As we expressed in our other major 2018 catch-up feature, it’s a fool’s errand to try and cover every worthy release from a particular genre in a given calendar year. It’s even more absurd to try something similar for releases from every country — especially considering the wealth of rich musical traditions to be found all over the globe. But because world music artists have become ever more accessible, with the advent of streaming services, and received further attention from Western critics, we can’t help but bring attention to some of our own favorite international artists who put out music last year — none of whom we’ve ever written about before. This Special Edition of Foreign Correspondent includes six 2018 releases: a new album from a Mandpop singer/writer/producer (Li Ronghao’s Ear), two Chilean indie artists’ latest releases (Javiera Mena’s Espejo and Niños Del Cerro’s Lance), an indie Mexican artist’s second volume of folk songs (Natalia Lafourcade’s Musas, Vol. 2), a mysterious folktronica producer’s strange debut under a new moniker (Mid-Air Thief’s Crumbling), and a K-Pop boy band’s moving farewell to one of their own (Shinee’s The Story of Light).
Chilean art-rock/neo-psychedelic outfit Niños del Cerro imbue their lively arrangements with barreling progressions, pushing individual tracks to their breaking point with intensely harsh instrumentation; at any second, you just expect the music to swallow-up the band members whole. On “El Susto y el Miedo,” the Niños open with a light whisper — before the song erupts into chaos, with a barrage of electric guitars and thundering drums, and petering out with some tranquil strumming. That track leads into the more relaxed, but eerily atmospheric, “Javier y los Vientos,” and this sequencing choice almost makes it seem as if the previous pandemonium hadn’t even occurred. It’s this kind of extreme contrast that serves as a sonic foundation on Niños’ second studio album, Lance. Opener “Sufre” pulls the same trick, albeit with a noticeably different foil: the airy vocals of band leader Simón Campusano. Building, in tandem, with the ensuing madness, Campusano’s vocals finally reach crescendo with a high-pitched cry of pure euphoria (one that practically begs listeners to scream along). And on the mournful “Las Distancias,” indie artist Martina Lluvias assists, lamenting the growing distance in a once-passionate relationship (observing even the minute difference between “today and yesterday”). The one moment where the band’s disorderly antics almost spin out of control comes on the album’s title track, which starts out as one would expect by this point: a rapid tempo, deafening percussion, echoing orchestration, etc. But then an organ cuts in, and the track transforms into a sea of white noise. What propels the song back from the abyss is a Santana-esque guitar solo — which thus becomes a veritable act of resurrection. Niños del Cerro play it cool, and keep chugging along; they know that even this moment of transcendence is just another in a career of overwhelming, animated creativity. Paul Attard
K-pop boy-band Shinee originally shared The Story of Light as three EPs — all organized around the theme of the introspection that follows great loss. This series’ “Epilogue” conveniently collected the EPs onto one record (with the addition of an extra song). The original sequence matters, though, because it gives a sense of progression: With each release, SHINee retreated inward, from the triumphant comeback of “Good Evening,” with its explosive house-pop sound, to subsequent singles “I Want You” and “Our Page,” which tempered externalized intensity in favor of a more private catharsis. This emotional arc almost mirrors the experience of grief — a reflection of Shinee’s feelings in the wake of their band leader Jonghyun’s suicide. Despite this more serious tone, however, The Story of Light still maintains SHINee’s standard for delivering rich, sweet, romantic dance-pop that exhibits an exploratory sense of musicality, moving from maximalist bass-pop (“All Day, All Night”) to glitch-hop (“Retro”) to funky house&B (“JUMP”). The graver inspiratrion behind this music manifests itself gradually, as when group member Key sings about ‘suffocating in the dark’ on “Good Evening,” or when Onew wishes for a ‘reunion’ on “I Want You.” The context of Jonghyun’s death — combined with Shinee’s already established deep well of sincerity — often elevates casual love songs to the level of passionate devotionals. The group are cheesy about their flirtatiousness, on occasion, but overall they treat each relationship as a precious human connection. This album, then, represents a dialectical relationship between the sting of a farewell and the elation of a new encounter. Ryo Miyauchi
Mandopop has become downright somnolent: singing that barely raises above a whisper, crawling tempos, polite piano and cocktail jazz that’s careful not to excite anyone so much that they might feel some ways about living under the thumb of the Party. As such, it’s been necessary to focus on modest pleasures — like the flinty, but delicately soulful timbre of ascendent Chinese popstar Li Ronghao. Li’s vibrato-rich vocal can leap up into a falsetto without losing its weight, and is just as comfortable in a lower register; it’s technically impeccable, and full of idiosyncrasies. And while Li’s music hasn’t always been as impressive, nor unique, the lounge R&B and syrupy ballads (and accusations of John Mayer plagiarism) of his early albums has gradually given way to eclecticism: full-band arrangements on 2016’s An Ideal, the abrasive distortion and churning industrial noise that opens 2017’s En. On Ear, though, this tentative experimentation blossoms into a well-defined and confident sound. The slow-motion ballads are still here, but dressed-up with lavish orchestration, and a canny combination of traditional and contemporary production. Languid waltz “Dwell on the Past” opens with pensive electronics and tremolo-guitar before dramatic strings and ringing Chinese zither fill-out the mix. A dynamic build differentiates the song from the bevy of distended Chinese ballads — but so does the truncated crescendo, which dissolves into a brooding ambient outro reflective of the lyrics’ prickliness (“I don’t forget what arrow you used to pierce my heart”). Even better is album opener “Quarrelsome Lovers,” where unabashedly ‘80s synths wend their way around squelching bass and crisp high hat, the groove galvanized by Li’s breathy, drawn-out verses and vacillating-falsetto chorus. The lyrics ruminate on a familiar sci-fi premise: “If erasing memories makes us forget / What of the amnesiac who falls in love at first sight again?” In fact, the whole of Ear is about negotiations with the past, which makes the music’s modern-meets-retro aesthetic seem more purposeful. And yet, Li’s most complete and consistent album ends with a blissful, present-tense romance: “Zhang Jia Ming and Wan Jun,” an upbeat song with a singalong chorus and a bonafide, effects pedal-laden guitar solo. All this energy and ambition probably won’t be enough to rouse the contemporary Chinese pop field out of its collective coma, but at least Li’s continued success suggests that Chinese listeners are ready for that change when it does come. Sam C. Mac
