Year-End List: 20 Best R&B Albums or 2016
Beyoncé (Lemonade), Solange (A Seat at the Table), and Frank Ocean (Blonde) lead the charge of the 20 best R&B albums of 2016.
2016 wasn’t a great year for R&B. That said, R&B hasn’t had a truly great year for some time. Nonetheless, the genre that continues to lose commercial footing year by year did yield some exceptional albums. Interestingly, two sisters – Beyoncé (Lemonade) and Solange (A Seat at the Table) – lead the charge of the best R&B albums of 2016. The long-awaited sophomore album by Frank Ocean, Blonde, isn’t far behind. Here are the 20 best R&B albums of 2016.
1. Beyoncé, Lemonade
Lemonade is a bold album that finds Beyoncé at her rawest. While she incorporates expected styles – pop, R&B, and hip-hop – she also adds elements of rock (“Don’t Hurt Yourself”) and country (“Daddy”). That doesn’t even account for socially conscious and politically-charged moments such as “6 Inch Heels,” “Freedom,” and “Formation.”
Gems: “Hold Up,” “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” “Sorry,” “Sandcastles,” “Freedom” & “Formation”
2. Solange, A Seat at the Table
Solange returns with a masterful third LP, A Seat at the Table. With A Seat at the Table, she didn’t just make any album, but rather, a meaningful, socially-conscious gem. Throughout the course of A Seat at the Table, Solange embraces her blackness and couldn’t care less what the haters have to say. Among the crème de la crème of the gems is “Cranes in the Sky,” an attempt to eliminate the hurtful, and “Don’t Touch My Hair,” a jazzy neo-soul record tackling invasiveness, racial profiling, and pride.
Gems: “Weary,” “Cranes in the Sky,” “Mad,” “Don’t Touch My Hair,” “F.U.B.U.” & “Borderline (An Ode to Self Care)”
3. Frank Ocean, Blonde
[Boys Don’t Cry]
After a four-year hiatus, Frank Ocean returned with his sophomore album, Blonde. Following up masterpiece Channel Orange is no easy task, but Ocean does so successfully, distinguishing his debut and sophomore efforts. Blonde is a complete album that masterfully encompasses introspection, life, and love & sex. Highlights include “Nikes” (dabbles in materialism, memorials, and sex), “Ivy” (like, love and breaking up), and “Pink + White” featuring Beyoncé (past life, love, Hurricane Katrina, and a temporary “high”). Blonde is brilliant, period.
Gems: “Nikes,” “Ivy,” “Pink + White,” “Solo,” “Nights” & “Seigfried”
4. Rihanna, Anti
With Anti, Rihanna gave the world one of the best albums of her career if not the best. While initially Anti had an ‘adjustment’ period, it is undoubtedly among the crème de la crème of 2016. It should’ve been nominated for the Grammy for Album of the Year. Chocked full of hits, “Kiss It Better” is among the year’s sexiest slow jams, “Work” is annoyingly infectious, while “Higher” is an interlude that definitely should’ve been a full-length song. Anti is stacked!
Gems: “Kiss It Better,” “Work,” “Desperado,” “Same Ol’ Mistakes,” “Love on the Brain” & “Higher”
5. Childish Gambino, “Awaken, My Love!”
Donald Glover Aka Childish Gambino is incredibly talented. Known for his acting and rapping, on his third studio album, “Awaken, My Love!”, he trades rap for singing. It’s a risk, but the reward is great. “Awaken, My Love!” is a throwback soul album, unlike anything else released over the course of 2016. Gems are abundant, whether it’s the love-centric “Me and Your Mama,” the lustful “Redbone,” or the paternal “Baby Boy.”
Gems: “Me and Your Mama,” “Boogieman,” “Redbone” & “Baby Boy”
6. Michael Kiwanuka, Love & Hate
There should be nothing but love for Michael Kiwanuka, a talented British musician who oozes with soul yet is equally gifted as a singer/songwriter. Like so many underrated musicians, Kiwanuka is something like a “best kept secret.” He shouldn’t be. His radiant sophomore album Love & Hate proves why. 10-minute opener “Cold Little Heart” is ambitious, emotional, and thoughtful to the nth degree. “Black Man in a White World” does brilliantly opens discussion about social issues and eliminate stereotypes. The grand title track is worth the time it takes to percolate.
Gems: “Cold Little Heart,” “Black Man in a White World,” “Love & Hate,” “Rule the World” & “Father’s Child”
7. Anthony Hamilton, What I’m Feelin’
Traditional R&B doesn’t get the respect or notoriety that it should. Regardless, Anthony Hamilton delivers an exceptional album from start to finish. What I’m Feelin’ is another magnificent addition to Hamilton’s stacked discography. It is a reminder that R&B it IS NOT DEAD. “Amen” manages to incorporate hip-hop without compromising Hamilton’s neo-soul sound. “Take You Home” sounds like Sunday morning services.
