Electronic music can legitimately claim many different points of origin — something so diverse could hardly be otherwise — but France has been at the forefront of a huge amount of the developments that have made electronic music what it is. What’s more, the French have done more than almost anyone else to make electronica fun. While the Germans busied themselves with experimental soundscapes and the British absorbed their early electronic work into prog, the French mission statement was to make the results danceable. In this they succeeded absolutely and continue to do so to this day. Beyond the widely known big hitters from Daft Punk — Justice et al is massive swath of brilliant material that deserves more attention — here are some edited highlights.
It is probably fair to say that Moog Indigo doesn’t take itself too seriously given that amongst the tracklist you’ll find a lovingly synthed version of “Flight of the Bumblebee” together with other curiosities. Perrey’s eighth studio album (he would continue working almost right up to his death in November last year) is notable because for 1970, this is a sophisticated and frequently wildly inventive piece of work. The most notable manifestation of this is the second track “E.V.A.” This is so utterly timeless in composition and form that it resurfaced 25 years later with a mildly beefed up drum sequence as a sleeper hit in the Big Beat scene on the South Coast of the UK. Moog Indigo is as significant as Kraftwerk’s Radioactivity and a hell of a lot more entertaining to listen to.
Air has always sat slightly apart from the main body of French Electronica. In some regards, they are a perfect fit- they’ve certainly produced some extremely danceable tunes- but their desire to mix in real instrumentation and slow down to produce more contemplative material puts them in a slightly different category than their contemporaries. Premiers Symptômes is technically a singles compilation rather than a true album but it’s a testimony to the group’s house sound that it hangs together so well, you’d assume it was written and produced in a single hit. Everything that makes Air what they are is here in embryonic form-- textured ephemeral soundscapes that sound like film soundtracks, catchy little hooks and a timelessness that helps it sound fresh twenty years after it was released.
St. Germain is the stage name of Ludovic Navarre, a Jazz/nuJazz musician who had already achieved some acclaim in that category. In his debut effort Boulevard, Navarre dispensed with most of his jazz sensibilities to produce a competent if not spectacular album. What makes Tourist a much more invigorating listen is that he made much greater use of his background to create an album quite unlike anything else. Tourist is an album that displays its influences happily and manages to sound effortlessly cohesive despite its somewhat contradictory origins. It’s groovy when it needs to be, relaxed when it doesn’t and, as befits something released on the Blue Note label, it sounds absolutely stunning on vinyl.
Philippe Cerboneschi and Hubert Blanc-Francard, who perform as Phillipe Zdar and Boom Bass- had been active in French hip hop and dance music for some years before they released anything as Cassius. When they did so, the opening singles and partnering album 1999 became a significant hit and charted well. It would be three years before they followed it up and when they did in 2002, Au Rêve divided opinion. With the benefit of a few years of hindsight though, this has to be considered one of the finest flowerings of the genre. When it wants to, it delivers some of the most exceptional dance tracks of the decade-- The Sound of Violence in particular is a masterpiece- but it intersperses these high tempo moments with an impressive variety of other styles and moods, using guest vocalists such as Jocelyn Brown and Ghostface Killah to fine effect. Stitching this into a cohesive album is no easy task but Cassius succeed in fine style.
If Quentin Dupieux, aka Mr Oizo is known for anything, it’s his 1999 track Flat Beat that featured in a Levi’s commercial. As an artist though, he’s been fairly prolific with a significant back catalogue of material. 2008’s Lamb’s Anger is perhaps the album that gives the greatest spread of his influences- some of the shuffling breakbeats of the earlier work are still present but now mixed with harder and more abstract electronica- a reminder that this isn’t only about smooth soundscapes and infectious rhythms. Oizo’s work tends to divide opinion- Pitchfork in particular seems to loathe him- but this is a fine example of the more experimental side of French Electronica and there’s a certain flow to the album listened to as a whole that you don’t necessarily pick up from diving into a single track.
Released in 2008, M83’s fifth album saw the band’s leader and only constant member Anthony Gonzalez pay homage to the ‘80s. The result is an album that has elements of that decade all the way through its production from the lean, slightly toppy mastering with canned drum effects layered synths and keyboards all making it feel of the time but this isn’t a shallow tribute act. The album sees Gonzalez perform some of his best composition work with catchy and emotive songs that deliver on an emotional level, at once being identifiably M83 and at the same time, moving the game on. In spite of (or very possibly because of) all the eighties influences, the album has aged extremely well and delivers one of the more goosebump inducing experiences of the genre.
Those of you reading this with a passing interest in the genre might be crying foul at the inclusion of this album. You see, despite the title, the artfully airbrushed album artwork and the name of its creator being listed as ‘Jacques Lu Cont’, this is in fact a British release. Lu Cont was in reality Stuart Price- who has worked with Madonna and The Killers amongst others. Price became Lu Cont in response to the burgeoning popularity of French artists at the time. Darkdancer is more French than the French- at times slavishly aping Daft Punk and Etienne Du Crecy- but it also has a distinct voice of its own with tracks like “Soft Machine” and “Take a Little Time” offering a different take on the building blocks that make up the album. Completionists will note that the vinyl and digital releases got slightly different mixes of the same songs presumably in an effort to make you own both.
Garnier is one of the veterans of the genre, starting as a DJ in the 80s and moving into production from the mid-nineties. His influences are diverse but combine to produce a harder, darker sound than many of his contemporaries and Unreasonable Behaviour is strongly techno themed. There is a French twist all the way through the sound of this album though with instrumental work and an innate funkiness to the production that lifts it above more industrial contemporaries. The best known track on the album “The Man with the Red Face” is a fine case in point. It’s a punchy piece of techno- music to drive at 140mph to- but the addition of saxophonist Philippe Nadaud gives it an unlikely jazz like quality at the same time. This peculiar balancing act makes for an album that appeals beyond its genre and one that still sounds fresh nearly twenty years after it was released.
Julien Briffaz and Cosmo Vitelli had worked as solo artists and producers for a number of well-known acts before they formed Bot’Ox in 2006. Babylon by Car was their debut album released in 2010 and never ones to let the chance for a little pretension pass them by, they described it as “an aesthetic mechanical universe, marked by the mythology of the automobile and the paradoxical fragility of its bodywork, and a fanatical mutating vision of music.” While this might be a lot of high concept to hang on an album, there is indisputably a brooding menace to it that is subtly different from the fundamentally more optimistic presentation often associated with French electronic artists. Tracks like “Crashed Cadillac” balance an almost shoegaze style melancholia with crunching beats and breaks in a way that is extremely distinctive and very compelling. This isn’t dance music in the classic sense of the word, it plays more like a soundtrack for a film in your head and it’s a great listen for that.
Not all French acts have slowed down and become more contemplative over time. Vitalic, the stage name of DJ and producer Pascal Arbez has been around for nearly twenty years and gained some early attention from his remix work for Laurent Garnier but he has gone on to release a number of albums of which Flashmob is the second and best balanced. There is rather less in the way of introspection with Arbez’s work. This is music to have a good time to and it makes no apologies for that. Flashmob is also entirely synthesised and makes no use of ‘real’ instruments at any point but this doesn’t stop it having that distinctly French sense of funk to it. For all the ballistic edge to the presentation, it still flows as an album rather than a collection of tracks and it’s something as easily listened to at home as it is at the club.
Ed is a UK based journalist and consultant in the HiFi industry. He has an unhealthy obsession with nineties electronica and is skilled at removing plastic toys from speakers.