Every Mexican I know has been laughing these past couple of weeks over Rolling Stone's lame attempt to get wabs to pick up their magazine–oh wait, you didn't hear about it? Where they did a double-cover featuring one in English and another en español–in the back, of course? Hey, Jann Wenner: Plessy v. Ferguson was found unconstitutional a while back, you know?
About the only thing that didn't outright suck was their list of the 10 greatest “Latin rock” albums of all time, and that's only because it was written by my good pal, Ernesto Lechner, who, next to Josh Kun and Enrique Lopetegui, was the best critic of the genre back in our salad days (and I wonder what their list would be?). But even Ernesto's list had to be partly watered down for gabacho tastes (seriously, che: Abraxas?), not just in the album choices, but in that title of “Latin rock,” a title for a genre no one has used for a decade (the preferred choice for critics is “Latin alternative,” although for the diehards, it'll always be rock en español)
Any 10-whatever-your-modifier list is always wrought with danger, but let me make a case for mine. It'll have some of the greatest albums in the genre, sure, but consider this a simultaneous list for gabachos who want to know what all the fuss is about the genre and for rockeros who need some self-reflection about a genre that once seemed poised to rule the world but is now stuck in a rut of reunions and Zoe ripoffs. This list won't include the pioneers ala Charly Garcia, El Tri, Botellita de Jerez and others because that's the advanced level, chavos: this is for the rookies. And definitely no Brazilians–that's another list. And so, let the second-guessing begin!
10. ¿Dondé Están los Ladrones?, Shakira
Nowadays, the world knows the Colombian as a blonde Athena, a conquering goddess of goodwill–and it's something that drives the hardcore fans among us crazy, with accusations of vendida and past-her-prime whispered all the time even as she sells out arena after stadium. And the English-language media has always been perplexed by Shakira's English-language efforts and its bevy of mixed and dead metaphors. But to dismiss Shakira as light pop is to dismiss her profound effect on femininity in Latin America. Unlike rockera princesses like pre-Sí Julieta Venegas, Ely Guerra, or Andrea Echeverri, Shakira struck a perfect tone between accessibility and rebellion, allowing teenage Latinas in the United States to dream of not having to be an Univisión beauty to be successful as a woman in Latin America.
1998's ¿Dónde Están los Ladrones? is the album that all conscious Chicanas owned and played non-stop from junior high through college, and it's a portend of the Shakira to come, if rougher (and better) around the edges than the present rendition, as best captured by “Ciego, Sordomuda” (“Blind, Deaf, and Dumb“). 14 years later, this song still roars out of the speakers heralding the dawn of a new era–if only Shakira's present stuff was as rip-roaring as this. And bring back those natty dreads!
9. The New Sound of the Venezuelan Gozadera, Los Amigos Invisibles
The trend in Latin alternative for the past seven years has been enjoyable, hedonistic music devoid of politics, not even in a metaphorical, disguised manner (ala Babasónicos), a response to the trials and tribulations and fatigue that Latin America goes through since forever. Take that into consideration, and the best group in that vein becomes Venezuelan sextet, who left the country after the craziness involving Hugo Chávez and thus have devoted their career to some of the funkiest, sex-crazed tracks this side of Blowfly. Their love of funk and disco bunnies mixed with Latin American percussion rhythms predated the tribal movement currently the rage in Mexico and even the much-celebrated Nortec Collective, and this 1998 effort set the template, with paeans to anal sex (“El Disco Anal“) and “Ponerte En Cuatro” (“Put You on All Fours“) a devilish stream of double-entendres anchored by thunderous timbales that step aside for drum machines and synths. Really, it could've been any Los Amigos Invisible album, as they're one long stew of sex-funk fun–and isn't that what Latinos ultimately want?
8. El Nervio del Volcán, Caifanes
Probably one of the most legitimate criticisms people can make about rock en español is the propensity toward arena rock–and not just any arena rock, but the kind that makes Led Zeppelin look like a folks quartet haunting a coffee shop in the Village during the early 1960s. This explains the enduring popularity of overwrought groups like the Mexican Maná, the Spanish Héroes del Silencio, the Argentine Enanitos Verdes, and many more. But the gods of that genre remain Caifanes (and their later incarnation, Jaguares) whom you might remember as the group that supposedly caused the quick sellout of Coachella back in 2011, much to the racist consternation of dumb hipsters everywhere. Yes, they're KLOS-FM over-the-top, yes they're bombastic, yes lead singer Saúl Hernández thinks of himself too much of as a shaman, but this group launched a thousand indigenistas, who started delving into pre-Hispanic mysticism from Mexico and the Caribbean. Their brand is best shown on their last album, recorded in 1994 and featuring one giant mosh pit of anthems like this one, “Afuera.”
