Our Critics pick the Best Albums of 2013!

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    (December 21, 2013) It is always fun at the end of each year to celebrate the best of that year.  And 2013 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 Chris Rizik (CR), L. Michael Gipson (LMG), Melody Charles (MC), Peggy Oliver (PO) J Matthew Cobb (JMC) and Howard Dukes (HD).  Also, each album cover is a link to our review of the album. 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.

    (December 21, 2013) It is always fun at the end of each year to celebrate the best of that year.  And 2013 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 Chris Rizik (CR), L. Michael Gipson (LMG), Melody Charles (MC), Peggy Oliver (PO) J Matthew Cobb (JMC) and Howard Dukes (HD).  Also, each album cover is a link to our review of the album. 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.


    Publisher's Pick: Aloe Blacc -- His ubiquitous single, “I Need A Dollar,” was a quiet breakthrough three years ago, and Aloe Blacc spent 2013 setting himself up to be the musical star for 2014. His current Wake Me Up EP and upcoming album, Lift Your Spirit, show his vision as an artist playing to his own drumbeat, defying easy categorizations as rock or R&B. And with his #1 hit “Wake Me Up” on the radio and future hits “Ticking Bomb” and “I’m The Man” already rocking video game and headphone commercials, he has created a sound so immediate and engaging, we are all welcome passengers on his musical ride.   

    Editor’s Pick: The Foreign Exchange -- North Carolina swag meeting European Soul has been a staple since 2006 and an international branding behemoth since the release of their classic, Leave It All Behind, with its Grammy-nominated “DayKeeper” smash single. Since that time, the band has become a label and their guest performers, roster mates. Accordingly, The Foreign Exchange releases have become events, for many in both the independent and mainstream world, each hotly debated and discussed as to whether they meet or exceed the bar left behind by LIAB. This year they exceeded it. Rapper/singer Phonte Coleman and producer/composer Nicolay Rook outdid themselves with three label releases under the +FE banner, including The Reworks remixes of +FE hits and rarities featuring production by 4Hero, ?uestlove, Tall Black Guy, and James Poyser’s Randy Watson Experience was a double-disc of pure house and soul exhilaration; the much anticipated Zo! ManMade oozed enough jazzy soul to make you think it spiritually made; and the elegant Love in Flying Colors mined the best elements of Authenticity, Connected and LIAB for a flight that felt like home. 


    PUBLISHER'S PICK   Chrisette Michele: Better -- Her 2010 release, Let Freedom Reign, left critics and her fans wondering if Chrisette Michele would reach the promise of her first two albums. With Better, the 31 year old chanteuse answers a resounding “yes.” With a nod to old school but a sound and attitude that is pure 2013, she delivered an album hip enough to get the nod from teens but with the kind of assured, sensual vocal performance that screamed classic. Perhaps no other album this year captured as well all the best aspects of its lead artist. Better is an artistic triumph by one of the great singers of her generation. 

    Editor’s Pick – Amel Larrieux’s Ice Cream Everyday - Many artists aren’t testing their limits 20 years into the game, but an always experimenting Amel Larrieux has been striving to get at something in her music since the release of her 2001 solo debut, Infinite Possibilities. Previously releases like Bravebird, Morning, and even her cover album, Lovely Standards, all tried to get there, but cohesion, restraint, and discipline were sometimes lacking. Not so with Ice Cream Everyday. Here everything fell beautifully into place, from the start of “Afraid” to the end of “Danger 2.” Finally, a project tight enough that the songs felt suitably structured to follow and savor, but loose and deconstructed enough for the artist to play around with a multitude of musical ideas on an epic canvas of influences and sounds. It’s not every day an artist achieves their creative goal, but when they do, I bet it feels a little bit like Ice Cream Everyday

    Our Critics Pick The Best Albums of 2013  

      Anouk: Sad Singalong Songs In 2013, the Dutch singer-songwriter and producer stepped away from her rock roots to deliver a hybrid soul album of sweeping ballads and epic soundscapes that were part Annie Lennox, part Bjork, and all drama. This ingenious album is nothing to cry about. (LMG)

