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20 Best R&B Albums of 2014

The year in tough lovers, elusive chanteuses, purple royalty and more

FKA Twigs, Prince, Tinashe, Jessie Ware, Toni Braxton & Babyface,, Shlohmo & Jeremih, Kelis, Tink,, Mary J Blige,, Fatima,

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.

Tinashe, Aquarius
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Tinashe, ‘Aquarius’

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.

Prince, Art Official Age
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Prince, ‘Art Official Age’

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.

FKA Twigs, LP1
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FKA Twigs, ‘LP1’

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.

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