Salsa (meaning ‘spicy’ or ‘hot’ in Spanish) is a fiery musical genre that has become part of the Latin identity.
It’s also the name for a Latin dance style – first popularized in New York City in the 1960s – that blends Cuban dance styles (mambo, pachanga, and rumba) and American (swing, tap).
This playlist comprises the best salsa songs ever made, from Cuba, Colombia, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, and the US.
If you’re new to salsa, this list will serve as the perfect introduction for you. If you’re already a fan, you’ll hopefully discover a new song or two. If you’re learning Spanish, they’re great too.
Time to get moving them hips 🙂
Llorarás – Oscar D’Leon
No list of salsa hits is complete without a song by Oscar D’Leon, and when it comes to the great man, you have to start with Llorarás. The song is about a woman who’s fallen out of love with the narrator (or possibly cheated on him). He lets her know she’ll pay for her actions, and will cry for all the hurt she’s inflicted on him (llorarás means ‘you will cry’.)
La Rebelión – Joe Arroyo
Joe Arroyo is a famous Colombian salsa star. The sumptuous percussion beats and the amazing Latin piano part (played by Chelito De Castro) made it an instant classic on its release in 1995. The song references Cartagena (in Colombia) during the 1600s, which was South America’s largest slave-trading port at the time.
La Vida Es Un Carnaval – Celia Cruz
If you like to dance salsa, you’ll know this one by the Queen of Salsa, Celia Cruz. It’s one of the great Cuban singer’s signature songs, combining merengue and reggaetón music into a unique blend of pure joy. The song is a celebration of life and radiates positivity, something we could all do with from time to time (‘La vida es un carnaval’ literally translates to ‘life is a carnival.’)
Tu Cariñito – Puerto Rican Power
While the music we know as salsa has origins in the Afro-Spanish musical traditions of Cuba, its worldwide popularity is thanks to the Puerto Ricans of New York who popularized it (nearly 1 million Puerto Ricans migrated to the US – especially to New York City – between 1940 and 1969). Here with the brilliant singer Tito Rojas on vocals, this is amazing. Qué canción!
Vivir Mi Vida – Marc Anthony
This song about life (‘Vivir mi Vida’ literally means ‘live my life’) was a return to form for the charismatic Marc Anthony, the man famous for the sub-genre of salsa known as ‘salsa romantica’. On its release, it took the Latin American world by storm. It’s about living in the moment and leaving all your troubles behind. That’s exactly what you want to hear on the dance floor. Fabuloso!
Pedro Navaja – Rubén Blades and Willie Colón
Here’s another classic track that always appears on pretty much every list of best salsa songs in existence. Inspired by the song ‘Mack the Knife’ (‘navaja’ means ‘knife’ or ‘razor blade’ in Spanish) it’s a rather gruesome tale about the underbelly of life ‘en el barrio’ in New York City. The song is full of dark humor – and at the end of the song, Navaja is shot dead by a Smith & Wesson .38 Special.
Ay Amor Cuando Hablan Las Miradas – Orquesta Guayacán
Orquesta Guayacán is a Colombian salsa music band, founded by Alexis Lozano (formerly of Grupo Niche) who rose to prominence during the 1990s. They’re still one of the most popular salsa bands in Colombia, and this track is one of their best and most loved. Fenomenal!
Conteo Regresivo – Gilberto Santa Rosa
Gilberto Santa Rosa is salsa royalty. Nicknamed ‘El Caballero de la Salsa’ (The Gentleman of Salsa), he is a Puerto Rican bandleader and singer of salsa and bolero. He’s sold over three million records in the US and Puerto Rico, won six Grammy Awards, and holds the record for the most number-one albums on the Billboard Tropical Albums chart.
Cali Pachanguero – Grupo Niche
Cali Pachanguero is a tribute to the beauty of Cali, Colombia, which calls itself the “Salsa Capital of the World”. It references popular places in the city, from “Siloé and its little streets” (a popular place for dancing), to a “derby at the Pascual”, the local soccer stadium. This song reflects the faster salsa style from Cali (salsa caleña), and you can hear the spirit of the city in every verse.
La Murga – Héctor Lavoe, Willie Colón and Yomo Toro
Another salsa classic out of Puerto Rico, La Murga is about a carnaval dance from Panama. It’s named after las murgas (or bands of street musicians), who come out and play during the festival to keep the party lively and stomping. The song’s legendary trombone intro helps it live up to its name by reliably getting everyone out on the dance floor.
Dile a Ella – Víctor Manuelle
When you’re looking for a salsa love song with an upbeat tempo, start here with Víctor Manuelle. He tells a friend to “Tell her I haven’t been able to forget her,” and it seems he had to break off this relationship because he was already tied to another. The song’s long crescendo feels like sunny days and sweet nostalgia.
