It's been another terrific year for soul music. The genre seems as varied and complex as it has ever been. The sounds represented on this list include whimsical, soulfully inflected coffee-shop pop like Alice Smith's She, chamber pop with folk soul roots such as Rhye's Woman, full-bodied adult soul like John Legend's Love in the Future, jazz-touched neo-soul like Hiatus Kaiyote's Tawk Tomahawk, and sinuously Goth-tinged electronic R&B like The Weeknd's Kiss Land.
Meanwhile, record labels collectively employed a surprisingly useful tactic: They allowed new artists to test their mettle in the marketplace with short EPs, instead of forcing their careers to wither underneath company red tape and failed digital singles. Standout releases such as Jhené Aiko's Sail Out and August Alsina's Downtown: Life under the Gun were just a few of the dozens of EPs issued this year. The former represented a culmination of Internet buzz-building for Aiko, thanks to her mixtape Sailing Souls and collaborations with Kendrick Lamar's Black Hippy camp. Meanwhile, Alsina proved he had deeper ambitions than his lothario hit "I Luv This Sh*t" by weaving a concept piece around the murder of his brother.
There were the usual racial and cultural tensions that arose as mainstream critics engaged the R&B scene with newfound enthusiasm. Solange Knowles' memorable #Brandydeepcuts hashtag, as well as comments by Kelela in various interviews, clarified that mainstream (post-1980s) R&B suffered from critical neglect for years. The artists are right to be suspicious of writers who couldn't have possibly mastered the genre's nuances in several months' time.
R&B has weathered peaks of critical fancy. In the late 1980s, there was plenty of coverage surrounding Teddy Riley's New Jack Swing. For most of the 1990s, critics focused on neo-soul (probably too much, in retrospect), but by the end of the decade they recalibrated to take in Timbaland's reimagining of funk and bounce music, J Dilla's Detroit funk, T-Pain's Auto-Tune … and so it goes.
Solange's point is that our interest centers on R&B singles, while we're quick to dismiss R&B albums as filler (and often rightly so, to be honest). But a lot can be learned from diving into the ballads, God testimonials and workmanlike studio experiments that comprise so many of these records. K. Michelle's modest hit single, "VSOP," barely hints at her emotional complexity on the rest of Rebellious Soul, from the defiance with which she sings on "My Life," or the warm, motherly tones she gives to her young child on "A Mother's Prayer."
Then there's August Alsina, who spends so much of Downtown trying to prove how tough he is, only to audibly break down in tears when remembering his dead brother. Can you imagine a hood star like Future or Kevin Gates doing that? (The only rapper who comes to mind is Kanye West, near the end of 808 and Heartbreak.) It was one of the most honest moments I heard this year, and I would have missed it if I had dismissed him as a Chris Brown knockoff on the strength of "I Luv This Sh*t."
On my 2012 Top R&B Albums post, I wrote, "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." Judging from the lack of critical recognition for quality work like Bilal's A Love Surreal and TGT's Three Kings, there's still room for improvement. But I can't imagine that a big-budget mainstream R&B album like Ciara would have garnered so many excellent reviews five years ago. This year, we quickly recognized its greatness, and that represents a lot of progress.