50 Greatest Latin Pop Songs: From 'Bonito' to 'Despacito' - Rolling Stone
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50 Greatest Latin Pop Songs

Rolling Stone chronicles Latin America’s most influential pop songs, from the 1950s to now

50 greatest latin pop songs

With Latin pop getting heightened visibility in the American mainstream this year, it’s time we call for a history lesson. This summer “Latino Gang” Cardi B, Bad Bunny and J Balvin nabbed the Number One spot on the Billboard Hot 100 with their Latin trap hit, “I Like It.” But in sampling the Tony Pabon and Manny Rodriguez-penned single, “I Like It Like That,” this win marks the third time the boogaloo song has cycled through the United States pop chart: first by Pete Rodríguez, whose original recording hit Number 25 in 1967; then again by Tito Puente, Sheila E. and the Blackout All-Stars supergroup in 1996.

By reading Anglophone music media, one might think Latin pop’s ubiquity in the United States is a sudden one – but it’s hardly as recent a phenomenon as new listeners believe. From the Cuban mambo craze of the 1950s to the global virality of “Despacito,” Latin American music has been a fixture of popular music around the world so long as it’s been recorded. Just ask Romeo Santos and the Bronx-based bachata group Aventura, whose 2002 single “Obsesión” scored Number Ones across France, Italy and Germany before the United States caught on.

Encompassing everything from salsa to rock en español, Latin pop is a constantly evolving genre colored by the traditions, migrations and innovations of Latinx people in spite of all odds. Some of the most famous Latin pop songs have survived military dictatorships, war, famine and natural disasters – and they still hold up in spite of passing trends. Rolling Stone contributors selected 50 of the most influential songs in Latin pop history, ranked in chronological order.

50 greatest latin pop songs

Héctor Lavoe, “El Periódico de Ayer” (1976)

Memorialized by Marc Anthony in the 2006 biopic, El Cantante, Puerto Rican vocalist Héctor Lavoe was a real-life superhero of salsa, a diamond in the rough who could channel the full range of human emotions in a single fleeting note. In 1967, Lavoe first met salsa musician and bandleader Willie Colón in New York City, where the two began collaborating under the legendary Fania Records label. Yet more money translated to more problems for Lavoe, as he rapidly buckled under the influence of heroin and cocaine, and eventually died of complications from AIDS. While fans most fondly recall his jubilant performances of smash hits “Mi Gente,” or the Rubén Blades-authored “El Cantante,” Lavoe’s timeless recording of the Tite Curet Alonso original, “El Periódico de Ayer,” possessed a gravity unmatched by any salsa song to this day. “Tu amor es un periódico de ayer/Que nadie mas procura ya leer,” sings Lavoe, “Your love is yesterday’s news/That nobody tries to read.” Performed unconventionally in a minor key, Lavoe’s ultimate diss track only grows more devastating with time, as its upbeat tropical verve gives way to a sprawling orchestral meditation. When the strings kick in, so do the waterworks. S.E.

50 greatest latin pop songs

Rubén Blades and Willie Colón, “Plástico” (1978)

Salsa’s confrontational spirit is fully embodied within “Plástico.” Yet the song begins not with timbales or tumbadora, but with the sound of generic disco. Without notice, the rumble of Latin soul washes away the faux 4/4, revealing a pan-American call to arms in a pork-pie hat. Panamanian singer-songwriter Blades and his frequent collaborator Willie Colón deliver a fiery mocking of the white man’s assimilation, where “good” immigrants prove their worth by devoting their lives to self-absorption and materialism. The song is most renowned for its acerbic lyrics yet it’s the gentle refrain “Se ven las caras pero nunca el corazón” (“You can see the faces but never the heart”) that bites hardest. A.C.

50 greatest latin pop songs

Juan Gabriel, “Querida” (1984)

The signature song of Latin music’s greatest melodramatist, “Querida” finds Juan Gabriel at his most extra: Vulnerable yet masculine, flamboyant but crude. Juanga masterfully melds Sinatra-style orchestral pop with a Beatles-approved backbeat into a fiery lament of desperation. Repeated cries of “dime cuándo tú vas a volver” (“tell me when you’ll return”) add a level of paranoia to the saga of this lovestruck Romeo in a transcendent finale. Categorized as Mexico’s answer to Prince, Elvis, and even Elton John, one spin of “Querida” shows that Juan Gabriel was in a class all his own. A.C.

50 greatest latin pop songs

Rocío Dúrcal, “Amor Eterno” (1984)

The late great Juan Gabriel penned one of the most ardent love letters of all time in “Amor Eterno,” a traditional ranchera song he dedicated to his deceased mother. A Spanish-born chanteuse with a Mexican heart, Dúrcal morphed this emotional ballad into a timeless eulogy. While the saddest balada romántica — like, ever — is still performed by mariachis at funerals, it also serves as an anthemic Mother’s Day hymn throughout Mexico and beyond. Dúrcal’s 1984 studio album, Canta a Juan Gabriel: Volumen Seis, ranked at number two on Billboard Latin Pop Albums chart the following year, and earned a Grammy Award nomination for Best Latin Pop Album — a first for a ranchera album performed by a female soloist. I.R.

50 greatest latin pop songs

Daniela Romo, “Yo No Te Pido la Luna” (1984)

An instant and enduring anthem for the gay Latinx community, “Yo No Te Pido la Luna” is as much about the moon as “Heart of Glass” is about cardiovascular health. This is a song about grabbing the night by the hand and squeezing for dear mercy because the sun may not come out tomorrow. The track’s legacy has only grown since its release, with queer artists like Javiera Mena and Alex Anwandter citing it as a direct influence. Indeed, an entire generation of Latinx electro-pop artists can trace their sonic DNA back to Romo’s glittering power-ballad. A.C.

