The best R&B of 2014 came from all corners: Artists who usually live on pop radio; people who usually make electronic music; icons brushing the dust off of their careers. The new jacks are rewriting the loverman blueprint (to make it filthier) and bedroom jams ran the gamut. Review our year in R&B as we patiently wait for Frank Ocean, Raheem DeVaughn and more to release the music that will probably make our 2015 list.
25. August Alsina, Testimony
After gaining attention with his bustin'-at-'em mixtape The Product 2, August Alsina nailed himself down as R&B's resident gangster-crooner with his debut full-length Testimony. (Sorry, Tim Vocals.) The album is more an exercise in smooth storytelling than the standard issue lovey, lusty fare. Sure, it's there on the yearning "Kissin' on My Tattoos" and "Porn Star." But his world is one where love is depressing, booze-soaked and dangerous. Where Alsina excels is when he is spinning yarns about his life experience ("Testify"; "You Deserve") and it's his lack of superficiality that makes this album so special. — Claire Lobenfeld
24. Pharrell, G I R L
If Justin Timberlake and Daft Punk made records last year for their legacies, Pharrell made one for — well, it's right there in the damn title. G I R L is an album obsessed not with time, but with women, and, more specifically, compelling women to dance. It's a timeless ethos that doesn't shout, "Hey, this is timeless!" This is perhaps why G I R L may also feel a bit minor, even like a trifle. But this singular focus — one that has driven pop music from the jump — is why it feels not like an oldies album dressed up in the clothes of contemporary pop, but instead like the perfect pop album for right now. — Jordan Sargent
23. Keyshia Cole, Point of No Return
Perhaps without even knowing it, Keyshia Cole has carved out a lane for herself in R&B. Point of No Return, her sixth album, was the wake-up call for those sleeping on her as more than just a Beyoncé rabble-rouser. Songs like "On Demand" and "Next Time (Won't Give My Heart Away)" are the kind of jams we would hear on BET's Video Soul if that show were still around. At a time when most artists are trying to be the next Beyoncé or Rihanna, it's good that Keyshia Cole just wants to do her — and would probably sing a song about that very thing. — Jozen Cummings
22. Katy B, Little Red
Three years after her 2011 debut — released amid the Transatlantic EDM explosion — Britain's reigning raver plays it smart, transforming dynamic dancefloor cuts by innovators Sampha, Jacques Greene and Rinse.FM boss Geeneus with soaring pop hooks and feminine cheek. Katy B pens more club confessionals for Little Red, but swaps the bubbling, raucous energy of her first album for a sophisticated, soulful take on power house. The slightly jaded POV isn't a bummer, just the inevitable realization that there's harshness behind the strobe lights. — Anupa Mistry
21. Chris Brown, X
20. Ariana Grande, My Everything
Spend enough time with My Everything track "Hands on Me" and your internal monologue becomes A$AP Ferg rapping, "It's your birthday, e'ryday with me/ And I make her hand rocky A-S-A-P." (Although, this would be a much more clever way to say he wants to wife you up quick if A$AP Rocky weren't his BFF.) But that's what Ariana Grande's second album is full of: Earworms that stitch themselves into your brain, addictive and demanding repeated rewinds. While the Ferg track is the cream of the crop, there are other pop confections that make your finger itch for the replay button ("Break Your Heart Right Back"; "One Last Try"). Yes, some of it is a little marble-mouthed, but where she lacks vocal enunciation, she is perfectly fluent in blissful pop beats. — C.L.
19. Micah Freeman, Heartspace Vol. 1
There are worse artists to emulate than Prince, so we can't be mad that newcomer Micah Freeman's debut, three-track EP Heartspace Vol. 1 sounds so much like something the Purple One would drop. That might even be a big reason Freeman's on here. He's taken the best qualities of a legend, all the way down to that silky tenor. If the ATL-based, Awful Records-affiliated singer's next effort is anything like this year's debut (the first of a three-part project), he has quite the career ahead of him. — J.C.
