Music Monday: Foreign Hits

by Scott Lydon

America's got a reputation as being insular, but every so often something breaks down our English-speaking walls. It goes in phases, and from time to time we all agree as a nation to embrace a foreign language, for just a little while, and we make a non-English song into a smash hit. Today Scott sorts out those immigrants to the pop chart, the tunes too good to be translated. Let's start with one of the most famous:

Ritchie Valens - La Bamba




Top Thirty in 1959, and a Number One in 1987, this Ritchie Valens hit has an opening that's instantly recognizable. It's based on a traditional folk wedding song, just jazzed up a little. You know, 50s style! What more is there to talk about? There's a reason this music still rates airplay even today.

Can you think of any foreign-lyric hits off the top of your head? Zip inside and see if you've guessed right, and if you haven't, plan to throw your answer in the comments. See you adentro?


Before we begin, let's talk about our new Spotify playlist. We're still testing it out, but our plan currently is to feature the previous week's playlist by taking Scott's choices from the blog and your choices from the comments and serving up a nice, long, one week later mix. Make sense?

So this week, our Spotify playlist is showcasing last's week's pop instrumental post, and next week in this spot, you can enjoy this week's selections. We'd love your feedback as we sort out the best way to include everyone, so please, let us know in the comments if you've got any better ideas. But first enjoy these fine foreign hits, starting with…

Kyu Sakamoto - Sukiyaki




This catchy little Japanese song went to Number One on the Billboard charts in June, 1963, making it the only Japanese song to ever reach the top spot in America. It's also one of the few Japanese songs to rate soulful covers and NSFW rap references. And Kyu-chan even scored a postage stamp after his untimely passing! What greater honor is there for a singer?

Jordy - Dur Dur D'être Bébé (It's Tough to Be a Baby)




This is what it was like in 1992. We were so screwed up coming out of the 80s that a four year old French baby had a Number One worldwide hit. Americans couldn't completely understand the lyrics, since they were a mix of French and baby talk, but… well, maybe it's worth mentioning that ecstasy was getting popular around the same time Jordy had his hit. Other than that, there's not really an excuse.

Nena - 99 Luftballons


Nena gets in on a technicality, because she did re-record 99 Red Balloons for the American market. However every kid that heard there was a German version just had to hear it, and some radio stations alternated between languages depending on the DJ's mood. It probably didn't hurt that the anti-war message was vague enough to fit any ideology, so it could be anti-Russian or anti-American or anti-both, depending on what the listener preferred. Sort of like 80s Germany itself, this song made for an excellent political tool with a catchy beat.

Men At Work - Down Under




You think this is in English? That's because you were fortunate enough to grow up after the Australian Invasion. In 1982, there wasn't an Internet where we could type in words like "chunder" and "Vegemite" any time we wanted. It was hard work to figure out this Number One song, and yet, the answers were so endearing that it put Australia to the front of then-modern culture. Guess we'd all made the effort so it had to count for something. Is it too revisionist to say the ARG marketing campaigns all owe a debt to Men At Work?

You know a foreign song that isn't listed here? It doesn't have to be top of the charts to count. Drop it in the comments, then join us in our room to celebrate music from all the nations. And be aware: some images are from the corresponding song's Wikipedia page and are here under fair use.