Americans may not always realize it, but the United States is not the center of the world. For every foreign-born artist like Lorde or Shakira who beat the odds and earned massive fame in the States, there's an artist who has achieved megastar status strictly outside the USA. We scanned the globe and found 20 musical giants who get mobbed abroad but can walk down the street virtually unrecognized Stateside. By Daniel Kreps
It's not every day that a band you probably never heard of headlines a concert at Madison Square Garden. Yet, this October, Japanese heavy metal act X Japan will perform at the World's Most Famous Arena. Formed in 1982 by singer Toshi and drummer Yoshiki, X Japan – or just X in Japan; X of Los Angeles fame claimed that letter here – cultivated a huge audience in their homeland thanks to their amalgamation of spacey heavy metal and glam rock. The band released five albums – including the landmark 1989 LP Blue Blood – before disbanding in 1997. While they didn't reach the mainstream here, X Japan created an American cult following large enough that – after reuniting in 2007 – they were able to stage a concert at MSG. Recently, the revitalized X Japan inked a new recording deal, so they might still cross over yet.
Like Rodriguez, Paul Williams never really got his due in the United States; it took a collaboration with Daft Punk on Random Access Memories to bring Williams back into the spotlight in his American homeland. While Williams was a well-known personality and songwriter in the Seventies – he penned "Rainbow Connection – his popularity waned enough in the U.S. that a documentary about his life was titled Paul Williams Still Alive, just to let people know he wasn't dead. However, in the 2011 film, Williams visits the Philippines for a series of concerts… and the 73-year-old singer is worshipped there like he's Justin Bieber.
Caetano Veloso helped establish Tropicália, a fusion of Brazilian folk music, impish art impulses and pop that influenced the likes of Talking Heads and Beck. Veloso, along with fellow Brazilian legends like Gilberto Gil and Tom Ze was at the forefront of the movement, and Veloso has been a star in his native Brazil since the early Seventies. While he's enjoyed much more fame in South America, where he's a best-selling artist, Veloso has occasionally reached American audiences: At the 75th Academy Awards, Caetano performed his Best Original Song-nominated "Burn It Blue" (from Frida) for a TV audience of millions. While Veloso lost that night – Eminem's "Lose Yourself" took home the Oscar – the singer does have two Grammys wins under his belt.
Canada has manufactured one of music's most popular rappers (Drake), one of music's biggest indie bands (Arcade Fire), one of music's most divisive acts (Nickleback) and one of rock's greatest artists (Neil Young). Yet the Great White North's most popular rock group can't find the same success south of their border. Since 1989, this band out of Kingston, Ontario has released 12 albums that have routinely gone the Canadian equivalent of platinum (which is only 80,000 copies, but still) and landed at Number One on the Canadian Albums Chart. Meanwhile, in the U.S., the best the Hip have done is a Number 129 debut on the Billboard 200 for 2012's Now For Plan A. The Tragically Hip did have a brush with American success when they were recruited to perform on Saturday Night Live in 1995 but that's pretty much it. They continue to have major success up north, however, where they've won 12 Juno Awards.
Seven years ago, German glam rockers Tokio Hotel seemed on the verge of conquering America: They'd just won an MTV Video Music Award for Best New Artist, and their English-language debut Scream was hotly anticipated. And then they just kind of fizzled out. Scream debuted at Number 39 on the Billboard 200, and 2009's Humanoid entered the charts just as meekly. However, perhaps thanks to their oddly misspelled band name, the group has been killing it in Japan. Despite a long hiatus, Tokio Hotel also still has a large following in Europe, Latin America and Asia. Apparently it's just Americans who didn't want to check into the Hotel for any prolonged period of time.
While Americans are stricken with Lorde fever, over in the singer's home turf of New Zealand, she's not even the best-selling artist of the past year. Sole Mio, an operatic trio whose albums consist of pop standards and classic opera songs, have cemented themselves atop the NZ album charts. Lorde's Pure Heroine spent eight weeks at Number One; SOL3 MIO held the top spot for 16 weeks. Meanwhile, Lorde resides among that rare group of foreign artists who find greater success in America than they do at home.
Looking back, it's strange that Argentinean new wave band Soda Stereo didn't break through in the U.S. in the 1980s. All the pieces were in place: They had a cool band name, a catchy sound and a positive critical reputation. While the band never did end up achieving much success in North America, they managed to do what no other band had ever done: Unify South American countries' taste in music. From Chile to Ecuador, Soda Stereo packed stadiums and sold boatloads before splitting up in 1997. They went out with a bang though: Their final LP, 1995's Sueño Stereo, was deemed the 4th best Latin Rock album ever by Rolling Stone in 2012. Soda Stereo briefly reunited in 2007 for a sold-out tour before again parting ways.
