There is, as always, no single thread linking the albums in this year’s list of top ten “global” releases. To listen to them all is to journey through a patchwork of styles: jazz, EDM, folk, rock, blends of a few of the above, and all kinds of experiments that don’t fit into any one category. Global, after all, is not a genre so much as it is a term that recognizes an entire planet of people, things, and the routes they take. To refer to certain music as global might point to broad appeal, power in an international industry, or economic domination over independent artists who perform primarily in smaller venues and areas.
Global might also relegate music from outside an often Anglophone pop norm to the margins as a softer substitute for outdated terms like “world music” and “worldbeat”. This list is not entirely free and clear from the baggage of the latter problem: all of the albums on it are here, to some degree, because they are marketed as different from the mainstream on the often-slippery level of culture.
What, then, is the point of such a list? What can we do with the idea of global music beyond deepening the divide? I have a few reasons in mind. Hopefully, they can begin to balance out the problems inherent in this category.
Firstly, all the music here is good, often in ways underrepresented in your Spotify algorithm, over mall speakers, or as 15-second clips on your TikTok FYP. Jantra, for example, is as skilled a synthpop wizard as any popular SoundCloud producer. Still, outside of his release on Ostinato this year, you’d be hard-pressed to find any trace of him outside Sudan’s Al Qadarif region. Polobi and the Gwo Ka Masters blend trance music, free jazz, and folk in abstract combinations unique for their roots in Polobi’s Guadeloupean background. Hannu Saha and duo Pakasteet make similar artistic moves with very different results using Finnish folk elements. Across the atmospheric spectrum, Ekiti Sound works with electronic beats, brassy funk, and some of the catchiest hooks I’ve heard all year to make socially conscious dance music, some of which could fit in on any contemporary club floor.
Secondly, these are artists making waves in important local and regional scenes, often to the point of forging new connections between them. Based in Berlin, Sofia Kourtesis makes frequent and meaningful references to her Peruvian heritage and Latin America as a conceptual whole through samples and style. A rising star in Johannesburg’s thriving jazz scene, multiple award winner Bokani Dyer’s most recent multilingual, genre-crossing release has genuinely global appeal without abandoning a sense of place and identity. Legendary Zambian rock group WITCH links nations and generations as younger members from Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland work alongside original leader Emanyeo “Jagari” Chanda and keyboardist Patrick Mwondela. Features from collaborators Sampa the Great and Theresa Ng’ambi further bridge the gaps.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, everything is global. We have easier access to more information about the rest of the world than ever before, and it affects our daily lives. The musicians on this list don’t live in a vacuum, and they, like each of us, have felt the impacts of global crises, sometimes directly. Tinariwen’s music has always directly spoken to their experiences of war and violent displacement as Kel Tamasheq people in the Sahara. Bombino, another Kel Tamasheq artist, was forced to evacuate his home in Niamey in the wake of a Nigerien coup just months before the release of this album. Altın Gün donated proceeds from the last single on their latest album to rescue teams acting in the wake of the earthquake that claimed tens of thousands of lives in Turkey and Syria in February of this year. It behooves us all to stay aware of and empathetic to the many different daily struggles that our fellow planetary inhabitants deal with. It is perhaps just as important to stay connected to one another through sharing good things.
The music on this list is superb. It comes from some places around the globe and then goes to others. If you find something new, then that music and the connections therein have stretched a little farther. That’s good, too.
10. Polobi and the Gwo Ka Masters – Abri Cyclonique (Real World)
Nearing his 70s, Moïse Polobi has been performing in rural léwôz gatherings on his home island of Guadeloupe since his preteen years. Now, finally retired from a life of farm work, he’s taken his masterful Gwo Ka music to the recording studio to lay down Abri Cyclonique, his free-flowing international debut on Real World. Over 13 tracks, Polobi’s improvised vocals ring out, rough and powerful, over neighbor Klod Kiavué’s percussion, guitar from Christian Laviso, and drums from Eric Danquin. The final product is an amalgam of electroacoustic dub, free jazz, and tradition. Producer Liam “Doctor L” Farrell wraps it all perfectly in an atmospheric package of complex form and evocations of nature and cosmology, letting Polobi come through clearly amid a subtly luscious ambience.
