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.
Puerto Rican trapstar Bad Bunny has pulled a Drake this week, clogging up Billboard‘s Hot Latin chart with 10 tracks from his debut album X 100pre. (The highest charting is, whaddya know, a duet with Drake.) NorteñoBlog has long admired Sr. Bunny’s charisma and barber while having almost no use for his music. The greatest insult? He’s Despacitoing norteño music into near nonexistence on Hot Latin. Regional Mexican acts account for only nine of the top 50 songs, one less than Bunny himself. The Blog tells you all this to explain why our Desfile de Éxitos format has changed. You can only type “Bad Bunny” so many times before the Donnie Darko flashbacks become too intense to deal with.
What follows are three mini-lists. First up are the three regional Mexican songs that appear only on the Hot Latin chart, i.e. not on Billboard‘s Regional Mexican Songs radio chart. As you’d expect, since radio factors less into their success, these three songs all have enormous YouTube streaming numbers. As you might not expect, they’re all by sierreño bands. One possible conclusion: sierreño is for cool internet kids. The next list is the Regional Mexican radio top 10: mostly banda, a couple cumbias, and one apiece of sierreño and mariacheño. The third list — of one song this week — is music outside the radio Top 10 that also appears on Hot Latin.
ONLY ON HOT LATIN
Fuerza Regida – “Radicamos En South Central” (#32 Hot Latin)
This sierreño gangsta nonsense is one high-living negocios signifier after another — I count appearances from Compas Tino and Chino, a bottle of Buchanan’s, and an X6 and a white Corvette, along with some good old-fashioned cocaine. The band is really good at switching from midtempo waltz to fast waltz on a dime, so that’s something. Now if they just learned to add backup vocals to their product placements, maybe they wouldn’t sound like they’re trapped in a cement bunker, playing under threat of torture. NO VALE LA PENA
T3R Elemento ft. Gerardo Ortiz – “Aerolinea Carrillo” (#33 Hot Latin)
The lead track from T3R’s 2018 album The Green Trip is ostensibly an ode to Pablo Escobar and his well-structured airborne narcotics business. It’s actually an ode to how cool it is to get high on a plane and sing about gangster shit. In the video, Kristopher Nava, the McLovin’ of the corridos verdes movimiento, chills in an airport lounge wearing a t-shirt that reads “Cookies” and refusing to enunciate. Sergio Cardenas, the band’s Cuban bassist, harmonizes beside him. Gerardo Ortiz plays a commercial airline pilot who smokes up in the cockpit and over-enunciates, well aware of the lurid cargo he’s transporting in his plane’s overhead compartments. Everyone nods a lot. Unlike Fuerza Regida, everyone here is in a good mood and knows the song they’re playing is patently dopey. VALE LA PENA y PICK TO CLICK
Grupo Arranke – “A Través del Vaso” (#39 Hot Latin)
“Una Para Mi Chiquitita (y Una Más Para My Sad Cowboy Hat That Reeks of Authenticity, Even Though My Song Comes From the Horacio Palencia Song Factory)” (Sierreño Versión)
NO VALE LA PENA
5. Banda Los Sebastianes – “A Través del Vaso” (#14 Hot Latin)
“Una Para Mi Chiquitita (y Una Más Para the Underwear Models in the Video)” (Banda Versión)
VALE LA PENA
6. Virlán Garcia – “Quiero Reintentarlo”
Virlán is horny as all get out, so it took an unusual triumph of will for him to keep this from becoming a slow jam. His sierreño band skips along, jaunty and desperate. Congas burble and the tuba line snaps at Virlán’s promises to kiss every corner of your body. VALE LA PENA
14. Calibre 50 – “¿Por Qué Cambiaste De Opinión?” (#50 Hot Latin)
Exactly what you expect from a Calibre ballad: a death march of self-righteous indignation aimed at a fickle mujer, from the dudes who just humble-bragged about going “Mitad y Mitad” with two different women. With his fondness for six-syllable rhymes, Edén Muñoz delights in language more than most of his songwriting cohort, and “No vayas a llorar, que nadie te va abrazar” is a cold kiss-off — but their self pity is dull enough without the band deflating before your ears. NO VALE LA PENA
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.
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!”→
After a month’s hiatus, we’re back! Please accept with the Blog’s apologies a Spotify playlist of the year’s best singles so far. (And here’s the bilingual version.)
NorteñoBlog’s recent lack of new content comes down to a couple factors, some excusable (extra work), some not (a new Minecraft addiction), and one germane to the Blog. If you’re near Seattle Saturday afternoon, stop by the Museum of Pop Culture, where I’ll be talking about Mexillenial gender presentation and how young dudes like Luis Coronel relate to their increasingly suburban fanbase. It’ll show up here eventually. In the meantime, let’s celebrate that Luis Coronel no longer sucks and has made one of the year’s best singles, in whose video he removes his shirt.
