My wife, God love her, complains that all male country singers sound the same. This is patently untrue. Blake Shelton sings like a smarmy geezer wiling his way into a younger crowd, while Luke Bryan’s blank prettiness belies his terror of turning into Blake Shelton. Big difference. Eric Church is the reedy outlaw, Jason Aldean is the wannabe outlaw who also wants to rap, Brantley Gilbert is the outlaw who can’t sing. Justin Moore, who claims to be an outlaw, is really a big-hearted romantic; Kip Moore celebrates “Young Love” but remains a sociopath. Isn’t this all obvious? You can hear it in their voices!
Regional Mexican radio works in a similar way; all genre radio does, really. Even after learning the musical language, good luck differentiating all those Bandas with their bleeding corazóns. It’s like discovering rap radio and trying to tell the A$APs apart. (The more helpful banda singers will shout themselves out, just like rappers.) But once you latch on to a few songs you like, or get your hands on a compilation that lists artists and songwriters, or (better yet) start Googling and talking to people about the music, everything comes into focus.
Last year I enjoyed two such compilations. Radio Éxitos El Disco Del Año is the NOW That’s What I Call Music! of the format, boasting a variety of genres, while Las Bandas Románticas de América goes more specific, with six to eight bandas playing the same brassy style of (mostly) love songs. A few songs appear on both comps. Note that even the expansive Radio Éxitos focuses on the regional Mexican format. We’re talking banda, norteño, Tejano, a handful of cumbias, and a thimbleful of mariachi. This represents just a fraction of popular Latin music — you won’t find mainstream pop crossovers like Shakira or Enrique, no Caribbean-American styles like reggaeton or bachata, and although some of this music rocks, its makers probably wouldn’t call it rock. Also note that, since these comps cover just the Fonovisa and Disa major labels, hitmakers like Gerardo Ortiz and La Banda Adictiva are missing. Finally, note that these compilations recently released their 2013 overviews, and both of ‘em suck.
Start with the more concentrated Bandas Románticas. Eight big bands, most of whose names begin with “Banda”, play songs of love and yearning. Done right, their music hits so many American easy listening sweet spots it’s a wonder nobody’s made an English crossover move. Brass, tropical backbeats, and pretty chord changes — what’s not to love? Done wrong, though, you wind up in boring ballad hell. A rundown:
Banda el Recodo de Cruz Lizárraga: The 75-year-old behemoth of the genre, Recodo is the trad dad of the bunch, even though its individual members aren’t that old. Their current hit “Vas a Llorar Por Mí” is a dramatic slow dance, the kind of dance an ornately dressed gentleman performs to woo a lady. It sucks all the breath from the room, but in a good way. They also provide a cover of Codigo FN’s wonderful “Me Gustas Mucho” and, because banda songs have loooong shelf lives, a stodgy deep cut from their 2011 album. (Codigo FN’s norteño version of “Me Gustas Mucho” appears on Radio Éxitos.)
Banda los Recoditos: This relatively young band spun off from Recodo in 1989 but only started hitting in the past decade. When they’re on they’re on, as evidenced by “Mi Último Deseo”, their rollicking meditation on sleeping when they’re dead: “Me gusta los parties!” Weary of the waltz and the mashed corazon schmaltz, it’s the fiercest and best song on both Románticas and Éxitos, and it’s not very romantic. Even less so are two lifeless ballads, including the minor hit “Cuando Te Entregues A Él”.
La Arrolladora Banda el Limón de René Camacho: They’re consistent hitmakers, twice a year since ‘07; you can infer their lovemaking regularity however you like. A slow grower that’s also on Éxitos, “El Ruido de Tus Zapatos” depicts a man listening for the footsteps of his lost love. It captures the stillness of Jamey Johnson’s “The Door Is Always Open”, but without the undertones of pure evil. Arrolladora is rarely terrible but frequently underwhelming — witness both their other limp Románticas tunes.
La Original Banda el Limón de Salvador Lizárraga: Not to confuse you, but these guys are cladistically related to Arrolladora, having sprung from the common ancestor Banda el Limón sometime in the late Pleistocene. They’re capable of greatness but their only song on either new comp is “El Destino”, an OK duet with the late great Jenni Rivera. And it’s an album track. From 2011.
