The Big Picture: Looking Back at the Best Latin American Music of 2022

Sound and Vision
Albina Cabrera

Latin Ameerican Content Producer and El Sonido co-host Albina Cabrera curates a brief overview of 42 albums in Latin American music. For this installment, we called on music journalists Richard Villegas and Nuria Net to help us illustrate the big picture of this past year.

Lea una versión en español aquí.

A new year has begun. This January respite allows us to get a bird’s-eye view of 2022, a year which – in addition to a multitude of impressive historic events – left us with a large batch of albums created in lockdown and released just as the world was reopening after more than two years of paralysis. Over those 12 months, our reality was colored by a pre-written epic tale that would take music composed in Spanish and sung by Latin Americans to the top of the industry and popular consumption. It’s the first time in the history of music that an artist singing and composing in Spanish has ever reached the worldwide number one spot on the Billboard 200 – the very same artist who was the most listened to on Spotify globally for the third year in a row, and, in the 2023 edition, the first Spanish-speaking artist in the Grammys’ 65-year history to be nominated for Album of the Year.

Repeating each achievement and record broken by Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio, AKA Bad Bunny, would require several paragraphs, but luckily, this information is just a click away. What I want to celebrate here is the irrefutable fact that we’re watching the “periphery” become the “core.” This means that we’re not only celebrating sold-out shows, box office records, and number one spots, but also a transformation in consumption dynamics, and politics, which is having a positive and transversal impact on all musical genres in Spanish. There is a larger audience and less prejudice when it comes to listening to music in Spanish. The language barrier at this point is almost a forgotten detail. It’s proof that strong music scenes, revolutionary times in music—let’s call them watershed moments—don’t just depend on great songs or algorithms; they are the result of peoples with stories to tell, stories that end up blazing the path of popular music. Without that intimate song-listener relationship, hits end up having an expiration date, but 2022 proved to be a year of transcendental albums.

At KEXP, we have curated a list with 42 albums composed by Latin American, Ibero-American, and other artists who are part of the global Latin diaspora. Our aim is to feed the conversation about the strength of this music without having to associate the community with any particular musical style. We just said goodbye to a year that, once again, confirmed that we not only got to enjoy the best reggaeton and pop, but also shoegaze, trap, rap, R&B, garage rock, electronica, new folk, and many other genres that surely will not make it into this humble reflection. 

We called on two key collaborators to join me providing more in-depth explanation of why we chose certain albums. Joining us this time around is Richard Villegas, a previous KEXP contributor who regularly writes for Remezcla, Billboard, and Bandcamp Daily, while also hosting the Songmess podcast. Born in New York, raised in the Dominican Republic, and currently based in Mexico City, Richard is a music journalist specializing in Latin American alternative music. Nuria Net, founder of Remezcla and current director of Coctelera Music, a bilingual podcast producer, is also joining us. This Puerto Rican journalist specializes in Latin music and is currently based in Spain. 

Together, the three of us have produced a handful of subjective but well-supported blurbs in English and Spanish, along with access to every album, playlist, and Live on KEXP, if applicable. Yes, 2022 was a year where we continued to support the music of Latin America and its diaspora. This took us to Buenos Aires for KEXP Live from Argentina, where we recorded 12 bands from different parts of the country, celebrated Aquí y Ahora (Here and Now) with exclusive content, and opened the doors of our Live Room for many of the artists who wrote some of the albums of the year. Welcome to our big picture of music in Spanish and beyond. – Albina Cabrera

Divino Niño - Last Spa on Earth

Over nearly a decade, Chicago's Divino Niño have cultivated an effervescent psych-pop style. But with their latest LP, Last Spa On Earth, they harness psychedelic, sonic disorientation by weaving together indie rock, techno, and new jack swing. The title track kicks off this rollercoaster ride of an album by rendering genre lines meaningless in the first 30 seconds with a gauzy mish-mash of reggaeton and ambient. In fact, reggaeton is one of the rhythmic pillars of the band's metamorphosis, drawing directly from neoperreo's punkish grit for devilish rump shakers “Tu Tonto” and “Toy Premiado.” The standout from Divino Niño's brief but thrilling perreo adventure is undoubtedly “XO,” which pokes fun at religious repression and finds sacrilegious glee in fluid gender and sexual expressions.

