France has produced legendary romantic music composers, cabarets, and folk artists. Most of us are familiar with the work of Édith Piaf, Serge Gainsbourg, and Alizée, who have each topped numerous music charts through the decades, but the list doesn’t end there. Whether you are a Francophile, a francophone, or just after some new tracks, here is our guide to 10 essential French musicians that you need to add to your repertoire.
Julien Doré is a French singer and songwriter, actor, and winner of the fifth season of the television show Nouvelle Star (New Star). His musical career began in 2008 when he released his debut album, Ersatz. A member of two bands, Doré also plays the guitar and the ukulele. His music is influenced by a variety of different musical genres, including rock, folk, and various experimental artists.
Famous for his songs in French, Jacques Brel is was actually Belgian. Brel composed and performed thoughtful and often theatrical songs that generated worldwide fame, and is generally considered as a master of the modern chanson. His songs had a profound influence on English-speaking writers such as David Bowie and Marc Almond. American artists such as Nina Simone, Frank Sinatra, and Ray Charles recorded English translations of his songs.
Héloïse Letissier is a French singer and songwriter from Nantes. Her stage name is Christine and the Queens, and she produces an eclectic melange of music, performance, art videos, drawings and photography. Letissier studied in Lyon and later lived in Paris and London. It was the British capital that inspired her to work with local drag queen musicians. They began to accompany her during her early concerts and consequently became the backing band known as the “Queens.” She identifies her music genre as “freakpop,” and released her debut EP, Miséricorde, independently. In 2012, she released her second EP, Mac Abbey, and was awarded the the Best Discovered Act, known in France as the Découverte du Printemps de Bourges. The band was also the recipient of the Adami Premières Francos 2012 award.
Kassav’ is a Caribbean band formed in Paris in 1979. Kassav’ produced zouk music, known for its fast, rhythmic carnival style, and have released over 20 albums collectively. An additional 12 albums were produced by its band members. Kassav’s zouk was born from experimenting with an eleven-piece gwo ka unit: two lead singers, tambour bélé, ti bwa, biguine, African styles, and musical méringue style with full use of MIDI technology. Kassav’ pushed Caribbean music to a new level by recording in the new digital format.
Béatrice Martin is a francophone Canadian singer, songwriter and pianist, better known by her stage name Cœur de Pirate (which translates as Pirate Heart). Most of her songs are in French and she has been credited with “bringing la chanson française to a whole new generation of Quebec youth.” Her debut album rose to the top five in France in 2009, led by her smash hit single, “Comme des Enfants.” Coeur de Pirate fuses piano, keyboard, and acoustic elements, and is often classified under the genre of indie pop.
Born as Bruno Le Forestier, Maxime le Forestier is an established icon of French music who started his musical career with a violin. Le Forestier preserved his passion for music and songwriting while doing his military service, as part of the parachute regiment. This experience proved to be the source of inspiration for one of his most famous songs, “Parachutiste.”
Sniper is a French hip-hop band from Val-d’Oise, a commune near Paris. The group’s two main members are Tunisiano (Bachir Baccour) and Aketo (Ryad Selmi). The band’s career started in 2001 with the release of their first album, Du rire aux larmes (From Laughter to Tears). In their music, Sniper mixes dark humor and linguistic wit, while simultaneously engaging in more political subjects, as demonstrated in their track “Pris Pour Cible.” Their songs address socio-political concerns that underpin the modern Francophone world: racism, poverty, immigration, unemployment, and failed relationships. In 2003, Sniper released Gravé dans la roche (Carved in Stone) which focuses on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
As part of the younger generation of French musicians, Isabelle Geffroy, stage name Zaz, is helping to reshape the music scene in France. Zaz started out as a busker in the Parisian quarter of Montmartre and is now widely known across France, as well as Europe. Her top single, “Je veux,” sits on her 2010 debut album and became an instant international hit. This French singer and songwriter mixes soul, acoustic, French classical styles, and gypsy jazz to craft new musical tones that are full of emotion. With a fan base spanning from China to North America, her music has topped the charts not only in France, but also in Belgium and Germany.
Probably the most famous French rock band, Noir Désir originates from Bordeaux and had major hits throughout the ’80s, ’90s, and 2000s. The band’s first EP, Où Veux-Tu Que J’Regarde, was released in 1987. Two years later, Noir Désir released their first full-length album, Veuillez Rendre l’Âme. By the time their second album, Du Ciment Sous les Plaines, was released in 1990, Noir Désir developed a harder, more punk-rock-inspired style. To this day, their songs remain a firm element in the French musical landscape.
Manu Chao is a French-born musical artist of Spanish origin with the name José-Manuel Thomas Arthur Chao. He performs his songs not only in French, but also in Spanish, English, Italian, Arabic, Galician, Portuguese, and occasionally a few other languages. Like many other aspiring French artists, Chao started his musical career by busking in Paris. In 1987, he founded the band Mano Negra, which achieved considerable success, especially in Europe. After the breakup of the band in 1995, Chao toured as a solo artist. Chao’s style is predominantly influenced by bands of the UK rock scene, such as The Clash, The Jam, and Dr. Feelgood. Fusing these styles with the French chanson, Iberoamerican salsa, reggae, ska, and Algerian raï makes him a very unique French musician.