It’s interesting that r&b has become my genre of choice in 2020. I’ve always been into the 90s, but it’s only natural that I came around to the new stuff, as soul in general is the one thing that influences all my taste in music.
My favorite way of keeping tabs on new soul is by following the genre on Bandcamp. There, you tend to get more off-the-radar projects that you otherwise might not hear. Spotify’s Discover Weekly has also been a godsend for finding new music.
The soul tradition solidified in the 60s has carried on to the present, expressing the same spirit through a different palette of sounds. And there are a lot of great things happening in the world of soul, both sonically and conceptually.
Without further adieu, and in no particular order except for #1…
SAULT • Untitled (Rise)
Listening again in June 2022 – this is my r&b album of the year. It’s one of those slow burners that gets better with each listen, despite being great from the start.
SAULT doesn’t sound like your average r&b act. They channel the entire history of soul music, and beyond, into their sound. From 70s soul to funk to African rhythms, psychedelic rock, spoken word, disco and more – it’s a very organic, impressive amalgam of sounds into a cohesive whole.
It’s well suspected that Cleo Sol is part of the act, and indeed it sounds like her. If true that puts her on 3 of the year’s best albums. There’s also the sense that this is a band seriously in tune with one another.
A perfectly fitting soundtrack to the year of Black Lives Matter. They also put out another album in 2020 which is free on Bandcamp, with proceeds going to charitable funds. Favorite Song: Eternal Life
Liv.e • Couldn’t Wait To Tell You
Here’s an immediate standout – this album put me in a trance on first listen. The loose, hazy, heavily looped jazzy beats, not conforming to any typical r&b standard, are the perfect backdrop for her silky smooth voice. There’s a sense you’re listening to an instant classic.
With a strong lo-fi aesthetic, the album has won praise from Erykah Badu, and was recorded over a one-month stretch at her mom’s house. Released on a small indie LA label, it’s hard to imagine this on any major label, and all the better for it’s creative freedoms.
Contemplative, immersive, soothing, and timeless. In fact it reminded me a bit of the Caretaker’s classic “Everywhere at the End of Time”, a transfixing meditation on dementia sound-tracked by old jazz and ballroom loops.
Check out this Bandcamp interview and get to know the new queen of soul.
Love Moor • Motions
This album sounds like r&b royalty. Hailing from Birmingham, Alabama – Love Moor has crafted an incredibly smooth, sophisticated listen from front to back.
If I were to put one album from this list into the “traditional neo-soul” category, this would be it. Perfectly executed, elegant r&b with no experimental surprises. The fact that she is not on a major label is surprising. The fact that she has only 1,000 fans on her Facebook page, and very little media attention, is a crime. Let’s change that…
Favorite Song: Art, in all it’s upright bass majesty.
Demae • Life Works Out…Usually
Another solid entry from the underground UK soul community, the debut album from Demae. I’d place this one firmly in the lineage of the neo-soul icons such as Erykah Badu, D’Angelo, while also graced by Dilla’s influence and the modern LA beat scene – reminding me of The Internet and their extended family.
But there is also an unmistakable London grit present on this one. It’s an art project come to life – it’s innovative and there are different sounds and styles around every corner. Coming in at only 8 tracks, another one of the many shorter LPs coming out these days, a very welcome trend in my book. You won’t regret diving into this album. Highlight: Basic Love and Let Go.
Ojerime • B4 I Breakdown
In line with my strong expectations from the UK is South London’s Ojerime and the follow up to her excellent 4U (recommended) project of 2018. Coming on the heels of a mental breakdown, this album appears to be a breakthrough for the artist.
Ojerime grew up listening to SWV and Aaliyah, and it shows – but don’t expect a 90s throwback album (except for the intoxicating ‘Give It Up To Me’ and of course the SWV tribute). Smooth modern trap production is the backbone here, and it is well executed. There’s even an acapella and a somewhat dancehall number in ‘Whiskey Demo’.
Pick of the album for me is the lead single Empty which has a lovely music video (below). For more on this amazing artist, dive into her recent interview with Clash, or features on Gal-Dem, RNBrit, or Vice.
Cleo Sol • Rose in the Dark
I fully expect half of this list to come from the UK by the end of the year, and here is our first entry so far.
