The most popular songs in 10 different languages. In my naïveté, I imagined that the information would be easy to find. What I soon learned, however, is that in most parts of the world, the only people with enough time and energy to write about sales numbers are publicists. Needless to say, number one songs have sprouted like mushrooms.
Other assumptions I made, which turned out to be wrong, include the belief that the same Internet covers the whole world; that all countries have an online media infrastructure; and that my Spanish and German are pretty good.
I found myself in strange, cluttered corners of the internet. Sometimes I felt like an anthropologist, examining ancient documents from websites that hadn’t been updated since July, wondering who had written it and whether they could be trusted.
I thought about renewing my passport, quitting my job, and tracking down primary sources, but after carefully weighing all my options, I decided it was better to just use Google Translate. Thus equipped, I set off. Now, I have brought back an honest, if slightly garbled, account of pop music around the world.
These are the 10 most popular songs of 2015 that weren’t in English.
“Bokutachi wa Tatakawanai” by AKB48
The first remarkable fact about AKB48 is that it has 140 members, which you can see performing daily, but this is hardly their strangest feature. The group is split into five teams who rotate in an endless series of concerts, recordings, and meet-and-greets with fans. AKB48 is possibly the most accessible music group in history.
The video above doesn’t have footage, so here’s another; it shows one of the teams performing live god knows where.
Girls as young as 13 audition to be trainees, and the best are inducted as full-fledged members. Popularity contests (called “general elections”) allow fans to determine which girls contribute vocals to the singles, and the most popular girl will be the “center” or vocal lead of the song. AKB48’s fan base, which the Wall Street Journal estimated as “95% male,” can participate in the general elections by purchasing singles and mailing in surveys; some men will buy thousands of singles to support their favorite girls.
The girls themselves have a strict code of conduct, which includes no dating and no boyfriends, a policy which has been enforced by expulsion from the group. The girls are idols for a couple of years, make a little money, and then, sometime in their mid-20s,“graduate” out of AKB48 and into the real world.
The model has been so successful that franchises are being placed in communities around South Korea and Japan. But I found myself most interested in the graduates. Young women with money who have (supposedly) never been on a date? How is this not already a reality show?
“El Perdon” by Nicky Jam and Enrique Iglesias
After a few years in the wilderness, Enrique Iglesias is back. He had been getting boring — another beautiful person singing catchy, disposable hooks over EDM synths. His 2010 hit “Tonight (I’m Fucking You)” was interesting because of exactly four letters in the title and was otherwise identical to a dozen other songs on the radio at the time.
His 2014 comeback album, Sex and Love, stank of desperation (that’s music industry shorthand for “had several collaborations with Pitbull”), but it did contain one smash single, “Bailando”. Now he’s followed it up with “El Perdon”, possibly the most popular song in the world this year. The two singles have elements of flamenco, reggaeton, and Latin American country music. After two decades in the music industry, Iglesias sounds exuberant, even reborn.
Credit where it’s due: Nicky Jam wrote the hook, although I doubt it would have been nearly as successful without an international star like Iglesias to carry it across oceans. Jam is a great songwriter, and his catalogue has more ear worms than a puppy mill, but “El Perdon” was his first number one hit. He might be a talent in the mold of Ne-Yo, by which I mean that he’s capable of carrying a song by himself, but could reach a wider audience as a ghostwriter. Either way, expect Nicky Jam to be one of the most sought after collaborators of 2016.
“Loser” by BIGBANG
We’re about halfway through the third decade of K-Pop, and it continues to be one of the most fertile music movements in the world. The hip-hop insurgency of the early ’90s built the industry on the back of socially aware lyrics and western samples. A lot of money was made, and the industry morphed into the slick pop factory of the 2000s. Labels courted children as young as nine or ten, trained them into creepy dancing robots, and placed them into same-sex groups that conquered the airwaves of South Korea, China, and Japan.
Now the creepy robot children are all grown up. Some of them have imploded, as young people with too much money tend to do. But if you think of that whole decade as an exercise in pop star development, I think you’ll agree that some of the results have been spectacular.
BIGBANG are the most popular boy band in K-Pop, but boy and girl groups are only as good as their most charismatic member. BIGBANG has a Justin Timberlake, a Beyonce, a superstar that sets them apart. Meet G-Dragon. Meet him a dozen different ways; he plays nearly every character in this video from his solo career.
