Archive for the ‘Top 5’s’ Category

Top 5 Soul Females

Aretha FranklinAretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin is the Queen of Soul because she oozes the ache and pain of soul music in every note she sings and every key she plays.  Aretha’s is a kind of effortless vocal perfection that deserves to be associated with the only musical format named for what gives us life.  From her days as a child singing and playing in the church choir to her early break out success as an R&B singer, Aretha feels whatever she is singing and in that truth lies what makes her music soul.  There’s no acting when she talks about being in,  “a chain of fools” and there is no duplicating her sincerity when she cries out, “You make me feel like a natural woman.”  Franklin was the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and is one of the most celebrated Grammy artists of all time.  This music legend is still recording and just released a new album,  A Woman Falling Out of Love. Aretha has sung us through the complications of being women and she has a song for every up and down that’s in it.  That’s soul.

Nina SimoneNina Simmone

Take a walk down the dank alleys of jazz, sit in the darkest corner of blues, lie naked on a cold theatre’s stage and in that space is where you find the soul that is Nina Simone.  While her music may cross numerous genres her voice belongs to one, soul.  Nina was a complex vocalist with a graduate student’s approach to this often-elementary music industry.  The consummate underground sensation, Nina found her audience was folk with discrete tastes and the balls to sing, “Mississippi Goddamn!” in mixed company.  The proof of her originality is this… how many times have you heard someone say, “That singer is the next Nina Simone.”

Gladys KnightGladys Knight

I can’t pick one Gladys Knight song, or one moment that sealed this singer’s place in my heart as one of the best.  When I was a child it seemed like Gladys Knight and the Pips were just everywhere, if it was a hit either they or Lou Rawls were singing it.  The crossover success of this singer lies in the uniqueness of her voice.  Just like the other women on this list, Gladys has an unmistakable sound.  Gladys also has a delivery that is all her own.  When she sings a song she respects it and tells its story with a refinement that sets her a part from most soul singers who proved their girth by screaming their way through lyrics.  With Gladys it was never about how high or how long she could hold a note.  It was about communicating a feeling while using one of the most comforting and soulful voices in soul music to do it.

Mavis StaplesMavis Staples

Mavis Staples sang, “I’ll take you there,” and her vocal power suggested you had no choice but to go.  Mavis gained national attention in the 60’s as the lead singer of the Staples Singers.  Her raspy lower octave confused listeners who didn’t benefit from a face to face via one of the Staples Singers church tours.  Was this a little boy singing with the power of a god?  No, it was a little girl fronting her family’s gospel group and as they crossed from Negro spirituals, into gospel into soul music; her androgynous vocals painted the 70’s with some of its most memorable tunes.  Yes, let’s do it again and again!

Etta JamesEtta James

Etta James elevated Chess Records above blues, beyond R&B and straight into soul when she sang out, “At last my love has come along.”  Singer-songwriter Etta James was soul even as she sang the blues. James is a multi grammy winning, Rock and Roll, Blues and Grammy Hall of Fame Inductee.  While so much music that was once considered great has come and gone, Etta James has been charming generation after generation with her classic expression of how good it is when your “Man” finally comes along.  That sentiment helped knock down the door for sisters to feel free and sing about how they love as blues and R&B developed into soul and crossed over into the mainstream.



Top 5 Soul Males


Otis ReddingOttis Redding

The first time I heard Otis Redding scream out to try a little tenderness, it cut straight to my 8 year-old soul.  I think all 70’s babies who call themselves Otis Redding fans have walked this path of getting to know someone we didn’t experience first hand, but wanted to know more about.  I’ve researched to learn what created this music pioneer; this large, country, black man with little education yet an ability to not only lead an integrated band but play for hippies at the Monterey International Pop Festival.  The Nation, not just the black community, mourned the death of this man.  In my opinion, he was a tower of influence gone too soon, a child of gospel and blues and a father of soul.  Any man who can whistle through more than half a number one hit has to be a musical genius.  Redding’s special phrasing within a song; the sorrow; regret and passion he communicated can’t be taught, it must be lived.  I hear Otis and think, maybe if today’s artists knew what it was to suffer, to have to moan and groan their way into joy, our music would have the subtle complexity that would cause a generation 30 to 40 years from now to seek it out. Sadly, I don’t think that will be the case.

