In 2018, Regional Mexican radio chilled out. Amid the ever-shifting blend of genres that comprises the format, the two “new” styles that commanded the most attention sounded remarkably blase about their surging popularity. In fact, “command” seems like the wrong word for the genres of cumbia and corridos verdes, since they were just sitting around in a smoky haze, waiting for audiences to trip over them.
As Elias Leight explained in a spring Rolling Stone feature, cumbias have been around for decades, having traveled from South America throughout the Spanish-speaking diaspora over the last 70-or-so years. Turn-of-the-millennium hits from Los Angeles Azules, a swanky Mexican big band, have never outgrown their use as commercial bumper music on U.S. radio. The band’s recent resurgence culminated in a 2018 Coachella performance, dug by none other than Justin Bieber, and a current hit rearrangement of Natalia LaFourcade’s tune “Nunca Es Suficiente.” And that’s just the acoustic stuff.
The electronic technocumbia scene, pioneered by Selena and her producer brother A.B. Quintanilla in the mid ‘90s, got new energy from former nano-satellite engineer Edmundo Gómez Moreno, aka Raymix, and his unkillable singles “Oye Mujer” and “¿Dónde Estarás?” The Blog admires the mysterious modality of these singles and admits they don’t really sound like anyone else.The Blog also never wants to listen to them. Like the band Low, for whose 2018 album Double Negative I also didn’t have much time, Raymix zeros in on precisely one mood and hits his mark. It’s a feat that demands acknowledgement rather than repeated listening.
If Raymix songs seem like they might sound better stoned, corridos verdes make that theme explicit. Praised by Snoop, played mostly by young sierreño bands who weave hypnotic patterns from acoustic guitars and either bass or tuba, these songs can get sort of samey. If you thought shoutouts to narcos were getting old, or if you were having trouble differentiating weeping meditations on drinking away lost amors, wait until you hear a bunch of young dudes sing about how high they are. These guys stick to themes. Their songs are sometimes hilarious, though, and the tubists and lead guitarists occasionally stumble across moments that’ll legitimately drop your jaw, regardless of how much THC is in your blood. As with so much else, it depends which strain you get.
Corridos about smoking weed aren’t new, either, but they do represent a shift, at least in terms of mainstream radio fare. A boyband like T3R Elemento might occasionally sing about real-life narcos and the marijuana production business, but unlike the older generation of corrideros — Gerardo Ortiz, El Komander, Noel Torres — they make no pretense that they’re singing from experience or proximity. Born and raised in the U.S., T3R Elemento sings about weed from a bilingual suburban U.S. high school point of view, a vantage their video iconography reinforces. It’s similar to what we saw with the Bay Area’s hyphy movimiento a decade ago. That movement also focused on drug and alcohol consumption, with little reference to Mexico or the drug production narratives that had long dominated corridos. Call these movements “assimilation” if you want, but they represent wilder, less predictable patterns of assimilation than political discourse or radio programmers have led us to expect.
Of course, Regional Mexican radio still plays frantic dressage polkas from Marco Flores, and plenty of maudlin slow jams from the likes of Banda MS. Old narcocorridos from Los Tigres rub shoulders with new ones from El Fantasma. Frantic emotions and spirited boasts will never die; but neither will the phenomenon of getting really baked, and then singing about it.
Having accounted for trends, here are 11 Regional Mexican albums the Blog recommends, genre by genre — in several cases paired with their higher profile inferiors.
El Dusty – Cumbia City (UMG)
The Blog wrote: “Much more banging and busy than Raymix’s monochrome offerings. Songs like “Loquita Loco,” ft. the Master Blaster Sound System, transform cumbia’s “ch-ch-ch” rhythms and stiff horn basslines into something loose and floppy, not far from Manu Chao’s global ragamuffin aesthetic. (Speaking of cumbia as a worldwide phenomenon…) Dozens of percussion and vocal timbres rat-a-tat off one another, creating pieces that work as unified bangers and as detailed headphone listening. Like Samuel R. Delany’s city of Bellona or Keith Moon’s drumming, El Dusty’s sound world seems to morph from beat to beat, in ways that usually amp up the radness.”
Recomendado Si Te Gusta:
Raymix – Oye Mujer (Fonovisa/Universal)
2. TUBA-BOTTOMED NORTEÑO BANDS
Soñadores de Sinaloa – Lo Improvisado (Mayra)
The Blog wrote: “Musically, a couple assets set these guys apart. Juan Luis Niebla has an excellent yearning high range, in the same tipsy emotional ballpark as Los Recoditos’ Luis Angel Franco, and the band’s songs are built to exploit his crystalline quavers. Second, like the Fall and Bob Seger’s “Hollywood Nights” — or actually, more like any number of duranguense bands — Soñadores have not one but two drummers, one on tambora and one on snare. You might expect this would lead to a lot of polyrhythmic clatter, but these guys deploy their instruments more like banda or duranguense percussion sections, keeping steady but understated beats and then exploding at key accent points.”
