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Rockfort 2017 Roundup: The Best French Music Of The Year
David McKenna , December 14th, 2017 23:47

The most formidable French releases of 2017, from Omertà to Colleen to Bonnie Banane to Felicia Atkinson, et plus.

Felicia Atkinson

Just the other week I was pottering in the cellar, doing a little housekeeping as I always do near the close of the year, trying to cajole another twelve months of accumulated bric-a-brac and rare finds into assuming some kind of order, when my gaze fell on a small crack in an internal wall. Was it fresh? I hadn’t noticed it before. I ran my fingers across it with a kind of detached, diagnostic curiosity, only to have a large section of plaster and brickwork, almost floor to ceiling and several feet wide, crumble suddenly beneath my touch. As the dust swirled then settled and my eyes adjusted to the gloom beyond, I began to make out the contours of an adjoining chamber, several times the size of the room I was standing in and lined with heavy-laden shelves. I hesitated for just a moment before stepping through; clearly I was going to be spending a lot longer down here than anticipated.

So let me tell you a little more about this impossible chamber. It’s actually a very real, digital compilation called Rien Ni Personne Volume II & III - a mammoth undertaking by Tristan Koreya of the Nostalgie de la Boue blog that corrals no less than 184 tracks, amounting to over 23 hours of noisy, droney, abstract, electro-acoustic, collagistic, creepy or caustic music, from “France’s finest artists”. With a few exceptions – Rien Ni Personne Volume opens with ‘Éventail à silence’, a 1983 recording from the pioneering Anne Gillis, and there are occasional selections from the turn of the millennium – the music is from the last three or four years. There are a few other names I’m familiar with, and have even written about or included in mixes for this column, like Les Marquises, Judith Juillerat and Perrine En Morceaux, but the vast majority are completely unknown to me.

Just as I’d been thinking about how healthy the French underground scene is – a thought I’ve had and expressed recurrently this year – a whole new vista opened to reveal quite how fragile my grasp on it was. Now more than ever you can think you’ve been digging deep when really you’ve barely scratched the surface, keeping your bearings by means of certain reliable names and labels.

It’s easy to get swept away by sheer volume though when what matters is the beauty of what’s flowering in the margins of French pop. And there’s a sense that those margins are becoming more fertile, perhaps even that a virtuous cycle has been established - a combination of collective endeavour, low recording costs and the availability of various digital routes to new audiences (not necessarily huge audiences, but attentive and supportive ones) encouraging an artistic confidence, a bravery even, which itself inspires worthwhile new projects. Even as I realise how much I have yet to discover, I feel it’s possible to say that the French underground is not only healthy, but in a better state than it’s ever been.

That’s a judgement based both on sheer quantity and variety of output, and on the confidence expressed in the reclamation of French chanson from variété (even the reclamation of variété itself), of the heritage of the progressive post-68 movement, and of the country’s many electronic innovators or of traditional folk forms; in the receding sense of musical inferiority relative to the UK and US in the realms of rock or even R&B; and in the new expressive shapes being found in French rap.

Inevitably, then, I agonised over the list below, my ten favourite French albums of the year (in no particular order). Some have already featured in this year’s columns, others were reviewed elsewhere on The Quietus so I didn’t want to double up. Others still I missed when they were released and crept up on me later (for some reason, those ones always inspire a special kind of affection.) Just bubbling under were Delphine Dora, La Terre Tremble!!!, Eloïse Decazes & Eric Chenaux, Cheveu, Monkdopf, EDH, France, Low Jack, PoulainJars... and the list would be just as strong with any of those in it.

Rockfort Albums of the Year

Aquaserge - Laisse Ça Être (Almost Musique/Crammed Discs)

Delighted this one made it into the big league (ie the overall tQ Albums of the Year) and thoroughly deserved for a record that managed to be the band’s most accessible to date while sacrificing nothing in terms of tricky time signatures, tempo shifts and jazzy harmonies. The beginning of the Aqua-surge.

