THE TOP TEN: Most Underrated and Underappreciated 1990s R&B/Soul Albums
by Paul T
THE TOP TEN: Most Underrated and Underappreciated 1990s R&B/Soul Albums
Most people in my generation are partial to music from the 1990s. While music critics may love and write unneeded essays on alternative and hip-hop music from the era, much of 1990’s R&B/soul is often ignored or have gone unappreciated. The best and most memorable R&B/soul music from the 1990s just sounded good or conveyed feelings and emotions that are not easily understood by snobby rock and pop critics who love hip-hop and alternative music, but have no appreciation for modern R&B and soul music.
Merging hip-hop, 80s boogie, classic 70s soul, with subtlety and more honest emotion than most mid-millennium to current R&B, the sound of soul and R&B from the 1990s was the most diverse of any era. From vocal groups to latter period new jack swing to neo-soul, some of these albums are from well known artists, or artists who definitely have a following; while other albums are from artists that no one remembers.
I chose to focus on albums (CDs, I guess, from that era) that were a good listen, not singles or half albums; as there were a lot of great singles from this era, and artists who released half of a great album. I also chose to focus on albums and artists that made at least a blip on the mainstream, i.e. most of these releases were made available to the general public in the U.S. So, there will be no underground soul classics and imports such as Lewis Taylor or This Is Not a Love Song, no genre defying semi-classics from Dionne Farris or Cree Summer, and no discussion of that lost Trina Broussard album that I still cannot find. These are simply works that were overlooked or have gone unappreciated as time went on.
10. Solo – Solo (1995)
The 1990s were littered with obscure and semi-obscure vocal groups that had a few hits such as Portrait, Me-2-U, UNV, and 4PM, but less than memorable albums. Out of these vocal groups, the best album was probably Solo’s self titled debut. “Xxtra” perfectly blends sex, love, and connecting with that special someone, even if it is temporary. “Blowin’ My Mind” is smooth and effortlessly soulful, and “Where Do You Want Me To Put It,” is a great combination of the sacred and profane. “Heaven” is one of the better “retroey” songs of the decade and sounds like pure joy. The vocal interludes of classic songs are a bit heavy handed, but sounds great nonetheless. It also helped Solo that Jimmy Jam Harris and Terry Lewis had their hands on the better songs on the album. Without the songwriting and production guidance, Solo would have sounded like the aforementioned forgettable vocal groups.
9. Kenny Lattimore – From the Soul of a Man (1998)
Albums about love and relationships do not sell well, especially when the songs are about complex issues such as trying to make sense of an affair, day to day relationship maintenance, seeing a woman as someone you truly love, and fidelity. Kenny needed to add his versions of “Love In This Club,” or “Left and Right,” but there were nowhere to be found. What we have is a great album of poignant, but not overly saccharine or overwrought love songs. “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” is a great interpretation of George Harrison’s original. “Heaven and Earth,” “All My Tomorrows,” and “If You Could See You (Through My Eyes)” are emotional songs that bring out feelings that you wish you could experience even only if for a few months at the peak of a real romantic relationship.
However, as stated, emotionally complex love songs do not sell well, and can be difficult to market. Kenny’s sound was also stuck in the middle of the R&B/Soul Genre. He was not edgy or left of center enough to be neo-soul. The album did not have any hip-hop influences, but was not Will Downing or Jazz Festival over the hill/grown folks stuff either. And leave it to Columbia Records to leave out two great Masters At Work Remixes to “Days Like This” and “If I Ever Lose My Woman,” off the album. The latter is still one of my favorite soulful house remixes ever done. From the Soul of a Man was one of those albums that required a real listen to be appreciated. But no one wanted to listent to real love songs in the late 1990s. Hell, by the end 1998, I was mainly listening to Rhythmalism and “Music Sounds Better With You.”
8. Mint Condition – From the Mint Factory (1993)
The casual music listener remembered them for “Pretty Brown Eyes,” and Mint Condition reached the peak of commercial success with “What Kind of Man Would I Be,” but artistically, their best work was From the Mint Factory.
It is hard to characterize their sound. They were not retro or neo-soul. They didn’t really buy into new jack swing completely, especially after their debut album. And the hip-hop influence in their music was barely noticeable in the 1990s. Later on, Mint Condition would make concessions to neo-soul and hip-hop, but on From the Mint Factory – they just sounded like themselves, and made incredible music. And the band can do it all; from sophisticated funk of “Nobody Does It Betta” and “If It Feels Right,” to jazz inflicted but soulful and non-schmaltzy ballads, “U Send Me Swingin’,” “Someone to Love,” and “So Fine.” “Good For Your Heart,” is one of my favorite mid-tempo songs from the decade, and the band rocks out at the end of “Fidelity,” who knew a song about being faithful could be so damn hard and sincere at the same time. From the Mint Factory doesn’t fit into any category of R&B, it is just damn good music.
