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The Best Latin Music of 2021

Projects released by Rauw Alejandro, Camila Cabello, and Nathy Peluso are included in NPR Music's Best Latin music of 2021.
Photo Illustration by Renee Klahr/NPR; Getty Images
Projects released by Rauw Alejandro, Camila Cabello, and Nathy Peluso are included in NPR Music's Best Latin music of 2021.

Through Latin music, we are able to see the true range of the Latinx identity — the range of music that this genre encompasses spans multiple languages, cultures, and experiences in a way that no other musical category does. And the singles and albums that came out this year seem to reflect that diversity more than ever.

In the Latin music genre, we truly have it all, and this year's best releases allowed us to experience a bit of everything. From the pop stylings of Puerto Rican singer Rauw Alejandro, to the unpredictable and lavish neoperreo of Cuban artist La Goony Chonga and the subtle instrumentality of Mexican vocalist-composer Silvana Estrada, 2021's best Latin music reflects the vast and expansive reach of this musical classification.

While the distinctions between these artists are more apparent than ever, the talent and musical prowess of these artists and their releases work to make a beautiful and complicated amalgamation of listening experiences. This year in Latin music proves that the genre continues to transcend all expectations. —Cat Sposato

Albums

Alea, Alborotá

Alborotá is a great new record by the Bronx-based, emerging Colombian singer-songwriter Alea. After being captivated by her at a NYC club gig in 2019, I awaited the release of this album produced with Mexican artist and producer Sinuhé Padilla Isunza. It's a genre-bender of original songs and covers that creatively break traditional Latin music molds, fusing jazz, blues, Mexican folk and Alea's strong Afro-Indigenous Colombian roots to express a sparkling show of artistry and self-affirming female power. —Marisa Arbona-Ruiz

Cimafunk, El Alimento

The Cuban singer and composer's masterful sophomore album is the soundtrack for a euphoric soul train, one that joyfully ambles between Havana and New Orleans. Cimafunk serves up funkadelic grooves, kinetically punctuated by Cuban rhythms such as guaguancó, cha-cha-cha and mambo, in the fine company of stellar guests such as Lupe Fiasco, CeeLo Green, Cuban icons Los Papines and, of course, Funkmaster General George Clinton. Cimafunk named the album "the nourishment" and indeed it serves up sustenance for the spirit, distilling the joy of being alive in its every note. —Catalina Maria Johnson

Xenia Rubinos, Una Rosa

Xenia Rubinos' third album doesn't waste time on forced sense-making. Instead, it unfolds emotions of loss and tenderness in the present with the sounds of the past. Using rumba, bolero, and remembered Caribbean melodies filtered through gilded synthesizers and electronic production, she renders a feeling in incomplete shards. It's a cleansing ritual for a present heart, not a perfect one. —Stefanie Fernández

Sech, 42

On Sech's third studio album, the reggaetonero continues to ground the genre in its proper birthplace of Panama. Titled after the baseball jersey number of both Panamian legend Mariano Rivera and Jackie Robinson, 42 is rife with bangers but sparse in features — a calculated move that leaves room for Sech's signature sweetness to seep through on every track. Whether it's in his melodic vocals on "Feliz de Mentira" or the slight, lyrical despecho of "Mi Ex," Sech is claiming his rightful place in the spotlight and we're all listening. —Isabella Gomez Sarmiento

Rodrigo Amarante, Drama

Listening to any Rodrigo Amarante album I typically find myself yearning to return to a quaint, seaside village life I've never actually experienced. Drama fulfills that fantasy, but with a twist. In this universe you have a whirlwind romance where you travel the world and tear down the patriarchy in a single revolution around the dance floor. The album is a shared moment of intimacy and insistence — featuring full-bodied string and brass arrangements and raw fluidity of language, it invites the listener to open themselves up to feeling the full theatricality of its name. —Anamaria Sayre

C. Tangana, El Madrileño

El Madrileño made an impression on me when it was first released at the beginning of the year and my appreciation had only gotten stronger since then. Spanish vocalist C. Tangana has crafted such a sonically rich and stylistically diverse record that you'd be forgiven for not knowing he is a major pop star in his native Spain. This entire album is the sound of a curious artist who is not afraid to confront his own identity through musical exploration. The result is both a commercial and artistic success, and don't even get me started on his Tiny Desk (home) concert from earlier this year! —Felix Contreras

Baiuca, Embruxo

Pagan folktronica from Galicia, Spain? Sign me up. That's the musical concept producer Baiuca explores in his second album, connecting the mystical folklore of the region with global bass beats. Rich, choral incantations designed to evoke the region's meigas (witches) accompanied by relentlessly percussive pandeiretas galegas (tambourines), hand drums and the occasional bagpipe, all make sonic reference to the region's ancient Celtic ties to Ireland. Titled Embruxo (The Spell), the album's bewitching, rhythmic brew casts an enchanting spell, guaranteed to keep you dancing into the night. —Catalina Maria Johnson

