There is room for much debate for who make the bottom rung of the 20 greatest ranchera singers of all time. But the top? Not even close. Anyone who argues about the inclusion of any of the nine men (and one woman) on this list deserves immediate deportation. The trick of the matter, though, is in the placement of said people--THAT is subject to mucho interpretation, and that is the minefield upon which I set to travel to in five, four...
10. Miguel Aceves Mejia
Mejia is best remembered in Mexican society for two features: an awesome streak of grey in his otherwise-black helmet of hair as he got older, and the greatest falsetto in male history, one that allowed him to let the huapango and son huasteca genre truly shine in ranchera music. His interpretation of "La Malagueña" remains the standard by which all men desperately try to reach. Even more importantly?He was the man who discovered José Alfredo Jiménez
, whom we'll meet in a bit...
9. Vicente Fernández
and all of ustedes who have fallen victim to thetapatio
myth: howl at this injustice. HOWL, damn you! Why is Chente so low? How dare I relegate El Rey Chente to so low on the list? But refry this: Chente does not belong in the top five on virtue of the status of the folks who occupy those spots. In terms of projecting Mexican pride and Jaliscan chest-thumping, he can't hold a tequila bottle to Jorge Negrete. And while Chente wrote some of his music, he doesn't compare to the other singer-songwriters on the list. So nothing against Chente--I won't even hold the fact that he's from Jalisco against him this time--but there was simply more talented people than him ahead in the list. Think of him as the Chris Mullen of ranchera--HA!
8. Cuco Sánchez
He was a fabulous singer in his own right, a chubby, vulnerable guy before Juan Gabriel made the archetype his and his alone, and was one of the finest interpreter of the songs of songwriter Chucho Monge ("Pa' Que Me Sirve la Vida") and Agustín Lara ("Imposible"). More importantly, Sánchez was a fabulous composer; his most famous songs--"El Mil Amores," "Grítenme Piedras del Campo," "No Soy Monedita de Oro"--are standards in the Mexican canon covered by many. And, as I wrote so long ago, his "Cama de Piedra" was "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out" decades before Morrissey ever encountered his first gladiola. Criminally underappreciated, but not as much as...
7. Luis Perez Meza
"El Trovador del Campo" is the most-underrated ranchera star of them all, one whose booming voice is largely remembered nowadays only by the older generation but whose compositions became standards in another genre--banda sinaloense
. Roll call! "El Sauce y La Palma," "El Niño Perdido," "El Barzón," "Las Isabeles," "El Toro Palomo," "Cuando Salgo a Los Campos"--all his songs, all first interpreted in the soft tones of ranchera, all immortalized in banda. Besides Antonio Aguilar, the only singer who truly excelled at both.
6. Lola Beltrán
The most famous female Mexican singer of them all and one of the best, period, "Lola la Grande" was probably most famous for not changing the gender pronouns in her interpretations of songs. So when she sang "El Rey," Beltrán sang with such conviction that all believed she truly was the king of the world. A stunner while young, a grand dame in the autumn of her years, and a voice that could blast through steel, every female ranchera singer takes her cues from Beltrán and never quite reaches there. The above song proved so powerful that Brazilian legend Caetano Veloso recorded a memorable version in its honor.
5. Jorge Negrete
"El Charro Cantor" was Mexico's first ranchera superstar, a dashing man with an opera-trained voice who was also a fabulous actor. Unfortunately, his star has dimmed over the years, his films rarely screened, his songs usually forgotten save for "México Lindo y Querido," but such was Negrete's influence that his legacy still reverberates every time a man puts on a charro outfit. Died far too young at 41, of a hepatitis C infection--so they say...
4. Pedro Infante
The biggest ranchera star of them all, Infante took off where his good friend Jorge Negrete left off and dominated film and song in a way no artist in the United States or Mexico ever has before, during, and since his career. His hits are too numerous to mention, so what I'll point out here is the multiple genres that he popularized--the bolero, the comedy song, the drunk song (two separate genres, mind you), the weeping song, and many more. Only Javier Solís could pull off a charro costume AND a tuxedo as comfortably as Infante. Infante's talent was such that he could take a Beny Moré classic like "Parece Que Va Llover" and turn it into something all his own. So why is he so relatively low at #4? Because he could only otherwise occupy the number three slot, and that goes to...
3. Antonio Aguilar
Pound-for-pound, the Zacatecan native was thebest
ranchera star of them all, if you take every possible factor into consideration. He wrote a couple of songs and served as his own producer, but made his mark singing all the genres of the central Mexican countryside, doing even sub-genres within genres (in the corrido front alone, he recorded albums dedicated to corridos about the Mexican revolution, anti-heroes, and evenhorses
). He popularized the tamborazo genre of his home state, recorded with conjunto norteños, bandas and even did a couple of cumbia albums, all with a soft, commanding voice that wrapped itself around words like a good, well-worn poncho. Only Pedro Infante and El Piporro sang better comedy songs than Aguilar, and no one had a better live show than Aguilar, his horses, and his entire family (for decades, he would annually swing by the Anaheim Convention Center).
Even more important for me and millions of his fans, though, was Aguilar's lifestyle. He was the macho at his finest--not some womanizing pendejo, but a devout father and husband who emphasized family love, who emphasized clean living (get borracho, but responsibly) and who by all accounts was the humblest superstar Mexico ever produced. A Los Angeles Times obituary once noted that his family flew coach into San Jose and waited for their luggage like everyone else, being recognized only by the Mexican workers who marveled at how their idol could live just like them. A worthy idol in every sense of the definition--and my favorite ranchera singer of all time. Not the greatest, though.
2. José Alfredo Jiménez
Jiménez is the undisputed king of the genre--fitting since he did write "El Rey." Almost every artist on this list owe their careers to the songs written by Jiménez, whose hit parade makes the collected works of Gershwin, Porter, Leiber-Stoller, the Brill Building AND Woody Guthrie seem as voluminous as the output of Paper Lace. Even better, he sang all of his compositions. Sure, he didn't have the greatest of voices--Jiménez was the first to admit this--but no one sang songs with more conviction, more vulnerability, more ego, because he was singing his life. The position of everyone else on this list is debatable, but Jiménez always deserves the top or second slot.
But who gets the first one in this iteration? If you're a Mexican and haven't figured this one out yet, give me back your nopal. It's obviously...
1. Javier Solís
Solís is the greatest what-if in Mexican music. He died tragically young at age 35, after barely a decade in the industry and just as he was truly proving himself a worthy heir to the legacy of Pedro Infante. He was always adventurous with his arrangements, bringing in organs, double-tracking (the haunting laughs of "Payaso") and other instrumentation alongside the traditional mariachi of ranchera. He just didn't sing about the Mexican countryside--Solís'
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, an album of covers of songs by the legendary Agustín Lara, is one of the most romantic collection of songs you'll ever hear, but a forgotten gem in the Solís canon. And take the above song--only a titan of talent like Solís could make a song about a Puerto Rican immigrant looking back on his life make it not only a wholly Mexican song, but a universal lament for the homeland of ones' youth (if you want to make an awkward comparison, let's call it the "It Was a Very Good Year" of Mexican song--even I cringed at that). And check this out: IT'S NOT EVEN HIS BEST SONG.
And that voice! No voice in ranchera was more powerful yet more suave--where Chente shouted, Solís crooned with the same power, with more finesse. His nickname was "El Rey del Bolero Ranchero," but the man beats everyone in this list. And who knows what would've happened if he lived even five more years?