R&B in 2014 was rife with breathy, spellbinding debuts and breathless, gonzo reinventions, from the mesmerizing coos of FKA Twigs and Tinashe to the fearless travelogues of Mary J. Blige (who went to London) and Prince (who went to Mars). Old favorites (from Sharon Jones to Mariah) mingled with young-and-hungry old souls (from Jessie Ware to August Alsina); and the concept-album racket boomed anew, taking in everything from Kelis' Food to Babyface and Toni Braxton's Love, Marriage & Divorce. There's something for everyone here, young or old, not to mention young or old at heart.
When Sharon Jones was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, went through chemotherapy and returned to appear on a Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade float in 2013, the world discovered the light-footed 58-year-old soul singer's strength. Those familiar with her music were less surprised. On Give the People What They Want, recorded before the diagnosis, but released this January, she sounds more confident than ever, doing her usual twist on Sixties-style R&B but sounding as strong as any contemporary Numero Group rare-groove reissue. Lyrically, same story: When Jones sings, "You'll be lonely after I'm gone" you know she means it; and when she tells you to retreat, you know which direction to run. N.M.
An omnivorous 19-year-old with a lusciously soulful voice, Daniel Caesar is the latest Toronto R&B sensation; and like Drake, the Weeknd and PartyNextDoor, he immerses you in an atmospheric pool of turbid emotion. Caesar, however, is more earnestly searching, meditating on an unrequited first love and leaving his parents' very religious home (his dad is a gospel singer). Praise Break's seven songs proceed deliberately with dramatic pauses and piano interludes, as Caesar quavers, croons and grabs samples (Jeff Buckley, Pink Floyd, Casablanca dialogue), to evoke the coming-of-age clouding his head. On "Pseudo," he even murmurs, "Welcome to my funeral," amid wailing guitar. But the delicate care taken with Praise Break's vivid ambience, as well as Caesar's languidly powerful vocals (recorded mostly in the living room of co-producer Jordan Evans), argues that we're witnessing the dawn of an abiding talent. C.A.
No one sings like her, no one consistently clowns enemies like her, and most definitely no one titles an album like Mariah Carey. I Am Mariah isn't Carey's all-time best, but it improves significantly on its predecessor: 2008's plodding, tepid Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel. Some credit goes to Jermaine Dupri, one of Carey's foundational collaborators and overseers, adept at transposing what Mariah does well — singing, nostalgia, rapper-collabs — onto a contemporary sonic scaffold. But most of the credit goes to Carey herself, forever good-humored, funny and relatable. So yes, "#Beautiful," a gorgeous, retro-soul duet with Miguel, is officially tracklisted with the hashtag in the song title. And she's extra withering toward a try-hard lover — "Best thing that happened to your ass was me" — on "Thirsty," which opens with the sound of a cork popping and champagne glugging into a flute. Carey is 45 and still killing it in a world that revolves around youth. A.M.
More than just an Internet sensation with on-the-nose Nineties R&B throwback hooks, L.A. native Jillian Banks can go from gloomy trance cuts one minute to lyrically explicit soul jams the next — all with an impressively modern gothic touch. In fact, on her debut, Banks forms a kind of composite of all the exciting things breakout female vocalists have pulled off in the last few years: Lorde without the precociousness, Lana Del Rey if the melodrama was replaced with a winking swagger. C.D.
Last year, K. Michelle's Rebellious Soul hearkened the new R&B reality of hard love and no-bullshit language. Anybody Wanna Buy a Heart offers a softer tone and a sense of reflection: Michelle is still the heartbreaker who "Loves Em All" just because she can, but she no longer pretends to be invincible. One example is "Cry," where she wails like Roy Orbison as she promises to make an ex-boyfriend "Pay me in tears/You owe me for all these years." There's "God I Get It," a country-ish tune with slide guitar, a plucked banjo where she offers a mea culpa: "I'm a mess and I admit it." The music shifts with each number, from the soul-jazz dramatics of "Judge Me" to the synth-funk erotica of "Something About the Night," as this Southern queen proves she's more than a one-sound emoticon. M.R.
What can you really say about "I used to love these hoes/But now I love this money," other than, "At least it's an ethos"? This purring/sneering L.A. phenom is the most melodically alluring young jerk in R&B (pretty crowded field!), and even if the two preceding Beach House mixtapes are slightly better (or at least longer) showcases of his talent for impossibly coarse lyricism layered over impossibly lush and beautiful synth jams, this is a fine major-label introduction to the guy. The sweetly menacing "Or Nah" is a genuine hit, and this is definitely the highest-charting record in Billboard history that includes the line "Yo' bitch look like a boogawoof." R.H.
"I Luv This Shit" is this young Atlanta-via-New Orleans moaner's big breakout hit, and its mournful-yet-triumphal complexity (killer synth horns, too) sets the tone for his poverty- and death-haunted debut album, which synthesizes his dark past into a bright — or at least brighter — future. Here, even the song with the chorus of "She ride me like a porn star" has an angst-ridden edge, but it's more earned, compelling, classical world-weariness than dopey Weeknd-style lothario malaise. Rappers from Pusha T to Fabolous drop by to lend some hardness, but are not unpleasantly softened in turn by a throwback-minded struggle-R&B barrage that aims for "Living for the City"-style pathos and gets 30 percent of the way there, which is plenty close enough. R.H.
