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French Music

The Belle France guide to French Music greats

  Long Read Special

The music industry is dominated by the English language. From shopping centers in Sweden to telephone holding music in Hungary, English is the official language of popular music. Even the European Song Contest, a musical competition that supposedly showcases European variety is sung almost entirely in one language - English! 

With over 1 billion English speakers worldwide - over 20% of the world's population, perhaps it is no wonder that it has become so popular within the industry. 

In 1994 the French government introduced the 40% quota on French radio stations to protect native music from the invasion of English-language songs. Recently an amendment to the law saw that quota drop to 35%. A lack of modern French-language music means stations are struggling to fill this quota.

However, despite a growing shortage of French musicians, throughout history, France has graced the world with some very talented and successful artists. 

Find your favourite:

  1. Charles Aznavour
  2. Édith Piaf
  3. Claude Debussy
  4. Christine & the Queens
  5. Johnny Hallyday
  6. David Guetta
  7. Serge Gainsbourg
  8. Daft Punk
  9. Jean-Michel Jarre
  10. Sacha Distel

Born: 22 May 1924  |  Died: 1 October 2018  |  Years active: 1933 - 2018

Record sales: 180 million  |  Albums released: 51

Known across Europe and the world as "France's answer to Sinatra", Aznavour's uniquely throaty tenor voice lead him to success with his first French hit single Sur Ma Vie in 1956. He was approaching 50 when his success crossed the channel, The Old-Fashioned Way climbed the charts to top spot in the UK in 1973 followed by She in 1975. 

His multilingual abilities meant he was able to sing in six different languages and he went on to sell nearly 200 million records joining Édith Piaf and Maurice Chevalier as one of France's greatest singers.

Born: 19 December 1915 |  Died: 10 October 1963  |  Years active: 1939 - 1963

At the time of Piaf's death 55 years ago, she was one of the best known international stars in France and one of the first French singers to conquer America. Her melancholic music became the soundtrack to the post-war years with songs such as Non, Je ne Regrette Rien (I Regret Nothing), La Vie en Rose (Life through Rose-Tinted Glasses) and Hymne à l'amour (Hymn to Love), all of which reflected memories though her life.

To celebrate her music, Italian singer/songwriter Andrea Bocelli released a remastered version of Piaf's La Vie en Rose. Listen to it here.

Born: 22 August 1862 |  Died: 25 March 1918

Often cited as the first Impressionist composer, Debussy is one of the most influential classical composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 

His early music was influenced by Russian and Far-Eastern music which, combined with his own styles of harmony and orchestral colouring, led to some of his most sensory works. His music, however, was frowned upon at the time by other Western composers for being too "fluffy".

Impressionism in music relates to the use of colour or, in musical terms, timbre.

Born: 1 June 1988  |  Years active: 2010 - present

Record sales: 1 million (Digital Streams: 194 million) |  Albums released: 2

Although relatively new on the international music stage, Christine & the Queens has established her presence both in France and in English speaking countries including the UK, US and Australia.

She released her debut album named Chaleur Humaine in France in 2014 to mediocre success. It was re-released in the US and UK in 2015 with new songs and a translated version of the lead single 'Christine' as 'Titled' which peaked at number 2 in the UK charts. She has since released a second album in both French and English.

Born: 15 June 1943  |  Died: 5 December 2017  |  Years active: 1959 - 2017

Record sales: 110 million  |  Albums released: 79

Credited for bringing Rock & Roll to France, Hallyday is seen as a 'national monument' in France (only other to Édith Piaf) and his name and legacy is entrenched into French culture. 

His successes have mainly been confined to the French-speaking world and over his career, spanning over 50 years, he has sung over 1,000 songs, over 500 duets with nearly 200 artists, has performed at over 3,000 shows spanning over 187 tours and has had 5 diamond, 40 golden albums and 22 platinum albums, and has featured on more than 2,500 magazine covers.

Born: 7 November 1967  |  Years active: 1984 - present (international breakthrough in 2009)

Record sales: 30 million (Digital Streams: 2+ billion) |  Albums released: 7

Born in Paris, Guetta began DJing in clubs around the city when he was just 17. His international breakthrough didn't come until 2009 when he released his album One Love which featured the track When Love Takes Over ft Kelly Rowland. 

He has written and produced many tracks for other artists such as Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, Avicii, Nicki Minaj, Sia, Emeli Sandé, Justin Bieber, Bruno Mars, Ellie Goulding and Jess Glynne. He has become known as the 'Grandfather of EDM' and has become France's most successful modern musicians.

Born: 2 April 1928  |  Died: 2 March 1991  |  Years active: 1957 - 1991

Record sales: 110 million  |  Albums released: 17

Born Lucien Ginsburg, Gainsbourg is considered one of the most important figures in popular music in France. His music was very much varied, singing in styles ranging from jazz, chanson and mambo to rock, disco and new wave. 

In the late sixties, his relationship with French model and actress Brigitte Bardot spawned a series of pop duets including Bonnie & Clyde and Ford Mustang.

Alongside his singing career, he also appeared in nearly 50 films, directed four feature films, composed soundtracks for around 60 films and TV shows and wrote one novel.

Born: de Homem-Christo: 8 February 1974 & Bangalter: 3 January 1975  |  Years active: 1993 - Present

Record sales: 7 million  |  Albums released: 4

Known for their signature look, futuristic synth music and involvement in the French House music scene in the late 1990s, Daft Punk formed in 1993 when Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter were at secondary school together. 

The mysterious duo are known around the globe for their electro/disco synth beats with songs such as Around the World, Da Funk, Voyager, High Life, One More Time, Digital Love, Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger and Aerodynamic.

Their songs also had meaning behind them. The opening skit in their song Revolution 909 is a reflection of the French government's stance against the rave scene in the 90s.

Born: 24 August 1948  |  Years active: 1969 - Present

Record sales: 80 million  |  Albums released: 19

Jarre is often sited as a pioneer in electronic, ambient and new wave music, and known for his incredible live shows. From humble beginnings he went on to become one of France's most successful artists, selling upwards of 80 million records. 

His third studio album Oxygène, produced on a very low budget and made in his own home studio led to his international breakthrough.

In 2018 he released an album comemorating his 50 years in the music industry. 

Born: 29 January 1933  |  Years active: early 1950s - 2004

Probably known best for his hit single Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head which reached number one in the UK and across Europe, Distel was often seen as the epitome of the French heart-throb although he once stated he was uncomfortable with this image of himself.

Distel rubbed shoulders with Brigitte Bardot - who famously proposed to Distel, only to be rejected largely because his career would always be an appendage to hers.

Few French stars succeded in English-speaking countries the way Distel did.


Let's not forget France's other great voices:

Gilbert Becaud - contemporary and jazz artist

Brigitte Bardot - pop, mostly in collaboration with Serge Gainsbourg, Bob Zagury and Sacha Distel

Ravel - Composer of Baroque, Impressionism and Jazz music

Gabriel Fauré - Composer of Classical Romanticism 

M83 - Ambient Pop/Electronic duo

Justice - Funk, Disco and House band

Vendredi sur Mer - Indie Pop

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