50 greatest latin pop songs

Los Tigres del Norte, “La Jaula de Oro” (1984)

Los Tigres del Norte are the preeminent norteño band, specializing in the chronicles of valiant heroes and ruthless antiheroes. At the heart of “La Jaula de Oro,” however, is the aura of fear. Fear that the narrator’s children have abandoned the heritage of their father’s native Mexico out of shame. Fear that he’s become a slave to money. Fear to even leave his home because he could be deported at any moment, turning his figurative golden cage into a literal prison. There’s no heroism, optimism, or salvation, only uncertainty – which is the scariest feeling of all. A.C.

50 greatest latin pop songs

Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine, “Conga” (1985)

The story of this hit begins in 1984, a year before its official release. It was then when Miami Sound Machine, led by the fiery Gloria Estefan, released Eyes of Innocence, the band’s eighth studio album and their first English-language full-length. The album’s lead single, “Dr. Beat,” soon caught fire in Europe, where it charted across the continent. While the song ultimately failed in the U.S., its international success piqued the attention of American labels, who moved quickly to capitalize on the momentum. Miami Sound Machine returned stronger one year later with Primitive Love, the act’s second English-language record. “Conga,” its lead single, became a worldwide hit, peaking at Number 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 and reaching multi-platinum status in the U.S. The song’s crossover appeal is largely due to its Americanized take on Cuban conga music; digestible English-language lyrics; an irresistible melody sanitized by heavy Eighties synths and drum machines; and a welcoming message to the international dance floor: “Don’t you worry if you can’t dance/Let the music move your feet.” This winning formula became Miami Sound Machine’s and Estefan’s signature sound and helped establish traditional Latin rhythms as part of the wider American pop canon. J.O.

50 greatest latin pop songs

Ana Gabriel, “Ay Amor” (1987)

As the lead single off Ana Gabriel’s third artist album, Pecado Original, “Ay Amor” catapulted the Mexican singer-songwriter from rising local act to global artist. Following her breakthrough performance of the song at the 1987 OTI Festival, an Ibero-American spinoff of Eurovision, “Ay Amor” topped the Billboard Hot Latin Tracks chart in January 1988; and it would subsequently spend 14 consecutive weeks at Number One. “Ay Amor,” an opulent, heartbreaking power ballad, has also come to define Gabriel’s performance and songwriting style: powerful lyrics amplified by her raspy, operatic vocals. As her biggest track to date and one of her signature songs, “Ay Amor” solidified Gabriel’s place among the greats. She currently stands as the highest-ranking female artist on Billboard‘s male-dominated Greatest of All Time Hot Latin Songs Artists list, opening the doors for future female pop titans like Shakira and Selena J.O.

50 greatest latin pop songs

Caifanes, “La Negra Tomasa” (1988)

Amidst the evolution of rock en español in the Eighties and Nineties, Caifanes crafted an instantly recognizable sound with a goth-pop sensibility that echoed that of the Cure. So when the purveyors of New Wave a la mexicana delivered their hit cover of “La Negra Tomasa” – originally written by Cuban composer Guillermo Rodriguez Fiffe in the Thirties – it was a far-fetched rendition that would resuscitate Mexican rock. One might argue that the possibilities for Latin rock fusion began with their remake – just listen to Saúl Hernández’s haunted, spine-chilling wails against the vampiric cumbia backdrop. It’s simply spellbinding. I.R.

50 greatest latin pop songs

Luis Miguel, “La Incondicional” (1988)

Tu, intensamente tu,” (“You, intensely, you,”) murmurs Luis Miguel over a yearnful, slow-burning backdrop that could easily inspire the biggest tearjerking session any listener can handle. A former child protégé gone big-haired dance-pop heartthrob, Miguel pivoted to lovesick crooner in the late Eighties. He resurrected the Latin American balada in “La Incondicional,” and passionately channeled the spirit of Seventies-era crooners like José José and Camilo Sesto. In its accompanying video, the golden-voiced gallant departs from his darling love as he’s drafted to war. If this won’t make any love skeptic grovel at the feet of Aphrodite, then who knows what will? I.R.

50 greatest latin pop songs

Timbiriche, “Tu y Yo Somos Uno Mismo” (1988)

Never mind the tepid Kidz Bop of Menudo – Mexico’s Timbiriche was the baddest group of child stars in the Eighties. Mentored by Spanish new wave singer Miguel Bosé, the gang of six was a mixed-gender cornucopia of musical prodigies that brought forth pop royals like Paulina Rubio, Thalía and many more. In their biggest hit, “Tu y Yo Somos Uno Mismo” (“You and I Are One”), pretty boy Diego Schoening takes center stage, beckoning a ghosted lover back to his side. A portrait of the band at the top of their game – at least before the departure of most its original members – their 1988 double album Timbiriche VIII + IX introduced a gutsy pop-rock group that was not afraid of growing up. S.E.

50 greatest latin pop songs

Gloria Trevi, “Dr. Psiquiatra” (1989)

Shock-pop bombshell Gloria Trevi went full Rebel Girl after her controversial televised debut of “Dr. Psiquiatra” on Mexican variety show Siempre en Domingo. The song that made Ms. Treviño a superstar follows a girl who is taken to the asylum and put under the care of an older man who ogles at her legs. This risqué song, as well as her headbanging single “Pelo Suelto,” heralded the arrival of a different kind of Mexican pop star, à la Madonna wild, outspoken, but utterly charming – during a time when female singers were expected to be wholesome like Lucerito, or elegant like Daniela Romo. But more troubling than her songs was her relationship to then-manager Sergio Andrade, who was discovered to have led a teenage sex abuse cult disguised as a talent school for girls. I.R.