Rauw Alejandro, VICE VERSA

Rauw Alejandro is anything but a one-trick pony. If 2020's Afrodisíaco was an abstract outlining his inevitable course to Latin pop stardom, VICE VERSA is an experimental artist's statement. Beyond the disco-pop bomb of single "Todo de Ti," Alejandro tinkers with house, drum and bass, bolero, and baile funk with as much drive as he does on his signature, immaculately formulated reggaetón and R&B tracks. It's a record that sets the standard for what a massively successful Latin pop album can, and should, accomplish. —Stefanie Fernández

The Marías, CINEMA

Infusing indie pop with Latin sounds and old school beats, CINEMA boasts the kind of layers of complex history and emotion that make it feel light-years more mature than a typical debut album. While on the rise to true, genre-transcending stardom, The Marías pausing to capture the moment with an album filled with a drama and enigmatic intrigue befits their skyrocketing success. —Anamaria Sayre

Elvis Costello & The Attractions, Spanish Model

Raquel Sofía's punk edginess paired against Fuego's suave rapping in "(Yo No Quiero Ir A) Chelsea ((I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea)" sets the pace for this spectacularly reimagined version of Elvis Costello & The Attractions' 1978 album This Year's Model -- en español. This stroke of genius by Costello and producer Sebastian Krys lays Spanish vocals over the original's instrumental tracks. An eclectic all-star cast of Latinx singers – including Juanes, Jorge Drexler, Luis Fonsi, and many more – are not only perfectly matched by Krys to each song, but pack so much punch in color and texture that Costello likens the remake to an exciting new album altogether. —Marisa Arbona-Ruiz

Helado Negro, Far In

Helado Negro's ambient, richly layered music envelops listeners in a gentle hug, but Far In also poses more existential questions about the current state of our world than his past albums. What are we demanding from our planet and at what cost? The record is a call for personal and global accountability, but with a tender hopefulness that reaches an ultimate conclusion — at the end of the day, we could all do, and be, a little better. —Isabella Gomez Sarmiento

Dom La Nena, Tempo

The Brazilian singer, composer, producer and cellist Dom La Nena's third album Tempo is a quietly powerful, luminous gem, structured around her whimsical art songs. Adding electronic effects to cello playing and ethereal vocals in Spanish, Portuguese and French, these elegant tunes veer from experimental chamber pop, dreamy French chanson to nostalgic, samba-tinged waltzes. It's an expressive, transportive album that reveals different emotions as one sips and savors it time and time again. —Catalina Maria Johnson

Alex Cuba, Mendó

I'm always amazed at how Alex Cuba defies limitations. This time around, the "magical substance of the soul" that he calls "mendó" flows in spontaneous virtuosity on this cross-genre masterpiece. From funk to bossa ballads and flamenco, the prolific singer-songwriter plays everything on the album but the horns – and self-engineered it with layers of stripped down sophistication and some exquisite collaborations – all of which makes its Latin Grammy nomination well deserved. Oh, but what a treat to hear him on upright bass and vocals with Cuban sensation Cimafunk on "Hablando x Hablar." ¡Divino! —Marisa Arbona-Ruiz

Rita Payés and Elisabeth Roma, Como La Piel

The charm of Como La Piel encompasses more than just angelic vocals and stunning instrumentalism. The synchronous perfection of the mother-daughter duo invokes a feeling of serendipity, whisking us away to a world where roses are always in bloom and the sun is perpetually shining. It's the kind of musical experience that only comes from a perfect melding of musical vision and corazón, something the two are able to capture organically and seemingly effortlessly across these sweet, jazzy tracks. —Anamaria Sayre

Pachyman, The Return Of...

Inspired by dub artists of the 20th century, Pachyman carries the innovative legacy of engineers like King Tubby and Scientist forward in his long-awaited The Return Of... The blend of his Puerto Rican roots and current West Coast residence breathes new life into his reggae rhythms, with an instrumental album that takes on revolutionary themes, especially on "Destroy The Empire" — a political dig at Puerto Rico's colonial state, with music, and energy, that speaks for itself. —Isabella Gomez Sarmiento

Myke Towers, Lyke Mike

If our list features an assortment of genre experiments, let Myke Towers' Lyke Mike be a lesson in how to absolutely dominate a wheelhouse. Towers has proved himself a mainstream Latin pop player in recent years, but Lyke Mike shines a spotlight on the inimitable flow that sets Towers apart from his peers, driven by his own hand as a producer and a vision of loyalty to his underground come-up. It's a constant anchor across the album's drill excursions and familiar trap offerings, defining an hour of relentless authenticity. —Stefanie Fernández


