The Best World Music of 2017

Photo: Tiago Augusto (Courtesy of artist)

This year, some of the most powerful sounds across the global music industry were those that resisted injustice, whether by directly rejecting it or surviving in spite of it.

If 2016 was a year of gut-punching realities around the globe, then 2017 at its best was a year of moving forward with renewed energy, of voices rising and demanding to be heard. Whether at rallies, on social media, or in music, the world this year was full of strongly worded messages. This year, some of the most powerful sounds across the global music industry were those that resisted injustice, whether by directly rejecting it or surviving in spite of it.

Many of our top world music albums for this year fall in at least one of those categories. All ask us to step outside of the local spheres in which we live our lives for a few tracks, and instead to learn about another person's reality, and for all of us, at least one worldview from the albums below will come from a very different place than our own. Young artists offer brand new perspectives on their environments and how to express them in song. Well-established musicians lead the charge against oppression in their homelands, whether in the form of state-sanctioned crackdowns on secular music or long-held gender roles. Artists up and down the experiential spectrum celebrate their ability to communicate something about their home or their heritage through music, something all performers share with varying degrees of intention.

As always, the term world music embraces so much and draws such arbitrary lines that it can be hard to pick just a few albums. Here are ten to whet your appetite for musical discovery, with hopes for a continuation of fruitful cross-cultural dialogues in the coming years, whether through song or positive social change.

10. Fabiano do Nascimento - Tempo Dos Mestres

Armed with little more than an acoustic guitar and, Fabiano do Nascimento heads into the Amazon rainforest for sophomore album Tempo Dos Mestres, a work of astounding sensitivity. Throughout the record, do Nascimento illustrates the lushest natural landscapes of Brazil with a delicate strumming hand. Gentle touches of flute, sax, and percussion flesh out the scenery, and the result, for all its intricate melodies and patterns, is a refreshing and understated masterpiece of expression. "Já Que Tú" finds the artist singing from the heart of love and the pain that goes with it; "Louva-a-Deus 'Mantis'" starts small and quickly unfolds into earthy brilliance, evoking its namesake insect's strange and wondrous ways of moving through emerald jungles. Throughout the record, do Nascimento hearkens back to the quintessentially Brazilian genres of samba and bossa nova, linking together the people and places closest to his heart in sparkling, previously unheard-of combinations with virtuosic subtleties.

9. Quantic and Nidia Góngora - Curao

British-born producer Quantic spent seven years living and working in Colombia before heading to New York. On Curao, he returns, this time to the country's Pacific coast, where folklorist and singer Nidia Góngora continues the Afro-Colombian musical traditions of her hometown of Timbiquí. Wisely, Quantic keeps the synths to a minimum, letting Góngora's lithe voice tell the stories and take the spotlight; "Dios Promete" even sees Góngora and a backing chorus go fully a cappella in a thoughtful call and response. Found sounds balance out the occasional flutter of digital beats, and every addition to the accompaniment exists to elevate Góngora's dynamic voice, just as strong when she croons sweet, legato notes as it is when she takes a more forceful approach to her music. In juxtaposing modern production with longstanding folk music styles of Colombia, Curao exemplifies the concept of living traditions and their place in the contemporary music industry and gives an expert folk singer the attention she deserves across the globe.

8. Tinariwen - Elwan

Displaced once again from their homeland of Mali by a hostile political regime, the famed Tuareg desert blues band Tinariwen did what they do best in response: they went to other deserts and made music just the same. The group's guitars trace trancelike rock grooves on "Ténéré Tàqqàl", a song bemoaning the fate of the group's beloved and much-embattled Sahara. More upbeat dance rhythms praise the Sahara itself on "Sastanàqqàm". Joining the coolest rock band out of Mali are some of the coolest rockers out of the American scene today; Mark Lanegan, Alain Johannes, Kurt Vile, and Matt Sweeney all blend seamlessly into wave after wave of metallic riffs. There's no question that life has been and continues to be hard for the members of Tinariwen, but the way they channel that and express it on Elwan is exquisite. The love and agony they feel bleeds through on track after track, surpassing language barriers and becoming visceral through music.

7. Amadou & Mariam - La Confusion

Husband and wife duo Amadou Bagayoko and Mariam Doumbia leave their stripped-down strings behind in favor of brighter colors on La Confusion, an album with heavy 90s pop vibes that sound like they're coming straight from mom's tape deck. Tracks "Bofou Safou" and "La Confusion" go heavy on bouncing synth melodies, while "Diarra" and "Massa Allah" incorporate Bagayoko's bluesy, Hendrix-inspired guitar to add a high lonesome feel to the mix. As its title suggests, La Confusion is one of the many albums out this year trying to make sense of the current global chaos. On it, Amadou and Mariam opt for a hopeful approach, with high spirits even in weary times. They spread love on mellow "Ta Promesse", urge strength on rousing "Femmes Du Monde", persevere on driving "C'est Chaud", and know how to make good, memorable music that engages from start to finish. Feel-good Afropop jams with substance and serious energy, all wrapped up with some truly spectacular guitar solos.

