10 Essential Neo-Soul Albums

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best neo-soul albums

Neo-soul is a lot like shoegaze. Or goth rock. Or alternative. Or indie. Not that neo-soul sounds like shoegaze or goth, of course, but there’s one important distinction that these genres all share: The name of the style of the music has generated almost as much controversy as it has hype. The common complaint with “neo-soul” as a descriptive phrase is that by calling something “neo” (or “new” or “nü”), it ironically becomes doomed to languish in a particular time and place. That something is only new for so long, and thus has no staying power. It’s a fair complaint, though while use of “neo soul” as a commonly accepted phrase has more or less fallen out of favor, the music certainly hasn’t. What distinguishes neo-soul from, simply, soul is the broad palette of sounds that it incorporates. Soul is, of course, the foundation, but artists such as Erykah Badu, D’Angelo and Maxwell took those classic R&B textures and fused them with rock, jazz, funk, hip-hop, Latin and African styles to create something less conventional, yet still deeply soulful. (And in many cases The Roots played some role in shaping those sounds, as it turns out.) We assembled a list of what we’d consider the best neo soul albums, so come and join us in our urban hang suite.

best neo-soul albums - Maxwell

Maxwell – Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite (1996)

Considering how controversial a term “neo-soul” has been over the years, there’s plenty of debate over where it started, artists such as Prince, Terence Trent D’Arby and Tony! Toni! Toné! often cited as progenitors of the sound. Yet Maxwell was one of the first truly celebrated neo-soul artists to be labeled as such, his 1996 album Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite going double platinum and earning critical acclaim. There’s no mystery as to why that is; Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite is a lush sonic world unto itself, all gorgeously arranged full-band funk songs and slow jams, nodding to the likes of Marvin Gaye and Off the Wall-era Michael Jackson as Maxwell dives into a loose lyrical narrative that follows a romance between two people. It’s an intoxicating listen throughout, each song ripe for either dancing or making sweet love. Naturally, Maxwell’s appearance on MTV Unplugged that same year included an extra funky cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer.” The f-bombs were removed, but the carnality remains. – JT

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Baduizm best neo soul albums

Erykah Badu – Baduizm (1997)

Erykah Badu has made a hell of a journey since her debut album almost 20 years ago, whether in her Parliament-style psych-funk opus New Amerykah Volume One, or her recent cover of Drake’s “Hotline Bling” (which is really good, of course). With 1997’s Baduizm, her approach wasn’t nearly as experimental, though it stands as one of her greatest moments simply due to the caliber of the songwriting and the performances. Granted, Badu has some good company—The Roots lend their backing to two tracks and an interlude, while jazz legend Ron Carter plays bass on “Drama.” Badu is the star of the show, however, her honeyed voice (often compared to that of Billie Holiday at the time of its release) a hypnotic and magical instrument all its own. “On & On” was the hit, the song that still gets heads nodding nearly two decades later, but that’s literally just the start of the journey. Baduizm starts off strong, but it covers a lot of ground. – JT

Listen/Buy: Spotify | Amazon (vinyl)

best Janet Jackson songs The Velvet Rope

Janet Jackson – The Velvet Rope (1997)

Janet Jackson released four albums between 1986 and 1997, and with each one she underwent a near-total reinvention, first as an independent and self-possessed pop artist, next as a conceptual figure dabbling in the cacophony of industrial, then as a sexually liberated R&B queen. With The Velvet Rope, she explored a more complicated intersection of introspective exploration and musical exploration. The wider canvas and multi-hued palette of The Velvet Rope made for a slightly harder sell for mainstream audiences (it only sold 3 million copies). But as Jackson addressed her own struggles with depression—in addition to the most overt queer themes in any of her albums she’d released to date—she liberated herself musically as well, adopting the vinyl crackle of some of neo-soul’s budding new artists on “Got Til It’s Gone” (complete with Q-Tip appearance), deepening her funk on “You” and “Go Deep,” incorporating elements of jungle and other electronic sounds. Though it was released in parallel with the growing network of the Soulquarians rather than specifically part of it, the era nonetheless found Janet showcasing Afrocentric imagery, smokier grooves and bold new R&B sounds whose influence eclipsed sales figures. –  JT