James BrownJames Brown

James Brown was more than a singer and dancer, he was one of the most respected black men of his time.  I know this because right next to my grandmother’s crushed velvet picture of Robert Kennedy, John Kennedy and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King was a framed picture of James Brown.  These men and Jesus were the only non-family members on my Grandmother’s walls.

While African-American historians may debate that it took Brown too long to say, “I’m black and I’m proud,” what mattered in my life is that he did say it and he said it loud.  Soul Brother Number 1, Brown was the archetype.  His hard driving beats on the one laid the groundwork for the best in soul and later the best in hip-hop music.  In fact I think all of my favorite hip hop classics used Brown samples.  Admittedly, I was once a bigger fan of Brown’s band than I was his vocals until I heard “It’s a Man’s World,” from that moment on I became a complete fan.


Sam CookeSam Cooke

I understand that Sam Cooke first made the ladies swoon with his mellow delivery of gospel hymns.  It’s so hard for me to imagine a gospel rock star but that could be because Cooke was the last.  In my memory, there was always so much sadness associated with his name because of his tragic and untimely death.  But this is a man to be celebrated.  Sam Cooke was a man; unlike so many acts before him, there wasn’t a perm in his hair or heels on his feet to help integrated audiences feel more comfortable with his black masculinity.  He was an unapologetic male with a well spoken and well sung opinion about who we were as a people and who we could be.  He believed a change was going to come, and for many singers who followed, Sam Cooke was that change.


Donny HathawayDonny Hathaway

Donny Hathaway began singing in DC while he attended Howard University; in fact he played with drummer, Ric Powell who grew up with my Dad and lived next door to my Grandparents in Northwest, Washington.  The more I grew into a Donny Hathaway fan the more jealous I became of my parent’s stories of seeing Hathaway perform at clubs around the City.  He actually sang happy birthday to my Mom one night at a club in Southeast.  So that’s how my connection to Hathaway began.  As a kid, my parent’s stories lead to me sneaking away with some of my Dad’s 45’s and playing Donny on my Barbie record player.  I would listen to The Ghetto and This Christmas over and over again.  Then when I got into high school I found my Father’s album of Donny Hathaway live and my entire world changed.  I could just feel myself sitting in that dark club screaming, “Ow!” as he stroked the keys.  I love his voice and style.   I even love it when neo-soul artists try to sound like Hathaway because a few have come really close.  Donny Hathaway is an inspirational and talented contributor to music then and now.


Al GreenAl Green

What can I say about the sexy and necessary sounds of Al Green?  Man I love his music!  I am from top to bottom a fan of Al’s work, he kills every song from the highest moan to the lowest beg… you feel Al Green.  Even his latest come back album killed it!  It was almost like he just stopped by to remind R&B that it takes some soul to make great music.  I respect Al Green’s gospel music, but I need his soul music.  While Al Green’s vocals are always celebrated, enough can’t be said about his amazing band.  Al Green’s music has also been used in some memorable R&B and hip-hop samples.  Green’s music was well ahead of its time and filled with beautiful rhythmic complexities.  From the bass to the drums it’s hard to choose what sounded best, and with Al on the vocal it was all too perfect to even try.

Top 5 Neo-Soul Females


Erykah Badu

One of my favorite albums, across all music genres, is Erykah Badu’sMomma’s Gun.”  I honestly believe it’s one of the last true albums produced; and by that I mean it’s not a collection of singles… it’s a well-arranged production of songs.  Erykah is the mother of Neo-Soul;  I say this because she was the first major female Neo-soul artist, and has also “birthed” a number of new Neo-soul singers.   A couple of her background singers, N’Dambi and Yahzarah, have gone on to be hit makers in the genre as well… like Badu said, “[she] goes on and on and on and on.”

Badu calls her self an “analog girl in a digital world,” but that’s just her modesty.  She’s actually one of the most forward thinking and creative artists in music today.  A good songwriter can express the words and thoughts that you may feel everyday but don’t know how to say on your own; that’s why we love good music, it’s relatable.  A good singer can bring well-written lyrics to life; they have soul and passion.  A musician finds the notes to tie it all together…  but an artist is all this and more.  Whatever has created Erykah Badu, I love it.  She is a fantastic mix of flawed yet unapologetic womanhood.  She strips herself bare, sometimes literally, and shares her soul.  I don’t hear artists paying tribute to Badu or crediting her genius and influence, but isn’t that always the way for women?  The industry may not appreciate her now, but it will.  Maybe what’s really going on is she is the digital girl and we’re stuck in an analog world.

