Welcome to NorteñoBlog’s fourth year! As I survey the previous twelve months of radness, several themes emerge:
Sierreño is no longer a novelty. The guitar + tuba-or-bass style is now as prevalent as its country cousins, banda and accordion-based norteño. Although the style has existed for decades, you can trace its popularity back to the 2015 death of young singer-guitarist Ariel Camacho, which cemented sierreño as both young people’s music and a vehicle for pop hits. Two Camacho-related bands — Los Plebes del Rancho de Ariel Camacho and Ulices Chaidez y Sus Plebes — appear below, as do established norteño/banda stars Gerardo Ortiz and Remmy Valenzuela, jumping on the sierreño bandwagon with corridos and romantic ballads. One of the year’s biggest breakout stars, man-myth-legend El Fantasma, scored a long charting hit with the guitar corrido “Mi 45,” in the process becoming one of California’s most streamed Latin artists.
Gerardo Ortiz continues to dominate. You wouldn’t know it by looking at his album sales, but artistically, nobody in the genre had a better 2017. His sierreño-biting Comeré Callado album was a rebound from 2015’s disappointing Hoy Más Fuerte, with better songs and typically stunning band interplay. He was also featured on excellent norteño and bachata singles (see below), and notably did not release any videos showing him murdering women. I only accomplished one of those things.
Like Civil War reenactments and teen slasher movies, puro sax music will never die. The jaunty norteño subgenre, whose songs definitely do not all sound the same, continues to do several things well. It’s an excellent accompaniment to doing chores. Like freestyle, it pits bouncy uptempo music against bereft emo lyrics, to the benefit of both. And it pulls all kinds of other stuff — notably the huapango folk dance and alt-rockers Caifanes (see below) — into its deranged but happy orbit.
I wish I liked mariacheño and socially conscious corridos more than I do. Christian Nodal released an excellent, career-defining debut single, “Adios Amor,” and then followed it up with a boring but well-reviewed mariachi album. Calibre 50 released a heartfelt sigh of an immigration story, “Corrido de Juanito,” that meant a lot to some very smart people. Given the choice, though, I’d rather listen to the parade of reprehensible narcocorridos scattered below. Bands like La Nueva Rebelión draw swaggering energy from their illicit subject matter, turning narco music into a thrilling and paradoxically life-affirming force. Not that musicians can’t walk and chew gum at once — last year especially,
El Komander succeeded with both kinds of stories.
Where are all the women? I’m sorry to say, this is one area where the Blog seems to be getting worse, not better, and I’m not sure if it’s my fault or the industry’s. This year the Blog enjoyed singles by Alicia Villarreal (her album La Villarreal is way better mariachi pop than Nodal’s), Lucero, Diana Reyes, and Chiquis Rivera, but didn’t Pick to Click them, simply because there was better stuff those particular weeks. The latest countrified album from blog fave Laura Denisse was more of a chore than her last one, although it may be growing on me (and I just saw she has a Christmas album! Must research…). Los Horóscopos have been MIA lately. As Victoria ‘La Mala’ has pointed out, Mexican regional music remains a man’s world — the sheer amount of music produced by men overwhelms that of the women. That said, the year’s most exciting new voice belonged to Ángela Aguliar, who showed rich confidence on two wonderful duets with her father Pepe. (See below.)
Anyway, here they are: the past year’s worth of Picks to Click. Thanks for reading, and happy listening!
11/17/16: “Que Perrón” by La Séptima Banda
A big dumb cumbia ode to the modern world’s sexually assertive mujeres. As you might expect, such mujeres make La Séptima Banda very happy, especially the dude in the middle of the song who sheepishly admits, “I’m ugly.”
12/2/16: “Traigo Ganas de Pistiar” by Escuela de Rancho, Los Orejones de la Sierra, y La Bandeña
It scarcely matters what the song “Traigo Ganas” is about. I mean, I know it’s about getting drunk — the song opens with the sound of cans being cracked open, and anyway, I’m sure you’ve met low brass players — but what matters is the stupendous way this makeshift octo-quin-trio makes you feel all giddy and swivelly by jumping from one part of the song to the next.
12/12/16: “El Taxista” by La Energia Norteña
A puro sax cover of Joan Sebastian, and a tale of lovelorn despair, told from a stoic taxi driver’s point of view. In other words it’s a perfect song for puro sax music, where jaunty beats and riffs try to ignore their singers’ anguish every day of the week.
12/14/16: “Mis Gustos, Mis Placeres” by Adriel Favela and Jonatan Sanchez
Expensive watches, pistol packing, and cockfights. The Blog apologizes on their behalf.
and “Ando Bien” by Omar Ruiz and Gerardo Ortiz
The band achieves a lovely midtempo lope that’ll make you nod your head and possibly topple over.
1/6/17: “Nada de Nada” by Pepe and Ángela Aguilar
An impressive band workout, with tuba and percussion burbling along like synth polyrhythms and the horns draping sweeping melodic lines over everything. Great tune, too!
1/16/17: “Sinaloense es el Joven” by Alta Consigna
The band capitalizes on having two bass instruments by making them do completely opposite, equally rad things. Dani Vida fires a wild variety of machine gun and other noises from his tuba, while bassist Esteban González achieves a truly menacing tone.
1/18/17: “El Mini Lic” by Los Hijos de Hernández (2011)
1/23/17: “Pura Dulzura” by Jennifer y Los Jetz
This great post-Selena Tejano hope suggests a tropical Debbie Gibson; the Jetz’ synths didn’t outlive their decade, but they also sound like unbridled joy. (1996)
2/6/17: “Mil Veces Te Quiero” by Banda Rancho Viejo (2014)
Combines an echoing triple-voiced hook and gang shouts with one of the struttingest grooves in all of bandaland. Plus, more ’50s sock hop imagery in the video. Thinkpieces go!
2/17/17: “Quiero Volver” by Aycci Norteña
and “El Meresabor” by La Rebelión Norteña
A tricky little sax waltz that skips with the confidence of guys who’ve played every baile within shouting distance and still love their jobs.
“Tengo Ganas” by El Komander and Valentin Elizalde
Cumbia de muertos.
4/21/17: “No Es Tan Fácil” by Impacto Sinaloense
It’s possible I’d like this song less if I was a woman who spoke the language, but it seems to border right on the edge of heartfelt and threatening, especially when singer Alex Morales protests too much by promising “no amenazo.” Besides that, the beat lurches like the best of Calibre 50, and the band is tight while still finding pockets for individual flourishes of radness.
5/1/17: “Volveré a Amar” by Calibre 50
Another Valentin Elizalde cover that’s better than any of Calibre’s original 2017 singles — yes, including “Corrido de Juanito.” Eden Muñoz does his best Elizalde impression and sings low in his range, a wise choice — he’s as effortlessly charming as beachfront dressage. When the accordion quartet takes over for the banda during the chorus, the transition is seamless and full, so hats off to whoever recorded and mixed this thing.
6/12/17: “La Gorrita” by La Nueva Rebelión
In their best songs, this is still a band trying desperately to pull as much music as possible from their poor instruments. “La Gorrita” is a good example: six verses following the titular beanie-wearing dude from cartel hub to hub, each verse played differently, with unpredictable fills and accents jumping at you like faces in a crowd.
6/16/17: “Adiós” by José Manuel Figueroa
If you know NorteñoBlog at all, you know I’m a sucker for bandas that play bouncy backbeat pop, so “Adiós” is right up the Blog’s alley. The tuba bassline groove balances out the pretty melody and keeps it from turning maudlin, even as Figueroa sings about losing precious bodily fluids through his tear ducts and saliva glands. Maybe that’s how his voice got so scratchy.
6/23/17: “Mi Son” by Azierto Norte y “Huapango El Pisteador” by Conjunto Águila Real
From the year’s most entertaining YouTube rabbit hole, two puro sax bands play huapangos, galloping 6/8 dances with tricky internal rhythms that, with a few changes in timbre, could pass for British folk-prog instrumentals from the early ’70s.
7/14/17: “Recordando a Manuel” by Lenin Ramirez, Jesus Chairez, y Gerardo Ortiz
Also check out the even better version on Ortiz’s album Comeré Callado Vol. 1, but both these odes to a reputed psychopath are as musically thrilling as they are ideologically odious.
8/7/17: “Tu Sangre en Mi Cuerpo” by Ángela Aguilar ft. Pepe Aguilar
Like Vicente Fernandez’s “Estos Celos,” this tune hits all my smooth mariachi buttons: soaring voices and strings milking high notes for maximum emotion while the chugging beat makes them sound like they’re tossing off everything — notes, burdens, hats, whatever. It’s the sound of a breeze blowing wispy clouds across a flat blue sky. Pepe’s career is long and distinguished, but Ángela has been a real revelation this year, with a warm and inviting voice that reminds me of Gloria Estefan’s.
8/28/17: “Vamos a Darnos a Tiempo” by Roberto Tapia
The guitar-laced horn charts are chunky and violent, blat against blat, the better to depict the emotional violence wreaked by the narrator and his mujer upon one another.
“Corona de Rosas” by Kevin Ortiz y Ulices Chaidez
A young muchacho leaves the farm to seek his fortune. When he returns home wearing his new, fancy clothes, he finds his padre has died, buried beneath the titular corona. That’s the whole song — but in that simplicity lies all the complexity of the immigration narrative, echoing the apostle Luke’s Prodigal Son story, and even chased with a bit of “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” The guitar/horn rhythms of the enhanced sierreño band pull off the same simple/complex trick.
9/11/17: “Loco Enamorado” by Remmy Valenzuela
From the Ortiz brothers on down, sierreño bandwagon jumping was one of the year’s big music stories, and nobody jumped better than hotshot accordionist Valenzuela, here playing rhythm guitar. Big ballad sung by a great voice, and gussied up by a stellar lead guitarist whose name the Blog still hasn’t learned.
9/15/17: “El Piñata” by Jesús Ojeda y Sus Parientes
Sierreño albums can suffer from the saminess of folk records — after all, there’s only three instruments and no drums, and chord selection tends to be limited. Ojeda and his Parientes get around this problem by speeding up and complicating their rhythms, and by adding some inspired high harmonies. As a lead guitarist, Ojeda seems to have read and digested the “Stubbornness and the Single Note” chapter of Ben Ratliff’s Every Song Ever — he comes out of choruses obsessively bearing down on one repeated note until it bleeds, no doubt goosing audiences into raging ecstasy. If the Parientes remind me of any folk trio, it’s prime Kingston Trio, just sheer musical pleasure from top to bottom.
9/21/17: “La Suerte” by Los Plebes del Rancho de Ariel Camacho
More sierreño veterans, with Israel Meza’s tuba popping up like a whack-a-mole to taunt the smoother guitar and vocals of his 20-year-old bandleader.
10/25/17: “Batallándole (El Gordo Flubbers)” by Enigma Norteño ft. La Séptima Banda
At its core, this ode to drug trafficking competition is really a celebration of companionship, best expressed when Enigma and La Séptima stop trading lines to sing together, “En las helaaaaadas con camaraaaaaadas.” Well, OK, a celebration of companionship made possible through a morally suspect business. It’s basically the first half of Boogie Nights before 1980 comes along and everything goes to hell, or Flubber y El Profesor Chiflado before Robin Williams starts snorting the Flubber and becomes a monster to his wife and children. But until then, the combined bands bounce with the force of 20 bowling balls.
11/3/17: “Palma Salazar” by Gerardo Ortiz
As always with Ortiz, the song’s main draw is its spectacular band, the best musicians he and DEL Records can afford. In particular, the bass/drum interplay here is smooth yet tumbling, laying a bed of perpetual tumult for Ortiz’s melody.