For much of 2011, arguing about what is and isn't R&B appeared to be more fun than actually listening to R&B (however you personally defined it). But it turns out that was all just an illusion. Here are 20 terrific records that could start arguments, and end them.
SPIN's Best of 2011:
-- One Fucked Up Year: SPIN's Best of 2011 Issue
-- SPIN's 50 Best Albums of 2011
-- SPIN's 20 Best Songs of 2011
-- SPIN's 40 Best Rap Albums of 2011
-- SPIN's 10 Best Reissues of 2011
-- SPIN's 25 Best Live Photos of 2011
-- Endless Bummer: 30 Ways 2011 Was a Drag
Pieces of Me
Like that cute, self-assured little girl from the movie Airplane, she takes her coffee hot and dark, like her men. As with other formally refined, smooth-R&B belters, her dignity doesn't undercut her intensity; "I Miss You Now" boasts Shakespearean fervor and delicacy.
19. The Stepkids,
Bewildering art-funk fantasias from three falsetto-prone gentlemen channeling Sly Stone channeling the macabre cosmos. "La La" is beautiful and deeply unsettling. They're the Can of Stones Throw, if that makes any sense, which of course it doesn't.
18. (Tie) Balam Acab; Holy Other; How to Dress Well,
Wander/Wonder; With U; Just Once
The bedroom deconstructionist wing, stretching the definitions of the "R" and the "B"(maybe even the "&") in crucial ways on their respective EPs. The amniotic Wander/Wonder is like listening to a Maxwell record drown, With U is like watching it evaporate slowly into the chopped-and-screwed electro-pop ether, Just Once is like presiding over an angelic-choir-abetted funeral at Cathedral de Notre Dame. You either roll your eyes at this stuff or they're rolling straight back in your head.
17. Ryan Hemsworth,
Electro-soul from Halifax (seriously), vintage but mostly in the 8-bit Castlevania sense. Other interests include amusing song titles ("It Takes a Couple of People to Hold Us Back"), entropy, fearing his mother's death, and a half-dozen other genres.
16. Romeo Santos,
FÃ³rmula Vol. 1
He is accurately named, this absurdly sweet-voiced bachata titan gone solo and crossover-mad, soft but playing at hardness. Sound familiar? Primo honeymoon music if you can roll your Rs; guests Usher and Lil Wayne sense a new target market.
Soul Is Heavy
It's true. The world's preeminent Afro-German soul goddess (right?) mixes fellow Nigerian Fela Kuti's confrontational politics with Erykah Badu's radical chic, moaning and rapping and thundering with equal force. "Do You Love Me Now" slays.
14. Mayer Hawthorne,
How Do You Do
Immaculate retro soul for sneaker fetishists, every boisterous horn chart and bright melody and crooning Snoop cameo(!) so catchy, so goofy. Sing along: "You're shaped like an hourglass / But I think your time's up." A Doobie Brother out of time.
13. Charles Bradley,
No Time for Dreaming
Daptone's latest uncut diamond goes the full James Brown on 13 dusty cratedigger fireballs (plus a killer Nirvana cover!) full of apocalyptic pathos. "Don't tell me how to live my life / When you never felt the pain," he begins. Then he makes you feel it.
12. Marsha Ambrosius,
Late Nights, Early Mornings
Slow jamz, get your slow jamz. The Floetry veteran hit No. 2 with this brash bombardment of not-so-quiet storms, desperate and ferocious. If the Portishead cover doesn't get you, "I Hope She Cheats on You (With a Basketball Player)"will.
King of Hearts
Right, there's the strutting kiss-off anthem with Andre 3000 that uses the word "pussy"like 200 times, but there's also plenty more kiddie-electro love-in-this-club Polow da Don jams. "Be the One" is the best; the sexy ones are funnier than the funny ones.
The Good, The Bad, The Sexy
"Sex ain't what you need / You need intimacy," Joe purrs on his paradoxically sexiest song, surrounded by equally lush boudoir jams wherein he's so totally doin' it: "First remove the pillows from this bed / Then I'm-a put your legs right next to your head."
