Over the past two days, we've been counting down the list of ranchera icon Vicente Fernández's 20 greatest songs. He's playing the Staples Center next week, a concert you should check out whether you speak Spanish or not, if only for the sheer spectacle of machismo at its most exaggerated. And just in case you didn't pay attention to the past two days–tequila did it, no doubt–here's the list in its entirety. Enjoy!
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.
Fernández has such a massive canon that he could've rested on his laurels since the 1980s and still put on a hell of a show–that's how Antonio Aguilar did it. But the genius of Chente is that he's never taken a break–as the previous list showed, the tapatío has always experimented with lyrics, production, genres, and more. His most recent hit was this 2007 gem, a breathless tale of a man driven insane by jealousy that's nevertheless sweet-sounding with his tenor (deepened by age) buttressed by the dramatic pauses, by crisp guitar strums, weeping violins, and jumpy trumpets. "Estos Celos" created a storm upon its debut–no one in ranchera had done something this simultaneously poppy and firme, something this dramatic. And the greatest testament to its greatness? It's now a staple of mariachis. Kudos also to Chente for not dyeing his hair at this point of his life, and for not casting some blonde 20-something as his paramour–it's a 20-something brunette!
9. "Por Tu Maldito Amor"
Of the canonical Chente songs, this is one of the lesser ones–but that's like saying Chris Mullin was one of the lesser players on the 1992 Dream Team. It's one long crying session about a man decrying the "damned love" of a woman. Wait for the pause, the pause that serves as the cue for the crowd to yell "POR TU MALDIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIITO AMOR!", which allows Chente to melt down like a schoolboy who skinned his knee–and cry he does. And, of course, the twist at the end: it's not damned love he cries for, but "your blessed love." WIMP!
8. "Me Voy a Quitar de En Medio"
Fernández wasn't in any sort of creative funk in 1998, when he recorded this song as the title track for the telenoval La Mentira and for the album Entre El Amor y Yo ("Between Love and I," itself a fabulous song that would probably be #21 on this list). But the composition showed again Chente's willingness to experiment musically, even at a point in his career where he didn't need to. With Spanish, Cuban, and Mexican flairs swirling around a song of defeat, this song was the spiritual godfather to "Estos Celos."
7. "Aca Entre Nos"
Starting slow, with the echoed vocals, faux weeps, and growled whispers that characterized Chente's later efforts, 1988's "Here, Between Us" marked a transition in Chente's career from the bold shouts of machismo into overwrought vulnerability that takes Chente into campy levels but makes him even more beloved by fans. Though popular, it's one of his lesser-appreciated gems.
6. "¿De Que Manera te Olvido?"
Beautiful music–flutes, violins, guitars, bright horns–anchor a man's lament about not knowing how to forget a woman's love. Vocally fine, lyrically okay, but with a immortal melody that makes it another staple of all mariachis.
5. "El Rey"
This is Chente's most famous song, the second-most sung by his fans, and a legendary rendition, one that even eclipses the original existential "My Way" of Mexico written by José Alfredo Jiménez–so why the relatively low ranking? First off, have you listened to it? It's all about Chente yelling–he seriously shortsells his vocal abilities here. Compare that to the Jiménez original, where the man puts a bit more buanced emotion into it than merely making it the stark-raving mad rants of a wild-eyed, wounded macho. Besides, covering a standard doesn't compare in originality to…
4. "Mujeres Divinas"
Told from the perspective of a singer who has a conversation with an aging men who takes offense at men cursing women, "Mujeres Divinas" unwinds itself like a dirge as it makes an extraordinary admission: men should not bash women, as women are the light of life. It was a startling admission in the macho world of ranchera, which had always cast women as Madonnas or whores; here, they were both! The song's dark chords takes you to the cantina where Chente has this conversation with the nameless man–stunning, mournful, truthful, life. Not just a musical tour de force, but also a vocal and lyrical one–and in the world of ranchera, where, as beautiful as it is, too much is rote, "Mujeres Divinas" rises high.
3. "Volver, Volver"
THIS is the the other iconic song Chente's crowd will shout in unison, with a tone as warbling as the introductory organ. But what makes "Volver, Volver" superior to "El Rey" is its originality–that use of organ, which gives love a funereal tone, the combination of shouts, weeps, and desperation, and the refrain–even if you can't remember all the lyrics, even the dumbest gabacho can do the "volver, volverrrrrrrr, VOOOOOOOOOOLVERRRRRRR" part. A crowd-pleaser worthy of adulation.
2. "La Ley del Monte"
The dueling open strains of violins and trumpets crackling over the AM dial will be familiar to any child of Mexican immigrants who took long trips to visit relatives, but have you ever listened to the lyrics beyond "maguey" "unido al mío" and the title of the song (roughly, "The Law of the Wild")? It's one of the most unlikeliest, sweetest revenge songs you'll ever hear: when a woman denies that she took a jaunt up in the them thar hills with a guy, going so far as to tearing off the leaf of the maguey where the two scratched their name to destroy all evidence of said sexytimes, the spurned maguey's new leaf sprouted with the names of the two lovers still on them! It's a metaphor for the power of nature, of the rancho life, and of eternal love–and as gorgeously lush a track as Chente ever sung. Everything beautiful about ranchera summed up in about three minutes, with no vocal gymnastics, or overpowering braggadocio.
And now, número one…
1. "Los Mandados"
Not only is this the best Vicente Fernández song of all time, it's one of the funniest, angriest, scathing recordings to ever come out from Mexico, one giant guffaw against American immigration policy that would never be recorded in this era lest the multinational releasing this get fried on FOX News or from the halls of Congress (just look at what happened to that lame version a couple of years ago of "The Star-Spangled Banner" in Spanish). In less than three minutes, Chente turns a complex issue that riles Americans so into a hilarious, eternal chase ala Smokey and the Bandit, with the protagonist freely admitting that la migra has caught him "300 times, let's say." But Chente
ain't sad: "The beatings that they gave me/I charged them to their
countrymen," he roars with glee. Too bad he didn't sing this song when he performed at the 2000 Republican National Convention, as that would've been the greatest surprise musical performance since the Ramones played at Mr. Burns' birthday.
In no other song does Fernández sing with such passion, such wit, such pride in being mexicano–all his ultimate trademarks and contribution to ranchera music. Even better, the playful accordion is Chente's nod to la frontera, back in the days when genres stayed firmly segregated–again, his musical adventurousness. Chente's fans love this song, but always let others supplant it in their Top 10 lists–until now. It should be blasted at every amnesty march, every time you drive through Newport Beach, every time you argue with your Know Nothing colleague–THIS is how you blast hate: you laugh. Loudly. AND get a big ol' settlement. If you're against this being Chente's greatest song? Then I'm sure you're one big migra lover.