Feature by Elizabeth Gibson.
If you love music but haven’t encountered many French artists, it can be daunting making a start and finding those who specialise in the genres you enjoy. Here are five that I really recommend; I have chosen from different eras and styles, so there should be something for everyone, and have translated titles and lyrics myself.
1. Christophe Maé
Style: Folk, acoustic, pop
Similar to: Jason Mraz
I discovered Christophe Maé through my French teachers at sixth-form – his music has a chilled-out vibe and his lyrics and melodies are pretty easy to pick up, even for a non-French-speaker. ‘On S’Attache’ (‘They Attack Us’) is a bouncy song about not wanting to be in love. ‘Charly’ – about a young girl Maé knew who died – is beautiful and gentle.
‘Belle Demoiselle’ (‘Beautiful Lady’) is faster-paced, angsty and may be good for fans of Ed Sheeran. I recommend Christophe Maé if you play guitar and enjoy folk or acoustic music; or if you want to get to know some simple and current French songs.
Style: rock, new wave
Similar to: Yazoo
Niagara was one of the first French groups I knew of: a few of their songs featured on a mixtape my mother would play in the car when I was little. I loved the songs despite only understanding some of the French. The duo consist of keyboardist Daniel Chenevez and female singer Muriel Moreno: who can do amazing things with her voice.
Niagara’s sound is smooth and confident, and their videos are well-made and often slightly surreal. I recommend ‘La Vie Est Peut-Être Belle’ (‘Maybe Life is Beautiful’) which is cynical yet uplifting. ‘Quand La Vie Dort’ (‘While the City Sleeps’) is catchy and has a stunning, gold-themed video. Niagara are an acquired taste, but if you like their style they can be a solid French-learning resource.
3. Claude François
Style: pop, disco
Similar to: Barry Manilow
With his elaborate dance routines, infectious passion for performing and the many weird outfits of his backing dancers, Claude François fast became an icon. His premature death only added to the legend surrounding the Egyptian-born man who became France’s ultimate entertainer.
As well as his own work, François created French versions of some English-language classics. ‘Cette Année-Là’ (‘That Was the Year’) is set to the tune of ‘Oh What a Night’ and tells the story of 1962, the year in which Claude found fame and which saw other major events such as the return of Sputnik and the death of Marylin Monroe. Claude François also wrote the music for one of the most famous songs of all time: his song ‘Comme Habitude’ (‘As Always’) was the basis for Paul Anka’s ‘My Way’.
Style: pop, new wave
Similar to: Madonna
These days Lio is perhaps better known as a highly-opinionated judge on various talent shows. In the 80s, however, she was a musical sensation. Born in Portugal and raised in Belgium, Lio sang in French and her songs and videos tended to be slightly bizarre. I discovered her though ‘Tétéou’ (‘Where Were You?’) a weird but wonderful duet with music show presenter Jacky.
There is also ‘Les Brunes Comptent Pas Pour Des Prunes’ (‘Brunettes Don’t Count For Nothing’) in which she challenges the idea that “gentlemen prefer blondes” rather outrageously: ‘We have more ideas than peroxide blondes do’. She also features on Étienne Daho’s new-wave masterpiece ‘Weekend à Rome’ (‘Weekend in Rome’). Lio really was a constant in French music through the 80s and early 90s and her versatility, charm and outspokenness mean she’s not going to be forgotten any time soon.
5. Jean-Jacques Goldman
Style: Rock, pop
Similar to: Bruce Springsteen
Jean-Jacques Goldman is one of my personal favourite musicians in any language. He is hugely popular, having been voted France’s favourite person more than once. It isn’t hard to see why: his writing is diverse, honest and eye-opening, his voice is raw and earnest but can be tender or mighty, and he is a great performer. If you enjoy rock, check out ‘Encore Un Matin’ (‘Another Morning’. If you prefer piano ballads, try ‘Famille’ (‘Family’). If you like new-wave pop, there is ‘Je Marche Seul’ (‘I Walk Alone’). Then there is ‘Puisque Tu Pars’ (‘Since You Left’), one of the saddest and most honest explorations of loss and moving on.
Probably my favourite of Goldman’s songs is ‘On Ira’ (‘We’ll Go’), a folksy ballad about leaving the vices of society and setting off into the unknown. Finally, there is ‘Là-Bas’ (‘Out There’) in which Jean-Jacques duets with Sirima, a young singer with an incredible voice who was killed shortly afterwards. The song is about whether to emigrate to have a better life, with both sides of the argument presented. If you only ever listen to one French artist (and you should listen to lots; they’re great!), I recommend Jean-Jacques Goldman.