1) John Legend — So many new artists are compared to Stevie Wonder, but none ever fit the bill. But John Legend (a disciple of hot producer Kanye West) is so good that he's a little unreal. He's my choice, aside from Alicia Keys, for R&B star of the year. Pretenders to ol' school soul come and go, but Legend is the real thing: 100% solid gold. If you don't have his debut album, “Get Lifted,” you're missing the 2006 Grammy Award winner in many categories. He is a sheer delight. From the anthem "Stand by You" to the uplifting "Lice it Up," Legend (real name John Stephens) has done what none of his peers has accomplished: made an album of new-sounding soul that doesn't rely on a lot of worn-out samples and actually suggests new, catchy hooks. You'll be humming these songs for some time to come.
2) Vivian Green — After a promising debut album in 2003 called "A Love Story," it seemed like Green vanished. Then she popped up in the movie "De Lovely" and stole it from the other, better-known singers who had to cover Cole Porter with a smash version of "Love for Sale." A new album called “Vivian” is due this spring, and then Green will be fully established as a descendent of Anita Baker, Oleta Adams and other smart, sophisticated chanteuses. Like Legend, she's on, of all places, Sony/Columbia. Go figure.
3) Wyclef Jean — The true genius of his generation, the underrated Jean has his own label, recording studio, and committed following. His wife is even a highly praised fashion designer. Now if he can just shed the stigma of the Fugees (one which he propagates), Wyclef, a Marvin Gaye multi-threat for the new millennium, will finally come into his own. Check out any of his solo albums or his theme song for "Hotel Rwanda."
4) Anthony Hamilton — "Coming From Where I'm From" is the name of the album by this promising newcomer. When Hamilton performed with Alicia Keys at a charity benefit this fall, it became clear where he was coming from: a deep place. Hamilton's North Carolina grit places him more toward soul's rougher textures, like Joe Simon or Johnny Taylor. And that's just fine considering all the smooth voices clamoring for space on soft-R&B radio. And you know that any singer who writes a song called "Cornbread, Fish, and Collard Greens" and not something about bling-bling in 2004 has the right values to be a soul man.
5) Anjelique Kidjo — This Benin-born dynamo stole the "We Are Family" charity single from folks like Patti Labelle and Diana Ross. That should tell you something, shouldn't it? I don't know how it's possible that after more than 10 years this beautiful, talented performer is still a secret. I guess some people call this "world music," but to me Kidjo is the epitome of great soul. Check out her album “Black Ivory Soul” to hear her truly original concoctions.
6) Kanye West — “The College Dropout” comes across as the hip-hop Pat Boone in head-to-toe Ralph Lauren. But West, while enjoying the street side of the performance, is very old school. A cinch for a Grammy this year, West is on his way to something big as long as he stays serious and doesn't let the funny business get in his way.
7) Sam Moore — "Soul Man" Sam Moore is almost 70. Bruce Springsteen's favorite soul singer, he was the Boss's guest star at last year's Christmas shows in Asbury Park. Now he’s threatening to record a new album this year and maybe launch a TV show with other buddies like Jon Bon Jovi and Don Henley. He still has the chops, too. Solomon Burke, you can run but you can't hide.
8) Willie Mitchell — The record business's most unsung, unheralded, and unappreciated genius producer gives us Al Green's new album, “Everything's OK,” on March 15th. That will make two in a row for the legendary pair after last year's tremendous “I Can't Stop.” This was to be expected. From his rundown Royal Studios in Memphis, Tennessee, Mitchell has produced a chunk of the world's classics — from Green to Ann Peebles to Syl Johnson and more. He's not in any halls of fame: that's how good he is. Hey, Willie Mitchell (with the Hodges brothers and his horn section) doesn't need to be in your clubs. He's the real thing.
9) Mariah Carey — You can sense a whole world of doubters hoping she will fail. But Carey's "It's Like That" is already a hit before she's even made the video. Like Whitney Houston, Carey has lived a soap opera. The only difference is, she delivers some sense of wanting it to be over. The voice is still there. If “The Emancipation of Mimi” CD turns out to be without embarrassment, and all signs are good right now, then Carey is back. Her sweetest revenge will be having a bigger hit than Jennifer "I Just Borrowed Your Riff" Lopez.
10) Mario — "Let Me Love You” is currently number 1. Mario is only 18, but Clive Davis and his crew of hit makers saw something in him three years ago at the ripe age of 15. They've been grooming him ever since, and that's always good news. If he wants it, Mario can have the same kind of mega career at J Records as Alicia Keys and Gavin DeGraw. The big question is, will he bypass the drugs, the melodrama and all the other stuff that comes with fame, perhaps take a college class or two and not get ripped off somewhere down the line? We can only hope.