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2017 Albums: Guitarras de la Sierra

Never a company to let a good trend go uncompiled, the beneveolent Fonovisa corporation has recently released Guitarras de la Sierra, a collection of songs from young sierreño trios — two guitars, plus either a tuba or bass holding down the bottom end. Las guitarras have been rocking la Sierra forever — NorteñoBlog has previously delved into the career of Breaking Bad corrideros Los Cuates, for instance, and several older comps called Guitarras de la Sierra exist, featuring guys like Miguel y Miguel and various iterations of Los Alegres. The differences, in our brave new post-Ariel Camacho world, are threefold:

1. The lineup of guitars plus tubas, without an accordion or drums, now constitutes a reliable hitmaking combination, not just on the radio but online;

2. This means you’re gonna hear more romantic sierreño songs than you would have in previous generations; and,

3. Sierreño musicians are more likely not just to be young men — Los Cuates started playing when they were only 14, after all — but to sing like young men; and specifically, like young pop stars, rather than salt-of-the-earth gallos who grew up on the ranch. In other words, not just musical idols who appeal to teens, but bona fide Teen Idols.

To get a sense of what I’m talking about, compare Los Cuates’ first top 40 hit, “Me Haces Falta,” with a song from the latest Guitarras comp, Crecer Germán’s YouTube hit “Lo Que Te Amo.” Los Cuates’ hit, recorded in their mid-20s, marked a gradual departure from their guitar and bass lineup: Gabriel Berrelleza was playing an accordion by this point, and they’d recently replaced their bass with a tuba. “Me Haces” was a skippily bereft lost love single, but with its delamatory melody and I-IV-V chords, it could have been a corrido with different lyrics:

But there’s no mistaking the subject matter of Germán’s song. Even without having the lyrics in front of you, you can tell this is a young man deep in the shit of romantic bereftitude. We know this because something in his tone screams “teenager in love” — he strains for emotional affect without having the vocal chops to get there. Couple this with the wandering melody, the minor chords in the progression, the brief but keening melismas, and you’ve got the commercial face of sierreño guitars 2017:

Is that all there is to the style? Of course not. Germán first sang corridos and love songs with his former band Alta Consigna, and in an entertaining attempt to be puro raza or something, he’s released a “Deluxe Edition” of his snoozy romantic 2016 album Hombre Afortunado (Fonovisa). Besides “Lo Que Te Amo,” the expanded edition contains a whole bunch of tributes to real-life narcos: “El Chapo,” “El Ingeniero,” “Kikil Caro,” etc. Not surprisingly, these songs are a whole lot more fun than the first, original half of the album, which was all about love. They’re faster, the requinto-tuba interplay is swinging, and Germán’s immature singing is much better suited to flat yellow journalism than to florid purple poetry. If the expansion was available on its own, it’d be an easy VALE LA PENA. But what am I saying? It’s 2017. You have the internet. Make whatever Crecer Germán album you want.

No such qualifications are necessary for the VALE LA PENA fourth studio album from Jesús Ojeda y Sus Parientes, El Amigo de Todos (Fonovisa — all these albums are on Fonovisa). Ojeda currently has a radio hit with the ballad “No Es un Juego,” inluded on the Guitarras comp. Relevant to point 3 above, its video is partially set in a Mexican high school, depicting a romance between two fresh-faced hetero cuties; Ojeda and his rhythm guitarist are the only ones in the video wearing cowboy hats. Written by the ubiquitous Joss Favela, “Juego” is the slowest song on Ojeda’s album, which is otherwise the most fun you’ll have pretending to be in the Sierra this year.

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. Here they are playing their Mini Lic corrido “El Piñata,” today’s Pick to Click. (The licks are anything but mini, amirite?)

Continue reading “2017 Albums: Guitarras de la Sierra”

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Lo Mejor de 2016: Where the Action Is

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.

———————————————–

vicente-un-aztecaEven 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”

El Komander en la Jukebox

el-komander-habla-nexos-narcotrafico

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…”

Ay-yi-yi.

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.

Escribí:

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?”

¡VALE LA PENA!

