If there's anything good that came out of 2018, other than the Walmart yodeling kid, it's that the Middle East has raised the bar of international music. No longer shall the region pigeon hole locally-made music into a standard of "good for what it is." You see, no matter the genre, we can safely and rightfully say that MENA artists are solidly representing and finding recognition beyond borders.
Most importantly, though, this list aims to illuminate the artists that are hanging back in the shadows, the works of art that don't come perfectly pressed off the musical assembly line. If you're looking for the musical equivalent of a birthday cake sugar rush, get out of here. This is a representation of the artists that we see legitimately striving to create art with dignity, integrity and passion. From harsh noise, to Oriental jazz, to psychedelic renditions of Arabic classics, to trap-dabkeh, and everything in between, here are the top 50 albums (in no particular order) from the Middle East and beyond that have brightened our year and left our ears anticipating the year to come.
Pie Are Squared - Adriatica
Pie Are Squared’s ambient EP Adriatica is the kind of soundscape that could easily soundtrack an unexpected adventure, a meandering stroll turned exploration. The EP relies heavily on field recordings taken from towns and other spaces along the road, representing the sonic environment of the area's residents. This is blended with modular synthesis from the 0-Coast modular synthesizer. Recommended early in the morning or late at night.
Ammar 808 - Maghreb United
Some may perceive traditional and ritualistic music as outdated or ‘not cool’, but Sofian Ben Youssef, who releases music under the moniker AMMAR 808, is one of many international artists that dash that notion to smithereens. He revivifies and spices up the traditional rhythms of raï, targ and Gnawa by recreating their patterns on iconic drum machines such as an overdriven TR-808, topped by gritty synthesizers. This is the intersection of the timeless past and the future.
Dabaka - Dabaka
A Syrian-Lebanese collaboration initiated by Lebanese artist Wael Kodeih, featuring Hello Psychaleppo, Khaled Omran from Tanjaret Daghet, and Wassim Bou Malham. The artists reimagine a few dabkeh classics into heavy-hitting electro-dabkeh with live instruments, lush electronics, and fetching vocals.
Sohrab - Mossafer
Iran’s Sohrab showcases his sonic capabilities that stretch from ambient and breaks all the way to stripped-down techno. Fit for home listening or club fuckery.
Nima Aghiani - Backscatter
Backscatter is an EP by Iranian, Paris-based sound artist Nima Aghiani, that is nothing but expressive microtonal modulation. Extremely challenging but rewarding.
R.A.N. - Şeb-i Yelda
It's hard to get much darker and still stay as musically beautiful as Şeb-i Yelda, the EP by Hüma Utku aka R.A.N. Utku infuses the "rapid political changes, invasions based on false claims, wars, humanitarian crisis, political unrest in the region" that she has witnessed into the music. She mixes dirge-like noise with distorted, screeching frequencies to create a grim wall of black ambience. Not for the faint of heart.
Adham Zahran - Things That Groove
The EP’s name says it all: jazzy house tracks that groove; nothing short of what you’d expect from the Alexandrian mastermind.
Dwarfs of East Agouza - Rats Don't Eat Synthesizers
Maurice Louca, Alan Bishop and Sam Shalabi are often regarded as the holy trinity of experimental music in Egypt, be it on their own, through their numerous side projects or collectively as The Dwarfs of East Agouza. Rats Don’t Eat Synthesizers is an album that won’t make sense to many, unless you’re an adventurous motherfucker.
Youssef Abouzeid - Captain Solo
Captain Solo, by Cairo’s rebellious night creature Youssef Abouzeid, traverses a number of different, yet interconnected soundscapes, preserving a raw, grungy, lo-fi approach, harking back to art punk with hints of new wave. Basically, it's what one could refer to as retro-future. Ideal listening conditions: on the couch at 5am, in a haze.
MoGuindy - Dance & Cry
Anchored by aural synth chords, crushed hi-hats, pulsating kick drums and placid vocals, Dance & Cry is a splashing debut for lo-fi house lovers by the Cairo-based producer.
Zuli - Terminal
Grime, jungle, experimental and techno are the words that come to mind when talking about what is an overall elusive and intangible album, making heavy use of field recordings from around Cairo and some of the country’s top rap talent. Ahmed El Ghazouli, aka Zuli, gives us a first-hand portrayal of his experiences in Cairo, giving his debut record on Lee Burton’s UIQ a personal edge.
Bas - Milky Way
Sudanese-American rapper, Bas, released his third album, Milky Way, on J. Cole’s Dreamville. Though not exactly a smashing mainstream success, the album was well received by fans and features a host of summery, feel good tunes, the most notable of which is “Tribe". The album cover is also set in Sudan’s Meroe pyramids, clearly showing that Bas is still connected to his roots.