    Bilal: A Love Surreal With a funky, rootsy band at his disposal, the multi-octave vocal beast dug his hands deep in the clay to mold an album of such searing authenticity and emotional density you’d swear it was from another era, but with its swings from hip hop to rock and classic soul, which? (LMG)


    Tamar Braxton: Love & War - She's messy, me-centered and always has something (loud!) to say,  but all of that pent-up passion and ambition spilled into every track of her sophomore CD, creating memorable music that helps Tamar's true talents stand out as much as, well, everything else about the brassiest member of the Braxton clan. (MC)


    Raheem DeVaughn: A Place Called Loveland - The hardest working man in show business had started to be better known for his mixtapes and James Brown-like live shows than his commercial releases. Lushly romantic in the grand soul tradition, with shimmers like “Ridiculous,” DeVaughn reminded everyone why he should never be counted down or out. (LMG)


    Sean C. JohnsonGrateful (First Fruits Entertainment) --   Johnson’s transparent and forthright lyrics, accented by his street preacher mentality, drive Grateful with smooth drops of soul, jazz and hip-hop. (PO)


    Dessy Di LauroThis is Neo Ragtime (Crazy Glue Music) – Anchored by Di Lauro and producer Ric’key Pageot’s musical vision they deem Hep Rag, This is Neo Ragtime revisits the golden days of The Harlem Renaissance with some modern-day yet favorable urban touches. (PO)


    Fitz & the Tantrums: More Than Just a Dream -- On their sophomore disc, L.A.-band Fitz & the Tantrums add more pop and party to their rock n’ soul formula and the results could not have been any better. “Break the Walls,” “Fools Gold” and the pristine sounds of “6 AM” – all irresistible quality productions that hardly get worn after repetitive plays – prove themselves to be some of the best radio-ready pieces of retro soul to be culled in the 21st century. (JMC)


    Deitrick Haddon: R.E.D. -  After the first season of Oxygen's reality show, "Preachers of L.A.," some questioned the methods and motives of the fallen pastor. One listen to his latest gospel CD, however, demonstrates the depths of the personal purgatory he suffered after the scandals as well as his undeniable gifts in musical ministry. (MC)


    Fred Hammond – United Tenors: Hammond, Hollister, Roberson, Wilson -- Harmonic bliss of layered tenors, baritone, and bass sounds helmed by the incandescent vocals of Fred Hammond, Eric Roberson, David Hollister, and Brian Courtney Wilson. Men raising their voices to the heavens have never sounded quite this good. (LMG)


    Ben Harper with Charlie Musselwhite: Get Up! -- Ben Harper’s ode to Delta life and Chicago blues is a sweltering soulfully chiseled masterpiece. With harp legend Charlie Musselwhite by his side, Harper sounds like he’s rediscovered his muse for music, playing his heart away on emotional rollercoasters (“I Don’t Believe a Word You Said”,” “Blood Side Out,” “I’m In, I’m Out and I’m Gone”) and Southern-fried folk ballads (“Don’t Look Twice”). (JMC)

      Mayer HawthorneWhere Does This Door Go? (LMG) - Proving hard work and not believing the media hype pays off, Hawthorne went from a copycat blue-eyed soul artist to an undeniably original creative force. Where Does This Door Go finds Hawthorne at the peak of his powers and at last sounding wholly himself without a hint of reverential affect. (LMG)

    Tess Henley: High Heels & Sneakers – Henley stands out in another good year for indie soul artists. She displays great range and songwriting skills on tunes that are catchy such as the 1980s funk infused “Heartless Queen” and the poignant anti-suicide anthem “I’d Do Anything (A Song for Carly).” (HD)


    Honey Larochelle: The Yes Feeling. A year after winning us over with the mixtape Clean Lust and Dirty Laundry, Honey Larochelle delivers a confident, sexy, hooked-filled triumph that immediately moved her to the head of the class of promising young female R&B singers. (CR)


    Joe Leavy: A Guy Named Joe Leavy. A “throwback” in the best sense of the word, Joe Leavy hit adult soul audiences right where they wanted, and released an album of love songs to his wife, his kids and his God, that stood out as the antithesis of sex- and attitude-drenched popular radio.(CR)


