J Balvin - 'Energía'
José Álvaro Osorio Balvin will tell you straight up that he is from Colombia and Drake is from Canada. It’s a historic, geographic shift of their respective genres that provides one lens to view the way the pair has taken over these styles. But in addition to expanding the reggaeton map, J Balvin has brought perreo into a softer, syrupy space – one distinct from the snarled rhymes of OGs like Wisin or Daddy Yankee. His massive 2016 release Energía arrived in a year that saw the return of reggaeton’s commercial success at the same time that underground artists flipped, twisted, and swerved the genre into a thousand new directions.
Energía not only included reggaeton’s song of the year, but also a full playlist to take you from dance floor seduction to the sheets, facilitated by an all-star lineup of studio rats who were happy to hop on Balvin’s hype train. Jason “Poo Bear” Boyd (Justin Bieber’s go-to songwriter) pitched in on the ballad “No Hay Título,” Dominican rapper Fuego contributed lyrics to three tracks, Daddy Yankee guests on “Pierde Los Modales,” and Pharrell masterminded “Safari,” a seductive number that carries vocals from the Neptunes producer and protégé Bia.
In interviews, Balvin is firm on his decision to sing in Spanish; the Anglo music industry can come to him and stadiums full of his screaming fans across South America – and, in a twist, Eastern Europe (Romania loves the babely Medellín businessman). While many Latinx artists seek that elusive mainstream crossover through English-language pop hits, Balvin’s star-studded Energía positioned him as the leader of a new movement en español.
The album demonstrates his team’s finely tuned understanding of the genre-skipping beats that Latinx music fans are hungry for, and trust that Balvin knows when to flex the power this affords him. He bowed out of what would have been his first full live performance on U.S. TV during the Miss USA telecast after learning of the production’s ties to Donald Trump, kicking off a string of similar refusals that led to our president-elect being forced to sell his beauty pageant empire. –Caitlin Donohue
Helado Negro - 'Private Energy'
Helado Negro’s tremendous Private Energy LP ushered in necessary healing in the wake of a year that had the emotional impact of a battering ram. Taking the listener by the hand, Roberto Carlos Lange guides us through carefully crafted melodies of nearly biological quality. It’s a musical ecosystem, fragile and undisturbed. The result is a sublime, profoundly intimate album that feels like a hug where you can hear your partner’s breath and heartbeat.
Our first taste of Private Energy came last year with “Young, Latin and Proud,” Helado Negro’s generation-defining anthem about heritage and identity. Lange pushed forward with his message on “It’s My Brown Skin,” where he superbly articulates the otherness of brown skin as something that “glows in the dark, shines in the light.” Despite his subtle yet pointed politics, Lange finds plenty of room to revel in the otherworldly musical landscapes he creates. “Runaround” and “Transmission Listen” beam with romantic love and positive energy, and “We Don’t Have Time For That” takes shape as a joyful quirky space opera flush with strings and atmospheric effects. Even a song like “Tartamudo,” a stunning minimal ballad, turns gut-wrenching in light of Lange’s emotional rawness.
Private Energy is an awe-inspiring journey stripping away unnecessary frills in favor of a beautiful, immersive listening experience. Helado Negro’s songs sound like prayers and lullabies, displaying naked sincerity in Lange’s lyrics, framed within complex and textured music. While the year has been a serious downer, Lange looks to lift his audience’s spirits with hope and love. Private Energy is without a doubt one of the year’s masterpieces, as seldom can statements so gentle ring so loudly. –Richard Villegas
Princess Nokia - '1992' EP
Destiny Frasqueri calls herself a New York aficionado, and nowhere is that more clear than on her 1992 EP. The triumphant return of her Princess Nokia alias after a brief, gentler deviation, 1992 is a love letter to the city – and a reminder that her edge is sharper than ever. All aggressive beats and NYC braggadocio, 1992 is the story of the life, growth, and survival of a misfit kid who – like many who go through the foster system – found more safety on the streets than at home, school, or within any of the institutions designed to keep her safe. From ancestral spiritual practice (“I’m that Black a-Rican bruja straight out from the Yoruba”) to the trains that allowed her to explore her city (“For $2.50 I can go anywhere I want”), Princess Nokia guides us with her characteristic charisma and finesse through one brown girl’s survival strategies for a system designed to bring her down.
