The Epic Ballads That the World's Listening to, From Chile to Thailand

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An Adele-free playlist of slow songs for fall

ballads international collage 615 bogart.png
From left: Emel Mathlouthi, Jon Germain, Wanting Qu, Rodrigo Costa Félix (publicity photos)

Fall is a serious season. It's when movie studios roll out their fanciest, most self-important movies, when publishers hard-sell their weighty novels from weighty novelists, and when the commercials for new TV dramas fall over one another assuring the viewer of the meaningfulness and addictiveness of their shows. It's also the perfect season for the musical equivalent of Oscar bait: big, emotional ballads that sweep the listener up in their particular world. Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" and Céline Dion's "My Heart Will Go On" were creatures of the Oscar season, as were, more recently, OneRepublic's "Apologize," Bruno Mars's "Just the Way You Are," and Adele's "Someone Like You."

This year, no consensus English-language song has so far emerged as the year's big ballad. Gotye's trickily rhythmic "Somebody That I Used to Know" and Katy Perry's self-helpy "Wide Awake" may be potential nominees, while Miguel's "Adorn" has emerged as dark horse from the artsy R&B world. Then again, the season's only just begun, and if American listeners can't find an appropriately sweeping heartstring-tugger at home, there's always the rest of the world. Ballad production is cranking up globally for the many different markets served by pop internationally, and even though half the world is entering spring, not fall, songs of love and its complications are an infinitely renewable resource.

Here are 12 low-tempo songs from around the world that can strike a chord regardless of language. If you're the susceptible sort, you may wish to grab a box of Kleenex before you get very far into the videos.

1. Wanting Qu (曲婉婷), "You Exist in My Song (我的歌声里)"

China/Canada

Wanting, whose name is a multilingual pun, was born in China and moved to Canada as a teenager; after getting a degree in business to satisfy her parents, she dedicated herself to music, and has been rewarded by seeing "You Exist in My Song" become hugely popular in China—which is, of course, a good way towards being one of the most popular songs in the world. Her Western-style vocal inflections make the song all the more adaptable to any market, and it's become something of an under-the-radar YouTube hit among piano-playing teenagers everywhere.

2. Sekouba Bambino, "Simontena"

Guinea

Sekouba is one of Guinea's most famous and respected singers—he fronted the legendary Bembeya Jazz Orchestra in the 1980s—and his music has long found inspiration across the Atlantic, from Cuban rumba and salsa to Colombian cumbia and vallenato. "Simontena" is an elegant, late-period slow jam with rhythms that recall cumbia and reggaetón, but the floating synth clouds and call-and-response Sekouba establishes are simply and irresistibly West African R&B.

3. Ricardo Arjona & Gaby Moreno, "Fuiste Tú"

Guatemala

Arjona is also a veteran of his craft; he had his first pan-American success in 1993, and has never been far from the Latin charts since. Jazz-pop singer Gaby Moreno has also been successful, if for a shorter period of time: She co-wrote the bouncy theme song to Parks and Recreation. Both of them were born in Guatemala, though there's nothing particularly Guatemalan about their rock-ballad duet, a hit throughout Latin America this year: That guitar and piano is more or less the official international bourgeois sound. But the video pays tribute to their home nation, with ravishing portraits of tourist destinations like colonial Antigua, the Mayan ruins of Tikal, and scenic Lake Atitlán.

4. Jessye Belleval, "Toute une vie?"

Guadeloupe/France

Zouk, the airy, steel-stringed guitar music developed in the French Caribbean, has become one of the signature Francophone styles throughout the world, elastic enough to incorporate macho posturing, rhythmic dancing, and romantic swooning—and, as here, a song about the heartbreak of not being in love anymore. The video has Jessye running away at the altar, but the title—"all one's life?" or "the entirety of a life?"—tells a complete story in itself.

5. The National Fanfare of Kadebostany, "Walking With a Ghost"

Switzerland/Belarus/Romania/Kazakhstan/Russia/Poland

This six-piece band from the fictional nation of Kadebostany is from all over the Eastern European and Western Asian map, and with their ornate backstory and English-language lyrics are evidently aiming more towards the hip international indie audience (they have a Tumblr) than for any particular local success, but they've already charted in Greece and some of its neighboring countries. Their music—a mixture of Balkan horns, gothic atmosphere, and stern rhythms—is just the sort of darkly ironic embrace of doom that might hold some appeal for the insolvent half of the European Union today.

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Jonathan Bogart is a writer based in Chicago whose work was included in Best Music Writing 2011. He is on Tumblr at jonathanbogart.tumblr.com.

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