The 20 Best R&B Radio Hits of 2013

When I did this list last year, there was a lot of hype about 2012 being some kind of special year for R&B, because critics were more excited about Frank Ocean and Miguel and "Climax" than they typically would be about singers that get played on urban radio. It was a great year, but the nonsense about 'alt R&B' was off-putting to me, and mostly made me wary that about any sudden dilettante enthusiasm for the genre not carrying over into the next year even if there was still a lot of great R&B music coming out. So 2013 was just another year, but in the good sense that it was yet another year that it wasn't hard to find some great singing and songwriting in R&B, even the stuff on the radio, which is about as diverse as it's ever been.

I'm doing 5 of these lists, as I did in 2012 (for R&B, rap, country, rock and pop), and the 'radio hits' component is important to me because I think there's still a lot to be said for getting in your car, turning on the radio, and hearing how these genres are represented on the airwaves, for better and for worse, on a daily basis. I'm also making a point of listing chart peaks from Billboard's airplay-only charts, because, as I wrote about extensively last year, Billboard has changed how their charts work to privilege downloading and streams over radio spins. Which might sound like a hip and modern thing to do, but for instance, compare the main Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart (which on any given week is usually half Justin/Robin/Eminem/Macklemore) with the R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart, and I feel like the problems are self-evident.

Anyway, here's the Spotify playlist of my favorite R&B radio hits of 2013:

1. Fantasia f/ Kelly Rowland and Missy Elliott - "Without Me"
#6 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #74 Hot 100
Side Effects Of You is my favorite R&B album of the year, largely because of how producer Harmony "H-Money" Samuels, who did all but one track, approaches Fantasia's voice from every angle you might want to hear it from, both expected and unexpected. In the latter category is this seething, imperious kiss-off, something like "Irreplaceable" with all of the vulnerability and tact drained out, over the kind of vaguely retro woodblock melody that seems to pop up on an urban radio hit about once a year lately (previously in "Beemer, Benz Or Bentley" and "Beez In The Trap"). It's hard to tell if Missy Elliott's co-writing credit is just for her brief but perfect rap verse, or if the whole song came out of her head, but I would like to think it's the latter, since it reminds me of some of the awesome underrated R&B deep cuts on her old albums.

2. Tamar Braxton - "Love And War"
#2 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #57 Hot 100
One of my favorite things that I wrote in 2013 was this Tamar Braxton/K. Michelle album review, which touched on both the stardom vacuum for women on R&B radio in the last few male-dominated years, and how those two women used reality TV as a launching pad to become this year's unlikely breakout stars. When I first "Love And War," I liked it, but it seemed doomed because a more established star, Keyshia Cole, already had a similar-sounding single out with the same producer, DJ Camper. Instead, Keyshia's "Trust And Believe" peaked outside the top 10 and disappeared, while "Love And War" dominated the airwaves for months. And man, this song deserved it -- just so perfectly paced, so much emotion packed into 4 minutes, Tamar finally, instantly proving herself a true peer to her sister as a vocalist, not just a sibling riding coattails.

3. Robin Thicke f/ T.I. and Pharrell - "Blurred Lines"
#1 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #1 Hot 100
"Blurred Lines" was a multi-format sensation that actually took off on pop radio quicker than urban radio -- it topped the Pop Songs chart 2 weeks before it hit #1 on R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, but it stayed #1 on R&B longer overall. But it was an R&B song through and through, just like any Robin Thicke track, even while it was a huge and extremely rare crossover hit (you'd arguably have to go back about 4 years, to Beyonce's "Single Ladies," to find the last R&B song by an R&B singer played on R&B radio that topped the Hot 100, depending on how you feel about Usher's "OMG" and certain Rihanna songs). For all the hoopla about the song being a nakedly obvious homage to Marvin Gaye's "Got To Give It Up," what got lost in the shuffle and the lawsuits is that it's entirely its own song -- it has its own groove and tempo, its own lyrics, its own melodies and vocal cadences that borrow nothing from the Marvin classic but the texture and vibe.

4. Rihanna f/ Future - "Loveeeeeee Song"
#4 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #55 Hot 100
Speaking of Rihanna, she may be the only singer who consistently gets played on both pop radio and R&B radio, but where songs like "Umbrella" and "Rude Boy" used to straddle formats, now she mostly makes different songs for different stations. This year, "Stay" dominated pop radio, she had two simultaneous urban radio hits, each with half of the Future/Mike WiLL Made It tandem that took over rap radio in 2012. Mike WiLL's "Pour It Up" was a fun but flimsy retread of the "Bandz A Make Her Dance" beat, but Future wrote and co-produced a truly unique duet for Rihanna in "Loveeeeeee Song," which was reportedly given its wonderful, ridiculous title by Jay-Z himself. Really one of Rih's greatest vocal performances ever, too. Future's made a lot of disarmingly vulnerable songs in the last couple years, but this might be the one that really hits me the deepest, just laying out his emotional needs in the plainest terms possible. Ain't nothin' wrong with it.