The New York memorialized on 1992 is an old, real New York, one that is at once disappearing and fighting back. For every boutique, single-pour coffee spot, there are 100 tías offering their fam un cafecito; for every organic brunch café, there are 1,000 bodegas with cheap and delicious bacon, egg and cheese sandwiches. New York, like Princess Nokia, fights back, and neither will go down easy.
On 1992, we see a Princess Nokia who is unapologetically and contagiously herself – a tomboy who could snatch your man, a hood bruja, a street genius – and who gives defiant smart girls everywhere permission to do the same, in all their contrasting multitudes. –Verónica Bayetti Flores
Xenia Rubinos - 'Black Terry Cat'
Xenia Rubinos made it okay to be cranky in 2016. On her sophomore album Black Terry Cat, the Boricua-Cuban artist put together songs inspired by a collage of hip-hop, neo-soul, and punk traditions, but it’s her funky and energetic voice that continuously reigns by cutting through each track. Oscillating between velvety melisma, choppy verses, and stretched-out, suspended notes, Rubinos’ voice bends around a foundation of punk and R&B. Black Terry Cat, however, is about much more than seamless genre-hopping or meticulous production. It’s an experiment in both personal and collective vulnerability, and a project that worked against the lies we were fed this year.
Pulling from the depths of her experience, Rubinos’ voice cuts through the noise to tell it like it is. In lead single “Lonely Lover,” Rubinos sings to a paramour about needing to breathe, and in “I Won’t Say,” she asks a series of questions that directly criticize Eurocentric beauty standards: “Whose hair is compulsively fried? Whose skin is bleached? Whose nose is too big? Whose mouth is too loud?” Another standout, “Mexican Chef,” critiques the undervalued and undesired labor of Latinx communities, hinting at a potential shift of power with the line: “We build these ghettos/ We tear them down.” On Black Terry Cat, Rubinos is morose, angry and fragile, exploring her Afro-Latinidad and the complexities that come with brownness and blackness. In this space of vulnerability, the album succeeds, calling on us to initiate our own personal and political liberation. –Luna Olavarría Gallegos
Alex Anwandter - 'Amiga'
Fact: Alex Anwandter owned 2016. The release of Amiga, his first solo album in four years, netted him two Latin Grammy nominations and coincided with his award-winning film debut Nunca Vas A Estar Solo. What else could the crowned prince of Chilean pop ask for? As it turns out, a lot more.
Amiga finds Anwandter at a point in his career where he can no longer stay silent or elusive about the social issues around him. He rails against the oppression of LGBTQ rights on “Siempre Es Viernes En Mi Corazón,” and gives his audience a remarkable POV look at Chilean protest culture on singalong friendly “Cordillera.” He takes on misogyny and the patriarchy on “Mujer,” as well as on the super funky “Traición.” And the extraordinary rawness of “Manifiesto,” his ode to trans suffrage, is so powerful he lobbied to perform it at the Grammys, making it one of the few glimmers of political commentary allowed at this year’s award ceremony.
However, Amiga is more than a simple social justice document, as Anwandter also showed us the evolution and versatility of his composition skills. With sensibilities rooted in pop, he gives us a panoramic view of the genre with “El Sonido De Los Corazones Que Se Quiebran,” which references his love of Motown-era girl groups. “Intentarlo Todo De Nuevo” is a more casual offering that plays up Anwandter’s penchant for orchestral flourishes. And “Que Sera de Ti Mañana?” is an exquisite Tropicália-flavored number that nods ever so subtly at the singer’s Brazilian ancestry.
Alex Anwandter has a lot to be proud about in 2016. Whether it is through music, film, or politics, he has established himself as a voice that will not be ignored. This was a year to be brave and make bold choices, and Amiga is Anwandter’s finest statement to date. –Richard Villegas
Fuego - 'Fireboy Forever II'
After the better part of a decade spent making waves on urbano charts, 2015 saw Fuego gain a sort of underground prominence by covering and remixing popular rap and R&B tracks in his native tongue. It’s a tactic that ingratiated him with fans who speak Spanish but also feel connected to the hip-hop and trap sounds coming out of Atlanta.
So naturally, at the top of 2016, Fuego turned that momentum into a full-fledged pivot with Fireboy Forever II, his enduring and highly replayable debut album. But in many ways, Fireboy Forever II was a calculated risk; the 15-track project reintroduced and reinvigorated an artist who’d been featured on charts with notable, if formulaic, club-ready tracks for years.
