10. Brandy, B7
Eight years since her last release and three years in the making, Brandy Norwood’s B7 arrived at the end of July like a salve, with warm production and messages of self-love. Her seventh studio album goes to unexpected places, diving headfirst into loneliness, depression and anxiety, while deep bass and watery synthesizers -- and sometimes actual water sounds, like on “Lucid Dreams” -- offer her depths to explore. “I’m the most jealous girl in the whole wide world,” she confesses on album standout “Borderline,” her voice dancing atop a ticking hi-hat. Her instrument is still as strong and smoky as it ever was, only now it’s lower and more lived-in. “One day I woke up/ And now my love is unstuck,” she sings on the closing piano ballad, “Bye BiPolar.” “I can see who you really are/ ’Cause I’m a star." --CHRISTINE WERTHMAN
9. Giveon, When It’s All Said and Done
Co-signed by Drake with an appearance on the latter’s “Chicago Freestyle,” newcomer Giveon hit the ground running in February with his rawer, 21st-century brand of neo-soul on the riveting “Like I Want You,” from debut Epic EP Take Time. Aided by his striking baritone and insightful storytelling, Giveon introduced the next melodic chapter in his emotional love-and-heartbreak saga with his second compelling EP When It’s All Said and Done, featuring standouts “Stuck on You” and “Still Your Best” -- proving his first Grammy nod (best R&B album for Take Time) this year was no fluke. -- GAIL MITCHELL
8. Brent Faiyaz, F--k the World
From his instantly brain-sticking hook to GoldLink's late-'10s smash "Crew," it was clear R&B singer-songwriter Brent Faiyaz had the potential to be this generation's Nate Dogg -- or at least its Odd Future-era Frank Ocean. Second album F--k the World makes good on that promise, an infectious mix of shrugging swagger with casual vulnerability in lyrics like "I was f--king superstars when I was 19... now I'm at the turn-up looking lonely" from early highlight "Clouded." Tying the briskly moving 26-minute set together at all turns is Faiyaz's captivating croon, syrupy both in the sweet sense and the narcotic one. -- ANDREW UNTERBERGER
7. John Legend, Bigger Love
John Legend finished recording Bigger Love before the country was rocked by a pandemic, racial discord and political upheaval. But it’s as if the Grammy winner had an inside track on what people would need to hear. Among the guests helping The Voice coach shape the album’s lift-yourself narrative are Jhené Aiko on the sultry "U Move, I Move," Rapsody on slow-burner “Remember Us” and Gary Clark Jr. on the booming “Wild.” As Legend noted on Instagram prior to Bigger Love’s Juneteenth release, “This is a celebration of love, joy, sensuality, hope, and resilience, the things that make our [Black] culture so beautiful and influential.” -- G.M.
6. Kem, Love Always Wins
After a six-year hiatus -- and nearly 20 years in the game -- Kem remains in tune with what listeners want. Love Always Wins finds the singer-songwriter spicing up his smooth, grown and sexy signature sound with more up-tempo flavor, prominent guitar accents and franker lyrical insights reflecting the current social climate. Beyond No. 1 hit “Lie to Me,” Kem’s fifth studio album comes stocked with more gems like the steamy Toni Braxton-featuring “Live Out Your Love," the feisty Marvin Gaye- and Prince-influenced “Love,” and the subtly powerful protest song “Friend Today.” -- G.M.
5. Chloe x Halle, Ungodly Hour
Angelic-voiced sisters Chloe and Halle Bailey may don wings on the cover of Ungodly Hour. But the pair reveal their earthly realness, while coming into their own, on this sexy, smirking sophomore album. Joined by producers such as Scott Storch (on hit single “Do It”), Disclosure and Boi-1da, the Baileys resonate just as strongly when manning the boards themselves, as on the playful but threatening “Tipsy”: “You’re strumming on my heart strings, don’t be dumb/ If you love your little life, then don’t fuck up.” Set off by a finger snap and later climactic strings, “Wonder What She Thinks of Me” is sung from the other woman’s perspective. But instead of painting her as a lecherous villain, Chloe x Halle make her a sympathetic, lovesick character. “It’s never wrong when you’re in love,” they sing, positioning the woman as neither angel nor devil -- just human. -- C.W.
4. Summer Walker, Life on Earth EP
As with her 2019 debut album, Over It, Summer Walker’s Life on Earth EP reaffirms the Atlanta singer-songwriter’s propensity for autobiographical songs which take on the complexities of love -- both toward others and herself. Over five tracks, Walker explores blind adoration (the acoustic “Let It Go”), glowing up (playful “My Affection” featuring PARTYNEXTDOOR), taking a relationship to the next level (tender ballad "Deeper") and more, filling up a 16-minute listen that is at times heartening, revelatory and crushing. It's a treasured glimpse inside the psyche of one of R&B's most promising new talents. -- TATIANA CIRISANO
3. Teyana Taylor, The Album
Teyana Taylor hits the bullseye with the straight-shooting modern soul showcased on The Album, a Juneteenth release that marked first top 10 on the Billboard 200 albums chart, while also bowing at No. 1 on Top R&B Albums. The singer-songwriter-video director packs The Album with 23 songs displaying her full-bodied vocals and R&B roots as well as forays into reggae and Afrobeat. The set’s strongest entries include the exuberant “We Got Love” with Lauryn Hill, “Lowkey” featuring Erykah Badu, the jazzy “Made It," and the Kehlani team up "Morning," marked by Taylor and her collaborator's alluring harmonizing. Given The Album’s strong reception, fans are no doubt hoping Taylor rethinks her recent “retirement” announcement on Instagram. -- G.M.
2. Kehlani, It Was Good Until It Wasn't
Kehlani delves into love’s inner workings on her sophomore album, It Was Good Until It Wasn’t, featuring compatriots Jhené Aiko, Masego, Lucky Daye and James Blake. Whether taking social media to task for being judge and jury on “Everybody Business” (“Don’t make me feel bad for lovin’”) or confessing her need for affection on “Can You Blame Me” (“I would rather argue than me sleep alone”), Kehlani fearlessly and sharply outlines the joys and contradictions of romance against a palette of languid beats and jazz-influenced riffs, underscoring why the casually cool singer-songwriter is one of R&B’s leading ladies. -- G.M.
1. Jhené Aiko, Chilombo
Since her mid-'10s breakthrough, Jhené Aiko has proved a major force in popular R&B's shift towards nocturnal vibes, hushed sonics and both physically and emotionally intimate lyrics, even as her mainstream recognition at times remained relatively muted. With this year's Chilombo, she finally got to take something of a victory lap, as the stunning 20-song journey drew both the best Billboard 200 debut (No. 2) and strongest reviews of her career. Laced with palette-cleansing interludes and features from major artists (Future, John Legend, Nas) who pop by like house guests, the LP was one of the year's most satisfying full listens -- but also had songs strong enough to exist outside of the set, as evidenced by the casually cocky H.E.R. teamup "BS" and seductive solo ballad "P---y Fair (OTW)," both Hot 100 top 40 hits. Chilombo was recognized with in November an album of the year Grammy nod, an overdue shout of validation for an artist whose importance had too long been merely whispered. -- A.U.