Best Albums of 2019

By 20 December, 2019

It seems apparent that our Best Albums list is getting more geographically diverse each year, with albums from Ecuador and Peru becoming regular staples – this year there are three Ecuadorian albums in our Top 10, which is no mean feat – alongside the sounds of Brazil, Colombia and Cuba that have been ever presents in our list. Aside from that we like to think that our list, which is chosen by our writers, is as eclectic as ever, with our criteria being that these are albums that are pushing envelopes, contain exquisite songcraft, or simply hit a note of truth that is impossible to ignore.

They are also all albums made by Latin Americans or artists of Latin American descent, or are albums that feature quintessential Latin American sounds (hence we’re happy to feature a Japanese band playing cumbia, because that kind of love and devotion to Latin American music must be applauded).

So, without further ado here are our Best Albums of 2019… and scoot to the bottom for a playlist featuring songs from (almost) all of the albums for a little musical accompaniment while reading the piece.

#25. Catnapp – Break (Argentina)

Chosen by Mikołaj Kierski and Paulo Srulevitch

Break is an intense 25 minute listen. It starts with a relatively calm, yet dark and creepy, intro on “Down in the Basement” before bursting into “The Mover”, a collaboration with Modeselektor which is filled with heavy bass and could easily be mistaken for one of Alice Glass’ best tracks. The song is akin to a manifesto for the artist’s roots in Buenos Aires’ underground scene. By Mikołaj Kierski

#24. Etienne Charles – Carnival: The Sound Of A People Vol 1 (Trinidad)

Chosen by Patrick McMahon and Mark Sampson

This is an ambitious album that never sounds forced or pretentious. In its thematic reach and its rhythmic foundation – indeed in the very timbre of the trumpet playing, not to mention the title itself – the album recalls one of Wynton Marsalis’ more successful “projects”: Citi Movement, the closest thing perhaps to a bona fide masterpiece that the new-classicist from New Orleans has thus far produced. By Mark Sampson

#23. Daymé Arocena – Sonocardiogram (Cuba)

Chosen by David Bugueño and Gabriel Francis

Following on from the success of her previous records with the UK label Brownswood Recordings, Arocena has just released Sonocardiogram, an album pumped with so much energy that it practically erupts from the record as you listen to it. The title came from her band’s intention “to create something that was a snapshot of who we are inside”, like an echocardiogram showing the inside of your heart. It was recorded in a repurposed art studio in Havana with a band of virtuosic Cuban jazz players, and sees Arocena blend Afro-Cuban music with contemporary jazz in a striking, bold way. By Patrick McMahon

#22. Minyo Crusaders – Echoes of Japan (Japan)

Chosen by Frank Kinsey and Mark Sampson

The crusaders unique brand of Japanese folklore fusion doesn’t stop at cumbia. From bolero through reggae to boogaloo and African beguine, the Crusaders draw on a vast array of sounds to accompany their Japanese songs. It shouldn’t be surprising then that they’ve won plaudits far and wide. Among them, Ry Cooder recently stated Minyo Crusaders were the best band he has heard in years. By Frank Kinsey

#21. Carwyn Ellis & Rio 18 – Joia! (Brazil/Wales)

Chosen by Andy Cummings and Patrick McMahon

It’s fair to say that there weren’t many albums released in 2019 that were as surprising as this one. To be honest, we didn’t really know who Carwyn Ellis was, though a quick search found him to be founding member of Colorama and regular collaborator with Edwyn Collins, Saint Etienne and The Pretenders. It was while touring South America with the last of these that Ellis got even deeper into Brazilian music and eventually agreed to work with Kassin on an album to be recorded in Rio. Sung in Welsh, with a ridiculously-good Brazilian backing band, the result is a gorgeous halfway house between idiosyncratic Welsh pop and glistening tropicália. By Russ Slater

#20. Mental Abstrato – Uzoma (Brazil)

Chosen by Gabriel Francis and Mark Sampson

Listening to this thrilling album first time around, I positively tingled as I might have done when I first heard Herbie Hancock’s seminal Head Hunters. There’s a similar sense of infectious joy and subtle shifting of genres. Of course, it’s unlikely to have that kind of long-term influence, but it certainly meets Us3’s holy trinity: it’s “groovy, jazzy, funky”. It’s also deep, artful, questing and diverse. “A fabulous creation”, in short! By Mark Sampson

#19. iLe – Almadura (Puerto Rico)