50 greatest latin pop songs

Kaoma, “Lambada” (1989)

The catalyst for a global dance craze in the late Eighties, Kaoma’s “Lambada” caught fire with the American public in a way unseen until the Macarena. But its massive success proved to be a liability for its French producers, who were exposed (and sued) for blatantly ripping off “Llorando Se Fue,” originally composed and performed by Bolivian Andean group Los Kjarkas. Its impact was still undeniable, with the song serving as the basis for hits across the world from Japan to Turkey – not to mention Jennifer Lopez’s top five smash “Get On the Floor.” (It even inspired and soundtracked its own movie, the tone-deaf 1990 flop The Forbidden Dance.) Yet as the “forbidden dance” died and its covers faded from the charts, “Lambada” remains an essential track. After all, how many other novelty songs slap this hard? A.C.

50 greatest latin pop songs

Los Prisioneros, “Tren al Sur” (1990)

Established in 1979 under the U.S.-backed military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, Chilean synth-pop pioneers Los Prisioneros were instrumental in founding the Nuevo Pop Chileno movement of the 1980s. Their protest rock was eventually banned from radio play until 1990, but fans circumvented government censorship by covertly sharing the band’s music via unlabeled cassette tapes. Part-autobiographical, part-social commentary, frontman Jorge Gonzalez revisits his impoverished childhood in 1990’s “Tren al Sur”; he recounts the sounds of a locomotive, the smell of metal, stunning sights of Chilean landscapes, a father’s embrace. Los Prisioneros take you on a jangly ride as they poignantly unveil the stigmas shouldered by working class commuters. It also packs one hell of a rhythm that lends itself to rose-hued dance-rock. Their stylistic innovations set the groundwork for modern-day Chilean pop, inspiring legions of artists like Alex Anwandter, Gepe and Javiera Mena. I.R.

50 greatest latin pop songs

Selena, “Como la Flor” (1989)

Before Selena Quintanilla-Pérez revolutionized the bustier and became the Patron Saint of Texicans, she and her family of Jehovah’s Witnesses toured restaurants and county fairs as a wholesome band called Los Dinos. The band’s first taste of international success came with “Como La Flor,” a cumbia-infused Tejano cut from their third studio album, Entre a Mi Mundo, which peaked at Number One on the Billboard Regional Mexican Albums Chart and 97 on the Billboard 200 in the States. The band’s breakthrough hit not only won over audiences in Mexico, but established Selena as a worthy contender in the male-dominated Tejano market. In the album’s liner notes, Selena’s older brother, bassist A.B. Quintanilla, claimed he wrote “Como La Flor” in a Bryan, Texas motel, after watching young children “trying to feed their families” by selling plastic roses at a night club. With the boo-hooing cadence of a traditional ranchera song, Selena sings from the perspective of a woman discarded by an ex-lover, who compares their love to a withered flower. Their finest rendition of the song would be Selena’s last: a performance that crowned the historic Houston Astrodome show in 1995, just before her murder by fan club president Yolanda Saldívar. S.E.

50 greatest latin pop songs

El General, “Tu Pum Pum” (1991)

Reggaeton’s long and winding road from once-forbidden rhythm to international pop craze began in the early 1980s when Panamanian artists like Renato, Nando Boom, Chicho Man and others pioneered reggae en español, which mixed Jamaican dancehall elements with Spanish lyrics and raps and Latin-influenced sounds. Known as plena in Panama, reggae en español is the direct predecessor to what is now known as reggaeton and carries many of the same rhythmic and stylistic foundations. An early hit in a then-nascent scene, “Tu Pum Pum” from El General, who’s considered to be the father of reggae en español, exhibits some of the first traces of reggaeton fundamentals: thick dembow riddims, rapid yet rhythmic vocals and highly sexualized lyrics (“Tu Pum Pum” essentially refers to a woman’s privates). In the book Reggaeton (Refiguring American Music), German journalist and author Christoph Twickel writes that “Tu Pum Pum” was the first Spanish dancehall song played on U.S. radio, essentially opening the floodgates for an entire genre to spread. While the true origin of reggaeton is still hotly debated, with Panamanians and Puerto Ricans each staking their claim to creation, “Tu Pum Pum” is the direct genesis of what would soon become a worldwide movement. J.O.

50 greatest latin pop songs

Juan Luis Guerra, “Burbujas de Amor” (1991)

Predating the freakiness of The Shape of Water, “Bubbles of Love” details Juan Luis Guerra’s appetite for a foxy lady – insatiable to the point of wishing he could be a fish and pressing his lips against her “fish bowl.” Before he became the Godfather of Bachata, Juan Luis Guerra first rose to fame in 1989 with his pastoral merengue tune, “Ojalá que Llueva Café.” Bachata, with its bawdy lyrics and rudimentary instrumentation, struggled to earn respectability beyond the Dominican Republic’s rural working class. But Guerra flipped the script in 1990 with the canonical album Bachata Rosa, introducing synths but remaining risqué as ever. In spite of Guerra’s innocuous lilt, “Burbujas de Amor” was so racy that it was banned from radio play in some parts of Latin America, but Bachata Rosa still won the Latin Grammy for Best Tropical Album in 1992. S.E.