Calibre 50 – Mitad y Mitad (Disa)
3. SIERREÑO HEARTTHROBS
Chayín Rubio – El Ahijado Consentido (Universal)
Rubio’s lead slide guitar sets him apart from the current glut of suave sierreño idols. The hit ballad “Secuelas de Amor” suggests a Mexican Eric Clapton and I still like it, which just proves context is everything. Rubio’s skippy tunes are even better, with accordion, tuba, guitar, and occasional horns tussling in one of those cartoon fight clouds, and who knows which will emerge victorious?
Ulices Chaidez y Sus Plebes – El Elegido (DEL 2017)
4-6. TRES GALLOS DEL RANCHO
El Komander – La Corona (Twiins)
The continent’s most restlessly compelling singles artist continues to excel at most of what he tries, whether banda, mariachi, or his trademark blend of shaggy norteño spiked with tuba farts. This album compiles two years’ worth, including his great “El Mexico Americano” and “Negocio y Amistad,” a duet with the aforementioned Sr. Rubio in which Komander bequeaths to his duet partner his father’s pistol. Rubio, having toked up on yerbita in Verse 1, doesn’t offer a simple gracias.
Marco Flores y La Jerez – Zapateado Endemoniado (MF)
The Blog wrote: “It contains only three fewer songs than the latest Migos album, but — since nearly every song clocks in between 2:22 and 3:31 — it’s 45 minutes shorter. True, that’s still an hour-long brass band assault with no standouts as genius as “Stir Fry,” but Flores wisely livens up his tempos and rhythms throughout. And song for song, La Jerez’s beats are even stickier than team Migos’.”
El Fantasma – Dolor y Amor (AfinArte)
The man-myth-legend continues to liven up otherwise generic banda stompers like the title track with his unmistakable rasp, laced with subtle tinges of reverb and vibrato.
7. DEL RECORDS BIG SHOTS
Lenin Ramírez – Bendecido (DEL)
He shared the year’s most iconic ballad, “Como Los Vaqueros,” with Ulices Chaidez and the year’s most charming corrido verde, “Rolling One,” with T3R Elemento. When not dueting with teenagers, Ramírez enjoys singing about love, gangsters, and weed with his unique horn-laced sierreño band, which manages several different textures per song without blasting like a full-on banda.
Gerardo Ortiz – Comeré Callado Vol. 2 (DEL)
8. CUMBIA BANDS
Corazón Serrano – Volverás (Leader 2017)
The Blog wrote: “Unlike Marco Flores, the members of Peruvian collective Corazón Serrano sound like they prefer cars to horses, and the flashier the better; their music is full of ’80s-sounding synths, ’90s-sounding synths, synths that sound like guitars, and distorted guitars that sometimes sound like synths.”
Los Ángeles Azules – Esto Sí Es Cumbia (Seitrack/UMG)
Banda Rancho Viejo – Siempre Firme (UMG)
When the Blog’s favorite banda opens their fourth album with a Big Dumb Cumbia, you know you’re in for a treat. Their good humor and tricky rhythms rarely relent; “La Camisa Manchada,” the tale of a stained shirt that sets off a marital argument, has more polyrhythmic surprises than The War of the Roses had broken vases. In 2018 even Banda MS sounded slightly less anemic than usual, but Rancho Viejo’s ballads surpassed MS’s fast ones in excitement and grooves.
Banda MS – Con Todas Las Fuerzas (Lizos)
10-11. GRAMMY NOMINATED MARIACHIS
Angela Aguilar – Primero Soy Mexicano (Machin)
Luis Miguel – ¡MÉXICO Por Siempre! (Warner)
I tried desperately not to like these two mariachi tribute albums. “Museum pieces!” I shouted. “Misplaced fealty to a bygone age!” Then I listened to them, and it turns out they’re full of fun and surprises, besides being gorgeous. As we discovered last year, Angela Aguilar is a singer of great poise and warmth, and her versions of the standards “Cielito Lindo” and “Cielo Rojo” belong in the pantheon with whichever more familiar versions you know. Luis Miguel’s album boasts the outsized good spirits of a background chorus and more inventive string writing, including a huapango where everyone saws and slashes away. Enjoy the point/counterpoint of Aguilar’s effervescent “Mi Sangre En Tu Cuerpo” with Miguel’s cover of Jose Alfredo Jimenez’s bereft “Sin Sangre En Las Venas.”
10 MORE FINE SINGLES (not included on the 11 best albums)
“Egoísta” – Gerardo Ortiz (DEL/Sony)
“Cambio de Papeles” – Cornelio Vega y Su Dinastia ft. Luis Coronel (Gerencia 360)
“Antecedentes de Culpa” – Alfredo Olivas (Sahuaro/Sony)
“Sentimientos” – Alicia Villarreal and María José
“Ese” – Cardenales de Nuevo Leon (Remex)
“El Narco de Narcos” – Crecer Germán (UMG)
“Mitad y Mitad” – Calibre 50 (Andaluz/Disa)
“Amor Traicionera” – La Maquinaria Norteña (Azteca)
“Todo Nos Pasa Por Algo” – Grupo Codiciado
“Firme y Pa’Delante” – Los Inquietos del Norte (Eagle)