Too much tertiary education... Former performer/wrestler, teacher, scientist; Published author & Father... Want to be a writer if I grow up...
Published June 20th 2022
We don't need to understand a song to enjoy it
I think I need to explain the title before anything else. Of course songs not in English chart in countries all over the world. It happens every day. What this list will focus on is songs that made the charts in English-speaking countries and yet were not in English.
It doesn't happen very often, and yet when it does happen, the results can be amazing.
So, here are the songs not in English that I like that have charted, and that means made the top 40 of a general chart, not a specialist music chart. I do know BTS may have had one or two hits like this, and Psy had 'Gangnam Style', and then there was 'Despacito'… but I do not like those songs, so they are not on my list.
Before I hit the list, I do know that technically instrumentals don't have lyrics in English, or any other language, for that matter. That is not what this is about. Likewise, songs with a title or a few lines in a language other than English don't count either.
From my high school days going to Blue Light Discoes, one of the greatest things about songs like this is watching and listening to people who do not know the language try to sing along. Hilarious. Finally, it probably goes without saying that non-English language songs only rarely hit the charts. I found 28 from the charts of the USA, Australia and the UK. I own 17 of them. Now, some do have English words thrown in, but they are predominantly not in English.
With all that in mind, here are my favourite 12.
'La Vie En Rose' by Edith Piaf (1947) Language: French Chart: #23 USA
This is too early for charts in many places, but the fact it did as well as it did in what passed for the Billboard charts in the USA at the time, straight after World War 2, showed how popular and amazingly good this track is. Beautiful song. I should point out that my favourite Piaf song 'Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien' (1960) only charted in mainland Europe.
'Je T'aime… Moi Non Plus' by Serge Gainsborough & Jane Birkin (1969) Language: French Chart: #1 UK
The first foreign-language song to reach number one in the UK! The original version was by Serge and Brigitte Bardot, but this is the one that cracked the charts. It was banned in many countries (including states in the USA) for its sexual content, despite most people not understanding the lyrics.
'Oye Como Va' by Santana (1971)
Chart: #13 USA
A cover of an older jazz tune, I really like this song and the guitar and percussion of Santana (which was a band back then, not a solo performer). I first heard this on the soundtrack for a TV series (Tour Of Duty) and then heard it sampled by 2 Live Crew before I eventually bought the album it came from.
'Ca Plane Pour Moi' by Plastic Bertrand (1977)
Language: French (some English)
Chart: #2 Australia, #8 UK
When I studied French, this song was one of the teaching aides. "Everything's going well for me!" is the loose translation of the title, but the song is essentially a series of nonsensical lines, non-sequiturs all of them. And it is awesome!
'Das Model' by Kraftwerk (1978)
Chart: #1 UK
There was an English language version recorded that was released in the early 80s, this after the German version had already charted. It is a typical Kraftwerk song, maybe a little simple compared to later works, but still really enjoyable, seeing the start of new wave.
'Da Da Da (I Don't Love You)' by Trio (1983)
Language: German (some English)
Chart: #4 Australia, #2 UK, #1 New Zealand
An English language version was also released, but it charted lower than the original. People preferred the German version! The music sounds like it's from a pre-programmed mode on a cheap Casio keyboard, the lyrics are simplistic, but there is something about it that I cannot help but like.
'99 Luftballons' by Nena (1983)
Chart: #1 Australia, #2 USA
While an English language version was also released with a not very good translation (which charted in the UK), the German language version actually charted instead in some markets. This was everywhere at the time, and even though we had no idea what we were singing, we did try to do it phonetically…
'Rock Me Amadeus' by Falco (1986)
Language: German (some English)
Chart: #1 USA, #1 UK, #1 New Zealand, #15 Australia
I really like this song, and was so glad to see that it did so well. His first song 'Der Kommissar' was redone by a different band at the same time, killing the momentum of both, but this song was just an amazing bit of odd music and it dominated.
'Bamboleo' by Gipsy Kings (1987)
Chart: #15 UK
The song was also released in some places as 'Bomboleo'. The word is the name of a dance, and the Gipsy Kings with their flamenco-influenced pop had a top ten album in Australia (#2) with the source album for this track.
'La Bamba' by Los Lobos (1987)
Chart: #1 Australia, UK, USA, New Zealand
The Ritchie Valens' original reached #1 in Canada, but did nothing anywhere else; the Los Lobos version from the film of the same name took the world by storm. The film was quite good, but this song was everywhere. And it is a really good cover version as well.
'Sadeness Pt I' by Enigma (1990)
Chart: #2 Australia, #2 New Zealand, #1 UK, #5 USA
Yes, Latin. But don't worry! Because there was an alternate version… in French. This was one of those songs that was everywhere, because apparently in 1990 we couldn't get enough of Gregorian chants with a europop beat. I have the cassingle and the album it came from, so I wasn't immune. Weird song, but I still love it.
'Macarena' by Los Del Rio (1993)
Chart: #1 Australia, #1 USA, #2 UK, #2 New Zealand
I should point out that one of the charting versions of the song is the Bayside Boys Mix, and that one had some English verses thrown in. The charting history of this song is so convoluted. I should hate this song, but having danced to this too often, I can't hate it. It's fun.
And there we are, a dozen songs in a language other than English that hit the charts. There are, of course, a number of others, but these are the ones I actually like. Your mileage may vary, of course, but I think it is really good that we can accept songs that we don't really understand if the music and feel of the song still speaks to us.
Is there anything else when it comes to music that matters?