For the album’s many intricacies, its greatest strength is its singular leader. Polobi is a commanding figure, his singing dynamic and raw as he and Kiavué guide the rest of the instrumentalists forward down their unpredictable path. The transcendental glimmering of “Kawmélito”, the reverence of “Nèg Africa”, and the buoyant reggae of “Okipayason” all seem to fit together organically, Polobi’s lyrical wanderings effortlessly bridging any tonal gaps. Polobi puts his whole heart and throat into each moment of his debut and, in doing so, transports us.
9. Hannu Saha ja Pakasteet – Taas kerran, äkkiä (Bafe’s Factory)
An iconoclast on the kantele, a five-stringed lap harp from Finland, Hannu Saha teams up with avant-garde electronic duo Pakasteet (musician and producer Jussi Lehtisalo and film director and visual artist Mika Taanila) on Taas kerran, äkkiä, a dazzling array of old and new. An especially resonant instrument, the kantele’s natural sonic clarity suits it well to eerie and ecstatic modes alike, and Saha’s penchant for unusual methods like strumming with paper clips and chains makes for unexpected textures that fit perfectly into the synths, tapes, and other assorted sounds Pakasteet brings to the table.
It’s a compelling case for the versatility of the kantele, an instrument generally considered Finland’s national instrument and typically relegated to folk and concert repertoires. Here, though, it takes its place in ominous industrial electronica (“Terveisiä Laajasalosta”), sparse noise pieces (“Irkon ellot”), and even retro cosmic synthpop (“Vähän suolaa”) before two final tracks that engage in minimalism and maximalism at length (“Syysruhjeita” and “Taas kerran, äkkiä” each clock in at over nine minutes). Though it’s only five tracks long, Taas kerran, äkkiä encompasses multitudes, exploring spaces of dissonance and harmony in ways that move the kantele into new artistic contexts and are completely captivating for the more adventurous listener.
8. Bokani Dyer – Radio Sechaba (Brownswood)
Already an award-winning musician and composer, Motswana-South African pianist Bokani Dyer broke through to a broader audience with this year’s Radio Sechaba, his first release on London’s Brownswood Recordings. Dyer’s blend of jazz, R&B, and neo-soul uplifts and fortifies, putting his conservatory training on full display along with an innovative streak that has no qualms about layering styles in the service of good music. Alternating between Setswana and English, he and his collaborators speak out thoughtfully on themes of social issues, identity, and home over bass-heavy heat (as in “Mogaetsho”, “Move On”, and “Ke Nako”) or more lyrical melodies (“State of the Nation” features Damani Nkosi taking on MC duties over Dyer’s poignant keys and alongside horns and bass).
Dyer comes through it all sounding like a rising star, skillful, passionate, and charismatic. His piano makes for a profoundly moving and versatile foundation for full and accessible arrangements with wide popular appeal and a contemporary edge. It’s easy to imagine him going in one of many directions as his work continues, but there’s virtually no question that he’ll keep putting forth philosophically engaged music with a sense of jazz’s expansive history and potential, making music both smooth and complex, just as he does on Radio Sechaba.
7. Tinariwen – Amatssou (Wedge)
Geographic gaps notwithstanding, there has always been some stylistic proximity between the tichoumaren music popularized by Kel Tamasheq musicians and some of the most moving US American roots and country styles. Sparse, bluesy melodies, deeply felt lyrics, and nimble musicianship come together often in both cases, impassioned and often melancholy expressions of real life and the struggles that comprise it for the artists at hand. In the new Tinariwen release Amatssou, these sonic and spiritual connections take more literal forms.
Produced by Daniel Lanois in a transcontinental, pandemic-era frenzy, Amatssou is everything Tinariwen does best (nostalgic guitars, lyrics of activism and hope, spacious percussion) plus a little extra cowboy by way of fiddles, banjos, and some satisfying hits of pedal steel. They collaborate with musicians Wes Corbett, Fats Kaplin, and Lanois, all coming together with a smoldering brilliance. The record is not unrecognizably country-fried, but it’s an exciting exploration of the sonic overlap between Tinariwen’s bluesy Saharan rock and the work of US American folk rockers like Kurt Vile, Cass McCombs, Micah Nelson, and Jack White, all of whom count themselves among Tinariwen’s fanbase. Tinariwen has yet to disappoint, and Amatssou, in its international engagements with social issues and musical mobilities, continues the grand tradition of this groundbreaking band.