Jill Scott

Jill Scott

When the “Who is Jill Scott” album was first released, I put it in my car’s CD changer and didn’t take it out for like two years.  From her soft vocals echoing hope of lasting love to her screams of celebration, “Who is Jill Scott” is a classic album.  While I obviously love her recordings there is nothing like Jill Scott live.  She writes with the soul of a poet, performs with the intensity of a dramatic actress and sings like a goddess… I would say an angel, but I don’t’ think angels bring it like “Jilly from Philly.”  When her heart is broken, yours breaks too.  When she’s in love, you can’t wait to feel the same way.  That’s what Philadelphia soul has always done and that’s what flows through Jill Scott, from her hair follicles to her toenails.



Not since Sly and the Family Stone has a sound so raw and real come out of the San Francisco Bay Area.  Ledisi’s vocals can make you want to kick off your shoes in celebration or ball up in the corner and cry.  In her music, she asks the hard and serious questions aloud that so many women keep inside like; “How am I going to pay my bills?”  and “Will you be there in the morning?”  She is a down-home “gal” from the left coast and represents for the everyday sister everywhere.


Amel Larrieux

Now here lies the voice of an Angel. From the first time Amel Larrieux sweetly said, “Tell me if you want me to give you all my time,” the answer was a resounding yes from music fans everywhere. This singer, songwriter, musician and producer, began as a member of Groove Theory in the 90’s and has since become a solo, Neo-soul staple. Her sweet, soft and often pain stricken vocals always seem to feel a little melancholy even when she’s singing a happy song. She was a part of pioneering Neo-soul and continues to perform it better than most.


Me`shell Ndegeocello

From the fist time I heard Me`shell Ndegeocello’s low moan over her sensual bass guitar I thought, “Thank you God for sending my generation the music of Ndegeocello.”  She was so wonderfully retro-soul it almost seemed like a cosmic mistake.

Originally from the DC area, she flirts with hints of go-go in her percussion-driven up-tempo songs but is obviously in a serious relationship with soul.  She is a visual and stimulating songwriter; I can see what she’s describing and I can feel what she’s feeling.  My favorite Me`shell song changes from time-to-time, but my top two would be Outside Your Door and Rush Over.  These are literally two of my favorite songs of all time and there are quite a few other Me`shell songs that would easily go in my Top 50.  This musician, singer, songwriter is simply amazing and if you haven’t heard her album “Bitter,” get it immediately.  From the first note to the last, it is one of the most haunting R&B, Neo-Soul, Funk, Soul compilations ever!  And “Bitter” is great after a hard break up… just stay away from all sharp objects while you listen.

Top 5 Neo-Soul Males


D\’Angelo Sample

They say there are events in life so significant that you can remember exactly where you were and what you were doing when they happened.  For me, one of those moments would be the first time I heard D’Angelo’s “Brown Sugar” on the radio.  I, like so many others, knew in that moment that I was hearing greatness.  D’Angelo had one of the most short-lived yet influential musical careers of my generation.  Like with the absence of Lauryn Hill, D’Angelo has also left us with a void that has yet to be filled. He was a musician, singer-songwriter who was so significant that they had to come up with a new genre to categorize his sound… that genre was called neo-soul.


Maxwell Sample

Maxwell is the smooth side of neo-soul.  Because there was a D’Angelo there had to be a Maxwell in order to present that perfect balance and demonstrate the possibilities of this genre.  Maxwell’s sound was a like a fresh breeze cleansing us of the blasé music of the late 90’s.  I remember hearing the “Urban Hang Suite” album everywhere; I literally couldn’t walk from my college apartment without hearing it blasting through the windows of dorms or passing cars.  It was music so good and so different that we couldn’t stop listening to it; not just one or two cuts, but the entire album.  It is a classic, and today we are lucky enough to have this creative singer-songwriter giving us more and more.


Find a Way

I was a Dwele fan long before I even knew his name.  When he was just “that guy” on the keys and singing in the Slum Village video, I thought, I want to hear more from “that guy.”  Then when his first single dropped I was able to piece a name together with the distinct sound that is Dwele’s.  I took a similar path on my way to a love affair with the music of producer J-Dilla.  Detroit just keeps blessing us with the best.  If you don’t own a Dwele album, get one immediately.  This brother is a fantastic singer-songwriter, and musician with a sound that is unmistakably brilliant.