Chosen by Ana Claudia Bendezu and Gina Vergel

Anger and frustration are writ across this album, iLe feeling the pain of Hurricane Maria and the double header of financial collapse and government corruption that have caused huge unrest in Puerto Rico, as well as a necessity to make sure things change for the better. On tracks like “Ñe Ñe Ñé”, “Déjame Decirte” and “Curandera” she is summoning spells, telling the people of her country to wake up and not give up until things have changed. The fire in iLe’s belly is evident, as well as the strength. Almadura means ‘strong soul’ but it is also a play on words, closely resembling armadura, meaning armour. The fact that these messages are sent through slow-burning boleros and rhythmic bombas and plenas nourished by Afro-Caribbean hand drums, give them even greater identity and significance. By Russ Slater

#18. Flash Amazonas – Binary Birds And Other Rubbish Surreal Things (Colombia)

Chosen by Juan Pablo Castiblanco, Russ Slater and Paulo Srulevitch

Born back in 2016 as a joint experiment between Colombia’s Julián Mayorga and Tokyo-based musician/sound designer Ryota Miyake, Flash Amazonas’ debut achieves a solid blend of Julián’s playful, experimental style, with Ryota’s pop sensitivity and his phenomenal lo-fi aesthetics. These elements are not only prominent during the entire recording, but also on the album’s visual kit: a high contrast collection starring the amusing and somewhat corky videoclips for lead singles “Agua” and “Baby Invasion”. By Marco Pisciotti

#17. Making Movies – Ameri’kana (US)

Chosen by Paulo Srulevitch, Gina Vergel and Pablo E Yglesias

Making Movies released Ameri’kana calling for more awareness of the importance of Latin culture in America. Rather than follow recent tendencies to merge international pop music, they stand by their independence as a rock band that invigorates the sounds of their Latin roots with contributors as legendary as Ruben Blades to help them along the way. Ameri’kana evokes the idea of how borders have become the root of both social and individual conflict: “The world doesn’t know where a country starts nor where it ends that’s why this song is dedicated to all of you who have suffered because of all the borders we’ve created in the world”, is the opening statement on the album. By Paulo Srulevitch

#16. Chico Trujillo – Mambo Mundial (Chile)

Chosen by Humberto Loopz, Russ Slater and Pablo E Yglesias

With a peerless live show Chico Trujillo have made a name for themselves as a band who never fail to win over an audience – remarkably when they were based in Berlin they played one venue for 40 nights straight, rested for 4 nights, and then did another 14! It would be impossible to capture that kind of atmosphere in recorded form, which is why their albums have often needed to find different thrills. On Mambo Mundial they find many of them – “Qué Me Coma El Tigre” is a swinging pop treat, “Pájaro Zinzotle” adds marimbas to a lurching cumbia beat, “Amor Y Libertad” sees them get to the root of cumbia – but they also get the closest to replicating their live sound with “A Mi Negra” a behemoth that can only incite good times. By Russ Slater

#15. La Boa – Maquina (Colombia)

Chosen by David Bugueño, Juan Pablo Castiblanco and Gabriel Francis

Maquina offered a big step forward for the Bogotá Orquesta Afrobeat, with a deeper, brassier and downright darker proposal than ever before. Upbeat opener “Por Eso” gives way to “Máquina”, a crescendoing, instrumental enriched with cinematic undertones, as ambient as it is mesmeric. They are just two highlights on an album featuring creative input from a vast who’s who of the modern-Colombian scene: Names You Can Trust’s Eric Banta / Little Dynasty, La 33’s Sergio and Santiago Mejía, Dani Boom, Systema Solar’s John Primera and Pedro Ojeda all feature in some capacity. By Frank Kinsey

#14. Combo Chimbita – Ahomale (US)

Chosen by Nestor David Pastor, Russ Slater, Gina Vergel and Pablo E Yglesias

With this recording Combo Chimbita have created not only a world with its own cosmo-mythology and ethos but also a vivid and compelling central character that Oliveros reveals “is a warrior, not the sword and shield type, but a woman who is ready to listen to her heart, follow her intuition and connect with her ancestors” to seek the truth about herself which ultimately will make her stronger. In other words the album is about a spiritual journey that guides us, via the wisdom of the past, towards a future where our reality will be the truth we have always had. By Pablo E Yglesias

#13. Black Alien – Abaixo de Zero: Hello Hell (Brazil)

