What makes a great pop song? What is it about a hit that makes the entire world hum along, whether it wants to or not? Some say that for a song to appeal to the broadest possible spectrum of people it must be free of cultural quirks and regional flavors. It doesn’t need to taste like anything; it just has to be sweet.
But, now and again, comes an upsetter. A juggernaut from a distinct musical enclave barrels onto global pop charts, subverting everything we thought we knew. When that happens, we call it a crossover. There is a rich history of such tunes and we want to celebrate it. So, get to know these thirteen that made the record books and got stuck in our heads.
Some, we might not want to remember, but all are unforgettable.
1. Antônio Carlos Jobim – “The Girl From Ipanema”
Early on in the last century, artists like American-born Harry Belafonte and Brazil’s Carmen Miranda helped to popularize styles like Jamaican mento, Trinidadian calypso and Brazilian bossa nova in the US mainstream, paving the way for crossovers to come.
But it’s the bossa nova classic “The Girl from Ipanema” by Antônio Carlos Jobim that is the true godmother of global megahits. The version recorded by Astrud Gilberto, João Gilberto and Stan Getz in 1964 charted high around the world and received a Grammy for Record of the Year in ’65. Since then, it’s been covered countless times and found a permanent home in the pop standard song book. Nice to remember this ball got rolling on such a classy note.
2. Desmond Dekker – “Israelites”
Released in 1968, Desmond Dekker’s “Israelites” was a number one hit from the UK to South Africa, as well as at home in Jamaica.
The soulful and syncopated ska tune struck a chord with Rastas, rude boys and everyone else, one that resonates to this day — even if a lot of people still couldn’t tell you what Dekker is saying.
Along with Millie’s earlier, wildly popular 1964 cover song, “My Boy Lollipop,” it did a lot of the heavy lifting needed to bring Jamaican music into the global pop lexicon, sparking off a string of Jamaican hits in the UK.
3. Los del Río – “Macarena”
This song by Spain’s Los del Río transcends so much that it is barely music. It is a force of nature, like a lava flow or an algae bloom.
Technically speaking, “Macarena” is Latin dance-pop with a flamenco/rumba rhythm and lyrics about a girl named Macarena. Historically speaking, it became a worldwide smash hit in 1996, after The Bayside Boys remixed it with some English lyrics thrown in.
And weddings were never the same again.
It doesn’t matter whose grandma you are, or where you live, you have heard this song more times than you wanted to.
4. Technotronic – “Pump Up the Jam”
Don’t try to argue that house is not the true music of the people of Belgium. You will lose. “Pump Up the Jam,” however, belongs to the world. The infectious Eurodance track hit the world’s charts so hard that it might still be number one in some countries. Colombia’s Bomba Estéreo, for one, hasn’t forgotten. Their psychedelic cover version, titled “Ponte Bomb,” testifies to its enduring impact:
5. The Singing Nun – “Dominique”
Fact: “Pump Up the Jam” was not the first time Belgium took the world by storm. In 1963, “Dominique,” by Belgian nun Jeanine Deckers AKA Soeur Sourir (Sister Smile) AKA The Singing Nun, became an international sensation. The sprightly folk tune about Saint Dominic was so popular that a movie was made about Deckers in 1966. Yes, kids, this song was huge.
The 1982 disco version, not so much.
Bonus Fact: “Ue o Muite Arukō/Sukiyaki” by Kyu Sakamoto was another ocean-hopping success the same year, reaching the top of the charts in the US and the UK after sweeping Japan in 1961.
6. Kaoma – “Lambada”
This track has arguably the longest journey and most global history of any on the list. “Lambada,” as the entire world knows it today, was recorded in 1982 by Kaoma, a French group assembled for the purpose with musicians from Brazil, Senegal, France, and the Caribbean. It went number one on eleven different countries.
The song sparked innumerable covers and a world wide dance craze (as intended.) It later came to light that the tune had been, er, borrowed from a Bolivian pop group called Los Kjarkas. “Lambada’s” producer “discovered” it in Brazil.
