Massive Pop Stars You've Probably Never Heard Of

Americans tend to live in a box when it comes to pop culture — if it isn't ours, we don't want it. But, especially in the world of music, to adopt this attitude is to turn a blind eye to a vast sea of awesomeness. In fact, there are a great many beloved international pop stars who have enjoyed years, or even decades of success, while barely even registering in the United States. You may not have heard of them, but the rest of the world sure has:

Kylie Minogue

You might know the name Kylie Minogue — you may even think of her as a one-hit wonder, although she has charted more than once in the US. Her biggest stateside hit, a 1988 cover of "The Loco-Motion," went to #3, and she's had four more singles crack the top 50. But this only scratches the surface of the more than 50 singles she's released over her long career — in her native Australia (and most of Europe) she's considered one of the biggest pop stars of all time.

Her tendency to keep her personal life out of the press may have actually been damaging to her career in the United States. Americans love to gossip about their pop stars, and if you need any evidence of this whatsoever, we present Taylor Swift. But from her relationship with INXS frontman Michael Hutchence to her recent battle with breast cancer, Minogue has managed to keep the focus on her music, which offers no juicy lyrics about former boyfriends. Even the fact that she is drop-dead gorgeous, apparently hasn't aged a day in 30 years, and has songs with titles like "Sexercize" and "Les Sex" hasn't been enough to make America take notice. Uncle Sam has seriously dropped the ball on this one.


Korean R&B singer Rain has gotten barely a whiff of recognition in the U.S., but it's not for lack of trying. After conquering Asia in the early 2000s, he came to America for two sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden in 2006, but the audiences at these shows apparently consisted of nearly all of his Asian-American fanbase, and pretty much nobody else. A planned five-city North American jaunt at the end of a 2007 world tour ended with all five shows being canceled, and even landing a few roles in Hollywood films, such as the Wachowskis' Speed Racer, did little to raise his profile in America.

But throughout Europe and Asia, Rain may as well be the second coming of Michael Jackson. He followed a typically American career trajectory, starting off in a boy band before going solo in 2002 and achieving platinum success with his third album, It's Raining. For the last dozen years or so, practically everything he has released has gone straight to #1 in South Korea, and that includes seven albums and 28 singles. His Jackson-y, Timberlake-y pop seems like it would be a perfect fit for the U.S. market, but his stateside commercial prospects remain bone dry, with little chance of Rain.

We're ... sorry about that. We just had to.

Laura Pausini

As a teenager, Italian Laura Pausini decisively won the 1993 Sanremo Music Festival, a decades-old song competition that was the inspiration for the more popular Eurovision festival. Her winning song, "Loneliness," became a number one hit in Italy, and she was off to the races. Initially dismissed by critics as a teen idol, the speedy development of her insanely powerful voice quickly shut those critics right the hell up. She's been seriously compared to the likes of Celine Dion and Mariah Carey, released albums in Italian, Spanish and English, and enjoyed the kind of longevity that puts your average Britneys to shame — her thirteenth studio album was released in 2006. That's basically one a year.

Despite a high level of international success, Americans and Britons will stare vacantly at the mention of her name. She has sold 70 million albums, regularly sold out tours around the world for over 20 years, sang for the freakin' Pope and at Barbra Streisand's birthday party, had songs written for her by Phil Collins and Madonna ... and we'll bet you a hundred dollars this is the first time you've heard her name. If you — yes, you reading this — had recorded a duet with James Blunt in 2009, you would have been all over the radio in the U.S. But not Laura!

X Japan

X Japan, the most popular rock band in that country, are metal. Like, really metal. As in, half-hour-long songs packed with symphonic, super-technical thrash craziness metal. They formed in 1982 and were the first of their peers to adopt a style of dress similar to Western glam metal artists, but their sound was, and is, a hell of a lot more Iron Maiden than Bon Jovi. Their lyrics tend to focus on alienation and the stifling nature of Japanese culture so, as you might imagine, the government and media have always just been huge fans. X-Japan is basically everything Japanese culture is not — rebellious, non-conformist — so you can see why much of the country would rather pretend the band doesn't exist. 30 million albums sold later, we're guessing ignoring them is much, much harder these days.

The band broke up in 1998 after their lead guitarist's suicide, but reunited in 2007 and briefly flirted with mainstream popularity in the United States. A 2010 appearance at Lollapalooza in Chicago was received rapturously by fans, and an accompanying media blitz even saw them featured on an ABC News spot. You can guess where it all lead, however,because they're now appearing on this list and virtually nowhere else in the States. Mention them to any technical metal guitarist, though, if you feel like getting into a breathless three-hour conversation.

The Kelly Family

The Kelly Family were perhaps the oddest and most obscure band to ever sell 25 million records throughout Europe. The band consisted of nine siblings (and, in earlier years, their parents), and could only be categorized by using way too many hyphens — they were an Irish-American-European, multi-generational, rock-pop-folk outfit that wrote songs in four different languages and had hit singles in seven countries, not one of which was the U.S.

