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NorteñoBlog’s 41 Esencial Songs Since the Year 2000

jenni-rivera-diva-de-la-banda

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.

39. Los Angeles Azules – “El Listón de Tu Pelo” 2000
Continue reading “NorteñoBlog’s 41 Esencial Songs Since the Year 2000”

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¡Lo Mejor de 2018!

el-dusty

In 2018, Regional Mexican radio chilled out. Amid the ever-shifting blend of genres that comprises the format, the two “new” styles that commanded the most attention sounded remarkably blase about their surging popularity. In fact, “command” seems like the wrong word for the genres of cumbia and corridos verdes, since they were just sitting around in a smoky haze, waiting for audiences to trip over them.

As Elias Leight explained in a spring Rolling Stone feature, cumbias have been around for decades, having traveled from South America throughout the Spanish-speaking diaspora over the last 70-or-so years. Turn-of-the-millennium hits from Los Angeles Azules, a swanky Mexican big band, have never outgrown their use as commercial bumper music on U.S. radio. The band’s recent resurgence culminated in a 2018 Coachella performance, dug by none other than Justin Bieber, and a current hit rearrangement of Natalia LaFourcade’s tune “Nunca Es Suficiente.” And that’s just the acoustic stuff.

The electronic technocumbia scene, pioneered by Selena and her producer brother A.B. Quintanilla in the mid ‘90s, got new energy from former nano-satellite engineer Edmundo Gómez Moreno, aka Raymix, and his unkillable singles “Oye Mujer” and “¿Dónde Estarás?” The Blog admires the mysterious modality of these singles and admits they don’t really sound like anyone else.The Blog also never wants to listen to them. Like the band Low, for whose 2018 album Double Negative I also didn’t have much time, Raymix zeros in on precisely one mood and hits his mark. It’s a feat that demands acknowledgement rather than repeated listening.

If Raymix songs seem like they might sound better stoned, corridos verdes make that theme explicit. Praised by Snoop, played mostly by young sierreño bands who weave hypnotic patterns from acoustic guitars and either bass or tuba, these songs can get sort of samey. If you thought shoutouts to narcos were getting old, or if you were having trouble differentiating weeping meditations on drinking away lost amors, wait until you hear a bunch of young dudes sing about how high they are. These guys stick to themes. Their songs are sometimes hilarious, though, and the tubists and lead guitarists occasionally stumble across moments that’ll legitimately drop your jaw, regardless of how much THC is in your blood. As with so much else, it depends which strain you get.

Corridos about smoking weed aren’t new, either, but they do represent a shift, at least in terms of mainstream radio fare. A boyband like T3R Elemento might occasionally sing about real-life narcos and the marijuana production business, but unlike the older generation of corrideros — Gerardo Ortiz, El Komander, Noel Torres — they make no pretense that they’re singing from experience or proximity. Born and raised in the U.S., T3R Elemento sings about weed from a bilingual suburban U.S. high school point of view, a vantage their video iconography reinforces. It’s similar to what we saw with the Bay Area’s hyphy movimiento a decade ago. That movement also focused on drug and alcohol consumption, with little reference to Mexico or the drug production narratives that had long dominated corridos. Call these movements “assimilation” if you want, but they represent wilder, less predictable patterns of assimilation than political discourse or radio programmers have led us to expect.

Of course, Regional Mexican radio still plays frantic dressage polkas from Marco Flores, and plenty of maudlin slow jams from the likes of Banda MS. Old narcocorridos from Los Tigres rub shoulders with new ones from El Fantasma. Frantic emotions and spirited boasts will never die; but neither will the phenomenon of getting really baked, and then singing about it.

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Having accounted for trends, here are 11 Regional Mexican albums the Blog recommends, genre by genre — in several cases paired with their higher profile inferiors.
Continue reading “¡Lo Mejor de 2018!”

El Komander y Los Twiins: Hombres de Negocios

adolfo valenzuela

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.

los twiins snoop— 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.

