Sitting on a beach or by the pool with a guide to summer reading, but no advice on what's rocking the Latin music world? Look no further. Here are a few albums that could make this a summer to remember.
Alla, "Es Tiempo" (Crammed Discs) - Whether you'd prefer thinking about them as the Latino Stereolab or the second coming of Tropicalia, this Chicago-based trio makes psychedelic groove sounds that go well with mojitos and meditation. Lupe Martinez's vocals are mysteriously seductive.
Cabas, "Amores Dificiles" (EMI) - Feels like a statement album, dedicated, of course, to this Colombian pop-rocker's lady love. Fito Paez-ish ballads with minimalist instrumentation - a departure from previous cumbia-rock ambitions. "Bonita" is the bittersweet hit single and "He Pecado" features Enrique Bunbury and Orishas.
Natalia Clavier, "Nectar" (ESL Music) - Talented young Argentinean chanteuse who sang for Federico Aubele gets full-length backing of Thievery Corporation breakbeats. Slippery tango here, Morcheeba-like dub there. As sweet as the title suggests.
Cineplexx, "Picnic" (Portia Records) - Buenos Aires transplant based in Barcelona floats through his hybrid art rock world with the help of indie rock titans Jad Fair and Norman Blake of Teenage Fan Club. The result sounds like a graphic artist intoxicated with Belle and Sebastian. Perfect for that surreal Sunday in the park.
Charlie Cruz, "Dinamico" (Sony Norte) - Guess what, salsa romantica isn't dead yet, and that's a good thing! Such songs as "Corazoncito" push Cruz's scatting to lofty heights as it pushes you across the dance floor. Time for a midsummer Caribbean vacation.
Rebio Diaz, "El Lugar en Lugar del Lugar" (Spanic Attack) - Diaz's discordant take on Caribbean-to-New York migration embellishes minimalist prog rock with nueva trova. Looking-glass lyrics try to find a sense of place even as it slips away from him. With Spanic Attack cohort Monxo Lopez's jangly guitarwork, Diaz's earnest vocals bring it all back home.
Grupo Fantasma, "Sonidos Gold" (Aire Sol Records) - This 11-piece orchestra from Austin, Texas, combines cumbia, funk and salsa. Their cover of Los Van Van's "Bacalao con Pan" is more '70s than the actual '70s. It's not often a Southwest band swings with this authenticity and precision. Guest appearances by Larry Harlow and Maceo Parker make them an eclectic delight.
Gilberto Gil, "Banda Larga Cordel" (Warner Music Latina) - Brazil's rocking minister of culture offers some of his most beautiful songs ever. Longtime collaborator Liminha helps Gil keep that pan-Afro-beat edge. From the languid R&B of "Olho Magico" to the quiet bossa ballad "Amor de Carnaval," Gil reminds us of the simple complexity of the tropical experience.
The Pinker Tones, "Wild Animals" (Nacional) - These Barcelona synth-rockers have found a way to become the next big Daft Punk confection without seeming derivative. I'm partial to "Electrotumbao," a revved-up Cuban son with robotic handclaps.
Yusa, "Haiku" (Tumi Music) - Forward-thinking new music from Cuba, delivered by a jazz instrumentalist who has morphed into a thoughtful singer-songwriter. Once a member of Brazilian rocker Lenine's band, Yusa writes songs that are sometimes melodic poems, others full-bodied ballads. Best listened to at sunset, with friends.