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Top 2009 Salsa & Timba Albums

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2009 was a year that caused me to think about salsa and timba in an entirely different way. Listening to albums by the 'big' names in the genre, I felt like picking ten albums would be a tough job. The music seemed formulaic, overproduced and stale. The artists just seem overexposed. The result looked depressing.

But I was just looking at the wrong artists and the wrong countries. So here's a list of 10 dynamite albums with artists from Colombia, Nicaragua, Peru and, most notably, the U.S. -- including a couple of tremendously talented women.

There's nothing stale about anything on this list!

1. Tiempo Libre - 'Bach in Havana'

Tiempo Libre - 'Bach in Havana'
Sony

Bach in Havana is the surprise album of the year. Building on 11 beloved and familiar compositions by Johann Sebastian Bach, the album seems to organically build on them with the introduction of jazz and timba elements until they sit square at the heart of Afro-Cuban tradition. The album is a bravura accomplishment!

Like so many of Cuba's musicians, the boys in the band called Tiempo Libre are classically trained. They got their start opening for Celia Cruz, performing and touring with the likes of Albita, Cachao, Arturo Sandoval and Isaac Delgado; they also worked with flutist Sir James Galway and collaborated on Rumba Sinfonica for symphony orchestra and Cuban band.

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2. La Excelencia - 'Mi Tumbao Social'

La Excelencia - Mi Tumbao Social
Handle With Care

Salsa came out of that big melting pot that is New York City and it is still NYC that is giving birth to some of the freshest salsa ensembles of the new millennium. In 2009, La Excelencia's Mi Tumbao Social grabbed my admiration early in the year and, if the number of times I've played the album is any indication, it has yet to let me go.

This is straight, hot, salsa dura that is newly composed and original. The lyrics are relevant and socially conscious, telling tales of contemporary life in the Big Apple without apology and taking no prisoners. La Excelencia isn't paying tribute to the golden age of salsa; they are living it and helping to create the new age of salsa.

3. Moncho Rivera - 'Yo Tengo Lo Mio'

Moncho Rivera - Yo Tengo Lo Mio
Racha Music Group

While I was uninspired by a lot of the salsa coming out of Puerto Rico in 2009, there's no doubt that the level of musicianship on the island is beyond compare. On Yo Tengo Lo Mio, all of that instrumental and vocal excellence is focused on a selection of iconic songs from the golden days of salsa. Rather than seeming too familiar, old-fashioned or derivative, the result is an album as infectious and full of flavor as anything that came out this year.

Moncho Rivera does not quite have the voice of his famed uncle, Ismael Rivera, but he has the understanding of what it takes to create inspired salsa and how to leave you wanting more.

4. Bannakumbi - 'Una Nueva Dia'

Bannakumbi - Un Nuevo Dia

Now here's an album that will have you on your feet. The music of Philadelphia's Bannakumbi is as fast and powerful as an express train that mows you down with sound. Una Nueva Dia has a little bit of everything: solid percussion, clear-as-a-bell brass, big coros with unexpected harmonies, a little bit of timba, huge helpings of salsa and the urban flavor of rap, compliments of Julio Voltio.

This is one train you'll be glad to hop on and let them take you wherever they're going.

5. Cecilia Noel - 'A Gozar!'

Cecilia Noel - A Gozar!
Compass Records

You don't hear much about the women of salsa except for Celia Cruz, who's no longer with us. That's really a shame because, while salsa is traditionally a man's game, there are a number of women who are really shaking up the genre. One of my favorites is Cecilia Noel and her 2009 album A Gozar! is among the best I've heard this year.

Cecilia Noel is a Peruvian Los Angeles-based salsa singer with her own brand of spicy music that she has termed 'salsoul.' A mixture of Afro-Caribbean and cumbia, boogaloo, rock, soul, Noel's music moves salsa into a more contemporary arena while maintaining the genre's essence. This is music that will have you burning up the dance floor.

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6. Havana NRG - 'Receta Perfecta'

NRG Records

Listening to lots of the timba albums that came out this year, I was disappointed with perennial favorites Charanga Habanera and even the new Los Van Van. Surprisingly, I loved Receta Perfecta by Havana NRG.

Why surprising? Havana NRG is a young timba band from Texas -- not exactly the place you expect to hear a lot of timba. But this group of young, mostly Cuban expatriates makes the genre oh-so-approachable with infectious melodies and boundless energy.

The album's timba tunes are clear and crisp. They also mix-it-up with other tropical rhythms, which adds to a well thought out album. The 'NRG' stands for 'New Rhythm Generation' and seems to be the prescription for putting new life to a genre that's rumored to be on life support.

7. Alberto Barros - 'Tributo A La Salsa Colombiana 2'

Alberto Barros - Tributo A La Salsa Colombiana 2
Talent Beach

To my mind, the country that is currently the hot-seat of great salsa is Colombia. In general, Colombian salsa is heavy, straight forward, infectious, joyous and always bears the dancer in mind. In the past, it was often overlooked because there just wasn't as much of it exported as from other tropical countries and it wasn't quite as well-produced as music from more affluent regions. But all that seems to be changing.

Colombian salsa is performed by some of the genre's best musicians and Alberto Barros is right there among the top. 2008's Mano a Mano was a salsa dura gem and Tributo might be even better.

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8. Guaschara - 'Influencias'

Guaschara - Influencias
Salsaneo

I continue to be impressed by the quality of salsa performed by first and second generation Latinos in the U.S. Not bound by as many rules and striving to make the music their own, these artists are starting to recreate the genre while maintaining the demanding musicianship of their parents.

Influencias is the debut album of Seattle-based Steve Guasch's new group, Guaschara. The nine tracks of newly composed '70s style salsa feels fresh while staying true to rhythm, style and feel of the Fania years. There's something about classic salsa that is just so satisfying and that satisfaction is stronger still when the songs are new.

9. Luis Enrique - 'Ciclos'

Luis Enrique - Ciclos
Top Stop

I had to include one album for fans of salsa romantica. LA-based, Nicaraguan Luis Enrique's Ciclos took home the 2009 Latin Grammy for 'Best Salsa Album' and, given the impoverished competition, deserved the award. Enrique's salsa is based on a tropicalized romantic ballad and sounds a lot like a Marc Anthony album, although Anthony probably borrowed the style from Enrique.

Enrique's strong voice is backed-up with a smooth, powerful band and (thankfully) stays in the salsa groove rather than nudging against pop.

10. Choco Orta - 'Ahora Mismo'

Choco Orta - Ahora Mismo
Caminalo Discos

Bandleader, drummer, guitarist and sonera, Puerto Rico's Choco Orta is a woman with a lot of passion and style. She puts everything she has into every number on this album, making the familiar numbers on Ahora Mismo her own. Backed by a superb band and produced by Gilberto Santa Rosa, Orta is a big, unique talent. Listening to her interpretations of songs like La Lupe's "Por accidente" it's hard to remember any other way to interpret the number.

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