Think of Latin music in 2000 and a chorus of female voices is likely to flood your mind.
From the silky boleros of Omara Portuondo and the rock poetry of Julieta Venegas to the electronica-tinged bossa nova of Bebel Gilberto and the bittersweet pop of Ana Torroja, the past year saw women releasing the most compelling albums in the Latin field.
And this trend might well continue in the months to come. To begin with, the most anticipated album of 2001 is the English-language debut of Colombian pop-rock star Shakira. The 23-year-old singer is recording in Miami and the Bahamas with a summer release in mind.
The Epic album will give Shakira another chance to deliver a record as passionate and arresting as her live performances.
The singer is the first to admit that her studio output (which includes 1998's "Donde Estan los Ladrones?" and the Grammy-nominated "MTV Unplugged") doesn't come close to the experience of seeing her in concert.
"I know I sound better live," she says. "I'm never happy with the way my voice sounds on the records. Being on stage is like looking at myself in the mirror, giving my fans a direct reflection of everything I am. The challenge remains to create an album that will overcome the limitations of a studio."
Shakira promises an austere record devoid of studio gimmicks, one that will be anchored on crunchy guitar riffs and the sound of her voice.
Another closely watched female vocalist from Colombia is also readying a new album. This month, Andrea Echeverri and her band, Aterciopelados, will release the follow-up to 1998's critically acclaimed trip-hop-meets-South America collection, "Caribe Atomico."
Other rock en espanol artists with new albums this year are Fito Paez, Manu Chao (a sequel to his seminal "Clandestino"), ranchera rappers El Gran Silencio, Jaguares and Fabulosos Cadillacs, who will release two separate live records titled "Hola" and "Chau."
A relatively obscure group from Argentina, veteran party band Bersuit Vergarabat, will attempt to join rock en espanol royalty with "Hijos del Culo." This combination of reggae and rock with African-tinged South American rhythms such as the carnival-like murga is said to be a classic in the making.
In the pop field, Enrique Iglesias is following his 1999 crossover album with a Spanish-language affair. Fans of vintage pop might be more interested in the return of Jose Jose, this time with a recording produced by Juan Gabriel, marking the first collaboration between these two giants from the '70s.
If you care to meet Charles Bukowski reincarnated as a Spanish popster, don't miss Joaquin Sabina's double live album, which will probably be chock-full of vitriolic, alcohol-fueled tales of urban despair in 21st century Madrid.
As it did over the last 12 months, tropical music will rely on small, specialized labels for the year's salsa thrills.
There's Los Angeles-based Ahi-Nama, which was releasing quality Cuban stuff before the Buena Vista Social Club craze. In addition to signing sonero Issac Delgado, the label will unveil new albums by two of the island's most interesting groups: traditionalists Arte Mixto and timba masters Bamboleo.
Perhaps the most intriguing project of the year finds the edgy genre of Latin rock expressing its devotion to Hector Lavoe, arguably the most transcendent singer in the history of salsa.
Notable rock en espanol figures such as Fabulosos Cadillacs, Los Amigos Invisibles, Los Pericos, Ozomatli and Manu Chao are teaming up with salseros Domingo Quinones, Johnny Ventura, Jose Alberto El Canario and others to record Lavoe oldies such as "El Cantante," "Periodico de Ayer" and "Rompe Saraguey." The collection will be released in the summer by RMM Records.
It sounds as if 2001 will bring enough quality releases to make up for the strangely disappointing 2000.
Because Latin music has become more visible than ever in this country, and because major labels finally decided to invest big bucks in sounds from south of the border, last year should have been a rich one.
And sure enough, albums such as Venegas' "Bueninvento" and Portuondo's self-titled big-band album were stunning.
Leave the few jewels aside, however, and you're left with a slew of pedestrian records.
There was an alarmingly low number of rock en espanol releases. With only Venegas, Los Amigos Invisibles and Orishas contributing memorable albums, fans were left with enough time to discover cult bands such as Argentina's lounge rockers Babasonicos and their psychedelic "Miami." At this point, the movement is in dire need of new groups with something interesting to say.
The year also saw a decline in the popularity of salsa and other tropical genres, with the exception of the Buena Vista Social Club franchise, which has yet to run out of steam. Besides Portuondo, Buena Vista pianist Ruben Gonzalez and troubadour Eliades Ochoa also came up with noteworthy sessions.