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The Boston Phoenix No Ricky, Por Favor

Latin music -- the year in review

By Josh Kun

JANUARY 3, 2000:  After being Livin' la Vida Loca'd to death, this much is for sure: Ricky Martin is Latin music's cover story of the year. But as Wahneema Lubiano once wrote about the Thomas-Hill hearings, cover stories are powerful not only for what they cover but for what they cover up. Ricky mania made it easy to believe that all Latin music in 1999 was about flipping it in English over pop-salsa-flamenco-house fusions in day-glo glamazon Buzz Clip videos. But here are my picks for the best of what got covered up:

1. Café Tacuba, Reves/Yosoy (Warner Bros.). The avant-rock-en-español masterpiece of the year. Sure, it tries to do too much (two discs, one all instrumentals without song titles), but what it does well has a boundless artistic vision that's like nothing else out there: trip-hop huapangos, whimsical daydreams about fruit trees, duets with Kronos Quartet. And I've still seen kids mosh to it.

2. Various Artists, Nor-Tec (Mil). The Nor-Tec (a/k/a norteño-techno) tweakers are a loose federation of DJs and producers reared on Kraftwerk and Banda Machos, and this machine-addled and bliss-tripped compilation is their glistening, icy manifesto. Drum fills, accordion giggles, and tuba burps are excised from norteño and banda records, then meddled with until they become unrecognizable in lush, channel-switching techno mazes.

3. Various Artists, Brasil 2Mil (Six Degrees). It was a good year for the Brazilian new school. But this comp was the highlight, a "bass-o nova" carnival club tour that found house doing samba, and breakbeats chatting up Brazilian-drum batacuda. Worth it just to hear the lulling surrealism of "Alta Noite," with Arnaldo Antunes growling beneath Marisa Monte and the crashing of dishes.

4. Bayu, A Banda do Planeta EP (self-released). Musicians from Argentina, Brazil, Puerto Rico, and Cleveland meet while waiting tables at a San Fernando Valley pizza parlor, then decide to make music for a city that hasn't been born yet. They croon in Portuguese and Spanish, Shannon Hicks drops "nuthin' but a party y'all" rhymes in English, and the band throw a boom-bap pachanga for the suburban underclasses. Who else, besides Ozomatli, is gonna rock capoeira moves while shouting "the roof, the roof is on fire"?

5. Los Van Van, The Legendary Los Van Van: 30 Years of Cuba's Greatest Dance Band (Ashé) and Llego . . . Van Van (Atlantic). On Legendary, the Havana dance giants finally get their retrospective due. The problem with Buena Vista Social Club was that it gave NPR Latinophiles an antiquated Cuba out of time. The good thing about Los Van Van is you have to leave your pre-Castro nostalgia at home: these are two discs of flawless, edgy, and orchestral contemporariness that style-jump from the '60s on up to the embargo. Their latest, Llego, is good enough to be the third disc in the set.

6. Carlinhos Brown, Omelete Man (Metro Blue). The second solo outing from the Babyface of Brazil is his weirdest and most Tropicália-tinged yet. Brown has written songs for everybody in the land of MPB (música popular brasileira), and you can hear why. There isn't a genre that he can't pull off -- breezy hula exotica, rural folk, straight-up pop, speed metal -- and by album's end, he's got you wondering why all of pop music can't sound this organically eclectic.

7. Carlos Vives, El Amor de Mi Tierra (EMI). Nobody does melodic vallenato accordion pop like Colombia's most beloved ex-soap opera star. The few "Copa de la Vida" moments on here hint that maybe EMI is gearing Vives up to be the next Ricky doll. But don't expect a duet with Colombian pop star Shakira anytime soon. Vives is too hooked on brokering Afro-Colombian folklore and indigenous rhythms ever to pull it off.

8. Various Artists, Barrio Nuevo (Soul Jazz). UK reissue label Soul Jazz finally got something together on vinyl for the Afro Latin-funk hard-core. DJs should be rejoicing. Although it resurrects some obvious choices -- Labelle ripping up "Teach Me Tonight," Chakachas moaning through "Jungle Fever" -- Barrio's real bombs are obscurities such as Azuquita's "Guajira Bacan" and Kongas's "Anikana-O" -- a 10-minute Salsoul groove epic that all but rewrites the history of disco.

9. Os Mutantes, Everything Is Possible (Luaka Bop)/Mano Negra, The Best Of (Ark 21). A gaggle of freaky Brazilians who used homegrown psychedelia to overturn cultural imperialism in the late '60s. A cadre of French-Spanish-Latin American anarchists who debunked the colonial myths of Europe in the early '90s. Both dazzling everything-meets-everything proof that the future has already happened.

10. Various Artists, Un Tributo a Jose Jose (BMG). Who knew that a tribute to Mexico's prince of swoony radio pop would be so inspiring to Latin America's leading alterna-rockeros? Maldita Vecindad's take on "Lo Pasado, Pasado" is the best thing they've done since their El Circo days, and when "Amar y Querer" is made over by Azul Violeta, it's recast as a Lenny Kravitz-with-strings soul symphony that, right alongside Ricky's sitar-strewn "She's All I Ever Had," gets my vote for ballad of the year.

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