Gems: “Save Me,” “Ain’t No Shame,” “What I’m Feelin’,” “Amen,” “Grateful” & “Take You Home”
8. Maxwell, blackSUMMERS’night
With the second album from a promised trilogy, blackSUMMERS’night, arguably the biggest mistake Maxwell made was that he waited too long. Between his first comeback (BLACKsummers’night) and this LP, there was a span of seven years! For those few that did partake, for the most part, blackSUMMERS’night was worth the wait. Maxwell tweaked his sound slightly from his previous album. Still, “Lake by the Ocean” certainly doesn’t sound far-fetched from “Pretty Wings,” while “1990x” exemplifies the Maxwell vibe (and falsetto).
Gems: “All the Ways Love Can Feel,” “Lake by the Ocean,” “Hostage,” “1990x” & “Gods”
9. John Legend, Darkness and Light
The return of John Legend ended up being an understated one, in regards to commercial success. Nonetheless, following a three-year hiatus, Legend brought the heat on Darkness and Light. He opens with the gospel-infused “I Know Better,” which is drenched in soulfulness and grit. “Penthouse Floor” gives the album some swag, in a grown-n-sexy sort of way. Main attraction “Love Me Now” gives Legend another crossover hit without compromising his robust, powerful instrument. Darkness and Light is the exemplification of well-rounded, modern R&B album.
Gems: “I Know Better,” “Penthouse Floor,” “Love Me Now,” “What You Do to Me” & “Right by You (for Luna)”
10. Anderson. Paak, Malibu
[Steel Wool / OBE]
Back in January, Anderson. Paak might’ve secured a top-five spot with Malibu. In the review penned Malibu, I wrote: “Anderson Paak clearly shows himself to be a force to be reckoned with and hopefully Malibu isn’t just a critical breakthrough, but also a commercial breakthrough.” The problem is that since January, plenty more fantastic albums have joined Paak’s own standout. While Malibu may have lost some of its edge, coupled with being underappreciated in the first place, it’s clearly one of the year’s more intriguing, creative albums. Paak sings, raps, and wears lots of different hats throughout this Alt-R&B jewel.
Gems: “The Bird,” “Heart Don’t Stand a Chance,” “The Season / Carry Me,” “Put Me Thru,” “Your Prime” & “Come Down”
11. The Weeknd, Starboy
The Weeknd makes a splash with his third proper album, Starboy. Starboy is a big and flawed effort, but nonetheless, it’s jam-packed with hits. The two Daft Punk collaborations (“Starboy” and “I Feel It Coming”) are the best moments, hand down. Joints like “Party Monster” and the unapologetic “Reminder” showcase the high-pitched musician’s toughness – grit. Ballad “True Colors” shifts the perception, finding The Weeknd singing radiantly, with incredible tenderness. All in all, the album has a little bit of something for everybody.
Gems: “Starboy,” “Party Monster,” “Reminder,” “True Colors,” “Sidewalks” & “I Feel It Coming”
12. BJ The Chicago Kid, In My Mind
Ah, another fine, if underrated/underappreciated R&B album. BJ The Chicago Kid’s debut In My Mind like Anderson. Paak’s Malibu is clearly one of the year’s elites that hasn’t received the notoriety it should’ve. Despite poor commercial sales, critically, In My Mind has plenty of goods to offer, whether it’s the spiritual concerns of “Church” and “Jeremiah/Worlds Needs More,” or the sensually-charged “The Resume.” Two moments in particular shine: “New Cupid” featuring Kendrick Lamar and groovy, throwback closer “Turnin’ Me Up.”
Gems: “Church,” “Love Inside,” “The Resume,” “Jeremiah/World Needs More Love,” “New Cupid,” & “Turnin’ Me Up”
13. Bruno Mars, 24K Magic
Bruno Mars is carefree on his highly anticipated third album, 24K Magic. A fun album, 24K Magic tackles partying, ladies, and looking back to past R&B as its inspiration. “24K Magic” is drenched in swagger, with Mars elevating himself as the player of players, spitting mad game. “Versace on the Floor” centers around sex, but Mars incorporates legit emotions and magnificent vocals. On “Finesse” he indeed “shut the shit down on sight…drippin’ in finesse” while he nails Babyface-assisted ballad “Too Good to Say Goodbye,” which closes the album. 24K Magic is short, but sweet.
Gems: “24K Magic,” “Versace on the Floor,” “Finesse” & “Too Good to Say Goodbye”
14. Emeli Sandé, Long Live the Angels
Emeli Sandé can be categorized in both pop and R&B categories – a testament to her musical versatility. Regardless, there ample soul on her sophomore album, Long Live the Angels to grace this list. Sandé is a brilliant songwriter and possesses a magnificent, powerful instrument. While Long Live the Angels is jam-packed with gems, the crème de la crème was also released as singles. “Breathing Underwater” is radiant, reaching chilling heights. “Hurts” is truly pained, yet Sandé’s hurt is the listener’s gain musically. “Garden” is awesome, featuring spoken word contributions from Áine Zion and a spot-on rap from Jay Electronica. All in all, Long Live the Angels is a winner.