Deena AbdelWahed - Khonnar
Khonnar is a total shift from the Tunisian producer’s first EP, introducing its listeners to a dark, introspective and disturbing view of Abdelwahed’s music that redefines her boundaries.
Hadi Zeidan - Taksim Analog
The French-Lebanese producer’s sophomore album brought forth the unprecedented concept of rendering '70s and '80s Middle Eastern classics via analog tinkering and taksim methodology. All tracks including his hypnotic re-imaginings of Ali Hassan Kuban’s “Mabrouk Mabrouk”, Georgette Sayegh’s “Ya Nassini” and tribute to Geroge Setrak are one take, real time recordings.
Interbellum - Dead Pets, Old Griefs
Following the release of their debut album Now Try Coughing in 2016, Karl Mattar’s Interbellum released Dead Pets, Old Griefs. The album is a mature undertaking that clearly stems from years of experience and experimentation. The lyrics are more akin to poems, with as little repetition as can be, with no hooks or chorus. The production is raw and the sounds are out of the box.
Wave Particle Singularity - Momentum
Mannheim-based Algerian DJ and producer, Selim Bouziri aka Wave Particle Singularity, left behind his microhouse domain and ventured seamlessly into more minimal territory with his four track Momentum EP on the Dutch imprint, Moral Fiber Music. Selim’s Romanian influence clearly shows on these productions, and in fact they’re so meticulously crafted to the point where listeners can be confused as to where they originate from.
No Longer Human - Beirut
Lebanese DJ/producer, Elias Merheb aka 3LIAS, invited Berlin-based Sardinian veteran, Andrea Ferlin, to Beirut for a gig alongside his own A Tribe Called TRIBE collective, and ended up hitting the studio with the legend alongside rising Lebanese talent, Julian Naman aka JØØL. The final product is an avant-garde, jazz-infused minimal production. The B-side is a more dance floor oriented remix by Ferlin and Alessio Mereu under their joint-alias Aleandro.
Hamdi Ryder - Snooze/Love Will Last
Tunisian DJ, producer and the person behind the Downtown Vibes party series, Hamdi Ryder, released this two-track EP while influenced by Chicago house and disco on Spain’s MoodyHouse Records. Snooze / Love Will Last even received the positive feedback and support of Chicago legend, Mark Farina.
Various Artists - Casa Sports Vol. 2 - Olympic
The second Casa Sports release on Moroccan artist Driss Bennis’s label Casa Voyager gathers the label's regulars, OCB and Kosh, along with newcomers to CV, like Polyswitch and Jamal, for a killer release that treads various territories including techno, funk, acid and jazz. Casa Sports Vol. 2: Olympic made waves among DJs and electronic fans in Europe and around the world, and ended up selling out on Bandcamp.
Cap'n Hector's Crew - Who the Hector is the Crew?
Egyptian singer/songwriter/guitarist, George Aboutar, and his newly formed Cap’n Hector’s Crew released their debut album this July, heavily influenced by Bob Dylan, The Beatles and The Cat Empire. The album is a selection of upbeat tracks, attuning to more inebriated environments with smooth transitions between sections of the songs, which makes the whole listening experience feel like a trip that takes you to many places at once.
Muqata'a - Inkanakuntu
Discrepant music’s first release on their newest sub-label, SOUK, comes courtesy of Ramallah hip-hop tastemaker, Muqata’a. Inkanakuntu is an all-instrumental album with influences of grime, jazz and downtempo that are implemented religiously with out-of-the-box methods. The album is a cerebral, pulsating body of work that is just as hard to pin down as it is to dismiss.
Albaitil Ashwai - Nuun
Self-proclaimed Jordanian Neo-Sufism band, AlBaitil Ashwai, crafted something special with their influences in their latest release, Nuun, out on Mostakell Records. They are inspired by Rumi, the renowned Sufi poet and scholar, infusing their music with a sense of authenticity that they pair with contemporary indie-rock sounds, which they fuse with classic rock, a bit of folk, reggae, and traditional sounds, lyrically coupled with Sufi symbolism.
Bachar Mar-Khalife - The Water Wheel, a Tribute to Hamza El Din
The Lebanese-French artist’s newest album, The Water Wheel, a Tribute to Hamza El Din includes not only covers of some of the songs from world renowned Escalay (The Water Wheel) album by iconic Nubian composer and oud player Hamza El Din, but also many of his other works, including those composed by Mohammed Abdel Wahab. Mar-Khalifé's signature piano is backed-up by electronics, bass, electric guitar, percussion, synth, electric saz and oud. It stretches the skins of Hamza's compositions, incorporating rock and jazz, with the album also coming with a full-on techno remix of his rendition of “ElHilwatu”, courtesy of SAMA'.
