Occasionally, I find myself reminiscing about my childhood, which was deeply influenced by my Chilean-Brazilian heritage. Growing up in a household immersed in classic rock, blues and Latin music, I developed my taste for different genres at an early age. Among the many artists that graced my ears, a particular guitarist stood out, effortlessly bridging the gaps between these distinct genres – Carlos Santana.
Born on July 20, 1947, in Autlán de Navarro, Mexico, Carlos Santana soon moved to San Francisco, California, where his musical journey truly began to take shape. In the late 1960s, Santana and his namesake outfit burst onto the music scene, making an enormous initial impact with their legendary performance at the iconic Woodstock Festival in 1969.
Drawing inspiration from Latin soundscapes and infusing it with elements of rock, blues, and jazz, Santana’s style is both virtuosic and infectious. Capable of weaving extended improvisational workouts as much as crafting catchy radio hits, the group is, without exaggeration, one of the greatest acts in modern popular music. Led by an all-time guitar titan, the group continues to be a force, releasing albums, performing live and often collaborating with an array of high-caliber artists across genres.
To celebrate their immortal contribution to music as well as to serve as a guide to their vast catalog, here are Blues Rock Review’s top 10 Santana albums.
Inspired by bossa nova and Brazilian jazz, the double-sided Borboletta (1974) is the last entry in Santana’s trilogy of experimental jazz fusion albums (the other two being Caravanserai and Welcome),
“Spring Manifestations” and “Canto De Los Flores” open the proceedings, expertly crafting a warm, welcoming atmosphere with an array of steady percussion and immersing sound effects. “Life Is Anew” exudes upbeat energy and features a piercing guitar solo, while the funky, synth-heavy “Give And Take” packs raw guitar passages, dynamic percussion, and colorful sax passages.
However, it’s really “Promise Of A Fisherman” (originally by Dorival Caymmi) that emerges as the undeniable standout. Over eight minutes long, the instrumental piece boasts a memorable opening part and a middle section featuring brilliant guitar work and cascading Hammond and bass parts, in addition to an inspired finale.
Overall, Borboletta, despite its lack of hits, is a strong album with loads of dynamics and an eclectic palette of influences.
Santana’s eleventh studio album, Zebop! (1981), is probably the band’s most accessible record, with the pop and funk elements pushed to the forefront to the detriment of long jazz excursions.
The record includes Santana’s cover of Russ Ballard’s “Winning” as its leading number. A soft rock, keyboard-heavy piece, the track boasts an infectious chorus and a short yet sweet Carlos solo.
“É Papa Ré” is a funky beast with a muscular bass line and a piercing guitar solo, and “Over And Over” is a full-on glam rock piece with another contagious chorus.
Despite the more pop-focused approach, Carlos makes sure to remind the listeners of his roots, unleashing soul-pouring leads on the slick slow blues “Brightest Star” and on “Love You Much Too Much”, a thrilling Latin blues workout.
Festival (1977), in a similar way to Amigos, embraces a more accessible and commercial sound without excessively compromising the group’s identity.
The medley “Carnaval/Let the Children Play/Jugando” opens the record, delivering nearly eight minutes of samba-inspired grooves, energizing organ work and bluesy leads. “Give Me Love,” on the other hand, is a sax-driven soulful outing, emerging as one of Santana’s finest R&B moments, while “Verão Vermelho” once again pays tribute to bossa nova.
However, the record’s defining moment is really “The River”, a bluesy, country-tinged soft rock number with gorgeous vocals and economical yet tasteful lead guitar work.
Together, these moments offer an extremely rewarding listening experience, making Festival a standout in Santana’s extensive catalog.
Santana’s often-overlooked fourth studio album, Caravanserai (1972), is a highlight in the band’s early career, kickstarting the group’s mini-era of jazz fusion outings.
While Caravanserai builds upon the instrumental excursions featured on Santana’s earlier albums, it elevates its scope with even more bold, expansive excursions.
For example, the group ingeniously reworks “Stone Flower”, a trademark composition of the Brazilian bossa genius Tom Jobim, infusing it with their distinctive acid rock attack. The band also delves into an intoxicating amalgam of funk in “Look Up (To See What’s Coming Down)”, and gently presents “Song of the Wind”, one of the group’s most gracious instrumental pieces.
The record concludes monumentally with “Every Step Of The Way”, another one of the group’s extended, percussion-driven instrumentals.
6. Santana IV
Santana IV (2016) marks the return of the band’s legendary 1971-1972 lineup, arguably their most celebrated.
