French Touch

From an outside perspective, it’s fascinating to watch the battles that the preservers of French culture try to wage against the undue influence of other nations — a stuffy, elitist nationalism that goes at least as far back as the 17th Century establishment of L’Académie française and its tussles over Anglicization, and extends far beyond the boundaries of pop culture to stress over the anxieties of foreign infiltration. Pair that with the tendency for France’s own stereotypical cultural milieu to look stuffy and elitist to the rest of the world — its reputation for fine art, esoteric cinema, upscale cuisine, quirky-twee aesthetics, and overall snootiness — and it seems like it’d be a hard sell to convince anyone that this culture could ever be one of the great epicenters of popular dance music. But it was, in part because it dared to offer a new vision of a national cultural identity — a movement so ambitious and wide-ranging in its affections that it was less describable as a codified genre than as a vibe-based flourish: French touch.

“French touch” — a term that originated in Parisian club circles, but was popularized by British Melody Maker journalist Martin James — is kind of a tricky category. That especially holds when applied to a movement that was based in so many converging influences from both inside and outside its nation’s borders, often in defiance of what mainstream establishment French culture seemed to approve of. It’s frequently conflated with French house and/or techno specifically — the tack this guide is taking — though it’s also been applied to more downtempo artists like Air (whose retromodern space-age-bachelor-pad sound doesn’t entirely fit here — even if it makes for great post-clubbing comedown music). But that vagueness is another crucial part of it: so many of its artists arrived at the same general clubland locale after taking some disparate musical journeys to get there, and with a recognizable yet under-represented set of precedents to draw from, they wound up synthesizing an international aesthetic that established the potential for a signature sound while refusing to adhere too closely to a rulebook for it.

To be fair, this is the country that literally minted the modern concept of the discothèque in postwar Paris, and a generation later produced some of the biggest auteurs of the scene to break internationally; Cerrone, Space, and the Jacques Morali/Henri Belolo partnership all made their mark at the peak of disco’s post-Moroder European incursions. This was a bright but brief outburst of global success that eventually receded even without a disco suce backlash, largely because all the big French labels were slack in cultivating a sustainable national scene — what, wasn’t chanson enough for these people? So once the governmental rein on state-run radio finally loosened in the early ’80s and new stations like community station Radio FG were left to meet (and stoke) the demand for dance music, it was largely driven by imports; while French synthpop and new wave artists made some incursions, the hardcore fans who were tuned in to the club sounds of the ’80s tended to turn elsewhere: New York, London, Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles. Even the biggest tastemaker DJ to come out of France and make a name in this transitional period, François Kevorkian, did so while based out of NYC; when he became one of the most in-demand remixers of the ’80s his influence on French dance music came through remixing the biggest stars of UK pop.

But Kevorkian, like the countrymen who followed in his footsteps, saw dance music holistically: not under the rockist edicts of roots-bound preservationism and genre-purist border-drawing, but a curiosity and fascination with the permeability of this sound and how adaptable it could be while also leaving a lot of room for exploration and surprise. They never really rejected rock entirely — at least, not in the sense that they gave up on their youthful enthusiasms for the classic rock and/or punk influences that might’ve thrilled them before they discovered dance music — but they tended to reject their rules about status and hierarchy, high and low culture, what was “authentic” and what was “kitsch.” Their ideal for funk, for instance, was in the spaced-out, comedic/profound surrealism and cutting-edge tech of George Clinton’s P-Funk mothership, where the amazing musicianship and sharp popcraft came with wigged-out cartoons and jokes about butts. It might not have been rude, but it was irreverent, often in ways that precipitated a wider sense of freedom.

The French club scene was still able to sustain itself well through the early ’90s, with some of the most pivotal DJs and producers — Laurent Garnier, David Guetta, Mirwais Ahmadzai — holding court over a scene not like many others, rooted in gay clubs like Le Boy and their more mixed-clientele trend-adopters like The Rex and Le Palace. When raves supplanted clubs as the driving force of dance music in the early ’90s, the music shifted accordingly — higher BPMs, harder beats, more intensity — but a combination of gradual burnout and overzealous law enforcement eventually steered crowds back indoors, where they wouldn’t have to deal with doing bad drugs in muddy fields. Once Radio FG started specializing in house and techno in 1992 — paralleling the similar moves made by other stations like Galaxie Radio and Radio Contact — it also spurred further demand for these sounds, and soon a prominent subculture coalesced around this moment that set about figuring out how to create something in this world that felt like it belonged to them. This generation of clubbers took to American and British influence in a similar way that the swing-era zazous and the postwar jazz heads did — though their studiousness and enthusiasm meant their idea of Frenchness had a lot more in common with the Belleville Three than the Triplets of Belleville. Record stores like Bastille’s BPM and the nearby outpost for UK importers Rough Trade accelerated the creative cross-pollination, where clubbers-turned-DJs-turned-producers would come in, look over everyone else’s shoulders, and let word of mouth ricochet between an increasingly tight-knit group of artists who were all undergoing their own efforts to find a unique voice in this movement.

