When I was 15, my dad bought a copy of Moon Safari by Air. I can’t explain his behavior; it could have been a symptom of a very subtle midlife crisis – a French lounge pop album here, a racier-than-usual Gore-Tex anorak there – or he may simply have heard it on one of the many thousands of furniture warehouse adverts it was used on during the late ‘90s. Either way, I loved that album; it convinced me that all French music was brilliant. Or a lot better than The Bluetones, at least.
Over time, I’ve come to realize that there’s a lot of awful French music – David Guetta is a one-man argument for banning music altogether – but there’s also plenty of good stuff that doesn’t get the attention it deserves. With that in mind, I’ve put together a list of French pop acts you may not have heard yet. It’s not definitive and it’s entirely subjective: essentially, it’s a soundtrack to a tumultuous relationship with an imaginary French girlfriend. (We argue a lot. I think she despises me.)
Musicians – especially the Pitchfork-approved variety – aren’t really allowed to be overly ambitious. Always on the lookout for a trend to buck, Sébastien Tellier has repeatedly stated his desire to sell a gazillion albums and buy his own island.
The only obvious obstacles to Tellier achieving his dream of global megastardom are his personality and music. It’s hard to imagine a true commercial artist, like Justin Bieber, expounding in an interview about the type of sex he enjoys but this is a standard topic of conversation for Tellier.
Bieber could also inform his colleague that hit records are usually based around a simple notion – what you would do if you were somebody’s girlfriend, for example. Concepts like‘L’Alliance Bleu’ – a cult invented by the Frenchman to spread ‘combined energy in an immense blue wave that will flood the world’ – generally find a more niche audience.
Tellier changes styles with each album, so there’s no definitive route into his back catalogue. There are ballads, like the outrageously beautiful ‘La Ritournelle’ and Beach Boys pastiches like his Eurovision entry, ‘Divine’. But, if you’re looking for one album to try, it has to be Sexuality. Produced by Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo of Daft Punk, it’s a collection of off-kilter r’n’b, the cover of which features Sébastien seated on a tiny pony, atop the breast of a giant woman. For Tellier, who frequently makes the work of Salvador Dali look pathetically conventional, c’est normal.
Now that it can be used to describe to anything from a sandwich to a colonoscopy, the word ‘epic’ doesn’t seem to do justice to the music of Lescop. His self-titled debut album – not yet released in the UK – is an amazingly polished combination of plaintive melodies, jagged guitars, and rumbling bass.
The French music scene is awash with 80’s revivalists at the moment and the cold atmospherics of Lescop will guarantee its creator a ready-made audience in fans of The Cure. But, while the constituent parts of his music won’t shock you with their originality, the strength of his songwriting marks him out as more than an imitator.
A stalwart of the French alt-pop scene, Bertrand Burgalat has worked with some of the biggest names in French culture, never mind music; in 2000, he provided the backing tracks for Presence Humaine, a collection of recitations by the Prix Goncourt-winning writer Michel Houellebecq. This is an achievement yet to be matched by the UK’s resident pop Svengali, Pete Waterman.
There’s a lot to like about Burgalat. He has a fantastic name. He looks like a randy accountant from the 1960s – think big glasses, pressed golfing slacks and brass-buttoned blazers. And he’s capable of writing melodies that wouldn’t sound out of place in the cannon of Serge Gainsbourg.
Burgalat takes the structures and instrumentation of classic lounge pop and then messes around with them, adding snippets of electronic loops and distorted noise. The results are catchy enough to be immediately accessible, but sufficiently nuanced to stand up to repeat listening. His work is eclectic – there are film soundtracks and several collaborations – but by far the best place to start is The Sssound of Mmmusic(2000), an album that’s equal parts classic songwriting and experimental production.
Like most artists, Charlotte Gainsbourg got her break in music at the age of 13 by duetting on a song about incest with her father SergeGainsbourg, France’s finest ever exponent of pop and one of its most relentlessly provocative public figures. As Julian Lloyd Webber will testify, sharing a surname with a towering genius of your profession can be a heavy burden to bear, but Gainsbourg has gone on to release two fine albums in her own right, deftly avoiding the shadow of her father’s legacy.
In part, her strength lies in the quality of her collaborators. Released in 2006, the credits of her first album, 5:55, read like a Who’s Who of literate art-pop with music by Air, lyrical contributions from Jarvis Cocker and The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon, and production by Nigel Godrich. (While Godrich will undoubtedly wish to be remembered for his work on Natalie Imbruglia’s Left of the Middle, you will probably know him for his contribution to Radiohead’s Ok Computer). Her follow-up album, 2009’s IRM, was written and produced by Beck.
Although there are fundamental differences in these records – as you might expect, Beck’s songs on IRM are harder-edged than Air’s louche sadness – Gainsbourg’s brittle vocals hold everything together, drawing you towards the subtle melodies and textures. Admittedly, she’s Anglo-French – her mother is the English actress and singer Jane Birkin – but this is my list, and I say it’s allowed.
Another artist with a British connection, François Marry moved to Bristol in 2003 and lived there for ten years, occasionally working as a touring member of Camera Obscura. As you might expect, his own music combines some of the classic tropes of modern indie-pop – the wistfulness, the nostalgia, the deck shoes – with more sunny influences.
François splits his lyrics between French and English which is useful if, like me, you have what might charitably be described as a limited grasp of European languages. (‘Je suis un salle de bain!’) But it’s the underpinning of their rueful melodies with African rhythms that nudge François and the Atlas Mountains beyond the confines of generic indie. Most prevalent on their latest album, E Volo Love, it’s a subtle effect, but it totally transforms what would otherwise be a fairly straightforward set of melancholy pop songs.