VALE LA PENA

Fiesta Tercer Aniversario: LOS PICKS TO CLICK

alfredo olivas wary

Welcome to NorteñoBlog’s fourth year! As I survey the previous twelve months of radness, several themes emerge:

fantasmaSierreño is no longer a novelty. The guitar + tuba-or-bass style is now as prevalent as its country cousins, banda and accordion-based norteño. Although the style has existed for decades, you can trace its popularity back to the 2015 death of young singer-guitarist Ariel Camacho, which cemented sierreño as both young people’s music and a vehicle for pop hits. Two Camacho-related bands — Los Plebes del Rancho de Ariel Camacho and Ulices Chaidez y Sus Plebes — appear below, as do established norteño/banda stars Gerardo Ortiz and Remmy Valenzuela, jumping on the sierreño bandwagon with corridos and romantic ballads. One of the year’s biggest breakout stars, man-myth-legend El Fantasma, scored a long charting hit with the guitar corrido “Mi 45,” in the process becoming one of California’s most streamed Latin artists.

comere calladoGerardo Ortiz continues to dominate. You wouldn’t know it by looking at his album sales, but artistically, nobody in the genre had a better 2017. His sierreño-biting Comeré Callado album was a rebound from 2015’s disappointing Hoy Más Fuerte, with better songs and typically stunning band interplay. He was also featured on excellent norteño and bachata singles (see below), and notably did not release any videos showing him murdering women. I only accomplished one of those things.

La-Nueva-Onda-Norteña-V-Hell-Yea-2017-500x500Like Civil War reenactments and teen slasher movies, puro sax music will never die. The jaunty norteño subgenre, whose songs definitely do not all sound the same, continues to do several things well. It’s an excellent accompaniment to doing chores. Like freestyle, it pits bouncy uptempo music against bereft emo lyrics, to the benefit of both. And it pulls all kinds of other stuff — notably the huapango folk dance and alt-rockers Caifanes (see below) — into its deranged but happy orbit.

christian-nodalI wish I liked mariacheño and socially conscious corridos more than I do. Christian Nodal released an excellent, career-defining debut single, “Adios Amor,” and then followed it up with a boring but well-reviewed mariachi album. Calibre 50 released a heartfelt sigh of an immigration story, “Corrido de Juanito,” that meant a lot to some very smart people. Given the choice, though, I’d rather listen to the parade of reprehensible narcocorridos scattered below. Bands like La Nueva Rebelión draw swaggering energy from their illicit subject matter, turning narco music into a thrilling and paradoxically life-affirming force. Not that musicians can’t walk and chew gum at once — last year especially,
El Komander succeeded with both kinds of stories.

la villarrealWhere are all the women? I’m sorry to say, this is one area where the Blog seems to be getting worse, not better, and I’m not sure if it’s my fault or the industry’s. This year the Blog enjoyed singles by Alicia Villarreal (her album La Villarreal is way better mariachi pop than Nodal’s), Lucero, Diana Reyes, and Chiquis Rivera, but didn’t Pick to Click them, simply because there was better stuff those particular weeks. The latest countrified album from blog fave Laura Denisse was more of a chore than her last one, although it may be growing on me (and I just saw she has a Christmas album! Must research…). Los Horóscopos have been MIA lately. As Victoria ‘La Mala’ has pointed out, Mexican regional music remains a man’s world — the sheer amount of music produced by men overwhelms that of the women. That said, the year’s most exciting new voice belonged to Ángela Aguliar, who showed rich confidence on two wonderful duets with her father Pepe. (See below.)

Anyway, here they are: the past year’s worth of Picks to Click. Thanks for reading, and happy listening!

11/17/16: “Que Perrón” by La Séptima Banda
A big dumb cumbia ode to the modern world’s sexually assertive mujeres. As you might expect, such mujeres make La Séptima Banda very happy, especially the dude in the middle of the song who sheepishly admits, “I’m ugly.”

