Globespotting: Best World Music of 2006

Ali Farka Touré

In a year of stylistic cross-pollinations, sounds from around the world come together on Michael Keefe's list of fun and fascinating albums.

There are 193 countries on this planet, most producing original music (well, maybe not Vatican City). To choose only ten albums that represent the global sonic output of 2006 was a daunting task. But once I ruled out the entries from Lithuania and Yemen, the whole list fell right into place! Truly, this past year was rich with wonderful music from all over the world. Many of the finest releases broke free from the stylistic binds of their regional music traditions, integrating elements of electronica, jazz, and blues to create new ideas and suggest new avenues for future musicians to explore. World music has evolved greatly from the era of field recordings and canned sitars over rock beats. The ten albums below all help to push this evolution ever forward. Most important, though, these discs all make for excellent listening.

Artist: Ali Farka Touré Album: Savane Label: Nonesuch iTunes affiliate: http://click.linksynergy.com/fs-bin/stat?id=aLczRZIEnRg&offerid=78941&type=3&subid=0&tmpid=1826&RD_PARM1=http%253A%252F%252Fphobos.apple.com%252FWebObjects%252FMZStore.woa%252Fwa%252FviewAlbum%253Fi%253D167315659%2526id%253D167315621%2526s%253D143441%2526partnerId%253D30 Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/t/tour233alifarka-savane.jpg US Release Date: 2006-07-25 UK Release Date: 2006-07-17

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In his earlier years, the late guitarist and singer Ali Farka Touré (1939-2006) was inspired by legendary bluesman John Lee Hooker. This stylistic connection is brought to the fore on Savane, Touré's final recording. Our first hint is the album cover's proclamation that he is "The King of the desert blues singers", a slogan that purposefully mimics the label attached to Robert Johnson (here substituting "desert" for "Delta"). The music, too, is Touré's most overtly blues-leaning. With a wailing harmonica and the ripened voice of its leader calling out between melodic licks, the opening track, "Erdi", could be Lightnin' Hopkins. "Beto", meanwhile, pushes forward the hypnotic melodic spirals common to much North African music, while aided by the sultry combo of a female backing vocalist and some restrained bursts of weeping saxophone. The title track slowly struts, as flashes of electric guitar are complimented by mellifluous flourishes of kora. All throughout, Savane pulls off the greatest trick of the album format: It offers plenty of variety, but it also corrals its songs into a unified sound. Although in his last year of life, this final record shows Touré still brimming with vitality. Savane is his wonderful farewell gift.Ali Farka Touré: Savane

Artist: Lee 'Scratch' Perry Album: Panic in Babylon Label: Narnack iTunes affiliate: http://click.linksynergy.com/fs-bin/stat?id=aLczRZIEnRg&offerid=78941&type=3&subid=0&tmpid=1826&RD_PARM1=http%253A%252F%252Fphobos.apple.com%252FWebObjects%252FMZStore.woa%252Fwa%252FviewAlbum%253Fi%253D179499776%2526id%253D179499132%2526s%253D143441%2526partnerId%253D30 Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/p/perrylee-panicinbabylon.jpg US Release Date: 2006-08-22 UK Release Date: 2006-09-04 N/A release date: 2004-11-29

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So few were exposed to this album -- originally distributed in limited quantities in Switzerland in 2004 -- until 2006 that it belongs on this list. On Panic in Babylon, reggae dub pioneer Lee "Scratch" Perry employs all of the techniques he helped to birth in the 1970s, and adds a few more, as well. This is not strictly a dub album, however. Perry is backed by live musicians and sings his own vocals on every track. Still, at least some aspect of every song is subjected to Perry’s bag of studio trickery, as organic performances are ensnared mid-flight and psychedelicized, only to be seamlessly set back on course a few measures later. Professor Upsetter shows us all how it’s done on the terrific Panic in Babylon.Lee 'Scratch' Perry: Panic in Babylon

Artist: Anouar Brahem Album: Le Voyage de Sahar Label: ECM iTunes affiliate: http://click.linksynergy.com/fs-bin/stat?id=aLczRZIEnRg&offerid=78941&type=3&subid=0&tmpid=1826&RD_PARM1=http%253A%252F%252Fphobos.apple.com%252FWebObjects%252FMZStore.woa%252Fwa%252FviewAlbum%253Fs%253D143441%2526i%253D137478804%2526id%253D137478766%2526partnerId%253D30 Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/b/brahemanouar-levoyagedesahar.jpg US Release Date: 2006-04-04 UK Release Date: 2006-02-27

