The Biggest Foreign Language Hit Songs in U.S. History

They may not be in English, but they spoke to America.

The world-record breaking performer of "Despacito," Luis Fonsi, at The 2018 Billboard Music Awards (Shutterstock)

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The United States has no greater export than its culture. American film, literature, music, technology, style, and more have helped shape the modern world. Of course, the U.S. has also benefitted tremendously from what it’s absorbed from immigrants and interactions with other countries. However, there is one particular nut that’s much tougher to crack in terms of importing success to America: the #1 slot on the Hot 100. Over the decades, there have only been eight songs performed primarily in a foreign language to take the spot, while a handful of others (like “99 Luftballons,” which turns 40 this month) have come close. Here’s a look at the singles that overcame the language barrier with the universal language: music.

Honorable Mentions

Two songs bear noting because one hit #1, but is mostly English (with German), and the other because, well, it’s crazy.

“Wooden Heart” – Joe Dowell (1961): This one’s odd for who didn’t take it to #1. It was performed by Elvis Presley in the film G.I. Blues in 1960, and that version was a hit in a number of other countries, but not the States. Joe Dowell’s version did get stateside release and went to #1 that same year. Elvis’s version didn’t go wide in the U.S. until it landed on the B-side of the 1964 single version of “Blue Christmas.” The song is done primarily in English along with two passages based on “Muss I Denn,” a German folk tune.

“Sadeness (Part I) by Enigma (Uploaded to YouTube by EnigmaSpace)

“Sadeness (Part I)” – Engima (1990): A frequently recurring meme on social media reminds us that Gregorian chants were hit songs for a little bit in the ’90s. This song is what they’re talking about. German outfit Enigma created one of the oddest hits ever assembled. And assembled is an apt word, because it’s carefully constructed from a number of sources. The recurring Gregorian vocals come from samples of Paschale Mysterium, a 1976 album from Capella Antiqua München, a German choir. The beat is built on another sample, this one from “Funky President (People It’s Bad)” by the Godfather of Soul himself, James Brown. The French female vocals were provided by Sandra Ann Lauer who was, at that time, married to the creator of Enigma, Michael Cretu. The bizarre number about Donatien Alphonse François, better known as Marquis de Sade (hence the track’s spelling) hit #5 in the U.S. in 1991.

Two Huge Runners-Up

A pair of foreign language tunes fell short of the top spot, but nevertheless made big waves in American culture.

“Gangnam Style” by PSY (Uploaded to YouTube by officialpsy)

“Gangnam Style” – PSY (2012): From “The Twist” to “Pink Venom,” nothing sells a song like having a ready-made dance to go with it. South Korean multi-hyphenate PSY, who was never afraid to let the humor show in his work, wrote the song as a jab toward the kind of people that tried to be cooler than they actually were by associating themselves with the Gangnam District of Seoul. PSY and choreographer Lee Ju-sun worked for roughly a month to put together a dance to accompany the tune and landed on one that more or less resembles how children pretend to ride horses. The deliberately silly dance and its accompanying video made a huge debut in South Korea and rapidly went viral. The clip became the most popular video on YouTube in August of 2012, and cracked one billion views that December. Since then, it’s logged an addition 3.6 billion views. The single itself stalled at #2, but tune continues as a cultural reference point. Just last year, the wildly popular video game Fortnite added the video’s dance as an emote that players can acquire. PSY’s success is viewed as a forerunner of the major breakthroughs that Korean artists would make in the U.S. in the years to follow, notably BLACKPINK and BTS (whom you just might see again in a bit).

“99 Luftballons” by Nena (Uploaded to YouTube by Nena)

“99 Luftballons” – Nena (1983): Whether you know it as “99 Luftballons” or “99 Red Balloons,” there’s no denying that the song is a stone-cold ’80s classic. Released 40 years ago this month by German band Nena (which shared its name with its lead singer, born Gabriele Susanne Kerner) on their self-titled album, 99 Luftballons. Despite its generally up-tempo nature, the song is really about the Cold War tensions and fear of nuclear war that were prevalent in the early ’80s. The band’s guitarist, Carlo Karges, hit upon the central image of the song at a Rolling Stones concern when he wondered might happen if the balloons that the band released during the show were to drift into the Soviet area. The tune became a worldwide hit with versions released in both German and English. Oddly enough, the English version didn’t even chart in the States, while the German take went to #2. The song has stuck around in movies and television over the years, most hilariously in the body-hiding sequence in Grosse Point Blank.

The #1s

And here they are, the songs that topped the chart. We’ll countdown from shortest stint at #1 to longest.

“Life Goes On” by BTS (Uploaded to YouTube by HYBE LABELS)

8. “Life Goes On” – BTS (2020; 1 week): South Korean boy band BTS joined the fraternity of acts with singles that debuted at the top of the charts with “Life Goes On.” The single dropped on the same day as the group’s fifth Korean-language album, Be, and was #1 before the day was over. Three members of the group (RM, J-Hope, Suga) share songwriting credit with producer Pdogg, Antonina Armato, Chris James, and Ruuth. Earlier that year, BTS had another number one tune, “Dynamite,” which held the top for three weeks. Ironically, it was their first single recorded completely in English.

“Sukiyaki” by Kyu Sakamoto (Provided to YouTube by Universal Music Group)

7. “Sukiyaki” – Kyu Sakamoto (1963; 3 weeks): “Sukiyaki” was released in Kyu Sakamoto’s home country of Japan in 1961 and spent the next two years becoming a worldwide hit. The tune was originally called “Ue o Muite Arukō,” but was given the name “Sukiyaki” in English-speaking countries in an effort to be more easily remembered. The song has nothing to do with food, but with the narrator’s attempt to combat impending tears by looking up and whistling while he walks. The song’s three-week reign was the last time an Asian act hit number one until BTS’s “Dynamite” in 2020.

