Our Critics Pick the Best Albums of 2014!

(December 19, 2014) It is always fun at the end of each year to celebrate the best of that year.  And 2014 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) Justin Kantor (JMK) 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. You can search to learn more about these artists at the top left corner of the page.

(December 19, 2014) It is always fun at the end of each year to celebrate the best of that year.  And 2014 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) Justin Kantor (JMK) 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. You can search to learn more about these artists at the top left corner of the page.

ARTIST OF THE YEAR:

 

Publisher's Pick: Eric RobersonTwenty years after he came on the scene with "The Moon," Eric Roberson remains the undisputed King of Indie Soul. More importantly, with this year's The Box he showed himself to be an artist still growing, both artistically and commercially. Erro has a special bond with his fans, who once knew him as the cool bachelor but now embrace him as he's moved into his next stage of life as a husband and father. And to other artists, he remains the approachable mentor, bringing up the independent soul music world with both his time and his talent and always seeming to show up at the right place. The past two decades of music are much better for Eric Roberson's contribution, and he shows no signs of slowing down.

  Editor’s Pick: Liv Warfield  – More than merely beating the sophomore jinx, Liv Warfield demolished it. An artist we at SoulTracks recognized nearly nine years ago as something special with her 2006 debut, Embrace Me, Warfield disappeared within Prince’s New Power Generation cocoon a gospel tinged neo-soulster and re-emerged with Unexpected as one of the funkiest, most soulfully wild butterflies the game has ever produced. Seldom has a project title proven more apt. A platinum-haired force of nature in live television performances in nighttime talk show after talk show, Liv maximized every rare mainstream opportunity for soul and brought back the dramatics to live soul performance in every one of them with horns to spare. We didn’t even know what we’d been missing until Warfield reminded us. Thank you for the reminder, Liv.

ALBUM OF THE YEAR:

PUBLISHER'S PICK - Brandon Williams: XII -- While some feel that Detroit's musical pre-eminence is in the rear view mirror, the Motor City is still, quietly, an assembly line for talent - and there is no better example than this locally popular drummer who stunned the soul music world last month with a “producer’s album” for the ages. Combining a clear musical vision, exquisite execution, and an amazing set of vocalists and musicians, Brandon Williams delivered the kind of project that we will be listening to years from now and will be recalling using the same tones typically reserved for Williams' most revered predecessors, from Quincy Jones to Robert Glasper. An instant classic and a love letter to the world from Detroit. 

EDITOR'S PICK –Jarrod Lawson: Jarrod Lawson -- With what has to be one of the most deceptively off-putting, menacing appearing album covers R&B has ever delivered, it was easy to assume Lawson was part of a Satanic music cult or cheap metal band. Wrong on both counts. Oh, so wrong. Armed with one of the most God-centered, exquisitely spiritual soul debuts, Lawson taught us again not to judge a book by its cover. With a gospel infused, ol’ soul tenor of jazz and blues, Lawson’s gifts of enviable range and agility would be reason alone to give his project a try; but then he actually had something to say about misplaced societal values, contemporary social ills, our relationship to a higher power and our intimate relationships with each other. Full-bodied in every way from a man who plays the keys as well as he delivers six-minute secular and spiritual opuses of the good news, Lawson’s opening act was one worthy of his hero, Donny Hathaway. We can’t wait to see what he has in-store for a second.  

Our Critics Pick The Best Albums of 2014  
(listed alphabetically by artist)

Bernhoft: Islander – Brighter, lighter, and more percussive fun than previous offerings, the multi-instrumentalist and emerging King of Norwegian Soul continued his trend of fresh progressive soul with a definite finger on the pulse of classic ‘70s soul traditions. (LMG)  
Aloe Blacc: Lift Your SpiritsIt was tough to miss Aloe Blacc this year. Songs from Lift Your Spirits filled the radio airwaves and became favorites for television commercials. And all with good reason. It showed an artist at the top of his game, taking us all for a great ride (CLR)
Mary J. Blige: The London Sessions – Helping usher in a mid-‘90s revival with full force, Blige and a bevy of blazing UK producers’ unexpected collection of old school soulful house and bluesy soul pop ballads reminded everyone that the Queen of Hip Hop Soul can still make fans sweat and cry. (LMG) 

Traci Braxton: Crash & Burn — Traci consciously left the shadows of her more flamboyant sisters and crafted a better-than-expected debut CD, revealing layers of depth that the popular reality show has yet to scratch the surface of. (MC)