6. Jantra – Synthesized Sudan: Astro-Nubian Electronic Jaglara Dance Sounds from the Fashaga Underground (Ostinato)
In his hometown of El-Gedarif, not far from Sudan’s borders with Ethiopia and Eritrea and just outside the disputed Fashaga triangle, the artist known as Jantra is an underground superstar. Known among small local circles as the creator of the genre Jaglara, loosely translating to “craziness”, Jantra draws on regional rural dance styles and celestial inspiration (he’s known to wander off on his own for days at a time between performances to refuel his creativity) in creating some of the most exciting music to ever emerge from a Yamaha keyboard, albeit one specially modified to suit Sudanese aesthetics better. The well-hidden street parties that result are tremendous, ecstatic affairs.
Jantra has apparently never been particularly interested in his music making it on the global stage, but when Ostinato Records producers Vik Sohonie and Janto Koité encountered the Jaglara scene for the first time, they knew it had the potential to hit hard the world over. As a favor to them, Jantra agreed to his first professionally mixed recording. The resulting record, Synthesized Sudan, is a frenzy of musical fireworks. Koité splices together some of Jantra’s rhythms, melodies, MIDI data, and early recordings to emulate the experience of being present at one of Jantra’s performances. It’s a remarkable success. Synthesized Sudan offers us a facet of Afrofuturist creativity few have been fortunate enough to witness until now, placing Jantra firmly among the all-time synthesizer greats.
5. Bombino – Sahel (Partisan)
With every album, Nigerien Kel Tamasheq guitarist and singer-songwriter Omara “Bombino” Moctar brings renewed energy and ideas to the reggae-tinged Saharan rock that has made him an audience favorite worldwide. Sahel shows him at the top of his craft to date. Energetic grooves range from powerfully plugged-in (“Tazidert”, “Aitma”, and “Darfuq” are standouts), to gently acoustic (“Alwane”, “Ayo Nigla”, “Itisahid”, and “Mes Amis”) with plenty in between (“Si Chilan” and “Nik Sant Awanha” move with a sunny, midtempo swing, “Ayes Sachen” with just a little more urgency).
The electronic and acoustic additions to Bombino’s sound never come at the expense of his musical and cultural perspective. Named after his home region, Sahel, like all of Bombino’s works so far, touches on themes of love, loss, and community. They’re especially touching subjects in the face of this year’s coup in Niger, during which Bombino and his family were evacuated from Niamey and stranded away from home, living in part off of GoFundMe donations. Less than two months later came Sahel. It’s hard to imagine touring in such circumstances, but by all accounts, Bombino has spread his messages with aplomb and appreciation through his shows. Socially conscious and sonically impeccable, Sahel is Bombino’s highest point among many.
4. Sofia Kourtesis – Madres (Ninja Tune)
Berlin-based DJ Sofia Kourtesis has spent almost a decade releasing EPs of funky bricolage, building eclectic scenes out of stylish samples and high-octane beats for worldly dance floors. Her full-length debut, Madres, is a little different. Dedicated in part to existentially important figures in her life–her mother, as the title suggests, as well as neurosurgeon Peter Vajkoczy, who helped save Kourtesis’s mother’s life during a battle with cancer–Madres glows, the edges and kicks that are so prominent in Kourtesis’ catalog to date fitting more tightly amid blissful electronic grooves.
There’s a beautiful mix of pathos and social consciousness across the album. Kourtesis dabbles in serenity (“Madres”) and sensuality (“Estación Esperanza”, which features Manu Chao), melancholy (“Moving Houses”), and ecstasy (“How Music Makes You Feel Better”). She pays tribute to African and Indigenous styles of her home nation of Peru and broader formations of Latin America through samples and lyrics that challenge the violence of cultural erasure (“Funkhaus” and “El Carmen”). Madres is a clear culmination of everything Kourtesis has released thus far and then some. She pieces sounds together with empathy, grace, and skill in a tighter and more incandescent package than on her past EPs—a debut worth the wait.
3. Ekiti Sound – Drum Money (Crammed Discs)
Under the moniker Ekiti Sound, producer Leke Awoyinka makes music with a bold and mindful commitment to collage techniques. His sense of craft has only grown since 2019’s astonishing Abeg No Vex. This year’s Drum Money is just as tight with an even smoother flow as Awoyinka strings together synths, samples, folk, and funk, among other things. Nigeria-born and moving between Lagos and London, Awoyinka has a tremendous range of styles at his disposal, and he deploys them with finesse on track after track. Brassy “Chairman” (one of the year’s all-around catchiest singles) evokes 1970s Afrobeat but draws extra power from its more contemporary EDM production.