Musiq Sample

From the very first time I heard him hum the opening to “Just Friends,” I knew Musiq would be a star.  I lived in North Carolina at the time and the radio stations there were limited, at best, when it came to R&B.  I remember thinking the DJ made a mistake by playing Musiq and the song would never be played again.  I’m  very pleased to say that radio airplay has never been a problem for Musiq.  Born out of the Roots Crew, this Philly native represents oh so well.  I enjoy Musiq’s music consistently.

Eric Roberson

Eric Roberson Sample

Eric Roberson is one of the most under-rated talents in neo-soul.  Man I’m a fan!  Some call him the King of indie soul, I call him the Prince of neo-soul because he’s so versatile.  His sound ranges from R&B, to hip-hop, to house, to neo-soul and beyond.  If you ever get the chance to see Roberson live – run, don’t walk, to the show.  This brother takes words and or quotes from the audience and comes up with spontaneous songs that jam; it’s so amazing to watch.  He also plays guitar and has a fantastic band backing him up… he’s just a musician’s musician.  I love how he has consistently stayed true to his style of music and waits for the fans to come to him instead of vice versa.  He’s a true artists and I feel like DC can kind of claim this Philli native since he graduated from Howard University, wrote his first hit there (The Moon) and visits DC so often.

Raheem DeVaughn

Raheem DeVaughn Sample

And while this is a top 5 list; I’m going to break my own rule this one time and mention the number 6 artist on my list, Grammy nominated singer, songwriter Raheem DeVaughn.  He’s a Washington, DC native so there is no way I can’t give him props.  Raheem was a stand out as a member of the local DC group Crossroads in early 2000 and has since hustled his way to the top of his game.  I remember him selling his mixtapes out of his backpack on U-Street back in the day.  People often call Raheem a throw back to Marvin Gaye, but I think that’s the easy way out of really describing his complex sound.  Raheem does walk the line between social commentary and sensuality as Marvin did and he does have a banging falsetto as well.  But I believe DeVaughn, like so many of these neo-soul artists, is an amalgamation, as am I and so many other 70’s babies who are music fans.

We are a grand mix of all the R&B, soul, gospel, pop, jazz, blues and rock music that our parents, aunts and uncles listened to.  And it just so happens to be some of the best sounding music ever produced in American culture.  Thus the need for NEO-soul; there had to be a new genre created to categorize this gumbo that we play, sing and listen to.

Top 5 R&B Female Singers

These women offered signature sounds during a time when there was a place in popular music for vocalists who sounded like themselves.


Phyllis Hyman


Phyllis Hyman is my favorite singer of all time.  Her haunting and pain soaked vocals stand alone and have yet to be duplicated.  I once heard a critic compare her voice to a stained glass window.  Hyman could wring the emotion out of any note in any octave. She could bring you really low or lift you higher than you thought possible.  She believed in the listener accompanying her on her journey. Often, that journey was a walk through the ups and downs of love.

Anita Baker


Anita Baker is The Songstress.  Her sweet alto broke through barriers in modern music and inspired up and coming singers to embrace their lower range.  The quality of Baker’s vocal soaks through every lyric.  She leaves behind a deafening silence when she’s not recording.

Chaka Khan


When I think Chaka Khan, I think powerhouse. She makes it look so easy.  Chaka has never been one to bend over painfully belting out her dynamic range; she just smiles as her notes effortlessly flow as long or as high as she feels necessary.  Chaka Kahn is one of the most imitated vocalists in modern R&B but there is nothing like the original.  When she first stepped on the national music scene as a member of Rufus she was compared to Sly Stone, a male singer.  Now it’s clear, there is no comparison of any kind to Chaka Kahn.

Angela Bofill


Angela Bofill is one of my favorites.  Her dramatic delivery jelled perfectly with what were often theatrical musical backdrops.  Bofill is a visual singer, songwriter and percussionist.  The innocence in Angie’s voice can turn on you so quickly; making it easy to understand why she had to repeat her promises to be sweeter.  She’s more than the first Latina to have chart-topping success in Rhythm and Blues music; she’s an original soul sister.

Patti LaBelle


Patti LaBelle and her former group, Labelle, will appear on another one of my “top 5” lists as well.  She’s one of those artists who I feel is impossible to categorize.  She stands alone.  Patti’s voice is not only unmistakable; it’s necessary.  While everyone knows she can take it to church, Ms. Patti can also sing you a lullaby.  From her legendary stage performances to her signature classics, the love is in the details and Patti gives a lot of love.