The 10 Best Songs of Ranchera Legend Pepe Aguilar

Ranchera legend Pepe Aguilar returns to Orange County this Sunday, this time to the Pacific Amphitheater as part of the OC Fair’s ever-awesome summer lineup. The last time he was in OC was just last year, when Pepe made history as the first Mexican-regional artist to grace Segerstrom Hall. It was a magnificent show—but at the Pacific Amphitheater and its thousands of seats guaranteed to be packed, it’s gonna be a puro pinche parri.

Pepe is a consummate showman and a gentleman: After his awesome show at the Segerstrom, he humbly and kindly accepted a visit from myself and my family, and my mom was able to tell him that she remembered seeing his parents, ranchera legends Antonio Aguilar and Flor Silvestre, the first time they played Los Angeles back in the 1960s. In honor of Pepe’s return, here’s a list of his 10 best songs. Check out his show, and don’t forget the tejanas and cintos piteados!

10. “Al Filo del Tiempo”

If we’re going to do a Top Diez of Pepe, we need to shout-out his stint in rock en español with Equus. True story: Legendary reporter Jesus “El Pelos” Olvera thinks Equus could’ve been bigger if Pepe had just stayed the course, and “Al Filo del Tiempo” (“The Edge of Time”) showcases the multicultural talent and great voice Pepe still has. Maybe he’ll get back to his Latin alternative roots someday?

9. “Directo al Corazón”

Most raza would rank this weeper higher, but all I can think about this song (“Straight to the Heart”) is the chorus—”Y solo por que tu/Me cambiaste por unas monedas/Y solo por que tu/No supiste soportar mi pobreza” (And all because you/Changed me for some coins/And all because you/Didn’t know how to put up with my poverty). Hits too close to home for this poor boy, you know?

8. “El Zacatecano”

A lush paean to the Aguilar home state of Zacatecas, the greatest state in Mexico and where my parents and half of Anaheim are from. Perhaps the best ode to a Mexican state after “Caminos de Michoacán” and “Sonora y Sus Ojos Negros.” Points taken off for not recording this with tamborazo, and for giving only a token shoutout to Jerez haha

7. “Esta Tristeza Mía”

This is not Pepe’s song—the ranchera standard (“This Sadness of Mine) was first made famous by Javier Solís and recorded by many others, including Pepe’s dad, Antonio Aguilar. But I LOVE the above version, not just because a young Pepe handles it superbly (backed by banda, no less!) but because you see the love, pride and respect Antonio has in his son, whom had performed in the family business since he was a kid but was now becoming an hombre in his own right.

6. “Me Estoy Acostumbrando de Ti”

Another remake, this one a sighing, dreamy letter to a new love that was originally an Argentine ballad from the 1970s that Pepe took from its original Pet Sounds-esque wimpiness to the heights of Sinatra in the throes of Ava Gardner.

5. “Perdóname”

“Forgive Me”—what macho in human history ever stooped to become a real man and acknowledge his fuck-ups, with jazzy undertones? Pepe is who—BOOM

4. “Recuérdame Bonito”

As I wrote in my Pepe profile: “This goodbyer showcases Pepe’s spectacular voice, a mestizaje of ranchera’s Mount Rushmore: strong like Javier Solís, silky like Pedro Infante, wrapping around heartbreak like José Alfredo Jiménez, and as humble as his Pop’s.” A great mariachi is the mariachi that can handle the strings and high notes Pepe hits with ease.

3. “Son Las Dos de La Mañana”

Though Pepe has made his career as a crooner, he’s also like his dad in being able to shine above the gorgeous ruckus that’s a banda sinaloense. Not everyone could do it: Vicente Fernandez sounded like a chavala the few times he tried. But Pepe weaves in and out of the tuba and trombones with ease, as he tells his beloved he’s been up since two in the morning, waiting for her to acknowledge his passion. This is one of his original hits, and is a staple of ranchera stations across the United States, and why not? More importantly, it’s one of the last gasps of old-school banda before it warped into the cochinadas it is today.

2. “Por Mujeres Como Tu”

A saddle confessional of hurt and pain that, if any guy sings to his girl, results in an instantaneous choni melting. Bonus points for having Pepe strumming a guitar—he’s actually a great player, yet rarely gets to show off his licks because of his crooner status.

1. “Un Puño de Tierra” with the Spirit of Troy

Gotta quote myself from my preview last year:

Yet perhaps the greatest performance Pepe ever gave, and telling of his salvational potential, happened with that institution of moneyed, gabacho Orange County: the USC Marching Band. In 2014, the USC Latino Alumni Association hosted Aguilar—dressed in jeans, sneakers, and a black ‘SC letterman’s jacket—for an evening of music and conversation that concluded with the Spirit of Troy marching on stage with him, sunglasses and smirks and all. “I was a little skeptic[al] when we did the rehearsal,” he cracked in front of the crowd, “but you guys sound like the real thing, man! I’m going to take you guys to Sinaloa!”

The band then launched into “Un Puño de Tierra” (“A Fistful of Dirt”), a rip-roaring existential boast immortalized by Antonio Aguilar. Pepe somehow got a bunch of millennials to nail every trombone jaunt, every tuba boast, every thundering drumbeat. “Let’s give joy to joy,” Pepe sang to the screams of Trojan Nation, summing up his career. “Life ends quickly.”

I still say this remake is one of the greatest moments in Mexican-American history, and proof that Southern California is now irrefutably Mexican—and the better for it.

Pepe Aguilar at Pacific Amphitheater, 100 Fair Dr. Costa Mesa, (800) 745-3000. Sunday, 8:15 P.M. $50-$100, and worth every penny

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