It has been an anxious year for the Latin music industry, as it has for the music industry in general. The good news: In a time of crisis the crassest pop acts fade away; the acts that survive are fired up by a personal vision. While some of the best albums of 2003 have received massive commercial success, notably Molotov's Dance and Dense Denso, most of these gems come from artists who would surely be making the same great music even if there was no one out there listening. Here are ten top recordings well worth making an investment in.
Cafe Tacuba, Cuatro Caminos (MCA)
Mexico City's avant-rock quartet Café Tacuba continues to explore the far reaches of the electronic ether without losing sight of what it means to rock out. Cuatro Caminos (Four Paths) veers from the raw energy of a street party to the interior murmur of private anguish; from the heady cacophony of a video arcade to heartfelt but never clichéd confessions of love. There are few road maps for living in the digital age as complete or satisfying.
Chucho Valdes, New Conceptions (Blue Note)
One of the best albums by one of the all-time greats of Latin jazz, New Conceptions gives yet another twist to the longstanding fusion of African-American and Afro-Cuban traditions. Valdés opens with Cuban master Ernesto Lecuona and closes with a homage to Duke Ellington, revisiting Miles along the way -- but it is the pianist's own reinvention of all that has gone before him that makes New Conceptions so breathtaking. His own compositions included here, especially the achingly beautiful piano/cello duo "Nanu" and the experiment in rhythm that is "Sin Clave Pero Con Swing" ("Without Clave but with Swing") prove that Chucho's name belongs in the company of those composers to whom he pays tribute. This is as good as music gets.
Issac Delgado, Versons en el Cielo (33rd Street Records)
This is what romantic salsa could have sounded like had anyone bothered to make it well: inspired lyrics, creative arrangements, stunning musicianship, and the unsurpassed voice of Cuban singer Issac Delgado. Politically untouchable on Latin radio in the United States, Versos en el Cielo (Verses in Heaven) is a collection of love songs by the greats of the island's Nueva Trova era -- most notably Silvio Rodríguez and Pablo Milanés -- set to sophisticated salsa arrangements that will thrill your soul and feed your mind.
Kevin Johansen & The Nada, Sur o No Sur (Sony International)
It's a long way from CBGBs to Buenos Aires, but Kevin Johansen knows the journey well. The onetime leader of the Saturday night house band in the acoustic gallery at the legendary punk club, Johansen returned to his mother's homeland during Argentina's economic meltdown in 2001. Sur o No Sur (South or Not South) is the sonic boom set off by that crazy trip: equal parts James Brown and bandoneon, Tom Waits, and El Polaco -- with a Serge Gainsbourg cover thrown in for good measure. More a series of vignettes than a collection of songs, Sur o No Sur takes listeners on a tour from blues through bossa nova to milonga fueled by quirky humor and astonishing insight.
Kinky, Atlas (Nettwerk)
It's not enough for Monterrey quintet Kinky to make noise. They want to know what noise is made of. What color is sound? What does it taste like? What is the shape of silence? Kinky takes nothing for granted, whether programming beats or coming up with hard-rockin' riffs. If all of that sounds a little too philosophical, don't worry: Atlas is all about fun. It's just not any kind of fun you've had before.
Molotov, Dance and Dense Denso (Universal Latino)
If "Frijolero," Molotov's out-of-my-face pinche-gringo norteño anthem, was the only song on Dance and Dense Denso, that would be enough to make this album one of the year's best. But the Mexican foursome's take-no-prisoners approach to rap-rock never lets up, unleashing enough attitude and bass on a single disc to flip off the whole world.
Natalla Lafourcade, Natalla Lafourcade (Sony International)
Imagine for a moment that Britney Spears had a voice and a brain. Then she might have come up with the fresh, compelling take on growing into womanhood offered by nineteen-year-old Mexico City girl Natalia Lafourcade. Her self-titled debut offers a dorm room full of self-discovery so charmingly delivered in her silky purr with sophisticated bossa nova and R&B flourishes that it appeals to grownups too.
Obie Bermudez, Confesiones (EMI Internacional)
Apparently there are second chapters in Puerto Rican life, which makes Obie Bermudez's reinvention as a singer-songwriter after his first outing as a salsero all the more poignant. The aptly titled Confesiones is a kind of diary of the lives of regular people written by the singer while he worked in a laundromat and hoped for a second chance to be a big star. Here it is: Bermudez's loving treatment of his subjects and down-to-earth use of his powerful voice make Confesiones a refreshing break from the bombastic over-emoting of so many pretty Latino poseurs.
Vico C, En Honor a la Verdad (EMI Internacional)
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An audio letter from jail, En Honor a la Verdad (In Honor of the Truth) is a fifteen-track document of outrage set to reggaeton beats by Puerto Rico's rap pioneer. Always verbose, Vico C unleashes his penitentiary philosophy on targets ranging from Ricky Martin to copycat rappers to his own record label, taking a breath only to give his daughter what advice he can as a man struggling to live right. That tender moment only makes the rest of the album more intense. En Honor a la Verdad bangs to some of the same rump-shaking producers (Noriega, Looney Tune, Ekko) who helped make fellow Boricua Tego Calderon the reggaeton story of the year (and Tego himself shows up as a guest here), but Vico's righteous rage pushes this album over the edge of greatness. En Honor a la Verdad is Puerto Rican for "keepin' it real."
Yerba Buena, President Alien (Razor & Tie)
Dancers of the world unite! You've got nothing to lose but your shoes! Yerba Buena retraces the steps of African music back from the New World to the source, reuniting hip-hop and salsa with Afro-pop and rai, making the rhythm whole again under the savvy direction of producer/bandleader Andre Levin. But when the music is this hot, who cares where it comes from?