Various Artists

Fania Records 1964-1980: The Original Sound of Latin New York

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Fania is, bar none, the greatest Latin recording label of all time, the home of the most sparkling salsa and the boogiest boogaloo ever set down on a mold of wax barely able to resist melting from the heat. During its heyday, it hosted most of the best recordings by the biggest salsa stars of all time: Willie Colón, Hector Lavoe, Ray Barretto, Eddie Palmieri, Celia Cruz, Rubén Blades, Mongo Santamaria, and many others (even El Rey, Tito Puente, recorded frequently). But with the advent of dozens of compilations, from Fania and others, available in periodic waves during the last half of the 2000s, it's easy to forgive weary listeners who look at this compilation from the Strut label and ask, "What's the difference?" Of course, anyone who knows Strut knows that the label takes quality control to an insane level of detail, and this two-disc celebration of all things Fania is no different. First off, there's the sound. These tracks have never sounded better, not even from Fania itself, whether it's the tearing brass and pin-point bass of early hits like Joe Bataan's "Subway Joe" or the later, more sophisticated material from Celia Cruz (and yes, original masters were used). Also, while most of the hits are here, Strut clearly wanted to focus on the most propulsive numbers they could find, which is why listeners will discover two of the biggest Latin dancers of all time -- "Use It Before You Lose It" by Bobby Valentin and "Mercy Mercy Baby" by Ray Barretto -- front-loaded among these 30 tracks. Throughout, Strut tells the story of Fania via the label's musical progression, from its beginnings with Johnny Pacheco and his pachanga, its rebellious adolescence as it embraced street-level, Spanish Harlem-type toughness with upstarts like Willie Colón and others, finally its increasing sophistication (and experimentation) via the advent of the fully arranged salsa orchestra in the '70s (tracks here from Roberto Roena, Celia Cruz, and the act with no equal, Ismael Miranda leading Larry Harlow's Orchestra Harlow). As it should be, the focus is clearly on the Fania label, not the other labels that were independent during the '60s and '70s but brought under the Fania umbrella later. No caveats apply here, but strict historians should note that Strut's emphasis on dance affects the choices, but only slightly. Of all the Fania compilations put out, and they number in the thousands, Fania Records 1964-1980: The Original Sound of Latin New York is the one to own. What's more, of all the compilations of late-20th-century Latin music put out, this is also the one to own.

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