For all of my criticisms of today’s R&B movement, the year still managed to yield some memorable performances. I had planned to cap of this list at 15 and then 20, but then I was reminded of my ‘soft spot’ for R&B and expanded the list to twenty-five cuts I enjoyed in 2012. These are in no particular order ultimately.
1. Miguel, “Adorn” (Kaleidoscope Dream)
“Adorn” is just one of many excellent Miguel tracks that grace his no. 3 bowing Kaleidoscope Dream. A former no. 1 R&B hit, “Adore” possesses a classicism from 1980s R&B reincarnated in 2012.
2. Frank Ocean, “Bad Religion” (channel ORANGE)
Brilliant by all means, Frank Ocean‘s “Bad Religion” was easily one of the years most
distinct songs, bypassing R&B’s usual topic of ‘love’ in favor of tackling religion (“He said ‘Allahu akbar,’ I told him don’t curse me/’Bo bo you need prayer’ – I guess it couldn’t hurt me/if it brings me to my knees/it’s a bad religion…”) Well produced, soulful, and haunting, “Bad Religion” is one of many excellent tracks from Ocean’s channel ORANGE.
3. Monica, “Until It’s Gone” (New Life)
Monica‘s 2012 album New Life was criticized for its safeness, but “Until It’s Gone” provided the effort with a soulful lift showing off Monica’s angelic voice and lovely range.
4. Melanie Fiona, “Break Down These Walls” (The MF Life)
In my previous Grammy post, I omitted Melanie Fiona‘s excellent The MF Life from contention for Best R&B Album, though only by temporarily forgetting about one of my favorite R&B albums of 2012. I don think the album has a shot at a Grammy nomination and “Break Down These Walls” is just one of the album’s exceptional songs that confirms this notion. Fiona’s raspy vocals are both earnest and sexy (I won’t lie, she’s fine).
5. R. Kelly, “Clipped Wings” (Write Me Back)
Like Monica, R. Kelly‘s Write Me Back could be considered one of the more conservative R&B albums of the year. Even so, “Clipped Wings” is extraordinary, delivering a brief, but compelling, chivalrous performance. Does ‘chivalrous’ really go with R. Kelly? Well, you make that call.
6. Miguel, “Do You” (Kaleidoscope Dream)
A testament to how good and impacting an album can be is having more than one song from the same album appear on my favorites list. “Do You” hearkens back to the neo-soul movement with its soulful guitars and fat bass line. Miguel’s vocals are smooth and incredibly polished, even as he asks his girl “Do you like drugs… Yeah, well me too…”
7. Bobby Womack featuring Lana Del Rey, “Dayglo Reflection” (The Bravest Man in the Universe)
I’m more than aware most people won’t know this particular song and some younger people (even my age in their twenties) may be unfamiliar with soul singer Bobby Womack. However, Womack released his comeback effort The Bravest Man in the Universe to a no. 181 bow on the Billboard Album Chart via XL Records. One of the many standouts was this duet with alt-pop singer Lana Del Rey.
8. Usher, “Climax” (Looking 4 Myself)
Producer/DJ Diplo definitely lifts Usher on one of the standout cuts from Looking 4 Myself. Generally Looking 4 Myself was well regarded, though it has not sold nearly as well as previous hits by the R&B singer. Here Usher’s electro-pop experiments actually couple well with his falsetto and lover-man mentality, hence why “Climax” performed well on the pop charts.
9. Monica, “Daddy’s Good Girl” (New Life)
Again an album I liked but saw why other were critical (New Life) yielded another understated triumph in “Daddy’s Good Girl.” Here, Ms. Brown states she is a ‘good girl,’ as her father would have her to be as opposed to being, well you know. Maybe that’s not the theme younger audiences are going for with sex dominating the thematic material, but Monica kills it.
10. Alicia Keys featuring Nicki Minaj, “Girl On Fire” (Girl on Fire)
Alicia Keys certainly lacks the traction she had back in her Songs in A Minor and The Diary of Alicia Keys days, but something about “Girl On Fire” ignites more of a spark than “Doesn’t Mean Anything” suggested from 2009’s The Element of Freedom. Nicki Minaj adds to the commercial zest of the song and while there is no indication “Girl on Fire” will yield commercial glory, it is kind of catchy (or maybe it’s all the promotion surrounding it).
11. Usher featuring Rick Ross, “Lemme See” (Looking 4 Myself)
Usher’s second solid cut from Looking 4 Myself invited rapper Rick Ross alongside for the ride. Overt but not distastefully so, “Lemme See” again finds Usher successfully incorporating futuristic pop/R&B and the best sentiments of contemporary R&B together without compromising himself (does that even make sense?). Trivializations aside, “Lemme See” got a lot of spins from me this year. Forget “Scream.”