It took a while to find it. In one sense, the original French touch artists could include the likes of St. Germain and Dimitri from Paris, whose respective albums Boulevard (1995) and Sacrebleu (1996) drew from a pre-Mancuso idea of dance music that drew from jet set-era jazz and lounge music. But the most popular and enduring strain of French touch came through a more distinctly post-Moroder vision of dance music, one built by young visionary producers like Philippe Zdar and Étienne de Crécy — and promoted by an even younger scenester, Pierre Winter, who started going by Pedro as a gag and decided to stick with it. These tastemakers would eventually become high-profile enough to command a significant portion of French nightlife and club culture, even commanding the same Le Palace dancefloor (under the management of Guetta) that Grace Jones christened in peak-disco 1978. The club was on its last legs, granted — it would close for good in 1996 — and Zdar would recall Guetta griping at him for diverging too far from house into hip-hop during his sets (even though Guetta himself liked to mix the genres during his Rex residency a few years before) — but the scene would continue to thrive, even as they fought uphill battles against the preconceptions of dance culture from both the press and the police. All it needed was an international breakout superstar or two to really legitimize it.

By the time Le Palace shut its doors, Winter had spent enough time hanging around two on-the-rise producers that they asked him to be their manager. Those two producers were Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, and they’d already released a couple hot singles under a name they adopted from a derisive term another Melody Maker writer, Dave Jennings, gave their short-lived rock band Darlin’: “a daft, punky thrash.” “Da Funk” was already a growing phenomenon by then, and would make a crucial impact in their United States debut after causing a sensation at Wisconsin rave Even Furthur ’96, while at home they were central to Winter’s recurring party series Hype. They were hardly alone — by the late ’90s, Garnier and Eric Morand’s F Communications label was going strong, and Bangalter was signing likeminded artists like Alan Braxe and DJ Falcon to his new label Roulé — but Daft Punk soon became the always-obscured faces of French house around the world (around the world around the worrrrrld) off the widely-hyped and even more widely-loved 1997 debut full-length Homework. Their specialty was what would become called “filter disco” — a form of house that drew inspiration from the greats of mid-American dance and slotted well amidst the likes of Green Velvet and Carl Craig, but stood out for its tendency to lean into funk’s more in-your-face tendencies (wah-wah guitars were pretty popular) and tweak dance music’s repetitious tendencies by subjecting them to all sorts of filter and phaser effects that made even the most relentless beat sound unpredictable and dynamic. In the wake of a tendency for electronic dance music to lean on its intensely hypnotic nature, this little concession to hook-friendly song structure reinforced the idea that this stuff could work great as radio-ready pop music, too.

That sound led the first big wave of French touch, one that peaked between Homework and Daft Punk’s second album Discovery while carrying a lot of other artists up with them. But the inevitable creative restlessness over the potential for that sound to become tired and cashed out would eventually spur a second wave — one that almost served as a retort to the “rock is back” frenzy of the early ’00s, establishing itself as the disco wing of what people now call “indie sleaze.” Winter was central to this moment, too: after the French touch scene found simpatico concepts in the electro mutations that were emerging out of New York and Germany, Winter formed a label in 2003 that would provide a response (and retort) to it: Ed Banger Records, the label that foisted Stones-to-Daft Punk’s-Beatles duo Justice on the world and gave French touch a dirtbag rocker edge that remains contentious to this day. (“French touch” coiner James dismissed them as “[holding] none of the urgency and creativity of either the French touch or electroclash scenes that preceded it” — his loss.) But while this next wave might’ve been one step removed from their original influences — Winter once stated that Daft Punk were to Justice what the Chicago and Detroit producers were to Daft Punk — they’d emerged into a world where the biggest rapper was sampling “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” and David Guetta was on his way to supercelebrity DJ status. And while French touch’s prevalence seems to have receded — Daft Punk’s final album, Random Access Memories (not included here) feels more like a farewell than a culmination — its best still sounds wonderfully borderless.

