In 2019, Latin music of the twenty-teens came full circle. From the prescient breakthroughs made by the Latinx indie underground to the unprecedented rise of bachata; to the urbanization of regional Mexican music, and the mainstream triumphs of reggaeton, albums released in 2019 exemplify the brilliance of Latinoamérica and its diaspora. Several Rolling Stone Latin writers came together to select 25 of the year’s most outstanding albums, which not only highlight the best of the year in Latin music, but set the bar for the decade to come.
After his 2017 single “Krippy Kush” became the first Latin trap song to reach the Hot 100 singles chart, Farruko did the unexpected by shifting his next album away from the burgeoning format and returning to urbano’s reggae roots. Eschewing tough rap braggadocio in favor of tuff gong vibrations, Gangalee makes Carribbean connections via cuts like the breezy “Quédate” and the throwback “Pórtate Mal.” Apart from landing a solid summer hit with Pedro Capó in “Calma,” he secures a few notable traperos for the trip, namely Anuel AA on “Delinquente and Bad Bunny on “La Cartera.” G.S.
After establishing herself as one of reggaeton music’s leading ladies with her 2017 debut, Unstoppable, Colombian artist Karol G followed up this year with Ocean, which reflects her vast and more profound range as a Latin pop star. She’s still the reggaetonera running the game in defiant bedroom bangers like “Mi Cama” and “Punto G.” Yet she lets her guard down on the empowering “La Vida Continuó” (featuring Brazilian duo Simone & Simaria), and knocks down every last wall in her beautifully delicate title track. In Ocean, her most soul-baring work yet, Karol finally lets her heart guide her flow. L.V.
A mainstay of New York City’s Latin trap scene, Dominican wordsmith Tali Goya outdid himself this year on the largely collaborative Top Hitta. Revealing just how close he remains to the sounds of the streets, he credibly taps into the city’s grimy new wave without overlooking his loyal friends. Two of The Bronx’s drill-adjacent up-and-comers, Chucky73 and Fetti031 exhibit their coldblooded charms currently catapulting them to virality on “GG4” and “Un Tanque,” respectively. On “Pruebas,” he reteams with erstwhile duo partner Messiah, while going bar for bar with Lito Kirino on the raw “Liquidao.” G.S.
For his major label debut, Cuco settled on a sound that can best be described as “Tame Impala meets Molotov.” A little trippy, a little vulgar, with vibes as chill as Kawhi Leonard at the free throw line. If Cuco’s early work paid tribute to the wonders of women, weed, and wasting time, Para Mi is the sound of the pain and glory of the day after. Cuco’s at his best when he relishes in his vulnerability, like the wide-eyed “Feelings” and the forlorn stoner lament “Keeping Tabs.” The album struggles when he gets too cute — the next time you hear “Bossa No Se” might be too soon — but you can’t blame Cuco for flexing just a little. Para Mi is an overall solid step in the right direction, just make sure you’re in line for the next trip. A.C.
From San Martín de los Andes to your ears, Argentine vocal trio Fémina impart a little slice of folk-pop heaven in their Quantic-produced third album, Perlas y Conchas. Like a pod of benevolent sirens, they share beguiling harmonies over electronic, hip-hop and Andean rhythms to manifest a Venusian safe haven for the divine feminine to thrive. The group’s longtime fan and mentor of sorts, punk icon Iggy Pop, gently voices solidarity in the gauzy “Resist,” and in the rose-colored funk of “Arriba,” Fémina impart inspiring verses that resonate like spells. The word concha literally translates to “seashell” — but in Latin America, is a slang term for the vagina. “Conchas transform threats and adversities into treasures — pearls,” percussionist Clara “Wen” Trucco told Rolling Stone in February. “We can transform ourselves, and sublimate our adversities into something beautiful.” The message of Perlas strikes a chord in a time when the bodily autonomy of women and the LGBTQ community, in Latin America and the world over, continues to hang in the balance; Fémina urges us all to power through.
After winning fans — and Latin Grammys — with feathery ballads, Vicente Garcia decided to tackle merengue, “the most important rhythm of the Dominican Republic,” on his third solo album. It’s no surprise that the results are propulsive: “San Bá,” is full-tilt and funky, with slashing bass and guitar that hints at both ska and afrobeat, while “Un Conuco y Una Flor” transitions from solemn to jubilant on a dime. Across it all, Garcia works to balance classic song-form with contemporary instrumentation, subtly augmenting hand percussion with programmed 808s and trading out traditional keyboards for whizzing synthesizers. This leads to unexpected new fusions: On “Ahi Ahi,” Garcia might have created bachata-trance. E.L.
