Of all the 2020 events NorteñoBlog didn’t see coming, the one most likely to affect future generations, change the way untold millions live their everyday lives, and divide modern history into “before” and “after” epochs happened back in early January. That’s when certain U.S. specialists first noticed a particularly infectious agent, previously thought to be contained, dominating one of their charts with unprecedented scope and reach. I’m talking, of course, about Alejandro Fernándezearning his first number one hit on Billboard‘s Regional Mexican Airplay chart with the insidiously beautiful song “Caballero.”
Fernández was overdue. His dad is Vicente Fernández and his career has flourished for more than two decades, with multiple #1 hits on the more comprehensive Hot Latin chart, so you’d think the ranchera pop singer would have gotten his RegMex chart-topper sooner. He came closest in 1999 with “Loco,” a slow burn of understated insanity (Jonathan Bogart compares the string chart to Psycho) blocked from #1 by Conjunto Primavera‘s comparatively rinky-dink “Necesito Decirte.”
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.
This week in the “norteño legend covers the Great Ranchera Songbook” department, we find Lalo Mora, formerly of the ’70s duo Lalo y Lupe and the ’80s band Los Invasores de Nuevo León. Mora’s been making solo music on labels big and small for a while now, and on his latest, Un Millón de Primaveras (Mora), he’s hired a banda to help him dig through some classics. The horn charts are decent and Mora’s grizzled voice settles into the tunes with effortless authority, but you’ve probably heard these songs done better elsewhere. NorteñoBlog directs you to Joan Sebastian‘s country-with-horns take on the title track, which he wrote; and to Vicente Fernández‘s trembling and magisterial version of “El Ultimo en la Fila,” which Sebastian also wrote. Lest you think the entire Great Ranchera Songbook sprang from Joan Sebastian’s tear-stained pen, Mora also sings “Cartas Marcadas” and some other decidedly non-Sebastian tunes. The album’s technically accomplished, but I never need to hear it again: NO VALE LA PENA.
It is the longstanding position of NorteñoBlog that the puro sax styles of Chihuahua and Zacatecas would improve with the addition of more terrible “sax” puns in the titles. When we last checked in with the New Mexican quintet Anexo Al Norte, they were pursuing perfection with fellow New Mexican Beto Ronquillo. That pursuit failed, so they’ve settled for a limp Christmas cumbia on Blas Records, “Parodia Botas de Navidad,” unfortunately NOT a parody of “The Christmas Shoes” (aka “Los Zapatos de Saxmas”). Announcing your song as a parody is never a good move, especially when the song isn’t funny, but sax player Iván Murillo almost makes up for it with his groovy syncopated takes on “Jingle Bells.” In the song, Santa brings the boys in the band a bunch of instruments, along with the titular botas and a mixing board. One of them falls asleep with the mixing board, which is sure to mess up his levels. In the video’s high point, the band leaves a bowl of tamales out for Santa Claus, a tradition I will now force upon my own family. (NO VALE LA PENA)
As you’d expect, the Dallas saxtet La Energia Norteña has far more energy. They’ve just released their fifth album for the Azteca label, an ode to saxual endurance entitled No Hay Quinto Malo. And, because the fifth time’s the charm, the album debuted at #1 on Billboard‘s Latin Album chart. Lead single “Hoy Me Toca Perder” (aka “Hoy Me Toca de Dar Saxo Oral”) is a maudlin thing, with string cues and a video full of meaningful looks and lonely rooms, though it does afford Israel Oviedo a chance to wail in full Clarence Clemons mode. Better is “Me Ganó la Calentura” (aka “Calor Saxual”), which sounds more like winning, even though its chord progression gives it an undercurrent of heartache.
But NorteñoBlog is most partial to their cover of Joan Sebastian‘s straight-up country song, “El Taxista.” (“El Saxista”? Too easy.) Written by Sebastian’s son José Manuel Figueroa, its melody soars through a tale of lovelorn despair, told from a stoic taxi driver’s point of view. In other words it’s perfect for this genre, where jaunty beats and riffs try to ignore their songs’ anguish every day of the week. Pick to Click!
The hyper-abundant compilation album is one of the more bewildering aspects of the Regional Mexican music industry. There are a LOT of them — witness this Allmusic list of more than 50 Conjunto Primavera comps since 1995, released on eight different record labels. Lately some music-writer friends and acquaintances have observed a dearth of compilation albums in recent years, given listeners’ ability to cherrypick their own songs on streaming sites. NorteñoBlog does not dispute this observation; I’ll only add that the compilation market in Regional Mexican is still going strong. This year saw four new Primavera comps, on two different labels. Who’s buying these things? Don’t they already own all these songs?
