Last year was an explosive year for soul and funk. 2016 posed the greatest challenge for me of any year since I’ve begun reviewing the best soul/funk records. Typically the choices have been obvious and great records would have all made the list, not true last year. Unfortunately I’ve chosen to include only the top 25 records here, and so a lot of fantastic albums were left on the cutting room floor and filed into the honorable mentions section below. The level of quality and the amount of inspirational new soul and funk music coming out every year has made clear to all of us fans of the genre that a new renaissance of sorts is overtaking the globe filling our world with soulful sounds. The future is bright my friends.
25. Bacao Rhythm and Steel Band-55
This side project of the famously funky Mighty Mocambos features the steel drum in inventive new ways. 55 is an album full of ingenious covers and creative originals. The band has replaced the instant gratification and immediacy of synthesizers and beat machines with a powerful ensemble of musicians that craft hard funk versions of the originals. Featuring covers of 50 cent, Faith Evans, Dennis Coffey, and Cat Stevens you will marvel at the reinvented use of steel drum in new and surprising ways.
24. Marta Ren and the Groovelvets-Stop Look Listen
The lovely Marta Ren is new to us here at Soul Donuts. This young Portuguese soul princess has surrounded herself with a tight group of musicians and landed on the world renowned Record Kicks label. After the release of her hugely popular single, Two Kinds of Men, she has released her debut full length album to great acclaim. Propelled by the records first hit, I’m Not a Regular Woman, this album has been steamrolling listeners around the globe. Backed by an impressive 8-piece rhythm and soul combo this is just the first offering in what is sure to be an exciting career.
23. Shirley Davis and the Silverbacks-Black Rose
The Silverbacks are back on the countdown after last years incredible release with David Hooper, this time employing the powerful vocals of Miss Shirley Davis at the helm. Davis born in London and living in Australia for many years, relocated to Madrid and found the Silverbacks her new backing band. She’s been crafting her style with the help of the late Sharon Jones, Osaka Monaurail, and Deep Street Soul among others and has found a new home in Spain, the up and coming new soul capitol of the world. This album features an array of bold horns and solid rhythms on both instrumental and vocal arrangements. Part funky, and soulful with a touch of spacey ethio-afrobeat, this debut release from the Silverbacks with Shirley Davis is the perfect sound track for your daily grind.
22. Soul Snatchers-Where Y’at
Raw and gritty funk, just the way we like it. This is the 3rd full length release from the Dutch soul ensemble. On this album the band has infused the swampy sounds of New Orleans into their rich sound complete with horn section, pulsing Hammond organ, wailing vocals, smooth grooves and solid break-neck rhythms. Highly recommended for any fan of heavy soul/funk.
21. Adrian Younge-Something About April II
The young multi-instrumentalist/producer can’t be stopped. Working with the likes of Ghostface Killah, the Delfonics, Souls of Mischief, Kendrick Lamar, members of A Tribe Called Quest, the Funk Brothers, Dennis Coffey, Calibro 35, and Cee Lo among many others, Mr.Younge is constantly hard at work. This release is one of 3 releases dropped in 2016 by him, the other Electronique Void: Black Noise, and the Soundtrack to Luke Cage. Here we revere the second installment of his Something About April project featuring silky soul and sexy grooves to rock the bed sheets and sweat out your worries. Heavily indebted to the sounds of blaxploitation, Younge the man behind the Back Dynamite soundtrack, uses his love of Hip Hop and his streetwise persona to masterfully craft modern soul classics and beyond.
20. Durand Jones and the Indications-S/T
New to us here at Soul Donuts, Durand Jones and the Indications are a group of University of Indiana Soul Revue musicians who transcended that collegiate group to form their own and record on the exciting Colemine Record label. Native Louisianan Durand Jones has enlisted the help of friends Aaron Frazer and Blake Rhein to produce and play in the band that focuses on vintage sound. Utilizing live recording and little frills, they crafted a highly listenable and exciting new record of soul, blues, and classic R&B.
