Narcocorridos, or “drug ballads”, are songs that soundtrack the world of narcoculutra. Since the Mexican drug war began in 2006, the genre has exploded in popularity and the lyrics have kept pace with the brutal violence unfolding in the streets. While the accordion and horn driven music may be inaccessible to many English listeners, the stories behind the music are shocking and incredible. The ten albums below are indispensable pieces of the genre's long and bloody history.
La Historia de los Exitos (2009)
La Historia de los Exitos is a greatest hits compilation of Sonora-born Elizalde, a beloved and tragic figure in the corrido world. On the album's fifth track — “A Mis Enemigos (To My Enemies) — Elizalde brazenly addresses rival cartels, calling them “snakes.” Those enemies would eventually catch up to him: the singer was gunned down in 2006 after a concert during which he sung the song. Legend has it that Zeta cartel took personal offense to the corrido and ordered the hit on Elizalde.
5. Los Tigres Del Notre
Corridos Prohibidos (1989)
The title of this album, which translates to Banned Ballads, likely refers to the fact that narcocorridos are often banned from Mexican radio stations, as the government says the songs promote and glorify narcocultura. Though often a banned song gains street cred and becomes even more popular. Los Tigres del Norte certainly didn't mind being off the airwaves– they've sold 32 million records in their long career.
Movimento Alterado Vol. 4 (2010)
This complication record is the perfect introduction to the “Alternative Movement”, an increasingly popular group of corrido artists whose Facebook page details their mantra as “a new genre offering worship to bullets and death.” Like a hip-hop collective's mix-tape, this album showcases the crew who release music under the Twiins Music Group, a small music empire run by brothers Adolfo and Omar Valenzuela. On “Sanguinarios del M1”, which racked up tens of millions of views on YouTube, Bukanas De Culiacan, El Komander, Los Buitres and others try to outdo each other with violent imagery. These guys grew up with the drug war and their bloody style of corridos have quickly become the most popular in the genre.
3. El Komander
El Katch (2009)
El Komander's popular debut El Katch was instrumental in establishing the controversial Movimento Alterado as a serious force in the corrido business. The trademark ulta-violence bangs through on tracks like “The Executioner” and “Ten Shots Per Second.” Born Alfredo Rios in Culiacan, Sinaloa — a hotbed of the drug war — El Komander is now a mainstream star and the poster boy of the Movimento Alterado. A playboy who croons to the ladies; a dress-up gangster who creates fantasies of narco glory in the heads of young men.
2. Los Tucanes de Tijuana
Clave Nueva (1994)
Los Tucanes are an enduringly popular corrido group, charting dozens of radio hits and playing at Dodger Stadium. Their album Clave Nueva (New Key) lands on this list because of its ballad to El Chapo Guzmán, the largest drug lord in Mexico and head of the Sinaloa Cartel. The songs tells of Chapo's dealings with the Columbians, who the DEA claims the real-life Guzman works with to import tons of cocaine into Mexico for profits that land him on Forbes' lists.
1. The Career of Chalino Sanchez
Even twenty years after his death, Chalino Sánchez remains the mythic godfather of the narcocorrido game. In the 1980s, the young man from Culiacán began recording corridos for a fee directly for his tough guy clients, a practice that continues today. This raw style would persist for his entire career; it would come to define him set him apart from more polished acts. Sanchez didn't just sing about the outlaw life– his biography reads like a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel. Lore has it that at 15 he killed the man who raped his sister and intermittent gun battles at clubs bought him more notoriety than any publicist could ever drum up. He lived by the sword and he died by it– in 1992 he was found in a ditch in Culiacán, two bullets to the head.
In his book Narcocorrido, expert Elijah Wald writes that Shanchez's was the “Mexican version of the Tupac Shakur story: Chalino's death elevated him from a singer to a legend… Within a couple of years, the corrido scene from Culiacán to Los Angeles was flooded with imitators, all singing in approximations of his raw country tenor and pictured with pistols and rifles.”