The Best Regional Mexican Music of 2015

Whether norteño or banda, regional Mexican music had rich and vibrant year in 2015.

You may have heard that Sony Records recently released The Cutting Edge, a set of early recordings by noted IBM pitchman Bob Dylan. Listening to the disc devoted entirely to the song “Like a Rolling Stone”, critic Chris Willman wrote, “Here you realize the genius of what Dylan was doing as a bandleader: eschewing anything we would call true solos, yet encouraging his keyboard players and guitarists to ‘solo’ through entire songs beneath him.” It’s a great observation about a wonderful band, and here’s the thing: It reminds me of nothing so much as modern norteño music.

Turn on your local regional Mexican radio station and you’ll hear several different styles of music. There’s norteño, those accordion-led quartets or quintets that lately recall Dylan’s mid-’60s bandleading approach, with all the instruments playing independent lines that congeal into a gangly whole. (Think El Komander’s hit single “Malditas Ganas”) These new bands sound wilder than the classic norteño sound — tough rhythm sections polkaing under lead instruments — though groups like Los Tigres del Norte continue to release fine music. The classic bands often throw a sax into the mix; in fact, there’s a whole subgenre of bands, based in the states of Chihuahua and Zacatecas, devoted to partying and romance with twin accordion and sax lead lines. The Sierreño sound, two guitars plus bass or tuba, has spiked thanks to the February death of Ariel Camacho, a talented young musician whose popularity hasn’t dwindled. Cumbia and Tejano bands attract somewhat smaller followings these days, and mariachi’s for old souls and Grammy voters. The recent mariachi album by baby-faced El Bebeto is a total Michael Bublé swing move.

And then there’s banda. Sometime around the Y2K panic, Sinaloan brass bands realized they were an ideal delivery device for big shiny pop songs. (You credit Banda El Recodo, I’ll make the case for Rogelio Martinez’s chart-topping cover of Shania Twain) The industry has since taken shape around this phenomenon, with bandas occupying every other slot on radio playlists, prolific songwriters churning out hits, and norteño singers like Roberto Tapia making the leap. Bandas play plenty of mind-numbing ballads about corazones and the hombres who break, mend, and fondle them; but the big bands are also open to wild experimentation and storytelling tropes. You can never count them out. For example, Espinoza Paz has written hundreds of sappy songs about romance, but in 2015 he also gave us “Estoy Con Otro En La Cama”, a real-time cheating tale covered with gusto by Los Horoscopos de Durango, and Marco Flores’s gloriously smutty “El Pajarito”.

One more thing: regional Mexican music is rich and vibrant enough that, on the lists below, none of the top singles also appear on the top albums.


Artist: Gerardo Ortiz

Album: Hoy Más Fuerte

Label: Del/Sony


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Gerardo Ortiz
Hoy Más Fuerte

Who doesn’t love a Sony blockbuster? Lots of people, actually. This latest album from norteño’s biggest star is too long — 21 songs plus five bonus versions — and it comes up shorter on memorable tunes than Ortiz’s 2013 breakthrough Archivos de Mi Vida. And yet you throw enough money at talented people and they’re bound to have at least one good idea. The best investments here were the session work of accordionist Marito Aguilar, who brings something amazing to every song he plays, and the horn charts, which are consistently better than they had to be. (See the giddy chromatic hilarity of the banda’s take on “El Amigo”) If you could abide the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie thanks to Johnny Depp’s acting and some well-staged action sequences, you might make it through this album. That Ortiz is even thinking in terms of norteño blockbusters might be his greatest legacy.


Artist: Banda Costado

Album: Chilenas de Oaxaca

Label: Talento


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Banda Costado
Chilenas de Oaxaca

Forgoing such musical niceties as Chordal Harmony or Being Able To Tell The Songs Apart, this percussion-heavy southern septet reels off one minor-key violin melody after another. Fiddle and singers work in counterpoint, with the tuba diving into the rhythmic arsenal — which, if you pay attention to it, sounds nearly as complex as the stuff avant-jazz legend Henry Threadgill has been playing with his tuba-inclusive band Zooid. Banda Costado is samier and less metrically ambiguous than Zooid; but to Costado’s credit, they sing and joke around more.


Artist: Julión Álvarez y Su Norteño Banda

Album: El Aferrado

Label: Fonovisa


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Julión Álvarez y Su Norteño Banda
El Aferrado

Just like Gerardo Ortiz, here’s another major musical hero who let us down this year! Álvarez, an enormously talented singer and bandleader who made 2014’s best album, returned with so-so results on his very own White Album. By the standards of most shiny banda-pop, El Aferrado is still pretty good — it has memorable tunes, it doesn’t lean too heavily on ballads, and it features the scratchy quaver of the continent’s best voice. But I’ve got one major quarrel. Someone, whether prolific engineer Ramón Sánchez or producer Álvarez himself, has toned down that distinctive quaver to the point where it’s unrecognizable in places. (Listen to “Mis Travesuras” and try picking its vocalist out of a banda lineup) Still, the versatile singer excels at both ballads and the big dumb cumbia “El Tomasín”, and the accordion-into-brass clamor of the title song is thrilling.


Artist: La Maquinaria Norteña

Album: Ya Dime Adiós

Label: Azteca/Fonovisa


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La Maquinaria Norteña
Ya Dime Adiós

It is my longstanding position that the puro sax styles of Chihuahua and Zacatecas would improve with the addition of more terrible “sax” puns in the titles. At first listen, the eighth album by La Maquinaria Norteña, Ya Dime Adiós (alternate title: Break Up Saxo), sounds like a lot of saxy dance bands: everything throbs along like a well-lubed machine, with sax and accordion erecting one riff after another. But when the musicians throw a snatch of the Super Mario theme into “No Sé Cómo Hacerlo” (alternate title: “Never Been Saxed”), you can tell they know their genre is a tad ridiculous. Look: variety in this genre is hard to come by, so at some point Maquinaria simply said “screw it” and decided to bust their humps harder than any other band in the biz. The lead instruments tug against the beat and fill every aural gap, and after each 150 seconds of pleasure, everyone sounds spent. To the tick tock they don’t stop.


Artist: Colmillo Norteño

Album: A Quien Corresponda

Label: Remex


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Colmillo Norteño
A Quien Corresponda

Colmillo Norteño’s ten-song “EP” is better than their more recent full-length album because it’s more focused. If you’re gonna play a demented rapid-fire circus waltz like “La Plebona”, you really have to commit, you know? Of course you know. The quintet with the sousaphone “O” also covers Trakalosa’s great banda hit “Mi Padrino El Diablo”, a Faustian tale of soul-selling woe, and they use a couple other songs to namecheck notorious cartel figures. So they could maybe choose better role models; but if you were studying how to lead an insanely tight musical ensemble, you could do worse than taking notes from these guys.

5 – 1

Artist: El Komander

Album: Detrás del Miedo

Label: Twiins


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El Komander
Detrás del Miedo

Having begun his career several years ago as an intimidating narcosinger, El Komander has since softened into norteño’s cuddliest barfly, a charming lout with an endless stream of stories about heartaches and the bottles they’ve occasioned. In 2015 he released a single nearly every month. Thanks to his rambunctious band and self-referential writing style, these songs never sounded like work, whether they grew into big radio hits (“Malditas Ganas”) or remained little-heard square dances (“Fuga Pa’ Maza”). Komander included some, but not all, of these singles on Detrás del Miedo; there’s also a duet with the actually incarcerated (but no less charming) Larry Hernández, a couple banda remakes, and a tuba player hellbent on cracking everyone up. Next year’s album should be another corker.


Artist: Banda Cohuich

Album: No Te Equivoques

Label: Pegasus


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Banda Cohuich
No Te Equivoques

Extollers of Mexico’s indigenous Huichol people and composers of relentless electrocumbias, the members of Banda Cohuich inhabit the liminal nexus of old and new. I mean who doesn’t? But I’m guessing Cohuich limns the nexus a bit more loudly than do you and I. Their single “Son Kora Kau Te Te Kai Nie Ni (Dialecto Huichol)” is a blaring ringwalk of a Huichol anthem, and most of the songs on this entertaining compilation follow suit. One exception: the unapologetically goofy “Cumbia de Voz”, a low key groover that’s acapella except for a synth beat, with the band singing the part of falsetto trumpets.


Artist: Laura Denisse

Album: Sigo Enamorada

Label: Con Banda


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Laura Denisse
Sigo Enamorada

The top three albums ask the rhetorical question, “Who says a brass band can’t play pop music?” — but they answer it in different ways. On the year’s most inexplicably slept-on banda album, Denisse and band adapt their sound to strutting backbeats: the tubas tackle the kick drum pulse, percussion and staccato horns cover the snares and cymbals, and Denisse herself wails happily over the top. “Amigos”, “Quién”, “Veneno Con Sabor A Miel”, and the title track sound like countrypolitan hits waiting to happen. Whether her material lives in the past or the present, Denisse pulls us along with the strength of her grinning, growling, shouting personality.


Artist: Roberto Tapia

Album: Diferente

Label: Fonovisa


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Roberto Tapia

A TV judge, narcocorridero, and all around country dude gone mainstream, Tapia has sung backbeat banda before on “Mirando El Cielo” and “Me Enamoré”, two of the decade’s catchiest earworms. (No lie, my kids hate on banda but they were seat dancing the first time they heard “Mirando” on the radio.) He goes a different route here, corralling an excellent banda into 10 jumpy arrangements of merciless invention. “Soy Diferente” is a lightning waltz that transforms into an even faster polka, the murmuring brass leaving plenty of space for Tapia’s voice. Lead single “No Valoraste” marches in a stately manner, allowing Tapia to kiss off his ex with tongue-in-cheek decorum. “Dónde Estarás” flirts with bachata; “Besos” lets Tapia sing over just drums and tuba, then interrupts him with jarring tutti passages. In every horn chart you can hear the arrangers cackling with glee.


Artist: Marco Flores y La Número 1 Banda Jerez

Album: Soy El Bueno

Label: Remex


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Marco Flores y La Número 1 Banda Jerez
Soy El Bueno

“Soy Un Desmadre” — loosely translated, “I’m Bad News, Baby” — begins as a pleasant midtempo waltz by Banda Tierra Sagrada. But then, in one of the most thrilling entrances since Busta Rhymes commandeered “Scenario”, someone invites guest singer Marco Flores to show everyone how they do it in Zacatecas. What follows is a noise both exhilarating and terrifying. Imagine some maniacal rooster doubled over in laughter, and you may begin to understand the unique vocal timbre of Mexico’s greatest musical entertainer in 2015.

Flores sings with a gallo-rific crow unequaled in Mexican music. He makes his banda play faster than everyone else, because that’s how they do it in Zacatecas. They only manage one slow verse of the pretty ballad “Soy El Bueno” before kicking it up to a doubletime bounce. In his videos, Flores dances with abandon and encourages everyone in his band to do the same. (Sometimes they hide from him behind potted plants.) Soy El Bueno the album races by so quickly, with so many fanfares and war whoops, it might initially seem bewildering. But every song sticks, a headlong rush of blaring creation, a refusal to look backwards that nevertheless demands to be heard over and over again.

