Some of the most notable Latin music recordings of 2014 celebrated and explored major themes—culture, race, national and ethnic identity and the sacred-- in all of their complexity. Even while singing or rapping to social and environmental injustice and exploitation, the thought-provoking music of new artists as well as Latin music legends provided lots of opportunities to dance, think, chill, or rock out.
There were some fantastic collaborations that delved into love, romance, tradition, politics and the sacred, making 2014 a year of smart, elegant, and phenomenal music.
Rootsy without being corny, the rich sounds, fusions, and rhythms of Latin America and the Caribbean are all present in these picks--from bachata, folk, Latin jazz and flamenco to merengue, experimental, alternative rock, sugary pop, salsa and bomba y plena.
There was so much amazing music recorded by Latino artists; we highlighted 10 albums to give you a taste of what 2014 sounded like.
Lila Downs, Niña Pastori & Soledad
"Raíz" is a dreamy, earthy, and lush album that celebrates the musical roots of Mexico, Argentina and Spain. Bringing together three soulful singers, Spain's Niña Pastori, Argentina's Soledad, and Mexico's Lila Downs, was a brilliant idea and the result was aural magic. Each singer brought her own sound and indigenous flavor and the resulting fusion of flamenco, folk, and traditional Mexican music is spectacular. The arrangements are exceptional and allowed for each of the women's distinct flavor--Down's rich, Soledad's sweet, and Pastori's emotive vocals-- to shine. This is a passionate, impressive, and moving collaboration that celebrates the past in a very modern way. One of the tracks, " La Raíz the Mi Tierra," is a soulful homage to the earth, the ancestors, and roots that is traditional yet sounds very contemporary.
It's unanimous and in any language: Calle 13's fifth album "Multi Viral" is musical perfection. Rene Perez Joglar and Eduardo Jose Cabra Martinez continue to blaze new music trails demonstrating why the duo can't be boxed into one category: rap/urban/alt rock/experimental. They are provocative both musically and politically - and they're unapologetic. In the beginning intro of the title track, Multi Viral, Uruguayan poet and writer Eduardo Galeano promises that the Calle 13 experience will be great because "you will be in good company." True! Residente is on fire on the mic delivering flawless wordplay and poetry. This is a politically charged, witty, and edgy musical gem featuring collaborations with Julian Asange (recorded in a secret location in Ecuador), Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello, and Cuba's Silvio Rodriguez in "Ojos Color Sol." Despite their commercial success, the Puerto Rican duo has not strayed far from their socially conscious beginnings.
Identities are Changeable
Two words: cultural treasure! In "Identities are Changeable", saxophonist and composer Miguel Zenón illustrates why he is a Guggenheim Fellow and a Mac Arthur Genius. Zenón takes us on a jazzy journey filled with bomba and plena, spoken word, his fluid and flowy sax, and the rich sounds of his long time quartet. But this is much more than a jazz album--it's a multi-layered documentary inside a jazz album. A gifted composer, Zenón wrote all the music around a series of interviews that he conducted of seven New Yorkers of Puerto Rican descent exploring what it means to be Puerto Rican in the 21st Century. In addition to featuring his longtime quartet, the recording features a 12-piece band. Zenón, as usual, dazzles on the sax. It's an intelligent, elegant and thought-provoking recording. Listen and pay attention because this is serious musical mastery.
Gracias Por Estar Aqui
Marco Antonio Solís
After a short hiatus, the heir to Latin America's romantic bolero tradition, Marco Antonio Solís delivers another musical gem in his tenth studio album. In his single, "A Donde Vamos a Parar," the Mexican balladeer tackles wars—those that happen between two people, lovers, mother and child, and countries. Solis is understated and elegant and oh, so romántico. "Gracias Por Estar Aquí" features all the hallmarks of Solis—beautiful lyrics and perfectly crooned songs. Every track is an ode to love, relationships, and hope—hope in love and life. It's one of those albums that you can slow dance to with your lover or quietly listen to on your own. This singer songwriter continues to achieve greatness in his three-decade musical career offering soulful and sweetness from beginning to end.
