Back in April at Seattle’s Pop Conference, I presented the paper “Selena, Ariel Camacho, and Two Tragedies that Reshaped Regional Mexican Music.” Now I’m happy to report that the website Remezcla has published a streamlined version — down to under 2,000 words, from an original length of 3,000+ — with the new headline “The Tragic Artist Deaths that Reshaped the Future of Regional Mexican Music.” I have trouble boiling down the thesis for people (you can read the abstract here), but it’s basically: Selena and Ariel Camacho both died young; one of their genres fizzled out; one of their genres got big; figuring out why tells us stuff about Regional Mexican audiences. There’s also some backstory on how Regional Mexican formed in the first place; for more, see the Blog’s original research and nursery rhyme.
If nothing else, you should check out Remezcla for the original art of Alan López. Don’t miss his exploding keytar! However, when I changed formats from PowerPoint to thinkpiece, I had to abandon some of my beloved slides. See if you can piece together the argument from these images:
Yeah, me neither.
Finally, good news for the Blog’s readers: Remezcla music editor Eduardo Cepeda has been running more articles on Regional Mexican music, including his own (that’s in addition to his crucial reggaeton series Tu Pum Pum) and those of Roberto Jose Andrade Franco and Lucas Villa. Add in some pieces from my Singles Jukebox colleague Juana Giaimo and many many others, and that’s a website! I’m honored to appear in their company.
As a recovering rockist and certified Old, I enjoy listening to the radio station The Current, 89.3 FM, whenever I’m driving through the Twin Cities. Recently The Current held a listener poll to determine the 893 essential songs since the year 2000. This list is a hit of sweet, unfiltered white elephant art. “Seven Nation Army” is #1 — and to be fair, it’s got one of the first riffs learned by today’s budding guitarists. Arcade Fire is everywhere, and Duluth folk-rockers Trampled By Turtles are more ranked than they’ve ever been ranked before.
In response, last week the Minneapolis City Pages, led by the excellent Keith Harris, published a list of 40 non-essential songs since the year 2000. This was the termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss riposte to all that Art. As you might guess, the non-essential list is way more fun, since it contains songs about dog sex and smashing things with hammers. But still, there was something missing, and I don’t mean Trampled By Turtles.
Both these lists gave NorteñoBlog an excuse to indulge in its two favorite pastimes: bitching that nobody pays attention to regional Mexican music, and shamelessly stealing the ideas of its betters.
So, in the pioneering spirit of 7-Minute Abs: ¡NorteñoBlog’s 41 Esencial Songs Since 2000!
What does “esencial” mean in this case? I only got into Mexican music in 2005, so my list will look different than the list of someone immersed in this music for years, let alone decades. If you’ve followed the Blog at all, you know my taste leans toward novelty: cumbias, tubas, brass sections turned into backbeats, and squalid consortiums of instrumentalists all trying to outplay one another. I have Complicated Feelings about violent narco songs celebrating real criminals, but I don’t dismiss them outright, and I think they often make bands sound more exciting than they would otherwise.
In short — and this is one of the points I read in the City Pages’ subtext, and in Richard Meltzer’s The Aesthetics of Rock and Chuck Eddy’s books — the non-esencial is esencial to the whole enterprise. That’s why this list sometimes looks like a mutant termite-elephant hybrid.
Before we get started, here’s something else you won’t find on either of those other lists: an artist who’s currently sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury! Romantic balladeer Julión Álvarez, despite being basically Iran, has the distinction of being the continent’s best singer, and he recorded the most esencial melody here, but you can’t find it on the Spotify playlist at the bottom. So enjoy “Ojos Verdes” as you peruse.
And now, get a whiff of the Blog’s essence.
40. Edwin Luna y La Trakalosa de Monterrey – “Mi Padrino el Diablo” 2014
Whether flaring his nostrils or trying to jumpstart his perpetually nascent acting career, Luna over-enunciates more dramatically than anyone in banda music. Here’s a jaunty waltz where he gets down with the devil.