Listen/Buy: Spotify | Amazon (vinyl)

Miseducation of Lauryn Hill

Lauryn Hill – The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1988)

As a member of the Fugees in the mid-’90s, Lauryn Hill provided a soulful counterpoint to the voices of her bandmates Pras Michel and Wyclef Jean, though the greatest moment of her career came after that group dissolved. Her powerful debut album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill leaned heavily on her hip-hop background, tracks like “Everything Is Everything” showcasing her top-notch rap skills. But by and large Miseducation is a stunning and artful R&B record with warm production and the voice of a woman at the top of her game. She nods to ’60s-era soul (“Doo Wop (That Thing)”), reggae (“Forgive Them Father”) and some good old-fashioned boom-bap (“Lost Ones”), all of which stitch together seamlessly. To call it “neo-soul” is a bit of a misnomer, since it has such a broad reach. To date, she hasn’t released a follow up, and Hill’s bad will has only built up over the years, thanks to live fiascoes involving her showing up two hours late and playing versions of songs that fans didn’t want to hear. It’s a little disappointing, sure, but then again, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill will never let us down. – JT

Listen/Buy: Spotify | Amazon (vinyl)

D'Angelo Voodoo best neo soul albums

D’Angelo – Voodoo (2000)

Steeped in debt to his forebearers and dubious about the state of R&B at the time, D’Angelo produced Voodoo after an uncommonly long 4½-year hiatus following his debut Brown Sugar. (Just wait ‘til the next hiatus.) In sessions driven by Questlove and the Soulquarians collective, D’Angelo delivered an album that quivered with the tension between reserved confidence and locked-in groove, generating way more heat than music twice as loud or fast. Voodoo doesn’t try to mask any of D’Angelo’s influences—Prince, Marvin Gaye and Al Green most obvious—but his self-knowledge and bareboned textures make the sound completely his own. The sensuality of “Left and Right” and “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” reaches its ends with slow, steady and hard work, and the broader societal views of “Devil’s Pie” and “Africa” come with haunting, minimal musical cues that stick around for hours afterwards. Voodoo might have been envisioned as a firm defense of R&B’s most stalwart principles, and as a statement of purpose it’s as driven and consistent as What’s Going OnSongs in the Key of Life and Sign ‘O’ the Times. But the sound is completely his own, and in its slow, sinewy way Voodoo has found its place on that highest shelf over the past decade and a half. – PP

Listen/Buy: Spotify | Turntable Lab (vinyl)

Jill Scott – Who Is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds Vol. 1 (2000)

Philadelphia R&B diva Jill Scott made her breakthrough with a co-writing credit on The Roots’ “You Got Me,” though the lead vocal was performed by neo-soul goddess Erykah Badu. But it earned her a Grammy all the same and made for a strong introduction to her soulful songwriting sensibility, of which there’s an embarrassment of riches on debut album Who Is Jill Scott? Spanning a lengthy 75 minutes and featuring some high-profile guests including Mos Def and The Roots, Who Is Jill Scott? is a rich volume of richly textured grooves and laid-back organic R&B. It’s all Rhodes piano, disco string arrangements and, of course, Scott’s own pitch-perfect pipes, subtly luring the listener into a chill, funky trance. – JT

