The Grammys and the Mexican government would very much like Mexico’s musical output to consist of genteel roots music. Fortunately, NorteñoBlog’s annual playlist 2016 VALE LA PENA shows that Mexican-American musicians have other ideas.
Our playlist has El Komander singing about immigration in two very different, equally urgent songs: once from the vantage point of a mother whose son is missing, and once as a proudly binational drug dealer. The playlist includes a defiant statement of national pride from Los Inquietos and Marco Flores. There are love songs from guitar bands, brass bands, accordion bands, sax bands, and synth bands. El Bebeto and Banda Tierra Sagrada stop by to plug liquor; Fuerza de Tijuana celebrates two real-life American narcos. The guys in Los Titanes de Durango drive way too fast. La Rumorosa curses a terrible boyfriend; Intocable mourns absent amor with distorted guitar and a smoking accordion solo. At the top of the list, El Armenta offers a low-fi Lynchian nightmare of a cumbia about his girlfriend’s dog. All in all, it’s as energetic and varied as any single-genre playlist you’re likely to find.
THIS, Grammy voters, is where the action is.
Even as NorteñoBlog congratulates living legend Vicente Fernández on winning his third Grammy for Best Regional Mexican Music Album (Including Tejano) (But Not Including Grupero ‘Cause That Shit Suuuuuuuux), we gotta note that this particular win is lame in a very Grammy-ish way. Continue reading “Lo Mejor de 2016: Where the Action Is”→
Mi español es inactivo. “Piensa en español,” me digo a mí, “y escriba sobre El Komander.” OK. Estoy pensando sobre El Komander en español.
“En la biblioteca…”
Pero es ok, porque mi bibliotecaria Gloria ha almorzado con El Komander, una esquema promocionál por un estación de la radio, y ella dice Sr. Ríos es muy amable. Y puedo escucharlo en su música. En The Singles Jukebox, donde escribimos (en ingles) sobre Sr. Ríos, Jonathan Bogart no está de acuerdo. “Pared down, emotionally uninflected,” él dice. Sí… pero como Ice Cube o mi abuelo, “pared down emotional uninflection” es central para su encanto.
Nota: esto fue mi “Amnesty Pick” por el fin del año, y en ocasiones nos volvemos mushy reflexivo.
Whether because 40 is gliding toward me like a drop-top Brougham or simply because my taste has improved, I’ve lately been listening to a lot of urban AC radio. This means twice in a week my son and I got to hear Ice Cube’s “It Was a Good Day,” which I’m glad to report is still great — even greater than it used to be — and undiminished in its ability to speak horror and pleasure in the same words, to sound utterly chill about a life that’s utterly precarious. I don’t think my boy picked up on any of that, and why should he, wrapped in his fifth grade cocoon of Cub Scouts and Pokemon? We’ve had the post-Trump talks with him: We’ll probably be OK, but some of your friends might not, and you need to look out for them and help them, even as our voices fade into helplessness. And then here comes Alfredo Ríos: like Ice Cube a lover of women and mind-altering substances, packing a cuerno, acutely aware of every authoritarian eyeball tracking his whereabouts. Like Ice Cube he does himself no political favors with this song, bragging about his shipments from Bogotá. But “El Mexico Americano” has stormed U.S. Regional Mexican radio, a good chunk of whose audience feels as precarious as young black men in South Central. The Komander band’s tuba/accordion blats and howling high harmonies deliver a “fuck you” every bit as exuberant as “Good Day,” or “Move That Dope,” or Jay-Z mewling the cop’s eternal line, “Are you carrying a weapon on you, I know a lot of you are?”
Well, that was a terribleyear, wasn’t it? But as disappointment turns to fear, fear into love, and love to resistance, let’s remember why you came to NorteñoBlog in the first place: accordions and tubas, cumbias and corridos, gritos and gallos, all racing around at breakneck speeds and knocking shit over.
Here are some of the most-clicked items from the blog’s most clicked year. Thanks for reading!
Beto Cervantes D.E.P. Juan Gabriel might have been the most iconic musician in Mexico, but for certain music fans — the kind who run internet searches for the details of sordid deaths — Beto Cervantes’ untimely death in September came as a shock. Or maybe not. Roughly one fifth of NorteñoBlog’s 2016 visitors came to read Manuel’s 2015 article on Beto, which covered his previous assassination attempt as well as some of his best songs.
Top 5 W.T.F. Corrido Moments!