6. Oumou Sangaré - Mogoya

As soon as Oumou Sangaré started dropping videos and singles, Afropop musicians across the globe began to rejoice on social media. Bombino took to Facebook to call her the queen; Vieux Farka Touré congratulated his "grand soeur Oumou" on every new release. The famously self-made Sangaré deserves every accolade for Mogoya, her first solo release since 2012. Long an outspoken advocate of women's rights and a businesswoman herself, Sangaré has experienced no shortage of difficulties getting to the top of Malian pop music, and with the help of original Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen, she takes her hard-earned strength and urges others not to give up on the buoyant single "Yere Faga". On "Kamelemba", she issues a lighter-hearted warning against playboys, her charisma sharp against the twinkle of the stringed ngoni. No matter her subject matter, though, Sangaré remains not only an inspirational figure, but a vibrant artist with a well-developed skill for storytelling. Mogoya is a perfect translation of Sangaré's commanding creative presence into music.

Next Page






A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Prof. Susanne Kord gets to the heart of the philosophical issues in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time-travel dystopia, 12 Monkeys.


The Devonns' Debut Is a Love Letter to Chicago Soul

Chicago's the Devonns pay tribute the soul heritage of their city with enough personality to not sound just like a replica.


Jaye Jayle's 'Prisyn' Is a Dark Ride Into Electric Night

Jaye Jayle salvage the best materials from Iggy Pop and David Bowie's Berlin-era on Prisyn to construct a powerful and impressive engine all their own.


Kathleen Edwards Finds 'Total Freedom'

Kathleen Edwards is back making music after a five-year break, and it was worth the wait. The songs on Total Freedom are lyrically delightful and melodically charming.


HBO's 'Lovecraft Country' Is Heady, Poetic, and Mangled

Laying the everyday experience of Black life in 1950s America against Cthulhuian nightmares, Misha Green and Jordan Peele's Lovecraft Country suggests intriguing parallels that are often lost in its narrative dead-ends.


Jaga Jazzist's 'Pyramid' Is an Earthy, Complex, Jazz-Fusion Throwback

On their first album in five years, Norway's Jaga Jazzist create a smooth but intricate pastiche of styles with Pyramid.


Finding the Light: An Interview with Kathy Sledge

With a timeless voice that's made her the "Queen of Club Quarantine", Grammy-nominated vocalist Kathy Sledge opens up her "Family Room" and delivers new grooves with Horse Meat Disco.


'Bigger Than History: Why Archaeology Matters'

On everything from climate change to gender identity, archaeologists offer vital insight into contemporary issues.


'Avengers: Endgame' Culminates 2010's Pop Culture Phenomenon

Avengers: Endgame features all the expected trappings of a superhero blockbuster alongside surprisingly rich character resolutions to become the most crowd-pleasing finalés to a long-running pop culture series ever made.


Max Richter's 'VOICES' Is an Awe-Inspiring and Heartfelt Soundscape

Choral singing, piano, synths, and an "upside-down" orchestra complement crowd-sourced voices from across the globe on Max Richter's VOICES. It rewards deep listening, and acts as a global rebuke against bigotry, extremism and authoritarianism.


DYLYN Dares to "Find Myself" by Facing Fears and Life's Dark Forces (premiere + interview)

Shifting gears from aspiring electropop princess to rock 'n' rule dream queen, Toronto's DYLYN is re-examining her life while searching for truth with a new song and a very scary-good music video.


JOBS Make Bizarre and Exhilarating Noise with 'endless birthdays'

Brooklyn experimental quartet JOBS don't have a conventional musical bone in their body, resulting in a thrilling, typically off-kilter new album, endless birthdays.


​Nnamdï' Creates a Lively Home for Himself in His Mind on 'BRAT'

Nnamdï's BRAT is a labyrinth detailing the insular journey of a young, eclectic DIY artist who takes on the weighty responsibility of reaching a point where he can do what he loves for a living.


Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few Play It Cool​

Austin's Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few perform sophisticatedly unsophisticated jazz/Americana that's perfect for these times


Eleanor Underhill Takes Us to the 'Land of the Living' (album stream)

Eleanor Underhill's Land of the Living is a diverse album drawing on folk, pop, R&B, and Americana. It's an emotionally powerful collection that inspires repeated listens.


How Hawkwind's First Voyage Helped Spearhead Space Rock 50 Years Ago

Hawkwind's 1970 debut opened the door to rock's collective sonic possibilities, something that connected them tenuously to punk, dance, metal, and noise.


Graphic Novel 'Cuisine Chinoise' Is a Feast for the Eyes and the Mind

Lush art and dark, cryptic fables permeate Zao Dao's stunning graphic novel, Cuisine Chinoise.


Alanis Morissette's 'Such Pretty Forks in the Road' Is a Quest for Validation

Alanis Morissette's Such Pretty Forks in the Road is an exposition of dolorous truths, revelatory in its unmasking of imperfection.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.