The Ultimate Guide to Latin Alternative Music
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July 23, 2017

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.)


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.


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.


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.


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.

How Los Prisioneros’ ‘Corazones’ Became an Electropop Manifesto
July 1, 2020

How Los Prisioneros’ ‘Corazones’ Became an Electropop Manifesto

Thirty years ago, Chile returned to democracy after being shackled by the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet for 17 years. Under his oppressive regime, Pinochet put a deadly hault on numerous forms of artistic expression — one of its most famous (atrocious) examples was the kidnapping and murder of protest folk singer Victor Jara who helped lead the New Chilean Song Movement of the late Sixties, early Seventies. You see, Chilean music wasn’t allowed to be political, or much less, criticise its government. Enter Los Prisioneros, a Chilean pop rock band with a knack for glossy anthemic hooks became one of the most defiant groups of their generation. Formed in the late Seventies, the San Miguel band’s early songs proved to be controversial in a time of extreme censorship, so their music gained popularity through labeless cassette distribution. Eighties songs like “El Baile De Los Que Sobran” and “De La Cultura De La Basura testified them as working class heroes with a rebellious spirit who know how to expertly navigate their way around insatiable synth melodies and catchy drum machines made for the dance floor. This era was also the height of the rock en español explosion in Latin America, so their rosy-hued disco pop wasn’t as welcoming in the mainstream — who demanded more rock guitars and, seemingly, pretentious frontmen — a vast departure from the scrappy, socially discontent group Los Prisioneros were known as. So when their fourth studio album dropped, 1990’s Corazones, it wasn’t an instant hit for the reasons aforementioned, yet it slowly became a South American legacy. It also marked a critical time in Chilean history when it was at a crossroads. Part autobiographical, part social-commentary, the record poignantly reflects the stigmas of Chile’s disenfranchised population, and it emotionally evoked the turmoil of an overwhelming transition in politics, all over sleek electronic pulses and intoxicating synth riffs. Songs like “Tren Al Sur” and “Estrechez de Corazón” pack one hell of a rhythm too that lends itself to high-gloss dance rock with a socially political edge. It’s a style that decades later would inspire hordes of Chilean pop groups like Javiera Mena, Alex Anwandter, and Dënver — bands that too fight battles of classism while demanding LGBTQ+ rights over disco-inflected dance pop. The early 2010s saw the first latest explosion of Chilean pop, and it traveled around the globe, a sort of electropop manifesto pioneered by Los Prisioneros.

Indigenous Pride: Native  Repping Their Tribe
October 20, 2016

Indigenous Pride: Native Repping Their Tribe

When I asked my hipster neighbors about the first things that come to mind when they think about indigenous cultures, they said the following: feathered headpieces, teepees, dream catchers, tobacco, ritualistic ceremonies, genocide, and the worship of mother nature. Not all these terms are positive, to say the least, and it’s important to recognize the centuries of historical oppression the native population has endured here in the U.S., as well as in other regions of the Americas. It is also utterly important to celebrate their rich, beautiful traditions -- traditions that respect life in all its forms. With the rise of social media, more and more indigenous artists are stepping into the spotlight, recounting their stories via songs with a modern spin, which is in itself an act of resistance. Ottawa Canada DJs A Tribe Called Red incorporate powerful powwow drum and chants into hard-hitting EDM, while Ecuadorian beatmaker Nicolá Cruz blends hypnotic Andes Step into his mix. Dakota rapper Frank Waln ferociously spits eye-opening tales that take place at the “rez” (or reservations), and Bolivian Quechua singer gets the ZZK treatment in her charango and zampoña-driven hymn. The artists, featured on this playlist, are multifaceted, inspiring, and sincere. Ultimately, the music empowers their tribes, their communities and the listener.

Best Latin Alternative Songs of 2016
December 12, 2016

Best Latin Alternative Songs of 2016

Subscribe to the Spotify playlist right here.Within the ever-evolving world of Latin music, we’ve seen some sensational moments and headline-grabbing spectacles in 2016. Colombian urban powerhouse J Balvin solidified himself as the reigning king of the new reggaetón movement via the skyrocketing Energía; Marc Anthony and J.Lo stunned global audiences with their surprise reunion at this year’s Latin GRAMMYS with a tropical rendition of Pimpinela’s “Olvídame y pega la vuelta” (and their now-infamous kiss!); our beloved Mexican legend Juan Gabriel passed away too soon yet left behind a charming duets document, Los Dúo 2, starring everyone in Latin music and their mothers (well, not really, but you get the point). Because these buzzed-about folks and their 2016 material are doing so well without our help, having a spot secured in nearly every big publication out there, we’ve decided to spotlight some sparkly hidden gems, exciting artists worthy of your discovery, and killer songs you might have missed by respectable acts. And boy, do these 50 Best Tracks resonate loudly in our hearts.Spunky electro-pop wunderkinds Alex Anwandter, Cineplexx, and Selma Oxor kept things intriguingly hyperactive through iridescent synths and a dash of mystery. Hypnotic electro-tropical masterminds Systema Solar, Compass, and Orkesta Mendoza continued to bend the boundaries of cumbia and folkloric sounds via their dashing experimentalism and love of tradition. Alt-norteño took the throne in unconventionalism in the good hands of regional Mexican iconoclasts Juan Cirerol and Helen Ochoa while staying true to form. Debaucherous punk made waves across borders through the awesomely cacophonic powerchords of daredevils AJ Davila, Sexy Zebras, and Los Nastys. For our utter excitement, we also saw the return of alternative rock royalty Café Tacvba, Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, and Andrés Calamaro. Oh, and not to mention 2016 also brought us surprisingly killer renditions delivered by the likes of Mexrrissey and Vanessa Zamora. Here are the 50 most riveting tracks hailing from indie and non-conformist Latinx acts. Happy listening!