¡Feliz 2017! (y ¡Lo Mejor de 2016!)

new-years-eve

Well, that was a terrible year, 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-with-fireBeto 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.

tomen-notaEl Karma Karma Karma Comes Back to You Hard
Speaking of dead corrideros, Ariel Camacho continued to intrigue internet listeners. His own songs and those of his band, Los Plebes del Rancho, racked up enormous numbers of internet streams and had a stubborn presence on Billboard‘s Hot Latin Songs chart for most of the year. NorteñoBlog looked the Sierreño wave in the articles ¡Pisteando! (featuring Chuy Zuñiga), Wristwatch Porn and White Slavery (ft. “Tomen Nota”), and Attack of the Teen Idols. Buncha people also clicked on 2015’s Who Played It Better: Ariel Camacho or These Dudes?

los-inquietos-del-norte-requisito-americano-feat-marco-flores-y-la-numero-1-banda-jerezTrap Is Hyphy and Hyphy Is Trap
Speaking of stubborn, the twin phenomena of hyphy norteño (existence iffy) and the Hyphy record label (going strong!) continued to fascinate. NorteñoBlog covered both in the 2015 article Pronounced “Jai-Fi”: The Rise and Fall of Hyphy Norteño, and happily learned about Martín Patrón‘s hardcore “trap corridos” in the above linked Trap Is Hyphy and Hyphy Is Trap. We also heard from a band of hyphy-not-hyphy progenitors in Marco Flores y Los Inquietos Saluden a Su Madre.

el-americanoTop 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.

sergio-floresAlso — and be sure to pour one out for the late George Michael, who inspired the name of this feature — Yo. Quiero. Tu. Saxo.

NorteñoBlog’s Top Albums of 2016

fuerza-de-tijuana

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)
systema solar3. 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”)

el komander top 205. 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)

bandononona11. Banda Rancho Viejo de Julio Aramburo La Bandononona – La Bandononona en Mi Rancho (Disa): Continue reading “NorteñoBlog’s Top Albums of 2016”

Desfile de Éxitos 12/24/16

omar_ruiz_el_quesito

Since NorteñoBlog last checked Billboard‘s Latin charts, the magazine has decided to give us all a gift: the website is now posting 20 more spots on its Regional Mexican airplay chart. There you will find such curiosities as:

Marco Antonio Solis crooning about a lying mujer while swathed in a toga of strings and synths (#29);

— a previous Pick to Click from Fuerza de Tijuana, about a former honcho in the Medellín Cartel (#31);

— more chipper puro sax bands than you can shake a slimy mouthpiece at (#23, #30, and #32) — all of them ruled by the saxophone colossus at #18, La Maquinaria Norteña;

— and even more clones of Ariel Camacho. Am I alone in thinking The Clones of Ariel Camacho would make a great Univision variety show? TWENTY SUPER SERIOUS YOUNG REQUINTO PLAYERS SING OF DEATH AND LOST LOVE, Omar Burgos furiously triple-tongues his tuba whenever someone gets voted off, and everyone forgets the names of their second guitarists. Could work. In any case, Nano Machado, Los de la Noria, Los Plebes, and Ulices Chaidez are all representing Sierreño music in the bottom 20, and Chaidez has two additional songs in the overall Hot Latin top 50. This fountain of youth isn’t drying up any time soon.

Also brightening up the bottom 20 is another dude who fooled around with Sierreño earlier in 2016: Adriel Favela, whose “Tomen Nota,” a duet with Los Del Arroyo, was a credible candidate for Wristwatch Porn Video of the Year. Continue reading “Desfile de Éxitos 12/24/16”

Yo Quiero Tu Saxo (diciembre 2016)

cumbre-nortena

It is the longstanding position of NorteñoBlog that the puro sax styles of Chihuahua and Zacatecas would improve with the addition of more terrible “sax” puns in the titles. When we last checked in with the New Mexican quintet Anexo Al Norte, they were pursuing perfection with fellow New Mexican Beto Ronquillo. That pursuit failed, so they’ve settled for a limp Christmas cumbia on Blas Records, “Parodia Botas de Navidad,” unfortunately NOT a parody of “The Christmas Shoes” (aka “Los Zapatos de Saxmas”). Announcing your song as a parody is never a good move, especially when the song isn’t funny, but sax player Iván Murillo almost makes up for it with his groovy syncopated takes on “Jingle Bells.” In the song, Santa brings the boys in the band a bunch of instruments, along with the titular botas and a mixing board. One of them falls asleep with the mixing board, which is sure to mess up his levels. In the video’s high point, the band leaves a bowl of tamales out for Santa Claus, a tradition I will now force upon my own family. (NO VALE LA PENA)