G-Dragon is utterly unprecedented, an electric performer and fashion icon with a style influenced by hip-hop and drag; for example, his earrings are simultaneously pretty and intimidating. He’s the one with the interesting tattoos in the “Loser” video, and “Loser” itself is part of BIGBANG’s reunion tour after several members released solo albums. Unsurprisingly, G-Dragon’s sold the best and won the most awards.
I only recommend BIGBANG for true K-Pop fans. But if you’re the kind of person who likes, say, Robyn, then G-Dragon’s solo albums might be worth a listen.
“Escreve Ai (Ao Vivo)” by Luan Santana
I don’t know whether this novel way of marketing music is common in Brazil or if it was invented by hunky country star Luan Santana, but when the 24-year-old has a group of new songs he likes, instead of going into the studio, he announces a concert series. The concerts are recorded, mixed, and released with a marketing blitz; the live versions of his new songs go to number one; and the film of the concerts is transformed into music videos and a movie, which sell additional tens of thousands of copies.
This is a special kind of concert, which is why not just anyone can buy a ticket; Santana hand-selects (or as Google Translate helpfully puts it, Santana “fingers his audience”). The fact that they are pre-screened may explain how the crowd sings along to all the songs, even the new ones that they had never heard before.
Rough versions of the songs could very well have leaked, but I’ve noticed that in the music video above, during the “live” recordings of the song, the young women who make up the entirety of his chosen audience don’t often seem to be moving their mouths — they don’t seem to move much at all, except for a few self-conscious souls who keep nervously touching their faces and hair. This brings up a question: Are Luan Santana’s “live” albums recorded live in the same sense that The Big Bang Theory is recorded live, with an audience reaction just as canned?
A great deal of work is done in post-production; that much is certain. But out of all the odd business models on this list, Santana’s seems to me the most likely to spread. It’s relatively cheap, it creates a lot of products to sell at once, and the whole thing becomes an advertisement for the live shows, where most artists make their money.
“DJ Waley Babu” by Badshah feat. Aastha Gill
Badshah arrived at an interesting juncture for Indian pop music. For several years, some of the larger music labels in India were only releasing Bollywood music, and “independent” artists — musicians outside the Bollywood industry — found themselves marginalized.
But Bollywood is a great adapter, and EDM and hip-hop have had their moment in Mumbai. A new wave of underground rappers, including Badshah, have used the exposure of Bollywood to launch successful solo careers. His first hit, “Saturday Saturday”, was featured in a Bollywood film in 2014. “DJ Waley Babu”, released by Sony this year, is his first “independent” hit.
A couple of interviews asked Badshah his opinions on “clean” lyrics, and there seems to be some controversy about “double-meanings” in his songs, but all the interviewers were too polite to ask, and Google Translate can’t do puns. From context, I would guess it’s mostly to do with sex.
However, I do have one other piece of information to add. I spent a lot of time in the comments section on all the YouTube videos, and compared to other songs, the comments for “DJ Waley Babu” were markedly more negative and violent. I think some of it comes from nostalgia, from fans who are pining for a bygone Bollywood. There’s also the usual curmudgeons. You know, “These kids and their rap music!” Having qualified it this far, I also think the controversy is real and that some people are very upset. Maybe that’s just hip-hop. Maybe it’s always disruptive.
“Tetap Dalam Jiwa” by Isyana Sarasvati
As a student, this musical prodigy competed in national piano and vocal competitions before embarking on a career as an opera singer in Singapore. In 2015, at the age of 22, she released Explore!, her debut solo album. She does soul, indie rock, and R&B, and she loves a good sad-girl ballad. In this sense, Isyana Sarasvati falls somewhere between Sarah McLachlan and Alicia Keys.
She occasionally sings in English, although I prefer the lyrics I do not understand. Here she is on “Keep Being You”.
The melody is catchy as hell. I also liked it back when Kelly Rowland sang it on “Dilemma”.
The lyrics aren’t bad or ungrammatical, but they aren’t interesting. It might be an issue of translation. “Fancy things won’t get me/ Diamonds there are plenty/ But there is only one of you” might have a poetry in Indonesian that’s lacking in English. It’s hard enough to write in your first language, let alone a second.
