No mames, 2016. Contrary to last year’s politically charged show, the Latin Grammys responded to Donald Trump’s crushing victory with a mandated silence – broken by indie-pop heroine Carla Morrison, who openly slammed the President-Elect for his xenophobic remarks. Then, besides legends David Bowie, Prince and George Michael, 2016 claimed inimitable queer icon Juan Gabriel. Yet still kicking around, somehow, is the term “Latin music” – an ever-elastic label defining a vast community that constantly migrates and expands its cultural soundscapes. What does “Latin music” mean to Mexicans who grew up swapping Smiths songs on mixtapes, as did the Moz-reverent supergroup Mexrrissey? Or Colombian rapper J Balvin, whose success in the United States eclipses that of his birthplace? Drawing from both homegrown sounds, to sounds that claim no fixed home at all, Latinxs continue to craft some of the most inventive music around. Here’s our favorite 2016 releases from Latin America and its broadening diaspora.
Venezuela's Cheky Bertho has been making brightly colored ambient-folk under the Algodón Egipcio moniker since 2010, and La Confianza Ciega finds him incorporating house and hip-hop elements into his trademark sound. The result is his most vibrant collection of hazy electronic anthems yet. Opener "El Calor Especifico" is a joyous slice of chillwave, and easily the year's best song about thermodynamics. "La Estrella Irregular" and "El Olvido" are headphone-friendly jams fit for the beach as much as the bedroom, while "La Lectura Fundamental" goes harder than Russell Westbrook driving to the rim. The vocals stand at the front of the mix – meaning the lyrics not only enhance the melancholic productions, but serve as a forceful guide for each track. For Algodón Egipcio, beauty and brawn go hand-in-hand. A.C.
Capturing the genre-hopping of Café Tacvba's trailblazing 1994 album Re, Orkesta Mendoza's exceptional ¡Vamos a Guarachar! boldly cuts through a myriad of Latin styles with balls and virtuosity. The 12-track offering journeys to the eclectic, diasporic sounds of the borderlands in the galloping "Redoble" and treks down to Peruvian chicha with "No Volveré." Time traveling occurs in the symphonic "Shadows of the Mind" where Afro-Cuban babalú arises. But the nucleus lies in Mexico, where bandleader Sergio Mendoza offers his heart. Camilo Lara joins the party in the invigorating "Cumbia Volcadora," and haunting huapangos shine through the impassioned murmur of veteran bolerista Salvador Duran in "Misterio." With a lust for tradition and a punk attitude, ¡Vamos a Guarachar! is an eclectic album for the Latinx revolution. I.R.
Ecuadorian-American artist Roberto Lange, a.k.a. Helado Negro, teases out glitchy, bilingual dreamscapes on his fifth LP. Lange tames the electro-cumbia acrobatics of his 2014 release Double Youth, and untethers more smooth-sailing techno balladry – Pet Sounds transported to the Miami of the future, straight from the heart and self-aware all at once. Single "Runaround" is a sweet, carnivalesque portrait of two robots on a rickety ride into the Tunnel of Love. ("No love can cut our knife in two," he sings tenderly, melding crossed wires into something more like a hug.) Lange emerges fully human in the balmy firmament of "Young Latin and Proud" and "It's My Brown Skin": Written in the wake of Black Lives Matter demonstrations near Lange's residence in Brooklyn, both songs are gentle calls for strength and cultural confidence in the face of intensifying racial tensions. When focused outward, his private energy becomes a salve for the social ills of our time. S.E.
Mexican music icon Juan Gabriel made transcendent, unconditional hits year after year since the Seventies. On his dazzling 29th album – released in December 2015, before his untimely death in August at age 66 – El Divo de Juárez illuminates his exuberance as he sings duets with an eclectic, all-star lineup of Ibero-American powerhouses. Frolicking through playful mariachi, emotional ballads and swooning pop, his passionate, unparalleled tenor never comes close to being eclipsed. He soars in concert with Alejandro Fernández's deep vibrato on the symphonically luscious "Te Quise Olvidar," boasts border-life swagger next to Julión Álvarez and J Balvin on ranchera "La Frontera," and meets Carla Morrison's sweet timbre for some alt-pop on "Yo Sé Que Está en Tu Corazón." Throughout all 19 tracks, he's always soulful, genuine and glorious. I.R.