Gems: “Breathing Underwater,” “Hurts,” “Garden,” “I’d Rather Not” & “Every Single Little Piece”
15. Alicia Keys, Here
On her sixth studio album, Here, Alicia Keys aims for big, socially conscious ideas. Here isn’t Key’s tour de force, but it isn’t a bust by any means. The ambitious nature of Here earns it a spot on this particular list, flaws and all. “The Gospel” is a thoughtful, tone-setter that blends R&B, hip-hop, and singer/songwriter cues seamlessly. “Kill Your Mama” is among the rawest musical moments of Keys’ career. She pulls off the two-part song superbly on “She Don’t Really Care_1 Luv,” while “Blended Family (What You Do for Love)” is easily among her most personal songs ever. Soul flows through “More Than We Know,” a gem that sounds like a Lauryn Hill record.
Gems: “The Gospel,” “She Don’t Really Care_1 Luv,” “Blended Family (What You Do for Love),” “More Than We Know” & “Holy War”
16. Joe, #MYNAMEISJOETHOMAS
[Plaid Takeover / BMG Rights Mgt.]
Joe isn’t a particularly flashy musician, but he doesn’t need to be. On his latest album, #MYNAMEISJOETHOMAS, Joe keeps things consistent – sound, sensual, and highly respectable. The class act continues to show class on an underrated adult contemporary R&B album clearly deserving more recognition. Joe is amps up the grown-n-sexy on the superb “Lean into It.” On killer ballad “So I Can Have You Back” he hopes his love’s new beau will mess up so he can have her back. Another gem, “No Chance” builds upon the exceptionalness of the aforementioned. There’s also that masterful cover of “Hello” (Adele).
Gems: “Lean into It,” “So I Can Have You Back,” “No Chance,” “Happy Hour,” “Our Anthem” & “Hello”
17. Anthony David, The Powerful Now
Anthony David possesses one of the most soulful, distinct voices in R&B. Nonetheless, the “God Said” singer/songwriter is more underground than mainstream. Nonetheless, The Powerful Now, his first album released via Shanachie, is magnificent. “Ride On” kicks things off honestly, chocked full of emotion. On the title track, David is prudent, conveying the importance of seizing upon the moment. “Road to Baxley” balances old and new impressively, while “Never Again” infuses a dash of jazz, assisted by Reesa Renee.
Gems: “Ride On,” “The Powerful Now,” “Beautiful Problem,” “Road to Baxley” & “Never Again”
18. Corinne Bailey Rae, The Heart Speaks in Whispers
After a six-year hiatus, soulful British singer/songwriter Corinne Bailey Rae returned with The Heart Speaks in Whispers. Unfortunately for Bailey Rae, her third album was incredibly underrated, though should be by any means. Throughout its course, the Grammy-winner shines, whether its signature moments like “Hey I Won’t Break Your Heart” or the brilliant, six-minute soul gem, “Green Aphrodisiac.” Rae also expands her script, namely on exceptional ballad, “Taken by Dreams.”
Gems: “Hey I Won’t Break Your Heart,” “Been to The Moon,” “Green Aphrodisiac,” “Do You Ever Think of Me?” & “Taken by Dreams”
19. Dave Hollister, The MANuscript
Another of the underrated of the underrated. Dave Hollister didn’t create commercial buzz with The MANuscript but critically, this is a great R&B album. While The MANuscript doesn’t sport the modern bag of R&B tracks, it relies on old-school, contemporary R&B sensibilities. It’s not a soul album, but it also doesn’t conform to the young crop or R&B males – clearly a pro. Among gems is opener “Definition of a Woman,” an excellent duet with Angie Stone, “Receipts,” and the narrative-driven “Barbershop.”
Gems: “The Definition of a Woman,” “Receipts,” “Shortage,” “Barbershop” & “Let Him”
20. Usher, Hard II Love
Usher may be 38 years old, but he continues to showcase an incredible amount of swagger on his eighth studio album, Hard II Love. All in all, Hard II Love is an enjoyable effort, if a notch or two below juggernaut Confessions. Nonetheless, it’s on par with or slightly above his solid, recent releases. He shines on “Missin U,” which seamlessly blends urban contemporary cues with retro-soul. Swag is inescapable on club joint “No Limit,” featuring Young Thug. “Crash” underwhelms initially, but the signature Usher falsetto is enough to make fans buy in.
Gems: “Missin U,” “No Limit,” “Crash,” “Rivals” & “Tell Me”