Do you have any bands or artists who you just love even though they’re not very popular (thus requiring some effort to get and stay hip to their music) or even particularly cool (so, for example, your friends won’t laud your sophisticated tastes as a result)? I have a few of those and Los Lobos is high on the list.
The group began in the late 1970s, a quartet of Mexican-Americans Cesar Rosas, David Hidalgo (both guitarists and vocalists, though Hidalgo also plays violin, accordion, lap steel and other things), bassist Conrad Lozano and drummer Louie Perez. Saxophonist and keyboardist Steve Berlin, the one gringo in the band, was gradually brought into the fold, becoming a full member in the mid-1980s. Aside from Perez transitioning gradually away from drums to being a rhythm guitarist and backing vocalist (replaced behind the kit for touring/recording, most significantly by “unofficial band member” Cougar Estrada), there have been no real personnel changes. Having that kind of stability and longevity is unusual, especially for a group (unlike U2, for example) that is not making gobs of money. For example, although the bulk of their songs are co-written by Hidalgo and Perez (with Rosas writing a significant number as well) all five take equal shares of the publishing proceeds.
That is only appropriate, since songwriting is the foundation of their sound. Stylistically they’re all over the map from rock to folk (American and Mexican) to rockabilly to country to Texano to blues to R&B and various combinations thereof. What’s remarkable, though, is that their songs are consistently excellent. There are a lot of bands I love who, truth be told, are pretty inconsistent with their songcraft and/or who lose steam over time (I love Paul Simon and Stevie Wonder, for example, but I think few would argue that their recent work is on par with what they did in the 1970s and they now put out records approximately every 23 years). These guys have managed to churn out dozens and dozens of excellent songs over a long period of time. I can’t necessarily claim that many of their songs or albums would make it to my “desert island” lists (and I’m not sure whether I put more value on frequent excellence or occasional brilliance) but being excellent often over a sustained period of time is nothing to sneeze at.
I don’t know what this says about them (brilliantly conscious of the need to preserve and acknowledge their true status as self-directed “cult” band? just poor at capitalizing on a big opportunity?), but I also find it kind of remarkable that they followed up their one brief moment in the sun as mainstream rock stars (singing Richie Valens songs on the La Bamba soundtrack) was followed up by La Pistola y el Corazon, an acoustic album of traditional Mexican songs (a very nice album, though it and the La Bamba stuff are both absent from this very exclusive list).
Note that, unlike most of my Top 10 lists, this one is in chronological order as opposed to descending order of preference. Without any further ado . . .
1 ) “Will the Wolf Survive” from How Will the Wolf Survive?
This was my first Los Lobos album (and their first to be widely released, and their first mostly sung in English). I had heard (and really enjoyed) this track on the radio, but with no follow-up or heavy MTV airplay I filed it away for possible future reference and only bought the record several years later (after the whole La Bamba thing) when I read a glowing review in a “best of the decade” feature in Rolling Stone. And holy crap, what a record! Every tune is solid and many are great (to paraphrase Robert Christgau’s review of the record in 1984, one keeps looking to see who wrote the songs only to discover they’re all originals). This beautiful and topical song (based on an article about their namesake-animal in National Geographic) features a soaring vocal from David Hidalgo, a nice, subtle rockabilly guitar solo from Cesar Rosas and a guest spot from Alex Acuna on percussion.
2 ) “Set Me Free (Rosa Lee)” from By the Light of the Moon
I remember hearing this a lot in 1987 (the follow-up to “Shakin’ Shakin’ Shakes”) and being struck that a) I loved it, b) it had a really propulsive groove and c) this meant that maybe they weren’t one-hit-wonders (though I now realize that none of their songs up to this point were really hits anyway). Cesar Rosas takes the lead on this one (songwriter, lead vocals), though also featured is Steve Berlin on a wicked saxophone solo, having recently gone from being a guest contributor to How Will the Wolf Survive? to becoming the 5th (and last) full-fledged member of the band.
3 ) “I Wan’na Be Like You (the Monkey Song)” from the Stay Awake multi-artist Disney compilation.
For this compilation, Los Lobos was tapped by Hal Wilner to perform a song from The Jungle Book, which they do irresistibly. It’s an acoustic number featuring Rosas’ vocals, Hidalgo’s burning acoustic guitar and Berlin’s baritone sax.
4 ) “Someday” issued on the compilation Just Another Band from East L.A. (out-take from sessions for The Neighborhood)
I think The Neighborhood (their first album of original music after the whole “La Bamba” thing) is my second-favorite Los Lobos record behind the wicked-awesome-and-I-love-it-too-much-to-be-entirely-objective How Will the Wolf Survive? and a testament to the top-to-bottom strength of the songs on the album is that “Someday” was left on the cutting room floor for years. It’s a beautiful, brooding, soulful neo-gospel song featuring Hidalgo’s passionate vocals and searing lead guitar. My favorite of his bluesy guitar solos is on a tune called “Just A Man” from Kiko, but among the songs on this list this is the best example of what I love about his guitar solo style. Interestingly they re-recorded this song in 2004 with Mavis Staples on vocals – also killer, though I prefer this version.
5 ) “Be Still” from The Neighborhood
This song shows some of the group’s acoustic, “folkloric” vibe that they explored in a more authentic context on their previous album La Pistola y el Corazon, here in the context of a touching, tender and supremely catchy original song (in English). In addition to his vocals, Hidalgo contributes some emotionally intense and melodic work on violin.
6 ) “Reva’s House” from Kiko
Los Lobos had begun working with keyboardist/producer Mitchell Froom and engineer Tchad Blake before this, but the remarkable Kiko album is the one on which this collaboration began having a really noticeable sonic impact – sometimes dreamy, sometimes edgy. This unsettling yet catchy song, which tastefully takes on the topic of rape, has elements of both.
7 ) “Maricela” from Colossal Head
Colossal Head is debatably the sonic pinnacle of the band’s work with the Froom/Blake team. I remember buying this one in college (in an ironic moment that perhaps symbolizes my relationship with the group) using a Borders gift certificate I’d been given. The songs are great, but perhaps more than on any of their other albums (for me, anyway) they function noticeably better in the context of the album as a whole. The one exception is “Maricela,” an irresistible Spanish-language cumbia-meets-grunge track by Rosas.
8 ) “This Time” from This Time
This album is not one of the band’s strongest, but the opening track is a great example of their affinity for (and skill with) catchy neo-soul songs. Hidalgo sings lead and Rosas gets in a little bit of tasty lead guitar, while there is an extra fullness of textures thanks to the keyboards of Mitchell Froom (on board as producer again).
9 ) “Rita” from The Ride
I can only speculate on the back story here, as this song (written by Hidalgo and Perez) is about being mentally and emotionally overwhelmed and comes on the heels of the kidnapping and murder of Rosas’ wife, Rita. Whether or not the connection is as direct as it would seem, it is a beautiful, moody, haunting and emotionally intense piece of music.
10 ) “The Road to Gila Bend” from The Town and the City
This is a good song to end with as it shows some of the seeming contradictions in Los Lobos’ music that are really just examples of their eclecticism and versatility. Like much of their music through the years, this song depicts the plight of immigrants, in this case a man trying to make his way to safety. The music, though, is not folkloric or in any way Mexican – quite the contrary, it’s a grungy rock song that sounds as if it could have been recorded by Neil Young with Crazy Horse or during the Freedom era. While the contrast is interesting, the bigger point is that once again, the song itself is fabulous.