12/2/16: “Traigo Ganas de Pistiar” by Escuela de Rancho, Los Orejones de la Sierra, y La Bandeña
It scarcely matters what the song “Traigo Ganas” is about. I mean, I know it’s about getting drunk — the song opens with the sound of cans being cracked open, and anyway, I’m sure you’ve met low brass players — but what matters is the stupendous way this makeshift octo-quin-trio makes you feel all giddy and swivelly by jumping from one part of the song to the next.
Continue reading “Fiesta Tercer Aniversario: LOS PICKS TO CLICK”

Flaming Gallos and Dancing Jesuses (Desfile de Éxitos 6/10/17)

el gallero

KOMANDERLoyal readers understand that any new single by Alfredo Ríos “El Komander” makes NorteñoBlog crow with excitement. El Komander is one of the best, most prolific singles artists on the continent and his new radio hit “El Gallero” (#13 airplay) is another feather in his cap. And just so we’re clear: this song is some straight up, undiluted, no-question-what-he’s-singing-about cockfighting bullshit. I’ve combed the text for mitigating factors and found none. It’s not a metaphor. It’s not simply a video featuring the sport, like Alacranes Musical‘s strutting dance classic “Zapateado Encabronado #3”, which the Blog could not in good conscience endorse back in 2014. No, “El Gallero” pecks away at the same magnificently plumed tradition as Vicente Fernandez‘s “La Muerte de un Gallero” — only, where Fernandez told an O Henry-ish short story set in the competitive cockfighting world, Komander’s song is pure identity politics and local pride.

We’ve seen this sort of dynamic before, specifically with narcocorridos: “In one of those ironies that’s defined parent-child musical tastes since forever, [my librarian] Fatima’s dad is a big Chalino Sanchez fan but thinks these new corrideros are a bunch of idiots. Those old school corrideros knew how to tell a real story.” Whereas, the argument goes, new jack corrideros like El Komander simply revel in the decadent trappings of the game.

Where else have we seen this play out? Oh, right — country music. Recall Marty Robbins’ “The Strawberry Roan,” a short bronc busting story I’m on record loving. In a few compact stanzas, Robbins uses obscure terms of rodeic art to immerse listeners in the seedy bronc busting underworld, and his story of Man meeting his equine match turns into an awe-stricken proverb about life’s eternally unexplored vistas:

“I know there are ponies that I cannot ride;
There’s some of them left, they haven’t all died.”

Four decades later Garth Brooks recorded “Rodeo,” which also rattled off obscure terms of art but, like “El Gallero,” was pure identity politics and local (well, professional) pride. You could argue that Brooks helped inspire today’s bro-country movement of good old boys obsessing over how Country they are, and becoming aesthetically impoverished in the process, but what we’re really talking about is different songwriting tools. At their cores, the parallel cases of “Strawberry Roan” vs. “Rodeo” and “La Muerte” vs. “El Gallero” represent differences in perspective. (I mean, “Rodeo” is my least favorite Garth Brooks song, but just on a musical level.) Brooks and Komander both have excellent storytelling songs in their repertoires, but sometimes you just want to sing a damn anthem.

But, right, cockfighting. Sigh. NorteñoBlog cannot in good conscience endorse this middling El Komander single whose video seems to depict a rooster killed in battle. What I CAN endorse is getting onto U.S. radio with a line that translates “My cock is always on fire.” Your move, Kings of Leon.

dinastia mendozaFar as I can tell, “El Gallero” hasn’t raised the hackles of the SPCA or any other group of moralizers. The same cannot be said for the song at #46 on the big chart, “El Pasito Perrón” by the gregarious dance band Grupo Dianastia Mendoza. Continue reading “Flaming Gallos and Dancing Jesuses (Desfile de Éxitos 6/10/17)”

¡Controversy! ¡Polémica! (Who’s On the Mexican Radio?)

marco-flores-dancing

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.

los-viejitos-400x400The 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!

Continue reading “¡Controversy! ¡Polémica! (Who’s On the Mexican Radio?)”

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.

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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!

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”

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