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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.

Tink
8

Tink, ‘Winter’s Diary 2’

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.

Kelis, Food
7

Kelis, ‘Food’

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.

Mary J. Blige
6

Mary J. Blige, ‘The London Sessions’

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.

Toni Braxton, Babyface
5

Toni Braxton & Babyface, ‘Love Marriage & Divorce’

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.

Jessie Ware
4

Jessie Ware, ‘Tough Love’

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.

Tinashe, Aquarius
3

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
2

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
1

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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