"I'm proud of where I'm from," Xenia Rubinos told Rolling Stone earlier this year, "But it's inaccurate to call my music Latin because I am." Still, Rubinos' brilliant Black Terry Cat paints an indelible portrait of life within New York's Caribbean community: a multi-lingual, multi-racial, multi-genre culture that is simultaneously, quintessentially American. A jazz virtuosa with a Baduizm-tinged soul, Rubinos deftly slinks between English and Spanish, telling tales from her corner of the city. On "Black Stars" she rages on both her piano keys and her toxic bonds; leads a dizzying game of disco-punk patty cake in "See Them"; and rallies from the kitchens of chic, gentrified Brooklyn restaurants in "Mexican Chef," bemoaning the "party across America, bachata in the back." Though she may decry a similar second-class status by being on a list like this, Rubinos is on to something that begs a new musical and cultural shift. S.E.
On their third album, Chilean rockers Ases Falsos continue refining a sound that can best be described as "Arctic Monkeys led by Juan Gabriel," sharing the latter's gallant emotionalism and the former's melodic, riff-heavy grooves. El Hombre Puede presents a more mature and contemplative Ases Falsos. In form and in content, many of the songs present a blend of youthful exuberance with the vulgarities of adulthood. Lead single "Gehena," for example, opens with singer Cristóbal Briceño pleading for his beau to help him "leave this dump" before later proclaiming "If I eat shit, let it be on my terms." And sonically, Ases Falsos remain as comfortable lighting up the dance floor ("Sal de Ahí," thumping album opener "Chakras") as they do crooning in the dark (the yearning "Mucho Más Mío"). A.C.
On Energía, J Balvin's breakthrough album, the Columbian lothario spends 45 minutes lighting up the dance floor while attempting to steal somebody's girl before last call. Not that J Balvin is particularly smooth – think more Jean-Ralphio Saperstein than Arthur Fonzarelli. Just give a listen to "Bobo," where our man advises a friend that the best way to get over her ex is to … casually go to bed with J Balvin. But Energía is at its best when at its most sinister: "Veneno" is a brash slice of Latin trap; crossover track "Safari" is a slinky club number dripping in pre-coital sweat; and the provocative "Ginza," with its deliciously liquid beat, is among the finest three minutes in reggaetón history. J Balvin may be corny, but he can buy you a drink. A.C.
The galvanizing debut from this fiery pack of tropical-loving space cadets, released in 2010, displayed an urgency and compassion for the hardships of marginalized earthlings. This year, that LP got a colorful makeover in the hands of Nacional Records, adding a new sense of indignation for all of 2016's abominations. Bellwethers for bringing socio-political resistance via Afro-Caribbean-style street parties, Systema Solar get right into hypnosis in the cumbia-trance "Bienvenidos." Boasting spellbinding accordions in Colombian picó fashion with a hip-hop spin, it starts with a physical declaration ("Si no te dieron visa, no te escaparás"), then offers a mental alternative ("Hazte lo que quieras, liberas, que esperas"). They flaunt funky turntablism over whirling pan flutes in the bombastic "Yo Voy Ganao," declare their love for "Mi Kolombia" through vintage vallenato rhythms, and lyrically shatter borders via their champeta-tinged new track "Tumbamurallas." Vibrant and demanding, the Colombian psychedelic soundsystem champions the causes of immigrants and POC while commanding bystanders to get rowdy on the dance floor. I.R.
A mariachi-steeped tribute to Morrissey, Mexrrissey's No Manchester revels in both the band's crush on the Smiths crooner and Mexico's unlikely obsession with him. Forged by M.I.S.'s Camilo Lara and Sergio Mendoza (Calexico, Orkesta Mendoza), this charming document combines Britain's fascination for bleak humor with Mexico's knack for melodrama. In a soundscape where passion, rebellion and melancholy take charge, listeners observe the desolate journey of a sad loner roaming in a republic burdened with agony in "México." The lilting, brassy take on "Suedehead" (titled "Estuvo Bien") features the angelic coo of Jay de la Cueva in trio with Chetes' swaggerful sneer and Adanowsky's warm growl; while Ceci Bastida channels Morrissey's effete cool in her surfy remake, "International Playgirl." Delivered by an all-star cast of charro-clad rockeros, this all-Spanish homage is rich with clever puns, vibrant horns and percussive vihuela strums that collide perfectly with the fey jangle-pop of the Moz. I.R.
A tribute to the world's maligned and ignored, Amiga, from Chilean pop maestro Alex Anwandter, chronicles oppression as both party starter and protest singer. "Siempre Es Viernes en Mi Corazón," one of the finest singles of 2016, is a celebration of the persecuted rebel set to black-light beats. Anwandter tackles the brutality of the patriarchy on "Mujer" and government corruption on "Cordillera," both over fervent electro-pop. On the beautiful "Manifiesto," Anwandter brings the lights down to recognize the plight of fellow "town queers." Ultimately, Amiga is about how pop music can provide short-lived liberation from suppression. When Anwandter prays for Friday to arrive because he can finally die, it's an expression of hope and determination, because he knows that even the brave eventually fall – so you might as well die dancing. A.C.