If 2017 was the year Spanish-language music broke into the mainstream, 2018 is when it flaunted its staying power. At the epicenter of the Latin popquake has arguably been Puerto Rico, whose denizens emerged swinging from the aftermath of Hurricane Maria with formidable shows of strength and genius — take Ozuna’s Aura, a multitude of hits by Bad Bunny, or viral reggaeton track “Te Boté” and its ceaseless stream of remixes. Meanwhile from across the Atlantic, Spanish singer-songwriter Rosalía became ubiquitous well beyond Europe with her sophomore LP El Mal Querer, and melded her incisive pop mind with J Balvin’s kaleidoscopic one on his own breakthough, Vibras. Yet while Hot 100 power players like Balvin go global, indie stalwarts like Gepe keep their magic close to home. Here are Rolling Stone‘s top 10 Latin albums of 2018.
The major-label debut by Chile’s reigning indie queen came on the heels of three seminal LPs of unadulterated electro-pop. That Espejo ended up a slight disappointment to her fervent fan base was mildly surprising; but months after the initial shock subsided, it’s arguable that Espejo is Mena’s most compelling album. Closer listens reveal an album with a grandeur and scale that her earlier, more Hi-NRG albums could never reach — and which can’t be explained away by a larger budget. Side A carries all the hits, such as the strutting “Dentro de Ti” and the synth-tropical banger “Intuición”. But Side B is where Espejo cuts its teeth: “Aire” is a sweeping soundscape, “Escalera” is four minutes of ascension via electric drums, while “Noche” is a classic Mena track — ferocity dressed in neon Puma Suedes. A.C.
Zoé churn out more unstoppable electro-rock mastery in their sixth studio album. Soaked in celestial waves of shoegazing guitar and dream pop synths, tension builds as they craft evocative tropes that travel through time and space. Boldly sensual at times, though reluctant in others, “Venus” depicts the splendor of an otherworldly romance; while “Azul” sees star-crossed lovers plunge into the depths of despair. Though their songwriting is suspended somewhere above the exosphere, they’ll occasionally return to Earth and emerge fully human. They also hark back to their ancestral roots in the title track, a homage to the lost city of the Aztecs. Whether shooting for the stars, or aimlessly drifting into them, this gorgeously cinematic opus sees the band at its best. I.R.
In yet another victory for Chilean indie rock, Chini and the Technicians’ debut LP is a quirky assemblage of jangle-pop songs that could have only been conceived by art nerds. Sharing space with a ukulele, metallophone and synths, lead vocalist-guitarist Chini Ayarza ambles effortlessly between punk-rock brattitude — most delightful in the way she hiccups “Ok!” in “Espacio” — to more faraway sighs of reflection in “Niña Glacial,” in which she laments being the sun to a girl made of ice. And like a modern-day riff on Alice in Wonderland, the skittish runaround of “Siempreviva” aptly articulates the twenty-something paradox of growing taller when you can’t even keep your houseplants alive. S.E.
Anuel AA helped Latin trap score one of its first major hits when he appeared on De La Ghetto’s “La Ocasión” in 2016. But as the subgenre continued to grow in popularity, earning billions of streams for artists like Bad Bunny and Chris Jeday, Anuel AA was sidelined: In June 2017, he was sentenced to 30 months in prison for possession of firearms. He celebrated his release this year with Real Hasta la Muerte, which is full of rough-hewn rapping over window-shaking production (“Modo De Avión,” “Brindemos” with Ozuna). But Anuel also demonstrates impressive pop instincts: “Ella Quiere Beber,” with its throbbing beat and melodic delivery, is ready-made for radio, while “Hipócrita,” a chirpy reggaeton collaboration with Zion, could play easily next to Zion & Lennox’s own airwaves-smash “La Player (Bandolera).” As Anuel keeps one foot in trap, he’s also looking toward Latin pop’s mainstream. E.L.
For over 25 years, Aterciopelados have redefined the cutting edge of Latin alternative music. They’ve laid the foundations for Colombian rock, changed the course of rock en español itself, and on their Latin Grammy-winning Claroscura, the twosome flaunt their status as masterful shape-shifters. Ranging from avant-pop reggaeton to euphoric Andean folk, their eighth studio album is nothing short of a Latin pop enigma. No matter the style, the lines are supercharged with meaning: vocalist Andrea Echeverri pushes an egalitarian body positivity forward with “Piernas”; then on “Dúo,” the crux of the album, a painfully beautiful love letter penned by Echeverri that marvels at the chiaroscuro between she and her partner-turned-bandmate Héctor Buitrago. “Dúo dinámico, surrealismo mágico,” she professes, and we couldn’t agree more. I.R.
