It wasn’t until the Beatles ushered in the British Invasion that a non-American rock and roll act broke big in the United States. Considering it took the greatest band of all time to make this happen, you could say it was a pretty high bar to clear. Unless you were raised on an island isolated from all other human contact, you’re probably already familiar with the Beatles and might even have the impression that every cool foreign artist has to be either British or classic rock. In fact, there is an entire world of international alternative bands you should know about.
When most Americans think “world music,” they think of stuff you might hear while getting a massage or shopping at a Cost Plus World Market. This is provincial thinking, but is it really our fault? Outside of popular Mexican music such as norteño and the histrionically romantic ranchero genres, Americans aren’t exposed to many international artists on the radio. It’s time to dispel the myth that all bands that aren’t American have to feature pan flutes and tribal drumming. Here are five classic and current alternative bands you might not have been exposed to, but you just might love.
Soda Stereo/Gustavo Cerati
Country of Origin: Argentina
Recommended if you like: The Cure, Television, The Police.
Essential Track: Ecos
Soda Stereo could be the single greatest international band ever to go unheard of in the United States. They weren’t the first rock en español band, but they completely redefined the genre and remain the most the influential and beloved band ever to play it.
Formed in 1982, their records would have sounded perfectly at home on American radio between tracks by bands like XTC and Elvis Costello. The shimmering, chorus-laden guitars and brilliantly crafted lyrics made them as moody as The Cure, as rhythmic as The Police and as smartly sardonic as The Replacements. Try imaging all of the genius of those bands combined, and you’ll start to understand the greatness of Soda Stereo.
Soda Stereo, “Ecos”
In 1992, lead-singer, composer and multi-instrumentalist Gustavo Cerati released his first solo album Colores Santos while still continuing to record with Soda Stereo. Many fans would keep the group itself first in their hearts, but Cerati’s solo career is equally as great in its genius. He experimented with everything from minimal electronic music to grand, orchestral songs dealing with themes as deep as love, despair and faith—sometimes all in one song.
Gustavo Cerati, “Verbo Carne”. Recorded at Abbey Road Studios with a 48-piece orchestra
Country of Origin: Mexico
Recommended if You Like: Kraftwerk, Bjork, Los Tucanes De Tijuana
Essential Track: Tijuana Sound Machine
Another great (and mostly) Spanish-speaking group is Tijuana’s own Nortec Collective. More of a musical ensemble than a traditional band, Nortec was formed by various individuals and duos who collaborated together in various incarnations.
Nortec Collective presents: Bostich+Fussible, “Tijuana Sound Machine”
Though the ensemble ceased to be in 2008, its various members continued to record as Nortec Collective Presents: (fill in the blank here). The group best known north of Baja California is the producer-duo Bostich+Fussible. Playing futuristic instruments along with a norteño band, their fusion of German electronic music and traditional norteño music sounds like something you might hear at a quinceañera, in the future, for a teenage robot. They’re also regulars on the American music-festival circuit, having performed at San Francisco’s Treasure Island Music Festival and Bonnaroo.
In 2011, Bostich+Fussible were honored with a nomination for Best Latin Rock/Alternative Album for their release of Bulevard 2000. The first single from the album featured the collaboration with American singer Kylee Swenson of the band Loquat (aka my wife). Shameless plug, I know, but still a great song nonetheless. You can be the judge.
Nortec Collective at the Fillmore in San Francisco, “I Count The Ways”
Country of Origin: Holland
Recommended if you like: Queens of the Stone Age, Franz Ferdinand, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Essential Track: Get it Together
If asked what the most kick-ass rock band from Nijmegen was, there’s literally not a single person on earth who wouldn’t raise a fist in the air and shout “De Staat!” That is unless they were living in a cave. Or are from anywhere outside of the Netherlands.
De Staat, “Get it Together”
When the legendary mixer and producer Vance Powell turned me onto De Staat, he told me their record he mixed was one of the best albums he had ever worked on. This is a big statement for the Grammy-winning Powell, considering he’s worked with Jack White on some of the best rock records of the past decade.
De Staat delivers everything you want in a hip shakin’, window breakin’ and widow makin’ rock and roll band: foot-stomping beats, songs about prison and guitar riffs that make you wonder where all the bands that used to write guitar riffs went. If you care at all about rock and roll, get ready to care about De Staat.
De Staat, “Devil’s Blood”
Country of Origin: Japan
Recommended if you like: My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, Cocteau Twins
Essential Track: Walkblind
What is the shoegaze scene in Japan all about? If you’re asking that question, you should first investigate what shoegaze is all about in the first place. Then, you may to need to look at a map. Finally, check out Luminous Orange.
This is shoegaze. Luminous Orange, “Walkblind”
As a musical genre and as a scene, shoegaze was never really that popular in its home country of England to begin with. A few of its definitive acts, such as Ride, Lush and My Bloody Valentine, made some white noise on the charts, but they never really broke through the mainstream in the way that other truly lousy bands of their time did. (I’m looking at you, Right Said Fred.) Like a lot of things that weren’t properly appreciated enough at the time, shoegaze was and remains massively influential. It was also cool enough to earn passionate disciples across the globe, with perhaps the most passionate of theses fans coming from Japan.
The excellent (and uncreatively-named) Tokyo shoegaze band: Tokyo Shoegazer, “Tasogare Perspective”
County of Origin: France
Recommended if you like: Hot Chip, Passion Pit, Tom Tom Club
Essential Track: Ce Jeu
This electropop trio has been making music in their native France for a decade. Unlike their Gallic contemporaries Phoenix, the fact that they continue to sing in their native tongue has kept them from becoming a household name in America.
Ooh-La-La! Yelle plays “Ce Jeu”
Their dancefloor-friendly electro jams would appeal as much to mustached hipsters as it would to suave sophisticates. Yelle exemplifies that conflicted feeling many Americans have about the French—we find them a bit frou frou from time to time, but most of us secretly think they’re incredibly cool, and we’re bummed out that our language barrier keeps us from knowing them better. In the spirit of Franco-American relations, give yourself a pass and spend some quality time with Yelle.
A very compelling reason to learn French. Yelle, “Que Veux-Tu”
This concludes today’s world tour of international alternative artists you should know about. From shoegaze to foot-stomping rock, there are thousands of excellent bands from all over the globe that just might be the best of their breed and we just haven’t been hipped to them yet. I hope I was able to turn you on to a few bands that might just fit that bill.
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