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10 Iconic French Songs

Classic Chansons from the Golden Age of French Pop Music: 1930-1970

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My fantasy life, most of which sees me riding through the streets of Paris on a bicyclette, is soundtracked by gorgeous vintage French pop songs. From the torch singers of the 1930s music halls to the preternaturally chic Yé-Yé girls of the 1960s, and all the flirtatious gentlemen who came between, there's really nothing quite like it. Need a little bit in your life? Start with these ten songs, beloved classics of the genre.

"Parlez-Moi d'Amour" - Lucienne Boyer (1930)

(c) Ça C'est Paris

This little gem, written by Jean Lenoir and performed by Lucienne Boyer (among dozens of others, both in French and in translation) has an lilting, dreamlike melody that is often heard in French music boxes. The title translates to "Speak to Me of Love" and the lyrics tell of the sweet nothings that lovers whisper in each others' ears, and how these words can melt the troubles of the world away, even if they're not entirely genuine.

Where you've heard it: the film soundtracks of Casablanca, The Impostors, and Midnight in Paris.

"J'Attendrai" - Rina Ketty (1938)

Rina Ketty - 'J'Attendrai'
(c) Black Round Records

"J'attendrai," which means "I Will Wait for You," was actually initially written in Italian by Dino Olivieri and Nino Rastelli and called "Tornerai." The melody is inspired by the Humming Chorus from Puccini's great opera Madama Butterfly. The lyrics speak of awaiting the return of a lover who has gone far away to an unnamed place, and it became something of an anthem for young couples during WWII.

Where you've heard it: the film soundtracks of Das Boot and The Arch of Triumph.

"La Java Bleue" - Fréhel (1939)

Frehel - 'La Java Bleue'
(c) Ça C'est Paris
Fréhel was one of the grandes dames of the bal musette, the accordion-fueled ancestor of the modern discothèque, and this song, written by Vincent Scotto, is one of the most popular ever to come out of that era. Both lyrically and musically, it glorifies the sultry and scandalous dance called the java, a variant on the waltz that found the couple dancing dangerously close together, often while the male partner had both hands on the female partner's derrière.

Where you've heard it: the film soundtracks of Sarah's Key and Charlotte Gray.

"La Vie en Rose" - Edith Piaf (1946)

Edith Piaf - 'The Voice of The Sparrow: The Very Best of Edith Piaf'
(c) Capitol Records

No one has made such a singular impact on the history of French popular music as the golden-voiced Edith Piaf. Of all the wonderful songs in her repertoire, though, "La Vie en Rose" ("Life Through Rose-Colored Glasses") is surely the most beloved and best-remembered, all around the world. Piaf wrote the lyrics herself, and the melody was written by Louis Guglielmi.

Where you've heard it: soundtracks to dozens of films and television shows (particluarly those that are set in France) including Sabrina (both the classic and the remake) and French Kiss, as well as Something's Gotta Give, Bull Durham, WALL-E, The Bucket List, and so many more. It's also the title track for the Oscar-winning 2007 Edith Piaf Biopic, La Vie en Rose.

"La Mer" - Charles Trenet (1946)

Charles Trenet - 'La Mer'
(c) Master Classics Records

Legend has it that singer, composer, and lyricist Charles Trenet wrote "La Mer" in just ten minutes, scribbling the lyrics on sheets of toilet paper as he rode on a train. Whether or not it's true, it's certainly fitting: the song is sweet and whimsical and effortlessly timeless. It's been recorded in a number of languages, including Bobby Darin's "Somewhere Beyond the Sea," which carries the nautical theme ("La Mer" simply means "The Sea") but is not a direct translation.

Where you've heard it: the movie soundtracks of Finding Nemo, Saving Private Ryan, L.A. Story, and many others. "La Mer" also provided a crucial plot point in the first season of the television series Lost.

"C'est Si Bon" - Yves Montand (1949)

Yves Montand - 'C'est Si Bon'
(c) ZYX Music

This lighthearted song has been covered by artists around the world (including Eartha Kitt and Louis Armstrong), but the classic French version by Yves Montand, whose decades-long career began when Edith Piaf took him as a protégé and lover, is la crème de la crème. The gentle lyrics talk about the popular theme of falling in love, and the little dreams that new lovers share about their potential lives together.

Where you've heard it: Yves Montand's version was less popular in the English-speaking world than some covers, but it was a major hit in France, and has been featured on the soundtracks of many French films and television shows, as well as television commercials.

"Tous Les Garçons et Les Filles" - Françoise Hardy (1962)

Francoise Hardy
(c) John Pratt / Getty Images

"Tous Les Garçons et Les Filles" ("All the boys and girls") was the first major hit song for the impossibly chic French megastar Françoise Hardy, and after it became a multi-platinum single in France, she went on to record it in several other languages. The lyrics are wistful, with the young narrator talking about how all of the other young people are falling in love and coupling up, and hoping she'll meet her true love soon. Hardy wrote the song herself.

Where you've heard it: the film soundtracks of Moonrise Kingdom, Metroland, The Statement, The Dreamers, and many others, as well as several television shows.

"La Bohème" - Charles Aznavour (1966)

Charles Aznavour - "La Boheme"
(c) EMI Holland

Charles Aznavour is one of the world's best-selling artists, with over 100 million records sold, and a Renaissance man who has appeared in over 60 films, serves as an ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, is a tireless advocate for his ancestral homeland (Armenia), and is an active participant in European politics. "La Bohème" is a story of a young lovers (aren't they all?), an artist and his beloved Bohemian girlfriend, as seen from the artist's eyes a few decades later.

Where you've heard it: mostly in French films, such as L'Anniversaire, Le Coût de La Vie, L'Age des Possibles, and others.

"Je T'Aime… Moi Non Plus" - Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin (1969)

Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin - "Je T'Aime... Moi Non Plus"
(c) Verve Forecast Records

"Je T'Aime... Moi Non Plus" ("I love you... me neither") is one of the most famous and scandalous duets ever produced. The slightly absurd lyrics are written as a conversation between two lovers who are in, shall we say, a heated moment. And indeed, the rumor persists that when fashion icon Jane Birkin and legendary lothario Serge Gainsbourg were, indeed, engaging in something risqué while they recorded the track (the same rumor persists with an earlier recording of Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot performing the same song, though Gainsbourg always denied it in both instances, insisting that he'd need a long-playing record for that to be the truth).

Where you've heard it: in a huge variety of films and TV shows, from The Full Monty to Daltry Calhoun to Sicko, among others.

"Les Champs Elysées" - Joe Dassin (1970)

Joe Dassin - "Les Champs-Elysees"
(c) Columbia Records

Joe Dassin, the writer and performer of this classic song about young lovers (bien sûr) who fall in love in Paris (while strolling on the famous avenue that the title indicates, nonetheless) was actually an American, though his parents were French and most of his career success was in French popular music. Also known as "Aux Champs-Elysées," this song is overwhelmingly catchy and has an irresistible vintage '70s feel.

Where you've heard it: the film soundtrack for The Darjeeling Limited, as well as several TV shows.

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