Polkas and waltzes, yes. Accordions and brassy fanfares, check. Songs about impossible amor, violent negocios, and getting pisteando, you bet. But once you accept those rhythms, tone colors, and subjects as merely the constraints its talented artisans and occasional geniuses have given themselves to work around, Mexican regional music produced a pop scene as colorful and varied as any other. The difference between El Komander’s shaggy storytelling and La Maquinaria Norteña’s frenetic heartache pop is a contrast in visions. Give or take a tuba and a sax, they employ pretty much the same musical building blocks and arrive at wildly different results.
And both results are better than Intocable’s Highway, for NorteñoBlog’s dinero the most overrated norteño album of the year, insofar as these albums get rated at all. Intocable is a talented band, no question. They’ve refined a unique sound, and as they demonstrate over and over on Highway, they’re able to open songs with stylist feints as authoritative as their originals. (One sounds like ’60s handclap pop, one sounds like “Kashmir,” that sort of thing.)
The problem is, Intocable’s sound is as constrained as any other band’s; and once the opening feints end, the songs themselves are among Intocable’s most generic batch yet. We’re left with just more four-chord Intocable songs, melodies that allow Ricky Muñoz to stretch his throat to el cielo and noodle on his axe — sometimes for way too long — and a rhythm section lope that could have anchored any Intocable album in the past 20 years. It might be perverse to complain about sameyness in a genre that never wanders too far from accordion/brass polkas and waltzes, but great new bands like Fuerza de Tijuana and Norteño 4.5 (see below) are burrowing into that basic sound and digging up new rhythms and instrumental combinations. On Highway, Intocable offers few interesting musical ideas, and they barely try to work through their constraints. The most interesting ideas, those opening feints, only last a moment. (The great seven-minute exception, “En La Obscuridad,” ends with a Beatlesque psych coda. It’s cool, but it should tell you all you need to know about Intocable’s idea of “innovation.”) I don’t knock Intocable for giving their songs gimmicks; gimmicks, as we learn from Banda Rancho Nuevo, are good. But Intocable rarely has the musical courage to follow through on their gimmicks.
So here are 50 albums, including 13 from Mexico, that are better than Highway — less of a chore to play and full of surprises.
1. Esperanza Spalding – Emily’s D+Evolution (Concord) (indie, jazz-prog jaw dropper)
2. I.P.A. – I Just Did Say Something (Cuneiform) (indie, Norwegian jazz tone color fest with kickass rhythm section)
3. Systema Solar – Systema Solar (Nacional): This Colombian crew has about as much to do with norteño as Lil Jon does; but on the other hand, they sometimes play cumbias, Mexican-American radio digs cumbias, and this career overview of explosive raps and minimal dance experiments is undeniable. Plus one of the dudes says “Yeah!” exactly like Lil Jon — who incidentally scored his own Latin hit in 2016.
4. The 1975 – I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it (Dirty Hit/Interscope) (major, long-ass pop album equal parts hooks and pretentious bits — see my review of “The Sound”)
5. El Komander – El Komander 2015 Top 20 (Twiins): To cap his year as North America’s most prolific and consistent singles artist, Alfredo Riós dropped this digital playlist to ring in 2016. How prolific is he? Top 20 actually contains 21 songs, and Sr. Riós has since released even more essential singles, notably the point-counterpoint “Desaparecido”/”El Mexico Americano.” His small, tuba-bottomed band remains a shambolic marvel; the musicians threaten to spill over the edges of the songs. This compilation stands with the greatest instantly incomplete mid-career summaries: think Madonna’s The Immaculate Collection or Garth Brooks’s The Hits.
