Welcome back to the Treble World Tour, a series of Top 10s covering albums that best represent certain locations—cities, states, territories, even entire nations. We consider representative releases on three levels: they were made by artists from a place, they contain music about or inspired by the place, and/or they were made in that place. This week, we travel to the biggest country in South America: Brazil. Next month, all eyes will be on Rio de Janeiro as the 2016 summer Olympics will be held there. Though a lot of attention has already been focused on the country this year, in part because of a devastating zika virus crisis, political unrest, poverty and pollution. It’s not the first time that a tumultuous Brazil has been in the spotlight, but one thing that Brazilians do best in the face of adversity is create incredible art. The country’s history of popular music is undeniable, from bossa nova to samba, MPB and Tropicalia. Ahead of the Olympics, we’re surveying the landscape of Brazilian popular music to deliver 10 essential Brazilian albums. It’s an abbreviated list, to be sure, considering how long and rich a history of music there is, but it’s a damn good start.
Antônio Carlos Jobim – Wave
There are plenty of legendary acts to cross-pollinate South America’s dance and rhythmic traditions with the improvisational energies of American jazz. Many are Brazilian; some are even referenced elsewhere in this list. Few, however, reach the heights of this son of a diplomat and his third solo album. Jobim took cues from those musics on either side of the equator as well as Continental classical composers, and presented work on Wave in pop-music lengths of two to five minutes. This album is timeless and time-hopping in its presentation of upscale piano-bar themes (“Triste,” “Lamento”), supper club interludes (“Mojave”), bossa nova extensions (“The Red Blouse”), and subtle caper-movie music (“Captain Bacardi”). Yes, he had written “The Girl from Ipanema” and blown up with Stan Getz a few years prior, but Wave—relatively unencumbered by reputation and unassisted by contemporaries—feels like a bigger achievement. – AB
Os Mutantes – Os Mutantes
Brazil has been ground zero for a wide variety of different styles of music, several of which converged into the weird psychedelic sound of Tropicalia in the 1960s. Os Mutantes were key figures in the movement, balancing political commentary with samba rhythms, fuzzed-out electric guitars, lyrics in three languages and a general sense of unpredictability. The band’s self-titled debut is a psychedelic masterpiece, few of its 11 tracks sounding anything like one another, while maintaining a consistent character and undeniably celebratory mood. From the opening fanfare of “Panis et Circensis,” itself a satirical jab at Brazil’s government, the trio brings the listener into a realm of stunning surrealism and melodic mischief. Their fuzzbox cover of Jorge Ben’s “A Minha Menina” is perhaps the most well-known track from the album, but the percussive thump of “Adeus Maria Fuló,” Francophone sensuality of “Le Premier Bonheur du Jour” and acid burlesque of “Trem Fantasma” show how much fertile ground there was on the other side of Os Mutantes’ looking glass. – JT
Caetano Veloso – Caetano Veloso (Tropicalia)
Caetano Veloso has been called Brazil’s Bob Dylan, and it’s a distinction with merit in spirit, if not in sound. Both write poetic lyrics, both have written cutting socio-political critiques, and both have had careers that have lasted from the ’60s up to the present. Veloso was also the leader of the Tropicalismo movement, the controversial nature of which, at the time, led to Veloso being exiled to London for a few years. Prior to that, however, Veloso released the first of three self-titled albums, this one often referred to as “Tropicalia,” after the name of the first track. And what a track it is! An explosion of color and string-laden joy, “Tropicalia” sets the stage for an eclectic and unique set of songs that showcased not just the songwriting skills but the pure imagination that a young Veloso infused into his music. He’s later come to refer to the album as “amateurish,” but it’s hard to hear the hypnotic “Clarice,” the jangly “Alegria, Alegria” or garagey “Superbacana” and come away thinking this is anything but essential listening. – JT
Chico Buarque – Construçao
Singer/songwriter Chico Buarque became an infamous figure in the 1960s, having written a play that prompted the government to threaten him into leaving the country. That actually happened quite a bit during the country’s period of civil and political unrest, though Buarque’s return to Brazil in 1970 led to the release of his greatest work: 1971’s Construçao. A melting-pot of Brazilian musical styles—samba, bossa nova and pop, or MPB—Construçao is as much a crucial moment for Brazilian popular music as it is for popular music in general in the 1970s. Released the same year as Serge Gainsbourg’s Histoire de Melody Nelson, it’s not an album with the same taboo subject matter of linear narrative, but there’s a similar blurring of genre lines and art-pop vision. Buarque is a powerful songwriter, but in many cases the arrangements are what put songs such as the explosive opener “Dheus Le Pague” or the richly layered titled track over the top. Even if you don’t necessarily understand the Portuguese lyrics, the passion is universal. – JT
Nara Leão – Des Anos Depois