9. Mary J. Blige,
My Life II... The Journey Continues (Act 1)
Ridiculous album title, undeniable lineage, distilling a lifetime of drama into 10 words ("Bad boys ain't no good / Good boys ain't no fun") while everyone from Nas to Drake to Rick Ross helps the Queen party like it's 1994. "Need Someone"sneaks up on you.
8. Anthony Hamilton,
Back to Love
An expert throwback who pushes inexorably forward, mixing sunny Wax Poetics nostalgia with XXL grit, his many weapons (horns, a smooth falsetto, Gospel fervor) never hardening into bludgeons. When he has girl trouble, he goes straight to God.
7. Jamie Woon,
"I've acquired a taste for silence," declares this electro-soul Brit crooner on his Burial-produced breakthrough single, now leading off a gorgeous suite of spooky, epically lonely-feeling transmissions to those who prefer their dance floors empty.
"Put that cheater in the trunk / I think he gotta learn a lesson / And I'm gonna teach his ass," as scream-sung by a tart Southern belle and Yelawolf cohort who can rap daintily and purr angrily. "When I Was High" will trigger hella paranoia.
5. Raphael Saddiq,
The Walking Time Machine deftly avoids parody by imbuing his beyond-classic soul-rock with immaculate detail (the thumping drums alone are way too raw and boisterous to be mere museum pieces) and a paradoxical sense of the moment: "Day Dreams"is a Gospel-brunch barn-burner that cheerfully explains the debt crisis: "Guess I'm livin' on daydreams / Gon' buy me somethin'I can't afford."
4. Terius Nash,
In which the crown prince/court jester of transcendent pop-R&B does his very own Here, My Dear, released free on the Internet so she doesn't get any money out of it. A wrenching divorce album cycling through rage, disbelief, contrition, defiance, cruelty, desperation, and grudging acceptance, all climaxing, of course, with a ribald Pharrell team-up in which they brag about their possessions. Off-topic, yes, but on the other hand, "Ever seen a nigga buy a house from the toilet?"
3. Frank Ocean,
He starts by repurposing Coldplay's"Strawberry Swing" as an apocalyptic elegy, climaxes by similarly scrambling the Eagles' "Hotel California," argues with his girl re: the relative merits of Radiohead vs. Jodeci, delivers gorgeously sung and delicately worded opinions on abortion and gay marriage (rare for an Odd Future-affiliated record), extensively samples Eyes Wide Shut, and sneaks the line "I feel like a ghost / No Swayze / Ever since I lost my baby" right by you. The comfortably numb "Novacane" sounded incongruous on mainstream rap radio at first. But not now.
He belongs here. You know it, he knows it, Big Ghostface knows it, Alisha definitely knows it. From the deep-space booty-call pathos of the stunning "Marvin's Room"to the feather-light falsetto triumphalism of "Crew Love,"from the Rihanna/Gil-Scott Heron/Jamie xx melodrama pileup of the title track to the Stevie Wonder-assisted(!?) and Don Maclean-inspired(!!??) it's-not-me-it's-you elegy "Doing It Wrong," this is the softest bullet ever fired, too brash and delicate and uncompromising and startlingly beautiful to destabilize only hip-hop. The human croissant ascends.
1. The Weeknd,
House of Balloons/Thursday
"Bring your love, baby, I can bring my shame / Bring the drugs, baby, I can bring my pain." Apologies to Drake, but the mysterious, tenderly sadistic Aubrey cohort Abel Tesfaye was unstoppable this year in the art of mixing loathing and self-loathing, unloading two free mixtapes of polarizing, so-called "PBR&B" that reveled (or didn't) in more empty, joyless hedonism than Californication, Shame, House of Holes, and even Take Care itself combined. Lithe, vicious, drug-besotted, soft-core pornographic, and utterly gorgeous, House of Balloons and Thursday are arty makeout albums from hell, a narcissistic orgy of damaged souls doomed to keep getting faded until they disappear completely.