SoulTrain.com’s Top 10 Albums of 2012

Hundreds of artists release new music each year, and 2012 was no exception.  From mainstream mainstays like Rihanna (Unapologetic) and Alicia Keys (Girl on Fire), to  cutting-edge artists such as Frank Ocean (Channel Orange) and Esthero (Everything is Expensive), this year brought music lovers an exciting array of tempting tastes and treats for their headphones.

It is never easy–and almost always sparks passionate debates–to compile an end-of-the-year list of the “best” or “top” albums; inevitably, great works are omitted, while works that some may consider not-so-great are included.  SoulTrain.com has compiled its list of the Top 10 Albums of 2012 below; it’s by no means exhaustive, but definitely represents some of the most interesting and intriguing releases for the year!

And now, without further ado and in no particular order…

Gregory Porter, Be Good

Gregory Porter

Jazz artist Gregory Porter’s Be Good (Motema Music) shines as one of the most captivating albums of 2012.  Anchored by the title track, “Be Good (Lion’s Song)”–with an exquisitely lovely video directed by Pierre Bennu, the album features Porter’s rich baritone gracing each note with purpose and intent.  From the kinetic rhythm of “On the Way to Harlem”–which bustles with uptown energy–to the soulful promise of love and devotion on “Real Good Hands,” where Porter vows to his beloved’s mother and father that he will honor and care for her forever, Be Good is the perfect combination of jazz and soul.  His a cappella treatment of the classic “God Bless the Child” is the stuff of dreams.  Porter has cited the great Nat King-Cole as his source of inspiration, and that example is evident throughout the album.  Pick it up at a local record store, or download Be Good from iTunes.  And if Gregory Porter performs live in your town, don’t miss his show!  http://www.gregoryporter.com

Meshell Ndegeocello, Pour Une Âme Souveraine: A Tribute to Nina Simone

With so much controversy surrounding Zoë Saldana being cast to portray The High Priestess of Soul in an upcoming unofficial biopic, it seems as though interest in Nina Simone is at an all-time high, with artists and activists alike speaking out to honor her legacy.  Meshell Ndegeocello’s latest, Pour Une Âme Souveraine: A Tribute to Nina Simone (Naïve) casts Simone’s classics in a modern context, all the while maintaining the energy and urgency that make hers one of the most distinctive voices in popular music.  The album opens with a sultry take on Simone’s “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” a funky guitar riff and Ndegecello’s signature bass line gifting the song with an undeniable groove.  Vocalist Valerie Joon brightens “Be My Husband” with her effervescent delivery, and Toshi Reagon rocks “House of the Rising Sun,” making a house of ill-repute sound like the best spot on earth.  And the brilliant Sinéad O’Connor casts a gorgeous spell on “Don’t Take All Night.”  For lovers of both Simone and Ndegeocello, Pour Une Âme Souveraine is an absolute must, and is available in both digital and physical formats.  Visit Meshell Ndegeocello’s official website at meshell.com.

Bettye Lavette, Thankful N Thoughtful

In 2012, soul maven Bettye Lavette celebrated fifty years in the music business with the simultaneous release of her latest album Thankful N Thoughtful (Anti-), and her memoir A Woman Like Me, co-written with David Ritz.  A self-described interpreter of song, Lavette is an absolute master at taking tunes written and recorded by other artists and making them her own.  Thankful features Lavette doing what she does best: Imbuing everything from folk to country to rock n roll with pure soul, and telling her story through words and rhythms both familiar and slightly obscure.  Whether she’s taking on Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy,” Bob Dylan’s “Everything is Broken,” or Patty Griffin’s “Time Will Do the Talking,” Lavette gives each song new life.  The title track, Sly Stone’s “Thankful N Thoughtful” from his album of the same name, reminds the listener that this is a woman who has been through the fire, but whose fearless tenacity and sheer will are the reasons she’s here to lift her voice in song fifty years later.  Learn more about this dynamic singer at bettyelavette.com.

Cody ChesnuTT, Landing On A Hundred

Always on the cutting edge of soul, rock, funk, and blues, Cody ChesnuTT’s eclectic approach to songwriting and delivery has been heralded by fans and critics alike.  Following a highly successful Kickstarter campaign earlier this year, ChesnuTT dropped his third album, Landing On A  Hundred (Vibration Vineyard).  A collection of beautifully wrought melodies and intensely pensive lyrics, Landing brings the spirits of ol’ school soul men into the modern era. ChesnuTT celebrates his spiritual awakening (“Til I Met Thee”) and the rich cultural heritage of the African continent (“I’ve Been Life”), sings of hard times and redemption (“Everybody’s Brother”), and shares his bright-eyed hope and steadfast belief in the power of love in its purest, truest form (“Love is More Than a Wedding Day”).  Whether crooning softly over little more than an acoustic guitar or wailing from the depths of his soul, Landing On A Hundred satisfies long-time fans of ChesnuTT’s  music and those just tuning in for the first time.  Check him out online at codychesnutt.com.

Martin Luther, Love Is The Hero

Martin Luther

It’s been a long eight years since Martin Luther’s last studio release (2004‘s Rebel Soul Music, Rebel Soul Records), but 2012 finally saw the highly-anticipated follow-up to his debut with the sonically spectacular Love Is The Hero.  Kicking off with the deliciously raucous feel-good opener “Waiting For You,” the album reaffirms this Bay Area native’s position at the forefront of the rock n soul movement.  Standouts include “Precious,” which ponders the delicate territory between friends and lovers; “Somebody Superstar,” a stellar piece paying homage to the loved ones who raise, nurture, advocate, and sometimes suffer for all of us; and the Hall & Oates classic, “Sara Smile.”  Love Is The Hero is a must for your collection, so download it here: http://martinluthermccoy.bandcamp.com/album/love-is-the-hero.  And if you’re in the New York area, do yourself a favor and check out Martin Luther live at the Apollo Theatre on January 12.