19. Hannah Williams and the Affirmations-Light Nights & Heartbreak
After hitting the scene hard with her group the Tastemakers, Hannah Williams is back with a new, hand-picked group of soul impresario’s; the Affirmations. This new record benefits from the help of the talented London producer Malcolm Catto, the mastermind behind the Heliocentrics, another Soul Donuts favorite. This record has tight instrumentation with bold horns on each soul/funk outing. Late Nights and Heartbreak also gives us a slight taste of latin and psychadelia accenting Hannah’s powerful vocals on floor-stompers and ballads rounding out a solid album all the way through.
18. Lack of Afro-Hello Baby
Not everyone is slick enough to bring unabashed pop music to the table. On this record producer Adam Gibbons (aka Lack of Afro) drops the needle on crackly samples and cuts up nothing but fun. A sound that hearkens back to the 90’s even caricaturing soul music with flatness and plasticity, Hello Baby is unique and different for 2016. Those qualities might make some folks turned off, but if you are capable of letting down your guard and just having some fun with a different take on soul, Motown and R&B you may just find yourself smiling and dancing to this one.
17. St. Paul and the Broken Bones-Sea of Noise
This 6 piece band complete with horns and all the fixin’s conjures up the gospel truth through the lens of Muscle Shoals’ famous soul producing tabernacle. Rarely has a group of white boys revived the classic sounds of southern black people with such depth and feeling. This, their second album, solidifies St. Paul and crew as a true force in modern soul music. As well the album functions as a whole with the theme of crumbling and burning running throughout. Sea of Noise simultaneously channels the histories of Stax and San Fran funk/rock, balanced with more quiet and poignant moments of contemplation. This is a real slice of southern communion for all soul fans.
16. Aaron Neville-Apache
During a five decade long career Aaron Neville has run the gauntlet of the music industry. From pop super-stardom, to famously working with his brothers and collaborating with the impeccable Allen Touissant this is surprisingly the first album primarily written by the legendary artist. On Apache Mr. Neville employed the help of Erick Krasno of Lettuce and Soulive, as well as the Daptone horns to help produce a first rate soul album. An album by a legendary artist this late in his career isn’t always a success but Neville has figured out how to touch on his long career, his life in New Orleans, and use it as inspiration for new work.
15. The Olympians-S/T
During a trip to Greece a prophetic vision in a dream prompted Toby Pazner to tell the story of ancient mythology through instrumental funk. Pazner is a Daptone producer/keyboardist and one of the main players behind the success of their vast library. Utilizing the help of his friends in the Menahan Street Band, Lee Fields, The Arcs, Charles Bradley, the Budos Band, and the Dap-Kings, the newly formed group set out to tell a story of Olympian magnitude.
14. William Bell-This is Where I Live
When a soul legend comes back to the court to play ball, it’s time to take out the score cards and plant yourself firmly in the bleachers and spectate. William Bell started making soul music in his late teens/early twenties backing Rufus Thomas, and had his first hit “You don’t miss your water” in 1961. A long and industrious career at Stax Records proceeded for decades and into the present where he got his chance to record again with the legendary label. 2016’s This is Where I Live garnered the soul-man a Grammy nomination for best Americana album. The record includes new originals and re-vamped classics from his earliest days, and seems to have reinvigorated Bell to continue pursuing music into the future. This album is not just a tribute to his former glory but a solid effort of new soul and R&B for any fan of the genre.
13. Ben L’Oncle Soul-Under My Skin
Blue Note France and Ben L’Oncle Soul have delighted fans of Frank Sinatra with a great tribute album to the legendary crooner. Not just another tribute to Sinatra, this album takes his songs into the realms of soul, reggae, blues and jazz in surprising and exciting new ways. Since much of Sinatra’s music was penned by other musicians and composer’s anyways, it’s not strange or uncommon to hear different takes on these ubiquitous tunes, in the way standards are repeatedly reworked and made fresh again. Sampled drum breaks and a high level of production on the tracks polish many of the songs to a fine veneer that underscores the contemporary direction Ben has been working towards, but ultimately this album is smooth, soulful, gritty, and funky.