Songs

Xenia Rubinos, "Sacude"

Xenia Rubinos' music sounds like it's from the future. She's tapped into a synth-heavy sound that feels out of this world, and her lyrics about grief ground this song in the here and now. On "Sacude" Rubinos contrasts a chanting, harmony-drenched vocal line against a singular clave driving the beat. Rubinos takes us to familiar worlds on this song, but colors the experience with minor-chord harmonies and a booming bassline that makes it all feel disorienting and brand new. —Cat Sposato

Pabllo Vittar, "Bang Bang"

A Western-influenced single from Brazilian drag queen and pop superstar Pabllo Vittar, "Bang Bang" features a horn line and Morricone-worthy guitar under powerhouse vocals. Pabllo has always been destined for cross-cultural greatness — she's an icon who gained prominence around the world over the past year, branching out of her native Brazil. This track is the closer on Batidão Tropical, her 2021 album filled to the nines with bombast and charisma. — Reanna Cruz

YEИDRY, "Ya"

YEИDRY is a Dominican-Italian vocalist whose Caribbean and European influences fall through her fingers like fine grains of sand. Her single "Ya" is the kind of song you use to summon an inner power, a hidden verve kept guarded only to be conjured in moments of crisis. Over high-pitched synth stabs and a steady dembow riddim, Yendry's voice flutters into the sky, only to curl into a growl through gritted teeth: "No me asusta ná / No me importa ná." This is an incantation of fearlessness. —Isabelia Herrera

Álvaro Díaz, "Bbysita ᐸ/3"

Álvaro Díaz's album Felicilandia is inspired by an amusement park in Puerto Rico where he used to go as a kid, except for this project he's thought of it as a place "where sad kids go to find happiness." The idea captures a blend of sounds that are a little emo but also endlessly upbeat and experimental. "Bbysita ᐸ/3" is one example: Diaz says he was channeling Blink-182 in the guitar-driven opening, which transitions into a Frank Ocean-inspired R&B track that shows how he draws from a tapestry of references to build something new. —Julyssa Lopez

Nathy Peluso, "Mafiosa"

Of all the Latin artists I threw myself behind fully this year, Nathy Peluso tops the stan list. Peluso has been known for her fiery presence and unpredictability both on and off the stage. These traits, essential for standing out in the growing Latin music industry, are encapsulated in part by the way she skates through and around genre convention, floating between trap, R&B and traditional Latin sounds from merengue to tango. "Mafiosa" is her take on the salsa sound, moving her music in a more traditional direction after her 2020 album Calembre focused on honing her rap and R&B prowess. It's absolutely loca, sing-along worthy girlbossery. —Reanna Cruz

Rauw Alejandro, "¿Cuándo Fue?"

"¿Cuándo Fue?" is the kind of pop concoction that conceals itself, at first. Over starry synth pads, Rauw Alejandro's auto-tuned croon oozes torment, as he asks himself what circumstances could have led him to this abyss of heartbreak. It seems like a simple track, the kind of maudlin melodrama that pop music loves to amplify. But before long, the producer Tainy pulls back the curtain. A Goldie-adjacent jungle break crashes into the production, small screams slicing through the beat. In just a flash, Alejandro and his producers reveal the promise and infinite directions that Spanish-language pop have yet to glide into. — Isabelia Herrera

Cimafunk (feat. Lupe Fiasco), "Rómpelo"

When the Afro-Cuban funk maverick Cimafunk teamed up with the producer Jack Splash for El Alimento, the two of them immediately began trading music. They sent each other Afro-Cuban salsa, soul from the '70s, and tons of hip hop—all sounds reflected on the record, which ended up being a celebration of the ways in which Afro-Cuban sounds and genres like hip hop, funk and rap have always been in conversation with one another. The album includes collaborations with George Clinton, Los Papines and Lupe Fiasco, who lends his rap skills to the infectious bounce of "Rómpelo." —Julyssa Lopez

Aventura, Bad Bunny, "Volví"

On possibly the biggest single of the year, Aventura is back — and back with Bad Bunny! "Volví" is a stunning collaboration between two titans of Latin music. It fuses the smooth, bachata flow of the early aughts mastered by Aventura with Bad Bunny's signature, upbeat reggaeton. Surprisingly, Bad Bunny's rugged and rigid voice is perfect for this sultry bachata track. Clubs are re-opening and it seems that this song with a tight grip on the charts is the one to welcome us all back. —Cat Sposato

La Goony Chonga (feat. Maxine Ashley), "Descontrol"