Talento de Televisión – Willie Colón
A salsa song with a sense of humor, Talento de Televisión is a tribute to a TV star who gets by on her physical assets alone. While she “doesn’t have talent but she’s mighty good-looking,” she does manage to make a top salary strutting her stuff!
El Preso – Fruko y Sus Tesos
Coming out of Medellín, Colombia, this is a high-energy tune. Given bandleader Fruko’s bright vocals, the brilliant horn arrangement, and driving percussion, you wouldn’t know about its grim subject matter without the lyrics. El preso is about a prisoner lamenting his fate of a 30-year sentence.
Periódico de Ayer – Hector Lavoe
A bitter retrospective on love, Héctor Lavoe sings that “Your love is yesterday’s newspaper”. He spins this poetic metaphor throughout the song, comparing his past partner to “a newspaper clipping that I glued in my album of oblivion.” Ouch! This song will heal any aching heart with its rolling groove.
Soledad – La-33
Orquesta La-33, mostly known as La-33, is a 12-piece salsa band hailing from Bogotá, Colombia. They’ve made their impact on the salsa genre worldwide since 2001. Their salsa style is influenced by jazz, funk, boogaloo, and folk, and “Soledad” stays true to a classic salsa sound that’s made to dance to. Bailamos!
Candela – Buena Vista Social Club
Quite possibly one of the greatest Cuban “son” style songs ever written, Candela was written by Faustino Oramas. Ibrahim Ferrer’s vocals express his urgent feelings of love for Candela, saying “Candela, I’m on fire!” as he weaves sexual innuendoes throughout the rest of this fun and uplifting song.
Toro Mata – Celia Cruz and Johnny Pacheco
This song is a “salsafied” version of a famous Afro-Peruvian song that was around as early as the 1800s, a musical response to the conquest of Peru by Spain. It’s now well-known in South America again, thanks to its resurgence starting around the 1950s. The dance connected to this song was created to make fun of the Spanish Conquistadors and their stiff dance styles, like the waltz and minuet.
Ven, Devorame Otra Vez – Lalo Rodríguez
In this chart-topping romantic salsa tune, Lalo Rodríguez longs for a woman to return and “devour” him all over again. Lalo Rodríguez got his start singing with his first band at 12 years old, and was on his first album at age 16. He achieved huge commercial success in the 1980s with his musical compositions and vocal stylings.
Vámonos pa’l Monte – Eddie Palmieri
With a Latin Jazz touch, this number by the legendary Eddie Palmieri shows off his incredible compositional mastery. He impacted the salsa sound forever in 1961 by introducing the use of trombones in his band, La Perfecta. Since then he’s won three Latin Grammy awards and nine Grammy Awards, and continues making phenomenal music today.
Sonido Bestial – Richie Ray and Bobby Cruz
A true orchestral salsa fusion masterpiece, Sonido Bestial includes elements of classical music, jazz, and guaguanco music, to name a few. It was released in 1971 after Richie Ray and Bobby Cruz decided to take a break from salsa-saturated New York and start fresh in Puerto Rico. There they created the label Vaya records and Richie was subsequently established as one of the best pianists, arrangers, and composers of the salsa world.
Pa’ Bravo Yo – Justo Betancourt
Cuban singer Justo Betancourt found his fame through the release of “Pa’ Bravo Yo” in 1972. Justo joined his first band at 11 years old in Havana, Cuba, and was the first singer signed to the legendary Fania Records. Throughout his career, he played with greats such as Mongo Santamaria, Eddie Palmieri, and Ray Barretto.
Tiahuanaco – Alfredito Linares
Alfredito Linares was a salsa bandleader who moved from Peru to Cali, the “salsa capital” of Colombia, in 1970. Growing up with a father who repaired pianos, Alfredito started learning how to play piano by the age of five. In the primarily instrumental Tiahuanaco, his early influences from Cuban groups such as Sonora Matancera can be noted and appreciated in his style. The word “Tiahuanaco” has two meanings: Pre-Incan culture, and the name of a town in Bolivia.
Ran Kan Kan – Tito Puente
The ‘King of the Timbales’, Tito Puente, comes to rock your world with this jazzy classic. The percussion will send chills down your spine! Bringing in sounds of marimba, vibraphone, and of course timbales, Ran Kan Kan makes it clear why Tito Puente (1923-2000) was the undisputed grandfather of Latin percussion since the 1950s. ¡Sabroso!
Vagabundo – El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico
The most commercially successful salsa orchestra ever to come out of Puerto Rico, El Gran Combo has been around since 1962. The group has released over 40 albums and currently has sixteen members, along with well over 25 former members! Vagabundo showcases not only the band’s top-notch compositions but also their meaningful lyrics that allow them to keep putting out hit after hit. The song is essentially a prayer spoken aloud that the writer’s son may find his way in the world, be protected, and have an easier life than his father had.
