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NPR Music 2022 Staff Picks: Felix Contreras

X Alfonso (left) with his sister (right) and parents.
Courtesy of X Alfonso
X Alfonso (left) with his sister (right) and parents.

I say it every year and every year it becomes more and more true: The variety of amazingly creative expressions under the umbrella of "Latin music" is expanding so fast I can barely keep up. You can see it in our annual list of the best Latin music of the year, featuring work by musicians who mostly occupy the pop sphere. My own personal list explores music made by artists far from the pop world but who deserve as much attention.

My favorite album of 2022 was Ancestros Sinfónico by X Alfonso from Cuba. It is an imaginative meshing of the European symphonic tradition with the power and beauty of the music associated with the Afro-Cuban spiritual practice known as santeria.

It is a work of uncommon beauty. Alfonso celebrates his familial heritage by featuring his iconic Cuban musician parents, Carlos Alfonso and Ele Valdés, and younger sister Eme Alfonso. Together and individually they sing traditional rezos (prayers) over meticulously crafted orchestrations that either amplify the melodies, recreate the intricate traditional bata drum beats or deliver astounding emotional release that makes me feel as if I am indeed in touch with a higher spiritual presence.

I have a very good feeling I will be listening to this album for the rest of my life.

A bit more about the rest of my list: I included Rosalía, whose music I hear as a gifted absorption of all the music that surrounded the young singer as she sat out the initial pandemic lockdown in places like Miami, though complaints and allegations of cultural appropriation deserve deeper examination. I found it to be a very productive year for jazz vocalists from Latin America influenced by Mercedes Sosa as much as Ella Fitzgerald. Adrian Quesada and Antonio Sanchez each made albums that centered collaborations with a wide array of vocalists. Álvaro Lafuente and Hermanos Gutiérrez made guitar-based albums that show off distinctive and personal approaches to the instrument. Finally, I found two very different albums — one by Amaury Acosta, aka KingKlavé, and the other by the duo of DOMi & JD BECK — that helped me indulge my passion for all things rhythmic.

Top 10 Albums of 2022


• X Alfonso, Ancestros Sinfónico
• Rosalía, Motomami
• Claudia Acuña, Duo
• Roxana Amed, Unánime
• Dafnis Prieto featuring Luciana Souza, Cantar
• Adrian Quesada, Boleros Psicodélicos
• Antonio Sanchez, SHIFT (Bad Hombre, Vol. II)
• Hermanos Gutiérrez, El Bueno Y El Malo
• Guitarricadelafuente, La Cantera
• KingKlavé, KingKlavé

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Felix Contreras is co-creator and host of Alt.Latino, NPR's pioneering radio show and podcast celebrating Latin music and culture since 2010.