6. Greg Ward – Touch My Beloved’s Thought (Greenleaf) (indie, Mingus tribute of nonstop invention)
7. Anaal Nathrakh – The Whole of the Law (Metal Blade) (indie, beautifully layered Satan metal)
8. Brandy Clark – Big Day In a Small Town (Warner Bros.) (major, country singer-storyteller)
9. Anna Webber’s Simple Trio — Binary (Skirl) (indie, sharp elbowed Canadian jazz)
10. YG – Still Brazy (Deluxe) (Def Jam) (major, West Coast rap)
11. Banda Rancho Viejo de Julio Aramburo La Bandononona – La Bandononona en Mi Rancho (Disa): These guys remain the most exciting banda in the game, thanks to their unabashed embrace of gimmicks. The La Bandononona album — named for the band’s ridiculous vocal signature, shouted out in every song — reminds me of the great uncanonized ’60s albums, like Shirley Ellis’s The Name Game or most anything containing a cover of “Louie Louie”, that would produce one or two hits and then fill out their playing time with covers and toss-offs. The hot cover here is Ariel Camacho’s “Te Metiste,” its best version outside Camacho’s own; the novelty covers come from the Great Sinaloan Songbook, chosen to show off Rancho Viejo’s astounding chops. Those chops, it turns out, are themselves gimmicks designed to leave listeners with dumb grins on our faces.
12. Maren Morris – HERO (Sony) (major, omnivorous country)
13. Avatar – Feathers & Flesh (eOne) (indie, Swede metal concept album “about this owl who goes to war against the world to prevent the sun from rising”)
14. Shooter Jennings – Countach (For Giorgio) (BCR) (indie, electro-country Moroder tribute)
15. Dub Phizix – Fabriclive 84 (Fabric ‘15) (indie, dance mix)
16. Rae Sremmurd – SremmLife II (Interscope) (major, party rap meme generator)
17. Banda El Recodo de Cruz Lizárraga – Raíces (Fonovisa): They aim not to impress, but to flatten. After a couple years of middling albums that squeaked by on the strength of chops and craven singles — Recodo’s cravenness is one of its chief institutional assets — the oldest band on earth roars back with a tribute to their forebears, including previous incarnations of the band. Most of the songs are instrumentals, and while they err on the side of perfection, there’s enough sheer playful noise here to keep the music from sounding like it’s encased in glass.
18. Frankie Ballard – El Rio (Warner Bros.) (major, Mellancampy country rock)
19. Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra – All My Yesterdays (Resonance) (indie, big band jazz, historical)
20. Fuerza de Tijuana – La Nueva Cara de Tijuana (Anakin): One bridge away from turning into a rock band, Fuerza plays corridos heavy on the guitar/bass grooves, and with international flair: their big radio hit was joining Omar Ruiz to sing Ruiz’s ode to “El Americano,” the narco “Boston” George Jung. They also pay more attention to their arrangements than most corrido bands. Singles like “El Benny” and “El Popeye” use different guitar timbres and stop-start band rhythms to make their melodies pop.
21. Various – Straight Outta Compton: Music From the Motion Picture (Universal) (major, rap, historical)
22. Norteño 4.5 – Volé, Soñé y La Amé (Azteca/Fonovisa): Like a norteño band with more oomph or a banda without the clarinets winking at you, these guys bring together a small brass section (two trumpets, two trombones) and a fat bottom end (tuba plus tololoche) that sounds absolutely brutal under the flying accordion. Their tunes are top shelf, too, and they sometimes burn through three or four different rhythms per song. So they’re experimental, and the experiments work because they aren’t given time to fail: I can listen to the whole album twice during my commute. (Your mileage may vary.)
23. David Bowie – Blackstar (ISO/Columbia) (major, jazz-ish last will and testament)
24. School of Seven Bells – SVIIB (Vagrant) (indie, dreampop last will and testament)
25. Rene Marie – Sound of Red (Motema) (indie, grown up vocal jazz)
26. Kikagaku Moyo – House In the Tall Grass (Guruguru Brain) (indie, Japanese hypno-psych)
27. Martin Patrón – Trap Corridos (Hyphy): Patrón’s voice is his gift and his curse. It’s so rich and resonant it sometimes has trouble climbing up to the right note. Fortunately Patrón understands this and, unlike the similarly pitch-challenged Omar Ruiz, stays away from romantic ballads on his debut album. These are straight-up narcocorridos that no doubt set a very poor example for impressionable teens. Someone should tell Patrón’s rippling rhythm section to play stodgier, for the good of the youth.