“Rock Me Amadeus” by Falco (Uploaded to YouTube by Falco)

6. “Rock Me Amadeus” – Falco (1986; 3 weeks): Austrian musician Falco first flirted with the American charts in 1982. His 1981 song “Der Kommissar” hit #5 by way of an English-language cover by the band After the Fire. In 1985, with interest in Mozart renewed among the general public by the film Amadeus, Falco co-wrote a pop song about the musical genius’s life. The song’s catchy combination of almost rap-like German delivery and rock underbelly drove it to the top in the U.S. in 1986. There are actually multiple versions of the track, including one with TV director Rick McCullough reciting various facts about Mozart in English.

“La Bamba” by Los Lobos (Uploaded to YouTube by Los Lobos)

5. “La Bamba” – Los Lobos (1987; 3 weeks): In 1958, Ritchie Valens adapted Mexican folk tune “La Bamba” into a rock and roll song and took it to #22 on the charts; his highest-charting tune was the English-language “Donna,” which hit #2. The following year, Valens died in the plane crash that also took Buddy Holly and “The Big Bopper” J.P. Richardson. Valens’s short life served as the inspiration for the 1987 film, La Bamba. The title track was covered by Los Lobos, and the widely acclaimed band took it to the top. The song’s video features an appearance by actor Lou Diamond Phillips; Phillips played Valens in the film, and he joins the band to perform the last chorus.

“Dominique” by The Singing Nun (Uploaded to YouTube by TheVideoJukeBox4)

4. “Dominique” – The Singing Nun (1963; 4 weeks): You know you’ve made it when you’re known by multiple names. In the case of Jeanne-Paule Marie Deckers, she was known as Jeannine, Sœur Sourire (Smiling Sister or Sister Smile), and yes, The Singing Nun. Deckers has the distinction of being the only Belgian artist to ever top the charts in the States. That journey began when, in convent as Sister Luc Gabrielle, Deckers would write her own music and perform songs for the other sisters. They encouraged her to make a record, and she ended up cutting the album (which would be titled The Singing Nun in America) in 1962. “Dominique,” which is about the life of Dominican Order founder Saint Dominic, was an unexpected hit around the world.

(Provided to YouTube by The Orchard Enterprises)

3. “Nel blu dipinto di blu” – Domenico Modugno (1958; 5 weeks): If that title doesn’t immediately ring a bell, how about . . . “Volare”? Yes, “Nel blu dipinto di blu” is the actual title of the song popularly known as “Volare.” The tune, which was inspired by the art of Marc Chagall, placed third in 1958’s Eurovision Song Contest as an official entry from Italy; it stormed charts around the world late that summer. On the U.S. chart, it debuted at #54 and leaped to #2 the following week, marking one of the biggest chart jumps in history. Before the year was over, it logged five non-consecutive weeks at the top. As for why people call it “Volare,” that name from the most well-known lyrical section of the song; it’s similar to how people always think that The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” is “Teenage Wasteland” or Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love a Bad Name” is “Shot Through the Heart” (which, crazily enough, is the name of a different song on the band’s debut album).

“Macarena (Bayside Boys Remix)” by Los De Rio (Uploaded to YouTube by LosDelRioVEVO)

2. “Macarena (Bayside Boys Remix)” – Los Del Rio (1996; 14 weeks): Maybe you remember it as a fun time. Or maybe you recall it as a reign of terror. Whatever your take, the fact remains that “Macarena” ascended to #1 by August 3, 1996, and kept the chart in its clave rhythm stranglehold into November. This might be the ultimate realization of a song combined with a dance craze. In terms of the song, the hit version was a remix done by Miami producers Bayside Boys on a tune by Los Del Rio, a Spanish duo that had been around at that point for 34 years. It was so culturally pervasive that even Al Gore joked about it on the campaign trail. Though people were absolutely exhausted of it by 1997, the song has hung around, including enshrinement in the ultimate arbiter of early 21st century dance-move acknowledgement, a Fortnite emote.

“Despacito” by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee (Uploaded to YouTube by Luis Fonsi)

1. “Despacito” – Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee (2017; 16 weeks): For a title that means “slowly,” “Despacito” didn’t take long to tear up the charts. The song was composed by singer Luis Fonsi, rapper/singer Daddy Yankee, and singer Erika Ender. “Despacito” was a few weeks into its run when Justin Bieber approached Fonsi about a remix. The second version, which features Bieber performing in English for the first forty seconds, segues into the familiar Spanish verses (which also feature Bieber, who sang in Spanish for the first time on the recording). The double-barreled blast of “Despacito” ruled the year; the original version racked up billions of views on YouTube (it presently sits at over eight billion). The song collected four Latin Grammys, and the sheer length of the list of sales certifications for the tune is so massive that it would take its own article to cover it. For other artists that perform in Spanish, the song reset the terms on which they can operate in the 21st century. “Despacito” proved what all of the songs in this article have acknowledged: language never has to be a barrier to simply enjoying music.

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  1. Everything by Falco was/is great, musically and his videos. ‘Rock Me Amadeus’ was a VERY difficult song to learn to pull off lip-syncing to, trust me, for our Halloween work party I’ve written of on the site before. It was worth it. The tuxedo, the ego trip attention, the ladies in the 18th century clothes and wigs? Wunderbar! Got me into appreciating all of the greatest music by the composers of the 18th and 19th centuries, enriching my life to this very day.


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