Music got downright deadly in 2003. Some of the great ones went up to that big gig in the sky -- icons and legends like Johnny Cash, Barry White, Warren Zevon, Elliott Smith and Wesley Willis -- while the RIAA took off after grandmas and single moms around the country. There's nothing like getting sucker-punched with a $2,000 fine -- especially when this year's albums didn't offer much in the way of a warm hug. While some were worthy, a lot were dead on arrival. So while the following is by no means a definitive review of the year's releases, it includes the albums that flipped our wigs -- as well as those we just plain flipped off.
Top Ten "Wonka Records" of 2003
By Garrett Kamps
This was the year of the "Wonka record." A Wonka record is not merely a bad record, but a bad record that sounds as if it were made Gobstopper-like in an eerie factory by elves with pointy ears and graphing calculators. They are sometimes disguised as "artistic triumphs," but this is just part of their spin. Here are a few Wonka efforts released this year. Sadly, this is only a partial list.
1. OutKast, Speakerboxxx/ The Love Below (Arista)
Yes, it was an interesting album, and entertaining. But did you notice how the duo's high-concept approach kept a lot of people from admitting that you can't sit all the way through it, and that a lot of the songs on it are really just crappy, meandering sketches? Mainly, though, this record is Wonka because of its insidious marketing angle: One single, André 3000's "Hey Ya," got playlisted on alt-rock radio, while the other, Big Boi's "The Way You Move," topped the charts on hip-hop and R&B stations. That's a great ploy. OutKast's strategy scored the group a two-for-one deal.
2. Ryan Adams, Rock N Roll/Love Is Hell (Lost Highway)
The titles say it all. One is the gritty, alt-rock radio staple, the other the wounded, lite-rock-radio staple. The two records are utterly different and clearly marketed to two distinct audiences. Listening to them, it's hard to imagine they came from the same artist. Strange, and very Wonka.
3. The Strokes, Room on Fire (RCA)
Wonka because it's the exact same record the band put out two years ago, yet fans and critics ate it up, anyway. That makes it more like a McDonald's combo meal than an album: You know it's processed and reheated junk, you know it's bad for you, but you eat it anyway, because, hey, at least it's consistent. Also, the group's live show sucked big, hairy moose balls.
4. Any posthumous Tupac release
The guy put out four records when he was alive -- and eight (!) after he died. As many have pointed out, if the material had been good enough to be released, someone would have done so while Tupac was still breathing. Profiteering from someone's tragic death is totally Wonka.
5. Michael Jackson, Number Ones (Sony)
Reports of Jackson facing allegations of child molestation being revealed worldwide on the same fucking day that Number Ones was released is disturbingly and conspiratorially Wonka!
6. Any emo CD
Because you cannot be that distraught if your band is selling out the Fillmore or performing alongside Jane's Addiction.
7. Any punk CD
Because "commercial punk" is an oxymoron. Rebellion, priced to move at $16.95, is all kinds of Wonka.
8. P.O.D., Payable on Death (Atlantic)
Also, Switchfoot's The Beautiful Letdown and any other album by a Christian rock band that subverted its religious undertones just enough to break into a larger market. Look, I have nothing against Christians (Mormons, yes; Christians, no), but if you're gonna stand for something, stand for something. Put Jesus on your album cover, a picture of Abraham getting ready to knife his son on the insert. Those Bible stories, with their whales and giants and miracles, are kind of cool, sort of Dungeons & Dragons, no? But don't try to turn your music into some sort of propagandizing, we-can-sneak-this-on-the-airwaves bullshit. That's utterly Wonka.
9. Any country music CD that used patriotism to move units
For instance, Toby Keith's chart-topping Shock'n Y'all (it's a pun on "shock and awe," get it?) includes "The Taliban Song" and "American Soldier." Sample lyrics: "Now they attacked New York City/'Cause they thought they could win/Said they would stand and fight until the very bloody end/Mr. Bush got on the phone with Iraq and Iran and said/Now you sons of bitches you better not be doing any business/With that Taliban." Yee-haw!
10. Any American Idol CD
People, please! These CDs going quintuple platinum is one degree removed from a band called Coca-Cola or Sprint PCS spending ten weeks at the top of the charts.