Nate Patrin

Homework

Daft Punk
Homework cover

Often all a dance music act needs to do to transition from singles hitmakers to album auteurs is just keep cranking out hot tracks — that’s how Daft Punk gave us one of house’s most legendary debut album-as-mission statement breakthroughs. Homework shines in part because those early singles, both preceding and leading the album, were so brazen in their enthusiastic retrofuturism; they made it sound like the peak disco-funk ’70s never ended but still mutated to fit the times. “Da Funk” is an era-bridging travelogue from robotic roller boogie to feverish acid house, “Around the World” steeps itself in the same Troutman talkbox glide as West Coast g-funk but at twice the tempo, “Indo Silver Club” weaves fragments of classic West End disco into oscillating synth delirium, “Burnin’” is a perfect melding of primitive-analog spaciness to an incredibly sprightly-yet-heavy bassline, and “Revolution 909” opens by overpowering the threat of the cops (and anyone else) pulling the plug before filtering its monomaniacal 4/4 through headswimming phasing FX like it’s dredging up hazy memories of dancefloors past. It’s all drawing off three decades at once, a history of post-Loft club music so thorough and enthusiastic that of course they dedicate nearly three minutes of the album to shouting out a few dozen of their polygenre inspirations from George Clinton to Jeff Mills to Armand Van Helden on “Teachers.” But aside from little interstitial moments like that and the meta-self-promotional brand-reinforcing blips that serve as de facto bookending skits, the thing that makes Homework cohere as an album and not just singles-plus-filler is how their adventurousness just hits the mark every time, creating an overarching identity of disco-continuum revivalism that still leaves a lot of room for them to branch out. Deep cuts like the tide-rolling dawnbreak warmth of “Fresh,” the industrial-grade hammer blows of “Alive,” and the boiler-explosion heat of “Rollin’ & Scratchin’” provide some proof that they probably just could’ve gotten away with dropping them as new bangers every few months — but hearing it all as a single body of work emphasizes that they were really on their way to building one of the great pop legacies in dance music.

Midnight Funk

Demon
Midnight Funk cover

Jérémie Mondon was yet another member of the French touch contingent who came to dance music after an early fascination with hip-hop, dropping a string of late ’90s EPs that culminated in a noteworthy debut album. Midnight Funk became a critical darling in France that arrived during the late stages of French touch’s initial saturation period, earning some solid support domestically but remaining overlooked outside the country. And it’s a mystery as to why: not only is Midnight Funk less given to the quirkier fromage-ry that aroused suspicion from skeptics of the scene, it’s easily one of the straight-up funkiest-yet-prettiest pieces of work to come out of that whole moment. It still wears its disco heart on its sleeve, and lets it beat resonate loudly on tracks like the “Street Life”-sampling, bass-rich dynamics of its title cut and the Étienne de Crécy-assisted, electric piano-buoyed “Funkasized version” of his breakout single “Lil’Fuck.” But this is disco noir, a sleek and jazzy take on filter house that plays up an ineffable overlapping mood of eroticism and melancholy. “Now That I Have You” is stunning, too: a heartbreaker built around bracingly icy jazz piano, submersed wah-wah guitar, hushed gasps of either ecstasy or loneliness, and the kind of velvet-bass/crystalline-kick 4/4 that fits long night drives just as well as it does dancefloors. Beyond that, there are so many tracks that thrive not just off Demon’s deep well of funk but his ear for negative space and airy depth: the urban-canyon atmosphere of “My City,” the snappy elasticity of early ’80s boogie tribute “Blunted People,” and especially the ghostly soul-jazz glide of closer “Heartbreaker.”

30

Laurent Garnier
30 cover

French house has many ancestors, but if it has one true godfather, Laurent Garnier’s as important a figurehead as you can get. A true internationalist, his DJ career took off when he started spinning house and techno in Manchester’s legendary Haçienda (thus giving him at least some credit — or blame — for the Madchester movement), and he’s been blurring the lines between French, British, and American dance music traditions ever since. 30 arrived in The Year Electronica Broke as a powerful distillation and expansion of Chicago house’s impact on his work, and there’s a deeply personal idiosyncracy beneath the surface, recorded as it was during a post-shoulder-surgery break from DJing that gave him a good excuse to immerse himself in a previously unfamiliar studio environment. And since Garnier embodied French touch’s tendencies to keep genre borders porous enough to sweat through, 30 also sounds like an exploration of Chicago house’s impact on everything. There’s the classic jack moves of “The Hoe,” the acidic glower of “Flashback,” the min-maxed propulsive spaciousness of “Mid Summer Night” and “Feel the Fire,” and the Jeff Mills-ian techno-crossover sizzle of “Crispy Bacon” — simple, minimalist, direct, and (according to Garnier himself) not especially complex, yet it just hits in the way that could only come from someone so studious of what made his own favorite records work. What makes 30 really startling is how that principle extends so far out beyond house and techno to counterintuitive realms; the gloomy buzzing-neon downtempo breakbeat of “For Max” might as well be a deep cut from a long-lost MoWax comp, while its diametric opposite “Kall It!” sounds like a raw-nerved, twitchy take on ’80s L.A. electro a’la Egyptian Lover or Arabian Prince that also challenges its listeners to rethink their own perception of what they’re even listening to (“if you’re gonna call it techno, know what techno is”). And it even closes on an ambient experiment, “Le Voyage De Simone,” which slows the emotional drive of diva house to a sparse crawl that highlights a sense of enigmatic unease underneath.

