35. The Weeknd, Kiss Land
Kiss Land is what you’d expect from the mysterious Abel Tesfaye — moody, dark, filthy, troubling, sexy — but on the next level. The title track’s twinkling backdrop and drum beat is punctuated by the horror-movie screams of a woman, which just adds to the building tension, given the extremely dominant overtones that Tesfaye channels. As long as you don’t pay too much attention to some of the more troubling lyrics that only accentuate Tesfaye’s complicated ideas about women and relationships, the album’s a smooth listen. — Aylin Zafar
34. Jhené Aiko, Sail Out
Jhené Aiko has been around for a while but really broke out this past year, largely thanks to her appearance on Drake’s “From Time” on Nothing Was The Same. On her debut album, she continues on her Cassie-inspired tip, inviting California fixtures Childish Gambino, Ab-Soul, Vince Staples, and Kendrick Lamar onto her dreamy, zoned-out songs about sex and drugs. If your idea of a good time is Janet Jackson’s kickback in the “That’s The Way Love Goes” video, but while sitting in clouds of smoke rather than dancing, this album’s probably right up your alley. — A.Z.
Active Child makes a brand of elfin 80s pop best described as Kokiri Forest R&B. “Rapor” should score a dreamscape like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Ditching his signature harp for a synthier sound, a dancier beat, and big-ticket collaborations with Mikky Ekko and Ellie Goulding, Active Child’s Pat Grossi loses none of his gregorian cherub vocals and theatricality. Have you seen him live with a full backing choir and a four-piece string section? — Kevin Tang
Solange carves out more and more of her own space apart from her big sister Beyoncé with every project, and the first R&B compilation album from her own label, Saint Records, is a huge win. Solange rounds up some of the most exciting artists in what many call “experimental R&B” today, from Kelela to India Shawn to Iman Omari. It’s a solid and exciting sampling of artists that might be unfamiliar to most, while remaining to be a cohesive work on its own. — A.Z.
“In The Meantime” is a beautiful, soulful tune from KING, a trio from California made up of Anita Bias and twin sisters Paris and Amber Strother. With breathy, layered vocals and a minimal backbeat, it’s basically what you’d imagine a candlelit bubble bath to sound like if baths could talk. (Weird analogy, I know, but listen and you’ll see!) — A.Z.
30. Charles Bradley, Victim Of Love
Charles Bradley’s second album as part of Daptone’s excellent roster of soul revivalists feels like it could be a genuine artifact of the singer’s youth in the ’60s and ’70s. It all feels warm and thoroughly lived-in, and old-fashioned in the best possible way. Bradley’s voice is a true marvel – you can hear echoes of Otis Redding, James Brown, and Syl Johnson in his phrasing – but it all comes together as something that feels special and distinctive. — Matthew Perpetua
29. Jessy Lanza, Pull My Hair Back
Jessy Lanza’s debut album Pull My Hair Back isn’t usually classified as an R&B record –it’s most often lumped in with electronic music because it’s on the Hyperdub label – but if you listen to her sing, it’s clear that this music is rooted in soul. Most of the songs feel like extremely slow and chill version of late ’90s/early ’00s R&B. “5785021” is especially great, with Lanza pleading for someone to give her a call over a beat by Junior Boys producer Jeremy Greenspan that feels like a Timbaland track in slow motion. – M.P.
28. RaVaughn, “Best Friend”
RaVaughn’s “Best Friend” is simple, but very far from “basic.” With an unexpectedly soaring bridge and a perfectly placed curse word in the hook, it’s the perfect anthem for the disgruntled friend just waiting in the wings. It’s everything that Brandy’s comeback album Two Eleven should have been and more. — Myles Tanzer
27. Autre Ne Veut, Anxiety
“I’m sorry, but this is my guilty pleasure and I must listen to it right now,” said a PhD. friend from New Zealand before putting on “Play by Play.” There was nothing guilty about the impromptu feels-fest we had afterwards, in a misery of a five-wine hangover. Autre Ne Veut can’t scrap together an ounce of restraint to save his life, and that’s his virtue. A lothario in consignment satins, he belts everything like he’s enlisting angels as witness for the epic hour-long breakup he’s having with you right now. — K.T.
A perfectly breathy bit of electro-R&B from former Danity Kane/Dirty Money member Dawn Richard. From the plinky, arpeggiated synth line to the cooed vocals, there’s something wonderfully delicate about “Frequency.” — Alex Naidus
“Dedicated” is a bouncy gem from obscure Young Money-affiliated singer Shanell. She’s written for Jay-Z, Ne-Yo and Usher and you can tell she has an ear for an easy, irresistible melody. There’s something almost unfinished or homemade sounding about “Dedicated,” but it really only adds to the song’s swinging, off-the-cuff charm. — A.N.
