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Alt.Latino picks the best Latin music of 2021

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

As the year winds down, things really pick up for NPR Music. They have spent the last month or so selecting their favorite releases of the year. And our friends at the Alt.Latino podcast have been arm-wrestling over which albums and songs to include on their list. Felix Contreras and Anamaria Sayre are here to tell us about their picks. Felix, Ana, welcome.

FELIX CONTRERAS, BYLINE: Good morning.

ANAMARIA SAYRE, BYLINE: Hey, how's it going?

RASCOE: All right. I'm ready to hear about this music. So how did the selection process go this year?

CONTRERAS: You know, we follow the NPR Music format of separating albums and songs, and so we chose 15 from each category. Among the five freelancers on the albums podcast, there was one album that we all agreed on - "El Madrileno" by an artist named C. Tangana.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TU ME DEJASTE DE QUERER")

C TANGANA: (Singing in Spanish).

CONTRERAS: He's a young Spanish vocalist whose first album came out in 2017 - another in 2018. And I think it's fair to call that music auto-tuned club music. It was interesting. It was good. But this album is a brilliant exploration of flamenco, electronic, hip-hop, with an inspired list of guest collaborators from across the Latin music spectrum - flamenco singers and guitarists, a Mexican regional vocalist, one of the Buena Vista All Stars and even Jose Feliciano - "Feliz Navidad" Jose Feliciano.

SAYRE: This has been a huge year of what I kind of have liked to call the, quote, "coming-home" albums. Everyone was in quarantine, really reflecting who they are, where they come from. So we saw a surge in these kind of very back-to-the-roots, tradition-focused pieces. But what C. Tangana did is, like, taking that concept, the coming-home album, and realizing that his reflection on community didn't have to be limited to where he came from specifically. So he decided that he was going to take a look at kind of all of these different Latin sounds and celebrate an entire universe of Latin tradition.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TU ME DEJASTE DE QUERER")

TANGANA: (Singing in Spanish).

RASCOE: Yeah, I can vibe out to this. So what's next on your list?

SAYRE: It feels so impossible to pick just one album, so I was kind of trying to think about what I could bring today that really has a mass appeal. And I kept coming back to "CINEMA" by The Marias. The Marias, if you haven't heard of them, they're this amazing indie-pop band who really has expanded their sonic range and brought their production to a whole new level with this project - specifically, they were nominated for Best Engineered Album for the Grammy's nomination list that came out recently. They're also playing more and more with the language that they use - you know, dancing between Spanish and English. They're really speaking to kind of this really wide audience of people. They are just absolutely mesmerizing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UN MILLON")

THE MARIAS: (Singing in Spanish).

RASCOE: Very smooth pop sound.

SAYRE: Mmm hmm.

RASCOE: OK. So, Felix, you're up. What else did you bring?

CONTRERAS: OK. Cimafunk. Sunday morning listeners may have heard me talk about him before. He's from Cuba, and he's a mix of James Brown, Sly Stone and the Cuban big-band vocalist from the 1950s, Benny More. The collaborations on his album this year reflect where his head is at musically because it includes George Clinton from Parliament-Funkadelic and also the rapper Lupe Fiasco and a bunch of other people. Now, this track gives you a good idea of what he's about. The album is called "Alimento" (ph), and this bit of Cuban funk is called "Caramelo." Check it out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TE QUEMA LA BEMBA")

CIMAFUNK: (Singing in Spanish).

RASCOE: You can ride off of that (laughter).

CONTRERAS: See what I mean?

RASCOE: All right. So, Ana, what was one of the singles that caught your ear this year?

SAYRE: OK. So, again, it was such an amazing year. But a song I honestly had on repeat, personally, was one off of Rita Payes's album, "Nunca Vas A Comprender." I'm going to need you to play a clip of this first just so people can get a sense of just how stunning this one is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NUNCA VAS A COMPRENDER")

RITA PAYES: (Singing in Spanish).

SAYRE: So, as you can see, she is not only an exceptional vocalist - I mean, seriously, baseline, those angelic vocals actually give me goosebumps. I have them right now. But she is also this incredible multi-instrumentalist. She plays the trombone all over this record. She comes from a family of multi-instrumentalists. This one was actually a collaboration with her mother, Elisabeth Roma. They bring that incredible familial mother-daughter chemistry to the work. And it's just - I mean, it's gorgeous. I can't get enough.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NUNCA VAS A COMPRENDER")

PAYES: (Singing in Spanish).

RASCOE: This takes me back to the past, I feel like.

SAYRE: Mmm hmm.

RASCOE: So, Felix, what are we going to close this out with?

CONTRERAS: In addition to the collaborative Alt.Latino list, I always do a list of personal favorites. It's published on the NPR Music website. And we keep saying this - there was really so much amazing music this year that I had to cap it off at 20 albums, OK? You know, I'm always looking for the sound I've never heard before, and that happened a lot this year.

This is Cande y Paulo, a jazz duo from a small town in Argentina. Cande Buasso is the female lead vocalist who also plays standup acoustic bass, and she's accompanied by Paulo Carrizo playing piano. You could call their album jazz, but it really wouldn't do it justice because it is a mix of jazz, Argentine folk music, bossa nova and even some Neil Young. And what stopped me in my tracks was hearing them do a breathtakingly beautiful cover of a Leonard Cohen song in English that is called "Treaty."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TREATY")

CANDE Y PAULO: (Singing) I've seen you change the water into wine. I've seen you change it back to water, too. I sit at your table every night.

RASCOE: Oh, that's beautiful.

CONTRERAS: Right?

RASCOE: Felix Contreras and Anamaria Sayre from NPR Music's Alt.Latino podcast with just a hint of what's on their Best of the Year podcast. You can hear the albums podcast today and the songs podcast a week from today. Felix and Ana, thanks for bringing in this wonderful music to end the year with.

CONTRERAS: Anytime, anytime.

SAYRE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TREATY")

CANDE Y PAULO: (Singing) I wish there was a treaty. I wish... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.