Best Global Albums of 2021
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

The 10 Best Global Music Albums of 2021

In talking about music as global, it’s critical to understand movement as a part of it. The albums on this list are all products of global musical encounters.

Encounters are always at the heart of music. Sometimes taking place between individuals or groups, and occasionally whole nations, it’s from human contact that we learn how to play and how to listen. We combine old ideas; new ones emerge. Just about everything recorded for the commercial market today could be hybrid, but no less authentic for that.

In talking about music as global, it’s even more critical to understand movement as a part of it. The albums on this list are all products of global musical encounters. Some of these encounters are transnational, with artists crossing land and sea borders to record together. Guy Buttery crossed the Indian Ocean to make One Morning in Gurgaon with Mohd. Amjad Khan and Mudassir Khan, and Lakou Mizik’s and Joseph Ray’s chance meeting at a gig led to the electro-roots sounds of Leave the Bones. Many are intergenerational, contemporary expressions of long-held practices often layered with more contemporary popular styles, like Gájanas’ prog joik on Čihkkojuvvon or Farhot’s sampling of vintage Afghan media on Kabul Fire Vol. 2.

Others feature artists that build sound art based on movements through more local environs, like Satomimagae’s Hanazono or Ani Zakareishvili’s Mtirala. Many are a combination: Yndi’s Noir Brésil calls on her Afro-Brazilian ancestry, Toumani Diabaté and the London Symphony Orchestra bring forth lineages over space and time in Kôrôlén, and the Kasai Allstars’ Black Ants Fly Together, One Bangle Makes No Sound is the culmination of decades of intercontinental collaboration while also being specific to Congolese pop aesthetics in new ways. Still, others speak to the remnants of encounter in times of isolation, as with the stark steppe melodies of Yat-Kha’s We Will Never Die.

In 2021, the question of movement has been loaded as people relearn what encounters are safe, healthy, and worthwhile. Music models for its listening audience the rewards of coming together across boundaries of geographies and genre.

10 Guy Buttery, Mohd. Amjad Khan, and Mudassir Khan – One Morning in Gurgaon [Riverboat]

One Morning In Gurgaon

Spontaneous collaboration yields dreamlike melodies on One Morning in Gurgaon, a recording of a single session between Durban-raised fingerstyle guitarist (and mbira player on track “I Know This Place”) Guy Buttery, master tabla player Mohd. Amjad Khan, and sarangi player Mudassir Khan. Transcontinental flows of popular, folk, and classical styles feed into a harmonious blend, all of it primarily done in one take for the sake of time. These are nimble players who negotiate handing off melodies back and forth on tracks like the melancholy “December Poems”, then drift apart and together again in the modal pools of lengthy improvisations “Raag Yaman” and “Raag Kirwani”. They embrace upbeat verse-and-chorus structures on “Bakithi” with just as much virtuosity. The chemistry between the three is crystal clear and a joy to witness throughout this uniquely inspired recording. One Morning in Gurgaon is genuinely international music that stirs the imagination and enraptures the senses.

9 Toumani Diabaté and the London Symphony Orchestra – Kôrôlén [World Circuit]

Toumani Diabate and the London Symphony Orchestra – Korolen

Recorded in 2008 at London’s Barbican Centre, Toumani Diabaté’s Kôrôlén is a suite that weaves together Mandé traditional music and Western classical sounds in sublime new ways. A kora player from a long line known for his many cross-genre collaborations, Diabaté brings with him the vital vocals of the late Kassé Mady Diabaté and balafon player Lassana Diabaté. Working with them to arrange for the London Symphony Orchestra (here under the direction of Clark Rundell) are Nico Muhly and Ian Gardiner. Together, they represent modern continuities of old musical forms—”kôrôlén” means “ancestry” in Mandé—as they bring cinematic and theatrical touches to sweeping compositions. Kôrôlén is serene yet still exciting, blissful for its rolling rhythms and Toumani Diabaté’s cascading strings. This isn’t a surprise; every musician involved is a consummate professional, performing with gentle and capable hands. Kôrôlén is buoyant from start to finish, passionate, pastoral, and a vibrant example of how free even the most intricate art music can sound.

8 Satomimagae – Hanazono [RVNG Intl./Guruguru Brain]

Singer-songwriter Satomimagae makes neo-folk with gossamer-fine delicacy on Hanazono, her first album on psych-rock label Guruguru Brain. Every element feels ephemeral: misty background hums, gauzy electric and acoustic guitars, birdsong, and murmuring vocals all make for a concrete sound garden both haunting and heartfelt. The progression from open and eerie (“Hebisan”) to mellifluously noisy (“Uchu”) is so gradual that it’s easy to overlook how profound the difference is from the album’s start to its finish. It’s a masterfully produced arc that helps this album stand out from the discographies of even its most distinguished stylistic peers, artists like José González and Nick Drake. The intensity Satomimagae brings to Hanazono, as to all her albums, is most potent for its subversion of the softness so often associated with similarly acoustic projects as it embraces simmering tensions. Hanazono is an exquisite piece of dynamic stillness, and Satomimagae firmly rooted at the eye of the sonic storm.

7 Ani Zakareishvili – Mtirala [CES Records]

Ani Zakareishvili – Mtirala

Named for a national park in western Georgia, Mtirala is young Tbilisi-based producer Ani Zakareishvili’s first full-length release, an album that samples local folk ensembles to put together a sonic portrait of the park’s falls and mountains. Resonant with experimental electronics, Mtirala is modern sound art awash in morning dew. In the midst of evocative soundscapes, Zakareishvili knows precisely when and how to jar her listeners with searing sunshine or electric crackling. In a ghostly “Opening,” Georgian bagpipes pierce a gentle fundamental melody. Later, “Babo” chops up vocal samples to match sharply minimal beats. The soothing cadence of the lyrics on “Nanaskani” belie a background dissonance that leads into the smooth pebbles and buzzing synths of “Last Path,” culminating in the colorful string lines of “Lutra Lutra.” Of the CES Records crowd, Zakareishvili’s work for the label thus far, as heard on the showcase album Sleepers Poets Scientists, has been some of the most daring. Even so, Mtirala is a thrilling freshman outing that exceeds expectations.

6 Farhot – Kabul Fire, Vol. 2 [Kabul Fire]

Farhot – Kabul Fire Vol. 2

Hamburg-based producer Farhot puts his whole self into the hip-hop-centered second installment of his Kabul Fire series. The album’s structure is a tried-and-true: some lyrical tracks, some self-contained instrumentals, and more interstitial experiments. It all comes together in building a world of stories, different voices coexisting in a single realm. In this case, the domain in question is an Afghanistan Farhot pieces together from an archive of histories captured in word, film, and song and a repertoire of the personal experiences that inform his creative choices in sounding his heritage. This album recognizes the diversity of Afghan culture, going beyond Euro-American media representations of Afghanistan as a nation defined by war. Instead, he seeks stories from the ground, drawing samples from local media and fellow migrants, among others. Kabul Fire Vol. 2 is a non-stop flow of different viewpoints artfully assembled, and Farhot is a vital creative voice.