A handful of collaborations released during 2010 and 2011 hinted at Jessie Ware's range and potential. The singer outclassed her fellow vocalists on SBTRKT's SBTRKT and Joker's The Vision; she displayed exquisite restraint on the former's "Right Thing to Do," while she had her way with the latter's lancing title track. Along with the two low-key 2011 singles, "Valentine" and "Strangest Feeling," there were indications that Ware was capable of making something like Devotion -- an album of uncommon depth, a sophisticated but stimulating hybrid of pop, soul, and adult contemporary. Ware works extensively with Dave Okumu, Julio Bashmore, and Kid Harpoon, but it's Okumu -- a member of the Invisible, as well as an affiliate of Bugz in the Attic and Matthew Herbert -- who is most responsible for helping Ware prance across the tightrope that comes with making subtle, sophisticated music. Ware's voice is an instant draw. Her whispers are as powerful as her wails. Whenever the lyrics read like they're aiming for the profound but appear hollow, she rescues them with elegance and power impressive enough to astound any of the elders to whom she has been compared -- Alison Moyet, Annie Lennox, Sade Adu, and Lisa Stansfield included. Take the weakest link, "No to Love"; the repeated exasperation "Who says no to love?" seems utterly ridiculous, but the delivery fits into the all-consuming heartache that is alternately concealed and exposed throughout the set's duration. If this isn't the album of the year, it's at least the art-pop album of the year, or the neo-sophisti-pop album of the year, or -- beside Frank Ocean's Channel Orange -- the alternative R&B album of the year. As far as "proper music" from the U.K. is considered, it belongs in a class with Roxy Music's Avalon, Sade's Diamond Life, the Blue Nile's Hats, and Caron Wheeler's UK Blak.
by Andy Kellman