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Tunisian oudist Anouar Brahem is on a jazz label because his music is improvisational, but I would hesitate to pigeonhole it as anything but world music; hence, the appearance here of his seventh album, the gorgeous Le Voyage de Sahar. This is assured and subtle work is Brahem's most mature release. Mixing his homeland's flavors with jazz, tango, and other styles, his trio (with piano and accordion) has a sound all its own. Like all ECM discs, the recording feels spacious, but this album is not chilly. Le Voyage de Sahar is appropriately warm for an album meant to evoke the desert of Northern Africa and which, instead, evokes no one place, no one genre, and no one time. A gorgeous album, Sahar simply is.Anouar Brahem: Le Voyage de Sahar

Artist: Värttinä Album: Miero Label: Real World iTunes affiliate: http://click.linksynergy.com/fs-bin/stat?id=aLczRZIEnRg&offerid=78941&type=3&subid=0&tmpid=1826&RD_PARM1=http%253A%252F%252Fphobos.apple.com%252FWebObjects%252FMZStore.woa%252Fwa%252FviewAlbum%253Fi%253D118742052%2526id%253D118742068%2526s%253D143441%2526partnerId%253D30 Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/v/varttina-miero.jpg US Release Date: 2006-01-24 UK Release Date: 2006-01-30

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Finnish collective Värttinä first made waves in the mid-'90s with Kokko. Miero, the nonet's latest album of "New Nordic" songs, marks a great return to the world stage. Although Värttinä's mini-choir of ethereal harmonies lie at the group's fore, it's backed by a full ensemble playing a wide range of instruments, from electric guitar to the fiddle-like jouhikko. Its music, too, varies nicely, from the alt-rockishness of the album's brooding opener, "Riena/Anathema" to the gentle "Lupaus/The Promise". On Miero, all of these sounds combine for an excellent album of dark beauty, bittersweet melodies, fascinating vocals, and a magical air.Värttinä: Miero

Artist: Kékélé Album: Kinavana Label: Stern's Africa iTunes affiliate: http://click.linksynergy.com/fs-bin/stat?id=aLczRZIEnRg&offerid=78941&type=3&subid=0&tmpid=1826&RD_PARM1=http%253A%252F%252Fphobos.apple.com%252FWebObjects%252FMZStore.woa%252Fwa%252FviewAlbum%253Fi%253D173578283%2526id%253D173577662%2526s%253D143441%2526partnerId%253D30 Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/k/kekele-kinavana.jpg US Release Date: 2006-02-28 UK Release Date: 2006-01-23

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Congolese supergroup Kékélé, comprised of aging musicians who have all played in many groups over the years, is analogous to Cuba's Buena Vista Social Club, playing sweetly old-fashioned rumbas. The liner notes explain that rhythm's African heritage and, therefore, the shared trans-Atlantic sound. This disc, in feel, is a musical cousin to the awesome BVSC album of 1997. Relaxed, warm, wistful, happy, and inviting, Kinavana is beautiful and fun, as hand drums sway a lilting beat beneath sparkling guitar notes, reedy flute melodies, and the wonderfully worn vocals of the excellent group of singers assembled for these great recordings.Kékélé: Kinavana

Artist: Gotan Project Album: Lunático Label: XL Contributors: Calexico, Koxmoz, Juan Carlos Caceres, Jimi Santos Amazon affiliate: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/redirect?link_code=as2&path=ASIN/B000EHQ7KG&tag=popmatters-20&camp=1789&creative=9325 iTunes affiliate: http://click.linksynergy.com/fs-bin/stat?id=aLczRZIEnRg&offerid=78941&type=3&subid=0&tmpid=1826&RD_PARM1=http%253A%252F%252Fphobos.apple.com%252FWebObjects%252FMZStore.woa%252Fwa%252FviewAlbum%253Fs%253D143441%2526i%253D139858470%2526id%253D139858289%2526partnerId%253D30 Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/g/gotanproject-lun225tico.jpg US Release Date: 2006-04-11 UK Release Date: 2006-04-10

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Tangotronica! I don't know if Astor Piazzolla would have approved, but Paris-based Gotan Project's second album, Lunatico, is so sexy that even a purist would fall headlong for the sultry vocals of Cristina Villalonga, the group's corpuscular downtempo beats, and the haunting string and bandoneon playing of the traditional tango quartet Gotan Project took on for these sessions. While some artists might have been content to slide a trance beat under some standard melodies, Lunatico presents a broad range of tempos, feels, and recipes for their signature stylistic mix. Mournful blues sit alongside clubby dance tracks, and all are blended seamlessly into an elegant whole.Gotan Project: Lunático

Artist: Rachid Taha Album: Diwan 2 Label: Wrasse Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/t/taharachid-diwan2.jpg US Release Date: 2006-10-31 UK Release Date: 2006-10-16