12. Lady Wray-Queen Alone
Missy Elliot’s one time protégé has reinvented herself and emerged as a soulful force to be reckoned with. After her work with the Black Key’s on their Blackroc album and subsequent backing vocal gigs with the band on their 2009 ‘Brothers’ she has reincarnated her career into a soul diva. This is Nicole Wray’s first solo album since 1998’s ruffneck album ‘Make it Hot,’ which earned her a gold certified single. Employing the help of Big Crown Records retro-soul veteran producer Leon Michels and Daptones session wizard Tom Brenneck, they helped to craft Lady Wray’s style and sound into timeless 60/70’s soul.
11. Myles Sanko-Just Being Me
Myles Sanko exudes a suave and stylish persona matched only by his immense talent in a multitude of different areas. The Ghanaian born, British soul maestro, is not just an exceptional singer, he is also a songwriter, producer, designer, and cinematographer. This album transcends labels and speaks to us with breadth and humanity with a sound that is remarkably similar to Bill Withers. Not merely pleading for acceptance and understanding, Sanko quietly eases us into the conversation of overcoming our narrow minds and boundaries to allow for a deeper more complex way of being. In other words, one of many humans sharing this planet together, dealing with love and loss. It’s his message that sticks with you as much as the beautiful arrangements and harmonies. ‘Just Being Me’ is a subtle, and poignant tribute to soul, jazz, and classical music, that speaks to the beauty all around us, and how we often take that for granted.
10. Mavis Staples-Livin’ On a High Note
After working with Jeff Tweedy of Wilco for the past few years, producing two great solo albums and one posthumous album with her late father Pops Staples, Mavis has employed the help of M. Ward to produce her newest record. As well as working with a new producer she has gained the help of highly respected song writers Nick Cave, Neko Case, Justin Vernon, and others to help her with the record. The results were nothing short of amazing and showed us that happiness can still be found in this world if you keep the right attitude and continue pressing on. ‘Livin’ on a High Note’ is an album full of reminiscing, and history, but it is also a call to action to learn to love each other and dial it back to simpler times and just enjoy the gift of life.
9. Nick Waterhouse-Never Twice
The third full album from rhythm and blues revivalist Nick Waterhouse is pure feet shuffling goodness. Back with his original collaborative producer, Michael McHugh, (Black Lips, Ty Segall) Waterhouse has once again found his comfort zone. With guest stars such as Leon Bridges and a stellar band of veterans, their dedication to the classic sounds of R&B is evident, and sure to make you groove.
8. Andre Williams-I Wanna Go Back to Detroit City
Just like the city he loves so much, Andre Williams has a rough and gritty style that only gets better with age and perseverance. Utilizing the street wise swagger of a hardened pimp Williams doesn’t just portray such a character as much as he lives it everyday, and that attitude is evident on this album, his tribute to Detroit. ‘Back to Detroit City’ has all of the raw and funky qualities of his classic material also touching on soul, rock, country, and blues. This album is a testament to Williams’ constant battle to find a place in the history of music and his affirmation that he is still out there kicking around stones, much like the crumbling decay of his beloved Detroit City.
7. Eli Paperboy Reed-My Way Home
Like much of the music that we love here at Soul Donuts this album has the qualities of a classic soul record while simultaneously being contemporary and fresh. Paperboy Reed’s new album has been described ans lo-fi garage gospel, a fitting moniker that helps to describe his foray into spirituality in his music. His gospel influence comes to him from his family, namely his father who played in gospel bands growing up, and seems to make sense as a back-drop for his new venture into the genre. Not the typical slow churchey dirges, ‘My Way Home’ is more raucous and alive than anything fundamental to typical religious gatherings.