Without answering these questions, NorteñoBlog presents this list of 100 single- (or, in the case of Sony’s Frente a Frente series, double-) artist comps released on CD in 2015. It doesn’t include multi-artist comps like Fonovisa’s annual Radio Éxitos: Discos Del Año series. This list is incomplete; I’m pretty sure I could find more by scouring the catalogs of indie labels Select-O-Hits and D&O.
It is the longstanding position of NorteñoBlog that the puro sax styles of Chihuahua and Zacatecas would improve with the addition of more terrible “sax” puns in the titles. This week the máquinas de saxo in La Maquinaria Norteña drop their eighth (I think) album, Ya Dime Adiós (Azteca/Fonovisa) (alternate title: Break Up Saxo), from whence comes their top 10 airplay hit “Para Qué Amarte.” Maquinaria hail from both Chihuahua AND Zacatecas, doubling their potential fan base, and they’re solid and reliable polkaderos with a really good logo. On first listen, though, this album isn’t saxing it up for me like the next one:
The puro Zacatecans in La Inquietud Norteña venture into minor key territory for the title single to their latest album, Dimelo (AGLive) (alt title: Vamos a Hablar Sobre el Saxo). Singer Hugo Avellaneda wails high and clear, sax and accordion skate across the song with as little apparent effort as spinning Olympians, and whoever’s playing the polka bass gets his R&B licks in. Pick to Click!
NorteñoBlog is un poco freaking out this week, because if you look way down at Billboard‘s Regional Mexican airplay chart, you’ll see Roberto Tapia has a new single called “No Valoraste.” Unfortunately Tapia hasn’t finished the video yet, nor has the song hit any of the streaming services I’ve checked, so I have no idea what “No Valoraste” sounds like. NorteñoBlog doesn’t always enjoy Tapia, but when I do, I prefer his popsingles. And it’s not just me! My son, who’s kind of rockist but also digs Kidz Bop and EDM-pop, normally hates when I turn on the Spanish language radio stations, but as we pulled into Grandma and Grandpa’s driveway the other night we found Tapia’s monster hit “Mirando al Cielo,” and he was grooving. It actually delayed our triumphant race to the grandparents’ door, as we sat in the car and seat-danced. Um, Pick to Click!
So Tapia’s latest will either be profoundly great or profoundly disappointing, is what I’m saying.
Thank heavens for “Mirando al Cielo,” from whence cometh our help, because this week’s charts are slim pickings. The best newish tune is by Banda MS: “Piénsalo” is the higher of their two songs inside the Hot Latin top 20, and it’s uncharacteristically fast, if not too special. MS typically hits with the stickiest of treacly ballads, and these concoctions have brought them untold fame and Youtube hits. Their older top 20 hit this week, “A Lo Mejor,” has gotten some click-baity help from Remex’s big-budget novela video, in which infidelity and mistaken identity somehow result in stabbing and crashing cars. Desafortunadamente, to make sense of all that you have to listen to “A Lo Mejor.”
Elsewhere, Joan Sebastian’s epic death bump evaporates as we say adios to his four revived hits; La Séptima Banda score a second decent airplay hit, though it’s no “Bonito y Bello”; Pitbull continues to be awesome; and people evidently continue streaming “Propuesta Indecente,” now at 107 weeks on the chart. Think about that. When “Propuesta Indecente” came out, NorteñoBlog’s guinea pig WAS NOT YET ALIVE. (“Propuesta Indecente” has always been at war with alfalfa hay and cilantro.)
After speaking with a big Máximo Grado fan the other day, I fear NorteñoBlog may have given short initial shrift to that group’s really pretty good “Unas Heladas,” currently at #14 airplay. So here it is, en realidad, this week’s Pick to Click:
These are the top 25 Hot Latin Songs and top 20 Regional Mexican Songs, courtesy Billboard, as published August 22.
Receiving an epic death bump on last week’s Hot Latin chart was singer-songwriter-guitarist-producer-equestrian Joan Sebastian, who recently succumbed to cancer at age 64:
On Hot Latin Songs, 11 of Sebastian’s tracks enter[ed] the chart — the most concurrent titles an act has ever had on the list. And, all of them are in the top half of the tally, including four in the top 10. One of his most memorable hits, “Un Idiota,” re-enters at No. 2 powered by 1.9 million weekly streams and 2,000 digital downloads sold in the week ending July 16 (up 2,306 percent according to Nielsen Music). “Un Idiota” originally peaked at No. 22 in 2001.
