10 Essential Paris albums

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Phoenix FYF 2014

Welcome back to the Treble World Tour, a series of Top 10s covering albums that best represent certain locations—cities, states, territories, even entire nations. We consider representative releases on three levels: they were made by artists from a place, they contain music about or inspired by the place, and/or they were made in that place. This week, we’re jetting off to the City of Lights: Paris, France. Paris has been a muse for songwriters since, well, pretty much always. It’s romantic and exotic, it’s chic and sophisticated, it’s sensual and luxurious—it’s also been home to some of the most innovative music of the 20th and 21st Centuries, from chanson to yé-yé, and from house music to coldwave. That Paris has been such an influential city on music almost led us to include some music that wasn’t recorded in Paris or by Parisians (including John Cale’s Paris 1919), but for the purposes of this list, we decided to keep it local. So join your fellow Francophiles as we explore 10 Essential Paris Albums.

Francoise Hardy Paris albumsFrancoise HardyFrancoise Hardy
(1962; Vogue)

One of the greatest contributions that Paris has made to popular music is the yé-yé movement of the ’60s. Literally translating to “yeah, yeah,” it was the Francophone equivalent to the beat music happening around the same time in England, sung primarily by female vocalists such as France Gall, Sylvie Vartain or Brigitte Bardot. Francoise Hardy came to have the most enduring legacy of the yé-yé bunch, thanks to a lengthy discography that spans five decades (the most recent being 2012’s L’amour fou), and a debut album that’s as cool as it gets. The songs on the album (informally known as Tous les Garcons et les Filles because of its hit first track) are simple, and really not that far removed from Johnny Cash once you get past Hardy’s sweetly intriguing deadpan. Though why would you want to? With her coat, umbrella and hair blowing around her mysterious expression, Francoise Hardy is literally the picture of Paris cool in the ’60s. – JT

Paris albums Dexter GordonDexter GordonOur Man In Paris
(1963; Blue Note)

Jazz is having a moment in America right now, though history has been made more than a few times when American jazz musicians made the trek over to the other side of the Atlantic. California-born saxophonist Dexter Gordon spent a 14-year tenure in Europe, starting in the early ’60s, when the offers to perform and record proved more lucrative than those in New York, where he had previously spent a few years. This period of activity also produced some of his best work, including 1963’s Our Man in Paris, the title of which can be taken quite literally. He was an American, recording in Paris, and the sessions captured here showcase Gordon at his finest, his performance on standard “A Night in Tunisia” being one of the best recordings in his career. That it’s an American playing does make it an unusual translation, but it’s a Paris jazz album for the ages. – JT

Joe Dassin Paris albumsJoe DassinJoe Dassin (Les Champs-Èlysées)
(1969; CBS)

Where Serge Gainsbourg was Paris to the core and would export his work in many different styles, Joe Dassin was imported from Brooklyn, New York and focused on bright French pop. This third album was his commercial breakthrough on the strength of the title track—a Continental reworking of the Jason Crest tune “Waterloo Road”—that would pop up years later on the soundtrack to The Darjeeling Limited and as a drinking song in Russian nightclubs. Some compositions nod to his Jewish heritage via the onomatopoeia (“Siffler sur la colline”) and orchestration (“Le Chemin de papa”) of klezmer and Yiddish theater. We also hear hints of the early rustic arrangements of The Kinks (“La Bande à Bonnot”), Brill Building songsmithing (“Sunday Times”), even the Parisian jazz legacy (“La Violette africaine”). Sure, your modern sensibilities might detect kitsch on the surface of this LP, but trust us when we say this is no mere novelty. – AB

Brigitte Fontaine Paris albumsBrigitte FontaineComme a la Radio
(1970; Saravah)