Depending on who you ask, they were considered either an Irish or German band, despite patriarch Dan Kelly being an American who emigrated to Spain (try to keep up). The family band, first known as the Kelly Kids, began in the mid-'70s and found most of its success on the road until their appropriately titled eighth album, Over the Hump, sold two million copies in 1994. Given their eclectic and uniquely European style, it's not too surprising the band never caught on in the States. That said, that their biggest hit, the English language "Fell in Love with an Alien" didn't even crack the Top 200 here is a crime. The song is incredible, and we'll literally fight you if you try to tell us otherwise.

The Tragically Hip

The Tragically Hip might ring a bell — maybe you heard a song of theirs on the radio once. You might have assumed they were a semi-obscure indie band, the kind your weird roommate Jeff likes. (By the way, tell Jeff he owes us twenty bucks.) But "the Hip," as they're known to their many, many fans, are perhaps the most beloved band in the history of Canada, comparable only to Rush. "The Hip" fandom is part of the Canadian national identity, basically.

When lead singer and guitarist Gord Downie was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer in 2016, there was a massive national outpouring of grief, the kind usually reserved for the deaths of kings and superheroes. Justin Trudeau, the freaking Prime Minister of Canada, had this to say: "I am lucky enough to have seen many Tragically Hip concerts throughout my life, and Gord Downie is someone I have an extraordinary amount of respect for ... he's just a great guy, and I know I speak for all Canadians when I say, 'We're with you, Gord.'"

Crazy, right? And yet, you're more likely to find a leprechaun than an American that can hum a Tragically Hip tune. Their highest charting album in the States shot all the way to #129, yet nine of their thirteen albums went to #1 in Canada. Oh, and ten of them are at least Platinum, while two of them went Diamond. Diamond. That's ten million albums sold. Even back when people bought music, that was hard as hell to do. And yet, the Hip did it twice.

Paul Williams

Paul Williams' career as a recording artist was incredibly brief — but fortunately for him, his career as an actor was much longer, and his career as a songwriter even longer than that.

Fans of '70s television might remember him from Hollywood Squares and, like, every other game show, along with dozens of bit parts in TV and film. Two of his roles make him cooler than most actors working today: the Penguin in Batman: The Animated Series, and the villainous Swan in Brian DePalma's insane 1974 horror flick Phantom of the Paradise. But where Paul Williams shone the most was as one of the few modern writers of musical standards. He wrote the Carpenters' "We've Only Just Begun," which will be played at every wedding ever always, and "The Rainbow Connection" from The Muppet Movie. The guy wrote the theme song to The Love Boat. He wrote "Evergreen" from A Star is Born, and won an Oscar for it — he wrote "That's What Friends Are For," "You and Me Against the World," and other songs with titles that have just become stuff people say.

Not convinced yet? Well, you know the ASCAP, the organization that makes sure composers get paid for their work? He's the president of it. And when Daft Punk went to record their 2013 masterpiece Random Access Memories, they reached out to Williams to collaborate on a song. Basically, he's cooler than all of us, despite how even in his twenties, he looked like a garden gnome.

Cliff Richard

Sir Cliff Richard's title should tell you all you need to know about where he's from, and how well-regarded he is there. If his name isn't flashing familiar, it's not surprising — in the United States, the closest thing he had to a breakout pop hit was the disco-tinged "We Don't Talk Anymore," a #7 U.S. hit in 1979. But he's one of the only artists to have a #1 hit in five different decades in Britain, and he recently released his one hundredth freaking album. Meanwhile, at the rate they're going, Tool will hit album #100 just before the next supercontinent forms.

The company that tracks U.K. music sales states that Cliff Richard is the best-selling British male solo artist of all time. Unfortunately, he's almost as well-known for a couple of other things: never-ending speculation about his sexuality for his entire career (he claims to be celibate, and hangs out with a Catholic priest), and bitterly complaining about lack of support from the press and radio stations despite selling north of 200 million records. He should take at least a little bit of solace in how they may not respect him, but they still have to call him "Sir."

Kate Bush

By the time English schoolgirl Kate Bush was 15, she had filled tons of notebooks with songs she'd written. Many schoolgirls do this, but hers were actually really good — good enough, in fact, that David Gilmour of Pink Floyd produced her demo tape, and personally brought it to Bob Mercer, the head of Artists & Repertoire for EMI. Her songs were also good enough that Mercer signed her immediately, then waited two years for her to finish high school before recording a single note. That's stretching the "finders keepers" concept just a little bit, no?

Her debut album The Kick Inside was released in 1978, when Bush was 18, and its lead single "Wuthering Heights" just freaking blew up all over the U.K. It's still one of her best known songs and has been covered a ton of times, but one listen will give you an idea as to why Bush failed to catch on stateside — the operatic, lilting vocal style could be described as "chipmunk-esque," an indication of her stout refusal to ever tone down her British weirdness (or weird Britishness, if you prefer) for any audience. Of course, her two dozen U.K. Top 40 singles are testament to how much Brits love her for this.

Perhaps she'd have done better with the Yanks if she'd taken out a full-page ad in Rolling Stone after "Wuthering Heights," explaining that she doesn't sing like that all the time. Or maybe she never gave a toss. Yeah, probably that.