1. Maria Magdalena, “CVMC (Cada Vez Mas Cerca)” [Chile]
Chile has a thriving electro-pop scene, and this glorious, wonderfully airy disco track is the cream of this year’s crop. The psychedelic pastel-hued video is pretty astonishing too.
2. Sandy Lam, “无言歌” [Hong Kong]
Sandy Lam is like the Madonna of the Chinese pop scene – she’s been around since the ’80s and has never really gone away. This track from her most record album is fascinating – it mutates at least five times over the course of as many minutes, and sounds sorta like Robyn and St. Vincent making a single together in a monastery.
3. G-Dragon, “미치GO” [South Korea]
Forget about Psy – G-Dragon is the true king of K-Pop, and unquestionably the most magnetic and flamboyant pop star in South Korea. The video for “미치GO” is one of the most colorful and surreal clips of the year, but the song itself – a hyperactive hip-hop dance track – is just as thrilling.
4. Titica, “Don’t Touch Me” [Angola]
Titica, an out trans woman, is one of the biggest stars of Angola’s kuduro dance music scene. This single is a bit more mellow than her usual stuff, but it may be the sexiest, funkiest song about refusing consent and shunning sexual harassment you’ll ever hear.
5. San E featuring Sanchez, “Break Up Dinner” [South Korea]
This K-Pop smash is basically a smooth, sentimental late ’90s R&B tune about a guy setting up an elaborate dinner date as a last ditch effort to keep his girlfriend from dumping him. The song gets hilariously desperate, especially when he’s begging her to stop crying and eat her food before it gets cold. Definitely listen to this one with English subtitles.
6. DJ Smash & Vengerov & Bobina featuring Matua & Averin and Kravets, “Нефт” [Russia]
This house music track was one of the biggest hits in Russia this year. The song is fine, but the video is completely insane, and it’s kinda hard to tell whether its over-the-top tribute to oil and wealth is ironic or not.
7. Julieta Venegas, “Te Vi” [Mexico]
This track from Mexican pop singer Julieta Venegas is very funky, but its mood is incredibly bittersweet. You definitely don’t need to understand a word of Spanish to pick up on the deep sadness in her voice as she sings about the disappointment of unrequited love.
8. Tricot, “おちゃんせんすぅす” [Japan]
The mostly female indie band Tricot are responsible THE, for one of the most inventive and formally accomplished rock albums of the year. This single is the perfect introduction to their incredibly appealing blend of Japanese bubblegum pop and the tangled, ever-shifting rhythms of ’90s “math rock.”
9. Stromae, “Papaoutai” [Belgium]
This single by the Belgian singer Stromae was one of the biggest hits in France this year. The song is incredibly catchy and the video – in which Stromae appears as a lifeless mannequin – is striking, but it’s a lot more powerful when you know it’s a song about him being haunted by the memory of his father, who was killed in the Rwandan genocide.
10. Rokia Traoré, “Mélancolie” [Mali]
Rokia Traoré is a veteran of the Mali music scene, and has had some minor success in the United States and England thanks to her record being issued by Nonesuch Records and her appearances at major festivals like Glastonbury. But even still, her lovely, delicate take on African pop is more obscure than it ought to be.
11. BFlecha, “B33” [Spain]
Belén Vidal, the Spanish producer known as BFlecha, specializes in making electronic pop music that’s somehow both lush and minimal at the same time. “B33” is one of her best tracks, and is a perfect introduction to her ethereal, vaguely melancholy music.
12. Jota Quest featuring Nile Rodgers, “Mandou Bem” [Brazil]
Disco legend Nile Rodgers made his big comeback this year with Daft Punk’s mega-hit “Get Lucky,” but he also lent his unmistakable rhythm guitar style to this retro disco single by the Brazilian band Jota Quest. There’s some amazing roller skating footage in this video, by the way.
13. Dënver, “Revista de Gimnasia” [Chile]
Dënver’s “Revista de Gimnasia” is one of the year’s finest retro-disco tunes, and it’s been a very competitive year on that front, both in Chile and abroad. This video is fascinating too – it’s baffling, and manages to be both incredibly icky and vaguely sexy.
14. Brown Eyed Girls, “날아갈래” [South Korea]
This track from the K-Pop girl group’s fantastic album Black Box is sort of like Beyoncé’s “Love On Top” crossed with classic TLC, but with almost all of the singing and rapping delivered in Korean rather than English. It’s a winning combination.
15. Deserts Chang, “玫瑰色的你” [Taiwan]
This singer-songwriter from Taiwan became hugely popular in China this year, and subsequently stirred up controversy by both criticizing the political regime in Taiwan and getting boycotted in China after she held up a Taiwanese flag at a show in Manchester, England.
16. Anitta, “Show das Poderosas” [Brazil]
The Brazilian pop singer Anitta is maybe a bit too obvious in fashioning herself as the Southern Hemisphere’s answer to Beyoncé – the video for her enormous hit “Show das Ponderosas” is very Bey-esque and the song samples Major Lazer’s “Pon De Floor” just like “Run the World (Girls).” But if you’re going to model yourself on someone, why not aim for the best?
17. Duman, “Yürek” [Turkey]
Duman has been one of the most popular bands in Turkey for over a decade and this recent hit plays to their core strength of filtering traditional Turkish folk melodies through the aesthetics of modern indie rock.
18. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, “Mottai Night Land” [Japan]
Kyary Pamyu Pamyu may be the most kawaii human in history. “Mottai Night Land” is a delightful pop tune, but it’s eclipsed somewhat by its video, which breaks new ground for extreme cuteness and whimsy.
19. Touming Magazine, “Beer’s Waiting” [Taiwan]
Yes, they have pop-punk in Taiwan, and yes, it’s really fun and exciting and they sing about beer. What a wonderful world!
20. Pompeya, “Power” [Russia]
A lot of Russian pop music is made exclusively for a Russian audience, but this band from Moscow clearly has an interest in becoming internationally famous. They sing in English, which goes a long way towards crossing over in the West, and their chilly, groovy music fits right in with a lot of contemporary English and American indie music.