Despite rising political tensions and natural disasters throughout the Americas in 2017, morale has never seemed higher in Latin American arts and culture. Latin music’s growing popularity in the United States feels like the weather vane for a huge cultural shift: This year Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito” nabbed a Grammy for Song of the Year, and by August became the most viewed YouTube video of all time. Rapper Cardi B became the first Dominican artist to hit Number One on the Billboard Hot 100, and reggaetoneros like Bad Bunny, Nicky Jam and Maluma piqued the interest of anglophone audiences after some hot crossover collaborations. Although 2017 was a banner year for Latin pop and trap singles, the market hardly accounts for just how expansive Latin music really is.
La Vida Bohème’s self-imposed exile from their home of Venezuela would frame the hype surrounding the release of the synth-rock band’s third album; and while there are certainly allusions to that chaotic move, La Lucha serves as more than a travelogue. Instead, the album chronicles the struggles of moving on with your life while separated from a home that exists only as a memory. Songs like single “Lejos,” detailing the pain of a wanderer wistful for a simpler past, and closer “Domingo,” a plea to a downtrodden comrade, focus on the power of hope against fear of the unknown. Indeed, among the onslaught of guitars and synthesizers, La Lucha‘s most powerful refrain is a one-minute interlude about the unbroken rise and fall of the sun and moon. But rather than cower, La Lucha sees optimism in the ordinariness of the world. A.C.
It can’t be easy to serve as the token Latin artist for American award/talk/tribute shows while constantly having to live up to pop radio success. So let’s appreciate the Colombian don’s stunner of a visual album, Mis Planes Son Amarte, and its collection of sleek, professional, eclectic love songs. Some of them groove (“Angel”), others bang (“El Ratico”) and a few of them float gently into space (the bluesy title track). What binds them all together is the meticulous craftsmanship in every note. And that’s the key to Juanes’ venerability – he cares about creating timeless songs that make people dance and cry and fall in love. A.C.
“Let go of what is not in your time/What you no longer own/What you were waiting for and did not belong to you,” chants Bomba Estéreo’s Li Saumet in the drizzly, electronic flourishes of “Siembra.” “Go back to where you have everything/Where what is yours awaits you.” Echoing the wisdom of a spiritual healer, the song came to fruition during a sacred ceremony that took place in her birthplace of Santa Marta, Colombia. A stark contrast to 2015’s EDM-heavy Amanecer, Bomba’s earthy fifth studio album pulls from their roots and suffuses songs with bucolic radiance without losing the group’s globetrotting bravado. They journey through flamboyant Middle Eastern melodies on “Quimica,” soak up sunshine reggae on “Taganga” and come full circle on “Vuelve” under the kaleidoscopic lens of trippy indigenous panflutes. I.R.
Franco-Cuban twins Lisa-Kaindé and Naomi
Díaz have made great strides since their spellbinding self-titled debut
came out in 2015 – they were featured prominently throughout Beyoncé’s visuals
for Lemonade, and they returned to Cuba, the home of their
legendary percussionist father Angá Díaz. Where the sisters’ first
full-length honored ghosts of loved ones passed, this electro-soul manifesto
for a budding resistance flaunts the potential held by the future. Jazz
luminaries Kamasi Washington and Meshell Ndegeocello slink into the foreground
in “Deathless” and “Transmission/Michaealion”; in “Me
Voy,” Iberian rapper Mala Rodriguez inflects the duo’s first
Spanish-language track with her witchy swagger. Clips of Michelle
Obama’s monumental New Hampshire speech anchor the track “No Man Is Big
Enough for My Arms” and they resound like sacred incantations. S.E.
Manda Nudes by Dominican Republic’s Whitest Taino Alive is brash and hilarious, filled with esoteric slang, tongue-in-cheek narcissism and saucy salutes to full-bodied women (and that’s just on “Mi Musa,” a wonderful ode to nalgas). And while MCs Jon Blon Jovi and Domincanye West deliver another roundhouse of uproarious vulgarity laced with sports and pop-culture references, producer DaBeat Ortiz’ incorporation of merengue (“QLON”), bachata (“La Empanada”) and Atlanta rap (“Ella Tiene Novia”) into their signature sound shows growth from a collective that could have grown quickly stale. A.C.
