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NorteñoBlog’s 41 Esencial Songs Since the Year 2000

jenni-rivera-diva-de-la-banda

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.

39. Los Angeles Azules – “El Listón de Tu Pelo” 2000
Continue reading “NorteñoBlog’s 41 Esencial Songs Since the Year 2000”

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2017 Albums: Christian Nodal NO VALE LA PENA

Looking to donate to Mexican disaster relief efforts? Let UNICEF ambassador Shakira and Friend of the Blog Leonel show you how.

me deje llevar

When NorteñoBlog mentioned yesterday that Christian Nodal‘s duet with David Bisbal, “Probablemente,” had ascended to #1 at regional Mexican radio, I left out a few relevant facts. First, Billboard reports that this is the Spanish Bisbal’s third appearance on the regional Mexican chart, a fact I find remarkable since both those previous tunes sound about as Mexican as I do. Which isn’t to say they’re bad. With its politely distorted riff, pensive acoustic fills, anthemic chorus, and chordally sophisticated bridge, “Quien Me Iba a Decir” could be prime Richard Marx. (You better believe such a thing exists.) What it was doing on RegMex radio in 2006 I have no idea, but that was the era when the Black Eyed Peas were scoring minor hits on the same format. It’s an era I want to return.

my love for mexicoSecond, Nodal’s long-awaited debut album Me Dejé Llevar (Fonovisa) is the top Regional Mexican album in the land, showcasing as it does his crooning-beyond-its-years voice and (sigh) trademark “mariacheño” style, which I think means a mariachi band with a lead accordion. As both Wiki and Gustavo Arrellano note, this isn’t a wholly unprecedented combination — Angelica Maria‘s “Me Gusta Estar Contigo” and Juan Gabriel‘s “Caray” got there first, and both are way more fun than anything on the surprisingly stodgy Me Dejé Llevar. Though I don’t cover much mariachi, that’s mostly because it’s not in vogue right now; one of the Blog’s founding principles is that Vicente Fernandez‘s “Estos Celos” and Jose Feliciano‘s tribute album My Love for Mexico are surpassing works of art. That’s because they’re full of color and life — singers doing unexpected things with their voices, instruments combining into rhythms of unstoppable momentum.

And that’s the third thing: “Probablemente,” like most of Nodal’s album, is just dull. As has been noted, Nodal’s first single “Adiós Amor” was an excellent performance of a perfect pop song. The melody went to novel places and the syncopated guitar groove motored the whole thing along. On “Probablemente” the guitarist opts for straight 8th notes, which gets old, if not water-torturey, real fast. The uninspired horn lines have little purpose apart from anouncing “¡Mariachi!” while Nodal croons and displays his admittedly impressive range. But he never loses himself to the whoops of joy or sobbing heartbroken despair of his elders. Like U.S. folk music, mariachi needs to at least flirt with bad taste, or it risks becoming simply a museum exhibit about national spirit and heritage. Blech.

A Nodal profile at Diario de Mexico shows a serious young man, worryingly describing his music as though it were a plate of locally farmed Brussels sprouts. “At the moment, the youth don’t know much mariachi, because they don’t know the names of some composers,” he says. “Banda and sierreño are in style; I think it’s necessary that people get to know our mariachi music again.” I’ll admit, it seems to be working for him. His first two singles topped their radio format in two different countries, quite an accomplishment. And the album isn’t all bad — “Vas a Querer Regresar” at least gives the guitarist something bouncy to do, and on “Yo No Sé Mañana” Nodal sounds like a swarthy Julio Iglesias fronting Chicago, before they both shift into a Marc Anthony-style salsa groove. But for most of Me Dejé Llevar, the gifted singer/songwriter lets his piety get the better of him.

NO VALE LA PENA

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.

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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”

¡Indies a Go Go! (starring Los Hijos de Hernández y más)

lalomoralaurita

lalo-moraThis 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.

leonardo-aguilarLeonardo Aguilar has lucked into some decidedly less accomplished banda charts on his debut album Gallo Fino (Machin) — if you wanna hear clarinets cloy hard, check out this single from a couple years ago. No matter: I like Aguilar’s album better than Lalo Mora’s. Continue reading “¡Indies a Go Go! (starring Los Hijos de Hernández y más)”

