The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Quietus Charts

Rockfort! The Best French Music Of 2023
David McKenna , December 12th, 2023 11:07

Our French music columnist David McKenna rounds up the 20 finest albums released across the channel this year, from abstract rap to avant-folk and everything inbetween

Aho Ssan, photo by Marvin Jouglineu

One of the most discussed songs in France this year wasn’t actually a new release, but a 1981 hit by reactionary chansonnier Michel Sardou called ‘Les Lacs Du Connemara’. In response to a question about which songs would make her leave a party, singer Juliette Armanet chose the song, describing it as “odious. It’s right wing, there’s nothing good about it.” The furore that ensued saw politicians weighing in with, predictably, those on the right slamming Armanet for having the temerity to criticise this supposed pillar of French culture, and others enthusiastically agreeing with the verdict. Sardou himself claims that he shouldn’t be confused with the points of view expressed in his songs, which would be fair enough if his songs hadn’t repeatedly expressed right wing viewpoints (supporting the death penalty, taking pride in colonialism etc).

‘Les Lacs Du Connemara’’s biggest crimes, meanwhile, are its clichéd vision of life in Ireland and the nauseatingly bumptious music. The debate was illustrative though, not only of the way that the most trivial statements can be parlayed into intentionally wearisome culture war discourse by the right, but the degree to which robust, spirited critique (of music, or art more generally) is itself often met with disapproval de nos jours.

And of course, I don’t engage in much of that myself in this column, since it’s hard enough to find space to discuss the many releases I do like. But righteous criticism (or even barely rational hatred) is just as valuable a component in our relationship to music as stanning.

But enough negativity for now, since the main point of this column is to tell you about my favourite releases of the year. Like Aho Ssan’s superlative Rhizomes, not all were reviewed in the Rockfort column this year, having been covered elsewhere on the site – I don’t have a monopoly on French releases (outrageous, I know!). In addition to the below, I’d like to shout out artists that nearly made the list, and perhaps would have on a different day – Colleen, Crave, Delphine Dora, Parasite Jazz, Ton3rr3 & Bikaye, Plastre, Charlène Darling, Lise Barkas & Lisa Käuffert, Ascendant Vierge, Sister Iodine – and put in a word for a label that’s been a firm favourite in 2023, digital and tape imprint La Republique Des Granges. Kicking off the year with a Rien Virgule live album and Le Diable Dégoutant’s delightfully spooked Fleur De Chagrin, and almost every month brought new delights, whether exclusive to the label or co-releases like the drums, electronics and bagpipe delirium of Franco-Italian duo Zohastre’s Abracadabra, the ever-intriguing rural-industrial of France Sauvage’s Où Les Observer, Savoir Les Reconnaitre and the serrated no wave of Mamiedaragon’s Pas De. A couple of those have found their way into the list below, along with eighteen more of 2023’s standout French recordings.

Aho Ssan – Rhizomes
(Other People)

If you can be judged by the quality of your collaborators, then Paris-based composer Aho Ssan’s choice of guests on Rhizome was already an indicator that we were in for a treat: Moor Mother, Resina, Blackhaine, Clipping, Angel Bat Dawid… the list goes on. But this great gathering of talent makes sense for an album about community and the results are thrilling, combining jagged hip hop with blistered, blasted digital surfaces and cascading rivers of melody.

PoiL Ueda – S/T
(Dur Et Doux)

The glorious collaboration between French jazz/prog rockers PoiL and Japanese singer and satsuma-biwa player Junko Ueda has already proved to be incredibly fertile actually spawned two albums this year, with Yoshistune appearing just last month. I’ve plumped for the first, which is perhaps the more accessible of the two and served as an introduction to the group’s epic vision.

