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20 Best R&B Albums of 2017

Sharon Jones, Khalid, SZA, Miguel and more

Emotions ran high in 2017 – and, as usual, R&B delivered like balm to a burn. The genre that birthed rock & roll came full circle in the sensuous psychedelia of Miguel’s War & Leisure and the avant-blues of Moses Sumney’s Aromanticism; Thundercat and Kelela let their freak flags fly; newcomers Khalid and SZA decorated the Billboard Hot 100 with their pop theses on growing up; and Sharon Jones posthumously crowned her career with an incredible farewell.

Syd, 'Fin'

8. Syd, 'Fin'

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Syd, ‘Fin’

High off her Grammy-nominated success in the Odd Future offshoot the Internet, singer-songwriter-producer Sydney Bennett takes a sharp turn away from the funky live production of her neo-soul group and towards more low-key synthscapes on her solo debut. Assuming the swagger of a mob boss, Syd luxuriates in the braggadocio of “All About Me”; and again, with producer/consigliere Steve Lacy riding at her side, she cruises the strip club in “Dollar Bills.” She (happily) meets her match in the independent-woman jam “Got Her Own” before slinking into the pleasure principle on “Body” and its more salacious sibling, “Drown In It.” Fin is a slick, seductive exploration of queer sensuality and power, marking another milestone in Syd’s glowing career. S.E.

Sampha, 'Process'

7. Sampha, 'Process'

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Sampha, ‘Process’

A treasured contributor to R&B’s inner circle (Beyoncé, Drake, Solange, Kanye West), singer-producer Sampha Sisay emerges as their peer on this ethereal debut album. Buoyed by his breathless delivery, Process has a weightless, hypnotic quality for an album born of such profound introspection over the costs of death and the vagaries of grief. A health scare of his own drives Sampha to open the album gripped by anxiety: “Sleeping with my worries,” he relates on “Plastic 100°,” “I didn’t really know what that lump was.” But it’s the death of Sampha’s mother (from lung cancer) that both haunts and inspires Process‘ deep emotional recesses. Anguish and loss converge in a miasma of samples and harmonies on the dark, desperate fantasies “Blood on Me” and “Under”; but perhaps the album’s most affecting songs (“Timmy’s Prayer,” “[No One Knows Me] Like the Piano”) are its most spare, with Sampha’s voice a steadying presence, even while he’s crying out in despair. M.O.

Daniel Caesar, 'Freudian'

6. Daniel Caesar, 'Freudian'

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Daniel Caesar, ‘Freudian’

Love is best when it’s lush — or so Daniel Caesar wants to remind us. And on his stunning debut album, Freudian, the young Toronto singer-songwriter makes love the epicenter of his musical universe, relating the swell and frustration of a new relationship as if he’s testifying about heaven and hell. He even adapts two gospel songs – Kirk Franklin’s “Hold Me Down” and Kyle David Matthews “We Fall Down” – into vulnerable, lovelorn plaints and uses the Toronto female vocal trio CaDaRo Tribe to act as a choral echo. “Every time I go inside of your protected/Place with reverence/I’m reminded of a time I was neglected/It seems you’re heaven-sent,” he marvels on the sultry “Take Me Away,” coaxing his guitar to speak in tongues as Syd coos in a delicate falsetto. Elsewhere, other female voices (Kali Uchis, H.E.R.) join in the rapture. Despite the songs’ dreamy reverie, Caesar’s accompaniment on guitar and keyboards provides a clear-eyed, organic foundation, as do producers Jordan Evans and Matthew Burnett, protégés of primary Drake collaborator Boi-1da. M.O.

Kelela, 'Take Me Apart'

5. Kelela, 'Take Me Apart'

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Kelela, ‘Take Me Apart’

Kelela emerged from dance and beat culture’s wing of soul-yearning originals, and her debut album, Take Me Apart, is a career-making manifesto – boldly envisioned, ambitiously sung and lyrically pointed, like the headier dance-floor partner to SZA’s Ctrl. Opener “Frontline” states the terms – Kelela coolly depicts a maddening relationship – as Jam City sketches a darkly swirling, expectant mood (before they both freak the percussive “Why you testin’ me?” outro). Then it’s off on a series of delicately wrought rhythmic vignettes – the misty fantasia of the title track (with Jam City, Arca, Boots, et al.); the swoony fatigue of “Enough” and jittery stand-off of “Onanon” (both produced by Arca). But “LMK” is the peak, a rattling, twinkling love-in-the-club prowl (via Jam City), where Kelela’s heart is vulnerable, but her mind’s in charge (“It ain’t that deep, either way/No one’s tryna settle down”). C.A.

Miguel, 'War + Leisure'

4. Miguel, 'War + Leisure'

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Miguel, ‘War & Leisure’

On his fourth studio album, Miguel unites his funk-explorer side and his pop-craftsman side (not to mention a handful of other sides too), balancing stretched-out grooves with sparkling hooks, and dystopian unease with unbridled carnality – a fitting soundtrack for 2017’s constantly whiplashing news cycle. But what makes War & Leisure even more of a pleasure lies in the utter joy that Miguel derives from singing – his vocals leap out of the mix when he’s really feeling a track, like on the opening of soaring, pop-soul tour de force “Pineapple Skies” (which basically serves as an ode to Prince); or on the chorus of rumbling Latin banger “Caramelo Duro”; or with his scats, raps, ad libs and upper-register whoops on the masterfully paced groove of “Banana Clip.” M.J.

3. Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, 'Soul of a Woman'

3. Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, 'Soul of a Woman'

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Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, ‘Soul of a Woman’

This is the final album Sharon Jones made before her death last fall, recorded with her longtime backing band, the Dap-Kings, in stolen moments between chemotherapy treatments. She was an irreplaceable talent, and her loss can’t help but change the way one hears the gospel show-stopper “Call on God,” the brass-driven workout “Sail On” and the tender farewell “Pass Me By.” At its heart, though, Soul of a Woman is a joyful album. It makes you feel lucky that we got to share a planet with her voice for as long as we did. S.V.L.

2. SZA, 'Cntrl'

2. SZA, 'Cntrl'

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SZA, ‘Ctrl’

After a trio of promising EPs and a prominent feature on Rihanna’s Anti, the budding alt-R&B star showed what she could do on a full-length LP. SZA unravels through largely improvised meditations on love and sex and all the promise and abandonment that can result from both. From a side-chick manifesto (“The Weekend”) to the appreciation of a rom-com icon that mulls the singer’s own self-worth (“Drew Barrymore”), SZA flourishes in her own hazy spotlight. B.S.

1. Khalid, 'American Teen'

1. Khalid, 'American Teen'

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Khalid, ‘American Teen’

The year’s most distinctive new voice was a teen star, not a trap star. His conversational vocals staked out a new kind of R&B: laid-back but charged with wide-open emotional struggle, as well as hooks that stuck. He sang about kids who didn’t have money or cars; who still lived with their parents (and worried about coming home smelling of weed); who longed for human contact to go along with a love stirred by subtweets and texts. Hits like “Location” and “Young, Dumb & Broke” were alive with fresh possibilities – including the possibility of combating outmoded stereotypes. “I’m an African-American man with an Afro, who isn’t your typical athlete – who wasn’t as masculine as other guys,” Khalid told Rolling Stone. “And now people are looking at me like, this is ‘The American Teen.'” J.L.

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