18. Mariah Carey, Me. I Am Mariah…the Elusive Chanteuse
Mimi's so extra, like your youngest old auntie who wants to take every opportunity to tell you that she's still got it. This is why she ends up reminding you who she is through convoluted album titles. Me. I am Mariah...The Elusive Chanteuse is her 14th album. Never mind that by now; only newborns don't know who Mariah is. But as entertaining as that auntie is in our family, so is Mariah, especially when teamed with the producers who bring out her best like Jermaine Dupri ("You're Mine (Eternal)" and "Make It Look Good"). Even when she switches it up to work with youngsters like Hit-Boy ("Dedicated" and "Money"), Auntie Mariah proved why she still deserves to be our favorite family member. — J.C.
17. Daniel Caesar, Praise Break
Soul music is evolving and so is Toronto. From the newly expanded frontiers of both comes Daniel Caesar. On his second 2014 EP Praise Break, the former suburban church kid modifies gospel blues for internet-weary souls to create psychedelic, sampled folk songs. Caesar has a voice that can part clouds, or at least convincingly parallel the gothic harmonies of Southern gospel giants, the Gaither Vocal Band, whom he samples on the stunning, sprawling "Pseudo." — A.M.
16. SZA, Z
2014 was a banner year for accessing a variety of black female perspectives in music — now there's room for the diva, and more. Jersey-raised, L.A.-based, self-professed "superficial superwoman" SZA is among the most relatable — and she's backed by Kendrick Lamar's T.D.E. imprint. Z, her third EP, did more for the singer than her fans, refining her soul-meets-synth-pop sound, boasting three very strong collabs (with Chance the Rapper, plus Lamar and Isaiah Rashad). It reflects a bit more maturity from a singer known for precocious, almost intentionally callow, lyrics. — A.M.
15. Kehlani, Cloud 19
Every now and then, a project gets released that we know has to be put in the album-of-the-year discussion after just one listen. That was the response to Cloud 19 from the moment it was released in August by HBK's 19-year-old Kehlani. The Oakland-native harnessed her '90s-era diva influences like Brandy and Monica, then coupled it with glossy production on songs like "FWU" and "How We Do Us" to create a crisp, warm EP that's good for getting ready for the club, in the club, and going home after the club. — J.C.
14. Brenmar, High End Times Vol. 1
Brenmar's music has always favored R&B vocalists; his production is expansive, emotive and saddled in the grimy, regional club beats that turn yearning hooks into stunting parades across the dancefloor. OK, High End Times isn't exactly what you'd consider a classic R&B release (the same album includes Sasha Go Hard's fierce lyricism on "Super Fly" and Tigga Calore's anthemic "Payroll.") But the album's handful of slow burns — "Medusa" (Feat. Rush Davis), Ian Isaiah's playful "Expensive" and "All That Green" (Feat. Maluca and Mykki Blanco) — serves as a showcase of just how deftly Brenmar's been able to blur the lines between swaggy vocalists, sharp-tongued rappers and dancehall queens. — Puja Patel
13. Neneh Cherry, Blank Project
Blank Project is all about Cherry's restless presence, her streetwise inflections, her uniquely international diction, the way, at 49, this Swedish-Sierra Leonean woman who's lived in Stockholm, London, New York and elsewhere still sings as if she's a preteen singing secrets to herself while skipping rope in a city park. Produced by Four Tet, Blank Project was recorded and mixed in five days and accordingly sounds — to paraphrase Cherry's biggest album — rawer than sushi, as if the fish were still alive, as if the music is still being made while you're listening to it, as if she's still dreaming it up as it moves from her lips to your ears. — Barry Walters
12. Kelis, Food
Considering Kelis debuted her cooking show Saucy and Sweet on the Cooking Channel, it was hard not to dismiss this year's Food as being nothing more than a gimmick for us to take her seriously as a chef rather than a musician. As it turns out, the Food she served was an album full of stick-to-your-ribs soul music. Hackey titles aside (I mean, the first song on the album is entitled "Breakfast"), Food makes a compelling case that no matter how nice Kelis is in the kitchen, she doesn't need to quit her day job as one of R&B's best all-around artists anytime soon. — J.C.
