From a musical perspective, Brazil's hosting the 2014 World Cup is a victory regardless of bite marks, bungles or early exits. Volumes could be written about the country's legacy of song, one that rivals the recorded output of any culture on Earth.
A place where the samba and its offspring bossa nova are sacred and the boom of capoeira rhythms beat relentlessly, the country's artists have produced myriad stylistic variations. Below are a few recent records that will not only serve your World Cup needs but provide sustenance until we all start digging into Russian music in four years. Or not. (For those interested in hearing more Brazilian sounds, I've compiled a Spotify playlist that greatly expands on this list.)
Various artists, "Role: New Sounds of Brazil" (Mais Um Discos). In a less-musically saturated American marketplace, this miraculous 43-song collection of new Brazilian music would be greeted with the kind of fanfare that might drive a cultural shift á la Stan Getz & Joao Gilberto's "Getz/Gilberto" in 1964. Packed with variety but with the samba and bossa nova rhythms as the compilation's heartbeat, “Role” was curated by Mais Um Discos label chief Lewis Robinson. It confirms the bounty.
Ranging from the infectious beats of the Bahia region (Russo Passapusso's "Paraquedas") to experimental balladry (Tulipa Ruiz's new single, "Megalomania"), the set is as impatient and curious as the country's best composers. On "Amazonia Bang Bang," Strobo mixes a synthetic bass line with strange digital squiggles and a frantic guitar strum. The utterly strange deconstruction of samba at the heart of Meta Meta's "Alakoro," from the band's fantastic new album, "Metal Metal," features wild saxophone bursts, loose-stringed strums, a reggae-tinged bass line and the gigantic voice of Kiko Dinucci. Throughout "Role," such surprise trumps stasis at every turn.
Caetano Veloso, "Abracao" (Nonesuch). Never underestimate Caetano Veloso. The Brazilian national treasure and musical figurehead has been composing for half a century, going back to the birth of the 1960s "tropicalia" movement that propelled him and luminaries such as Jorge Ben, Os Mutantes, Gal Costa, Milton Nascimento and others. (If you don't own it, the David Byrne-curated collection "Brazil Classics" is a great tropicalia starting point.)
And yet on his new "Abracao," Veloso sounds as fresh as a 25-year-old discovering himself, filled with experimental curiosity, hard beats — and one of the best guitar solos you'll hear all year on "Um Abracao." Like Bob Dylan, Veloso is a restless explorer, never content to repeat. "Funk Melodico" is exactly as its described: an insistent jam that juggles tempos to create whirlwind tones. Few artists of any nationality have remained as inventive over a career as Veloso, and the proof is all over "Abracao."
Rodrigo Amarante, "Cavalo" (Easy Sound). Amarante sings in English and Portuguese on his striking new "Cavalo," a smoky come-on that mixes oddball textures with quiet melodies and Amarante's whisper-singing. It's a record that will hook you from the start: "Nada Em Vao" floats in like an errant bubble: A gentle piano melody opens, and this could be an Astrud Gilberto ballad. With patience, space and emotional gentility, Amarante eases in with seduction before expanding over the rest of the 11-song album.
Amarante got his start in the breakout rock band Los Hermanos, whose song "Anna Maria" became a hit in 1999 and propelled the band to national fame. The band has been on hiatus since 2007, and Amarante has spent that time well. "Cavalo" is endlessly accessible and luxuriates in its warmth. If there's such a thing as modern ideal of Brazilian's soft-touch bossa nova, it's here.
Seu Jorge, "Seu Jorge & Almaz" (Now Again). Best known in America for his Greek-chorus style narrative commenting in Wes Anderson's "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou," where he played David Bowie songs, Seu Jorge is a master of stylistic exploration. Over the past decade the artist, a native of a favela on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, has explored many nooks of the country's musical history.
My favorite of his is from 2010 and released stateside on Los Angeles label Now Again, on which the musician teams with collaborators Almaz to explore heavy duty Brazilian soul. Mixing bass-driven dub and deep rhythmic repetition but just as much nuanced space, it's a record to be heard at full volume on the dance floor and will leave you drenched.
Lucas Santtana, "O Deus Que Devasta Mas Também Cura" and "Funk Dos Bromanitcos" (Diginois Records). Bossa nova is as malleable a term in Brazil as rock 'n' roll is in America, and the brilliant songwriter and arranger Lucas Santtana strikes a rich vein on this 2013 album, which, translated, means "The God Who Devastates Also Cures." A leading voice of new Brazil, his work would earn more international acclaim had he delivered his lines in English — but what would the point be in that?
Santtana is at his best on the title track for "O Deus Que Devasta." Mixing a muted-horn orchestra, rumbling bass and hypnotic drumming inspired by both jazz and samba, it's a blast of new. The artist is working on his follow-up, and the just released teaser track, "Funk Dos Bromanticos," is a beast that somehow blends wobbly dubstep-inspired bass with frantic rhythms and much inspired weirdness.