For decades, the Top 40 chart has seen the occasional novelty hit sung in something other than English. Think of Santana's "Oye Como Va", Edith Piaf's "La Vie en Rose", or the Sandpipers' "Guantanamera" – and those weren't even big enough to make this list! Based on their peak positions on the Billboard Hot 100, here are the nine most successful foreign language songs, from lowest to highest:
- "SADENESS (PART I)", Enigma. Peak position: #5 (2 weeks), April 1991. As unlikely as a foreign language hit is, having one recorded in Latin is even more unlikely. Yet behold the ambient techno track that gave us the term "world beat". Made by a German and sampling Gregorian monks, a Japanese flute, and a sexy woman whispering in French. How global!
- "99 LUFTBALLONS", Nena. Peak position: #2 (1 week), March 1984. Nena. Is it a band, or a girl? Surprise: it's both. Another German, this one singing in her native language, Nena almost made it to #1 but was stopped by Van Halen's "Jump". Scheisse! She also released an English-language version, but it was the German original that rose to the top.
- "WOODEN HEART", Joe Dowell. Peak position: #1 (1 week), August 1961. This one is kind of a cheat, since it's sung in both English and German. But there's still more German here than there is Spanish in 21st century bilingual hits such as Santana's "Maria Maria" and Shakira's "Hips Don't Lie". As for "Wooden Heart", this variation on an old German folk song got its start as an Elvis Presley tune, featured in his film G.I. Blues, which was based on the King's own Army stay in Germany. But it was a cover by the little-known Dowell that became a chart-topper. (Elvis's version went to #1 in many other countries, including the UK.)
- "SUKIYAKI", Kyu Sakamoto. Peak position: #1 (3 weeks), June 1963. The only Japanese release to crack the US Top 10, the actual title of the song is "Ue o Muite Aruko", translated as "I Will Walk Looking Up". The American distributors obviously thought the more familiar word "Sukiyaki" would be a better fit. Sadly, Sakamoto was one of the 520 people who died in 1985's infamous Japan Airlines plane crash, one of the deadliest in history.
- "ROCK ME AMADEUS", Falco. Peak position: #1 (3 weeks), March 1986. Why exactly German-language songs have been more successful on American pop charts than Spanish-language songs, I'll never know. But the beloved Viennese singer, who earlier had a minor US hit with "Der Kommissar" (more successful in its English cover version by British one-hit-wonders After the Fire), rode on the coattails of the Oscar-winning Amadeus and basked in the international spotlight.
- "LA BAMBA", Los Lobos. Peak position: #1 (3 weeks), August 1987. This song gets the edge over its fellow 3-weekers because it was a hit twice, for two performers. Richie Valens, who based his song on a traditional Mexican tune, saw it rise to #22 in 1958, months before his death. Los Lobos's cover version was lip-synched by Lou Diamond Phillips in the 1987 Valens biopic of the same name.
- "DOMINIQUE", the Singing Nun (a.k.a. Jeanine Deckers). Peak position: #1 (4 weeks), December 1963. This Belgian nun may remain history's most unexpected pop star. Because of her vows, she obviously did not get rich off of her sing-songy French-language folk tune. Her career quickly faded even as her life took twists and turns, from leaving the convent to becoming an advocate for the Pill to being in a long-term lesbian relationship to committing suicide in 1985.
- "NEL BLU DIPINTO DI BLU", Domenico Modugno. Peak position: #1 (5 weeks), August-September 1958. You know this song as "Volare", and today oldies radio stations are more likely to play Bobby Rydell's English cover version. But it was Modugno's Eurovision song winner, sung in its original Italian, that was the megahit of its day.
- "MACARENA (BAYSIDE BOYS MIX)", Los Del Rio. Peak position: #1 (14 weeks!!!), August-November 1996. The biggest dance craze of the '90s was spawned by this Spanish duo, who recorded the original version way back in 1992. This particular remix of the song remained in the Top 100 for over a year, but Los Del Rio never scored again. And who were the Bayside Boys, anyway?