With the domination of streaming services and personal devices, music has become more of a personal experience than ever before. Whether you’re a genre-hopper or loyalist, there is never a bad time to spice up your playlist. To help you with that, here are five groundbreaking songs from some of the most happening places in music.
Stromae, “Tous les mêmes” (2013)
“Tous les mêmes” comes off Belgian musician Stromae’s critically-acclaimed second studio album Racine carrée. This collection is chock full of songs that may sound familiar to you. If you’re a fan of the a cappella group Pentatonix, you’ve probably heard of the song “Papaoutai”. For the football fans, there’s “Ta fête”, the official 2014 World Cup anthem for Belgium. Included in this album is “Formidable”, for which the viral music video captures Stromae himself stumbling through the streets of Brussels seemingly intoxicated – and getting stopped by the police. But “Tous les mêmes” perhaps captures the confessional spirit of Racine carrée best. It shows off the lyricist’s mastery of consonant use in maintaining the song’s mood, allowing his fluid expression of double entendres to shine.
Stromae capitalises on the multimedia nature of contemporary music, so to understand what this song is about, here is the music video for your reference:
From an old-school piano-cum-brass intro distorted through radio transmission, Stromae embodies a female persona, launching into a seductive yet taunting melody. And as if the aggressive “Dis-moi, merci” (English: “Go ahead, say thanks”) was not enough, the male persona strikes back with the age-old retort about his partner being on her period. This back and forth, while unfortunately heteronormative, is oddly refreshing for its blunt portrayal of a conflict between lovers. The argument continues as the couple’s responses become clipped, culminating in a paradoxically romantic-sounding trumpet solo. The song closes with the admission that both parties “are the same”.
Stromae doesn’t spare the pomp and circumstance in his music video either. He and his female counterpart weave between the blue- and pink-tinted sets, guiding the listener (and viewer) through a story of troubled love. Not to mention the graceful, powerful choreography, embodying both the masculine and feminine in a storytelling feat progressive for its time. This track is fit for making you feel fierce, no matter the time of day.
MFR Souls (feat. Major League Djz, Kamo Mphela & Bontle Smith), “Amanikiniki” (2020)
South African musical duo MFR Souls are widely credited with the advent of Amapiano, a relatively young form of house music. The name “Amapiano” means “the pianos” in Zulu, a language spoken mainly in Southern Africa. Though the genre is said to have been created in 2012, it was popularised in 2019, with MFR Souls’ track “Love You Tonight (feat. DJ Maphorisa, Sha Sha & Kabza De Small)” among those spearheading the movement. Young Amapiano producers commonly distribute their music independently, increasing the accessibility of new songs. The novelty of the genre enables creators to continuously test its boundaries, rendering the Amapiano scene remarkably active in terms of new releases.
“Amanikiniki”’s nomination for TikTok Song of the Year is proof of MFR Souls’ influence, and the popularity of Amapiano as a genre. This recognition is well-deserved; “Amanikiniki” is a complex house track that remains loyal to its roots in Bacardi music. It starts with relaxed percussion to set the tempo around 115 bpm, before the tremolo signal ushers in the real beginning of the song. Low- and high-register vocals from Kamo Mphela and Bontle Smith, combined with some clever harmony, delaying and layering give the song a choral quality. The repetition of a few melodic motifs and unexpected inclusion of snorting near the middle of the song make it memorable for being simultaneously different and the same.
Brave Girls, “Rollin’” (2017)
If you’ve been keeping up with K-pop over the past few months, you would be no stranger to this summer bop by veteran girl group Brave Girls. While this author is partial to their latest release “We Ride”, “Rollin’” definitely deserves its spot on this list. Thanks to a viral video, this song climbed to the top of Korean music charts almost four years after its release, making for a legendary underdog comeback tale. This is not the first time a viral video has pushed a track out of obscurity – fan footage of EXID’s Hani performing “Up & Down” quite literally saved the group’s career back in 2014. But this is the first time it had such a meteoric impact. Since the video was released in late February this year, it has amassed over 16 million views at the time of writing.
The song is rather simple, both lyrically and structurally. It is a love confession in the standard verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus form. Yet producer Brave Brothers did well to focus on his specialty in making songs that stick. The result is a house-inspired pop song punctuated by pumping bass, complete with flawless vocal runs from all the Brave Girls members and butter-smooth rap from Eunji and Yuna. The chorus is a guaranteed earworm, and the “stingray dance” arrives on cue to complement the synth breakdown.
Minyoung, Yujeong, Eunji and Yuna have clearly perfected the craft of live performance, pulling off stable vocals while dancing and reaching every part of the stage. In particular, the high notes of the chorus do not faze main vocalist Minyoung, who impressively nails it every time. Of course, an honourable mention goes to the Korean military personnel featured here for making the shows lit, if you will. It’s clear that the energy is infectious – the artists smile so wide on stage in response. My hope is that “Rollin’” doesn’t wind up becoming Brave Girls’ magnum opus. Regardless, they have surely made their mark.
