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Helen Ochoa

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”

¡Nuevo! (starring Helen Ochoa, Los Horóscopos, y más)

edwinyvicky

helen ochoaHelen Ochoa is very good at playing the part of the woman scorned. Whether she’s strangling her no good cheating boyfriend in reverse or simply leaning against rocks beside an ocean that mirrors her tumultuous emotional state, her portrayals unpack the many layers of scorned woman grief. Although, curiously, I haven’t found her looking sad yet. She’s funny, proud, spiteful, and above all resolute; and you can hear that resolve in her long-awaited debut album Si Yo Fuera Un Chico (Gerencia360/Sony). She first released the title single, a Beyoncé cover, two years ago. It gave her the rare chance to sing some melismas and got her noticed by the Premios de la Radio, which needed nominees for its depressingy thin “Artista Femenina Del Año” category. The new album collects her banda singles since then, along with a Noel Torres duet and a cover of the go-go boot-scootin’ boogie showstopper “Más Bonita Que Ninguna,” from a 1965 Rocio Dúrcal musical of the same name. There are nice production touches too, like the country guitar that opens “De Cama en Cama.” I’m not totally sold on the album yet, but it’s worth at least a listen, and NorteñoBlog is rooting for her. Continue reading “¡Nuevo! (starring Helen Ochoa, Los Horóscopos, y más)”

¿Qué Estamos Escuchando?

One of my formative critical influences is Richard Meyers’ book The Great Science Fiction Films (Carol Publishing Group). This mysterious book, which I bought at a theme park and have never seen elsewhere, covers sci-fi/fantasy/horror movies from 1975 to 1983. Its copyright date — no kidding — is 1962. As I write this, book on my lap, it occurs to me that the book might not actually exist; or maybe Meyers saw all the movies and then went back in time to write it; or possibly I’m Richard Meyers. Big old mindfuck, in other words.

In the intro, Meyers/Langhoff writes, “Although we malign many films in the coming pages, we really love all science-fiction films…” I could say much the same thing about norteño albums, as I bet most genre fans could say about their stomping grounds. Even the worst norteño album (I’ll nominate a certain live set by LOS! BuiTRES! without bothering to look up its specifics), the emptiest wasted hour of cartel crap or romantic sludge, tells you something about the good stuff. You can learn something from anything. Or at least glean a good sentence or two. Here’s Meyers on the 1977 Christopher Lee flick End of the World: “Nuns start turning back into clawed and tentacled monsters who attack innocent bystanders for a few minutes until a serene shot of the planet fills the movie screen. A second later it explodes in a torrent of plastic, dirt and water. Director John Hayes manages to stretch this inconsequential drivel over eighty minutes.”

In that spirit, let’s consider:

Various Artists – Radio Éxitos: El Disco Del Año 2014 (Fonovisa)disco 2014

Epiphanies, such as they are, from the Disco of last Año:

1. Luciano Luna writes a lot of hit songs. Five of these 20 bear his name in the writing credits — two solo and three cowrites. The best, “Te Hubieras Ido Antes,” belongs to the continent’s best singer, Julión Álvarez, who knows how to push and pull rote melodic phrases into floating conversations — I mean, they’re anguished, but still floating with the illusion of life. Chuy Lizárraga’s “Nomás Faltó Que Me Quisieras” is also good. Luna’s other three songs — by Recodo, Recoditos, and Calibre 50 — are among the low points of their parent albums.

2. Unfortunately, they don’t stand out too much on this comp, because most of these songs are ballads. I get that these songs were hits, but why pick Calibre 50’s thin attempt at a power ballad when they had at least three other, more interesting, faster hit songs last year? Shouldn’t a curated hits compilation be better than any random week of the chart it’s compiling?

3. As Luna’s rival mushmonger Espinoza Paz focuses on his solo career, he may be scoring fewer hit writing credits. He contributes only one song here, El Bebeto’s ballad “Lo Más Interesante,” a misnomer.

4. There’s only one woman here, and she’s great! She’s also dead. I have no idea what Jenni Rivera’s “Resulta” is doing on this CD. Well, OK, I have some idea. Rivera’s an icon who was arguably the center of her genre when she died, and it’s not like any woman or man has commandeered the field to take her place. (Gerardo Ortiz is trying.) This track from her 2011 album appeared on 2014’s posthumous live album, and a Youtube video of the studio version — the version on this CD — has garnered four million views. So yeah, “Resulta” is a 2014 single. Was it a radio éxito? No. But did any Latina women have éxitos on regional Mexican radio in 2014? Um… (Not for lack of trying.)

5. I apologize for sleeping on Jorge Valenzuela’s wonderful “El Agüitado.” Mouthpiece squeal of the year! That said:

NO VALE LA PENA

¿Dónde están las mujeres?

Since tonight’s award show Premios de la Radio is a blatant moneymaker for the media barons at Liberman Broadcasting, and since it’s voted on by fans, its nominees aren’t surprising. Surprise would be antithetical to its purpose. Turn on regional Mexican radio for a half hour and you’ll hear a couple of the honorees, and that’s the point — it’s a state of The Scene. And at least one aspect of The Scene is disturbing.

No, nothing to do with corrido violence. This year’s Artista del Año nominees include El Komander, the current poster-bro for El Movimiento Alterado; Gerardo Ortiz, who’s transitioned away from Alterado into his unofficial role as poster-bro for the whole genre; and two more romantic banda acts, La Arrolladora Banda el Limón and the continent’s best singer Julión Álvarez, along with his Norteña Banda. That’s two sorta bad boys, two bandas full of good boys, and fewer women than Iowa has ever elected to national office. Among the nominees for best canción, colaboración, and corrido, there are no songs by women. If you watch the nominees for best video, you’ll at least see women in various states of undress.

What’s worse, this is an accurate state of The Scene, at least as it exists on FM radio. In the last hour, my go-to station has played Komander’s “Soy De Rancho,” Álvarez’s “Y Así Fue,” and zero women. For its Top Songs of the Week, said station lists alt-popper Ximena Sariñana’s year-old cumbia collaboration at #20, and beyond that… well, I haven’t checked all 423 songs, but Sariñana was the only female in the top 60. Where are all the women?

At the Premios, the four nominees for Artista Femenina del Año are the late Jenni Rivera, her daughter Chiquis, Ana Bárbara, and Gerencia 360’s token artista femenina, Helen Ochoa. Rivera remains an icon and a chart-topper, albeit with posthumous live albums. Ana Bárbara’s fine banda album came out at the end of 2013, like Ortiz’s album, and its first single reached #25 on the Regional Mexican chart. Chiquis and Ochoa have slight outputs so far — just two singles for Ochoa, far as I can tell — but let’s hope they’ll get bigger. Chiquis really knows how to throw herself into a song, just like Mom. Unfortunately the Premios didn’t see fit to nominate Nena Guzman, a labelmate of Ortiz who released a solid norteño album earlier this year, or previous winners and chicas malas Los Horóscopos de Durango. For all the talk of bro-country elbowing women to the margins of country radio, in regional Mexican music these days, the margins seem razor thin.

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