Best Albums Of 2011

By 16 December, 2011

The time has come again to choose our favourite albums of the year. It’s a task that’s never easy, especially after the bumper year we’ve had, with great music coming from all over South America, reflected in the fact that artists from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela all feature in our list.

The criteria for our list fits our ethos as a magazine. We aim to find the most interesting music being made in South America, and this list reflects that. Normally we would choose a Top 20 but as they were so many choices that we felt were deserving of the Top 20 but just missed out, we thought we’d open it up slightly to show some of our “almost choices” this year. So, first off, here are the choices that almost made the Top 20, before really getting into those top choices.

30. Violeta Castillo – Uno/Otro (Argentina)
29. Alex Andwandter – Rebeldes (Chile)
28. Eddie – Veraneio (Brazil)
27. Frente Cumbiero Meets Mad Professor (Colombia)
26. Bixiga 70 – S/T (Brazil)
25. Cícero – Canções de Apartamento (Brazil)
24. Mostro – Libre para Regurgitar la Intemperie (Chile)
23. Kali Mutsa – Ambrolina (Chile)
22. Federico Durand – El Éxtasis de las Flores Pequeñas (Argentina)
21. Helado Negro – Canta Lechuza (Ecuador/USA)

20. Dolli – Viaje (Venezuela)

Dolli use subdued beats, layers of synths and a variety of instruments to create a tapestry that perfectly captures a dream-like state of mind, one where there is plenty of movement of thought even if the body itself is stationary. “Abriendo Los Ojos” (Opening The Eyes) opens the EP with an accordion seemingly taking on the role of heartbeat, ushering the body into life – and bringing into mind the US group DeVotchka – while beatific sounds resonate in the backdrop. Following track “Cuando El Ávila Te Ve” (When El Ávila Sees You) takes a harder approach, rougher beats highlighting the moment when the mountains around Caracas come into view. Dolli themselves refer to the album as a “a musical journey from the metropolis to the sea, crossing the great mountain that shelter us who live in Caracas, Venezuela” and without going to Venezuela oneself it’s hard to imagine a more visceral document of that journey.

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19. Caçapa – Elefantes Na Rua Nova (Brazil)

This is the best way yet we’ve found of experiencing the Brazilian countryside. Caçapa‘s selection of Northeastern Brazilian folk music is perhaps most startling because of the richness of the sound. Caçapa himself is on the 10-string guitar, and is joined by fellow guitarist virtuoso Hugo Linns and Alessandra Leão on pandeiro (drum) and ganzá (rattle). The result is a dynamic, lush web of sounds and melodies that is utterly compelling.

18. PedroPiedra – Cripta y Vida (Chile)

Cripta y Vida starts with a fluttering synth line before Pedro Subercaseaux’s voice enters and the opening track “Vacaciones En El Mas Allá” heads off into joyous pop territory. This is PedroPiedra‘s second album and it continues the formula set out on their eponymous debut, in that it combines huge pop hooks and bright production with lyrics that are in turns funny and thought-provoking, though always sincere. This formula peaks with that opening track as well as “Occidental”, a timeless song that you will found yourself humming long after you last listened to it. Cripta y Vida may not be as jam-packed with gold as their debut album, but it sincerely doesn’t do Subercaseaux’s reputation as one of Latin America’s finest songwriters any harm at all.

17. China – Moto Continuo (Brazil)

Moto Continuo came as something of a shock. After listening to 2007’s Simulacro we thought China to be something of a rawer version of Otto; all grooves, half-rapped vocals and attitude. Yet, Moto Continuo is a completely different beast, starting with a song that’s almost glam-rock, before skipping through surf rock, hip-hop, electro-pop and punk over it’s eleven song duration. The great thing about all this genre-shifting is that it works. Album opener “Boa Viagem” starts with a heavily-effected fuzz guitar riff that keeps coming back, it’s the kind of pop hook that you don’t normally get on a mangue beat tune, and one of the reasons why this albums stands out from the pack.

16. Jan Pawel – Conejillo De Indias (Venezuela)

Jan Pawel decided this year to collect together some of the songs he’d been working on between 2007 and 2010 that had yet to see the light of day, and release them as an album. The results are not the odds and sods selection that you might expect, but an incredibly strong and consistent set of tunes that reflect Jan Pawel as one of the most interesting songwriters in Latin America at the moment. The album shifts between folk and pop, excelling at both forms. “Ya Lo Ves” is a celebratory electronic rabble scorching along with an irresistible electronic drum beat; “(7:15) Por Tu Piel” almost tops it for sheer unrepentant joy; but then on the other hand are songs like “A Tus Pies”, a reflective finger-picked country/folk song. The only thing that’s consistent is the quality.

