Top Ten Latin Music Albums of 2008 | In the Sun | Phoenix | Phoenix New Times

By Julienne Gage

Americans who still think of Latin music as mariachi bands and the twirling Ricky Martins and Shakiras might want to lend a closer ear to the genre. The Hispanic population of this country is not only growing, it is becoming more diverse. More and more unique musical styles are being engulfed, and that should be good news for alternative gringos hoping to spruce up their castellano. This year’s Latin music highlights come from across the Spanish-speaking map. We will start in the most distant geographic corner: an island in the Mediterranean.

Nina de Fuego
(WEA International)
Afro-Spanish artist Buika embodies cultural and ethnic diversity. More than three decades ago, his parents fled political unrest in the former Spanish colony of Equatorial Guinea and rebuilt their lives in a gypsy neighborhood on the island of Majorca. After stints as a Tina Turner impersonator in Vegas and as a vocalist on classy house and funk albums made for European clubs, Buika found her footing in flamenco and Latin jazz. This year’s Niña de Fuego features many of the same gitano elements found on her hit LP Mi Niña Lola, and pushes the envelope by adding Mexican ranchera. Only someone as oddly bohemian as Buika could combine these emotive styles with just the right amount of melodrama.


Wild animals
Barcelona’s Pinker Tones have swapped most of their native Catalan for English, both in language and rhythm. On Animals, harmonic backing vocals combine with synthesizers and wah-wah pedals to produce steady 1980s-style pop and rock. The song titles couldn’t be more apt. “Hold On” starts with a choir then hits the gas with a Beck-style accelerated groove. This is followed by the even more retro number “SEXYROBOT” and the carefree reggae track “The Whistling Song”. But the Pinkertones are proud of some forms of hip rotation: get ready to shake your mod booty on “Electrotumbao.”


Great Songs
(Sony International)

The legendary Argentinian Fito Páez is even more retro. A pioneer of pop rock in Spanish, Páez gets nostalgic on this greatest hits album. Millions of South American rockers are sure to hold their lighters, arena-style, to the memories evoked by the whimsical de Páez
combination of piano and poetic lyrics on songs like “La Rueda Mágica” and “Mariposa Tecknicolor”.


Mar Dulce
(This side)
Since dropping the title “Tango Club” from its name, this electronic music collective has broadened its musical horizons. They now include the African rhythms of Uruguayan Candombe, Andalusian hip-hop as presented by Spaniard La Mala Rodríguez, and a healthy cross section of North and South American pop and blues, represented here by contributing artists such as the British Elvis Costello, American Nelly Furtado, Julieta Venegas from Mexico, Gustavo Cerati from Argentina and Jorge Drexler from Uruguay. Movie-worthy symphonies are enough to liven up the winter doldrums of any holiday party.


(Universal Latino)
However, another Argentinian group manages to cross the border between commercial pop and alternative rock. Mucho de Babasónicos has a lot to offer a wide range of listeners, with a sound reminiscent of the late 80s and early 90s when the band first found success. The opener, “Yo Anuncio,” sounds a bit like Jellyfish, while “Pijamas” is reminiscent of new wave movement, and “Estoy Rabioso” packs enough punch to generate a relatively safe mosh pit. Need to carpool or share the stereo with office mates? This album is likely to keep the masses pleasing in tight quarters.


Travel to Colombia and pop life gets even funkier. On Río, it is evident that Aterciopelados has not forgotten its indigenous and rebellious urban roots. As always, singer Andrea Echeverri’s slightly nasal voice harmonizes divinely on a cool collection of alternative rock mixed with reggae, cumbia and other Andean styles. The band ripples from spacey and mysterious to harsh and joyful as they tackle everything from motherhood (“28”) to immigration (“Bandera”).


Los de Atras Vienna Conmigo
(Sony International)
The five-time Grammy and Latin Grammy-winning Puerto Rican veterans go from simple hip-hop to alternative reggaeton that incorporates everything from stable rock to cumbia. It’s crazy enough to require parental advice, but nonetheless thoughtful in the way it bursts with tongue-in-cheek chants and ragamuffin rhymes. Given the band’s dark humor, it’s no surprise that this album received musical contributions from cheeky Panamanian salsa god Ruben Blades on “La Perla Feat” or legendary Mexican rockers Café Tacuba on ” No Hay Nadie Como Tú”.


Cosita Buena
(Ghost sound and vision)
The energetic music of this Cuban hip-hop group shows that the group is culturally connected to the island, no matter how far its members have spread across Europe (last we heard, one was in Paris, another in Milan and another in Madrid). The raps here are hard and the beats punchy, but the underlying beats are as Cuban as the Buena Vista Social Club. No need to scratch your head when you come across the term guarachar in Orishas lyrics. You’ll find your body does just that to the groovy beats on this CD.


latin reggae
Reggae’s popularity in Spanish-speaking countries is celebrated with a diverse cast of Latino artists, including Cultura Profética from Puerto Rico, Los Cafres from Argentina, Gondwana from Chile, and Macaco and Amparanoia from Spain. Of course, these alternative tastemakers are well aware of the cool ways they could have fused music from the Andes to Andalucia into their own brand of skanking. Instead, they paid “nuf respect” to the roots of reggae by staying true to the genre’s original sound and socially conscious lyrics.


Umalali: Garifuna Women’s Project
Further west you’ll find a mix of Babylonian music all its own. The Garifuna people originated from shipwrecked slaves and Carib natives in St. Vincent, then exiled by British settlers to the Atlantic coast of what is now Belize, Guatemala and Honduras. Remixed by forward-thinking Belizean producer Ivan Duran, the music on this compilation album is as complex as the women who sing it. Elements of rock, blues, funk and even Cuban son mix with punta music based on Garifuna rhythms to convey messages of suffering and survival. You don’t need to speak the unique native language of the Garifuna to understand the emotion behind their songs and songs.