Nov 3, 2011

The Bottom Line Top 10 soundtracks. Ten best.  Champions. First-class. Incomprable. Peerless. Superlative. Unsurpassed. All good descriptions for these GREAT latin soundtracks!

Soundtracks are the rarest type of album in my music collection. Most of them don't excite me the way a studio release does. I suppose it's because I have this idea that with a normal studio release, the focus is purely on the music so the artistry and craft of the musician can totally take wing and fly free. With a soundtrack though, the music needs to be restrained to fit the movie's themes and moods. There are soundtracks that do succeed with vibrant new material and exciting rhythms and beats. Those are the kind of soundtracks I'm looking for as I write this review. But of course I have a soft spot in my heart for latin music, so my soundtrack list is heavily tilted towards my own favorite kinds of sounds. You might not realize it, but there are a LOT of movies out there that leverage the exciting latin beats of the Caribbean region and the sensually suave sounds of South American cities. Here are 10 of my favorite latin sounding soundtracks....hope you like 'em too!

************* 10 GREATEST LATIN SOUNDTRACKS EVER *************
Are these the absolute BEST latin soundtracks ever made?

Sin duda...


1. The Mambo Kings (1992)

The movie: One of America's hottest latino writers is Oscar Hijuelos, who hit pay dirt with "The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love". Movie goers might be forgiven for not reading the book, but they probably remember the movie with Armand Assante and Antonio Banderas as two Cuban brothers who move to New York in search of audiences for their mambo style of music. Naturally, fame and fortune are the dreams of the two brothers who will run into a few brick walls along the road to musical success. (Desi Arnaz Jr. portrays his famous dad --- my how Little Ricky has changed!).

The music:  While I thought the movie was okay, it's the soundtrack that really gets my blood boiling and my feet moving their way out to the dance floor. The soundtrack kicks it so much because it's got a great mix of tunes on that sometimes stray just far enough over the line defining mambo to keep things honest and to keep the ears from getting down into any rut. It's also a star-studded soundtrack with some of the biggest names in modern music getting into the act. Of course Celia Cruz needs no introduction, she's the queen of salsa, after all, and she dials down the heat just a bit for her mambo kick with such classics as "Guantanamera" and "La Dicha Mia". Tito Puente brings in his brassy boldness on several tracks, and there's even a couple sultry simmering slower numbers by Linda Ronstadt (who I still think of as an American soft rock diva, though I'm perfectly aware that she does some outstanding traditional Mexican rancheras.


2. Tango (1999)

The movie: It takes two to tango, and when the two really know how to tango, the heat of the night sizzles with seduction and sensuality. Tango is to Argentina what grilled steak is to Texas. It's more than just an icon, it's the very soul of being. The movie is a love story, but it's also a story of love for tango and the cosmopolitan sophistication of Buenos Aires. The romance between the characters is believable, but it's the dance and choreography that make this movie such a visual gem to delight the eyes.

The music: If you're not familiar with the quasi-orchestral sound of tango, this soundtrack will teach your ears all they need to know. In the past, I've often thought of tango as being a very fast-paced kind of music, but in reality, the fast beats alternate around slower tempo passages. Tango sounds orchestral to me, but it often has vocal passages, a firmly defined bass line, and it incorporate unique instrumental sounds  contributed by the bandoneon (a reed instrument that looks like an accordian, but without a keyboard). Standout tracks include the iconic "El Choclo" and the fusion piece, "La Represion".


3. The Motorcyle Diaries (2004)

The movie: I don't know why I have this idea in my mind that communist revolutionaries should spring from the lower classes. I don't know why because that concept doesn't stand up to reality. It certainly wasn't the case with Ernesto "Che" Guevara --- one of the most intellectually articulate radicals of his time. Guevara came from an upper class Argentinian family...he was well-educated and had an M.D. degree. So how does someone go from privileged intellectual to a leader of the Cuban revolution and such a threat to U.S. hegemony that the CIA would send assasins after him. How does that happen? Well, this movie is that story. It's a road trip by motorcycle around South American, and a trip that would change Guevara as a man and that would set the course for world history.

The music: Now that's what I'm talkin' 'bout!!! This is a great soundtrack for anyone who enjoys modern latin rock, and how appropriate that the soundtrack was done by Gustavo Santaolalla --- one of the most respected producers in the rock arena. If there's anybody who should really be able to do a rock-focused soundtrack that just cries out with latin authenticity, it's Santaolalla --- the man who produced some of the best albums from rockers like Cafe Tacuba, Molotov, Juanes, Bersuit Vergarabat, and even those of my own sweet-voiced rock n roll sweetheart....Julieta Venegas. Great music!

