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La Maquinaria Norteña

NorteñoBlog’s Top Singles of 2018: Enero – Abril

cornelio luis

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”

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Yo Quiero Tu… ¿Grammy?

ramon ayala grammy

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.(!)

aida cuevasSo 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.

ni diabloThe 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!

alex campos momentosThe 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.

zapateando en el norteAnd 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?

TEJANO.

Flaming Gallos and Dancing Jesuses (Desfile de Éxitos 6/10/17)

el gallero

KOMANDERLoyal readers understand that any new single by Alfredo Ríos “El Komander” makes NorteñoBlog crow with excitement. El Komander is one of the best, most prolific singles artists on the continent and his new radio hit “El Gallero” (#13 airplay) is another feather in his cap. And just so we’re clear: this song is some straight up, undiluted, no-question-what-he’s-singing-about cockfighting bullshit. I’ve combed the text for mitigating factors and found none. It’s not a metaphor. It’s not simply a video featuring the sport, like Alacranes Musical‘s strutting dance classic “Zapateado Encabronado #3”, which the Blog could not in good conscience endorse back in 2014. No, “El Gallero” pecks away at the same magnificently plumed tradition as Vicente Fernandez‘s “La Muerte de un Gallero” — only, where Fernandez told an O Henry-ish short story set in the competitive cockfighting world, Komander’s song is pure identity politics and local pride.

We’ve seen this sort of dynamic before, specifically with narcocorridos: “In one of those ironies that’s defined parent-child musical tastes since forever, [my librarian] Fatima’s dad is a big Chalino Sanchez fan but thinks these new corrideros are a bunch of idiots. Those old school corrideros knew how to tell a real story.” Whereas, the argument goes, new jack corrideros like El Komander simply revel in the decadent trappings of the game.

Where else have we seen this play out? Oh, right — country music. Recall Marty Robbins’ “The Strawberry Roan,” a short bronc busting story I’m on record loving. In a few compact stanzas, Robbins uses obscure terms of rodeic art to immerse listeners in the seedy bronc busting underworld, and his story of Man meeting his equine match turns into an awe-stricken proverb about life’s eternally unexplored vistas:

“I know there are ponies that I cannot ride;
There’s some of them left, they haven’t all died.”

Four decades later Garth Brooks recorded “Rodeo,” which also rattled off obscure terms of art but, like “El Gallero,” was pure identity politics and local (well, professional) pride. You could argue that Brooks helped inspire today’s bro-country movement of good old boys obsessing over how Country they are, and becoming aesthetically impoverished in the process, but what we’re really talking about is different songwriting tools. At their cores, the parallel cases of “Strawberry Roan” vs. “Rodeo” and “La Muerte” vs. “El Gallero” represent differences in perspective. (I mean, “Rodeo” is my least favorite Garth Brooks song, but just on a musical level.) Brooks and Komander both have excellent storytelling songs in their repertoires, but sometimes you just want to sing a damn anthem.

But, right, cockfighting. Sigh. NorteñoBlog cannot in good conscience endorse this middling El Komander single whose video seems to depict a rooster killed in battle. What I CAN endorse is getting onto U.S. radio with a line that translates “My cock is always on fire.” Your move, Kings of Leon.

dinastia mendozaFar as I can tell, “El Gallero” hasn’t raised the hackles of the SPCA or any other group of moralizers. The same cannot be said for the song at #46 on the big chart, “El Pasito Perrón” by the gregarious dance band Grupo Dianastia Mendoza. Continue reading “Flaming Gallos and Dancing Jesuses (Desfile de Éxitos 6/10/17)”

Lo Mejor de 2016: Where the Action Is

The Grammys and the Mexican government would very much like Mexico’s musical output to consist of genteel roots music. Fortunately, NorteñoBlog’s annual playlist 2016 VALE LA PENA shows that Mexican-American musicians have other ideas.

Our playlist has El Komander singing about immigration in two very different, equally urgent songs: once from the vantage point of a mother whose son is missing, and once as a proudly binational drug dealer. The playlist includes a defiant statement of national pride from Los Inquietos and Marco Flores. There are love songs from guitar bands, brass bands, accordion bands, sax bands, and synth bands.  El Bebeto and Banda Tierra Sagrada stop by to plug liquor; Fuerza de Tijuana celebrates two real-life American narcos. The guys in Los Titanes de Durango drive way too fast. La Rumorosa curses a terrible boyfriend; Intocable mourns absent amor with distorted guitar and a smoking accordion solo. At the top of the list, El Armenta offers a low-fi Lynchian nightmare of a cumbia about his girlfriend’s dog. All in all, it’s as energetic and varied as any single-genre playlist you’re likely to find.

THIS, Grammy voters, is where the action is.