Sure, this list is a little dispiriting, and there were lots of good things that happened in music in 2003. But if you want the "good news," go read the Bible -- or listen to Switchfoot.
By Mosi Reeves and Craig D. Lindsey
Rap music dominated the pop charts in 2003, even though this was one of the lamest record crops (barring Outkast, God bless them) in recent memory. Even the ever-lovable Snoop Dogg was cranking out hip-pop bullshit like "Beautiful" to satisfy the suburban kids lapping up his gangsta fantasies. But amid all the commercial shlock, there were dozens of cult favorites and masterpieces that will probably only be unearthed in the distant future, Inspiration Information style. So get the jump on the hipsters of 2023 with this roundup of the best revelations in urban music during 2003.
1. Outkast, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (Arista)
This duo sold a fuckload of records and will garner a sackful of Grammys. The record is a melding of prescient hip-hop and beguiling R&B that shows no matter how mainstream this act gets, it's ready and willing to push the envelope. Although the solo stuff was a nice change of pace, these guys do their best work when they're together. Let's hope they don't lose sight of that.
2. Aesop Rock, Bazooka Tooth (Definitive Jux); Atmosphere, Seven's Travels (Epitaph)
For the second year in a row, the best MCs are white -- and they don't give a fuck if you think they are the best or not. Okay, a statement like this always makes waves with rap fans who can't believe that any pale-skinned MC could be the best when cats like Jay-Z and Nas are still walking around. But those people probably haven't heard Bazooka Tooth or Seven's Travels.
3. 50 Cent, Get Rich or Die Tryin' (Interscope)
In a nutshell, 50's story goes something like this: He gets shot up and inks a deal with Elvis -- er, Eminem; drops two brilliant singles ("Wanksta," "In Da Club"); follows up with a way-overrated debut (Get Rich or Die Tryin') and blows the fuck up; starts beefing with everybody and then rush-releases the requisite posse album (G-Unit's Beg for Mercy); and subsequently gets anointed asshole of the year. Uh, make that artist of the year.
4. Little Brother, The Listening (ABB)
Feel-good story of the year. This unheralded North Carolina trio sent a few demos to okayplayer.com, got signed to Oakland's ABB Records, dropped an amazing debut and sparked a bidding war among several major labels, becoming the hottest underground act since Dilated Peoples in 1998, or Mos Def in 1999, or Slum Village in 2000. Makes next year worth looking forward to.
5. Freeway, Philadelphia Freeway (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam)
Freeway's debut is more powerful -- both lyrically and musically -- than any of the albums that starred his Roc-A-Fella brethren. When he uttered the lines "I came from the 'hood /I'm bringing the 'hood with me," from the year's most criminally ignored rap single, the poignant and provocative "Alright," the old boy made it sound like a threat, a promise and a proud declaration.
6. Lil' Kim, La Bella Mafia (Atlantic)
How does a woman who is one of the most recognizable personalities in popular music garner a gold disc for her latest album (La Bella Mafia), then lose her album deal and boutique label, forcing her to look for a contract with another major label? Maybe it's because hip-hop is growing into one of the most misogynistic, anti-female cultures in recent memory, and not even a woman who calls herself "Queen Bitch" and walks around half naked is immune to its effects.
7. Jay-Z, The Black Album (Def Jam)
Jay-Z is an extremely talented rapper, but doesn't anyone remember when KRS-One rhymed, "If you were to rule or govern a certain industry/All inside this room right now would be in misery/No one would get along nor sing a song/'Cause everyone would be singing for the king, am I wrong?"
8. Various Artists, Bad Boys II soundtrack (Bad Boy)
Sometimes it seems like hip-hop is the only genre that can generate a super-wack, overproduced, predictable, monomaniacal monstrosity (except for the banging 50 Cent and Biggie's "Realest Killers," natch) like the Bad Boys II soundtrack and watch it go straight to number one on the pop charts.
