Different Tongues: 10 Foreign Language Songs That Rule the World

Categories: Listen Up!

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A couple of caveats to this list: first, it actually includes more than ten 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 ten 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:

10. Oreskaband, "Knife & Fork"
Oreskaband formed in Osaka, Japan ten years ago and stopped in Texas for SXSW and a set on the 2008 Warped Tour; some kid named Katy Perry was attracting a crowd a few stages over at their Houston date that year. 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.


9. Subliminal, "Toro"
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, "Les Champs-Elysees"
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.


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