I started doing these sets of 5 genre-specific year-end singles lists (R&B, rap, rock, pop and country) in 2012
. And I usually kick it off with R&B, because these days it's the genre where I most easily have found hits that I love, songs that I look forward to hearing on the radio every day. This year my enthusiasm was maybe a little lower than other years, but it was still a pretty good one, with a lot of different sounds getting room to thrive in the margins while one particular sound ruled heavy rotation. And as always, I wanted to point out what was (or wasn't) getting played on the radio, because I still listen to the radio every day and feel like it represents the zeitgeist of popular genres of music in a way that increasingly gets lost as Billboard makes sales and streaming a bigger piece of what determines their charts (which is why I like to use figures from airplay-only charts in these lists). Here's a Spotify playlist
of all 20 songs.
1. Tinashe f/ ScHoolboy Q - "2 On"
#5 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #24 Hot 100
In the DJ Mustard/Lil Jon parallel narrative that Mustard openly encourages, 2014 was his 2004, the moment when his years of climbing up the ranks of rap producers culminated in his sound spilling over into R&B (i.e. the era of "Yeah!" and "Goodies"). I have mixed feelings about Mustard R&B just as I did with crunk R&B -- those crisp drums and razor sharp synths were built for rappers and they really need the right singer, the right melody, the right beat for it to work. But this year, "2 On" was the song that lined all those factors up perfectly, probably due in no small part to Mustard's co-producers, Redwine and DJ Marley Waters. "2 On" has a killer bassline, music box synth twinkles and dramatic strings that are notably missing from everything else Mustard has done on his own, and all those details really made it stand out in a year when Mustard's radio takeover threatened to blur into a big indistinct wall of similar tracks. ScHoolboy's verse is kind of incidental to the song's success, but I think it's still really well executed (and infinitely preferable to the Drake/OB O'Brien version that helped give it a chart boost).
2. Usher - "Good Kisser"
#1 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #65 Hot 100
The production duo Pop & Oak has been responsible for some of my favorite R&B tracks of the past few years (by Elle Varner, Miguel, K. Michelle, and others), so it really felt like a big, deserved win for them to work on Usher's lead single. And after some of the drab tunes of the married Usher era and the somewhat misguided genre hopping of the Looking 4 Myself
era, it was fun to hear him break out the falsetto and salacious lyrics over those funky drums for something that was a little retro but not so much that it felt like the whole point of the track.
3. Beyonce - "Partition"
#3 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #23 Hot 100
"Partition" was one of the few R&B hits not produced by DJ Mustard that fit well into that trend of danceable, Bay Area-leaning beats (as Beyonce says in the making-of video
about the song, "it reminds me of Too $hort or E-40") while having its own distinct and kind of uniquely dark sound. That might've contributed to "Partition" being the first democratically elected album track from Beyonce
to become a single due to popular demand, but the song also got a lot of buzz for just being the most blue and bawdy thing B had ever recorded. But even while she was in the back of a car getting her dress stained, the album's subtext about the sex and feminism was ever present, here in the form of one of Beyonce's backup dancers doing a spoken interlude in French that's basically a loose paraphrase of Julianne Moore's speech in The Big Lebowski
. I especially liked when stations that were playing the song before it was released as a single played the whole album track with the 2 minutes of "Yonce" at the beginning.
4. DJ Khaled f/ Chris Brown, August Alsina, Future and Jeremih - "Hold You Down"
#1 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #39 Hot 100
This would've been a strong single with any of the above being the main vocalist. But the way everyone's voice is woven together is just sublime, really sounds like it took so much more compositional effort and mixing desk magic than the usual rap-oriented DJ Khaled hits where everyone tosses in their 8 or 16 bars between hooks. And even Khaled himself is an unusually valuable presence here, I just love singing along with the tender melodies and then screaming "DJ KHALED!" or "ANOTHER ONE!" in between lines.
