A List Of 2023’s Best Retro Modern Soul Artists
One of the most exciting developments in music over the past few decades is the revival of soul music with a retro twist. Starting in around 2005, artists like Amy Winehouse, Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings, Charles Bradley, Lee Fields and El Michels Affair (to name a few) started retro music aesthetics in an exciting way. Taking classic sounds and warping them into something new, these retro modern soul artists were the forerunners of an emerging hybrid genre that mixes modern sensibilities with vintage-inspired instrumentation and recording techniques.
The ’60s & ’70s were a high point for soul music. That’s when genre pioneers like Stax and Motown were at their peak, creating timeless classics that would heavily influence a lot of the music we hear today. Stax and Motown-esque vintage vibes were incorporated into modern day pop hits in the mid-2000s by artists like Bruno Mars and Winehouse, who helped bring the sounds of the past back into the mainstream consciousness. Popular soul music of yesteryear continues to inspire modern artists looking for that retro sound. An emphasis on analog instrumentation and production ties these recordings to the past, but contemporary execution is what made these records stand out as something new and fresh.
Today’s best funk and soul artists have their own interpretations of classic sounds, with lush textures and dreamy arrangements bringing a modern twist to their music. While the retro-inspired sound proliferates today’s music, a select few emerging artists are taking us back to another era with just as much passion and originality as the original sounds of Stax and Motown’s heyday. With that in mind, EC has put together a list of today’s best retro modern soul artists, acts that deserve more attention and recognition and are set for big things in the coming years.
With layered vocals and an intricately produced sound, Theodor’s 2023 self-titled debut album is a modern throwback to classic soul and funk. Theodor’s dreamy harmonies are an easy listen that give you everything you could possibly want from soul music. Perfectly recreating a forgotten golden era vibe, the album is chock full of warm, kaleidoscopic arrangements. Every song showcases a unique sound that manages to be both soothing and engrossing, while each verse features warm harmonies layered in ways you don’t usually expect from a modern soul band. With rich soundscapes, inventive melodies, and smooth vocals from the bands two lead singer, this album is a tender homage to classic soul with a modern twist.
If you’re a fan of modern soul music and don’t know who Morten Martens is, it’s time to pay attention. Crafting music under his alias Les Imprimés, Martens is one of the latest additions to Leon Michels’ Big Crown Records. A true renaissance man, the Norwegian artist plays nearly every instrument on his recordings, produces it all himself, and writes all of the lyrics. His sound is hard to classify, channeling elements of soul, rocksteady, hip-hop, funk and gospel into grooves with an infectious quality that only deepens with each listen. His ear for tone and arrangement is impeccable, as evidenced by his debut 7″ single “I’ll Never Leave.” Sounding like a natural evolution of the music that came before him, Les Imprimés proves there’s still a future for classic sounds.
Thee Sacred Souls
Groove-oriented and unpretentious, Thee Sacred Souls’ 2022 self-titled debut album is a fantastic distillation of the sweet soul and funk music of the early ‘70s that feels timeless. Over 12 tracks, they combine the easygoing grace of classic soul with an unmistakable doo-wop vibe that’s enchanting from start to finish. There are no guests on the album, only the trio of drummer Alex Garcia, bassist Sal Saman and singer Josh Lane who are easily one of the most dynamic modern soul groups in recent memory. Together, they create music that takes its time to move you, a delicate balance between tradition and modernity, between driving grooves and vocals as smooth as butter.
Hailing from Los Angeles, The Altons have been a staple in the city’s music scene for the past few years. Their brand of dreamy soul is drenched in sunshine soaked horns, sweet cumbia melodies, and driving beats. With each song and album, the Altons craft a world of their own, rich with sounds and textures that possess threads of familiarity while somehow managing to sound completely fresh and new. Adapting their sound from classic blues and soul with a psychedelic twist and a touch of future funk, The Altons craft compositions that feel light as a feather. Take their 2023 single “Float” as a prime example—a breezy summer tune that quickly morphs into something unexpected and rapturous.