D’Angelo: Black Messiah – It took almost 15 years to bake and with its dense and dissonant productions of P-funk, tribal flows, layered harmonics, biting social commentary and melancholic romance it is rightly one of the most debated, contentious, and beloved albums of the year. (LMG) 
The Dangerfeel Newbies: Hariet – The lunatics have left the asylum and the DJs have become the artists with this sublime, yet difficult to pin down groovetastic mix of acid jazz, urban alternative atmospherics, funky ‘80s basslines and pure soul vocals. More of this please! (LMG)
Cliff Dawson: Turn It Up– While the singer-songwriter is most known for his duet with the late Renee Diggs of Starpoint—"Never Say I Do (If You Don't Mean It)," his first album in 30 years is chock full of ultra-funky, shake-your-booty floor fillers. Packed with rich melodies, multi-layered keyboard arrangements, and passionate vocal performances, this quietly released set is a truly overlooked treasure. (JMK)
Shaun Escoffery: In the Red Room – 2014 was a year in which many stars came back after a time away, and none were more impressive than the gritty-voiced Mr. Escoffery. He won us over with the single “Nature’s Call,” only to follow it with an album so, authentic and organic, you felt he was singing it just for you. (CLR) 
Amp Fiddler: Basementality 2 – Out of great personal loss comes some of the most emotionally resonating vocal performances of Detroit soul veteran Amp Fiddler’s career. That he finds room to make us dance through some of the pain makes us want to hug him that much more. (LMG) 
Christian Gregory: Count on You EP – Appearing more roughneck than crooner, Gregory brings the sunshine and the pain with a surprising four-song collection of torch song R&B and AM soul pop with songs as varied in feel as Prince and the Doobie Bros. (LMG) 
  The Groove Association Ft. Georgie B: 3AM — The smooth vocalist/percussionist from '80s Brit-funk outfit Second Image serves up a feel-good collection of percolating modern boogie numbers etched with authentic retro sensibilities. Groove on! (JMK)
Incognito: Amplified Soul—It’s unfair how easily Bluey consistently delivers propulsive acid jazz that flow through our hearts right down to our feet. Swirling disco rhythms, horntastic polyrhythmic grooves, and a stacked slate of powerhouse vocalists, no one does this genre better. No one. (LMG) 

Michael Jackson: Escape — Thanks to Timbaland and L.A. Reid (okay, and maybe the Billboard hologram), some of the late King's rough drafts and outtakes became powerful and polished reminders of his sheer genius and why he is still so missed and essential to the future of music. (MC)

Leela James: Fall For You – Cinematic Blaxploitation film grooves and elegiac piano ballads serve up James Southern fried by way of Cali vocals in the best light of her career, earning her two well-deserved hits with the title track and a gritty battle royale with Anthony Hamilton. (LMG) 
Angela Johnson: Naturally Me – It’s the artistic statement the producing singer-songwriter has always wanted to make and finally grew into with lyrical bravery and artistic aplomb, from world-weary social justice commentary to gut-wrenching soul ballads about mature love, this is Johnson unplugged. (LMG) 
Kwabs: Pray for Love EP – With any of the three 2014 EP releases so far, this UK mahogany-voiced baritone/bass has yet to fail at delivering a unique marriage of moody electrosoul soundscapes with a voice that is both classical and Motherland all at once.(LMG) 
Ledisi: The Truth Ms. Thang, simply put, let us all have it by unleashing the hold of others' artistic expectations and doing any and all of what she wanted to as a woman, songstress and performer. More 'tea/T' please! (MC)
Loretta: Find A Way – Her ‘60s iconography visuals aside, this passionate French soul chanteuse is no retro soul imitation on a flawlessly soulful debut that ranges from Motown thump to ‘80s bedroom balladry. It took two years to find its way stateside and was worth every bit the wait. (LMG)
Mali Music: Mali Is — Is it gospel, world music, inspirational, old school R&B or contemporary R&B? The correct answer is all of the above, and the track “Walking Shoes” captures the tenor of the times. (HD)
Frank McComb: Live At The Bitter End (Remembering Donny Hathaway) - It’s the live experience we’ve been waiting for since we first heard this hybrid child of Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway. Covering some of the best and most obscure of Hathaway, McComb on keys and voice did us proud. (LMG)
Portia Monique: Portia Monique Coming completely out of left field with superbly polished productions of upbeat disco, soulful house, acid jazz, and funkified R&B, there isn’t anything to do, but shake what your mama gave you when this groove rider’s voice hits the dancefloor. (LMG)
Gene Nobel: Rebirth of Gene – Few manage to build a bridge from the new school to the old like Nobel. Formerly Jaiden “The Cure,” Nobel’s stratospheric falsetto, rambling baritone, no-holds barred lyricism, and astral productions that sound like a modern-day Rod Temperton’s make him one to watch. (LMG) 
Sam Smith: In the Lonely Hour – “Stay With Me” is one of this year’s ubiquitous songs, which mean it’s the tune you’re probably tired of hearing. No worries. From the torchy “Not In That Way” to the catchy kiss-off song “La La La,” Smith’s album brims with other worthy tracks. (HD)
Avery Sunshine: The Sunroom –The first triple-winner in a single year in the SoulTracks Readers Choice Awards history, Avery*Sunshine’s sophomore collection of golden time of day ballads, sisterfriend familiarity, uplifting messages, and down-home mid-tempo jams proved an instant and deserving hit with soul lovers the world over. (LMG)
Tank: StrongerAfter more than a decade of pouring his heart out on slow-jams, the affective crooner stirs up the pot by adding in a healthy dose of contagious uptempo jams. The results are both fun and sophisticated. (JMK)
Michelle WilliamsJourney to Freedom – After several solo efforts between the gospel and R&B world, Michelle Williams has finally found her niche setting a firm praise and worship tone decorated with Harmony Samuels' fabulous production sensibility.  (PO)
Bryan Andrew WilsonThe One Percent – Bryan Andrew Wilson is embracing his career resurgence after some setbacks from his childhood glory days with The Mississippi Children's Choir with a pleasing praise package of ska, go-go, southern soul and poignant ballads.  (PO)
   

