Kicell: 4 Foreign-Language Bands Americans Should Care About


Brazilian psych-rock legends Os Mutantes, a 1960s group who has been praised by greats like Kurt Kobain, recently announced they are returning with a new album and U.S. tour.

The group performs in Portuguese, but sometimes, the language barrier isn't enough to keep good music away. The fact that this is news, having been reported by outlets like SPIN and Pitchfork, makes Os Mutantes one of the more successful non-English groups in American history. They're not the first, though: off the top of my head, I can think of Los Del Rio and their 1995 smash "Macarena" and Kyu Sakamoto's "Sukiyaki," which reached No. 1 in the U.S. in 1963.

What I'm getting at is that, every so often, we remember that places outside North America and English-speaking territories are capable of musical greatness. In honor of one of the great non-English groups to achieve American success, here are a few other foreign artists who deserve our attention:

1. Jorge Ben (Brazil):

Better known in America as Jorge Ben Jor, Ben has actually seen some fame here ... sort of: You might recognize Sergio Mendes' cover of his song "Mas Que Nada" as the song that scores many movie scenes set in Las Vegas. Ben has released over 30 albums, some of which have gone on to become Brazilian classics. Ben was arguably at his best at the very beginning, with his 1963 debut album, Samba Esquema Novo.

Featuring "Mas Que Nada," the album is great listening for lounging around in the warm summer months. The smooth, jazzy samba sound screams Brazil, but Ben's smooth voice manages to establish itself at the record's strongest trait. One of the more interesting bits of vocal work comes at the end of "Mas Que Nada" when Ben pushes his voice about as high as it will go and shows off his oddly-charming falsetto. Second track "Tim Dom Dom" is also a highlight and makes you wish you knew Portuguese so you could sing along with the infectious vocal harmony. I still do; I just have no idea what I'm saying.

2. Harmonium (Canada):

This 1970s progressive folk group hails from the province of Quebec, which is like a country within a country: It is the only province whose main language is French and on two occasions, once in 1980 and again in 1995, Quebec tried to separate from Canada to become its own nation.

Harmonium's music is as unconventional as the land they hail from. Their 1975 opus, "Si on avait besoin d'une cinquième saison," which translates to "If We Needed a Fifth Season," opens with "Vert," which begins sounding like the folk tunes of their first album and ends sounding like Pink Floyd if they were flower children. From there, the genre swings only get wilder: "Dixie" borrows a lot from ragtime, while the album's two 10-plus minute tracks, "Depuis l'automne" and "Histoires sans paroles," are mellow waves of psychedelic ambient folk.

3. Dungen (Sweden): 

Speaking of psychedelic, how about these guys: Dungen owes a debt to Led Zeppelin, both in their rock-leaning vibe and singer Gustav Ejstes' stage presence. The group actually performed on The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien to promote the release of their best album, Ta Det Lugnt. Conan's a fairly music-conscious guy, so he knows what's up, but for the most part, except for a glowing review from Pitchfork, the album and band have gone unappreciated.

Without reading the review, you can almost tell what an album sounds like by skimming and seeing what names the author drops. The Pitchfork review features references to, in order, Keith Moon, The Byrds, The Kinks, Olivia Tremor Control, Comets on Fire, The Zombies and The Beach Boys' boundary-pushing opus, "Pet Sounds." From that, we can gather the record is a mix of old-school grit, indie weirdness and atmospheric experimentation. And that's about right.

4. Kicell (Japan):

This brother-brother duo describes themselves on their website as having "a loose folksy-vibe mixed with a floating-on-the-sea ambiance," which shows they also have great self-awareness as that description is very accurate. They are also probably the best band on this list.

Their 2002 album, Kin-mirai, is primarily an ambient folk affair, although tracks like "Nagisa-no-kuni" make use of Flaming Lips- or Postal Service-like electronics. These sit in the back seat, though, as the "floating-on-the-sea ambiance" is the driving force behind highlights like "Hyakunen-calendar" and "Haru.”