24. Daley, featuring Marsha Ambrosius, “Alone Together”
A wonderfully seductive, lush collaboration from UK’s Daley and former Floetry member Marsha Ambrosius. With its slouching rhythm and fluttering vocal performances, “Alone Together” is a delightfully diffuse late night treat. — A.N.
23. Quadron, Avalanche
Quadron vocalist’s Coco O. has been likened to Amy Winehouse and Adele, and it’s not a gratuitous comparison. The Danish singer has all the spunk, soul, and power of Winehouse, but the polish of a ’90s R&B diva. Her partner-in-crime is producer Robin Hannibal, who’s also one-half of another breakout R&B group, Rhye. But where Rhye is quieter, more intimate, Quadron’s sound is bright and effervescent. — A.Z.
22. Fantasia, featuring Kelly Rowland and Missy Elliott, “Without Me”
With Fantasia, Kelly Rowland, and Missy Elliott on the track, the chance of this song falling flat was/is 0.00%. “Without Me” is the perfect combo of smooth, bold, and soulful. And as if the song isn’t slick enough, the video is insanely sexy. — Tracy Clayton
21. Mack Wilds, New York: A Love Story
For those familiar with Tristan Wilds, the actor, it’s no surprise to see Wu Tang Clan members Method Man and Raekwon featured on his debut album. Tristan appeared alongside Meth in his unforgettable performance as Michael on The Wire. But Mack — his middle name, and preferred name by friends and family — goes back way further when it comes to his relationship with the Wu. He grew up in Staten Island, running around as a kid at his dad’s barber shop, where the Wu Tang Clan would come by to get their hair cut. These early brushes with hip-hop legends provided him with a solid musical education, and it shows on Wilds’ debut album of R&B and hip-hop soul, which plays plenty of homage to the ’90s “golden era.” Wilds teams up with producer Salaam Remi, whose roster is no small thing: Amy Winehouse, the Fugees, Nas, among others. For those craving the sounds of a fuller, lusher, more classic R&B than the current crop of chilly, hazy male voices out, Wilds’ album is the perfect answer. — A.Z.
Kelela’s mixtape Cut 4 Me married very of-the-moment sounds of the minimal, moody bass scene with heart-bursting R&B vocals for a debut that immediately got people talking. She works with a handful of exciting producers who create an eerie, if slightly menacing, backdrop for her airy, silky voice — which ends being a dazzling juxtaposition. — A.Z.
With Overgrown, James Blake gives us post-apocalyptic love songs. Without even seeing the music video for “Retrograde,” one of the album’s standout tracks, Blake’s haunting lyrics evoke a cratered landscape, drones and a couple with no one to rely on but each other. That tone rings true throughout the album to stunning effect.
— Saeed Jones
Cupid Deluxe is uncomfortably pretty, like staring straight at a raw knee. While many bands nostalgize ’80s gauzy suburban innocence, Haynes uses its sounds to elegize New York City’s most disenfranchised and sexually vulnerable. “Uncle Ace” is not only the album’s third track, but the nickname homeless LGBT adolescents give to the A/C/E subway tunnels they sleep in. “Always Let U Down” samples Grace Jones and The Fat Boys for a bruised funk cover of the Mansun’s indie-pop hit. There’s mournful sax, and Dev Hayne’s brusied tenor pleading at you. It’s easy to shower Haynes with plaudits for his celeb songwriting and collaborations (he wrote Sky Ferreira’s “Everything Is Embarrassing” and Solange’s “Losing You”), but Cupid Deluxe is him, centerstage, a vulnerable body. — K.T.
17. Mapei, “Don’t Wait”
It’s hard not to fall in love with a song like “Don’t Wait.” The song opens with a hypnotic guitar riff over the warm beat of Brazilian baile funk drums, and gives way to a voice that’s equally entrancing. (“She sounds like if Solange and Imogen Heap had a baby,” said one friend who I played the song for.) Mapei, who was born in Rhode Island and raised in Stockholm, has a voice that’s deep and rich, smooth yet slightly raspy, with a raw and emotional quality that stands out in a pop landscape dominated by ice-queen R&B singers. “Don’t Wait” is a song about friendship, and love, and letting the ones you care about know what they mean to you, before it’s too late. — A.Z.
