Please excuse the note of shame in NorteñoBlog’s voice, but 2016 has gotten off to a more… focused start than last year. On the list (and YouTube playlist!) that follows, you’ll find no bands devoted to cumbia, no musicians from outside la patria, and — despite my doubtless inadequate searching — only one woman. (Karla Luna snuck on at the end, with a song that might end up growing on me. And Helen Ochoa‘s album deserves a listen.) What we’ve got here is nine norteño songs and six banda tunes by dudes who are pretty open about their lusts — if not for las mujeres, then for power and fancy wristwatches. But their music is no less compelling, because within those confines live several worlds of possibility.
El Armenta‘s big dumb cumbia (#1), Remmy Valenzuela‘s power ballad (#8), and Banda Pequeños Musical‘s pan flute monstrosity (#15) are all romantic banda songs that find vastly different paths to greatness. Or near greatness. The same thing happens on the norteño side. Though everyone’s working the same genre turf, Adriel Favela‘s guitar-saturated version of a new corrido standard (#3) couldn’t sound further from the Intocable love song (#10) with the distorted electric guitar and the show-offy accordion solo, as precise and memorable as a prime Van Halen break. Regional Mexican music pitches a bigger and more inventive tent than half the U.S. political system. Speaking of which, I sort of feel like El Armenta’s video, in which grotesque rubber-faced men enact an inexplicable ritual while carrying big sticks, gives us a terrifying preview of June’s Republican convention. At least nobody dies from the sticks.
1. El Armenta – “El Perro Se Soltó” (Armenta)
Of all the big dumb banda cumbias I’ve heard this year, “El Perro” is the best, with horns and clarinets blaring all over the place and a churning beat that doesn’t quit until the perro in question barks at the end. The sound’s a little clipped in the head-scratcher of a video, which only adds to the Lynchian daytime nightmare feel of the whole endeavor.
2. La Iniciativa – “El Loquito del Rancho” (PCol)
A quick waltz where singer Ariel Inzunza’s inventive melody throws in all these quintuplets, giving the first half of each line a crowded five-against-three feel. (You can play along at home! Tap your chest “ONE two three/ ONE two three” over and over again, and then start saying “onetwothreefourfive/ ONE two” so that the “one”s in your voice line up with the “one”s in your tapping. Got that? Now balance a ball on your nose!)
3. Adriel Favela ft. Los Del Arroyo – “Tomen Nota” (Gerencia360/Sony)
An exciting Sierreño-meets-norteño, bass-meets-tuba mashup, and the title track from young Adriel’s latest album. Song and video present the smooth-voiced singer in the unlikely role of a tough-talking gangster, leaving his pistols on the billiard table and blocking your shot. With covers by everyone from Nena Guzman to La Banda Del Mango (me neither), Jesús Carrillo’s instantly memorable corrido is well on its way to becoming the next “El Karma.”
4. Los Titanes de Durango – “Rumbo a Maza” (DEL)
The whipcrack tale of an hombre who talks his way out of a speeding ticket after he gets pulled over for doing 280 in a 110, I’m guessing on the 15D outside Mazatlán. Turns out our speedy hero Knows People and commands the respect of the police, who graciously compliment the beautiful muchacha seated beside him before letting him drive away. And people think Mexican police are corrupt!
6. Los Rodriguez de Sinaloa – “Te Tengo de Cortar” (self-released)
Taking a cue from K Camp, Los Rodriguez decide they need to leave this particular mujer where she stands, and it’ll be much less painful for the mujer in question if they end it with some quickness. Pulling off Band-Aids and whatnot. Los Rodriguez’s tuba player does his best to be convincing, particularly during the chunky, rapid-fire pre-choruses. The song lasts less than three minutes, but nearly every bar sounds like a big jagged glob of something shoved in your face.
