Don't pay attention to the prophecies of St. Malachy: The world isn't ending because the next pope's name will be Petrus Romanus; it's ending because Vicente Fernández is retiring. The most Mexican Mexican of all time is ending his public performances this year, and his farewell tour is swinging through Los Angeles next week (hopefully, he'll sneak in a Honda Center appearance before the man everyone knows as Chente finally calls it a career). And even if you don't know Spanish, you MUST catch one of his live shows, as he's the best performer since James Brown, getting drunk live and walking around the stage in his splendid charro outfit with a pistol in his holster–YEAH!
The ranchera legend is one of two Mexicans gabachos know as a Mexican archetype of manhood (Ramón Ayala and his tejana, chubby cheeks and Mexi-mullet is the other): his bushy eyebrows, bushier hair, bushiest mustache, gargantuan sombrero, and a larynx so testoster-rific it reduces every man who listens to a weeping wuss. A titan of Mexican music, Chente's songs are not just standards, but required insights into the Mexican psyche. Fans can no longer separate the artist from the myth, meaning that they can't truly appreciate his career while howling through the tears at the umpteenth rendition of "Volver, Volver." And, really, he's worthy of the hype.
So to put Chente in his proper place, behold not just a Top 10 list, but a Top 20–yes, the man deserves that much. And before the fanboys start howling about my choices–remember that his Top 10 is to come TOMORROW. Save the hate for then, but do chime in!
20. "El Tapatio"
This song is an example is one of my favorite lyrical genres: the provincial boast, the prideful proclamation of being from a city or state. In this case, Chente sings of his pride of being from the state of Jalisco, birthplace of mariachi and tequila, with shout-outs to Los Altos, the geographic region from whence the two essential parts of Mexican society originated. It's a beautiful, soaring song with flutes, a rarity in ranchera music–so why the low-ish placement here? Because I'm a zacatecano and people from Jalisco are our eternal rivals, haha. Featuring a great vocal flourish in the end.
19. "Hermoso Cariño"
I hate to say it, but esta canción, while muy popular with the Chente crowd, is rather formulaic. The more I hear it, the less remarkable it is when compared to his other tunes–and it sounds like a slightly faster version of "Ingrato Amor," down to the arpeggio'ed acoustic guitar and repetition of the title. Pretty song, but it pales next to the others on this list.
18. "La Diferencia"
Chente's ultimate wuss song–'nuff said. But it works to get the ladies. Check out the video!
17. "Tu Voz" (duet with Celia Cruz)
Fernández doesn't nearly get enough credit for willing to experiment with genres–he doesn't just stick with testosterone-heavy ranchera, but also takes on boleros, tropical music, norteño, even covers groups and artists, ranging from piano maestro Agustín Lara to Trio Los Panchos. And he also recorded duets with non-Mexican artists, from Tony Bennett to–much better–Celia Cruz. Here, the King of Ranchera and the Queen of Salsa take on Cruz's legendary bolero "Tu Voz" ("Your Voice"), and the result does what a duet is supposed to do: allow each singer to shine as it elevates each's performance. Cruz was a favorite Chente partner–go find their awesome rendition of "El Rey" on YouTube.
16. "El Moro de Cumpas"
For someone who served as the grand marshal of traditional Mexican music, Fernández surprisingly sang few memorable corridos, those bulletin boards of yore–and those few that he did don't compare to the champions of the genre (his "Juan Charrasqueado" is laughable compared to Jorge Negrete's original, and when people talk of "Gabino Barrera," they always refer to Antonio Aguilar's version). The great exception is this rousing song about a horse race featuring the titular piebald from Cumpas, Sonora. Fernández communicates the excitement of the race, from the entering march of the two horses to the bets placed to the actual race, which–in a great twist, considering the title of the song and all the attention paid to the moro–is won by his opponent. What's remarkable about this version is that Chente actually makes you forget that Aguilar originally sang "El Moro de Cumpas." This is the only time Chente would do that, and one of the few times Jalisco beat Zacatecas in anything . . . okay, I'll stop.
15. "Tu Camino y El Mio"
Again with the arpeggioed acoustic! But this has turned into one of Chente's most popular tunes, the bumper music to the daily hour devoted to his songs on KHJ-AM 930 La Ranchera in Southern California. Pretty song, for sure.
14. "Amor De Los Dos"
Vicente has a worthy successor in his son, Alejandro, who proved every bit the macho presence that Chente portrayed himself as, just like Aguilar's son, Pedro, is the spitting image of humility and quiet dignity that his dad personified. So what happens when you put two machos together? Great, weeping, roaring duets, none better than this old Chente song that became better when the two sang it together. Indeed, a first-timer to Vicente and Alejandro will be hard-pressed to distinguish who's who. Betcha the two sing this one at Staples, and the chonis from moms and daughters alike will be flung to the stage for both of them.
13. "Como México No Hay Dos"
Surprise, surprise: A Mexican thinks Mexico is the greatest country in the world and is proud of it–stop the pinche presses! But "Como México No Hay Dos" ("None Compare to Mexico") is a surprisingly poignant song, written from the perspective of Fernández touring the world at the height of his career, loving it all, but ultimately concluding that, yes, Mexico is the best. He even includes a stanza to California, marveling at its beauty and wonders–but, yep, Mexico is better. Ending with probably the most impressive concluding roar of his career.
12. "Hoy Platiqué Con Mi Gallo"
"Today, I Spoke With My Rooster"–is this not the greatest title for a song EVER? And PETA better never hear about this song, as it's a conversation between Chente and his fighting rooster, who asks a simple question in the beginning of the song: if Chente loves him so much, why is he constantly sending him out to fight other roosters? Turns out Chente owes money to someone, so the rooster needs to save his owner by fighting to the death. This song does have a happy ending, though: After one fight too many, Chente decides to retire his wounded friend and vows never to betray his fine-feathered pal over half a cent again!
11. "Las Botas de Charro"
A lyrically experimental song, in which the title ("The Cowboy Boots") is uttered only once and serves as the fashionista fulcrum that turned a young man spurned by a woman for being too much of a boy into a prideful man who nevertheless melts upon seeing the woman years later. The song is one giant ramble that unspools itself beautifully and features Fernández at his best–simultaneously prideful and spiteful, yet ultimately beholden to a woman's embrace. Talk about someone who needs Leykis 101 . . . But this is a magnificent torch song that would be the highlight of virtually any other ranchera singer's oeuvre. For Chente? Ranks only No. 11–that's how good he is.
The rest of the list? Mañana, mañana . . . so tune in!