So I recently started writing arts & culture pieces for Mas New Mexico, a great new publication out of Albuquerque that prints all their articles in both English and Spanish. It was neat, for example, to see the Spanish version of my article on Mark Behr’s amazing new book Kings of the Water. Even more interesting was recently being given the job of picking ten great albums from 2009 for Mas New Mexico with the caveat that I include four Spanish-language albums. I did some flash research and…the results are below.
Top 10 Albums of 2009, With a Latin Twist
by Adam Perry for Mas New Mexico
#10 Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros – Up from Below (Vagrant/Rough Trade)
A few years ago, former Ima Robot front-man Alex Ebert experienced what you might call a psychological crisis and emerged with a vision of a fictional psychedelic folk band whose messianic front-man (Edward Sharpe) just might save the world. Thus, we’ve been blessed with Up from Below, a welcome throwback for older hippies who loved 70’s concept albums from Jefferson Starship and David Bowie and an ever-so-pleasing madcap Laurel Canyon-meets-Broadway affair for everyone else.
#9 Alacranes Musical – Live – En Vivo Desde Mexico (Univision Music)
Love, love, love. Like the pre-LSD Beatles, Alacranes Musical’s pleasurable songs deal directly almost solely with romance, and their harmoniously upbeat music lays a perfect foundation for the Musical Scorpions’ heartfelt lyrics. This entertaining live album showcases the Chicago-based duranguense band’s tendency to liberally amuse themselves with jubilant percussion while knocking out rapt audiences with dolorous vocals.
#8 Cotton Jones – Paranoid Cocoon
During a music-enhanced drive through northern New Mexico recently I noticed that Maryland indie-folk wonders Cotton Jones’ first full-length album fit in seamlessly with everlasting ‘50s and ‘60s hits by acts like the Flamingos and Sam Cooke. Along with mellow lyrics about flowers in the park and mouths full of stars, acoustic guitar and old-school organ temper the graceful patience of Paranoid Cocoon. On the surface, Cotton Jones appears to melt right into the recent stream of great bands playing throwback, low-fi/high-quality folk-rock, but there’s something special about Paranoid Cocoon’s poignant simplicity and call-and-response male/female vocals.
#7 Calle 13 – Los de Atras Vienen Conmigo
Calle 13’s third LP found the Puerto Rican hip-hop duo collaborating with diverse Latin artists (from Reuben Blades to Café Tacuba) and indulging in smooth, speedy rhymes that flow over thick beats, cool horns and spry guitar. To the uninitiated, Calle 13’s lyrics may seem quotidian, but listen a little closer to the growingly august alternative-reggaeton duo’s worldview and substantial talent for juxtaposing zany melodies with quick-witted Spanish tongues and you’ll be hooked.
#6 Grupo Pesado – Solo Contigo
Before becoming a Santa Fe resident, I had only heard Norteño music as background ambiance at tacquerias in San Francisco’s Mission District, not realizing groups like Pesado performed regularly for massive audiences and won Grammys. Solo Contigo, Pesado’s gazillionth album, won Best Norteño Album at this year’s Latin Grammys and impressively mixes old-school Mexican ranchera music with modern Latin pop and a touch of Nashville on songs like “Cambio y Fuera” and “Tristeza.” No matter how progressive popular music gets, there’s nothing like a tear-jerking accordion number.
#5 Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion (Domino)
The mighty Animal Collective has spent the last few years deracinating their eccentric choral workouts in favor of more well-rounded and accessible drum, guitar and synth-focused bizarro-pop. The peculiar and versatile songs of their eighth LP are emotive, fun, and wholly enjoyable; plus, “My Girls” (quite possibly the song of 2009) finds Animal Collective kickin’ it New Mexico-style with a chorus that immortalizes adobe like nothing since Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.
#4 British Sea Power – Man of Aran (Rough Trade)
It takes a special group of rock musicians to record a 73-minute soundtrack to a 1930’s documentary about an Irish family of potato farming shark-hunters, but somehow English-based soundscapers British Sea Power succeeded, and then some. Similar to the nightmarish instrumental albums of Toronto’s Godspeed You Black Emperor! but with climaxes that don’t always send listeners straight to hell, Man of Aran is a beautifully-woven cascade of disparate atmospheres, traversing hope, joy, terror and transcendence. Listening to B.S.P.’s unforgettable audio creation while watching the original documentary is even better.
#3 Mercedes Sosa – Cantora 1
The world of song will remember Mercedes Sosa (1935-2009) as a talented and prolific singer who recorded 40 albums and exposed Latin America to its incredible musical roots on her way to worldwide stardom. But Argentina will remember Sosa as a leftist heroine who helped spearhead the nueva cancion movement and stood up for her homeland during times of war and political struggle. Cantora 1, a collection of tasteful duets with other Latin greats, won the late Sosa an award for Best Folk Album at this year’s Latin Grammys.
#2 Alela Diane – To Be Still (Holocene)
You don’t have to know what an arpeggio is to get all blessed out by 26-year old Alela Diane’s mellow, mesmerizing voice, which transports listeners to magical rural settings recently visited by indie legends like the Fleet Foxes and Midlake. It’s no coincidence that Diane and singer/harpist Joanna Newsom are both Nevada City, CA natives– they both layer their recordings with elegant traditional instruments (mandolin, banjo, etc.) and create lyrical worlds as dense as many modern novels. If you have an iPod, To Be Still is great for hiking and biking the Santa Fe Southern Rail Trail.
#1: Andrew Bird – Noble Beast/Useless Creatures (Fat Possum)
Even for an all-around virtuoso like Andrew Bird, a master-whistler and classically-trained violin phenom whose lyrics mystify as deftly as they engage the intellect, Noble Beast is a astonishing artistic success. Songs like “Oh No” and “Nomenclature” made the standard edition of this album a linguistic and musical showcase for Bird’s idiosyncratic genius, tempering playful pop-rock and wordplay like “from inside me grows a man who speaks with perfect diction as he orders my eviction” with stunning bursts of world-class violin. Useless Creatures, a bonus disc of skillful and imaginative instrumentals, could be the album of the year on its own. If you’re game, curl up with the 9-minute “Carrion Suite” on a snowy afternoon and forget your troubles.