In honor of our Greatest of All Time special package, our staff of Latin music experts selected the 30 most influential acts of modern time. This was no easy task and there was much back and forth and discussion on what made an artist "influential." Our consensus was that the artists had to have a shadow that extended well beyond their country of origin. They also had to go beyond just chart success and instead reflect on the music world as a whole. These are artists who moved the needle, who started movements, who defined trends. In the case of contemporary acts, they are still doing so; in the case of those who’ve passed, their musical and artistic influence is still felt and heard today.
The king of ranchera music, Vicente Fernandez perfectly embodies the grandeur of the charro -- a regally costumed, cowboy-like male figure in traditional Mexican music. He has the operatic vocal range to match his stature and, having recorded more than 50 albums in 50 years, is among Latin music’s most prolific artists. His performances are the stuff of legend and his influence transcends music (he has starred in over 30 films). From his son Alejandro to younger generations of ranchera singers, Vicente is the standard they all strive for.
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A balladeer in the truest sense of the word, Mexican legend José José brought a renewed sense of chivalry and a polished sheen to contemporary Latin music in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Through classic albums like Secretos, Reflexiones and Promesas, “The Prince of Song” proved he was one of the best boleros singers around -- and he looked damn good in a tuxedo, too.
Banda El Recodo
When Don Cruz Lizárraga founded Banda el Recordo in 1938, he set the template for the modern banda sinaloense super-group, characterized by an all-acoustic, brass and percussion-driven sound. They led the pack as the first such group with commercial appeal, the first to modernize the banda sound, the first to experiment with genres like pop and tropical and the first to gain international recognition. The 18-man troupe is now run by Lizárraga’s sons and continues to be a cultural institution in Mexico.
“El Sol de Mexico” (The Sun of Mexico) as he is affectionately known, Luis Miguel is the perfect package: movie star looks, old-world elegance, unwavering cultural pride and silky-smooth vocals. After a string of pop hits in the ‘80s, he made traditional mariachi music and boleros appealing to a younger audience. Whether the tempo is slow or fast, he still sounds oh-so-good.
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Nuyorican Marc Anthony infused salsa with a much-needed dose of romanticism in the late '80s. Today, he is synonymous with the salsa romántica movement. His powerhouse vocals are chill-inducing, whether he’s singing pop tunes, ballads or salsa, and his bilingualism has propelled him to mainstream stardom. Most recently, Anthony has added music mogul to his resume with the formation of his own entertainment company, Magnus Media, which seeks to empower Latino artists both established and emerging.
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Earning the respect of the hip-hop masters took time, but Miami-born Armando Christian Perez did that and more in the mid 2000s. Refusing to be put in a box, Mr. Worldwide has pulled off rap (from the streets-certified kind to the bottle-popping variety), reggaeton, and EDM-infused pop successfully, while introducing global audiences to idiosyncrasies in Latin culture (“Dale!”). In a world where tragedies happen all the time, he is a powerful antidote that celebrates living in the moment.
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Growing up in Colombia, a country rich in musical styles, Juanes was bound for greatness. By infusing modern rock with guasca, the folkloric music from his native Medellin, he gifted us with a new, danceable form of feel-good Spanish pop in the 2000s, as heard on songs like “A Dios Le Pido” and “La Camisa Negra.” The Bono of the Spanish-speaking world, he is known just as much for his musical consistency as he is for his humanitarian efforts.
The original crossover queen, Cuban icon Gloria Estefan paved the way for every Latin pop star with mainstream appeal that came after her. In fact, you can divide pop music into two eras: B.C. (before “Conga”) and A.C. (after “Conga”). That 1985 song, released during Gloria’s time in Miami Sound Machine, revolutionized the American musical landscape: It wasn’t straight-up pop nor was it straight-up Cuban music. It was an irresistible hybrid that eclipsed all the cotton-candy pop tunes of the era (and it was in English). Over the years, Gloria, and her husband/producer/manager Emilio, have stayed true to their roots without selling out. The power couple continues to break barriers for Latinos in music, film, and television.
