It's been an anxious year for the Latin music industry, as it has for the industry in general. The good news in a time of crisis: The acts that survive are fired up by personal vision. While some of the year's best albums also enjoyed commercial success, notably Molotov's Dance and Dense Denso, most of these gems came from artists who surely would make the same great music if no one out there cared. Take your own listen: Here are 10 top recordings well worth an investment.
Café Tacuba, Cuatro Caminos (MCA): Mexico City's avant-rock quartet Café Tacuba explores the far reaches of the electronic ether without ever losing sight of what it means to rock out. Cuatro Caminos (Four Paths) veers from the raw energy of a street party to the interior murmur of private anguish; from the heady cacophony of a video arcade to heartfelt but never clichéd confessions of love.
Chucho Valdes, New Conceptions (Blue Note): One of the best albums by one of the all-time greats of Latin jazz, New Conceptions gives yet another twist to the long-standing fusion of African-American and Afro-Cuban traditions. Valdes opens with Cuban master Ernesto Lecuona and closes with an homage to Duke Ellington, revisiting Miles along the way -- but it is the pianist's own reinvention of all that has gone before him that makes New Conceptions so breathtaking. His own compositions included here, especially the achingly beautiful piano/cello duo "Nanu" and the experiment in rhythm that is "Sin Clave Pero Con Swing," prove that Chucho's name belongs in the company of those composers to whom he pays tribute.
Issac Delgado, Versos en el Cielo (33rd Street): This is what romantic salsa could have sounded like had anyone bothered to make it well: inspired lyrics, creative arrangements, stunning musicianship, and the unsurpassed voice of Cuban singer Delgado. Politically untouchable on Latin radio in the United States, Versos en el Cielo compiles love songs by the greats of the island's Nueva Trova era -- most notably Silvio Rodriguez and Pablo Milanes -- set to sophisticated salsa arrangements that will thrill your soul.
Kevin Johansen and the Nada, Sur o No Sur (Sony International): It's a long way from CBGB to Buenos Aires, but Kevin Johansen knows the journey well. The onetime leader of the Saturday night house band in the acoustic gallery of the legendary punk club, Johansen returned to his mother's homeland during Argentina's economic meltdown in 2001. Sur o No Sur is the sonic boom set off by that crazy trip: equal parts James Brown and bandoneon, Tom Waits and El Polaco -- with a Serge Gainsbourg cover thrown in for good measure.
Kinky, Atlas (Nettwerk): It's not enough for Monterrey quintet Kinky to make noise. They want to know what shapes that noise. What color is sound? What does it taste like? What are the genetics of silence? Kinky takes nothing for granted, whether they program beats or come up with hard-rockin' riffs. If all of that sounds a little too philosophical, don't worry: Atlas is all about fun.
Molotov, Dance and Dense Denso (Universal Latino): If "Frijolero," Molotov's out-of-my-face pinche-gringo norteño anthem, were the only song on Dance and Dense Denso, that would be enough to make this album one of the year's best. But the Mexican foursome's take-no-prisoners approach to rap-rock never lets up, unleashing enough attitude and bass on a single disc to flip off the whole world.
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Natalia Lafourcade, Natalia Lafourcade (Sony International): Imagine for a moment that Britney Spears had a voice and a brain. Then she might have come up with the fresh, compelling take on growing into womanhood offered by 19-year-old Mexico City girl Natalia Lafourcade. Her self-titled debut offers a dorm room full of self-discovery so charmingly delivered in her silky purr with sophisticated bossa nova and R&B flourishes that it appeals to grown-ups, too.
Obie Bermudez, Confesiones (EMI Internacional): Apparently, there are second chapters in Puerto Rican life, which makes Obie Bermudez's reinvention as a singer-songwriter after his first outing as a salsero all the more poignant. The aptly titled Confesiones is a diary of the lives of regular people written by the singer while he worked in a Laundromat. Bermudez's loving treatment of his subjects and down-to-earth use of his powerful voice make Confesiones a refreshing break from bombastic over-emoting.
Vico C, En Honor a la Verdad (EMI Internacional): An audio letter from jail, En Honor a la Verdad is a 15-track document of outrage set to reggaeton beats by Puerto Rico's rap pioneer. Always verbose, Vico C unleashes his penitentiary philosophy on targets from Ricky Martin to copycat rappers to his own record label, taking a breath only to give his daughter what advice he can as a man struggling to live right in a touching acoustic turn. That tender moment only makes the rest of the album more intense.
Yerba Buena, President Alien (Razor & Tie): Dancers of the world, unite! You've got nothing to lose but your shoes! Yerba Buena retraces the steps of African music back from the new world to the source, reuniting hip-hop and salsa with Afro-pop and rai, making the rhythm whole again under the savvy direction of producer/bandleader Andre Levin. But when the music is this hot, who cares where it comes from?