But as an artist with laurels to rest on, Fuego is now placing a heavy emphasis on his longstanding love for hip-hop. If earlier remixes to “Hotline Bling” and “Rihanna” were the warning shots, Fireboy Forever II is a testament to Fuego’s commitment to the cause. The spacey production on “Millones” sounds like it could’ve been plucked off of a Kid Cudi album, while Fuego’s me-against-the-world flow complements it adeptly. Linking with Sango on trapchata hybrid “Se Me Nota” and spitting flows completely in English on “Energy” reveal that Fuego can draw from varied ends of the sonic spectrum with relative ease.
Of course, anthems like “35 Pa’ La 12” will have listeners reaching for the hookah and Henny for the foreseeable future. Still, what shouldn’t get lost in the mix is how Fuego turned what some observers felt was a gimmick into a full-blown genre, with biters and followers to boot. While the non-Spanish speaking world tuned in for “Cuando Suena El Bling,” Fireboy Forever II captured the rest of our imaginations. By stepping outside of the box, Fuego created one all his own. Spanish-language trap is here to stay, and Miguel Duran is its suegro. –Jorge Courtade
Nicolas Jaar - 'Sirens'
Yes, political albums were plentiful in this nightmare of a year, but Nicolas Jaar chopped and screwed convention and created a different kind of sonic labyrinth to house his anxieties. After ruminating about the parallels he’d observed between the rise of Donald Trump and Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, Jaar began working on his sobering album Sirens, and infused it with all the noise and brutality he’d collected from history books and the current state of the world.
The brilliance of Sirens is that Jaar tightly braided an assortment of sounds and emotions into one impressively coherent plait. Moments of light sidle up next to bursts of chaos — when glittering chimes and fanning bells appear on the album, Jaar eventually chokes them out with distorted clumps of static and the violent thundering of drums. “Three Sides of Nazareth,” an ominous track that sounds like taking a demonic car ride through a pitch-black night, appears just minutes before the candied doo-wop melodies of “History Lesson.” (Don’t be fooled by the song’s brighter vibe: The lyrics go “Chapter one: We fucked up/Chapter two: We did it again, and again, and again, and again.”)
The album’s masterful, contrasting layers shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise from a producer who reined in audiences after releasing his debut when he was just 21, and then went on to grow his fanbase as half of the duo Darkside. Jaar has always been able to create intricate sound mazes, but perhaps the shining example of his abilities is “No,” a focal point on Sirens and an ode to the artist’s Chilean roots. Over a creaky cumbia beat that sounds as though it was just resurrected from the dead, he mutters, “Ya dijimos no/Pero el si esta en todo,” a line that is disturbingly prescient and lingers long after the music has stopped. –Julyssa Lopez
Maria Usbeck - 'Amparo'
Maria Usbeck’s solo debut Amparo transformed the Brooklyn-based singer into a mythical dreamweaver, one who builds sonic landscapes and auditory panoramas using glowing synths, spellbinding flutes, and sounds drained directly from the outdoors. She recorded the album over three years while traveling, and with Santiago, Barcelona, Costa Rica, Lisbon and Usbeck’s native Ecuador among her stops, Amparo became an experiment in memory, time, and place.
Usbeck, who started working on the album after her former band Selebrities broke up, collaged bits and pieces from every place she visited and presented it to listeners as an enchanting, abstract musical mosaic. Each song shows us one of Usbeck’s fractured memories — we see blurry but colorful scenes of her encounters, which include trips to the dignified Rapa Nui statues on the track “Moai Y Yo” and the winding lakeside amusement park in Seville, Spain on “Isla Magica.”
Throughout the album, it feels as though Usbeck wanted to share her travel experiences with others, and souvenirs and stories just weren’t enough. She needed to offer real fragments of where she’d been, so she hauled back the trickling waterfalls, chirping choirs of birds and native instruments that adorn nearly each track and fully transport her audience to places that are rooted in both reality and imagination – “entre la jungla y el mar,” as she murmurs on “Jungla Inquieta.” Usbeck sings in Spanish for the first time here, and her soft, feathery voice serves as a guide for adventurers who want to check out her journey. On songs like “Uno De Tus Ojos,” it feels like Usbeck is closing her eyes and reciting what she saw from memory.
