I’ve been a pop obsessive all my life, and I’ve always been particularly interested in its role in the cultural landscapes of certain regions of the world, favoring the most thorough, globally-conscious, production-focused perspectives on the genre. I have a well documented love for K-Pop, one of the fastest-growing and most musically exciting scenes in the world, but even that pales in comparison to the enormous amount of time I’ve devoted to the perceived “camp fest” that is the Eurovision Song Contest, getting riled up every May (sometimes as much for the geopolitics as for the music itself, and this year it was mainly for the visuals). And as a Latino, especially one that actually lived through its early stages, I’m a supporter of reggaetón to be more heavily included in the main pop conversation, especially now that it’s such a worldwide phenomenon that even the Russian Eurovision entry had a dembow beat.
Yes, the global domination of “Despacito” in 2017, or even the previous success of the dembow-leaning Shakira smash “Hips Don’t Lie”, dramatically increased the visibility and furthered the appeal of Latin pop in the mainstream, but this has always been one of the world’s most exciting forms of music; reggaetón, for example, is the perfect party-starter, way before white producers from all over the globe took its core elements and labeled it Tropical House to great acclaim from the dance music world. And now the Latin influence in global pop is undeniable, Latin artists are true forces to be reckoned with, offering a consistent share of new sounds, new styles, and hot tracks.
2018 was a triumphant year for Latin pop, and its ambitions of conquering the world. Here are the greatest singles of the year.
10. Karol G – Mi Cama
Women looking to assert complete control of their identity, sexuality, and sensuality in the reggaetón world is something that’s no longer exclusive to the underground; there’s a new guard of major-label-backed, fresh performers getting themselves heard on the big platforms and starting ambitious tours. Karol G’s “Mi Cama” is a deft kiss-off to a cheating ex-lover, but the message has an extra bite: She will still make love, her bed will still be squeaking at night, only this time it will be a new man in there with her. And the production, from that frolicking synth to the beat’s ricochet, enhances these lyrics perfectly.
9. Bad Bunny feat. Drake – Mia
Latin pop is such an important force in the mainstream music world, we now have the biggest rapper in the planet taking part in this R&B-inflected reggaetón crossover, and he’s doing it in our language. Bad Bunny and Drake‘s “Mia” is a delicious song that puts both the performers’ strengths, and it fulfills the promise that both reggaetón-pop and the most nocturnal R&B share: Songs that are deeply romantic, but also kind of nasty. And these two are masters at that.
8. Havana D’ Primera – Tres Días
Salsa, as a commercial force in the Latin music world, has long passed its prime — as this wonderful video by Panamanian producer El Chombo explains –, but there are still amazing young artists and ensembles trying to keep the genre alive, not to mention that it’s still a staple of live music everywhere in Latin America (I come from a family of Salsa musicians, and they still get a lot of work). Alexander Abreu is part of this new guard, and after a stint as a teacher at a music conservatory in Denmark, he returned to his native Havana to form an ensemble with the finest musicians he could find. Since then, Havana D’ Primera is one of the leading bands in the Cuban circuit and this single “Tres Días” is a testament to why: Subtle, but terrifyingly complex arrangements, a very streamlined sound production, and even a bachata escapade, complete with some of the best guitar playing in Salsa I’ve heard in recent times. No wonder they have such a big reputation, even among Salsa legends.
7. Thalía feat. Natti Natasha – No Me Acuerdo
In Mexico, we all know Thalía; she’s been one of the biggest stars in entertainment for the last 30 years, and her run of 90’s telenovelas cemented her as one of Latin America’s most famous faces. But it’s still kind of strange to have her return to the pop world as a reggaetón diva, and yet this track “No Me Acuerdo” became a summer smash, and a weekend-party essential. The big part of the song’s success however, are the lyrics: The line “Si no me acuerdo, no pasó” (If I don’t recall, it didn’t happen) became kind of a meme in Mexico, and the single entered the pantheon of hangover anthems. Natti Natasha‘s sultry-but-snarky delivery and the bouncy beat only helped its cause.
6. Becky G feat. Natti Natasha – Sin Pijama
Look, booty-call songs and good-girl-gone-bad tropes will always work; they’re an inescapable force in popular music from time immemorial, but the power of “Sin Pijama” resides in the way both Becky G and Natti Natasha deliver the song’s lines, and how they trade them. The former has a very tender tone that makes the lyrics dirtier, while the latter enhances the harder edges of the track. It is tremendously empowering to hear these young women sound unapologetically sexual, especially in a deeply conservative culture, but most importantly, you need to come to a club and hear the girls in the crowd singing it. It’s beautiful.
