Our Critics Pick the Best of 2011

It is always fun at the end of each year to celebrate the best of that year.  And 2011 had a lot of great music. And so we've gathered our music critics to each pick their favorites, which we've assembled below. And our Publisher and Music Editor are each giving their own special honors to the best of the best. 

The toughest part of this is limiting the choices, but here are the selections from Peggy Oliver (PO), Chris Rizik (CR), L. Michael Gipson (LMG), Melody Charles (MC), J Matthew Cobb (JMC)  and Howard Dukes (HD).  Also, each album cover is a link to Amazon, where you can generally listen to clips from the disc or where you can purchase it and each album title is a link to our full review. These are uniformly releases with which you can't go wrong -- or so our critics say. Looking for a Christmas gift for a music lover?  Then spend some time with these winners.

ARTIST OF THE YEAR:

Publisher's Pick: Mamas Gun - Folks say the era of the popular R&B band is gone, but don’t tell Andy Platts and the rest of the talented UK group Mamas Gun. Their 2010 debut won us over and their great 2011 follow-up, The Life and Soul, put us over the top, mixing elements of classic Hall & Oates, AWB and Motown with a 2011 twist. And the sense of fun and silliness in their videos makes it all the more endearing. They're rising with a bullet in the UK but are still a hidden treasure here in America. That shouldn't continue for long. Great songwriting and production, terrific playing and Platt's soulful vocals will be winning over the U.S. soon enough, we expect. In the meantime, we'll be shouting about them from the mountaintops, only pausing to push play one more time.

Editor's Pick: BSlade - The artist formerly known as Tonex (and sometimes Brian Slade) decided to buck current trends by releasing Stereotype: Collector's Edition a fun, funky and forward-thinking project that references the past with samples by Minnie Ripperton, The Carpenters and David Cassidy, among others, without actually doing tired covers we’re long bored by. Whether reimagining the production of The Corporation on the shimmering “Sonshine: 1971” updating the disco thump of Rufus on “What’ cha Gonna Do,” or releasing an astonishing eleven projects in two years, including the equally inspiring and experimental Diesel, BSlade proves that he is one of the most prolific, and sometimes schizophrenic, producer/singer/songwriters of our time.

ALBUMS OF THE YEAR:

PUBLISHER'S PICK    Kelly Price: Kelly -- Critics like to distinguish their views from the public, but this year SoulTrackers nailed it with their Awards voting: Kelly Price's self-titled indie debut hit all the marks. Her voice is all that and she brought killer songs and attitude along to create an album that is nothing short of essential.

EDITOR'S PICK    Martin Luther: Extraterrestrial Brother, Vol I -- After releasing material as classic as it is eclectic, soul rocker and actor Martin Luther releases his most accessible and, ironically, unsung work to-date. Tenderly sung and lovingly arranged, it’s care and skill restored faith in McCoy’s music and rage that he isn’t bigger on the commercial circuit. At least he and this magnificent work are giants in our hearts. 

Rahsaan Patterson: bluephoria -- Experimentation with R&B can be tricky and occassionally off-putting for soul traditionalists, but with Patterson capably steering left from the driver's seat, the ride can be as smooth as it is provocative. "Mountaintop," "Stay With Me," "6Am" ... oh, Patterson, how you do ensure we "Only Have Eyes For You."

