Since 2018, we’ve been putting together lists of the best French music by decade and… we’ve finally made it to 2020! 2020 promises to be a great year for French music. Indochine, Coeur de Pirate, Woodkid, Juliette Armanet (see below!), and even Jane Birkin will release new albums this year. Though we say this for every list, this one was particularly hard to come up with. Some artists who almost made the list include Cléa Vincent, Sébastien Tellier, Jeanne Added, Paradis, Izia and The Pirouettes. We adore their music, but we wanted to select songs that covered a variety of different genres. We also tried to pick ones for our students that will make them want to sing (and maybe even dance!) along.
By Sophia Millman
“Midnight City” – M83 (2011)
Although “Midnight City” is one of the most ubiquitous songs of the 2010s–you’ve probably heard it in at least one commercial, movie, or videogame–the song’s French composer, Anthony Gonzalez, has managed to stay under the radar. There’s no Wikipedia page about him, but you can read an adorable interview with his mom in French here! According to Gonzalez, he was inspired to write “Midnight City” while driving through downtown LA. Looking at the giant buildings and screens, he felt like he was in Blade Runner. Why has “Midnight City” endured as one of the most critically-acclaimed songs of the 2010s? Probably because it draws on the best of ‘80s New Wave music, yet manages (even with a saxophone solo!) to sound incredibly modern.
“Beirut” – Ibrahim Maalouf (2011)
Born in Beirut and son of famous classical trumpeter Nassim Maalouf, Ibrahim Maalouf grew up in Paris. He studied at the city’s most prestigious conservatory, and although he draws on Western musical tradition, he plays on an unusual quarter-tone trumpet. As this article explains, the trumpet allows Maalouf to incorporate Arabic melodies into his music. Maalouf has become France’s most famous contemporary trompettiste and is adored by fans of classical jazz and fans of hip hop. He has composed soundtracks for many films, including the In the Forests of Siberia, for which he won a Cesar. “Beirut” is one of his most famous songs–listen for his homage to Led Zeppelin at the end!
“Papaoutai” – Stromae (2013)
If you took French in high school or college during the 2010s, you probably studied the lyrics to at least one of Belgian artist Stromae’s songs. Rearrange the letters in “maestro” and you’ll get Stromae–a deceptively simple trick that speaks to Stromae’s success. In his Youtube series “Lessons,” Stromae demonstrates how he puts together his songs with nothing more than a keyboard. While Stromae’s lyrics might seem merely catchy at first, they in fact explore a variety of complex sexual (“Formidable”), political (“Alors On Danse”) and familial issues (“Papaoutai”). The latter’s title is a phonetic spelling of “Papa où t’es?” (“Where are you, Dad?”) and the song explores Stromae’s grief after his father was killed in the Rwandan genocide. If you want to be completely charmed by Stromae, watch this video where he plays his music in Time Square and is delighted that no one recognizes him.
“Paris Seychelles” – Julien Doré (2013)
Julien Doré might be described as the French equivalent of Adam Levine. Adolescents adore him, but his popularity (as well as his luscious curls) have led him to be parodied in France. Doré in fact plays a parody of himself in an episode of one of our favorite French TV series, Dix pour cent. If you’re a fan of Doré or the show, watch this clip where he talks about shooting it! Doré won Nouvelle Star in 2007, and has since coached competitors on shows like The Voice: La Plus Belle Voix. Fun Coucou fact: our talented teacher Quentin was coached by Doré and performed one of his most well-known songs on The Voice!
“Christine” – Christine & the Queens (2013)
Héloïse Letissier, better known by her stage name Christine & the Queens, has released some of the most exciting music videos in recent years. This New York Times article explains why the intricately-choreographed video for “Tilted” is just so impressionnant. Letissier is one of the most internationally-acclaimed French musicians of the last ten years. You might have heard her music on an episode of Girls, seen Madonna bring her on stage, or read one of the hundreds of articles about her gender-bending music. Pitchfork just selected her latest single as a “best new track”: listen to it here!
La Femme – Où va le monde (2016)
La Femme’s first album Psycho Tropical Berlin (2013) was released to critical acclaim in France and won a Victoire de la musique. Their second album was equally good, and we hope that they’ll release a third one soon! If you’re a fan of coldwave music and are already familiar with La Femme’s anglophone influences (The Cure, Velvet Underground…) try listening to their French ones: Jacno and Marie et Les Garçons!
Polo & Pan – Canopée (2016)
DJs Polocorp and Peter Pan met at one of Paris’s most famous nightclubs, Le Baron. Their eclectic influences include Debussy and LCD Soundsystem, and they incorporate exotic instruments into their songs. For instance, in “Bakara,” they sample a Pygmy flute! Listen to their full album Canopée to hear them experiment with a wide variety of genres: disco, funk, jazz, and soul! If you like their music, you should also check out one of their contemporary influences: L’impératrice!
“À la folie” – Juliette Armanet (2017)
The daughter of Parisian booksellers, Juliette Armanet studied literature and worked as an audiovisual journalist before her career in music took off. Since the release of her hugely successful first album, Petite Amie, she’s performed in almost all of France’s most famous music venues. Many French people discovered her when she performed Michel Legrand’s classic song “Les Moulins de mon cœur,” at the Cannes Film Festival. In some of our previous music posts, we’ve written about la chanson française and its legacy. Juliette Armanet has been heralded as a leader for la nouvelle chanson movement.
“Basique” – Orelsan (2017)
Aurélien Cotentin (Orelsan) is a French rapper, songwriter, actor and film director. He formed the French hip-hop duo Casseurs Flowers with rapper Gringe, and the two also made a hilarious shortcom called Bloqués together. His third album, La Fête Est Finie, was certified platinum four times in France. Orelsan has received a variety of major French awards including Best Rap Album, Best Audiovisual Creation, and Best Male Artist of the Year. “Basique” is one of his funniest songs, and the lyrics are quite catchy (and good for French practice!). If you’d like to listen to more popular contemporary French rappers, check out Booba, Jul, PNL and Maitre Gims.
“Balance ton quoi” – Angèle (2018)
Angèle recently featured on the New York Time’s “15 European Pop Acts You Might Not Know, but Should” along with Aya Nakamura. A black feminist anthem, Nakamura’s song Djadja was constantly playing on the radio in France in 2019. Angèle’s “Balance Ton Quoi,” which she wrote during the #Balancetonporc movement (the French #MeToo), has also become an anthem for contemporary French feminism. In the song’s hilarious music video, Angèle attempts to teach a group of clueless men (including French actor Pierre Niney) about sexual consent. Angèle originally wrote music for her brother, the Belgian rapper Romeo Elvis, but became a pop sensation when she released “Tout Oublier.”
Bonus: “Elle me dit” – Mika (2011)
This may not be the most well-written song of the decade, but it’s very fun to dance to! Lebanese singer-songwriter Mika was born in Beirut, but spent his childhood between Paris and London. He writes many of his songs in English, and is often labeled the 21st century’s Freddie Mercury. “Elle me dit” (the English version is called “She Tells Me”) parodies all of the things a mother might say to her twenty-something-year-old son. Its music video stars Fanny Ardant and other famous French actresses. Also, the song’s lyrics happen to be perfect for practicing the French imperative!