9. Ja Rule, "Loose Change" single (unreleased)
We know, we know: Ja Rule has fallen off, Murder, Inc. is finished, etc. But still, it's impossible to forget Ja's lyrical outburst aimed squarely at Slim Shady on "Loose Change," which has to be one of the most cruel and mean-spirited disses ever dropped: "You claim that your mother's a crackhead/And Kim is a known slut/So what's Hailie gonna be when she grows up?"
10. David Banner, Mississippi: The Album (SRC), Lil Jon and the Eastside Boys, Kings of Krunk (TVT), YoungBloodZ Drankin Patnaz (LaFace), Bone Crusher, Attenchun! (Arista)
You know the South is running shit when strip-club anthems like "Like a Pimp" and "Get Low" gets rave reviews in such august publications as the New York Times. "To the window! To the wall!" Gotta love hip-hop.
Hot Funk, Cool Punk, Even If It's Old Junk
By Jason Heller
As styles of music cycle around the wheel of birth and death, some pop back up in the oddest places. Here are just ten examples from the past twelve months of indie-rock albums that serve as unwitting reincarnations of classic rock's hubris and majesty.
1. Joan of Arc, So Much Staying Alive and Lovelessness (Jade Tree)
Tim Kinsella's loose collective of ex-emo smartasses finally throws together its masterpiece. Riddled with oblique tempos and a florid moroseness, this album resembles nothing so much as the 1974 Genesis opus The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. The vital question: Will Kinsella end up as Peter Gabriel or Phil Collins?
2. British Sea Power, The Decline of British Sea Power (Rough Trade)
By 1975's Siren, Roxy Music had perfected the art of the brittle, brainy anthem. And although there's nothing quite as genius as "Love Is the Drug" on British Sea Power's amazing debut, the young group's mix of crooning and abrasion comes deliriously close.
3. Darediablo, Feeding Frenzy (Southern)
Sludge-clogged grooves, ham-fisted organ and song with titles like "Behold the Panther Stone"? Sounds like Uriah Heep's proto-metal epic Demons and Wizards. Add a little math rock and subtract the vocals, and you've got Feeding Frenzy, an album for the twelfth-level magic-user in all of us.
4. The Clientele, The Violet Hour (Merge)
This English trio's sophomore effort is just as fey, folky and redolent of incense as Cat Stevens's Teaser and the Firecat. Coincidentally, the Clientele's round-cheeked leader, Alasdair Roberts, bears an eerie resemblance to Bud Cort's Stevens-reciting character in Harold and Maude.
5. The Rapture, Echoes (Universal)
The Rolling Stones' 1980 album Emotional Rescue was a lame, clumsy stab at cashing in on disco. The Rapture, perhaps the most overrated band of the new century, attempts the same with today's dance-punk "craze," making a record just as forced, awkward and ultimately disposable.
6. The Kills, Keep on Your Mean Side (Rough Trade)
Marianne Faithfull's sweet pop voice degenerated into the cracked, husky rasp of Broken English, her 1979 comeback. Ex-Discount singer Alison Mosshart's sweet pop-punk voice has degenerated into the cracked, husky rasp of Keep on Your Mean Side, her foray into lyrical darkness and angst-scorched blues punk.
7. The Twilight Singers, Blackberry Belle (Birdman)
When Greg Dulli left the Afghan Whigs to form the Twilight Singers, it was like Steve Winwood defecting from Spencer Davis to make Traffic's Mr. Fantasy. In both cases, the result was a more sophisticated, if way less fiery, brand of soulful rock. Let's just hope Dulli doesn't go solo; the world would probably do fine without his equivalent of "Higher Love."
8. Neil Michael Hagerty, The Howling Hex (Drag City)
Filing down the scuzzy garage excess of his Royal Trux days, Hagerty unveils a technically dazzling puzzle of mumbled imagery and logic-defying leads. The spirit of Thin Lizzy's overlooked classic, Nightlife, can be spotted haunting the periphery of his odd, compelling vision.
9. Apollo Sunshine, Katonah (SpinArt)
Todd Rundgren's sprawling Todd was a dense tangle of ballads, prog and hard rock anchored to a playful virtuosity. Likewise, Apollo Sunshine dunked Katonah in buckets of candy gloss and studio sparkle while crafting this melody-dappled mélange of vintage pop.
