As these words are being written, 2010 is almost over, so it's time to look back at the cream of the crop when it comes to R&B and Soul music that was released during the year. The top half of the list is dominated by some of the most creative women in all of music; Janelle Monae, Sade, Corinne Bailey Rae and Erykah Badu are all represented. And there's plenty of mainstream, chart-topping artists on the list too, like R. Kelly, Usher and Monica. For the full list of about.com's picks for the 20 best R&B/Soul albums of the year, just look below.
The first official full-length debut album by Janelle Monae is like a musical version of a kaleidoscope: it's filled with patterns that emerge then shift and transform into something entirely new. The ArchAndroid, which was released in the U.S. on May 18, 2010, has strong pop and classical music elements in it's very diverse musical foundation. The album's first single, "Tightrope," is a funky Soul-meets-hip-hop number, but anyone expecting the entire album to follow this pattern will be quite surprised, because "Tightrope" is definitely the exception rather than the rule here.
If the biggest R&B comeback of 2009 was the return of Maxwell, then 2010's big story is undoubtedly the return of vocalist Sade Adu and her bandmates, guitarist-saxophonist Stuart Matthewman, bassist Paul Denman and keyboardist Andrew Hale. Soldier of Love, released in the U.S. on Feb. 9, 2010, is the group's first studio album in 10 years, and definitely the group's best effort in almost two decades. Despite the lengthy hiatus, Sade's voice sounds as delicately strong as ever.
If you appreciate 1960s and '70s Soul music, live instrumentation, socio-political songs, or just plain old great music, then Wake Up!, an album teaming R&B crooner John Legend with legendary hip-hop band The Roots, is a must-hear. The album's concept, which resulted from Legend becoming more politically minded during and after the events that led up to Barack Obama's election as the 44th President of the United States, manages to somehow pull off the incredibly difficult task of being both message-minded and inviting.
Although some of the songs on Corinne Bailey Rae's second album deal with the 2008 accidental death of her husband, Jason Rae, The Sea, released in the U.S. on Jan. 26, 2010, isn't drowning in sadness or melancholy. Although there are elements of each on the album, The Sea is more about Corinne's recovery from her spouse's sudden death and her celebration of his life. On this album, Corinne has clearly moved through the various stages of grief - at least for the most part.
Lyfe says that his fourth album, I Still Believe will be his last. Whether or not this is his actual swan song is debatable - plenty of artists have said they were retiring, only to drop a new album a few years later. But if this truly is the last solo album we'll ever hear from Lyfe, then the passionate, powerful and personal I Still Believe, released in the U.S. on Aug. 31, 2010, is a fitting end to what's been a very respectable career for him.
Time to light the incense and start brewing some tea: Erykah Badu is back on the scene. And on her latest project, New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh (released in the U.S. on March 30, 2010), Ms. Badu takes on a very common subject - love - but manages to do it in a very uncommon way. Return of the Ankh is tender yet strong, fragile yet bold and brilliantly quirky. It's also an album that apparently couldn't care less about radio-friendly singles and ringtone R&B; it's a work of art.
Fresh off a highly publicized marriage that lasted less than two years, Usher Raymond tries to regain his swagger - and the female fanbase that deserted him after he got a wife - with his sixth studio album, Raymond v. Raymond (released in the U.S. on March 30, 2010). Many of the people who didn't like the more mature direction that Ush went in on his 2008 album, Here I Stand (aka "The Married Album") will probably appreciate this release's return to basics. Sex, love, cheating and drama - the four basic ingredients in most of his previous work - are all in abundance here, and Usher has definitely regained his mojo.
Although she's still not even 30 years old yet, Monica Arnold is a longtime veteran of the music business. She began her professional career as a teenager in the mid-'90s, and over that span has recorded six albums (one of which was released only in Japan). Her sixth and latest project, Still Standing, released March 23, 2010 in the U.S., is like Monica herself; mature and dignified enough to appeal to older fans, but at the same time young and fresh enough to be down with the hip-hop generation. Although it has it's few minor flaws, Still Standing is definitely one of the stronger albums of Monica's career.
On his 10th solo album, Love Letter, R. Kelly chose to revisit R&B music's past rather than chart a new path for it's future. Love Letter, released in the U.S. on Dec. 14, 2010, is about as retro as retro can get. As the old school cover image suggests, the album's very influenced by legendary '60s singers like the late, great Sam Cooke, Ray Charles and Marvin Gaye.