Born in Morlaix, but having spent much of her career based in Paris, French art-pop singer Brigitte Fontaine has done it all. That’s not all that far from the truth, really; her collaborators throughout her 50-plus-year career are both numerous and wildly diverse, including the likes of Stereolab, Sonic Youth, Grace Jones, Archie Shepp and Jean Claude Vannier, who famously arranged many of Serge Gainsbourg’s most celebrated works. Her most breathtaking work, however, finds her working with a jazz collective from the United States—The Art Ensemble of Chicago (who the same year had released another French-recorded album, Les Stances a Sophie). The marriage of Fontaine’s subtle, ethereal vocal style against Art Ensemble’s avant garde pop (filtered through a jazz lens) is simultaneously foreign and fascinating, beautiful and distant. It doesn’t take long to warm up to the percussive thrum of “Leo,” the baroque immediacy of “Tanka I,” or the sprawling noir of the title track. Comme a la Radio is pop unbound, roaming free with inspiration, its backdrop the Paris seen by so many as an artistic ideal. – JT

Paris albums Melody NelsonSerge GainsbourgHistoire de Melody Nelson
(1971; Philips)

In just under 28 brisk and breathless minutes, French music’s most notorious broker of the carnal and terminal produced a tight, fiendishly contemporary work about obsession, chance, youth and consumption. Histoire de Melody Nelson is a brilliant shot of rock storytelling, even as its subject matter proves more troubling than might have been the case during the sexual revolution. Gainsbourg meets the fated, 15-year-old title character after he bangs into her bicycle with his Rolls. He transforms into a marginally more philosophical version of Humbert Humbert. The characterizations are unsettling but well-drawn—Gainsbourg’s wearied narration fights to find something more in the situation than salacity, but Jane Birkin’s portrayal of Melody is barely given any more than a girly whisper. It’s a one-sided story where old money tries to bottle up youth. When she finally escapes to return home to her childhood wanderings in the cargo hold of a 707, the ending’s unfortunately poetic. Musically the album’s stunning: a super-tight branch-off from boozy psychedelia as reimagined by better musicians, with crisp and impudent orchestral lines and a mad, psychologically triumphant turn from whoever the lead guitarist was in the right channel. (It’s probably Vic Flick, the British session player who originated the James Bond theme.) Gainsbourg is his usual, semi-detached, growling spoken-word self: quite aware of the moral and eternal repercussions of his train of thought, and never once thinking to stop it. – PP

Paris albums Ruth Polaroid Roman PhotoRuthPolaroid/Roman/Photo
(1985; Paris Album)

As genres go, the influence of coldwave ranks significantly lower than a lot of styles that rose up from Paris clubs and studios, though it’s arguably one of the coolest. Native primarily to France and Poland, coldwave was synth-pop’s weirder, artier, and more distant cousin, bound by underground musicians connected by electronic music mailing lists—like, actual things printed on paper that came in your mailbox. Paris’ Ruth wasn’t the most famous (though few of them really were, KaS Product being maybe the closest thing to having any name recognition), but they certainly took the most avant garde approach on Polaroid/Roman/Photo, blending synth pop with camera sound effects and a stunning horn section on the title track, or writing their own suspenseful film score on “Thriller.” And their cover of Can’s “She Brings the Rain” takes an already cool, weird song and makes it about five times more terrifying. You won’t find coldwave under Paris’ most prominent exports on Wikipedia, but if an enterprising user decided to add it, there’s adequate justification to keep it there. – JT

Paris albums Django ReinhardtDjango ReinhardtPeche a la Mouche
(1991; Verve)

Django Reinhardt, the pioneering “gypsy jazz” guitarist of the 1930s and ’40s, recorded and performed in an era before studio albums were the norm, and as such, makes pinning down a definitive recording, let alone a definitive Paris recording, all the more complicated. Belgian by birth, Reinhardt made his name in Paris with the Hot Club de France, a group of musicians that prominently featured himself and violinist Stephane Grapelli. Some of his Hot Club recordings can be heard in Peche a la Mouche, a compilation spanning his late-career recordings in France between 1947 and 1953, but much of the best work puts Reinhardt up front, with just a simple rhythm section to back him. It’s a uniquely European style of jazz, one deeply informed by his gypsy roots, and though many have called him an influence, few have recorded anything quite like Django’s music. To hear Reinhardt play guitar is to hear one of the most dazzling musicians of any era make magic from simple means. – JT

Paris albums Daft PunkDaft PunkHomework
(1997; Virgin)

