When it comes to my patterns of musical consumption, I have a straightforward criteria: I place a high premium on vocal ability. This immediately puts me at odds with the majority of black music critics writing today, most of whom seem more fascinated with aesthetics over vocality (for proof, see the never-ending critical praise of Janelle Monae, Trey Songz, Erykah Badu, and yes even, dare-I-say-it: India Arie).
For me, syncopated rhythms, “afrocentric” aesthetics, or prepackaged dissonance do not make up for a weak range or poor vocal flexibility. I approach my music with a set of admittedly crude inquiries: what is your voice capable of (at the levels of tone, dexterity, or virtuosity)? When we remove the layered orchestration, the Hype Williams music video, and/or the purportedly “conscious” lyrics—can you still sing?
Proceeding with these criteria in mind, naturally I was devastated by most of what 2010 had to offer in terms of the R &B musical landscape. Still, there were a few moments worth saving and savoring.
Note: this list grew, in part, as a result of my spirited, on-going debates with popmatters.com black music critic Tyler Lewis. Tyler’s own (and quite different) “Best R & B of 2010” can be found here.
Georgia-born tenor Ryan Shaw (whose breathtaking single “In Between” has just received a 2011 Grammy Nomination for “Best Traditional R&B Performance”) has managed to inconspicuously produce the greatest soul album of the past decade. Equipped with a sound so deeply reminiscent of the great voices of the Civil-Rights era of American soul, Shaw’s musical presence is almost anachronistic. Tracks such as “We Don’t Give Up” seem to almost literally be lifted out of the segregated South. In a different vein, Shaw channels the seductive sexual energy of a James Brown in his genius performance of “Mama May I” and in “It Gets Better” he addresses the record industry head on: head on: “They tried to tell me I’m living in the past. They said ‘boy you’d better change it if you wanna last.[But] I know it’s worth the fight, to do what’s in my heart. Just give me the microphone and watch the fire start.” Though comparisons to Stevie Wonder and Sam Cooke are inevitable, Saw’s voice is his own, original masterpiece .Sample It
Key Selections: “I Learned the Hard Way,” “Money,” “Mama Don’t Like My Man,” “She Aint a Child No More”
Key Selections: “Love Is,” “How Do I Tell Her,” “When a Woman Loves,” “Music Must Be a Lady, “Radio Message”
Key Selections: “Goodbye Game,” “If Nobody Sang Along,” “Let Freedom Reign,” “I Don’t Know Why I Love You”
Key Selections: “Love You Long Time,” “Redemption,” “Luv Back,” “Good Enough,” “You Get on My Nerves”
From the sad musical melancholia of Aloe Blocc’s “Green Lights” to the soaring epic that is R. Kelly’s “When a Woman Loves,”—2010 featured some of the most spirited male vocal performances in recent R & B history. Unfortunately, these performances were far and few in-between which is precisely why Ryan Shaw (who remains in a class of his own) was so easily capable of claiming three out of this year’s Top 10 moments:
*click each song title for a full clip.
“In Between” Ryan Shaw, (In Between, 45 Records [US]; It Gets Better, Go Entertainment [UK])
“When a Woman Loves” R. Kelly, (Love Letter, Jive Records)
“It Gets Better” Ryan Shaw, (In Between, 45 Records [US]; It Gets Better, Go Entertainment [UK])
“You’re So Amazing” Calvin Richardson, (America’s Most Wanted, Shanachie Records,)
“How Do I Tell Her” R. Kelly, (Love Letter, Jive Records)
“Shine” John Legend, (Wake Up! Columbia Records)
“Sometimes I Cry” Eric Benet, (Lost in Time, Reprise Records)
“Mama May I” Ryan Shaw, (In Between, 45 Records [US]; It Gets Better, Go Entertainment [UK])
“Green Lights” Aloe Blocc, (Good Things, Stones Throw Records)
Surprisingly, the women’s field was especially weak this year. There were fewer stand-out performances by woman then there were by men (which surely has more to do with who the industry is passing the mic to, rather than where the talent lies). At the level of sheer vocal virtuosity, there were few performances that did not get lost in overly layered orchestration or auto-tuned ornamentation. There were a few notable exceptions:
*click each song title for a full clip.
“Four Women” Nina Simone, Simone, Laura Izibor & Ledisi, For Colored Girls Soundtrack, (Atlantic)
“Goodbye Game” Chrisette Michelle, Let Freedom Reign, (Jive)
“Sun” Lalah Hathaway, For Colored Girls Soundtrack, (Atlantic)
“Tired” Kelly Price, Kelly (My BlockInc.)
“I Learned The Hard Way” Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings, I Learned the Hard Way (Daptone)