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Best Of 2012

Top 30 World Albums of 2012

by Rachel Devitt

Top 30 World Albums of 2012


This has been such a fascinating, if slightly discombobulated, year in global music, hasn't it? Unlike some years, where a dominant theme (Gypsy punk! Neo-psychedelica! Desert blues!) has emerged, 2012 was marked more by several mini-themes than one overarching narrative. Let's break them down, shall we?

Mini-Theme 1: Neo-Trad Experimentation
Artists around the globe got very interested in musical roots this year, but not in some kind of dusty, fixed, preservationist sense (which doesn't really exist in real life, anyway, of course). Instead, artists like Anoushka Shankar, Ondatrópica, Staff Benda Bilili and Chimurenga Renaissance, for instance, focused on the discourses of change that exist within every tradition, pivoting off histories of innovation in order to push at and play with the boundaries of Indian classical and flamenco, Colombian folk traditions, Congolese rumba, and Zimbabwean Shona music, respectively. Luaka Bop's fantastic retrospective classic cuts from Brazilian psych-soul master Tim Maia could also fit in this category, repping an earlier generation of musical mad scientists. The resulting albums were dynamic displays of new traditions connecting musical histories and aesthetic futures.

Mini-Theme 2: Electro-Art Pop
This mini-theme could almost be a sub-mini-theme of Mini-Theme 1, but there are so many interesting examples of it, we figured it deserves its own space. Many of the trad innovators accomplished their roots renovations via electro- and indie pop, cutting Argentinean country music with laptronica (Mati Zundel), Afro-Mexican folk traditions with shimmering electro pop (Sistema Bomb), Angolan kuduro with global bass grooves (Batida), Egyptian classical and folk music with a DJ's knob-twiddling (Egyptian Project), and the pan-Brazilian dance party that earned Maga Bo our top slot in the countdown. Elsewhere, the electro-art pop took off in less strictly neo-trad directions, as on Spoek Mathambo's Afro-futurist art rock or CéU's trippy Brazilian dream pop. Amadou & Mariam's hipster-guest-stuffed Folila and The Very Best's exuberant indie-Afropop would also fit in this category, albeit on the hookier end of it. No matter which route they took, these hipsters made some mighty fine music.

Mini-Theme 3: Ethiopia!
If any region of the world could be said to have dominated the global music landscape this year, it was Ethiopia and the Ethiopian diaspora. For decades now, crate-diggers have fawned over the Ethiopiques series' showcase of captivating pentatonics and snaking rhythms of the golden era of Ethio-groove. But this year, several new artists shifted the spotlight to contemporary East African music: Debo Band's multicultural take on psyched-up Ethio-jazz, Krar Collective's neo-trad breakdowns and, especially, Samuel Yirga's spellbinding synthesis of contemporary jazz and Ethiopian folk and pop, which took our No. 2 spot this year.

Of course, plenty of fantastic 2012 albums don't fit neatly into our little mini-themes: Kayhan Kalhor's gorgeous, thoughtful collection of Persian classical music, for instance. Or Wu Man's exploration of Central Asian silk route traditions. Or the distinctive, captivating takes on Afropop from Fatoumata Diawara (whose acclaimed solo debut finally got its U.S. release) and Nneka. In other words, a world of fascinating music is right here at your fingertips. Start listening!

30) Chicha Libre, Canibalismo
29) Antibalas, Antibalas
28) Bonde do Role, Tropicalbacanal
27) Curumin, Arrocha
26) Sinkane, Mars
25) Sistema Bomb, Electro-Jarocho
24) Kayhan Kalhor, I Will Not Stand Alone
23) Ondatropica, Ondatropica
22) Staff Benda Bilili, Bouger Le Monde!
21) Rodrigo y Gabriela, Area 52
20) Bomba Estéreo, Elegancia Tropical
19) Spoek Mathambo, Father Creeper
18) Various Artists, Music of Central Asia Vol. 10: Borderlands: Wu Man and Master Musicians from the Silk Route
17) Krar Collective, Ethiopia Super Krar
16) Debo Band, Debo Band
15) CéU, Caravana Sereia Bloom
14) Chimurenga Renaissance, Pungwe
13) Mati Zundel, Amazonico Gravitante
12) Batida, Batida
11) Amadou & Mariam, Folila
10) Anoushka Shankar, Traveller
9) Novalima, Karimba
8) Nneka, Soul Is Heavy
7) Niyaz, Sumud
6) Egyptian Project, Ya Amar
5) Tim Maia, World Psychedelic Classics 4
4) The Very Best, MTMTMK
3) Fatoumata Diawara, Fatou
2) Samuel Yirga, Guzo
1) Maga Bo, Quilombo do Futuro