“Latin Music” is a sprawling descriptor, grouping deeply-rooted and disparate sounds from all over the world under an umbrella of language. It encompasses music from Spain, Latin America, South America, and more — but most frequently, “Latin Music” means the artists who can make it onto the mainstream charts.
And 2014 was a big year for the mainstream-crossover of Latin music in the United States: Pitbull, a.k.a. Mr. Worldwide, was omnipresent, appearing on songs by Jeremih, J. Lo, Enrique, and the soundtrack to Madagascar while he promoted his new single “Fireball” from his recently released Globalization full-length. Enrique’s “Bailando” recruited Sean Paul to break the standing record for the most weeks at #1 on the Billboard Latin Charts. Bachata king Romeo Santos made history too, as he sold out two nights at Yankee Stadium, becoming the first Latin artist to do so.
That said, we’d argue that most of the best Latin music of the year came from less glorified artists. AJ Davila weaved regional sounds into his garage-punk, Javiera Mena gave her Chilean electro-pop a facelift, Princess Nokia’s alt hip-hop transcended boundaries, and, Mexico’s N.A.A.F.I. collective weaved psychic, underground dance music. We asked some of our favorite Latin music critics to discuss global representation within Latin music and their personal picks for the best of the year.
Suzy Exposito is a staff writer for MTV Iggy and illustrator for Rookie Mag.
Isabela Raygoza is an Assistant Editor at MTV Iggy.
Carlos Reyes is the founding editor of Club Fonograma.
Julianne Escobedo Shepherd is the Culture Editor at Jezebel, a staff writer at Rookie Mag, and a professor of music writing at New York University.
Alexis Stephens is an urban economics fellow at Next City with bylines on MTV Iggy, SPIN and Rolling Stone.
Julianne Escobedo Shepherd: Hi colleagues, que lo que? Excited to chat with you about this year in Latin music.
So, “Latin music” is, as ever, as broad and reductive a label as any, because it encompasses a good one-fourth of the entire earth, geographically and with the diaspora. But generally speaking, it was a good year for “Latin music.” The two most obvious big pop stories of the year were exemplified by marquee concerts and melting-hearted fans screaming ‘til they were weak in the knees: Anthony “Romeo” Santos’s second album and record-breaking sell-out run at Yankee Stadium, and the world-tour hit hydra that was Enrique Iglesias, Pitbull and J Balvin. Iglesias in particular had a crazy year: August’s “Bailando,” the big single from Sex & Love, continues to chart across the world, and it was notable that in the States, the Spanish version hit Billboard before the English one (there are four versions, two of which are in Portuguese, one for Brazil and one for Portugal). Pitbull continued being Miami’s global ambassador for a global party-zone, while Colombian reggaeton artist Balvin watched his star rise exponentially (more recently alongside a more veteran collaborator, Farruko, cementing reggaeton’s craving for bona fide crooners, in a year already about crooners in general).
Were any of you at Santos’s Yankee Stadium shows? I was there the first night, with all the old bachata stars and — WEPA — La Vieja Fefa. It was the biggest celebration and congregation of New York’s Latinos — all of us, from everywhere — I’ve ever seen, and I felt we were all being exalted, blessed in the presence of Romeo, whose Formula, Vol. 2 was one of my favorite albums of the year. (Also I’ve been hearing Formula, Vol. 1 in the streets of my Dominican/Puerto Rican neighborhood on blast for literally three years straight. I probably do not ever need to hear “Llévame Contigo” again.)
— Isabela Raygoza’
Isabela Raygoza: Okay, so about the big Latinos in mainstream music. Romeo, Enrique, and Pitbull represent an important segment of the Latino community, but at the same time, they’re also a misrepresentation of the Latino community at large. There are still plenty of gaps that are yet to be uncovered, discovered or manipulated by the mainstream. To ask how I feel about Pitbull, Romeo Santos or Enrique Iglesias being the face of Latin music is the equivalent of asking how the rest of America feels about Taylor Swift or Beyoncé being the face of American music. It’s impossible for one, two, or three acts to be the sole representatives of Latin music. There’s too much diversity, and other languages spoken besides Spanish in Latin music.