“Cambio de Papeles” – Cornelio Vega y Su Dinastia ft. Luis Coronel (Gerencia 360)
Under the tutelage of his famous papa, Cornelio Vega Jr. has emerged as a surprisingly gritty bandleader. He tosses off inventive accordion lines and sounds about a decade older than he is — just listening to him, you wouldn’t guess he’s got a mouth full of braces. In “Cambio de Papeles,” a stomping banda kiss-off, he pulls the prevoiusly personality-free Coronel up to his level — like, you actually believe these guys are jerks. Wronged jerks, but still jerks. Also worth checking out: the Coronel-less “Yo Soy,” a bouncy norteño number in whose charming video the band dresses up like teenage FES officers, trying to help their colleague win over a mujer. And then there’s “La Kushura,” in which Sr. Vega allows Jr. to hop aboard the latest high-flying musical trend: corridos verdes.
“Como Los Vaqueros” – Lenin Ramirez ft. Ulices Chaidez (DEL)
Is this super-catchy ballad with the “Stand By Me” chord changes a proud assertion of Mexicanness in a foreign land? Or a proud assertion of traditional machismo against the encroaching suburban void? Or an acknowledgement that the vaquero act has always been just that: an act? Or a really pretty and simple way to practice your reflexive verbs? ¡Sí sí sí y sí! When I heard it twice at the Aragon in February, everyone sang along, men and women, so there’s room for all God’s people inside the persona of the lovelorn vaquero. The backsplash in the video remains a thing of wonder. Continue reading “NorteñoBlog’s Top Singles of 2018: Enero – Abril”→
As a gringo who loves talking about this music, I often find myself comparing norteño to other U.S. genres — especially our chart pop, with which it shares predilections for dancing, drinking, and lovey dovey ballads. Other writers have pointed out the music’s similarites to country (hats, horses, drinking, instrumentation) or rap (attitude, marginalized artists, drinking, trapping-as-metaphor), but all such comparisons ultimately fall short, because norteño doesn’t need ’em. At Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom last Saturday, this self-sufficiency once again became clear. A packed house of four or five thousand people sang along with entire songs by Ulices Chaidez y Sus Plebes, Regulo Caro, Lenin Ramirez, and (I assume) the headliner Gerardo Ortiz, each of whom presented a unique modern take on an unapologetically Mexican tradition.
(About that last parenthetical… before we get too far I should admit that I left before Ortiz took the stage. Reader, you have to understand some things. It was after midnight, I work early Sunday mornings, I live more than an hour outside the city, the snow had started falling, and I am 40. Also know that you cannot shame me more than I have shamed myself.)
The crowd, ninety percent of whom were younger than me and had better hair, screamed when each act shouted out their families’ states of origin: “¡Arriba Jalisco! ¡Arriba Zacatecas!” Fans pulled out their cell phones to record the hits, devoting gigabytes of cloud storage to Chaidez’s “Te Regalo” and Caro’s “En Estos Dias.” I was grateful not to be the worst dressed person there. With my black Nikes (the nicest article of clothing I own, now salt stained and sticky), leather jacket, paisley shirt, and dark jeans, I was somewhere in the middle of the pack: well below the stylish vaqueros and vaqueras in their spotless hats and glistening belts, but not super conspicuous.
Billed as a “Baile de Valentine’s Day,” the bands and between-set DJs leaned heavily on dance tunes and love songs, but maybe they always do. The Aragon has limited VIP seating — the VIPs stood impassively above the rest of us, resembling the stony-faced onlookers at the Eyes Wide Shut orgy — so most of the crowd simply stood and danced on the main floor. The place filled up during an opening set by a tight accordion quintet whose name neither I nor my neighbors caught. When they finished playing and I turned around, thousands of people had materialized to fill the hall, and it was clear that any attempt to exit would require detailed planning. As the crowd packed in tighter and tighter, brief shoving matches became more frequent and the elbows of oblivious dancing couples became more annoying. (I was also grateful not to be the only dorky dude fixed to one spot, bobbing his head.) Like a shark through the sea of people strode an intrepid five-foot-tall vendedora, holding bouquets of light-up roses above her head. I didn’t see anyone buy them, but she kept trying.
The Billboard charts are boring this week, so please excuse the following disjointed rant…
As NorteñoBlog suggested last post, the Grammys’ approach to Mexican music is fairly ridiculous. The Grammys themselves are ridiculous — although if we forget that they’re supposed to be rewarding the best music, and instead see them as the dying public gasps of an increasingly irrelevant trade organization, with Neil Portnow facing down exciting existential dilemmas around every corner like Sarah journeying through the Labyrinth… well, I dunno if that helps.
