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Best Latin music of 2011 didn’t always top the charts

Vicente Fernandez | Oscar Lopez for Sun-Times

Vicente Fernandez | Oscar Lopez for the Sun-Times

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Updated: January 11, 2012 7:38PM

Though hitmakers such as Enrique Iglesias, Pitbull and Cristian Castro, along with newcomer Prince Royce, ruled the charts this year, many of the best discs came from other corners of the Latin music universe. Here are once (11) for 2011, in alphabetical order:

Ricardo Arjona, “Independiente”(Metamorfosis/Warner): For his first disc on his own label (but still distributed by giant Warner Latina), the Guatemalan singer-songwriter reverses course from the stripped-down arrangements of “Poquito Ropa” (2010) to make a welcome return to the surging balladry of earlier discs like “Santo Pecado” (2002) and “Adentro” (2005).

Enrique Bunbury, “Licenciado Cantinas”(EMI): On his first-ever covers disc, the great Spanish rock troubadour salutes the great singer-songwriters of Latin America, with songs by Agustin Lara to Atahualpa Yupanqui, in styles as diverse as milonga to norteno, all recorded in the atmospheric Sonic Ranch studio near El Paso, Texas.

Lila Downs, “Pecados y Milagros”(Sony Mexico): Definitely my favorite Latin disc of 2011, and the best in her extensive discography (and her first release for a major label — a long overdue milestone). Once again, the Mexican-American singer-songwriter offers originals and covers, all transformed by her distinctive artistic spirit. She dares to take on sacred songs such as “Cucurrucucu Paloma” (immortalized by the legendary Lola Beltran) and then turns around and reinvents Marco Antonio Solis’ bouncy grupera “Tu Carcel” (“Your Prison”) as an achingly somber, heartbreaking bolero. Always on the verge of a major breakthrough, she and her creative (and life) partner Paul Cohen have written the score for the new musical “Like Water for Chocolate” (based on Laura Esquivel’s best-selling novel), scheduled to debut in a pre-Broadway run at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. Here’s hoping that 2012 is the year of Lila Downs.

Andrea Echeverri, “Dos” (Nacional): More iconoclastic folk-pop from the sometime co-leader of the pioneering Latin rock band Aterciopelados. On her second solo disc, Echeverri goes a bit gamine, declaring “Dos” to be “from the heart of una mujer-musica-mama,” but even at her most maternal, she asserts her individuality on “Yo,” on which she declares she doesn’t want to follow the path of fellow Colombian stars Juanes and Shakira. Zing.

Vicente Fernandez,“Otra Vez” (Sony): “El Rey de la Cancion Ranchera” reunites with fellow Mexican icon Joan Sebastian to reignite the creative sparks that they set off on Chente’s award-winning “Para Siempre” (2007), which Sebastian wrote and produced. At 71, Fernandez demonstrates he’s still willing to take artistic risks, even though he could have easily just churned out another classic ranchera disc. He also duets with Sebastian on “El Ultimo Barco,” for the regional Mexican music summit of 2011.

Diego Garcia, “Laura”(Nacional): The former frontman of alt-Latin rock group Elefant, Garcia fashions himself on his solo debut as El Ultimo Romantico with songs of love lost and found that owe a stylistic debt to late ‘60s singer-songwriters like Scott Walker and Harry Nilsson, along with a twist of Serge Gainsbourg. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that he has excellent taste in album titles.

Mana, “Drama y Luz”(Warner Latina): Latin arena rock at its most majestic, from Mexico’s masters of the form. It marked the group’s first studio disc in five (!) years, and the band’s summer tour was the biggest yet, with two sold-out shows at the Allstate Arena (and five in Los Angeles).

Gaby Moreno,“Illustrated Songs” (digital only): Though born and reared in Guatemala, this singer-songwriter’s earned the right to sing the blues, as evidenced by this daringly eclectic disc, on which she channels old-school soul/jazz/R&B with the poise of a young Nina Simone or Mercedes Sosa.

Romeo Santos, “Formula, Vol. 1”(Sony): The year’s most anticipated Latin disc came from the lead singer of bachata-pop hitmakers Aventura, and for his first solo effort, Santos doesn’t deviate from the Aventura signature sound of tropical Latin mixed with R&B. Though he’s joined by luminaries Lil Wayne, Usher, Mala Rodriguez and even George Lopez, Santos definitely makes this solo turn his own.

Los Tigres del Norte, “MTV Unplugged: Los Tigres del Norte and Friends” (Fonovisa): Though late to the “Unplugged” party, Los Tigres remind us why they’ve endured for five decades, with this career-spanning disc/DVD recorded live at the Hollywood Palladium, with fellow Latin hitmakers Paulina Rubio, Juanes, Residente of Calle 13, Andres Calamaro, Diego Torres and Zack de la Rocha. Viva la raza!

La Vida Boheme, “Nuestra” (Nacional): Definitely the year’s buzz band, this Venezuelan pop-rock ensemble fuses the classic punk anarchy of the Clash with electro-dance beats via LCD Soundsystem, steeped in a brew of social consciousness.

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