6. Martha High-Singing for the Good Times
The one time backup singer for James Brown is still doing it after her 32 year run with the godfather of soul. After hooking up with the band Speedometer for 2012’s Soul Overdue album, Martha High has been working tirelessly to write and record new music earning her the oft quoted title, “one of the hardest working ladies in show business.” Discovered by Bo Diddley at a talent show, she started recording with the Jewels and caught the attention of George Clinton who went on to produce for the band. It’s at this time that JB discovered the young singer and the rest is history. Fast forward to the present day and we find her still working and recording showing off her gift, and a sound spanning the musical spectrum, from soul and rhythm & blues to rock and roll and gospel. Her soulful style appeals to a wide audience, from the young to the old and she proves that with her newest album.
5. Terrace Martin-Velvet Portraits
G-funk, 90’s R&B, jazz, and future soul arrive on the scene. Terrace Martin is a multi-instrumentalist and producer who uses the saxophone as his main instrument and tool to express his voice. After contributions to Kendrick Lamar and many others Martin has burst onto the scene as one of the music industries emerging stars. This album is diverse in its style with smooth g-funk grooves at its core and will seduce the listener from track to track to fall in love with the young mans new and refreshing take of 90s streetwise smoothed out grooves and lots of jazz.
4. Michael Kiwanuka-Love and Hate
This album reminded me of Marvin Gaye’s classic ‘What’s Going On.” Kiwanuka has delivered a soulful masterpiece that drifts in and out of the melodies seamlessly and ties together not only the flow of the songs, but also the message of love, loss, and overcoming ones status in a messed up world. This album has pure moments of brilliance, soul rattling beauty, and a strong message of social justice and equality. I recommend listening to the whole thing in your headphones to get the entire experience and truly soak in the entirety of the album as it was meant to be, from beginning to end.
3. Charles Bradley-Changes
The man known as ‘the screaming eagle of soul’ has been busy recording great records at Dunham the Daptone affiliate. He is one of the artists who has lead the way in creating and sustaining the global soul revival. This album continues his journey and is pure soul music ripped from the 60s golden age. Very little needs to be said about Charles Bradley as a man or musician, his reputation of years of hard work has cemented itself in our hearts and made fans of us all.
2. Lee Fields and the Expressions-Special Night
Special Night seems to define all of the positive things about the soul/funk revival that has taken hold. A solid album of ballads, groovers, floor shakers, and downright hits. Lee Fields and the expressions have been crafting their style for years and it has clearly paid off. The band works remarkably well together and highlights Lee’s infectious crooning perfectly. The songs on this album are solid tracks that can stand alone, yet the album seems to touch on all of the right notes and moods throughout. A true masterpiece of contemporary soul/funk for all fans.
1. James Hunter Six-Hold On
The number one album of 2016 is here! Not only was this the number one soul/funk release of 2016 it was also my favorite album of the year across all genres. ‘Hold On’ came in handy any time it was played. Whether shuffled upon, listening to the entirety or introducing friends of its greatness, it is always a winner. For those not familiar with James Hunter or his band you need to be, and quick. The British guitarist/singer/songwriter possess a certain fluidity with his style and sound that makes his music and his life such a gift. Clearly James is having fun making music and I thank him dearly for sharing this gift with the world. The soul world that is. Soul Donuts !
Now that we’ve reached the end you might be wondering what next? If you are curious and want to hear more great music from the soul and funk world in 2016 head over to Spotify to check out my Soul Donuts 2016 playlist. It has a ton of great music that I reviewed last year including my honorable mentions and other great music.
Stay tuned for honorable mentions in the next post, stuff I missed in 2016, 15, 14, 13, and compdown 2016 coming soon…
…playlist below. Also check Soul Donuts Spotify playlists from 2013, 14, 15, and the newly formed 2017 playlist, which will grow larger all year long! Keep on keepin’ on.
Here’s the 2016 playlist below…
…and finally the 2017 playlist in the works!