Marshmello & Amr Diab, “Bayen Habeit” (2018)
For Middle Eastern fans of EDM, their worlds collided with the release of “Bayen Habeit” (“In Love” in Arabic), a collaboration between EDM heavyweight Marshmello and influential Egyptian musician Amr Diab. Despite being released shortly after producer Marshmello’s megahit “Happier”, the collaboration was not overshadowed. “Bayen Habeit” charted at #1 in the Middle East, a testament to both artists’ popularity in the region. The song’s background encompasses the global collaboration Diab has been known for. For one, English director Stuart Gosling was responsible for his “Ana Ayesh” music video in 2012. Marshmello is also a prolific artist in his own right, dropping a new song almost every month. TL;DR: these two are a match made in heaven.
“Bayen Habeit” opens with a wind instrument (likely a Ney-anbān, or another Arabic bagpipe) solo that sets the mood, accompanied by short synth notes. A strings section is laid beneath the pre-chorus, as Diab shows off his upper register. The song descends into silence, save for Diab’s enchanting vocal riff, before the instrumental returns in full force. The choice of percussion in this song – namely the cymbals, snare, clapping, bass and woodblock – gives this song life. Marshmello’s production stands in stark contrast to the acoustic version of the song, which features only the winds and guitar. Whereas the acoustic version is reminiscent of a solitary musing about helpless love, Marshmello’s production lends the song a sense of urgency, conjuring up the image of Diab dramatically waxing lyrical with an orchestra behind him.
Unfortunately, this song and Diab’s subsequent album Kol Hayaty (“All My Life” in Arabic) were not released without controversy. Composer and long-time collaborator Amr Mostafa threatened legal action against Diab for the latter’s failure to credit him in Marshmello’s rendition of “Bayen Habeit”. Who could blame him? Nevertheless, nothing else about this song disappoints, except maybe the fact that it ends in just over two minutes.
T-Bone, “ที -โบน” (T-Bone) (2003)
This last song is a throwback to the heyday of Thai ska music in the late 20th century to early 21st century. Inspired by the rise of Jamaican ska, bands like Carabao, T-Bone and the Sriracha Rockers were particularly well-received in Thailand, perhaps thanks to the subtle rock elements that creeped into their music. Their art made for catchy dancing music, and is known to have influenced newer Thai bands such as Polycat.
T-Bone’s self-titled track reflects their willingness to experiment with the burgeoning genre, bending many of the rules that make ska music what it is. The band alternates between emphasising the onbeat with snare rimshots, and stressing the backbeat with the brass and guitar melodies. A quick succession of notes on the tom-toms signals switches between these sequences. The hi-hat plays no small role in this song, keeping the tempo when the backbeat is stressed. The jazz influence in T-Bone’s music is exemplified through the flowy electric guitar solo at the 1:32 mark. To top it all off, the woodblocks and tambourine add to the celebratory air… How can you resist getting up and having a good time? Also, “Yeah, we are T-Bone. Enjoy with us and enjoy yourself!” is just a great motto to have in life.
Which country’s music would you like us to explore next? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org
P.S. Here are more resources if you’d like to learn more about the music introduced here!
- “Charting the Meteoric Rise of South Africa’s AmaPiano.” Spotify, October 2, 2019. https://newsroom.spotify.com/2019-10-02/charting-the-meteoric-rise-of-south-africas-amapiano/.
- InternetsNathan. What Happened to Brave Girls – How They Broke The Kpop Charts. YouTube, 2021. https://youtu.be/8T9bAeveeiw.
- Lowery, Tim. “Meet Stromae, the Most Famous Pop Star You’ve Never Heard Of.” Time Out New York. Time Out, April 28, 2014. https://www.timeout.com/newyork/music/meet-stromae-the-most-famous-pop-star-youve-never-heard-of.
- Mitchell, James. “Red and Yellow Songs: A Historical Analysis of the Use of Music by the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) and the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) in Thailand.” South East Asia Research19, no. 3 (September 1, 2011): 457–94. https://doi.org/10.5367/sear.2011.0058.
- Phangyoisa, Sunisa สุนิสา ผางยอยซ้าย. “Tuatonnakdontrirekke ตัวตนนักดนตรีเร็กเก้ [The Reggae Musician],” 2009. http://www.sure.su.ac.th/xmlui/bitstream/handle/123456789/5548/fulltext.pdf?sequence=1.
- Plastino, Goffredo, and Michael Frishkopf. “Some Meanings of the Spanish Tinge in Contemporary Egyptian Music.” Essay. In Mediterranean Mosaic: Popular Music and Global Sounds, 151–72. New York, NY: Routledge, 2003.
- Seroto, Butchie. “Amapiano: What Is It All about?” Music In Africa, October 3, 2020. https://www.musicinafrica.net/magazine/amapiano-what-it-all-about.