Why is Romeo the shit? For one, he popularized a rural Dominican genre that’s about a century old, and made it relevant for today’s U.S.-based, Hispanic generation — partially by modernizing it for today’s audience, adding hip-hop, R&B. (Before Romeo, Juan Luis Guerra and Antony Santos were the “it” dudes who first brought batchata outside of DR.) In short, he redefines the meaning of “crossover” and surpassed his successors, not because he broke bachata into the mainstream, but because English-speaking audiences crossed over to listen to Romeo sing in his native languages. (Thanks to Romeo, Usher, Drake and Nicki Minaj claim to now be bachata fans themselves.) [link] This is an achievement because the public was used to seeing Latin artists break through to the US market by assimilating to the American aesthetic (remember Shakira’s Laundry Service?).
27.5 percent of New York residents are Latinos, and so are 17 percent of U.S. residents. By 2020, that number will increase to 25 percent, so the real question is, why haven’t other Latin artists of Romeo’s caliber performed at Yankee stadium before? Was it perfect timing? It seems that way: besides fitting all the qualifications (and being ultra famous), Romeo is Bronx-born in an area highly populated by Dominicans and has been developing his sound there since his Aventura days.
Carlos Reyes: Bashing on a worldwide hit its perhaps not the best way to start articulating on a year-in-music special, but as far as Latin pop goes, Iglesias’s “Bailando” (in all its sketchy costumes) is truly the worst single of the year in any language. And, yes, perhaps I’m taking things too personally, but I’m looking forward to the day Latin pop stars stop sugar-coating the Spanish vernacular for mass-consumption. Nothing against the idea of a crossover, but their presence shouldn’t come at the cost of exploiting/prostituting the language through such milquetoast vocal hooks and song structure. It just seems that, by now, we should be able to let go of that stereotyped exoticism that Latin culture is so often predisposed with. We shouldn’t need to carry fruit baskets on our heads like Carmen Miranda did on her time, and yet, the mainstream still finds ways to make its lucrative, “exotic” transactions — Sofia Vergara’s accent gets bolder on every new season of Modern Family, Fox News Latino keeps reducing Latinos to the word “caliente” and Iglesias is recycling his own (and better accomplished) hit from 1999, “Bailamos.”
Shepherd: But, of course, there’s so much more beyond the charts. I feel like I will never tire of Dominican dembow, a genre that moves so fast it never sounds rote to me, despite essentially built on the same beat ad infinitum, from baby-voiced pranksters like El Alfa to strong, enthusiastic role models like Amara La Negra. I also appreciated the Skrillex/true-dub influence in La Insuperable’s “Nota Jamiquena,” which sparked so many notions about borderless music, pun intended. She is truly la mami del swagger.
So much more happened this year — the continuing, necessary dark/weird turns of Méxican dance music, the persistence of “trapito” and weirdo cumbia, the emergence of pop superstars like Becky G and like, Colombian acid house. And wow, that Javiera Mena record. What were you all feeling, on and off the charts?
Raygoza: When looking at the Latin alternative spectrum, there are tons of Latin artists repping their perspective cultures, regions, and backgrounds, and some more apparent than others. As for indie/alternative stuff of this year: It seems like with every album release, Los Rakas bring their Panamanian hip-hop to higher fame. They have the star quality to qualify as a mainstream act. I wouldn’t be surprised if they become the next Drake. On the other hand, Argentine Chancha Via Circuito broke away from the now-famed “digital cumbia” categorization, made popular by Zizek. With Amansará, Chancha digs further to the underground, and released a raw, organic, instrumental-driven sound in Latin music which was highly inspired by indigenous rhythms/chants — stuff that doesn’t fit in the mainstream, and yet, is an important subdivision to the current Latin music discourse.
I think Banda De Turistas are a group that enhance this discussion as well, especially because they take a classic Latin subgenre (rock en tu idioma) and fuse it with a ‘60s-inspired, Brit/American rock sound. Not to mention that this year Javiera Mena, a pioneer in the Chilean electropop scene, expanded her sound from its disco foundation to include a more Euro house soundscape on Otra Era. (As part of a larger discourse, I think that her feminine influence is at a new height with Otra Era in Latin music. So much sensuality, confidence and beauty!) The lady is a go-getter and an electropop mastermind. Moreso both artists rely on this “mashup” culture — blending genres from across continents — to showcass the ever-evolving and expanding topic that is Latin music.
