Who tops the Spanish critics’ charts?

A group of sociologists has assembled a best-of-the-best list of the top 50 national musicians From the last half century, Radio Futura and Camarón lead the way

Left to right: Luis and Santiago Auserón and Enrique Sierra of Radio Futura back in the 1980s.
Left to right: Luis and Santiago Auserón and Enrique Sierra of Radio Futura back in the 1980s.manuel escalera

The Revista Española de Investigaciones Sociológicas (Reis - or, the Spanish Magazine of Sociological Research) does not sound like a particularly promising source of revelations on the subject of pop music.

Yet its latest issue offers a fascinating look at who the highest-valued Spanish artists are in the eyes of the country's music critics. This highly eclectic selection awards top spot to intellectual rock band Radio Futura, who are followed closely by the singer-songwriter Joan Manuel Serrat and the late flamenco singer Camarón de la Isla (who was among the first to fuse flamenco and pop in his seminal album La leyenda del tiempo).

The project was headed by Fernán del Val, Javier Noya and C. Martín Pérez-Colma, sociologists at Complutense University and the distance university UNED, based on four extensive surveys by music magazines.

The results, ordered into a top 50 list, may raise more than one eyebrow, but the researchers' real goal was not so much to get to know critics' musical tastes as to explore their thought processes. Or in their own words, "to find out which social and cultural variables produced the hierarchy of tastes that make up their esthetic canon."

The goal was less to know critics' tastes as to explore their thought processes

The title of the study is certainly daunting: ¿Autonomía, sumisión o hibridación sonora? La construcción del canon estético del pop-rock español (Autonomy, submission or hybridization of sound? The construction of the esthetic canon in Spanish pop-rock). What it mostly means is that musicians had a wide array of options to choose from when powerful sounds from abroad began pouring into Spain, chiefly rock 'n' roll and its derivatives.

Some took the path of rejection, embracing national traditions: copla singers are leading examples of this choice. Others imitated imported structures, sometimes going as far as to sing in English. Yet others "indigenized" rock with local sounds and instruments.

The lists that went into making this meta-lineup of the top 50 Spanish bands were originally drawn up by the music magazines Efe Eme, Rockdelux and Rolling Stone.

So how reliable is the list of lists? Del Val, Noya and Martín Pérez-Colma attribute the results to the music critics who were asked for their opinion, without considering the possibility of a slant imposed by their editors or the temptation to fudge the results to stake out a position in the market and stand out from the competition. These results were contrasted against a massive survey conducted by EL PAÍS in 2009 (Cien músicos hispanoamericanos eligen las 100 canciones que cambiaron su vida - or, 100 Spanish-American musicians choose the 100 songs that changed their life); the 2006 book 201 discos para engancharse al pop/rock español (201 records to get you hooked on Spanish pop/rock); and an international meta-list compiled in 2006. And here is where substantial differences can be appreciated: in the canon of the English-speaking world, 1960s songs rule. In Spain, by contrast, the 1980s figure most prominently.

The lists used were drawn up by music magazines such as 'Rolling Stone'

The authors of the study note the absence of rumba, heavy metal and punk rock from the Spanish "best of best" list. It bears noting that flamenco rumba, like country music in the US, worked more on the basis of singles rather than full LPs. As for heavy metal, Spain had some representatives - Barón Rojo and Obús get a mention - but they had frustrating professional careers and were unable to escape a horrible label, Zafiro, which neither respected them nor helped them grow.

On the other hand, the list also contains no traces of the arch-famous crooners of the 1960s and early 1970s, such as Raphael, Camilo Sesto, Nino Bravo or Julio Iglesias.

According to Del Val, Noya and Martín Pérez-Colma, Spanish critics appear to favor local music over imitations of foreign patterns; they also hold lyrics in high esteem and consider cosmopolitanism a bonus. But this is only true to a certain extent: although there has always been a strong foreign presence among our musician community, the only ones to be admitted into the canon are Argentineans such as Andrés Calamaro, Moris, Alejo Stivel and Ariel Rot. While not xenophobic, Spain's musical scene looks nothing like its French equivalent, with its abundance of exotic-sounding surnames.

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