Santana IV ventures across a rich stylistic landscape without, once again, compromising the band’s signature Latin-infused sound. The mid-paced “Shake It” blends raw blues rock with Afro-Cuban grooves and salsa layers, while “Fillmore East” is a moody, evocative instrumental piece.
Elsewhere, “Love Makes The World Go Round” is a funky, cascading number with lots of catchiness, while the ballad “Blues Magic” lives up to its title, with Carlos unleashing some of his all-time greatest leads.
Despite its challenging length of over 75 minutes, IV is undeniably a return to form for Santana as well as one of their best records over
Santana’s semi-live double album Moonflower (1977) offers a compelling and comprehensive tour of the band’s live capabilities as well as some new high-quality studio material.
Featuring some inspired live versions of iconic pieces like “Soul Sacrifice”, “Toussaint l’Overture”, “Black Magic Woman” and “Europa”, the record is the perfect showcase for those seeking to enjoy the band’s notable live prowess.
In addition, studio numbers such as the sublime, tremendously expressive instrumental piece “Flor D’ Luna” and the inspired bluesy take on “She’s Not There” (originally by The Zombies) elevate the record to even bigger proportions.
4. Santana III
An immediate follow-up and thematic continuation of Abraxas, Santana III, released in 1971, stands as further evidence of both the band’s songwriting brilliance and their stellar instrumental credentials.
Exuding once again a unique blend of blues, rock, and Latin influences, all seamlessly woven together, the record features a number of brilliant compositions such as the moody, dark piece “Taboo”, the afro-cuban instrumental “Toussaint L’Overture” and “Para Los Rumberos”, another iconic reworking of a Tito Puente number.
Another gem on the album is certainly “No One to Depend On,” a high-energy number that pulsates with infectious grooves and tight instrumental interplay. The song’s rhythmic acrobatics and Carlos Santana’s inspired guitar work turn it into an instant classic.
Released in 1999, the Grammy-winning Supernatural is Santana’s most successful record, boasting enormous sales figures and an undeniable status among critics and fans alike. With a cast of A-list guests, Supernatural features some of the best music in the band’s catalog, including a few timeless classics.
For example, “Africa Bamba” is a gorgeous Latin pop number, shinning with tasteful lead guitar work and a contagious salsa rhythm, while “Corazón Espinado”, featuring the Mexican group Maná, is simply Latin rock at its best and most expressive.
Other highlights are the heavy rocker “Migra”, and the extended guitar exercise “The Calling”, in which Santana and Eric Clapton trade licks. However, the album’s most enduring contribution is really the lascivious Latin rocker and mega-hit “Smooth”. Featuring Matchbox Twenty’s frontman Rob Thomas, the song capitalizes on a perfect blend of iconic guitar work, alluring vocals and an enormous chorus.
Santana’s self-titled debut album (1969) is an unparalleled affair that was an early sign of the band’s extraordinary instrumental capabilities and their exceptional ability to blend blues, jazz, and rock with vibrant Latin percussion and textures.
Evoking the magic of the Allman Brothers Band, but with a tantalizing Latin flavor that sets them apart, the band delivers a number of iconic songs such as the mid-paced, piercing jazzy rocker “Shades Of Time”, the tasteful, aptly-titled instrumental “Treat” and “Soul Sacrifice”, another instrumental piece of epic proportions.
Also, despite the album’s improvisational, acid rock nature, “Evil Ways” provides early evidence that the band can craft radio-friendly hits without compromising their rich, multi-layered sound.
Released in 1970, Abraxas is Santana’s second album and, to put it simply, their best. Offering a blend of Latin music, blues, rock, and jazz, the record is immense, boasting a collection of songs that are unmatched in the group’s catalog.
Tito Puente’s “Oye Como Va” receives the distinctive Santana treatment, shining with tight percussion, graceful organ work, and tasteful guitar licks. On the other hand, “Mother’s Daughter” is a fierce blues rocker, complete with biting guitar riffage and incisive vocals. Playing out with a similar heavy blues attack, “Hope You’re Feeling Better” is a funky beast with loads of wah-wah-laden intensity.
Bringing back the more contemplative moments, there are also the phenomenal jazz-inspired “Samba Pa Ti”, one of Santana’s finest instrumental moments, and especially Fleetwood Mac’s “Black Magic Woman”, the quintessential Santana song. Santana’s rendition takes the Peter Green-penned number to new heights, infusing it with a bewitching blend of Cuban/Latin textures and rhythms. Add to that vibrant bluesy leads and the evocative vocal performance of Gregg Rolie, and you’ve got a truly mystical piece that casts a spell on the listener, adding an extra layer of voodoo-laced intrigue to the already occult-themed lyrics.