50 greatest latin pop songs

Maná, “Oye Mi Amor” (1992)

The Latin music industry was entering its next pivotal era when Mexican rock band Maná released ¿Dónde Jugarán los Niños? in 1992. The band’s third studio album wholly captured the sound and vibrant energy of the rock en español explosion and helped catapult the movement to international reach. “Oye Mi Amor,” the album’s most popular song, cemented the group’s signature sound: guitar riffs lifted from Eighties new wave and reggae bands, dance floor-friendly melodies and instantly recognizable hooks. The song’s brilliant use of a traditional pan flute bridged Maná’s folk roots within a modern rock framework – a move that would resonate with millions of young Latin American fans worldwide and ensure the band’s lasting legacy for generations to come. The universal crossover appeal of “Oye Mi Amor” was reinforced when the song was featured as a playing title in the 2010 music video game Rock Band 3. J.O.

50 greatest latin pop songs

Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, “Matador” (1993)

In their breakout hit “El Matador,” Argentine iconoclasts Los Fabulosos Cadillacs scuff up a killer ska-punk frenzy, backed by boisterous candombe percussions bulldozing into battle. A cutting critique disguised as a carnivalesque party anthem, the song chronicles a revolutionary leader who is captured by the coup during a time of rampant authoritarianism across Latin America. It also references heroes like Victor Jara, a Chilean protest troubadour who himself was murdered for his outspoken songs under the Pinochet regime. I.R.

50 greatest latin pop songs

Proyecto Uno, “El Tiburón” (1993)

“Whoomp! Ahí está,” sing New York quartet Proyecto Uno, echoing Atlanta bass hitmakers Tag Team – and cementing the marriage between American hip-hop and the Latin kingdom ­– in “El Tiburón.” Nelson Zapata and Rick Echavarría were just two regular Dominican guys from the Lower East Side when they founded Proyecto Uno, a rap-techno experiment with Caribbean sazón. The inspiration for their smash hit, “El Tiburón,” first sparked while the band was touring in Ecuador. The Proyectos were out with some local ladies, when they were promptly usurped by the opening act who stormed the club and circled their dance partners like sharks – or, tiburónes. The band lost the ladies, but gained some inspiration. “We made an impact on the entire world from New York,” Zapata told Univision in 2016, “because we were from a bilingual culture. We grew up with the language of our parents, but with the flow of the city. … We mixed English and Spanish with a lot of fluency and many young people identified with that. Before, [music] in Spanish was either salsa, or merengue or ballads. … But with [Proyecto Uno] we totally opened the doors to hip hop, dance, house and merengue, and mixed them all into one for a new generation.” S.E.

50 greatest latin pop songs

Carlos Vives, “La Gota Fría” (1993)

Born in the coastal town of Santa Marta, Colombia, Carlos Vives spent the Eighties as a Spanish-language soap opera star, most famous for playing the title part of Gallito Ramírez, a tough guy boxer in cahoots with a rich girl. Yet Vives had been moonlighting as a rock singer for a decade before he scored his first big hit. After playing the role of Rafael Escalona in the 1991 biopic Escalona, Vives grew inspired to delve into his Caribbean roots and produce his own electrified takes on the regional folk genre known as vallenato – which became his third album, Clásicos de la Provincia. Originally composed by Emiliano Zuleta, “La Gota Fría” (or “The Cold Drop”) narrates a sweat-inducing duel between rival accordion players. Adding a little rock to the vallenato roll, Vives’ cover of the song fast tracked him to international fame and helped revive youth interest in a genre nearly lost to time. S.E.

50 greatest latin pop songs

La India, “Ese Hombre” (1994)

In her debut solo album, Dicen Que Soy, Puerto Rican salsa singer La India recorded “Ese Hombre” – originally performed by Spanish singer Rocío Jurado – and slayed it. With production by Latin music giant Sergio George (Celia Cruz, Ivy Queen, Prince Royce), La India’s rendition became a women’s empowerment anthem of sorts, with incisive lyrics and powerhouse vocals that chin-check the prototypical womanizer. “Es un gran necio/Un estúpido engreído/Egoísta y caprichoso/Un payaso vanidoso,” goes her laundry list of take-downs, which translates to: “He is a great fool/A cocky fool/Egoist and capricious/A vain clown.”) The song peaked at Number One on the Billboard Tropical Songs chart and also reached the Top 20 on the Billboard Hot Latin Tracks and Latin Pop Songs charts. According to The New York Times, it was the song that earned La India her title as the “Princess of Salsa.” M.E.

50 greatest latin pop songs

Ricky Martin, “María (Pablo Flores Remix)” (1995)

Upon departing Puerto Rican boy band Menudo, Ricky Martin was grasping at straws for a way to retain his former band’s loyal, yet aging fans, as well as secure a more global audience. American fans may cite his English-language crossover, hallmarked by his 1998 single “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” as the defining moment of Martin’s career; but before he beguiled English speakers with “She Bangs,” he had the rest of the world swooning upon the 1995 release of “María,” his first of many international hits. Off his third studio album, A Medio Vivir, “María” is an electrifying, techno-samba ode to a difficult woman: “She’s like a mortal sin,” sings Martin, “That condemns you bit by bit.” The CD single alone sold five million copies, going diamond in France and platinum in many other countries. S.E.