Ledisi:  Pieces of Me - Fully actualized as a performer, the Southern-bred songstress shines through empowered sisterhood mantras, self-affirming anthems and songs about the phases of love and loss. Bursting with energy, optimism and emotion, she'll win you over from the first note and captivate you further with each track. (MC)
Reel People: Presents Golden Lady -- Even if Tony Momrelle wasn't the second coming of Stevie Wonder on insta-classics like "Star," Shezar, Darien, Renn, Choklate, BTSC feat. JL, Simon Grey  and so many insanely good acid jazz/house musicians rock hard on this soul gem, the talented Momrelle just proves icing on an already delectable seven-layer cake. (LMG)
VenueConnection: Fire It Up! -- With their latest project Fire It Up!, VenueConnection has sealed its place in Spain’s soul/funk market and effectively extended its brand to the rest of the world. (PO)
Aaries: Cover Girls -- Philly's beloved yet unsung Ayana & Ayinké gracefully bucked the uninspired covers trend with Jones Girls-esque vocals. Light, airy, fun yet always sincere on cuts like "Funny How Time Flies" and the jaw-dropping "Don't Ask My Neighbor/Nothing Even Matters" mash-up, we know these ladies won't be unsung long. (LMG)
The Stylistics: That Same Way – Few things in 2011 were a bigger surprise for me than a new Stylistics solo album, other than that That Same Way was able to capture the lush, melodic sounds of the group’s seminal 70s work with Thom Bell (CR)
State Cows: State Cows -- The self-titled disc from State Cows proves two things: Steely Dan is freakin’ hard to pull off and State Cows just pulled it off. Here the Sweden band delivers an immaculate slate of superlative jazz fusion and sophisticated R&B of the highest order. Almost had me moving to Sweden. (JMC)
Deborah Bond: Madame Palindrome -- That she got the elusive Lewis Taylor out of hiding for a duet was already a genius move, one of several on this silk robe of an album. The grinding Ms. Bond proves undeniable skill plus plenty of elbow grease can reward a legion of patient fans with timeless grooves and stacks of sophisticated soul. (LMG)
Richard Smallwood: Promises -- With his integration of classical music dynamics and mass choir intricacies, Promises truly reflects Richard Smallwood’s continuing legacy as one of gospel music’s groundbreakers. (PO)
Maya Azucena: Cry Love -- The promises of talented singer/songwriter Maya Azucena were all realized in her third and most powerful album. A star has fully arrived. (CR)
Eric Roberson: Mister Nice Guy -- The King of Indie Soul's most consistent and cohesive album in a decade, not to mention his most mature. That he pulled a house jam ("Fall") and two new classics out of the deal with "Come With Me" and "At The Same Time" makes this project an embarrassment of riches. Erro oughta be shame. (LMG)
Steve "Muddy" Wallace: Justified: A Good Ole Fella -- In a year that saw the growth and evolution of the "retro soul" movement, Wallace managed to combine the classic blues feel with a smidgen of new school production technique to create a blues record that is both classic and right now. (HD)
Alex Nester: #Burn It Down --  Continuing in the vein of her debut Rattle The Walls, Nester makes all the right moves on #BurnItDown: no-nonsense vocals, old-school musical savvy and best of all -- no electronic enhancements. (PO)
Daryl Hall: Laughing Down CryingNow in his 5th decade in the spotlight, Hall puts on a clinic for young singer/songwriters with a great collection of lyrically strong, melodic rock and soul songs that highlight an artist who is still at his creative peak. (CR)
Kindred the Family SoulLove Has No Recession - With a deft blend of the personal and the political, Aja and Fatin expound on their love for family, each other and the community, creating modern-day protest songs, passionate odes to commitment and even some playful dance tracks to lighten the load. Their tightest CD to date and a must-have for lovers of well-crafted R&B. (MC)

J Ivy: Here I Am. While much of mainstream R&B and hip-hop seem to be stuck in a creative rut, the Chicago-based spoken word artist J Ivy reminded that at its best hip-hop can be prophetic. Here I Am is a statement of presence by a performer who knows how to meld head nodding beats with biting social commentary and spirituality. (HD)