Sometimes, American artists fail to leave an impression on their home soil but become superstars abroad. Such is the story of Rodriguez. The 2012 documentary Searching for Sugar Man tells the story of the enigmatic Detroit folk-rocker and his lasting popularity in South Africa, where Rodriguez was uttered in the same sentence as the Beatles. However, South Africans had no idea about Rodriguez's back story and whereabouts. Rodriguez spent decades in his native Michigan flirting with poverty, all the while – and unbeknownst to the singer – fame and wealth were on waiting on the other side of the Atlantic. Since the release of the film, Rodriguez has finally attained a measure of American success.
For fifty years, Cliff Richard has been one of the United Kingdom's most cherished musicians: He's won virtually every British music award and honor in existence, he's been knighted and there are 14 Number One singles under his belt. John Lennon once said of Richard, "I think the first English record that was anywhere near anywhere was 'Move It' by Cliff Richard, and before that there'd been nothing." (The Beatles even had a little rivalry with Cliff Richard and his Shadows early in the Fab Four's career.) Everyone from Mick Jagger to Freddie Mercury has sung the praises and championed the impact Richard had on music. It's perplexing that an English language artist can be so popular for so long in the U.K but not here. Richard's biggest U.S. hit came in 1976 with "Devil Woman," which peaked at Number Six on the Billboard Hot 100.
It's amazing that PSY, South Korea's chief musical export, made it big in America while Rain, Seoul's iconic dual threat – think South Korea's Justin Timberlake – continues to be a relative unknown here. A major draw throughout Southeast Asia as both a chart-topping singer and an accomplished actor, Rain is best known by for his appearances in the box office duds Speed Racer and Ninja Assassin. After taking three years away from show business to fulfill his country's mandatory military service, Rain has resumed his acting career stateside, appearing along Bruce Willis, John Cusack, and 50 Cent in the upcoming The Prince. His music career, however, largely continues to elude U.S. listeners.
"He's undoubtedly one of the most beloved artists in the entire continent of Africa," Rolling Stone wrote of N'Dour in 2012. Youssou's music and reputation was so respected in his native Senegal, he actually ran for President of the African nation; it took a disqualification to keep the popular candidate out of office. (As a consolation prize, he was named the country's Minister of Tourism and Culture.) Most Americans have heard N'Dour even if they don't recognize the name: N'Dour provided the epic closing vocals to Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes." However, Youssou's own vast catalog hasn't clicked with mass audiences in the U.S., relegating this giant of modern music to, at best, "world music" genre star.
Americans aren't exactly adverse to music out of Sweden. We loved ABBA and Ace of Base, Robyn and Swedish House Mafia. We even like the Hives and Peter, Bjorn and John's "Young Folks." However, Mando Diao, Sweden's biggest rock band, didn't make much of an impact here outside of college radio playlists and early afternoon side stage appearances at major music festivals. After failing to hit it big in America, Mando Diao refocused their efforts on their home country, releasing 2012's Infruset in their native tongue. The result: Sweden's top-selling album last year and Swedish Grammis nominations for Best Album and Best Artist (they lost to First Aid Kit in both categories, however.) Mando Diao released their new album ÆLITA in April 2014. It promptly landed atop the Swedish Album Charts.
Even though Iceland has a smaller population than Wichita, Kansas, the tiny island nation has made a significant music contribution. While Björk's pixie persona and disjointed rock and Sigur Ros' angelic, sweeping music have captivated American audiences, Icelandic group Hjálmar haven't had the same success level of U.S. success, even though they're more popular in their native country. It's not that Americans are adverse to a language barrier – Sigur Ros songs are sung in their inscrutable "Hopelandic" – but perhaps Hjálmar's idiosyncractic genre, "Icelandic reggae" is what's stopping them.
Surprise: The best-selling artist ever in Germany is not David Hasselhoff. That honor goes to Herbert Grönemeyer, a German rocker who's been in action since 1979. Grönemeyer's 2002 LP Mensch is Germany's all-time best-selling record, while his 1984 album 4630 Bochum is Number Three on that list. (Phil Collins' …But Seriously is sandwiched between the Grönemeyer releases.) Americans have largely been reluctant to embrace German-language music – we made Nena and Falco translate "99 Luftballoons" and "Der Kommissar," respectively, before turning them into hits – so it's no surprise that Grönemeyer hasn't broken big here, though film geeks might recognize him from his role in Wolfgang Petersen's military classic film Das Boot.
