The Ultimate Guide to Latin Alternative Music

A wide-ranging combination of Latin folklore and Anglo alt-rock form the crux of Latin alternative music. As inventive players paved paths to niche subcultures that shifted further from mainstream pop, rock and Latin regionalism over the years, they also opened up an immense portal of global yet Latin-minded formations. Whether artists pulled from radio-friendly pop (e.g. Paulina Rubio, Mariah Carey) or their parents’ classic rock (e.g., Los Locos del Ritmo, Elvis), this bicultural/multicultural recipe inspired game-changers to create a like-minded identity, with plenty of attitude.

From vintage-synth-loving Chileans like Javiera Mena, Gepe, or Alex Anwandter producing rosey-tinted indie-pop, to electro-folkloric producers in Argentina (Chancha Via Circuito), Colombia (Bomba Estéreo), Ecuador (Nicola Cruz), and Peru (Dengue Dengue Dengue) ushering in a new digital cumbia enigma, the ever-elastic art form is essentially without boundaries.

So what does it mean for brown-eyed soul troubadours like Chicano Batman to grow up on low-rider funk and Motown-style oldies at an L.A. swap meet? Or Mexican charro-clad rockeros Mexrrissey finding kinship with melancholic Manchester pop icon Morrissey? Or even Cuban/Puerto Rican soulstress Xenia Rubinos displaying an affinity for ‘50s-era jazz chanteuses and open-mic MCs alike? From hip-hop to electronic to folk and urban, this Latin-rooted concoction continues to flourish and take unprecedented shapes throughout the Americas and Spain.

By no means is this a comprehensive list of the scene’s countless configurations, but instead a starting point for newcomers to explore Latin alternative’s numerous stylistic configurations, and to familiarize themselves with the compelling works of Latinx artists of Latin America, the diaspora, and beyond. (Heads up: you won’t find any Shakiras, Romeo Santos, or J. Los here.)

THE 1980S: THE BIRTH OF ROCK EN ESPAÑOL

When rock made its entry into Latin America many moons ago (notably around the time Elvis Presley debuted in the continent during the ‘50s), it spawned a bevy of “refried Elvises” or imitators replicating The King’s style but with Spanish lyrics. Most Latin American bands spent decades aping the rock aesthetic coming out of America and the U.K., until the ‘80s. An unprecedented approach to the style took shape and musicians began to finally embrace their roots, fusing anything from brass melodies to boleros to cumbias and sones—all against traditional rock instrumentation—thus acquiring their own musical identity. Groups like Argentinean dance-punk agitators Todos Tus Muertos, Spain’s New Wave provocateurs Radio Futura, and Mexican dark-wave cumbieros Caifanes are among the slew of innovators to unflinchingly mix regional styles with rock arrangements.

THE 1990S: LATIN ROCK GOES ALTERNATIVE

While the rock en español forefathers of the 1980s laid the groundwork for the south-of-the-border movement (Spain included), it took until the following decade for the scene to explode globally. Each project stood as its own original fusion: Mexico’s Maldita Vecindad, armed with a boisterous sax, adopted pachuco swagger; Chile’s Los Prisioneros made rebellious synth-punk; Argentina’s Los Fabulosos Cadillacs created rowdy murga-driven ska; and Spain/France’s Manu Chao spreaded lover’s-rock bohemianism. The foundations, however, were similar: Each rebellious outfit delivered their own socio-political agenda while commanding the dance floor, or mosh pit.

THE 2000S: THE NEW LATIN ALTERNATIVE

As the scene reconfigured approaching the new millennium, acts who showed insatiable lasting power (like Café Tacvba, Babasónicos, Zoé) branched out of the then-tiresome rock en español category, and joined the new cohort of Latin alternative iconoclasts. Labels like Nacional Records, the forward-thinking U.S.-based Latin alternative imprint, helped to solidify this new movement. They housed luminary groups like Nortec Collective, a DJ/producer crew from Tijuana who mash-up norteñas and techno; the feisty Bomba Estéreo, who took electro-cumbias outside of Colombia; and French-Chilean rapper/poetess Ana Tijoux, who brought silky smooth rap verses that resonate across the diaspora. Others like ZZK Records—the Buenos Aires digital cumbia collective that began as an underground party—gathered electro-folk-minded DJ/producers like Chancha via Circuito, Frikstailers, and Lagartigeando. Santiago’s Quemasucabeza capitalized on the aforementioned rising electro-pop scene of Chile. And Monterrey, Mexico had its own alternative boom called la avanzada regia (a scene the channeled a similar spirit as Seattle’s grunge movement). It birthed the wild dance rock of Plastilina Mosh, Control Machete’s vicious rap-punk, and the electro-rock brilliance of Kinky.

THE 2010S: LATIN ALTERNATIVE’S NEW MUTATIONS

With the Latin alternative ethos well established, the ever-elastic umbrella continues to mold, expand, and morph into further subgroups. This decade, spectators have witnessed the rise of the singer.songwriter—through Carla Morrison’s wounded confections, Ximena Sariñana’s heartbreaking jazz-pop, or Natalia Lafourcade’s rustic pop elegance. And while Latin trap, reggaetón, and all-things urban keep topping the mainstream charts, underground rap prodigies like Princess Nokia, cholo-goths Prayers, and R&B soulstress Kali Uchis formed a resistance to commercialism, adopting an unflinching mindset that’s on par with the Latin alternative philosophy. Cumbia-gothics (La MiniTK Del Miedo), indie-mambo prodigies (Orkesta Mendoza), Brooklyn baile funk (Zuzuka Poderosa), and unruly punk norteños (e.g. A Band of Bitches, Juan Cirerol)—the beauty of Latin alternative is that it will never be restricted to one beat or style.