 

HONORABLE MENTION:

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!

3 Winans Brothers: Foreign Land
Afro Elements: Out of the Centre
Akie Bermiss: Akie
Al Jarreau: My Old Friend: Celebrating
   George Duke
Alain Clark: Walk With Me
Algebra Blessett: Recovery
Ann Nesby: Living My Life
Anthony Valadez: In Search Of…
Ben L’oncle Soul: A coup de reves
Bo Saris: Gold
Bobby Caldwell: After Dark
brik.liam: ***mr. liam’s neighborhood
Broken Bells: After The Disco
Calvin Richardson: I Am Calvin
Carmen Lundy: Soul to Soul
Cheryl Barnes: Listen To This
Chris Jasper: The One
Chromeo: White Women
Club Nouveau: Consciousness
Cody ChestnuTT: Landing On A
Hundred: B Sides & Remixes
Daley: Days & Night
Daniel Crawford: The Awakening
Dave Hollister: Chicago Winds
David Ryan Harris: Lightyears
DeRobert and the Half-Truths: I’m Tryin’  
Dianne Reeves: Beautiful Life
Dominique Toney: A Love Like Ours
Electric Wire Hustle: Love Will Prevail
Elli Ingram: The Doghouse EP
Eric Lau & Taiwah: Love Call EP
Eric Nolan: Mood Swing
Faith Evans: Incomparable
Freda Payne: Come Back To Me Love
Full Force: Full Force With Love
   From Our Friends
Gabrielle Goodman: Spiritual Tapestry
Gene Van Buren: Still
George Tandy, Jr.: The Foundation
Gladys Knight: Where My Heart Belongs
Goapele: Strong As Glass
Jagged Edge: J.E. Heartbreak II
James Tillman: Shangri La EP
Jennifer Holliday: The Song Is You
Jennifer Hudson: JHUD
Jesse Boykins III: Love Apparatus
JMSN: JMSN
Joe: Bridges

Jordan Rakei: Groove Curse
KeKe Wyatt: Ke’Ke’ – EP
Kelly Price: Sing Pray Love
KEM: Promise to Love
Kimbra: The Golden Echo
Kindred the Family Soul: A Couple Friends
Kwabs: Wrong or Right EP
Lake Street Dive: Bad Self Portraits
Laura Mvula: Laura Mvula with
  Metropole Orkest 
Lee Fields: Emma Jean
Lil’ John Roberts: The Heartbeat
Luke James: Luke James
Mama’s Gun: Cheap Hotel
Mariah Carey: Me. I Am Mariah. The
   Elusive Chanteuse
Mario Biondi and The Unexpected
   Glimpses: Due
Marsha Ambrosius: Friends & Lovers
Meshell Ndegeocello: Comet, Come To Me
Moonchild: Please Rewind
Moses Sumney: Mid-City Island – EP
Natasha Watts: Natasha Watts
Nate Williams: Got To Let Go
Rajdularli: Journey of a Woman
Raul Midon: Don’t Hesitate
Rogiérs: The Shedding
Ruthie Foster: Promise of a Brand New Day
Samuel Prather: Groove Orchestra
Sebastian Mikael: Speechless
Shaliek: Blood Sweat Tears
Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings: Give
   The People What They Want
Slakah The Beatchild: Soul Movement, Vol. II
Smoove & Turrell: Broken Toys
Soul Basement: Yesterday Today Tomorrow
SouLutions: Listen/Mr. Sun Don’t Hide EP
St. Paul and The Broken Bones: Half The City
SuCh: Trial and Error
Syleena Johnson: Chapter 6: Couples Therapy
Taylor McFerrin: Early Riser
Teri Tobin: Truth Is
Teyana Taylor: VII
The Revelations: The Cost of Living
Timothy Bloom: Timothy Bloom
Tony Braxton & Babyface: Love, Marriage
  and Divorce
Walter Christopher: The Mellisonant Album
Will Downing: Euphoria

   
 

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