5. Jeremih f/ YG - "Don't Tell 'Em"
#1 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #6 Hot 100
Jeremih helped write Kid Ink's catchy but ultimately inane hit "Show Me" and, according to Jeremih interview lore, decided to write "Don't Tell 'Em" the day that "Show Me" went to #1 on the R&B charts. However calculated his motives were, "Don't Tell 'Em" is a rare instance of a deliberate copy of a hit record totally surpasses it, both commercially and musically. Just everything about the song is a step up from "Show Me": the beat, the singing, the rapping, even the '90s hit it interpolates. Jeremih is so much more than a mouthpiece for yet another Mustard hit, but unfortunately the album this song was supposed to set up still hasn't gotten a release date.
6. Michael Jackson f/ Justin Timberlake - "Love Never Felt So Good"
#12 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #9 Hot 100
The last couple decades of Michael Jackson's recording career were frequently overshadowed by the sadness and strangeness of the last couple decades of Michael Jackson's life, and didn't leave a lot of hope that posthumous releases would be anything but lucrative vault-cleaning. But a Thriller
-era piano-and-vocals demo of a lovely Paul Anka composition was a truly inspiring glimpse at one of the many roads not taken in his career, and the mercenary Timbaland remix released as a single worked far better than it had a right to. It jumped into the pop charts in the initial splash of publicity, but for the rest of the year remained a welcome recurrent on grown folks R&B stations.
7. Rico Love - "They Don't Know"
#7 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #60 Hot 100
Rico Love, one of the many Sean Garretts and Ester Deans who've been trying to Ne-Yo that elusive crossover from songwriter/producer to solo star for ages, quietly released an EP in the summer of 2013 that ended up yielding one of the great sleeper hits of early 2014. A better scumbag soul anthem than anything Ty Dolla $ign's ever written, "They Don't Know" has a sublime quiet storm groove and an impeccable Ma$e impression from Rico on the song's rapped third verse.
8. Babyface and Toni Braxton - "Hurt You"
#16 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay
One of the great underrated R&B albums of 2014 was Love, Marriage & Divorce
, a wizened middle-aged look at heartbreak from two artists who sold millions singing sad songs in the '90s. It's a shame it never got much traction beyond the modest success of the great lead single, but these days Toni's less talented sister Tamar gets most of the airplay.
9. Mila J - "Smoke, Drink, Break-Up"
#33 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay
Speaking of sisters, when one of the year's big breakout stars is all over the radio and suddenly one of their siblings comes out of the woodwork like "hey, I sing too," usually you get the sense that they're just riding coattails. But Mila J's first hit, and the rest of the EP she released this year, are so much better than anything her little sis Jhene Aiko has done that I'm happy that she's getting shine too.
10. K. Michelle - "Can't Raise A Man"
#13 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #94 Hot 100
K. Michelle had a big year in 2013 with the release of Rebellious Soul
, and in 2014 she seemed determined to keep her spot with VH1 'musical' of the album, a great mixtape, another reality show, and a follow-up album due out in December. But mostly I'm glad she kept pushing that first album with a great choice for the 2nd single, one of the smarter commentaries on the opposite sex on R&B radio in a year dominated by dudes singing garbage like "Loyal" (which K. Michelle also responded to directly with her own remix).
11. T-Pain f/ B.o.B - "Up Down (Do This All Day)"
#11 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #62 Hot 100
In the last couple months, T-Pain's career and reputation have started to undergo what I would like to think will wind up being a pretty major re-evaluation by the public, kicked off by his great Tiny Desk Concert
and the release of the 6-minute rap track "Stoicville." But one of the small victories of that NPR performance was that it reaffirmed that his clubby recent singles, "Up Down" and "Drankin' Patna," are pretty strong when stripped down to just words and melodies, with or without trendy DJ Mustard production.
