There are so many outstanding, classic Fania albums that picking just 10 seems like a crime. But among all the great choices, these are the 10 that I consider not only my favorites but essential to a good classic salsa collection - something that now seems possible and practical since Emusica has remastered so much of the Fania catalog.
If there is one album that is considered THE classic salsa album, it's Siembra. Willie Colon was looking for a new vocalist after splitting with Hector Lavoe and Panamanian Ruben Blades fit the bill. Their collaboration is one of the high points of the Fania years.
Siembra was a virtual documentary of the contemporary Latino's New York experience. Most of the songs were written by Blades and include "Pedro Navajo," a reworking of "Mack the Knife" and "Plastico" which is a warning against blatant materialism.
If you are serious about salsa, Siembra must be part of your collection.
Originally released in 1969, El Malo was the first collaboration of Willie Colon and Hector Lavoe. Colon, then 17 years old, had signed a deal with Fania and Lavoe, then 20 years old, was the suggested vocalist. The album featured Colon's streetwise lyrics and heavy trombone instrumentation; Lavoe added a more rural style of singing. They were to become a golden duo until Lavoe's drug problem broke-up the band in the mid-1970s.
The critics panned the album, finding the music too raw, but the public loved it and today it is one of the classics of early salsa and the Fania label.
After splitting with Colon, Hector Lavoe was insecure about going out and making a solo album. When he finally did (Colon produced the album) he was surprised at his success.
La Voz was his first solo album and started the singer on a stellar track that was disrupted by Lavoe's drug problems and the waning of salsa-mania. Far from censuring the artist, Lavoe's public only seemed to embrace the singer more as his life spiraled out of control.
Of the few non-Latino musicians involved with the new salsa movement, Larry Harlow was one of the pioneers of the early days of Fania. Primarily a pianist, Harlow studied music in Cuba in the 1950s and his Orquesta Harlow was one of the first to sign with the newly formed record label.
Heavy Smokin' (a reference to marijuana) was the first Fania label album released although Harlow went on to produce over 150 albums for Fania.
One of the best selling salsa albums of all time paired Fania co-founder Johnny Pacheco and Celia Cruz. There were (and are) few women that have found success in the field of salsa; Cruz left Sonora Matancera in 1965 and signed with Fania the following year where she found a home that allowed her to shine and earn the name the 'Queen of Salsa.
Celia & Johnny contains some of the all-time favorite salsa standards including "Quimabara" and "Toro Mata."
Metiendo Mano is the first album that paired Willie Colon and Ruben Blades after Colon's break-up with Lavoe. While Blades was already a major composer of popular salsa hits, this was the album where he took the floor as Colon's lead vocalist.
Predating Siembra by about a year, Metiendo Mano set the stage for taking salsa out of the realm of pure music and romanticism and gave it a conscience by marrying political and social themes to the music.
Conga king Ray Barretto was one of the earliest artists signed by Fania. Barretto got his start in Latin jazz before he moved on to add Latin rhythms to the mix so it wasn't surprising that 1967's Acid fused Caribbean rhythms with Latin jazz and R&B.
Before the album, Barretto had gained a larger reknown as the creator of the 'watusi'; he went on the following year to release Hard Hands which gave him the nickname that followed him to the end of his life.
Ismael Miranda had been performing with the Fania All Stars; in 1972 Fania decided to try and increase sales by promoting the vocalists that had become so popular. The first of these new soloists was Ismael Miranda.
Asi Se Compone Un Son not only contained the compulsory salsa numbers but included a merengue, "Ahora Que Estoy Sabroso," a rare musical change-up for the times. It also allowed Miranda to shine with a couple of boleros that were well received.
The Cheetah was a huge club on New York's 52nd St. along the corridor where jazz clubs had traditionally been located. On Aug. 21, 1971, the Fania All Stars performed their second show at the Cheetah and the result was 4 albums and a film that are still salsa classics.
Among the All Stars that night were Ray Barretto on percussion, the fabulous Barry Rogers and Willie Colon on trombone, Yomo Toro on cuatro and seven vocalists: Hector Lavoe, Ismael Miranda, Pete 'El Conde' Rodriguez, Adalberto Santiago, Bobby Cruz, Santos Colon and Cheo Feliciano.
The film recorded that night was Nuestra Cosa Latina - Our Latin Thing.
Pure salsa bliss.
The Fania All Stars were never a formal band, rather a group of Fania artists that Johnny Pacheco put together and took on the road. The cast of characters changed over the years and was more in-line with improvised jams than practiced rehearsed pieces.
Famous among these semi-impromptu sessions were the ones recorded live at New York's Cheetah Room in 1971 and the 2 volumes recorded at Yankee Stadium in 1976.
The Yankee Stadium concert cast included Paul Rodriguez, Hector Lavoe, Ismael Miranda, Ray Barretto, Willie Colon, Larry Harlow, Bobby Valentin, Johnny Pacheco and more. Talk about a dream team!
Life At Yankee Stadium was released in 2 volumes; the link above is for the second.