Amadou and Mariam Dimanche A Bamako

It took a lot of nerve to make this album, and few people could have pulled it off. Dimanche A Bamako features an Allen Toussaint/Lee Dorsey-style production where Manu Chao is the Toussaint-like producer, main performer and sometimes lead vocalist, while "the blind couple from Bamako,” Amadou and Mariam are the muses of the project. The svengali-like, culturally imperialist implications of such an arrangement might be an issue with other world fusion producers, but Chao’s career has been built on confounding these power dynamics: Dimanche A Bamako sounds like everyone having a lot of fun. The Malian blues sound of the couple’s previous 12 albums is dispensed with sonically but not spiritually in favour of a super-poppy sheen. All songs are in the three-minute range and feature percolating percussion, programmed beats and bluesy harmonica forming a sunny R&B/reggae/West African hybrid. It’s difficult to describe the sound of the disc unless one is already familiar with Chao’s own work — it’s the best album he’s ever made. Amadou’s Little Milton-style guitar and Mariam’s flat and funky vocals are the essence of this disc. They’re embellished by layers of other rhythms and sounds that are always unusual yet very accessible. In the end, it all comes together as an ambitious, collaborative, inspiring disc that never loses momentum and is one of the best of the year. (Nonesuch)