10. Lynyrd Skynyrd, Vicious Cycle (Sanctuary)
In an ironic kick to the balls, many former stadium rockers are now on lowly indie labels, gasping for air in a market dominated by rap and country. The once-mighty Skynyrd tries brown-nosing both genres on Vicious Cycle by remaking its own 1976 Southern-rock staple "Gimme Back My Bullets" -- only with Kid Rock belching all over the top of it. Even worse is "Red, White and Blue," a cringe-inducing song that out-jingos Toby Keith with the Paleolithic platitudes "My hair's turning white/My neck's always been red/My collar's still blue." Fittingly, the group's new indie imprint, Sanctuary, also boasts such ripe-for-the-glue-factory acts as Sammy Hagar and Meat Loaf. A vicious cycle, indeed.
How Swede It Is
By Andrew Ignatius Vontz
Fuck electroclash. While electronic-music fans in America stopped, dropped and fell in love with the cocaine and leg-warmer-fueled nostalgia of the electroclash scene, the homeboy tribal techno revolution raged globally; a pair of Brits created a Latin Project that inexplicably made my deep-house-hatin' ears perk up; a Scumfrog hopped to the top; and Underworld offered up the best of its best (which is to say, pretty much the best, period) on a two-CD set. Hey now.
Techno producers in Sweden are sampling, pointing and clicking their way toward a brighter tomorrow for electronic music. If Detroit Techno went to a B-Boy battle, cut the noise on the high end, picked up a djembe, threw in some crazy breakbeats every now and again and did a back flip into a reverb tank, then bam! -- you'd have Swedish techno. Super-clean production, whirling dub effects, hip-hop-style breakbeats mixed in with pounding four-to-the floor madness, tribal hand-percussion polyrhythms and minimal melodies are hallmarks of the Swedish techno production style.
Like their better-known producing peers in America and abroad, the Swedes are building on pre-existing styles, but they're producing future music that will blow your mind. Bjrn Borg. Ikea. Abba. The Swedes have given us so much. You're about to hear a lot more from them soon. See artists like Robert Leiner and Samuel L Session for examples.
2. Not Swedish, but close
Tony Rohr, an American, and two Brits -- Michaelangelo and Oliver Ho -- have crafted superlative tribal-techno tracks with styles that are distinctly their own, yet evocative of the Swedish techno sound. Unless you're out digging through crates every week or ordering up some platters online, it might be tough to find tracks from these cats. But you can hear some of the tracks on readily available mix CDs from Adam Beyer and John Kelley.
3. The rest of the best
Celebrating ten years of bringing light in, 1992-2002, a two-CD set of electronic perfection from Underworld, has almost everything you need from its oeuvre: "Cowgirl," "Born Slippy," "Two Months Off," "Dark and Long," "Rez" and many more. The live act might be the best there is -- electronic or not -- and the group's artistry is unparalleled. Even without Darren Emerson, it's still banging.
On Nueva Musica, the Latin Project combines live recordings of Latin vocals and instrumentation with programmed beats and synths. Without sampling any vinyl, the Latin Project has created a compulsively danceable new sound that accents the strengths of its roots without diluting them.
Jesse Houk's (aka Scumfrog) two-CD set, Extended Engagement, which features his original material along with wildly imaginative remixes of other artists' tracks, is perfect for dancing, listening and just chilling out. And the vaguely house-y cuts are damn good.
The War of the Airwaves
By Michael Roberts
Most radio programmers aren't interested in folks who like more than one style of music. They prefer predictable people who listen exclusively to one style until the day they're planted. That leaves eclectic sorts with minds of their own -- call them the outcasts -- to keep fighting the good fight. Below is one exception to radio's blandification and nine more that deserved to be heard.
1. Outkast, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (Arista)
On The Love Below, Andre 3000 offers up "Hey Ya," which singlehandedly made mainstream radio tolerable, and a bold, funny, untoppable mix of hip-hop, funk, jazz and whatever. It's 2003's finest, hands down -- and as a bonus, the package includes Big Boi's Speakerboxxx, a pretty decent disc in its own right.
