At PopMatters you can read my list of the year’s best music — or if reverse-order lists make you feel uneasy, you can just read it here! For the PopMatters list, Matt Cibula, who’s been writing about norteño music longer than I have, added Regulo Caro’s metal-biting Senzu-Rah.
Beware: what follows may contain tubas. Also accordions, clarinets, canned gunfire, protest songs, dance songs, songs about roosters, songs about drug cartels, songs using drug cartels as metaphors to make the singers seem intimidating and/or awesome and/or “authentic,” songs using roosters the same way, and amor. Lots and lots of amor. Any kind of amor you can think of, unless it’s completely unremarkable and pedestrian. That’s not how these singers do amor.
In 2014, norteño quartets and big brass bandas continued to dominate the Mexican music charts, awkwardly named “Regional Mexican” in the U.S. and, somewhat less awkwardly, “Popular” in the motherland. (That’s “Popular” as opposed to “Pop” or “General,” both of which include Ricky Martin. We’re not talking about Ricky Martin.) Nominally these are “country” styles, but they’re a country music that borrows imagery from rap and 100-year-old folk songs, and chord changes from Tin Pan Alley and hard rock. In those regards, this music’s not too different from modern city-slicker pop country. But comparisons will only get you so far, because ultimately norteño and banda are pure pop for their audiences: Mexicans, Latino Americans, and anyone else (hi!) lucky enough to have radio stations (95.5 “El Patrón”!) that allow us to listen along. Not everything below is radio fare, but it’s all grabby like the best pop music. And while understanding Spanish can make listening more fun, particularly when cusswords are involved, it’s certainly not required.
Julión Álvarez y Su Norteño Banda – Soy Lo Que Quiero… Indispensable – Fonovisa
Indispensable is a shiny pop album in caballero drag. That’s true of most major label banda albums anymore, but this one has an advantage: the best singer on the continent. A young man blessed with a voice dusty as the Sierra, Álvarez sings 12 short songs with a mix of high melodrama and lived-in naturalism. Lead single “Te Hubieras Ido Antes” is a good example — listen to the way his voice tugs against the stately waltz laid down by the banda, falling behind the beat almost immediately. For a delicious moment it’s unclear whether he’ll make it out of the chorus. Eventually he does, big surprise, and goes on to some very happy flirtations with cumbia, corrido, and a woman with “Ojos Verdes” who inspires a gorgeous midtempo love song. “Hoy mi pena ya no duele,” sings Álvarez — “Today my pain doesn’t hurt.” I feel the same way whenever Indispensable is playing.
La Nueva Rebelión – Me Hicieron Mas Fuerte – LR
They’re 26 hours drunk, their songs are full of second hand hoods, and they have very defensive notions of justice and vengeance. Is La Nueva Rebelión the only rock ‘n’ roll band that matters? I don’t wanna overstate my case for the aesthetic achievements of their corrido lyrics, partly because I don’t understand the nuances of Spanish, partly because “aesthetic achievement” only matters if it brings the songs to life. That’s where Rebelión excel. They populate their songs with as lively an assortment of characters and life lessons as Springsteen or Jay-Z or whoever your favorite world creator is. That energy spills over into their music, with the singers harmonizing at crooked intervals, the accordion and bajo sexto filling every bit of sonic space, and the drummer, g-d bless him, flailing like Tommy Lee tearing up a hotel room.
El Komander – Cazador – Twiins
With his aviator shades, fealty to country living, and endorsement of la mota, Alfredo Ríos could almost be Eric Church, if Church had Brantley Gilbert’s vocal range and described gangland killings in gory detail. For Cazador, Ríos has dialed down the gore but not the substance abuse. His band plays wonderfully loose and shaggy norteño, augmented by demented horns that jump out of nowhere and sound like they’re two hits away from falling down. Lead song “Toquezones de Cannabis” sets the tone; its abrupt tempo shifts will either make you laugh uncontrollably or start freaking out. Despite having about eight notes at its disposal, Ríos’s voice has charisma to burn. He only fools himself into trying to sing pretty once, on the mariachi ballad “Descansa Mi Amor,” where his ideal of love is a whispering frog.
Noel Torres – La Balanza – Gerencia 360/Sony Latin
Torres’s whirling dervish accordion and propulsive band were musical highlights a year ago. This year’s La Balanza is an unwelcome step toward respectability — it’s a touch less surprising and it flags near the end. But Jesse “El Pulpo” Esquivel is still pounding the skins in a way that makes music writers write things like “pounding the skins,” and Torres stages a couple coups. Coup #1 is hitting the charts with “Amanecí Con Ganas”, a funny scenario involving a spoiled rich girl, her gun-toting father, and an alarmed Torres in the role of profane farm boy Westley. Coup #2, “El Cambio”, pays tribute to Mexico’s autodefensas, the local self-defense militias standing up to cartels and Mexico’s corrupt government. In the U.S., with our overheated 2nd Amendment rhetoric and open carry wingnuts, a song like this might make you cringe. But its anthemic melody is undeniable, and it shows Torres experimenting like few other norteño songwriters.