Let’s talk about a few U.S.-based, Latin bands too. For example, La Santa Cecilia and Palenke Soultribe heavily draw back on tradition: cumbia, son jarocho, rancheras, banda, you name it. These traditional genres serve as a focal point in their music, and that’s also a key representation of the Latino community in the U.S., for second and third generation Latinos. With the overwhelming presence of music being pushed by big companies in the U.S., returning to tradition is experienced by these artists and their listeners as a gesture of resistance (in the case of son jarocho) and staying connected to their Latin roots.
Reyes: Isabela mentions L.A.’s La Santa Cecilia as one of the bands who puts tradition as its main dish, but I think they’re juicing every corner of it. The record they put out this year, Someday New, features every single Pan-American sound in the book — ranchera, cumbia, bolero, bossa nova — you name it. While it’s easy to applaud the offering of such an array group of rhythms, they’re essentially doing what traditional Anglo media has been doing to Latino culture for decades: throwing us all into the same pan. But at the end, it’s not the conceptualization that malfunctions, it’s the lack of risk and musical depth that makes La Santa Cecilia so lukewarm for me. Cafe Tacvba’s Re, considered the best Latin rock album of all time, turned 20 years old this year, and it still sounds vivid as ever — even with the 40-something rhythms it so bravely dissects.
I’m the third person to discuss Latin music so far and the first to remember Calle 13 put out an album this year. What happened? When did they lose their relevance? I have a theory. They lost their stroke of genius the moment they decided to reject reggaeton as part of their arsenal. Their record Multi_Viral sees the Puerto Rican band functioning as self-elected political delegates, resulting in one very divisive album. I miss those days when Residente told us it was okay to get out of the closet; to like Green Day, Coldplay and reggaeton alike; all to the sound of dembow. They’ve turned their canvas into something so in-your-face, something impenetrable despite its social cause. This was supposed to be Calle 13’s breaking of the mold, with the band departing from Sony Music, and yet they forgot that revolution can be more lucrative than the modern beat. They might have sold the idea of industry emancipation for this record, but Sony was still in charge of distributing the album.
And, oh boy, I’ve already come off as a whining critic. But now that I’ve let some steam out, let me point to some amazing music 2014 brought us. As it has been pointed out by both Julianne and Isabela, Javiera Mena’s Otra Era is a clear standout. I’ve never been shy about calling her my favorite artist of my generation, and Otra Era does not disappoint. It’s somewhat strange to see Javiera’s queerness finally breakthrough as part of the aesthetics (though it’s been there since the first record). Gotta give her props for giving her discourse more visibility. Another masterpiece of an album is Constante, by Argentinean singer-songwriter Diosque. For every synth crescendo there’s a line of poetry crooned or whispered in a criminally overlooked album.
Other standouts include Dominican Republic’s Whitest Taino Alive, the best newcomers of the year. How can you not fall in love with a hip-hop act that celebrate’s Selena’s infamous butt as a cultural monument? Staying in the caribbean, I would also highlight the breakthrough releases from Buscabulla and AJ Davila. And although his record came out late last year, when is the world going to recognize the genius of Arcangel? Why is it that he can have the top selling album on Billboard but never show up on the singles charts? 2014 was supposed to be the year he took over the FM airwaves.
Anyone followed Regional Mexican music at all this year? With El Komander’s temporary retirement (controversial because of narco corridos), and the genre dominating at least half of the Billboard’s charts, it seems it would deserve a whole discussion of its own.
Alexis Stephens: For some reason, after reading Carlos’s comments about Calle 13, the song (and genius video) for Voltio’s “Chulin Culin Chunfly (Remix)” featuring Residente and Three Six Mafia popped into my head. Back in 2005 (!), I didn’t know we had reached peak reggaeton. I thought that the song was a harbinger of a wave of chart-topping, bilingual global south crossovers forged in the club. And while Pitbull is probably the slick outcome of that idea that was always destined to survive, I have to imagine that in some alternate, more just universe Amara La Negra is able to do a song with a guest verse by Gangsta Boo.