11. Mary J. Blige, The London Sessions
The London Sessions is not quite the album that this prerelease narrative suggested. An entire third passes before anything resembling a house beat appears; midway through, the irony seems to be that the only collaborator who read the brief properly was veteran U.S. R&B producer Rodney Jerkins: His "My Loving" has Blige essaying a kind of sequel to Robin S's "Show Me Love," declaiming over irresistible house piano. It's here that the album takes off. The warm chords and delicate strings of "Nobody But You," courtesy of garage pioneer MJ Cole, are a perfect bed for Blige to luxuriate in longing. Best of all is "Pick Me Up," which soars and flutters as Blige spreads her wings and escapes her pain and those who would keep her there. "Misery loves company, they won't let us grow," she sings; a couple of bars later, in the most spontaneously joyful moment on The London Sessions, she exclaims out of nowhere: "Shamone!" — Alex Macpherson
10. Ty Dolla $ign, Beach House
Ty Dolla $ign's follow-up to his duo of Beach House mixtapes is a compact collection, but it's effective. It packages two versions of his breakout hit "Paranoid," although one repeatedly has to ask why he would buy all his girls the same fragrance. Olfactory memory is huge, Ty, and you're kind of playing yourself here. But the real standout is the EP's opener "Work," a deft display of Ty's layered musical capabilities where he, somehow, makes a soaring coda of "I used to love these hoes/ But no I love this money" sound timelessly gorgeous. — C.L.
9. Fatima, Yellow Memories
An RBMA alumnus signed to digital funk eccentrics Eglo, Sweden's Fatima borrows from brassy, '90s soul and the beat scene for her first recording, Yellow Memories. It's Kelis-meets-Quadron: Playful, smart and ahead of its time. Unconcerned with the sonic tropes of contemporary R&B, Fatima favors a fullness reminiscent of Groove Theory or Sa-Ra Creative Partners, bringing a velveteen voice, the warmth of live sound, undulating jazzy rhythms and a beast of a Scoop DeVille head-nodder ("Ridin Round") to the fore instead. — A.M.
8. Teyana Taylor, VII
Teyana Taylor isn't a risk taker: The onetime Pharrell protégé turned G.O.O.D Music acolyte has been skulking around the spotlight for over five years off of co-signs and an episode of My Super Sweet Sixteen. So while her debut album VII is predictably safe, it's to pleasurable effect: There is always room for another luxe R&B album. Taylor's smoky contralto lingers somewhere between Toni Braxton and Kelly Rowland and the mood is comparable: Slow, satisfied and sensual. — A.M.
7. Shlomo/Jeremih, No More
2014 has been quite a year for Jeremih. With his DJ Mustard assisted "Don't Tell Em" boosting him way up on the Billboard charts for the first time since 2010, the singer was on the rise and had a release coming right behind him. (A release that, at this point, we're not sure will see the light of day.) But long before the single or the announcement of this white whale of an album came No More, a brilliantly conceptualized and quietly released collaborative EP with WeDidIt honcho Shlohmo. The previous year's release of "Bo Peep" surprised his fans with his foray into the weirdo world of producer-driven alt-R&B and No More cleanly followed suit. If "Don't Tell 'Em" and the title track for No More prove anything, it's that the singer doesn't have to work as hard as he used to. Throughout, a one-phrase hook becomes a dynamic romp that slithers between purring snares, cracking reverb and a wallowing bass. A vocoder turns the singer's weepy croons into a soulful growl. By the end, you'll have goosebumps. — P.P.
6. PARTYNEXTDOOR, PARTYNEXTDOOR TWO
Drake disciple and first signee to his OVO label PARTYNEXTDOOR released one of the most progressive and lush albums this year with the sequel to his eponymous debut EP. It's not just the thick ethereality on tracks like "SLS" and "Her Way" or the slinkiness of album opener "East Liberty," but his ability to imbue rap elements into R&B like we haven't really seen since DeVante Swing pushed the boundaries of New Jack Swing with Jodeci. It's particularly potent on the Drizzy-assisted lead single "Recognize," where PND employs the Migos flow like no other non-rapper before him. Between this and Drake's signing of iLoveMakonnen, it's clear the Toronto rapper has a tight grasp on what the future of the genre holds. — C.L.
5. Tinashe, Aquarius
Tinashe's Aquarius might be the closest we'll get to a new Cassie album. For years, fans of the latter — those attuned to the spry, minimalist R&B pop of her 2006 self-titled record — have been fervently hoping the one-hit wonder will ditch the red carpet and release something as powerful as "Me & U." Since its January release, Tinashe's ubiquitous DJ Mustard collab "2 On" has been compared to the Cassie hit: They're both spare and smoky minor-key come-ons, purred by a glamazon in boys' clothing with reedy, attenuated vocals. But unlike Cassie, Tinashe has range, including a foundation of three self-released mixtapes, a suite of relevant producers and dynamic vocals — and on Aquarius she's flexing. — A.M.
4. FKA twigs, LP1
On its surface, LP1, the debut full-length from British singer FKA twigs, is an album about fucking. Its songs are full of whispered come-ons and percussive, petit-mort vocalizing — but that allusion to intimacy masks the album’s unsettling center; while LP1 sounds like never-leaving-the-bed fantasia, it spends much of its time in the chasm between fantasy and reality. LP1 is an album that speaks to the modern condition, poking at the illusion of connection generated by constant connectivity and wondering: How do you get beyond being two people alone, together? Can real life ever live up to what happens in your head? — Jessica Hopper
3. Omarion, Sex Playlist
It seemed over for Omarion back in May of 2012, when Rick Ross held an over-the-top Ciroc-sponsored press conference where Diddy famously said the "Maybach Music" drop makes his dick hard. There, it was announced that the Inglewood-based R&B singer was a new member of the crew, rebranded as Maybach O. Oof. But later that year, he released Care Package, an EP that solidified he still deserved a place in the conversation, the "Fuck her, I don't care" kiss-off of "M.I.A." emphasizing that he had left behind his youthful "Ice Box" and Bow Wow collab days. Sex Playlist is a late-in-the-year entry, but it sweeps away a lot of the competition in a stacked one. Whether he's getting Jhene Aiko to shed her hippie-dippie skin to sing lyrics like, "He gotta eat the booty like groceries" on the flirty, Chaka Demus and Pliers-interpolating "Post to Be" or delivering skittering slow jams designed to test your stroke game ("Smoke"; "The Only One"), Omarion has released one of the best albums for the grown and lusty set. And, hopefully, this is only the beginning. — C.L.
2. Toni Braxton & Babyface, Love, Marriage & Divorce
On Love, Marriage, & Divorce, Babyface examines his legacy and seethes "remember?" Almost all 11 tracks stand up to his classic period, in which he produced the bulk of Secrets, Toni Braxton's best solo LP. "Sweat" is a dripping argument for make-up sex, and "Take It Back" grooves exactly like a classic Sade song. The stunner is "I Wish," written by Braxton after her parents' divorce, sung from the point of view from her mother. "I hope, I hope/ I hope she gives you a disease," Braxton sings in the first verse before hoping to fall back into his arms: "I pray, I pray/ I pray your new baby is a boy/ Please don't have a girl, cause you'll give that woman the world." — J.S.
1. Trey Songz, Trigga
Before even getting through one track on Trigga, Trey Songz has already smashed a cliché: "They say you can't have cake and eat it, too/ But ain't that what you s'posed to do?/ Ain't I s'posed to eat it, too?" R&B is littered with infidelity metaphors, but Trey is immediately playful and utilizes one of the most obnoxious phrases in order to court a lady — and, the whole "eating cake" thing doesn't hurt to build the mood right off the bat. But the most masterful thing about the album is how well he complements his guests — Justin Bieber may have gained a little bit of grown-up respect with some of the material from last year's Journals, but his appearance on "Foreign (Remix)" makes you forget that he spent most of 2014 being a total pissant.
Where Trigga truly excels are the instances of '90s rap interpolation: Lead single "Na Na" makes turned-on gibberish of the Fugees' "Fu-gee-la"; he brings Juicy J in to re-make Three 6 Mafia's classic filth romp "Late Night Tip; Nicki Minaj joins Trey for "Touchin' Lovin," a track that makes light work of The Notorious B.I.G.'s R Kelly collab "Fuckin' You Tonight." To many a rap evangelist, this may seem disrespectful, but Trey finesses them all with his pop savvy.
With Mila J, he delves into an affair where the feelings are so strong that they're willing to risk eating at his girlfriend's favorite diner ("Disrespectful"). He sings, "I'ma run up to her, and lie right to her face" about a poorly timed butt-dial to his girlfriend on "SmartPhones." "All We Do" speaks for itself in the title. Above all, Trigga is the ultimate bad boy playbook and the best R&B offering of the year.