Craftsman of Return, Oxygen Tango
I have a book on my shelf, printed on yellowing, brittle paper. The pages are falling out of the spine because the glue seems to have evaporated. The title on the cover is “Los 100 mejores tangos de todos los tiempos.” The 100 Greatest Tangos of All Time.
Like most human beings, we tango dancers like superlatives. We also like to proclaim our personal tastes and opinions, often loudly and emphatically—especially when we know there is someone within earshot who will disagree.
So to kick off Oxygen’s “Tangazos of the Month” list, here are my Top Ten Tangos of ALL TIME (at this moment), in No Particular Order.
Tres Esquinas (Three Corners) (1941)
Orq. Ángel D’Agostino, singer Ángel Vargas
“When I was a kid I owned these streets—I’d draw my blade to defend the crazy love burning in that bad girl’s eyes...”
Perhaps even more than lost love, the lament of the lost neighborhood of one’s youth is a grand theme of tango, and there is no better love letter to the poor areas on the outskirts of Buenos Aires (the arrabales) than this classic by the Two Angels, D’Agostino and Vargas. Twasn’t for nothing that bandoneón maestro Aníbal Troilo said Vargas’s voice was the best instrument in all of tango...
iTunes album: Antología Noble del Tango Volume 4
Dime, Mi Amor (Tell Me, My Darling...) (1941)
Orq. Juan D’Arienzo, singer Hector Mauré
“The lullaby beat of our tango, my arm encircling your waist, a thousand sweet nothings whispered in your ear, dreaming of a thousand lucky heavens...”
D’Arienzo, the King of the Beat, is the crazy rockstar of tango—Mick Jagger and Angus Young stole their stage demeanor from him. Despite what Mauré sings, there’s nothing sleepy about the beat of this classic love song. “Tell me my darling, do you still love me?” Why yes D’Arienzo, yes, Mauré, I certainly do.
iTunes album: The History of Tango/El Rey del Compás/Recordings 1940-42, Vol. 3
Buscándote (Searching for You) (1941)
Orq. Osvaldo Fresedo, singer Ricardo Ruiz
“Perhaps you know that I’ve gone through life searching for you...”
Fresedo had a decades-long career. During the 1920s he was such a star that he had five orchestras with his name on them playing around Buenos Aires. With his big string section, his harp and his vibraphone, he was the darling of high class salons. He didn’t play many of the songs that mention knife fights or marching cows in the pampas—the pieces he picked are great in a sweet, understated way. This delicate little song is the pinnacle of his art.
iTunes album:Vamos Corazón
A Media Luz (In the Low Light) (1941)
Orq. Edgardo Donato, singer Horacio Lagos
“No nosy neighbors or doormen, cocktails and love await inside...”
No list of tangazos would be complete without a great lurid song celebrating the nightlife. This is the kind of song that bristles hairs on the back of moralizing necks—it’s about a secluded bachelor pad where a man brings his lady friends. With the hypnotic old guard rhythm-driven arrangement of Edgardo Donato and the smooth voice of Horacio Lagos, this tango is seductive indeed.
iTunes album:Edgardo Donato — Tangos & Milongas (1933-1941)
No Está (Not There) (1942)
Orq. Carlos Di Sarli, singer Albertó Podestá
“Every time that I call, they tell me you’re not there—how strange, how odd, how can that be?”
This is a gem by Sir Tango himself, Carlos Di Sarli, and the incomparable Alberto Podestá—who was only 18 years old when he recorded this song! When he sings that you have destroyed his heart, which now bleeds to the beat of his sorrow, it is sincere and deeply moving. Today’s teen pop idols could use a lesson or two from this master, who is still alive and singing in Buenos Aires today.
iTunes album:Classics (1940-1943)
Orq. Aníbal Troilo, singer Francisco Fiorentino
“No one can sing a tango like Malena can—she pours her heart into every verse.”
Lyrics by the great Homero Manzi? Check. Bandoneon playing by “Fats” Troilo, one of the all-time greats? Check. An orchestra including future innovator and tango music wild man Astor Piazzolla? Check. Malena, the enigmatic, sorrowful songstress with a broken, shadowy lark’s voice, is one of the icons of tango herself. And we’ll never know who she really was.
iTunes album: Barrio de tango
Abandono (Abandonment) (1937)
Orq. Pedro Laurenz, singer Hector Farrel
“The winds of memory gust into every nook and cranny of my abandonment...”
Though tango covers the whole range of human emotions—or as Borges said, it encapsulates “the vast human comedy of Buenos Aires”—it is most known for the laments of lost love. This gorgeous piece, again with lyrics by Manzi, is part of that tradition. And near the end, when virtuoso Laurenz launches into his bandoneón solo (the variación), I get chills.
iTunes album: Grandes del tango 26
Rondando Tu Esquina (Pacing Around Your Corner) (1945)
Orq. Osvaldo Pugliese, singer Roberto Chanel
“Tonight I really want to forget about her, yet still I feel the crazy urge to go searching for her...”
The most dramatic of orchestra leaders, Pugliese pushes the envelope for danceability. His songs, especially the later instrumentals, move seamlessly from soaring highs where every musician is playing at full volume to tiny quiet moments of only a few pizzicato notes. This piece from the 1940s is more restrained, and Roberto Chanel’s vocals skillfully straddle the space between street smart and lovesick.
iTunes album: Serie de Oro, Vol. 2: Osvaldo Pugliese
Jamás Retornarás (You Will Never Return) (1942)
Orq. Miguel Caló, singer Raúl Berón
“All the dreams that my heart encompassed, all my illusions—they fell to pieces.”
Miguel Caló is my personal favorite orchestra director. He’s so smooth and romantic, but he never sacrifices that clear dancing beat. The beginning of this sorrowful song is always recognizable to veteran tango dancers: that lone violin in the beginning sets the tone, which Raúl Berón continues with grace and power. This is another powerful performance by a young singer—Berón was only 22 years old when this was recorded, and seventy years later it still gives dancers goosebumps.
iTunes album: 100 tangos 100 vol 4
Una Emoción (An Emotion) (1943)
Orq. Ricardo Tanturi, singer Enrique Campos
“Wrapped up in dreams last night I heard it: an emotion made of things from all my yesterdays.”
This is it: a tangazo of tangazos. Its subject is tango itself, that union of notes and words and memories, the simple moving power of it all. Tanturi’s orchestra is tight and perfect, Campos’s voice is magical and emotional and evocative. It doesn’t get any more iconic than this.
iTunes album: Una Emocion -Ricardo Tanturi con Enrique Campos-
A Note on Buying the Tangos: Often, the titles or artists on tango songs in the iTunes store are misspelled, or singer's name may not be included. I've been able to find all the songs on these lists by searching the orchestra director's last name and the song title, e.g. "D'Arienzo Dime mi amor," "Tres esquinas D'Agostino," "Malena Troilo" etc. Also, the same song may be available on multiple 'albums,' sometimes with wild variance in sound quality. I'll include the name of the album that has the best versions after each song.