Whether you are learning French or not, you cannot understand France without hearing its music. We all know the famous French singers and musicians such as Edith Piaf, David Guetta, and Daft Punk, but to really get into the culture, it can be necessary to go beyond that.
That being said, if I thought narrowing down the best famous French songs was difficult, it is even harder to narrow down to the French musicians that are easy to listen with enough variety, musicality, and popular acclaim.
So to put together this guide, I’ve started with the classic incontournables along with newer singers, musicians, and bands who has been rockin’ it for the past few years. Allons-y!
1. Serge Gainsbourg
Legendary French musician Serge Gainsbourg may not be well known outside France, but he is the French version of Mick Jagger, David Bowie, and Sting combined.
With provocative lyrics, Gainsbourg’s songs still push the envelope today, years after his death. His personal and musical partnership with British actress Jane Birkin (of Birkin bag fame) made them the IT couple of their time.
2. Vanessa Paradis
Vanessa Paradis may be Johnny Depp’s ex, but she has been a big star in France in her own right for decades. Her 1991 French hit “Joe le taxi” propelled her to international fame at the age of 14, and she has been a staple on the French charts ever since.
With a chevalier de legion d’honneur in hand from the Government of France, a full-fledged acting career, and her latest album hitting the top of the charts, Paradis is not going anywhere. Here is her song about Paris’s river Seine from her latest French album.
3. Johnny Halladay
Johnny Halladay may sound like the quintessential American rock-n-roller, except for the fact that his songs are in French. Over 55+ years, he released 79 French albums and sold over 110 million records. A French superstar indeed.
Hallyday was married five times (including twice to the same woman), regularly appearing in the tabloids and the press. He died in 2017 at the age of 74.
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4. Maître Gims
Maître Gims, which translates to “Master Gims”, is the French musician of the moment.
The Congolese singer, rapper, and composer may sing in his native French but he is so popular he has transcended the barriers of language to collaborate Sia, Pitbull, and Lil Wayne among others. Here is his duet Reste (“stay”) with Sting.
5. Noir Désir
The French rock band from Bordeaux has been active since the 1980s, and remains one of the biggest draws in France.
Their iconic hit remains “Le vent nous portera” which is a softer ballad than some of their other hits. It is a very moving song about two characters that are inseparable (that the wind will carry off together).
Another emblematic French rock band, the band members of Indochine are almost as famous for having a turbulent relationship with each other and the press.
That hasn’t stopped them from pumping out the hits, and the band is still much in touch with its fans today.
One of the standard-bearers for French rock, their biggest hit remains L’aventurier where Indochine pays tribute to the book series Bob Morane.
Naming several popular characters, the song sings the praises of this fictional character who is an RAF fighter during WWII, with a black belt in karate and an amazing ability to get out of sticky situations. The French version of James Bond, if you will.
Another very popular hit is “La vie est belle”, which traces the life of a man from his birth until his death. After a difficult childhood, the adulthood is “beautiful and cruel at the same time” according to the lyrics of the song.
Stromae is Belgian, not French, but we are not one to discriminate. A singer, rapper, and songwriter, his French hits are impossible to put into a particular category. The repetitive refrains of the minimalist Alors en dance were a club massive hit, and he could have stayed in that genre.
Following up with the doleful Papaoutai, he showed how much deeper his range was, with a mournful cry for the father he lost during the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
French singer and rapper Soprano is reputed to be the only singer after Johnny Halladay who could fill the famous Stade Velodrome in Marseille.
He was a part of the rap group Psy 4 de la Rime, and after leaving the group, went on to make his first solo album he recorded his solo debut Puisqu’il Faut Vivre.
With various musical influences, his distinctive voice is very easy to listen to. One of his more recent hits is “Ninja”.
9. Coeur de Pirate
Gaining worldwide recognition with her first album Comme des enfants at the age of 18, Béatrice Martin aka Coeur de Pirate could easily have been labeled a teen pop sensation.
Throwing off the stereotypes with creative and softly sung ballades, this French-Canadian singer and pianist is still only in her 30s, despite being in the music industry for over 15 years.
10. Christina & the Queens
Christina and the Queens is not a band, but a French female pop singer whose real name is Héloïse Letissier.
Hailing from Nantes, this talented writer-performer sings in French, English, and even a bit of Italian at times.