Nena Guzman – La Iniciativa – Del/Sony Latin
A forthright singer who lets her brass players take care of the sentimental stuff, Guzman doesn’t do melodrama, or even vibrato. Sometimes she veers close to telenovela territory — playing the other woman in “Yo Soy La Amante”, she cattily reveals her identity to the first woman, then offers to be her assistant — but even then she sounds cheerful and warm. Corralling her small band is a different story. Though tuba, accordion, and bajo sexto are all technically playing the same songs, they’re locked in a battle to see who can improvise the most notes. Using her syllables to keep time, Guzman strides with authority through a solid batch of corridos, love songs, hate songs, and the requisite cumbia.
Banda Los Recoditos – Sueño XXX – Disa
You may have seen the advertisements for this album? Like, they were on condom wrappers? Recoditos is one of the most consistent bands around, both in terms of their quality and their sticking to themes. They never release a bad album. They never release a mind-blowing fantastic album. They tend to sing about sex, XXX-rated dreams, drinking, partying, forgetting what happened during drunken parties, and things of that nature. (Also “love,” blah blah blah.) The musicians play their gleaming arrangements with spectacular dexterity. The singers’ personalities jump off the radio. Basically they are Electric 6. Doesn’t it seem like Electric 6 should advertise on condom wrappers?
Martin Castillo – Mundo de Ilusiones – Gerencia 360/Sony Latin
On the better of his two 2014 albums, Martin Castillo sings, drums, writes corridos, and leads his band with the same aim: attaining the norteño sublime. (Apologies to the late hip-hop scholar Adam Krims.) The first half of Mundo de Ilusiones (Castillo sees deeply) features a banda, and it’s pretty good, peaking early with the minor hit “Así Será”. But Castillo hits his stride on the last six songs when, joined by his quartet, he tosses off one corrido after another. Each song features one instantly memorable melody that Castillo sings over and over, meditating on the nature of illicit power, while around him the band weaves polyphonic tales of its own. This is the sierra of Castillo’s imagination: a complicated tangle of associations bespeaking a force best left implicit.
Adriel Favela – Mujeres de Tu Tipo – Gerencia 360/Sony Latin
Young Favela has the most soothing voice this side of Glenn Medeiros. In fact, you might have to go back to ‘70s AM radio to find soothingness of this magnitude. The overconfident title song suggests Favela would benefit from spending time with Miranda Lambert’s “Girls”, but his voice is so comforting it’s impossible to dislike him. How do you hate a warm bath? For a while Favela’s second album edges toward classic MOR, with the horns in “Cómo Olvidarla” attempting Tower of Power riffs, and “Murió El Amor” threatening to become “Every Rose Has Its Thorn”. But the back half delivers a string of corridos, played by an exceptional band and sung with a warmth not often associated with drug cartel honchos.
Los Tigres Del Norte – Realidades – Fonovisa
Diana Reyes – Mis Mejores Duranguenses – DR
Los Rieleros del Norte – En Tus Manos – Goldfink/Sony
La Adictiva Banda San José de Mesillas – Disfruté Engañarte – Sony Latin
La Nueva Rebelión – “Me Hicieron Mas Fuerte” – LR Music
Lately, certain corrido bands have rocked harder and wilder than most rockers claiming the title. (Like, for instance, Good Time Rockin’ Jack White — his latest is OK, in the way reading someone’s dissertation is OK.) It’s still rare, though, to catch the norteño guys playing songs that would, in any other context, be considered rock music, which makes the title single from La Nueva Rebelión’s latest such a blast. Literally — the video’s body count is high. This manifesto of vengeful resolve opens with a trio texture straight from the Minutemen, and then the accordion kicks in — you always thought the Minutemen needed an accordion, right? The band launches into a power waltz, built on a chord change I think Black Flag once used, with both singers’ voices straaaaaaaaining into the chorus, shouting threats at their haters until the instruments have no choice but to collapse. It’s the most exciting four minutes of music this year. Trigger warning: things don’t end well for the horse.
Julión Álvarez y Su Norteño Banda – “Y Así Fue” – Fonovisa
Julión Álvarez sings his love songs with a smoky warble that makes him sound twice his age. Makes sense, since on paper this hit — rubbing shoulders with Romeo and Enrique on the Hot Latin chart — could be an ace pre-Beatles pop song, complete with those magic changes and a tune that’s unforgettable because it simply follows those chords around. But in the world of banda, those pop chords, along with the band’s relentless syncopated rhythms and the recording’s knifelike sheen, make this song sound utterly contemporary. Think “In the Still of the Night,” only faster, hornier, and hornier — Álvarez and his ladyfriend give it up on the first date, and so they go from there.
