At the start of the 2010s, the increased marginalization of music distribution seemed to signal parallel stylistic confines in the content being offered to consumers. Perhaps it was that momentary void, however, which has gradually evolved into an increasing focus on diversity. In the realm of pop and R&B albums, 2013 gave way to an appealing, healthily diverse menu of both new releases and reissues. From smart and thorough expanded collections of classic ’80s material by groups like Bananarama and Exposé, to the latest cutting-edge output from soulful vocalists such as John Legend and Raheem DeVaughn, on through unique vault offerings from Dionne Warwick and Patty Duke, the year provided a number of demographics with fresh and surprising product. 2013 was remarkable for both preserving the past and moving ahead.
Following are Blogcritics writer Justin Kantor’s Top 10 album picks for 2013, alphabetized by artist.
Bananarama – True Confessions [Deluxe 2CD+DVD Edition]
After exploding onto American shores with their rousing 1984 anthem, “Cruel Summer,” the three English lasses known internationally for their contagious brand of danceable pop with a new wave edge became a force to be reckoned with. U.K.-based Edsel Records celebrated their legacy this year with the reissue of six of the group’s prime-era albums in expanded double-CD/DVD packages featuring a wealth of rare mixes, unreleased songs, and sought-after live clips. It’s hard to pick a favorite amongst all of the gems, but True Confessions is indeed the standout in both commercial and artistic terms.
Building on the distinctively moody sound explored on 1984’s Bananarama, True Confessions added notably kinetic elements with the addition of production team Stock-Aitken-Waterman on an unforgettable cover of Shocking Blue’s 1970 smash, “Venus.” Besides equally enticing, danceable numbers “More Than Physical” and “Hooked on Love,” the set brims with seductive, late-night vibes on “Dance with a Stranger” and ethereal arrangements on “Ready or Not.” The inclusion of five B-sides, two never-before-heard tracks, and 12 alternate mixes demonstrates the impressive versatility employed during the recording and mixing of mid-’80s, big-budget records. Throughout it all, Bananarama’s seamless vocal blend offers a euphoric retreat from everyday stress and strife.
Jonathan Butler – Merry Christmas to You
With the onslaught of holiday albums released each year—almost every one jammed with new interpretations of perpetually covered standards—a lot of digging is required to unearth a set that is both authentic and refreshing in spirit. This year’s honor for such a feat goes to longtime genre-crossing singer/guitarist Jonathan Butler, whose first Christmas set in over three decades of recording is unassumingly festive from start to finish. Merry Christmas to You highlights Butler’s soothing guitar style on “Sleigh Ride,” but elsewhere shines the spotlight on his passionately rich vocal vibe. A few highlights are a stripped-down version of “O Holy Night,” the engaging cross-section of smooth jazz chords and African rhythms on “Little Drummer Boy,” and the understated title track—perfect for a quiet celebration by the fireplace.
Raheem DeVaughn – A Place Called Loveland
In the thriving urban-contemporary landscape of male singers, few possess the combination of range, personality, and finesse that Raheem DeVaughn serves up on his fourth full-length release. Whether he’s embellishing flowing falsetto verses on “Greatest Love,” taking his time to deliver the straight-ahead message of “Ridiculous,” or smoothing things out on “Pink Crush Velvet,” the Grammy-nominated crooner squeezes every possible ounce of romance into each entry on the ballad-laden Loveland. Especially recommended is the Target-exclusive CD edition, which features surprisingly strong bonus tracks in “True Love” and “You Saved Me from Myself.”
Patty Duke – Sings Songs from Valley of the Dolls/Sings Folk Songs: Time to Move On
During the 1960s, actress Patty Duke exhibited one-of-a-kind screen presence encompassing highly emotional roles (a young Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker), happy-go-lucky and scholarly teenagers (twin cousins on The Patty Duke Show), and complex, dramatic adults (Neely O’Hara in Valley of the Dolls). Although her parallel singing career only resulted in a handful of commercial hits (most notably “Don’t Just Stand There” and “Say Something Funny”), it wasn’t for lack of enthusiasm.
The surprising reissue of two albums on one CD from her years with United Artists Records is a testament to her prowess at bringing characters to life behind the microphone just as expertly as she does on camera. While 1967’s rare Sings Songs from Valley of the Dolls finds her implementing soaring vengeance on “Learn to Live with Your Heartbreak” and sassy Broadway spunk on “Give a Little More.” the previously unreleased Sings Folk Songs allows her to employ contemplative storytelling (“The Cruel War”) and hearty vigor (“Blowin’ in the Wind”). All in all, it’s a fascinating exploration of rarely heard recordings fronted by a fully engaged vocalist who wears her heart on her sleeve.
Exposé – Playlist: The Very Best of Exposé
Since the subsequent sales feats established by powerhouse girl groups like Destiny’s Child and TLC, the game-changing trio of Exposé has been frequently overlooked in the history books. Although the group released a greatest-hits package during the mid-1990s, the eclectic dance-pop sirens are afforded a more thorough—and much deserved—collection via Playlist. Behind the Supremes, they’ve garnered the most consecutive Top 10 singles on the U.S. pop charts.