Habibi Funk - The Scorpions & Saif Abu Bakr
Habibi Funk's newest re-release features funky '70s Sudanese band The Scorpions' album Jazz, Jazz, Jazz. This was the album that first got Jannis Stuertz, aka Habibi Funk, hooked on Sudanese music, and after other forays into the country, he finally managed to release this vintage album by The Scorpions, who recently got back together after decades. Groovy, cinematic Sudanese funk with vivacious horns and drums.
Various (Radio Martiko) - Zamaan Ya Sukkar
A nine-song compilation featuring various artists pieced together by Ghent’s Radio Martiko from the archives of iconic record labels like Sono Cairo, Disques Sharara and Misrphon. The album capitalizes on the Western influences that swept through the MENA region during the 60s, particularly Cairo and Beirut. The album features music described by Martiko as ‘Egyptian Exotica’ due to its obscure juxtaposition compared to traditional music of the time. Apart from a Franco-Arabic song entitled "Fatouma" by an obscure artist named Selim El Baroudi, the compilation features songs from legendary names like Mohamed Fawzi, ElThoulathy ElMareh and Soad Mohamed, along with lesser known figures like Nubian singer, Magda Ali, Sayed Salameh and Qanun player, AbdelFattah Mansi.
Altin Gün - On
At the forefront of the Turkish-psych revival, Amsterdam-based group, Altin Gün, serve up blinged-out Turkish folk songs, a la groovy retro psych. Organs, wah wah pedals, reverb-laden saz and sultry vocals bounce over infectious Turkish rhythms.
Nesta - Eclectic Electric - Daylight
Daylight represents the second part of the Lebanese DJ and producer's previously published Eclectic Electric - Nightfall. The title holds what it promises: on this EP, the Fantôme de Nuit Records founder takes his listeners on a light, jazzy trip while staying true to his house roots.
Tamino - Amir
Grandson of iconic Egyptian singer Moharram Fouad, Belgian singer and songwriter, Tamino, has obviously inherited the mojo. With an otherworldly voice that soars seamlessly from bass to mezzo-soprano, his songs evoke emotions that you didn't know you could feel. Amir is miraculously crafted, and features an orchestra of Syrian and Iraqi musicians. Think Radiohead meets Chet Baker in an Ottoman garden.
Jerusalem In My Heart - Duqa'iq Tudaiq
Montreal-Beirut audio-visual duo Jerusalem In My Heart has outdone their well-acclaimed last release. On side one, composer Radwan Ghazi Moumneh reimagines Mohammed Abdel Wahab's classic "Ya Garat Al Wadi," renamed as "Wa Ta'atalat Loughat Al Kalam," with the help of a 15-piece orchestra in Beirut. Haunting and captivating, Duqa'iq Tudaiq has managed to contemporize Arabic music with an unprecedented level of style and tact.
Various Artists - Block9 Creative Retreat Palestine
A handpicked selection of musicians from across the globe were invited to take part in an oxymoronic “musical retreat” in Banksy’s Walled Off Hotel in Bethlehem, positioned in the shadow of the 25ft high concrete Israeli separation barrier. It included the world-renowned producer Brian Eno, Lebanon’s Mashrou Leila, US DJ and Producer The Black Madonna, avant-garde singer, songwriter Roisin Murphy and Palestine's Samir Joubran who was hot off the heels of a collab with Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters.
Emsallam - Postcolonialism
Palestinian-Jordanian rapper and multi-media artist, Msallam Hdaib, has one of the most creative approaches to hip-hop in the Middle East. Produced primarily by the Archiducer, Postcolonialism is a rapture of trap and electro-dabkeh, with Emsallam's gravelly, manic voice laying down searing and darkly comedic social commentary.
Ahmed Nazmi - Shams
Consistent and catchy Oriental jazz by Cairene six-string bass master, Ahmed Nazmi, and his impressive lineup of virtuoso musicians and diverse instrumentation. Here Nazmi effectively maneuvers the bass into a melodic role, while still
Dina El Wedidi - Slumber (Manam)
A train voyage inside of a dream, best listened to in one sitting, that is haunting, disturbing, playful, comedic, and above all, magnificent. The music is made entirely from processed samples of Egyptian trains. Easily one of the most creative and important pieces of work to come out of the region this year.
Eishan Ensemble - Nim Dong
Reflective and vigorous Persian jazz from Australia-based Iranian musician Hamed Sadeghi's ensemble, that cohesively bridges worlds and traditions. Sadeghi channels the myriad of emotions that comes with being estranged from home into music that is contemporary with its roots deeply in Persian tradition.
