Best World Music of All Time – Ranked

Welcome to my meta-list of world music.  I found about 16 lists of “best world music” on the Internet and in books and combined them into one meta-list, then added lists of best African music, best Latin music, best Celtic & Irish music, best music of China and best music of Japan.  What follows are all the albums on at least two of the original source lists, organized by rank (that is, with the albums on the most lists at the top).

I realize that the term “world music” is problematic and ethnocentric.  Everything is world music if it was made on Earth, I suppose. The lists I found appear to use the term as a catch-all category that may include either traditional or non-traditional music that does not fit easily into jazz, Western art music (“classical”) or popular American and British genres (pop, rock, folk, country, R&B, soul, hip hop/rap). I would divide world music into three sub-categories: (1) Traditional, acoustic and/or folk music from all over the world, with the exception of most US/British folk, folk-rock and singer/songwriters. So, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez are not world music, but if you’re the ‘Bob Dylan’ or ‘Joan Baez’ of {insert country here}, you are world music.  (2) Traditional/pop hybrids. This would include Celtic/Irish bands with electric guitars, or the crossover pop albums of traditional musicians such as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan or Khaled.  There is a certain amount of overlap with the third category. (3) Pop, rock or other modern musical styles, performed by individuals or groups from countries where the first language isn’t English. To be considered world music, the music usually has to have some “ethnic” or traditional elements. Phoenix isn’t considered world music just because they are from France; nor are Swedish bands ABBA or The Cardigans.  Although one highly-ethnocentric way to define world music is any music from outside the US, Canada or the UK, that definition is actually too narrow.  There are at least two styles of traditional US music included in world music: Cajun and its cousin Zydeco. In addition, the category includes a number of artists with Latin roots based in the US, including Cuban-American Gloria Estefan and Mexican-Americans Los Tigres del Norte and Flaco Jimenez. Puerto Rico, which is part of the US, has been the source of much excellent Latin music.  Furthermore, traditional Scottish, Canadian (e.g., Quebecois and Cape Breton) and Irish music are all considered world music. So until we find a better term, I’m sticking with this flawed, imperfect one.

On 12 Lists
Buena Vista Social Club – Buena Vista Social Club (Cuba, 1997)

On 8 Lists
King Sunny Adé – Juju Music (Nigeria, 1982)

Astor Piazzolla – Tango: Zero Hour (Argentina, 1986)

On 7 Lists
Bulgarian State Radio & Television Female Vocal Choir – Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares (Bulgaria, 1987)

Youssou N’Dour – Immigrés (Senegal, 1988)

Orchestra Baobab – Pirates Choice (Senegal, 1992)

On 6 Lists
Tito Puente – Dance Mania (US: Puerto Rico, 1958)

Various Artists – Beleza Tropical: Brazil Classics, Vol. 1 (Brazil, 1970s-1980s, rel. 1989)

Celia Cruz & Johnny Pacheco – Celia & Johnny (Cuba/US, 1974)

Ofra Haza – Fifty Gates of Wisdom: Yemenite Songs (Israel, 1985)

Juan Luis Guerra y 4.40 – Bachata rosa  (Dominican Republic, 1990)

Cesária Évora – Miss Perfumado (Cape Verde, 1992)

Huun-Huur-Tu – The Orphan’s Lament (Tuva/Russia, 1994)

Cesária Évora – Cesaria (Cape Verde, 1995)

Susana Baca – Susana Baca (Peru, 1997)

Konono N°1 – Congotronics (Dem. Rep. of Congo, 2005)

On 5 Lists
Amália Rodrigues – The Art of Amália (Portugal, 1952-1970, rel. 1998)

Fela Kuti – The Best Best of Fela Kuti (Nigeria, 1972-1989)

The Bothy Band – The Bothy Band (Ireland, 1975)

Willie Colón & Rubén Blades – Siembra (Panama/Puerto Rico, 1978)

Djivan Gasparyan – I Will Not Be Sad in This World (Armenia, 1983)

Ali Farka Touré with Ry Cooder – Talking Timbuktu (Mali, 1994)

Hedningarna – Trä (Sweden, 1995)