Mexican-American singer Becky G emerged this decade as a fledgling pop star, abiding for years on the cusp of stardom. With her long-awaited debut Mala Santa, she’s finishing it off as one of Latin music’s most promising young talents. After finding her footing in reggaeton music with Bad Bunny on 2017’s “Mayores” and last year’s girl-powered banger “Sin Pijama” with Natti Natasha, Becky rounds out her hits with more sexy and self-assured urbano bops. She unleashes and embraces her inner baddie on the hypnotic title track and asserts her independence on the defiant “Ni De Ti Ni De Nadie.” Glory be to this patrona saint unbound. L.V.
Fuerza Regida, led by Mexican-American singer Jesus Ortiz, emerged as one of the bands leading the trap corridos movement with the breakthrough album Del Barrio Hasta Aquí. The guys took the classic corridos from the ranchos of Mexico to the streets of the States. Ortiz sings fondly of his neighborhood hustle “En Modesto Se La Pasa,” then widens his scope to reflect on the band’s cross-country reach in “Atlanta Hasta Florida.” Fuerza Regida helms a new school of regional Mexican talent, while still embodying the age-old message of working hard to get places on their anthem “Sigo Chambeando.” L.V.
For the better part of the decade, Dominican singer-songwriter Natti Natasha has thrown down in the Latin urban circuit almost exclusively through singles — yet in her debut album, she shows that she is a woman untethered to its conventions. She recalls her reggae roots with Dawn Penn-like swagger in “No Voy A Llorar,” and in “Soy Mia,” she and Puerto Rican artist-activist Kany Garcia pioneer a new wave of bachata feminista: “Si quiero andar hoy sin pijama/No es porque nadie lo ha pedido,” quips Natti, “Si en la calle o en la almohada/Soy yo quien al final decido.” (Or, “If I wanna walk around naked today/It’s not because anyone asked me to/If on the street or on the pillow/ It is I who ultimately decide.) Meanwhile her balada romantica, “La Mejor Versión de Mí,” is dedicated to a love of the self — a culminating moment in a record she describes as an act of ultimate self-possession. “Girls are way more powerful [today],” she told Rolling Stone in February. “It’s an honor to be the voice for girls who are not scared, and who want to have someone to connect with.” S.E.
While Bad Bunny’s X100PRE no doubt expanded the margins of possibility around Latin trap, the Puerto Rican superstar is far from the only artist laying foundational groundwork for the next generation. Quietly rising through the ranks of Chile’s vibrant urbano wave, Gianluca’s full-length debut Yin Yang alchemized the sad-boy energy of early mixtapes into adventurous multi-genre bombast. Under the watchful guise of buzzy producer Pablo Stipicic and long-time collaborator Tytokuch, Yin Yang delivers earthshaking trap bops in “Desapegarme” and “Sismo,” while also paying homage to the OGs of Chilean indie, like in the surprisingly clubby tittle track, alongside Javiera Mena, and the moody ambient meandering of “La Lluvia,” featuring Gepe. R.V.
When Christian Nodal first debuted his lovelorn mariachi bolero, 2017’s “Adiós Amor,” something magical happened. It unearthed the essence of Latin American románticas that hark back to the golden age of trios. In his Latin Grammy-winning album Ahora, the young Sonora star continues to innovate ranchera music within its confines. An electrifying, and at times a lachrymose affair, the 20-year-old’s second LP chronicles human experiences well beyond his years, and in true vintage love-letter fashion. Amid swirling trumpets and accordion interplay, the old soul flaunts his norteño charm as he describes a kiss so sweet it could stop time on the polka ballad “De los Besos Que Te Di”; and in “No Te Contaron Mal,” paints a love scene gone awry when jealousy creeps its way in. I.R.
What does it feel like to be held by a song? Or in the case of Mujeres, an entire album? Fronted by Mexican-American singer-songwriter Luz Elena Mendoza, Y La Bamba romances cumbia rhythms with sprawling indie rock guitars to birth folk traditions anew — reflecting Mendoza’s dual upbringing in Oregon and her ancestral homeland of Michoacán, Mexico. In “Boca Llena,” Mendoza untangles memories of her parents in song: “Why is your love so far away?” she sings as if under a trance, amid a swaying cáscara beat. She dances along the Pacific coastline in the surfy “Cuatro Crazy,” and in her fight song of a title track Mendoza chants, “Somos mujeres/somos poderosas.” (“We are women/we are powerful.”) For children who call more than one culture home — and those who suffer the violence of the borders between them — Y La Bamba’s lush balladry resonates like a warm embrace. S.E.