Omertà - S/T (Standard In-Fi)

Such a beguilingly intimate yet expansive album from spoken wordist Florence Giroud and her band, a slippery dub-folk confection that automatically transports you to the wee small hours whatever time of day you listen to it.

Midget! - Ferme Des Jolis Cieux (Objet Disque)

Already given praise last month, this album from Claire Vallier and Mocke would make it just on the strength of the heart-rending melody that breaks the trance half-way through ‘Premier Soleil’. Drawing on classical minimalism, chanson, folk and somnambulant jazz, Ferme Des Jolis Cieux is as beautiful and terrible as witnessing a marble sculpture open and close its eyes.

Le Vasco - La Transe Des Oiseaux (Nowadays)

This year, while Arcade Fire were content to dispense a few facile soundbites about THE INTERNET, Le Vasco found a much more sensitive level at which to observe, celebrate and interrogate the new identities and fantasies that emerge when you live life online. And all to a soundtrack of luscious, multi-layered and multi-faceted neon pop.

Sourdure! - Mantras (Standard In-Fi)

“A sublimely eerie, often ecstatic conjunction and of sound installation, extraordinary outdoor acoustics and ritual” is what I said last month, and I’ll stick with that. A consistently fascinating confrontation and communion with the cliffs of La Saix, in the French Alps.

Colleen - A Flame, My Love, A Frequency (Thrill Jockey)

While Cécile Schott’s singing voice becomes more expressive with each album, the intimacy she generates is also down to the relative simplicity of every new set-up, and the clarity of her decision-making – you feel as though you can follow her thoughts.

Felicia Atkinson - Hand In Hand (Shelter Press)

Hand In Hand is crisp and spacious and intensely strange. Though sonically it’s a progression, it shares A Readymade Ceremony’s desire to disorientate, with Atkinson sliding in and out of the wide sonic field to deliver a variety of texts that appear, in this context, as tonally unstable. “We are content rich,” she says early on, and so is Hand In Hand.

TripleGo - 2020 (Jihelcee Records)

Cloud rap transported to Montreuil and filtered through a Moroccan heritage, TripleGo have a taste for melancholy, reverb-soaked chords, lethally lethargic beats and burbling, gurgling Auto-Tuned vocals. Part of the strength of 2020 is in the variety it extracts from a restricted palette (to an even greater extent than its predecessor, ‘Eau Max’), successfully walking the line between sensuous and somnolent over 13 same-but-different tracks.

Bonnie Banane - Undone Tape (N/A)

I realised how much I liked Bonne Banane’s voice on Myth Syzer’s charming summer jam ‘Le Code’. In the midst of a string of male vocalists, her arrival instantly elevates the track. The Walter Mecca-produced Undone Tape is just your typical “unfinished, unachieved, unperfect” stopgap while we wait for the first album proper, but it’s a fat-free, spritely, springy 20-odd minutes of R’n’B-based pleasure.

Etienne Daho - Blitz (Mercury Records)

Okay this isn’t underground in any conceivable way but a genuine return to form is always welcome, especially one that outstrips expectations to this degree. I’m not even sure Daho’s ever been in quite this form – he’s certainly never produced anything as hauntingly close to Broadcast territory as ‘Les Baisers Rouges’. As with Daho icon Françoise Hardy’s Le Danger, it’s a chanson-goes-rock album that doesn’t quite rock, but it’s precisely the fuzzy-edged, ghost-of-rock ambiance that works. Morrissey can eat it.

A Few Notable Reissues/Archive Releases

Zazou/Bikaye/CY1 - Noir Et Blanc (Crammed)

Emmanuelle Parrenin - Maison Rose & Perelandra (Souffle Continu)

Aluk Todolo - Archives Vol 1 (The Ajna Offensive/Temple of Tortuous)

Pascal Comelade - Paralelo (Because Music)

Serge Gainsbourg & Jean-Claude Vannier - Les Chemins De Katmandou