Top Ten Latin-Pop Songs of the 21st Century
t the risk of sounding supercilious, I’d like to acknowledge what’s been mislabeled the “Latin American Cultural Revolution”. It is true that Latin American imports have made significant strides in popularity in the United States over the past few years: the massive success of the Columbian telenovela adapted into Ugly Betty; the recent box-office hits and Academy Award-winning films City of God, the Motorcycle Diaries, Children of Men, Pan’s Labyrinth and Babel; and the rising profiles of Latin American writers Álvaro Mutis and Claribel Alegría, just to name a few.
However, my big quarrel with such a misnomer would be that there’s nothing really revolutionary about this particular “revolution”. Latin American countries have always treated novelas as a basic staple of television; directors such as Luis Buñuel and Luis Puenzo have been renowned auteurs for decades in cinematic circles; and Pablo Neruda, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Octavio Paz are still required reading for many lower-level literature classes.
Yet, one amazing entertainment trend has shown itself in the past decade. Indeed, as U.S. and U.K. music sales continue to plummet, Latin music sales are holding steady, and in some parts actually rising. Latin music sales in the U.S. rose 5.2 percent in 2006, whereas overall CD sales fell almost 5 percent. However, even though Spanish language music video networks such as mun2 and MTV Tr3s have gained a foothold with many cable and satellite services in the past half-decade, the majority of the U.S. music press has ignored the Latin music scene. So, as a service for those interested in learning more about this virtually untapped genre, or those folks who are just in a rut and need something new to download, I’d like to present this list of the best songs leading this increasingly important form of music.
Juanes – A Dios Le Pido
Listen, I’m as big a fan of Pet Sounds as any 20-something year-old can be. But I’m always confounded by the self-satisfaction that Brian Wilson gets whenever he explains how “God Only Knows” was the first pop song to use the word “God” in its title. Sure, it may have been the first rock and roll song to take that chance, but as far as pop songs go, Latin America had the Beach Boys beat by about 30 years.
While religion and popular music have historically moved along secular lines in the States, it’s more than customary for Latin pop singers to devote parts of their catalogue to overtly religious themes. Case in point, “A Dios Le Pido” [“I Ask God”], the first song on Juanes’s 2002 album Un Día Normal, is literally a laundry-list of prayers ranging from the petty to the tranquil. Of course, Juanes being the mega-star that he is, dresses the lyric up with a rock backbeat and some ace electric guitar strumming. That latter effect was so good that Juanes re-used it three years later on “La Camisa Negra”, his most successful single to date.
Javiera Mena – Como Siempre Soñé
For the past year, Javiera Mena’s Esquemas Juveniles has been the best album no one I know has heard. She’s admittedly a bit of a hard sell, considering her cold synth-pop sound and quasi-monotone vocals. However, this song, English translation “Like I Always Dreamt”, should belie these first impressions. Built on conflicting synths and a simple Casio arrangement, this Chilean chanteuse, with a vocal that sounds eerily similar to Karen Carpenter, pleasantly invades your eardrums with a reading that’s both heartbreaking and endearing. This easily could have been a third-rate Hot Chip knockoff; instead, it’s a sonic euphoria you’ll want to spoon with on a frigid winter night.
Marisa Monte – Nao Vá Embora
For those of you who have never been there, Marisa Monte is pop royalty in Brazil. The most successful MPB artist in the world, Monte has made her living by adapting her sound to whatever fancies her will at that moment. With that knowledge, you’d figure that she was really into Lenny Kravitz when recording this song, off of her 2000 album Memórias, Crônicas, e Declaracões de Amor. While it undoubtedly contains that wah-wah effect we all appreciate (and loathe) Lenny for, “Nao Vá Embora” [“Don’t Walk Away”] is much too complicated to be compared to something so rudimentary. Ostensibly about the scariest mother-in-law you’d ever want to encounter, the lyrics can be deciphered virtually a hundred different ways. It’s best to just kick back and enjoy the tune for what it is – pure, assuredly cool rock and roll.