¡Nuevo! (starring Chacaloza, Vicente Fernández, y más)

chacaloza big

La-Energia-Norteña-El-Rompecabezas-Album-2015-450x450It 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. Nestled in the middle of Billboard‘s Latin Albums chart is the newest album from La Energia Norteña, El Rompecabezas (Azteca) (alternate title: Dolor de Cabeza Saxual), a dance saxtet from Dallas, Texas. Puzzlingly, La Energia doesn’t have ties to one of the usual sax hotbeds; rather, they’re originally from the central Mexican state of San Luis Potosí, also home to singer Ana Bárbara and Mount Wirikuta. (The latter is sacred to a group of indigenous Mexican people and currently under threat of rape by a Canadian silver mining company.) El Rompecabezas is energetic and poppy and I had to double check the first two songs to make sure they weren’t exactly the same. One of them was “Malditos Sentimientos” (alternate title: “Sentimientos, Saxo, y MALDICIóN”). Continue reading “¡Nuevo! (starring Chacaloza, Vicente Fernández, y más)”

Ask a Norteño Fan: Manuel Martinez-Luna

manuel martinez-luna

Today we extend a warm NorteñoBlog welcome to Manuel Martinez-Luna. Manuel is a 31-year-old New York native, having cut a swath from Yonkers to Queens. You know him as the blog’s top commenter, which has led to an exciting new job (tambora roll…) writing for NorteñoBlog! (First article coming soon.) (No, there’s no money in it.) In his spare time, Manuel works as a compilations coordinator for The Orchard, a digital distribution arm of Sony Music, creating Regional Mexican compilations under the brand name Club Corridos. (Nice logo.) In alphabetical order, his favorites artists are Los Alegres del Barranco, the Beatles, Vicente Fernández, Ratt, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

We recently talked by phone for almost an hour about growing up in Yonkers, how Manuel came to love norteño music, how Hispanic and white people view narcocorridos, and his karaoke triumphs and fails. Here’s the edited transcript:

NorteñoBlog: What was the first popular music you ever remember loving? How did you hear it? What did you love about it?

Manuel Martinez-Luna: I would say it was hip hop. I got more aware of the artists and particular songs in middle school. Jay-Z and, when I used to live in Yonkers, the Lox — I still listen to them. For the most part it was the beats, the instruments they used, but also the lyrics — some songs might have been a little bit more street-oriented or violent, but a lot of the the things they said I could definitely relate to. The struggle, growing up in the inner city, was not that uncommon from the type of life I had — and not just me, but a lot of people can relate to not having enough money to get school clothes for the new year, or whatever it may be. Your plumbing doesn’t work during the winter, so you have to heat up your bath water in a big pot and then pour it over yourself to take a shower. Like the landlord, sometimes you ask him, “Come by and fix my damn pipes!” You know, they take a while, and you can’t show up to school smelly.

NB: What kind of music did your parents listen to? Did you find yourself liking what they liked, rebelling against their taste, or what?

MML: All Mexican music, primarily rancheros — you know, Vicente Fernandez, Antonio Aguilar — stuff like that. My dad would listen to corridos, but mostly more old school stuff — Los Alegres de Terán, Los Huracanes del Norte, like those guys? My mom would listen to very obscure female groups, I can’t remember their name right now. I think their name was Las Jilgueras something… [NB note: Las Jilguerillas?]

Honestly, when I was younger, I just didn’t get it — I thought it was kind of hokey and too old school or whatever. I would hear it in the background all the time, Saturday mornings my mom and dad would put on their music and we would go about our business, but at that time I just didn’t get it. You know, I wasn’t into it.

That changed around 2006, 2007, Continue reading “Ask a Norteño Fan: Manuel Martinez-Luna”

Diario de Radio 5/18/15

pancho barraza

Calibre 50 – “Contigo”: NorteñoBlog hasn’t yet discussed what a bad song this is. I’d call it “terrible” but that would imply some level of awe or achievement that’s completely lacking in the music. And what about that music? It sounds like a second-tier Maná power ballad, only without the power. As these guys must know, an accordion isn’t a lead guitar! In some cases it’s better than a lead guitar, but its attempts to sustain single notes sound like wheezes, so the whole song feels empty, a dried out husk of attempted passion. Of course it’s a huge hit, so what do I know?
NO VALE LA PENA

Vicente Fernández – “Estos Celos” (2007): A late career hit written, arranged, and produced by Joan Sebastian, who won the Latin Grammy for Best Regional Mexican Song. The strings and midtempo chug could be ’70s Glen Campbell, as could Fernández’s rue when he sings about his jealousy. His high notes should teach Nick Jonas something about chin music.
VALE LA PENA

