Terron Moore is social media editor at The Root.
The overwhelming effect of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” in 2013 was cemented in Friday’s announcement of Grammy nominees: The ubiquitous Pharrell-produced tune finds itself in the running for record of the year after topping the charts in 14 different countries and holding atop the Billboard Hot 100 for 12 weeks. And Thicke wasn’t the only blue-eyed artist spreading R&B music across the land. Justin Timberlake created not one but two best-selling albums in his comeback year, reuniting with Timbaland after seven years to create a soulful 20/20 Experience.
While we ain’t mad about soul of the blue-eyed kind—we’ve even included one up-and-comer in our list—the attention drawn to Thicke and Timberlake may have overshadowed some of the biggest names in rhythm and blues releasing some truly stellar work. So here, we present 10 incredible R&B albums you may have missed while blasting “Blurred Lines” all year long. (It’s OK; we don’t blame you.)
Talk a Good Game, Kelly Rowland
Rowland didn’t just steal the scene during Beyoncé’s explosive Super Bowl set; she also delivered her best album yet to rival the Knowles catalog. Talk a Good Game is an inherently breezy effort painfully punctured by the ballad “Dirty Laundry,” in which she airs the truth of a physically abusive ex who turned her away from everyone she loved, including Bey. Best on the record, though, is “Gone,” in which she calls on the famous Joni Mitchell riff and unites with Wiz Khalifa for a sassy breakup anthem.
The Electric Lady, Janelle Monae
Consider this the biggest Grammy snub of the year. Monae has consistently been one of R&B’s best-kept secrets, but The Electric Lady was her biggest, baddest and most creative statement yet, a fearlessly funky effort expanding across all styles of music as droids and robots freak through futuristic radio waves. The entire album is stellar, but her cooing, churning Prince duet “Givin’ Em What They Love” opens the album as one of the single best tracks of 2013.
Love in the Future, John Legend
Legend has always been a dependable soul staple, and chances are good that you’ve heard the dark thunder of “Made to Love” across the year. But that was only the tip of the iceberg for the diverse Love in the Future, which reaches across the entire music world, boasting credits from Kanye West and Pharrell Williams to Sara Bareilles and Joe Jonas. The must-hear is the beautifully somber “All of Me,” casting a lovely shadow on a bright Future, indeed.
Love and War, Tamar Braxton
Don’t believe the reality-TV hype: Braxton is a force to be reckoned with. She may be an extravagant personality on television, but Love and War, her first album in 13 years, made fans and critics take her seriously. Even the naysayers have to dig her reinvention of The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Juicy” for her summer-ready “The One,” a bouncy, happy tribute to that special someone.
She, Alice Smith
Smith’s voice is her instrument. Her vocals power through even the most intricate of productions, each note of her voice determined to keep soul music alive. Her efforts on She feel so familiar, seasoned and honest that it’s hard to believe she is only on her second album. She careens through retro jazz, R&B and funk with ease, but “Loyalty” feels like Smith at her most comfortable.
Travis Garland, Travis Garland
Thicke and Timberlake overwhelmed the blue-eyed soul realm so much that Garland’s long-awaited debut album felt uneventful. But his union with the Stereotypes is really something to hear, a voyage through pockets of airy space into motel pools and chariots of fire as Garland explores the entire spectrum of emotions that accompany young love (and sex). Try the soft-yet-sultry intro, “Where to Land,” something that Garland never actually gets around to doing. Sonically, he’s on top of the world.
Opening single “Body Party” is Ciara’s comeback in full force. It’s taken her a while, but she’s finally reminded us what a phenomenal talent she can be. Her self-titled fifth effort only reaffirms this, especially at any point at which she’s taking her moves and vocals into the boudoir. She can still turn it up, though. The best is “I’m Out,” in which she meets Nicki Minaj for a horn-blaring crunk jam, an infectious kiss-off record drenched in Southern drawl.
Call Me Crazy, But …, Sevyn Streeter
Streeter’s wonderful “It Won’t Stop” bubbled under the radar for most of 2013, but it’s hardly even the standout on her powerful EP Call Me Crazy, But …, which is happily schizophrenic as she goes from “Sex on the Ceiling” to having her heart softly “Shattered.” Her voice is impeccable, given the most room to wail on title track “Call Me Crazy,” in which Streeter bounces between screams of affection and whispers of adoration, so obsessively in love.
Pushin’ Against a Stone, Valerie June
If the zeitgeist does what it should, June is our Next Big Thing, a high-pitched Southern vocalist who dips her voice in pleasant waves of bluegrass, folk, country, gospel and soul all throughout her marvelous record Pushin’ Against a Stone. This isn’t solely R&B, nor do you need it to be when the music is this good. If you’re intrigued, try the delightful “Wanna Be on Your Mind” on for size.
Side Effects of You, Fantasia
Love is a drug, and Fantasia took her fourth album to explain all its varying side effects. As a result, we get different shades of Fantasia. She’s lovelorn on the album’s titular power ballad, hopeful on “Lighthouse” and furious on “So Much to Prove.” But she’s deliciously vindictive and at a new musical high on the Grammy-nominated creep of “Without Me,” in which she, Kelly Rowland and Missy Elliott warn a playboy not to let his status go to his head.