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