El Komander – “Soy De Rancho” – Twiins
Back in April at the EMP Pop Conference in Seattle (home to FM 99.3 “La Gran D”), Professor Josh Kun described how people’s mobility — across borders, or from country to city and back again — is central to the mezcla of genres known as “Regional Mexican.” Alfredo Ríos, “El Komander”, agrees. “Sí, Señor, yo soy de rancho,” he tells a U.S. border official, right before Ríos’s tuba player farts in the guy’s face. Over furious accordion and a ramshackle acoustic waltz, Ríos goes on to describe a ranchera paradise full of singing cocks and weed-covered hills, but also admits his fondness for citified flashy brands and fast cars that may or may not have been afforded by those weed-covered hills. A man for all people! The people agreed, making this his first top 10 hit in the U.S.
Alacranes Musical – “Zapateado Encabronado #3” – A.M.
10 reasons you shouldn’t listen to this song: 1) The video endorses cockfighting. 2) The two drummers, while not explicitly endorsing cockfighting, sure make a lot of scritchy scratchy sounds that may or may not imitate agitated cocks scampering around mid-fight. 3) The song’s repetitive accordion+sax+synth riffs could drive you to drink. 4) I, for instance, am cracking open a bottle of Buchanan’s. Come over! 5) If you get drunk and start messing with cocks, Alacranes Musical will not help clean up your mess. 6) There’s no bass or even tuba in this song, so Alacranes Musical are clearly ripping off “When Doves Cry”, which also had no bass or even tuba. 7) “When Cocks Cry”. This song made me type that. 8) The third installment in a saga is always the weakest. 9) Oh wait, Toy Story. 10) OMG, are you remembering a cockfighting sequence in one of the Toy Story movies? It was like in a flashback, Sarah McLachlan was singing about sad cocks… WHAT ON EARTH AM I THINKING OF???
Gerardo Ortiz – “Eres Una Niña” – Del/Sony Latin
Like Adriel Favela, Ortiz could stand to sit down with Miranda Lambert’s “Girls”, but we’ll cut him some slack since he released his own 16-song masterpiece a year ago. Its third single, a chivalrous offer to kiss the extremities of a young woman until she screams the word “Gerardo”, innovates by sticking bachata guitar into the Sinaloan banda mix. Its melody is long and winding like Ortiz’s gilded tongue. Even though the current face of regional Mexican music isn’t really directing his song at me, it still sets my heart aflutter.
La Trakalosa De Monterrey – “Mi Padrino El Diablo” – Remex
You know the old story. Kid runs away from his abusive dad, falls asleep in a drainage ditch, wakes up to a Companion of Black touching his forehead, and joins a new family: the Devil’s family! What could possibly go wrong? From Faust to Coraline, Robert Johnson to Tom Hagen, the myth finds its way to “Mi Padrino” and its 40-odd-million Youtube views. La Trakalosa mix a small band texture with brass fanfares, an exciting gimmick that became al corriente this year — see also Los Buitres de Culiacán’s best songs.
Calibre 50 ft. El Komander – “Qué Tiene De Malo” – Disa
It’s not often a protest song hits #1 on any chart. But when two of Sinaloan corrido music’s leading flamethrowers teamed up for this ode to free speech, they topped the radio charts in Mexico. Granted, it’s sort of a self-serving protest. Both Calibre and Komander have been fined or banned in various Mexican localities, for the crime of “inciting violence” with their music, when really all they’ve ever tried to incite was the purchase of Calibre and Komander records. So they wrote this song on behalf of all hard-working citizens who enjoy listening to songs about drug murders. They wrote it for YOU! It’s sort of like when Anthrax did “Startin’ Up a Posse”, only much better — the whole thing swings like some fearsome pendular tuba.
Los Horóscopos de Durango – “Las Chicas Malas” – Universal Latin
Having jettisoned duranguense three albums ago, the Terrazas sisters throw themselves into Jenni Rivera mode, putting their banda musicians’ fingers to work as they embark on a wild night of drinking and, if the video can be believed, destructive pillow fights. Sometimes after the song has ended, I can still hear the screaming.
Marco Flores Y La Número 1 Banda Jerez – “Soy El Bueno” – Remex
Banda MS – “Hermosa Experiencia” – Discos Sabinas
Regulo Caro – “Soltero Disponible” – Del/Sony Latin
Los Buitres de Culiacán – “Mejor Soltero” – Sony Latin