The Best World Music of 2012

The end-of-the-year list! We think. We consider. One person likes one thing. Another person likes another thing. World Music Network proposes that we consider Ethiopians. I consider Ethiopians. I do not include any Ethiopians but it is a narrow miss. I like the Ethiopian brothers Nazarene and their Meditation, especially the part where they call their president a bloodsucking vampire parasite. They do it with such verve. But I deny them. The British world music magazine fRootssays that homegrown folk music featured heavily in their 2012 critics’ polls because of the economic downturn. So much in music depends on the non-musical portions of the world. Lists are mutable. fRoots neglects the Ethiopians too. Ethiopia much neglected overall. Matt saves the Ethiopians. He likes Samuel Yirga and Guzo. Dave believes that The Tel Aviv Sessions by the Toure-Raichel Collective is the album of the year. I think that 2012 has not been a bad year for off-kilter music, the kind produced by people with a vision of themselves that is not quite regular. Sotho Sounds is one example. I have not included them either. I have not included most people. If I were a musician I probably would not even have included myself. “No, no,” I would think. “Let an Ethiopian have her spot instead. Let it be those enthusiastic people from Dub Colossus with the two-tone shoes.” Deanne Sole

Everything follows in alphabetical order by artist.

 

Artist: Amadou & Mariam

Album: Folila

Label: Nonesuch

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/1/1_amadou__mariam_full.jpg

Display Width: 200

Display as: List

Amadou & Mariam
Folila

Malian superstars Amadou & Mariam release what is possibly their strongest set yet with 2012’s Folila, which sees the duo expanding their sonic territory with a host of inspired guest musicians. Santigold shows up on opener “Dougou Badia”, while gravel-throated Frenchman Bertrand Cantat offers his vocals in a quartet of songs. More important than the guests, though — and there are several others — is the fact that their contributions complement the music perfectly, never overshadowing the core duo’s own powerful singing (or Amadou’s dextrous guitar work). Wondering what mid-21st-century pop music might sound like? You’d do well to start by looking here. David Maine

 

Artist: Arnaldo Antunes/Edgard Scandurra/Toumani Diabaté

Album: A Curva da Cintura

Label: Mais Um Discos

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/a/a-curva-da-cintura-cover.jpg

Display Width: 200

Display as: List

Arnaldo Antunes/Edgard Scandurra/Toumani Diabaté
A Curva da Cintura

There were a number of good international collaborations this year: While the Himalayans and Appalachians doing “Cluck Old Hen” on fiddle and sarangi was an interesting moment, and an inexperienced Mexican group even had a shot at the Congo, this three-way effort between Toumani Diabaté and two Brazilians (one rocker, one crooner) stands above all of them, proof that that radical freedom can come from extreme professionalism. The three musicians have three different ideas about what music should be and yet they never clash; instead they spice one another, they make the song turn a corner, they never seem to be struggling, nobody has to slow down or speed up — problems that affected some of the other collaborations. Here, the three men chase their own notions, the rocker rocks, the kora ripples, and with effortless magic, they fit themselves together, one slotting into the other, neat as Russian dolls. Deanne Sole

 

Artist: C. Joynes and Stephanie Hladowski

Album: The Wild Wild Berry

Label: Bo’Weavil

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/w/wildberry.jpg

Display Width: 200

Display as: List

C. Joynes and Stephanie Hladowski
The Wild Wild Berry

This is an unfearing and bare-bones album with a weird and stirring fidelity to the original eccentricity of the songs it discovered on decades-old English field recordings. Lyrics strange as undoctored Grimms. A 15th-century carol in which the child Jesus shoots a group of bullies off to hell during a game and Mum spanks him with a branch. The branch subsequently cursed forever. The silvery ancient folk-warble has been incorporated into Hladowski’s voice, the professional singer borrowing the way the amateur clamps down iron-clad onto a difficult syllable, the dead amateur singer respected, echoed, not filleted out, instead collaborated with, sympathetically felt. It’s not only the lyrics they’re keeping, and the tune, but it’s also the scale. Distinctive, this, pub singing but uncanny. Deanne Sole

 

Artist: Debashish Bhattacharya

Album: Live in Calcutta

Label: Riverboat

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/reviews_art/d/debashish.jpg

Display Width: 200

Display as: List

Debashish Bhattacharya
Live in Calcutta

I chose Calcutta for its all-over attention to improvised detail, this being one of those albums that repays quiet attentiveness and Debashish Bhattacharya being supreme on his adapted-to-India slide guitar. The partnership between himself and Subhasis Bhattacharjee on the tabla is especially tight, the embroidery expertly measured out — the pickety squeaking near the end of track two being so unexpected — and the quiet moments expertly portioned — those moments of tense sitaresque spangly zumm. The last track finishes off an evening of alaapsand raga-parts with a dive into “Nature Boy”, the set-up being so incredibly simple and everything seeming so fresh and just-invented: a lot being done with a little. Can also be found as a bonus CD with The Rough Guide to the Music of India. Deanne Sole

 

