25 Songs That Take You to Paris, Straight From Your Couch or Kitchen

Most of us can’t get to Paris at the moment, owing to the global, erm, *situation* that has brought most international travel to a halt. And to paraphrase one of my Parisian friends and fellow writers, even those who live in the city are finding themselves missing it.

After all, for the time being they can’t roam its endlessly riveting streets– at least without serious restrictions. Nor sit with friends out on noisy café terraces. Nor haunt old cinemas, or catch up with favorite vendors at crowded markets.

In short, it’s a strange and deeply unsettling time. Those of us with travel bugs and/or stripes feel especially style-cramped. Luckily, there are a few ways you can get your Parisian fix, right from your couch or while attempting a soufflé in your kitchen (hint: don’t open that oven!)

The Paris Unlocked Playlist

Jacques Brel appears on the Paris Unlocked compilation of songs about Paris that'll transport you straight to the capital.
The legendary Jacques Brel made the playlist. But did you know he’s actually Belgian?

I’ve put together a compilation of over 25 songs that tend to bring me straight to Paris. Hopefully, they’ll do the trick for you too.

They’re not all necessarily about the city, but they’re permeated with it, in ways both subtle and obvious. Some of these “Paris songs” are linked to personal memories and experiences, while others are pure classics that most of you will recognize.

You can listen to the playlist for free here, on Spotify. And in what follows, I offer a few brief comments on what makes the first songs I chose worthy of the cut (in my humble opinion, anyway). I’ll then aim to expand it in the coming months until I cover all the songs on the original playlist.

But I certainly don’t intend for it to be static. Feel free to add suggestions for how I can expand the list in your comments– then watch as it grows and evolves with your input.

Enjoy– and remember, we’ll always have Paris.

1. Paris Combo: On n’a Pas Besoin

Paris Combo tops our list of Paris songs. Why? Parce que.

The opening song from Paris Combo’s eponymous debut album sets the mood for a virtual Parisian evening, with jazzy strings and smooth, gradually intensifying vocals from Belle du Berry.

The French group’s sound echoes numerous influences, from Django Reinhardt to big-band swing, cabaret tunes and Afro-Cuban rhythms.

This track inevitably shuttles me back to a Paris of the early 2000s, when I first moved to the city as a bright-eyed, aspiring writer.

It evokes muggy summer evenings with windows flung open, looking out over the rooftops and marveling at a city that remained mostly unknown to me.

Lines to remember: “On n’a pas besoin de chercher si loin/On trouve ce qu’on veut, à côté d’chez soi (You don’t need to look far/One finds what one wants close to home).

The chorus is ironic, since the song in fact castigates those with unadventurous, closed minds who fear anything or anyone different. But as a “quarantune”, you have to admit that it’s somewhat fitting.

2. Amadou & Mariam: Je Pense à Toi

Amadou & Mariam, Je Pense à Toi single

This is probably one of the most haunting and simple love songs composed in French over the past few decades. It skyrocketed up the charts in France upon its release in 1998.

Written by Malian duo Amadou & Mariam, the song features the former’s earnest, lilting vocals paired with simple percussion and violin. It’s the ballad of anxious, devoted lovers everywhere; those who fear they may have too little to offer and far too much to lose.

It’s Parisian because it conquered the city to become a timeless ballad. It remains played (and drunkenly belted) in melancholy lounges and moody bars, alongside standards like Brel’s “Ne me quitte pas” (see further down).

Lines to remember: “Certains t’ont promis la terre/D’autres promettent le ciel/Il y en a qui t’ont promis la lune/Et moi je n’ai rien que ma pauvre guitare (Some have promised you the earth/Others have promised the sky/Some have promised you the moon/And I’ve nothing [to offer] but my poor guitar)

3. Joni Mitchell: Free Man in Paris

Joni Mitchell/Free Man in Paris single

All-around genius Joni Mitchell wrote this song, the story goes, for her producer and friend David Geffen. The second track on her 1974 double-platinum album Court and Spark, the song tells the story of a frayed, overworked executive who can’t get away from the demands of aspiring stars.

But he finds freedom, of course, in the anonymous streets of the French capital.

This is one of Mitchell’s lighter, more playful tracks, perhaps because she’s putting herself in someone else’s shoes and is clearly having fun with it.

It features catchy guitars and jazzy refrain centered around woodwinds. Graham Nash and David Crosby are on background vocals.