2. H-Foundation, Environments (Astralwerks)
San Diegans Hipp-E and Halo bring it to the house in an unconventional way. Instead of simply fiddling with their knobs like most electro-pros, they lay the Foundation beneath actual songs that are as good for listening as for dancing. What a concept.
3. Rodney Crowell, Fate's Right Hand (DMZ/Epic)
When mainstream country started sucking, Crowell, a commercially and critically popular tunesmith (and Johnny Cash's former son-in-law) refused to make like a Dirt Devil, and faded as a result. His indie comeback, 2001's The Houston Kid, was merely an appetizer for this defiant, consistently moving album.
4. Low Flying Owls, Elixir Vitae (Stinky Records)
Fronted by the reedy voiced Jared Southard, this Sacramento four-piece may have started in the garage, but the band's on the road to new destinations. Elixir Vitae blends rock rudiments with aggressive psychedelia on tracks like "Glad to Be Alive" that stretch out without wearing thin. (Low Flying Owls appears at the Larimer Lounge on Friday, January 9.)
5. Inti-Illimani, Lugares Comunes (Xenophile)
An Andean collective that's been around since the late '60s, Inti-Illimani is known for its fearless political activism, which its members exercised at great personal risk. This legacy steals attention from music that, on Lugares Comunes, is deep, gorgeous and thoroughly accessible: Chile, not chilly.
6. Kindred the Family Soul, Surrender to Love (Hidden Beach)
All too often, the "neo" in neo-soul is a warning that the music in question is a watered-down version of the real stuff. In the case of this Philadelphia combo, however, the label doesn't fit. "Spread the Word" compares to classic R&B because that's what it is.
7. Spring Heel Jack, Live (Thirsty Ear)
In which drum-and-bass groundbreakers Ashley Wales and John Coxon join forces with jazz avant-gardists (Matthew Shipp, William Parker) and intriguing wild cards (J Spaceman of Spiritualized) to make glorious, pigeonhole-smashing racket. Proof that creativity can't be bound by any category.
8. Moneen, Are We Really Happy With Who We Are Right Now? (Vagrant)
The only emotion generated by a frighteningly high percentage of emo acts is profound indifference. Yet despite this album's tedious handle, Canada's Moneen dodges the boredom bullet via an unexpectedly adventurous musical approach and some concrete passion. That's happy news.
9. Gemma Hayes, Night on My Side (Astralwerks)
Some mediocre singer-songwriters try to tart up ordinary material with electronic touches in a futile attempt to seem hip. Fortunately, Hayes is a strong composer who uses new-millennium studio techniques to enhance songs such as "Making Waves," not cover up their deficiencies.
10. Limp Bizkit, Results May Vary (Flip/Interscope)
In Sounds From Way Out
By John La Briola
During a stellar NASCAR year when Toby Keith connected stateside with more hearts and minds than the Dixie Chicks, it seemed that folks preferred their scenery to go round and round rather than venture down the road less traveled. Here then, y'all, are ten curious roadside attractions that got lost in the shock 'n' awful shuffle.
1. Aurora Sãnchez-Sousa, Genoma Music/The Genomic Sound
What do you get when you assign musical notes to the nucleotides in an arbitrarily chosen strand of DNA? An alphabet soup of easy listening, jazzy tone poems with titles like "Homo Sapiens Alphoid Sequence." Providing a simple audio version of the blueprint for life, Snchez-Sousa, nimble pianist and head of the mycology section in a Madrid-based hospital, explores the soothing, electronic side of deoxyribonucleic acid.
2. The Evolution Control Committee, Plagiarythhm Nation (Seeland)
Silly and subversive sound-collage artists from Columbus, Ohio, take a cue from Negativland, snubbing their collective nose at outdated copyright laws. The results? Janet Jackson actually sounding good! Chuck D and Flav dabbling in Kraut rock! Vincent Price shilling chicken livers! And for hands-down, best-song-of-the-year honors: Dan Rather fronting AC/DC ("Rocked by Rape") in a hilariously recontextualized dispatch from the frontlines of Armageddon.