5. Ciara - "Body Party"
#2 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #22 Hot 100
When Ciara announced that her next single sampled "My Boo" by Ghost Town DJ's, and was co-written by her current boo Future, it felt almost a little too perfect as the predestined comeback hit she'd been desperately searching for in the protracted run-up to the album previously known as One Woman Army. Thankfully, the resulting song was not merely a stroll through 1996 nostalgia, but a gorgeous, sensual slow jam that touches on the side of Ciara that she revealed on the classic "Promise" without rewriting it, all the while letting Future hit the highest of the high notes in his incredible backing vocals.

6. K. Michelle - "V.S.O.P."
#7 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #89 Hot 100
If K. Michelle never topped her minor, forgettable circa 2010 hits and just became famous off of reality TV and social media fuckery, it wouldn't be a surprising or unusual career arc in this day and age. But she managed to parlay that publicity into a ridiculous banger that fits her image and personality while also showcasing her incredible voice and her ability to yowl things like "HISTRAAAY," all while Pop & Oak (who did Elle Varner's "Refill" on last year's list) demolish a Chi-Lites sample that once but no longer existed in modern memory banks as part of an aight Jay-Z song.

7. Alicia Keys f/ Maxwell - "Fire We Make"
#15 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay
When Maxwell came out of a long hiatus/hibernation in 2009 for the amazing BLACKsummers'night, he said it'd be the first of 3 albums that'd be released back to back. Four years later, all we've had since then is a snippet of the lead single for the 2nd one, and this duet where he upstaged Alicia Keys on her own album, with sumptuous production by, once again, Pop & Oak and a crackling guitar solo by Gary Clarke, Jr. It immediately spurred talk of Maxwell and Alicia releasing a whole EP of duets, but I'm not holding my breath.

8. Mariah Carey f/ Miguel - "#Beautiful"
#30 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #15 Hot 100
When Miguel's last album hit, news almost immediately started swirling of him getting in the studio with superstars like Beyonce and Mariah. The former has yet to come out of the woodwork with a Miguel collaboration, but Mariah made hers the lead single (or I guess second single, after that forgettable Ross/Meek track) for her next album. We haven't heard that album yet, mainly because "Beautiful" was maybe too much of a curveball, Miguel toying with the guitar-driven sound of Kaleidoscope Dream's deep cuts, for the song to

9. Sevyn Streeter - "I Like It"
#19 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay
This song didn't blow up as big as the next single she released, and it's not even on the EP she just put out, but "I Like It" was a hell of a calling card, both for Sevyn Streeter and for the producer, Harmony "H-Money," who soon after began racking up several other of my favorite songs this year. In a year when very little had that kind of frantic early Timbaland propulsion, including Timbaland's recent productions, it was refreshing every time to hear the synths and drums of "I Like It" careening towards that huge chorus.

10. Kelly Rowland - "Kisses Down Low"
#11 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #72 Hot 100
I'm a little mad that this actually fell a little short of the horrid previous single, "Ice," which hit #10 on the airplay chart, because seriously isn't "Kisses Down Low" about a hundred times better? Sure, rewriting the chorus to T.I.'s "Top Down" to be about cunnilingus is kind of funny, but it's about the only idea Rock City had this year that didn't cause me misery since they also wrote Miley's "We Can't Stop," Rihanna's "Pour It Up" and Ciara's "I'm Out." What really makes "Kisses Down Low" great, though, is one of Mike WiLL Made It's most expansive, ambitious productions to date, a music box symphony full of interlocking sections and epic build-ups and pre-choruses.

11. Mario f/ Nicki Minaj - "Somebody Else"
#21 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay
Baltimore's own super Mario brother of the R&B game didn't come back as big this year as he's done with lead singles for his previous albums, which means he's currently back to the drawing board with follow-up singles. But this one banged hard, with one of Nicki's rare 'serious' verses that wasn't completely bland and terrible. "Somebody Else" was also something of a comeback for Polow Da Don, who hasn't done much of anything of note in a while, after years of consistently producing classic R&B tracks.

12. T-Rone - "Hello Love (F.U.)"
#39 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay
Lately there seems to be a small army of 'street' R&B dudes angling around the periphery of the charts like Ty Dolla $ign and Teeflii and T.Rone, who, maybe because their names all start with T, feel like more rugged and less AutoTuned post-T-Pain types (or maybe less artsy post-The Weeknd types?). In general, I don't really like this stuff, these guys mostly strike me as untalented sleazeballs, but I love T.Rone's breakout single, which during its brief chart run in the spring got him signed to Cash Money and spawned a worthless posse cut rap remix, but never got as far on the charts as I hoped it would.

