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 US 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.
Mujeres de Tu Tipo
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.
Mundo de Ilusiones
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.
Banda Los Recoditos
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?
Hey, anyone want a whole bunch of metal guitar with their banda songs? How about some filthy-minded letras en español for the lead single? Regulo Caro knows his stuff—his degree is in business administration, but his heart is in his songs. In Senzu-Rah, he lets it all hang out, with writerly precision (he has written songs for many of the other acts on this list) and a gonzo spirit of mean-spirited fun. Matt Cibula
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.