100 ESSENTIAL FRENCH SONGS YOU MUST HEAR Part 1: The 1930s, 40s & 50s

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We all  love music. Music can touch our deep feelings, it can make us cry or smile, it empowers us… A melody can also transport us: by just listening to it, we can be right away elsewhere, or find ourselves in another time! Moreover, music helps us deepen into a country’s culture (so does cinema, or gastronomy). So, today I propose you to time travel to France!

Whether you need to practise your French, you want to (try to) understand French people’s personnalité, or you just love French music -like I do-, check out these 100 beautiful songs that are really representative of France’s rich culture and history. The list is divided by the year the songs were released:

Amusez-vous bien!  (Enjoy it!)

1) Lucienne Boyer  “Parlez-moi d’amour” (1930)

This beautiful song (means “Tell Me About Love”) gained wide recognition after featuring in the film Casablanca; you may have also heard it in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. It was also recorded by other French singers, maybe the best known is the cover by Dalida.


2) Josephine Baker – “J’ai deux amours” (1931)

Although American-born, Josephine Baker became best known in France. This was her fétiche song, which contained the famous lines: “I have two loves, my country and Paris”.


3) Fréhel – “Si tu n’étais pas là” (1934)

Parisian singer Fréhel, one of the most famous singers of the 30s -also known for her tormented personal life- sings this beautiful song, which was featured in the soundtrack of the film Amélie.


4) Maurice Chevalier – “Paris sera toujours Paris” (1939)

French actor, cabaret singer and entertainer, Maurice Chevalier was also a Hollywood star. This oh-so-Parisian song (means “Paris will always be Paris”) was recently recorded by Zaz.


5) Tino Rossi – “J’attendrai” (1939)

“I will wait” became the big French song during World War II (is actually a French version of the Italian song “Tornerai“). It has been covered many times -the most popular was  Dalida’s– and has featured in several films.


6) Léo Marjane – “Seule ce soir” (1941)

Marjane’s song (she’s now 104 years-old!) would become one of the best-loved songs of its time, as it captured the feelings of the many people who were experiencing wartime separation (the title means “Alone Tonight”).


7) Charles Trenet – “La mer” (1946)

Right after its release, “La mer” became a massive hit, and has remained a chanson classic ever since. It has been recorded in many languages (“Beyond the sea” in English) and featured in numerous films.


8) Édith Piaf – “La vie en rose” (1947)

This was Édith Piaf signature song. It has been covered by several artists over the years, including a 1950 version by Louis Armstrong; a cover version in 1977 by Grace Jones was also an international hit.


9) Yves Montand – “Les feuilles mortes” (1949)

“Autumn Leaves”, with lyrics by the great French poet Jacques Prévert, was initially made famous by Yves Montand, but it has been covered many times over the years, being the most famous those by Nat King Cole, Miles Davis and Eric Clapton.


10) Jean Bretonnière – “Sous le ciel de Paris” (1951)

The song “Under the sky of Paris” was composed for the namesake film. Since its release, it has been covered incessantly. Notable versions are those of Edith Piaf, Yves Montand, Michel Legrand, and lately Zaz.


11) Juliette Gréco – “Je suis comme je suis” (1951)

French actress and popular chanson singer, devotee of the bohemian fashion of post-war France’s intellectuals, Gréco sings “I am what I am”, a poem by Jacques Prévert, which talks about women, seduction and the need to accept ourselves as we are.


12) Yves Montand – “À Paris” (1953)

Singer and actor, Montand has starred in numerous American films. His recognizably songs, especially those about Paris, became instant all-time classics (C’est si bon is another great song).  Zaz has lately covered the song in her album about Paris.


13) Gloria Lasso – “Étrangère au Paradis” (1955)

This is the French version of “Stranger in Paradise”, a popular song from the musical Kismet.


14) Jacques Brel – “Ne me quitte pas” (1959)

The title means “Don’t leave me”. It is a beautiful, melancholic song by Belgian singer-songwriter Jacques Brel. It has been covered by many French  and foreign artists (I love the one by Yuri Buenaventura!); it has also been translated into and performed in 26 languages! A well-known adaptation in English is “If You Go Away“.


15) Édith Piaf – “Non, je ne regrette rien” (1959)

If I would have to choose the best French song of all times, without any doubt it would be this timeless masterpiece. “No, I regret nothing” is a such a powerful and moving song, with so unique style; no wonder none of the many recordings attempted has become recognizable. If you love cinema, you certainly heard it in Inception; I truly recommend you to see the remarkable biographical film “La môme” (a.k.a. La vie en Rosewith amazing Marion Cotillard in the role of Piaf.

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