Trying to explain what música ranchera is to non-Mexicans reminds me of the apocryphal quote attributed to–take your pick–Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington, when someone asked what jazz is. Ranchera isn't so much a genre as it is a sentido–a way of life, of viewing the world in all its melancholy, grandiose beauty.
It's no surprise, then, that ranchera is considered the quintessential Mexican music genre in a land with a dizzying variety of music. Ranchera embodies everything that Mexicans think of themselves when at their best–macho, romantic, backed by mariachi, dressed in splendid outfits, and stubbornly stuck in a myth of a bucolic Mexico that never truly existed. There is no corollary for it in American song–it ain't country music, it ain't Tin Pan Alley, it ain't even Western swing. It's ranchera, damnit, and here's a listicle for ustedes who don't habla to learn of the titans and for wabs to debate forever.
Criteria for this list: not just vocal ability, but whether you wrote your own songs, whether you were a pioneer or followed in the footsteps of titans, and my own biases (which will become apparent soon). One procedural note: I limited this list to artists who primarily sang rancheras throughout their career. I didn't include people who excelled at the genre, like Juan Gabriel, because I'm saving them for another list. Go ahead and hate–this is my list haha.
And now…música, maestro!
20. Tito Guizar
Guizar essentially created the ranchera genre, both in music and film, with his 1936 effort Allá en el Rancho Grande. This film set the template for all future ranchera singers: pastoral themes, elongated notes, dashing looks, lightning-quick changes between baritone and falsettos and the charro costume that's now so iconic that even hipsters like Mariachi the Bronx use it. Guizar actually had a diverse musical career, but Mexicans will always associate him with "Allá en el Rancho Grande," if only because he was able to sneak in the word calzones ("underwear" in habla), thereby making generations of Mexis giggle.
19. Alejandro Fernández
The son of ranchera icon Vicente Fernández (who'll be in part dos of this list), Alejandro represents a dying breed: the ranchera singer. Because while the genre is still beloved in Mexico, few singers nowadays devote themselves to the craft; in Alejandro's case, it's his heritage, so he's never delved into other genres or collaborations that cheapen the genre. Put this low on the list only because he's a young pup compared to the other legends here, Fernández took the best of his father's voice but with half of the bragadoccio, all of the machismo, and a bigger helping of the wussiness, making him this generation's ultimate chonis collector.
18. Amalia Mendoza
With a voice smokier than a smudge pot, Mendoza made her mark singing the songs of Mexico's greatest composers–José Alfredo Jiménez, Cuco Sánchez, Chucho Monge, and others. I personally find her crying vocals a bit overwrought, but she was one of the three great female Mexican singers in the ranchera genre along with…well, you'll meet them soon enough.
17. Juan/David Záizar
Los Hermanos Záizar was a popular group during the 1960s and 1970s, but they were also the rarity: the brothers duo that found success with solo careers as well, specifically in ranchera. David made his mark by writing many of his own songs, songs that many ranchera greats went on to cover; Juan sang at my cousin Angie's quinceañera. Good times!
16. Lucha Villa
The second of the three woman who defined the ranchera genre, Villa had a strong, ball-busting vox As her career spanned from the 1960s into the 1980s, her repertoire also pushed ranchera into more modernistic directions, as the above song shows.
15. Francisco "El Charro" Avitia
If Vicente Fernández is the Zeus of Mexican machismo, then Avitia is its Cronos, the ur-macho, a man who sweated testosterone and never had a wuss chromosome–for the Howard Stern fans out there, he was the Ronnie Mund of ranchera, sans the assholery. He specialized in corridos, in manly tales of Revolution, murder, bravado, and mayhem, and his singing style was the tonal equivalent of a throwdown. Only dads and tíos can truly appreciate Avitia, so it's no wonder that the only time you hear his music in the present day is on KHJ-AM La Ranchera 930.
14. Chavela Vargas
Very few Mexican singers get noticed by the American media, let alone the New York Times, let alone get a full obituary in the New York Times Magazine's annual issue devoted to the lives of extraordinary people, yet Vargas got that late last year–written by Sandra Cisneros, no less. She was a favorite of the Mexican intelligentsia and Spanish director Pedro Aldomovar (who frequently used her tortured take on songs for his films) for her delightful gender-fucking, for her seductions of virtually all Mexican female icons, for singing long enough that she could collaborate with José Alfredo Jiménez, Juan Gabriel, AND Pink Martini, and for featuring a singing style that sounded like the happiest dirge in history. Not bad for a Costa Rican, right? She was never a favorite of mine, though, and I think it's because of her hipster status–why can't the intelligentsia love her more-talented contemporaries as well? Lila Downs before Lila Downs.
13. Rocio Dúrcal
Another foreigner–this time a Spaniard–who conquered the world of ranchera, Dúrcal also made many great pop records. So why her inclusion here? For her longtime collaboration with Mexican music icon Juan Gabriel. In a series of albums from the 1970s through the 1980s in which she covered his songs, Dúrcal redefined what ranchera was by singing Gabriel's many excellent songs backed by mariachi, most famous of which is "Amor Eterno," written by Gabriel to commemorate his mother's death. What's amazing is such a seemingly saccharine song became a standard of all mariachis, of all ranchera singers, and while Gabriel's version is extraordinary, Dúrcal's take remains the standard. Heroine to mothers everywhere.
12. Pepe Aguilar
The second son of a legend to appear on this list following his eternal rival Alejandro Fernández, my parents remember seeing Pepe as a child at the Anaheim Convention Center in the 1980s as part of his legendary father Antonio's show, ready to do a solo…and he cried in front of everyone. Pepe would recover wonderfully from that episode, going on to define the ranchera genre during the 1990s to the present day, writing some of his own songs, paying homage to the classics, producing, throwing fundraisers, and even releasing his own sneaker line. A fine guitarist in his own right, he even did a bit of rock en español in his early days–thank God he stuck to the rancheras. And almost forgot: he's from Zacatecas, which is the golden ticket to greatness in this world.
11. Lucha Reyes
If only dads and uncles can truly appreciate Francisco "El Charro" Avitia, only abuelitas and tías can fully appreciate–or even remember–Reyes, a pioneer in pushing gender roles in Mexico during the 1930s. Here was a performer who drank in public, a woman who dared sing backed by mariachi, who dared sing ranchera. You can feel the urgency in her voice, all passion and joie de vivre, that so many ranchera singers–male and female–would try to emulate but never match. Reyes also was a pioneer in a different, more unfortunate way: she died far too young, setting a pattern too many Mexican singers would follow in the ensuing decades.
And we'll meet those legends mañana, mañana…