OK Cowboy

Vitalic
OK Cowboy cover

With Daft Punk’s Human After All a coldly-received aberration and the scuzzy buzzsaw bombast of Justice’s Cross still a couple years away, anyone itching for an enjoyably abrasive take on French dance music circa 2005 was best served by the first full-length from Pascal Arbez, b/k/a Vitalic. OK Cowboy was a cult hit despite taking four years to capitalize on the revolutionary potential of 2001’s Poney EP, with three of its hyperventilating excursions into electro house — both parts of its manic, hypertense ghost-in-the-vocoder title track, along with the endlessly revving death-by-kickdrum wallop “La Rock 01” — anchoring an album that found a whole lot of other ways to make speakers bleed. Even calling it “house” stirs up question marks and yeah-buts; Vitalic has even positioned as a harder-edged and techno-indebted corrective to the “French touch” reputation and he seems to revel in that kind of iconoclasm. Why else would he open one of the decade’s most anticipated dance records with a chirpy carnival-pipe-emulating goof like “Polkamatic,” or bridge the headbanger electro of supercar-death-drive anthem “My Friend Dario” and “La Rock 01” with a glam-schaffel platform-boot stomper like “Wooo,” or close it all out with the rapidly escalating drumline avalanche of “Valletta Fanfares”? Even the stuff that follows in Poney‘s ten-ton footsteps, like the dead-eyed but manic-bodied “No Fun” and the sweat-flinging synth-thrash of “Newman,” are better categorized by size than genre (and we’re talking XXXL, minimum). It’s the kind of album that seems only marginally categorizable under the same umbrella as its late ’90s Homework/Super Discount precedents, but it fits in comfortably enough alongside the over-the-top decadence of Ed Banger’s roster and the proto-synthwave of Kavinsky and SebastiAn that marked French house’s later, gnarlier wave — and outdoes most of it in the process.

1999

Cassius
1999 cover

Hubert Blanc-Francart and Philippe Zdar had already built a notable body of work throughout the ’90s as the production duo La Funk Mob, providing beats for breakout Francophone rapper MC Solaar on his first four albums and notching some trip-hop-adjacent gems of their own on the MoWax label. So their turn towards house near the end of the decade was enough of a shift to necessitate a rebrand — even if Zdar’s mid-’90s stint with Etienne De Crecy in the disco-tinged Motorbass was already a sign that this was a natural course of events. Enter Cassius, the name they’d record under until Zdar’s untimely passing in 2019. 1999 is almost a tongue-in-cheek title in itself — if it sounds like anything redolent of that year, it’s in the tendency for French house to reclaim the ’70s, whether it’s Roy Ayers-scored Blaxploitation (the wah-wah-riddled Pam Grier shrine “Foxxy”), synth-tweaking boogie funk (the slinky Junie-caliber groove of “Club Soixante-Quinze”), or lost-classic disco floor-fillers (“Feeling for You,” which lifts its house-diva hook from a line from Gwen McCrae’s unjustly non-charting ’79 single “All This Love That I’m Givin’”). This retro-curator/new-creator duality doesn’t just stick with the butterfly collar era, though: it acknowledges electro, freestyle, and hip-hop as part of its disco-to-house lineage in ways that reveal a fascination with the way dance music evolved through the NYC club scene, doling out b-boy break anthems (“Crazy Legs”) and twitchy beatbox deconstructions (“Somebody”) that seem better suited for people who uprock with cardboard or linoleum under their feet instead of lit-up floors. And closing it out with the remixed radio edit of “Cassius 99” — a garage house-meets-Eurodisco sugar rush like no other — makes for one of the highest notes any French house album has ever ended on.