Ely Guerra – Quiéreme Mucho
A running game between a friend and I is creating a hypothetical James Bond movie, with the major plot point being that James Bond is a Mexican Federali rather than a British spy. Admittedly, planning this movie between sake bombs has led us to make some unbelievably idiotic suggestions (self-destructing flautas, anyone?), but one stroke of genius is our choice for theme song: “Quiéreme Mucho”, English translation “You Want Me A Lot”.
A slow-burning anthem of passionate longing, this is the collaboration of Portishead and D’Angelo that you never knew you wanted to hear. Both teasing and fleeting, Guerra’s hushed vocals and the band’s acid-lounge instrumentation ooze sex with an element of ambiguity. And the part where the rhythm section sweeps in a la “Wonderwall”? Muy chido.
Jorge Drexler – Al Otro Lado del Río
To about 30 million Americans, this is the song Antonio Banderas and Carlos Santana butchered at the Academy Awards three years ago. Drexler, no doubt baffled by the presentation given to his composition, took the stage upon the announcement of his win and, rather than give an acceptance speech, merely sung the song acapella and said “Thank you”, then walking off-stage. For most, it was a pleasant moment of unpretentiousness amid a festivity of excess. For Latin people, it was a groundbreaking moment; not merely because “Al Otro Lado del Río” was the first Spanish-language song to win an Oscar, but because it showed that Drexler cared less about the statue and more about what the song meant, both to the film and its composer.
As a pop song, “Al Otro Lado del Río” [“On the Other Side of the River”] is unarguably simple and tame. The focus may be on the song’s words, but those words aren’t polemic or forceful. The instrumentation may sound pleasant, but isn’t entirely difficult or impressive. And to be honest, for more than few ears, it comes off a bit Mayer-esque. Take the tune at face value though and its charms will make themselves present. This is a beautiful and inspirational piece of music, albeit unassuming. And that’s exactly what Drexler wanted it to be.
Natalia y la Forquetina – Saul
Natalia Lafourcade is my biggest pop star crush. First of all, she’s only three months older than I am. Second, she’s fully capable at dozens of instruments. Thirdly, she’s cute as hell. And fourthly, her music is actually good. While her sound may incline the lazy to lump her in with other pop starlets like Nelly Furtado, Lily Allen or Gwen Stefani, Lafourcade has one fundamental strength those three haven’t yet shown: she’s an ace songwriter.
For example, “Saul” is at first listen merely another sweet little pop song. Over time though, it reveals itself to be a demoralizing tale of a young male transvestite, and the sad truth staring back at him in the mirror. Structured similarly to “Paranoid Android”, the song is broken down into three instrumental sections, each revealing a different aspect of the boy’s attitude. Brilliantly, the music relies on the same inverted theme as the lyrics, as the playing increases in buoyancy while the words get bleaker. It may not be as gritty as anything off The Velvet Underground & Nico, but not even Lou Reed ever made cross-dressing sound this upbeat.
Shakira – Obtener un Sí
Shakira may be the most misunderstood artist in the entire music world. Whether because of her world-class looks, her love-it-or-hate-it vocals, or simply her popularity, the vast majority of pop music fans normally aren’t prone to show Shakira the kudos accorded to, say, Justin Timberlake. Such a slight is unfortunate, however, because for all intents and purposes, Shakira is the closest thing Latin music has ever seen to Prince. As with the Purple One, she isn’t one to shield her idiosyncrasies, particularly on her singles. Whether it is by utilizing a Middle Eastern soundtrack to a description of someone’s eyes, or decrying the response to the Asian tsunami by having school children sing over a mid-80’s Madonna beat, Shakira isn’t one to play it safe.
Even amongst her recent work, “Obtener un Sí”, English translation “To Obtain a Yes”, is remarkably quirky. A mixture of bossa nova and 60’s French pop, the music wavers the fine line between corny and sweet; progressively gaining in momentum from torch song to power ballad. Shakira’s trademark deep, nasally deliver is smoothed out into a hush, until the horn break in the middle eight triggers her transition from a whisper to a scream. It may be the single finest work she’s ever produced, and may possible wash the taste of “Hips Don’t Lie” right out of your mouth.
