In some quarters, Michael Kiwanuka topping the BBC's Sound of 2012 poll has been criticised as a retrograde step. His warm voice and gentle acoustic reveries on early EPs harks back to a time when decimal coinage was seen as cutting edge.
Yet this singer/songwriter's anointing as a hot tip for the coming year shows the continuing resurgence of soul music following last year's global domination by Adele, who Kiwanuka supported on her UK tour. Both he, and the female artist who enjoyed the two bestselling UK albums of 2011, are successfully rehashing retro styles for a new generation of fans. Yet classically soulful vocals are making a comeback elsewhere, from artists with similarly roots-based sensibilities to those grounded in more contemporary sounds.
It marks a return to the neo-soul ethos of the late Nineties when the likes of Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu reacted against the domination of hip-hop in black music by returning to traditional songwriting and organic backing to signify their integrity and emotional honesty. Current practitioners, though, are open to a wider range of influences than before, with the freedom to take a variety of directions. Their knowledge is gleaned variously from parents' record collections, first musical loves or through online research. Their inspirations can range from the brash funk-pop of Prince to Bill Withers, the gravel-voiced writer of "Ain't No Sunshine" and "Lovely Day", a particular touchstone for Kiwanuka. "In a sense he wrote soul songs in a very stripped-back manner, which is something that I can really identify with," the north Londoner explains. "When I first heard his music, particularly his Live at Carnegie Hall album, it encouraged me to keep on doing what I was doing."
Kiwanuka also namechecks Marvin Gaye and Otis Redding, though adds that he considers "soul music to be any music that's direct from the heart as opposed to it being a certain style. So other artists that people may not necessarily consider to be soul artists have influenced me too – Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, and Kurt Cobain." Yet just as Hill first came to fame with hip-hop group The Fugees, that genre still has a part to play in helping soul singers gain recognition, notably on this side of the Atlantic with the Scottish former neuroscience student Emeli Sandé.
The Aberdonian singer first came to public attention by guesting on a succession of hip-hop tracks – Chipmunk's debut single, "Diamond Rings", Wiley's "Never Be Your Woman" and Professor Green's chart-topper "Read All About It". Her beginnings in the music industry, though, were as a songwriter, penning material for artists including Susan Boyle and Tinie Tempah. As a solo artist, she made an immediate impact last year by reaching No 2 with "Heaven". While that tune fitted the contemporary R&B format, its follow-up, "Daddy", came with echoing drums and ominous piano notes that hinted at its creator's soul inspirations. In interviews, she has revealed that hearing Nina Simone was a formative influence.
Coming up in Sandé's wake is Mancunian artist Daley. He, too, has followed that singer's lead by making his mark as a guest vocalist – in his case on the Gorillaz single "Doncamatic". Daley mentions D'Angelo, Maxwell, Jill Scott and Badu as influences.
As an unsigned artist, it was a feat for Daley to make the BBC's Sound of 2011. Since then, he has added vocals to the rapper Wretch 32's tune "Long Way Home" and signed to Polydor. Another northerner, Salford's Ren Harvieu, comes with a more retro sound aiming for the Duffy market, while Marlon Roudette's smooth, high-registered delivery has gone down a storm in Germany. The most striking talents, though, have come from a similar singer/songwriter background to Kiwanuka, notably Lianne La Havas and Cold Specks. The latter is Canadian artist Al Spx, who handily describes her bluesy spirituals and stark acoustic backing as "doom soul", adding to the mix gospel, Americana and folk.
Closer to home, La Havas came to attention when her debut Lost & Found EP came out on indie label Labour of Love last November. After appearing on the same Later... With Jools Holland show as Bon Iver, the south Londoner was offered a US support slot with him last month. Now signed to Warner Bros, her next EP, Found, follows in February. Although she plays electric guitar, La Havas has a jazzy, hollow-bodied style that suits her measured voice, which reflects her Mum's neo-soul influences and the jazz practitioners she learnt about at singing lessons.
Neither the rootsy Spx or La Havas with her jazz stylings put their unadorned music in opposition to contemporary sounds, with their digital provenance and oversaturated mixes. The latter, though, does say, "I'm offering a simpler way of getting across a message that means something to me. There's a lot of pop around and I hope I offer a different angle."
Emeli Sandé's album 'Our Version of Events' is out on 13 February on EMI RecordsReuse content