Chosen by David Bugueño, Andy Cummings and Adailton Moura

On Abaixo de Zero: Hello Hell Black Alien celebrated his new found sobriety by releasing his most concise album to date. In interviews he has spoken of how his approach to writing lyrics has changed from a “machine gun” to a more considered style, something which he can only do now that he is rehabilitated from the drug addictions that blighted his career for many years. A change of producer has helped too with Papatinho of ConeCrewDiretoria adding additional soul and jazz influences, and slowing down the pace to a crawl at times (such as on “Au Revoir”). “Carta Pra Amy” illustrates all of this. With a jazz-inflected backing track Black Alien discusses drug addiction and rehab, name-checking Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain and Nina Simone along the way, and spitting out knotted lines like “Minha cabeça falante fala pra caralho / E, aí, my talking head stop making sense” (My talking head talks so fucking hard / And then my talking head stop making sense), showing his ability to spill a few pop culture references into the mix. By Russ Slater

#12. Los Pirañas – Historia Natural (Colombia)

Chosen by Diego Hernandez, Frank Kinsey and Russ Slater

There is an unquantifiable energy when Mario Galeano, Pedro Ojeda and Eblis Álvarez get in a room together. The three Colombians have been making music with each other since the late 90s, with themes of both exploring Colombia’s rich musical heritage and highlighting the absurdities of Colombian life, running through all their work. As Los Pirañas is when you find them at their most visceral, making music that is charged, ready to erupt into magnificent new shapes and sonic avenues at any moment. On their third album, Historia Natural, we hear them sounding as direct and restless with creativity as ever on a gloriously-varied set of songs. By Russ Slater

#11. Mateo Kingman – Astro (Ecuador)

Chosen by David Bugueño, Gabriel Francis and Paulo Srulevitch

It is a playful, beautiful album that seems to strive for more than the banalities of regular ‘cosmic intrigue’ records. A good summary comes from Kingman himself, whose description of “Tejidos” could be expanded to describe the overall album. He says it is “a dialogue between the traveller and the snakes/vehicles of the universe”. By Ross Cullen

#10. Dengue Dengue Dengue – Zenit & Nadir (Peru)

Chosen by Diego Hernandez, Mikołaj Kierski and Rebecca Wilson

For their third album, DDD dive deep into Afro-Peruvian musical traditions, recruiting Pudy and Miguel Ballumbrosio, two members of the legendary Ballumbrosio family, who add cajón and quijada, two quintessential and distinctive Afro-Peruvian instruments, throughout the record. They add new dimensions to DDD’s typically hypnotic sound, with 6/8 rhythms and bleakly cool textures testing how far they can go while still sounding just like Dengue Dengue Dengue. Meanwhile, the mellifluous vocals of Sara Van on “El Cavilante” and Kalaf’s story of African slaves arriving in Peru on “The Invisible Ones” add even further diversions on an album that feels deliberately constructed to omit mystery. By Russ Slater

#9. Montoya – Otun (Ecuador)

Chosen by Gabriel Francis, Humberto Loopz and Russ Slater

On “Eden”, Montoya refinds his classical violin in opening lines reminiscent of a string quartet. But Montoya must move on, and we’re soon tripping to layers of hip-house-disco beats elbowing the strings to the background and bringing up the Amerindian chants and sticks, drums droning, and some intriguing and sonorous electric bass lines. Looking at the overall picture of Otun, a mosaic takes shape where the tessera fit harmoniously into place, their shapes Montoya’s composition, and their colours his sounds. The final touch, the overall patina that illuminates the whole is Africa, yesterday, today and tomorrow. By Carolina Amoruso

#8. BaianaSystem – O Futuro Não Demora (Brazil)

Chosen by Andy Cummings, Gabriel Francis, Adailton Moura and Russ Slater

O Futuro Não Demora mixes guitarra baianaijexá, hip-hop, dub, samba-reggae, Latin rhythms and electronic beats. The essence of the group remains, but if Duas Cidades made the urban theme central, this new album seeks a connection with ancestry and nature in order to think about the future. By rescuing this Brazilian ancestry, whether in rhythms or in lyrics, in an innovative and contemporary way, BaianaSystem once again show their relevance to Brazilian music, with a powerful album that deserves attention. By Gabriel Rizzo

#7. Canalón de Timbiquí – De Mar y Rio (Colombia)

Chosen by Juan Pablo Castiblanco, Frank Kinsey, Humberto Loopz and Patrick McMahon

Though Nidia Gongora has never been shy to collaborate and innovate, pushing the sounds of Colombia’s Pacific coastal music into new territories through her work with Quantic, Bosq, Montoya, Yapunto and many others, when she’s with her group Canalón de Timbiqui she sticks to tradition. As such De Mar y Rio continues the path of previous albums with haunting arrullos, swinging currulaos and songs that switch between Catholic imagery, farewells to loved ones, rhythms to get the party started and tales of life on the Pacific, with “La Casa de la Compañía” offering an insight into the role of mining companies on Afro-Colombian life in the region. By Russ Slater

#6. Dona Onete – Rebujo (Brazil)