7. Adriana Evans – Adriana Evans (1997)
The live strings, horns, and arrangements set this album apart from other neo-soul releases (Davina, Grenique, etc.) from this era. Even if the hip-hop influenced tracks such as “Hey Brother” and “Seeing Is Believing” doesn’t quite match up to the sublime perfection of “Say You Won’t,” “Heaven,” “Love Is All Around” and “Looking For Your Love,” this is still an amazing debut album. The latter song is still one of my favorite songs to ride around aimlessly to – whether it is on a country road, in inner-city Long Beach, or on the 15 Highway with the Las Vegas Strip on my left. The former two songs are songs you want to make love– not fornicate – but make love to. Her material since the debut can ebb and flow in terms of quality, but Adriana still has my favorite voice in any genre of popular music. Her voice is sweet, soaring, jazz-tinge, but it is also soft and sensual. Every note she sings is with purpose and emotion, not just for effect.
6. Bobby Brown – Bobby (1992)
Maybe it is questionable to say an album that went double platinum is underappreciated, but I feel that Bobby belongs in this category. Robert Barisford Brown is more known for his meltdowns and being the late Whitney Houston’s husband, but this is an incredible sounding album. Of course, you don’t listen to this album for Bobby’s voice, or the deep contemplative lyrics, which they aren’t any. You listen to this album simply for the production. This album is a sonic masterpiece. Some of Teddy Riley’s best works, “Two Can Play That Game,” “Til the End of Time,” and “That’s the Way Love Is,” are on Bobby. I love playing the CD (yes, I still own CDs), full blast in my car, and hearing the perfectly programmed drums, multi-layered keyboards sounding like a modern orchestra. I love listening to arrangements that underground electronic, hip-hop, and dance music artists only can dream of. Bobby contains one of my favorite Babyface production, “Good Enough.” The song grooves and has real depth and soul, before ‘Face got schmaltzy and dry with the “I’ll Make Love To You” and “Change the World” b.s.
The Bobby album also brings back this obscure memory. My school hosted an Academic Quiz Bowl competition in 1995, yes, three full years after Bobby was released. Two Asian-American kids from a neighboring school were leaning on a folding table with their portable compact disc players and big headphones. One kid commented to the other one, as he pulls out the Bobby CD, “You need to listen to this, it is damn near perfect.” The other kid, wearing San Francisco 49ers Jacket, commented, “You mean, the production?” First kid replied, “Yeah, its so damn perfect.” These kids didn’t grow up to be Chad Hugo or Malay, but you can’t question Asian nerds on early 1990s R&B production. I still go through a stretch every year, when I listen to this CD for at least five straight days.
5. Zhane – Saturday Night (1995)
Renee Neufville and Jean Norris are better known for their simple, but enjoyable hip-hop soul songs, “Hey, Mr. DJ” and “Groove Thang,” but their second album had everything but the built in dishwasher, and most of it worked. I often wondered if this album was released three to seven years later, whether it would have gone double platinum, trumping all the generic hip-hop infused neo-soul music that were released between 1998 and 2002. The album was released in the middle of the 1990s, neo-soul had not quite arrived, and all the hip-hop soul production and samples have been run into the ground. Hence, when an album that was more soulful than most subsequent neo-soul albums and more moved with more energy than most hip-hop inspired R&B; people did not quite know what to make of it.
“Crush” is a serious mood piece that would have given any Sade/Stuart Matthewman song a run for its money, and I like it better because it was simpler and conveyed the perfect amount of emotion in three minutes. “This Song Is For You” and “Just Like That” moved with more confidence than most neo-soul songs that would be released later in the decade. The remakes of “Good Times” and “For The Longest Time” are a bit superfluous, but the ballads and jazz influenced songs that closed out the album showed how talented these ladies are. They just sound great together, plus I still have a crush on Renee Neufville.