Year after year, Seattle’s MoPOP Pop Conference is a great weekend to learn a ton of musical ideas you never imagined you’d need to know, and to meet and befriend a ton of very smart music geeks. This year the conference runs from April 11-14; the theme is death. See you there!
Here’s the abstract I’ll be expanding:
SELENA, ARIEL CAMACHO, AND TWO TRAGEDIES THAT RESHAPED REGIONAL MEXICAN MUSIC
In 1995 the 23-year-old Tejano singer Selena Quintanilla died at the hand of her fan club president. She was already the biggest act in Tejano music, itself the hottest sound on the U.S. radio format known as Regional Mexican; but in death, Selena became a household name. Her posthumous bilingual album, Dreaming of You, debuted atop the Billboard 200 and became the best-selling Latin album of all time. A generation later Selena remains an icon, but the same cannot be said of Tejano music itself. “Tejano Market Hits a Lull,” read Billboard’s ominous 1997 headline, and in 1999 the Houston Press reported, “The Tejano scene is all but gone.” Over the ensuing decades the Regional Mexican format would turn to other sounds — most recently sierreño, an austere style that exploded in popularity after a different twenty-something singer, Ariel Camacho, died in a 2015 car accident.
After these styles’ respective stars died, why did keyboard-led, pop-friendly Tejano fade from the airwaves but sierreño — a drumless genre propelled by ornate tuba lines — became inescapable? To learn why, I’ll examine the aesthetic and commercial trajectories of both styles and the evolving Regional Mexican audience. I’ll also explore how the U.S. infrastructure for Mexican-American music has developed. Central to this story is the man who discovered Camacho, Ángel Del Villar, the owner of DEL Records and the person who realized modern sierreño could be viral youth music. Since Camacho died, Del Villar has kept the singer’s band going with two different replacement leaders; he’s also seen norteño stars like Gerardo Ortiz and Calibre 50 hop aboard the sierreño bandwagon. What insights do these styles’ respective death bumps give us into the machinations of the Regional Mexican industry and the identities of its U.S. audiences?
If you haven’t used up your monthly allotment of free articles over at Bloomberg Businessweek, NorteñoBlog encourages you to check out journalist David Peisner’s profile of El Komander, the Blog’s 2016 Artist of the Year, and Los Twiins, arguably the most influential producers in the genre and noted purveyors of Candy Everybody Wants. Warning: It has the clickbaity gringo-scandalizing headline “This Guy Made a Fortune Off Mexican Drug Ballads. Now He’s Selling Love Songs.” Second warning: That headline pretty much sums up the article. But within that framing, you get highlights like:
— Adolfo Valenzuela, one of Los Twiins, reminiscing about some of his adolescent banda gigs. “‘We used to play for Chalino,’ Adolfo says. ‘I remember him being always surrounded by mafia people. He’d hire us to play and be sitting the whole time, just drinking. Then he’d sing one song and go into the restroom to do cocaine or something.'”
— The “Star is Born” account of Komander’s audition for the Twiins. “‘My cousin was calling me saying, “I have somebody that works for me that comes from Sinaloa, that has no papers, and says he wants to do music,” ’ Omar [Valenzuela] recalls. ‘I told him, “Please don’t bother me. I’m busy.” ’ Eventually he relented and invited Ríos in to sing for him and his brother. ‘We were blown away,’ Omar says. ‘He’s not that much of a singer, but he was real. He writes whatever he feels about whatever was going on in Culiacán. Mexico at that time was really dangerous, as it is now, but you never heard people [singing] before about decapitating.'”
— This article also supports the contention, which I first heard from Sam Quinones when researching Ariel Camacho, that “movimiento alterado” has moved from being a proper, Twiins-associated brand into a more generic realm. “Alterado” corridos aren’t just the bloody decapitations found in songs like “Sanguinarios del M1.” They’re also the narrative-free corrido style we live these days — celebrations of wealth and glamor, often praising or impersonating real life cartel bosses by name. In this sense, Gerardo Ortiz‘s “Dámaso” could be a defining song of alterado movimiento, even though Ortiz recorded it after severing formal ties with Los Twiins.
