By Christopher Lopez
It's been a year of surprises in "Latin music," (whatever that catch-all genre term for Spanish-language music means in 2009). Reggaetón continues fading, albeit slowly, and the industry's mainstays aren't garnering the attention they used to. Case in point: Don Omar's summer release iDon (no relation to your phone), which remained quiet after its first single, "Virtual Diva." Some big names continue to survive and thrive: Daddy Yankee powered through with Talento de Barrio, and Tito el Bambino had a strong year with his everlasting single, "El Amor." But overall, the genre seems to be shifting toward the amorous style from Panama characterized by last year's breakout, Flex.
Meanwhile, Latin pop is alive and thriving, this year thanks to solid efforts from big names like Paulina Rubio, Luis Fonsi and Shakira -- even pop diva Nelly Furtado, who navigated a successful crossover.
But perhaps the most interesting trend is the apparent rise of indie alternative acts -- groups from smallish labels like LA-based Nacional, which had a banner year with huge potential and sounds too varied and diverse to easily classify. We're witnessing the growth of a subgenre once limited to rock en español and populated solely by a few established artists.
Can we call this a dark-horse victory? After all, few people would have expected this Mexican trio to land on a year's-best list, let alone in the top slot. One listen, though, and whether you're a lover of Latin alternative or just a music lover in general, you'll find Bestia absolutely captivating. Lisa Loeb look-alike Lo Blondo's ethereal vocals and the lush musical landscapes that her bandmates Oro de Neta and Bonnz! conjure are damned likely to entrance you. You could think Yeah Yeah Yeahs, though the XX might actually be a better comparison.
(Sony Music Latin)
This Puerto Rican foursome drew a lot of well-deserved hype over the summer, thanks to the second single off their debut album, "Excuse Me." Blending electronica with pop and urban sounds -- not unlike the Peas -- Da'Zoo's freshman offering features up-tempo and very, very danceable songs with plenty of humor in the lyrics.
Putting a live album on a list like this almost feels like cheating. For one thing, live albums are always chock-full of an artist's most beloved songs, and with discs like Esperanza, Radio Bemba and last year's Radiolina, this Parisian-born citizen of the world's got a lot to throw at a crowd. And nowhere does Manu Chao shine as brightly as he does on stage. Baionarena translates that vibe to disc -- well, minus the hazy ambience. And you can always add the haze yourself.
Fans of Yerba Buena are no strangers to this glammed-up chanteuse, and although this is Cucu's solo project, Yerba co-founder and producer extraordinaire Andres Levin lent his chops, as did Yotuel of Orishas. The result is a modern take on cabaret with urban and alternative flavors, along with Cucu's unmistakable Cuban vocal stylings.
Los Amigos Invisibles
It's been fourteen years since the Amigos' 1995 debut, and contrary to what the title of their latest album implies, the group remains as dedicated as ever to their initial mission of being Venezuelan anti-heroes in a scene dominated by rock and salsa. Of course, that scene has expanded considerably as the band has gone global, and the influences that converge on this record seem as far-flung as ever. The outcome? Latin-funk-house with incisive wit.