50 greatest latin pop songs

Los Ángeles Azules “Cómo Te Voy A Olvidar” (1996)

Formed by three siblings in Mexico during the early Eighties, the Los Ángeles Azules are credited for popularizing cumbia sonidera, a variation of the cumbia genre that implements accordions and synthesizers to meld the folkloric rhythm with modernized electronics. Those added elements would come to define “Cómo Te Voy A Olvidar,” the group’s breakthrough song ­– featured on their 1996 album, Inolvidables – and an undeniable classic in the cumbia world. Its instantly recognizable accordion intro can fill dance halls in a flash, while the iconic trombone baritone blasts bridge its burning, yearning chorus. The song, and its accompanying album, solidified the band as a chart-topping act, and it’s considered one of the influences fueling cumbia’s new wave. Today, its legacy lives on: In 2013, Los Ángeles Azules released Cómo Te Voy A Olvidar, a greatest hits album comprised of re-recorded versions of their various classics featuring Latin pop contemporaries, such as Carla Morrison, Ximena Sariñana and Kinky. This past April, Los Ángeles Azules became the first traditional cumbia group to perform at Coachella. J.O.

50 greatest latin pop songs

Elvis Crespo, “Suavemente” (1998)

While Jennifer Lopez and Ricky Martin repped Puerto Rican pride for Anglophone audiences in the late Nineties, Elvis Crespo’s breakout hit held it down at many a wedding, graduation, baptism and quinceañera – and continued to do so for the next 20 years. After leaving his post as frontman of the merengue-house act Grupomanía, Crespo dropped his 1998 solo debut Suavemente, and the Caribbean diaspora was never the same. The title track is beguiling praise to a smooth kisser, held steady by congas and swayed by braying horns. “Suavemente” grooved at Number One on Billboard‘s Hot Latin Tracks chart for six weeks, and his following single, “Tu Sonrisa,” occupied the same spot later that year – making him the first merengue artist to achieve such a feat. “I began to sing it, and my son, who was taking a bath, heard it, and he spent all afternoon singing it,” Crespo told La Nación in 1998. “That told me the song would be a hit.” S.E.

50 greatest latin pop songs

Jennifer Lopez, “Waiting For Tonight” (1999)

Over the last two decades, J. Lo has been a Latina who makes pop music – but rarely has Our Lady of the Bronx felt settled in the Latin pop market. After making a dazzling breakthrough as the lead in 1997 biopic, Selena, Lopez was approached by Tommy Mottola, former Sony Music exec and then-husband of Mariah Carey. Together they hired a vocal coach and set their sights on her singing career, beginning with her first studio album, 1999’s On the 6. Originally written by Latin freestyle singer Maria Christensen for her band 3rd Party, Lopez took ownership of the English-language track “Waiting for Tonight” – giving nod to the late Nineties Eurodance craze with a Latin house flavor that is pure New York. “I don’t want to be straight Latin,” Lopez once told Emilio Estefan, while working on “Let’s Get Loud,” an underrated salsa cut off On the 6. “I want it to be more like, y’know, dance-y!” A reflection of her own experience as a Puerto Rican in the mainland – a perspective shared by many Latinx people living in the United States – “Waiting for Tonight” pays a soft tribute to the island sounds that raised her, while dominating dance charts around the world and cracking Top Ten on the Billboard Hot 100. The hybrid song would foreshadow her international pop reign, paving the way for other American-born Latina pop stars to flourish, such as Selena Gomez and Becky G. S.E.

50 greatest latin pop songs

Celia Cruz, “La Negra Tiene Tumbao” (2001)

A testament to the late Queen of Salsa’s lasting legacy, “La Negra Tiene Tumbao” (or, “The Black Woman Has Swagger”) is a contemporary classic that marries Celia Cruz’s trademark Cuban son with an urban edge. As First Lady of the Fania All-Stars, Cruz spent a lifetime unapologetically radiating with what we now call #blackgirlmagic, putting on for black women all over the diaspora. The Sergio George-produced track belongs to Cruz’s 59th studio album of the same name – which debuted at Number Five on the Billboard Latin Albums chart and Number Two on the Tropical Albums chart. “La Negra Tiene Tumbao” was nominated for Song of the Year, Record of the Year and Best Music Video at the third annual Latin Grammy Awards; its parent album took home the award for Best Salsa Album. The album would be Cruz’s penultimate recording before she died of brain cancer in 2003; she is now buried with her husband and longtime bandmate, Pedro Knight – under a pile of Cuban soil, by her request – at Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, neighboring the graves of jazz legends Duke Ellington and Miles Davis. Her iconic hit would be the theme for the 2016 Spanish-language telenovela Celia, which chronicles her legendary life. M.E.

50 greatest latin pop songs

Aventura, “Obsesión” (2002)

The breakthrough song from Bronx-based bachata group, Aventura, “Obsesión” follows a man’s maddening desire to possess a woman … to the point that he’s lost control of himself. Ahead of the machismo-driven reggaeton boom, the song features a cutting refrain by Judy Santos, feminine voice of reason: “It’s not love you’re feeling,” she interjects, “It’s obsession.” Famously fronted by Romeo Santos (no relation to the aforementioned singer), the now-defunct group ushered in a new wave of bachata music, breathing new life into the Dominican genre by incorporating elements of hip-hop and R&B. The standout track on Aventura’s We Broke the Rules, “Obsesión” helped the group become the first bachata act to land a Number One single in several European countries – in Italy, it remained Number One for 16 consecutive weeks. After Aventura’s dissolution in 2011, Romeo Santos would break hearts and score many Number One songs on his own, including 2014’s “Propuesta Indecente,” which topped Billboard‘s all-time Hot Latin Songs chart in 2016. He also became the first Latino soloist to headline – and sell out – both Yankee Stadium and Madison Square Garden. M.E.