no-hay-quintoAs you’d expect, the Dallas saxtet La Energia Norteña has far more energy. They’ve just released their fifth album for the Azteca label, an ode to saxual endurance entitled No Hay Quinto Malo. And, because the fifth time’s the charm, the album debuted at #1 on Billboard‘s Latin Album chart. Lead single “Hoy Me Toca Perder” (aka “Hoy Me Toca de Dar Saxo Oral”) is a maudlin thing, with string cues and a video full of meaningful looks and lonely rooms, though it does afford Israel Oviedo a chance to wail in full Clarence Clemons mode. Better is “Me Ganó la Calentura” (aka “Calor Saxual”), which sounds more like winning, even though its chord progression gives it an undercurrent of heartache.

But NorteñoBlog is most partial to their cover of Joan Sebastian‘s straight-up country song, “El Taxista.” (“El Saxista”? Too easy.) Written by Sebastian’s son José Manuel Figueroa, its melody soars through a tale of lovelorn despair, told from a stoic taxi driver’s point of view. In other words it’s perfect for this genre, where jaunty beats and riffs try to ignore their songs’ anguish every day of the week. Pick to Click!

Continue reading “Yo Quiero Tu Saxo (diciembre 2016)”

A Sixteen-Musician Pileup from Chicago (also starring Voz de Mando)

escuela

voz-de-mandoNorteñoBlog has long neglected the Sinaloan quartet-con-tuba Voz de Mando, despite their having one of the more charming Navidad songs on the radio for the past four years. (It’s actually a cover of Los Bukis, whom the blog will continue to neglect for now.) Their new single “Pa’ Que No Me Anden Contando” (AfinArte/Sony) is useful in several ways. It’s a minor-key stomper encouraging you to grab life by the horns with your teeth and whatnot (I paraphrase) — so that, when you’re on your deathbed, you won’t have to rely upon secondhand reports to know what it’s like to have horns caught in your teeth. (See also Los Recoditos’ “Mi Último Deseo” and other YOLO worthies.) It’ll help you fill out your Joss Favela/Luciano Luna bingo card, in case you hadn’t yet accounted for a “minor-key YOLO stomper” from their collective pen. Aaaaand it’s a useful Spanish idiom for all my fellow language learners out there. “So I Don’t Hear It Secondhand” is how the Sony PR team translates the title, which literally-to-inglés has something to do with careful accounting, I think. The message is clear: Voz de Mando, Favela, and Luna are against careful accounting. NorteñoBlog is fastidious in its accounting, so I don’t recommend songs too too easily, but some fiery accordion rips this tune into VALE LA PENA territory. Plus, the dude who shouts out “VOZ DE MANDO” in all their songs sounds like he’s inviting you to a monster truck rally.

Somewhat better is a Sierreño-con-tuba ode to the Triduum, Continue reading “A Sixteen-Musician Pileup from Chicago (also starring Voz de Mando)”

Nice Going, 2016! (NorteñoBlog talks politics)

shia-trump

Trump Is President, the Cubs won the World Series, and Shia LaBeouf can freestyle… 2016 in a nutshell, I guess. I never thought in a million years this buffoon would get into the White House. I thought, “This country can’t be that stupid.” Boy, do I have pie on my face!

Every feeling has surfaced from the anti-Trump side, everything from anger to sadness to denial. There is apparently a petition to abolish the electoral college, but who knows if that is even possible to do.

One feeling is more common than others: Uncertainty. For millions of undocumented people and their families it means a very uncertain future. Will Trump keep his promise to deport all 12 million undocumented immigrants? Will he only go after habitual criminals? No one knows and that is what keeps people up at night.

I have family that is undocumented. I know undocumented people who have careers and stable jobs, planning their futures; that have been able to use their college education as a direct result of President Obama’s DACA executive action in 2012.

All of that can go flying out the window with the stroke of Trump’s gold plated pen. Muslim Americans are also feeling unsure of their future, along with African Americans. Will Stop and Frisk become a federal initiative with someone like Sheriff Clarke at the helm? Continue reading “Nice Going, 2016! (NorteñoBlog talks politics)”

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