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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
18

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
19

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
20

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 (Refigurin