Music

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

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/reviews_art/g/gerardo-ortiz-album-2015-200x200.jpg

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List Number: 10

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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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List Number: 9

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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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List Number: 8

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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

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/reviews_art/m/maquinaria-nortena-album-2015-200x200.jpg

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List Number: 7

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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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List Number: 6

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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.

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