaux.
I won't deny that R&B is an inextricable part of the pop firmament. It's clear that R&B artists aspire to a wide accessibility, if not necessarily the media glare that comes with fame, so they often market themselves as pop artists in order to break the glass ceiling that too often keeps black singers off the stages at major festivals like Coachella and Lollapalooza. And let's face it: They usually have the same mainstream tastes as everyone else, as evinced by the likes of Usher, Ne-Yo, Chris Brown and Rihanna embracing EDM production. Still, R&B artists descend from a soul tradition that is clearly different from the pop melting pot, with roots that are as deep and knotted as the listener wants to dig. It's up to us to untangle those sources.
This list is not only a testament to the genre's diversity, but to the idea that excellence lies in all of its corners, not just the ambient, synth-based R&B that caught pop critics' fancy. Quantic and Alice Russell's Look Around the Corner blends '60s-inspired sunshine pop and stoned soul -- think Friends of Distinction's "Grazing in the Grass" and The Fifth Dimension's "One Less Bell to Answer," with salsa and Afro-Cuban rhythms courtesy of Quantic's Combo Bárbaro. On Leela James' Loving You More ... In the Spirit of Etta James, she not only covers songs once performed by the legendary vocalist who died last January, but also remakes them with playfully imaginative interpretations. It's not just another adult contemporary record. Same with Lianne La Havas' charming debut, Is Your Love Big Enough?. And Melanie Fiona's The MF Life dabbles in so many pop styles it's hard to summarize them in a pithy sentence. Through the strength of her vision, she makes them cohesively her own.
20) Visioneers, Hipology
19) Leela James, Loving You More … In the Spirit of Etta James
18) Quantic & Alice Russell, Look Around the Corner
17) Michael Kiwanuka, Home Again
16) SWV, I Missed Us
15) Jesse Boykins III & Melo-X, Zulu Guru
14) Kendra Morris, Banshee
13) Lianne La Havas, Is Your Love Big Enough?
12) Brandy, Two Eleven
11) Elle Varner, Perfectly Imperfect
10) Solange, True
9) Melanie Fiona, The MF Life
8) Bobby Womack, The Bravest Man in the Universe
7) Georgia Anne Muldrow, Seeds
6) Cody ChesnuTT, Landing on a Hundred
5) Dawn Richard, Armor On
4) Robert Glasper Experiment, Black Radio
3) The Weeknd, Trilogy
2) Miguel, Kaleidoscope Dream
1) Frank Ocean, channel ORANGE