Only a decade ago, it was near impossible to find R&B and hip-hop casanovas talking about anything beyond their own dicks. But ever since this album was released in July, it's been impossible to let go of the fact that the very first song, "Cake," is about anilingus. Songz is more Ginuwine than R. Kelly, an advocate of mutual titillation who is sometimes willing to be submissive. Like most records premised on straight male virility, Trigga has weak moments — "fuck 'em all the time, but you know I never wife 'em," he sings, presumptively, on "Dead Wrong." But, in the video for Trigga's first single, "Na Na," Songz does gym circuits led by Instagram fitness models — unquestionably, quite literally, strong women. And, on the saccharine pop of "Touchin', Lovin'" he's corrected by a flip Nicki Minaj: "Sometimes I tell 'em I love 'em, 'cause I just wanna fuck 'em." A.M.
Teyana Taylor scored a small, but buzzy hit in 2009 called "Google Me," but her career as a rapper and singer petered out shortly after. The song threatened to become an unfortunate bit of schadenfreude after she was asked to stand in as Nicki Minaj at an early Kanye West concert celebrating My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and later engaged in a Twitter beef with Rihanna. However, she recently made a splash with the R&B radio staple "Maybe," a lustful, Ty Dolla $ign-quoting track featuring Yo Gotti and Pusha T that's now a top result when you, you know, Google her. On her excellent debut, she's dropped the rapping of "Google Me," putting her soft and pleading — but not strained — vocals over steamy beats that seem to exhale right along with her. J.S.
Though Drake affiliate PartyNextDoor might find it easier to say he's from Toronto, the crooner continues to represent his hometown of Mississauga, Ontario. To be fair, it's more a further-flung outer borough (population: over 700,000) than an isolated 'burb, but that small detail casts PND in a much different light than his predecessor, the Weeknd. He's more relatable: a suburban kid, looking beyond the quick fix wins of coke dreams. Largely self-produced, PND makes wide-screen, rap-styled R&B songs and sings wistfully, and often, of driving away from his hometown in a rental. "Summer's over and we're watching the sun finally set," he tableaus on Two's cabin fever-ish opener, "East Liberty." Two songs later, over a sublime rework of Disclosure's "Latch," he's found a solution to keeping winter at bay, touching down in Miami on "Sex on the Beach." A.M.
Fatima Bramme Sey, a dazzling Swedish vocalist, brims with optimism, poetry and introspection on her debut LP: "Love, peace and tranquility — inhale it baby, yes!" she proclaims. Her Yellow Memories is a nuanced blend of jazz, soul and stuttering electronic textures: There's the dusty Oh No-produced double-bass loop of "Technology," Computer Jay's P-Funk-inspired funk sludge on "Circle" and "Do Better," a fervent collaboration with British house minimalist Floating Points. Throughout, she radiates a quiet beauty, intimate and honest. M.R.
Chicago crooner Jeremih is currently releasing the most boldly original music of his career, first on avant-racy 2012 mixtape Late Nights, and since then with Los Angeles bass producer Shlohmo. In 2013, there was Shlohmo's ghostly, almost grandiose expansion of Late Nights' "Fuck U All the Time" plus the collabo "Bo Peep (Do U Right)," an echo-chamber boudoir of buzzes, clicks, beeps and groans that practically consumed Jeremih's slippery falsetto. Imagine the Weeknd minus the nihilistic sleaze. Those tracks are here, along with four others tapping the same bleary vein; but No More transcends cool diversion when Jeremih finally flexes amid Shlohmo's fog of art-trap melancholy, especially on "Let It Go," where he bops, ducks, swerves and spectacularly caresses the melody. C.A.
Tink's music never fit the narrative of Chicago hip-hop — a mirror of the deadly blowback from the city's abandonment of poor, black communities — so she's not been a key figure in the microscopic dissections of the scene. But her brashly spit rhymes and fluid cooing have attracted plenty of music-industry attention (Timbaland is producing her official debut album). Winter's Diary 2, her fourth mixtape since 2012, focuses on fleet, frisky, mature, doleful love songs that recall TLC more than R&B's current leading edge — Miguel, Tinashe, Kelela. Already a sly songmaker, Tink projects a take-no-guff tenacity, even without a virtuoso voice ("Treat Me Like Somebody," "Count on You"). Shifting briefly into rap mode, she sparkles, trading nasty bars with Lil Herb on "Talkin' About" and busting out a fierce tribute to her faithful partner ("Your Secrets"). C.A.