7. Hola/Chau, Los Fabulosos Cadillacs
I was never into the Argentine group as much as I was supposed to, if only because I caught them at the end of their career, when they were going through the motions. And I'm actually a bigger fan of lead singer Vicentico's solo efforts. But when they were on, they were on, and the proof is in this live double-album, a recording of their final concert before breaking up–that is, before the incessant pleas of nostalgia by fans had them reunite a couple of years ago, to middling results. You just don't get the greatest hits (like “El Matador,” perhaps the first rock en español song to cross over when it appeared in Grosse Point Blank) but the rush of tens of thousands of fans and a rejuvenation of the war horses, if only for a night.
6. Clandestino, Manu Chao
This album is the Exodus of Latin alternative, spun to annoying death by by progressive gabachos who think they're down for la causa because they once attended a Chao concert in Europe, or because they once had a Chicana girlfriend who introduced them to it. Clandestino is so overplayed at this point by pendejos that I have a visceral reaction to it of nausea, just like I did to the Beach Boys for years because K-Earth spins them so much. And this sucks, because Chao's 1998 effort (damn, 1998 was a banner year for the genre, ¿qué no?) is a bona fide masterpiece: a pastiche on the underclass underscored by reggae, comedy (this song, “Welcome to Tijuana” bashes Mexican politicians and American imperialism, all with Herb Alpert brass) political rallying points, seemingly random audio excerpts, annoying voices, and all other sorts of music and philosophies absorbed by the gypsy-esque Chao. Honestly, this album should be higher on the list–but I still need to be deprogrammed from hating it.
5. Hijos del Culo, Bersuit Vergarabat
I maintain that Bersuit is the most underrated rock en español group of them all, an anarchic collective ala Ozomatli except raunchier, better, wilder and smarter. Their live shows at the late, great JC Fandango were the stuff of legend, almost always ending with lead singer Gustavo Cordera commanding all the honeys to join him on stage and strut their stuff while their guys remained on the dance floor, slamming into each other silly. So why didn't they get more exposure ala Soda Stereo and Los Fabulosos Cadillacs? It's because they were stubbornly provincial, sticking to Argentine lingo and musical traditions that the rest of Latin America never bothered to learn, then smash them silly with punk and metal. Even more crucially, their song subjects are almost universally about Argentina in the 1990s and early 2000s, a Grand Guignol of a collapsing economy, corrupt government officials, the destroyed society that arose as a result, and the never-disappearing legacy of los desaparecidos of the Dirty War always lurking in the background. Their most famous song, “Señor Cobranza,” essentially accused then-President Carlos Menem of being a drug dealer; their best song, “La Argentinidad al Palo” (which translates as “Hard-Core Argentinian” but literally means “A Boner for Argentina“) is as great an indictment of patriotism as Paths of Glory.
But their best album? Hijos del Culo (Sons of the Asshole–yeah, that's not going to cross over into Good Morning, America...). The tracks represents Bersuit at their most varied and playful, like “La del Toro,” a ska-punk-flamenco mashup that imagines the band taking on the role of a bull and, um, sodomizing the bullfighter–the ultimate revenge of the 99 percent? In the Bersuit world, yes! And if you don't believe me, the album is dedicated to “the 70 percent of the Third World that has been born through the asshole–those who were shitted out.”
4. Chúntaro Radio Poder, El Gran Silencio
Hard to believe now, but there was a time when Monterrey, Mexico was known for something other than its horrific narcowars, and that was its music scene. From the pop-funk of Kinky to the musings of Ely Guerra to the Pink Floyd epics of Zurdok, this was a city that could've been another Manchester, another Mexico City, another Detroit–and the best band of them all was El Gran Silencio. They don't seem as sophisticated as their contemporaries since their music is essentially punk-vallenato-ragamuffin desmadre–but when they had to put down the beers and mota and get intellectual, the cabrones whipped out this album, premised on an imaginary radio station spinning nothing but El Gran Silencio (and featuring actual Monterrey DJs). From here comes their ethos: partying, yes, but also lament, class and race criticism, politics, and reappropriation, all backed by an endless churn that made the couples dance and the men mosh. “Chúntaro Style” takes the title slur and turns it into a defiant chinga tu madre to all the haters, both Mexican and Americans, who want to denigrate the country folk of Mexico. Best live band I ever saw, and you'll never hear a better punk accordion EVER–not even with the Pogues.
