As Beyoncé's unprecedented performance at the Country Music Awards showed us, R&B continues to be the heart pumping blood into American music – but the genre has never seen more curious days. Anderson Paak and Dawn Richard expanded into new regions of earth and space; veteran artists like Alicia Keys and Blood Orange joined a new charge that could no longer be apolitical; and King and Childish Gambino blasted bravely into the past. And what better balm for the Worst Year Ever than two releases by the formidable Knowles sisters? Here's the year's best.
Teenage sisters Chloe and Halle Bailey made something sweet out of pop's biggest co-sign. The Beyoncé protégées prove they have an ear as unique as the woman who signed them on Sugar Symphony, their debut EP and a potent collection of soulful R&B that fuses pop and indie rock to skin-tingling perfection. Single "Drop" makes use of their haunting harmonies and pairs them with the type of expansive synth-bass combinations that made releases from another sister act – the Knowles sisters – such staggering achievements. Meanwhile, a song like "Lazy Love" highlights the bubblegum pop sensibilities and exceptional minds of these two emerging talents. B.S.
After two winning collaborations with producer Jeff Tweedy, the utterly undiminished 77-year-old R&B queen moves on to M. Ward, another indie-roots rat who knows his way around a studio. Staples' weathered optimism and soulful self-care tips soar atop straight-ahead arrangements driven by guitar licks that Steve Cropper himself would've been proud of. For material, she turned to a crew of luminaries from the world of Americana, indie rock and all points in between, including the likes of Nick Cave and Justin Vernon. But the songwriting peaks come from two young women: Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards, who serves up the rallying cry of "Action," and Memphis roots singer-songwriter Valerie June, who offers a path to joy on "High Note." And to honor Staples' legacy as a civil rights warrior, Ward adapts the words of Martin Luther King to a moving acoustic coda. K.H.
Of his newest work, or perhaps about 2016 at large, Donald Glover simply says: "I like sucker punches. I like things you're not expecting." If his directorial debut, the critically acclaimed TV series Atlanta, was his loving left jab, then "Awaken, My Love!" is the right hook that meets it. It was an optimal year for heady experimentation, if only because 2016 had so thoroughly battered our conjectures. Soaked in the stank of Seventies funk & soul, Awaken, My Love! is Glover's haven from modern debacle: Here, bass slithers, lyrics simmer and anything goes. It's a careful study in P-Funk, borrowing freely from their crunching synths and wailing choruses, but sparing the science-fiction imagery, instead slinking through tales of unfaithful relationships ("Redbone"), thirsty entourages ("Zombies") and his son ("Baby Boy"). M.O.
Usher's last album, 2012's Looking 4 Myself, was a bizarre and sometimes rewarding grab bag of a record that jumped from festival stage EDM to minimalist Timbaland homages to sock-hop pop. It was a conceptually uncertain statement, but it had its charms if you were willing to dig. Hard II Love, its follow up, swerves hard in the other direction: Its 14 songs are a cohesive block of glacial R&B. But it too has its standouts, like "Tell Me," which cascades like a waterfall. The best is "Bump," a The-Dream and Tricky Stewart production that cannily slows booty bass down to this album's syrupy tempo. J.S.
With the intoxicating afterhours vibe of Nightride, Tinashe transforms into R&B's Mistress of the Dark. The collection is a sexy, glitch-y, melancholy late-night drive through the singer and dancer's dirty mind as she promises the "Ride of Your Life" on one menacing tune, and goes ice cold in the most inviting way on the sidepiece manifesto "Company." Tinashe takes her early Weeknd comparisons and turns them into something even darker, more alluring and more dangerous. B.S.
Anderson Paak's acclaimed Malibu is a smorgasbord of styles, but this side project with beat tape aficionado Knxwledge burrows in on a singular, ear-worming sound. Yes Lawd! centers on raspy-voiced pimp boasts and gangsta leanin' soul samples that Knx loops, chops and sautés into minute-long bursts of inspiration. "Baby get your shit together, we hittin' the town," sings Paak on "Wings." "I hope I never have to cut you off," he laughs over the smoothed-out jazz-funk "Best One," then sheepishly adds, "I love you." Sure, Yes Lawd! is a frothy confection, but Paak delivers outrageous lines with such winning charisma that you can't help but love it. And on "Khadijah," where he searches for nirvana in the arms of his wife, he suggests that he knows there are more important things in the world than having a partner that knows how to cook grits. M.R.
The onetime American Idol champ skips across styles with blithe, deft charm on her fifth album. The heavy power chords that unexpectedly lead off opening track, "Crazy," blossom into full-on freaky funk-rock, and from there Fantasia skates atop blippy electronics, responds to the call of neo-soul horns and even kicks up dust with a country ballad. And Fantasia's emotional range is just as broad, whether she's scrunching her voice into playfully expressive shapes or expanding it cathartically. She's coolly drama-avoidant on "No Time for It," but when R. Kelly whips up melodramatic strings and percussive horns for the cheater's plaint "Sleeping With the One I Love," she brings the retro theatricality. So much genre-hopping could signal a personality crisis in a less assured singer, but Fantasia consistently sounds like her own woman here as she reminds us that both "rhythm" and "blues" are open-ended words. K.H.
