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The 20 best Paris songs

From traditional chanson to contemporary rap, this is the sound of Paris, distilled into twenty songs

© Jean-Paul Goude

The city of Paris – and all the magnificent cultural baggage that goes along with it – has always been a hot topic of debate across every artistic medium, so it’s no surprise that there have been so many thousands of pop and jazz songs written about the French capital. Which is all well and good, but very few such songs have managed to stick their heads above the crowd and capture the real essence of life in the city, nor what it actually is that makes it such a magnet for tourists. From wide-eyed foreign visitors to nostalgic, subversive and even angry locals, here are the twenty best Paris songs according to us.

You can use the comments box below to tell us all the classics that we missed.

20

‘La Bohème’ – Charles Aznavour


First recorded in 1965, this classic of the chanson genre is both a tribute to the Armenian-French singer’s upbringing in Montmartre and a lament to the changing face of his beloved neighbourhood. Aznavour’s signature song – which would become an international hit, thanks to Italian, Spanish, English and German re-recordings – is an adieu to the long-gone days of real, villagey, bohemian Montmartre. In it, he remembers a hungry yet contented childhood spent toiling away at artworks in this northern area of Paris, which has today, in parts, become a victim of its own success. Although it has nothing on the original, also check out this 9-minute rework from Chilean composer-producer Nicolas Jaar, which does a decent job of transposing Aznavour’s nostalgia and melancholy to the dance floor.

19

‘Give Paris One More Chance’ – Jonathan Richman

‘The home of Piaf and Charles Aznavour must have done something right,’ chants legendary singer-songwriter Jonathan Richman in this typically wide-eyed ode to the City of Love and the pioneering chanteurs and chanteuses it gave us. ‘And if you doubt that Paris was made for love,’ he muses in the refrain, ‘give Paris one more chance.’ A pivotal turning point in Richman’s impressive and prolific career, 1983 album ‘Jonathan Sings!’ was the musician’s first solo outing after he effectively ditched proto-punk outfit the Modern Lovers in 1979, and this stripped-back tribute is its centrepiece. Haters will say it’s overly simple and naïve, fans will call it rock and roll songwriting at its best.

18

‘Paris Sous les Bombes’ – Suprême NTM

The hip-hop duo comprising JoeyStarr and Kool Shen – who some consider the Godfathers of French rap – showed real signs of genius on their third album, the provocatively titled ‘Paris Sous les Bombes’ (‘bombes’ being a reference to the Aerosol cans used by the duo’s graffiti artist friends). Notorious for rubbing the authorities up the wrong way, the two rappers tackle gang life in the Seine-Saint-Denis banlieues. On the title track, they reminisce about adrenaline-fuelled nights spent spray-painting their neighbourhood walls, with plenty of shout-outs to graffiti gangs like the Funky COP and the 93 crew. Working in an ingenious sample of Eric B and Rakim’s ‘My Melody’, renowned hip-hop producer Lucien lays down a sinister, infectious funk of a beat, while Starr and Shen fire creepy whispered rhymes over the top.

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17

‘Under the Bridges of Paris’ – Eartha Kitt

Vincent Cotto and Jean Rodor wrote the original ‘Sous les Ponts de Paris’ way back in 1913, but the song only really came into its own when English verses were added by lyricist Dorcas Cochran four decades later. Although recordings were subsequently taped with the likes of Dean Martin and Vera Lynn (among others), it’s Eartha Kitt’s exquisitely recorded version that really stands out. Set to a backing of accordion-mimicking orchestral flourishes and a swaying nursery-rhyme lilt, Kitt’s quirky yet soulful voice is at its most striking. Lyrically, couplets like ‘How would you like to be / down by the Seine with me’ are timeless, and have no doubt inspired countless real life lovers to head to the quais.

16

‘J’ai Deux Amours’ – Josephine Baker

In what has become a pseudo-anthem for the American expat in Paris, ‘J’ai Deux Amours’ plays on Josephine Baker’s dual status as both foreigner and adopted resident of the capital. Celebrating her two cultural loves (the literal translation of the title is ‘I have two loves’), the lyrics from Géo Koger and Henri Varna may also serve – some have suggested – as a metaphor for Baker’s bisexuality, which was subject to much attention during her pre-WWII heyday. During the war, the singer/dancer/cabaret artist retrained as a counter-espionage agent, before working for the Croix-Rouge and later in intelligence for the Resistance movement. By 1945, she’d very much distanced herself from her native USA, to such an extent that she would eventually change the second verse of the refrain from ‘J’ai deux amours, mon pays et Paris’ (‘I have two loves, my country and Paris’) to ‘J’ai deux amours, mon pays, c’est Paris’ (‘I have two loves, my country is Paris’).