Note that none of these songs showed up on the Regional Mexican Songs airplay chart; Sebastian’s songs likely received more airplay than usual, but that bump didn’t coalesce around any one song. “Un Idiota” would have been a good candidate: two verses and choruses of gentle acoustic remorse, including spoken passages and a big “te AAAAAmo” chorus, it captures Sebastian’s knack for sounding traditional and poppy at once. (Alacranes Musical’s version displays a similar knack, although, as with every duranguense song, it requires that listeners shed any preconceptions about the emotional capacity of peppy synth polkas.) Listening to the smattering of Sebastian’s re-charting songs, it’s hard not to be impressed by the breadth of his catalog — the man could create pop ballads, uptempo synthpop, pedal steel country, mariachi, and Tejano with equal authority. His songs have begun drifting off the Hot Latin chart this week, so click on a few before they’re gone.
When we last encountered Duelo’s not-at-all-sexist tale of a heartless, icy, poisonous, murdering, dream-killing mujer, I wished it sounded more venomous. I have since shed my preconceptions about form following function and direct you to “Veneno,” this week’s Pick To Click and an excellent Tejano midtempo with a killer opening riff. (I can’t be the only one who hears Def Leppard’s “Hysteria.”) Singer Oscar Ivan Trevino regrets the venom flowing through his veins but sounds resolved to suck it out. Don’t try that at home.
Other nubes include a fine Tejano ballad from Conjunto Primavera ft. Intocable’s Ricky Munoz, although singing in the vicinity of Primavera’s Tony Melendez remains a fool’s errand; a fine Tejano midtempo from Intocable themselves; and Trakalosa’s “La Revancha,” whose melodramatic eight-minute video has things to say about Fate and Class and What Makes A Man Start Fires, or at least Beef Up And Kill Other Dudes. Driven by airplay and a new video with lots of slow-motion horses, Ariel Camacho’s elegiac “Te Metiste” climbs to #2 Hot Latin. Could he score his second posthumous #1?
In sadder news, Calibre 50’s latest boring ballad, already a big hit in Mexico, enters both charts. If history is any guide we’ll be changing the station on it for a while.
These are the top 25 Hot Latin Songs and top 20 Regional Mexican Songs, courtesy Billboard, as published August 8.
NorteñoBlog went on vacation at the worst possible time, because while I was gone, IT ALL WENT DOWN. Not with the music. Except for El Komander (¡VALE LA PENA!), very few notable albums came out in the past few weeks; we’ll catch up with albums and singles in the coming days. No, I’m talking about las personas en las noticias:
Joan Sebastian’s discography is a mile long. The singer, songwriter, and guitarist not only wrote over a thousand songs, from ranchera to synthpop, but he wrote and produced entire albums for other singers. This is how NorteñoBlog has encountered him in the past: as the man behind Vicente Fernandez’s irresistible “Estos Celos” and Graciela Beltrán’s “Robame Un Beso.” Sebastian was famously “el poeta del pueblo,” riding his horse on stage and representing for his gente, and that meant giving the people what they wanted, mixing up regional styles with pop sounds from El Norte and acting in the novela Tú y Yo. And then there’s this delightful factoid about the man born José Manuel Figueroa:
Mr. Sebastian’s Facebook page says that he changed his name to Juan Sebastian in 1977, and that he turned the “u” in “Juan” into an “o” on the advice of his sister, a numerologist.
Maybe a commenter can explain how that math works?
I’m still catching up with him, and probably will be for a long time. RIP
Also while we were gone, Banda El Recodo became the first banda to play on Spanish TV. If I’m surprised they hadn’t done so already, does that reveal my cultural chauvinism? This is just more evidence that the term “Latin music” makes absolutely no sense as a genre, because it tells us nothing useful about the music in question, what it sounds like, or who listens to it. Surely somewhere in the world, someone is lumping together Wiley and George Jones as “English music” — but that doesn’t make the idea any less nonsense.
But the music production and distribution business has changed dramatically since El Chapo’s last escape [in 2001] — meaning times have changed on the narco-corrido front, as well. Forget six months; within six hours, bands and singers had rushed songs of El Chapo’s second escape onto YouTube and FaceBook. By Sunday afternoon, bands were recording their just-written Chapo tunes in the studio, playing the songs in front of enthusiastic live audiences and releasing elaborate videos with news coverage interspersed with dramatic reenactments of the tunnel escape.
Here are Los Alegres del Barranco:
These corridos are mostly gleeful, because El Chapo is now even LARGER than larger than life, and because of the Mexican government’s uncanny resemblance to Keystone Cops.
This musical expression points bluntly to collusion and to Mexico’s failure to run a government of law and order.
As many analysts have pointed out, the escape is a major embarrassment for President Enrique Peña Nieto, who in an interview with Univision after El Chapo was captured, said that allowing another escape would be “unforgivable.”
There’s also a Frontline documentary on El Chapo, if you’re so inclined, and Cartel Land, a documentary about the autodefensas and their less defensible U.S. counterparts, the border yahoos militias. NorteñoBlog has seen neither, but I’ll report back.