The album is bewitching and alluring in the obvious way of a breathtaking vista. Usbeck has achieved a gorgeous reconnection with her roots while giving us a portal we can use to step out of our own hectic lives and appreciate the sprawling beauty that abounds in our home countries. –Julyssa Lopez
Jesse Baez - 'BAEZ' EP
How many times did we break the calm of a quiet room by randomly singing “Todos tus amigas son muy básicas/Preferiste a la gente plástica” this year? Sorry friends, it’s not you (well maybe it’s you); it’s the R&B mastery that was Guatemalan artist Jesse Baez’s debut EP. That particularly lucid line of Spanglish comes to us courtesy of “Decile,” Baez’s elevated cover of “Tell Your Friends” by The Weeknd, an artist who does similar work in athletic sad boy vocals over sleek, electric beats.
Baez benefits from — and to date, may be the best expression of — the constellation of producers well-versed in the universe of chill that defines the emotive Finesse Records posse. Listen to the structural greatness of Monterrey’s Phynx on “Un Par de Cosas,” San Luís Potosí duo BCOTB on “Tentaciones,” and label founder Teen Flirt on “Frecuencias” and “F,” an actual love letter to their extended studio crew (a track whose lyrics take time out on crew love for weedy sex, of course). These are songs to nurture your angst, but also encourage you to hit the road with your homies or find a boo to camp out on a mattress with. This album is the culmination of the R&B that surged out of Latin America in 2016, and it proves that Baez is the spectacled stoner destined to bring that sound to ears across the hemisphere. –Caitlin Donohue
Algodón Egipcio - 'La Confianza Ciega'
Five years after the release of his cult favorite debut album La Lucha Constante, Cheky Bertho, who makes eccentric electronic pop as Algodón Egipcio, came back mightily this year with La Confianza Ciega. Rich in both musical ideas and lyrical content, it was a revelation in terms of his capabilities as an artist. The Venezuelan producer improbably joined delicate, memorable melodies to off-kilter, Afro-Caribbean beats on tracks piled with sound. Bass thump, snare, horns, strings, glitchy synths, and marimba samples are carefully arranged into a near chaos, warmed and softened by Bertho’s remarkably strong vocals. It might have all been too much, but the album is varied – the overstuffed experiments balanced by more muted tracks – and even the busier, noisier compositions have enough space in them to let in the right amount of light and air.
Most of the lyrics deal with loss, confusion, and damaged faith. It’s easy to read them as references to relationships, but they also function as reflections on the political turbulence Venezuela faces. “Las Armas” could be a call for a loved one to let down their guard, or it could be a plea for national reconciliation. Either way, La Confianza Ciega is haunting, strangely lovely, and one of the strongest musical statements of the year. –Beverly Bryan
Triángulo de Amor Bizarro - 'Salve Discordia'
Four records in, it’s natural for a band to shake things up. The Galician foursome has perfected a loud-louder-loudest approach that has made them one of Spain’s most inspired musical projects: their self-titled debut established their sound, Año Santo proved what they could do with it, and Victoria Mística pushed it to the extreme. For Salve Discordia, TAB seem to ask themselves, “Where do we go from here?” It’s a question they answered with the most developed record of their career, a collection of songs colored with melody and in each corner shining a different light. They dared to explore roads they’d only hinted at in the past, like the reggae-meets-The Birthday Party groove of “Desmadre Estigio” to the waltzing melodicism of “Seguidores.” There were also familiar tunes for them, like “Gallo Negro Se Levanta” and “Cómo Encontró A La Diosa,” but even those hard-driving cuts showcase a maturity that shines through. Although they’re still regularly tagged as “shoegaze,” Salve Discordia reiterates the fact that hardly anybody sounds like TAB; the band has evolved into one of the best arguments that rock is far from washed up. –Marcos Hassan
Grenda - 'Untouchable Skin'
After debuting with Living Right EP last year, then 16-year-old Eduardo Amezcua showcased an excellent display of creativity in the electronic realm, and it took him less than a year to release his first big statement with it. As Grenda, he has taken flight and established himself as one of the brightest lights of Latin American electronic music, playing a form of abstract, dreamlike hip-hop for a generation that splits its time dabbing to trap and getting lost in classic 4AD albums.
Although he shares aesthetic similarities with Static Discos labelmate Trillones and artists on the Finesse Records roster, Grenda’s music has an ambitious, cinematic approach drawn from a limited sonic palette that works to his advantage, as his deeply hooky tracks keeps the music listener- and dance floor-friendly. It’s easy to qualify his work as as atmospheric, yet there’s an inherited patience in his slowly built arrangements, which envelop your surroundings with potent charisma, making it hard to escape the mood these pieces present. Untouchable Skin is an epic, minimalistic album made to get your feet moving and keep your head adrift in abstraction. –Marcos Hassan
Hinds - 'Leave Me Alone'
When the Madrid band dropped the 12-song work early this year, we’d been waiting. After a handful of EPs, a name change, and tons of touring, Hinds had cemented a perpetual good time as their public spirit, and nobody wanted the party to end. Leave Me Alone fulfilled our hopes that it never had to — the garage-pop quartet’s sonic collection of merrymaking became the soundtrack our own.