After two critically acclaimed but commercially ignored albums, Malaysian star Yunalis Zara'ai finally broke through to the U.S. market when adult R&B radio warmed to "Crush," her lovely courtship duet with Usher. Yet there's more to Chapters, segmented like pages torn from a diary, than its occasional starry cameos or production from alt-R&B heavyweight Robin Hannibal. On "Lanes," she pivots on an argument that ensues after her lover posts a night of clubbing on Instagram: "Why do you keep telling me you're self-destructive?/I'm getting tired of your lies and your excuses," she sings. "If you've got a good girl then appreciate it." Her emotional sincerity is underlined by her quiet yet insistent voice, and she often sounds like she's whispering as she lyrically dismantles her ex-lover's arguments. Much of Chapters finds her falling out of love, but there are a few happy moments in this beautifully broken valentine: "Best Love" sways with a light disco pulse, and "Time" is a snapshot of her sometimes-painful adolescent years. M.R.
Tweet is remembered, of course, for "Oops (Oh My)," her masturbation paean that stands as one of Timbaland's most bewitching productions. But Southern Hummingbird, the 2002 album it came from, is mostly an inviting set of acoustic R&B that hopes to prop you up when you're weary. On Charlene, her first album in a decade and only third ever, she picks up where she left off, drizzling her voice like honey over sparse but warm arrangements. This is late-night R&B, but for nights where you don't have enough physical or mental energy to get off the couch. J.S.
The debut from Chicago singer Jamila Woods is dreamy and hopeful and shot through with politics, its fuzzed-out textures providing a comforting backdrop for luminous ruminations on love – for Woods' hometown, for her culture and for herself. Stretched-out jams like the sparkling Chi-town ode "LSD" and the playground-chant-inspired "VRY BLK" derive their power from their simplicity, its stripped-down arrangements alluding to dusty grooves of yore while also sounding very much of 2016. The album is rife with guests – fellow Windy City denizens Chance the Rapper, Noname and Donnie Trumpet – yet Woods's presence anchors the proceedings, her gently forceful voice sounding as powerful as when it explores the possibilities offered by "black girl magic" ("Yeah, she scares the government/Déjà vu of Tubman") as it does when she's lamenting romance lost. M.J.
Nao's emotionally cognizant neo-soul spans a handful of EPs, her own label imprint and an A.K. Paul assist, and she only aims to climb higher. Her debut, the elusively titled For All We Know, marks a mini-climax in an extremely promising career. As R&B becomes more freeform – rubbing up against hip-hop, pop and more – Nao's sometimes-pensive, always-dulcet tones speak to the genre's most basic element: the human voice. But unlike R&B divas before her, she easily eschews traditionalist instrumentation for belching bass lines and punchy snares, wading further into funk grooves than her contemporaries. At album's end, we're left with more questions than answers. M.O.
For anyone who first heard Anderson Paak during his star-making appearance on Dr. Dre's valedictory album Compton, discovering his breakthrough solo album Malibu must be like finding a Jacob Lawrence painting at a Compton swap meet. But those who have followed the Oxnard musician since his first nationally distributed project, 2014's underrated Venice, this drumming, rapping and singing dynamo has simply evolved from a Low End Theory outlier to a multi-talented composer for the New West Coast. He coos seductively on "Heart Don't Stand a Chance": "I know in the morning/The sunlight covers your wounds/But I'm hoping I look the same as the way you always knew/Baby, of course I flew." He portrays himself as a free bird that shouldn't be caged, whether he's shifting from juke-joint funk ("Come Down"), deep house ("Am I Wrong") or stealing hearts with a winning vocal performance. M.R.
On 2015's Blackheart, Dawn Richard plunged headfirst into the dusky squalor of stardom and destroyed the forcefield between techno and soul with finesse. ("Everyone laughed at it and told me I was overambitious," she told Rolling Stone.) On this year's Redemption, the final and most dazzling installation of her trilogy, Richard sets aside her mythical personas from previous albums – Goldenheart's Joan of Arc, Blackheart's dance-floor Persephone – and brings it all back home. "Home" can mean one of two things for the avant-garde visionary: Sometimes it's Louisiana, other times it's Venus. So Richard rounded up her own cosmic Arkestra of fellow New Orleans talents, such as Trombone Shorty and Maroon 5 keyboardist PJ Morton, ushering them into her bizarre alt universe. Big brass breaks the dizzying prog-rock spell of "LA," and parades into the rave in "Renegades." Richard ziplines back in time for a classic duet with a Hammond organ in "Vines," plus a lush nod to Prince in "Hey Nikki." Richard has never been a better version of herself. S.E.