Related Review: a Julieta Venegas album produced by Santaolalla  


4. Buena Vista Social Club (1997)

The movie: Rockers around the world know Ry Cooder. The dude knows how to make a slide guitar scream, so we know him --- we know him from everything as a guitarist for Taj Mahal to recording with the Rolling Stones in the late 1960s.  Along the way, he's managed to embroil himself in just about every brand of zesty musical influence he could find, from Louisiana Zydeco to Tex-Mex tejano. He's even got some calypso and reggae in his veins!  I suppose it was only natural that he'd find his way during the 1990s down to Cuba to seek out the great son and soul of Cuba's traditional folk styles. The movie tells the stories of some of the great musicians Cooder met during his time in Havana. There's stories of heart-rending personal sacrifice and there's romantic reflections on Cuba's historic past, when the nightclubs of Havana would ring out loudly with the island nation's unique style of soul music.

The music: This is a spectacular album that's one of my all-time favorite latin albums. (It's one of the few that have never once come out of the CD changer). What makes this album so good is that while the songs are old, they're really better described as "timeless". They capture themes that are as common to all humanity as are the best blues songs from the rural Mississippi delta. They're songs that simmer with right and wrong, of witness borne to unending change, of lives born and ended, of dreams and broken promises. This is the stuff of GREAT music. There is not a single weak note on the whole album, and I recommend it very highly, not just as a soundtrack, but as an outstanding album with near universal appeal. this is simply a classic.

Related Review: Buena Vista Social Club 


5. El Cantante (2007)

The movie: I just can NOT believe the casting in this movie!  Jennifer Lopez as salsa master Hector Lavoe's wife with Marc Anthony as Lavoe himself?  How does anyone EVER expect us to believe that J.Lo and Marc Anthony could ever convince someone they were husband and wife?!?!  In any case, if you love salsa you already know the tale of Hector Lavoe --- arguably the biggest salsa sensation the world ever knew (though a womanizing druggie whenever he was off stage). The movie shows how Lavoe catapulted to fame and fortune and how fame totally destroyed him, not only as an artist, but as a man. Was Hector's wife Puchi really as loyal and dedicated to her man as she's portrayed in the movie? if can I meet a hot woman like that?

The music: One word: salsa. The sounds are high energy and high danceability. It's music to get you out of your chair and onto the dance floor. It's also music that's got romance to it and a flavor of the Caribbean islands with ear-bending percussions and rhythms. Of course Marc Anthony himself has achieved a little bit of notoriety for his own ability to bend a little salsa into a Grammy --- but Hector Lavoe was "the voice" to beat a generation earlier as he ruled the dance floors of New York. What I love about this album is that it's pure Marc Anthony, but with such gentle dedication to the style and songs that made Hector Lavoe such a revered household name when it comes to great salsa. (It's not just a great soundtrack, it's a great dance album too!)

Related review: Some spicy 21st century salsa 


6. La Bamba

The movie: Lou Diamond Phillips fills the starring role as Ritchie Valens (aka, Ricardo Valenzuela) who was one of the hottest stars of the early rock and roll era --- up until the fateful winter night when he was killed in a plane crash along with fellow stars Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper (aka, J.P. Richardson). This biopic movie tells the story of Valens's life, from his birth in Pacoima California (near Los Angeles) through his budding career even as he still works his way through high school. We see the story of high school romance that inspired his hit song, "Donna" and we see how a trip with his brother to the nightclubs of Tijuana inspired his megahit single, "La Bamba".

The music: Valens had an unnaturally short performing career, but unnaturally bright too with several songs that are pretty much icons of classic rock. Of course "La Bamba" is the song that he's most famous for, and it continues to be a song of amazing staying power, sounding as fresh, energetic and relevant today as it did 50 years ago when Valens first put it to vinyl. But his slow moving love songs, "Donna" was at least as big a hit back in its day, and it too has a resilience about it and it's undeniably a much better, more powerful ballad than 99.999999% of what passes for pop ballads today. Sometimes it shocks me how unimaginitive and dull-witted American music has become when compared to what was done one or two generations earlier. Listening to this soundtrack really helps drive home that fundamental truth.

Related Review: Los Lobos do a great La Bamba! 


7. Selena  (1997)

The movie: In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the U.S. pop rock market began to sit up and take notice of the unique, very distinct sound of spanish language pop coming out of the great state of Texas. It was a style of music called "tejano" that was taking them by storm. Tejano has been around a lot longer than the mainstream pop music industry, but it was generally content to stay home in the cantinas of south Texas and the honky tonks of Central Texas and the Gulf Coast. That all changed when Selena shoved aside the old school pop and the country-esque sounds that dominated tejano and replaced them with pure rock and roll sensibilities. The result was electric as she catapulted herself to the top of the Billboard charts with Spanish language megahits like "Como la Flor" and English language megahits like "Dreaming of You". The movie, starring Jennifer Lopez, is a biopic about Selena's life and career, starting from her first singing gigs as a child performer to winning a Grammy and filling 60,000 seat stadiums. But as we all know, Selena's career was tragically cut short when her fan club president and manager of her boutique business shot her over allegations of pilfering profits. The tejano world still cries...

