As this is being written, 2009 is almost over, so it's time to look back at some of the best albums of the year so far. This year's list includes some highly successful veterans like Mary J. Blige, R. Kelly and India.Arie, plus a mixture of other veterans (Brian McKnight, Prince) and up-and-comers like Melanie Fiona, The-Dream and Chrisette Michele. One artist you won't find on the list however, is Alicia Keys. Why? It's not that her 2009 album, The Element of Freedom, isn't good - it is. It's just that the album unofficially represents her complete crossover from R&B to pop. For the full R&B list, just look below.
It was a long eight years between Maxwell's third studio album, Now and his fourth one, BLACKsummers'night (released in the U.S. on July 7, 2009), but the good news for his loyal fans is that the musical drought was worth the wait. It may or may not go down in history as one of Maxwell's best albums, but BLACKsummers'night is easily and by far one of the best albums of the year. Everything that his fans have come to love about Maxwell - his delicate vocals, his lush song arrangements, his talent for songwriting - are all still fully intact.
It was on her 2001 album, No More Drama that R&B superstar Mary J. Blige promised that she was done with the negative lifestyle that she had lived and frequently sung about in her music. Up until now, she hasn't completely kept that promise, but on her ninth studio album, Stronger with Each Tear (released Dec. 22, 2009 in the U.S. by Geffen Records), Mary seems to have finally reached the point where she's utterly happy and completely comfortable with herself and her life. Despite the dramatic title, Stronger with Each Tear is practically a love-fest from beginning to end.
3. 'MPLSound,' 'Lotusflow3er' and 'Elixer,' Prince
Prince has been in the music game for over 30 years now, but not only does he show no sign of slowing down, his music somehow manages to still sound as fresh as it did back in the early 1980s. On his latest work, a three-disc set that became available exclusively at Target stores on March 29, 2009, Prince proves that although he's in his 50s now, he still can be just as cutting edge and vibrant as he was 25 years ago. The three discs, Lotusflow3r (Lotus Flower), MPLSound, (Minneapolis Sound) and Elixer (Elixir), prove that he's still far more creative than maybe 95 percent of the artists making music today.
R. Kelly is so immensely talented that it's almost impossible to hate him. Despite being tainted by allegations of having unlawful sex with a minor, he managed to survive the years-long scandal relatively unscathed and definitely unrepentant. And on his latest album, Untitled (released in the U.S. on Dec. 1, 2009) Kellz is back up to his old musical escapades again. The album is R. Kelly doing what he does best: singing about sex, sex, and more sex. And although he's spent his whole career making bedroom music, he definitely isn't bored with the topic, and he makes that perfectly clear throughout the album.
The title of India.Arie's fourth studio album, Testimony: Vol. 2, Love & Politics, may be a little long, but its also highly accurate. That's because on the album sister India testifies about two things: romance and social issues. And although the love songs find India in a good place spiritually and emotionally, the political and social commentary songs show a different side of her: they reveal the soul of a woman who's very concerned with poverty and the well being of the people of the world. The album, released in the U.S on Feb. 10, 2009, is the most global-oriented music she's released to date.
If there's one word that sums up Brian McKnight's recording career, it's 'consistent.' If you've heard any of his albums or hit singles, then you know what to expect from him: beautifully sung ballads and mid-tempo tracks that men can relate to and women swoon over. And his latest release, Evolution of a Man, released in the U.S. on Oct. 27, 2009, is no exception. The album may represent an evolution, but that evolution - like Brian's music - is slow and steady. There's no radical changes in his style here, just a few tweaks here and there in order to stay modern and relevant in today's music world.
Some singers have such a powerful mojo that they can sing anything and it'll come out sounding smooth and sexy, and Joe Thomas is definitely one of those singers. On his eighth album, Signature, Joe continues on the same path he's taken his entire career - a mixture of tender love songs and saucy sex jams - and the results are as good as they've been his entire career. In fact, you might even say that Signature - which was released in the U.S. on July 14, 2009 - is even a little better than his last two albums, 2008's Joe Thomas, New Man and 2007's Ain't Nothing Like Me, which weren't as strong from beginning to end.
8. 'Colour Me Free!,' Joss Stone
Although she's only 22 years old, up to this point Joss Stone had released three albums, which each being more commercially successful than the one before it. Now, on her fourth album, Colour Me Free! (released in the U.S. on Oct. 20, 2009), she further expands her creativity and songwriting abilities and has come up with an album that fuses the old-school Soul feel of her first two albums with the hip-hop influences of her third record. The result is a great balance of well-written, beautifully sung and expertly-produced new-school Soul songs that, when put together, make up the best album of her career so far.
Detroit native K'Jon has been around for years, working hard and putting out music since 2001, but it wasn't until he recorded the hit song "On the Ocean" that his career really began to take off. And on his major-label debut, I Get Around, which was released in the U.S. on Aug. 4, 2009, K'Jon shows that he's definitely deserving of being in the national spotlight. The album is a mostly laid-back, breezy album that bridges the gap between old-school R&B and new-school urban pop. I Get Around is a pleasant surprise and easily one of the most enjoyable grown folks' R&B albums of the year.
Singer-songwriter Terius Nash, better known to most people these days as The-Dream, and best known for his 2007 hit "Shawty is a Ten" (aka "Shawty is the Sh*t") is back with a new album, Love Vs. Money (released in the U.S. on March 10, 2009). And like his debut album, Love/Hate (short for Love Me All Summer, Hate Me All Winter), this album can be divided into two types of songs: pop-oriented, radio-friendly tracks and drama-filled relationship tunes. And on both albums, it's the meaty stuff rather than the lightweight fluff that's the most compelling and worth repeat listening.