Hive Five: Essential Modern French Bands

Daft Punk at the 'TRON: Legacy' premiere in Los Angeles, December 2010. Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

It’s been a pretty great week for French bands. First, M83 released their sixth studio collection, the thrilling, ambitious double album Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. Then Phoenix, perhaps the most internationally popular Gallic rock band ever, made the documentary about their 2009/10 tour (behind smash success Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix) available to stream for free on Vimeo. It just goes to show how far French bands in America have come. Though we in the U.S. love their cheese, their fashion, their wine and their language, our country has historically been less hospitable to French pop music. (Major stars in France, like Serge Gainsbourg and Johnny Hallyday, never had stateside chart hits.) A few French musicians, however, have managed to sneak into the American popular consciousness over the past 15 years, profoundly shaping modern music. Here’s the five essential French artists for any music collection.

1. Daft Punk

We don’t call the duo’s brand of neon-lit house “the French Touch” for nothing. Daft Punk — the electro collaboration between Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter — created what might be the most influential dancefloor sound of the last 20 years. Always performing with their faces hidden by masks or robot heads, the Parisian twosome did something few thought possible in the ’90s: they made European dance music accessible for American audiences. Their influence can be heard everywhere these days, from film scores (they composed the score for Tron: Legacy) to mainstream hip-hop, whose current Euro-club sound can be traced back to Kanye West’s Daft Punk sample on “Stronger.”

Start with: Homework (1997)

2. Air

If American popular music could be summed up by one iconic instrument, it would be the electric guitar. But for the French, it would be synthesizers. Nowhere is that more true than in the Moog-, Korg- and Wurlitzer-infused songs of Air. The duo, who is best known in the States perhaps for crafting the soundtrack to Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, may get lumped in under the broad category of French electronica because of their love of those sorts of synthesized textures, but they are moodier, more retro-influenced and warmer-sounding than other electro artists from their homeland. We haven’t heard much from the group since 2009’s Love 2, and can we just say vous nous manquez? (That’s “we miss you,” for the non-Francophones.)

Start with: Moon Safari (1998)

3. Justice

Though we’ve waited  a long time for a follow-up to 2007’s brilliant, buzzy , which featured the best song of that year (the day-glo, synth-led Michael Jackson homage “D.A.N.C.E.”), we are now thankfully less than a week away from the release of Audio, Video, Disco, Justice’s sophomore album. The new collection is subtler than their winking, wicked debut — which was suffused with the hiss and crackle of blown-out speakers and thumping, distorted basslines — and dabbles in prog-rock and Italo disco flourishes. But as they record for a label (Ed Banger) that takes its name from the French-accented pronunciation of the word “headbanger,” we presume they haven’t mellowed too much.

Start with: (2007)

4. Charlotte Gainsbourg

Like her mother, Jane Birkin, Charlotte Gainsbourg is an actress (The Science of Sleep, the Dylan biopic I’m Not There, work with provocateur Lars von Trier). But like her father, French national treasure Serge Gainsbourg (with whom she recorded the controversial track “Lemon Incest” when she was only 15), she’s a unique musical talent. Her last two albums, 2006’s 5:55 and 2009’s IRM, were especially well-received stateside thanks, not only to the sultry, interestingly orchestrated pop contained within them, but also due to her high profile collaborators. (Beck, for example, produced her last record, and her sophomore effort featured contributions from Air and Jarvis Cocker.) How many starlet-singers in this country can do both movies and music so well? (We’re looking at you, Zooey Deschanel.)

Start with: IRM (2009)

5. Yelle

Yelle is, confusingly, both the name of a band and a person. Though if you’ve ever seen the band live, the word “Yelle” will conjure images of the energetic, statuesque frontwoman (nee Juliet Budet) more than those of the electro-pop trio she fronts. That’s because Yelle (the woman) is Yelle the band. Without the gamine’s theatrical costumes, delicate voice and stadium-sized stage persona, they would just be a couple of guys churning out fractured tribal beats and candy-coated synth riffs. The lone group on this list to sing exclusively in their native tongue, this French threesome transcends language barriers because even when we can’t understand its singer, we can’t take our eyes off her. She’s just got a certain je ne sais quoi.

Start with: Pop Up (2007)

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