The jazzy protest chants of “Ghost Leader” melt into “Raindrops”, a pastiche of downtempo balladry that swings gently between acoustic and electric. We move through philosophical spirals against the horns, back in full force, on “Home”. Tracks like “Fuji” and “Ku Ise” set traditional Nigerian percussion against rapid-fire electronic beats. By the end of the album, tracks like “Mami Wata” and “Eko Bridge” roll in on more relaxed, old-school hip-hop beats. Even with all that (and more) in play, there’s a cohesion to Drum Money that makes it a smooth ride from start to finish and one full of sonic gems.
2. Altın Gün – Aşk (ATO)
When Netherlands-based group Altın Gün released Aşk this year, it marked a kind of sonic homecoming. While their last few albums have moved the group into 1980s and 90s synth and dub territory, Aşk returns the group to its plugged-in Anatolian rock beginnings as they adapt Turkish folk and pop songs for more contemporary concert halls. This is music meant to move audiences both literally and emotionally, with hefty basslines, killer guitar, bağlama solos, and impassioned vocals from Erdinç Ecevit Yıldız and Merve Daşdemir all swirling together, simmering until they inevitably burst.
Though they’re emulating 1970s legends like Moğollar and Erkin Koray, Altın Gün never stays mired in place. Clear crowdpleasers like bouncy “Leylim Ley” and “Çit Çit Çedene” flow smoothly into the moodier urgency of “Rakıya Su Katamam” and “Canım Oy”. Pedal steel brings melancholy to a dreamy rendition of Aşık Veysel’s poem “Güzelliğin On Para Etmez”, immediately followed by campy disco closer “Doktor Civanım”.
At any given Altın Gün show, you’ll likely find multiple generations of Turkish diaspora families dancing alongside your hippest local record store owners. On Aşk, the appeal is obvious. This is music with deep roots in culturally specific scenes, but it’s also exciting sound, pure and simple, a whole kaleidoscope of different styles to get you up on your feet.
1. WITCH – Zango (Desert Daze Sound)
Few things in music are as nerve-wracking as one of your favorite groups making a comeback after literal decades. Will they sound fresh? Dated? Wildly out-of-touch? In the case of Zamrock pioneers WITCH (We Intend to Cause Havoc), whose heretofore most recent album Kuomboka came out in 1984, it was hard to imagine exactly what could come next. All but one original WITCH member—lead singer Emanyeo “Jagari” Chanda—have long since passed away; the bandmates who have been touring with Jagari since the resurgence of global interest in WITCH since 2012 have included the band’s 1980s keyboard player Patrick Mwondela and primarily younger European musicians (Jacco Gardner, bass; Nico Mauskoviç, drums; Stefan Lilov, guitar; JJ Whitefield, guitar).
Against all pessimistic odds, though, the new WITCH album Zango is an absolute triumph. Old and new musicians and sounds combine to make rock music pulsing with psychedelic fuzz and furious rhythm, every bit as vital as the group’s early Hendrix-adjacent work. Joining WITCH are artists that include Keith Kabwe of fellow 1970s Zamrock group Amanaz (on “Nshingilile”) and Zambian Australian hip hop artist Sampa the Great, whose cool vocal flow on “Avalanche of Love” against wah pedals and Jagari’s still-limber delivery serves as the album’s most palpable bridge between generations.
It’s not all heavy; “Streets of Lusaka” has a lighter bounce to it, while “Unimvwesha Shuga” and “Malango”, which feature younger Zambian folk singer Theresa Ng’ambi, recall WITCH’s later soul and disco years with a little more of a rock edge. “These Eyes of Mine” brings in just a hint of gentle palm-wine music. Still, it’s hard to deny the power of acid-soaked grooves on rock tunes like “By the Time You Realize” and “Stop the Rot”. Fortunately, WITCH does it all well.
Zango ends with a spoken word message from Jagari himself over bass and percussion, celebrating the reawakening of Zamrock and its ability to stand against xenophobia, hate speech, sexism, homophobia, antisemitism, and racism as an all-inclusive expression of love. They’re beautiful ideals, and while Zango may not be single-handedly able to bring unity to the world, it’s a phenomenal expression of joy, life, and unending creativity.