It’s time to go against the grain.
We’re taking a step away from the mainstream.
You won’t find any Shakira, Juanes or Marc Anthony here.
You’ve heard those names before, right?
If you’ve been searching the web for some Spanish-language music suggestions, there’s a good chance that you’ve run into those common recommendations.
And while they are all fine artists (in my humble opinion, at least), they may leave something to be desired for pickier music fans.
So, if you’re looking for Spanish music from a bit further out of left field, you’ve come to the right place!
In a moment, I’ll be suggesting ten of my absolute favorite Spanish-language “alternative” music albums for your listening enjoyment.
But first, some nuts and bolts stuff—why listen to Spanish music in the first place?
Why Does Spanish Music Make Such a Great Language Learning Tool?
- Music naturally stimulates memory. Now I’m no neuroscientist, but I’ve heard this is the case and I believe it 100%. Have you ever heard a pop song from ten years ago, only to surprise yourself by still knowing all the words? Imagine being able to unlock this same power for language learning—that’s what good music can do.
- Singing along with music can help improve your pronunciation. There are sounds that exist in Spanish that simply aren’t found in English, and sometimes learning to pronounce them correctly can prove quite challenging. Singing along with music is great practice.
- Music is a language learning tool you can use anywhere. Modern technology like the smartphone and the mp3 player now gives us access to vast musical libraries pretty much everywhere we go. By listening to music you can practice your Spanish in the car, on the subway, out jogging, wherever.
- Music is an excellent window into other cultures. Much like literature, music is a fantastic tool for understanding other people all around the world. This is perhaps even more true when it comes to “alternative” music—it’s able to take a more honest look at a wider variety of topics than radio pop ever could.
Tips for Learning Spanish with Alternative Music
- Read along with the lyrics the first few times you listen to a song. This will help you connect the sounds with the words and also become familiar with any difficult accents. If you can, try to find an official source of lyrics like an artist’s website. Spanish language lyrics sites are notorious for neglecting to include accent marks and often contain other orthographic errors that can be confusing to non-native speakers.
- If you don’t know a word, look it up! This is how you learn, isn’t it? Once you’ve figured out what a word means, make sure to include it in your preferred study routine so you don’t forget it.
- If you can’t find a word in your dictionary, it may be slang. If you suspect this to be the case, a simple Google search will clear things up nine times out of ten.
- If you’re trying to learn a specific variety of Spanish, make sure to choose music from the right region. As you probably know, Spanish in Spain is quite different from Spanish in Latin America—and even there, there’s a lot of variety. If you’re planning a trip to Buenos Aires, try to find an Argentinian band, and if you’re headed to Santiago, look for an artist from Chile. Luckily for you, we’re about to take a look at ten albums representing a wide variety of countries from around the Spanish-speaking world!
If this sounds like a lot of work, you can always use FluentU to learn songs. FluentU lets you learn Spanish through the web’s best Spanish music videos. There’s a wide variety of videos—topics like soccer, Disney musicals, TV shows, music videos and even magical realism, as you can see here:
Choose any video that strikes your fancy! You’ll see how many Spanish vocabulary words you can learn from it, and you can even look at the transcript of the dialogue and practice vocabulary before watching the video.
Every video comes with interactive subtitles. So, when you choose a music video or something else to sing along with, you’ll find that all the lyrics are translated for you. You can hover over any word or phrase to see the translation, along with a helpful image.
Clicking on the word shows you useful example sentences, as well as other video clips which use the word. For example, check out this screenshot from a popular song by Carlos Baute:
You can even review the words in a review session that uses video context to help embed the words in your memory. You’ll be able to create vocab lists and track your progress as you advance through video after video.
The best part is that FluentU keeps track of the vocabulary that you’re learning, and it recommends you examples and videos based on the words you’ve already learned. You have a truly personalized experience.
The best part? You can try FluentU for free.
Start using FluentU on the website with your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the App from iTunes or the Google Play store and bring FluentU’s innovative language-learning experience to your iOS and Android device.
So without further ado…
10 Spanish Alternative Music Albums for Language Learners
1. Los Planetas – Pop
Where and when: Granada, Spain, 1996
Sounds like: Somewhere between Weezer and My Bloody Valentine
This only semi-ironically named record was the second full-length from Spanish group Los Planetas. It catches them in a transitional period, morphing from underground darlings into a more mainstream alternative rock act.
Though they’d later go on to add some indigenous Spanish elements into their music—flamenco, specifically—at this point their sound was still firmly planted in their English-language influences, chief among them an American group called Mercury Rev. If you’re a fan of ’90s rock that bridges the gap between poppy, noisy and experimental, this should be a great album for you.
2. Los Amigos Invisibles – The New Sound of the Venezuelan Gozadera
Where and when: Caracas, Venezuela, 1998
Sounds like: If Talking Heads turned the funk—and the raunchiness—up to eleven
“Güelcome,” the brief introductory track from this Venezuelan group’s second album, features a narrator clearly outlining the two major themes of the record: “Latin dance” and “sex culture.” You can’t fault them for a lack of honesty. The lyrics, which do at times get pretty darn lascivious, explore the seedier aspects of Caracas nightlife—so maybe don’t play this one in front of your Spanish-speaking grandmother.
However, the music is undeniable, an infectious mix of funk, disco and acid jazz with plenty of Latin American rhythms thrown in for good measure. For one of Latin America’s most adventurous groups and exciting live acts still going strong, check out this record.
3. Soda Stereo – Canción animal
Where and when: Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1990
Sounds like: A harder rocking, infinitely more likeable U2
Soda Stereo, formed in Buenos Aires in 1982, was the first rock band to achieve widespread success throughout the Spanish-speaking world, and this album was the one that truly elevated them to superstardom.