In 2016, Christine was ranked number 1 in Vanity Fair’s list of most powerful and influential French people who “promote French genius”. The next year, Forbes placed her on its list of 30 most influential and talented people under 30, and Time included her on its list of next generation leaders twice – in 2016 and 2018.
Here is one of her top hits, “la marcheuse“, meaning “the walker”.
11. Julien Doré
Julien Doré’s breakthrough came as the winner of Nouvelle Star (the French version of American Idol) that he auditioned for on a lark, to get exposure for his band.
After winning, a duet with Coeur de Pirate in Pour un infidéle hit the top of the pop charts and he has remained one of the top interesting French musicians ever since.
12. Big Flo et Oli
The French rapper duo Big Flo and Oli are two brothers from Toulouse, Florian and Olivio. Their father is Argentian and their mother French, a mix of influences that is quite apparent in their music.
Their debut album La Cour des grands was released in 2015 and received a gold record award less than four months after being released, and then went platinum, making them the youngest French rappers to receive this award.
Isabelle Geffroy, better known by the stage name Zaz, became famous for her breakhout hit “Je veux“, from her first album released in 2010. The passionate song about not letting money buy love went double platinum.
Another famous song is her interpretation of Maurice Chevalier’s Paris sera toujours Paris meaning “Paris will always be Paris”. Her jazzy pop style makes for easy listening when you just want a little pick me up (and even if you don’t!).
14. Black M
Hip hop artist Black M is of Guinean origin and grew up in Paris’s 13th arrondissement.
He used to be part of the legendary French rap group Sexion d’assaut, along with other famous rappers and singers like Maître Gims and Soprano who also belonged at various points in time.
15. Patrick Bruel
French singer-songwriter, male hearthrob, actor (and professional poker player) has a prolific portfolio of hits whether it be on top of the charts, at the movie box office or on TV. Resembling a French George Clooney, here is a guy who can do everything. And he can sing to boot.
Monique Andrée Serf, better known by her stage name Barbara, doesn’t need a last name. Born in Paris to a Jewish family, Monique was 10 when she had to go into hiding during the German occupation of France in World War II.
Years later, she changed her name and entered the music scene, and the rest is music history. Her music influenced a new style (along with Jaques Brel) called the Nouvelle Chanson, a soft pop style with the lyrics front and center.
17. Clara Luciani
Clara Luciani, from a Corsican family, is another French singer with a wide fan base. In 2011, she met the band La Femme, where she sang two songs on the album Psycho Tropical Berlin, released in 2013.
Now on her own and still only in her 20s, her pop single La Grenade has been played over 45 million times on Youtube. An up and comer to watch.
18. Thérapie TAXI
One way to describe Thérapie TAXI’s music is eclectic. With a mix of pop, hip hop, and rock, their French songs have an easy musicality that is a must for any playlist. This up and coming band has been active since 2017, with their biggest hit to date being Hit Sale.
With two lead singers Adélaïde Chabannes de Balsac and Raphaël Faget-Zaoui, and 3 talented musicians accompanying them (Renaud Bizart, Vincent Duteuil, Ilan Rabaté), this French band has a flexibility of range that is easy to get into.
19. Amel Bent
Amel Bent hit stardom after winning Nouvelle Star 2, France’s version of American Idol. Her breakout hit was “Ma philosophies”, and she’s come a long way since then.
In the song, the singer raises her fist and aims for the moon in this empowering personal anthem.
20. Manu Chao
French-Spanish singer Manu Chao was born in Paris, but sings in French, Spanish, English, Italian, Arabic, Catalan, Galician, Portuguese, Greek, and occasionally in other languages.
A very multi-talented (and multi-lingual) singer with a mix of musical styles, it is hard to pigeon hole this French music artist.
21. Jacques Brel
If there is one French singer who always tops the charts of most beloved French songs, it is Jacques Brel. With his passionate reciting of lyrics, he fills you with emotion as he sings. His songs are quite theatrical, which makes sense when you realize that he was a gifted actor as well, appearing in several films.
Many a musician, from David Bowie to Frank Sinatra have said they have been influenced by him. He may have passed away at the age of 49 in 1978, but his musical legacy lives on.
So who are you listening to at the moment? Any favorite French musicians that I’ve missed? If you enjoyed that article, you may want to listen to some of most famous French songs of all time. A bientôt!
¹ Featured Image: Sarah Pflug