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The Class of '03

Grab your gift certificates and trade in your white elephants -- here's what you really wanted for Christmas

10. The Scumfrog, Extended Engagement, Effin. Until this double-disc set landed in my mailbox, I'd never heard of Jesse Houk, a.k.a. Scumfrog. The aptly titled Extended Engagement features both original material and wildly imaginative remixes of other artists' tracks, and soon I came to love to hear the Scumfrog croaking in my headphones. For dancing, for listening, for chilling out on your lily pad of choice, these vaguely house-y cuts are damn good. -- Andrew John Ignatius Vontz

The New Classics

It's been an anxious year for the Latin music industry, as it has for the industry in general. The good news in a time of crisis: The crassest pop acts fade away; the acts that survive are fired up by a personal vision. While some of the best albums of the year have received massive commercial success, notably Molotov's Dance and Dense Denso, most of these gems come from artists who would surely be making the same great music even if there were no one out there listening. Take a listen. Here are ten top recordings well worth the money.

1. Café Tacuba, Cuatro Caminos, MCA. Mexico City's avant-rock quartet Café Tacuba continues to explore the far reaches of the electronic ether while never losing sight of what it means to rock out. Cuatro Caminos ("Four Paths") veers from the raw energy of a street party to the interior murmur of private anguish, from the heady cacophony of a video arcade to heartfelt but never clichéd confessions of love. There is no more complete -- or more satisfying -- road map for living in the digital age.

2. Chucho Valdes, New Conceptions, Blue Note. One of the best albums yet by one of the all-time greats of Latin jazz, New Conceptions gives yet another twist to the long-standing fusion of African-American and Afro-Cuban traditions. Valdes opens with Cuban master Ernesto Lecuona and closes with an homage to Duke Ellington, revisiting Miles along the way -- but it's the pianist's own reinvention of all that has gone before him that makes New Conceptions so breathtaking. His own compositions included here, especially the achingly beautiful piano-cello duo "Nanu" and the experiment in rhythm that is "Sin Clave Pero con Swing" ("Without Clave But with Swing") prove that Chucho's name belongs in the company of those composers to whom he pays tribute. This is as good as music gets.

3. Issac Delgado, Versos en el Cielo, 33rd Street Records. This is what romantic salsa could have sounded like had anyone bothered to make it well: inspired lyrics, creative arrangements, stunning musicianship and the unsurpassed voice of Cuban singer Issac Delgado. Politically untouchable on Latin radio in the United States, Versos en el Cielo ("Verses in Heaven") is a collection of love songs by the greats of the island's Nueva Trova era -- most notably Silvio Rodriguez and Pablo Milanes -- set to sophisticated salsa arrangements that will thrill your soul and feed your mind.

4. Kevin Johansen & The Nada, Sur o No Sur, Sony Intenational. It's a long way from CBGBs to Buenos Aires, but Kevin Johansen knows the journey well. The onetime leader of the Saturday-night house band in the acoustic gallery at the legendary punk club, Johansen returned to his mother's homeland during Argentina's economic meltdown in 2001. Sur o No Sur ("South or Not South") is the sonic boom set off by that crazy trip: equal parts James Brown and bandoneon, Tom Waits and El Polaco -- with a Serge Gainsbourg cover thrown in for good measure. More a series of vignettes than a collection of songs, Sur o No Sur takes listeners on a tour from blues through bossa nova to milonga fueled by quirky humor and astonishing insight.

5. Kinky, Atlas, Nettwerk. It's not enough for Monterrey quintet Kinky to make noise. They want to know what noise is made of. What color is sound? What does it taste like? What is the shape of silence? Kinky takes nothing for granted, whether programming beats or coming up with hard-rockin' riffs. If all of that sounds a little too philosophical, don't worry: Atlas is all about fun. It's just not any kind of fun you've had before.

6. Molotov, Dance and Dense Denso, Universal Latino. If "Frijolero," Molotov's out-of-my-face-pinche-gringo norteño anthem, were the only song on Dance and Dense Denso, that would be enough to make this album one of the year's best. But the Mexican foursome's take-no-prisoners approach to rap-rock never lets up, unleashing enough attitude and bass on a single disc to flip off the whole world.

7. Natalia Lafourcade, Natalia Lafourcade, Sony International. Imagine for a moment that Britney Spears had a voice and a brain. Then she might have come up with the fresh, compelling take on growing into womanhood offered by 19-year-old Mexico City girl Natalia Lafourcade. Her self-titled debut offers a dorm room full of self-discovery so charmingly delivered in her silky purr with sophisticated bossa nova and R&B flourishes that it appeals to grown-ups, too.

8. Obie Bermudez, Confesiones, EMI Internacional. Apparently there are second chapters in Puerto Rican life, which makes Obie Bermudez's reinvention as a singer-songwriter after his first outing as a salsero all the more poignant. The aptly titled Confesiones is a kind of diary of the lives of regular people written by the singer while he worked in a washateria and hoped for a second chance to be a big star. Here it is: Bermudez's loving treatment of his subjects and down-to-earth use of his powerful voice make Confesiones a refreshing break from the bombastic overemoting of so many pretty Latino poseurs.

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