Recently, the persistent hook re-surfaced on Jennifer Lopez’s “On the Floor” and João Brasil’s “Tropical Bomb.”
7. Arrow – “Hot Hot Hot”
With a hit as big and eventually ubiquitous as 1982′s dance hit “Hot Hot Hot” there is a tendency to subconsciously imagine it was developed in a lab, rather than actually written by someone.
But this one was written by Monserrat soca artist Alphonsus “Arrow” Cassell, who passed away in 2010.
His music lives on and, though not everyone may realize it, insinuates soca into the world’s pop radio. “Hot Hot Hot” has been covered by countless artists, most memorably by New York Dolls singer David Johansen performing as Buster Poindexter.
8. Miami Sound Machine – “Conga”
They don’t call her the Queen of Latin Pop for no reason. The Latin crossover pop explosion of the early ’00s owes a lot to Gloria Estefan. Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Martin, and all the others who broke though to mainstream radio success (read: album sales) at the turn of the Millenium can thank Estefan for the door opening hit “Conga.”
A massive hit in 1985, “Conga” rocketed Estefan’s band Miami Sound Machine to lasting international prominence.
The immutable awesomeness of the video might taken a hand.
9. Nena – “99 Luftballons”/”99 Red Balloons”
Possibly the catchiest anti-war song ever written, “99 Luftballons,” (subsequently released in English as “99 Red Balloons”) was an instant hit for German new wavers Nena.
It rocked charts from Japan to New Zealand and has been covered many, many times — though everyone knows the best version is by 7 Seconds.
The song’s legacy includes an hour when VH1 played both German and English versions of the video nonstop during a 2006 “Pay to Play” fundraiser for Hurricane Katrina relief at the request of one benefactor.
10. A.R. Rahman – “Jai Ho”
Indian film composer A.R. Rahman composed “Jai Ho” for the 2008 blockbuster Slumdog Millionaire, but the Bollywood-style tune with Hindi and Spanish lyrics proceeded to take on a life of its own. In addition to winning an Academy Award and a Grammy, it went to number one on the charts in five different countries. “Jai Ho” fever culminated in Rahman’s first world tour in 2010.
The Pussycat Dolls recorded a version with English lyrics and, despite this being a terrible idea, that song made it to #2 in the Europe and #15 in the US.
11. Gyptian – “Hold Yuh”
In 2010, reggae artist Gyptian’s “Hold Yuh” got a solid grip on the charts in the US, Canada, and Jamiaca, charting well in the US on both the Billboard R&B and Hip-Hop Chart and the Hot 100. It also caught on the UK.
Two years later, that plinky piano hook is still playing on loop in some people’s heads. Many of us aren’t even mad.
Hear it one more time, live at MTV Iggy’s Best New Band 2011 concert:
12. 2NE1 – “I Am the Best”
The Internet changes everything, maybe even the definition of a global hit. Though it is squarely pop and by-now laden with buzz, K-pop is still perched just on the edge of going worldwide. But envelope-pushing girl group 2NE1 could be the game changer. Their single “I Am the Best,” with its simultaneously earwormy and martial rhythm, has become a rallying cry for 2NE1 fans, who call themselves Blackjacks, from Seoul to São Paulo.
2NE1 and their Blackjacks said they were the best and in 2011 we said they were the Best New Band in the world. Watch them prove it after being crowned at our Best New Band concert:
13. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu – “Pon Pon Pon”
It’s hard to say yet if “Pon Pon Pon” is the shape of global hits to come. (Time will tell how it will stand up next to the drug-resistant strains of “Macarena.”) But when Harajuku duchess-turned-pop starlet Kyary Pamyu Pamyu unleashed the track on YouTube via an ultra-kawaii music video, the world voluntarily tuned in — to the tune of 21, 123, 146 views and counting. Then the fizzy pop nugget topped the iTunes electronic charts in Belgium and Finland.
Witness the euphoric chaos that got things going: