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The Best 12 World Music CDs of 2012

Our Favorites from an Excellent Year

By

2012 was a great year for world music, but really, almost every year is a good year when it comes to world music. Still, when you sit back and look at the annual offerings, certain trends always come clear. This year raised the bar for cross-cultural collaboration, for starters, and it showed us that international partnerships are often at their best when they're spontaneous and barely-planned. We also saw a good deal of tradition-inspired innovation in 2012, with artists telling new stories using the building blocks of their folk roots. And some of this year's CDs were just plain great, whether or not they followed or set a trend. Here are my very favorites from an outstanding crop, in absolutely no particular order.

Amadou et Mariam - 'Folila'

Amadou and Mariam - 'Folila'
(c) Nonesuch Records, 2012

On first listen, I really liked this latest offering from Afropop superstars Amadou et Mariam. After almost a year of having it in my collection and listening to it dozens upon dozens of times, I can say unequivocally that I adore it. Cosmopolitan and globally engaged, Mali's golden couple have never delivered a bad album, but this one is glorious. Originally conceived as two separate albums, one fully modern and targeted at an international audience and one slightly more introspective and targeted at an African audience, but after recording both, it came clear to the couple that they should be combined into one. And thank goodness, because it's a masterpiece.

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Kayhan Kalhor - 'I Will Not Stand Alone'

Kayhan Kalhor - 'I Will Not Stand Alone'
(c) World Village, 2012

Iranian kamancheh (spike fiddle) player Kayhan Kalhor is a master of Persian classical music. This is not an easy thing to be. NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas suggests that to get an understanding of what mastery actually means in this case, "Imagine a framework that combines the technical demands and intellectual structures of both Western classical music and jazz, and you'll start to get some sense of Persian music." Now, picture the very best of all of that, and you'll get some idea of Kalhor's talent and skill. And this is his finest work yet. Performed entirely on the shah kaman, a new variety of spike fiddle designed just for Kalhor, with a lower tone and deeper resonance than the classic kamancheh, and featuring a single collaborator, bass santour (hammered dulcimer) player Ali Bahrami Fard, I Will Not Stand Alone is an extraordinary and groundbreaking work of art performed by an extraordinary and groundbreaking artist.

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Toure-Raichel Collective - 'The Tel Aviv Session'

The Toure-Raichel Collective -- 'The Tel Aviv Session'
(c) Cumbancha, 2012

I love the music of both Idan Raichel and Vieux Farka Toure. When I first heard about this project, though, I couldn't quite imagine that I'd like them quite so much together. Still, Jacob Edgar (Cumbancha label president, A&R guy for Putumayo, Music Voyager host, and probably the best-informed guy in the world music business) put his stamp of approval on it and I felt like it therefore warranted an early listen, and I am certainly glad I did. The synthesis that took place when Raichel and Touré headed into a Tel Aviv recording studio was simultaneously aggressive and organic, and the result has set a new standard for world fusion music (and impromptu recording sessions, for that matter).

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Lo'Jo - 'Cinema el Mundo'

Lo'Jo - 'Cinema el Mundo'
(c) World Village, 2012

This concept album, which follows the arc of a film and presents each song as a scene, marks French global folk-pop group Lo'Jo's 20th anniversary. They've done a lot since then, exploring and breaking down most every world music boundary you can think of. Cinema el Mundo is an enticing exploration of some of the better things they've found, with a few new stopovers as well, but even with international influences as varied as gnawa and desert blues and Balkan brass and vintage film music and all manner of other things from around the globe, the result is something that is ultimately French, in the classical and romantic sense, but in the modern multicultural sense as well.

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Debo Band - 'Debo Band'

Debo Band - 'Debo Band'
(c) Next Ambiance / SubPop 2012

The Debo Band were 2012's fastest rising stars, entering my radar upon their performance at globalFEST in January and subsequently delivering one of my favorite live shows of the year (their set at Festival International de Louisiane) and one of my favorite albums of the year. The band, based in Boston, tackles vintage Ethiopian pop of the '60s and early '70s with a modern youthful jazz-funk sensibility. The album is carefully produced without being stuffy, and has a big, lively, dance-friendly sound that's easy to like regardless of where on the musical spectrum your tastes lie: world, indie rock, funk, jazz, etc.

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Le Vent du Nord - 'Tromper le Temps'

Le Vent du Nord - 'Tromper le Temps'
(c) Borealis Recording, 2012

These fellas from Quebec never disappoint, but Tromper le Temps ("To Trick Time") is their best album in years, and maybe ever. With deep roots in the rural folk music of the Quebecois people, and their French ancestors before them, Le Vent du Nord have tackled both old tunes and new ones -- including compositions dealing with the marginalization of Francophone Canadians and the environmental threat of hydrofracking -- all within a well-polished traditional framework.

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Sierra Leone's Refugee All-Stars - 'Radio Salone'

Sierra Leone's Refugee All-Stars - 'Radio Salone'
(c) Cumbancha, 2012

This third CD from Sierra Leone's Refugee All-Stars is unquestionably the best work they've ever done. Lyrically, it's smart and political, and musically, it's straight-up hip-shakin'. Producer Victor Axelrod (Ticklah), of Dap-Kings and Antibalas fame, might've been the best thing that ever happened to this group's reggae-meets-soukous-meets-soul pan-Atlantic diaspora-driven sound, and the resulting Radio Salone is a winner, for sure.

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'Avila Featuring Ernest Ranglin'

Avila Featuring Ernest Ranglin
(c) Avila Street Records, 2012

This little project was another example of a "hey, let's head into the studio and see what happens" scenario that went exceptionally well. Probably not coincidentally, bass player and global music gadabout Yossi Fine was on hand for both this session and the aforementioned Tel Aviv Session. The star of this one, though, was Jamaican music legend Ernest Ranglin, who Fine calls "the best guitar player in the world." Ranglin was a session man on dozens of Jamaican music's greatest hits, and helped shape the evolution of Jamaican music in crucial ways (some credit him with inventing the "skank" guitar strike that defined ska as a distinct genre). This record is definitely not ska, though; it's more in the vein of Jamaican-focused but internationally-flavored jazz, and it's very, very funky.

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Staff Benda Bilili - 'Bouger le Monde!'

Staff Benda Bilili - 'Bouger le Monde!'
(c) Crammed Discs, 2012

Driven by the rhythms of the Congolese rumba, but textured with various pan-African elements, this is a big, boisterous record from a big, boisterous band, and it's really a delight to listen to. The members of Staff Benda Bilili have a pretty inspirational story (most of the band members are paraplegic polio victims), which lends some depth to the often inspirational French-language lyrics, but even without accounting for the group's background and history, Bouger Le Monde! ("Move the World!") is a wonderful CD that deserves all of the praise it's getting and more.

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Fatoumata Diawara - 'Fatou'

Fatoumata Diawara - 'Fatou'
(c) Nonesuch / World Circuit, 2012

This debut album from Mali-born and Paris-raised Fatoumata Diawara is entirely lovely, and it feels very current to me; very much a part of the world music zeitgeist. Diawara has really encapsulated the sound of a young and stylish immigrant woman (she's Malian, but lives in Paris) in a vibrant and shifting cosmopolitan community. Her songs are Wassoulou in heart and language, but Parisian in production and vibe, and it's just a really engaging combo, one that made for one of the strongest debuts I've ever heard.

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Mary Jane Lamond and Wendy MacIsaac - 'Seinn'

Mary Jane Lamond and Wendy MacIsaac - 'Seinn'
(c) Turtlemusik

This spritely recording came to us from the fertile musical ground of Cape Breton Island, where traditional Celtic music has been kept alive for many generations. Among the torchbearers of the legacy are singer Mary Jane Lamond and fiddler Wendy MacIsaac, for whom this is the first collaboration, though the two have been friends and accomplices for years. Seinn is less about pushing any boundaries than it is highlighting the patina of an old sound (though some of the tracks do add some nontraditional percussion and arrangements, which is fun), but these musicians are strong and capable, and the music sounds better than ever.

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Jimmy Cliff - 'Rebirth'

Jimmy Cliff - 'Rebirth'
(c) Universal Music, 2012

Not just my favorite reggae CD of the year, Rebirth is easily my favorite Jimmy Cliff release in a few decades. It's fresh and relevant, and the legend is in his finest form both as a songwriter and an interpreter. It really is a rebirth for Cliff, and also suggests that a new era of roots reggae is on the horizon, one which sees substantial forward momentum without losing the very roots that give the subgenre its name.

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