Tarkamt - Live at the Necropolis
Cairo artist, Cherif El-Masri, channels the deranged and absurd frequencies of Cairo into Live at the Necropolis. Harsh noise with heavy elements of psych, no wave, and industrial, it transitions from moments of desolate, dissonant and hopeless cacophony, to catchy, morbidly playful synth pop.
Naujanawan Baidar - Volume 1
Put a dervish brotherhood from the Hindu Kush in a room with Afghan folk instruments, multiple tape recorders, and a box of psych records from the '60s and '70s for an eternity, and imagine what would come out. That is the sound of Afghan-American Naujawan Baidar's Volume 1. By the way, we KNOW Afghanistan isn't the Middle East - it's South Asia - but hey, what the hell.
Sarah Maison - Sarah Maison
French-Moroccan artist Sarah Maison's debut EP: six-tracks of catchy French pop lifted by punchy Middle Eastern percussion, slinky synths and nostalgic guitars. It fluctuates between retro Pakistani film music, sugary-sweet (but tongue in cheek) synth-pop, and Oriental Spaghetti Western cabaret tunes.
Various (Ostinato Records) - Two Niles to Sing a Melody: The Violins & Synths of Sudan
New York-based Ostinato Records’ compilation, Two Niles to Sing a Melody: The Violins & Synths of Sudan, chronicles the golden days of Khartoum, from the '70s and '80s, to music made in the '90s by artists in exile, highlighting the violin, accordion, and synth driven music, carried by contagious rhythms, that provided the necessary light to a life that is often dark.
Marwan Moussa - Al Brazil
Not including Marwan Moussa this year wasn't an option. His album, Al Brazil, stands out among his other works, as it was his way to create a new sound for himself. He delivers strong punchlines with finesse.
Abyusif - Wa7ed Wa7ed
Abyusif's sophomore album has bettered his debut. A rap cocktail by the Egyptian rapper extraordinaire that encompasses many rap styles like boom bap, trap, and even a friendlier pop sound, all solidly glued together with an impeccable flow and a badass attitude.
Synaptik - Om Al Mawjat
An impressive kick-off album for the Jordanian rapper, who collaborated with many producers and rappers around the region such as ElRass, Tamer El Nafar, Bu Kulthum Wikidz and Damar to name a few.
BLTNM - يا وردي / يا حلوة
Leading the hip-hop sound in Ramallah, Palestinian collective, BLTNM, consists of several well-known local artists, who dropped one of the most innovative EPs of 2018, which actually debuted by Boiler Room. Fire.
ElRass - Baad ElHazima
Through intricate DIY sampling work and banging low end, Lebanese rapper, ElRass, divulges his personal musings on the region's political state.
The Nile Project - Tana
The third album by the most recent incarnation of The Nile Project, Tana sees an album more cohesive than its predecessors, with compositions that incorporate elements from throughout the Nile River countries, into an altogether refreshing and contemporary representation of an imagined Nile sound.
PRAED - Doomsday Survival Kit
Though at first this album from Swiss-Lebanese duo, PRAED, gives the feeling of straight-forward electro-chaabi, you soon realize that this is just the basis, the playground upon which avant-garde compositions run amuck, and that it is as much free jazz as it is shaabi. If Archie Shepp had grown up in Imbaba, this is the music he would be making.
Postcards - I'll Be Here In The Morning
Lebanese dream pop quartet, Postcards, deal with the theme of growing up and everything that’s part of that journey: feelings of sadness, indifference, deception, femininity and empowerment accompanied by calm, peaceful and almost nostalgic instrumentals.
'SY XS - Supreme Sound Vol. 2
This Cairo rapper's four-track EP is an ode to opposites, an exploration of dichotomy: love and hate, respect and disrespect. "Respect" is a shout-out to the rap scenesters he feels for, while "Disrespect" is a heavy dis track on those unfortunate enough to warrant 'SY XS' disapproval. This marks his last release in the old school style, before he too began trappin'.
Dirty Backseat - GooBad
Cairo garage rockers, Dirty Backseat, serve up a straightforward and solid blend of lo-fi garage rock post-punk, with lyrics following themes of social and personal issues, and enough musical diversity to keep it continuously interesting without venturing into noticeably unorthodox territory.
777Nerd - Keywords
Moroccan old-school rapper, 777Nerd, has adapted his sound to incorporate trap in this release, notable from the get-go with "Drill". Along with rapping, he also produced the album. Clean beats and lyrics in Darija and English make for a fun listen - another testament to the raging scene coming up in Morocco.
1127 - Counters Unfold
More noise from Cairo. Counter Unfold is diabolical; well-crafted voltaic, insect-like landscapes. The tracks are not long, but in their brevity, there is a pertinence and a concise gravity. Nothing more is needed - the effect is drastic, and dynamic and the beauty of Counters Unfold lies in the vehemence of the storm.