This album came out two decades ago. Here’s what I had to say about it back then (with some minor editing):
A basic irony of CD box sets is that the very people they’re aimed at — a band’s most fervent fans — are often the ones who get the least out of them.
Take your average greatest hits-style, career-retrospective box: Usually, there are a couple of discs of old chart-toppers you already own, padded out with filler from their later, crappier albums, and a bunch of “rarities,” which typically means “stuff so lousy we never bothered to release them.”
Then there’s El Cancionero: Mas Y Mas (roughly translated, Songbook: More and More), the incredible and indispensible new retrospective from Los Lobos. It should come as no surprise that an above-average outfit like these Hispanic L.A. roots-rockers would issue an above-average box set. And after three decades together, you would expect the boys to have a lot of stuff to choose from. But even for an outfit for whom quality has always been job one, Cancionero is one helluvan achievement: A box that not only chronicles their career and features their most essential and popular cuts, but also rewards the faithful with a priceless collection of buried treasure.
Of the 86 cuts on these four discs, more than 30 are true unearthed gems: Unreleased tracks, demos, promotional holiday ditties, obscure soundtrack cuts, songs from tribute albums, TV appearances, live fare, children’s music, numbers from various members’ solo albums and side projects like Houndog, Los Super Seven and Latin Playboys. Even a serious Lobos junkie won’t have all of it. I can attest to that: I’m enough of a fan that I already had their loose-limbed cover of The Grateful Dead’s Bertha (from the Deadicated tribute CD), their flamenco-swing version of The Jungle Book’s I Wan’na Be Like You (from the Disney tribute disc Stay Awake) and the Tex-Mex lament Quatro Vicios, their contribution to the Ry Cooder soundtrack for Alamo Bay. Plus I already have most of those extra-curricular discs. So I thought I was doing pretty good — until I came across the roots-punk cover of Johnny Thunders’ Alone In a Crowd from a British tribute disc I somehow missed. Toss in a rockabilly cut from an obscure L.A. compilation that precedes their first album, a version of The Christmas Song from an in-house Warner holiday music CD, and a collaboration from legendary guitar slinger Paul Burlison’s 1997 album and you get a sense of just how rare these rarities really are.
El Cancionero isn’t just for obscurists, mind you. Its 50-some remaining numbers come straight from Los Lobos’ remarkably consistent catalog, and eloquently trace the wolf pack’s long, wide-roaming journey from authentic Mexican folk ensemble to the roots-rock innovators they remain today. The set kicks off with Guantanamera from their self-released first EP Los Lobos del Este de Los Angeles (Just Another Band from East L.A.), progresses through the stirring roots-rock of early albums like How Will the Wolf Survive? to their breakthrough cover of La Bamba, continues through their more experimental ’90s discs like Kiko and Colossal Head, and finally wraps up with cuts from 1999’s still-good-as-ever This Time. And with some great detours along the way: One combo platter goes from Richard Thompson (Down Where the Drunkards Roll) to a kids’ song (Route 90) to a Doc Pomus track (Lonely Avenue) to Buddy Holly (Midnight Shift) to a Mariachi Suite from the Desperado soundtrack to a cover of Sir Douglas Quintet’s She’s About a Mover. Really, that sums up Los Lobos better than anything I could write.
It’s so damn good you almost want to throw up your hands and say: No mas.