Music

The Best World Music of 2018

Photo: Micky Clément / Courtesy of the artist

Here they are, soft-spoken and hard-edged alike: a rich slice of some of this year's best musical offerings from across a wide and increasingly well-connected world.

Messages of protest and calls for understanding echoed through many of the global music scene's strongest offerings this year, bouncing from island to island, continent to continent with fear, hope, anger, and love. Artists everywhere tackled scenes of climate crisis, political corruption, forced migration, and cultural loss. Luckily, cutting through the heavier moments were exceptional melody and rhythm, once again serving as a reminder that, while music may not be a universal language, it's about as fun as intercultural communication gets.

On this year's top ten list are newcomers, superstars, and multinational projects from around the world. They remind us that tradition is dynamic by drawing upon old styles and fusing them with modern production. One group looks to the healing rituals of generations past. Another carries on a famous family legacy. Our largest spans oceans, delving into an ancient shared heritage to unite distant modern nations.

And so, here they are, soft-spoken and hard-edged alike: a rich slice of some of this year's best musical offerings from across a wide and increasingly well-connected world.

10.  Anbessa Orchestra - Negestat (Self-released)

Early in the year, Brooklyn-based ensemble Anbessa Orchestra swung into action with Negestat, an album of brassy Ethiojazz arrangements with a heavy hit of funk that marks Anbessa's first full-length release. Recorded completely using analog techniques, Negestat shows the orchestra's commitment to retro sound and high-quality funk. As much Charles Bradley as it is Mahmoud Ahmed, this is an easy album to love and ready-made for dancing. Anbessa Orchestra has a strong sense of groove that provides a strong backbone for all its instrumental ornamentation, and every cut on this new album urges you to keep moving, from bombastic "Negestat" to lyrical "T'sahai".

Anbessa Orchestra opens a portal from 1970s Addis Ababa to the modern world on Negestat, and what emerges is fresh and fantastic. The interplay between band members is satisfying; the melodies are fantastically soulful. Negestat is comfort food, warming the heart, the ear, and the whole body from the inside out.

9.  Alba Griot Ensemble - The Darkness Between the Leaves (Riverboat)

Between sweltering summer heat and the unshakable gloom of winter lies the debut album from Alba Griot Ensemble, a quartet made up of Scottish guitarists Mark Mulholland and Craig Ward, Malian ngoni player and percussionist Yacouba Sissoko, and Belgian double bassist Hannes d'Hoine. The Darkness Between the Leaves is a balance of cool acoustic spaces and percussive warmth, sparse melodies and majestic resonance. Even with the occasional impressive feature from artists like Toumani Diabate and Tony Allen, the arrangements are breathtakingly minimal, allowing the quartet's technique to shine on track after track.

At Alba Griot Ensemble's core is collaboration. The Darkness Between the Leaves sees the group seamlessly join together folk sounds from two continents, and in doing so, create a whole new style. The strings are graceful, the vocals are wistful, and the final product a thing of complex bliss. This is an album for introspection - and taking shelter from the end-of-year chill.

8. Gaye Su Akyol - İstikrarlı Hayal Hakikattir (Glitterbeat)

In her as-yet small body of work - three albums, only two of which have seen major international releases - young Turkish artist Gaye Su Akyol has already created a cosmos. Psychedelic fantasies, Anatolian rock, and surf guitars all crest in a wave of intergalactic sound, every track marked by strong compositions and stellar musicianship. Central to it all is Gaye Su Akyol, both as creator and as performer. With a voice comparable to Umm Kulthum and an unbridled creative spirit akin to Björk's, Su Akyol takes her listeners where they cannot possibly have been before on this year's İstikrarlı Hayal Hakikattir.

Smoldering, scintillating İstikrarlı Hayal Hakikattir has so many familiar sounds, so many looks back to Turkish rock of decades past, and all are recontextualized within a modern setting. The dark edge Su Akyol brings to her music is very much of today - but so, too, are the brilliant colors, the shimmering electronic touches. Gaye Su Akyol remains one of today's most fearless artists as she treks forward on İstikrarlı Hayal Hakikattir.

7. Imarhan - Temet (City Slang)

When last we left Imarhan, an Algerian Tuareg quintet with blood ties to Tinariwen, the group had released its self-titled debut, a fresh take on Saharan desert blues with a romantic Maghrebi twist. On Temet, Imarhan's energy still burns bright, but the band incorporates a more roots-oriented sound, with most tracks stripped down to guitars, percussion, and vocals - an ensemble accompanies many a chorus. The melancholy typical of Tuareg blues is a little more hopeful in Imarhan's youthful hands; even sparse closer "Ma S-Abok" feels warm. Elsewhere, dance-ready beats add a lively touch to tracks like single "Ehad Wa Dagh" and bass-heavy "Tumast".

The years since Tinariwen's international debut have seen a slow growth in innovative desert blues bands, and Imarhan has rightly been tagged as one of the most recent of a new wave of Tuareg bands. On Temet, the group goes beyond being fiery upstarts and proves its true staying power.

6. Seun Kuti and Egypt 80 - Black Times (Strut)

Is there anyone better suited to bring a little protest into our lives than Fela Kuti's youngest son? On Black Times, Seun Kuti declares himself the "Last Revolutionary" and, with Egypt 80 marching behind him, continues his father's musical and political legacy. A brilliant selection of socially relevant Afrobeat, Black Times sees Kuti deliver scathing critiques of injustice and corruption on tracks like "Corporate Public Control Department" ("You promise to give me peace / And you give me war / You promise me justice / And then they jail the poor") and "Struggle Sounds" ("Struggle music / Struggle sounds / Struggle people / Struggle now").

Though his music is very much in the same vein as that of his late father, Seun Kuti rides no one's coattails. He proves himself time and time again to be a capable bandleader for Fela-founded Egypt 80, and his voice and fire is all his own. Afrobeat may have come into being to fight a specific military junta, but Black Times proves that it serves as an equally effective soundtrack for today's struggles.

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