———————————————–

vicente-un-aztecaEven as NorteñoBlog congratulates living legend Vicente Fernández on winning his third Grammy for Best Regional Mexican Music Album (Including Tejano) (But Not Including Grupero ‘Cause That Shit Suuuuuuuux), we gotta note that this particular win is lame in a very Grammy-ish way. Continue reading “Lo Mejor de 2016: Where the Action Is”

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”

Desfile de Éxitos 12/24/16

omar_ruiz_el_quesito

Since NorteñoBlog last checked Billboard‘s Latin charts, the magazine has decided to give us all a gift: the website is now posting 20 more spots on its Regional Mexican airplay chart. There you will find such curiosities as:

Marco Antonio Solis crooning about a lying mujer while swathed in a toga of strings and synths (#29);

— a previous Pick to Click from Fuerza de Tijuana, about a former honcho in the Medellín Cartel (#31);

— more chipper puro sax bands than you can shake a slimy mouthpiece at (#23, #30, and #32) — all of them ruled by the saxophone colossus at #18, La Maquinaria Norteña;

— and even more clones of Ariel Camacho. Am I alone in thinking The Clones of Ariel Camacho would make a great Univision variety show? TWENTY SUPER SERIOUS YOUNG REQUINTO PLAYERS SING OF DEATH AND LOST LOVE, Omar Burgos furiously triple-tongues his tuba whenever someone gets voted off, and everyone forgets the names of their second guitarists. Could work. In any case, Nano Machado, Los de la Noria, Los Plebes, and Ulices Chaidez are all representing Sierreño music in the bottom 20, and Chaidez has two additional songs in the overall Hot Latin top 50. This fountain of youth isn’t drying up any time soon.

Also brightening up the bottom 20 is another dude who fooled around with Sierreño earlier in 2016: Adriel Favela, whose “Tomen Nota,” a duet with Los Del Arroyo, was a credible candidate for Wristwatch Porn Video of the Year. Continue reading “Desfile de Éxitos 12/24/16”

Yo Quiero Tu Saxo (diciembre 2016)

cumbre-nortena

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)

no-hay-quintoAs 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!

Continue reading “Yo Quiero Tu Saxo (diciembre 2016)”

Yo Quiero Tu Saxo (agosto 2016)

maquinaria nortena

maquinariaIt 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. First things first: La Maquinaria Norteña, the Zaca-huahuan/New Mexican quintet that stands astride this genre like a saxophone colossus, has just released its ninth-I-think album in a decade, Generación Maquinaria Est. 2006 (alternate title: Saxo de Cumpleaños). Thanks to some major label Fonovisa distribution, and because they’re on the scene like máquinas saxuales, they sold 3,000 copies of the album its first week. That was enough to debut at #1 on Billboard‘s Latin Albums chart.

Agosto may be slow, but Maquinaria isn’t. Generación skips along in typical unrelenting fashion; the polka beats are sharp and nonstop, brothers Keith and Rory Nieto fill nearly every instant with well-plotted sax/accordion ideas, and Ivan Gutierrez winds his bass through the proceedings like a buoyant breeze. You can hear all this on their current hit “Todo Es Diferente” (subtitle: “… Excepto El Saxo”), but NorteñoBlog notes two other standouts. Keith’s original “El Corazón No Miente” throws in a slamming surprise ending, with electric guitar and drums bashing away; and singer Sergio Soto contributes a new breakneck waltz that sounds old, “Cosquillitas” (i.e., “¡¡¡Tickle Sax!!!”). Maquinaria’s quality is a difference of degree: the group simply sounds fuller, richer, and more distinctive than other puro sax bands. Once you go Maq, you’ll never go back.

Continue reading “Yo Quiero Tu Saxo (agosto 2016)”

Yo Quiero Tu Saxo (julio 2016)

en que falle

nortenos de ojinagaIt 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. From the fabled Chihuahuan city of Ojinaga — home to El Zorro de Ojinaga, La Fiera de Ojinaga, Capitanes de Ojinaga, El Deshollinador de Ojinaga, you name it — come Norteños de Ojinaga, a saxy quintet-or-sextet whose latest album for the Discos America label is their lucky umpteenth. It’s called Besos Nuevos (proposed subtitle: … y Saxo Oral!!! ), and it seems pretty pro-forma as far as Chihuahuan sax albums go. Sadsack lead single “Tus Mentiras” (alternate title: “Saxo, Mentiras, y Videocinta”) runs over four minutes, which feels like an eternity in puro sax world, possibly because the rhythm section’s oompah seems to be slowing down as they play. A neat formal experiment with time? Maybe, but it violates the first law of puro sax music: get in, get out, leave ’em wanting more, and, for heaven’s sake, remember what genre you’re in. This is no place to get emo!

reunion nortenaNext up is La Reunion Norteña, who formed in Chihuahua but whose members also hail from neighboring states Durango and Texas. (Thom Jurek wrote a thorough bio at Allmusic.) Their seventh album in as many years, Historias de Amor en Canciones (alternate title: Historia de la Saxualidad Humana), is out on Azteca Records, a Dallas label that knows its way around the puro sax world. La Reunion’s labelmates include La Maquinaria Norteña, who stand astride this genre like saxophone colossi, having recently been Grammy nominated for one of 2015’s best albums. On first listen, Historias is in Maquinaria’s league — the bouncy riffs never let up and frontman Rogelio Martinez sings with relaxed authority and an chivalrous quiver in his throat. He might fail at love (“En Qué Fallé,” aka “Fracaso Saxual”), but if he does he will apologize (“Te Pido Perdón”… i.e.,”Por Mi Fracaso Saxual”), and then he and the band will salve your pain with a big dumb cumbia like “Ahora Sí Baila El Muñeco,” this week’s Pick to Click. (“Ahora Baila Con Esto Muñeco Saxual”? Nonono.)

Continue reading “Yo Quiero Tu Saxo (julio 2016)”

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