I have seen plenty of articles claiming you can learn French by listening to French music, and although I’m not going to disprove that, I would like to improve the lists they usually provide, since it’s sometimes songs that would get you sneered at for listening to them. If you’re learning French, my goal is to make sure you don’t end up being severely disconnected from the current trends. You don’t want to look silly like that dude who can only come up with one or two cliché French singers “Oh yeah I love Edith Piaf”. Jesus. Sure, yeah. That’s great. But come on, do you really expect people to still be raving about her when there are plenty of cool modern alternatives? (picture me saying that with a baseball cap put on backwards). If you’re well-meaning but a bit lost, don’t worry, I’ll help you out. I have concocted a list of somewhat obscure (not all of them !) indie bands, just so you can mingle with the madding French crowd and slightly stand out at the same time. Quite a difficult balance to strike if you’re left to your own devices in a foreign language. If you’ve ever wondered whether your French music taste was on a par with that of the fanciest scarf-wearing aesthetes, fret no longer, for I hereby swear to do my utmost to quench your unbridled thirst for such an answer. Well, kind of.
I’ll try to keep it short. I don’t have that much to say about each band anyway. So without further ado: I recommend you start with the song Les Contemplations. I’d say their music style is geared towards the post-rock scene, but I am awful at categorizing music genres, partly because I think it’s sometimes a terribly human and futile exercise stemming from our unrivaled need for neat little categories, especially once you stray from the big archetypal genres and delve into complex nuances, which equates to dissecting a rainbow: just take it all in. Jeez, I sound like such a millennial. Anyway, this song weaves together ethereal voices singing lines from the melancholic poem by Victor Hugo and a repetitive, visceral beat.
Liz & Laszlo
A band with a rather similar electro vibe, plus a definite influence from the cold wave. I think Rien à Paris may be the most popular one and coincidentally the one I’ve listened the most to. Again, the lyrics do not feature that wide a range of words, meaning, it’s mostly the same sentence punctuated by synth beats. I hear that’s inherent to the genre. You rarely find electro songs with long, flowery lyrics, since it would be inconsistent with the aesthetic and stance they are going for. It is not unlike Pop Art, in a way. Pop Art isn’t striving for a romantic, schmaltzy painting or an awe-inspiring rendering of the sublime. It’s the repetition of the mundanely famous in a sometimes ironic and accentuated way. This band is more low-key though. It’s like the estranged friend of Pop Art who’s been living in a matchbox apartment working a 9-5 job. It doesn’t have those blown-up portraits of larger-than-life celebrities, it’s bleak and gloomy. It’s those blank moments when you feel nothing and you’re just staring at your reflection. Bauhaus isn’t typically considered as pertaining to the cold wave movement, but their song “All we ever wanted was everything, all we ever got was cold” sums it up for me.
Véronique Vincent & Aksak Maboul
I don’t know much about this collaboration, neither do I really know the artists involved, but they definitely fit in the category of indie. Je pleure tout le temps, despite his comically depressing title (it translates as “I cry all the time” or “I’m always crying”) has jovial undertones, not lyrically, but musically. To put it bluntly: If you didn’t understand the lyrics you’d think it was about lollipops or a carousel. It has a playful feel reminiscent of 70s cartoons, or even Jean-Jacques Perrey’s music. Maybe that’s just me. Also, I just found out there is another (more popular) version of the song, this time more melodically congruent with the lyrics.
Air & Françoise Hardy – Jeanne
This is just a single song. I mean, both Françoise Hardy (not indie at all) and Air (somewhat indie, I’m using the term really loosely anyway) are French, so you can check them out individually if you feel like it. But Air doesn’t usually do songs in French, this one being the exception. It’s a beautiful, poignant and mellifluous song you’ll want to enjoy naked, draped in a fluffy cloud on a rainy day.
We Are Wolves – Magique
Another song on its own, although the band might have done a few more in French. I’d describe this song as esoteric, lighthearted and exuberant. Oh, and they’re Quebecois !
Hardly an indie artist, but in case you still didn’t know about Christine and the Queens, you should check some of her songs out. She sometimes sings in English so if you want to brush up on your French skills I’d recommend Nuit 17 à 57 or Chaleur Humaine.