— Quinones and the Valenzuelas disagree as to whether this is a good thing. Quinones told me the alterado style is “a corruption of the corrido’s original intent,” which is to celebrate underdogs. But in the Bloomberg article, Adolfo says that’s the point. “’It’s not like before, when they were like, “I’m going to work hard like my parents,”’ Adolfo says. ‘This new generation has learned they can make more money, have luxuries, be bigger or better than their parents. They all love that feeling of power, which had never been felt before in Mexican music. Because before it was love and sadness. It was never about power.'”
Peisner sums things up with an excellent point: “It’s possible to see the alterado movement as a defiant howl from fans who’ve frequently felt marginalized, threatened, and even emasculated by the immigration debate on the U.S. side of the border and by the raging war on the other side.” So read the whole thing. If you faithfully follow Mexican music, you’ve probably read some of it in articles elsewhere: the capsule summary of Chalino’s career; Adolfo Valenzuela justifying his work by saying he’s just giving the people what they want; the comparisons to “gangsta rap”; the real life violence that’s killed musicians and their associates; the Mexican government haplessly demonizing narcocorridos. Peisner wrote the first ever regional Mexican article for this general interest publication, so he pretty much had to cover those bases, even though they hog the spotlight in story after story.
The Blog tends to side with Komander himself, who complains late in the article, “The term ‘narcocorrido’ bothers me. El Komander sings about horses, about cockfights.” But I still learned plenty, and besides all their musical virtues and ethical conundrums, the Valenzuela Twiins are among the most quotable interview subjects around.
Norteño, banda, sierreño, and the newfangled one-man genre of mariacheño have begun to claw their way back onto Billboard‘s Hot Latin chart — we’re up to 11 regional Mexican songs in the top 50 this week, from only eight four weeks ago. As they claw, it’s time for an installment of NorteñoBlog’s rarely repeated feature Record Label Report, mostly because this week’s most interesting songs are on indie labels, and I can’t think of anything else to write about.
ITEM! Hotshot accordion slinger Noel Torres has left the relative safety of the Sony-distributed Gerencia 360 label, instead opting for the ????-distributed wilds of his own NT label. The Blog has found no internet evidence of controversy or Los Plebes-style explotación driving Torres away from his previous label; but if you’re wondering why that “cien por cien norteño” followup to his last, fairly terrible banda album never materialized, this may explain why. Torres’s debut indie album La Vida a Mi Modo (NT) is not cien por cien norteño, but it’s about half and half, with someone’s hot lead guitar accompanying both norteño and banda arrangements, in the style of his previous wicked single “No Andan Cazando Venados.”
Torres’s newfound lack of commercial clout is evident, though. In 2016, the aforementioned banda album debuted at #2 on the Regional Mexican Albums chart; before that, La Balanza debuted at #1. NT dropped La Vida on August 4 and it has yet to chart; we’ll see if his pretty good narcocorrido single, the fake friends lament “Se Vinieron Los Problemas” (#39 at radio), helps matters. Dude can still play accordion, that’s for sure.
¡ÍT! Speaking of exploiting or not exploiting Los Plebes del Rancho de Ariel Camacho, they’ve got a couple radio songs out there right now. The better tune is the rags-to-riches narcocorrido “La Suerte,” the lead-off title track of their April album, released on the indie JG label. The narrator of “La Suerte” started at the bottom as an errand boy and now, with loyal friends handling his raw materials and offices in the Americas and Europe, has gone intercontinental if not ballistic. (“Nadie batalla conmigo,” he claims, and it is in your interest to believe him.) Israel Meza is the tuba player; like DEL Records’ Omar Burgos, Meza used to play with the late Ariel Camacho, and he’s got some real whack-a-mole solos between stanzas here, popping up to taunt the smoother guitar and vocals of his 20-year-old bandleader, José Manuel López Castro. Pick to Click!
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?)