12. Faith Evans, “Tears of Joy” (R&B Divas)
If R&B Divas was just your normal humdrum compilation, Faith Evan‘s cut “Tears of Joy” produced by Claude Kelly was a welcome assist. Very much in the adult-contemporary vein (with some neo-soul elegance), Faith Evans’s dynamic voice is perfectly suited for the cut.
13. Frank Ocean, “Sweet Life” (channel ORANGE)
An assist from Pharrell Williams never hurt anybody. Here, Williams’s off-beat production is perfect fodder for Bohemian R&B singer Frank Ocean, who more than delivers. Laden with electric piano, horns and soulful-dusty drums, “Sweet Life” adds to the greatness of its parent album.
14. Angie Stone, “Rich Girl” (Rich Girl)
Rich Girl as a new solo album for Angie Stone may have been a bit too anachronistic as a whole, but the title track’s classic nature is vintage Angie Stone in addition to being vintage retro-/neo-soul material. Ain’t nothing wrong with that.
15. Trey Songz, “Heart Attack” (Chapter V)
“Heart Attack” more than helped Chapter V, Trey Songz’s fifth studio effort to debut at no. 1. Well written and contemporary enough not to compromise it’s R&B underpinnings, “Heart Attack” is arguably the cream of the crop of Chapter V. Where “2 Reasons” seemed too much of a knock off “Bottoms Up,” “Heart Attack” delivers.
16. Miguel, “Where’s The Fun in Forever?” (Kaleidoscope Dream)
On yet another spirited performance, Miguel works with Alicia Keys on the soulful, hip-hop soul leaning “Where’s The Fun in Forever.”
17. Frank Ocean featuring Earl Sweatshirt, “Super Rich Kids” (channel ORANGE)
I originally had “Thinkin’ ‘Bout You” here (and it is awesome), but that song materialized in 2011. “Super Rich Kids” keeps up the soulful vibe of channel ORANGE and features a rap by Earl Sweatshirt.
18. Jordin Sparks, “One Wing” (Sparkle Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
Penned by R. Kelly, “One Wing “ may have been the defining moment of Sparkle. A mix between R&B, gospel, and hip-hop sensibility, “One Wing” was easily one of my favorite R&B songs of the year. Jordin Sparks delivers a valedictory performance.
19. John Legend featuring Ludacris, “Tonight (Best You Ever Had)” (Think Like A Man Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
Soulful as always, John Legend captivates on one of the highlighting singles from the Think Like a Man Soundtrack.
20. Keyshia Cole, “Enough of No Love”
After Cole’s 2010 album Calling All Hearts failed to sell as expected, Keyshia Cole hopes to come back in a big way with lead single “Enough of No Love,” even bringing Lil Wayne along for a ride.
21. Usher, “Sins of My Father” (Looking 4 Myself )
One of the more underrated cuts from Usher’s Looking 4 Myself, soulful producer Salaam Remi gives Usher a more soulful backdrop to exhibit his pipes on.
22. Bobby Womack, “The Bravest Man in the Universe” (The Bravest Man in the Universe)
The opening track from Womack‘s comeback album, the production mixes alternative and soulful means. Womack’s voice is soulful though coarse from age, but yields an ideal timbre.
23. Tamia, “It’s Not Fair” (Beautiful Surprise)
Old-school adult contemporary all the way, Claude Kelly lends Tamia his pen on this excellent, dramatic cut which has sensibilities like Toni Braxton’s “Un-break My Heart.” Tamia’s vocals sound exceptional, particularly over acoustic guitars, synthetic strings, and piano.
24. Frank Ocean, “Pyramids” (channel ORANGE)
It’s lengthy, but like all of channel ORANGE, nothing short of excellent and creative. I mean Ocean talks about Cleopatra, Egypt, and pyramids in an R&B song… how clever is that?
25. Elle Varner, “Refill” (Perfectly Imperfect)
Another underrated starlet, Elle Varner more than ‘refilled’ me with her excellent debut Perfectly Imperfect , specifically “Refill.”
Chris Brown gets no love from me for the singles/songs off of album Fortune. I wasn’t affected positively by the annoying “Don’t Wake Me Up” or the generic “Turn Up The Music.” Technically, “Until I Die” is a rap song and not the best one at that – “Look At Me Now” was much more effective. “Strip” wasn’t bad, but has been around for a while. Sorry CB, well not really.