An enduring underdog in a música urbana scene that has never fully shown him the proper respect, Dominican-American artist Fuego took it upon himself to assign that overdue credit with the pointedly titled You’re Welcome. By covering a number of bases, including the trapchata hybrid “Dame Banda” and the OVO soundalike “LA Weed,” Fuego embraces his proud differences from the current vanguard of artists playing the formats he’d previously helped to advance. In a more just world, the single “Sigo Fresh” would’ve been one of 2019’s biggest hits; instead it’s one of the year’s uncut gems. G.S.
Nuevos Aires, the debut LP from chanteuse Girl Ultra, manages quite the feat. Not only is it a milestone for Mexico’s burgeoning R&B scene, of which Girl Ultra is at the forefront, but it’s also the rare debut by an artist with a full grasp of her sound. Indeed, for all of the New Jack Swing and TLC-lite productions, Nuevos Aires is strongest when Girl Ultra puts herself front-and-center. In lesser hands, tracks like “Discrecion” and “Amor Salvaje” would be overwrought M.O.R. soul, but Girl Ultra imbues these tracks with brashness beyond her years. A few spins of Nuevos Aires and its clear why Girl Ultra rejects Latin R&B as a fad — in her mind, she’s always gonna be here. A.C.
Inspired by “angel numbers” (a repetitive sequence deemed auspicious by spiritualists), 11:11 sees Maluma betting on a future — not just in his home turf of reggaeton, nor in Latin music — but in pop at large. It’s most evident in his features: among them Madonna, Ty Dolla $ign, and one of the original Latin crossover kings, Ricky Martin. Maluma meanders from the dancehall-inflected “No Se Me Quita,” breezes through the English-language club jam “Tu Vecina” and breathes cool into the classic salsa sound in “Te Quiero.” But for a guy who’d hoped to shed his rep as a single-genre artist, Maluma shines brightest in his reggaeton tracks. Urbano pop titans like Ozuna and Zion y Lennox provide contrast to the slickness of Maluma’s come-ons; Chencho Corleone, of the legendary Puerto Rican duo Plan B, flies high in the cumbiatón hybrid “La Flaca.” Producer Tainy‘s idiosyncrasy comes through in synthy currents, underpinning the Nicky Jam-assisted “No Puedo Olvidarte” with an arty flourish. It’s a timeless groove, save for unmistakably 2019 lyrics: “Like Ozuna, I’ll give you ‘Taki Taki’,” they sing, “I’m Offset and you’re my Cardi, baby.” S.E.
The second half of 2019 has seen the flames of revolution burn across Latin America, and no artist this year articulated the turning socio-political tides as eloquently, ferociously and compassionately as the Puerto Rican force of nature, iLe. With her stunning second full-length, Almadura, the former Calle 13 vocalist dove into the immense pool of Caribbean roots traditions, invoking Latin jazz, palo and bomba, and spinning a series of blistering indictments that tackled sexual violence (“Temes”), economic disparity (“Ñe Ñe Ñé”) and insidious political cover ups (“Odio”). While the emotions behind Almadura are no doubt fueled by Puerto Rico’s own unfolding political and economic woes, the album also offers empathy and some sorely needed catharsis for a resilient but wounded Latin American spirit. R.V.
2019 was a year of metamorphosis for Esteman. A Colombian pop singer who strayed from the safe storytelling common among stars on the brink of fame, he chose instead to unspool his beautiful inner world on the colorful and endlessly danceable Amor Libre. While never actually confined to a closet, Amor Libre finally gave Esteman the space to explore the realms of same-sex love (“Amor Libre”), lust (“Buscandote”), gender roles (“On Top”), and heartbreak (“Fuimos Amor”) with refreshing candidness and an arsenal of new rhythms. Reggaeton and electrified twists on champeta and ballenato infuse edge and whimsy into Esteman’s once squeaky clean musical canvas, resulting in an honest and layered ode to home, romance and authenticity. R.V.
As each new day seems to bring more harrowing and demoralizing news for Latinx people up and down the Western Hemisphere, This is How You Smile dares to provide comfort for all. Roberto Carlos Lange’s sixth album as Helado Negro is a tribute to perseverance through the power of memory. That, no matter how oppressive the outside world may be, even a community of one can thrive by remembering what makes it special in the first place. It’s as universal a piece of Latinx art can be in 2019, affirming the spirit of defiance of a special group of people. Or, in Lange’s own words, “Brown won’t go, brown just glows.” A.C.
Over the years, Latin indie fusion masters like Gepe and Chancha via Circuito have gradually eroded the myth that roots music exists in a traditionalist vacuum. In 2019, Colombian tropical futurists Combo Chimbita positively nuked rhythmic purists with their ambitious sophomore album Ahomale, a psychedelic rollercoaster ride of diasporic percussion, explosive power chords and singer Carolina Olivero’s soaring vocal gymnastics. Drawing inspiration from an ancestral warrior force known as Ahomale, which the band claims to channel in each of their riveting, trance-like performances, the album innovates on tradition at every turn. Chicha collides with galactic synthesizers on “Te Ví,” otherworldly vocoders plunge cumbia into Hades on “Santo Fuerte,” later resurfacing in the purifying flames of “Revelación (Candela).” With Ahomale, Combo Chimbita delivered a spiritual tour-de-force void of dogma and dripping with dance floor transcendence. R.V.