Neoperreo has been on the come-up in the underground Los Angeles scene over the past few years, and this year I found myself diving fully into the digi-influenced subculture. La Goony Chonga specifically has been one of my top artists to watch over the past few years — she consistently pushes the needle of perreo into exceedingly unpredictable directions. Aided by Maxine Ashley, this single is a breakneck callback to the reggaeton that Goony grew up on while keeping it her brand: clubby, Cuban, and chola. —Reanna Cruz

Tokischa, Haraca Kiko, El Cherry Scom, "Tukuntazo"

Dembow skeptics might dismiss the genre for being repetitive and unoriginal, but Tokischa, Haraca Kiko and El Cherry Scom's "Tukuntazo" is like an ultra-triathlon of iteration. The trio of rappers, who are also dembow's resident weirdos, spit about their love of the bedroom and all its possibilities for play, as an irresistible, onomatopoeic hook clacks over and over again in the background. This is a song about carnal pleasures, but don't be surprised if you unexpectedly find yourself singing "Yo tengo novio que e' mujeriego" to an empty room, in the shower, or while washing dishes – "Tukuntazo" is the kind of song that gets in your muscles. —Isabelia Herrera

Omar Apollo (feat. Kali Uchis), "Bad Life"

The king and queen of Latinx indie music have collaborated on a massive, swelling hit. Toeing the line between alternative and R&B, this ballad is delightful, with a sound that's fit for a classic Disney fairytale film. Apollo's sultry lead vocals and Uchis' harmonies pair perfectly with the song's symphonic string section and plucking electric guitar line. It's a song so pretty it's dizzying. —Cat Sposato

Arca, "Rakata"

Electronic innovator Arca returned in 2021 with an onslaught of new music, following her 2020 albums KiCk i and Riquiquí;Bronze-Instances(1-100). Never afraid to break free past the confines of genre and convention, "Rakata" is a track that imagines what reggaeton would possibly sound like in the year 3000. A muted dembow beat backs up a dystopian, off-tune synth, underscoring what Arca describes as "a song about seduction, about wanting to devour the entire world out of a desire to f***, without shame." It's a freaky empowerment anthem, beamed to your speakers from another world, not unlike ours. —Reanna Cruz

Silvana Estrada, "Tristeza"

Silvana Estrada is one of this year's standouts for me, and a Tiny Desk concert she did from her parents' house in Veracruz really highlighted her talent. Both of her parents are instrument-makers, and Estrada grew up close to the process of creating music her whole life. It's something you can hear through the simplicity of her song "Tristeza," which is tender and concise, guided by the heartbreaking intimacy of her voice. She also has myriad musical influences that are at play here — she's sung son jarocho music for years, but she also studied choir music and went to school for jazz. All of that informs "Tristeza," a song so fragile it sounds like it could break apart at any moment. —Julyssa Lopez

Natalia Lafourcade, Caetano Veloso, "Soy Lo Prohibido"

A reimagining of Lafourcade's previously released version, this transformation turns "Soy Lo Prohibido" into an even more romantic song than its original. A stunning, solitary trumpet line pushes the song forward in a way that boldly gives the track more movement. Veloso is a perfect addition to the song and he really makes it his own — his belty voice forces Lafourcade out of her comfort zone, and hearing her dig into her chest voice is a delight. —Cat Sposato

Camila Cabello, "Don't Go Yet"

On "Don't Go Yet," Camila leans fully into the heritage-inspired sound she's been toying with over the last few years. Alt.Latino producer Anamaria Sayre put it best when she said the track "meshes sounds and instrumentation not only from her own Cuban heritage but Latin America at large." It feels like a homecoming from an artist that continues to touch the stratosphere — invoking her culture and bringing her back down to Earth. —Reanna Cruz

QOQEQA, "Kshanti"

QOQEQA's "Kshanti" is all sapphire percussion, the kind of midnight march of drums and polyrhythms that you might find in the most cavernous corners of the mind. The Peruvian producer knows how to conjure a tenebrous mood, but it's his refusal to fall into simple tropes of musical fusion that sets him apart. On "Kshanti," he practices reverence for the Afro-diasporic traditions of his ancestors, playing the batá drum, then chopping and flipping it alongside strings and crescendo synth pads. It's a prescient vision of electronic music, one that harnesses innovation and homage in equal measure. —Isabelia Herrera

Diamante Eléctrico, "Suéltame Bogotá"

In this indie rock song Diamante Eléctrico brings us an upbeat exploration of the tension between patriotism and political repression. A bouncing bassline backs lead singer Juan Galeano's sultry vocals as he begs Bogotá to let him go. It's a song that's taken on a new life after the political protests in Colombia that took place this summer. The upbeat, funky instrumental line represents a uniquely Colombian joy turned haunting when juxtaposed with lyrics that detail an intense frustration with the country's oppressive political regime. —Cat Sposato

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