15. Silva – S/T (Brazil)

This one caught us by surprise, a 5-track EP by Silva, an unknown Brazilian artist, that turned out to be one of the most fascinating and uplifting pieces of music we’d heard in a very long time. First track “12 de Maio” is a fizzling, effervescent slice of pop, somewhere between the melodicism of Broken Social Scene and the more percussive approach of El Guincho, with a little Caribbean vibe too. Things slow down slightly with “Imergir” and “A Visita”, the first of which is an organ-led ballad that would be the perfect choice for a moment of melodrama in a Paul Thomas Anderson film. “A Visita” is a sprightlier number with a French chanson flavour and at least two violin motifs that combine perfectly with bursts of drums, handclaps and the odd blast of glockenspiel. What’s certain is that once you get to the end of the last track “Acidental” you will want to return straight back to “12 de Maio” and listen to the EP over again.

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14. Meridian Brothers – IV (Colombia)

The over-riding emotion when listening to Meridian Brothers is that they must come from another planet. Everything about their sound is so alien. Vocals are either distortingly low or pitched high and scratchy, the guitars flicker on and off like a malfunctioning radio, the keyboards could just as easily be soundtracking a very bad horror movie, the drums come and go whenever they want and sound anything but clear; yet somehow it works. There is an energy to the songs here and an attitude to making music which is so refreshing. At the album’s core is a Latin beat but surrounding it are so many disparate influences that it would be impossible to name them all. This is coupled with a ruthless musicianship where oddball sounds somehow fit into the tapestry of the songs seamlessly, making for an experience that’s as unsettling as it is gloriously mischevious. The word “psychedelic” is often over-used. Meridian Brothers are in danger of making it their own.

13. Fer Isella – Cosecha (Argentina)

A consistently suprising work from Argentine Fer Isella, featuring covers of songs by Radiohead, Frank Zappa, Beach Boys and Guillermo Klein, as well as a number of originals. In truth, it’s many of those originals that shine here, such as the piano-led “En El Limbo (Part 1)” and it’s extremely funky sequel “En El Limbo (Part 2).” They show the two extremes of Isella’s music, leaping from sonorous soundscapes to bombastic jazz-funk riffs. It’s a formula that keeps the album interesting, rarely allowing for the listener to drift off. Cosecha is an album of top musicianship, solid production and restless creativity, and should appeal to fans of the bands covered here, especially Radiohead and Guillermo Klein.

12. Metis – Sessions Vol.I / Antropofagia (Uruguay)

The main problem with Sessions Vol.I / Antropofagia is the fact that it’s only five tracks long. Which means there’s a lot right with it. This is the kind of music that you hoped would exist in Montevideo, taking the raw, visceral power of candombe, matching it with the kind of cerebral approach you’d expect from a nation with so many great writers and artists to it’s name, and making it sound fresh. It’s something Metis have achieved here, and then some! They fuse candombe’s rhythm and style of drumming, with dub, jazz and electronica. This combination reaches it’s zenith on the first three tracks which really sound quite unlike anything we’ve heard before, full of hyperactive percussion, pulsating bass lines, dub-influenced production and clever use of instrumentation. This is a band definitely to keep an eye on, especially as Sessions Vol. 2 will hopefully be out in the New Year.

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11. Lucas Santtana – Sem Nostalgia (Brazil)

Sem Nostalgia was released in Brazil in 2009 – it was released in Europe this year – yet still sounds unbelievably fresh. If there was ever an argument for artistic constraints making the end-product greater then this is it. On Sem Nostalgia, Lucas Santtana set himself the task of only using guitar and vocals – a tribute to Brazilian greats such as João Gilberto, who used exactly that format (known in Brazil as “Voz e Violão”). However, that’s only half the story as the end-goal was to see how much he could then stretch the idea. At times, the guitars are cut-up and rearranged into vibrant squeals, riffs and beats, as well as their normal backing for Santtana’s voice. Sem Nostalgia is his fourth album and showcases his ability for a memorable melody, use of texture and penchant for pushing the boundaries of Brazilian music.