Ernest Ranglin – Below the Bassline (Jamaica, 1996)

Taraf de Haïdouks – Taraf de Haïdouks (Romania, 1990-1997)

The Andy Statman Quartet – Between Heaven and Earth: Music of the Jewish Mystics (Eastern Europe/Israel/US, 1997)

Waldemar Bastos – Pretaluz (Angola, 1998)

Manu Chao –  Clandestino (France/Spain, 1998)

Lo’Jo – Bohême De Cristal (France, 2000)

Burhan Öçal & Istanbul Oriental Ensemble – Caravanserai (Turkey, 2001)

Salif Keita – Moffou (Mali, 2002)

Amadou & Mariam – Dimanche à Bamako (Mali, 2005)

On 4 Lists
أم كلثوم (Umm Kulthum; Oum Kalsoum) – The Legend: The Arab World’s Greatest Singer (Egypt, 1920s-1940s)
Various Artists – The Rough Guide to the Music of Greece (Greece, 1920s-2000, rel. 2001)
Various Artists – Cajun Vol. 1: Abbeville Breakdown (US, 1929-1939)
Ravi Shankar – Master of Sitar (India, 1960s, rel. 2001)
Various Artists – The Rough Guide to Bollywood (India, 1960s-2000, 2002)
Ali Akbar Khan – Traditional Music of India (India, 1965)
Various Artists   Indonesia: Music From the Nonesuch Explorer Series (Indonesia, 1966-1987, rel. 2003)
Various Artists – Mali: Cordes Anciennes (Ancient Strings) (Mali, 1970)
Cheo Feliciano – Cheo (US: Puerto Rico, 1971)
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan – In Concert in Paris, Vols. 1-5 (Pakistan, 1987-1989)
Master Musicians of Jajouka – Apocalypse Across the Sky (Morocco, 1992)
Boukman Eksperyans – Kalfou Danjere (Haiti, 1992)
Annbjørg Lien – Felefeber (Norway, 1994)
Varttina – Aitara (Finland, 1994)
Kodo – Live at the Acropolis (Japan, 1995)
The Chieftains – Water from the Well  (Ireland, 1998)
Mano Negra – Best of Mano Negra (France/Spain, 1998)
Dónal Lunny – Coolfin (Ireland, 1998)
Rachid Taha – Diwân (Algeria/France, 1998)
Orchestra Baobab – Specialist in All Styles (Senegal, 2002)
Flaco Jimenez – Squeeze Box King (Mexico/US, 2003)
Youssou N’Dour – Egypt (Senegal, 2004)
Ali Farka Touré – Savane (Mali, 2006)
Tinariwen – Aman Iman: Water Is Life (Mali, 2007)

On 3 Lists
Various Artists – Tougher Than Tough: The Story of Jamaican Music (Jamaica, 1958-1992, rel. 1993)
The Balfa Brothers – Play Traditional Cajun Music – Vol I & II (US, 1967; 1974)
Shivkumar Sharma, Brijbushan Kabra & Hariprasad Chaurasia – Call of the Valley (India, 1968)
Planxty – Planxty (Ireland, 1973)
Fela Kuti – Zombie (Nigeria, 1976)
Various Artists – The Indestructible Beat of Soweto (South Africa, 1981-1984, rel. 1985)
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan – Mustt Mustt (Pakistan, 1990)
The Tahitian Choir – Rapa Iti (French Polynesia, 1992)
Altan – Harvest Storm (Ireland, 1992)
Solas – Solas (Ireland, 1996)
Khaled – Sahra (Algeria, 1996)
Ghazal – Lost Songs of the Silk Road (India/Iran, 1997)
Mariza – Fado em Mim (Portugal, 2000)
Youssou N’Dour – Nothing’s in Vain (Coono du Réér) (Senegal, 2002)
Asha Bhosle – The Rough Guide to Bollywood Legends: Asha Bhosle (India, 2003)
Lúnasa – Redwood (Ireland, 2003)
Tinariwen – Amassakoul (Mali, 2004)
Ladysmith Black Mambazo – Ilembe: Honoring Shaka Zulu (South Africa, 2008)
Amadou & Mariam – Welcome to Mali (Mali, 2008)
Ali Farka Touré and Toumani Diabaté – Ali and Toumani (Mali, 2010)