50 greatest latin pop songs

Juanes, “A Dios le Pido” (2002)

“A Dios le Pido,” a celebratory anthem to peace and love, made Juanes one of the biggest Latin pop idols of this century. Built off a staccato guitar hook, this supercharged piece of funky alt-rock set the foundation for Juanes’s signature sound, later deployed on hits like “La Camisa Negra” and “Gatos de Agua Dulce.” Released post-9/11, and while Colombia was still recovering from Pablo Escobar’s reign of narcoterror, the song’s joy and optimism were a welcome reprieve amongst global turmoil. Its hopeful spirit even made its way to the divine, with Juanes performing the song before Pope Francis in 2015. A.C.

50 greatest latin pop songs

Tego Calderón, “Pa’ Que Retozen” (2002)

A pioneering reggaetonero and rapper from Puerto Rico, Tego Calderón helped break reggaeton internationally with his downtempo party classic, “Pa’ Que Retozen”, produced by DJ Joe and Rafy Mercenario. The lead single off his seminal debut album, El Abayarde, this slow-winding dance floor favorite was one of the first reggaeton songs to crack the United States market – and when the indie rapper’s supply couldn’t meet increasingly global demands, his album was bootlegged across continents. (That is, until Sony BMG stepped in to distribute in 2003.) Tego’s formal introduction to the game not only helped revolutionize Puerto Rican music in North America, but also worldwide. M.E.

50 greatest latin pop songs

Café Tacvba, “Eres” (2003)

On Café Tacvba’s painfully beautiful, Latin Grammy-winning song “Eres,” the band’s signature experimentations take a backseat, allowing open-hearted simplicity to grab the wheel. Since the early Nineties, the mercurial Mexico City band heralded a folk-steeped avant-garde sound that helped informed Latin alternative’s present: New York Times critic Jon Pareles once called their 1994 opus, Re, “the Beatles’ White Album for the Rock en Español movement.” But the stripped-down, bittersweet confessional “Eres” is a different breed of song. A nod to jangly Seventies rock ballads, “Eres” is one of the most tenderly poetic works in the pop-rock landscape of its time, a song that plummets into deep emotion… and it hurts so good. I.R.

50 greatest latin pop songs

Ivy Queen, “Quiero Bailar” (2003)

Armed with a heady, acerbic flow skilled enough to put a 10-piece MC crew to shame, the legendary Puerto Rican wordsmith is too quick-witted, too fly and too formidable when seizing her solo voice. Even while hanging with the hardest, horniest, or most macho guys in reggaeton, Ivy Queen stands her ground as she lends her pipes to empower women everywhere. “Yo te digo si tu me puedes provocar (I’ll tell you if you can provoke me) … Eso no quiere decir que pa’ la cama voy (That does not mean I’m going to bed with you),” she ferociously spits on 2003’s feminist opus “Quiero Bailar,” commanding the dance floor with equal parts grace, dignity, and badassery. “My flow has always been defined by women’s rights,” Ivy Queen told Rolling Stone in 2018. “The first thing to come out of my mouth was to give respect to the ladies. I want women to identify when they hear me.” I.R.

50 greatest latin pop songs

Julieta Venegas, “Algo Esta Cambiando” (2003)

Julieta Venegas was the queen of Latin alternative rock… until she decided to burn her kingdom to the ground. Frustrated by writer’s block, Venegas tore up the rock en español playbook in search of pop perfection, resulting in her 2003 album . Gone were the raging guitars and cathartic vocals; in came the bright synths and sing-a-long melodies. “Algo Está Cambiando,” the album’s biggest hit, was the purest distillation of this new sound, with a production so smooth it could cure mal de ojo. This new path made Venegas a chart smash, while more importantly, opening a path for Latina artists to embrace the pop charts on their own artistic terms. A.C.

50 greatest latin pop songs

Daddy Yankee, “Gasolina” (2004)

Before taking over the world alongside Luis Fonsi with “Despacito,” Puerto Rican reggaeton singer/rapper Daddy Yankee broke through with “Gasolina.” As one of reggaeton’s first true global phenomenons, “Gasolina” announced Daddy Yankee as an international star and introduced the genre to the rest of the world. Released as the lead single off his 2004 Barrio Fino album, “Gasolina” came at a time when reggaeton was beginning to cross over into the U.S. and Europe. It was this track, however, that hastened reggaeton’s global momentum and launched a new Latin pop explosion. Powered by a driving dembow beat, a brutal rap flow and salacious innuendo, “Gasolina” carries all the elements that make reggaeton a thrilling genre. Sung completely in Spanish, the song’s success is bolstered by its inescapable hook, which found countless non-Spanish-speaking listeners around the world belting its catchy lyrics. In 2005, “Gasolina” became the first reggaeton song to receive a Latin Grammy Award nomination for Record of the Year, marking a major industry milestone for the genre and legitimizing the sound in global Latin pop. Today, the legacy of “Gasolina” informs modern-day Latin pop beyond the confines of reggaeton and launched an international cultural movement beyond borders. J.O.

50 greatest latin pop songs

Grupo Climax, “Za Za Za (Mesa Que Mas Aplauda)” (2004)

The work of Veracruz one-hit-wonders Oskar Lobo and his Grupo Climax, their 2004 debut Za Za Za hit Number One on Billboard‘s Top Latin Albums chart – if only because its title track is a banger without comparison in the Latin pop universe. “Za Za Za (Mesa Que Mas Aplauda)” is as simple as it is self-aware: literally announcing itself as a party starter, the song ostensibly tells the story of a call girl over a frenetic merengue loop. It then quickly devolves into lists of random things, from occupations to cities to Mexican football clubs. It’s basic, it’s repetitive, but most of all it’s goddamn exhilarating, and will live on so long as Latino weddings have dance floors. A.C.