Buoyed by glitz, grime and glamour, Chile’s Playa Gótica bring their enigmatic allure to the mosh pit on Amigurumi. Produced by Dënver’s Milton Mahan, their incandescent cuts get sassy on “Cosita,” a jam propelled by infectious basslines that evoke Blur’s poppiest moments. “Pigman” tears into shoegaze territory with fuzz-laden guitar, before entering more indie-pop terrain. Meanwhile, they cozy up for a slow-burning ballad on the simmering “Isla Negra.” Singer Fanny Leona’s honeyed pipes often take the spotlight as she sings of female empowerment and playful hookups. Whether they dip into dance-punk madness or kitschy pop reverie, Playa Gótica’s punchy debut conjures the exhilaration of a new crush. I.R.
That Natalia Lafourcade took another deep dive into Latin America’s golden age of songwriting wasn’t unexpected. Even then, the first volume of Musas is stacked with surprises. While the bulk of the album is made up of well-chosen covers from venerable composers across Latin America, it’s the original songs that shine a light on Lafourcade’s growth as an artist. “Mexicana Hermosa,” a paean to her home country, is simple and refined like an abuela’s consommé, while “Soledad el Mar” is a sweet bolero bolstered by the presence of Los Macorinos’ nimble guitar work. And lead single “Tú Sí Sabes Quererme” is equal parts powerful, complex and melodic. A.C.
For more than 25 years, Mexico’s Café Tacvba have constantly revamped the Latin alternative soundscape with a highly eclectic body of work: from the genre-hopping genius of 1994’s Re to the intricate prog-rock splendor of 2007’s Sino, to the gleeful cynicism of 1996 covers album Avalancha de Éxitos. Yet, Jei Beibi feels like a fresh arrival. It starts with a juxtaposition: happy-go-lucky synths illuminate “1-2-3” while starkly alluding to the 43 missing students of Ayotzinapa. “Matando” evokes latter day Doors with crystalline, dissonant arpeggios, which become outlandishly funky on the off-kilter “Automatic.” Vocalist Rubén Albarrán plays a female protagonist in the stripped-down “Enamorada,” and “Que No” stands out as one of the most beautiful ballads written by the quartet since 1992’s “María.” Yet it’s “Futuro” – a thumping-yet-languid banger laced in dubstep – that truly gives rise to a new sound, a testament to their prowess for rock experimentation. I.R.
With “Despacito”‘s meteoric rise to prominence, a myriad of reggaeton tunes spread through the Americas like wildfire. While some went out as quickly as they lit up, a few continue to ignite dance floors the world over. Among them are songs on the all-killer, no-filler Odisea, the intoxicating debut of 2017 breakout star Ozuna. His voice soothes like a plush pillow over arresting dembow rhythms, tugging craftily at your hips in “Dile Que Tu Me Quieres,” a work of pop-reggaeton gold. He tinkers with a tantalizing trap groove on “Pide Lo Que Tú Quieras” while lyrically straddling between seduction and unbridled raunch. Brazen and quixotic, tender and provocative. I.R.
Whatever Calle 13 fans expected of their conscious rap hero Residente, it probably wasn’t this self-titled debut. Residente is a statement of global solidarity, co-starring a madcap assortment of collaborators from 10 different parts of the world, to which the Puerto Rican icon traced back his DNA from a saliva test. Each song is its own new genre, sourced from regional sounds and specially tailored to reflect the diversity of his DNA. The record opens with some splashy verses from his cousin Lin-Manuel Miranda; the Latin Grammy-winning “Somos Anormales” draws hip-hop from Central Asian Tuvan throat singing; recorded between conflict zones Ossetia and Georgia, Residente is war personified in the doomsday track “Guerra,” and featuring French it-girl SoKo, “Desencuentro” is a transatlantic chanson. “I wasn’t trying to make a world-music album, but you know,” Residente told Rolling Stone in April. “The radio right now, I’m in shock, everyone sounds the same. It’s like junk food. You need to eat better, otherwise [you’re] going to die a slow, cultural death.” S.E.