Great R&B and Soul Albums
Favourite R&B And Soul Albums
I confess to not having heard every single R&B and soul album ever made so this list is made up of great R&B and soul albums I have heard or that I already own.
You may believe that any Great R&B album list is not the real thing without some Robert Johnson or Rolling Stones.
Your tastes in female vocals may not be like mine - I prefer my soul singers a little raw with their delivery - emotional girls who keep it real so apologies to those other talented ladies like Brandy, Monica, Whitney and Mariah.
These great R&B albums are all best-sellers.
They have also been a huge influence on other artists.
I hope you enjoy this list.
Marvin Gaye - What's Going On
Marvin Gaye was already pretty famous as both a singer and songwriter when, affected by the tragic death of his singing partner, Tammy Terrell from a brain tumour, he shut himself away in the studio for 9 months to rethink his life.
Already struggling with cocaine addiction and depression, he probably wasn't in the right frame of mind to be starting a Motown tour so instead he made this album.
What's Going On is really an album about Gaye's sadness, his disaffection with the social injustice in the streets and especially with the Vietnam War. it is Motown's 'protest' album and was a huge success in spite of Berry Gordy not wanting it to be made.
In Marvin Gaye's life at this time, it was the only thing he wanted to do and yet, it was released in 1971, almost 4 years after most protest songs had made the news and 2 years after Motown's biggest anti-Vietnam protest song, 'War' by Edwin Starr.
It was as if he was deliberately casting off his 'hit making' shackles to make a very different sort of soul album
What's Going On became Marvin Gaye's 'project', 9 months with Motown's best session musicians and songs that he believed in.
It is one of Rolling Stone magazine's Top 10 Greatest Albums of All Time.
Aretha Franklin - I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You
Amazingly, this album was Aretha Franklin's tenth!
Aretha Franklin had hit albums before this one with Columbia Records but spent too many years in the early 60s recording songs which did not allow the public to hear her at her best.
Her early 60s albums and singles were all hit records but belonged in the similar cute style of many other female artists.
Then she switched over to Atlantic Records and someone decided to let her record Otis Redding's 'Respect' as the opening track.
The rest is history. Her recording of Sam Cooke's Good Times is also worthy of mention here but this was a great album from first to last, it was like Aretha had finally opened up to her audience.
'Respect' was something else! It put the gospel back into Franklin's up until then watered-down pop singing. Aretha finally gave us soul!
She is still referred to as 'the queen of soul' but this album made her queen.
Mary J. Blige - My Life
I had to decide on a MJB album and almost went for What's The 411 but settled on My Life because it is Mary J Blige proving that she could make a second album as good if not better than her amazing debut album.
I love Mary J Blige's honesty and rawness. Sometimes you listen to her sing and want to write her a letter to tell her it's going to be alright.
This album took a full year to make and has Sean 'Puff Daddy' Coombes at the production desk again and once again, he infuses Mary J Blige's music with his hip hop sensibilities and her voice just belongs in this groove, where soul meets hip hop in an effortless way - it was like this lady's voice was made to blaze a trail for a 'new' R&B sound.
After this album, there was no going back for R&B, it became more urban, more about the real lives of its listeners - Mary J Blige was one of the first and she is still blazing that trail now.
Stevie Wonder - Songs In The Key of Life
Songs in the Key of Life has to be one of the top 10 best greatest soul albums ever released?
Stevie Wonder spent over a year making the album and it was released in September 1976 and spent 80 unbroken weeks on the Billboard Top 100.
Songs In The Key of Life was Stevie Wonder's first album after re-signing with Motown in 1975 with the agreement by them to allow him full artistic control over the next 10 years.
How they must have cheered when they heard Songs In The Key of Life, an ambitious double album with an additional E.P. as a freebie.
Stevie Wonder was at the top of the charts in almost every English speaking country worldwide and this amazing soul album has stood the test of time - listen to Sir Duke now on YouTube and enjoy the retro feel of it.
Stevie Wonder understood the value of great musicianship, he was a perfectionist and this album is damn near perfect!
Michael Jackson - Off The Wall
Before I get shot down in flames for suggesting this is a 'soul' album rather than a sort of disco inspired funk album - I think Off The Wall has enough depth song by song to be considered both a soul and R&B album.
Its track list reveals a lot of influences from both R&B and soul.
Don't Stop Til You Get Enough is a fusion of blues and funk with some Quincy Jones inspired orchestration pushing disco into the mix as well. Use of blues guitar is there for all to hear and this theme continues in a number of the other tracks.
An album filled with co-starring roles from other top musicians like Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, Patti Austin and the songwriting chops of the likes of Rod Temperton and Carole Bayer-Sager, Off The Wall could not fail.
It was Michael Jackson's last album before he started to become self-conscious and it is its 'un self-consciousness' which makes listening to it such a joy.
An album released in 1979 just as pop video was becoming more popular, it also gave us all a flavour of Michael Jackson's amazing dancing - once upon a time he was the real deal; this album is living proof of his genius.
Prince & The Revolution - Parade
Parade was the album Prince & The Revolution made after the movie and soundtrack album, 'Purple Rain'.
Purple Rain was the ultimate Prince ego trip, the band were along for the ride and the movie was a hit, even if it all seems a bit cheesy now.
The Sound of Prince & The Revolution became more cinematic with this album as Bobby Z, Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman were allowed some artistic input of their own. Sadly, they were not credited with this and it was not long before rumblings began about disbanding.
Prince sacked Wendy, Lisa and Bobby and went on to make Sign O The Times without them but had already surrounded himself with a mixture of musicians, non-musicians and dancers with whom he would appear in videos, in spite of making most of his albums alone.
Parade is like a snapshot of Prince & The Revolution at their height before the ego and then the record company spoilt Prince's creativity.
There is rumoured to be an unfinished Prince and The Revolution album called 'Dream Factory' with song writing by all of the band - it is probably in Prince's 'vault' - his hidden lock-up for the several hundred songs he has written but never recorded! What a talent!
And so to my final includion - you couldn't expect a British person to write an article and not include a great British R&B and soul album, right?
I could have chosen any number of albums - I love The Spencer Davis Group and then I quite admired Steve Winwood solo.
Could I include some Rolling Stones or maybe feature Roxy Music's Avalon?
Instead, I have gone from one of the most recent great R&B albums, Adele's 21.
Can someone as young as Adele really understand real R&B? You bet she can.
This girl has been listening to Etta James and Aretha Franklin since she was a baby and she has cited Mary J Blige, Mos Def, Rascal Flatts and Dolly Parton as big influences. She understands what it is to write songs from experience and honesty (like Blige?) and her performances have a spontaneous quality; you can hear the emotion is every phrase.
In many respects, 21 is the ultimate R&B album, a fusion of country, bluegrass, blues, soul, hip hop, pop and gospel; all genres which have over the last seven decades fed into R&B in its many incarnations.
Adele is now walking where other female vocals long to follow -and she did it all with a small Indie label!
So What Makes An R&B and /or Soul Album Great?
Well, if we knew the answer to that, we would all be in the recording studio doing our thing!
Great R&B and soul albums bring the best of other genres into their orbit. That is the secret, it's that simple.
Mary J Blige, Adele, MJ, Stevie Wonder, Aretha, Prince and Marvin spent a lot of their down time listening to the music they loved and that transfer becomes the most natural thing in the world.
Great R&B and soul albums have heart - and in these albums, that heart is still beating today.
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