While every year is a good year for music, some seem better than others. To rephrase, 2019 was an amazing year for music. Throughout the last 12 months, we’ve featured playlists highlighting the music of the Balkans, Brazil, Ethiopia, India, Mali, the Middle East, West Africa, and the international sounds of jazz and reggae. For the final playlist this year, we’re going global with a recap of the planet’s best music. A common theme you’ll discover in many of these songs is that diversity matters: Cross-cultural collaborations produce some of the best music in the world.
We begin, as all human life (and in all likelihood, music) commenced, in Africa. One of this year’s breakout successes has been Nigeria’s Burna Boy. Though he’s been around since 2012, his 2019 record “African Giant” brought with it international fame. The playlist opens with a song he cut for the “Queen & Slim” soundtrack, in which the Afrobeats artist samples “Shakara” from Afrobeat creator Fela Kuti. It’s as funky as the original.
Two more fusions follow: British DJ Ben Gomori reworking the upbeat Senegalese band Orchestra Baobab for the club, and Malian n’goni player inviting Cuban vocalist Madera Limpia on the fantastic Afro-Latin track “Wele Cuba.”
Welsh singer-songwriter Carwyn Ellis is perhaps best-known for his role in The Pretenders, but he has some of the most interesting musical projects around. For example, this year’s foray into psychedelic Brazilian music with Welsh vocals on top. “Unman” is my pick for most interesting song of the year. It’s completely unlike anything else.
The playlist gets especially groovy with Argentine producer and DJ Chancha Via Circuito bringing his curandero tunes to the dance floor, Romania’s Nico de Transilvania adding Balkan flavor to the mix and a stunning downtempo take on Billie Holiday by The Bahama Soul Club, which, as the name implies, is obviously a German group. New Zealand’s Jordan Rakei and California’s Anderson Paak offer up the headiest grooves on the playlist, the latter featuring a stellar return by R&B singer Brandy.
The playlist takes a quick swerve into hip-hop with two female emcees bringing serious fire: The 22-year-old H.E.R. revives a vintage rap sound older than herself, while the veteran Rapsody flips a Phil Collins song the entire world can’t help but sing (and drum) along to. A few tracks down, Outkast’s Andre 3000 drops a serious rhyme on the psychedelic James Blake track “Where’s the Catch?,” while Roots Manuva returns on the latest effort by The Cinematic Orchestra.
In between, the playlist features reggae from the Marleys. The first is Stephen singing on Salaam Remi’s biblical-leaning “40 Days & 40 Nights,” while brother Damian guests on his sister’s Cedella’s son Skip’s song “That’s Not True.” There certainly are a lot of Marleys out there.
The year gets plenty soulful with Philadelphia’s Son Little joining Deva Mahal—if the name looks familiar, credit her father, Taj—on the luscious “Goddamn,” while Durand Jones & The Indications return with their sophomore album, which is as beautiful as their self-titled debut. Guitarist Charlie Hunter and vocalist Lucy Woodward make over a Terence Trent D’Arby classic before Houston’s Khruangbin, heavily influenced by Thai psychedelica, join forces with Fort Worth, Texas, soul vocalist Leon Bridges for my favorite collaboration of the year. “Texas Sun” is the ideal sunset track.
The playlist chills out with a gorgeous number by Tuareg group Tinariwen, followed by the sole single we received from D’Angelo in 2019, the stunning “Unshaken.” Brooklyn’s King Princess decided to cover Fiona Apple’s classic “I Know,” and she even got the reclusive singer to join her for an extra special treat. This year’s nomination for the reincarnation of Jeff Buckley, Belgian-Egyptian singer Tamino, will lay you out flat with “Habibi.”
We close with two classic American songs. Indian-American producer and composer Karsh Kale opened for U2 for their first concert in India ever. He also received an opportunity to remix “Pride (In the Name of Love).” While known for his virtuosity on tabla, Kale keeps it ambient with a beautiful vocal composition.
Finally, we end with one of the American canon’s most important songs, “Wayfaring Stranger.” When Rhiannon Giddens was commissioned to cover this early 19th century folk song, she didn’t know what she could bring to it. As it turns out, quite a lot.
Photo credit: Jacoblund, Getty Images