Can the French rock? It's a question which has vexed the most diligent cultural scholars, yet there are several recently-unearthed anthropological clues which indicate an affirmative answer. Mind you, many Gallic efforts in the rock arena may provoke a justified snicker or two, but the fact remains that frog rock is -- please pardon the expression -- in vogue. Here are a few recommendations to albums I've enjoyed that I think you might like as well, ranging from 1960s ye-ye to a few more contemporary albums from France's blossoming indie and electronica scenes. There is also a separate section for older musical styles, such as chanson and musette, if you like the old stuff, too!
You needn't attend the Sorbonne to appreciate the fun... So, submitted for your approval, here are some of the movers and shakers in French pop music, past and present.
Kad Achouri "Liberte" (2002)
Kad Achouri "Societe" (Beleza, 2005)
This one's a gem... a mesmerizing set of French-language bossa nova/chanson, with a dash of subtle modern electronica on a tune or two. This disc kept its spot in my CD player for the better part of a week; it was consistently listenable and compelling, a mellow, pretty-sounding, genre-bending set that mixes styles and sensiblities well. Algerian-Spanish singer Kad Achouri has a modest voice, but he's definitely hit on a rich, resonant, laid-back groove that'll draw mature listeners in and keep them coming back... Features covers of Baden Powell and Nirvana, as well as an old Cole Porter standard, and a slew of original tunes that translate the laid-back vibe of late-'50s Brazil into the modern age... This is Kad's second album, picking up where 2002's Liberte left off... I suppose Fraternite can't be far behind? Anyway, if you're looking a mellow record that also has some heft, you might wanna check this disc out.
Kad Achouri "Lettre A Marianne" (Columbia-Japan, 2010)
Adamo "Ton Nom" (Pathe, 1964?)
Nice. There's a hint of teenybopper rock in some of these songs, but mostly this is a straightforward melodramatic pop-ballads set, with ripe, impassioned vocal passages that still somehow manage to be understated and compelling... Born in Sicily, raised in Belgium, Salvatore Adamo was the very image of a cleancut young man, and over the course of his career, became one of the biggest selling musicians in the world... This early album provides a simple showcase for his subtle vocal skills; the music isn't that catchy or innovative, but it also isn't offensive or irritating in any way, and his singing is quite supple and skillful. Worth a spin!
Salvatore Adamo "Le Bal Des Gens Bien" (Polydor, 2008)
An impressive all-star cast of 21st Century French popsters (and a few elders) pitch in on this elegant guest-fest, featuring the still-boyish Belgian-Italian crooner Adamo, along with artists such as Benabar, Isabelle Boulay, Cali, Jeanne Cherhal, Thomas Dutronc, Loane, Raphael, Olivia Ruiz, neo-chansonniste Juliette and a few old coots like Yves Simon and Alain Souchon. The music didn't blow me away, but it is pleasant to listen to, and for an old-timer such as Adamo -- who's well into his fifth decade as a pop star -- this is a very strong effort. Certainly worth checking out.
Dominique A "La Fossette" (Lithium, 1992)
This is the debut album of Dominique Ane, a noodling, new wave-tinged affair that is more notable for what it isn't -- it is largely not anchored in the mainstream of French chanson, or popular song -- than for what it is -- i.e. a cohesive album. It's an experimental pop record; in intellectual terms that's interesting, but as a pop record it's probably not for everyone. Personally, I find the songs to be disjointed and discursive, and the music lacking textural richness or depth. There's cleverness at play, but rarely much of a melody, or much for more conventionally-minded listeners to latch onto. At least, I don't find it an album that I feel much need to revisit: it sounds intriguing in small doses, but ultimately it's a bit too formless and wanky for me.
Dominique A "Si Je Connais Harry" (Lithium, 1993)
More conventional, more textured and far more interesting than his debut... It's giddy, joyful and exhilarating to hear an album so decisively liberated from the confines of chanson tradition, with eerie, artful, playful explorations of new wave synthpop, dub, electronica, ambient music and good, old-fashioned indie rock. Ane gets a lot of depth out of a small, sparse ensemble -- basically himself on keyboards and guitars, along with a drummer and Francoiz Breut singing harmony on a few tracks. (Breut also co-wrote one song; Ane wold return the favor by producing her debut album a few years later.) Cool, challenging stuff -- there's even one track, "Otto Box," that sounds for all the world like a song by The Clean! and a bit of goofy Casio rumba as well... He might sing in French, but he's sure talking my language!