Woman Worldwide

Justice
Woman Worldwide cover

After 2008’s A Cross the Universe and 2013’s Access All Arenas, Justice flirted with redundancy by putting together a third “concert album” in ten years with Woman Worldwide — the catch being that it wasn’t a real concert album, but an in-studio recreation that now feels like it stands as the ideal snapshot of their first ten years. If Daft Punk’s Alive 2007 is the closest comparison point — a session that refracts the group’s discography in on itself and finds new angles to previously familiar ideas — Woman Worldwide actually pulls off an even more audacious trick in harmonizing their dual-personality split between scuzzy toughness and cheerful giddiness. Woman lead single “Safe and Sound” bookends the set as a prime example, let loose as a freestanding electro-disco-acid vamp for an opener and closing it out as a reprise rubbing elbows with the similarly bright-eyed let-the-children-boogie anthems “D.A.N.C.E.” and “Fire”. The journey that Woman Worldwide goes on between those points is almost overwhelmingly attention-deficit-friendly, the kind of unpredictable journey through fluctuating moods and vibes that usually takes a willfully eclectic multi-artist DJ set to pull off this well: flipping from sunny filter house to their more infamous hesher-prog tendencies of Cross-era cuts like “Genesis” and “Phantom” (fused into a Godzilla-goes-giallo beast), toying with an amalgam of “Heavy Metal”’s digital-baroque riffage and a chromed-out space-disco revamp of “DVNO,” and retrofitting the Trevor Horn-meets-NEU! drive of “Audio, Video, Disco” into a thesis on why Judas Priest’s Turbo is underrated. In some cases, these revamps wind up feeling like the best and most bombastic (pardon the redundancy) versions of themselves — Woman deep cut “Alakazam!” in particular is elevated from the original’s already-anthemic graveyard b-boy cipher into a stratospheric cathedral of triumphant disco euphoria that makes “The Final Countdown” sound like hold music in comparison.

Analog Worms Attack

Mr. Oizo
Analog Worms Attack cover

If you thought Quentin Dupieux’s movies were fucked, wait’ll you hear his albums. The director behind Rubber and Mandibles has been pulling double-duty as a Korg-torturing beatmaker since his teen years, and got a foot in the door with the French house scene when Laurent Garnier bought a car from his dad and got word that Quentin knew his way around a camera. But while his early filmmaking career seemed to outpace his nascent musical one, a bizarre lucky break came when Levi’s commissioned an ad from him and he delivered a spot featuring a yellow pseudo-Muppet maniacally bobbing his head to a bizarre, squelchy distorted slab of electro-house that sounded like the audio equivalent of comedic indigestion-based body horror. That track, “Flat Beat,” was a resounding #1 smash all across Europe thanks to that ridiculous commercial. But on Analog Worms Attack, his first full-length as Mr. Oizo, it’s tacked on at the very end — albeit a dozen tracks after a brief, self-effacing cameo as the subject of an inquisitively bewildered child to kick off “No Day Massacre.” (“You worked with that puppet?” “Yep!” “Why?“) Even categorizing this as house — or techno, or breakbeat, or anything more specific than gunk — feels a little misleading; for every riff on uptempo filter disco like the sawn-off blip-melodies and crunchy bassline of “Last Night a DJ Killed My Dog” or squeaky minimal-house deconstructions like “Flat 55” there’s a handful of oily, lurching midtempo sludge-hop cuts (“The Salad”; “Miaaw”; “No Day Massacre”; the scratch-riddled title cut) that sound more like a sillier version of the doom-laden analog stabs and drones you’d hear on a 2000s El-P solo record than anything Garnier would ever spin. You could probably still categorize it as house if the namesake Warehouse venue was originally a facility to store Macy’s Day Parade balloons — and all the helium canisters got swapped out for leaky ones filled with nitrous.

Discovery

Daft Punk
Discovery cover

Mainstream pop culture seems to have spent the last two decades chasing the high of childhood, where everything seemed remarkable and the self-conscious divisions between Cool and Uncool complicated everything. But none of the nostalgia-industrial complex has even approached the feats of Daft Punk’s second album, where fuzzy pre-teen memories of good-vibes ’70s and ’80s pop are reconfigured into the stuff of disco-loving legend. Is that Barry Manilow’s voice? Supertramp’s Wurlitzer? George Duke’s frothiest keyboard riff? The maestros of French house euphoria answer: yes, and it turns out you love it.

Pansoul

Motorbass
Pansoul cover

In hindsight, Motorbass’s brief but memorable mid ’90s run was an important opportunity for Philippe Zdar to build a bridge between La Funk Mob’s trip-hop excursions and the house-focused sound of Cassius. Flatmate and good friend Etienne de Crécy’s influence would prove useful when Zdar’s usual collaborator Hubert Blanc-Francart seemed initially reluctant to join Zdar in making the transition that Cassius would finally complete. And after a string of buzzworthy EPs from ’93 to ’96, Pansoul turned Zdar and de Crécy’s partnership into a scene-sparking phenomenon: before the arrival of Daft Punk’s Homework the following year, this was the record to point to when it came time to see if this emerging French touch scene could sustain an entire album, and only its initially limited distribution kept it from catching fire beyond its intense initial buzz. And it’s aged spectacularly, a warm reconciliation between hip-hop’s break-building and house music’s euphoria that wasn’t beholden to either genre-purist reverence or smirky iconoclasm. “Ezio” and “Flying Fingers” are the two hottest tracks to carry over from those initial EPs: the former’s a warm bath of a deep house slow-burner that gives the characteristic filter-disco treatment to a track where the big build arrives with a harp glissando, while the latter builds a skybound atmosphere befitting of its titular Larry Heard nod but lays it down over a heavy funk drum break that sounds like Teddy Riley going four-on-the-floor and ladles on some slick scratch-work in its last couple minutes for good measure. Their beats get almost hyperactively restless even as they envelop the dancefloor in a reverb-tweaking warmth; the slap-bass-heavy disco excursion “Wan Dence” and the techno-organic kick/snare hurricane “Pariscyde” are masterclasses in how to screw around with house drum patterns without actually derailing their motion. And at their most audacious, like the lively yet contemplative acid house workout “Neptune,” they push that characteristic filter-disco tendency into the kind of hazy echoscapes that give your third eye as much of a workout as your lower body.