But as the year dredged on, our understanding of the record expanded. Their knack for catchy melodies, their sunlit guitars, jangly percussion and singalong choruses, conveys a goofy good time, masking the disparate lyrical messages that are, in fact, actually the more powerful force in Hinds’ music. There’s two ways to listen to the album: at first-glance joy, or with a more concentrated inspection. The latter bursts the blissful bubble.
Leave Me Alone never felt like a speedy rush; it’s really its generally unhurried pace that evokes leisurely hangs with friends — the best kind, where no proper plans are set and the collective glee of convening is what carries you from place to place. That’s an excellent feeling until you catch one of your buds falling behind, grappling with a personal struggle they didn’t bring up for fear of poisoning anyone’s pep. Like the self-disgust of “Easy,” the warning of a parasitic partner in “Warts,” the desperation of “Bamboo,” we’d overlooked what we didn’t want to see.
In all the fun, we forgot that age-old rule about happiness — that it doesn’t exist without sadness. For Hinds, a cheery tune props up the slouch of disappointment, heartbreak, and any other distress. To really hear Leave Me Alone — to truly appreciate how potently it does what pop does best, which is help us forget our troubles — you’ve got to embrace the troubles underneath, too. –Jhoni Jackson
A.CHAL - 'Welcome to GAZI'
Welcome to GAZI starts with an anecdote about Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona. A man tells a story about the star before he was a titan of fútbol, when he was just a kid practicing his skills when it made more sense to be inside. The man explains, “he became one of the best players, he came — bare feet, no shoes, no clothes, under the rain — just because he has the passion, and he knows himself, he can be somebody.”
It’s a fitting intro to Alejandro Chal’s debut album, a tour de force that somehow manages to leave room for growth. Much like the Argentine legend, Peruvian singer-songwriter A.CHAL battles personal demons by excelling at his craft. When the budding star picked up and moved to Los Angeles in pursuit of his musical dreams, he did so knowing his life would be consumed by his art, as long as LA didn’t consume him first.
Welcome to GAZI is a rare, honest glimpse into that walk along the tightrope, the one that looks glamorous from the sidelines but is treacherous to the person towing the line. It’s rare because it comes at a moment when A.CHAL is stepping into the limelight, when his star is just beginning to shine. It’s honest because instead of relying wholly on familiar story lines about life in the Hollywood Hills – endless, carefree partying and untold luxury – songs like “Far From Home” and “4 U” add a layer of sober introspection and guilt-ridden hedonism.
GAZI is a 30-minute trip down the proverbial rabbit hole. It shows an artist coming into his own and dealing with the accompanying shitshow. Blogs have cited standout tracks like “GAZI” and “Round Whippin,'” but, as the saying goes, the devil lies in the details. –Jorge Courtade
beGun - 'AMMA'
After years of non-stop travel – through his countless tour dates around the world and his original productions named after different cities – 2016 saw the long-awaited release of Catalan electronic artist beGun’s debut album. Born Gunsal Moreno, the producer rewarded our patience with AMMA, an 11-track project that synthesizes why we’ve come to love his music. For this project, Moreno positioned Africa as his main source of inspiration, diving right into the continent’s history and its current political realities, as well as its musical traditions.
The songs on AMMA highlight the cinema of beGun’s productions; they are built to dance but, most importantly, they are built to emote. Moreno has developed a deeply personal blend of house and techno-influenced beats and bright, foggy ambient landscapes. Add the African references – specifically West African – and glimpses of EDM, and the music explodes from an introspective dance to a full-on communal experience that feels larger-than-life. This is best exemplified by tracks like “Nari,” “Dora,” and the two parts of “Mobasi,” where, with a little help from jungle and trap, he samples chants and percussion that place a warm-blooded heart in the very center of the electronic programming.
A Beyoncé-style visual counterpart directed by Borja V. Conde complements the record, and it follows the stories of a group of African women who migrate to Europe in pursuit of their dreams, eventually finding themselves in the sex work industry. The visuals offer a completely new lens through which to view the album, but whether or not you only listen to the record, one thing is clear: AMMA is beGun’s essence materialized in a single masterwork. –Cheky