Dominique A "La Memoire Neuve" (EMI/Lithium, 1995)
Why, yes I believe that is Francoiz Breut's out-of-focus face in the cover foreground. A's longtime musical partner, she adds some vocal chops to this lovely record.
Dominique A "Remue" (Labels, 1999)
Dominique A "Auguri" (EMI, 2002)
Dominique A "Tout Sera Comme Avant" (EMI/Labels, 2004)
Dominique A "L'Horizon" (Olympic Disk, 2006)
Dominique A "Sur Nos Forces Motrices" (Cinc 7, 2007)
Dominique A "Les Sons Cardinaux" (Wagram, 2007)
A 4-CD set...
Les Aiglons "Stalactite" (Magic, 2005)
Rock-ish instrumentals from the 1960s, featuring a tinny electric organ, an occasional bongo drum or two and an equally tinny guitar that sounds like Les Paul's sped-up lead on "How High The Moon." "Stalactite" was an original tune by the band... Fans of the Shadows or Davy Allen might get into this-- I wasn't blown away, though.
Frank Alamo "Frank Alamo" (Barclay, 1964)
Cute Gallic covers of American rock and pop hits du jour, including goofy versions of "On Broadway," and a slew of Brill Building hits. The teenaged Alamo is backed by Jacques Loussier and his band -- and while they give it a go, they really just can't cut loose and rock out. Which, of course, is what makes this disc so charming. Best of all is the overly-literal translation of "Yeah, yeah, yeah" to "Oui, oui, oui!" It's cute; nice that they've reissued it on CD.
Frank Alamo "Les Annees Barclay" (Polygram, 1998)
A wider sampling of Alamo's work can be heard on this best-of, which has plenty of cutesy cover tunes, and a slightly more diverse repertoire than his rock-packed debut.
Frank Alamo "Tendres Annees 60" (Universal, 2004)
Alfa Rococo "Lever L'Ancre" (Tacca Musique, 2007)
Graeme Allwright "Tendres: Annees 70" (Universal, 2004)
Hmmm... I guess this could fit into the general heading of the French rock scene... though just barely. The opening tracks sound like a French version of British skiffle -- pepped-up acoustic folk tunes -- and Allwright slowly slides into something softer and more subtle... A cover of Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne" gives you a sense of where he was headed. There's also some Tom Paxton in there ("Bottle Of Wine" and "What Did You Learn In School Today?") as well as the requisite Dylan covers and whatnot. It's actually kind of charming, but also rather precious and time-capsule-y. And you say he recorded this stuff in the 'Seventies?? Well, that is odd. Still, if French-language acoustic folk tunes sound like fun, you might want to check this out.
Amelie-Les-Crayons "Le Chant Des Coquelicots" (Orlan, 2003)
Amelie-Les-Crayons "Et Pourquoi Les Crayons?" (neomme, 2004)
Amelie-Les-Crayons "La Porte Plume" (neomme, 2007)
Constance Amiot "Fairytale" (Tot Ou Tard, 2007)
Gabriel "Naim" Amor "Soundtracks" (Ow Om, 2006)
Naim Amor "Soundtracks Volume II" (Ow Om, 2006)
Naim Amor "Sanguine" (2008)
Keren Ann "La Biographie De Luka Philipsen" (EMI-France, 2000)
(Produced by Benjamin Biolay)
The first time I listened to this album, I was relatively unimpressed and felt it was overly mannered and lacked spontaneity or flexibility... The slick, well-crafted production (courtesy of up-and-coming indiepop producer Benjamin Biolay) seemed too predictable and laden with modern trip-hoppy tropes that left little room for the magic that makes music work to ooze out around the edges. I was wrong, though. Subsequent auditions have drawn me in, and while I still think there is an underlying layer of tediousness and pretension to this work, I gotta admit, I do like it. The melodic hooks and moody sound layers, Ann's whispery vocals, the pseudo-epic orchestral overtones mixed with the programmed beats -- it all combines in a way that makes this lodge in your mind; you may not find yourself humming these tunes all day long, but there's a narcotic connection that will kick in every time you listen to the disc. This is, by the way, an ideal album for anyone taking French classes to glom onto: Israeli-born chanteuse Keren Ann Zeidel (who moved to Paris to start her recording career...) sings with a super-clear diction that may be a freshing change of pace from the vocal elisons and obscurations of native-born speakers. Anyway, this album is pretty nice; it's certainly worth checking out, and if I were to get all "masterpiece-y" about my offhand proclamations, I might start pointing to this disc as the Keren Ann album to pick up.