Artist: Kinky

Album: Sueño de la Máquina

Label: Nacional

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/7/717cc9dkkl._sl500_aa300_.jpg

Display Width: 200

Display as: List

Kinky
Sueño de la Máquina

In our time of greatest need, Monterrey’s dance-rock titans delivered their best album, a straight-ahead set of smart electro-pop with big fat guitars and the finest drummer around. A lot of these songs don’t end up where they start, twisting and turning and shape-shifting in a way that we haven’t really seen from Kinky. “Tripolar” seems to sample about 16 beats and styles, but hangs together against all odds. But when they put their heads down and charge, like on the ’80s-inflected “Perfecta” or the galloping “Alma de Néon”, this band is a hard-assed rhinoceros and you really don’t have a lot of choice about whether you feel like shaking your culo or not. (Bonus points for the fake phone call and the video game noises in “Back in 1999”.) Matt Cibula

Květy and more…

Artist: Květy

Album: Bílé Včely

Label: Indies Scope

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/reviews_art/k/kvety.jpg

Display Width: 200

Display as: List

Květy
Bílé Včely

This Prague foursome has had a tendency to overthink things in the past. Here, they go back to basics: no guest stars or supporting musicians, nothing but frontman Martin E. Kyšperský’s effortlessly beautiful songs and the band’s formidable talent. Once they were done, they defied their own orders by letting producer Ondřej Ježek deconstruct them all over again. This tension lends a spooky air to tracks like “Lesní Duch”, which completely falls apart about two minutes in only to come roaring back in a style I’m calling ghostwave. “A. Kurosawa”, built around a backwards track, is a very cute poppy little thing seeded with noises and edits that scare the crap out of me. By the time I get to the banjo-flavored swamp rock stomp of “Marko Polo”, so close to my beloved Circulatory System, I realize that I don’t want to ever NOT listen to Květy. Matt Cibula

 

Artist: Loga Ramin Tarkian

Album: Mehraab

Label: Six Degrees

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/reviews_art/l/logaramin.jpg

Display Width: 200

Display as: List

Loga Ramin Tarkian
Mehraab

Iranian-born Tarkian is a multi-instrumentalist and composer whose day job as one-third of Niyaz has earned him accolades among world music aficionados. With Mehraab, he leaves behind his usual collaborators and pairs up with Persian singer Khosro Ansari, whose husky voice and plaintive delivery provide a perfect counter to the delicately woven instrumental beds of these songs. Opener “The Wild Deer” sets the template — lots of percussion, lots of plucking and strumming, lots of feeling — but it’s the second track, “Through the Veil”, that really gets things moving. Ansari and Tarkian prove to be a talented duo, and one hopes that they will collaborate more in the future. David Maine

 

Artist: Marisa Monte

Album: O Que Você Quer Saber De Verdade

Label: Blue Note

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/m/marisa-monte-cd.jpg

Display Width: 200

Display as: List

Marisa Monte
O Que Você Quer Saber De Verdade

There has never been any question about the size of Marisa Monte’s talent or ambition. For the last few solo albums, it has seemed like she’s been just trying SO HARD to be the new Caetano Veloso that she had forgotten how to be honest and real with her audience. On this album, however, she happily destroyed every wall she ever built, tossing off big-hearted truths and indelible pop hooks with equal aplomb. On “O Que Se Quer”, she creates a new forró classic without even trying; “Seja Feliz” is a hip-shaker like Gil and Jorge and, yes, Caetano used to make. But it is on the title track where she hits the hardest, instructing us to run free and pay attention “To What You Really Want to Know” — and making the track sound EXACTLY like that. A stunner. Matt Cibula

 

Artist: Monoswezi

Album: The Village

Label: Riverboat

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/m/monoswezi-cover.jpg

Display Width: 200

Display as: List

Monoswezi
The Village

I spent a chunk of this year listening to good albums that went floppy around track seven and this is one of them. But everything up to about that point is so worthwhile that I’m putting it in this end-of-year list, wondering as I do if I shouldn’t have gone for something more solid — but the tone is so unusually deep and loose and tense, and Hope Masike’s voice goes so indescribably and uniquely well with the mbira she plays, a calmness above a tumbled plink. And then there’s the rest of this Norwegian jazz ensemble, a saxophone played by Hallvard Godal, who formed the group after a sabbatical in Mozambique. The music belongs to that region, very Zimbabwean actually — Masike’s from Zim — with that curling rhythm, the water always going slowly down a plughole, eternally down and down. Deanne Sole

 

Artist: Neung Phak

Album: 2

Label: Abduction

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/2/2_neung_phak.jpg

Display Width: 200

Display as: List

Neung Phak
2

Most West-based bands mining foreign territory tend to head for Africa, but the Southeast Asian-inspired are more likely to sound puckish and bitey, as if the less-popular choice invigorates them. Neung Phak starts off singing, “Thank you, thank you,” and almost goes out on one song that seems to be about a screaming cat. Dengue Fever has already staked out territory in Cambodia, but Neung Phak has the Sublime Frequencies people involved, so you know they’re going to be looking further north to Thai/Laos. As they roam, they go southern too, they make it to Indonesia, then they glance up at North Korea. I’m favouriting this one for its extreme rumpus qualities, the hardness of its unforgiving pop, the absence of softness or coddling smoodge, the good chorus, and the recalcitrance of the Southeast Asia enthusiast. Deanne Sole

