A beginner's guide to popular French music for 2020
Brave a maligned music scene with our guide. It's better than you think...
We’ve all heard of Johnny Hallyday, Edith Piaf and Charles Aznavour, but we might be a bit hazy when it comes to keeping up with modern French music – perhaps even the idea of listening to the current charts music is daunting.
But it is easier to understand than you might expect... especially if you Google the lyrics before you start listening on YouTube.
What follows is a personal stroll through popular French music – a round-up of every significant artist and every fabulous song would fill an entire book. This is just a taster to encourage you to follow your nose and explore on your own.
Modern French pop
Modern French pop, on the whole, gets a bad press in the English-speaking media – which is a little unfair. You just have to look a little more closely. There is little doubt you will have heard the reggae/folk/rock ‘sounds’ of Tryo, for example. They are one of the most popular mainstream pop bands in France. Their music is absolutely recognisable. To some, their lyrics are more profound than the French constitution. Their message is peace, love and saving the planet.
If you don’t know them, start with Toi et Moi, a cute number about love being more important than pollution or money. Their biggest hit is probably L’hymne de nos campagnes, now pretty much an anthem for French eco-activists. After the Charlie Hebdo terrorist atrocity, they recorded Charlie, which went viral and made everyone cry.
If you ever have a hangover in France (surely not!) there really is only one track to play: Désolé pour hier soir which nails that feeling of the worst hangover in the world. And the video is hysterical. Don’t tell me you don’t recognise yourself in a few scenes.
Sharp, witty, sexy, and very political, French rap is up there with the best in the world. Booba, Nekfeu, Niska, PNL, Damso, Jul, and Orelsan are all hugely popular and worth checking out. Here are some pointers to a few personal favourites to get you started on an overdue exploration of the genre.
Start with Jeune Demoiselle by Diam’s (2006), which is about the criteria she’s looking for in a new boyfriend. It is relatable and cute, and is a good introduction. Diam’s had a string of massive hits between 2003 and 2010 but has not been seen much since 2008 when she converted to Islam.
Sexion d’Assaut are massive in the rap world. Start with Désolé which deals with the hopelessness felt by a confused young man, and Ma Direction which follows the struggle to leave school and become a successful musician. Then there is the super-cute Avant qu’elle parte which is about the reasons real men love their mothers. The members of the group have also worked solo.
Listen to Maître Gims sing the bittersweet J’me tire or Zombie and enjoy his voice even if you do not follow the lyrics. The singer, who has taken to ditching the Maître from his name, is so famous in France that, in 2012, he launched his own clothing line, and has worked with other artists including Sting and Lil’Wayne.
If your memories of school are less then golden, if you ever had a discouraging interview with a careers advisor, then you will love Mme Pavoshko by Black M. From the minute you see the headmistress stamp ‘sans avenir’ (no future) on the bottom of someone’s school report, you know where this is going.
“Look, I’m not in prison, or in a hostel, I make hits and your kids dig me!” he sings. And in the middle of the video when she asks a student about their professional plans and looks so dismissive when they turn out to be pop music, you are rooting all the way.
It is the kind of track older French children play loud in the car when they remember the teachers who told them they’d never do better than stack shelves.
There is a cross-over from rap into mainstream pop. One singer who has made the transition is Vitaa, a singer who has recorded duets with the likes of Diam’s and Gims. Check out her love song VersuS; a duet with Slimane, a seamless combination.
Another singer to look out for is Amel Bent. Her song Ma Philosophie is a catchy track about being strong and feeling good. I bet anything you have heard it loads of times at fêtes and parties.
These days, Carla Bruni is as well known for her political connections as for her music, but she was an established singer/songwriter before she ever stepped foot inside Elysée. The lyrics of her song Quelqu’un m’a dit were included in the Spanish school curriculum to teach French, believe it or not. Also, check out the lyrics of Raphaël which inspired one woman I know to call her son Raphaël having listened to it on a loop when she was at school!
Another female singer/songwriter who everyone knows is Zaz. Her 2010 hit Je Veux is foot-tapping and upbeat, a mix of French variety, soul and acoustic sounds. Pay attention to her personal style in the videos and you will see just how she has influenced an entire generation’s fashion choices.
Another cute acoustic/pop songstress is Joyce Jonathan, and her hit song from 2009, Je ne sais pas remains well-loved. The video is worth watching, just for her angel’s face and the drum break which sounds like a tap dancer. Adorable.
Cali is from Perpignan, but started his music career playing punk in Ireland. From there he moved into indie and at the end of 2003 released his first solo album L’amour parfait which went on to become a smash hit. His single from the album, Elle m’a dit, is an enduring standard, although since then he has continued producing best-selling albums and tours regularly to packed houses.
The group Louise Attaque play an infectious mix of manouche and acoustic music. The name means ‘Louise attacks’ and refers to 19th-century anarchist Louise Michel. Their hit Je t’emmène au vent is a permanent resident on radio playlists, and once you know what to listen for, you will hear it in supermarkets all the time.
But perhaps the song you will hear most often on French radio stations is La lettre by Renan Luce, which was the hit single from his breakthrough album, Repenti, which came out in 2006. Listen carefully to the guitar, which supplies much of the rhythm – a technique borrowed from manouche, a very French style of music.
Speaking of jazz manouche...
Jazz Manouche is a particularly French style of music, developed by Django Reinhardt in Paris during the 30s. In its purest form, the style relies on stringed instruments for the rhythm rather than drums, bass and lead brass instruments. You probably recognise this style from the soundtrack of the movie Chocolat.