Café Tacuba – Eres
Café Tacuba are to Latin music what Akira Kurosawa was to Japanese cinema. When the Rock en Español movement began in the mid-80’s, the genre essentially consisted of ska-punk with Spanish lyrics. Café Tacuba’s 1992 debut was a step aside from this formula, while their follow-up Re was a grand step forward – and they haven’t stopped moving since. Today, they stand along Björk, Beck and Radiohead as one of the few Gen-X musicians whose venerability has not diminished their modern relevance.
Like the aforementioned bands above, Café Tacuba are frequently thought of as “album artists”. While that tag isn’t without good cause, they have written far more than their share of pop anthems, the best of which being “Eres” [“You Are”]. Everything about this song screams White Album, with its electric guitar strumming, acoustic guitar picking and fat rhythm section. But what relegates this to “instant classic” are the gorgeous lyrics and vocal from keyboardist Emmanuel del Real. At first glance a simple poem to a girl (“You are what I love most in this world”); in the context of the song they reveal the narrator to be a man of regret promising salvation to his love in hopes of salvaging himself. One of the most delicate and romantic songs of the decade, this is the kind of song legends are made from.
Calle 13 – Atrévete-te-te!
During the winter of 2005, I was absolutely sick of reggaetón. In the span of little more than a year, the style had gone from non-existent to so dominant that two local radio stations re-formatted their playlists exclusively to it. Then one day, as I was devising a plot to pull out Daddy Yankee’s vocal chords, I heard an internet radio broadcast of “Atrévete-te-te!”, English translation “I Dare You-you-you!”.
Part motivational speech, part diatribe, the song finds rapper Residente hilariously lambasting an educated Latin girl, imploring her to “break out of the closet” and embrace her cultural roots. As with early Eminem singles, one can get lost trying to catch every pop culture reference and joke within the lyrics, but the horn driven instrumental by Visitante will make repeat listens more than desirable. As danceable as it is thought provoking, as joyous as it is radical, this is the reggaetón “Johnny B. Goode”. That is, the standard by which all other Latin hip-hop songs will be judged, and the song that will be played to Alien visitors a thousand years from now if we ever need to explain what reggaetón was.
Julieta Venegas – Lento
There are very few songs that you can claim to have changed your life – this is not one of them. I was encouraged to listen to Julieta Venegas because a girl I had a crush on was going to see her in concert at the end of that week. Her back-story checked out pretty interestingly: Groundbreaking critical darling, who transitioned from Tori Amos disciple to alterna-rock pioneer to pop songstress who was rapidly becoming a household name in the Latin community. I figured she would be a nice listen; instead, I became witness to something much grander.
“Lento” [“Slow”], from 2003’s Sí is a straightforward love song, told from the perspective of a girl instructing a boy who has a crush on her how he may win her heart. With its refrain of “Be delicate and wait, give me time to give you all that I have”, the lyrics capture that innocent feeling of teenage affection that getting older only illuminates, and these words are as accessible as they are practical.
However, the real sell for this song comes in the form of its musical accompaniment. Amidst a clash of acoustic and bass guitars with programmed drums and keyboard synth-effects, “Lento” makes no pretension to being anything other than a modern pop love song. Yet, it’s the last thirty seconds of the track which can only be described as revelation: Venegas’s accordion embodying the sound of love’s fruition. With remarkable skill, the notes float in the air, grasping something as ineffable as love itself. And while the album version is perfectly subdued and melodic, it is brutally short. To truly understand it, I’d recommend listening to the song in any of its live incarnations (particularly her KCRW session from 2004), where Venegas improvises the melody as if it were a jazz standard. While I can’t say that “Lento” will change your life, I can promise that it’ll make you smile every time you hear it; and isn’t that all you really need from a pop song?
By: Andrew Casillas
Published on: 2007-10-16