Last time out, NorteñoBlog counted six chart hits among the quarter’s best. This quarter we’re down to three, which doesn’t necessarily mean the radio has turned into a wasteland — after all, part of the thrill of radio is hearing a song you never much cared for, like Gerardo Ortiz’s “Fuiste Mia,” suddenly sound really good in the company of entirely dissimilar songs. Not that you’ll find “Fuiste Mia” below. But who knows, I may relent before the year is out.
No, all this means is that norteño and banda music have thriving independent scenes, geared more toward online video than terrestrial radio — see the tiny labels and self-releases promoted by Beto Sierra, whose YouTube clients make up a good portion of this list. In terms of their commercial outlook, bands like Máximo Grado and Los Rodriguez don’t resemble the reactionary ’80s heyday of “indie rock” so much as the early rock heyday of the ’50s and ’60s, when bands simply wanted to get paid to rock out, whether they recorded for Excello or Sun or Decca or RCA. Today’s world of online promotion means it’s easier for musicians of all genres to get heard, though not necessarily to get paid. But the barriers between majors and indies seem more porous in Mexican regional music than they do in Anglo pop and rock. Indie artists like Fidel Rueda and Los Inquietos regularly get played on mainstream radio; major and indie bands record the same corridos, and sometimes the same love songs. Everyone tours the same venues relentlessly. That’s not to say everyone is equal. Indie label acts are routinely priced out of performing on the glamorous award show circuit, and I’m guessing major label artists have first pick of surefire radio hits by Luciano Luna and Horacio Palencia. NorteñoBlog needs to research this more, but in Mexican regional music, the indie-major borderline isn’t drawn philosophically or aesthetically so much as with scrap and hustle and practicality: Who’s got the money? Who’s got the chops? How do we use our chops to get more money?
Of course, 10 years from now, when Ortiz and Julión Álvarez have catalogs full of dull 20-track prestige albums, who knows? Boredom has a way of shaking up philosophies and aesthetics.
1. Banda Renovación – “Los Ninis” (Talento Lider)
“Los Ninis” is a popular corrido favorite, sung by both Banda Carnaval and Revolver Cannabis, that takes a neologism for young ne’er-do-wells — “ni estudia ni trabaja” — and transforms the youngsters into rifle-toting killing machines in the service of Ivan Archivaldo Guzmán. Like any great sociological exposé, this song is full of details. The ninis turn to crime because they’re bored with Nintendo. Some of the ninis wear beards while others are clean-shaven — “the full Tony Montana.” The message of “Los Ninis” is clear: avoid honest work, get drunk, and kill people for the cartel. Grow a beard if you must. NorteñoBlog, being a teetotaling hairless farm boy, obviously does not endorse any of this, but those tempo and chord changes are making me rethink my ways.
2. La Rumorosa – “Todo Lo Que Merezcas” (Espiral)
Rumorosa wishes her ex-cad (or cadette) would lose all their air, drown in the silence, and cry every day; that their days would be filled with an infinite desert. (Maybe the perpetrator will wake up inside a Buñuel movie.) She belts all this in commanding ranchera fashion, over a jaunty accordion/brass polka, with a tuba-based rhythm section that sounds hopped up on lollipops. There’s even a synth solo fanfare in the middle. Honestly, before I ran the lyrics through Sr. Translator I thought this was the happiest song on earth.
3. Los Grandes del Pardito – “El 8 de Culiacán”
A tangle of wild Sierreño counterpoint verging on noise.
4. Chiquis – “La Necia” (Sweet Sound/DEL)
“La Reina” stakes her claim to the throne vacated by Mom (aka Jenni Rivera), then promptly surrenders to drunken tomfoolery. Which is ironic, because her singing, swooping and growling at all the right moments, sounds even more commanding than it did a year ago.
hasn’t charted but I swear I heard it on the radio
5. Grupo Recluta – “El Estudiante” (Sitio)
While the band bounds along like they’re waltzing through a jacked up version of The King and I, songwriter/leaders Manuel Rodelo and David Correa harmonize their way through a melody full of tricky syncopated subdivisions. They’re the two hotshots swing dancing in the center of the ballroom, garnering the adoration of women and the resentment of men. The other hotshot is the accordion player, curiously unmentioned in Grupo Recluta’s promotional literature and reluctant to show his face in the video.
6. Martin Castillo – “De Compadre a Compadre” (Gerencia 360/Sony)
A lovely Sierreño dead homies song that, chord-wise, recalls Gerardo Ortiz’s equally elegiac “Archivos de Mi Vida.”
7. Los Rodriguez de Sinaloa – “El Gatillo” (Arpa)
Sociopathic. Pero: The sound Los Rodriguez has been getting with their accordion/tuba quartet is ramshackle and sticky, the most compelling norteño ensemble since Noel Torres turned full time loverman. And there’s a long history of violent art that’s about throwing the violence back into the faces of the well-heeled classes. That doesn’t let “El Gatillo” off the hook — but who said we wanted art to be easy?
8. Alacranes Musical – “Amor Que Nace” (Terrazas)
Mixes the classic duranguense sound — keyboard brass oompahs at Sousa march speed, sax riffs, rattly percussion-as-lead-instrument solos — with some of Alacranes’ trademark experiments in tone color. In this case, they give their singer a shot of Autotune and push some lovely guitar arpeggios way up in the mix during the verses. The results are sleek, clean, and indelibly Alacranish.
9. La Iniciativa ft. Banda Los Recoditos – “Convidela”
Like the competing banda hits “Dime Cómo” and “Utilízame,” not to mention three of Taylor Dayne’s first four singles, “Convidela” issues demands; like only Dayne, this combined norteño+banda ensemble actually sounds urgent about it. I’m also a big fan of throatiness in my banda singing, and Ariel Inzunza and Luis Angel Franco turn the tune into a total throat-off.
Mexican chart hit
10. Grupo Máximo Grado – “Así Nomas” (MG)
Christian Sánchez’s bass part should be transcribed in all the leading bass magazines. Christian Félix should take care to not develop vocal nodes on that lovely but uncomfortable-sounding tenor voice.
11 and 12. Julión Álvarez ft. El Coyote – “El Guitarrero”
Julión Álvarez ft. Pancho Barraza – “Hay Amores” (Fonovisa)
If you wanna hear the best singer on the continent warble his way through a bunch of good tunes, you could find worse background music.
U.S. chart hits
7 more good ones:
Yemi Alade – “Ferrari” (Effyzzie)
Maren Morris – “80s Mercedes”
Yo Gotti ft. E-40 – “Law” (CMG/Epic)
Kip Moore – “Running For You”
La Beyoncé – “Sorry”
Ty Dolla $ign ft. E-40 – “Saved”
Daddy Yankee – “Shaky Shaky”