Flashes of the band's more familiar 70s rock-inspired sound shine on standouts like “Nos Soltamos” and “Drive,” blossoming into tales of abandon and personal freedom achieved through introspection or cruising leisurely down the open road. And yet, Last Spa on Earth is at its most exciting in its wackiest moments. “Miami” opens on a swaggering bass line and silly phone skit that give way to a thumping ode to the city of sunshine and excess–one its tourism board would be foolish not to use in a future ad campaign. The convulsive “Ecstasy” is one of the album's most sonically ambitious cuts, kicking off with a sumptuous house beat and swerving through bass-heavy distortion before closing out on soothing R&B. Don't be fooled by Divino Niño's playfulness; these songs pack an emotional wallop. “I Am Nobody” ponders privilege, broken homes, and immigration, while “Mona”s neck-breaking shift from funk to techno becomes the backdrop for meditations on the innocent bliss of a childhood spent playing Pokémon with friends. – Richard Villegas

Lucrecia Dalt - Ay!

If there is one album that singlehandedly demonstrates the extensive musical palette of modern and experimental Latin America, it’s the most recent production by Colombian Lucrecia Dalt. Having been inspired by classical styles such as bolero, son, jazz, and classical music seems to have shaped the foundation on which Lucrecia has now begun to build, from Berlin.

She had already given us a taste of her particular type of mystery on her 2020 album No era Sólida, a stamp that she was able to complement very well in her recent work as a music producer and composer for film and TV. In 2022, she not only released this exquisite piece of music called Ay!, but also came out with her debut soundtrack, The Seed, for the sci-fi horror film directed by Sam Walker. It all makes sense. Lucrecia music constantly reflects the cinematic universe, and it’s truly amazing how she can turn a gloomy sound into something vibrant by simply taking what seems like an overambitious noise to the extreme, transforming it into a melodic, even smooth sound when her voice appears hovering above.

Dalt’s music serves as a time capsule where the past and future coexist, one on top of the other, creating multiple layers of sound, the same layers that the author of Ay! perfectly manages on tracks like “Atemporal,” “La desmesura,” and “Bochinche.” I must confess that there are points in “Enviada” and “Dicen” that are almost disturbing, like something out of a Mariana Enríquez book, allowing the listener to appreciate the dissimilar textures that traverse the album’s 10 tracks.

“I recognize myself in that timeless rock” (Me reconozco en esa roca atemporal) is one of my favorite lines of 2022. I think it embodies the identity of this year and of the album – that coming out of a collective lethargy. A pendular movement between traditional and poetic Latin American drama and the exercise of going beyond sound. – AC 

Trueno - Bien o Mal

I spent many hours thinking about an opening line that would work as a disclaimer, but I ended up deciding to go with pure honesty. By now, you know that I am from Argentina and I try to hold onto the belief that it is public knowledge that this year has been palpably unforgettable for our music and popular culture. The presence of Argentine artists on the international Spanish-language music scene was solidified. There was also the cherry on top that only Argentina could dream of – we became world champions and witnessed Messi raising the World Cup in representation of 45 million Argentines. That key moment for my country was set to musical hits that will forever be a part of our history, such as “Muchachos, Ahora Nos Volvimos a Ilusionar,” an adaptation of “Muchachos esta noche me emborracho” by La Mosca and re-recorded by the Argentine band for the occasion; “Luz Delito” by Wos. This was the song La Escaloneta chose to play after each goal. There was also “Tierra Zanta” by Trueno, a song that was played at the Lusail Iconic Stadium during the Argentine national team’s moment of glory in Qatar on December 18th.

“I'm leaving tomorrow. I died happy,” tweeted the young MC who was born in the comuna 4 of the City of Buenos Aires after hearing his song play at Argentina’s historic triumph against France. “Tierra Zanta” is track four on Bien o Mal, one of my favorite albums of 2022. 