Ural Thomas & The Pain
Ural Thomas is a legendary soul singer who should be a household name, but isn’t. His voice is rich and smoky, his phrasing impeccable. In the late 60’s and early 70’s, Thomas was a mainstay at the legendary Apollo Theater, playing over forty shows. He also released a few single at the time, most notably “Can You Dig It,” which featured backing vocals from legends like Mary Wells and Merry Clayton. Never finding the same level of success as his peers at the time, Thomas turned his back on music and returned home to Portland, Oregon. Fast forward to 2014 and Thomas started playing again locally, garnering a fervent following in the Rose City with a new backing band called The Pain. Since then, Ural Thomas & The Pain have slowly amassed a larger following thanks to their classic sound. A pure example of a soul group that is making their own way, the music they play is in the vein of James Brown, Otis Redding, Stevie Wonder and many other 60’s soul masters. But they aren’t content to just copy these greats and instead are forging their own path by sprinkling in electronic and other modern flourishes in their sound. Their music is both classic and contemporary, and relies on fresh arrangements to breathe new life into the retro modern soul scene.
After a severe bicycle crash in 2011, Los Angeles-based singer and producer Pale Jay was taken to an emergency room where he was heavily sedated and listened to John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme before undergoing surgery. The record soothed him through his surgery and planted the seed for what would become his debut EP, The Celestial Suite—a body of work rooted in Jay’s unconscious and devoted to the idea that our musical guides are always present. A tribute to the enduring soul of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, with a modern twist, Pale Jay weaves together colorful tales of love, loss and good times, evoking an intimate feeling with grand arrangements and ethereal harmonies. The EP’s five tracks draw from many genres – from jazz, funk and soul to R&B and hip-hop – but are held together by a core sound that draws on artists ranging from Donny Hathaway to J Dilla.
With a falsetto that recalls old school singers of yesteryear, Jason Joshua is steadily making a name for himself in modern soul music. Blending the classic sounds of Motown with influences like Joe Bataan and Ralfi Pagan, Joshua’s music showcases his immense singing talent over warm analog production and exquisite arrangements that feel straight out of soul’s golden era. His music’s focal point is undoubtedly his voice, which is the stuff of legend, a revelatory force that feels like it’s here to save soul music. While he may not be as well known as the big names in the modern soul movement, Joshua continues to come into his own via exceptional releases like “La Vida Es Fría.”
Vicky Tafoya began singing a capella doo wop in the 1980s and has more recently garnered attention following the release of a few exceptional singles that put her singular talent and classic sound front and center. Her vocal range is nothing short of amazing and her songs create a moody, reflective, and undeniably uplifting atmosphere that perfectly matches her vocals. Her voice is so smooth you can’t help but be mesmerized by it. She’s a modern soul singer cut from the same cloth as legends like Aretha and Etta James, so it’s no wonder Vicky Tafoya has evolved into a modern soul singer with a style all her own.
One of the most exciting performers in the country, Wesley Bright is a soul singer with a sound that immediately brings to mind Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and James Brown. But don’t think you’re going to hear a bunch of covers by other artists when you listen to Wesley Bright — he’s got a distinct style all his own, with deep roots in the traditions of gospel, funk, soul and blues. His backing band, The Honeytones, is equally outstanding in their own right, with a deep funk sound that really sets his tracks off. Bright has an intensity and presence that is unique among contemporary soul singers, with a voice that’s pure, powerful and hits you deep in your gut. If you love singers with soul, Wesley Bright is the one for you.
Monophonics have been making waves locally with their unique take on modern soul music since the early 2010s. When you listen to their music, it might take you back to the late 1960s or early 1970s, yet their sound is updated with modern elements that make it stand up to any classic record from the your past. The band has always had an ability to meld psych rock and pure soul into one solid sound with a result that’s timeless. And their music has an old school sound but with a contemporary twist that makes their sound refreshingly unique.
Common Saints are a musical project of multi-instrumenalist/virtuoso Charlie J. Perry, who delivers sonic journeys of psychedelic soul music that may be the greatest things you’ve never heard. As Common Saints, Perry’s sound combines the best of both worlds – soulful vocals, dreamy vibes and groovy rhythms. But above all else, it’s a vibe—the kind of music you put on when you’re ready to hit pause on life because the feeling of it is so special it feels like a gift. Perry is a real renaissance man, a veritable one-man band playing guitar, piano, and drums. His voice is equally impressive—raw yet smooth with such depth to it that you can’t help but be instantly hooked by it. Those looking for an entry point into Common Saints’ music should check out 2020’s Idol Eyes EP, a psych-soul masterpiece that firmly cemented Common Saints place as one of the best modern soul acts out right now.