10. Mucho Indio – S/T (Colombia)

Swathes of intricate melodies shimmer across the stereo; instruments buzz in the background; music springs to life; this is the world of Mucho Indio, a group of musicians and artists from Bogotá, led by Teto Ocampo. Teto is most well-known for his time working with Carlos Vives, Bloque de Busqueda and Sidestepper’s Buena Vibra Sound System, but soon (surely) Mucho Indio will be just as well known. The aim of Mucho Indio is to recreate a connection with nature. They do this through visiting sacred and spiritual sites in Colombia, with Teto as lead anthropologist. This music is then the record of these encounters, somehow retaining these spiritial connections, resulting in one of the most joyous records of the year with great musicianship throughout and a startlingly clear production from Richard Blair.

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9. Caravana – S/T (Chile)

This is the first album from Chile’s Caravana, the new project of Rodrigo Santis. It starts ominously with “Reconocer”, a thundering, sludgy piece of dark pop in the vein of The National and The Walkmen. As the album continues though light begins to slip through, revealing a highly inventive, textured pop album. At it’s heaviest, it recalls the savage new-wave punk of Killing Joke, yet in the quieter moments is more redolent of new folk musicians such as Little Wing or Ben Chasny. The album culminates in “Cada Vez”, a song that starts off simple but builds into an epic bluster of treated vocals, thrashing guitars and thumping drums. It’s one of the most epic tracks on an album which often tries for the epic, but also knows that sometimes a great melody is enough to stick in the mind. This is an extremely mature record from a project which hopefully will be around for some time.

8. Metá-Metá – S/T (Brazil)

Metá-Metá is essentially three musicians, Juçara Marçal (lead vocals), Kiko Dinucci (guitar and backing vocals) and Thiago França (sax/flute). On their debut album they echo the spirit of Baden Powell and Vincius de Moraes’ Afro-Sambas. This is guitar work as accomplished as Baden Powell, vocals from Marçal that are equal to greats such as Maria Bethania and Maria Creuza, and as a whole an album that has that same environment that bestowed those ground-breaking Afro-Samba albums of the 60s. Metá-Metá is truly an extraordinary record, one with a strong candomblé heart – the gods Oxum, Xangô and Obatala feature heavily on these songs – but that also works as a great samba and jazz record.

7. Astro – Astro (Chile)

It was quite clear after hearing the lead single “Ciervos” that Astro‘s second album was going to be something special. However, we’re not sure anyone was expecting it to be this good. This is pop music that takes the sheer unbridled joy and flayfulness of groups like the B52’s and Bow Wow Wow, gives it a bold, modern production and then ploughes through some of the most outrageously catchy melodies you’ll hear anywhere. In truth, there are too many great songs on this album to mention them all but certainly “Coco” with it’s plummeting guitar riff and psychedelic wig-out interlude, and “Manglares” which may just be the best song ever made, are worthy of a mention. But then tomorrow will probably bring a new pair of favourites.

6. Algodon Egipcio – La Lucha Constante (Venezuela)

La Lucha Constante is one of those albums that simply sounds great. Yeah, there may be little glimpses in there of countless other bands, but this is effervescent stuff, there’s a sparkle in there, revealing itself a little bit more on each listen. The great moments never stop coming; the building up of vocal melodies halfway through “Los Párpados Caídos,” the way that it then explodes into a strange rave fantasy; the subtle, beautiful melody that is “La Repetición, La Repetición”; that Twin Peaks intro to “Los Temas Turbios.” This is an album all about melody and wave after wave of gorgeous sound, and sees Algodon Egipcio establish a name as one of the most unique talents working in South America at the moment.

5. Karina Buhr – Longe de Onde (Brazil)

Karina Buhr‘s debut album Eu Mentí Pra Voce fused many different styles but was most notable for Buhr as a singer and lyricist: her voice veered between sweet and fiery on lyrics that showed real craft and an ability to phrase words that marked her out as a truly unique voice. These characteristics all remaine on Longe de Onde and combine with a greater confidence from her band. In particular, Fernando Catatau appears to have found his place within the set-up where he can offer the kind of distinctive guitar lines that make Cidadão Instigado so much fun. Highlight of the album is “The War’s Dancing Floor”, a track that starts off with shades of Goldfrapp until a clavinet sparks it into a Stevie Wonder funk jam. With lyrics that can show warmth, humour, anger, intellect, and so much more, and a band that can amplify these emotions and take them off in new directions at will, there is very little doubt that Karina Buhr is right now the most interesting artist working within the Brazilian popular music milieu.