Warren Haynes: Man In Motion -- Rock n’ roll sweat, Memphis proto-funk and gut-bucket Southern soul permeates this spirited long player. Haynes has walked this road before, using elongated instrumental breaks and lots of guitar solos, but with the Stax sound stamped to the set, the record spins like a glorified Albert King lost record. (JMC)
Lalah Hathaway: Where It All Begins: Returning from a three-year hiatus, Ms. Hathaway regales her fans with the virtuosity and the versatility of her inimitable alto, delving into pop, jazz and funk. She creates one of her very best and a required addition to the collection of any true fan of contemporary soul. (MC)
Electric Empire: Electric Empire - Electric Empire delivered a love letter to ‘70s soul that is as fresh and relaxed as it was organic. At a time when R&B bands are akin to the Holy Grail, this band brought blue light sways, heartfelt family tributes, and socially conscious fist-pumps to connect us when all three are sorely needed. The ultimate in secular healing.  (LMG)
Daley: Those Who Wait -- Voice. At age 22, this Brit’s stratospheric voice is already one for the ages. That soul-mining songs like “Spent” reveal Daley’s promise as a top-tier songwriter only makes the heart palpate that much more. If the free downloadable mixtape (www.daley.tv) is the appetizer, we can only imagine the pounds we’ll gain gorging on his official 2012 debut release next spring.  (LMG)
The Revelations feat. Tre Williams: Concrete Blues -- This NYC band's socially conscious second outing digs deep into the red clay of Southern Soul and excavates emotionally powerful performances from belting baritone Tre Williams, pocket-tight Memphis musicianship, and nods to Johnnie Taylor and Ronnie Lovejoy that would make these blues giants proud. (LMG)
Jean Baylor: Light Up the World – Okay, so this is really a holiday album, and an EP at that, but the former Zhane lead brings an energy and joy to the season that forces a smile to my face that won’t leave. (CR)
Betty Wright & The Roots: Betty Wright: The Movie -- The "Clean Up Woman" returns in a match made from heaven to deliver her gutsy soul to a newly adoring audience.

Van Hunt: What Were You Hoping For -- Hunt is consistent in his relentless desire to grow while also challenging his listeners to come along for the ride. That does not change with What Were You Hoping For, his most radical departure yet and some of the most lyrical, insightful and biting commentary you'll hear from a non-rap artist. (HD)

Terisa Griffin: Soulzophrenic (Personalities of Soul) -- We've known for years she could sing like few others, but with Soulzophrenic, Terisa Griffin shows she has the whole package as a writer and performer, with a glamorous persona to boot. (CR)

HONORABLE MENTION:

Abby Dobson - Sleeping Beauty…
Adele - 21
Allen Stone – Allen Stone
Amber Bullock - Thank You
Amy Winehouse - Lioness: Hidden Treasures
Andre Henry - Insomnia (EP)
Anthony David - As Above, So Below
Anthony Hamilton - Back To Love
AppleJac - Presents Playin' Favorites
Bridgette Bryant - Soulmate Collection
Carl Thomas - Conquer
Colie Williams - Light Up the Darkness
Collette - CoCo By Request
Committed - Committed
Dennis Coffey - Dennis Coffey
Dessy DiLauro - Jump n’ Jivin’ Live at The Swing House
Emily King - Seven (EP)
Etta James - The Dreamer
Gordon Chambers - Sincere
Heston - Warm Human, Cold World
Honey Larochelle - Clean Lust and Dirty Laundry
I, Ced - All In My Mind
Jill Scott - The Light of the Sun
Jill Scott - The Vault Vol. I
Julie Dexter - New Again
Kawan Debose - Exposed: The Mix-tape
Kelly Rowland - Here I Am
Kim Burrell - The Love Album
KING -- The Story (EP)
LeNora Jaye - The Story
Lil Mo - P.S. I Love You
Little Dragon - Ritual Union
Little Jackie - Made4TV
Marsha Ambrosius - Late Nights Early Mornings
Mary J. Blige - My Life II: The Journey Continues...
Maya Azucena - Cry Love
Mayer Hawthorne - How Do You Do
Maysa - Motions of Love
Michael Franks - Time Together 
Monet - Lifesize Mirror
Musiq Soulchild - MusiqInTheMagiq
Raphael Saadiq - Stone Rollin
Robin Thicke - Love After War
Soul Cycle - Homebrew
Syleena Johnson - Chapter V Underrated
Tai Allen (Vicelounge) - Love Music (Summer Preview)
The E-Family - Now & Forever
The Original 7ven - Condensate
The Tim Terry Experience - Born II Live
Tim Dillinger - Gospel (EP)
Tomas Doncker - Power of the Trinity
Van Hunt - What Were You Hoping For?
Winston Warrior - Lifeology 101
Zo! - ... just visiting three (EP)

We know these picks will have SoulTrackers talking. So be sure to comment below to let us know what we did right and what we missed!

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Choice Cut - V3 - "Getting Better"
Listening Room - Avery Sunshine - Twenty Sixty Four
CD of the Month - Raul Midon - Bad Ass and Blind
SoulTracks Choice Cut - Toni Redd - "Underneath My Skin"

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