First things first: our friends in Mexico, especially southern Mexico and the Gulf coast, are dealing with the twin destructive forces of a magnitude 8.1 earthquake and Hurricane Katia. People have lost family, friends, and homes in the states of Oaxaca, Chiapas, Tabasco, and Veracruz. If you can swing it, this website has a list of organizations, including the Red Cross and UNICEF, that can use your cash to help people recover from the destruction. Remember, Mexico has sent all kinds of help to Texas in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Now Mexico needs help; and since climate change doesn’t care whether we dig Tejano or huapango or (G-d save us) “Despacito,” now is a good time for us to practice dealing with its fallout. Climate change’s fallout, not “Despacito”‘s. Although feel free to help Puerto Rico out, too.
Now, on with the countdown! This past weekend in Chicago I was playing the radio game “ScanQuiz!”, where you hit “Scan” on the car radio and try to name each song you hear before the radio moves on to the next station. Besides being a superfun test of mettle, ScanQuiz! is also a good way to survey who’s broadly popular with radio listeners. Shawn Mendes and Imagine Dragons are always lurking somewhere. Led Zeppelin will never die. And tubist Omar Burgos, by virtue of playing with both versions of Los Plebes del Ranchoand los Plebes de Ulices Chaidez, has created one of the most dominant instrumental sounds on Chicago radio. Scan for a half hour and you’re likely to hear a sierreño song, probably played by one of Burgos’s bands; but even if the tubist is someone else, his bandleader owes his popularity to Burgos’s late employer Ariel Camacho, whose own posthumous hits still pop up like White Walkers.
Burgos and Chaidez are also doing well in Mexico, where this week their year-old song “Porque Me Enamore” ascends to #2. (In El Norte, the song is #1 at RegMex radio.) You can catch them in the very special video, both “recording” in the studio and offering support to a young lady at her chemo sessions. This is standard-issue sierreño prettiness, and not the most memorable example of the style, but you can see why it’s big. Chaidez sings with misty teenage sensitivity and just the hint of an edge to his voice, and Burgos propels the arrangement with an opening flourish, flutter tongue madness, cool little pendulumic swings into his notes — just an endless variety of ideas and effects, all of which enhance rather than disrupt the song. He’s got as much personality as any instrumentalist around. Teen music with inoffensive, cross-generational appeal — kind of like Shawn Mendes!
Better yet is the sierreño bass (not tuba) trio at #11. “Loco Enamorado” represents a new bandwagon leap for Remmy Valenzuela, whom the Blog has admired for his accordion chops and for the lovely rasp in his voice’s upper register. Here he’s playing rhythm guitar on a song about how crazy in love with you he is. Spare a listen for the lead requinto player, who executes a bunch of exciting flourishes that have inspired YouTube tutorials. (Spare also his name, if you know it, because I can’t figure out who the guy is.) I’d say Valenzuela’s voice alone would make any song worth hearing, but his NO VALE LA PENA followup banda single “Mi Amante” disproves that theory. But in “Loco Enamorado,” his voice and some mean requinto picking sell an entirely decent romantic ballad that has the temerity to move back and forth between two different keys. Pick to Click!
With more and more precisely coiffed muchachos hopping onto the Sierreño bandwagon, it’s easy to forget that some of them were Sierreño when Sierreño wasn’t cool. Case in point: Gerardo Coronel, a 21-year-old Michoacánder who was recording the stuff for the Twiins label (also home to El Komander) back in 2014, when the world was busy falling for Ariel Camacho, whose untimely death in 2015 lit a fuse under the style’s popularity. If you like Camacho, you’ll dig Coronel — he sings with a similar effortless romanticism, mixes up corridos with romantic tunes, and his videos are full of thoughtful squints into the distance, which, let’s face it, is the sexiest bad boy pose. (Or, as my wife keeps asking me, “What are you looking at?”)