Carlos is right that one of the things that was disappointing about Calle 13’s MultiViral is how they’ve failed to deepen their politics (and that re-embracing reggaeton would help that cause). But Amara La Negra doesn’t need to make that type of overture, because she embodies her politics, while still making music that’s earwormy as hell. In a year where white Americans (and an Australian) co-opted the celebration of the derriere in pop, Amara La Negra opened up a playful, safe, unapologetic space to discuss racial/sexual politics in the Dominican Republic through her curves, clothes, makeup, hair, lyrics and videos (I die watching the subversion in her collaboration with El Delfin, “Banana”). Can she make all of the Americas clutch their pearls/wise up in 2015? I’m kinda scared that’s not going to happen. If only because the Latin music industry seems to be hesitant to promote or acknowledge non-EDM-influenced dance music, at the expense of genres like dembow and merengue. Where was Omega el Fuerte this year?
I was so happy that the Mexican underground dance scene blew up a bit this year, especially the N.A.A.F.I. crew. Even though most of their music lacks lyrics, there’s a brooding psychic darkness to their beats and visual imagery, like Julianne mentioned, that subtly comment on the oppressiveness and corruption of the Mexican state. I’m not as up on the narcocorrido scene as Carlos is, but across Mexico, it seems like young musicians have been inspired and willing to create art out of feelings of dissatisfaction, alienation, and the need for documentation of events in different towns and regions.
The other thing I thought was great about releases like Siete Catorce’s EP 2, Lao’s Catedral and DJ Smurphy’s #GEMINISS were the subtle references to all sorts of genres like juke, cumbia, plena, ambient, techno and something I’ll just call the “Fade 2 Mind” sound. In the past, it’s felt like electronic music scenes in Latin America haven’t gotten the same fawning treatment and appreciations as scenes in Chicago, Detroit, New York, London, Berlin, etc, but maybe that’s changing.
I just want to briefly mention something I think Suzy wanted to talk about more in depth, which was how women artists spanning different geographies (Bflecha, Empress Of, Buscabulla, Princess Nokia) made some strides breaking out of singer-songwriter and rapper silos and getting recognized for their producing work. I fell in love with Bflecha this year (yeah, we got some Spain in here) and I think it’s been awesome watching how she and the others are thriving without necessarily having to be funneled through established Latin alternative channels, like LAMC.
Suzy Exposito: Latin punk forecast: there’s a fucking storm happening in Latin America, one that can hardly be discounted for much longer among the English-speaking crowd. This summer Mexico City’s Tercer Mundo put out Ser Nosotros Mismos, one of the most important LPs of the year. Brazil is also experiencing a darkwave-tinged renaissance in post-punk and hardcore right now, including a surge of women and queer artists like Anti-Corpos, Futuro and Rakta. In the United States, bilingual act Downtown Boys set a new precedent in American punk with a jangly, revolutionary racket that can only be dealt by a bunch of union organizers and band geeks gone wild. They’ve recently been picked up by Don Giovanni and they look forward to releasing what will possibly be the most bomb-ass punk album of 2015.
Shortly after going solo, it seems Boricua punk prince AJ Davila had his sights set on a Latin alternative takeover, releasing not one, but two full length LPs this year, under the moniker AJ Davila Y Terror Amor. I went into his first album expecting another garage rock bro-down a-la-Davila 666, but it turned out to be a well-rounded, Latin cross-genre sampler. The album features collaborations with an eccentric cast of characters, including Chilean electropop wonder Alex Andwandter, Las Robertas’ Mercedes Oller and Oaxaca bass queen Selma Oxor. Davila later released his second LP, Beibi, on Los Angeles garage pop stronghold Burger Records — which seems like a fitting home for Davila’s bizarro punk-pop jams. If Anglo indie labels like Burger Records and Don Giovanni finally get the importance of Latin punks, maybe other indies might catch on too.
Shepherd: One thing that I love about Latin American punk is that it isn’t just limited to formalist style: Suzy, you brought up the very important AJ Davila but also that he would include a weirdo electronic riot goth like Selma Oxor — or even with the N.A.A.F.I. collective, whom Alexis noted, a person like the interminable DJ Smurphy may work with traditional synths and electronic rhythmic ideation, but her approach is often pure in its punk chaos. (SIDEBAR: Alexis, I actually missed that Smurphy/Lao mixtape, but it sounds exactly like what I love about Lao as a producer — I’ve long thought he’s one of the best producers in the world but generally overlooked by the larger international club scene because he’s from DF.)