15

‘Paris is Burning’ – St. Vincent

In 2006, American musician Annie Clark was busy leading a double life as touring guitarist extraordinaire for the likes of Sufjan Stevens and the Polyphonic Spree and as mysterious solo artist under the moniker St. Vincent, making dark indie-pop out of her bedroom on rudimentary DIY software. A good six or seven years before she became the critical art-rock darling and massive crossover star she is today, debut album ‘Marry Me’ was a dark, brave and ornately composed work that contained many of the hallmarks of her later material but that was largely overlooked at the time. At its centre lies ‘Paris is Burning’, a downbeat waltz with a martial vibe and a dizzying array of guitar sounds that describes an underclass revolt in the city – perhaps in reference to the Paris Commune of 1871. The image of such a wondrous city in flames also works as a metaphor for something more relatable, like struggling to get out of a destructive relationship.

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14

‘Place Pigalle’ – Elliott Smith

Following his lengthy 1999 world tour, the late, great Elliott Smith settled down in Paris for a few months. Every so often, B-sides and ‘lost songs’ of Smith’s seem to appear out of nowhere – most likely stored away on personal four-track recorders or in mysterious record label vaults – and one of the best of these forgotten demos stems from his time spent in Paris. The 9th arrondissement square at the foot of Montmartre – the ‘Place Pigalle’ – provides the charming setting and the subject is a fleeting relationship he had with a French girl on this ‘temporary half-holiday’. Recorded just before the release of his final and most successful album ‘Figure 8’, the track is a tender, string-laden rumination on love in a foreign city.

13

‘Paname’ – Booba

‘Je rappe so easily’, he says in a fluid Franglais. It’s exactly the kind of self-aggrandising remark we’ve come to expect from the biggest star in contemporary French rap, who in this song imagines himself watching over the sprawling city and its western suburbs. Referred to familiarly as ‘Paname’, Paris is Booba’s dominion, and on this track he exalts the city, himself and his lifestyle, while also not forgetting to ridicule his critics. With bits of Arabic and Senegalese dropped in here and there, the profoundly dark lyrics are shot through with braggadocio, comparing his flow to a gunshot and boasting that he’s so rich you’d think he's a narco-trafficker. But it’s not just a personal display of power – the chorus, after all, contains a very explicit political message. For him, Front National leader Marine Le Pen represents the scourge-like ‘racaille’ (‘trash’ or ‘vermin’) of the French state, which is his response to a heinous comment the politician once made about immigrants.

12

‘Free Man in Paris’ (Live) – Joni Mitchell

Though never mentioned by name, entertainment mogul David Geffen is the subject of this highlight from Mitchell’s jazzy ‘Court and Spark’ album. A friend of hers in the early 1970s, ‘free man’ Geffen was the top dog at Asylum Records at the time and he had made his thoughts and feelings about the job perfectly clear when the pair holidayed together in Paris. It was only when travelling around the French capital that he felt free from the constraints and demands of his role, as Mitchell’s trilling refrain describes: ‘I’m a free man in Paris / I felt unfettered and alive / there was nobody calling me up for favours / and no one’s future to decide’. Sung from Mitchell’s lips but from Geffen’s perspective, many consider the song to convey a strong message of empowerment for young women. The best version is this live rendition from the ‘Shadows and Light’ show, which has Jaco Pastorius doing his mesmerising jazz bass thing in the background.

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11

‘I Love Paris’ – Ella Fitzgerald

This straightforwardly-named songbook standard was written by famed songwriter Cole Porter in 1953 and later performed by names as diverse as Bing Crosby, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Frank Sinatra. But nothing tops Ella Fitzgerald’s magical take, which appears on her 1956 album ‘Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook’. The song is as simple as homages go, with Paris simply a symbol of enduring beauty: ‘I love Paris every moment / every moment of the year / I love Paris, why oh why do I love Paris / because my love is near’. Fitzgerald’s brilliantly produced session puts her impeccable phrasing and clarity of tone at the fore, while the between-verse big band passages are as sweet as they are stately.

10

‘Ménilmontant’ – Charles Trenet

If you’ve never dipped into Charles Trenet’s imposing back catalogue of nearly 1,000 songs, ‘Ménilmontant’ is one of the best places to start. Rare among his contemporaries for having written most of his own material, Trenet always drew great inspiration from Paris and this song is a poignant personal homage to the North Eastern neighbourhood. Beautifully structured, wittily delivered and packed with poetic detail, he sweetly recalls the beaux jours of his upbringing spent hopping on and off trains, at church, on the streets and enjoying live music. Arriving in 1938, a year before he was called up to serve in the French army, these nostalgic ruminations on his ‘souvenirs jamais perdus’ (‘memories never to be forgotten’) are infused with both fondness and a creeping sense of pathos.

