By Christopher Lopez
It's been a year of surprises in "Latin music," (whatever that catch-all genre term for Spanish-language music means in 2009). Reggaetón continues fading, albeit slowly, and the industry's mainstays aren't garnering the attention they used to. Case in point: Don Omar's summer release iDon (no relation to your phone), which remained quiet after its first single, "Virtual Diva." Some big names continue to survive and thrive: Daddy Yankee powered through with Talento de Barrio, and Tito el Bambino had a strong year with his everlasting single, "El Amor." But overall, the genre seems to be shifting toward the amorous style from Panama characterized by last year's breakout, Flex.
Meanwhile, Latin pop is alive and thriving, this year thanks to solid efforts from big names like Paulina Rubio, Luis Fonsi and Shakira -- even pop diva Nelly Furtado, who navigated a successful crossover.
But perhaps the most interesting trend is the apparent rise of indie alternative acts -- groups from smallish labels like LA-based Nacional, which had a banner year with huge potential and sounds too varied and diverse to easily classify. We're witnessing the growth of a subgenre once limited to rock en español and populated solely by a few established artists.
Can we call this a dark-horse victory? After all, few people would have expected this Mexican trio to land on a year's-best list, let alone in the top slot. One listen, though, and whether you're a lover of Latin alternative or just a music lover in general, you'll find Bestia absolutely captivating. Lisa Loeb look-alike Lo Blondo's ethereal vocals and the lush musical landscapes that her bandmates Oro de Neta and Bonnz! conjure are damned likely to entrance you. You could think Yeah Yeah Yeahs, though the XX might actually be a better comparison.
(Sony Music Latin)
This Puerto Rican foursome drew a lot of well-deserved hype over the summer, thanks to the second single off their debut album, "Excuse Me." Blending electronica with pop and urban sounds -- not unlike the Peas -- Da'Zoo's freshman offering features up-tempo and very, very danceable songs with plenty of humor in the lyrics.
Putting a live album on a list like this almost feels like cheating. For one thing, live albums are always chock-full of an artist's most beloved songs, and with discs like Esperanza, Radio Bemba and last year's Radiolina, this Parisian-born citizen of the world's got a lot to throw at a crowd. And nowhere does Manu Chao shine as brightly as he does on stage. Baionarena translates that vibe to disc -- well, minus the hazy ambience. And you can always add the haze yourself.
Fans of Yerba Buena are no strangers to this glammed-up chanteuse, and although this is Cucu's solo project, Yerba co-founder and producer extraordinaire Andres Levin lent his chops, as did Yotuel of Orishas. The result is a modern take on cabaret with urban and alternative flavors, along with Cucu's unmistakable Cuban vocal stylings.
Los Amigos Invisibles
It's been fourteen years since the Amigos' 1995 debut, and contrary to what the title of their latest album implies, the group remains as dedicated as ever to their initial mission of being Venezuelan anti-heroes in a scene dominated by rock and salsa. Of course, that scene has expanded considerably as the band has gone global, and the influences that converge on this record seem as far-flung as ever. The outcome? Latin-funk-house with incisive wit.
On his eighth studio record, Sanz continues to approach songwriting with the same poetic conviction that earned him acclaim on records like 1997's Más. In fact, the album's good enough to make you overlook the single, a bilingual duo with Alicia Keys, which, sadly, falls short of what such a celebrity coupling might bring.
Los Fabulosos Cadillacs
El Arte de la Elegancia de LFC
Last year's La Luz del Ritmo came after a seven-year split for the Cadillacs, and, fueled in large part by remakes, some covers and the single "Padre Nuestro," it thrust the legendary Argentine rock group right back into the thick of things. This year, Vicentico, Señor Flavio and company followed it up with El Arte, nine tracks of classic LFC rock-ska B-side goodness, all given fresh new faces. There are also two completely new songs, which prove that, 25 years later, these guys still kick ass.
Mexican Institute of Sound
The brainchild of EMI Mexico's president, Camilo Lara, MIS hails from the D.F., with a sound reflecting those Mexican roots. There's fusion here, as well as cumbia, pop and alternative, all posed against an electro playground. The result is arresting and infectious dance music in which Lara veers away from samples toward live instrumentation. Enjoy with sushi or straight up.
Wisin y Yandel
Some say reggaetón is dying. And though WyY may not agree outright with that prognosis, they seem to have (not unwisely) jumped ship. Reggaetón purists be damned, this album has all the elements of a well-put-together hip-hop disc fit for the clubs, right down to a 50 Cent colab.
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(Sony Music Latin)
This four-piece bachata group has taken the U.S. by storm, dominating not only the Latin sales charts, but even making it onto Billboard's Top 200 alongside such mainstream acts as Lady Gaga and Black Eyed Peas. Plus, they habitually sell out Madison Square Garden in their home town of New York City and arenas across the country, from Miami's Triple A to El Ley's Staples Center. Sure, some people feel that Romeo's voice is more befitting a cat food commercial, but that's not the sentiment here.