Beginning with 1987’s highly kinetic “Come Go with Me,” “Point of No Return,” and “Let Me Be the One”—Lewis Martinee-produced numbers which introduced the Latin freestyle sound to mainstream radio listeners—and continuing on to a series of soft-rock-leaning ballads penned by Diane Warren (“I’ll Never Get over You (Getting over Me),” “As Long as I Can Dream,” and “Your Baby Never Looked Good in Blue”), this 14-track retrospective compactly packs popular 7″ edits of all the hits from their first three albums into a consistently enjoyable timeline. The longstanding, recently reunited line-up of Ann Curless, Gioia, and Jeanette Jurado are each standout lead vocalists, while early-’90s replacement Kelly Moneymaker added a distinctive harmonic element during her stay with the group. Whether you’re ready to jam and sing along to feel-good uptempo tracks, or in the mood to slow things down with sophisticated, adult-contemporary tunes, Exposé’s Playlist is an ideal soundtrack.
JLS – Goodbye: The Greatest Hits
Within four years and four albums, Britain’s second-placing act on the 2008 series of The X Factor garnered record sales of 10 million and won a slew of MOBO and BRIT awards. Although the fast pacing of their releases didn’t quite allow them to reach the vocal heights they seemed capable of, their string of 10 unforgettable Top 10 hits redefined the reach of post-Y2K boy bands. Not since the era of Backstreet Boys and N*Sync has such a group had JLS’s far-reaching impact, paving the way for a new generation of like-minded outfits like One Direction and The Wanted.
Goodbye was announced on the heels of the news of JLS’s intent to call it quits at the end of 2013. The resulting set is a near-perfect encapsulation of their wide-ranging appeal. Debut single “Beat Again” provides each member a solo atop an edgy dance-pop groove, while the anthemic “Everybody in Love” holds appeal for both starry-eyed teenagers and fans of sophisticated love songs, and the wickedly catchy “She Makes Me Wanna” dares any listener not to hum and jam along. Equally noteworthy are the more recent “Proud” and “Hottest Girl in the World,” two markedly different hits displaying the guys’ musical maturation. It’s a highly entertaining listen from beginning to end.
Joe – DoubleBack: Evolution of R&B
For the past 20 years, Joe has done a commendable job of walking the line between old-school-savvy R&B and commercially viable urban-contemporary fare. From the presence of live instrumentation, to the smooth storytelling that segues from each song to the next, DoubleBack provides an ideal platform for the singer-songwriter’s straight-ahead phrasing and no-strings-attached dynamics. Whether reflecting on the past in the impactful title track, or keeping things sensual on the adventurous “More,” he continues to deliver relevant tunes that will leave a lasting impression on fans.
John Legend – Love in the Future
Over the past decade, Legend has sold 10 million records and racked up nine Grammy awards. Thankfully, he hasn’t used such achievements to rest on his musical laurels. Departing in significant stylistic directions from 2008’s Evolver and 2010’s Wake Up! (with The Roots), Love in the Future boasts sonically sharp explorations of soulful hip-hop (“Open Your Eyes”), psychedelic-flavored R&B (“Tomorrow”), and acoustic balladry with a touch of classic rock finesse (“Dreams”). Benefiting from the skill of creative producers such as 88-Keys, Darhyl Camper, and Q-Tip, the artist’s distinguished blend of rough and tender delivery shines impressively throughout.
Dionne Warwick – We Need to Go Back: The Unissued Warner Bros. Masters
To this day, one period of Warwick’s prolific recording career has remained largely overlooked. She released five albums for Warner Bros. Records from 1972 to 1977. In spite of soulful repertoire and cream-of-the-crop producers though, her only big chart hit during this time was an outside collaboration with the Spinners (“Then Came You”). We Need to Go Back is a valuable treasure trove of 19 previously unreleased selections from those years. Among them are some of the most surprising and picturesque tunes Warwick has ever graced. Soaring melodies, emotion-charged arrangements, and piquant lyrics run through a majority of the compositions, while a few entries make their statements with reserved interpretation and subtle nuances. Whether the listener be a longtime fan or newly familiar with Warwick’s work, the collection serves as a stellar reminder of the sheer power and scope that arises from the relationship between a divine voice and masterful material.
Wendy and Lisa – Wendy and Lisa [Special Edition]
Upon the abrupt firing of The Revolution in 1987, Prince’s sidekicks wasted no time in getting out their own quality album. First in line were the astute duo of guitarist Wendy Melvoin and keyboardist Lisa Coleman—both well-versed songwriters and vocalists in their own right. Eschewing any pressures to replicate the sounds they helped to craft on the Purple One’s Parade and Around the World in a Day, Wendy and Lisa instead opted to engage in their own blend of rock chords, jazz undertones, soulful hooks, and classical nuances on their eponymous debut album.
Cherry Red’s commendable reissue of this often overlooked treasure trove aptly demonstrates the ladies’ timeless capabilities in songcraft and performance. Among the standouts are the moody, sly “Everything but You,” the understated inspirational rouser, “Light,” and the deftly dreamy “Chance to Grow.” The contrast of Melvoin’s sassy tones and Coleman’s elegant phrasing provide as fascinating a juxtaposition as the combination of arrangements, ranging from the outright funky “Honeymoon Express” to the plaintive acoustic stance of “The Life.” The accompanying booklet contains a new interview with Coleman, who offers track-by-track commentary.