Speaking of corridos, Omar Ruiz‘s song “El Americano,” re-recorded with the kickass band Fuerza de Tijuana, became an unexpected U.S. radio hit and sent people to Manuel’s above-linked 2015 article, where you can see Ruiz singing the song to its subject, Boston narco George Jung. And, perhaps feeling guilty about all these corrido articles but nonetheless digging the new Tucanes tune, Josh wondered How Do We Hear Violent Corridos?
100 Regional Mexican Compilations Released in 2015
But it wasn’t all corridos! The article above looked at the curious prevalence of Regional Mexican compilation albums, even though such albums seem to be dying in the rest of the music industry. We also looked at the histories of the Mexican radio market in Houston and, in a still-popular 2015 article, Chicago. And if you ever wondered what’s behind the Houston Rodeo’s “Go Tejano Day” — well, here you go.
Also — and be sure to pour one out for the late George Michael, who inspired the name of this feature — Yo.Quiero.Tu.Saxo.
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’sHighway, 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)
If you’re looking for a handy review of good-to-excellent singles released over the past year, you could do worse than NorteñoBlog’s Picks to Click. They’re all listed and linked below, from Calibre 50’s big dumb cumbia “La Gripa” through El Bebeto’s new “Como Olvidarte.” Along the way you’ll find album tracks, old songs, big hits, and indie videos with a couple thousand views that look like they cost even fewer dollars to make.
Artists appearing twice include waltzing indie rockers Fuerza de Tijuana, the continent’s hardest working singles artist El Komander, La Séptima Banda, Calibre 50 spinoffs La Iniciativa, the aforementioned actually-a-grown-man El Bebeto, and walking cry for help Banda Los Recoditos. Also picked twice were Los Titanes de Durango, who Bandamax reports have split into two groups, the U.S.-based Los de Durango and the Mexico-based Los Titanes de Durango, because singer Sergio Sánchez’s work visa was denied. No word on whether that’s because Sánchez’s dad refuses to stop dressing up like El Chapo.
If there’s a trend here, it’s the surge of Sierreño music. Ariel Camacho’s 2015 death made everyone realize how well tubas, guitars, and true crime short stories go together, so now pretty boys like Adriel Favela and Bebeto are biting the style, and indie bands like Los Grandes del Pardito are receiving more attention.
Let’s get to clicking!
10/23/15: “La Gripa” by Calibre 50
Is this big dumb cumbia repetitive? Yes. Does it repeat itself? Yes. Does Calibre 50 keep singing the same thing over and over? Yes. Just when you think they’ve repeated the chorus phrase all the times they’re going to repeat it, do they repeat it several more times? Yes. BUT! Tubist Alex Gaxiola gets in some wicked syncopated jabs, and the whole rhythm section adds up to a sound much thicker than expected. Continue reading “Fiesta Segundo Aniversario: LOS PICKS TO CLICK”→
Thanks to you, a loyal coalition of corrido heads and puro sax devotees, NorteñoBlog enjoyed its most-clicked month yet in julio. Here are the posts that got the most attention, both current articles and old ones:
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.
Please excuse the note of shame in NorteñoBlog’s voice, but 2016 has gotten off to a more… focused start than last year. On the list (and YouTube playlist!) that follows, you’ll find no bands devoted to cumbia, no musicians from outside la patria, and — despite my doubtless inadequate searching — only one woman. (Karla Luna snuck on at the end, with a song that might end up growing on me. And Helen Ochoa‘s album deserves a listen.) What we’ve got here is nine norteño songs and six banda tunes by dudes who are pretty open about their lusts — if not for las mujeres, then for power and fancy wristwatches. But their music is no less compelling, because within those confines live several worlds of possibility.
El Armenta‘s big dumb cumbia (#1), Remmy Valenzuela‘s power ballad (#8), and Banda Pequeños Musical‘s pan flute monstrosity (#15) are all romantic banda songs that find vastly different paths to greatness. Or near greatness. The same thing happens on the norteño side. Though everyone’s working the same genre turf, Adriel Favela‘s guitar-saturated version of a new corrido standard (#3) couldn’t sound further from the Intocable love song (#10) with the distorted electric guitar and the show-offy accordion solo, as precise and memorable as a prime Van Halen break. Regional Mexican music pitches a bigger and more inventive tent than half the U.S. political system. Speaking of which, I sort of feel like El Armenta’s video, in which grotesque rubber-faced men enact an inexplicable ritual while carrying big sticks, gives us a terrifying preview of June’s Republican convention. At least nobody dies from the sticks.