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The quintessential storyteller and a key figure in the Fania roster during salsa’s golden era in the ‘70s, Panamanian-bred Ruben Blades proved you could have danceable salsa without sacrificing a message. Penned by Blades, songs like “Pedro Navaja” (off his seminal 1978 album Siembra, a collaboration with Willie Colon) and “El Cantante” (performed by fellow salsa icon Hector Lavoe) have stood the test of time and are among the genre’s masterpieces.
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The undisputable queen of salsa, Cuban-born Celia Cruz brought a larger-than-life, almost matriarchal persona to a male-dominated genre during the Fania era. With raw, undiluted vocal prowess, a chispa (spark) that spread like a solar flare, and an innate sense of rhythm and swing informed by her African ancestors, Celia was a star unlike any other. To this day, songs like “La Vida es un Carnaval” and “La Negra Tiene Tumbao” are a testament to her place in musical history.
With 2004’s “Gasolina,” Daddy Yankee revved up reggaeton, bringing the underground urban sound of the Puerto Rico barrio to the world. He’s continued to take urban music to new heights ever since.
Mexican-American icon and guitar great Carlos Santana roared onto the scene with his eponymous group in 1969 at Woodstock. With his fearless fusion of Latin rhythms, jazz and rock, Santana has since been a top-tier reference for American music. A spiritual seeker renowned for his spiraling psychedelic jams, Santana combines artistic integrity with mass commercial success.
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The pioneering Latino artist’s enduring crossover hit “La Bamba” proved early on that Mexican-rooted music and Spanish lyrics appealed to the mainstream. The Los Angeles native, whose given name was Valenzuela, was only 17 when he perished in the plane crash on what became known as “The Day the Music Died” in 1959. The influence of the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer lives on in today’s Latin alternative artists.
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On March 31, 1995, Selena Quintanilla Perez -- known as Selena -- was shot and killed by the former president of her fan club (now serving a life sentence) at the age of 23. Selena made history, garnering Tejano music mainstream success it had never seen before -- or since. She landed five No. 1 singles on Billboard's Hot Latin Tracks chart and a Billboard 200 No. 1 with her final studio LP, Dreaming of You, and 20 years after her death remains a superstar.
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Tigres Del Norte
One of the most important Mexican bands in history, Los Jefes de Jefes (as they're popularly known) are the voice of their people in the United States. Inventors of the contemporary corrido, their songs tell the stories of both Mexican life and the immigrant experience. Their prize-winning recordings have been widely covered, and their live shows are legendary.
Aventura made bachata cool. The group brought the traditional Dominican genre to worldwide audiences and inspired a generation of young bilingual bachata artists. As a solo superstar, Romeo Santos took bachata further, collaborating with artists from Usher to Enrique Iglesias, selling out Yankee Stadium, and scoring more No. 1 chart hits than any other Latin music artist this decade.
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Ricky Martín ignited the 1990s Latin music explosion, gaining worldwide fame with “Livin' La Vida Loca,” “La Copa de la Vida” and other '90s hits, and he hasn’t slowed down since. The former Menudo member has continued to make news with his Latin pop music and his much-chronicled personal life.
A true original known for his dramatic performance style, Juan Gabriel has defined romantic Latin pop. The iconic Mexican singer/songwriter and performer has been a favorite of several generations of Latino audiences and artists; his 2015 album, the set of duets of his greatest hits called Los Duos, climbed to the No. 1 spot on Top Latin Albums.
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Bolero kings Los Panchos became popular throughout the Spanish-speaking world in the 1940s. Through their collaborations with singer Eydie Gorme (born Edith Garmezano), the romantic music trio seduced non-Latinos as well, and the name Los Panchos is still recognized around the globe.