50 greatest latin pop songs

Calle 13, “Atrévete-Te-Te” (2005)

A reggaeton anthem for the new millennium, “Atrévete-Te-Te” grabbed bystanders by the musical jugular for its unmatched raunch, humor, and brilliant quips, inspiring many an ass-shake around the world. A vast departure from the hedonism and maximalist EDM of the time, Puerto Rico’s Calle 13 broke the boundaries of rap-reggaeton and shifted the course of Latin alternative music forever. “Who cares if you like Green Day?/Who cares if you like Coldplay?” asks MC Residente – addressing Boricua hipsters who turn their noses up at urban music. Whether it’s Visitante’s arresting reggaeton-cumbia beats, Residente’s fastball, sardonic banter, or that infectious clarinet intro, the group’s 2005 breakthrough hit will always remain one of the best things to come out of Puerto Rico since arroz con habichuelas. I.R.

50 greatest latin pop songs

Shakira feat. Wyclef Jean, “Hips Don’t Lie” (2006)

Released in 2006, the rocker-turned-Colombian pop empress Shakira dominated the Billboard Hot 100 charts for two consecutive weeks with “Hips Don’t Lie” – the singer’s first Number One single in the United States. The song, which also reached the Number One spot on the pop charts of at least 55 other countries, features Haitian rapper Wyclef Jean. Jean had initially evolved the hit from his original song, “Dance Like This,” for a potential Fugees comeback. (Yet according to Pras, Lauryn Hill wasn’t feeling it and walked out of the studio.) Shakira signed on to co-write the final edition and give it her own sazón – procuring trumpet samples from the 1992 salsa hit “Amores Como el Nuestro,” as performed by Jerry Rivera. An infectious worldbeat gem, “Hips Don’t Lie” went on to achieve countless honors, including a Grammy nomination, the Latin Billboard Award for Hot Latin Song and the MTV Video Music Award for Best Choreography in a Video. Directed by Sophie Muller and filmed in Los Angeles, the video is bursting with color, harking back to Shakira’s hometown of Barranquilla and its local Carnaval. M.E.

50 greatest latin pop songs

Bomba Estéreo, “Fuego” (2008)

Catapulting electro-cumbia into the future, “Fuego” is a trailblazing mix of EDM brilliance, psychedelic cumbia, and rap-reggae. The explosive indie-pop banger seemed likely to remain in the underground, but the fiery duo’s swagger was too hot to be kept as Colombia’s best secret. They are an unlikely crossover act that’s not only globalized their hybrid craft, but they’ve managed to mainstream without capitulating to the marketability of pop-urban rhythms. In “Fuego” they announce their mission statement, inspiring legions of digital folklorists along the way. Bomba has been keeping it lit ever since. I.R.

50 greatest latin pop songs

Don Omar feat. Lucenzo, “Danza Kuduro” (2010)

There is no resisting this song. One minute you hear it while scanning for toothpaste at Walgreens – the next minute you’re looking up plane tickets to the Azores. Don Omar, Puerto Rican reggaetonero and longtime frenemy of Daddy Yankee, has been known to deal out some bangers. But with French-Portuguese singer Lucenzo by his side, Don Omar hit the jackpot in 2010 with the one-of-a-kind “Danza Kuduro,” a Spanish/Portuguese-language tribute to an Angolan dance move. In the aftermath of 2000s reggaeton-mania, Don Omar seized an opportunity to innovate, adopting the kuduro 4/4 rhythm and dusting off an accordion sample for good measure. Don Omar’s globetrotting formula earned him his second Number One hit on Billboard‘s Hot Latin Songs chart – as well as Lucenzo’s first – and the single sold over a million digital copies. S.E.

50 greatest latin pop songs

3BallMTY, “Inténtalo” (2011)

As 3BallMTY, DJ Sheeqo Beat, DJ Otto and former member Erick Rincon updated traditional Latin American sounds with the futuristic ambitions of EDM. The result was a style dubbed tribal guarachero, an amalgam mixing regional Mexican styles and Afro-Cuban rhythms over an electronic framework. Admittedly, 3BallMTY were not the first to modernize ancestral sounds with urban beats; groups like Tijuana’s Nortec Collective and collaborative projects between Celso Piña, Control Machete and Blanquito Man pioneered the hybrid approach a full decade before as part of the Monterrey-based movement La Avanzada Regia. But where those efforts largely lived in the fringe, 3BallMTY were the first to go truly global. As the title track and breakthrough single off the trio’s 2011 debut album, “Inténtalo,” featuring Mexican singers América Sierra and El Bebeto, introduced international audiences to the tribal guarachero sound, with 3BallMTY as its de facto leader. A commercial success, the track garnered the group a Number 1 position on the Billboard Latin Songs chart. After they performed the song live at the Billboard Latin Music Awards in 2012, 3BallMTY took home the Latin Grammy Award for Best New Artist that same year. J.O.

50 greatest latin pop songs

Alex Anwandter, “Cómo Puedes Vivir Contigo Mismo?” (2011)

For gay pop idol Alex Anwandter, a loaded question – “How can you live with yourself?” – is not just a sentiment repeated to his ilk by homophobes, but doubles as the cheeky chorus of this LGBT-positive synth-pop intervention. A tribute to Paris Is Burning, the 1991 documentary chronicling the New York ballroom scene, the music video stars queer Chileans of many genders, lording over the runway with finesse. “Y aunque digan que es malo,” (“Even if they say it’s bad”) Anwandter sings defiantly, “Yo me siento en el cielo!” (“It feels like heaven!”) Like the legacy of Chilean rock group Los Prisioneros, this pop song both lights up the dance floor and challenges the powers that be. S.E.