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Eight years after Diwan, Algerian singer and rai troubadour Rachid Taha has issued its sequel. Although arguably more roots-oriented than his heavily produced 2004 album Tékitoi, Diwan 2 still rocks. Rai is, primarily, an aggressive sound, which is why its early acoustic incarnation translated so well to its dance form in the 1980s. Taha leans toward the older style here, but hits the beat hard, even with the Cairo String Ensemble, who beautifully augment several of the entrancing tunes found here. A sound all its own, rai transcends the sounds of Africa and the nearby Middle Eastern flavors. With Diwan 2, eclectic world pop star Taha proves once again that he transcends all styles.Rachid Taha: Diwan 2

Artist: Cibelle Album: The Shine of Dried Electric Leaves Label: Six Degrees iTunes affiliate: http://click.linksynergy.com/fs-bin/stat?id=aLczRZIEnRg&offerid=78941&type=3&subid=0&tmpid=1826&RD_PARM1=http%253A%252F%252Fphobos.apple.com%252FWebObjects%252FMZStore.woa%252Fwa%252FviewAlbum%253Fi%253D140180506%2526id%253D140179428%2526s%253D143441%2526partnerId%253D30 Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/c/cibelle-theshineofdriedelectricleaves.jpg US Release Date: 2006-05-02 UK Release Date: 2006-05-02

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The Brazilian CocoRosie? Samba-fied freak-folk? Really, Brazilian musicians have always embraced quirky production, and Cibelle's haunted, cut-up, serenely twinkling electro-acoustic folk-pop falls right in line with the old Tropicalistas or Tom Zé's Dadaism. More so than most of her contemporaries, Cibelle represents a natural evolution in the MPB aesthetic, following from the aforementioned influences on the excellent The Shine of Dried Electric Leaves. The one song that neatly speaks to this new singer's blending of the old and the new is her cover of "London, London", a 1971 tune from the legendary Caetano Veloso. Cibelle is joined on that track by Devendra Banhart, the bearded messiah of the current psychedelic folk revolution. Her style is idiosyncratic, but her music is always melodious on the lovely Leaves.Cibelle: The Shine of Dried Electric Leaves

Artist: C.J. Chenier Album: The Desperate Kingdom of Love Label: World Village iTunes affiliate: http://click.linksynergy.com/fs-bin/stat?id=aLczRZIEnRg&offerid=78941&type=3&subid=0&tmpid=1826&RD_PARM1=http%253A%252F%252Fphobos.apple.com%252FWebObjects%252FMZStore.woa%252Fwa%252FviewAlbum%253Fi%253D131315909%2526id%253D131315876%2526s%253D143441%2526partnerId%253D30 Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/c/cheniercj-desperate.jpg US Release Date: 2006-05-09 UK Release Date: 2006-05-08

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As an American, I feel a bit guilty about including on this list an album from the U.S. After all, we're quite well represented by rock, pop, metal, country, and jazz. Still, that's not going to stop me from telling you about The Desperate Kingdom of Love, a killer album of blues-fused Cajun music from C.J. Chenier, son of zydeco king Clifton Chenier. Accordionist C.J. has been cutting records for nearly 20 years now, but this new one is a departure, a relatively sober album dedicated to "everyone who suffered in the great hurricane and floods of 2005". While certainly not a party record, Desperate Kingdom is still quite lively, striking a remarkable balance between the two forms of indigenous American music channeled here by Chenier, and featuring covers of songs by PJ Harvey, Van Morrison, and Hank Williams.C.J. Chenier: The Desperate Kingdom of Love

Artist: Natacha Atlas Album: Mish Maoul Label: Mantra iTunes affiliate: http://click.linksynergy.com/fs-bin/stat?id=aLczRZIEnRg&offerid=78941&type=3&subid=0&tmpid=1826&RD_PARM1=http%253A%252F%252Fphobos.apple.com%252FWebObjects%252FMZStore.woa%252Fwa%252FviewAlbum%253Fi%253D125222352%2526id%253D125221766%2526s%253D143441%2526partnerId%253D30 Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/a/atlasnatacha-mishmaoul.jpg US Release Date: 2006-04-25 UK Release Date: 2006-04-24

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On her seventh album, Belgian-born Natacha Atlas further explores her Middle Eastern and North African heritage while incorporating some of the clubby electronic beats common to her European hometown. Mish Maoul is a tight and polished release, with just enough variety to keep the disc intriguing over the course of its 50-minute-plus playing time. Along this musical journey, Atlas treats us to the qawwali-like opener "Oully", an English-language socio-political rap on "Feen", Brazilian rhythms on "Ghanwa Bossanova", and the spare elegance of the closing track "Yariet". Even with these many side trips, Mish Maoul is a consistently strong and often hypnotic album that showcases Atlas's gorgeous voice.Natacha Atlas: Mish Maoul

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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