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Gustavo Cerati, the frontman of the legendary Argentine pop-rock group Soda Stereo, went on to a brilliant but too-short solo career (he died in 2014 at age 55). With Soda Stereo, Cerati created the first true pan-Latin rock en español band, literally crossing borders throughout Latin America, and later spanning generations when children of their original fans discovered the group. A poetic lyricist, experimental musician and guitar god, Cerati’s “Musica Ligera” and other songs have become standards of the Latin music canon.
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Paco de Lucia
Paco de Lucía’s name is synonymous with flamenco guitar. The virtuoso intrumentalist popularized flamenco worldwide, and brought the Spanish sound to the forefront of avant-garde jazz. Forever known for his 1975 breakthrough track “Entre Dos Aguas,” and his collaborations with jazz guitarists John McLaughlin and Al Di Meola, the guitar great was recording and touring until his death in 2014 at age 66.
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Instrumental in creating the sound that became known as salsa, composer and trombone player Willie Colon also did much to cultivate the streetwise urban Latino image adopted by artists today. Colon’s collaborations with Hector Lavoe and Ruben Blades, with whom he recorded the milestone album Sembra, are historic; his album El Malo is a classic testimony to the Nuyorican sound and style of the '70s. Colon songs like “Calle Luna, Calle Sol,” “Aguanile” and “Che Che Cole” remain DJ favorites and standards of salsa bands today.
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With a huge personality and a wild take on the timbales, Tito Puente took Cuban music from the mambo era to the age of rock'n' roll. One of the most famous Latin musicians of all time, Puente -- who died in 2000 at the age of 77 -- was “El Rey de Los Timbales” and a crossover king who produced an immense catalogue of enduring recordings over his 50-year career.
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Damáso Pérez Prado was a Latin music ambassador who ignited the mambo craze in Mexico and the United States in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Prado’s sound became the archteype for the big Latin dance band, and also contributed to the development of Latin jazz. “Mambo No. 5” and other classics are the legacy of the original Mambo King.
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Brazilian singer/songwriter Roberto Carlos has influenced the romantic sound of all of Latin America. Over his 50-year musical career, Carlos has sold more than 120 million albums around the world. By the late 1970s he had become the best-selling Brazilian musician in history. In the 1990s, Carlos became the first Latin American artist to sell more albums than The Beatles.
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Like no other artist, the father of Latin pop has proved the pull of Latin music around the world. Iglesias has recorded 80 albums in 14 languages, seeling a reported 300 million globally, and has reaped awards including an American Music Award and a prize for the most popular artist in China. After 47 years, the superstar continues to tour to swooning crowds.
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Tango is, quite simply, synonymous with Carlos Gardel. “El Día Que Me Quieras,” “Volver,” “La Comparsita” and other recordings the French Argentine singer (who died in a plane crash in 1935 at the height of his career) made famous are still the go-to songs for tango artists and fans alike.
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Juan Luis Guerra
The tropical pop pioneer Juan Luis Guerra brought merengue and bachata to new audiences, and has gone on to set the bar for producing radio hits that fuse traditional Latin rhythms with contemporary global sounds. The crossover phenoms “Ojalá Que Llueva Café” and “Bachata Rosa” are among the Dominican musician's classics.
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The musical innovations devised by the blind Cuban musician known as "El Ciego Maravilloso" set the course for much of Latin dance music and jazz. The trés player, composer and bandleader put the Afro in Afro-Cuban dance music, bringing elements of the island's sacred traditions to the popular sound. Rodríguez’s music influenced the salsa musicians of the '70s, and has since been rediscovered by subsequent generations.
Antonio Carlos Jobim
“The Girl From Ipanema,” “Waters of March,” “Desafinado" -- Antonio Carlos Jobim’s songs speak for themselves about the magnitude of his impact. The Brazilian musician is one of the most important songwriters of the 20th century in any language. The bossa nova founder’s compositions are standard repertoire for jazz and pop artists around the world.