Folk. Afrobeat. Jazz fusion, and more. We’ve got it all covered in our list of 10 great-sounding world music albums.
1. King Sunny Ade – Seven Degrees North
King Sunny Ade hails from Nigeria and is a pioneer of modern African jùjú music. Incorporating complex poly-rhythms, intricate guitar work and a distinct sonic identity, the genre is undeniably energetic in its sound. Seven Degrees North sits towards the end of Ade’s 50-year career, but is one of his best-sounding albums. Vocal harmonies are beautifully blended, while the vast array of timbres heard in the native percussion pop, sizzle and bounce around the soundstage. Full of extended jams, guitars sound clean and natural, underpinned by a balanced bass tone. It really is a great-sounding world music album, easy-going and engaging at the same time.
Standout track: Suku Suku Bam Bam
2. Iva Bittova/Vladimir Vaclvek – Bile Inferno
We now travel roughly 4,000 miles to Czech Republic for some contemporary folk music from violinist and vocalist Iva Bittova and guitarist Vladimir Vaclvek. What we love about this record is its eccentric and visceral sound, often led by Bittova’s timbre-shifting voice. There are weird and wonderful acoustic textures galore too. From the combination of a children’s choir over a repeating piano loop in ‘Zeleny Vinecek’, to the more erratic and eventually soothing sounds of ‘Moucha’, Bile Inferno’s atmosphere constantly tows the line between beautiful, sinister and quirky, making it a must-listen for fans of European folk.
Standout track: Sto let
3. Les Amazones d’Afrique – Republique Amazone
An album that was one of Barack Obama’s favourite albums from 2017, Republique Amazone was also released on our very own Society of Sound subscription service last year. Les Amazones d’Afrique are an all-female collective of West African musicians campaigning for gender equality, and this recording runs on funk and blues with dabs of dub. It’s futuristic, but keeps ancient rhythms and traditions close in its sonic properties.
Standout track: Dombolo
4. Mbongwana Star – From Kinshasa
Described by the Guardian as ‘not really sounding like anything else’, this record by Congolese Mbongwana Star took the music world by pleasant surprise when it was released in 2015. It’s a sonic reminder that genres sometimes can have no boundaries. Vastly experimental, listeners are treated to textures that journey from heavily distorted guitars combined with thumping techno beats, to incredibly serene and bucolic crooning in ‘Coco Blues’. The whole album is a trip, and one that’s seriously worth hearing.
Standout track: Coco Blues
5. Fela Kuti – Zombie
Musician-cum-political-activist Fela Kuti ignited the spirits of his fellow oppressed Nigerians with this album in 1977. The opening track speaks for itself, a scathing attack on the methods of the Nigerian military, underpinned by a visceral jazz fusion groove that grows and explodes over the 12-minute jam, which many say is Kuti’s finest. The rest of the album follows in the same vein, and while not as impactful as the opener, is an enjoyable record with many grooves to listen out for.
Standout track: Zombie
6. Various Artists – We Out Here
Britain is going through a jazz revolution, with London being hub of new sounds and styles emitting from its musicians. A lot of the tunes heard on this release are soulful, groovy and importantly carry the spirit of world music. Kokoroko’s ‘Abusey Junction’ possesses a lovely Caribbean vibe thanks to its percussive qualities and laidback and soulful harmonies. In other places its hard hitting stuff, with the Ezra Collective and Moses Boyd driving forward their respective tracks through relentless drumming patterns. The bass appears heavy in places, but don’t let this detract from the wonderful musicianship on show here from London’s most promising players.
Standout track: Pure Shade
7. Natalia La Fourcade – Musas Vol. 1
Mexican pop artist Natalia Lafourcade recently been hitting the right notes in her ever-expanding career. She won an Oscar for her song ‘Remember Me’ from Disney Pixar’s Coco in March, and in 2017 she released the first volume of a delightful collection of folk songs that pay homage to Latin-American folk music. Musas is full of South American spirit; wholly acoustic in texture and rich in melody. Listen as Lafourcade’s voice effortlessly glides in-between the tasteful countermelodies of the accompanying guitars. It sounds best with minimal instruments in the mix, allowing the music to breathe with Southern-hemisphere spirit.
Standout track: Soledad y el Mar
8. Agnes Obel – Aventine
A recording that leaves no stone unturned, Aventine by Danish singer-songwriter Agnes Obel is a sonic treat. There’s a certain mystical atmosphere in the harmonies and textures that not many musicians can hone in their sound. It’s a well-balanced record, with innovative string playing providing plenty of textural variance from the delicate tones of the piano chords that so often reinforce the album’s sound. A highlight is the col legno string playing in ‘The Curse’, where the wood of the bow hits the string creating wooden raindrops of sound. And for a more full-bodied tone, ‘Fuel to Fire’ shows what Obel does best: enchants.
Standout track: Fuel to Fire
9. Milton Nascimento & Lo Borges – Clube Da Esquina
MPB is a genre that is short for Música Popular Brasilia that formed in the 1960s in Brazil, and this album is an outstanding sonic document of this musical period of history. This album itself has a very dream-like sound, with vocals drenched in reverb that contrast with the more immediate and intimate-sounding guitars and percussion. Its sound isn’t restrained by its location either, with psychedelic overtones and hints of baroque pop heard along the way, including a dirty distorted guitar in ‘Trem de Doido’ that defies the genre’s original purpose as an alternative to Western rock music.
Standout track: Tudo o Que Voce Podia Ser
10. Anouar Brahem – Blue Maqams
Tunisian Anouar Brahem solidified his position as the best-known player of the oud in the Western world with this album. The oud is an Arabic instrument that is similar to the lute, and is the guitar equivalent in Middle Eastern music. Released by ECM, the recording quality is second to none, with no sonic compromises while the players push their instruments to extremes in the extended solo passages. It sounds different, but feels weirdly familiar all the same.
Stand out track: Bom Dia Rio
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