Back in 2003, Natalia Lafourcade’s fearless “Busca Un Problema” sounded like the future of Mexican alternative music. In my hometown of Xalapa, people were ecstatic (Natalia grew up in the neighboring Coatepec); we felt proud and connected to what she was doing. What we didn’t know was that she would soon define an era, her first album reaching number one and becoming a symbol of the passion of Mexican youth. And what jarochos (people from Veracruz) never imagined was how much her music would grow to become a representation of culture and of folklore not only for Mexico, but for other Latin American countries as well. One could trace this to her 2015 album Hasta la Raiz (which translates to “from the roots”), but it was 2017’s Musas Vol. 1, recorded with the acoustic guitar duo Los Macorinos, that strove to revive the Latin bolero and folk traditions in popular music. One year later, Musas Vol. 2 (Un Homenaje al Folclore Latinoamericano en Manos de Los Macorinos) continues the work of establishing Lafourcade’s name, and her music, as a timeless portrayal of Latin love and of Latin popular culture. From heartfelt ballads to socially relevant songs about the landscape, race, work, human rights, and food — a complete picture of the Latin soul. Fifteen years after Lafourcade’s debut, I’ve relocated to the U.S., where Natalia’s music (and Pixar’s Coco) has become even more important, a means for the world to see the loving, soulful, and colorful Mexico that lives in my memory. And while the dominant impression of hispanic music in the States still comes from the reggaeton played on Latin radio, it’s heartening to hear music supported by an international audience that better represents my experience. Lafourcade’s Musas albums inspire a different dance — a powerful chant, one that connects us with our ancestors, that understands what it means to feel home, even if you’re far away from it. Roberto Vicencio
Many an indie fan fears the moment that their favorite artist signs to a major label, expecting that they just might opt to put out music that they think will purely be more successful, rather than of better quality. Thankfully, Javiera Mena’s Espejo is a prime example of an artist making the transition to the majors (Sony Music) the right way. The album is both familiar and new — the songs have significantly upgraded production as compared to previous releases, but Mena maintains her signature sound. Nothing here feels like it’s been done before or even like it could be done by anyone else: Mena’s vocal strikes the perfect balance of directness and detachment. And if the lyrics explore pretty familiar themes for Mena’s style of electronic music — defining one’s happiness, finding one’s truth, etc.— none feel overdone or treacly. (Though “Todas Aquí” gets close, with its well-intentioned, but slightly naive lyric: “We are more similar than we think, but we all hurt.”) Album intro “Dentro de Ti” pits lyrical introspection against a perky, synth-laden beat, while “Noche” builds a funky dance-pop track around the repeated phrase “God has a place in all of this.” But the true standout on Espejo is “Intuición,” a duet with Li Saumet of Bomba Estéreo which accomplishes a surprisingly rare feat: it makes both headlining artist and featured artist absolutely necessary. This song simply wouldn’t work without Mena’s chilly vocal on the chorus — prompting soul-searching on the dancefloor — nor without Saumet’s final verse, which, with deep bass and increased pace surrounding, brings a warmth and energy which counters the sober introspection with joyous reflection. The juxtaposition elevates what could be a pretty pedestrian lyric (there’s nothing particularly novel about a metaphor comparing continuing to dance to continuing to live life), and as long as Mena continues to deliver this kind of multifaceted work while working with Sony, there’s no reason not to expect, or to be skeptical of, the Chilean electro-pop darling’s growing presence and influence in the Latin electro-pop landscape. Stephen Eisermann
Mid-Air Thief is something of an enigma; little is known about the Korean electronic artist other than their eclectic musical range — which includes folktronica, ambient lo-fi, and even psychedelica — and the numerous alias they’ve used in the past decade (first as Hyoo in 2012, then as Public Morality in 2015). Crumbling, the debut album under this artist’s mysterious new moniker, is equally unclassifiable: bracingly modern in its radical mixture of genres, yet decidedly vintage, in large part due to a mastering process that involved a cassette recorder. (A process enthusiastically described in the album’s liner notes as sounding “good to my ears!”) Crumbling’s arrangements often seem straightforward on a first listen, with songs like the synth-heavy “Curve and Light” evoking acts like Jim O’Rourke or mid-2000’s Grizzly Bear, in terms of their childlike simplicity and warm intimacy; the more complicated songs (the spiraling “These Chains” and glitchy “Why?”) fuse accessible frameworks with bracing experimentation, creating a collage of variegated melodies and engulfing listeners in a sea of noise — while in the process coming up with distinct new sounds. The nine-minute “Crumbling Together” ebbs and flows freely between these two states, with distant vocals from credited lyricist Summer Song spread through the glittering electronic soundscape — and which are, about halfway through, suddenly snatched away. This move may at first seem like a cop out — one that fails to properly deliver on a given expectation — but what else would one expect from such an upfront thief? PA