BEST LATIN POP ALBUM NOMINEES: THE LOWDOWN
Salsa icon Ruben Blades refashioned his greatest hits including “Pedro Navaja” and “Pablo Pueblo” as tangos with help from Argentine musicians. The resulting album, on indie Sunnyside Records, finds Blades competing in the realm of pop instead of tropical, with an album that’s as beautifully understated as it is surprising. “A song works because of the lyrics, not because of the rhythm or the genre, and a song can be approached in a more lyrical way in tango than in salsa,” Blades told Billboard last May. Singing a completely different genre was a challenge, and Blades says he never wanted to “pretend I was a tango singer.” But no make-believe was necessary — recording live with an orchestra, Blades delivered more than enough subtle drama and emotion for Tangos to win best tango album at the Latin Grammys in November.
Label: Sony Music Latin
Camila is not a woman. It’s a duo of Mexican men — ones so compelling in their blend of big, melodic songs bursting with vocal harmonization and tinged with R&B that they held sway as Latin pop’s top-selling group for two superb albums. Elypse is Camila’s third album, and first as a duo (following the departure of singer-songwriter Samo for a solo career). Singer-songwriter Mario Domm and guitarist Pablo Hurtado constructed a bigger sound, adding more strings and rock guitars. Latin pop remains a vibrant genre for Domm. “It’s full of life, and when I write songs I feel it in my body,” he told Billboard. Elypse won a Latin Grammy for best contemporary vocal pop album in November, and Camila will go on an extensive U.S. tour.
This beauty of an album is a true outlier. A fusion of folk and pop, it brings together three voices of Latin folklore: Mexico’s Lila Downs, Spain’s Nina Pastori and Argentina’s Soledad. Getting the three together took years, given that each is a star in her own right with a demanding schedule. And each has a strong voice — working as a trio “was challenging,” concedes Downs, “especially since we’ve spent so much time being independent women. But we became very close and very respectful of one another, and now we even fight for each other.” Raiz (meaning root), which won the Latin Grammy for best folk album, somehow fuses Mexican huapangos, Argentine tanguillos and Spanish flamenco in a cohesive mix where the vocals alternate between individual power and supportive harmony.
Loco De Amor
Label: Universal Music Latino
Colombian pop-rocker Juanes, who already has two Grammys under his belt, isn’t shy about going out on a limb. And that’s just what he did for his first studio album in four years, sitting down to write with Emmanuel del Real of Mexican alt band Cafe Tacuba (something Juanes seldom does), and then enlisting the big, booming sound of producer Steve Lillywhite (U2, The Killers). Loco de Amor (meaning “crazy for love”) is more than an album title: The music and lyrics are full of desperation and passion. “It’s about obsession, delirium, what happens with human relations,” says Juanes. It goes from the uptempo first single “La Luz,” with its down and dirty guitars and tribalero beat, to the sweet “Una Flor.” Loco won a Latin Grammy for best pop/rock album.
Marco Antonio Solis is a Mexican master of romance who successfully crossed over from the regional Mexican realm into pop, thanks to his songs — little masterpieces of simplicity and eloquence. Named Billboard’s Latin Star of the 2000-2010 decade, Solis has had nine No. 1s on Billboard’s Top Latin Albums chart, more than any other artist, and nine No. 1s on Hot Latin Songs. While Solis usually mixes up genres on his albums, such as inserting touches of Mexican grupero music, Gracias por Estar Aqui is romantic all the way, with luscious melodies augmented by big string sections. It’s vintage Solis.
BEST LATIN ROCK, URBAN, OR ALTERNATIVE ALBUM
Calle 13’s Multiviral features guest appearances from Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and Cuban singer-songwriter (and Castro sympathizer) Silvio Rodriguez. Political enough for you? The Puerto Rican rap duo, made up of brothers Rene Perez Joglar and Eduardo Cabra, has never shied away from controversy, or from speaking its mind. And not just in the pair’s wickedly clever lyrics — at this year’s Latin Grammy Awards (where Calle 13 won for best urban music album and best alternative song) the members wore T-shirts referring to Mexico’s lost students. “Art is also a platform to communicate the important things that happen around us,” says Cabra. Calle 13 has two Grammys to show for that attitude, and 19 Latin Grammys. And while Multiviral is plenty militant there also is lyricism to be found in tracks like the soulful “Ojos Color Sol.”
Behind The Machine (Detras De La Maquina)
Label: Sony Music Latin
Colombian hip-hop/roots trio ChocQuibTown takes its name from the Pacific Coast state of Choco, one of the poorest in the country with a predominantly African heritage. ChocQuibTown embraces its roots in its sound — anchored in traditional folk rhythms — and in the members’ colorful look and references. Made up of rapper Carlos “Tostao” Valencia; his wife, singer Gloria “Goyo” Martinez; and rapper-producer Miguel “Slow” Martinez, the group has slowly but surely gained traction, thanks this year to two collaborations: on the Carlos Vives hit “El Mar de Sus Ojos” (which reached No. 11 on the Hot Latin Songs chart) and on Santana‘s “Iron Lion Zion.” Behind the Machine, the group’s first Sony release, recasts earlier songs with more of a live-band sound and fewer drum-machine beats. New material is expected in 2015.
Bailar En La Cueva
Label: Warner Music Latina
Uruguay’s Jorge Drexler once told Billboard: “I never have radio hits and singles. I always drive on the side roads instead of the highways.” Those side roads of understated, sophisticated songs with touches of folk have long made him a critical darling, a reputation that solidified in 2004 when his song “Al Otro Lado del Rio” from the film The Motorcycle Diaries became the first Spanish-language song to win an Academy Award for best original song. Drexler’s Bailar en la Cueva (Dancing in the Cave) approaches dance music a la Drexler — that is, not with thumping techno beats but with subtle percussion. The sound has struck a nerve, earning him his first Latin Grammy for record of the year, for “Universos Paralelos” (featuring Ana Tijoux).
Label: Universal Latino
Molotov is relentless on Agua Maldita (Damned Water), the band’s first studio album in seven years. Produced by Jason Perry at East West Studios in Hollywood, the album features the Mexican rock quartet’s trademark heavy basslines, wildly buzzing guitars and fierce raps — “Again N’ Again” even features Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels from Run-D.M.C. Confrontational and often political, Molotov rose to fame by defying convention with in-your-face lyrics that sometimes got the group banned from venues and media at home. It also has brought the band unique exposure: Molotov won the Latin Grammy for best rock album three times, and its music has been used in feature films like Alfonso Cuaron’s Amores Perros and in TV’s Breaking Bad.
Label: Nacional Records
With smooth, sultry raps that flow sinuously over a variety of beats, Ana Tijoux manages to be soft and hard at the same time: Her messages are loud even when her volume isn’t. The French-Chilean artist catapulted to broader recognition after her 2010 track “1977” was featured on Breaking Bad and Broad City, as well as in EA Sports’ FIFA 11. She has been garnering Latin Grammy and Grammy nominations ever since. Vengo, her third album on the enterprising indie Nacional Records, is lyrical but also political, addressing themes of oppression and liberation. Tijoux says, “Art means taking a stance.”
This story first appeared in the Dec. 26 issue of Billboard.