A list of “global” music presents two particularly massive challenges. The first, of course, is to try and sort through a year’s worth of albums from around the world, most of them incomparable to one another by virtue of widely varying styles, and pick a relatively tiny handful. More existentially troubling is the ongoing question of how to counter the otherness such a catch-all category signifies. Can “global” ever be anything more than a euphemistic replacement for “world” in the commercial music industry? In 2019, Guardian writer Ammar Kalia, writing on the publication’s decision to eliminate the latter term in favor of the former (or, indeed, no such label at all), noted that “marginalized music still needs championing and signposting in the west.” The question lingers, then, seemingly unanswerable by anything short of a total abolition of generic markers and the marketplace based upon them. It’s a goal slightly out of reach of any single list, in other words.
What this list can do is offer a framing of global music that takes the term to mean not simply music that is, from a narrow point of view, markedly foreign. Instead, the entries on this list are primarily based on collaboration. Often, this occurs between performers of different geographic communities, expressive traditions, or national identities. On Could We Be More, Kokoroko’s jazzy style of Afrobeat stems from the well-traveled London-Lagos circuit, itself a sonic manifestation of specific aspects of what Gilroy termed the Black Atlantic. Essential to Oumou Sangaré’s Timbuktu is the help of Pascal Danaë, whose blues are deeply influenced by his Guadeloupean family history and other musicians of the French colonial diaspora.
Collaboration may also involve transmission across time or collapsing definitions of socio-politically fraught terms like folk and roots. Adrian Quesada reimagines vintage pop ballads from across the formation of Latin America on Boleros Psicodélicos in ways that ask his listeners to rethink their nostalgic understandings of time and space. The longtime bandmates of Scandinavian Music Group play a nebulous kind of folk that seems to owe as much to western Nordic traditions as to American country-western. Imarhan draws on old Kel Tamasheq narratives and more recent musical forebears, including members of the fellow tichoumaren group Tinariwen. Pierre Kwenders’ José Louis and the Paradox of Love includes tribute after tribute to personal heroes, some family, and some fellow artists. Producer Gogi Dzodzuashvili and actress Mzia Arabuli draw from future sounds and texts of olden times, respectively, yet still manage to make Ias Utkharit an ultra-modern dream.
An understanding of position and power is crucial to a successful collaboration. Jacknife Lee clears a path for the music of singer Rokia Koné on Bamanan, allowing her to fill a vast amount of space that puts her skills and philosophies on display. The members of Khruangbin, stars though they are, have no qualms about stepping into the background to set the stage for Vieux Farka Touré and his awe-inspiring guitar skills as they reinterpret his father’s works on Ali. A multinational supergroup, Congotronics International necessitates a series of constant negotiations, and communications between artists of disparate backgrounds and interests, something that could easily have ended disastrously were it not for the care of its many members. Instead, we have the brilliance of Where’s the One? as evidence that working together can indeed be better.
This is not a global list, exactly. Ten albums, even ones with collaborators from many different parts of the world, can only cover so much ground. Think instead of this list as a demonstration of how much art comes specifically from connections between people and the importance of the places they bring with them as they work to bring great music into the world.
Could We Be More
Eight-piece combo Kokoroko have been on the radar of discerning fans and awards committees for years, but Could We Be More is only their first full-length release. It’s a satisfying blend of Afrobeat and jazz that gives credence to the group’s much-touted reputation. Interlocking rhythms and fluid horn parts led by trumpeter Sheila Maurice-Grey contribute to a full sound that revels in an intercontinental exchange between Lagos (also evident in the sunny guitar parts of tracks like “Ewà Inú” and “Dide O”) and Kokoroko’s home base of London. Heart-on-sleeve sentiments ring bold and true, with or without lyrics, on tracks like the exuberant “We Give Thanks” and determined “War Dance”.
On “Home” and “Something’s Going On”, Kokoroko pull together intimate, understated melodies that still make a significant impact. These are smooth, honest affirmations of the importance of expressive communities and the value of honoring the complexities of their individual and collective roots. Could We Be More is ultimately uplifting, a humble miracle of music made in a spirit of togetherness that is worth many listens. The name “Kokoroko” means “be strong”. On Could We Be More, the group does just that.
Raised in the border city of Laredo, Texas, musician and producer Adrian Quesada pays tribute to 1960s and 1970s Latin love songs on Boleros Psicodélicos. Quesada’s work serves as a reminder of how expansive the idea of Latin America truly is; he features artists from across the US, the Caribbean, Central America, and South America throughout his vintage-inspired work. Each participant expands the map and, in bringing their own emotions and talents, heightens the album’s musical impact.
Ballad after ballad emerges, sweeping and romantic, strings, organs, and flutes adding the perfect amount of melodrama to the impassioned deliveries of singers like Calle 13’s iLe (who croons on cinematic opener “Mentiras con Cariño”), Angélica Garcia (belting in the best way through “Ídolo”), Flor de Toloache’s Mireya (a consummate diva on “Tus Tormentas”), and many more. Each song is a mellifluous study in nostalgia, evocative of times and places that might not have existed exactly as they sound here but are nonetheless effective and affective notions of there and then, enticing the heart and imagination through careful creative harmony.
Scandinavian Music Group
(Sony Music Finland)
Finnish pop-rock-country outfit Scandinavian Music Group returned this year with Ikuinen Ystävä (“forever friend”), their first new studio album since 2015’s synth-heavy Baabel. Unlike the latter, Ikuinen Ystävä sees the band pivot sharply and land gently in a dreamy bed of acoustic folk sounds, a direction that has always served them well and, in this case, makes for Scandinavian Music Group’s fullest and most blissful atmosphere to date. Lead singer Terhi Kokkonen, always good at running the gamut between sincerely gentle and confidently brash, leads the charge toward building an unbroken peace, sometimes melancholic (as in pedal steel-laced “Toisessa Maailmassa”) but more often simply transcendent (opener “Uniemme Takaa” and closer “Ne Kaikki Palaavat Lauluina” radiate serenity).
Though it’s hardly their first jaunt into softer sounds, Ikuinen Ystävä is unique among Scandinavian Music Group works for its commitment to this mode. There are no hard edges or high-energy anthems here; the way each track unfolds feels gloriously organic, scenes from a distinctly Nordic midsummer. Scandinavian Music Group’s lyrics are as poetic as ever but with a distinct glow that further contributes to an extraordinary aura bringing yet another facet of the versatile band to the forefront.
Rokia Koné and Jacknife Lee
First hitting the international spotlight as a member of Les Amazones d’Afrique, Rokia Koné’s first global release came this year in the form of Bamanan, an album that clarifies why Koné is known as “The Rose of Bamako”. Nearly as important as Koné herself is veteran producer Jacknife Lee, whose credits include works from generations of A-listers from Tears for Fears to Taylor Swift. Here, he makes sure Koné’s agile voice shines unimpeded throughout ten glowing tracks.
Koné’s delivery in the epic narrative “Soyi N’galanba” rings through open space with majesty befitting its traditional origins and electronic embellishment suiting her contemporary context. Koné takes a stance against gendered exclusion via funk grooves and house beats on rousing “Kurunba”. The final track, “Mansa Soyari”, rethinks one of her Les Amazones features in a way that gives even more of a stage to Koné’s resplendent voice. Bamanan balances restraint and flash with a careful hand, giving Koné exactly the right backdrop to debut as an enormously significant performer and social commentator.