    John Legend: Love In The Future -- While some artists lose their creative edges and get soggy in the middle after releasing multiple CDs and falling in love, Future's fusion of vintage soul, funk and electronica kept the musical messages about 'happily ever after' compelling rather than corny. (MC)


    Teena Marie: Beautiful - Lady T’s final album before her untimely passing once again revealed the unparalleled artistry and musical genius of one of soul music’s most pioneering and truly iconic singers. Teena gave so much of herself in music, and Beautiful is a fitting and loving tribute to the truly remarkable artist. (GM)


    Frank McComb: Live at the Bitter End: Remembering Donny Hathaway - It is the album that Frank McComb's many fans have dreamed of for a decade, and he delivers his tribute to Donny beautifully -- respecting the legend's greatness, but taking the music in directions that somehow increase the legacies of both artists. (CR)


    Bruno Mars: Unorthodox Jukebox -The soul pop piano man is this generation's answer to Billy Joel. Surprising in direction, "When I Was Your Man" may rule the sales charts, but it's the '80s roller skating discotheque of "Treasure" that delivered the pot of gold.  (LMG)


    Cecile McLorin Salvant: WomanChild -- She is a vocalist who possesses the sultry phrasing of Sarah Vaughan and it doesn’t get any better than that. Salvant’s performance on the Grammy nominated WomanChild is notable for her deep dive into the Great American Songbook to find underappreciated and forgotten songs such as “I Didn’t Know What Time it Was” and “Nobody.” (HD)


    Janelle Monae: Electric Lady -The Grammys may have snubbed her but this electric journey raged with the influential current of generations of R&B and soul icons, from Prince to Stevie Wonder, was one of our faves. Fun, yet encyclopedic in her musical knowledge, this is one lady who knows the soul. (LMG)


    Laura Mvula: Sing To The MoonIt is the most stunning debut to arrive since Adele. Blending the classical with the soulful and even the tribal, Mvula’s spiritual awakening album breaks every rule of what a soul album is supposed to be and with cuts like “Green Gardens” and “That’s Alright,” is nothing less than a game changer. (LMG)


    Jeffrey Osborne: A Time For Love. In a time when we are inundated with past-their-prime stars cynically releasing tepid “covers” albums of pop and soul standards, Jeffrey Osborne and producer George Duke showed how transcendent such an album could really be. The best of a large breed. (CR)


    Gregory Porter: Liquid Spirit (HD) - Porter’s move to the major label Blue Note earned him the notoriety that he richly deserved. However, his work on Liquid Spirit will allow this former college linebacker to intercept his first Grammy award. Porter is simply the best male vocalist in any genre. (HD)


    Marcell Russell: The Serenade and a Sermon – Masterful storyteller with lyrics for our now. Mining the nuances of relationships of all kinds, our relationship with God, our intimate partners, ourselves, Marcell Russell knows a little something about us. (LMG)

      Emeli Sande: Live at the Royal Albert Hall - Live albums seldom capture the magic of singers in concert powers, but the young Sande resonates with understated power and unobtrusive authority, giving the listener a front row seat into the world of a true artist who draws the audience in to her very last breath. (GM) 

    Shelea:  Love Fell On Me. It’s been more than two decades since Anita, Phyllis and other adult soul women dominated the airwaves, but newcomer Shelea delivered a delicious set of songs that were both beautiful and unabashedly feminine in their approach to love. (CR)


    Inohs Sivad: Fourward –- This rock/funk project is a late entry, so it’s tempting to believe that its selection is due to dropping around years best time. Nothing could be further from the truth. Fourward is both the album’s title and Sivad’s mission to advance and expand her sound. Mission accomplished. (HD) 


    Gabriel TajeuFinding My Way- Tajeu’s debut disc is a masterful collection displaying earnest Musiq Soulchild-meets-Stevie vibes, John Mayer-esque singer-songwriter affirmations and pleasurable Southern soul instrumentation. Even with this sort of an eclectic brew, he proves on his first round that he’s undoubtedly in the right profession. (JMC) 