12. August Alsina f/ Young Jeezy - "Make It Home"
#42 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay
August Alsina seemed poised to be a major star this year with his album doing respectable numbers and him getting an opening slot on the Usher tour and a supporting role on the DJ Khaled hit mentioned earlier. But his label has been insistently flinging out 5 singles over the past year and change, and all of them have stalled out in the lower reaches of the charts without getting anywhere near the success of "I Luv It." This one in particular, however, became a real sleeper hit on the Baltimore and D.C. stations I listen to, and gave me a whole new appreciation for the kid.
13. Bando Jonez - "Sex You"
#23 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay
Polow Da Don is a few years removed from his hitmaking peak, but poked his head back in the game a little in 2014 with (ugh) "Anaconda" and this goofy little tune that makes "Birthday Sex" seem mature and seductive by comparison. Gotta love the little bass note droplets that stutter out under the lyrics about raindrops.
14. Janelle Monae f/ Miguel - "Primetime"
#22 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay
After being a constant presence on R&B radio in 2011, 2012, and 2013, Miguel kind of took the year off. But he did use some of his juice to help another pompadour-wearing critical darling get her first real radio hit ever.
15. Sevyn Streeter - "nEXt"
#23 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay
In the hyper cautious major label climate, perhaps nobody is having a harder time than new R&B singers. Most of them have only been able to squeak out EPs even when they had sizable radio hits, and there's nobody I would've rather had a full album from in 2014 than Sevyn Streeter based on the strength of the EP she released in 2013. Unfortunately, the EP's sublime second single didn't get too high on the charts (even with unnecessary remixes featuring Kid Ink and YG), and I'm losing hope that we'll hear much more from her anytime soon.
16. Adrian Marcel f/ Sage The Gemini - "2AM"
#38 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay
Oakland native Raphael Saadiq seems pretty far removed from the hometown sound the Bay Area is known for today. But this year he signed a young Oakland singer whose debut hit impressively blended Saadiq smoothness with post-hyphy sonics and a guest verse from one of the Bay's rising rap stars.
17. Algebra Blessett - "Nobody But You"
#42 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay
Backup singer to the stars Algebra Blessett's second independent album Recovery
was one of the great unheralded highlights of the "adult R&B" world this year. And its lead single was the delightful, hooky confection that hooked me enough in its few radio spins to make me take notice.
18. Pharrell - "Happy"
#1 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #1 Hot 100
R&B sung by actual African Americans has been more scarce on the upper reaches of the Hot 100 in the last few years than it'd been in decades. And in 2014, three blockbuster songs helped buck that trend, at least briefly, and I wish I liked them enough to put them higher than the last three spots on this list, but they're still at least worthy of inclusion. As part of the generation that grew up on Pharrell's club bangers, there's something eerily appropriate about now watching my 5-year-old son sing along to what is esssentially "If You're Happy And You Know It Clap Your Hands (Neptunes Remix)."
19. Beyonce - "Drunk In Love"
#1 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #2 Hot 100
It's only maybe the 10th-best song on the album, which usually doesn't mean it's the big crossover hit. But it's an amazing album, so that means it's still pretty good.
20. John Legend - "All Of Me"
#3 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #1 Hot 100
After Adele and Bruno Mars and Rihanna brought spare piano-and-vocals ballads back to the pop charts in the last few years, it's appropriate that John Legend got to cash in big on the trend, considering that he was out there making "Ordinary People" a hit back when nothing else sounded like that on the radio. I do wish this song was even half as good as "Ordinary People," but Love In The Future
was a dope album and I'm glad it got a hit.
The 10 Worst R&B Radio Hits of 2014:
1. Jhene Aiko - "The Worst"
2. Chris Brown - "Loyal"
3. Ty Dolla $ign f/ B.o.B - "Paranoid"
4. TeeFLii f/ 2 Chainz - "24 Hours"
5. Teyana Taylor f/ Yo Gotti and Pusha T - "Maybe"
6. Chris Brown f/ Usher and Rick Ross - "New Flame"
7. Robin Thicke - "Get Her Back"
8. PartyNextDoor f/ Drake - "Recognize"
9. Trey Songz - "Smartphones"
10. Trey Songz - "Na Na"