2015 was a year of Latin fusion. Pitbull's bilingual joyride Dale triumphed the Latin Top 40, while Natalia Lafourcade raked in five Latin Grammys with her huapango-infused balladry. Long-time electro-cumbia favorites Bomba Estéreo signed to major label powerhouse Sony Latin, while Afro-Cuban chanteuses Ibeyi made unprecedented moves as a breakout act. Latin music, in all its colorful, multi-faceted splendor, has never been so eclectic, and so incredibly strong. Here are the best sounds from Latin America — and its various diasporas — in 2015.
Despite the 2013 departure of singer Juan Son, the Guadalajara five-piece Porter keep pushing forward on their sophomore album, Moctezuma. Vocalist David Velasco parades his prowess in opening track "Murciélago," a carnivalesque epic that chronicles the pre-Hispanic history of Mesoamerica — right up to the devastating clashes between indigenous peoples and Spanish colonists. Guitars and synths drunkenly circle each other in a woozy, cosmic salsa. Each rumble mechanically folds into each crash as organs crank out eerie, baroque pop melodies, melding progressive, psychedelic and folk. S.E.
In the ten years since his banner debut, Gepinto, Gepe (a.k.a. Daniel Riveros) has long tired of the moody, freak-folk tinkerings of his mid-twenties. It's in Estilo Libre that he builds from something much more familiar: the sounds of home. For the jet-setting Chilean multi-instrumentalist, this means extracting the roots of many different genres from the Andes to the Caribbean, culminating in a unique, pan-Latin freestyle that only he can execute. He opens the brassy lead single "Hambre" with a swagger, but Peruvian firecracker Wendy Sulca lights the whole song aflame with her piercing yowl: "Yo quiero/Que tu boca se pegue a la mía como un chicle nuevo!" (Or, "I want your mouth to smack on mine like a new stick of gum.") Gepe winds down with "TKM," a lover's rock ballad that's steeped in sincerity and topped off with a wink. Estilo Libre is Gepe's most ambitious and bombastic effort yet: a picture postcard from the future of Latin pop. S.E.
Once the Bolivian ambassador to France, Luzmila Carpio is arguably South America's most prolific indigenous artist. Originally recorded in 1990, the Yuyay Jap'Ina Tapes — translated to "reclaim our knowledge" — began as a collaborative effort with UNICEF to preserve the indigenous Quechua language through song. Excavated and released this year by French label Almost Musique, each song is characterized by brisk, tightly wound rhythms, procured not by drums, but by an ensemble of bells, birds, woodwinds and Andean lutes, or charangos. At times it's even hard to discern what sounds like a pan flute and what is actually Carpio's near-piercing falsetto. Carpio's staggering, sky-high timbre can only be reached with an insurmountable level of discipline, cultivated by her near 50 years of spinning tales up and down the valleys of Bolivia. Also notable are the vibrant, electronic reworkings of her songs in the 2015 EP, Luzmila Carpio Meets ZZK, a collaboration with Argentina's ZZK Records. Homegrown producers such as Nicola Cruz and Chancha Via Circuito put a modern twist on sounds that span millennia. Genre-colonist Diplos of the world, fall back. S.E.
The fate of Chilean indie-pop crew Dënver seemed questionable after members Milton Mahan and Mariana Montenegro put an end to their romance in 2013. Thankfully, the two decided to channel whatever hard feelings into their fourth record, Sangre Cita. It's just about what you'd expect for an album with a title that translates to Blood Date: an ideal soundtrack for a campy vampire flick, starring a pack of bloodthirsty club kids with fantastic hair. Montenegro flexes her vocal chops in what could have been a long lost Roxette ballad, "La Última Canción." Kitschy Nineties Eurodance gets a reboot in "Mai Lov" and powers down at the onset of "Los Vampiros." Delightfully manic from start to finish, Sangre Cita is a disco record fit for a dungeon. S.E.
