France introduced the world’s first recording device called the “phonautograph,” which was patented by inventor Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville in 1857. Stating this fact, it may well be concluded that France has a rightful place in the world of music, aside from the arts and culture which the country is also globally renowned for.
When you think of French music, perhaps the classical music greats almost automatically come to mind such as Chopin, Ravel, Debussy, Satie and Berlioz; its world-famous operas and cabarets; or the poetic chansons that tugged the hearts and minds not just of the French people but of other people in many parts of the world; the country is undisputedly the home of the world’s greatest romantic composers, chanteur and chanteuse such as Georges Brassens, Serge Gainsbourg, Charles Aznavour and Edith Piaf.
But France is more than classical music, cabarets and chansons. Like in many other countries, France’s music scene has evolved throughout the centuries. In the modern era, it has become more known for electronic and house music, although it has thrown several pop gems that became massive commercial hits in and also outside the country.
Here are some of the world-renowned French musicians from the 20th century up to the present:
1. Jacques Brel
(“Ne Me Quitte Pas” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vz6r0TP4FBI)
The late singer-songwriter Jacques Brel, although actually a Belgian, is known for his songs that captivated listeners not just in Belgium and France, but in many parts of the world as well. His work has wielded considerable influence on many artists, singer-songwriters as well as composers.
Brel’s songs have been adapted into several languages. As expected, their interpretations and treatments may be quite too far from what Brel actually conveyed in his own songs, but the gist and the message basically remain the same. If you haven’t known it yet, you might be surprised to discover that some of the most famous pop tunes are actually re-hashed versions of Brel’s original work, particularly “Ne Me Quitte Pas” (“If You Go Away”) and “Le Moribond” (“Seasons in the Sun”). More of his well-known works also include “Jackie,” “Quand on n’a que l’amour” (“If We Only Have Love”), “Amsterdam” (also known as “The Port of Amsterdam” in English), “Mathilde” and a lot more.
His songs have been covered by many music legends, including Frank Sinatra, John Denver, Ray Charles, Andy Williams, David Bowie, Celine Dion, Rod McKuen, Julio Iglesias, Barbra Streisand, Edith Piaf (who was a legend herself in France), Dusty Springfield, Sting, and many others.
2. Edith Piaf
(“La Vie en Rose” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kFzViYkZAz4)
The late singer-songwriter Edith Piaf was one of the first French singers who enjoyed international fame. She is also regarded as one of the greatest performers of the 20th century. Her songs mirrored her personal life, loves and sorrows. “La Vie en Rose” is certainly her signature song, which has been covered a lot of times since it was released in 1946. Many versions of “La Vie en Rose” became Billboard chart placers and these were performed by Louis Armstrong, Bing Crsosby, Ralph Flanagan, Tony Martin, Paul Weston, and Victor Young. Disco queen Donna Summer and Jamaican actress/singer/model Grace Jones also released their own versions of the song. Because of its enduring popularity, “La Vie en Rose” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998.
Piaf’s life was recounted in the 2007 film La Vie en Rose, where lead star Marion Cotillard won the Oscar Best Actress award for her portrayal of the troubled Parisian-born chanteuse. (See the top winning Academy Award Actresses of all time.)
3. Serge Gainsbourg
(“Je t’aime… moi nun plus” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k3Fa4lOQfbA)
Particularly in his home country, Serge Gainsbourg was (and is) a legend. On the other hand, he has been revered as a cult figure in the English-speaking world. On the surface, he was known for his penchant for the provocative and scandalous — his most famous (or notorious) work being “Je t’aime… moi non plus,” whose eroticism was too graphic that even provoked the Vatican to denounce it.
But you cannot censure Gainsbourg in terms of talent in any way. He was a true artiste who couldn’t just be pigeonholed. He was known for his prolific and diverse output, making as if he left no musical stone unturned during his colorful life and career. Gainsbourg tackled chanson, pop, jazz, reggae, funk, disco, electronic and new wave, among many other musical genres. His lyrical style — abundant in imagery, wordplay, puns and of course double-entendres — as well as arrangements in particular, have influenced many generations of musicians in and outside of France.