If rancheras are your family-approved norteño outing, with occasional PG13-rated debauchery, then corridos and its makers are the hellraisers crashing (and burning) your regional Mexican music party. Yet, Natanael Cano’s Corridos Tumbados are a whole new breed of its own — a sound that has attracted the likes of trap superstar Bad Bunny. On Cano’s Rancho Humilde debut — the Los Angeles imprint that’s leading a new wave of corridos urbanos — the Hermosillo teenager aims to dismantle the traditional structures of urbano and regional Mexican music alike. Equipped with a heady flow that brims with trap bravado, Cano rhymes defiantly about sipping on lean and rolling with border-crossing smugglers, stirring the pot with just a guitar, a twelve-string, and the occasional bass. I.R.
Romeo Santos could have stacked Utopia with mainstream pop-urbano features tailor-made to ride the decade’s “Latin Boom.” Instead, he chose to drill deeper into the bachata sound foundational to his own work. From features with Frank Reyes to Kiko Rodriguez, each song is a collaboration with a classic bachata great that highlights their particular stylistic legacy. (Plus, Santos finagled a highly anticipated reunion with his band of origin, Aventura.) Utopia became an instant hit, and it was no small feat — even if only for brokering peace between Monchy y Alexandra for their feature, Santos deserves a Nobel Prize, and possibly a position at the U.S. Department of State. V.B.F.
If you want a billion views, call Jhay Cortez: As a songwriter in 2017 and 2018, he helped pen massive records like Natti Natasha and Ozuna’s “Criminal” and Cardi B, J Balvin, and Bad Bunny’s “I Like It.” And while the music landscape is littered with the bodies of hit-writers who have attempted to transition to solo stardom, Cortez made the switch look easy this year. Famouz, his debut album, is tenacious and hummable throughout, incorporating bracing production from Tainy (on the imperious “Imaginaste”) and Taiko (“Easy”). And “No Me Conoce” became another omnipresent hit when Balvin and Bad Bunny jumped on the remix. By spring, it’ll be Cortez’s latest billion-view achievement. E.L.
The overwhelming whiteness atop the amalgamated Latin pop and música urbana worlds represents industry bias and evidence of its systemic racism. With so much in place to obstruct difference, it takes a lot for an Afro-Panamanian R&B singer to ascend to Billboard chart heights domestically and streaming services globally. The most exceptional new Spanish-language artist of 2019, Sech lives up to the overweight lover legacy shared by Heavy D and The Notorious B.I.G. on this romantic reggaetón outing. While “Otro Trago” proved a worldwide smash, album cuts like “Boomerang” and “Falsas Promesas” make Sueños a must-listen. G.S.
When Bad Bunny and J Balvin first linked up on 2017’s excellent “Si Tu Novio Te Deja Sola,” it might have been easy to lose them in the wave of urban collabs sweeping the Latin charts. But when the two crossed orbits on Cardi B’s bilingual summer jam “I Like It,” their effectiveness as a duo became impossible to ignore. By the time they followed that with the one-two punch of Balvin’s magnum opus Vibras and Bad Bunny’s Boricua manifesto X 100pre, these artists had established a league of their own. In a classic showing of international pop solidarity — or perhaps just genuine friendship — the Colombian Balvin and Puerto Rican Bunny dropped their long-awaited LP, Oasis, this summer. Together, the two continue to flout música urbana’s conventions, suffusing the streetwise art form of reggaeton with a healthy dose of play. S.E.
After Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico in 2017, morale was below sea level. An estimated 3,000 people had died, disaster relief had been stalled, and 24-year-old Latin trap star Bad Bunny began grappling with celebrity outside the decimated island he called home. During his U.S. television debut on The Tonight Show, he pulled an impressive stunt by prefacing his gospel-trap single “Estamos Bien” with a sobering plea for help on behalf of Puerto Rico. (“More than 3,000 people died, and Trump’s still in denial.”) The statement foreshadowed the gravity and range of his debut LP — dropped just a week shy of 2019 — X 100pre. Volleying between shamelessly crude and totally vulnerable, Bad Bunny and his slow-burning baritone opened the floor for Latin pop that’s not afraid to get uncomfortable. It’s a portrait of Puerto Rico in its renaissance, and a critical footnote in the history of the Latin-with-an-X zeitgeist that’s been sweeping the globe. S.E.