15. Jai Paul, leaked demos
It’s almost unfair that one of this year’s best pop albums was Jai Paul’s stolen homework. In April, someone illegally released an untitled collection claiming to be the mysterious British electropop/R&B songwriter’s debut album on Bandcamp. Jai refuted that, and said they were just unfinished noodlings, and Bandcamp refunded everyone. Meanwhile, the “unfinished” “Str8 Out of Mumbai” is a jealousy-inducing gem of pure disgusting talent. His ethereal voice threads between a thicket of laser, glitter, Hindi song samples, and deep wall-massaging drums. His cover of Jennifer Page’s “Crush” is also one of the most delightful R&B covers of anything this year. — K.T.
14. K. Michelle, “V.S.O.P.”
What isn’t to love about K. Michelle’s syrupy southern accent sliding over a Chi-Lites sample (by way of Jay Z)? “V.S.O.P.” takes the basement parties your parents and aunts and uncles used to have back in the day and makes them extra sexy. — T.C.
13. Kelly Rowland, Talk A Good Game
Kelly Rowland’s fourth solo album, Talk A Good Game, is maybe her best yet. Though there isn’t a song that quite matches the same commercial appeal of “Motivation” from her last album, she’s come up with something that’s enjoyable all the way through. “Dirty Laundry” is an extremely honest, painful song of the silent abuse Rowland suffered in a previous relationship, and the complicated position of being in best friend Beyoncé’s shadow. There’s also light-hearted fare, like the infectious “Kisses Down Low.” And, of course, for any diehard fan, the Destiny’s Child reunion on the breezy, kiss-off song “You Changed” is a highlight; there’s a reason they were as successful as they were — the chemistry between the three ladies is electric. — A.Z.
12. Laura Mvula, Sing To The Moon
Laura Mvula makes music that feels instantly familiar but leaves you grasping for appropriate comparisons when you have to describe it to someone who hasn’t heard her yet. Is she a more mannered, orchestral version of Erykah Badu? A jazzier Janelle Monaé? A funkier Esperanza Spalding? Sing to the Moon is an astonishingly self-assured debut album; Mvula is so fully formed as a vocalist, composer, and arranger that it’s hard to imagine that stunners like “She,” “That’s Alright,” and “Make Me Lovely” are among the very first songs she’s ever written. — M.P.
11. AlunaGeorge, Body Music
If you ever thought body-rolling to electronic, bass-heavy music was impossible, AlunaGeorge is out to prove you wrong. The UK duo, comprised of vocalist Aluna Francis and producer George Reid, are part of the growing stable of artists bridging the gap between electro-pop and R&B. Francis’ vocals are British girl group-ready, with the same naughty-and-nice quality of All Saints and Sugababes, but set in a more futuristic, glitchy bed of sounds. The album is versatile, whether you’re looking for the perfect soundtrack for a romantic night in, an intimate dinner with friends, or even to bounce to as you walk down the street, a silly, sheepish smile on your face. — A.Z.
10. Rhye, Woman
You’d be forgiven if you thought Rhye was a woman at first listen, not only because his debut album is actually called Woman. Mike Milosh is the mysterious, androgynous voice at the front of the duo, which includes songwriter-producer Robin Hannibal, whose silky high-pitched voice could mark him as a dead-ringer for Sade. Woman, Rhye’s debut album, slinks and shimmies along between light and dark: buoyant horns on “Hunger,” yearning strings on “The Fall,” and Milosh’s voice throughout tender and affecting. Rhye, though on trend with the quieter pop of acts like The Weeknd or The xx (who also make records for intimate nights), creates music that feels warmer, less isolating. It’s hard to resist falling in love to something this lush. — A.Z.
8. Justin Timberlake, The 20/20 Experience (1 and 2)
JT didn’t have to make an album this good. And while he’s as pop star through and through, 20/20 is also one of the year’s best R&B albums, with songs like “That Girl” and “Not A Bad Thing” placing him in full-on crooner territory. — A.Z.