13. Mack Wilds - "Own It"
#23 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay
When a rapper gets on the radio with some dusty breakbeats that recall hip-hop's first decade, it raises all sorts of "back in the day" conversations and mostly becomes the object of handwringing about how things have changed. When an R&B record that sounds like that gets on the radio, though, it feels more apolitical and warmly nostalgic, a celebration of the sound more than anything else. The most recent record to pop off on R&B radio with an "Impeach The President" break, surprisingly, is by one of the kids from the 4th season of The Wire, and it's still climbing the charts right now but it feels like its buzz is big enough to justify slipping on the list.

14. Chris Brown - "Fine China"
#8 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #31 Hot 100
Although he wasn't as ubiquitous in 2013 as he was for the previous couple years, Chris Brown continues in spite of everything, and perhaps a little because of it, to be one of R&B radio's increasingly rare sure things. And he keeps occasionally making jams that may not excuse anything, but certainly make his ubiquity more tolerable. Sure it'd be nice if his best song this year didn't compare a woman to a very beautiful and very breakable object, and it'd be nice if he didn't struggle so hard with the high notes on the pre-chorus. I wish someone else made a hit that sounded like this in 2013, but nobody did, so props to Chris, I guess.

15. Sevyn Streeter f/ Chris Brown - "It Won't Stop (Remix)"
#2 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #46 Hot 100
Chris's presence was less welcome on "It Won't Stop," which sounded just fine as a Sevyn Streeter solo track for a few months before he hopped on it and made it a bigger hit. But hey, if I can deal with Diplo having produced this, I can deal with Chris singing on it too.

16. Miguel f/ Kendrick Lamar - "How Many Drinks? (Remix)"
#3 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #69 Hot 100
Much like Chris Brown's addition to "It Won't Stop" made it a worse but more popular song, the remix to "How Many Drinks?" was a brilliant bit of synchronicity for two L.A.-based artists who'd just come off having big breakthrough years that didn't necessarily make great musical sense. Not that Miguel's awkward "let me dig that out like a fossil/ damn baby, that ass is colossal" bridge was that too good to drop, but the Kendrick verse that replaced it falls a little flat. Still a dope song, though, and the closest thing Kaleidoscope Dream had to an "Adorn" soundalike, which was a good thing to have ready after the fantastic "Do You..." went a little too far left and never quite took off on radio.

17. Raheem DeVaughn - "Love Connection"
#35 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay
With Miguel only kinda-sorta having more songs like "Adorn" and not being in a rush to spin it off into a formula, he left the field open for others to try and xerox it, with Washington, D.C. hometown hero and major label refugee Raheem DeVaughn making struggle R&B's first transparent "Adorn" knockoff. It actually turned out pretty catchy, though, easily one of his better singles in an uneven career.

18. Drake f/ Majid Jordan - "Hold On, We're Going Home"
#1 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #5 Hot 100
A few months later, Drake did his "Adorn, I Want My Own" almost as shamelessly as Raheem. And while I thought the bitemarks he left on his opening act's biggest single were a little too obvious, this song functioned as a successful R&B track better overall than previous 808s & Heartbreak karaoke cuts like "Find Your Love."

19. Justin Timberlake f/ Jay-Z - "Suit & Tie"
#6 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, #3 Hot 100
"Suit & Tie" was the disappointing kickoff to Timberlake's monumentally disappointing 2013. But now that he's spent the entire year dropping successively worse singles, and we're no longer laboring under the "oh the second single will better...oh the second album will be better" delusions, I think we can go back and give this one credit for being dope for what it is. It always cracked me up how often DJs would fast forward straight past that intro, though.

20. Eric Benet - "News For You"
#22 R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay
I'm a bigger fan than most of the kind of 'adult' R&B stations geared towards older listeners that mainly focus on '80s classics along with new songs by established stars (usually downtempo, or at least as blatantly retro as "Blurred Lines"). And this year I enjoyed a lot of hits from those formats, by Chrisette Michelle, Charlie Wilson, Toni Braxton & Babyface, Charlie Wilson, etc. But most of all, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this track from Eric Benet, who I'd previously mostly regarded as the Lyle Lovett of R&B, respected for his music but mostly known for his past marriage to an A-list actress. The track has an almost Steely Dan-level slickness, but the remix with 2 Chainz is actually almost as good as the original, without stretching Benet too far out of his comfort zone.

Bonus bile:
The 10 Worst R&B Hits of 2013
1. R. Kelly f/ 2 Chainz - "My Story"
2. Tamar Braxton - "The One"
3. Jonn Hart f/ French Montana - "Who Booty"
4. Chris Brown f/ Nicki Minaj - "Love More"
5. August Alsina f/ Trinidad James - "I Luv This Shit"
6. Rihanna - "Pour It Up"
7. Sean Kingston f/ Chris Brown and Wiz Khalifa - "Beat It"
8. John Legend f/ Rick Ross - "Who Do We Think We Are"
9. Jeremih f/ Lil Wayne and Natasha Mosley - "All The Time (Remix)"
10. The-Dream f/ Fabolous - "Slow It Down"
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