Music is an integral part of French culture. It’s a vast topic, one you could easily write a very long book on, but today I want to share some of what I believe is the best French music of all time.
While French musical artists generally have less success in the States than actresses, there are nevertheless some amazing artists that you might have heard of in this list.
I am certainly not a music connoisseur by any means – but this is the French music I love listening to.
I put together a short playlist of my favorite French music during the first confinement last year and shared it on Instagram. I’ve also made a few French music playlists on Spotify so be sure to follow me there for updates. I’ll add new songs as I discover them in France!
I lived in France during high school more than a decade ago and that experience was my first foray into the world of French music.
France has a very long history of music dating back to classical times, perhaps before then, but let’s start there.
Classical French Music
The classical music period generally refers to music composed between the years 1600 and 1900.
My favorite song from this time period is Erik Satie’s “Gymnopédie No.1.” Satie was a French composer who released three short piano solos in 1888. The first one became emblematic of the Romantic era.
I also recommend listening to Claude Debussy “Suite bergamasque,” Gabriel Fauré “Dolly Op.56” and Jean-Philippe Rameau “The Arts and the Hours” for a relaxing French classical music experience.
Early 20th Century French Music
The 20th century brought many timeless French songs that you can still hear today in movies and in popular French culture.
Music from this period notably featured many songs about love, but also ones celebrating France and its culture – from daily life in the city of Paris to the calm, seaside French landscapes.
In 1930, Lucienne Boyer released the romantic song “Parlez-moi d’amour,” meaning “tell me about love.” The song was featured in the films Casablanca (1942) and later Midnight in Paris (2011).
Several odes to French life were released in the 30s and 40s such as Maurice Chevalier’s “Paris sera toujours Paris” (Paris will always be Paris) and “La mer” (The Sea) by the legendary Charles Trenet.
The Italian-born singer Yves Montand wrote two beautiful songs about Paris including “Sous le ciel de Paris” and “Rue Saint-Vincent.” The city provided endless inspiration for songwriters like Montand to describe the charming Parisian life they lived.
Music by Édith Piaf is perhaps the most internationally famous and songs like “La vie en rose” and “Hymne à l’amour” became renowned across the globe.
Modern French Music
By the mid 20th century, French music, like anglophone music, began to feature more hits with faster rhythms and upbeat tones. This period of French music is my personal favorite.
Less idyllic and more realist, the French music of the 50s and 60s reflected the changing times. The emergence of the documentary-style French New Wave film movement ushered in a culture that didn’t see the world through rose-colored glasses. Songs about heartbreak, nostalgia and other darker themes caught on with the public.
Of course, it wasn’t all doom and gloom!
One of the more upbeat subgenres to emerge during the mid-century period was the “yé-yé” movement. “Yé-yé” was a colloquial term derived from the words “yeah yeah” often sung in many British and American pop songs.
Françoise Hardy is the most well-known singer-songwriter of the French pop movement of the 1960s. She released two hits “Le Temps de L’amour” and “Tous les garçons et les filles” at the young age of 18. Her sentimental lyrics and catchy beats caught on fast with France’s female teenager population.
Brigitte Bardot might be better known as an actress, but in France, her successful pop songs were numerous. From the playful “Moi je joue,” which was later used in a Miss Dior Chérie commercial, to the flirty “Tu veux ou tu veux pas,” Bardot’s sultry voice is emblematic of the French pop 60s.
Another bubbly blonde that made waves on the French music scene was France Gall. Pop songs like “Laisse tomber les filles” and “Poupée de cire, poupée de son” resonated with the French population, earning Gall the Eurovision Song Contest award.
French singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg wrote several of France Gall’s early songs before she realized his lyrics had sexual undertones and stopped working with him.
Despite being a provocateur, Gainsbourg is perhaps the poster child for French music around the globe. His sometimes scandalous and audacious songs have played on airwaves across the world. A prolific songwriter, Gainsbourg wrote more than 500 songs during his lifetime.
Gainsbourg’s personal life was just as fascinating as his professional life and the two often collided. “Je t’aime… moi non plus” was a 1967 song originally written for Brigitte Bardot that Gainsbourg recorded with his partner Jane Birkin to international success.
In 1967, Jacqueline Taïeb released “7 heures du matin” a song about a teenage girl who dreams of rock and roll stars instead of getting ready for school. The song is representative of the boy band craze that began to sweep the world at that time.
An article about French music wouldn’t be complete without mentioning French-Armenian singer Charles Aznavour who brought us dreamy and nostalgic ballads like “La Bohème.”
The French pop rock scene was best represented by artists such as Jacques Dutronc and Michel Polnareff who gave us hits like “Il est cinq heures, Paris s’éveille” and “Love me please love me” respectively.
Late 20th Century French Music
The French pop rock movement of the 80s is noted by none other than Johnny Hallyday and Jean-Jacques Goldman who churned out progressive rock songs for the French masses. Goldman is my personal favorite, and although “Quand la musique est bonne,” really shows off his talent for rock music, I much prefer the laid-back guitar melody “Bonne idée.”
France Gall, the French yé-yé singer mentioned earlier, made a splash in the 80s with the pop song “Ella, elle l’a” which means ‘Ella she’s got it,’ a reference to Ella Fitzgerald. It remains incredibly popular even to this day!
You might know Vanessa Paradis as the wife of Johnny Depp, but she’s quite the star of her own in France. Her first hit, “Joe le taxi” was recorded when she was just 14 years old! She went on to record “Be My Baby” in 1992, a breathy English language pop song.
In the early 90s, an electronic music duo known as Daft Punk formed in Paris, marking the beginning of the dance music trend that would continue through the 2000s. Hits like “Around the World” and “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” played in nightclubs around the world, and Daft Punk became an international sensation.
Contemporary French Music
More recently, contemporary French music has evolved with the times and a number of notable electronic music acts have found success. Of course, romance is still a hot topic for contemporary French song lyrics. In order to gain a wider international audience, many French artists have begun to release songs in English, much to my disappointment! You can still find great songs that have been sung in French if you know where to look, though.
Carla Bruni is better known as France’s former First Lady, but the former model is also an accomplished singer. “Quelqu’un m’a dit” released in 2002 is a must-listen if you want to hear a modern-day French love song.
Phoenix is one of the first contemporary French bands I remember hearing in the wild – on the TV show Gossip Girl! Songs like “1901” and “If I Ever Feel Better” helped the band surge in popularity in the late 2000s.
Moving into the 2010s, electronic music really began to take hold in France with acts like M83 and Polo et Pan taking center stage of the contemporary French music scene.
Angèle, a Belgian singer, brought catchy French pop songs to the masses with lyrics referencing current events like the #MeToo movement in songs like “Balance Ton Quoi.”
Clara Luciani and Thérapie Taxi are two of the most popular French musical artists in contemporary times. For more current French music, check out my playlist on Spotify!