Nobody comes to Kelis for simple sustenance, and though her sixth album is the singer's most musically traditional — recasting brassy R&B, funk and Afrobeat — it's still driven by her aching-for-more uniqueness (and the meticulously nuanced production of TV on the Radio's Dave Sitek). "Cobbler" slides into a taut, sultry groove, but deftly ascends to a new key as Kelis proclaims, choir-like: "You…make me hit notes…that I never sing!" And while the ballad "Floyd" floats sparely on organ and bass clarinet, she tenderly demands, "I want to be blown away." Food is intriguing whether it broods or meditates, and a faithfully lovely acoustic cover of Labi Siffre's 1971 folk-pop plaint "Bless the Telephone" is downright touching. Though the song titles reflect her graduation from culinary school, Kelis has never sounded more committed to her first craft. "Welcome to the world/This is the real thing," she rasps on gospel-soul gem "Breakfast," and you believe every scratch in her voice. C.A.
Twenty years since her debut, Mary J. Blige is on her third or fourth act at this point — and she still managed a creative breakthrough in 2014. During a month-long residency of sorts in England, the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul called on a surprising crew of people like Sam Smith, Disclosure, Emeli Sandé and other contemporary U.K. luminaries to make a record that convincingly encompasses doo-wop, classic soul, deep house and gospel — all the American music the country's most celebrated pop exports been reworking for the last decade. Your move, Mark Ronson. C.D.
Let's skip right to the climax here: ever-fearsome vengeful-boudoir queen Toni Braxton moaning, "I hope/I hope/I hope she gives you a disease/So that you will see/But not enough to make you die/But only make you cry/Like you did me" over gentle piano with quiet, devastating fury, like a baby grand landing on your head after a 10-story drop. Alongside ever-sumptuous mournful-boudoir king Babyface, she here unleashes the nastiest and lushest album-length kiss-off since Here, My Dear — and a dark-horse contender for the best R&B face-off since Marvin and Tammi's The Complete Duets. It's that great and that harrowing. Their fight rages from the bedroom ("Sweat") to the dance floor ("Heart Attack"), vacillating between bitter screeds and tender apologies with a Nineties sense of slickness but a very 21st century approach to public recrimination. R.H.
The breathy, Purple Rain-soaked title track is an all-timer, humming along on little more than a LinnDrum heartbeat and a touch of falsetto ennui. It also immediately airlifts Jessie Ware out of the lucrative but stifling Sade Impersonator racket on her sharp, lithe sophomore album, wherein she tries her hand at Bee Gees-style mirror-ball pathos (the Dev Hynes jam "Want Your Feeling"), chest-beating power balladry (Ed Sheeran's fingerprints are welcome on the towering "Say You Love Me") and slinky bedroom-eyes majesty (Miguel drops by for the NC-17-sounding "Kind of…Sometimes…Maybe"). So she's malleable, but she never loses her stentorian vocal grandeur, or her breathtakingly gloomy view of modern romance: "If this isn't love, then I don't want to know," she wails with elegant desperation on "Keep On Lying." R.H.
Aquarius, Tinashe's major label debut, improves upon the feathery R&B of her three prior mixtapes, a new toughness being brought on by the big studio sound. That hard-soft edge has earned her Janet Jackson comparisons; and "2 On," her spry, spare, sweaty DJ Mustard-produced debut single, about the noble pursuit of having a great time with your friends, has anchored playlists since its January release. Aquarius also wrenches unconventional sounds from top shelf producers like Detail, Mike WiLL Made It, Evian Christ and Stargate. The best is "Bet," an icy mood piece pairing DJ Dahi and Blood Diamonds. "Pay no mind what the doubters all say," Tinashe's supple voice urges toward a trust fall as the song peaks, and then Dev Hynes shows up with a melancholy guitar solo easing you back down to earth. A.M.
The operative word here, frankly, is "bonkers," from the sci-fi conceit (which involves telepathy and a sexy-computer-lady narrator and a 45-year journey to "a place that doesn't require time") to the gonzo-funk template, as though the objective here was to triangulate George Clinton and Philip K. Dick. Mission accomplished! There are also plenty of fluffy sex jams on this thing, playfully nodding to everything from everyone's second-favorite Chapelle's Show impersonation ("Breakfast Can Wait") to everyone's favorite Twitter hashtag ("This Could Be Us"). But it's the sad, regretful, almost-but-not-quite introspective jams that are the most striking, like "Way Back Home," with its thesis of "Most people in this world were born dead/But I was born alive." It ain't 1984 anymore, but Prince is as weird, and as alive, as ever. R.H.
Though often overshadowed by its mood, visuals and mannerisms, the debut full-length by singer-dancer-conceptualist Tahliah Barnett masterfully lures you into its songs at her own sensual, ever-shifting pace — exactly how she desires. It's vaporous body music, a half-light manifesto on artifice and misdirection that you feel deeply but can't quite grasp. "Two Weeks" is the spotlight twirl, but then she drifts away, tracing constellations of R&B's darker exhalations, art-pop's abrupt angles and electronic music's sputtering digital soul (via producers Arca, Clams Casino, et al.). Björk, Portishead and Kate Bush are relevant touchstones, but Twigs teases tension like no one else, unveiling her prismatic time-lapse universe with a slinky alacrity. C.A.