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    The 21 Best French Musicians Who Are Loved in France

    best-french-musicians

    French music is not just a genre.  It is an entire galaxy.  There were musicians at the genius level operating in France at the dawn of musical transcription, let alone recorded music.

    Our interest arrives around the same time it did in America and the rest of the world; around the time of World War II and the birth of jazz, but there has been an endless succession of great French musicians through the eras of rock, hip-hop, dance, and electronica.  Here is a short overview of 21 great French musicians.

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    1. Edith Piaf

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    Edith Piaf is often compared to Louis Armstrong, though her contributions to music history were entirely vocal. A singer almost from birth, her famously hard childhood on the streets of Paris became an enormous part of her later stardom and a symbol for all the country had endured in the two World Wars.

    Piaf, known as the Sparrow of France, and her soulful, timeless renditions of French traditional songs created an entire songbook of standards and set the stage for generations of singers. Her musical tastes were bombastic and deeply rooted in the classical tradition, and she was more comfortable in front of an orchestra than a jazz trio.

    The feeling of intimate familiarity and soaring ecstasy that she conveyed made her music at home with the record players of the world. La Vie en rose, her personal anthem, has become one of the most popular songs in world history.

    2. Quintette du Hot Club de France

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    France made an early and indelible contribution to jazz in the form of le Quintette, the famous house band of the wartime Parisian bar “le Hot Club.”  The two central figures of le Quintette, Stephane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt, are the defining exemplars of their instruments to this day, and they are still so well known that most are unaware that they were thoroughly French.

    Nearly the entirety of their careers occurred in the Republic, but thanks to the close Anglo-France relationship after the Second World War and the new popularity of record players and radios, their style reached the world. Reinhardt is considered the greatest jazz guitarist of all time to this day, and Grappelli enjoys similar fame for the violin.

    Their unparalleled virtuosity, exuberant melodic ferocity, and complete familiarity with their instruments truly place them beyond category, and they are known and revered anywhere that jazz is played.

    3. Georges Brassens

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    Georges Brassens rose from humble beginnings in the south of France to the pinnacle of national fame. His complex and kind nature shone through in his melodic guitar work and poetic lyrics, widely acclaimed as sensitive and nuanced, yet earthy and urbane.

    Brassens approached music with bumptious joy, and his witty and profane approach to the deepest thoughts of his native language calls to mind a young Bob Dylan. However, Brassens was a more melodic and formalistic musician than Dylan. Brassens, who passed away nearly forty years ago, is a familiar face in France to this day.

    His kindly smile, gray mustache, and ever-present pipe have become iconic symbols of France and French music for all time. His songbook is universal among the French, but his paean to childhood, Les copains d’abord, is something of a theme song for a certain generation and a certain kind of lazy summer day.

    4. Jacques Brel

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    Literate, reserved, charming, and suave, Jacques Brel was a thinking man’s singer. He is considered by many critics to be the definitive chanteur of the post-war era, and remains to this day one of the biggest-selling Francophone musicians of all time. Brel was known for his rich, compassionate lyrics, filled with syllogism and allegory, and the theatrical nature of his music set the stage for many who came after.

    His songs have been covered by everyone from David Bowie to Frank Sinatra, and the richly harmonic chord structure of his music is as well-known as his dramatic performances. He also starred in several well-received films and even directed two of his own. His epic orchestral waltz Amsterdam is possibly the best remembered song of his oeuvre.

    5. Serge Gainsbourg

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    Born to Russian Jewish immigrants and profoundly affected by the war, the brash and charismatic Gainsbourg would grow to become one of the most provocative and controversial musicians of France. His scandalous behaviors are inextricable from his music, and in many cases his best-known songs are direct products of his most outrageous behavior.

    Louche, crude, defiantly sexual, endlessly inventive; Gainsbourg was all this and more.  His sound defined the 1960s, but towards the end of his life, the drinking and the debauchery overwhelmed him. However, his music has stood the test of time and remains relevant to this day; the genre known as yéyé, native to France, is almost entirely of his origin, and it is a popular and vital genre even to right now.

    Bonnie and Clyde, a late 60s duet with famous actress Brigitte Bardot, is perhaps the perfect example of the fun side of Gainsbourg’s yéyé music.

    6. Brigitte Fontaine

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    Brigitte Fontaine perfectly embodied the chilly, brilliant persona of the 70s French singer.  Defiantly controversial, precise as architecture yet as quick to strike as a snake, Fontaine’s sound remains a classic of magnetic power. Her deep understanding of music and composition has given her a career that far outlasts almost any other musician, and she is still producing excellent music today that is every bit as original and daring as her early work, though vastly different in style and production.

    She served as inspiration for musicians from Bjork to Patti Smith, but perhaps the most apt comparison is to David Bowie.  Fontaine shares his love for complex arrangements, dense chorded structures, reserved but extremely effective theatrics, and a calm yet eccentric public persona.

    Genre Humain is considered one of her classic albums. It is perfectly self-assured and sonically adventurous in a way that even modern bands find difficult to exceed.

