For the Record

For national releases, 2003 wonked as much as it rocked.

4. Kevin Johansen & the Nada, Sur o No Sur (Sony International)
It's a long way from CBGB 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.

5. Kinky, Atlas (Nettwerk)
It's not enough for the members of 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 that all 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.

6. Molotov, Dance and Dense Denso (Universal Latino)
If "Frijolero," Molotov's out-of-my-face-pinche-gringo norteño anthem, were 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.

7. Natalia Lafourcade, Natalia 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 Natalia Lafourcade. This 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.

8. 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.

9. Vico C, En Honor a la Verdad (EMI Internacional)
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 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 in a touching acoustic turn. 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. Consider En Honor a la Verdad Puerto Rican for "keepin' it real."

10. 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?

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