Disco Forever (The Sound of Underground Disco)

Dimitri from Paris
Disco Forever (The Sound of Underground Disco) cover

For someone as integral to the French house scene as Dimitri Yerasimos — a man credited for helming the first dedicated house music radio program to hit the nation’s airwaves in 1986 — it’s a little elusive trying to find that particular touch in his own headline albums, which are a bit more downbeat and chillout-room jazzy compared to the uptempo likes of peers like Daft Punk or Alan Braxe. But while Sacrebleu won people over with its distinctly jet-set-’60s approach, he made just as important an impact as a curator and remixer of the classic disco that served as French house’s most distinctive reference point. Disco Forever (The Sound Of Underground Disco) is one of a handful of mixes he helmed in the early ’00s that digs deep enough into the roots that it sounds less like a lesson in influence than a blueprint for a distinct sensibility — one that skirts kitsch, but foregrounds unabashed emotion and the sense that disco’s strengths lie in its international cross-pollination. And it’s not just that most of this stuff he unearths is illuminating just because it’s obscure — cult classics like Love Committee’s Philly jam “Just As Long As I Got You” and the Universal Robot Band’s “Barely Breaking Even” are outliers amidst mostly-forgotten but fascinating alternate-universe curios like Pat Lundy’s soul-jazz-goes-disco version of “Work Song” and La Charanga 76’s Latin take on “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now.” It’s that he uses this opportunity to point out just how much there really was out there to draw from beyond the usual touchstones, a collection that expands the parameters of dance music instead of just codifying and canonizing it. And if some of this seems a bit revisionist, Dimitri’s revisions can be spectacular: the way he takes Silver, Platinum and Gold’s cathartic, screaming-with-frustration unrequited-love jam “I Got a Thing” from its terse two-minutes-and-change origins into a 12”-length, Paradise Garage-worthy workout should be studied by anyone who’s ever wanted to figure out how an edit can turn a good song into a stunning one.

The Upper Cuts (2023 Edition)

Various Artists, Alan Braxe, Fred Falke
The Upper Cuts (2023 Edition) cover

Stardust’s one-off 1998 single “Music Sounds Better With You” is widely and rightly considered one of the great masterpieces of French house, a deceptively simple sample flip of 1981 Chaka Khan classic “Fate” that singer Benjamin Diamond gave an indelible new voice to. And while the involvement of Thomas Bangalter gave it a bit of a boost thanks to Daft Punk’s recent success, it was in tandem with Alan Braxe, who’d just scored an early entry in the catalogue of Bangalter’s Roulé label with 1997’s choppy-yet-slippery “Vertigo.” Braxe’s reputation as one of the undersung yet pivotal architects of the French house sound is given a strong showing on The Upper Cuts, a collection of singles, remixes, and collaborations (particularly with frequent collaborator Fred Falke) that exhibit how effective he is at getting a lot from a little. It’s as though he’s able to zone in on a snippet of sound that holds a familiar weight — an infectious arpeggio, some glowing analog-synth chords, a kick/snare pattern that pushes rhythms forward with intricate yet efficient momentum — and ride it until it transforms from a loose evocation of retro-disco tropes into a sense-memory-driven sweep of emotion-stirring warmth. In pop mode, it’s giddy with joy; his remix of Shakedown’s 2002 house smash “At Night” is such an effective conflation of early synth-disco, Hi-NRG, synthpop, and house that it’s beside the point to even dissect its lineage when the impact is so direct. (The ascent to the moment where Terra Deva’s voice finally emerges after nearly three minutes of build — whew.) And his collabs with Falke — the chuckling arpeggios of “Most Wanted”; the faux-live Cerrone in Concert new wave flirtation of “Arena”; the stargazing cousin to Daft Punk’s “Voyager” that is “Palladium” —  are total floor-fillers. One even gives “Music Sounds Better With You” an unlikely run for its money:  the soaring choirs of the innocuously-titled “Intro,” sourced from the Jets’ “Crush On You” and phased until they melt, might be the most disarmingly pretty sound on any track to emerge out of French house’s first wave, all while Falke’s bassline drops in to give that disco kick-clap rhythm the touch of god.

