In 1982, French Minister of Culture Jack Lang created la Fête de la Musique, an annual celebration that encourages both amateur and professional musicians to play in the streets and in public spaces. The festival was such a success that it’s now celebrated in over 700 cities and 120 countries on June 21st. If you’re not in France this summer, you can celebrate it in New York!
It’s no coincidence that the Fête de la Musique began in the 1980s–the period is one of France’s richest musical decades. Many beloved francophone musicians reached the height of their careers during the 1980s. The amazing albums released by artists and groups such as Desireless, Daniel Balavoine, Jean-Jacques Goldman and Indochine make this one of our favorite musical eras. You can read through our list of top 1980s songs below and then listen to our ‘80s playlist!
By Sophia Millman
Il jouait du piano debout – France Gall (1980)
France Gall also features in our 1960s French Song list because she’s one of the rare artists who released hugely popular hits in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. In 1976, Gall married Michel Berger, one of France’s most celebrated songwriters, who composed for Françoise Hardy and Johnny Hallyday. Berger wrote “Il jouait du piano debout” for her four years later. The song is a tribute to Jerry Lewis and his special way of playing the piano while standing up. After hearing the single on the radio, Elton John asked France Gall if she wanted to record an album of duets with him. You can watch the two performing one of their duets here. Also, check out “Ella, elle l’a,” one of Gall’s most famous songs and an homage to Ella Fitzgerald.
L’Aventurier – Indochine (1982)
Indochine is one of France’s most famous new wave bands. They’ve been called the French equivalent of The Cure and were the first French rock band to fill the Palais Omnisports of Paris-Bercy (in 2003) and the Stade de France (in 2010). With more than 13 million records sold, they’re the all-time best-selling French band. “L’Aventurier” is the song that made the group famous. Nicola Sirkis, a member of Indochine, wrote the song about Bob Morane, a fictional Indiana Jones-type hero who features in a series of popular Belgian novels. Indochine’s other hits include “3 nuits par semaine,” “3ème sexe,” “Tes yeux noirs” and “Canary Bay.”
Marcia Baila – Les Rita Mitsouko (1984)
Les Rita Mitsouko were one of the most popular groups in France during the ‘80s. “Marcia Baila” is the art-pop duo’s most famous song, which became a huge hit in Europe in the summer of 1984. Its music video was one of the first ever to feature in the New York Museum of Modern Art. The song is a tribute to the Argentinian dancer and choreographer Marcia Moretto, who died of cancer at age 32 in Paris in 1981.
Toute Première Fois – Jeanne Mas (1984)
Jeanne Mas released many hit singles in the ‘80s, including “En Rouge et Noir.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ajVF_BF0a-0) and “Johnny, Johnny”. “Toute Première Fois” was her first single and emblemizes her catchy electro-pop style. Mas first recorded the song in Italian under the titles “Cuore di vento” while she was living in Italy. She decided to re-record it in French three years later, and it became an instant success in France.
Partenaire particulier – Partenaire particulier (1985)
This electronic new wave band formed in Bordeaux in 1983. The group was quite popular in the mid-1980s and they had three major hit singles, including their signature song “Partenaire Particulier”. The song reached the third place in France’s top 50 singles of 1985 and made the band a phenomenon overnight. Partenaire Particulier broke up in the early ‘90s, but they got back together in 2008 and released another album, Geek, in 2011.
New York avec toi – Téléphone (1985)
Téléphone is France’s most successful band and one of the few French groups that is popular internationally. Between 1976 and 1986, the band performed more than 470 concerts and released five studio albums. The band has sold more than six million records, and is the second best-selling French group after Indochine. While we love all of the band’s songs, we’ve chosen this once since it’s all about New York City! You can read the song’s lyrics in English and French here.
L’Aziza – Daniel Balavoine (1985)
Balavoine sold more than 20 million records during his career and remains one of the celebrities who the French love the most. He inspired and collaborated with a variety of other ‘80s musicians, including Jean-Jacques Goldman and Michel Berger. He featured in Berger’s cult rock opera Starmania in 1978, which is an essential part of French music history. Balavoine was very passionate about French politics. He wrote “L’Aziza” in response to his frustration at the growing popularity of the far-right movement the National Front. “Aziza” means ‘My dear’ in Arabic, and in the song Balavoine pays tribute to his Jewish Moroccan wife while denouncing racism.
Les Démons de minuit – Émile & Images (1986)
Émile & Images was a Toulousian new wave/synthpop group that became popular in France at the end of the 1980s. “Les Démons de minuit” was their debut single and biggest hit. It peaked at number one during the summer of 1986 for 13 weeks. “Les Démons de minuit” has remained extremely popular. You’ll hear it played at almost every French wedding along with “Nuit de folie” by Début de Soirée and “Macumba” by Jean-Pierre Mader.
Voyage Voyage – Desireless (1986)
French singer Claudie Fritsch-Mentrop took the stage name Desireless in 1986 and became internationally famous when she released “Voyage Voyage.” The song was certified gold in France in 1987 and often appears in best songs of the ‘80s compilations. In the music video above, you can see Desireless’s distinctive haircut and one of her famous androgynous outfits. Fun fact: you can see the CSI: Miami star David Caruso in the clip above at 3:04!
Là-bas – Jean-Jacques Goldman (1987)
After Johnny Hallyday’s death, Goldman became the highest-grossing living French musician. Goldman has collaborated many times with Celine Dion. In 1997, he won a Grammy Award for having composed her album Falling Into You. He also wrote Celine Dion’s D’eux, the best-selling French language album of all-time. Goldman retired in the early 2000s, but he remains extremely popular in French-speaking countries. Goldman performed the duet “Là-bas” with British artist Sirima who died tragically two years after recording the song. It was also released under the title “Over There” in anglophone countries.
Joe le Taxi – Vanessa Paradis (1987)
“Joe le taxi” is the song that launched Paradis’s career when she was only fourteen. The lyrics are about a taxi driver who works in Paris. The song topped the singles chart in France for eleven weeks, and was released in the United Kingdom the following year, where it peaked at number three. It remains incredibly popular and there are many different theories about the identity of the “real” taxi driver who inspired the song. Check out this recent French article that claims the song is based on a woman!
Bonus: Ouragan – Stéphanie de Monaco (1986)
When Jeanne Mas refused to record this song, the composer offered it to Princess Stéphanie of Monaco. The princess’s first single became a surprise international hit in 1986, going on to become one of the best-selling French singles of all time. Stéphanie’s music career didn’t last very long, but she did record a few songs in the US, including “In the Closet” with Michael Jackson. We love the song’s music video for its crazy final twist (we won’t spoil it for you!).
We wanted to include tons of other songs in this post so we decided to put them all on our playlist. Listen to it here!