Ariel Camacho y Los Plebes del Rancho – “El Karma”: NorteñoBlog has waxed about this song before. Basically, it sounds like nothing else on the radio, Camacho’s endless flutters of requinto deepening a murder ballad that’s cynical but cautionary, mythic but subversive, and coming to you direct from BEYOND THE GRAVE. (As near as I can tell, Camacho tries to kill his daughter’s kidnapper and gets killed himself, so Karma doesn’t work!) This is still the best version of the umpteen floating around. Here’s how I explained it to Frank Kogan, but I may be missing some nuance in how its audience hears it:

The song ends with the line, “nobody escapes the reaper.” Other versions of this song are speedy, either triumphal or drunken, performed by norteño quintet or banda. Camacho’s version is slower, stripped down to two guitars and a tuba, the fatalistic retelling of an old old story. Camacho’s version has become the hit version on regional Mexican radio, where it sounds like nothing else — it’s surrounded by sappy love songs and cheery trafficking songs. In early 2015 Camacho dies in a car wreck and “El Karma” hits #1 on Billboard’s overall Hot Latin chart, albeit during a slow week. (It’s the first norteño song to do so in years.) Possible social critique: this death we sing about so blithely deserves our respect.

VALE LA PENA

El Komander – “Malditas Ganas”: Loose, funny, talking as much as he sings — which is good, given his misguided attempts at balladry — Alfredo Rios defines charismatic. The word “charismatic” implies an apparent lack of effort, right?
VALE LA PENA

Pancho Barraza – “Ignoraste Mis Lagrimas” (1995): The cruel oompah of tears.
NO VALE LA PENA

¿Qué Estamos Escuchando? (Grammys, Remmy Valenzuela, Natalia Jiménez)

Vicente Fernandez at Latin Grammy Awards Backstage

NorteñoBlog would like to issue a correction: In the post entitled “Why Do the Grammys Hate Norteño Music?”, I mistakenly referred to Vicente Fernández’s Mano a Mano: Tangos a la Manera de Vicente Fernández as a “tribute album.” It’s not. Rather, the album is what it says it is: ranchera singer Fernández singing tangos in his own style, with lead bandoneon from Raul Vizzi. It’s a likable little album that peaked at #3 on Billboard‘s Regional Mexican Albums chart and #11 on Hot Latin Albums. Sunday it won the Grammy for Best Regional Mexican Music Album (including Tejano). Congratulations!

Of course, Mano a Mano represents the current state of regional Mexican music (including Tejano) somewhat less well than Beck’s Album of the Year-winning Morning Phase represents popular music overall. Never mind how Beck stacks up against Beyoncé — at least his album appeared on TV soundtracks and radio, shaping both music conversations and “the sound of 2014.” (Maybe there should be a Grammy category for “Best Soundtrack to a TV Character Having Epiphanies About Life.”) Compared to the list of overall Album of the Year winners, Fernández’s album is closer to Herbie Hancock’s River: The Joni Letters — an undeniably well-performed and polite museum piece that everyone can now safely ignore.

Not to be ignored is accordion hero Remmy Valenzuela, singing “Mi Princesa” to a young woman whose tipo just cheated on her at the Orpheum Theater. Remmy saw it all from the stage. We covered the song at The Singles Jukebox, where I wrote:

A dextrous accordion hero puts down his axe to sing a banda ballad with more authority than he’s ever sung before, enunciating to las estrellas. Noel Torres would farm this kind of thing out to the likes of Luciano Luna, norteño’s own Diane Warren figure, but Valenzuela wrote “Princesa” himself and he’s smart about it, intuiting how the brass will clobber the high points in his melody. (I don’t care how fleet his fingers are, this thing would sound thin with just his quartet.) Has any guitar hero ever done so well with a guitar-free power ballad?
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More cheating in Natalia Jiménez’s “Quédate Con Ella,” which the Jukebox liked more. Abby Waysdorf heard schlager; John Seroff and I both heard ABBA, which some days is the same thing. I wrote:

Jiménez shoots for Mexican mariachi and, with the help of Venezuelan producer Motiff, winds up singing a marvelously square ABBA song. “Square,” that is, in its perky chorus beat and tune; devoid of anything resembling R&B, “Quédate” stands out on a Hot Latin chart full of bachata and reggaeton. And “square” in Jiménez’s insistence that the Other Woman play house in every sense of the phrase — iron her ex’s clothes, make his toast, etc. What’s not square is her singing: Jiménez inhabits the song with giggly triumph, just as “Jajaja” into “LOL” is a triumph of Google Translate. She’s having more fun breaking up than she did when they were together. She’s Chiquitita with Fernando’s swagger.
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