Few genres ranged as widely as R&B in 2014. DJ Mustard was a ubiquitous presence on radio — and he produced two of Billboard’s top ten R&B tracks of the year (Tinashe, Jeremih) — but you didn’t need a Mustard beat to make a vibrant track. Elle Varner and Usher looked to classic soul and funk to inform their sound, while Ariana Grande and Chris Brown each built on a tradition of steamy duets. Part of R&B’s open-mindedness no doubt stems from its youthful energy. It’s impressive that they’re landing their songs on year-end lists this early in their career, and it suggests that the genre has a bright future.
Check out Billboard’s picks for the top 10 R&B songs of 2014.
10. PARTYNEXTDOOR, feat. Drake, “Recognize”
You know an artist has potential when they deliver tracks that hype a crowd with or without a notable guest appearance. While Drake delivers memorable lines on PARTYNEXTDOOR’s “Recognize” the song stands out on its own for its addictive hook and provocative production.
9. KING, “Mister Chameleon”
If anything, 2014 was one of the strongest showings for alternative R&B in recent memory (see: Anushka, Electric Wire Hustle, FKA Twigs). KING, a trio consisting of twin sisters Paris & Amber Strother and Anita Bias, powered up the Moog for the slinky, sexy “Mister Chameleon,” a harmony-rich jam that’s equal parts Erykah Badu and Prince — fitting, since the Purple One tapped the Los Angeles ladies to open for him after he came across them on YouTube.
8. Michael Jackson, “Love Never Felt So Good”
Tampering with an artist’s legacy by reworking vault recordings can actually hurt it — take Notorious B.I.G.’s Duets: The Final Chapter, for example. But it worked when a handful of contemporary producers — Timbaland, Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins, Babyface — polished up demos and old recordings for Xscape, shockingly earning its place as a very good MJ album. It’s lead single, “Love Never Felt So Good,” was the crown jewel. Adapted from a 1983 session with Paul Anka, the smiley rump-shaker is warm and robust, recalling Jackson’s better work from the ’80s. If only the King of Pop were still here to appreciate what his sound could still be in 2014.
7. Chris Brown, feat. Jhene Aiko, “Drunk Texting”
“Drunk Texting” is a modern duet for the digital generation: “Am I gonna hit send or nah?” Chris Brown’s collaboration with Jhene Aiko is one of the stand-out tracks from X, with it’s candidness and the singers’ sonic chemistry.
6. Elle Varner feat. A$AP Ferg, “Don’t Wanna Dance”
Perhaps this year’s most exuberant song about being emotionally bruised, Elle Varner’s “Don’t Wanna Dance” captured the feeling of being the party’s odd-girl out in real-time. The hands-in-the-air instrumental lightens the mood of Elle’s sad girl posturing as she mopes in the corner, red cup in hand, fixated on how her man treated her heart like a strip of cigarette-burned carpet. “I’ve been here for much too long, I don’t really want to dance, and I hate most of these songs,” she sings. The kicker: it could very well be hers playing through the speakers.
5. Mary J. Blige, “Pick Me Up”
Blige got an avalanche of press for linking up with a crew of young British artists for her latest album, The London Sessions. But one of the most exciting results of these collaborations actually sounded like a blast from the past: the thrilling, uptempo “Pick Me Up.” It’s powered by a slippery horn riff, and Blige’s singing channels the vocal house music that was popular in clubs when she was starting her career more than 20 years ago. Here she steps forward by looking back.
4. Jeremih feat. YG, “Don’t Tell ‘Em”
In five seconds or less, DJ Mustard’s production on “Don’t Tell ‘Em” grabs you. Jeremih comes in and tightens the grasp with his repetitive, addictive lyricism and homage to Snap!‘s hit “Rhythm is a Dancer.” And, before you know it, you hit play again.
3. Jessie Ware, “Kind Of…Sometimes…Maybe”
Miguel placed his Midas penmanship touch on a handful of songs of 2014; one being Jessie Ware’s “Kind Of…Sometimes…Maybe,” the stand-out track of Tough Love. Surprisingly not (yet) a single, Jessie Ware pulls at our strings, when coquettishly admitting to a lover that she’s thought of replacing the loneliness and whiskey with him.
2. Usher, “Good Kisser”
Usher ditched his flirtation with EDM for 2011’s gravely underrated Looking 4 Myself (barring a few songs—namely “Scream,” which is pardoned), and it suited him well. He pivots even further from trend-chasing with “Good Kisser,” inarguably one of the best R&B singles this year. Its undulating bass line plays the heartbeat to Usher’s lothario falsetto on the verses, making way for a tidal wave chorus that parallels the explosive services that a, uh, good kisser can provide.
1. Tinashe, “2 On”
DJ Mustard has produced a lot of hits in the last 18 months, but few were more vital than Tinashe’s “2 On.” The beat is stiff, propulsive, unyielding; in contrast, Tinashe is bendy and flexible, twisting, turning and owning the song’s open spaces. For her, the party never stops, it just changes names — “Get faded, turn up with the big boys/ Live fast, die young, that’s my choice/ Get money, get money like an invoice.”