On 2 Lists
Various Artists – The Rough Guide to Paris Café Music (France, 1920-1950s, rel. 2002)
Various Artists – Phases of the Moon: Traditional Chinese Music (China, 1950s-1970s, rel. 1981)
Franco & OK Jazz – Originalité: The Original 1956 Recordings of O.K. Jazz (Dem. Rep. of Congo, 1956)
Franco – The Rough Guide to Franco: Africa’s Legendary Guitar Master (Dem. Rep. of Congo, 1956-1987, rel. 2001)
Miriam Makeba – Miriam Makeba and the Skylarks, Vols. 1 & 2 (South Africa, 1956-1959, rel. 1991, 1997)
Babatunde Olatunji – Drums of Passion (Nigeria, 1960)
Various Artists – Éthiopiques, Vol. 1: The Golden Years of Modern Ethiopian Music (Ethiopia/Eritrea, 1960s-1970s, rel. 1998)
Various Artists – The Very Best of Éthiopiques: Hypnotic Grooves From the Legendary Series (Ethiopia/Eritrea, 1960s-1970s, rel. 2007)
Various Artists – Tropicália: A Brazilian Revolution in Sound (Brazil, rec. 1967-1973, rel. 1998)
Bembeya Jazz National – The Syliphone Years (Guinea, 1967-1977, rel. 2009)
Gal Costa – Gal Costa (Brazil, 1969)
Milton Nascimento and Lô Borges – Clube da Esquina (Brazil, 1972)
Planxty – The Well Below the Valley (Ireland, 1973)
Mahmoud Ahmed – Almaz (reissued as Éthiopiques, Vol. 6: Almaz) (Ethiopia, 1973)
Elis Regina & Tom Jobim – Elis & Tom (Brazil, 1974)
Mahmoud Ahmed – Éthiopiques, Vol. 7: Erè mèla mèla (Ethiopia, 1975, 1978)
Tommy Peoples – High Part of the Road (Ireland, 1977)
Kevin Burke – Sweeney’s Dream (Ireland, 1977)
Kevin Burke – If The Cap Fits (Ireland, 1978)
Altan – Altan (Ireland, 1987)
Salif Keita – Soro (Mali, 1987)
Los Tigres del Norte – Corridos Prohibidos (Mexico/US, 1989)
Salif Keita – Amen (Mali, 1991)
Milton Nascimento – Txai (Brazil, 1991)
Shoukichi Kina – The Music Power From Okinawa (Japan, 1991)
Mary Black – Babes in the Wood (Ireland, 1991)
Cherish the Ladies – The Back Door (US/Ireland, 1992)
Sérgio Mendes – Brasileiro (Brazil, 1992)
Khaled – Khaled (Algeria, 1992)
Gloria Estefan – Mi Tierra (Cuba/US, 1993)
Nathan Abshire – French Blues (US, 1993)
Baaba Maal – Firin’ in Fouta (Senegal, 1994)
Youssou N’Dour – The Guide (Wommat) (Senegal, 1994)
Radio Tarifa – Rumba Argelina (Spain, 1994)
Shoukichi Kina – Asia Classics 2: Peppermint Tea House – The Best of Shoukichi Kina (Japan, 1994)
L. Shankar – Raga Aberi (India, 1995)
D’Gary – Horombe (Madagascar, 1996)
Jie-Bing Chen, V. M. Bhatt & Béla Fleck – Tabula Rasa (China/India/US, 1996)
The Chieftains – Santiago (Ireland, 1996)
Cheikh Lô – Ne La Thiass (Senegal, 1996)
Tarika – Son Egal (Madagascar, 1997)
Mary Jane Lamond –  Suas e! (Canada, 1997)
King Sunny Adé – Odu (Nigeria, 1998)
Mila na Utamaduni – Spices of Zanzibar (Zanzibar/Tanzania, 1998)
Toumani Diabate & Ballake Sissoko – New Ancient Strings (Mali, 1999)
Ali Farka Touré – Niafunké (Mali, 1999)
Yat-Kha – Dalai Beldiri (Tuva/Russia, 1999)
Sezen Aksu – Deliveren (Turkey, 2000)
Spaccanapoli – Lost Souls (Italy, 2000)
Solas – The Hour Before Dawn (Ireland, 2000)
Takashi Hirayasu and Bob Brozman – Jin-Jin/Firefly (Japan/US, 2000)
Taraf de Haïdouks – Band of Gypsies (Romania, 2001)
Gotan Project – La revancha del tango (France/Argentina, 2001)
Ojos de Brujo – Barí (Spain, 2002)
Various Artists – Abayudaya: Music From the Jewish People of Uganda (Uganda, 2003)
Angélique Kidjo – Black Ivory Soul (Benin, 2002)
Rubén Blades – Mundo (Panama, 2002)
Caetano Veloso – Live in Bahia (Brazil, 2002)
Juanes – Un Día Normal (Colombia, 2002)
Phạm Đức Thành – Vietnamese Traditional Dan Bau Music (Vietnam, 2002)
The Monks of Sherab Ling Monastery – Sacred Tibetan Chant (Tibet/China, 2002)
Joyce – Just a Little Bit Crazy (Brazil, 2003)
Sandra Luna – Tango Varón (Argentina, 2003)
Севара Назархон (Sevara Nazarkhan) – Yol Bolsin (Uzbekistan, 2003)
Bill Frisell – The Intercontinentals (US/Brazil/Mali/Macedonia, 2003)
Angélique Kidjo – Oyaya! (Benin, 2004)
Daddy Yankee – Barrio Fino (Puerto Rico, 2004)
Seu Jorge – Cru (Brazil, 2004)
Ladysmith Black Mambazo – Raise Your Spirit Higher (South Africa, 2004)
Cherish the Ladies – Woman of the House (Ireland/US, 2005)
Mamadou Diabate – Behmanka (Mali, 2005)
Tom Zé – Estuando o Pagode (Brazil, 2005)
Andy Palacio – Wátina (Belize, 2007)
Manu Chao – La Radiolina (France/Spain, 2007)
Kasai Allstars – In the 7th Moon, the Chief Turned Into a Swimming Fish and Ate the Head of His Enemy by Magic (Dem. Rep. of Congo, 2008)
Tinariwen – Imidiwan: Companions (Mali, 2009)
AfroCubism – AfroCubism (Mali/Cuba, 2010)
Tinariwen – Elwan (Mali, 2017)

