Best R&B/Soul Albums of 2012 (So Far)
The Top 12 …
By Mark Edward Nero, About.com Guide
As these words are being written, 2012 is almost halfway over, so it’s time to take a look back at the best R&B/Soul albums from the first six months of the year. A number of the names that made the list are internationally known, like Usher
, R. Kelly
and “American Idol” winner Ruben Studdard
. But there’s a number of less-familiar artists too, like African singer Nneka
, Detroit crooner K’Jon
and British songstress Alice Russell
. For full details of the dozen best albums of the first half of 2012, have a look below.
1. ‘Looking 4 Myself,’ Usher
Even after an almost 20-year career as a recording artist, Usher Raymond IV
continues to push musical boundaries with his songs, and his seventh studio album, Looking 4 Myself
might be his best attempt yet at pushing R&B/pop forward into new territory. Looking 4 Myself
, which was released in the U.S. June 12, 2012, is an audio feast for the ears, featuring a main course of coldly sensual electro-pop songs, complimented by other dishes that include neo-retro Soul, romantic ballads and high energy dance anthems, plus a little hip-hop garnish on the side.
2. ‘Write Me Back (Deluxe Version),’ R. Kelly
R. Kelly’s Write Me Back
, which was released in the U.S. June 26, 2012, is the second straight album where he’s gone retro on us and made a number of songs that sound like they could have been recorded between the 1950s and ’70s. But unlike his previous album, Love Letter
, this one isn’t all nostalgia, all the time. There’s a few songs here that evoke the timeless spirit of classics, but with a modern twist. Although this album by itself isn’t near the top of the list of R. Kelly
‘s best releases, it manages to further cement his status as one of the music industry’s more creative, versatile artists.
3. ‘Moving On,’ K’Jon
On his latest album, Moving On
, K’Jon — his full name is Kelvin Johnson, FYI — builds on the success of his hit single “On the Ocean”
and debut album, I Get Around
and makes an attempt to solidify his name in the music industry and marketplace. Moving On
, released in the U.S. April 17, 2012 by Shanachie Entertainment, is easily one of the better R&B albums of the first half of the year.
4. ‘Look Around the Corner,’ Quantic & Alice Russell
Alice Russell may not be as well known in the U.S. and around the world as other members of the new school of British pop-Soul singers, such as Joss Stone
, Adele and the late Amy Winehouse
, but that doesn’t mean she’s not as talented. And on her latest album, where she teams up with British born, Columbia-based producer Quantic, she shows that she deserves her placement as one of the better modern Soul singers of our time. Throughout Look Around the Corner
, which was released in the U.S. April 3 via the Tru Thoughts label, Alice and Quantic experiment with not just Soul, but bossa nova, salsa, Funk and jazz. The result is a musically adventurous and sonicly pleasing mix of sounds that seems familiar but at the same time is totally unique.
5. ‘Vol. 1,’ The Big Ol’ Nasty Getdown
The Big Ol’ Nasty Getdown is an unusual name for a band, but it’s also pretty fitting for this vast collective of singers and musicians that includes the legendary George Clinton (of Parliament-Funkadelic
fame). The band specializes primarily in Funk, but is also pretty proficient in about half a dozen other music genres, including Soul, hip-hop, rock and country (yes, country). Their debut release, Vol. 1
, is a tasty musical gumbo made up of bits and pieces of the best of various musical styles. And as the group’s name suggests, this album’s a great big party that’s open to anyone looking to have a good time.
6. ‘Soul is Heavy,’ Nneka
On Soul is Heavy
, the second album by singer-rapper-songwriter Nneka
Egbuna to be released in the United States, the Nigerian-German performer definitely shows her American counterparts a thing or two when it comes to recording music that carries some deep messages, but is also entertaining at the same time. As opposed to many of her contemporary Western counterparts, Nneka has a lot more to offer musically than songs about dressing fly, going clubbing, or making love. No, Soul is Heavy
, which was released in the U.S. Feb. 28, 2012, is much more spiritual and political content-wise.
7. ‘Letters From Birmingham,’ Ruben Studdard
It seems odd, but even after being a household name for almost a decade, former “American Idol” champ Ruben Studdard
is apparently just now hitting his stride as an R&B singer. His latest album, Letters From Birmingham
, released in the U.S. March 13, 2012, is definitely the most well-rounded and personal project of his career. At times in the past, Ruben’s music has been criticized as being too bland and emotionally vacant, but that’s definitely not the case here.
8. ‘All of Me,’ Estelle
Four years after her breakthrough album, 2008’s Shine
, London-born R&B singer Estelle Swaray
has finally returned with a follow-up, All of Me
, released in the U.S. Feb. 28, 2012. All of Me
, which is her second American release and third overall, is a smart, energetic collection of songs, mostly revolving around love and relationships. Although her new album doesn’t quite have the eclectic, international flavor that made her last album so great, it’s still a solid, enjoyable listen. Some of the credit for this belongs to her musical collaborators, which include Trey Songz and Janelle Monae, among others.
9. ‘New Life,’ Monica
There’s little doubt that Monica
Brown one of the best pure R&B singers in the music business today. In an industry where vocalists increasingly rely on studio technology and crafty producers to make them sound good, Monica is the real deal: she could probably sing the phone book acapella and still sound sweet. But a couple of the knocks against her have been the occasional lack of emotion in her vocals, as well as a very narrow musical focus. On her seventh studio album, New Life
, which was released in the U.S. April 10, 2012, she’s definitely more vocally emotive than in the past, which to an extent makes up for the album’s narrow theme.
10. ‘This is How I Feel,’ Tank
On his fifth studio album, the R&B muscleman who goes by the stage name Tank
gives us his best effort yet as a singer-songwriter. His This is How I Feel
album, which was released in the U.S. May 8, 2012, is a well-rounded album of romantic-leaning songs. Although Tank, whose birth name is Durrell Babbs, does a solid job carrying most of the album by himself, it’s actually the guest artists, including rappers T.I. and Busta Rhymes, as well as up-and-coming singer Kris Stephens, who bring with them the variety and diversity that helps push This is How I Feel
to heights that it otherwise might not have reached.
11. ‘Real Love,’ Ryan Shaw
If success in the contemporary music world was predicated upon an artist’s ability to sing strongly and with conviction, then Soul crooner Ryan Shaw
would be one of the best known, most successful vocalists in the industry. Because unlike many of his musical peers, Ryan doesn’t hide behind production wizardry, studio tricks or guest vocalists on his songs. On his second album, Real Love
, which was released in the U.S. May 15, 2012, his rich, powerful and emotive voice is front and center, giving Real Love
the type of warm, personal sound that’s missing from much of today’s R&B and Soul music.
12. ‘Think Like a Man: Music From & Inspired by the Film,’ Various Artists
The soundtrack to the film Think Like a Man, which was released April 10, 2012, is chock full of good new and classic songs by both established and younger R&B artists, including Jennifer Hudson, John Legend, Earth, Wind & Fire, Kelly Rowlandand Marcus Canty. In fact, seeing the movie isn’t a prerequisite for enjoying the music; the soundtrack doesn’t have any snippets of dialogue from the movie or character voiceovers, or any other audio tie-ins. And judged on it’s own merits, the Think Like a Man album is one of the better urban film soundtracks in years.Read Review