Keren Ann "La Disparition" (EMI-France, 2002)
(Produced by Benjamin Biolay)
This is softer, subtler and less cluttered set than her debut, and fans who were drawn in by the denser, more high-tech production on Biographie may feel a little let down by this record, but I think it's pretty nice, if a bit florid. It's certainly more deserving of all the constant, glowing comparisons to Francoise Hardy that marked Ann's entry onto the indiepop landscape, as it's much closer to Hardy's original sound. (By the way, I think these comparisons are way off base as well as simplistic and knee-jerky... But, hey, everyone's entitled to their trendy, parrotlike opinions...) Anyway, I digress. This is another nice album by Ms. Ann, worth picking up if you're looking for an alluring alternative to all the same old crap that seems to be coming out of the radio these days... It's not the greatest record ever, but it is elegant and easy on the ears, and it certainly recalls the pop-orchestral pretensions of the post-ye-ye French rock scene of the 'Sixties and 'Seventies... Worth checking out.
Keren Ann "Not Going Anywhere" (EMI-France/Blue Note, 2004)
This is certainly the most cohesive and least forced-sounding of her albums, with a largely acoustic mix and gentle, winsome English-language vocals, and a naifish, uber-innocent vibe that recalls the twee offerings of bands on the Sarah and Postcard record labels... Not much else to be said about this one -- I liked it best of all Keren Ann's records, and this is a disc I'll probably hang onto for a while. Recommended.
Keren Ann "Nolita" (EMI-France/Blue Note, 2005)
This is the fourth album by Israeli-born French songstress Keren Ann Zeidel, and continues her along the path of Americanizing her sound. I suppose since she's getting North American release on the Blue Note imprint, disparaging comparisons to Norah Jones are in order, and I guess I would agree that the heavy emphasis on slow, melancholy, down-tempo material is a step in that direction, although comparisions to John Cale, the Velvet Underground and Marble Index-era Nico are probably in order as well. As with her earlier albums, the perfectly constructed, tightly layered production mix gives this album a somewhat mechanistic feel, like watching an old sci-fi movie and noticing all the wires and models that were used for the special effects. It doesn't feel even remotely natural or off-the-cuff, but even with the trying-too-hardedness of it all, Ann's work has a certain appeal. The monochromatic pacing of this particular disc may make it less appealing to newcomers than some of her other albums, but it's certainly worth checking out.
Keren Ann "Rolling Stone Original (EP)" (Real Networks, 2005)
Keren Ann "Keren Ann" (EMI-France/Blue Note, 2007)
Dick Annegarn - see artist profile
Richard Anthony "Le Plue Belle Chansons De Richard Anthony" (EMI, 1997)
A generously programmed (16 song) collection of golden oldies from this French crooner... Here he tackles numerous American novelty hits, including uptempo numbers such as "Itsy Bitsy Polka Dot Bikini," "Hit The Road Jack," "It's My Party," along with a raft of slower tunes like "Monday Monday," "Sunny" and "You Don't Have To Say You Love Me." This selection of sunshine pop and pop-folk is very much of its time, but it might be a bit much for some rock-oriented listeners to handle... He can definitely get pretty schmaltzy.
Richard Anthony "La Terre Promesse" (Magic, 1999)
'Sixties sunshine pop... Gallic style! This disc drifts between soft orchestral pop (some of it unbearably cheesy) to some credible covers of several Rolling Stones songs (including "Ruby Tuesday" sung not only in French... but in Italian as well...! ) There are also a couple of Paul Simon songs ("Sounds Of Silence" and "Homeward Bound"), Bobby Hebb's "Sunny," a cover of "Monday, Monday" and a lone Beatles cover, as well as some homegrown French pop, which is mostly pretty lame and unbearable... The first pass I took at this disc, I didn't think much of it, but then it kind of grew on me. Richard seemed very sincere and into what he was doing; this is probably too wimpy for most listeners, but as goofy French-covers-of-American-pop albums go, this ain't bad. Worth a spin.
Antoine "Les Elucubrations d'Antoine" (BMG/Vogue, 1996)
The cliche regarding Antoine was that he was a "French Dylan," and while it's true that he pays homage to Mr. Zimmerman both in his music and in his lyrics, Antoine cast a much wider net than that... This is a very solid set of nuggets-style 'Sixties garage-pop, recored in 1966-67 with a varied and accomplished mix of styles. There's Dylan's seductive Blonde On Blonde brand of country-rock, Kinks-y music-hall rock, snotty teeniebopper psychedelia, some Stones-y acoustic blues and even a dip back into antiquated genres like the beguine (on "Lolita, Lolita," which closes this album...) All in all, it's a pretty groovy record, definitely worth tracking down. Sadly, the CD version from 1996 doesn't include any info in the liner notes, other than songwriting credits, but it is worth noting that all these songs were written by Antoine himself, even though it's not clear who the producers or the sidemen were. Oh, well. Great record, though!