7. Alex Saucedo – “Si Te Voy a Perder” (self-released)
Imagine Martin Shkreli made a music video. Now imagine it didn’t suck, that it was instead a fierce waltz mashing up norteño quartet with banda, and that the singer’s lustrous voice made you overlook his perpetual smirk.
8. Remmy Valenzuela – “Espero Con Ansias”
Another winner from the accordion hero turned power romantic. If anyone can name the ’80s AOR ballad whose hook he’s nicked, the same hook that’s rubbing against that sweet spot in his tenor voice, I’m in your debt. ROMANTIC debt.
9. Espinoza Paz – “A Veces”
I know it’s not in the same league, and maybe it’s just because everyone in the video is sitting down, but when I watch the “A Veces” video I think of Elvis doing “One Night With You” during his ’68 comeback special. Paz and his band have a similar open-shirted charisma, and that same sense of burrowing deep into the rhythms of a song to see what delightful objects they can drag out of it.
10. Intocable – “Tu Ausencia”
This song does most of what Intocable does best. It’s catchy as all get out — if you’ve been hearing it on the radio, the chorus hook goes “Me faaaaltas tú,” but don’t confuse it with their decade-old tune “Me Faltas Tu,” which rocked where this one lopes. It’s got top notch playing, with an especially hot accordion solo from Ricky Muñoz, and a distorted guitar winks at the idea of crossing over to Latin pop fans.
11. Banda Rancho Viejo de Julio Aramburo La Bandononona – “Ya Lo Pensé” (Disa)
Recodo and Recoditos have their years, but for my Spotify/library money there’s no more consistent pop banda than these dudes. Their third album La Bandononona en Mi Rancho is their third very good album in a row, again produced by Arrolladora mastermind Fernando Camacho. More than any other banda, they combine bright hooks and arrangements with crass novelty, from last album’s covers of “Ma, Me, Mi, Mo, Mu” and “Cumbia Con Opera,” to this album’s covers of hardcore instrumental classics. Written by Luis Siqueiros, who also gave us Recodo’s big dumb cumbia “El Nini,” this first single is itself a novelty: How much mileage can one song get out of two hooks? The title hook is courtly and magnanimous, as though sweeping a cape before you. The second hook is all rapid-fire syncopations, as though the hands behind the cape have suddenly started punching you.
12. La Fuerza de Tijuana – “El Popeye” (Anakin)
Geography and cartel best practices aside, “El Popeye” is another energetic showcase for the boomy spaciousness of Fuerza’s rhythm section, grounding the band’s fast waltzes in groove. If these guys could write a bridge, people might mistake ’em for a rock band.
13. Los Inquietos del Norte ft. Marco Flores y La Numero 1 Banda Jerez – “Requisito Americano” (Eagle)
Pan-Latino banda solidarity from some of the blog’s favorite straight-shooting outsiders, telling it like it is.
14. Colmillo Norteño ft. Uniko Mando – “El Rápido” (Go)
A blistering corrido where everyone gets to play. That’s right: two drum kits, two tubas, a standup bassist who doesn’t have much to do so he spends most of the song riding his instrument — literally riding it, like a stick horse — or spinning it around. You get the idea. The sordid tale of a delicate cartel operation is secondary to the gallop of the storytellers.
15. Banda Pequeños Musical – “Suele Pasar”
A banda with a rock quartet attached. We’re talking guitar, bass, drum kit, and a mulleted dude with a couple Korgs that spit marvelous pan flute sounds. NorteñoBlog has dissed these guys before for torpor, but “Suele Pasar” (#18) is rocking, plus it offers a useful catchphrase for when you keep screwing up your love life but deep down it’s OK.
And keep an eye on Karla Luna: “La Enfiestada” (Fonovisa)
6 more good ones:
Dal*Shabet – “Someone Like U”
The 1975 – “The Sound”
Fantasia – “No Time For It”
Kevin Gates – “2 Phones”
Jesse & Joy ft. Alejandro Sanz – “No Soy Una de Esas”
Adele – “When We Were Young”