9

‘1901’ – Phoenix

It can be difficult to interpret the lyrics of Versailles band Phoenix. ‘1901’ – a sleeper hit from 2009’s breakthrough fourth album ‘Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix’ – was the song that would introduce the band to a vast throng of new fans, and yet, frontman Thomas Mars’s accented sing-song English didn’t really make a whole deal of sense. Fortunately, the singer would eventually spill the beans about the song’s deeper meaning in a live session, stating that ‘1901’ was a ‘fantasy about Paris’ before and during the Belle Époque – which is when he reckons the city was at its cultural and artistic zenith. Previously unclear references to 1855 (the year of France’s first international exhibition) and a certain ‘material tower’ suddenly made much more sense. In any case, the song is an aptly bouncy tribute to the city and it would set the blueprint for Phoenix’s now-classic pop-rock sound: pristine production, tight arrangements and clean guitar lines that ring around your head for hours afterwards.

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8

‘Paris’ – Little Dragon

Nobody does sad pop music quite like the Swedes, and this 2014 track from Gothenburg four-piece Little Dragon must surely be one of the saddest songs ever written – however tangentially – about the French capital. Taking the city as a hypothetical future rendezvous for a long-distance friendship that’s already been tragically cut short, lead singer Yukimi Nagano tells of how Paris was the marvellous location she and her departed friend had at last decided to meet. They never would, alas, and the song is really about feeling alone, while moving forward and leaving sadness behind: ‘It’s that time to transform / to come around, I’m changing’, sings Nagano. It was on this song that her smooth and adaptable voice would really come in its own, both in the RnB-inflected verses and the breathy, Jane Birkin-style French interlude, in which she marvels at the vivacity of the City of Light: ‘La Suède est où je vis / Mais c’est à Paris que je me sens en vie’ (‘I live in Sweden / but Paris is where I feel alive’).

7

‘Sous le Ciel de Paris’ – Edith Piaf

With music written by Hubert Giraud and lyrics from Jean Dréjac, ‘Sous le Ciel de Paris’ is the lead song from the little-known 1951 film of the same title. First performed by Jean Bretonnière but transformed into something altogether more powerful by Edith Piaf in 1954, the song once again pays homage to the enduring beauty and magical fairy-tale quality of the city. In this rendition, France’s famed national chanteuse applies her throaty Belleville twang to lines like ‘Sous le ciel de paris / coule un fleuve joyeux’ (‘under the sky of Paris / runs a joyous river’) with such emotion and charisma you can’t but help believe her when she claims that deep down, Parisians are ‘un peuple épris de sa vieille cité’ (‘a people enamoured with their old city’). Piaf often sang about the hilly northeastern alleys she grew up on, and this song – although written by someone else – overflows with similar such homey descriptions of street musicians and thoughtful flâneurs. It finishes brilliantly, with the image of a rainbow glimmering up above.

6

‘Paris 1919’ – John Cale

Back in 1973, following turns as a producer for the likes of the Stooges and Nico, a couple of iffy solo albums, and having just co-founded one of the world’s most important ever rock bands in the Velvet Underground, legendary avant-gardist John Cale put out possibly the most accessible album of his career. Met with shamefully little fanfare, ‘Paris 1919’ was the classically trained musician’s first and only foray into sweetly melodic baroque pop, packed full with luscious horns, strings and simple piano phrasings. In stark contrast to the upbeat feel of the arrangements, his playful, Dada-inspired lyrics were far from straightforward, with the whole album being described by many as a bizarre reimagining of the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. Kicking off side B, the astonishing title track is best read as merely impressionistic, Cale’s musings intended to evoke an atmosphere and not to be taken at face value.

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5

‘Niggas in Paris’ – Jay-Z & Kanye West

Not only did it bring the phrase ‘that shit cray’ into popular ironic parlance, it was also the tune that cemented Kanye’s reputation as ever-so-slightly ridiculous hip-hop great. Inspired by his luxurious travels in Paris (where he was trying to make his name on the fashion scene), ‘Niggas in Paris’ was recorded by West with equally massive rap pal Mr Shawn Carter at the five-star Hôtel Meurice, opposite the Tuileries gardens. Over a slow, clattering drumbeat, booming sub-bass and an icy synth line, the two rappers acknowledge the long line of African-American artists who have sought cultural acceptance in Paris (from Josephine Baker to Nina Simone), all the while looking back at childhood friends who haven’t escaped poverty. Bellows Jay-Z: ‘If you escaped what I’ve escaped / You’d be in Paris getting fucked up too / Let’s get faded, Le Meurice for like five days’. It was a strange moment when a song so bombastic – and completely unrelated to French politics – was later used in a viral video as part of François Hollande’s 2012 election bid – but it clearly worked.