Nuala Kennedy and more…

Artist: Nuala Kennedy

Album: Noble Stranger

Label: Compass

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/n/nuala_kennedy.jpg

Display Width: 200

Display as: List

Nuala Kennedy
Noble Stranger

Ignore the opening track of this record, the weakest of the whole set, and let Nuala Kennedy’s evocative singing and supple pipes transport you the rest of the way. Mixing whimsical instrumentals like “Love at the Swimming Pool” with traditional fare like “Lord Duneagle”, Kennedy manages to breathe new life into old traditions. “Lord Duneagle” is a show-stopping tune, but it’s not the only highlight: “Paddy’s Lamentation”, “The Banks of the Roses”, and the two-part instrumental “Asturias” are all outstanding as well. Kennedy’s voice is as adept at gentle ballads as more forceful fare, and her crack band of backing musicians serves her well. This is her third release since her 2007 debut, and it’s to be hoped that it will find her the wider audience she deserves. David Maine

 

Artist: Samuel Yirga

Album: Guzo

Label: Real World

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/reviews_art/s/samuelyirga.jpg

Display Width: 200

Display as: List

Samuel Yirga
Guzo

It’s not so much that this young Ethiopian pianist has learned how to adapt his country’s music into a jazz context, and vice versa. After all, Mulatu Astatke and other geniuses have been doing that for years. His real genius lies in his willingness to go beyond these templates into some very strange and beautiful places. He covers old-school Chicago psychedelic soul classics, he goes for nine-minute Jarrett-like piano excursions, and he leads a kickin’ band through songs that hop from bop to free at a moment’s notice. Yirga — who defied his family’s wishes to study music — learned a lot in his internship with Addis-based Dub Colossus, but he is destined to walk his own path. This bandwagon will be VERY full in a year or two, but there are still some spots open. Jump on! Matt Cibula

 

Artist: Staff Benda Bilili

Album: Bouger le Monde!

Label: Crammed Discs

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/c/cs2027586-02a-big.jpg

Display Width: 200

Display as: List

Staff Benda Bilili
Bouger le Monde!

When we first met this group from DR Congo, everyone talked about their excellent backstory. It is pretty compelling that these musicians, rejected by others because of their disabilities, formed their own band and rehearsed in the Kinshasa Zoo. But now, with the follow-up, it is clear that the real story here is what absolute groove monsters they can be. There are a lot of guitars on these tracks — some electric, others acoustic, and one constructed from a tin can — and they all make a huge sound on tracks like “Kuluna/Gangs” and “Apandjokwetu”. But the groove is never lost at any point, even when SBB slows things down. If you’re looking for icy perfection, keep going… but if you’re looking for the most soulful music being made anywhere, better park it here for a while. Matt Cibula

 

Artist: The Toure-Raichel Collective

Album: The Tel Aviv Session

Label: Cumbancha

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/t/toure-raichel_collective_full.jpg

Display Width: 200

Display as: List

The Toure-Raichel Collective
The Tel Aviv Session

I said in January that this would be my album of the year, and nothing I’ve listened to since has changed my mind. Toure’s fluid guitar lines and Raichel’s delicate keyboards combine to mesh into a perfect cocoon of sound, and occasional contributions from other musicians just serve to accent the rock-solid collaboration at its core. Toure and Raichel met by chance before trying out this impromptu jam session, and the joyous spontaneity oozes from every track. With half the album’s tracks clocking in at six minutes or longer, the pair has plenty of time to stretch out the tunes and explore them in a way that manages to be leisurely without ever being lethargic. It’s been said already but it bears repeating: you are unlikely to hear a better album this year. David Maine

 

Artist: Various Artists

Album: Songs for Desert Refugees

Label: Glitterhouse

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/reviews_art/d/desertrefugees.jpg

Display Width: 200

Display as: List

Various Artists
Songs for Desert Refugees

Even if this weren’t a benefit album for a good cause, this would still be one of the best world music records of the year. Tinariwen kick off the proceedings with a slinky, whammy-bar-bending rendition of “Amous Idraout Assouf d’Alwa”, and other big guns like Tamikrest and Terkaft contribute as well. But it’s the lesser-known musicians who are the real gold here: Ibrahim Djo Experience’s “Blues du Desert (Part 1)” is a swampy, syrupy number that builds to a powerful crescendo, while Nabil Baly Othman offers a live version of “Teswa Tenere” that is as trance-inducing as it is booty-shaking. Bombino contributes a 13-minute live version of “Tigrawahi Tikma”, but Toumast’s “Aitma” is frankly every bit as compelling. With the bulk of these tracks being previously unreleased, there is plenty of interest here even for a fan of these bands or of desert blues in general. The fact that proceeds go to the assistance of war refugees in the western Sahara region just makes the deal that much sweeter. David Maine

PopMatters