    7. Jacno

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    Jacno began as the lead guitarist of The Stinky Toys, the very first French punk rock band. After rocketing to success on a thoroughly nuanced blend of guitar power and instrumental chops, the group disbanded and Jacno began his solo career. He became one of the founders of the French New Wave movement, fully embracing the resonant possibilities of synthesizers and gated drums.

    His album Rectangle, released in 1979, is still a classic of early electronica. He also saw substantial success with a side project called Elli et Jacno, a synthpop band that helped define the sound of popular music in France through the 1980s.

    8. Marquis de Sade

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    Marquis de Sade was a band from Rennes that was only active for a very short time in the late 1970s and early 1980s, producing only two albums, but they still inspired generations of musicians and formed an entire genre. Although they were present and recording during the punk period, their music is so modern and unique that it is generally categorized as post-punk.

    Inspiring everyone from Ministry to Bauhaus to modern Russian dance band Molchat Doma to their fellow French citizens Daft Punk, Marquis de Sade’s style of music became known to critics and the public as “coldwave.” They are enormously influential and the band has reformed in recent years to much popular acclaim. A trio of songs from their 1979 album The Dantzig Twist, called Walls, Set in Motion Memories, and Conrad Veidt, are considered the foundation of coldwave.

    9. Bérurier Noir

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    The defining band of French punk was Bérurier Noir, a group of Parisian dissidents who self-consciously copied popular English and American punk acts until they broke into their own unique musical identity.  They are known, with a certain amount of justice, as the French Sex Pistols. They owe a lot to bands such as Crass and Fear, but their riotous stage shows were all their own.

    Bérurier Noir had a boozy, friendly sound that French working-class people found compelling, and they represented an important stage in the transformation of French punk into the far more instrumentally complex forms of later years. Their stomping anthem Salut à toi, little more than the band saying “Salut à toi” (goodbye to you) to a wide variety of social groups in the France of the 1980s over a churning guitar and frantic saxophone, is something like the official song of the French punk world.

    10. Noir Désir

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    Noir Désir corresponds most closely to American alternative and grunge music. A hard-rocking band from Bordeaux, their meteoric rise closely mirrored that of the Seattle scene of America, and their music is comparable in many ways. They had a soaring, crashing sound, widely propelled by growling guitars and a lead singer with a real flair for the dramatic.

    They were exemplars of the French rock scene for many years, as famous for their strident politics as they were for their arena rock sound. Sadly, the band came to a sudden end after the lead singer tragically murdered his wife in a drunken altercation.

    Although he served time in prison and was released, it was impossible for the band to continue under such circumstances. The song Le vent nous portera showcases their sense of drama and tension, their musical precision and restraint, and the poetic lyrics for which they were known.

    11. IAM

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    A hip-hop outfit from Marseille, IAM are possibly the most celebrated rappers in French history. IAM are often described as the French Wu-Tang Clan. This comparison is more than usually apt, as their first album was produced by the RZA and they have patterned themselves after the Staten Island-based collective in a number of ways.

    However, they are also stylistically quite distinct and in many ways more musically accomplished. This means that they have stayed vital and relative as a group instead of dissolving into associated celebrities. They are not prolific, only producing six albums in the twenty-plus years since their classic 1997 album L’École du Micro d’Argent, but each of their releases has had the force of an earthquake.

    12. TTC

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    TTC are also from Marseille, contemporaneous to IAM but very different. They are also rappers, but they are extremely different from IAM in both tone and style. This is a group that defies easy comparison or categorization.

    Although obviously deeply influenced by American hip-hop and club music, they managed to create a messy, abrasive, sprawling pastiche that is utterly unique. They are even less prolific than IAM, releasing only three albums in the last twenty years, but their seminal influence has never been forgotten. They are more influenced by Public Enemy than the Wu Tang Clan, but in many ways they are entirely their own.

    Certain of their songs, such as the prog-rap masterpiece Pas d’armure (a phrase which translates to English as “out of key”) are reckoned among some of the most musically complex hip-hop ever produced in any nation.

    13. Émilie Simon

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    Émilie Simon is a singer and songwriter from Montpelier who rose to prominence in the early 2000s. She can be compared to Tori Amos and Bjork, though she is more rock-influenced than the former and much more straightforward than the latter.

    She is known for her lush instrumental arrangements, fully incorporating the capacities of computer recording and engineering, and her dramatic film soundtracks. Simon has a lilting pop sensibility and absolute command of the dramatic possibilities that come with modern production. Her hit album Végétal, a concept album about the sounds that plants make, is a strong starting point for anyone interested in her music.

    14. Les Ogres de Barback

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    The type of music played by Les Ogres de Barback, a family band of two brothers and two sisters from Val-d’Oise, is not as familiar to Americans as it might be. This is because their style of world music-influenced punk rock, played with technical virtuosity and a commitment to unamplified showmanship, is only known in Anglophone countries through a single band, the Violent Femmes.

