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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
15

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
16

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
17

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
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 (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