Lucky Boy at Night

DJ Mehdi
Lucky Boy at Night cover

The number of French Touch artists who came up through hip-hop is bigger than you might expect, and DJ Mehdi was one of the leading lights who embodied the idea that this connection could go further than both genres’ traditional constraints. He’d contributed beats to some of the same MC Solaar albums as Cassius (nee La Funk Mob), concocted his own tribute to J Dilla’s Donuts (2006’s Loukoums), and got some trans-Atlantic daps from backpacker faves like K-OS and Vinia Mojica on his 2002 debut full-length (The Story Of) Espion. But 2006’s Lucky Boy was where he really came into his own as the Ed Banger roster’s resident b-boy eclecticist, and the following year’s remix/expansion Lucky Boy At Night is its best version — even though it’s also a bittersweet experience, considering it now sounds like the early stages of a stylistic progression that was cut short by Mehdi’s accidental death in 2011. It’s still a very all-hands work: the standout cut, a minute-and-change blip on the original Lucky Boy that gets a bit more breathing room here, is Thomas Bangalter’s hyperfidgety edit of Mehdi’s piano-chord-chainsawing ultrabanger “Signatune,” while the appeal of Chromeo-aided arch boogie-funk teamup “I Am Somebody (Paris Version)” lie in how readily he’s able to integrate their own signature tics and quirks into his own comprehensive vision of electro-hip-house. (And then Kenny Dope gets to remix it into a classic piece of New York house — hell yeah.) And that vision thankfully also accounts for a perspective that refuses hierarchical coolness in favor of enthusiastic crowdpleasing. Chirpy Arthur Baker-on-uppers electro (“Boggin’”), proto-synthwave John Carpenter poplock (“Pony Rocking”), and Ke$ha-esque sleaze-pop feints (“Lucky Girl”) all get to be part of the same set as a taut workout of Spirit of ’73 block party breaks (“Wee Bounce”) and a frothy if good-natured Prince homage (“Hot-o-Momo”). Lucky Boy at Night might not have gotten its proper due at first, arriving in the midst of Ed Banger’s contentious role as French touch agents provocateurs, but in retrospect it’s one of the most easy-to-love albums the label ever put out — its only truly glaring flaw is that Mehdi never got to properly follow it up.

Synthèse

Pépé Bradock
Synthèse cover

As central as classic disco and funk were to French house, its best practitioners reached far outside those boundaries to build up their tracks. Julien Auger knew this well — he’d played guitar in jazz-funk bands and had DJ gigs for rap crews before getting into house in the early ’90s — and his work under the alias Pépé Bradock bore that out. Synthèse is one of those house albums that’s riddled with odd little club-culture detours into eclecticism, an approach that makes it feel halfway between French touch’s wheelhouse and the more everything-at-hand sprawl of big beat. Brief cuts like Pete Rock-esque jazz-hop boom-bap interludes “Un pépé dans la dentelle” and “A/R” or the 70-second lovers’ rock/dub homage “100% Coton” feel more like skits than integral deep cuts — but they still serve as reminders that Auger’s not too beholden to the idea of house as a formula. This impulse hits a bizarre peak with the largely beatless ambient-prog hybrid “Un pepe qui bugge,” a nearly seven-minute track with a bewildering prominence midway through the record that almost serves as a total palate cleanser before the back half regroups into a succession of club bangers. But it’s not like those bangers are all that conventional, either. Synthèse takes the filter house that provided the regional flavor of the moment and exploits its breadth of moods from guitar-pierced disco-rock (“Atom Funk”) to lowrider-Citroën boogie (“5500”), wistfully soulful glides (“Lara”) to cybernetically libidinous throbs (“Wonderbra”), cosmopolitan jazz-funk reveries  (“18 Carats”) to garage-adjacent synapse-poppers (“The Charter”).