Des Anos Depois, the 10th album by bossa nova singer Nara Leão, seems to contradict itself in a variety of ways. It’s a gentle and breezy album, but an ample one, spanning the length of four sides of vinyl. And it’s a quintessentially Brazilian album, featuring songs from throughout the Brazil songbook, despite being released after she had moved to Paris (it’s probably not coincidental that the cover art could pass for vintage yé-yé). Truthfully, Leão had a few bones to pick with the bossa nova movement, finding it “alienating” during the politically charged 1960s era that produced the satire and socio-political commentary of Tropicalia. For a piece of music so riddled with contradictions, however, not a minute of it sounds mussed or out of place. It’s gentle, gorgeous, primarily acoustic bossa nova beauty from the woman who earned her place in history as “the muse of bossa nova.” – JT
Lula Côrtes E Zé Ramalho – Paêbirú
Brazil’s take on psychedelia has always been my favorite, partially because it relied so little on all-too-familiar blues-rock tropes and partially because it anchored the acid-tinged melodies with an undeniable sense of rhythm. Paêbirú, a mythical Brazil-psych cult classic by Lula Côrtes and Zé Ramalho, is imbued with all the more intrigue via its curious backstory, in which copies of the original pressing were lost in a factory fire (thus leading to prices of around $4,000 for surviving copies before it was reissued). The rarity certainly lends it a level of cachet, but the music itself is diverse and vast, the album a concept-based work comprising themes of the four elements: earth, air, fire and water. As you can imagine, the “air” side is open and spacious, the “fire” side louder and more visceral, etc. It’s a stunning journey through freak-folk pluckings, acid-rock freakouts, deep grooves and other bizarre and beautiful exercises. It’s weird Brazil at its best. – JT
Jorge Ben – Africa Brasil
Jorge Ben—or Jorge Ben Jor as he changed it in the 1980s—has a catalog that’s incredibly diverse, even by the standards of Brazil’s own unique blend of sounds and influences. His earliest records were more traditional bossa nova, but as he progressed from the ’60s to the ’70s, he experimented wildly, offering a set of mysticism-inspired samba rock on 1974’s A Tabúa da Esmeralda and the African-inspired funk-rock of 1976’s Africa Brasil. The latter became one of his most widely known recordings, in part because of a lawsuit surrounding it. Ben made a plagiarism claim against Rod Stewart, alleging that his song “D’ya Think I’m Sexy” borrowed the melody from “Taj Mahal,” which sounds remarkably similar. In turn, Stewart agreed to donate royalties from the song to UNICEF. Legal tussles aside, the album is simply a powerful example of musical styles coming together in one deeply pulsing package. Leadoff track “Ponta da Lança Africano (Umbabaraumba)” is one of the best and most famous tracks here, its chant-along refrain turning it into a football anthem. But the grooves run deep, on the psychedelic “O Plebeu,” the disco thump of “Meus Filhos, Meu Tesoro” and the horn-driven bombast of the title track. – JT
Sepultura – Chaos A.D.
Brazil’s most iconic metal export—arriving a few years after Sarcofago put the country on the metal map—Sepultura underwent a notable transformation over their career. With 1989’s outstanding Beneath the Remains, they closed the chapter on ’80s thrash with a furious festival of riffs. Yet with 1993’s Chaos A.D., they changed their approach a bit, favoring meatier power-chord riffs not unlike those of Helmet while expanding their rhythmic and stylistic palette and showcasing an even broader set of influences. The album contains a cover of New Model Army’s “The Hunt,” and Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra makes a guest appearance on “Biotech is Godzilla.” In some ways, it’s a precursor to the nu-metal sound that’d come to dominate the metal landscape in just a few years, but in sound it’s much closer to the alt-metal renaissance of Faith No More, Ministry and Helmet. And though 1996’s Roots would be the album with the most overt influences from Sepultura’s homeland, Chaos A.D. is the one that stands tallest in their catalog. – JT
CSS – Cansei de ser Sexy
(Sub Pop; 2006)
As indie-dance quickly approached a saturation point in the 2000s, it embraced a selection of Brazilian artists. American DJ Diplo was likely the catalyst, as his crate-digging and musical tourism brought him in contact with the sounds of Brazil’s favelas that would inform his music and production to the present day. Performers like Bonde do Role saw some modest successes, but the leaders of the pack were this crew out of Saõ Paulo. Fronted by the wild-haired Lovefoxxx, CSS debuted with a give-no-fucks version of Western party music inspired by New Wave and No Wave. Sure, it was heavy with big hits—the processed funk of “Let’s Make Love and Listen to Death from Above,” the electroclash of “Alala,” the iTunes-commercial populism of “Music is My Hot, Hot Sex”—and they never reached this apex again. But hidden elsewhere in the tracklist (“Artins,” “This Month, Day 10”) are smart nicks of everyone from X-Ray Spex to Talking Heads. – AB
Oval – Calidostópia!
If you’re confused as to why the landmark electronica project of Germany’s Markus Popp is on here, well, consider the sources. After creating the glitch subgenre in the 1990s, Oval recast it in the 2000s by deconstructing sounds from hand-played instruments instead of manipulated CDs. Funded in part by the Brazilian state of Bahia and recorded in its capital city of Salvador, this project saw Popp assemble sounds retrieved from recent Oval sessions beneath largely untouched vocals by singers from Brazil and other South American countries. It’s a weirdly haunting construction, a successful artistic experiment that seems to position the clicks’n’cuts as the rainforest—woods creaking with age and moisture, full of animal noises—and the human elements as its tribes to be revealed. – AB