4. Lisa Stansfield – Real Love (1991)
There is one simple reason I am not completely sold on Adele. I grew up listening to Lisa Stansfield. Lisa sings. She doesn’t scream. She doesn’t do vocal acrobatics. Lisa is subtly sexy, without being overbearing or dramatic. Lisa is soulful without having to overtly show it, and to me, classic Lisa Stansfield was Real Love. Looking past the well deserved Number 1 R&B Hit, the working woman’s anthem, “All Woman,” the album is full of classic mid-tempo tracks such as “Change,” “Set Your Lovin’ Free,” and “It’s Got To Be Real.” The smoldering and sexy, “Time To Make You Mine,” is also Lisa at her best.
The album sounds like classic soul, not neo-soul and not acid-jazz tinged soul, but classic soul retouched for 1991. Real Love contained live instruments that included an ample amount of layered strings, keys, and horns with some programming underneath to help the album reach that classic but still modern sound, without appearing to be retro or retread soul music. The only complaint was that the album was a bit flugelhorn heavy, as one of the album key producers, Andy Morris plays the flugelhorn. Morris would leave Lisa Stansfield and her future husband/co-producer Ian Devaney by the release of the next album (the underrated and unreleased in the U.S., So Natural), which had a less classic sound and less flugelhorn.
3. Playa- Cheers 2 U (1998)
This album should have gone, at the very least, platinum. The late Static Major’s songwriting, which conveyed simple ideas into incredibly soulful songs, was never fully appreciated. And the Timbaland’s production style is here in full force, perhaps more soulful than on works by Ginuwine and Aaliyah. “Push” is one of my favorite bedroom jams of the 1990s. “Everybody Wanna Luv Somebody” is one of Timbaland’s best production. “Top Of The World” and the title track combined everything that is perfect about hip-hop influenced soul music: beats, subtle melodies, strong lead vocals, harmonies, and realistic lyrics. And the album still sounds as fresh today as it did in the late 1990s. I wondered if we had Diddy saying, “Bad Boy,” a few times over the tracks, then maybe the album would have gone platinum.
2. Anthony Hamilton – XTC (1996)
Ok, all you obscure music heads, this is my obscure album on the list. This album was released in 1996 by MCA, failed to chart, and then went out of print.
As much as I respect Anthony Hamilton’s talent and artistry, his subsequent sound is almost too retro for me – I love soul music, but I don’t need to be beaten over the head by production or vocals – to let me know that I am listening to real soul music. It seems like his new millennium and oughts’ work tries too hard to scream “soul music,” especially his music and production. Hence, this is my favorite Anthony Hamilton album. His raw soulful throwback voice over unabashed and unapologetic programmed mid-1990s R&B production strikes the perfect balance. The sound is perfect for background dinner music with your companion, or that late night drive to nowhere. The Anthony Hamilton trademarks are there – soulful vocals, simple yet earnest lyrics, just with programmed hip-hop soul production that has enough melody and plenty of bump. This album is perfection, from “My Type of Woman” to “Special Kinda Love,” and of course, everyone should remember the duet with Terri Robinson, “I Will Go,” from New York Undercover, which unlike this album has not aged well in the last few decades.
1. Intro – Intro (1993)
A “dated” sound in music can be tired, cliché filled, and quite frankly, something you rather not hear again (See Usher’s My Way Album). On the other hand, a “dated” sound can be something wonderful that perfectly captures the sound of that moment or even an era. Intro’s debut album is the latter, and it is an album that perfectly captures that early to mid 1990s R&B sound. Intro doesn’t sound fresh when played in the new millennium or the oughts, but it does hold the perfect balance between new jack swing and sample infused hip-hop soul. Intro also has more soul and honest emotion than most neo-soul albums in the last 20 years. While the album has modern programming with drum machines, samples, and multilayered keys; the songwriting and theme is classic soul, mainly talking about unrequited love and the nuances of relationships. Even the album’s more overtly sexual songs, “Ecstacy of Love,” “One of A Kind Love,” and the underrated classic, “Come Inside,” contains energy and passion that were devoid of most artists’ sex songs. While the uptempo tracks were minor hits and “Come Inside” and “Ribbon In The Sky” were radio staples during this era, the album cuts are the centerpiece of the album for me. Kenny Greene’s songwriting and vocals are at its best on “Anything For You,” “Why Don’t You Love Me,” “So Many Reasons,” and “Don’t Leave Me.” His voice has subtle strength, and a plaintive emotional quality without vocal histrionics and oversinging. The songs’ themes were simple, yet contain real honest and relatable feelings and emotions. Intro made only two albums, and Kenny Greene died from complications of AIDS in 2001. The world lost a great singer and a criminally underrated songwriter. From beginning to end, this is still my favorite early 1990s R&B album.