A toast to love with paper cups: The best of Los Lobos 1984-1996

Dismissing them as a solid live band whose chops didn’t court me to evangelism, I’ve hesitated about posting a list. But in the last three weeks I’ve spent hours with their first few albums I’ve realized what a fucking trip Los Lobos remain. Here was the original problem: 1983’s How Will the Wolf Survive? is their least interesting major album. A contrarian opinion, perhaps. Stifled by embryonic notions of what a band with back-to-basics mixing deserved, its many good songs sound hemmed in; maybe live the band tore shit up? The songwriting improves on By the Light of the Moon, released months before Los Lobos recorded the La Bamba soundtrack, one of the 1980’s least commented-on moments of serendipity. At best their #1 cover of the Ritchie Valens classic gets ignored if not condescended to: I say fuck’em. Savor the on-point, fierce guitar work by David Hidalgo and César Rosas and the embrace of an American tradition that must include Mexican influences. In a year when Trio, Dirty Dancing, and Cloud Nine showed the strength of boomerism, I’m impressed a L.A band with Mexican roots scored this well.

The real transformation for Los Lobos took place on 1990’s oft-ignored The Neighborhood, on which they didn’t clean the scuzz from their guitars and let the rhythms venture far and wide across North America. “Emily” and “Deep Dark Hole” evoke a despair all the more cutting for being set to such buoyant arrangements. I was reading SPIN when 1992’s Kiko blew thirtysomething rock critics away. I wish my generation embraced what Los Lobos accomplished as fulsomely as they did Paul Simon. Loud, occasionally detailed, the album mixed Rosas’ dutiful blues exercises with uncharacterizable things like “Kiko and the Lavender Moon” and “Two Janes.” In contrast to the elbows-first approach on Crowded House and Richard Thompson material, producer Mitchell Froom lets the band weird up the arrangements themselves. If once they evoked The Band on By the Light of the Moon‘s “Mess We’re In,” they match them on their own terms with “Reva’s House.”

And they were just getting started! 1996’s Colossal Head boasts the song topping my list: a barnburner treating guitars as tuneful noise (Wire might admire it). As one of the more fruitful of side projects, Hidalgo, Froom, engineer Tchad Blake, and Louie Pérez’s Latin Playboys did more for dissonance than Pavement and Sebadoh combined. This is where I lose the thread, but looking past the sometimes humdrum songwriting Los Lobos recorded a catalog that I overlooked. Here’s my redress.

1. Mas y Mas
2. Don’t Worry Baby
3. Viva La Raza
4. Mess We’re In
5. The Neighborhood
6. Will the Wolf Survive?
7. Colossal Head
8. Kiko and the Lavender Moon
9. La Bamba
10. I Got Loaded
11. Be Still
12. One Time One Night
13. Two Janes
14. The Hardest Time
15. Maricela
16. Set Me Free (Sara Lee)
17. Georgia Slop
18. New Zandu
19. Shakin’ Shakin’ Shakes
20. Let’s Say Goodnight

3 thoughts on “A toast to love with paper cups: The best of Los Lobos 1984-1996

  1. Appalled this gem didn’t make it. Possibly the most joyyful interplay of guitarras acusticas in a instrumental ever recorded.

    1. And David Hidalgo’s picking influenced Rubén Albarrán’s CAFÉ TACUBA. And this song is why. Their instrumentals are scorching chicano miniautures.

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