Not quite a covers album, yet not quite a tribute, Gepe’s Folclor Imaginario is more like an impassioned conversation with the work and legacy of late Chilean folk singer and ethnographer Margot Loyola Palacios. Always up for a pop experiment, Gepe methodically disassembles Loyola’s body of work down to an abstract collection of parts, from which he and a broad range of players — including earthy vocalist Claudia Mena and emo-trap newcomer Gianluca — fashion a series of genre-busting interpretations. Flushed with sunny hues, Gepe’s original song “Joane” reverently illustrates the life and tragic death of Joane Florvil, a Haitian immigrant woman who died under dubious circumstances following her incarceration in Chile. Knowing one’s history is crucial, no matter the birthplace; to an artist like Gepe, diligently connecting the dots between past and present lays the foundation for a more imaginative future. S.E.
Prisma Tropical made Brooklyn-based, Puerto Rico-bred Balún an overnight media sensation, albeit one over a decade in the making. The band took four years to complete this album alone, integrating two new members to refine their bedroom pop sound into a complete arsenal. Lead single “La Nueva Ciudad” is exemplary of this bolstering — ethereal dream pop fused with techno-folkloric Pan-American rhythms. Other tracks, particularly the exhilarating “Años Atrás,” deliver on the band’s vision of “dreambow,” best described as the sound of Cocteau Twins collaborating with Luny Tunes. It’s an ambition that Balún already has mastered — one where whimsy and intimacy meet power and cacophony to create a rapturous sonic wonder. Hopefully we won’t have to wait another four years to hear where their sound goes next. A.C.
At a time when musical ubiquity is an essential component of modern stardom, Ozuna can find a home anywhere — in reggaeton, cumbia, trap, bachata, dancehall, salsa and whatever it is that Post Malone does. That’s why he is the only person who had more hits (16) than Bad Bunny last year on the Latin singles chart, and his 2017 debut, Odisea, became the longest-leading Number One by a male artist on the Billboard Top Latin Albums chart. (If he sang in English, he’d be on the cover of every magazine in America.) Odisea included several insta-classics like “Se Preparó” and “Siguelo Bailando”; Aura has no trouble matching these. Immediately the ears are drawn to “Besos Mojados,” a collaboration with veterans RKM & Ken-Y on which Ken-Y threatens to out-sing Ozuna, and “Ibiza,” which appears to get prettier every time it gets played. But Aura is also a step beyond the reggaeton and trap that Ozuna is known for; nestled right in the middle of the album is “Aunque Me Porte Mal,” a wonderfully brassy cumbia full of mischievous assertions of loyalty. “Coméntale” is a straight-up bilingual pop record; you should hear it on Top 40 radio, even though you won’t. The same could be said of the charming Cardi B collaboration “La Modelo,” which came out in 2017 but reappears here; had this song been released after Cardi B’s Invasion of Privacy, instead of before, it would have gotten the reception it deserved. At 20 songs, Aura is more drawn out than it needs to be, but with an inventive singer like Ozuna at the helm, even when it drags, it never loses its buoyancy for long. E.L.
On her sophomore album, the Spanish singer Rosalía dares to use the ancient form of flamenco as a springboard for hyper-modern experimentation. As she sings staunch, trembling lines about jealousy, rapture and romantic torment, there are riptides of festival-ready electronic bass in “Pienso En Tu Mirá” and decaying lines of pitch-shifted vocals in “De Aquí No Sales” — along with a vrooming motor, screeching car-brakes and shrieking sirens. A few songs later, on “Di Mi Nombre,” a beat of claps and kicks evokes Lumidee’s hit “Never Leave You (Uh Oh),” while “Bagdad” riffs beautifully on Justin Timberlake’s classic “Cry Me a River.” The premise is bold — maybe flamenco wasn’t as far from contemporary radio R&B as we thought — and the fusion is flawless. E.L.
If 2015’s Energía helped shifted the course of reggaeton, J Balvin’s globetrotting opus, Vibras, paved the road to mainstream acclaim with sunshine. Part science experiment, part internationalist platform, the Colombian singer’s breakthrough embodies the post-“Despacito” urban zeitgeist taking Latin pop by storm. Blessed with a chameleonic chill, Balvin hardly paints himself into a corner: His flirtations with dancehall, Afrobeat and electro-pop are blended seamlessly in the hands of young producer Sky Rompiendo and reggaeton stalwart Marco “Tainy” Masís. No matter the genre, nor how high he ascends, Balvin’s mission statement remains the same: As he noted on his first Top Ten single, “Mi Gente,” “My music doesn’t discriminate against anyone.” S.E.