Aparentemente – Tony Vega
This suave love song expresses the frustration of being in an affair with someone who already has a partner. The lyrics say “Aparentmente tu le quieres, tu le amas, pero no eres feliz” which translates to “Apparently you like him, you love him, but you’re not happy.” Unfortunately, we never find out in the song if she did ultimately leave her man for him, but apparently, there was something between them that the singer held close to his heart.
¿Qué hay de malo? – Jerry Rivera
“Qué hay de malo?” is about a guy asking “What’s so bad?” about loving a woman whose father prohibits her from dating him. Signed to a record label at the young age of fourteen, Jerry Rivera is a multi-platinum singer, songwriter, and Grammy award winner. His catalog is primarily salsa tunes, but he’s also known for writing boleros and famous Latin pop ballads.
Anuncio Clasificado – Willie Rosario
Starting his career in the early 1950s, Willie Rosario is a salsa artist who was inducted into the International Latin Music Hall of Fame in 2002. He and Bobby Valentín opened the Tropicana Club together in the 1980s in Puerto Rico. He’s released multiple gold and platinum albums and continues to play at major salsa events and dance congresses in Puerto Rico.
Indestructible – Ray Barretto
Released after a few important members of his orchestra left the group to start their own project, Ray Barretto was able to pull in a new array of exceptional talent for the recording of this album. It turned out to be one of his best. The album cover shows Ray shedding a Clark Kent-type disguise to reveal a Superman suit underneath, letting the world know that he would not renounce his place in the salsa universe so easily!
La Temperatura – Los Hermanos Lebrón
Heavily influenced by boogaloo, rhythm and blues, and soul, The Lebrón Brothers were a family born in Puerto Rico and raised in Brooklyn, New York. They are said to have been instrumental in the formation of the name “salsa” for the genre, with their song “Salsa Y Control” that came out in 1970, although the first usages of the term went back to the 1950s and 60s.
La Boda de Ella – Bobby Valentin
La Boda de Ella is about a woman getting married, who perhaps was not always faithful to her partner, or at least the singer of the song makes it sound that way. “La boda de ella tiene que ser el mejor” means “Her wedding has to be the best”. The singer doesn’t want to let her go and watch her get married, so decides “Que yo me quedaré bebiendo para olvidar”, which translates to “I’ll stay here drinking to forget.” Bobby Valentín has been playing music since the late 1960s and still tours worldwide today.
Condename a tu Amor – Tito Rojas
Also known as “El Gallo Salsero” from his song of the same name, Tito Rojas released over 60 singles that made it to the Latin music charts throughout his career of over 50 years. Like many Puerto Rican salseros, he started writing and playing music in his adolescence, and became a highly prolific songwriter and bandleader.
Fuego en el 23 – La Sonora Ponceña
“Fire on 23rd” is a song written in 1957 based on a true story, based on the life of a great Cuban composer and musician named Arsenio Rodriguez, “El Ciego Maravilloso” (The Wonderful Blind Man). Blind since childhood due to an accident, he composed and performed regularly at the famous Palladium on Broadway in New York. After he was saved from a massive fire in his apartment building by singer Luis Kortright, this song was born, and later recorded by La Sonora Ponceña.
Sin Salsa No Hay Paraiso – El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico
Another chart-topper from El Gran Combo, this song comes from their 63rd album! El Gran Combo continues to put out fun, dance-worthy salsa music after 50 years of making records. Expertly combining Puerto Rican and Cuban sounds and an ever-evolving accompaniment of fresh new artists, this band is hard to contend with, and easy for any salsa dancer to appreciate.
Las Caras Lindas – Ismael Rivera
Las Caras Lindas was originally written by Tite Curet Alonso, the same Afro-Puerto Rican songwriter who wrote “Periodico de Ayer”. It’s a tribute to the pride and beauty of people of African descent, as the title line translates to “The lovely faces of my black people”. Alonso was a prolific writer who often included socially conscious content in his work, and Ismael Rivera made this song famous with a touch of alegría, celebrating his people and their intrinsic beauty.
El Raton – Joe Cuba Sexteto and Cheo Feliciano
Cheo Feliciano wrote El Ratón with a comical tone. Based on a true tale, El Ratón is about a man who likes to go out to fool around on his wife, but there’s a mouse (“El Ratón”) who always tells on him and gets him in trouble. Cheo reported in an interview that the song was written without much seriousness, just as a filler song, but it ended up becoming one of their most requested tunes. Its slinky beat perfectly captures the vibe of a man sneaking out at night, trying not to get caught.
Betece – Africando (feat. Amadou Balake)
Africando is a special group made up of salsa musicians from New York and Senegalese singers. Their songs have included lyrics in both Wolof and Spanish. The group has included well-known African greats such as Salif Keita and Koffi Olomide. Betece has a smooth, danceable salsa groove with sunny lyrics in Wolof and an uplifting flute accompaniment to boot.
Special thanks to La Colombiana Nat P for helping compile this list of classics 🙂