CMA Awards 2018

10 Best R&B Albums of 2016: Critic's Picks

Theo Wargo/Getty Images for TIDAL
Beyonce performs onstage during TIDAL X: 1015 on Oct. 15, 2016 in New York City.  

It’s always difficult to winnow down a year’s listening to just 10 albums. But this time around, it was also a gratifying endeavor because of a bumper crop of R&B releases running the artistic gamut from traditional to alternative and from established artists to who’s got next.

R&B is indeed alive and thriving, and these are our picks for the best of 2016:

10. Gallant, Ology
It’s the singer’s soulful, shape-shifting vocals (from smooth tenor to soaring falsetto) and wordsmith skills that are the winning charms behind such insightful tracks as “Weight in Gold” and “Bourbon.”

9. Terrace Martin, Velvet Portraits
One of Kendrick Lamar’s go-to collaborators, multi-instrumentalist Martin shines as bright as the L.A. sun in this R&B and funk-laced love letter to his hometown.

8. KING, We Are KING
On its long-awaited album debut, the ethereal soul trio fully reveals the reasons for all the hoopla and shout-outs (from Prince, Stevie Wonder and others) behind its critically acclaimed, genre-fusing 2011 EP The Story.

7. Yuna, Chapters
The uninitiated were introduced to Yuna this year via her sensual pairing with Usher on “Crush.” But there’s waaaay more to the Malaysian artist as this compelling album proves through such Sade-channeling selections as “Best Love” and “Unrequited Love.”

6. Anderson .Paak, Malibu
Defying categorization, singer/rapper/songwriter .Paak embraces soul, hip-hop, pop, funk and other genres as he skillfully, with no holds barred, addresses living life throughout all of its ups and downs.

5. Solange, A Seat at the Table
The artist comes into her own on her third studio album -- co-executive produced by musical maven Raphael Saadiq -- which brims with frank honesty (“Don’t Touch My Hair”) and rich rhythmic harmonies.

4. Frank Ocean, Blonde
Ocean references romantic hookups, adolescence, drugs and other topics (“Nikes,” “Solo,” “Seigfried”) against an intriguing, often spare musical backdrop. The four-year wait was worth it: The elusive visionary remains one of the most adventurous non-conformists in not just R&B/soul, but music period.

3. John Legend, Darkness and Light
This late-year release will no doubt resonate throughout 2017 and beyond with its dynamic mix of social consciousness, hope and love -- à la Marvin Gaye -- as disseminated by Legend and producer Blake Mills (Alabama Shakes).

2. Rihanna, ANTI
The singer/songwriter displays why she remains such a musical force as she experiments vocally and musically on an album rife with strong tracks (“Needed Me,” “Kiss It Better,” “Work,” “Love on the Brain”).

1. Beyoncé, Lemonade
What more can be said that hasn’t already been written? Simply put, Queen Bey slays it. No other album this year traversed the realms of black girl pride, female empowerment, fidelity and social consciousness against such a diverse and engaging musical palette (R&B, soul, hip-hop, blues, country, rock). Also along for the creatively sonic journey: a host of talented collaborators from Jack White and Kendrick Lamar to Animal Collective. Beyoncé continues to challenge herself -- and her fans.

Billboard Year in Music 2016