3. Amores Perros, Various Artists
The film Amores Perros remains one of the high points of Latin American popular culture, a breathtaking film that announced to the world that Mexico's once-glorious film industry was back, that Latin American directors were worthy of Hollywood, and launched a global fascination with Mexico City that has never gone away. And yet the two-disk soundtrack was better, a glorious pinball across all the big groups of Latin alternative at the time (Cafe Tacuba, Control Machete, Bersuit, Julieta Venegas) and unknowns mixed in with sonidero (Los del Garrote), rock urbano and all other unique-to-el-DF genres and even Celia Cruz (!) that made the album simultaneously pan-American yet chilango. Even better, the album itself was both traditional sountrack (music from the film) and concept album, with the B-side songs written in the theme of amores perros (in other words, the idea that love is a bitch).
And the best song? The banda cover of “Dame El Poder,” the Molotov standard that was already angry to begin with, yet in the horns of Banda Espuela de Oro menaces and swaggers in a way that the movimiento alterado pendejos only wish they could. A fabulous primer to the genre, and to 21st-century Latin America.
2. 11 Episodios Sinfónicos, Gustavo Cerati
One of the biggest problems I find in trying to turn gabachos on to rock en español besides the language barrier that so many of the original efforts by the titans of the genre–Caifanes, Cafe Tacuba, Soda Stereo and the like–are Spanish-language ripoffs of the Cure, the Police, Violent Femmes and other New Wave groups. To counter that, I turn them onto this relatively obscure album by a titan of the genre: Gustavo Cerati. He became a legend fronting Soda Stereo, which remains Argentina's most-beloved group, and earned international acclaim with his solo efforts with pensive electronica. This album (“11 Symphonic Episodes“) is a greatest hits of his and Soda's career, but now backed by a symphony, and what could've easily been an exercise in pomposity becomes a beautiful, lush production that highlights Cerati's soaring tenor, his gorgeous chords, lyrics–in short, his overall genius.
Take the song featured here, “El Rito” (from Soda Stereo's 1986 Signos), which in its original incarnation sounds like some throwaway played on SiriusXM's First Wave station but in this production has the soaring optimism of Mussorgksy's “Pictures at an Exhibition.” Released in 2001, just as Argentina was emerging from its annus horribilis, it also stands as a glorious testament to the indefatigable Argentine spirit and that of Cerati, who has been in a coma since 2010, the king resting.
And now, for número 1, which won't be a big surprise…[
1. Re, Café Tacuba
This is also Lechner's choice, and the choice of almost every rock en español critic ever (save for a few Argies who'll always side with Cerati). Unimaginative scribes will call it Cafe Tacuba's White Album, or Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, but I say it's closer to London Calling: a cri du coeur about a gargantuan, fucked-up wonderful metropolis (in the case of los tacubos, Mexico City) that only a native and a native alone can truly love and get. Like the Clash's magnum opus, Re is a dizzying, breathless valentine through genres (in this album's case, the overt homages/parodies include trios, death metal, banda sinaloense, ranchera, son jarocho, New Wave, boleros, cumbia, merengue–and this short list doesn't include the swatches of God-knows-how-many-other genres that the group pops into the album just for the hell of it) featuring local slang and shout-outs, and with a patina of politics no modern Latin alternative band will ever attempt but which was the whole point of rock en español to begin with.
Actually, I'd put this album in a list of 10 greatest albums of all time, period, if only for this song: “Trópico de Cancer,” about a petroleum engineer who tells his fellow workers he's quitting because he doesn't want to add further pollution and development to the world. Yes, it sounds like the most pretentious song in history–but only Cafe Tacuba could've made it into a romantic, danceable thing. And that it's only about the eighth-best song on Re shows the brilliance of this album. Listen to it, and you'll love Mexicans forever.