AND YET. For many musicians, especially the ones who don’t make much money, the Grammys are not ridiculous. Or maybe not merely ridiculous, but also useful. Take ranchera lifer Aida Cuevas, who won the Best Regional Mexican Music Album (Including Tejano), against a field of men, for her independently released Arrieros Somos – Sesiones Acústicas. Cuevas used her untelevised Grammy moment to flaunt her charro outfit and to urge Mexican women to speak out against sexual harassment. I won’t pretend to enjoy this particular album of hers, but if we accept that both the Grammy awards and the Blog have slightly less aesthetic authority than one of those plastic duck bobbing contests at a carnival, my opinion doesn’t matter. Cuevas is a talented singer who releases her own music and received a podium. She made the most of her moment. The Mexican music world needs to let in more people like her.
So do the airwaves. If you study last week’s Regional Mexican airplay list, below, you’ll see Chiquis Rivera has dropped off, to be replaced by another token woman: Becky G, whose decidedly non-regional ode to older men, “Mayores,” somehow became the 40th most-played song on regional stations. (This week — not shown due to Blog laziness — she moves up to #22.)
Look, I know studying musicians’ chart positions is a ridiculous exercise. The charts rarely have anything to do with aesthetic quality, and observing the cultural hegemony of “Despacito” is only interesting for a day or so. But the charts do reflect who’s getting paid, and a complete absence of women tells you something unflattering about the values of the industry’s gatekeepers. What will it take to get actual norteño singers like Victoria “La Mala” or Laura Denisse onto the radio — or to get Diana Reyes or Los Horoscopos or Alicia Villarrealback on the radio?
While the Blog organizes a call-in campaign, let’s look at whose new songs are getting played. Radio station billboard anchor Gerardo Ortiz and whirling fount of Terpsichore Marco Flores have brought their VALE LA PENA Mexican hits to El Norte. Los Cardenales de Nuevo León and Los Huracanes del Norte head up the geriatric “beloved by Becky G” contingent with some straight-down-the-middle accordion lopes.
Best of all: Somehow the Blog hasn’t yet noted “Que Me Amas,” a sweet love song from noted eyeliner-and-metal-t-shirt models Siggno. The song starts with “We Will Rock You”-style stadium stomping and distorted guitar, before switching to a midtempo accordion groove that splits the difference between backbeat and polka. You’ve heard Intocable pull this same trick, but Siggno does it better, becuase they keep switching back and forth. The accordion solo and closing drum fusillade are also jarringly good, enough to kick Siggno into coveted Pick to Click status:
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.
Continuing the sad theme of Albums NorteñoBlog Slept On In 2017, we turn to the fifth-or-so release from prodigious 23-year-old singer-songwriter-accordionist Alfredo Olivas, La Rueda de Fortuna (Sahuaro/Sony Latin). The Blog first encountered Olivas in the pre-Blog morass of 2013, when he appeared as a teenager on Hyphy Records’ cheapo compilation Hyphy Music Inc. Presenta El Corrido VIP 1era Edición. Comparing him and his cohort to punk rockers, and misspelling his name, I wrote, “Olvidas creates thin slashes of song, sometimes with one instrument insistently out of tune, tuba and accordion prancing around one another like bird of paradise evading some jungle cat, if that ever happens.” (I think I’d been watching a bunch of Planet Earth.)
Since then, Olivas has been sounding like more of a pro. He’s written a ton of songs — according to Wiki, over 1,000 during his life — and has lately turned away from the narcocorridos of his youth into more reflective and romantic work. Which isn’t to say he’s stodgy. “El Paciente” was one of 2017’s best singles, a soaring deathbed meditation whose energetic horn charts were set to “burble.” For his accordion songs, his band tackles different rhythms like Intocable, moving beyond the typical polkas and waltzes into grooves that approach rock. And his lyrics tend to be more interesting than typical for this genre, where song themes tend to stick to “I’m so in love with you,” “You unfaithful whore,” or “I’m such a big shot.”
See, for instance, the song sitting at #13 in Mexico. (Blog note: it’s since climbed to #4, but I’m too lazy to change the chart below.) In “Antecedentes de Culpa,” a guy has a drunken argument with his mujer, wakes up hung over, and regrets the whole thing. I’m not even sure what they’re arguing about, but it hardly matters; the argument dredges up a host of insults that sting worse than the subject of disagreement. It’s a precise, subtle portrait of how two lovers can choose exactly the right words to wound one another. (Standard translation caveats apply.) The music, naturally, is all swinging and sunshine, the band ruefully shaking their heads while their leader tries to talk his way out of his regret. Special props to Olivas’s drummer for leavening his beat with some cool snare rolls and subdivided cymbal work, and to the bassist for playing hooks. Pick to Click!