5. Super Junior feat. Leslie Grace – Lo Siento
Here we have a different kind of crossover: we usually associate this term with artists from other latitudes trying to conquer the American or British charts, as English is the lingua franca of pop music, and a gateway to a global audience, however, South Korean powerhouse Super Junior and SM Entertainment have a broader vision. They know the incredible potential of the Latin market, and as one the K-Pop groups with the biggest fandoms in Latin America, the release of this single was a no-brainer. But that wouldn’t be any relevant if the track wasn’t so magnificent: The inclusion of young singer Leslie Grace, the slick way in which she delivers such a massive hook, the way in which the entire group participates in an interesting vocal dynamic, and the beat (itself a combination of the classic dembow, and a bouncier, syncopated rhythm a la Ace of Base), make “Lo Siento” such a banger. We even got a double bridge that feels just right.
4. Rosalía – Malamente
Flamenco-pop, flamenco-tinged R&B, even flamenco rap and flamenco-reggaetón, are nothing new — past heroes like Rosario, Bebé, Chambao, Papá Levante and fusion legends Ojos de Brujo all have enjoyed international projection and can be considered Rosalía’s natural predecessors in that aspect. Rosalía gladly and effectively acknowledges that tradition while contributing to it with her empowered R&B-flavored chants, and the latin urban sensibilities in El Guincho’s productions. “Malamente” establishes an interesting dynamic between the modern synths and pads and the traditional palmas a compás, which work in counter-rhythm to her cante, for a track that offers a glimpse into the percussive complexities of rumba while feeling at home in an alt-pop setting. It’s rumba catalana updated; a new step in flamenco’s legacy.
3. Cardi B feat. Bad Bunny & J. Balvin – I Like It
Cardi B’s “I Like It” is the biggest Latin crossover track of the year, not only on the grounds of sales and streams but on how important it is. It’s important in the sense that Ms. Almanzar is taking over American pop culture and claiming her Dominican heritage while trojan-horsing Latin trap and reggaetón into the hip-hop consciousness. The very sample this track is based around is Pete Rodriguez’s 1967 boogaloo classic,“I Like It Like That,” one of the very first examples of U.S-based Latin music sneaking its way into mainstream America. Cardi’s boss mannerisms and sheer charisma could easily sell the whole track, but both Boricua trapster Bad Bunny and Colombian don J. Balvin get equal space to shine, the former even referencing the legendary sample’s bassline (Bobby Valentín really was the absolute chingón). This is really one for the culture.
2. Nicky Jam & J. Balvin – X (Equis)
J. Balvin is probably this new generation’s biggest reggaetón superstar. The Colombian powerhouse has continuously put out dance floor stompers that agitate the zeitgeist for the last few years—including “Mi Gente,” which has been graced with the rarest of blessings, a Beyoncé remix —and at the same time, he keeps exploring new sonic possibilities within the genre. On “X,” he is recruited by Boricua-gone-Colombian underground veteran Nicky Jam for a track that feels like a meeting of the minds in the dembow universe.
Yes, the whole track is a spiritual child of producers AFRO BROS’ previous smash “18 plus,” but that main synth line gives away another probable inspiration: Romanian manele music—the sound of the modern Romani people in the Balkans. Manele has borrowed extensively from reggaeton in recent years, especially from J. Balvin himself—although Balvin’s “Tranquila” already sounds like a Mr. Juve production—so it’s really cool when it seems that he’s returning the favor, when two genres from such different regions and with no apparent relation (except perhaps the fact that both were created by historically marginalized communities) seem to be having a conversation. Either way, this track slaps and it made everyone dance in 2018, and you should go listen to more manele.
1. Amara La Negra – What A Bam Bam
Sadly, Afrolatinos are still subjects of scrutiny and discrimination, even — or dare I say, especially — among others in the vast spectrum of Latin American identity, which makes this anthem meant to empower single, black girls all the more poignant. You may know Amara La Negra from her stint on reality show Love & Hip-Hop: Miami, but the Afro-Dominican bombshell has a long and distinguished music and TV trajectory. She’s no stranger to scrutiny, and even considering her new-found mainstream notoriety, the girl’s got the tunes to back it up. “What a Bam Bam” is also a triumph in intertextuality: The track moves around the (obvious) Sister Nancy sample, but in her lyrics and flow she also echoes a long history of Panamanian dembow (from the early reggae en español through the ciento diez), 90’s Nuyorican underground (think Ivy Queen’s The Noise era) and of course the early Dominican scene. You can pretty much track twenty-five years of musical development in these three and a half minutes.