Of all the 2020 events NorteñoBlog didn’t see coming, the one most likely to affect future generations, change the way untold millions live their everyday lives, and divide modern history into “before” and “after” epochs happened back in early January. That’s when certain U.S. specialists first noticed a particularly infectious agent, previously thought to be contained, dominating one of their charts with unprecedented scope and reach. I’m talking, of course, about Alejandro Fernández earning his first number one hit on Billboard‘s Regional Mexican Airplay chart with the insidiously beautiful song “Caballero.”
Fernández was overdue. His dad is Vicente Fernández and his career has flourished for more than two decades, with multiple #1 hits on the more comprehensive Hot Latin chart, so you’d think the ranchera pop singer would have gotten his RegMex chart-topper sooner. He came closest in 1999 with “Loco,” a slow burn of understated insanity (Jonathan Bogart compares the string chart to Psycho) blocked from #1 by Conjunto Primavera‘s comparatively rinky-dink “Necesito Decirte.”
The timing of “Loco” was interesting:
Two years earlier, Fernández had scored a series of Hot Latin hits produced by Emilio “Miami Sound Machine” Estefan. These were unabashed crossover pop songs. They used accordions and ranchera strings for color, but their melodies and guitar rhythms would’ve fit neatly into pan-Latino “beautiful music” formats. (Or easy listening, if easy listening audiences could abide hearing people croon in Spanish.) When “Loco” dropped in 1999, Ricky Martin, Jennifer Lopez, and Enrique Iglesias were all angling for crossover LATIN EXPLOSION!!!, but Fernández was retrenching to straight-up ranchera. This style wasn’t gonna cross over to non-Mexicans in a million — or at least, a few — years.
His career has been like this, see-sawing between ranchera roots and charro outfits on the one hand, pop songs and cunningly unbuttoned shirts on the other. In 2009 he tried to suggest something about the duality of man with his Dos Mundos project, two albums released simultaneously. The “Evolución” album was pop; the “Tradición” set was ranchera, written and produced by Joan Sebastian, who’d just given Papa Vicente a #1 RegMex hit with the world-historical artwork “Estos Celos.”
Skipping over a lot, this brings us to Fernández’s current album Hecho In Mexicó, which returns him to ranchera — but with a twist! It seems Fernández (or his producer, noted pop guy Aureo Baqueiro) has been listening to the Groundbreaking Mariacheño Work of husky-voiced teen idol Christian Nodal. You know the stuff: it sounds like mariachi with an accordion. It is mariachi with an accordion. Juan Gabriel and others have dabbled in this stylistic mashup, but only Team Nodal had the brilliant idea to market it as some unprecedented “mariacheño” fusion. (On Twitter, @LaAwesomeMeeee tells me mariachi players prefer to call this combo “mariachero.”)
Thanks to Nodal’s swarthiness (and, fine, some actual good songs), mariacheño is one of the hot sounds of now. His rival teen idol Chayín Rubio just released an album that leans heavily on the concoction, humbly titled Las Canciones Que Me Gustan. (Has anyone ever broadcasted how much they dislike the songs on their new album? They should!) It features the totally irresistible “Te He Prometido,” a cover of Leo Dan that does for catchy string pizzicatos what “Estos Celos” did for catchy staccato trumpets.
(Speaking of new releases you should hear: Mariacheño is hard to distinguish, at least for me, from Colombian vallenato music, which also features accordions and sometimes strings, as evidenced by “La Cita,” an ace recent collaboaration between Galy Galiano and Jessi Uribe.)
Hecho In Mexicó has a lot going for it, especially the singles. “Caballero” is one of the year’s best, combining a subtly syncopated guitar-snare groove with glorious string and trumpet charts. “Te Olvidé” is almost as good; it’s faster, the guitar and snare moving at a trot this time, but just as emotionally swoopy. In both songs, Fernández wrings feelings from the melodies like he’s squeezing a heart in a vice, delaying key syllables until the precise moments when their arrival will make listeners chuckle or grimace in recognition. The accordion keeps wheedling along affectionately. None of the other nine songs are quite as good, but there’s still plenty of skill on display, and the duets with Papa Vicente and young lothario Nodal tie the intergenerational sound together. VALE LA PENA!
You can hear most of the aforementioned songs on the Blog’s VALE LA PENA 2020 playlist. It’s been a good year so far!