4

‘Le Poinçonneur des Lilas’ – Serge Gainsbourg

Before the days of ugly grey machines and electromagnetic tickets, every Parisian Métro train had a ticket inspector (a ‘poinçonneur’), whose lonely and repetitive job it was to stamp holes in passengers’ tickets, stuck in a dull and lightless underground limbo. In 1958, getting his career off to a typically morbid and subversive start, Serge Gainsbourg would compose and release debut single ‘Le Poinçonneur des Lilas’, which minutely describes the dark inner workings of the job. Describing the Métro as a ‘drôle de croisière’ (a ‘funny kind of cruise’) and a ‘cloaque’ (‘cesspit’), Gainsbourg’s poinçonneur explains how his daily activities are so dreary and demoralising that he even considers punching a hole in his own head. The provocative musician would later have a crack at yé-yé, funk, rock and reggae, but this song is firmly rooted in the chanson tradition, with the silly, echoing chorus of ‘J’fais des trous, des p’tits trous, encore des p’tits trous’ (‘I make holes, little holes, more little holes’) totally at odds with the bleak yet consolatory message that surrounds it. In 2010, in tribute to this brilliant, career-launching song, the ultra-modern Jardin Serge-Gainsbourg was inaugurated near the Porte des Lilas, and in 2020 a new station on the line 11 will also bear Gainsbourg’s name.

3

‘April in Paris’ – Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong

1930s jazz standard ‘April in Paris’ first became a hit thanks to a debut 1934 rendition by Freddy Martin, but it wasn’t until its timely revival in 1952 as the title hit for a Doris Day musical film that the song was properly welcomed into the jazz canon. During this period, the likes of Count BasieFrank SinatraCharlie ParkerBillie HolidayThelonious Monk and Shirley Bassey would all give it a whirl, but nothing compares to this tear-jerking joint interpretation by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, which appears on influential 1956 album ‘Ella & Louis’. Accompanied by the reliable Oscar Peterson trio and Buddy Rich on drums, the pair flaunt perfectly complementary voices, Fitzgerald’s buttery vocal a flawless match for Armstrong’s gruff delivery and mellifluous trumpeting. Given its subject matter and how romantically the pair appear to perform it, it’s no surprise the song is now a staple of the Parisian jazz café.

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2

‘I’ve Seen That Face Before (Libertango)’ – Grace Jones

Describing one of the more sinister aspects of Parisian nightlife (namely, the fact that the same creepy man seemingly lurks on every shady street corner), Graces Jones’s signature hit ‘I’ve Seen That Face Before (Libertango)’ is a chilling account of the musician’s time spent partying in the city. Taken from her fantastic 1981 album ‘Nightclubbing’, the song is a pulsing reggae twist on Astor Piazzola’s Argentine tango classic ‘Libertango’, with added lyrics written by Jones and Barry Reynolds, along with wobbly Jamaican riddims from the legendary Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare. Jones’s immaculate recording is most haunting when the singer addresses this dodgy mystery man with a series of direct French questions: ‘Tu cherches quoi? À rencontrer la mort? Tu te prends pour qui? Toi aussi tu détestes la vie…’ (What are you looking for? Death? Who do you think you are? You hate life, as well…’). Now just as famous for its iconic music video and artwork by French designer Jean-Paul Goude, the song captures the ambiguous feel of Paris’s ’70s clubbing scene with a great deal of originality and flair.

1

‘L'Accordéoniste’ – Edith Piaf

The Little Sparrow strikes again. This song – recorded a good fifteen years before ‘Sous le Ciel de Paris’, above – was composed and proposed to Piaf in 1940 by composer Michel Emer, just as he was about to go and serve in the French army. Immediately struck by the song’s potent evocation of life in the city and Emer’s clear intention to say au revoir to all that he loves, Piaf would go onto perform the song at legendary Bobino concert hall a few days later and make it one of her first big smashes. Telling the tale of a roaming prostitute, her waltz-playing accordionist boyfriend and their apparently hopeless dreams of reuniting after the war, the song veers from happy to sad at lightning pace: at one moment Piaf declares ‘que la vie sera belle’ (‘how beautiful life will be’) on his return, at another she states fatalistically: ‘Adieux tous les beaux rêves / sa vie elle est foutue’ (‘Adieu to all the good dreams / her life is fucked’). In the end, all the poor woman can do is sing and dance and forget all that’s been said before. Looking back at footage like the below, the way Piaf would perform so capricious a song so effortlessly – as though a natural stream of consciousness – is really quite magical.

Comments

3 comments
Howard B
Howard B

Jimmy Buffett - "He Went to Paris." Buffett appears at aLa Cigale in September.

Huw O
Huw O

Et Jacques Dutronc alors????