12 thoughts on “Best World Music of All Time – Ranked

    1. beckchris

      Thanks for asking. Unfortunately, I didn’t keep great notes when I was pulling the lists together, but I’ve been able to find the original sources of 8/10 of the lists: (1) Amazon.com Editors/100 Greatest; (2) My List Pad/Top Music Lists; (3) Red Orbit/10 Best; (4) Alterdestiny/10 Best; (5) Sound Roots/Top 10; (6) The Guardian/50 Essential; (7) Grammy Nominees for Best World Album; (8) World Music: 100 Essential CDs – The Rough Guide.

      Reply
    1. beckchris

      Very interesting music – thanks for sharing it! But I did not forget it – this album did not appear on any of the lists of world music that I found, so I could not include it no matter how good it is!

      Reply
  1. drftr

    Thanks for your great efforts Chris!

    Since I have the same “problem” as you I have collected similar lists for decades now and have come up with a master list that includes popular music, jazz, and world music, with the original underlying lists intact (using different columns in Excel that shows the position on that very list). Should you want to add to your lists by borrowing from mine, you’re most welcome. To give you an idea my collection of lists for world music numbers 22 as of now, so you may find some new jewels. Or you could be wasting your time and find no music you like, but that’s totally beside the point with this hobby 🙂

    drftr

    Reply
      1. drftr

        I’m currently adding 21 jazz lists so give me a few days. Also scratching my head to make it a bit more accessible as I currently have 18,026 albums listed!

Leave a Reply to drftr Cancel reply