Most of the albums which are often at the forefront of popular music are from artists of English-speaking countries. By that, it often boils down to just the UK and the U.S., with a small number of exceptions.
This list of five albums will showcase a small sample of what can be found from different countries and movements in popular music around the world, which will hopefully encourage you to look beyond both the mainstream, and the music most synonymous with western popular culture.
La Saboteuse – Yazz Ahmed (Britain/Bahrain)
This 2017 release by this British-Bahraini jazz trumpeter, La Saboteuse is a dynamic modern jazz album, which despite taking nearly three years to craft and perfect, manages to feel very much alive and in the moment.
With its fusion of Arabic melodies laid on top of western structures, La Saboteuse “continues the exploration of the music of [Yazz Ahmed’s] Middle Eastern heritage” while also reflecting the influences from her collaborations with artists such as Radiohead and These New Puritans.
From the throbbingly energetic “Jamil Jamal” to the cinematic “Al Emadi”, La Saboteuse is an excellent showcase of how an instrumental album should be sequenced and performed: each track should always fit alongside the tracks surrounding it, as well the overarching sonic landscape which it lives in. Even the album’s five interludes are used effectively, adding space and stillness to the constant unpredictability which inhabit the other eight tracks here.
The album notably features a cover of “Bloom” from Radiohead’s 2011 album, The King of Limbs (which Ahemd herself performed flugelhorn on), and is in my opinion, superior to the original. Whether it is down to its live drumming or Arabic-inflected trumpet line, I am not sure. However, compared to the robotic staticness of the original, Ahmed’s version feels much more alive and captivating.
Modern jazz albums often tend to be overlooked in favour of the “classics” from acts such as Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, John Coltrane, and Dave Brubeck. While it is far too premature to evaluate the lasting impact of Ahmed’s second album, La Saboteuse is definitely a jazz album worthy of its hour-long runtime.
Zombie – Fela Kuti (Nigeria)
A twenty-five minute opus from afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, his 1977 album, Zombie, is a political statement which scathingly attacked Nigeria’s first military junta of the 1970s.
“Zombie” is a vicious mocking of the Nigerian military and its subservient methods, going as far as to make a point that the army cannot go to the toilet unless allowed otherwise. If the track’s message did not speak to the realities of 1970’s Nigeria with such accuracy, it could almost pass as being hilarious.
Musically, Zombie’s two cuts are outrageously contagious to listen to. “Mister Follow Follow” is somewhat more spacious than the groovy intensity of the title track and is often overlooked by comparison. However, it does act as a subtle extension of Kuti’s philosophy about never being in a state of blissful ignorance and submission and is well worth being listened to on its own merits.
The album’s release and subsequent popularity would anger the Nigerian government and later led to the military attacking and destroying Kuti’s Kalakuta Republic commune, which would also result in the murder of his mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti.
The 2009 CD reissue bumps the album to nearly an hour in length, with two added tracks. However, if you are looking for a short taster of the afrobeat genre, then Zombie in its original form, is quite a digestible introduction to the genre.
Trans-Europe Express – Kraftwerk (Germany)
While Kraftwerk’s innovative studio album run from 1974’s Autobahn to 1981’s Computer World is considered to be one of the few to rival that of the Beatles’ late 1960s output in terms of influence, 1977’s Trans-Europe Express is not only considered a pinnacle of the German music scene of the era, but arguably the greatest album released by any German artist in popular music.
A concept album split between celebrating Europe (“Europe Endless”, “Trans-Europe Express”) and examining the contrasts between reality and appearance (“The Hall of Mirrors”, “Showroom Dummies”), Trans-Europe Express refined Kraftwerks’s melodic electronic style first explored on 1975’s Radio-Activity, with greater emphasis on sequenced rhythms, minimalism, and manipulated vocals.
The near-ten minute opening track “Europe Endless” is a sonic ode to a Europe which could hopefully look past the darkest parts of its modern history: a unified Europe; an end to the Cold War; and a Europe where the impact of Nazism is always remembered, but no longer felt. For reference, this was twelve years before the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe.
The title track, “Metal on Metal”, and “Abzug” are an entrancing trio of tracks best listened to in sequence, and build momentum with each other which simulates the acceleration of a train, helped in no small part by the custom made vocoder, music sequencer, and patented electronic drum kit by Ralf Hütter and the late Florian Schneider.
It cannot be understated how influential Trans-Europe Express has been on popular music over the past four decades. Daft Punk would take direct influence from Kraftwerk when incorporating vocoded vocals in their work, starting with 2001’s Discovery; the melody of the title track would be sampled in one of hip hop’s formative singles, “Planet Rock” by Afrika Bambaataa & the Soulsonic Force; Madonna also incorporated samples from the album as part of her 2001 Drowned World Tour. There are simply too many examples to list.
In short, Trans-Europe Express is one of electronic music’s most essential listens.
From Here to Eternity – Giorgio Moroder (Italy)
On the other side of the electronic music zeitgeist from Kraftwerk was the Italian producer Giorgio Moroder, who is perhaps best known for his work on Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away”, Irene Cara’s “Flashdance… What a Feeling”, and Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love”, the latter of which redefined dance music while influencing almost everything and everyone around it.
However, that does not mean that Moroder’s solo catalogue is lacking either: From Here to Eternity is arguably his finest (half) hour as a lead artist.
Tied together by the constant steady kicks of a drum machine (which helps the first four tracks to flow into one another), Moroder’s 1977 effort is ahead of its time by at least a decade, with the seamless transition between different songs becoming a trademark of the electronic and house movements of the 1990s in nightclubs around the world.
From Here to Eternity eight tracks also fly by at a breakneck pace, which also birthed another hallmark of music created for clubs – it feels like only a few minutes have passed before you realise the DJ has finished his two- to three-hour set.
While there might be far more cutting-edge albums in the electronic genre, few have had such a profound impact while also not being too well-known. Highlights include the title track (a UK top 20 hit), “Lost Angeles”, and “First Hand Experience in Second Hand Love”.
Kankyō Ongaku: Japanese Ambient, Environmental & New Age Music 1980-1990 – Various artists (Japan)
Japanese for “environmental music”, Kankyō Ongaku is a compilation of calm and spacious music partially inspired by the Brian Eno’s ambient series of the late 1970s/early 1980s.
Curated by Visible Cloaks’ Spencer Doran, Kankyō Ongaku is a fascinating document of a once obscure scene in popular music, which thrived in anonymity during the period of Japan’s economic peak of the 1980s. Music site, The Vinyl Factory, conducted an interview with Doran explaining the music world of the compilation.
As for the music, it feels similar to Eno’s earliest ambient works – best listened to indoors, and works well either as calming mood pieces, or as background noise when doing household or office tasks, although the longer cuts are much more immersive, with Satoshi Ashikawa’s “Still Space” and Fumio Miyashita’s “See the Lights (Abridged)” being particular standouts.
Kankyō Ongaku was critically praised for shining a light on a music scene which is not that well-known, which has helped to instigate interest in the Japanese ambient scene. The compilation also earned Doran a nomination for Best Historical Album at last year’s Grammy Awards.
A compilation which may not be to everyone’s taste, but worth a curiosity listen if you are a fan of ambient and new age music.