The music: Selena's music is simply magnificent pop --- it's got an amazing depth with instrumental variations coming from accordian riffs, bajo sextos, Mexican-influenced percussions, and the differing linguistic sounds of the English versus Spanish languages. Selena wove those elements into the American pop formula in a seemingly effortless way, creating songs that had zest and spice that was uniquely her own recipe. There are fun peppy upbeat songs like "Bidi Bidi Bom Bom" and "El Chico del Apartamento 512" and there are wistful, sad, pensive classics. The soundtrack includes a live version of "Como la Flor" from Selena's last concert at the Houston Astrodome. It's one of the most powerfully moving pop performances ever recorded.

Related review: Selena - The Last Concert 


8. Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights  (2004)

The movie: Given the phenomenal success of Patrick Swayze's and Jennifer Gray's chemistry in "Dirty Dancing" it was probably inevitable that nostalgic sequels would ensue....and so we have the wrinkle of a privileged upper-class teenage girl landing herself in Havana when Dad's job as an auto exec requires his presence in the tropical island paradise. And so, young Katey spots the slick dance moves of a young hotel waiter. Social class conflict ensues, not only when word of Katey and Javier's dance partnership gets out, but in the broader social context as Fidel Castro and Che Guevera lead Cuba into a successful communist revolution. Dance waits for nobody...and neither does class uprising!

The music: Cuba has more musical substance on its tiniest streetcorner than most nation's muster across their entire realm. It's a country full of soulful blues-like styles that spring from the heart and soul of common people. But it's also a nation of seemingly infinite musical variety as today's salsa maestros continue to prove, or as the latin orchestras of the late 1950s proved. We don't have dig far into our collective conscious to remember how Ricky Ricardo, a Cuban emigre, was the band leader at one of New York's hottest nightclubs....or how Lucille Ball would whine and connive her way into the show.  The real magic of the Havana Nights soundtrack isn't in the band sound though, it's in the integration of latin sounds and styles with the interpretation and contribution of some of today's hottest artists: like the Black Eyed Peas, Wyclef Jean, Cristina Aguilera and Aterciopelados. The songs aren't very reflective of the movie, but it's a fascinating soundtrack anyway!

Related Review: Nuyorican big band


9. Woman On Top (2000)

The movie: Seductively sly and often hilarious, "Woman On Top" is the tale of a happy couple in Salvador do Bahia Brazil. The two are partners in love, partners in business and partners in every aspect of life. Or so it seems. Penleope Cruz is at her sensuous and beautiful best as a young woman who likes to be on top of things, both in her daily life and in her nightly bedroom life. When discord arises, she heads for San Francisco where she finds success hosting her own TV cooking show, featuring her spicy seafood dishes. The only way this movie could be improved would be to have a black cross-dressing transgender type roommate. Oh wait!  It already has that too!!

The music: This is music made for love!  It's romantic, soft and utterly sensual. By focusing on the classic Brazilian bossa nova sound, the soundtrack perfectly complements the spicy story of a Brazilian couple whose spiritual connection snapped. The sound is spiritual and almost ephemeral and it fully complements the movie's themes of ritual and faith. It's also perfect background music for a romantic dinner as the relaxing beat soft vocals and gently strumming guitars create a reflective but joyful mood.

Related review: Some suave bossa nova music


10. Desperado (1995)

The movie: After Robert Rodriguez blew away audiences with his directorial debut, "El Mariachi", he did "Desperado" as a high dollar sequel featuring Antonio Banderas and hottalicious Salma Hayak. Though the movie pales in intensity and realism compared to his earlier work, "Desperado" features some wonderfully stylized violence and a slick soundtrack.

The music: The movie takes place in some vague Tex-Mex border town --- I don't think they ever really tell us where, though the first "El Mariachi" movie was supposedly Cuidad Acuna. The setting doesn't really matter in this movie, and authentic sounds of the region don't matter either. Instead, the soundtrack is an eclectic mix of sounds from a wide range of musical genres. A given song mostly supports a mood, though a scant handful have direct thematic tie-ins with the movie (like "Rooftop Action", which reflects a scene in which Banderas and Hayak are escaping a bookstore fire set by Bucho's men. Songs like "Six Blade Knife", "Jack the Ripper" and "Pass the Hatchet" call to mind their scenes when you listen to the soundtrack, but the songs tend to mostly suggest the kind of stylized violence that permeates the movie. "Desperado" is one of Robert Rodriguez's best-known films, but the way the music and violence integrates so tightly reminds me of movies done by one of Rodriguez's fellow directors (and friends), Quentin Tarantino --- especially his "Kill Bill" movies, which are among my favorite guilty cinematic pleasures. Oddly, there's very little mariachi influence in this movie: it's basically used as bookends to both the movie and the soundtrack with a kickass guitar blitz on "Morena de Mi Corazon" and another on "Mariachi Suite".

Related review: El Mariachi 

************* 10 GREATEST LATIN SOUNDTRACKS EVER *************
There you have it!  Ten amazing soundtracks, each featuring furiously hot latin sounds that will tickle your ears for hours.

Are these really the absolute 10 best latin soundtracks ever recorded?  Of course they are!  Just ask me if you want to hear it again...

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