7. R. Kelly, Black Panties
Robert Kelly is back. After two decades of toot-tooting, bump-n-grinding, and birthing “hip-hopera,” the self-proclaimed “Pied Piper of R&B” offers his latest studio album as a style guide to R. Kelly ballads. Black Panties combines contemporary R&B, hyphy rap hooks, and his unique brand of sexy gospel that can only show for a 22-year music career — ahem, legacy. Kellz is not afraid to explore rhythm and blues, or the sexual implications of “Cookies.” Yup, Black Panties is one silk orgy fantasy. – Tanya Chen
6. Drake, “Hold On We’re Going Home”
“Hold On We’re Going Home” is not simply an R&B song, it’s a wedding song, as Drake says it was designed to be. It’s a song you play while you hold the one you love close as you possibly can and just rock. This is the song you wish you dedicated to your high school sweetheart. It’s also the song you sing with all of your friends in the car as loud as you can because it doubles as a pop anthem. Bonus points if you get to be Majid Jordan and echo Drake with your breathless falsetto. — M.T.
5. Mariah Carey featuring Miguel, “#Beautiful”
“#Beautiful” is everything we missed and wanted from Mariah: her vintage ’90s Mimi sound, her trademark giggles and whistles, a song that’s just joyful and carefree — it’s like a flashback to “Emotions”-era Mariah in the backseat of a convertible. The song is just short enough to leave you wanting more and hitting repeat over and over again, as I did all this past summer. — A.Z.
4. Janelle Monáe, The Electric Lady
Okay, first things first: Prince. Prince and Janelle Monáe. Together. On one track, called “Givin Em What They Love.” Yes, it’s true, and yes, it’s amazing. The other guests aren’t too shabby either: Miguel joins her on the sultry “Primetime,” while Esperanza Spalding and Solange also feature on songs. The best collab, however, goes to Erykah Badu, with whom Monáe becomes an unbeatable team on “Q.U.E.E.N.,” an infectious, toe-tapping banger that’s just dripping with attitude and swagger. If you’re ever having a bad day and need to remind yourself of what a badass human you really are, this is probably the right thing to blast for an instant pick-me-up. — A.Z.
3. Cassie, RockaByeBaby
Seven years after she first dropped “Me & U” and her debut album, Cassie resurfaced this year with her first proper follow-up, a New Jack City-inspired mixtape called RockaByeBaby. Cassie’s crystal-clear monotone is detached but sweet, the perfect counter to the nightmarish, hazy production. She hits her stride when her vocals are trance-like and over beats that are unexpected, twisted and strange (the more haunted, fun-house-like, the better) — it’s what made “Me & U” such an inescapable hit in 2006. On “RockaByeBaby,” she raps over a menacing, loopy beat before slowing down into a catchy, mellow chorus. Cassie doesn’t need to have Beyoncé’s singing chops in order to make interesting choices, and she pulled that off better than ever here. —A.Z.
2. Ariana Grande, Yours Truly
Ariana Grande has tapped into the sweet spot of our collective pop/R&B nostalgia and is giving the people what they want: ’90s Mariah Carey. She has the voice to pull it off, too. Yours Truly is feel-good R&B that’s cheeky, fun, and easy to dance to, and filled with healthy dose of ballads that honestly, truly, tug at the heartstrings. “Honeymoon Avenue” is a standout ballad about yearning for the time in a relationship before everything got complicated that brought me to tears more than once. There are the doo-wop sounds of “Tattooed Heart,” and “Almost Is Never Enough,” an excellent duet with her boyfriend Nathan Sykes, of The Wanted. It’s a fine, fine line between bouncy and corny pop, and Grande expertly walks it; the music is effervescent and fun, but it never feels cheap, juvenile, or too syrupy-sweet. It doesn’t take itself too seriously either, which, in today’s pop landscape, is pretty refreshing. —A.Z.
1. Ciara, Ciara
Ciara’s one of those artists who somehow continually gets overlooked in the traditional diva sphere, but “Body Party” is not only one of the best songs of the year, it’s probably one of the best R&B songs of all time. The first single off the singer’s self-titled fifth album, this sensual banger (and its excellent remix featuring Ciara’s fiancé, Future) is cheeky, sweet, fun, and almost impossible not to grind to. But I write this as I’m currently about to jump out of my chair dancing to the album’s closing track, “Overdose.” A glitchy, dance-y banger, the song alternates between seductive, catchy verses and a roaring, cathartic chorus. Ciara has a little bit of everything, from girl power swagger on the Nicki Minaj-assisted “I’m Out” to her rapping debut on “Super Turnt Up.” But even just based on the merits of “Body Party” alone, Ciara deserves the top spot among the wealth of awesome R&B in 2013. — A.Z.