Another possibility is that her very polite sexual suggestions might be edgier in Indonesia. It’s the fourth most populous country, and its capital city, Jakarta, is larger than New York City, with larger suburbs. It’s also the most populous majority Muslim country in the world. Lyrics can be translated across oceans, but cultural context gets left behind.
“Цунами (Tsunami)” by Nyusha / Howa
Some of the artists on this list might seem strange or unusual, but Nyusha, stylized as Nyusha / Howa, feels very familiar. She dances and sing-whines over epic EDM in lavish videos while wearing a push-up bra and not much besides. She even has too much punctuation in her name, which I had always thought of as an American excess.
Her eight number one singles are a Russian record, as are the 54 weeks total she’s spent at number one (20 weeks more than her next competitor.) Many of her English-language biographies refer to Nyusha as a ‘composer’ or ‘singer-songwriter,’ a common enough claim among American pop stars, which is why I hope you’ll forgive me a raised eyebrow. As if young people with all the qualifications to be a professional singer, dancer, and model weren’t rare enough, they all want to be thought of as Paul McCartney, too.
“不將就 (Stubborn Love)” by Li Ronghao
I won’t pretend to understand the various cyberwalls erected between the Chinese state-sponsored internet and the United States. I will say that researching the Chinese charts generally, and Li Ronghao in particular, made me consider changing the name of this article to “An Idiot Tries to Use Google”.
I can tell you that his first album was called “Model”, for which he won Best New Artist at the Golden Melody Awards, China’s version of the Grammys. Two different websites told me that his second album is called Li Ronghao Second Album, although I’m pretty sure it’s self-titled. Oh, and he’s rumored to be dating a person called Rainie Yang, and if you are interested, I can tell you a lot about the ‘coded’ messages they left for each other on social media.
Li has a theatrical voice, which he loves to flip from a breathy whisper to a Broadway belt. Wikipedia names his musical style as Mandapop; I name it Adult Contemporary.
The last thing I can offer is that, from the YouTube comments, Chinese viewers are just as puzzled as I was by this music video.
“Astronaut” by Sido feat. Andreas Bourani
Sido stands for Super-Intelligentes Drogenopfer, which translates to Super-Intelligent Drug Victim. Early in his career, he wore a gimmicky silver mask, which has since been retired. He often gets compared to Eminem, not only because he’s a white rapper, but because of his graphic lyrics. I can’t speak to his wit (Eminem’s great redeeming quality), but I can’t say I’m surprised that the subjects of violence, sex and misogyny are as popular worldwide as they are in America.
“Astronaut”, with a top line sang by Andreas Bourani, sounds more uplifting than it is. Sido spits out a litany of problems with the world and ends his verses with “I lift off.” My German is rusty, but that’s a druggy-entendre in any language.
It’s hard to judge rappers when you aren’t fluent in their tongue. Sido’s beats and flows are engaging. But if I have a pop pet peeve, it’s so-called “serious” songs that have all the insight of an inspirational poster. And again, I’m sure there’s lots of nuance I’m missing. But I still think this song sucks.
“Ojuelegba” by WizKid
Within Nigeria, the seventh largest country in the world, some 500 languages are spoken, which is how English became the official language and why you may think it’s cheating to include “Ojuelegba”, a song that is partially in English and partially in Yoruba. It wasn’t even the most popular Nigerian song of 2015; that distinction belongs to “Sexy Rosey” by Flavour N’abania, a dull club jam with lyrics like, “Your waist is 34/ Your hips are 44/ You are 24/ I love my baby!” Flavour’s Auto-Tuned crooning is entirely in English, which opened the door for WizKid, an altogether more interesting artist.
Of course, WizKid also uses Auto-Tune, as does every pop star in Nigeria, as best as I can tell. Let’s forgive them this stylistic quirk, since it seems that musicians the world over discover Auto-Tune with an enthusiasm matched only by young boys discovering their penis.
Ojuelegba is a neighborhood in the capital city of Lagos, and the song tells the story of WizKid back when he was just Ayodeji Balogu, underground artist. It’s a sort of sunbaked “Started from the Bottom”, which might explain why Drake did a remix.
“Ojuelegba” is my favorite song on this list — the one I shared when anyone asked what I was working on. Part of that is the job done by production duo Legendury Beatz, and part of that is the infectious, innovative use of Auto-Tune. WizKid seems thoughtful and fun. But mostly, it sounds like nothing I’ve heard before.