I’ve told you about my music problem, right? I grew up in small-town Idaho where the only radio stations were hard rock, Top 40, pop country, and painfully easy listening. But we had a Rainbow Records store. In the age of Spotify and YouTube it feels so foreign now that I would wait for the weekly shipment and buy albums that looked interesting without so much as a listen. I also pilfered my friends’ collections and wore out my dual cassette recorder making copies.
Anyway, thus began a lifelong pursuit of music that pleases me. In the early 90s I went to Paris, France, as a Mormon missionary, which piqued my interest in French music. I’ve collected a bunch over the years and that’s what this post is about. I’ve noticed that I have different standards for foreign-language music – some styles that I wouldn’t listen to in English become interesting to me just because it’s in a different tongue. Even so, the search has been fairly difficult because most sites just highlight the popular stuff I tend to not love.
Here are a few of the gems I’ve found –
Let’s kick this off with one of my all-time favorites. If you don’t at least tap your foot to this you can skip the rest of the list.
Champs-Elysées by Joe Dassin:
Since “Classic Rock” stations now play the music I grew up with, I’ll define French Classics as music that predates my arrival in France, 1992.
Francis Cabrel was the first French musician I discovered in my first city, Compiègne. A French missionary asked me to learn “Je l’aime à mourir” (“I Love Her to Death”) on the guitar. He’s a folk and blues artist, along the lines of James Taylor and David Wilcox. He has 20+ albums. If you’re interested, start with the collection 77/87 (Amazon link). Not all of his music has aged well, but some songs are timeless. One of his earliest hits was “Petite Marie” about the woman who became his wife:
He also has an album of Bob Dylan covers in French, which is a delightful collision of two worlds for me.
Yves Duteil might have been my next discovery. He was popular in the 1970s and has catchy melodies with fancy finger work on the guitar. “Best of” album on Amazon. A few favorites include “J’ai la guitare qui me démange” (I have an itch for the guitar), the imaginative “L’opéra”, and the speedy “Tarantelle”:
Georges Brassens goes way back to the 1950s (he died in 1981). I first fell in love with his melodies when I heard an album of instrumental covers. His accent is great, with a very different “r” than today’s French. He also enjoys dark humor and anarchy. Try “Les copains d’abord” (“Friends first”):
“La Mer” (“The Sea”) by Charles Trénet is just beautiful:
The cover by Jeff Lynne (of ELO) is also fun:
Ok, there are many more to explore here (including Edith Piaf, Jacques Brel, Charles Aznavour), but let’s move on to another category.
My little brother also went to Paris on his mission and sent home a CD from the musical Notre Dame de Paris with lyrics by Luc Plamondon and music by italian Riccardo Cocciante. I listened to this thing non-stop for weeks. Maybe months. He also sent the piano music, which is still a favorite. I don’t know why this musical didn’t take over the world like Les Misérables – I watched the DVD and the modern dance might be part of the reason.
Try “Belle”, which features several of the characters signing about Esmerelda from varied points of view:
You can also get Les Misérables in French.
Another you might like is Romeo et Juliette.
I’ll just feature a couple here. Yann Tiersen’s soundtrack to Amélie is fun instrumental music, especially for accordion lovers:
Les Choristes is a great movie with an amazing choral soundtrack.
My son is still haunted by Un monstre à Paris, a fever dream of a movie we watched on Netflix years ago. If I recall correctly, it’s about a cockroach that dreams of being a musician and gets his wish when a lab accident makes him human-sized. Chaos and good music ensue.
These get extra attention simply because this is when I was in France. We didn’t have much opportunity to listen to music, but some songs caught my attention at a store or in someone’s home and I looked them up later.
Les Innocents – This band appealed to my taste in 80s music.
Powwow – I don’t usually like a cappella music but this album caught my eye because of the bilingual wordplay (Comme Un Guetteur means “like a watchman” but is pronounced similar to “come and get her”).
Try “Allongé sur mon sampan” – the verses are not great, but that makes the chorus all the better.
Étienne Daho – “Bleu Comme Toi” (actually 1988) –
I don’t keep up on all the latest music in any language, but here are a few French songs from the past decade or so:
Renan Luce – “Les Voisines” (a catchy tune about stalking the neighbors) –
Christine and the Queens – “Saint Claude” (with some English mixed in)
She also has an album in English (with some French mixed in).
Artists who usually sing in English
I just like this one by Sting –
I’ve also been known to get guilty pleasure by listening to Céline Dion, but only in French.
You can’t beat Henri Dès for children’s music. Here’s a great song about tooth decay and stomachache caused by chocolate:
What did I miss?