Alive 2007

Daft Punk
Alive 2007 cover

Ten years after the “electronica” boom and their debut album Homework ushered them onto the international stage, Daft Punk had overcome an initial industry skepticism over the commercial feasibility of dance music to become the godfathers of its mass-success rebranding as EDM. And this was their victory lap: a staggering live set, recorded in the midst of their legendary 2006-07 Alive Tour, that turned their own body of work into the best possible remix of itself. Tweaking the traditions of both DJ mixes and live-band sets until they blur into each other, the Paris homecoming performance captured by Alive 2007 turns their discography inside-out with surprising but fitting juxtapositions that distill all their supposedly disparate elements. The eclectic house fundamentals of Homework, the nostalgic-yet-enduring pop euphoria of Discovery, even the once-derided abrasive mechanical grind of Human After All are streamlined into a panoramic view of their own idea of a signature sound. And that leads to some fun revelations — in part, just how thoroughly it redeems the Human After All material that initially seemed like grim, repetitious martial slogs. It’s a real aha moment hearing how the glowering, viscous stomp of “Steam Machine” is stitched into the cathartic joy of Discovery closer “Too Long” to create a stunning push-pull between those two supposedly at-odds moods, or how the medley that segues from the busted-hydraulic lurch of “The Prime Time of Your Life” and the relentless electro-thrash riffage of “The Brainwasher” melts into pressurized Homework highlights “Rollin’ and Scratchin’” and “Alive” reveals just how common that undercurrent of noisy havoc always was in their work. And the disco-loving, pop-friendly side of them benefits, too, fusing favorites like “One More Time”/”Aerodynamic” or “Around the World”/”Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” into crossfaded conversations with themselves that find as much fascinating contrast as commonality — all delivered with the kind of immaculately timed, crowd-thrilling peak-after-peak momentum that no Vegas-residency DJ could even dream of touching.

Installation Sonore

Rinôçérôse
Installation Sonore cover

Moby wasn’t the only artist from a rock background to drop one of dance music’s biggest crossover moves of 1999 — matter of fact, he wasn’t even the only one on his label to do so. But while his V2 labelmates in Rinôçérôse didn’t hit even remotely the same level of critical acclaim or TV-spot omnipresence with Installation Sonore as Play got, it pulls off a lot of the same moves to both brasher and more upbeat effect. Guitars are front and center here, as core members Jean-Philippe Freu and Patrice Carrié made a lateral move from their stints in alt-rock bands to create a riff-heavy approach to house music that almost sounded like house done on rock’n’roll’s terms. The almost is key here; programmer/mixer Johnny Palumbo never lets up with the supple, kick-heavy 4-on-the-floor, the guitars more frequently lean towards chicken-scratch funk and upscale disco-soul than trad-rock, stuff that doesn’t sound all that distant from what, say, Dennis Coffey or Leroy “Sugarfoot” Bonner might’ve been doing along the lines of “Scorpio” or “Fopp” if they’d came up a generation later. And the novelty of live instrumentation’s crossover potential eventually recedes into the more upfront purpose of maintaining a strong dance groove; cuts like opener “La Guitaristic House Organisation” and “Le Mobilier” lean into the guitar not as a genre signifier but as a vehicle for a tonal, filtered distortion not too dissimilar in spirit from analog-synth squelches. It’s a bit more evident when they digress from club mode to wax eclectic: the chirpy bossa burble of the acoustic-led “Mes vacances à Rio” (with a show-stealing jazz flute solo from Franck Gauthier), the Air-y swoon of “Popular Mechanics” (which builds its subtle waviness into a Madchester-y psych-dub crescendo) and the blues-rock deconstruction “I Love ma guitare” — which one-ups the po-faced reverence of Play by having the chutzpah to weld its slide guitar to a rhythm you could trace back to New Jack swing.

Super Discount

Etienne de Crécy
Super Discount cover

Even as time and the whims of fame have threatened to relegate this project to the status of one of those if you know you know scenesters-only semi-obscurities, it’s hard to overstate the impact of Étienne de Crécy’s Super Discount series on French house. That influence might sound a little scattershot at first, though it’s partially a natural side effect of the collaborative aspect to the project and how many different takes on the sound are on display under de Crécy’s guiding hand. The downtempo contingent is given more prominence than you might expect; de Crécy’s laconic  “Affaires A Faire” (pseudonymously credited to La Chatte Rouge) combines syrupy easy-listening strings with hard-hitting but otherwise restrained drum breaks, while his remix of Air’s pre-Moon Safari curio “Soldissimo” sounds like their early single “Casanova 70” versioned into a more apprehensive and sour version of itself. And for every excursion into immersive, phase-warped dubby bass-throbbing house like his orchestral Isaac Hayes-invoking “Le Patron est Devenu Fou” or Alex Gopher’s glimmering Euroboogie co-production “Super Disco,” there’s a cut like the rubbery “Liquidation Totale” or the tropical-lounge zone-out of “Les 10 Jours Fous” that suffuses the groove with a sense of louche, eyebrow-arching pseudosophistication that almost seems to take the piss out of velvet-rope refinement and the idea of long-term scenester posterity. After all, this is a comp where nearly every track title comes from the kind of slogans that retail stores use when they’re advertising Going Out of Business sales — a unifying theme based around de Crécy’s tongue-in-cheek idea to create cheap, “disposable” dance music that didn’t take a lot of effort or labor to crank out and wasn’t really meant to last. Given how good a lot of this stuff still sounds, it’s worth congratulating him on his failure.