I've never felt more overwhelmed by new releases than I did by the deluge of 2012. I'm not complaining, but it does make compiling this sort of year-end list feel almost pointless—how can you ever be sure you've heard everything worthwhile? All the same, it wasn't hard for me to choose five favorite international recordings.
Fatoumata Diawara, Fatou (World Circuit/Nonesuch) Paris-based singer-songwriter Fatoumata Diawara, born to Malian parents in the Ivory Coast, left her homeland to pursue an acting career, but her musical talent soon got her noticed. She signed on as a backup vocalist for the great Wassoulou singer Oumou Sangare, and on her debut, Fatou, she shares Sangare's independence and defiance, extending empathy to all sorts of oppressed people—misfits, victims of war, illegal immigrants, women (who in Mali are sometimes circumcised as girls and considered minors at any age if they're unmarried). She brings pop savvy to her deep, cyclical grooves with arrangements that expertly balance guitars and electric bass with kora and n'goni.
Mairi Morrison & Alasdair Roberts, Urstan (Drag City) In recent years an impressive cohort of young artists have revisited the traditional folk music of the British Isles, including the Unthanks, Emily Portman, and Jackie Oates, but I find Scottish singer and guitarist Alasdair Roberts the most original and consistently fascinating. On this collaboration with singer and actress Mairi Morrison, who grew up speaking Gaelic (it was organized by Glasgow's Centre for Contemporary Arts), Roberts expands his repertoire by setting Gaelic songs within gorgeous, diverse arrangements.
Antonio Zambujo, Quinto (World Village) Female fado singers such as Mariza, Ana Moura, and Mafalda Arnauth dominate coverage of Portugal's national music, but for my money Antonio Zambujo is the genre's most interesting and exciting practitioner. On his fifth and best album, Quinto, he continues to toy with fado's conventions, sometimes adding airy clarinet to the standard instrumentation of acoustic guitars and bass. Zambujo also teases out commonalities between fado and Brazilian music—on certain songs his gorgeous voice sounds more than a little like Caetano Veloso's.
Sidi Touré, Koïma (Thrill Jockey) For his austere 2011 debut, Sahel Folk, this Malian singer and guitarist recorded a collection of duets at his sister's home in Gao. For its even better follow-up, he booked a proper studio in Bamako with a band, resulting in a richer, more propulsive sound. On Sahel Folk Touré seemed happy to yield center stage to his partners, and on Koïma he leads only as a vocalist, though he wrote the songs and their multilayered arrangements—his acoustic guitar plays a purely rhythmic role, but his singing has never sounded more authoritative and soulful.
Huong Thanh, L'arbre aux Reves (Buda) Paris-based singer Huong Thanh has recorded a series of genre-straddling collaborations with jazz guitarist Nguyen Le, setting traditional Vietnamese melodies to slickly modern arrangements. Over the last few years, though, she's abandoned the glossy trappings of those crossover records—on her most recent albums, the instruments, the style, and the repertoire are all traditional. L'arbre aux Reves is her best such recording yet.