Check out Sanseverino’s Le petit bal perdu for an idea of how that sound has developed – just don’t ask me why he is dancing the tango clutching a live chicken under one elbow in the video.
For manouche with a Russian Jewish influence try Les Deux Guitares by Les Yeux Noirs. Close your eyes and let yourself be transported into another world, a universe of emotion, nostalgia and tenderness.
Family group Les Ogres de Barback, influenced by Les Yeux Noirs and George Brassens among others, have developed their own distinctive manouche style. Check their live version of Les Voyageurs for a taste of their compellingly vibrant live performances.
Finally, check out Pomplamoose, especially their Jamiroquai/Bee-Gees mash-up, which is totally addictive, as is their mash-up of The Weekend, Michael Jackson and Justin Timberlake.
Listen carefully and you will see they are pulling off a very clever mix of manouche, chanson and pop/rock. In fact, be careful with this one – or you might find yourself subscribing to the YouTube channel... or even buying their CDs!
Heading further back in time with Edith, Jacques and Barbara
You might feel a little more at home with chanson, another quintessentially French style of music that emerged in the 1880s and reigned until the end of Second World War in the cafés-concerts and cabarets of Montmartre. Mainly performed by female artists, it dealt with the lives of the working class in Paris.
Edith Piaf is arguably the best-known chanson singer from this period. What sets the music apart is that it embraces the spoken rhythms of French rather than English, and the lyrics are richer, denser, more classically poetic than most pop and rock. It is often written and played by musicians with at least some classical training and the singers often have some background in opera.
Jacques Brel (Ne me quitte pas), Georges Brassens (Les copains d’abord) and Barbara (L’aigle noir) were all influenced by the style, although they moved towards a soft pop/rock sound.
Variété française is so similar that arguments about the precise definition of the two ebb and flow online like the Mediterranean tides. It has not completely disappeared. For a taste of something modern listen to La Sécurité de l’Emploi by Les Fatals Picards and you will see that Chanson, combined with indie punk and lots of rap makes something else.
Timeless French singalong classics that you simply have to know
There are songs that all French people know. Songs which, if played at a fête, will have everyone singing along, and others which will have everybody on the floor. They include obvious titles like the famous Jane Birkin/Serge Gainsbourg performance of Je t’aime, moi non plus, to which people tend not to sing along, or – to be fair – dance to; Il est Né which they bellow out with gusto on Christmas Eve; and Le Chant des Partisans which gets dusted off every July 14.
And, of course, there is the rousing national anthem, La Marseillaise. Several decades ago, I received a copy of the lyrics along with the letter informing me that I had successfully acquired French nationality, which was a surreal moment.
Here are some songs you can find on YouTube; why not learn to sing along to them? You’ll improve your language skills and once the parties begin again, impress your French friends no end. Tout va très bien, Madame la Marquise was written in 1935 by Paul Misraki and recorded by Ray Ventura.
It tells the story of a marquise phoning home to ask her faithful servant Jacques for news. Everything is fine. Except for a tiny little problem, a nothing, a teeny little thing. Your grey mare is dead, it’s nothing, tout va très bien.
As she asks for details he explains that the horse died because there was a fire in the stables, that this happened because the château burned down, which happened as a result of the marquis learning he was ruined and committing suicide which accidentally set the château on fire, but tout va très bien...
The comedy of the song is heightened by the falsetto of the supposed marquise, whose voice rises to an impossible squeal as she slowly discovers the whole truth.
The song has been parodied ever since, and is still rewritten for TV comedy sketches today, meaning that every single French person recognises the chorus, and will use it to lighten the mood when things go badly.
Edith Piaf’s La Vie en Rose is a French classic which probably needs no introduction. It has been recorded by all sorts of artists from Bing Crosby to Grace Jones and Donna Summer, and French people all know it. Learning the words so you can sing along won’t take long.
You might be slightly less familiar with La Mer by Charles Trénet but as soon as you hear it you will recognise the tune from Finding Nemo, LA Story, French Kiss, and Mr Bean’s Holiday. Definitely a good addition to your singalong collection.
Les Champs-Elysées, a hit for Joe Dassin in 1970, is reputed to have been recorded 4,000 times in a multitude of different languages and was the soundtrack for The Darjeeling Limited. Originally written in English by Michael Deighan/Micheal Wilshaw, the French lyrics were written by Pierre Delanoë and the song has since been adopted as an unofficial French anthem.
La Java Bleue by Vincent Scotto and released in 1939 by Fréhel, one of the biggest stars of the era, is timeless. You will have heard it in the films Sarah’s Key and Charlotte Gray. Although it is a waltz, it immortalises a sultry dance, in which couples dance dangerously close and hands may often wander.
Les Feuilles Mortes written in 1945, by Jacques Prévert and Joseph Kosma, was a hit in both English and in French. Recorded in 1950 by Yves Montand it was adapted into English by Johnny Mercer and recorded by hundreds of different artists. The best version for my money is by Juliette Gréco (and by Eva Cassidy in English). It is amazing how many French people know every single word of this ballade about lost love.
C’est si bon was written in 1947 by Henri Betti and André Hornez, but it took two years for Yves Montand to see its hit quality. His 1949 recording remains a masterclass in how to smooch a microphone; listen and be seduced all over again.
La Bohème by Charles Aznavour is extraordinarily moving, even if you don’t understand the words (a painter is nostalgic for the past and a bohemian lover).
If those songs whet your appetite for more, I would suggest Ne me quitte pas by Jacques Brel, Ballade Irlandaise by Bourvil, and Tout Les Garçons et les Filles by Françoise Hardy.
Did we miss any artists or songs? Get in touch firstname.lastname@example.org