Coronel’s new album El Jerry (Rancho Humilde) is a wonderful mix of guitar-tuba virtuosity and shaggy dog accordion waltzes, with subdued brass hitting the upbeats. Some hasty cartel googling reveals the title mafioso may be one Gerardo Treviño Robles of the Gulf Cartel, but “El Jerry” is clearly an aesthetic ploy for Coronel to come off as a swaggering badass. His band affords him that luxury. Or rather, his bands — there are a couple different ones on this album, and he seems to perform with a third lineup, none of whose names I can find. (Maybe if you have a CD booklet in front of you…?) Whoever they are, the lead requinto and accordion players are having all kinds of fun, and the rhythm sections excel at setting up a variety of breezy grooves. NorteñoBlog directs you to the kiss-off “Te Deseo Lo Mejor,” in which Coronel offers to teach his ex’s new pendejo “la forma correcta” to make love to her. His series of video tutorials is forthcoming. VALE LA PENA
Long time readers may remember that, back in 2014, NorteñoBlog was all in for La Nueva Rebelión, a rocking five-piece whose bassist plays a custom axe shaped like an assault rifle. I may have compared them to the Minutemen; in my defense, I was not the only critic to arrive at that comparison. True to form, I slept on their 2016 release La Gorrita y Que Suene la Rebe (Puro Party). On cursory listen, it doesn’t have anything as world-exploding as “Me Hicieron Mas Fuerte”; but, you know, Picasso just had the one Guernica. In their best songs, this is still a band trying desperately to pull as much music as possible from their poor instruments. Their new single “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. Pick to Click!
The quartet Los Titanes de Durango has been having fun lately, first fooling a DEA official into believing the singer’s Dad was El Chapo, then scoring the best hit about getting pulled over for speeding since “99 Problems” — although Los Titanes were going 280 in a 110, and therefore having way more fun than Jay-Z, who was only going 55 in a 54. Their latest album is El Barco (Titanica), on first listen a likeable stylistic jumble of 16 songs, from love polkas to backbeat rock. The title waltz is a rare go-getting corrido that doesn’t seem to be about the drug trade. It’s just about how we’re all ships, man. Their big dumb cumbia “Esto Se Va Descontrolar” convincingly depicts that enlightened state of drunkenness where you realize you’ll puke if you sing anything besides a single note, over and over again.
Controversy! ¡Polémica! NorteñoBlog’s favorite dancer Marco Flores (aka Marco A. Flores) y su Banda Jerez (aka #1 Banda Jerez, or simply La Jerez) are back on the Mexican airwaves with “Los Viejitos” at #17, an amped up waltz that takes an insanely complex approach to both rhythmic subdividing and cultural appropriating.
The song, you see, plays on the traditional Danza de los Viejitos, danced for centuries by the indigenous Purépecha people in the highlands of Michoacán. Flores lives two states to the north in Zacatecas, but because he bows to Terpsichore in all her forms, he’s opened his new video with a not necessarily accurate re-enactment: five guys in flamboyant stooped-old-man costumes walk a circle, “helped” by members of La Jerez, who keep looking underneath their ponchos but seem otherwise respectful. The slow, trad fiddle music of la Danza stops abruptly, La Jerez kicks into its waltz, Flores flails his limbs, and the stooped old men spring to life, emboldened by this rad new beat. There’s a long, proud history of affectionately tweaking the Olds by replacing their slow rhythm with a new, faster rhythm — recall the Clash’s “Wrong ‘Em Boyo” or Nirvana’s “Territorial Pissings.” Flores seems to be operating on the same impulse here.
¡No tan rápido! says Michoacán’s secretary of indigenous people, Martín García Avilés. (Let’s just note how great it is that a Mexican state has its own secretary of indigenous people.) García Avilés calls the video an insult to native traditions nationwide. Flores and La Jerez are denigrating the Purépecha people and subjecting them to ridicule, he says, and they should take down the video. Flores expresses surprise, countering that he’s trying to rescue and exalt la Danza and bring it to the attention of younger generations. NorteñoBlog, watching a video of an actual Danza, asks warily, “Aren’t the dancing fake old men supposed to be funny? At least a little bit?” Not that I plan to start making video parodies of indigenous dances any time soon. Tumblr would have a collective aneurysm. But I’m curious to know how Flores’s video reads to other people who’ve grown up with la Danza de los Viejitos. Offensive? Funny?
Anyway, as I mentioned, the rhythms in this thing are also stellar — bar by bar, the band divides the basic pulse into either two or three, with Flores subdividing those beats into even smaller and faster bits during the choruses, his accents landing in unexpected places. Limbs flail accordingly. Pick to Click!