Heritage Blues Orchestra, And Still I Rise

Heritage Blues Orchestra’s Grammy-nominated debut offering, And Still I Rise, is a musical gumbo of gospel, spirituals, blues, and country.  An outstanding exhibition of mastery and dexterity across multiple genres and styles, the album features rollicking takes of blues classics such as “Go Down Hannah” and “Catfish Blues,” and riveting versions of gospel tunes like “Get Right Church” and “In the Morning.”  And Still I Rise blends and blurs the sacred and the juke joint, shining a spotlight on distinctly African American musical forms seldom heard anymore outside of novelty albums.  Download the album on iTunes or pick up a copy at a brick and mortar, and take a little time to peruse the band’s official website at heritagebluesorchestra.com.

Khari Mateen, Wait for Sunrise

Grammy-nominated songwriter and composer Khari Mateen released his debut EP, Wait for Sunrise, in March of 2012.  Three years prior, in 2009, Mateen co-founded an independent creative collaboration collective called The Lunchroom, made up of artists across various disciplines who work together and separately to create new works of music and visual art.  Wait for Sunrise brims with ambiance and atmosphere, with Mateen’s cool vocals drifting above lush instrumentation on tracks like “Good Morning,” “Take My Time,” and “Theory.”  The album is available on iTunes, and more of Khari Mateen’s awe-inspiring work is available on his official website, http://kharimateen.com.  Also be sure to visit The Lunchroom at thelunchroom.com.

Imani Coppola, The Glass Wall

Imani Coppola

Singer, songwriter, and violinist Imani Coppola emerged onto the scene in 1997 with her Columbia Records debut Chupacabra, and snagged herself spot in music television video rotation with her catchy, quirky single “Legend of a Cowgirl.”  The intervening years saw a dissolution of Coppola’s relationship with the label, a few indie outings (afrodite, The Black & White Album), and a collaboration with producer Adam Pallin that culminated in the formation of the group Little Jackie, whose 2008 release The Stoop spawned the wildly popular track “The World Should Revolve Around Me” (the group released an additional album, Made4TV, in 2011).  Coppola returns with her 2012 solo project, The Glass Wall, a collection of some of the most exquisite electronic pop this side of the 80s.  From the album’s opener, the cool and futuristic “Say Hello,” to the irresistibly danceable “Catch 22,” to the wistful “Wait of the World,” The Glass Wall is an ambitious and absolutely stunning release by this remarkably talented and gleefully eccentric artist, and is available on iTunes and CDBaby.  Learn more about Imani Coppola at https://www.facebook.com/imanicoppola and imanicoppola.com.

Joan Osborne, Bring It On Home

Joan Osborne’s latest album, the Grammy-nominated Bring It On Home (Saguaro Road Records), debuted in March of this year to massive critical acclaim.  A collection of soul, blues, and R&B tunes originally written and/or recorded by the likes of Ike and Tina Turner, Ray Charles, and Alain Toussaint, Bring It On Home finds Osborne returning to familiar territory, re-imagining and retooling popular songs from the American songbook.  Osborne’s raspy voice is perfect for this material, gliding effortlessly over a sultry guitar riff on “The Same Love That Made Me Laugh” and brimming with confidence on the uptempo “I’m Qualified.”  Anyone who loves pure, classic R&B and soul music should definitely pick up (or download) a copy of Bring It On Home.  Visit Joan Osborne online at joanosborne.com.

Lianne La Havas, Is Your Love Big Enough?

Lianne La Havas

Undoubtedly one of the most exciting debuts of the year, British singer/songwriter Lianne La Havas’ Is Your Love Big Enough? has wowed audiences and critics across the globe.  Named iTunes’ Best Album of 2012, the album was released in July, following the release of two EPs–Lost & Found and the free digital download, Live in LA.  With her intricate harmonies and guitar rhythms, and pensive and introspective lyrics, La Havas captivates listeners with tales of vulnerability, playful optimism, and fearless desire.  La Havas’ voice is soft and sweet, but seasoned like of someone who’s spent a lifetime enjoying coffee and cigarettes.  The title track plays like a challenge, while “Lost & Found” tells of love that engulfs then disowns.  “Au Cinéma” is a reminder that the lives we lead are far more complex and nuanced than what we see on the silver screen, and “Tease Me” finds the singer facing a conundrum many of us have encountered: To borrow a phrase from the Clash’s classic, “should I stay, or should I go?”  La Havas has been playing to sold-out crowds all year long, and 2013 is sure to be no exception.  Get Is Your Love Big Enough? on iTunes, and stay up to date with all things Lianne La Havas on her website, liannelahavas.com.

What are your favorite albums of 2012?  Share your picks in the comments section below, or on Twitter @SoulTrain!

–Rhonda Nicole

Rhonda Nicole is an independent singer/songwriter, lovin’ and livin’ in Oakland, CA, currently performing with San Francisco-based soul band Midtown Social.  Download her EP “Nuda Veritas” on CDBaby and iTunes, check her out on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter and Instagram @wildhoneyrock.

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