“Latin America doesn’t cry, it sings,” says Trueno, while using his hands to erase the dividing lines that outsiders have wanted to draw across our continent, Spanish-language music, and the Latin American identity. This song features two powerful artists, living legend of Argentine folklore Victor Heredia, and indigenous singer La Charo. They both help Mateo come up with answers to the world’s persistent questions about who he is and where he comes from, as well as his identity. 

“It’s also very important that people with history take part in this issue and also add what they have experienced. These are things (those condemned in “Tierra Zanta”) that I protest because they seem unfair to me, but I did not fully live it that way, either. So, I can't speak as if I had lived it,” Mateo Palacios told me in a recent conversation for KEXP that you’ll be able to enjoy very soon. In this way, he explained his reasons, at the young age of 20, for singing against repression, the dictatorship of the 1970s, and the ways that international financial organizations have intervened in Latin America economies. One of his lines, “My name is ‘Latino’ and my last name is ‘American’,” serves as a signature on his manifesto. According to Mateo, this song is “like the combination of old and new in music, plus the nativity of Argentina combined with rap, for me, it’s something that will always be positive, like merging schools of thought, merging concepts. It’s a song that, today and into the future, will always be the one that makes me feel most proud.”

Over 12 tracks, we hear both sides of the same coin. Trueno explores the two extremes that divide the world: good or bad music, good or bad behavior, good and bad manners, subordination to external powers or the pride of being Latin American. All of this flows perfectly alongside solid featured artists, such as Nathy Peluso in “Argentina,” trapper Duki in “Panama,” his father and rapper Pedro Peligro in “Hoop,” Randy and Bizarrap in “Jungle,” and J Balvin in “One Step.” Together, they serve as a GPS in which Trueno travels through and locates the open veins of Latin American culture, proposing an inauguration, with pride and Spanish-language rhymes, of a new, modern-day Ibero-American rap. – AC 

Mediopicky - Mediopicky

In 2022, Dominican producer/rapper Mediopicky proved that an artist contains multitudes. His thrilling and at times confounding self-titled LP arrived back in the summer, brimming with collisions of dembow, garage, and house music equally ready to set dance floors ablaze and question preconceptions of what Caribbean music is or can be.

The album is split into two sections: Medio and Picky. The first finds the producer experimenting with collisions of punk/garage and asymmetrical rap flows, similar to recent excellent records from California's Jean Dawson or Argentina's Dillom. And yet Mediopicky is not so simply categorized; therein lies the album's thesis. “dopamina” smashes metal and afrobeats with counterintuitive gusto, taking a guitar riff out of the Slayer playbook and injecting prismatic synths and blasts of digital percussion. Another eyebrow-raising hybrid arrives with “quien te llamo,” this time saturating the mix with fuzzy, distorted guitars while pounding reggaeton drums harken to hardcore kids dropping it low. Mediopicky also finds plenty of time for incisive social commentary. “who am yo” refracts merengue through the garage filter while reflecting on identity and third-party eagerness to define your journey and experience on their terms. Meanwhile, “el dinero” lampoons the empty reassurances of our new normal, deriding it as little more than a rebrand of everyday chaos. 

The album's second half is perhaps less cutting, but just as fervently aims to expand the possibilities of contemporary dance music. Dembow and reggaeton production luminary Diego Raposo crashes the party for the record's last five songs, invoking nostalgic 90s perreo on “el retoce” and framing Mediopicky's deranged wails within drum & bass on “dios nos esta viendo.” The album's definitive earworm comes with “Aji titi,” a dembow of stadium proportions accompanied by a hilarious music video where Mediopicky raps through a chilly pepper avatar; ridiculous and impactful, like so much of the best music out there. – RV

Villano Antillano - La Sustancia X

Villano Antillano exploded onto the international music scene in 2022 but her meteoric rise is not accidental – it’s rather prophetic. In her first studio album, La Sustancia X, the Puerto Rican rapper shows impressive dexterity in her writing and vocal delivery, bringing much-needed sophistication that has been lacking in the Spanish language music industry regardless of genres. 

