Born in Belleville, Paris, the singer who became known as the Little Sparrow had an early life most would consider not exactly rosy. More or less abandoned by her parents as an infant, she was discovered as a musician in 1935.
Her popularity in France skyrocketed, though she was not popular at first in the US; Americans found her too dismal.
It’s true that for American audiences of the time—accustomed as they were to Busby Berkeley–style musicals and upbeat music—Piaf must have seemed very dreary. To some people, she still does. To me, Piaf is wonderful in very small doses.
Whatever your tastes, her work is the epitome of French music of this period—cabaret or the intensely French chanson.
Her most famous tracks include “La Vie en rose,” penned in 1945 and inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998. Her last hit was in 1961, two years before she died, the appropriately titled “Non, je ne regrette rien.”
Her fame was secured during a series of concerts she gave in the late 1950s and early ’60s at the Olympia music hall (still going strong as one of Paris’s top venues for national and international artists).
These concerts were made into recordings that have never gone out of print. Now they’re even on iTunes. Which means they are available as a great primer on Piaf. Alternatively, there’s a free download available here.
Another way to sample her music is through the acclaimed 2007 movie about her life, La Vie en rose, directed by Olivier Dahan.
Gainsbourg is the creator of the legendary “Je t’aime moi non plus,” the steamy song featuring sounds of a female orgasm. It was widely banned (yes, even in France) in 1969.
Definitely no looker himself, he gained a reputation as a great lover, thanks to his relationships with both Brigitte Bardot and Jane Birkin.
Constantly experimental, he moved from chanson through jazz and into pop in the 1960s.
Gainsbourg had a real love of puns, and his lyrics were always chock-full of double entendre. “Les Sucettes” (The Lollipops) got him into real trouble when he had it recorded by a young female artist—she had thought it an innocent song about enjoying sweets, but most people saw through to his real intention.
In 2005 the album Monsieur Gainsbourg Revisited was released by Virgin Records. It’s a collection of specially recorded English-language cover versions of Gainsbourg’s songs, laid down by artists such as Franz Ferdinand, Portishead, Placebo and Michael Stipe.
Author’s Note: Gainsbourg’s supercool actress/musician daughter Charlotte has just released an album with Beck. Check it out here. I’m running out to buy it now.
A poet and songwriter, Brassens wrote lyrics that are very difficult to translate, though it has been done many times and in many languages. His anarchist songs were occasionally banned, especially “Le Gorille”—a song ostensibly about a gorilla sodomizing a judge, but in essence a comment on the difference in attitude when the scenario is the other way around.
Try “Les Amoureux des bancs publiques,” about young lovers kissing on park benches and upsetting the uptight.
I also recommend “La Mauvaise Reputation”: “Mais les braves gens n’aiment pas qu’on le suive un autre route qu’eux” (But the brave people don’t like the one that follows a different road than they do).
Brassens is most noted for his lyrics rather than his music (he usually accompanied himself on acoustic guitar). He’s a great incentive to improve your French—I’m working on it.
Hallyday is France’s answer to Presley. An absolute icon in France, he started singing rock and roll in French in the 1960s. He’s been dubbed “the biggest rock star you’ve never heard of” by English-speaking listeners.
His last three albums, released in 2007, 2008 and 2009—“Le Coeur d’un homme,” “Ça ne finira jamais” and “Tour 66”—all reached the number-one spot in France.
Or you can try his 1960 recording “Hello Johnny,” for the Elvis-style sound that launched his career. Listen to free samples here.
Undisputed mistress of 1960s French ye-ye pop and style. Her first record, Oh, oh cheri, was created by Johnny Hallyday’s writing duo and came out in 1962. Her own B-side, “Tous les garçons et les filles,” became another hit.
Some of my favorite tracks include “Mon amie la rose,” “Le Temps de l’amour” and “Le Premier Bonheur du jour.” Listen here.
Tiersen is best known outside France for composing the sound track to Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s film Amélie. It’s low-key, atmospheric stuff.
Tiersen focuses on piano, accordion and violin. He’s best suited to small cabaret-style gigs, where his music can be fully appreciated, as it can get lost in a festival setting.
Try his 1998 album Le Phare, which brought him into the spotlight in France, or the more recent L’Absent (2001), or Les Retrouvailles (2005). Click here for a sampling.
AIR (Amour, Imagination, Rêve/Love, Imagination, Dream)
For this French electronica/ambient duo, the second album, Moon Safari (1998), was a huge success in Europe—I had all the singles—and Sexy Boy and Kelly Watch the Stars are still great! I’d recommend these two to start with.
They composed the sound track for The Virgin Suicides and were featured on the sound track for the film Marie Antoinette as well. AIR also recorded a hugely popular DJ mix album, Late Night Tales, for the Late Night Tales series in 2006.
Their latest album, Love 2, was released last year. You can sample it on their MySpace page.
Nouvelle Vague is a French cover band that takes old New Wave classics and redoes them in a bossa nova style. Their three albums are the eponymous Nouvelle Vague (2004), Bande à Part (2006) and 3 (2009). Covered songs include “Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve),” by the Buzzcocks, and “Killing Moon,” by Echo and the Bunnymen. It makes great background chill-out music.
This French electro/electropop singer shot to fame on MySpace with a song mocking a member of a Parisian hip-hop group.
Her first single, “Je veux te voir,” was a big hit and led to her debut album, Pop-up, in 2007. She had other hits from this album, “Ce Jeu” and “A Cause des garçons.”
She’s currently rumored to be working on new material—check her out on MySpace.
Editor’s Note: If you are a lover of old-time French chanson, you can listen to it on your computer as you work and pretend you are in the Paris of the 1930s!