The Best Regional Mexican Singles of 2015

12. La Trakalosa de Monterrey ft. Pancho Uresti – “Adicto a la Tristeza”

11. Leandro Ríos ft. Pancho Uresti – “Debajo Del Sombrero”

Pancho Uresti, the unassuming singer for Banda Tierra Sagrada, wiled his way onto two of 2015’s most iconic singles. “Tristeza” (“Addicted to the Sadness”) is a camp masterpiece by the prolific songwriter Erika Vidrio, in which Uresti wallows with Trakalosa’s Edwin Luna in a big old vat of tears and liquor. Collecting himself for “Sombrero”, Uresti joins Leandro Ríos to petition an unsympathetic father and win the hand of his hija, in the process singing a string of “-ero” rhymes that’ll reverberate through Spanish 101 classrooms for years to come.


10. Grupo Cañaveral ft. Jenny and the Mexicats – “Tiene Espinas el Rosal (En Vivo)”

Turn of the millennium cumbiaderos Cañaveral invited the trans-Atlantic pop band Jenny and the Mexicats onstage to sing a decade-old hit about roses having thorns and whatnot. Jenny sings lead and takes a trumpet solo while the two bands groove toward infinity.


9. Banda Cuisillos – “Cerveza”

Cuisillos is an odd band that pays homage to the Mayans in their name and the Apaches in their dress code; their album covers look like The Neverending Story’s Luck Dragon puked up calendar art. They’re hippies, in other words, but their single “Cerveza” is a conventional, if delightful, take on the universal epidemic of Beer Goggles. It’s got everything you love in a banda single: two vocalists trying to outsing one another, brass alternating with guitar, and deplorable sexism. Although, using the Ellen Willis test, “Cerveza” still isn’t as deplorably sexist as “Wild World” by that hippie Cat Stevens.


8. Rocío Quiroz – “La De La Paloma”

Quiroz is from Argentina but we’ll let her onto this list, given the space Regional Mexican airwaves allot to cumbia music. (See also the enduring presence of Grupo Cañaveral.) Buttressed by an off-kilter stomp, Quiroz’s voice powers through new wave guitar licks and synth buzz.


7. El Komander – “Hoy Toca”

6. El Komander – “El Tacoma”

Not content to release one fine album in 2015, Alfredo Ríos “El Komander” just keeps putting out music about mind-altering substances. On his two best non-album singles, he sings about the ominous presence of a white Ford Tacoma on his pot farm, and about quenching his dangerous thirst. His band eagerly takes up whatever he hands them.

The Best Regional Mexican Singles of 2015, 5 – 1

5. Duelo – “Veneno”

This Tejano ode to a venomous mujer opens with a moody guitar riff reminiscent of Def Leppard’s “Hysteria”, then grows into an accordion-fronted backbeat of lovelorn beauty.


4. Grupo El Reto ft. Alta Consigna – “La Parranda Va a Empezar”

There’s only thing better than a tuba-based norteño group singing a wild drinking song: two tuba-based norteño groups singing the same wild drinking song at the same time. Like the mujeres saturating their WhatsApp account, Reto and Alta Consigna fill every bit of space with a jumble of tubas, drums, and hot guitar work.


3. Ariel Camacho y Los Plebes Del Rancho – “Te Metiste”

The last time I heard a tuba take the lead in a love song was in Scoring and Arranging class, when someone gave the low brass a verse of “Wonderful Tonight” for laughs. Decorating the haunting melody of “Te Metiste” like finely wrought iron, Omar Burgos’s sousaphone trades off fills with the late Camacho’s requinto guitar, and the results are stately and moving.


2. Natalia Jiménez – “Te Metiste”

Irresistible breakup pop that owes as much to ABBA as it does to the mariachi music it streamlines — which makes sense, since Jiménez started off in the trans-Atlantic pop group La 5ª Estación.


1. Marco A. Flores y La Banda Jerez – “Amor de la Vida Alegre”

A radical new song recorded for an éxitos album, “Amor” juxtaposes quick horn fills with passages of Flores crowing over just drums and tuba. His dancing remains excellent and floppy. Like the Ramones, Rae Sremmurd, or early Madonna, Flores and his Banda make termite art of the most gnawing and forward-thinking sort.