9. Tink, Winter's Diary 2
Before Timbaland swept in and declared Tink his new protégé, the Chicago artist was already playing at a college level with a string of mixtapes that skillfully juggled rapping and singing. The spice of standout hit "Fingers Up" was dialed down on January's Winter's Diary 2, ripped straight from the trenches of her magic markered journal. She draws hearts around a boy's name on the stormy "When It Rains," but is just as quick to turn on him on the guitar-plucked "2 and 2" -- just a few examples of how willing and able she is to dump and sort through her baggage in public. Tink doesn't yet feel old enough to fully grasp how far the emotional spectrum of relationships can run (she's only 19), but she's already an expert in working with what she knows.
8. K. Michelle, Anybody Wanna Buy a Heart?
There's a serrated ferocity to K. Michelle that sends her songs past saccharine and into compellingly unstable territory. It's what she ably attempted with her aptly titled 2013 debut Rebellious Soul, and what she mastered with this year's Anybody Wanna Buy a Heart? For the R&B singer, lyrically exploring emotions has never been enough to convey how she truly feels—it's an excessive peppering of explicit language that makes it so convincing. "Missing you is way too hard to do / I'd rather be fucking you" is how she rationalizes the regret of a breakup on "Hard to Do"; pouring herself a full cup because she "don't give a fuck" is her party mantra on standout "Something About the Night." Of course, an R rating is nothing new of R&B releases, but K. Michelle is one of the few artists that actually sounds genuine when she goes there.
7. FKA Twigs, LP1
Few albums that came out this year received more critical praise than LP1. Twigs' subjects -- passion and its absence -- are R&B's bread and butter, but her means were unconventional, resulting in a carefully-plotted album that offers few easy pleasures. You'd be hard-pressed to find many debut albums with such a clearly-defined aesthetic.
6. Chris Brown, X
X showed every side of Chris Brown, who makes up for what he lacks in vocal power with endless flexibility. Naturally he's got tracks for the club and songs for seduction. He pays his respects to R. Kelly on one song and Michael Jackson on another, brings Brandy in at one moment and an Aaliyah sample the next. 3 of the songs from X went top ten on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop songs chart (including "Love More," with Nicki Minaj, which appears on the deluxe version of the album) -- Brown's sound keeps changing, but the hits are constant.
5. Teyana Taylor, VII
Male R&B was plenty lusty in 2014, but that doesn't mean the boys made the sexiest albums. The three T's -- Taylor, Twigs, and Tinashe -- hold that distinction (honorable mention to a 4th T, Trey Songz). VII is a tightly focused project. The singer establishes a mood -- fraught with desire and viscous tempos -- and maintains it throughout. This is an album in an old-fashioned sense, sonically unified and building around a single theme.
4. Babyface & Toni Braxton, Love, Marriage & Divorce
Aging in the R&B game touts an inherent challenge: How do you maintain relevancy when you're a few decades past due for a de facto DJ Mustard beat? Instead of youth mimicry, Babyface and Toni Braxton confronted their 40s head-on, teaming as this generation's Marvin and Tammi for the collaborative Love, Marriage & Divorce. Granted, it's an A/C offering, but that's part of what it means to act your age: "Sweat" plays like a highly capable dead ringer for "Sexual Healing," while Braxton holds her own for the smirk-worthy, yet tender, "I Wish": "I hope she gives you a disease / So that you will see / But not enough to make you die / But only make you cry / Like you did to me," she sings, her voice quivering over a bare piano. These are artists who have lived long enough to experience the pleasures and woes of life, and they established the right foundation to explore it.
3. Tinashe, Aquarius
Like Taylor, Tinashe believes in the long game: she doesn't flit from style to style, throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks; she picks her sound -- lush, layered, sensual -- and stays with it. But unlike Taylor or Twigs, Tinashe is willing to make a concession to the radio: "2 On," her DJ Mustard-assisted single, is one of the strongest songs of the year in any genre. She's also saavy and wide-ranging in her choice of collaborators, bringing in rappers from East (A$AP Rocky), West (ScHoolboy Q), and South (Future). These MCs have different approaches and backgrounds, but they all share the same role here: as Tinashe's sidekicks.
2. Jessie Ware, Tough Love
Preview by preview — song premieres, snippets, live-debuts — Jessie Ware gently unfolded one of 2014’s most delicate albums. On Tough Love, Ware effortlessly melts a range of soundscapes into a soulful concoction, to be used as a bed for longing and vulnerable confessionals. - Erika Ramirez
1. Mary J. Blige, The London Sessions
For her past few albums, Mary J. Blige number-painted her way through passable projects that kept her star from flickering (Think Like a Man Too OST, My Life II… The Journey Continues (Act 1)). As a hip-hop/soul pioneer, she's always been at her best when she groped her way through the dark and, instead of finding light, found a new sense of self, be it emotionally or musically. It's what she did with the impeccable The London Sessions, her finest work since 2005's The Breakthrough. This time, Mary took the reigns as orchestrator, tapping the U.K.'s finest emerging talent -- Disclosure, Naughty Boy, Emeli Sandé -- to craft a flawlessly sequenced project that's equal parts deep house revival and fainting couch balladry. At once, she's the strong Mary we welcomed with 2001's No More Drama ("Right Now") and then she's broken in the aftermath of an abusive relationship ("Whole Damn Year"). Mary isn't ever perfect -- after all, it's her flaws that make her so relatable—but on The London Sessions, she's damn near close.