Antoine "La Guerre" (EP) (Magic, 2005)
Antoine "Antoine Rencontre Les Problems (Ballade A Luis Rego)" (Magic, 2007)
Francois Audrain "Detachee" (Tot Ou Tard, 2001)
Francois Audrain "Chambres Lointaines" (Tot Ou Tard, 2005)
Francois Audrain "Les Soirs D'Ete" (Tot Ou Tard, 2009)
Hugues Aufray "Aufray Chante Dylan" (Polygram, 1965)
One of the best French rock cover albums of the 'Sixties... While most ye-ye artists sang the fluffiest, perkiest pop-rock tunes, Aufray tackled the sassy, intellectual king of the American rock scene, folkie-poet Bob Dylan. In tune with the coolest and smartest of American pop culture, Aufray covered the hippest songs in the early Dylan canon... I can't vouch for how well the songs were translated, but as far as the music goes, this album certainly has the right feel -- a playful, slightly garage-y sound, suffused with cleverness and irony. Not only was Dylan ideal for the French, the French were also ideal for Dylan. Recommended!
Hugues Aufray "Tendres: Annees 60" (Universal, 2004)
A best-of set drawing on his early work... This is stuffier, sleepier and more conservative than his Dylan material, pretty solidly in the pop vocals camp -- more of a Frankie Laine than a Tiny Tim here -- so I guess the '65 album was something of a fluke. Oh, well. At least now we know.
Hugues Aufray "V.1: Santiano" (Universal, 1998)
Hugues Aufray "V.2: Le Rossignol Anglais" (Universal, 1998)
Hugues Aufray "V.3: Celine" (Universal, 1998)
Hugues Aufray "V.4: Adieu Monsieur Le Professeur" (Universal, 1998)
Hugues Aufray "V.5" (Universal, 1998)
Hugues Aufray "V.6: A l'Olympia 1964 Et 1966" (Universal, 1998)
Autour De Lucie "Autour De Lucie" (Nettwerk/Le Village Vert, 1995)
One of the most (aesthetically) successful modern French indie bands, this Parisian ensemble walked in the wake of Brit-chick bands like Lush and Heavenly, aping their pop savvy, but adding a distinctive Gallic twist. A few tracks slip into orchestral sillitude, but on the whole this is one of the most successful French indiepop efforts I've ever heard. Heartfelt and richly melodic... this disc rocks!
Autour De Lucie "Immobile" (Nettwerk, 1998)
A thoroughly lovely indie/altrock album, very much in tempo with the trends of the time... The music is densely layered and slickly produced, but soulful and appealing. Although there are some mild touches of electronica, electric guitars dominate: fuzzy, controlled distortion suffuses most songs, with the mellow, My Bloody Valentine-in-a-box technique adopted by many bands at the time. This is a well-realized, beautifully executed album -- predictable, familiar, but entrancing nonetheless, and very, very listenable. Recommended!
Autour De Lucie "Faux Movement" (Nettwerk, 2001)
Autour De Lucie "Vu Par (Remixes)" (Nettwerk, 2002)
Autour De Lucie "Autour De Lucie" (Universal, 2004)
Axelle Red "Sans Plus Attendre" (EMI, 1994)
Axelle Red "A Tatons" (Virgin-Belgium, 1996)
I worked my way backwards to this one, having heard her Toujours Moi album (below) first. This is pretty lackluster, by-the-numbers, soul-tinged pop material... If pressed, I would say that she did get better as time went on, but on the whole I don't think there's anything special going on here.
Axelle Red "Toujours Moi" (Virgin-Belgium, 1999)
Fairly drab, overly slick modern pop, with a too-perfect pastiche of Sade-esque soft soul, disco-tinged '70s pop, and numerous, equally conventional rock-pop stylizations. Pretty predictable, on the whole, and while her vocals are, honestly, less than spectacular, they sound nice enough, in an unchallenging way. I gather she's a big star, though: in her favor, it should be noted that Red writes all her own material. This is Red's fourth album.
Axelle Red "French Soul" (EMI, 2004)
Axelle Red "Jardin Secret" (EMI, 2006)
French Music Index
French Chanson & Musette