The daughters of famed jazz percussionist Anga Díaz, French-Cuban twins Naomi and Lisa-Kaindé Díaz, first dazzled the NPR crowd last year with their heartrending EP, Oya. Their self-titled debut full-length is a mystical, sprawling eulogy for deceased family members and lovers long gone. Sung in English and Yorùbá, Ibeyi honor what's passed with gentle, understated Santería spirituals. "Let's remember with rhythm our loved ones that are gone," they pronounce in "Think of You," trailed by a slinking piano: "All the singing that no spell can destroy." The pair craftily ekes out delicate hip-hop rhythms from digital claps, snaps and acoustic island percussions; the batá and the cajón are as vital to their music as rice and beans to the Tropics. S.E.
Julieta Venegas is a down-to-earth pop royal with grandiloquent songwriting skills. Blessed with a honeyed-yet-haunting voice and a sound that combines Latin folk, indie rock and serene pop, Venegas croons, questions and reflects in the piano-laced "Porvenir." Her masterful synth hooks are capable of entrancing any pop skeptic in the buoyant "Esperaba" while the accordion-driven "Ese Camino" boasts a Northern Mexican vibe. The beloved star bares her heart throughout, but the most gut-wrenching ballad is the upbeat "Explosión" about the 2014 tragedy of Mexico's 43 missing students. I.R.
São Paulo's Tulipa Ruiz unlocks her inner dancing queen in this funky, Grammy-winning homage to the Seventies. It's a family affair for Ruiz, who enlisted help from her father, guitar virtuoso Luiz Chagas, as well as her brother, Gustavo Ruiz on guitars and production. Armed with a brass ensemble, Ruiz and her band give a rousing performance in the caffeinated, electric tango of "Prumo." Lead single "Proporcional" is pulled off with the playful swank of a George Clinton production, while "Físico" is a glistening call to tone up those arms and legs. Even the Tropicálian psych meanderings of "Jogo do Contente" and "Oldboy" are stirring enough to keep the momentum. S.E.
On her powerhouse sixth album, Natalia Lafourcade catalogues introspection in the face of loss, absorbing the most haunting elements of a breakup and realizing that pain can be productive. The loftiness of the album's ambitions are tempered by Lafourcade's masterful songwriting, which remains as deft as a Mesut Özil cross pass. Hasta la Raíz tackles the bitter hurt ("Lo Que Construimos"), fear ("Antes de Huir") and ultimate redemption (the sublime title track) of lovesickness in a way that any romantic soul can understand. While intricate arrangements bathe over the album, heartbreak has rarely sounded so uplifting. A.C.
Pitbull solidified his evolution from "Mr. 305" to "Mr. Worldwide" on his 2014 LP, Globalization. But this year, the Miami rapper slid back into his comfort zone with Dale, a raucous tour of the Caribbean in 12 sweltering reggaetón tracks. Pitbull volleys between English and Spanish with ease, flirting with dancehall and guaguancó elements, while bringing MCs from neighboring islands along for the ride. "El Taxi" slyly bops along to the same melody of Chaka Demus & Pliers' 1993 reggae anthem "Murder She Wrote," with reinforcements by fellow Cubano Osmani García and Dominican playboy Sensato. Puerto Rican superstar Ricky Martin triumphantly resurges in "Haciendo Ruido," while Yandel and Pitbull drop a timebomb in the New Wave-y ballad, "No Puedo Más." The Mainland meets the Motherland, and the beat goes on. S.E.
Colombian electro-cumbia duo Bomba Estéreo ramp up the bass tenfold on their major label debut, delivering an electrifying, Latin-pop wake-up call. A vast departure from the introspective, lounge-y feel of 2013's Elegancia Tropical, vocalist Li Saumet gets raunchy as ever on "Caderas" before rocking gently towards eternal commitment to the undulating reggaeton of "Somos Dos." Saumet's intimations of love exude more eroticism than any of the jaunty, hip-grinding club hits that Bomba's known for, though lead single "Fiesta" is a sweaty highlight, holding its own as a dubstep and kwaito-infused Carnaval banger. Saumet indulges her tender side with an entrancing whistle in "To My Love," and crests with indigenous pride in the bare-bones folk ballad "Raíz." By record's end, the Santa Marta party girl has metamorphosed into a warm-hearted earth mother. S.E.