A couple of caveats to this list: first, it actually includes more than 10 songs. Since one is sung primarily in English and another isn’t technically a “foreign” language, they’re considered halfsies, making up one whole.
Also, no songs sung in Spanish are on this list. I’m not saying Spanish isn’t a foreign language — please don’t call the Minutemen or anything — but I am saying that Spanish isn’t that foreign to me. Also, I could go 10 songs deep with those songs alone; so, no songs sung in Spanish on this particular foreign-language song list.
Finally, these songs aren’t necessarily Billboard’s top-selling international-flavored songs, either. No “99 Luftballoons,” “Macarena” or Psy songs to be found. At least for this list let’s let platinum sales mean less than songs that haven’t had all the fun sucked from them by Manchurian Candidate-style repeat plays. You know, songs like these:
“Knife & Fork”
Oreskaband formed in Osaka, Japan, 10 years ago. They’ve put a ska twist on the all-girl Japanese band tradition that includes legends like pop-punkers Shonen Knife and J-pop superstars Scandal. The band released a new EP, Hot Number, earlier this year.
Tel Aviv’s Subliminal has been on the mike since the 1990s and is a leader of the Israeli rap genre known as Zionist rap. For a frame of reference, imagine Kid Rock could really flow (which Subliminal assuredly can) and was really a conservative (which Subliminal assuredly is).
Mideast politics aside, I’m all about this song, since it’s rapped in Hebrew with an English shout-out to Hugh Hefner and a healthy dose of Spanish (!) added for Latin spice.
8. Joe Dassin
The song about the famous French avenue was written by Dassin, a folkie who was born in America, moved to Paris as a child, returned to the States for college and went back overseas to France, where he began his career in the mid-1960s.
He had European hits with covers of “Ode to Billie Joe” and “Cecelia,” but “Les Champs-Elysees” was the song that put him on the European music map. Dassin’s career was prolific but brief; he died at the early age of 41 in 1980.
My favorite version of the song is done by Louisiana singer-songwriter Chelsea Rainwater. I’d never heard the song before I caught her act at Super Happy Fun Land earlier this year, but Dassin would be happy to know his tune endures thanks to new generations of folk artists.
7.5 Boozoo Chavis
“Johnnie Billie Goat”
Can one consider Creole patois a “foreign” language? I’m going to say yes, since this whole manner of speaking/singing was foreign to me until I picked up a cassette tape in 1990 with a curious-looking fellow on the cover, who just happened to be Boozoo Chavis. I read the liner notes and learned he was already a legend, whose song “Paper In My Shoe” was considered by many to be zydeco’s first hit single.
I always loved this song because the album version is just Boozoo and his accordion, no backing band. “Johnnie Billie Goat” in the patois is sung “Johnny Ma Cabrille”, which sounds a lot like “Johnny Maccabi”, which sounds a lot like a zydeco-klezmer blend, which sounds a lot like something we all need to hear.
7. Regina Spektor
Regina Spektor could sing the Congressional Record and I’d download it this afternoon. Here, she is singing beautifully in English, briefly in French and poetically in Russian; the Russian verse is part of a poem by Boris Pasternak.
6. Caetano Veloso
Veloso is a Brazilian composer and multiple Grammy winner whose version of Nirvana’s “Come as You Are” must have impressed a South American blogger or two to include his cover on a list similar to this. I don’t understand a word of “O Leaozhino,” but it’s a lovely song, sung in Portuguese, with Veloso strumming easily on guitar.
The Beirut version that first made me aware of this1977 song is true to the original and was included on the Red Hot + Rio 2 compilation, which also featured a song teaming Veloso with David Byrne.
5. Die Antwoord
“Fok Julle Naaiers”
I think the rap genre lends itself best to foreign-language interpretations, maybe because the music is so defined by beats and vocal delivery. If the beats are on point and the flow is impressive, not only do I not need the rhyme skills of an Eminem or the knowledge of a KRS-One, I don’t even need the English language. Still sounds great.
Die Antwoord has crazy beats, crazy rhymes and just plain ol’ crazy. My favorite parts of their songs are when a) front woman Yolandi Visser swears, because it simultaneously sounds cute and alarmingly menacing; and b) anytime they sing in Afrikaans, which they blend with English in most songs. Call it Straight Outta Cape Town because they alternate between the languages without ever losing the grit of their message.
4. Sigur Ros
Sigur Ros’s “Svefn-G-Englar” is a wonder. For one, it puts my dogs to sleep anytime it’s playing. If someone rings the doorbell, my response to the cacophony of barking that ensues is to quickly scroll down to “Svefn-G-Englar” on the iPod. It’s like a dog whisperer from the North Atlantic.
The ambient Icelandic group is busy this year. In June, they’ll release their latest album and later this month they’ll be featured guests on The Simpsons.
“Du… du hast… du hast mich…”
Yeah, that’s gonna be stuck in your head the rest of the day.
2. Plastic Bertrand
“Ca Plane Pour Moi”
The story behind this iconic Europop song is a tale older than Milli Vanilli. Released in 1977, the song was and remains credited to Plastic Bertrand, (real name: Roger Jouret), a Belgian New Waver and the face of the song; but, the truth, which Bertrand only recently admitted, is the song’s producer, Lou Deprijck, actually sang it.
Few care about any of that, though. It’s a jubilant song that fits well and has been used frequently where levity reigns – in comedic movies like National Lampoon’s European Vacation, the teen romp Eurotrip and last year’s Ruby Sparks. It’s been covered by Vampire Weekend among others and is familiar and light as an éclair.
1. Mohammed Rafi
“Jaan Pehechan Ho”
Mohammed Rafi’s Hindi tune from the 1965 movie Gumnaam has never lost its “Gumnaam Style.” By now, many have seen the frenetic Bollywood dance choreographed to the song. I admit, I’ve tried some of the moves in my private moments. I’ll sing this one at the top of my lungs whenever I hear it, even in mixed company, no privacy required.
The song and its dance scene resurfaced and found a new audience in 2001’s Ghost World, and then again in a 2011 Heineken beer TV ad. It’s totally cool with me if they wanna keep trotting it out in various forms every decade or so. Can’t wait to see how it’s used again in 2021.