50 greatest latin pop songs

Marc Anthony, “Vivir Mi Vida” (2013)

Marc Anthony’s crossover success came during Latin pop’s late Nineties takeover, along with Ricky Martin, and ex-wife/collaborator J.Lo. In that time, he cranked out hits like 1999’s “I Need to Know” and “You Sang to Me.” But his greatest contribution to pop is in his first love, which is salsa. While the Boricua singer took cues from Fania All-Stars Tito Puentes, Hector Lavoe and Rubén Blades, he decided to put his salsa mastery to exceptional use in 2012’s 3.0 — his first all-salsa album after a decade of tropical music hiatus. Originally a raï song by Algerian-French singer Khaled, the album’s greatest hit, “Vivir Mi Vida,” skyrocketed to Number One in Billboard‘s Hot Latin Songs, Latin Pop Songs and Tropical Airplay charts – proving the lasting viability of salsa genre. The song went on to reach 16x Platinum in the US. “This means more to me than ever because I am in a special time of my life and the words ‘Live My Life’ says it all,” said the Puerto Rican singer during the 14th annual Latin Grammy Awards. I.R.

50 greatest latin pop songs

Enrique Iglesias feat. Sean Paul, Descemer Bueno, Gente De Zona, “Bailando” (2014)

The son of Spanish pop balladeer Julio Iglesias and Filipina socialite Isabel Preysler, Enrique Iglesias scored the first of twenty number one songs with his 1998 English-language single, “Bailamos.” He would be subsequently dubbed by critics as the King of Latin Pop. But his greatest hit would come 14 years later in “Bailando,” a viral hit co-starring Cuban artists Descemer Bueno and Gente de Zona. The original Spanish-language version was a beast unto itself; it spent a record 41 consecutive weeks at the top of the Billboard Hot Latin Songs chart (four years before “Despacito” surpassed it). The official video, the 11th most-viewed video on YouTube today, was the first Spanish-language music video to reach more than 1 billion views. But it was the Sean Paul-assisted Spanglish remix, however, that helped “Bailando” reach crossover audiences – it peaked at Number 12 on the Hot 100 chart, one of the few songs primarily in Spanish ever to do so. Its global appeal lives within the song’s multicultural mix of Spanish flamenco, Latin pop and Cuban-flavored reggaeton. Iglesias later released two additional Portuguese renditions, separately aimed at Brazilian and Portuguese audiences, once again steering an already-global hit into new territory. With the multilingual approach of “Bailando,” Iglesias and company flexed the power of the Latin music market, while helping lay the groundwork for the Latin pop revolution currently dominating this decade. J.O.

50 greatest latin pop songs

J Balvin, “Ginza” (2015)

Before he was raking in Number One hits with Beyoncé and Cardi B, Colombian singer-songwriter J Balvin slinked into mainstream Latin pop territory with his arty, bare-bones takes on reggaeton and dancehall. “Si necesitas reggaetón, dale,” encourages Balvin – “If you need reggaeton, get it.” Balvin’s unbothered, melodic flow sets him apart from the aggro reggaeton players of yesteryear; as do the understated synth-pop flourishes laid down by producer Sky Rompiendo. After sitting at the top of the Hot Latin Songs chart for 22 weeks, “Ginza” broke the Guinness World Record for the chart’s longest stay at number one by a solo artist. But with equal emphasis on his visual output, Balvin also became one of the most-watched artists on YouTube: by 2016 he raked in over a billion views for his 2013 hit “Ay Vamos” – a first for any reggaeton artist – thus joining the 10-digit views club, where fellow Latin heartthrobs Romeo Santos, Enrique Iglesias and Maluma reside. Balvin would crack the billion mark again with 2017’s “Mi Gente” and 2018’s “X,” forever altering the standard by which future Latin hits would be measured. S.E.

50 greatest latin pop songs

Pitbull feat. Sensato, Osmani Garcia and Dayami La Musa, “El Taxi” (2015)

Known as “Mr. Worldwide” to his Anglophone fans, Cuban-American rapper Pitbull dialed it back to his native tongue on 2015’s Grammy-winning album Dale, his second Spanish-language album. As Mr. Todo El Mundo, he offered up a Spanish-language rendition of “Murder She Wrote” by Jamaican reggae duo Chaka Demus & Pliers – this time, starring a sexually forward woman in a taxi cab. Using wordplay only Cubans would get – “Ella hace de todo, todo, to to,” Pitbull sings (“She does it all, all, [euphemism for vagina]”) – the foursome playfully skirted around strict Cuban censorship laws, and the lasting product is pure fire. S.E.

50 greatest latin pop songs

Luis Fonsi feat. Daddy Yankee, “Despacito” (2017)

It’s the song that your mom and abuelita know by heart – not to mention the anthem that soundtracked virtually every single wedding, quinceañera and bar mitzvah across the nation last year. As one of the biggest and best songs of 2017, “Despacito” from Puerto Rican crooner Luis Fonsi, alongside reggaeton king and “Gasolina” star Daddy Yankee, is the undeniable all-time champion of Latin pop. As one of the most successful hits in pop music history, “Despacito,” combined with its Justin Bieber-assisted remix, is the most streamed song of all time; as well, the original’s official music video remains the most-viewed clip on YouTube ever. The fact that this reggaeton-meets-Latin-pop hybrid is primarily in Spanish further amplifies its universal appeal. “At no time was I trying to write a crossover record,” Fonsi told Rolling Stone last May. Regardless, the resulting so-called “Despacito effect” has advanced a wave of subsequent Spanish-language hits and mainstream crossovers, from the Latin trap explosion to J Balvin’s reggaeton globalization.  J.O.

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