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The 10 Most Popular Songs of 2015 That Weren’t in English

on December 29, 2015, 12:00am

“Bokutachi wa Tatakawanai” by AKB48

Japanese

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?

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“El Perdon” by Nicky Jam and Enrique Iglesias

Spanish

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.

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“Loser” by BIGBANG

Korean

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.

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“Escreve Ai (Ao Vivo)” by Luan Santana

Portuguese

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.

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“DJ Waley Babu” by Badshah feat. Aastha Gill

Punjabi

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.

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