28. Septagon – Deadhead Syndicate (Cruz del Sur) (indie, German thrash metal)
29. Baauer – Aa (Luckyme) (indie, dance with guest stars)
30. Naftule’s Dream – Blood (NDR) (indie, jazz, klezmer)
31. La Maquinaria Norteña – Generación Maquinaria Est. 2006 (Azteca/Fonovisa): Maquinaria : puro sax music :: Guns ‘n’ Roses : hair metal. They understand their inherently ridiculous genres inside and out, and then transcend it by making everything bigger and better, full of riffs and hooks and rhythm and pop and barely concealed heartbreak. Your typical puro sax band takes a pretty pop song or a big dumb cumbia, then dresses it up with polka beats and sax/accordion riffs, relentless in their jauntiness. Maquinaria dig so hard into their arrangements that their songs square the circle and come out sounding like pretty pop songs again. They make you wonder why every song on the radio isn’t played by a polka band and led by sax and accordion.
32. Noah Preminger – Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground (self-released) (indie, jazz trumpeter plays blues)
33. Kari Faux – Lost En Los Angeles (Wolf & Rothstein) (indie, minimal rap)
34. Yo Gotti – The Art of Hustle (CMG/Epic) (major, serial killer basement rap)
35. Game Theory – Lolita Nation (Omnivore) (indie, historical, super catchy ’80s art rock)
36. Megadeth – Dystopia (Universal) (major, metal)
37. La Séptima Banda – A Todo Volumen (Fonovisa): Solid banda pop album with three first rate singles and only one song longer than three minutes. (It’s a medley.)
38. Bonnie Raitt – Dig In Deep (Redwing) (indie, blues rock)
39. Ulices Chaidez y Sus Plebes – Andamos en el Ruedo (Del/Sony): The best of The Clones of Ariel Camacho doesn’t fully overcome his Sierreño style’s stripped down sameyness, but Chaidez and tubist Omar “I Played With Ariel” Burgos have charisma to burn and they keep the tempos up. Seriously, as a compendium of great tuba parts, I’d put this up against Camacho’s El Karma album.
40. Avishai Cohen – Into the Silence (ECM) (indie, Israeli meditation jazz)
41. St. Lucia – Matter (Columbia) (major, like the 1975 with no sense of humor)
42. Kvelertak – Nattesferd (Roadrunner) (indie, pretty Scandi-metal with hilariously bad singing)
43. Daz-N-Snoop – Cuzznz (Felder/Dilly) (indie, “I will never not like the West Coast” rap)
44. El Fantasma – Equipo Armado (AfinArte): This mysterious Clone of Ariel Camacho sings like he just woke up from a nap at his desk; he recites the accounts of gun-laden negocios just to remind himself what the heck he’s doing.
45. Clicks – Glitch Machine (Dependent) (indie, Polish darkwave)
46. Cuisillos de Arturo Macias – Dos Botellas (Mex-American EP) (indie, sophomoric misogynistic comedy banda, I’m sorry)
47. Eleanor Friedberger – New View (Frenchkiss) (indie rock)
48. Helen Ochoa – Si Yo Fuera Un Chico (Gerencia 360): MOR banda pop with covers of Beyoncé and Rocio Dúrcal.
49. Los Plebes del Rancho de Ariel Camacho – Recuerden Mi Estilo (DEL): Oh right, even more Clones of Ariel Camacho. Only this particular clone gets to play with Camacho’s old band! Omar Burgos’s tuba is the highlight; the tunes are decent, especially “DEL Negociante,” a mind-bogglingly craven corrido tribute to Los Plebes’ label boss; the teenaged singer sings like a typical teen, in that he’s barely there.
50. Johnny Rawls – Tiger in a Cage (Catfood) (indie, blues soul)