Forget Iggy Azalea. While the aforementioned Aussie rapper is killing it in America, 5 Seconds of Summer are taking over the rest of the world. With boy bands back in fashion thanks to One Direction and the Wanted, it seems that every nation is eager to produce their own blockbuster quintet. So far, Australia is winning: 5 Seconds of Summer have not only gained star status in their native country, they're also enjoying major success throughout Europe and South America, where they served as opening act on One Direction's Where We Are tour. Now, the fivesome are showing signs of invading America: Their debut self-titled LP arrives via Capitol on July 22nd, but their singles "She Looks So Perfect" and "Don't Stop" have already penetrated the Billboard Hot 100 (and they turned out a memorable performance at the Billboard Awards). It won't be long before these guys aren't fit for this list.
Unlike their Scandinavian neighbors from Sweden – a nation that has given Americans ABBA, Robyn, Lykke Li and so many other mainstream musicians – Finnish artists have struggled to make inroads in the United States. While the Finnish death metal scene is legendary, and Americans may have casually heard of Hanoi Rocks, HIM, and Children of Bodom, not much else from over there is making it over here. Maybe it is because the Smurfs – yes, those little blue cartoon creatures – are among the top 10 best-selling musical artists ever in Finland. But the biggest-selling Finnish artist of all time? That's Eppu Normaali, a punk rock outfit that's been at it since the mid-Seventies. Check out "Tahdon sut," for a sampling of the sound that has captivated a nation better known for cellphones and a high standard of living.
DDT is the brainchild of Yuri Shevchuk, an outspoken rocker who often uses his lyrics to examine social issues in his native Russia. His reputation earned Shevchuk the nickname "the Russian Springsteen," a moniker he cemented after he had the guts to grill Vladimir Putin about corruption during a public debate. Since 1980, Shevchuk and his revolving door of DDT members have released 20 albums and performed countless sold out gigs, but they've failed to make the same impression in the U.S. There's just no interest in America for Russian rockers who rage against the Putin . . . umm, aside from Pussy Riot.
By now, you've may have heard of Buju Banton thanks more to his criminal activities than his music. One of Jamaica's premier dancehall artists, Banton was sentenced in 2011 to ten years in prison on a variety of drug trafficking and firearm possession charges. Prior to that, Banton was a top-selling (albeit controversial) reggae artist who collaborated with the likes of Busta Rhymes, Rancid, and Wyclef Jean. Just when Banton was about to finally break through in America – his 2010 LP Before the Dawn won a Grammy for Best Reggae Album – he was busted in Miami for conspiracy to distribute cocaine. However, many consider the charges against Banton and the conviction "bogus"; essentially, a government informant roped Banton into the situation, and the trial itself was rife with misconducts. Even famed Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree has taken up Buju's cause, so Banton may be able to resume his music career before his prison sentence ends in 2019.
If you asked a Parisian for a list of French landmarks, they'd list the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, the Louvre and Charles Aznavour. The 90-year-old crooner is a national treasure in his native country, the equivalent of Frank Sinatra to us Yankees. Yet despite the hundreds of millions of records he's sold, his work as an activist and his incredible tenor, Aznavour is basically a blank to the average American. It's not as though language is an obstacle: Aznavour has recorded plenty of songs in English and French-singing Serge Gainsbourg is a cult hero in the States. Aznavour did wind up on Dr. Dre's radar, however, as the producer sampled "Parce Que Tu Crois" on "What's the Difference." Arthouse film fans will also no doubt recognize Aznavour from Francois Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player.
Imagine if J-Pop had its own massive Vegas-style revue in the heart of Tokyo. Meet AKB48, a girl group that boasts nearly 150 members – divided into five teams and distinguished by wardrobe color, with ages ranging from 12 to 37 – and performs daily at its own theatre. The Guinness World Record holder for Largest Pop Group, AKB48 is a phenomenon in Japan because their success spans so many platforms: live performances, studio albums, video games and television, etc. It's not just a gimmick though, as Japan genuinely loves the group's music: AKB48 has won Billboard Japan's Top Pop Artists award four straight years, and they have the most million-selling singles in Japanese history. Despite unprecedented popularity in Japan, they're mostly obscure over here. In fact, most Americans' first exposure to the girl group came last month when news spread that a saw-wielding man had attacked two members of AKB48 at a fan meet-and-greet in Japan.