Cleo Sol is a London artist who almost didn’t release this album. It’s a very soft, organic, jazzy affair with plenty of acoustic instrumentation, and the occasional injection of funk. It references both classic soul and 90s neo-soul, but you won’t find the trap heavy drums that dominate most other releases on this list.
Cut of the album for me would have to be ‘Sideways’, a slow burning affair that showcases her incredible, angelic vocal chops. If you’re in the mood for a relaxing Sunday-afternoon kind of r&b album, this is for you.
Diana Gordon • Wasted Youth
How’s that for an album cover? Diana Gordon is looking hot as ever at 34 years old. I digress…
At only 8 tracks long, it’s being touted as an EP but I’ll throw it in the LP category, as I feel 8 songs makes an full album (and often did in the 60s/70s) Initially this was just an honorable mention, but after a few more listens, I’m ready to put it in the Top 10. There’s just something so fresh about it.
It’s a very enjoyable project with plenty of attitude that alternates between modern trap sounds and acoustic ballads. Highlight for me would be the anthemic Rollin’ & Sad Boys.
Listen: Bandcamp | Spotify | All Platforms
Holy Hive • Float Back To You
If you’ve been following the retro soul movement then you know that Big Crown Records has been leading the charge. You’d also know of Durand Jones & the Indications, who this group reminded me of immediately (Aaron Frazer’s vocals, in particular). And that’s a good thing!
Not exactly the soul of yesteryear, it’s nonetheless a very stripped down, yet full sound that takes the classic formula and melds it with perfect, catchy songwriting for 12 tracks. There’s space for each instrument to breathe. Throw in a nice falsetto and you have a modern retro classic.
Spearheaded by Homer Steinweiss, a soul/funk drummer with plenty of industry chops and experience, this Brooklyn trio coins their music as Folk Soul, and they knocked this debut album out of the park.
If you need a good introduction to this modern retro movement, this is a good place to start! But be sure to follow up with Lady Wray, Durand Jones, Leon Bridges, Bobby Oroza, etc.
Victoria Monét • Jaguar
When the year was coming to an end and I needed an album to close out this list – this gem by Victoria Monét jumped onto my radar and was the obvious final choice.
Known as a songwriter for Ariana Grande, the LA based artist makes a strong statement with her debut album. I remember hearing the opening single ‘Moment’ for the first time and really being taken aback.
She waves modern production with classic r&b, funk, disco, and her sultry vocals. She also followed up the album with a Christmas version of orchestral remixes.
On a side note she is also one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen. Too bad she’s taken and flaunts it all over this video below. Favorite track: Touch Me
Orion Sun • Hold Space For Me
This album made me expand this list a “Top 10” to a “Best of…” Simply too many good albums to list in 2020.
Channeling the lo-fi soul sound of The Internet, Orion Sun made an immediate impression on first listen. The music comes across as effortless, playful, and dialed.
The Pitchfork Review didn’t do justice to this refreshing breath of fresh air from the Philly singer.
Highlight: Lightning, which is embedded below…
Jhene Aiko • Chilombo
I’m going with a relatively safe/popular choice for my first pick of 2020, and also the one I’ve listened to the most so far.
I first turned into the LA native while working as resident DJ at Hard Rock in 2017, when I had to expand my r&b palette beyond the 90s. She makes very pleasant, melodic, modern trap-based r&b, and this album is no different. She recorded the project from a series of freestyle sessions on the Big Island in Hawaii.
As Jhene is in full on hippie-mode lately, she incorporated crystal sound bowls into the entire album, with the intention of opening and balancing your chakras… something like that, haha. I must admit, the album leaves me feeling great after every listen.
Highlight for me would have to be the lead single, P*$$Y Fairy (OTW), which has a pretty cool video that comes straight from Aaliyah’s playbook.
Tinashe • Comfort & Joy EP
Let’s round out out this list with a refreshing holiday EP. After a rough year for many this was a great way to cap off the year with some warm fuzzy holiday vibes.
She starts out with modern trap styles which bring some spice to your typical x-mas songs.
But the real show stopper is when she slows down in the 2nd half to let her 5-star voice shine over some Christmas classics.
Definitely will remain in my xmas playlist for years to come!
- Xavier Omar – If You Feel
- Denai Moore – Modern Dread
- John Legend – A Bigger Love
- DVSN – A Muse In Her Feelings
- K. Michelle – All Monsters are Human
- Tink – Hopeless Romantic