Ñu-Cumbia: New Sounds from Old, Forbidden Rhythms
August 21, 2016

Ñu-Cumbia: New Sounds from Old, Forbidden Rhythms

About a decade ago, cumbia experienced a “ñu” makeover. The traditional genre that was once the soundtrack to Latin America’s ghettos bridged the gap between the old and the new, the poor and the rich. Refashioning themselves as ñu-cumbia, a fresh generation of cumbia-thriving musicians and producers replenished this once-marginalized genre by injecting it with an array of riveting sounds, from reggae to EDM to jazz and even balkan. Uruguay’s Campo, who adds tango’s sophistication to the breezy “La Marcha Tropical,” introduces his beats to sound system block parties and South American resorts alike; Bomba Estéreo, the feisty Colombian duo known for igniting global dance floors, inspired Will Smith to start rapping again after a ten-year hiatus in the EDM-tropical “Fiesta (Remix)”; and ZZK Records, Buenos Aires’ pioneering digital cumbia label home to Nicolá Cruz, La Yegros and Fauna, keeps spotlighting this Latin American music explosion, now in an upcoming documentary series. While some setlist-featured musicians maintain the cumbia rhythm in its original güiro and accordion-driven format, others let experimentation lead the way. These are the new sounds of the old forbidden rhythm.

Indie Rock Face-Off: Neo vs. ’90s

The ’90s have never sounded better than they do right now—especially for modern-day indie rockers. There’s no shortage of bands banging around these days whose sound suggests formative phases spent soaking up vintage ’90s indie rock. Not that the neo-’90s sound is itself a new thing. As soon as the era was far enough away in the rearview mirror to allow for nostalgia to set in (i.e., the second half of the 2000s), there were already some young artists out there onboarding ’90s alt-rock influences. But more recently, there’s been a bumper crop of bands that betray a soft spot for a time when MTV still played music videos and streaming was just something that happened in a restroom. In this context, the literate, lo-fi approach of Pavement has emerged as a particularly strong strand of the ’90s indie tapestry, and it isn’t hard to hear echoes of their sound in the work of more recent arrivals like Kiwi jr. or Teenage Cool Kids. Cherry Glazerr frontwoman Clementine Creevy seems to have a feeling for the kind of big, dirty guitar riffs that made Pacific Northwestern bands the kings of the alt-rock heap once upon a time. The world-weary, wise-guy angularity of Car Seat Headrest can bring to mind the lurching, loose-limbed attack of Railroad Jerk. And laconic, storytelling types like Nap Eyes stand to prove that there’s still a bright future ahead for those who mourn the passing of Silver Jews main man David Berman. But perhaps the best thing about a face-off between the modern indie bands evoking ’90s forebears and the old-school artists themselves is the fact that in this kind of competition, everybody wins.

The Year in ’90s Metal

It may be that 2019 was the best year for ’90s metal since, well, 1999. Bands from the decade of Judgment Night re-emerged with new creative twists and tweaks: Tool stretched out into polyrhythmic madness, Korn bludgeoned with more extreme and raw despair, Slipknot added a new drummer (Max Weinberg’s kid!) who gave them a new groove, and Rammstein wrote an anti-fascism anthem that caused controversy in Germany (and hit No. 1 there too). Elsewhere, icons of the era returned in unique ways: Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor scored a superhero TV series, Primus’ Les Claypool teamed up with Sean Lennon for some quirky psych rock, and Faith No More’s Mike Patton made an avant-decadent LP with ’70s soundtrack king Jean-Claude Vannier. Finally, the soaring voice of Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington returned for a moment thanks to Lamb of God guitarist Mark Morton, who released a song they recorded together in 2017.

Out of the Stacks: ’90s College Radio Staples Still At It

Taking a look at the playlists for my show on Boston’s WZBC might give the more seasoned college-radio listener a bit of déjà vu: They’re filled with bands like Versus, Team Dresch, and Sleater-Kinney, who were at the top of the CMJ charts back in the ’90s. But the records they released in 2019 turned out to be some of the year’s best rock. Versus, whose Ex Nihilo EP and Ex Voto full-length were part of a creative run for leader Richard Baluyut that also included a tour by his pre-Versus outfit Flower and his 2000s band +/-, put out a lot of beautifully thrashy rock; Team Dresch returned with all cylinders blazing and singers Jody Bleyle and Kaia Wilson wailing their hearts out on “Your Hands My Pockets”; and Sleater-Kinney confronted middle age head-on with their examination of finding one’s footing, The Center Won’t Hold.Italian guitar heroes Uzeda—who have been putting out proggy, riff-heavy music for three-plus decades—released their first record in 13 years, the blistering Quocumque jerceris stabit; Imperial Teen, led by Faith No More multi-instrumentalist Roddy Bottum, kept the weird hooks coming with Now We Are Timeless; and high-concept Californians That Dog capped off a year of reissues with Old LP, their first album since 1997. Juliana Hatfield continued the creative tear she’s been on this decade with two albums: Weird, a collection of hooky, twisty songs that tackle alienation with searing wit, and Juliana Hatfield Sings the Police, her tribute record to the dubby New Wave chart heroes (in the spirit of the salute to Olivia Newton-John she released in 2018). And our playlist finishes with Mary Timony, formerly of the gnarled rockers Helium and currently part of the power trio Ex Hex, paying tribute to her former Autoclave bandmate Christina Billotte via an Ex Hex take on “What Kind of Monster Are You?,” one of the signature songs by Billotte’s ’90s triple threat Slant 6.