I think it also speaks to the internationality of Latin American collabos, and that a lot of the Latinx underground isn’t necessarily concerned with formalism by its very nature. (We’ve got eons of classical formalism to draw from, also, and what.) It’s why so much of the best music is mixed up and cross-pollinated, for lack of a better term — how you can get a bicoastal Dominican-American artist like Maluca, whose LONG-FUCKING-AWAITED 2014 single “Trigger” gave us brooding R&B vibes on a submerged dembow riddim and synths that allude to the glossiest of the London club scene. But I guess that cross-genre fuck-with-it-ness is a function of the diaspora, itself, not just in the United States but all over the world: adaptation, evolution with a quickness.
Speaking of diaspora, and to bring it back above ground (way above ground), one of my favorite songs of the year in any genre was Becky G’s Miami-estilo club jam “Can’t Get Enough.” It was, of course, a collaboration with Pitbull (no doubt preordained by Jesus), and I loved it for Becky’s “whooooo-aahhh-oooahh,” and because I spend a lot of time in hotel lobbies, and also because I’m here for nearly any Spanglish tracks hitting super mainstream in the U.S. Becky G occupies such an interesting place in the United States right now because she is a mainstream pop star whose story is incredibly familiar: she started working at age nine to help out her family, who at the time was living in her Mexican immigrant grandparents’ garage. She is 17, and when I interviewed her this summer, she literally told me: “I had a midlife crisis at 9 years old.” Of course, we’ll see how much the dreaded Dr. Luke tries to Anglicize her as she inches further into the mainstream—”Shower” was my jam but it was no “Becky from the Block” — but I think in a nation of DREAMers, it’s theoretically a huge deal for young Latinxs to see Becky Gomez from Inglewood doing her thing — she’s a Cover Girl, even! — and maybe see themselves a little bit.
Raygoza: I agree with Julianne’s point about Latin American punk not limiting itself to a traditional style. Maybe we can partly thank Mexico City pachuco punk activists Maldita Vecindad and their ferocious Sax for making it cool to branch out from the raw and bare-boned structure of punk, and fusing some boogie and danzón into the mix. So like Suzy and Julianne mention, AJ Dávila was a big deal this year in the context of punk, and his eclectic collabos bring something new and rare to the punk discourse. For one, because in the purity of the punk or garage vein, it’s uncommon to mesh the genre with R&B, hip-hop, electro trash or pop like Amor y Terror did.
He also includes the badass Mexicali-born, alt-norteño balladeer Juan Cirerol in the track, “Ya Sé.” Worthy of mentioning, Cierol stems from a punk rock background himself, spending his teen years playing in punk bands. But this is obvious considering the one-man act roars like a beast when he performs and holds that string guitar like a machine gun. It’s aggressive and raw. This year, Cirerol released a single “En Dónde Estás?” where he presents his as a full banda ensemble; accordions, bass, drums and of course, his classic harmonica, guitar and feral vocals. He also sports a funky mohawk. I wish he’d have more visibility in music in general (when a banda artist becomes the next Romeo Santos…shit), and I’ve found it strange that he hasn’t yet been piled up with the rest of the Nacional roster-mates/LAMC friends. But that may not mean too much, but I do hope to see him keep rising. His last year’s debut LP Haciendo Leña continues to be one of my all-time favorite listens. The thing about banda, and all other regional music played among the young kids, it’s a way to reground one’s sense of identity.
And speaking of banda and regional music, so the great Nortec called it quits after 15 years! I think we all saw this coming. This year, they released Motel Baja, which has exactly the same formulaic norteña + electronic ingredients they’ve been using throughout those years. But the whole Nortec thing always struck me as odd because, because while Bostich and Fussible (the two most active and prominent members of the collective) reigned supremely all these years, they essentially had no competition whatsoever. For a bit, there was Revulab, a duo who emerged a couple years ago that were schooled by Nortec, but didn’t add much to the genre’s resurgence in my opinion. Instead, Ruidsón happened, and more to the east side, tribal. Pepe Mogt also said, “the Nortec sound is dead,” and, objectively, he’s right. Though, that didn’t stop me from digging their new album Motel Baja (I’m biased when it comes to them because I’m a TJ/San Ysidro native, and the Nortec sounds brings me nostalgia). Oh god. Carlos, I know much of this is in your field and I’m dying to hear what you have to say!)
