As far as French bands go, well, pretty much everyone’s familiar with the likes of Daft Punk and Air and Justice (whose new album is out this week). But that’s not all there is to French music, y’know. The country has given rise to a number of fascinating musical movements over the years, from the modern chanson of the 1960s through the coldwave of the 1980s (check out this excellent compilation if that genre interests you, by the way) and the more recent explosion of French dance music. We’ve put together a list of 10 less well-known French artists who we reckon everyone should know after the jump. (This list focuses on contemporary bands, by the way — i.e. artists who’ve been active over the last 10 to 15 years — which is why we haven’t included Serge Gainsbourg, Barbara, Françoise Hardy et al. Just saying.)
Somewhat under-appreciated even in her native land, this Parisian singer-songwriter decamped to Belgium some years back, and is now based in Brussels. Her first musical exposure came as backing singer for former paramour Dominique A, who also wrote much of her first solo album and has been a regular collaborator over the years. She’s slowly proven herself a fine songwriter in her own right, however, and the quality of her unique, evocative voice has never been in doubt. Fun fact: she’s also an illustrator of children’s books (you can see some of her work here).
Don’t let the name fool you — Ulan Bator are definitely French, not Mongolian. And being as we’re generally partial to long-winded experimental psych meanderings, we’re big fans of these Franco-pysch veterans. Ulan Bator have made a string of great records over the last 15 years or so, working with some fascinating collaborators along the way — they’ve recorded with Faust and Can’s Damo Suzuki, amongst others, and curiously enough, the album from which this song is taken (namely 2003’s Ok:Ko) was produced by Swans’ Michael Gira.
Klub des Loosers
French is a language that lends itself well to rapping, and as such there have been a heap of great French hip-hop records made over the past 20 years or so. There are plenty of great places to start with the genre, but our all-time favorite French hip-hop record is Vive la Vie, the debut record of Klub des Loosers, a loose collective based around Versailles-based rapper Fuzati. It’s a gloriously misanthropic affair — the above track’s title translates as “Fuck People,” and starts with a tongue-twisting line that goes something like, “I like wearing pink shirts to symbolize the fact that I’m nothing more than a sheet of toilet paper, destined to wipe the world’s ass until such time that, covered with too much shit, I finally crack.” Right.
Meanwhile, while we’re on French hip-hop, we’d be remiss to omit the quietly literate rhymes of Oxmo Puccino, a Mali-born genre veteran whose rhymes have always reminded us of the Notorious B.I.G. His work has mellowed in recent years, but his early records remain classics of Francophone urban realism. His brother’s a famous basketballer, apparently.
A liking for unusual pop singers seems to be a French national trait — this is a country where Serge Gainsbourg is pretty much deified, after all — and as well as being one of the most spectacular vocalists in France today, Camille is one of its most restless innovators. Memorably, her 2008 album Music Hole was comprised largely of sounds made by various parts of the human body, building up a complex sonic landscape of body percussion that was performed largely by the artist herself. (Less memorably, one of the songs on her new album Ilo Veyou ends with the sound of her farting.)
Born and raised in Rennes, Ninca Leese moved to Holland to study music production, and eventually ended up in Berlin, a city whose love of minimal, rhythmic soundscapes has certainly left an indelible mark on her music. She’s signed to most excellent Berlin label Bureau B, and while her songs are essentially pop songs, they’re placed in moody, electronic contexts, making her a very modern successor to a long line of Francophone late-night chanson exponents.
Fránçois & The Atlas Mountains
François moved from France to Bristol in England a few years back, and is signed to English label Domino, making him the first French act to do so. But hey, he’s definitely French, so we figure we have a right to include him here. His first album for Domino is out next year — in the meantime, his earlier work is well worth investigating.
Justice and Daft Punk are Ed Banger’s most famous artists, but the label’s really all about the work of Pedro Winter, aka Busy P. Winter founded the label in 2002, at which point he was Daft Punk’s manager, and he’s been running it ever since. While his own output has been relatively minimal — he’s released a bunch of 12″s and, earlier this year, an EP called Rainbow Man but never put out a complete solo album — his fingerprints are all over the label’s sound.
Étienne De Crécy
If you want to look more deeply in to the roots of the current surfeit of French dance music, you could do worse than getting hold of Super Discount, Etienne de Crécy’s genre-defining blueprint from 1997. The album dropped just as the French house music scene was starting to gain momentum and command global attention, and it became one of those records that both captured and defined the spirit of the time, laying the way for everyone from Air (whose debut Moon Safari dropped a year later) to producers like Daft Punk and countless others.
So, yes, Anthony Gonzalez is French. But before he was a pop-inclined solo artist, M83 were a duo, comprising Gonzalez and Nicolas Fromageau. The pair released a few of the most evocatively psychedelic records of the 2000s, drawing heavily on the sounds of shoegaze and dream pop. Since Fromageau’s departure, Gonzalez has been moving steadily away from the sounds of these early albums, although the first two albums he made alone — Before the Dawn Heals (from which “Safe” is taken) and Digital Shades Vol. 1 — were still pretty ambient and atmospheric. It’s a shame, because for all that Saturdays = Youth was a fine album, we do prefer old ambient M83 over new, pop-tastic M83.