Listen/Buy: Spotify | Amazon (vinyl)

best neo-soul albums - Res

Res – How I Do

Considering how often Shareese Renee Ballard has shown up over the past decade and change—touring with Gnarls Barkley, releasing a number of songs for soundtracks and appearing on a GZA album—it’s a wonder her catalog is as short as it is. Some of the blame can be dropped at the doorstep of her label, MCA, when it folded into Geffen and her music was left in a state of limbo. That said, her debut album How I Do was a hell of a start, an unconventional and lightly psychedelic set of soul songs that pulled from hip-hop, electronic and rock to build up something that sounded remarkably fresh when it was released in 2001. “They-Say Vision” could almost pass for a Garbage song, while “Golden Boys” layered on the strings for a hybrid of Isaac Hayes and Alicia Keys. “Let Love” even samples The Cure’s “Other Voices,” just to show the kind of unconventional sources Res pulled from. However, while Res’ name is the one on the cover, How I Do helped launch the career of another eclectic talent. All of the songs on How I Do were written by Santi White, better known as Santigold. – JT

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best neo-soul albums - Raphael Saadiq

Raphael Saadiq – Stone Rollin’ (2011)

The vibe of Raphael Saadiq’s fourth album is lifted from a thousand and one R&B singles released on small, local labels in the ‘60s: gritty, high frequencies sanded down, all the power concentrated on raw vocals and sharp guitar. The aesthetic’s so prevalent and warming that it almost obscures the extent of Saadiq’s ambitions in retro-soul. Stone Rollin’ takes inspiration from early ‘60s soul revues that drove audiences into abandon, but also treads along the point of transition to the more complicated soul of Sly Stone, Isaac Hayes and Marvin Gaye. Saadiq more or less moves from those two points in chronological order, starting with the hard funk of “Heart Attack” and ending with the complex orchestrations of “Just Don’t” and “Good Man.” The ride in between those points is a dizzy haze of pure enjoyment: the Detroit wheels of “Radio,” the electric blues of “Stone Rollin’” and the revival gospel of “Day Dreams.” Saadiq uses the compressed frequency range as inspiration to get as much expression from the compositions and melodies as possible, which is why you notice the depth of the strings on “The Answer” and the jagged guitar on “Over You.” Not to mention Saadiq’s frequent reliance on the Mellotron, a vintage keyboard of such rickety technology it always sounds on the brink collapse. Like everything else on Stone Rollin’, Saadiq finds its essence and plays its imperfections to the hilt. The payoff is huge. – PP

Listen: Spotify

best summer albums Frank Ocean
Def Jam

Frank Ocean – Channel Orange (2012)

It’s interesting now to remember that Frank Ocean began his career as a kind of peripheral member of the L.A. hip-hop collective Odd Future. Frank’s earnest and soulful R&B songs never made a whole lot of sense in the context of Earl Sweatshirt’s dark narratives or Tyler the Creator’s nihilist pranksterism. With his proper debut Channel Orange, he further set himself apart not just from the Odd Future collective but the R&B landscape in particular, the hour-long album a seamless R&B opus that ranged from the gorgeously minimal tones of “Thinkin’ Bout You” to the Stevie Wonder-like sunshine funk of “Sweet Life,” and from the emotionally devastating honesty of the string-laden “Bad Religion” to the progressive journey of “Pyramids”‘ nine minutes. Channel Orange was a revelation when it was released—not just because it represented the fully realized promise of a young talent, but because it sounded like the future of R&B. Though the years keep on passing, this still sounds like the future of R&B. – JT

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best neo-soul albums Anderson Paak
Steel Wool

Anderson .Paak – Malibu (2016)

An early highlight of 2016, Anderson .Paak’s Malibu found the Southern California singer/songwriter exploring contemporary funk and soul through filters of jazz, psychedelia and, of course, old school R&B. It’s a lengthy and stacked collection of tracks, not to mention one that features its share of guest stars—Schoolboy Q, Talib Kweli, BJ the Chicago Kid—but it’s Paak’s show. He’s a smoky and comforting presence on the lush “The Bird,” emotionally gripping on the mind-bending “The Season/Carry Me” and the vision of cool in “Am I Wrong.” This isn’t his first foray into swirling psychedelic-soul waters, but it’s certainly his best to date. – JT

Listen/Buy: Spotify | Turntable Lab (vinyl)

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