Even if you never want to hear “Blurred Lines” (a.k.a. the official summer jam of 2013) again in your life, it’s hard to dispute that his sixth album by the same name is a genuinely good record. Great, even. The whole album is tailor-made for gliding across a dance floor — the perfect soundtrack to a wedding, much of it carrying the spirit of 70s funk. Thicke’s falsetto is in full-effect but it’s effortless, natural. The album’s more pop than we’re used to seeing from him, but he wears it well. — A.Z.
The title track from Tamar Braxton’s latest album proves that she sings as good a game as she talks on her hit reality shows. The song is laced with powerful lyrics and strong vocals that definitely run in the family. — T.C.
It’s almost unfair that one of this year’s best pop albums was Jai Paul’s stolen homework. In April, someone illegally released an untitled collection claiming to be the mysterious British electropop/R&B songwriter’s debut album on Bandcamp. Jai refuted that, and said they were just unfinished noodlings, and Bandcamp refunded everyone. Meanwhile, the “unfinished” “Str8 Out of Mumbai” is a jealousy-inducing gem of pure disgusting talent. His ethereal voice threads between a thicket of laser, glitter, Hindi song samples, and deep wall-massaging drums. His cover of Jennifer Page’s “Crush” is also one of the most delightful R&B covers of anything this year. — K.T.
13. K. Michelle, “V.S.O.P.”
What isn’t to love about K. Michelle’s syrupy southern accent sliding over a Chi-Lites sample (by way of Jay Z)? “V.S.O.P.” takes the basement parties your parents and aunts and uncles used to have back in the day and makes them extra sexy. — T.C.
12. Kelly Rowland, Talk A Good Game
Kelly Rowland’s fourth solo album, Talk A Good Game, is maybe her best yet. Though there isn’t a song that quite matches the same commercial appeal of “Motivation” from her last album, she’s come up with something that’s enjoyable all the way through. “Dirty Laundry” is an extremely honest, painful song of the silent abuse Rowland suffered in a previous relationship, and the complicated position of being in best friend Beyoncé’s shadow. There’s also light-hearted fare, like the infectious “Kisses Down Low.” And, of course, for any diehard fan, the Destiny’s Child reunion on the breezy, kiss-off song “You Changed” is a highlight; there’s a reason they were as successful as they were — the chemistry between the three ladies is electric. — A.Z.
11. Laura Mvula, Sing To The Moon
Laura Mvula makes music that feels instantly familiar but leaves you grasping for appropriate comparisons when you have to describe it to someone who hasn’t heard her yet. Is she a more mannered, orchestral version of Erykah Badu? A jazzier Janelle Monaé? A funkier Esperanza Spalding? Sing to the Moon is an astonishingly self-assured debut album; Mvula is so fully formed as a vocalist, composer, and arranger that it’s hard to imagine that stunners like “She,” “That’s Alright,” and “Make Me Lovely” are among the very first songs she’s ever written. — M.P.
10. AlunaGeorge, Body Music
If you ever thought body-rolling to electronic, bass-heavy music was impossible, AlunaGeorge is out to prove you wrong. The UK duo, comprised of vocalist Aluna Francis and producer George Reid, are part of the growing stable of artists bridging the gap between electro-pop and R&B. Francis’ vocals are British girl group-ready, with the same naughty-and-nice quality of All Saints and Sugababes, but set in a more futuristic, glitchy bed of sounds. The album is versatile, whether you’re looking for the perfect soundtrack for a romantic night in, an intimate dinner with friends, or even to bounce to as you walk down the street, a silly, sheepish smile on your face. — A.Z.
You’d be forgiven if you thought Rhye was a woman at first listen, not only because his debut album is actually called Woman. Mike Milosh is the mysterious, androgynous voice at the front of the duo, which includes songwriter-producer Robin Hannibal, whose silky high-pitched voice could mark him as a dead-ringer for Sade. Woman, Rhye’s debut album, slinks and shimmies along between light and dark: buoyant horns on “Hunger,” yearning strings on “The Fall,” and Milosh’s voice throughout tender and affecting. Rhye, though on trend with the quieter pop of acts like The Weeknd or The xx (who also make records for intimate nights), creates music that feels warmer, less isolating. It’s hard to resist falling in love to something this lush. — A.Z.
8. Justin Timberlake, The 20/20 Experience (1 and 2)
JT didn’t have to make an album this good. And while he’s as pop star through and through, 20/20 is also one of the year’s best R&B albums, with songs like “That Girl” and “Not A Bad Thing” placing him in full-on crooner territory. — A.Z.