4. Ekundayo – S/T (Brazil/USA)

Ever wondered what it would sound like if Sao Paulo’s underground scene decamped to the US, joined up with a number of jazz musicians and hip-hop MCs, and attempted their own unique version of Sly & The Family Stone? Ekundayo is pretty much what that would sound like. In 2008, hip-hop MC and beatmaker Mike Ladd came to Sao Paulo to perform some shows with Sao Paulo Underground (Rob Mazurek, Guilherme Granado and Mauricio Takara) and Mamelo Sound System (MCs Lurdez da Luz and Rodrigo Brandao), under the title of Colaboratório. It was a chance for all involved to create something unique, a record that used both electronic sounds and live instrumentation, that featured MCs with alternate New York and Afro-Brazilian flows, and that had a truly Brazilian rhythm at it’s heart. Those shows have now transformed into a group and album called Ekundayo, which has also seen their ranks swell with legendary percussionist Naná Vasconcelos and producer/musician Scotty Hard joining the group. The result is one of the most deliriously good albums of the year, full of textures, deep percussion and some of the most brutal hip-hop we’ve heard all year.

3. Los Pirañas – S/T (Colombia)

Los Pirañas is a side project of members of Frente Cumbiero and Meridian Brothers, two of Colombia’s most interesting bands. From the first beat it’s clear that this is a vehicle for them to try out some of their most far-out ideas. There’s thumping drums, relentless New York No Wave basslines and guitars that sound alternately like elastic and metal, together making a sound that you might want to call “tropical noise”. At the centre is Eblis Álvarez who distorts and treats his guitar so that it sounds like anything but a guitar. Amazingly it works and gives these songs a real sense of urgency, as well as making it impossible to ever guess what’s coming next. The other musicians, Mario Galeano on bass and Pedro Ojeda on drums, take things steady in comparison, yet they play a crucial role. Galeano’s basslines are simple yet forceful, while Ojeda sounds like a ball of energy crashing into everything around him. Toma Tu Jabón Kapax is not an album that you can put on, sit in your favourite easy chair and enjoy. It feels like an incitement at times, willing the body and mind to let go. It’s punk, it’s rock ‘n’ roll, and somehow it’s Colombian.

2. Soema Montenegro – Pasionaria (Argentina)

From the first song of Pasionaria it is clear you have entered into a truly singular world with Soema Montenegro‘s voice alone singing “Leyenda del Cururú”. At times her voice is as graceful as Mercedes Sosa, it’s certainly as powerful too, with the vocals circling every nuance in the words, but it can also erupt, with a spiritual intensity recalling the Gothic blues of Diamanda Galas, another singer who is often referred to as shamanic. Yet whereas Galas surrounded her voice with tales of the blues and death, Soema’s is always about the opposite, with indigenous tales, images of nature and with a general earthliness that connects her voice with the land and thence with the instruments and stories from that land, in this case the Argentine wilderness. Pasionaria is the kind of album that you can easily get lost in, with Soema’s voice leading the way and an assortment of folk songs and traditional instrumentation to keep things interesting. Vincent Moon calls her “… the best singer on the whole planet.” He might be onto something.

1. Criolo – No Na Orelha (Brazil)

When listening to music it’s often the albums that you are looking forward to the most that can be the most disappointing, so frustrating when they don’t live up to expectations. However, when they succeed it is a beautiful thing. When they surpass your expectations, even better. Nó Na Orelha is the album Sao Paulo hip-hop needed. It’s probably the album Brazilian hip-hop needed. It’s about time someone knocked Marcelo D2 off his perch, and it seems Criolo is the man to do this. And let’s be honest, his voice is stronger, his lyrics are stronger and he’s surrounded himself with a group of producers and musicians who are willing to push their ideas forward, finding a way in which hip-hop can still be from the streets but can also include elements of Afro-Brazilian rhythms, dub, samba, Amazonian percussion, avant-garde jazz, and whatever other elements seem fit to join the mix. Nó Na Orelha really feels like the start of something special, possibly a point where the multiple cultures, religions, traditions and people of Sao Paulo find an album that represents them as a whole.

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