3. The American Song-Poem Anthology, Do You Know the Difference Between Big Wood and Brush (Bar/None)
These hastily made tracks are testament to a strange subculture that flourished mostly in the mid-'60s, when shadowy low-budget song factories advertised for "hitmakers" in the backs of comic books. Among laughable tributes to Richard Nixon and the first moon landing are over two dozen astoundingly peculiar recording sessions -- including a Motown-enhanced salute to the color yellow and a faux-country rendition of John Trubee's oddball classic, "Blind Man's Penis." We've all got a song in our hearts.
4. Nurse With Wound, She And Me Fall Together in Free Death (Beta-Iactam Ring Records)
Capturing the sonic equivalent of random, drifting thoughts has always been Nurse With Wound's stock in trade. When England's underground sound-muckers toss in a few erotic monologues read by squelching robots or an odd cover of Patty Water's "Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair," it only gets more bizarre. Nurse, isn't it time for my pill?
5. Various Artists, Angola Prison Spirituals (Arhoolie)
Recorded at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in the late '50s, this historical audio document gives a fascinating and vivid picture of the way black Southerners sang spontaneous, unadorned, spirituals and gospel songs -- behind bars, that is. Amid bottleneck sermonizing and field hollers are nearly two dozen grim but beautiful odes to faith and freedom. This ain't no Johnny Mathis.
6. Eric Idle, Eric Idle Presents the Rutland Isles (iMusic)
England's quintessentially anal-retentive travel documentarian, Nigel Spasm, explains the cultural relevance of killing for God amid exotic flora, fauna and sheep. Idle (Monty Python, the Rutles) breaks a long comedic silence as yet another pasty imperialist in shorts -- one fishing for compliments, diving for muff and researching man's early Stoned Age ancestor: Homo Semi-Erectus.
7. Cut-Out, Interlude With Fun Machine (Starlight Furniture Co.)
For fans of Optigan and Mellotron keyboards, the warm tones of ex-Pell Mell partners Steve Fisk and Bob Beerman explore minimal rhythm-box variations with an offhand sense of humor. From casual reggae and kitschy lounge to Kraftwerk-baiting abstractions, this diverse, all-instrumental album makes home organs sound super-cool all over again.
8. So, So (Thrill Jockey)
A mostly technical demonstration from symmetrical duo Eriko Toyoda and Marcus Popp (Oval, Microstoria) combines textured and airy tones with processed vocals of muted Japanese lyrics. Disquieting melodies and meditative dada drift into the nether reaches of musique concrete.
9. Vic Mizzy, Songs for the Jogging Crowd (The Vicster Records)
Veteran TV and movie-score composer Vic Mizzy wasn't exactly born with a golden larynx. But he plays a mean thesaurus. With a Jewish eye for detail (including sturgeon and a color chart from the Sears paint department), Mizzy spoofs Hollywood while trying to stay fit. Oy!
10. Candye Kane, Whole Lotta Love (Ruf Records)
Candye Kane distinguishes herself from run-of-the-mill blues singers two ways: She tilts the scales at two and a half bills and can play the piano with her boobs. Novelty aside, Kane's soulful and powerful voice lends itself naturally to matters of the flesh and songs of love, loneliness and food. Weigh in, lover.
The New Latin Classics
By Celeste Fraser Delgado
It's been an anxious year for the Latin music industry, as it has for the industry in general. The good news in a time of crisis: The crassest pop acts fade away, and the acts that survive are fired up by a personal vision. While some of the best albums of the year 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 were no one out there listening.
1. Café Tacuba, Cuatro Caminos (MCA)
Mexico City's avant-rock quartet Café Tacuba continues to explore the far reaches of the electronic ether without ever 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 cliched confessions of love. There is no more complete -- or more satisfying -- road map for living in the digital age.
2. Chucho Valdes, New Conceptions (Blue Note)
One of the best albums yet by one of the all-time greats of Latin jazz, New Conceptions gives another twist to the longstanding fusion of African-American and Afro-Cuban traditions. Valdes opens with Cuban master Ernesto Lecuona and closes with an 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 compositions 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.
3. Issac Delgado, Versos 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 Rodriguez and Pablo Milanes -- set to sophisticated salsa arrangements that will thrill your soul and feed your mind.
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.
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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?