Reyes: Residing in such a politically-boiling state like Arizona, I do get exposed to Regional Mexican music just by walking on the streets. Just like Julianne hears bachata in her neighborhood in NY, I hear trucks blasting rancheras and corridos in my predominantly Mexican neighborhood in Phoenix. And I can’t help but wonder why people feel the need to externalize what they’re listening to. Every culture seems to have its reason. I once asked my dad (who plays the accordion and is a corrido enthusiast) why he turned the volume up particularly for this genre of music. He told me that it was to acquire some visibility: “Arizona still treats us like we don’t even exist.”
Narco-corridos have a larger-than-life spectacle to them, and one can’t deny the effectiveness of the storytelling. This year, we saw the commercial consolidation of Calibre 50 and Voz de Mando, who have slowly percolated into the mainstream. It is interesting however, that both bands found success by offering both, corridos and love songs. Which makes the case of El Komander that more interesting. In the last few years he’s been the one artist the industry has refused to acknowledge — too aggressive for the Latin awards and the TV networks, but a phenomenon in social media. El Komander announced he would retire (at least momentarily) from singing narco-corridos this year. This is truly controversial as he was seen by many as the last man standing for the genre. He blames the criminalization of narco-corridos (in radio) by the Mexican government as the main reason for the hiatus. Others point to threats from the cartels as the motive — not a shocking theory, this year, we saw rising corrido singer Tito Torbellino (a native of Phoenix) murdered by organized crime.
— Suzy Exposito’
So why is it that I feel guilt when enjoying a narco-corrido? Take, for example, the biggest narco-corrido hit in the last few years: Gerardo Ortiz’s “Damaso.” Everything from the syncopated horns, the rhythm-shifting assault, to the blossoming of the melodies make it one hell of a track. And yet despite recognizing its pristine construction, I couldn’t push myself to celebrate it as one of last year’s best. The college-educated hipster kid isn’t supposed to like narco-corridos. Yes, I’m cheating and redeeming myself here. The change of heart came when realizing I was being a hypocrite for being so outspoken about being a Breaking Bad fanatic, and keeping a masterpiece of a song like “Damaso” on my shameful vault of guilty pleasures.
So let’s not make that happen again. Any guilty pleasures for any of you this year? And let’s not forget about Kap G. The kid is truly talented and “Fuck La Policia” is as provoking as any corrido put out this year.
Exposito: J, you said: “But I guess that cross-genre fuck-with-it-ness is a function of the diaspora, itself, not just in the United States but all over the world: adaptation, evolution with a quickness.”
I think the prevalence of these Franken-genres palpably reflect the shifting state of Latinidad, especially within the diaspora. Take Malportado Kids, a punk-cumbia offshoot of Downtown Boys: they’ve cranked up the sultry, tropical ease of the ZZK sound into a manic, fiery frenzy as a political subversion. The point is, they’re hard to pin down under the genres that already exist. Along with a taunting horn loop, Victoria Ruiz challenges the idea of a static Latina identity in the cheeky track, “Soy La Pocha.” Their music, however playful, is a reaction towards the increasing assimilation (and suppression) of Latinas in the United States.
I see Princess Nokia doing similar work in her album, Metallic Butterfly. As an Afro-Indigenous woman from New York City, Destiny Frasqueri offers visions of an alternative future full of empowered brown people; one in which we’re like, hacking the hardware of white supremacy, or calling on the spirits to fix the mess that colonialism has made. Together, Frasqueri and producer Owwwls draw upon a variety of seemingly incongruent influences: from Hatsune Miku to Massive Attack to La Lupe. The album might have eluded most American music critics, but it makes perfect sense to a nerdy Latin kid who grew up with the internet. I’d argue that Metallic Butterfly was a far underrated but destabilizing force in alternative hip-hop and Latin music this year and I’m excited for what’s to come.