Ana Tijoux's fourth studio album "Vengo" was described by NPR's Alt Latino as being "virtually flawless" as it named it one of the top Latin albums of the year. The title single and entire the album is a breathless call to revisit the stories we've been told about what it means to be indigenous, black and brown in Latin America and resident of this earth. Much like Calle 13, Tijoux asks her listeners to question everything and be open to your Latino and most of all to your human beauty. The songs fuse Andean and hip-hop sounds and lyrically explore all the themes that Tijoux is known for--social justice, feminism, environmentalism and post-colonialism. (Another shout out to Eduardo Galeano's "Open Veins of Latin America.") What is wonderful about Tijoux's latest project is that it has all the serious undertones of an intelligent conversation without sounding preachy.
New Throned King
"New Throned King" is one of music historian Ned Sublette's favorite albums of the year and it's evident. Yosvanny Terry's magnificent horn blowing in the midst of drumming and chanting makes this a deeply mystical and jazzy recording. While the album is an ode to the Afro Cuban and African ancients it has a contemporary feel—it's like being in a bembé in a New York City loft. This is a phenomenal and unusual album lauded by critics for its musical virtuosity. Terry hails from a respected musical Cuban family and his brother Yunior Terry joins him on this recording. The album explores the Arrara's faith, its traditional rhythms, language and culture. This is Afro Cuba; Matanzas via West Africa documented beautifully and modernized by Terry's mesmerizing horn. The project, released under Gonzalo Rubalcaba's label, was nominated for Best Latin Jazz Album and made the lists of all the top critics. We can hear why.
Romeo Santos continues to musically express that what he sings, though deeply rooted in tradition, is not his grandfather's bachata. In "Formula Vol. 2", his sophomore solo effort since leaving Aventura, Romeo continues to dazzle with his crisp, beautiful, and elegant singing. The slew of collaborations with rappers Drake, Nikki Minaj, and Tego Calderon as well as legends Carlos Santana and Marc Anthony don't overwhelm the project. With this recording, from top to bottom, the New York born and raised Dominican balladeer shows why his is the next heir to Quisqueya's beloved music
Ranchera legend Pepe Aguilar told Billboard magazine that this newest album, "MTV Unplugged", encouraged him to get out of his musical comfort zone. And what a gift that was for his fans. Aguilar rocks out (who knew?) while keeping it traditional. It's wonderful to hear a legend explore his rock and roll roots while not abandoning the music that has made him an adored Latin music legend. The album features ranchera, norteña, alt/rock and it's swinging, touching, and filled with all the sweet melancholy you expect from Aguilar's sensual singing and traditional Mexican sounds.
Jarabe de Palo
The Barcelona based alternative rock quintet Jarabe de Palo recorded their ninth album, "Somos", while touring Latin America and the result is a powerful sonic jam filled with themes that explore crisis of all sorts. The title single, Somos, like many of this year's top albums, questions the self and the role of the self plays on the issues of the day. The album is a call to forgive, live free, and flow. This is danceable and sexy music with gravitas. The group may not have liked what they saw—injustices, poverty, exploitation, crises upon crises, but rather than lament, they were inspired to be the change they want to be in the world and exalting fans to come along with them.
You will enter an alternative musical universe when you listen to "Buscabulla," (a wonderful Spanish word that means troublemaker) the Brooklyn based boyfriend-girlfriend duo from Puerto Rico. Remezcla voted Raquel Berrios's and Luis Alfredo Del Valle's lush and sensual single "Caer" as the top song of 2014, saying that the song may be what the inside of a diamond sounds like. The indie project offers dreamy electronica inspired by salsa, Cuban sounds, and Argentinian rock. Berrios' hypnotic voice and Del Valle's fresh instrumentation is an experience. This small indie project feels giant on the ears.