    Maylee Todd: Escapology - Reminiscent of early Swing Out Sister, this Canadian genre-jumper quietly delivers with such gems as “Hieroglyphics” and “I Can’t Stand It, covering much musical terrain while managing to be simple and unassuming in it disco, indie pop, and middle brow R&B adventures. Todd makes it about the songs, instead of vocal gymnastics, proving this “Baby’s Got It.” (LMG)


    Various Artists: The So Soulful Collection - A Classy, epic and significant release showcasing the superlative talents of independent artists from across the globe that honour and uphold the traditional elements of classic soul. (GM) 

      Zo!: Manmade - We already knew musician/composer turned producer, Zo!, knew his way around a cover and serving as the perfect sideman for The Foreign Exchange outfit; but with ManMade, he proved himself worthy of the Roy Ayers, George Duke, Norman Connors mantle of jazzy soul producer compilations.  (LMG) 



    Ascendant: Illuminate: Blue
    Rippy Austin - Patiently Waiting EP
    Margot B - Live at Hazlett
    Jacob Banks - The Monologue
    Candace Bellamy: In My Lane
    Beyoncé– Beyoncé
    Mario Biondi - Sun
    Elijah Bland: Freedom
    Bluey: Leap of Faith
    Brand New Heavies: Forward
    Tituss Burgess - Comfortable
    Al Castellana - Outside my Window
    Ty Causey – The Gospel Truth
    Chidi – Exhale
    Daft Punk - Random Access Memories
    Marie Dahlstrom - The Gloom EP
    Dami Im - Dami Im
    James Day – Seasons and Reasons
    Disclosure - Settle
    Will Downing - Silver
    Earth Wind & Fire – Now, Then and Forever
    Rebecca Ferguson - Freedom
    Robert Glasper Experiment – Black Radio 2
    Global Noize – Sly Reimagined
    Corey Glover - The Pledge
    Sun Rai – Pocket Music EP
    Nicole Henry – So Good So Right
    Homemadesoul – Random Thoughts
    India.Arie - Songversation
    The Internet - Feel Good
    Jose James: No Beginning, No End
    Jim James - Regions of Light and Sound of God
    Chris Jasper – Inspired
    Joe: DoubleBack: Evolution of R&B
    Howard Johnson – Jet Black Casanova
    Booker T. Jones - Sound the Alarm
    Cleveland P. Jones - Ace of Hearts
    Valerie June - Pushin Against a Stone

    Josephine - Portrait
    Gladys Knight 
    Another Journey
    Kwabs - 
    Live At Blue Flowers
    Lady - Lady
    Latif - Philadelphia Healing EP
    Eric Lau - One of Many
    Jamie Lidell - Jamie Lidell
    Mack Avenue Superband – Live From the Detroit Jazz Festival
    Bradd Marquis – Thank You
    Terrance Martin - 3ChordFold
    Maysa - Blue Velvet Soul
    Tony Momrelle - Fly EP
    Janelle Monae -  The Electric Lady
    PJ Morton – New Orleans
    Quentin Moore- You Forgot Your Heart
    Rudimental – Home
    Omar – The Man
    Josh Osho - The John Doe EP
    Phil Perry – Say Yes
    Positive Flow - Flow Lines
    Alice Russell – To Dust
    Sandra St. Victor – Oya’s Daughter
    The Secret B Sides - Easy Magic
    B Slade - Stunt B%$@H
    Alice Smith - She
    Boz Scaggs - Memphis
    Snarky Puppy - Family Dinner, Vol. 1
    The Soul of John Black - A Sunshine State of Mind
    Sid Sriram – West Coast Nightfall; Before Dusk
    Swing out Sister- Private View (Special Souvenir edition)
    The System – System Overload
    TGT - Three Kings
    Thundercat - Apocalypse
    Justin Timberlake – The Complete 20x20 Experience
    Marques Toliver – Land of CanAan
    Tortured Soul - Undercover Remixes
    Charlie Wilson – Love Charlie
    Water Seed - Wonder Love Pt. 2
    Wayna – the Expats 
    Zbonics - Time to Do Your Thing




    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!