Originally adopting more of a classic rock sound, this album is where they began to experiment a bit with new influences including progressive rock, shoegaze, and electronic music, fascinations that would continue to grow with time. This album, however, was their commercial high water mark; “De música ligera,” the song included above, was the last song played at their final concert in December of 2007.
4. Juana Molina – Segundo
Where and when: Buenos Aires, Argentina, 2000
Sounds like: A poppier The Books toying with Argentinian folk music
If the above “sounds like” leaves you drawing a blank, I apologize—it’s just that it’s nearly impossible to succinctly describe the style of this Argentine singer-songwriter. Once a popular television host/comedian, she quit her job to release her first album in 1996, only to have it panned by bewildered local critics.
Nonetheless she soldiered on, and with this, her second album, the critics in her home country and around the world finally caught on. Characterized as “folktronica,” “indietronica,” “ambient,” and plenty of other genre names that might raise more questions than answers, I suggest just listening to her music. Her beautiful, ethereal songs combine acoustic and electronic elements.
5. Cultura Profética – M.O.T.A.
Where and when: San Juan, Puerto Rico, 2005
Sounds like: A roots reggae band discovering the sounds of jazz, rap and more
This is the fourth record by Puerto Rican reggae group Cultura Profética, which started out as a pretty standard roots reggae outfit before eventually transforming into one of Latin America’s most compelling and interesting groups.
This record, clocking in at an astounding one hour and 18 minutes, is a tour de force, combining their classic Caribbean sound with influences from around the world including jazz (“Nadie se atreve“), rap (“Canción despojo“), and even indigenous styles (“Yavida“). The lyrics are a real treat on this one, spanning from evocative love songs to political contemplations and more.
6. Los Tres – La Espada & la Pared
Where and when: Santiago, Chile, 1995
Sounds like: A less debauched Rolling Stones filtered through a Chilean alt-rock lens
Prior to the 1990s, many forms of popular media—especially typically counter-cultural ones like rock music—were banned under Chile’s right-wing military dictatorship. When things began to change during that decade, there was an explosion in new art, and Los Tres was at the forefront of the movement.
While many bands began adopting the newest trends hoping for quick commercial success, Los Tres went the other way, incorporating Chilean folk music into their international blues/rock blend. Nevertheless, the public loved them, proving yet again that musicians can achieve success without comprising their sound or their ideals.
7. Él Mató a un Policía Motorizado – La dinastía Scorpio
Where and when: La Plata, Argentina, 2012
Sounds like: The guitar pop of Built to Spill with the loud-quiet-loud dynamics of the Pixies
Just as the classic alt-rock sound of the ’90s never seemed to quite die off in the English-speaking world, it carries on in Spanish-speaking Latin America as well. The oddly named Él Mató a un Policía Motorizado formed in 2003, but it may as well have been 1993 based on the sort of sounds they make.
These sounds encompass an endearing mix of classic guitar pop with loud-quiet-loud dynamics and the occasional noise freakout à la Sonic Youth. This is their newest album, released back in 2012.
8. Javiera Mena – Esquemas juveniles
Where and when: Santiago, Chile, 2006
Sounds like: The intimate and nostalgic twee pop of Camera Obscura or Belle and Sebastian
It’s almost as if Chilean pop star Javiera Mena’s first album was released by an entirely different artist. While her two more recent efforts are huge, club/festival-ready electronic pop albums made for the dance floor, this record, her first, is something else—a generally subdued, understated piece created mostly with acoustic instruments.
The end result is simply a beautiful pop album. Besides for her immense talent, Javiera Mena is also recognized for being one of the only openly lesbian pop musicians in Chile and wider Latin America—a fact that may subtly shine through in the video clip above.
9. Manu Chao – Clandestino
Where and when: Spain via Paris, France, 1998
Sounds like: A melting pot of reggae and Latin American folk music with a punk edge
Manu Chao, raised in France as the son of exiles from Franco’s Spain, is a strange figure—a political and musical outsider with a penchant for exploration and experimentation who nevertheless became one of the most popular musicians in the Spanish-speaking world!
That’s not to say that this, his first solo album after the breakup of his band Mano Negra, is only sung in Spanish—there’s also French, English, and a bit of Portuguese thrown into the mix. Spanish dominates though, which makes me feel comfortable including it on my list. Check out the songs “Clandestino,” “Mentira,” “El viento,” and the above-included “Desaparecido” to see what this incredible album is all about.
10. Café Tacvba – Re
Where and when: Mexico City, Mexico, 1994
Sounds like: …just keep reading!
Café Tacvba is arguably the “biggest” Spanish-language alternative music act in the world today, and this is why I’ve saved them for last! Though it isn’t their first album, Re is really where the legend begins. It’s an hour-long exploration of music in general, compared to the Beatles’ self-titled record (The White Album) by none other than the New York Times.
Throughout its 20 tracks you’ll hear Mexican genres like norteño and banda (half parody, half homage), international Latin sounds like samba and flamenco, loud, distorted, straight-up punk rock, and much more. “Las Flores,” the song included above, is a favorite from the record—but it’s only a small slice of what Re has to offer.
Now it’s time to choose what you like and continue your musical exploration from there. And don’t forget—make sure to include at least a little bit of time studying!
Jim Dobrowolski is a freelance writer, a passionate language learner and the proud husband of a dentist from Mexico. When he’s not working or blogging at Spanish Learner Central, he might be found strumming a guitar, climbing a small mountain or exploring his newly adopted hometown of Buffalo, New York.
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