The Grammy category with the weirdest name — Best Regional Mexican Music Album (Including Tejano) — is especially bizarre this year.
It is the longstanding position of NorteñoBlog that the Grammys have no idea what to do with Mexican music, especially norteño. This shouldn’t be the case. As Chris Willman reported last year, every Grammy genre, including Latin, has a “blue ribbon panel” of 15-18 industry insiders tasked with whittling long lists of vote-getting albums into the final lists of nominees. These panels are diverse groups of music professionals, which may explain why the nominees for Best Regional Mexican Music Album (Including Tejano) tend to reward repeat winners’ often middling work, or tastefully dull ranchera albums nobody heard. The industry professionals who nominate Grammys want to reward music that reflects their industry’s professionalism. El Komander probably doesn’t fit the bill.
Usually the results resemble the overall Album of the Year category in 1994, when Tony Bennett’s Unplugged beat out The Three Tenors in Concert 1994, Eric Clapton’s blues tribute From the Cradle, Bonnie Raitt’s 3rd straight AOTY nom, Longing in Their Hearts, and Seal’s 2nd album. Those nominees were so lame they sparked a “revolt” and reforms, partly because they completely omitted Hole’s Live Through This.(!)
So this year the Best Regional Mexican Music Album (Including Tejano) category includes a couple such expected nominees: a pretty good album by a perennial nominee, Banda El Recodo’s Ayer y Hoy (Fonovisa) — like happy families, all Band El Recodo albums are alike — and the boring “unplugged” Arrieros Somos — Sesiones Acusticas (Cuevas), by ranchera legend Aida Cuevas, whose far livelier Juan Gabriel tribute album missed the cutoff date. But then, the category takes a turn for the strange.
The man with the continent’s best voice, Julión Álvarez, is nominated for Ni Diablo Ni Santo (Fonovisa). In a typical year, you’d shrug. But not this year! That’s because Julión Álvarez, like certain terrorists and North Korean businesses, is SANCTIONED by the U.S. Treasury, meaning his assets are blocked and Americans can’t do business with him. He’s vanished from streaming services and he can’t tour El Norte. Listening to his illegally uploaded, mostly romantic, Grammy nominated album on YouTube is now an ACT OF POLITICAL RESISTANCE, or something. (It’s OK, not his best.) #FreeJulionAlvarez!
The other solo male nominee, Alex Campos, isn’t even Mexican! He’s a Colombian singer who wins Dove Awards and Latin Grammys for Christian music. (Here he is in 2012, singing “Dios Es Pederoso” with Hillsong Global Project Español.) His album Momentos (Sony) is a Christian mariachi album. Granted, it’s way more entertaining than Christian Nodal’s surprisingly un-nominated “mariacheño” debut, but also way less representative of the genre — not to mention less good than Alicia Villarreal’s ranchera pop La Villarreal.
And finally, there’s Azteca Records’ multi-artist compilation Zapateando en el Norte, the most bizarre nominee of all. It’s a compilation of puro sax bands from Chihuahua and Zacatecas, a longstanding interest of the Blog’s readership. Puro sax is a wonderful norteño subgenre all its own. Bands play bouncy sax/accordion polkas and sing often bereft, emo lyrics, and their popularity is impervious to larger regional Mexican trends.
Puro sax bands also play a lot of huapangos, largely instrumental tunes that contrast triple and duple rhythms — they’re all in fast 6/8 time — and are used for Mexican folk dancing. (“Zapateados,” these dances are called more generally; you stomp your feet a lot.) Huapangos make for spritely mid-album or mid-set novelties. As the Blog discovered last summer, more and more online playlists of huapangos have been appearing, so Azteca owner Humberto Novoa had his bands cut a bunch of huapangos for this comp.
Now remember, whoever nominates Mexican albums seems pretty oblivious to factors like hipness, relevance, and commercial performance. We can argue all day about whether that’s a good thing or not; for the Grammys in general, it’s a core existential issue. Anyway, this year, Azteca’s flagship puro sax band, the twice-nominated La Maquinaria Norteña, who stand astride the puro sax genre like Saxophone Colossi, missed the eligibility date with their own album, Por Obvias Razones. So in a sense, this album occupies their spot…
… which means the fifth nominee for Best Regional Mexican Music Album (Including Tejano) is a compilation of a subgenre (huapangos) of a subgenre (puro sax) of a subgenre (norteño) of an industry format (regional Mexican). (Including Tejano.)
It’d be like the Best Rap Album nomination going to a compilation of Southern rap Mama songs, or something. Which, btw, the Blog would totally endorse.
But this is where the blue ribbon panel’s haplessness pays off! Give or take the Banda El Recodo album, Zapateando en el Norte is the best thing in this category. It’s a nonstop zapateado fiesta, with sax and accordion banging out their riffs over amazingly capable rhythm sections. I’d vote for it, anyway. Although if Gerardo Ortiz had been nominated as he should have been, it’d be a different story.
Oh yeah, one more bit of Grammy hilarity. Guess which subgenre goes completely unrepresented among these Best Regional Mexican Music Album (Including Tejano) nominees? As it has every year since the category’s 2012 inception?