For those about the whack the hell out of your low-pass filters, we salute you. Daft Punk’s debut album, as the title implies, was produced in their own Paris abodes, with little more ambition at first than to crank out the singles they were gradually getting more attention for. Eventually they had enough to throw out an album. Homework is almost a refutation of the explosive franticness of Fatboy Slim and others at the time. Stripping back to core electronics and a nerdish command of signal processors, Daft Punk built songs from leftover samples and beats of ‘70s disco and laced their long, patient songs with intently brewed electronics. The lack of clutter is admirable: The space between in pieces like “Around the World,” “Rollin’ & Scratchin’” and “High Fidelity” doesn’t reveal the seams, and gives the album the developmental breath it needs. It also broke the songs into clean pieces ripe for the million remixes they all went through. Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter’s passion for the purity of the sine wave also came through in the gleefully rubbery lines of “Rock’n Roll.” Hiding behind full-frame space suits may be their M.O., but Homework is more celebratory about the human contribution to mechanics, rather than the other way around. Those faders aren’t gonna move themselves, you know. (Well, maybe they do now, but they didn’t then.) – PP

Paris albums Mr. OizoMr. OizoLambs Anger
(2008; Ed Banger)

Pedro “Busy P” Winter didn’t think he was busy enough managing Daft Punk and some other French electronica acts, so in 2003 he opened the Ed Banger label to release music from these artists who would come to define so-called “blog house.” The first big LP to come from his stable was of course by Justice, but the next one was arguably erstwhile film director Quentin Dupieux’s third album. As Mr. Oizo, Dupieux had quietly helped to establish the New French Touch, his 1999 European cult hit “Flat Beat” making a star out of a yellow puppet and launching a million mashups. On Lambs Anger he created a smorgasbord of aggressively filtered acid (“Positif”), relentless funk loops (“Cut Dick”), and dirty-hot vocal nonsense (“Two Takes It,” “Steroids”). Some songs enter or leave mid-measure (“Blind Concerto”), others go in three or more distinct directions (“Gay Dentists,” “Bruce Willis is Dead”). Yet every track on here is relatively short, so despite its wide and wild range Lambs Anger has a mixtape feel that suggests compressing the entire label—if not an entire scene—into 44 minutes. – AB

Paris albums PhoenixPhoenixWolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
(2009; Glassnote)

So much about Phoenix’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix has absolutely nothing to do with Paris. It’s named after Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, features a song that references Hungarian composer Franz Liszt and another song titled “Rome,” and made a pretty huge breakthrough for the French group in the United States. But there’s no bigger rock band from contemporary Paris—at least as far as this side of the Atlantic is concerned—than Phoenix, who finally blanketed alternative radio with a series of singles from this album after a decade of consistently good and consistently underrated records. Recorded in Paris’ Motorbass Studio, it’s a product of its environment in a literal sense, but it speaks to an audience much broader than that of its immediate surroundings. It’s one of the great rock records of the 21st Century, and the rest of the world outside of Paris figured that out just in time. – JT

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  • Homework and Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix are more Versailles albums than Paris albums but close enough… plus they are great albums so…

    The one big omission is something from NTM, one of the 2 biggest French rap bands. Hip-hop is still big in France in “ghettos” but it used to be huge everywhere, mostly thanks to one band from Marseille, IAM, and one from Paris suburbs, NTM. You can argue which album between “Paris Sous Les Bombes” and “Suprême NTM” is the real masterpiece, but the list feels incomplete without them.

    I’d have done without Joe Dassin though, for me he still is one of the worst things to happen to French music.
    Half-Parisian haft French surf coast, Psycho Tropical Berlin by La Femme would have been a great pick, probably the best French rock album of, at least, the past 10 years, it reflects perfectly the current trends and moods in Paris.

    Would have also been great to see one of those great alt-rock bands of the late 80s early 90s, like Les Négresses Vertes, Mano Negra or Pigalle, who not only talked a lot about Paris but also showcased how Paris culture and people is a mix of nationalities from all around the world. Plus Mano Negra’s Ronde de Nuit is one of the best songs about Paris.

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