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What The World Listened To Most In 2016

K-pop group Twice during an autograph session on June 28, 2016 in Seoul, South Korea.
Han Myung-Gu
K-pop group Twice during an autograph session on June 28, 2016 in Seoul, South Korea.

Yesterday, the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry released its annual "Global Music Report," a close, numbers-focused breakdown of how the mainstream recording industry is faring economically. (You can read our analysis here.)

Often overlooked in coverage of the report — the irony isn't lost on us that a report on the world's recording industry basically never generates stories about the recordings that fuel it — are the country-by-country lists of best-selling songs and albums. Even if you pay attention to the tippy-top of the charts, many of these names are probably not familiar.

Surveying the cream of the pop we learn, yet again, that not all popular music is good music. But that doesn't mean it's not interesting. Taking a cross-section of the world's most-listened-to music is instructive and illustrative of how those we may never meet live and listen — the gloom of Poland's O.S.T.R., the syrupy yearning of Greece's Giannis Ploutarhos, Udo Lindenberg's serious German rock. What does pop mean, or sound like? There's no good answer.

Croatia — Jazz pianist and composer Matija Dedić's live album Matija svira Arsena, released in 2015, was his home country's top album in 2016. This song, "Ni Ti Ni Ja" (roughly, "Neither You Nor I") is a twinkling, virtuosic piece. (This is probably the last time you will see "jazz" and "best-selling album of the year" in the same sentence for quite a while.)

Ecuador-- Ecuadorian artist Maykel first drew attention after competing in a singing competition, and now the baby-faced star is leading his home country's pop pack. "Guapa," the lead single from 2016's A Prueba De Todo, is a straightforward Latin jawn, with classic guitar flourishes and swooning lyricism — for the most part, at least. Not sure we can get behind "Déjame dormir en tu boca," or "Let me sleep in your mouth."

Greece — "Thema Hronou" (roughly, "A Matter of Time"), the title track to Giannis Ploutarhos' 2016 album, is a "sensual erotic tale" according to the press statement that accompanied its release. If soaring woodwind solos get you in the mood, then don't let us stop you.

Germany — More than most countries (besides South Korea), Germany loves its local artists and its top-selling albums list usually reflects this. To wit, Udo Lindenberg, the 70-year-old German's most recent (and thirty-fifth) album, Stärker Als Die Zeit ("Stronger Than Time") is a soft-rock ode to, if we're going solely off its sound, a life long-lived.

Iceland-- Björk, Sigur Rós, Jóhan Jóhansson. Iceland's musicians have, for a country so sparsely populated, an outsized global footprint. While its most famous exports are known for their experimental streaks, Kaleo's A/B, a straightforward, blues-rooted foot stomp that calls to mind Ireland's Hozier, grabbed the most attention in the country last year.

India — Practically all the top albums in India were film scores. This, the year's top-selling song, comes from the film Sultan, the story of "a local wrestling champion with the world at his feet as he dreams of representing India at the Olympics." The film went on to become the fourth-highest grossing Indian film of all time.

Malaysia — Besides The Carpenters' Ultimate Collection — we've been feeling "Rainy Days and Mondays" ourselves lately, for some reason — being the fifth-best-selling record of the year, the Southeast Asian country's chart-topping record was sourced from a local children's cartoon show called Didi & Friends, which stars three adorable chickens.

Mexico-- The top two albums in the country last year were from legacy artists; the 60-years-running Sonora Santanera and José María Napoleón. Here, the classic crooner Napoleón (think Neil Diamond, in a way) performs "Vive," a song first released in 1981, from his best-selling 2015 compilation of the same name.

Poland-- Rapper O.S.T.R.'s Życie Po Śmierci(Life After Death, an homage to the Notorious B.I.G.) was the country's best-selling album last year; its title track is a dark, scratch-filled song from an album that had the rapper reflecting on a disease which resulted in his having a lung removed. (Bonus song title: "WudźTangClan.")

South Korea — The pop industry in South Korea can trace its enormous success to a deliberate investment by the country's government, as NPR reported back in 2015. A look at the country's top songs and albums is illustrative; none of the three major labels are anywhere to be found. Last year's most-successful song, "Cheer Up," from JYP Entertainment's nine-member group Twice, begins with what sounds eerily like a musical quote from Radiohead's "No Surprises" before launching into a full-on minor-key bubblegum sing-along.

Turkey-- "Turkey is gaga for Tarkan, the country's first international pop star," the Washington Post wrote in 2001. After all this time, Tarkan's Ahde Vefa was his first foray into Klasik Türk müziği, or classical Turkish music, and topped his home country's best-selling albums last year.

Alan Walker, "Faded" — This single deserves its own entry for having placed at or near the top of the most-sold lists of Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland and still escaping our notice. If you're U.S.-based, you may never have heard of it. You're welcome?

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