La Tène – Ecorcha/Taillée
(Les Disques Bongo Joe)

Inspired both by traditional Christian music and Spanish star Rosalía’s superb reggaeton hit ‘Saoko’, the latest release by the Franco-Swiss drone-folk group, who now include musicians from the La Nóvia collective and Tanz Mein Herz, sticks to the format of previous releases: one track to a side, one-take recordings, taking a simple motif then patiently ramping up the intensity as fresh instrumental layers are introduced and new pockets found. But on ‘La Taillée’ they’ve also found a new groove, taking ‘Saoko’’s rhythm and grinding riff into another dimension.

23wa – Rorschach

Rap from Aix-En-Provence is fairly unusual in itself, but even more so when it’s filtered through such a distinctive, personal vision. Self-written, performed, mixed and mastered – with occasional assistance from a few friends – Rorschach is ambitious, kaleidoscopic, melodic, abrasive, warm and constantly surprising, each track a controlled pile-up of ideas. You get the sense that what comes next could be… literally anything.

Johana Beaussart – Légendes De Chiens Hirsutes
(Standard In-Fi)

A late entry this, just getting through the gate before the year slams shut, but it’s one of the year’s most striking releases. Sound artist, singer and composer Beaussart has created an absorbing tapestry of field recordings, sound art, occasional, stark drumbeats, howling dogs and, above all, vocals – operatic, intimate, rhythmic, playful and unnervingly denatured vocals – all possessed of a mysterious, primal energy. Kolokoksta, released back in the spring, is also well worth your time.

Sébastien Forrester – Bouôrgxo

Producer and percussionist Forrester continues to explore folk music and his roots in the southern French Aveyron department, a process that he began with Orpheus Pipes (Object-Oriented Studies). This goes a step further – not just using old cabrette and bagpipe 78s as raw material but performing, in the company of a few collaborators, his own spectral take on traditional music, delivered as a single, ravishing 23-minute piece.

Sabrina Bellaouel – Al Hadr

Surely one of the year’s finest R&B releases, Bellaouel’s full-length debut after a number of superb EPs, sees her hook up with producer Basile3 to craft a dazzlingly assured, multilingual statement that places her French-Algerian identity front and centre and delights with its sumptuous vocals and beat science.

Sourdurent – L’Herbe De Détourne
(Les Disques Bongo Joe/Murailles Music)

Ernest Bergez aka Sourdure’s full band project is further evidence of how key a figure he is in within the French avant-folk scene. It’s less fragmented than some of his solo work, the electronic touches more subtle for the most part, but he and the group (featuring other luminaries from the French scene) play music that sups on the same rich stew of traditional musics, with results that are lyrical, stirring and, on ‘La Dumenchada’, deeply, pungently psychedelic.

Les Marquises – Soleils Noirs
(Les Disques Normal)

This majestic release might be the most compelling thing that Jean-Sébastien Nouveau has put out as Les Marquises. Essentially a solo project, although he is joined here by Agathe Max on violin and alto violin, it features two long, vocal-free tracks nearly 20 minutes apiece that progress at a stately pace, hypnotically looping layers of live instrumentation, electronics, percussion and samples that drift in like veils of dust. Time is both stretched and folded in on itself.

Bleu Nuit – 222

A member of the Paris-based Bloody collective that also includes LELEEE, Eryl and Sadhana, rare exponents of abstract rap within the French scene, Bleu Nuit has excelled himself on this deliciously fuzzy affair that features only a smattering of beats but plenty of heavy-lidded, grainy-voiced confessionals, scratchy, mangled soul and jazz samples and top turns from the rest of the crew.

The Next Ten

Audrey Carmes – Quelque-Chose S’est Dissipé
(Métron Records)

Simo Cell – Cuspide Des Sirènes

La Baracande – La Baracande
(La Nòvia)

Triplego – Gibraltar

Golem Mécanique – Satan
(Fort Evil Fruit)

Zohastre – Abracadabra
(Zamzamrec/La République Des Granges)

Le Diable Dégoûtant – Fleur De Chagrin
(La République Des Granges/Aguirre)

Olivia Louvel – DoggerLANDscape
(Cat Werk)

Roxane Métayer – Perlée De Sève

Edredon Sensible – Montagne Explosion
(Les Productions Du Vendredi)