“Yo controlo el lápiz y tengo el pincel, yo soy la dueña del amanecer” (“I control the pen, I have the brush and I own the dawn”) she sings in “Mujer”, which features fellow islander songstress iLe. That empowering message and self-assertiveness is the main energy she transmits throughout the album, both as a trans woman owning and enjoying her sensuality and as a skilful performer eager to show off what she’s got. “La Villana” is making history as a trans woman boasting sex positive messages in a male-dominated, chauvinistic urban space and in July 2022 she became the first trans artist to enter Spotify’s top 50 with her “BZRP Session #51 (Mala Mía)” alongside Argentine producer Bizarrap. 

Given her current clout, La Sustancia X has surprisingly few collaborations across its 11 tracks ( besides iLe, she also features La Dame Blanche) which were produced by Villana herself along Ismael Cancel (iLe, former drummer for Calle 13), Young Martino, Orteez and more local producers who are rising stars in the fertile underground local Puerto Rican scene that is currently begetting non-cis female talents such as Young Miko, RaiNao, Ana Macho, and more. But Villano Antillano is not niche: the album contains reggaeton, trap, dance, electronica, and even rock on guitar-heavy tracks such as “Puesta” and “Mujer”. 

Her poetic bars and witty humor are reminiscent of early Calle 13 and she has that potential to transcend to the highest echelons of Latin pop.  Her references and metaphors are wide-ranging and clever: in “Tengo un Novio” she turns the popular phrase around and centers it around her self-pleasure, reimagining herself as Rubén Blades’ ‘Ligia Elena’. This year, Villano Antillano will be performing at top international festivals such as Lollapalooza Argentina, Chile, Estereo Picnic in Bogotá and Primavera Sound in Spain. This is just Villana’s world and we’re lucky to live in it. – NN

Rosalía - MOTOMAM

How dare she? How dare she create a kaleidoscopic album full of frenetic global references ranging from bachata to dembow to free jazz? How dare she make club bangin’ perreos and reflective bulerías in the same LP? How dare Rosalía disorient us and make a complete left turn after an impeccable, highly lauded, tightly-knit avant-garde flamenco concept album, 2018’s El Mal Querer? How dare she rejoice in her sexual pleasure? How dare she have fun and – gasp! – be funny? 

Of course, being “daring” does not necessarily equate in excellence, nor should it. But in MOTOMAMI, Rosalía’s high-stakes artistic experiments pay off – and then some. She has pushed the envelope of her own creative abilities to the point of redefining what a contemporary female pop star is. Rosalía is uncompromising on her vision, one that can delight in playful earworms like “Chicken Teriyaki” – self-referential with its ridiculous catchphrases and TikTok-ready dance moves. 

Rosalía’s not unafraid of manipulating her crystalline voice with AutoTune and then strip it out again in the same track, like on “G3 N15.” The song is immensely piercing and painful as she sings to her young nephew across the ocean, ending with a voice note from her avia (grandmother) in Catalan. Both songs, as different as they are, capture the pandemic zeitgeist we are living in. As does the entire album, which is a universe onto itself and a whirlwind journey of emotions from beginning to end. 

Always the studious perfectionist, Rosalía surrounded herself with dozens of collaborators in the studio (producers, songwriters, engineers such as Pharrell, Tayhana, Noah Goldstein, Tainy and other artists such as Tokischa, The Weeknd, James Blake) to help her execute her vision. But consistently, MOTOMAMI sounds like only one person: Rosalía. 

Beyond the album’s 16 tracks, the MOTOMAMI continues to evolve, with social media-first audiovisuals, to live shows that break the fourth wall, to succeeding tracks such as the mambo-fueled ‘Despechá’ (and its remix with Cardi B). Rosalía has become a trailblazer that just when you think you have her figured out, she mutates again. Here’s to more musicians daring to be themselves, daring to transform, daring to contradict themselves. That is growth and that is certainly freedom. – NN 


We’re on Spotify. Follow the playlist with music from 42 of our favorite albums and other gems released during 2022: