Latin music is hot in more ways than one. It has topped mainstream charts like the Billboard Hot 100 and influenced genres such as pop, rock and R&B. But Latin music’s infectious zest is just, well, hot. “The spicy flavor of Latin music has transcended not only the language barriers, but also style and generations,” says Marilyn Santiago, a former director of programming for Latin radio stations.
Latin music encompasses hundreds of rhythms and styles, and its roots extend to multiple Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking regions, including Mexico, Central and South America, and territories in the Caribbean. It encompasses everything from the subgenres of salsa to tropical, reggaeton (a style of Puerto Rican dance music), Tejano and Latin pop.
“Latin music is very passionate — and most of all, it is happy music, full of joy and full of life,” says Sergio Mendes, a Brazilian music superstar and subject of the documentary Sergio Mendes In the Key of Joy. Its steamy themes include “love, sex, fun and staying strong,” adds Anand Bhatt, a Latin Grammy-nominated artist and producer. Here are Bhatt’s takes on 10 essential songs from this eclectic genre.
1. “Aguanile,” Héctor Lavoe and Willie Colón (1972)
“Héctor Lavoe is the person that brought salsa music to the masses. He is the original — so influential that Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez did a movie about him called El Cantante and remade his best hits. This song will get you hooked on the classic call-and-response style of tropical Latin music and Latin pop that continues to this day.”
2. “Mi Tierra,” Gloria Estefan (1993)
“‘Mi Tierra’ marks a pivotal moment in Latin music history. It marks the shift when Latin stars who felt the need to sing in English to get hits really owned their roots. Prior to ‘Mi Tierra,’ Gloria's hits with Miami Sound Machine were primarily in English. Then she was injured in a major bus crash and emerged with an initiative to musically move towards her Cuban roots. This song has it all.”
3. “Suavemente,” Elvis Crespo (1998)
“There is a point in time where you couldn’t attend a party in the Latin community without hearing this song. Technically the style of this song counts as a merengue [a Caribbean style of Latin music]. Elvis Crespo is the artist that popularized merengue as a genre to the masses.”
4. “No Me Ames,” Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez (1999)
“‘No Me Ames’ is an instant tearjerker. Any Marc Anthony song will make you quickly realize why he stands out above the rest and most of us dub him the king of Latin music — and J.Lo the respective queen, even though they're no longer together. A J.Lo/Marc Anthony duet is a classic Latin pop hit.”
5. “Volverás,” Paulina Rubio (2004)
“Is Paulina a cumbia artist? [Cumbia is a Colombian style of Latin music, though Rubio is Mexican.] A rock star? Nobody knows. But she has hit after hit after hit. ‘Volverás’ is a quintessential Latin ballad, or romántica. It rocks out at the chorus yet has Latin-pop chord changes that are substantially more complex than they sound and a variety of instruments behind it.”
6. “La Camisa Negra,” Juanes (2004)
“This is a great song because even though it is a rock song, it is still very Latin stylistically. It is also extremely catchy. A danceable hook is still key in Latin rock, as much as it is in something more tropical.”
7. “La Tortura,” Shakira, featuring Alejandro Sanz (2005)
“When I first met Shakira, I was shocked by how magical she is in real life. It is not an act. She is like the little ballerina in a music box. This is the ideal song to get a feel for that magic and it also gives you a little Alejandro Sanz, too. Shakira is the queen of crossover. This song has that reggaeton-meets-East-Indian beat that is the signature of this subgenre. The video features her sexy magic, too.”
8. “La Diabla,” by Romeo Santos (2011)
“Bronx-born Romeo Santos isn’t the original bachata artist, but he is the self-proclaimed king [bachata is romantic music from the Dominican Republic with high-reverb, high-pitched guitar work and lots of bongo fills]. Any modern bachata songs are heavily influenced by the Romeo Santos style. The ‘she hurt me, she is dangerous’ theme is a classic in bachata music along with the staccato rhythms and over-the-top bongo fills. ‘La Diabla’ has all of it. Good luck not singing this song all day long once you hear it.”
9. “Dámaso,” Gerardo Ortiz (2012)
“Banda music is the style of music you hear blasting out of people’s cars, the kind that resembles a polka on first listen. It’s a Mexican style of music with horns and accordions. And Gerardo Ortiz is the Metallica of banda music. ‘Dámaso’ is one of the most rockin' banda songs ever made. If you don’t like this song then you don't like banda music, period. It is a good litmus test. This will sound like the most complex metal polka you’ve ever heard.”
10. “Despacito,” Luis Fonsi (2017)
“This song might be the reason you’ve even heard of Latin music. It is basically the modern-day ‘La Bamba.’ Musically, though, it is an ideal example of pop-reggaeton. This is currently the most popular Latin pop genre, inclusive of how the chord progression and melody are used.”
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