4. Françoise Hardy
(“Tous les garçons et les filles”- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0aLoezucIzk)
There was no doubt about it, Françoise Hardy was at the forefront of the “yé-yé” French pop music scene during the 1960s. She was also (and still is) considered a fashion icon in her home country and elsewhere. Hardy’s most well-known recording is “Tous les garçons et les filles,” (“all the boys and girls”) which became a massive hit in France in 1962 and has launched numerous cover versions in several languages, including versions by the Eurythmics and The Dresden Dolls.
5. France Gall
(“Poupée de cire, poupée de son” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gZo3cUtZNG4)
France Gall was a teen sensation and another popular figure of the “yé-yé” pop music scene in France during the 60s. Many of her hits were penned by the legendary Serge Gainsbourg, including “Les sucettes” and “Poupée de cire, poupée de son,” which was Luxembourg’s entry to the 1965 Eurovision song contest — something which their own home country retrospectively holds a grudge against her and Gainsbourg.
Although Gall was initially criticized for her “off-key” singing of the number, “Poupée de cire, poupée de son” eventually won the Eurovision contest, ensuring her popularity to be extending outside of Europe.
“Poupée de cire, poupée de son” proved to be so popular that it has had several covers in different languages that range from Spanish to Hebrew to Japanese.
6. Daft Punk
(“Get Lucky” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h5EofwRzit0)
The French have also gained renown in electronic, dance and house music movement, producing stellar artists such as Étienne de Crécy and Tahiti 80. But there is no doubt that the Grammy Award-winning electronic duo Daft Punk is the most famous French export in this genre. Their most commercially successful single is “Get Lucky,” featuring American singer Pharrell Williams and American guitarist/songwriter/producer Nile Rodgers. It peaked at #2 on the US Billboard Hot 100 and #1 on the UK chart in 2013, in addition to being a massive dance chart hit in many countries.
In 1993, Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter formed Daft Punk from the ashes of a short-lived indie rock band named Darlin’. They enjoyed their really first global recognition when their second studio album Discovery (2001) became a hit on several charts (including the US Billboard 200 album chart where it peaked at #23). Despite their fame, the duo mostly prefer to hide behind their signature robotic costumes when appearing in live performances and in their music videos; also, they rarely grant interviews.
(“Sexy Boy” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A_ulZiob5I0)
Students Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel formed Air in Versailles in 1995. In 1998 Air releaed their debut album Moon Safari, which garnered critical acclaim not just in France but internationally as well. It yielded three top 30 UK hits: “Sexy Boy,” “Kelly Watch the Stars” and “All I Need.” “Sexy Boy” also placed #22 on Billboard‘s dance and electronic charts.
Air also began to work with American director Sofia Coppola by providing the film score to her film The Virgin Suicides (2000). The film itself became a cult hit and the while the soundtrack album charted at #161 on the Billboard 200 album chart. Since then, Air have often collaborated with Coppola by contributing works to soundtracks of her other films like Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette.
Air’s second studio album, 10 000 Hz Legend (#88 on the Billboard 200 in 2001) showed the duo venturing deeper into electronic pop. The album also featured collaborations with Beck and other indie artists.
They went on to release six more albums, their latest to date being 2014’s Music for Museum.
8. Paul Mauriat
(“Love is Blue” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rjsNNcsUNzE&pbjreload=10)
French composer and orchestra leader Paul Mauriat’s name may not immediately ring to anyone’s ears, but their faces may probably be lit the moment they hear his instrumental version of “Love Is Blue.” The song itself was an English version of “L’amour est bleu” which was written by composer André Popp and lyricist Pierre Cour. It was Luxembourg’s entry to the 1967 Eurovision song contest — although it didn’t win, it eventually became a massive international hit, having launched several versions since.
The most famous of these versions is Paul Mauriat’s instrumental cover which was released in late 1967. It went all the way to #1 on the Billboard pop chart in early 1968, becoming probably the best known cover version of the song.