Los Angeles-based trio King nailed the tricky game of retro-futurism with their gorgeous debut, showcasing the seemingly unlimited potential of Paris Strother's vintage-synth detailing and Anita Bias and Amber Strother's sumptuous vocal harmonies. The loping bassline of "Red Eye" guides the Strother siblings and Bias through an extended soul-psych fantasia; the extended remix of the besotted "Hey" wrings out a spectrum of emotion from the titular syllable over shimmering synths; and the horn-accented "Oh Please!" is packed with lady-group panache. Recalling R&B golden eras of yore, We Are King is full of tracks that remain surprising after multiple listens, a stirring back-to-the-future statement from three musicians who are just getting started. M.J.
The second installment of an album trilogy Maxwell began in 2008, blackSUMMERS'night is a stunning testament to the Brooklyn-born singer's talents as a vocalist as well as a shrewd yet openhearted observer of romantic tensions. Opening with the simmering "All the Ways Love Can Feel," where Maxwell's feather-light falsetto snakes in between brushed drums and gently blasting horns, SUMMERS shows how being an R&B classicist doesn't necessarily mean that one's hemmed in by a certain type of style: The glimmering "Lake by the Ocean," the percolating synth-jazz of "III" and the squalling guitars of the pleading "Lost" all fit seamlessly into his smooth aesthetic. His deeply felt vocal performances and unparalleled ability to ride a groove for just the right amount of time make for an album that can be luxuriated in. M.J.
On her most political album to date, Alicia Keys sings from the perspective of a black everywoman with undiminished optimism. Her subjects on Here are many: the angry, struggling woman at the center of the heartbreaking "Illusion of Bliss," the city of New York as personified as a young dreamer on "She Don't Really Care/1 Luv" and the gay couple on "Where Do We Begin Now" that worries about leaving the closet. Much like her widely publicized decision to abandon heavy makeup in public appearances, she strips down her music and largely communicates through her own strident piano chords, save for the occasional homage to classic NYC rap like Raekwon's "Spot Rusherz" ("The Gospel") and Nas' "One Love" ("She Don't Really Care"). There is a bit of spoken-word braggadocio as she declares over the latter, "The chair that I'm sitting on is a throne/Perfection kneels at the seat of my soul." However, her true victory is identifying and empathizing with others, and finding hope that the world, despite all its problems, is changing for the better. M.R.
With Sierra Leone and New York City as the backdrop, avant-R&B trailblazer and indie-rock expat Blood Orange explores change and justice in the face of discrimination. The songwriter born Dev Hynes explores identity from multiple angles, from his parents' relocation from West Africa to London ("St. Augustine") to the experiences of a friend and trans woman in Los Angeles ("Desirée"), all above a percolating stew of experimental jazz, synth-pop and Eighties hip-hop. A collage of sounds and ideas, his journey is complemented by samples from iconic drag-ball flick Paris Is Burning, slam poets like Ashlee Haze, and features from Carly Rae Jepsen, Debbie Harry and more from his star-studded Rolodex. B.S.
Indebted to both vintage soul and contemporary indie rock, A Seat at the Table is a love letter to self-sufficiency in the face of incredible pain and a manifesto for modern black womanhood. Above dreamy synths and muted drums, the youngest Knowles sister rockets into the neo-soul pantheon, demanding that the curious "Don't Touch My Hair" and reminding everyone that "this shit is for us." Collaborators like Kelly Rowland, Q-Tip, Master P, Lil Wayne and Knowles' own parents unlock their own experiences to create a smooth, experimental soul masterpiece that unsettles as gracefully as it heals. B.S.
In the four years following his triumphant 2012 debut, Channel Orange, Frank Ocean fans aggressively begged, pleaded and meme'd the low-profile superstar for new music. This summer, Ocean answered with the gauzy visual album, Endless, followed by Blonde: an intoxicating missive from the depths of his blue period. Heavily steeped in codeine, gaunt instrumentals are gingerly spaced between gospels ("Solo," "Godspeed"), a doting voicemail from his mother ("Be Yourself") and pouty soliloquies for loves long gone ("Ivy," "Self Control"). He slips in an epitaph to Trayvon Martin ("Nikes"). Legends like Kanye West and Beyoncé make oddly understated appearances along with support from indie faves Alex G. and Rostam Batmanglij. The result is challenging and unique. S.E.
"Lemonade" is fire and water, solid and solvent. Its release into a strange, post-Prince universe spoke instantly to its duality, of its ability to both soothe and incite. Of all of her talents, pop perfectionism and tireless originality remain Beyoncé's strongest assets, but her most palpable one – the wall she wordlessly maintains between us and her – cracked just enough to peek through, never enough to break. Her ability to bridge a singular experience – that of a (possibly) cheating husband – to an intricate network of trauma and violence specific to black women speaks to her effortless ability to connect. It's what she does best, after all: bringing us together – around TV, huddled over smartphones, across tables, via bandwidths. And so she does yet again, so that we may talk lineage and love, fathers and fuckups, and the pain that tethers them all together. M.O.