As an indignant aside, Rivera is the only woman on either of these 20-track compilations. And to reiterate, she’s there in a posthumous slot for a guest appearance on an all-male banda’s 2011 non-single. This is an issue with regional Mexican radio in general — you hear more women on conservative talk stations — but as an outsider I’m hardly qualified to lodge a social protest, especially since some of the best fans I know are women. But musically! In the mid-aughts, women of Mexican heritage were making some of the most exciting music anywhere. Rivera, Diana Reyes, Yolanda Pérez, Graciela Beltran, Los Horóscopos de Durango… It’s very much worth noting that two indie female acts recently received Grammy nominations for Best Regional Mexican Album, and Mariachi Divas de Cindy Shea won the award. Yes, Horóscopos recorded one of last year’s Éxitos, and Rivera currently has a hit live album, but women’s relative radio silence is one of this music’s most depressing aspects.
Which reminds me…
Banda Sinaloense MS de Sergio Lizárraga: Banda MS (pronounced “emmay essay”, gringo) has, what, two good songs? “Amor Express” is on Románticas, and their current single “Hermosa Experiencia” will probably appear on next year’s edition. Their other songs are lame-ass filler about exquisitely pretty women, apparently allowed to appear in Banda MS videos but not make music of their own. When they someday form a pretty women banda, I hope they lock these guys inside a budoir and regale them with plodding clarinet solos.
Banda Carnaval: I have high hopes for Carnaval. Compared to most of these institutions they’re a young band. They also get most of their songs in-house, from the same writing team that powers their sister norteño band Calibre 50. (Calibre’s over on Éxitos, sounding like Spanish rockers Maná.) That said, they have yet to really deliver, apart from their great 2012 hit “Gente Batallosa”. Their pretty good ballad “Y Te Vas” appears on both compilations; their other Románticas tunes range from so-so to so-so-er. Nowhere to go but up!
La Poderosa Banda San Juan: They’re steeped in mystery and younger than you, the brain children of producer Fernando Camacho, son of René Camacho, whose name you may have seen up there in Arrolladora’s official title. “El Antes Y El Después” is their first song to grace one of these comps. It’s in a minor key! Not many of those.
Banda Rancho Viejo: Now we’re talking. Rancho Viejo’s Una Entre Un Millón was one of 2013’s best albums of straight-up catchy banda pop, or pop in general — like, better than the Selena Gomez album. Way better than Demi Lovato’s. All three of their Románticas songs are worth hearing. (“Con la Novedad” also appears on Éxitos; one of its horn blats imitates a turntable scratch.) Also produced by Fernando Camacho, featuring songs by most of the genre’s big songwriters, this is a state-of-the-art band that gets nearly everything right. Or at least they did last year. Judging from the track record of their cohort, maybe things’ll change, but you gotta believe in something.
More than last year’s edition, the new Bandas Románticas gets bogged down in generic songs that have no business being compiled. The new Radio Éxitos, on the other hand, contains some crazy shit that’s way more lively in this context than on a proper album. Specifically, you need to hear “El Coco No”. Roberto Junior Y Su Bandeño’s line dance and viral sensation transplants the riff from “Rock Lobster” to a bare-bones cumbia beat. When Roberto Junior commands “brincando”, you don’t refuse. If you do, according to the video, he’ll send a dude dressed up like the devil to haunt your dreams. Or something. I didn’t really understand that video.
Radio Éxitos has more than its share of post-coital naps in song form; it’s not what you’d call a “good” album, especially if you’ve got a radio station handy to do the same job with more energy. But this year it’s more useful than Románticas. Even when the songs aren’t much, they can feed your curiosity. Joan Sebastian’s “La Derrota” is a bizarre hybrid of mariachi with tuba and steel guitar. Banda leader Julión Álvarez goes redneck crazy in “La Fory Fay”, a lickety split jealous lover waltz. And Noel Torres, whose La Estructura was one of 2013’s best overall albums, offers his get-the-job-done banda ballad “Adivina”. He’s a wannabe outlaw, celebrating young love while remaining a sociopath, and after poking around in compilations like these, you can hear it in his voice.