    Here they are a single band. In France, it is a genre. Les Ogres burst onto the scene in 1990s, dazzling their contemporaries effortless multi-instrumentalism and strong songwriting skills, and they remain popular even to this day.

    Les Ogres are noted for their usage of traditional acoustic instrumentation and the incorporation of Algerian and other North African musical styles into their music, and therefore the French canon. The use of complex Algerian polyrhythms and vocal forms is particularly well demonstrated in their wistful ballad Destin artificiel.

    15. Carla Bruni

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    Carla Bruni is a singer-songwriter with a deep, sensuous voice and a rich understanding of French musical tradition. Her music is literate without bogging down in symbolism, and she is as well known as a songwriter as she is a chanteuse and performer.

    Her first album, Quelqu’un m’a dit, propelled her to international stardom, but she is nearly as well known for marrying the president of the French Republic, Nicholas Sarkozy. Bruni is a formidable guitarist with a full command of the instrument, and her music is very much in the singer-songwriter genre pioneered by Brassens. The French seem to adore singers who know how to play their instruments, and Bruni certainly puts her classical training to good use.

    16. The Plastiscines

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    Part of a movement known as les bébés rockers, the Plastiscines were a Paris-based band of teenage girls who quickly found their place among the first rank of modern French rock acts. Their delightful pop-punk is delivered in both French and English, and they rock hard in either language.

    It didn’t take them long to earn a devoted fan base for their deeply enjoyable music. The Plastiscines are a high-energy hard-driving guitar rock outfit that knows how to deliver a hook and find a groove. Their music has been featured around the world, even serving as the theme song for a Disney show and driving music for the video game Gran Turismo 5.

    17. La Femme

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    La Femme, a boisterous and casually virtuosic rock outfit from Biarritz, are probably the most popular French rock band at the current moment. They are absolutely fearless in their genre-mashing hard-driving sound, effortlessly leaping from cowboy music to Tupac Shakur-style laconic rapping.

    There’s really nothing they can’t do, and, like most Francophone musicians, they feel no compunctions at all about wearing their influences on their sleeves. Their most recent album, Paradigmes, is currently burning up the French charts and finding real purchase in the foreign press.

    Their music resists stereotyping of any kind, as they cover such an enormous amount of territory with such natural proficiency. Musically speaking, there’s nothing that La Femme can’t do, and they always have fun doing it.

    18. L’Impératrice

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    L’Impératrice are a Parisian pop and disco band who are as noted for their incredibly inventive music videos as they are for their thoroughly modern approach to dance music. It should be noted that music television never went out of style in France, and when one considers that MTV took their cue from European music television, then it is easy to perceive that French pop music has always been as much a visual spectacle as an audible one.

    L’Impératrice takes this seriously, and they have consistently provided feasts for the eyes as well as the ears. Their music is bubbly and smoky at once, meant to be listened to at home and danced to at the clubs. They hold a clear debt to New Order and Dee-Lite, yet they forge a sonic identity all their own, and their big single Peur des filles showcases their sense of humor as well.

    19. Yann Tiersen

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    Yann Tiersen is a French musician and composer. Although he primarily works on his own complex album-length compositions, something about his evocative and animated music is extremely popular with French film audiences, and his works have been featured in dozens of movies and television programs.

    He is possibly best known for his contributions to the Amélie soundtrack, with his witty and sprightful piano work complementing the lush, romantic scope of the film perfectly. Tiersen is unusual in that he creates his music almost entirely by himself.

    The sagacious instrumentalist is known to play every single note on his albums, which naturally makes a live performance something of an event. He has performed in some notable collaborations, particularly a song with Noir Désir, but for the most part, Tiersen has remained a profoundly solo artist.

    20. Stromae

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    Stromae, whose stage name is a play on the word “Maestro,” was technically born in Belgium. However, he sings in French and he’s loved in France, so that’s what matters. Seamlessly blending trip-hop with dance, mixed with a serious North African stylistic influence, Stromae’s flair for the dramatic finds its home in some of the most propulsive pop music in the history of the Republic.

    Both of Stromae’s albums went big in the charts, and he is one of the best-known musicians in France. American success is on the horizon, and he has already worked with musicians from Pitbull to Kanye West to Coldplay. Songs like Tous les mêmes are ubiquitous in France, and Stromae is a genial, exciting presence on French television to this day.

    21. Daft Punk

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    Finally, there is Daft Punk. Certainly the most influential French composers of our day, their work has redefined the dance and electronica genres. This is no mean feat.

    Although the duo has recently broken up, each of their releases as a band reached international acclaim and an enormous fan base. Their soundtrack for Tron Legacy is rightly seen by many as the greatest film soundtrack of its era. Although Daft Punk only released five studio albums over their 28 years together as a band, each of those five has been widely hailed as a chart-topping, genre-defining masterpiece.

    It is truly no surprise that the French were the ones to revolutionize dance music, but by adding a sense of dramatics and dynamics to the procedural format that dance music has become, heavily leavened with a thorough understanding of music theory, Daft Punk made music that moves the body and the mind.

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