Chosen by Carolina Amoruso, David Bugueño, Adailton Moura and Mark Sampson

Lyrically, Dona Onete sings of the “beautiful poetry” of her state of Pará, “the most diverse in Brazil,” she suggests. That and a wish to seize “the chance to help Amazonian communities through my music, so I cannot just sing and close my eyes to the people’s plight.” Her music thus far in her remarkable late-flowering career has been never less than infectious. Rebujo offers even more bounce to the ounce. It’s full-on good-time music for an era that in so many other ways is the worst of times. How different it might all be if this effervescent singer were in power! By Mark Sampson

#5. Fémina – Perlas & Conchas (Argentina)

Chosen by David Bugueño, Gabriel Francis, Paulo Srulevitch and Gina Vergel

Though Femina’s aesthetic tampers with different genres, Perlas y Conchas finds a natural and organic milieu in a new sound that marks a shift from their previous acoustic and folk-centered aesthetic towards a digital canvas. Lyrical rhymes, shimmering harmonies, acoustic strings crackling and percussion merging with vibrant samples and synthetic melodies, with previous folk, cumbia and rap influences seeping into the mix, but never taking the spotlight. The end result is an arcane fantasy, an unpolluted world governed by three mystical women. By Paulo Srulevitch

#4. Nicola Cruz – Siku (Ecuador)

Chosen by Gabriel Francis, Mikołaj Kierski, Nestor David Pastor and Paulo Srulevitch

It was never going to be easy to follow-up Prender El Alma, a debut album that sparked worldwide interest in Latin American electronica, and wisely Cruz decided to follow his muse, rather than create a Prender El Alma Part Two. This meant getting even deeper into Latin American folklore, with indigenous flutes, marimbas and much percussion featuring, as well as embracing sounds that he’d met during his suddenly-global touring schedule. These new instrumental elements and the intimate vocals that weave in and out of many of the songs give the album a vulnerability that is absence from so much electronic music, and prove that Cruz is no one-trick pony. By Russ Slater

#3. Romperayo – Que Jue? (Colombia)

Chosen by Diego Hernandez, Frank Kinsey, Mikołaj Kierski, Rebecca Wilson and Pablo E Yglesias

Que Jue? is, much like the imagery evoked by its artwork, a muddy ride through South American urban landscapes, in search for signs of vegetation, an escape route into tropical daydreams. From a seamless interchange between what’s being played and what’s being sampled arises the contradictions of popular tropical music, contradictions which the band uses to craft their material and keep the listener asking for more, like a well-devised plot. Behind each track lies an opportunity for re-purposing the immense cache of Colombian musical styles and make sense of their identity in a world on an irreversible path towards globalization with all its goods and ills. By Diego Hernandez

#2. Helado Negro – This Is How You Smile (US/Ecuador)

Chosen by Rocio Cadena, Gabriel Francis, Adailton Moura, Russ Slater and Rebecca Wilson

[Helado Negro has] found his sound, seen his aura perhaps. Roberto, a second-generation Ecuadorian who grew up in South Florida, describes how he felt like an outsider within his own and other communities; he’s made himself a home in electronic music. A world he’s molded from life’s experiences. This feeling of belonging is contagious, and as a listener you open up, calmed, and ready to confront heavy themes. The opening track “Please Won’t Please” guides you through the loaded pains of being yourself: “Let me be, please won’t please. Blush now, they can’t know, lifelong history shows, that brown won’t go, brown just glows.” It’s a poetic journey towards belonging.” By Rebecca Wilson

#1. Los Wembler’s de Iquitos – Visíon del Ayahuasca (Peru)

Chosen by David Bugueño, Pablo Molina, Patrick McMahon, Nestor David Pastor, Russ Slater and Pablo E Yglesias

Despite all the cumbia love going around these days it’s been rare for any of the cumbia originators to return to the fray and offer up anything like they did during the golden eras of Colombian and Peruvian cumbia (50s-70s). This year, Los Wembler’s de Iquitos managed that feat. Visíon del Ayahuasca, recorded swiftly in France with most of the original band – though their father/group founder has passed away, the five Sanchez Brothers are still in the ranks – proves that they still have it with a remarkably varied set that goes from classy laidback chicha grooves to the kind of fiery amped-up Amazonian hoe-downs that always marked out cumbia amazónica as the wildest cumbia variant out there. The heyday of Peruvian cumbia may have gone, but Los Wembler’s prove that those musical heights are still not out of sight. By Russ Slater

Listen to our Spotify playlist, featuring selections from our Best Albums of 2019 (with the exception of Etienne Charles, who is not available on Spotify):

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