The problem with world music is that it's usually impossible to understand the lyrics (although that hasn't kept Lil Jon from having a successful career). But if you want to enjoy one upside of the global economy, here are five albums by international women with something to say--in English, but with distinctive pronunciation.
KEREN ANN - NOLITA
The previous two albums by this Indonesian-Dutch-Israeli-Russian (who splits her time between Paris and New York City, naturally) were such delicate exercises in mood that they seemed to avoid hard consonants, as if the tiniest plosive could break the spell. Here Ann gets a bit more sonically aggressive (sometimes the drummer uses sticks!) but vocal minimalism remains her strength, so she whispers along with her acoustic guitar, barely singing songs about being in Montmartre when she wants to be in Manhattan. She's precious but hypnotic too.
M.I.A. - ARULAR
THE child of a Sri Lankan Tamil rebel leader, Maya Arulpragasam moved to London at age 12 and discovered hip-hop. Now 28, she has produced a mini-masterpiece that merges Jamaican dancehall patois and Missy Elliott's stuttering rhythm with a political viewpoint entirely her own. She's not so eloquent in her anger as Public Enemy or so tuneful as the Clash, but it's a pretty impressive neighborhood for a debut.
REGINA SPEKTOR - SOVIET KITSCH
BORN IN MOSCOW and raised in the Bronx, Spektor sports a rare combination of classical-piano training and hip friends (she opened for the Strokes' last tour). She also has a singing style that springs from an immigrant's fascination with her second language. On Poor Little Rich Boy she stretches words like girlfriend and café into epic solos, then crams long sentences into her mouth and spits them out in a few exuberant bars. Her music--from Tin Pan Alley to Carole King-style folk--is also a stylistic melting pot.
KATHLEEN EDWARDS - BACK TO ME
WERE EDWARDS not Canadian, her second album of alt-country old-flame songs might be too vicious to take. But because she sings with a sleepy, almost polite affectlessness (like Beth Orton or Suzanne Vega), the moments when Edwards eviscerates cads with such lines as "You say you like me in your memory/ You've got to be f___ing kidding me" sound less like insults than laments. She would like to be rough around the edges, but she knows softness is her best feature.
COCOROSIE - LA MAISON DE MON REVE
SIERRA AND BIANCA Casady, the half-Cherokee sisters who call themselves CocoRosie, have U.S. passports but wrote their debut in their creaky Paris apartment and, by the sound of things, recorded it on Mars. Nothing on this album feels normal, from the coffee grinders and sirens buried deep in the mix to the sisters' spooky voices, which show an infatuation with Billie Holiday in her late, coming-apart phase. Like all Americans in Paris, they're a bit mannered, but the songs work, particularly By Your Side ("I'll wear your black eyes/ Bake you apple pies"), a clattering ballad about the dark side of devotion. --By Josh Tyrangiel