7. R. Kelly, Black Panties
Robert Kelly is back. After two decades of toot-tooting, bump-n-grinding, and birthing “hip-hopera,” the self-proclaimed “Pied Piper of R&B” offers his latest studio album as a style guide to R. Kelly ballads. Black Panties combines contemporary R&B, hyphy rap hooks, and his unique brand of sexy gospel that can only show for a 22-year music career — ahem, legacy. Kellz is not afraid to explore rhythm and blues, or the sexual implications of “Cookies.” – Tanya Chen
(Note: comments have been slightly revised since new revelations have surfaced.)
6. Drake, “Hold On We’re Going Home”
“Hold On We’re Going Home” is not simply an R&B song, it’s a wedding song, as Drake says it was designed to be. It’s a song you play while you hold the one you love close as you possibly can and just rock. This is the song you wish you dedicated to your high school sweetheart. It’s also the song you sing with all of your friends in the car as loud as you can because it doubles as a pop anthem. Bonus points if you get to be Majid Jordan and echo Drake with your breathless falsetto. — M.T.
“#Beautiful” is everything we missed and wanted from Mariah: her vintage ’90s Mimi sound, her trademark giggles and whistles, a song that’s just joyful and carefree — it’s like a flashback to “Emotions”-era Mariah in the backseat of a convertible. The song is just short enough to leave you wanting more and hitting repeat over and over again, as I did all this past summer. — A.Z.
4. Janelle Monáe, The Electric Lady
Okay, first things first: Prince. Prince and Janelle Monáe. Together. On one track, called “Givin Em What They Love.” Yes, it’s true, and yes, it’s amazing. The other guests aren’t too shabby either: Miguel joins her on the sultry “Primetime,” while Esperanza Spalding and Solange also feature on songs. The best collab, however, goes to Erykah Badu, with whom Monáe becomes an unbeatable team on “Q.U.E.E.N.,” an infectious, toe-tapping banger that’s just dripping with attitude and swagger. If you’re ever having a bad day and need to remind yourself of what a badass human you really are, this is probably the right thing to blast for an instant pick-me-up. — A.Z.
Seven years after she first dropped “Me & U” and her debut album, Cassie resurfaced this year with her first proper follow-up, a New Jack City-inspired mixtape called RockaByeBaby. Cassie’s crystal-clear monotone is detached but sweet, the perfect counter to the nightmarish, hazy production. She hits her stride when her vocals are trance-like and over beats that are unexpected, twisted and strange (the more haunted, fun-house-like, the better) — it’s what made “Me & U” such an inescapable hit in 2006. On “RockaByeBaby,” she raps over a menacing, loopy beat before slowing down into a catchy, mellow chorus. Cassie doesn’t need to have Beyoncé’s singing chops in order to make interesting choices, and she pulled that off better than ever here. —A.Z.
2. Ariana Grande, Yours Truly
Ariana Grande has tapped into the sweet spot of our collective pop/R&B nostalgia and is giving the people what they want: ’90s Mariah Carey. She has the voice to pull it off, too. Yours Truly is feel-good R&B that’s cheeky, fun, and easy to dance to, and filled with healthy dose of ballads that honestly, truly, tug at the heartstrings. “Honeymoon Avenue” is a standout ballad about yearning for the time in a relationship before everything got complicated that brought me to tears more than once. There are the doo-wop sounds of “Tattooed Heart,” and “Almost Is Never Enough,” an excellent duet with her boyfriend Nathan Sykes, of The Wanted. It’s a fine, fine line between bouncy and corny pop, and Grande expertly walks it; the music is effervescent and fun, but it never feels cheap, juvenile, or too syrupy-sweet. It doesn’t take itself too seriously either, which, in today’s pop landscape, is pretty refreshing. —A.Z.
Ciara’s one of those artists who somehow continually gets overlooked in the traditional diva sphere, but “Body Party” is not only one of the best songs of the year, it’s probably one of the best R&B songs of all time. The first single off the singer’s self-titled fifth album, this sensual banger (and its excellent remix featuring Ciara’s fiancé, Future) is cheeky, sweet, fun, and almost impossible not to grind to. But I write this as I’m currently about to jump out of my chair dancing to the album’s closing track, “Overdose.” A glitchy, dance-y banger, the song alternates between seductive, catchy verses and a roaring, cathartic chorus. Ciara has a little bit of everything, from girl power swagger on the Nicki Minaj-assisted “I’m Out” to her rapping debut on “Super Turnt Up.” But even just based on the merits of “Body Party” alone, Ciara deserves the top spot among the wealth of awesome R&B in 2013. — A.Z.