Ranking the Best Maxwell Albums

I had a convo awhile back with an R&B fan who claimed that the recent obscurity of R&B legends, including neo-soul superstars like D’Angelo, Erykah Badu and, yes, Maxwell, would tarnish their legacies.

If you aren’t putting out music regularly, you’re irrelevant, I was told.

My response: Legends have nothing to prove to content-hungry children. Their classics speak for themselves.

Yes, it feels weird that despite enjoying a nearly 25-year career and being one of the most recognizable artists of his era, Maxwell only has five studio LPs to his name.

But if you want to know why I’ve waited so long to rank his discography (despite TONS of requests), here’s facts – all his album are so consistent, so engrossing, so good that ranking them felt like an impossible task.

Chances are, your personal list will look much different. I probably can’t argue too hard against those differences when there’s this level of consistency across the board.

When it comes to music, it’s quality, y’all, not quantity. Maxwell taught us well.

So today, I’m finally stepping up to the challenge, ranking all of Maxwell’s LPs from bottom to top. I’ll be excluding his 1997 Unplugged album, which is basically a greatest hits album and it’s unfair to rank those among original material. Quality, impact, consistency and legacy all factor into these rankings.

5. Now (2001)

Soul In Stereo rating: 4 stars out of 5

Edd said: When this is the “worst” album on the list, it proves that we’re in some rarified air. Now has a bit of a mixed reception among fans – some feel that it’s a little too “safe” following two daring LPs, others believe it’s the perfect mix of mellow and majesty. I’m mostly in the camp of the latter. Yes, Now does drag a bit at times but overall it remains extremely solid, though slightly forgettable next to his other LPs. Real talk, though – Maxwell’s “worst” album would be a top 5 R&B release in 2020.

Forgotten favorites: “Changed,” “W/As My Girl,” “Symptom Unknown”

4. BLACKsummers’night (2009)

Soul In Stereo rating: 4 stars out of 5

Edd said: Here’s the part where I make my LL Cool J comeback reference! After a near-decade layoff, Maxwell came roaring back with a vengeance. The initial installment of his blacksummers’night series was absolutely worth the wait, producing three No. 1 hits, including the career-defining “Pretty Wings.” BLACKsummers’night may be brief (clocking in at a little over 30 minutes) but packs serious punch. The album loses a bit of steam in the latter half but that’s a nitpick. It was a strong addition to Maxwell’s already-impressive resume.

Forgotten favorites: “Fistful of Tears,” “Stop the World,” “Love You”

3. blackSUMMERS’night (2016)

Soul In Stereo rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

Read our review here

Edd said: I’m guessing this is the placement that will get me the most death threats. I mean, it ain’t a Soul In Stereo album ranking without some random threatening to murder my unborn child at least once. I seemed to be one of the few reviewers in 2016 who was blown away by the second blacksummers’night offering but I still stand by my score. blackSUMMERS’night is a very different Maxwell album, much more upbeat that his more ethereal, neo-soul-heavy works. But I appreciated the change of pace, which yielded an impressive array of album cuts that still get spins today. If this one slipped by you, give it a listen – I named it one of the 10 best R&B albums of the 2010s for reason.

Forgotten favorites: “1990x,” “Gods,” “Of All Kind”

2. Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite (1996)

Soul In Stereo rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

Edd said: I remember exactly where I was when I first saw the claustrophobic video for Maxwell’s debut single, featuring the homie rolling around on the floor like he’s looking for a lost contact lens. I had no idea I was witnessing the blossoming of the neo-soul movement before my eyes. Maxwell’s debut is a vital component of that foundation, joining D’Angleo before him and Erykah Badu shortly after to pave the way for countless artists in the following decade. The amazing live instrumentation feels as fresh as it did 24 years ago – the gorgeous intro to “The Suite Theme” is an all-timer for me. And Maxwell’s voice is an instrument itself. It’s still Maxwell’s defining work, though one album edges it out for the top spot.

Forgotten favorites: “Welcome,” “Reunion,” “Suitelady (The Proposal Jam)”

1. Embrya (1998)

Soul In Stereo rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

Edd said: Urban Hang Suite is the more beloved LP, due to it being such a strong introduction and it housing some of Maxwell’s best singles. But when it comes to quality and consistency across the board, Embrya reigns supreme. Like Now, Embrya is a pretty divisive release but it excels not only at mood-setting, but storytelling as well. Love, matrimony and spirituality are woven into what feels like one long song. Embrya seems downright extraterrestrial at times (down to the insane song titles that would make even Musiq Soulchild run to spellcheck) but it’s that elite level of artistry that makes it Maxwell’s best work to date.

Forgotten favorites: “Everwanting: To Want You to Want,” “Drowndeep: Hula,” “Gravity: Pushing to Pull”

Which Maxwell album is your No. 1? Fight about it in the comments.

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3 Comments

  1. OMG I’ve waited A LONG TIME for this ranking,
    And I was with you until I got to number 2, lol.. Any album that has the song “Ascension” in it will ALWAYS be superior, and apart from singles There’s not a single Bad track on urban hang Suite, NOT EVEN ONE. Even the instrumental tracks are TERRIFIC. I Love Embrya as much as the next person but it has a few skips for me, so it’d be my number two pick. Anyways every maxwell album is AMAZING, Even “Now” would be considered a classic in the hands of someone like Chris Brown
    ALSO Did I mention that I became a Maxwell fan after listening to your review of BLACKsummers’night in 2016??, that’s when I decided to check out his entire discography, and boy very few artists have a catalogue like Maxwells. So for that THANK YOU

  2. Maxwell is my favorite male vocalist PERIOD. I was elated to see his discography get its flowers on this website (which I love!). To suggest that Maxwell’s selectivity tarnishes his legacy is mind-boggling. His music is like the anticipation you feel waiting for Thanksgiving dinner. Its always worth the wait and never disappoints! And don’t get me started on his live performances! I have been “fortunate” to catch him in concert six times and literally levitate from the magic that is Maxwell.

    The caliber of his music is unmatched so I will not even try to rank his work. His albums are a mood- just depends on what you want to hear at the moment, but I was shocked Embrya was ranked number one! I feel that this record is so under appreciated.

    I do pray that he gifts us with blacksummers’NIGHT in the near future. Until then, I am plenty full with the albums he has released, along with singles like Sumthin’ Sumthin’: Mellosmoothe Cut, which is one of my personal favorites.

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