Lines to remember: “If I had my way, I’d just walk through those doors/And wander down the Champs-Elysées/Goin’ café to cabaret/Wonderin’ how I’ll feel when I find/That very good friend of mine…

On a side note, I prefer imagining Joni herself wandering down the “Champs”. But I’d also like to tell her that it’s really not the most interesting place to be if you hope to get an even remotely local experience of the city…

4. Yann Tiersen: Monochrome

Yann Tiersen, Le Phare

Yann Tiersen rose to fame by composing numerous songs from the Amelie soundtrack (and one is featured further down in this playlist, by the way). But it’s his third studio album Le Phare (1998) that I’ve always found the most compelling. Incidentally, three songs from the album were added to the aforementioned soundtrack.

“Monochrome”, track number three, is the only song on the album with lyrics in (a charmingly pronounced and syntactically poetic) English.

It features vocals from French songwriter and Tiersen collaborator Dominique A, as well as swelling violin, a small, tinkling bell, and accordions that (for once) don’t irritate the s&[email protected] out of me.

Lines to remember: “I am piling up some unread books under my bed/ and I really think I’ll never read again/No concentration, just a white disorder everywhere around me, you know I’m so tired now/Don’t worry, I often go to dinners and parties/ with some old friends who care for me, take me back home and stay/Monochrome floors, monochrome walls, only absence near me/nothing but silence around me…”

During some of my moodier and darker days in Paris (and there were a few), Tiersen’s song seemed a fitting anthem indeed.

Paris is known as the ville grisatre (grey city) par excellence, especially in the eyes of French people who live outside the capital. And on a rainy, short November day, this is the mood that tends to reign there.

5. Jeff Buckley covering Edith Piaf: Je n’en connais pas la fin (live)

This is probably my favorite cover from the late, great Jeff Buckley: a brilliant, haunted version of Edith Piaf’s “Je n’en connais pas la fin”, appearing on Buckley’s powerful Live at Siné album.

Lines to remember: “I can’t forget my little square/Even though I’m so far away/I can’t forget my little fair/Maybe she’s still there, still there today/I sometimes hear that little tune/Playing in a dream of long ago…/And in my brain/runs the refrain/that old French refrain/I used to know…/Oh mon amour…”

This hits the nostalgic spot in my own brain, on so many levels. I discovered Buckley during my first year living in France– in Lyon, rather than in Paris. His albums were a constant presence in the years that followed.

And this song in particular creates an aching sense of homesickness for a city where I no longer live (save a couple of precious months a year.) It particularly makes me think of Belleville, the quartier Piaf is likely referencing in her original song, and where I lived for many years.

I also am inevitably moved by the respect and indebtedness with which Buckley takes up Piaf’s legacy. It’s rare for a male musician to cover female artists with such reverence, but when Buckley breaks out into a falsetto on the chorus, singing O mon amour…., there’s something eerie about how he almost channels his predecessor.

It’s one of the reasons why I will always lament that the world lost him so early, and far too soon.

6. Marc Lavoine & Souad Massi: Paris

Marc Lavoine and Souad Massi, "Paris", a song about the cruelty of the city for some of the most vulnerable residents

This stirring duet from French songwriter Marc Lavoine and native Algerian/now-Parisian musician Souad Massi has stayed with me ever since it featured in an ad for a city-wide cinema event years ago. It’s an adaptation of the original song written by Lavoine, and his collaboration with Massi makes it even more powerful.

With moving vocals, Spanish-style guitar and percussion that draws on North African traditions, the song imagines the city as a sort of cruel suitor.

This is a Paris that heartlessly discards and stamps on vulnerable residents, who remain devoted to the city and plead that they’ll do anything for it, as they drift from cafes to cinemas, hotels to boulevards.

Lines to remember: “Paris Paris combien?/Paris tu ce que tu veux/Boulevards des bouleversés/Paris tu m’as renversé/Paris tu m’as laissé ” (Paris, Paris, how much?/Paris, anything you want/Boulevards of the devastated/Paris, you ran me over/Paris, you left me behind)

This is one of several songs on the playlist that cast the French capital as an unforgiving object of love. Listen to it alongside “Paris Nous Nourrit, Paris Nous Affame” by La Rumeur (track 18).

7. Françoise Hardy: Le Temps de l’Amour

Video from Francoise Hardy, "Le Temps de l'Amour"

Pivoting back to a more relaxed and nostalgic mode, let’s turn now to a classic track from Françoise Hardy, the genuine darling of 1960s France. (You may think it’s Brigitte Bardot, but Hardy has a more positive legacy, not least since Bardot is now a vocal racist and xenophobe who campaigns for the far-right in France.)

Opening with surf-style guitar, the track is pure summer insouciance and youthful nostalgia. Hardy, with her deep yet effortlessly poppy voice, announces that “this is the time of love, friends and adventure”– and we’re off.

If this track doesn’t make you think of lazy, dusky evenings along the Seine or the Canal St-Martin, sipping rosé and kisses, I’m not sure what would.

Lines to remember: “Car le temps de l’amour/C’est long et c’est court/Ca dure toujours, on s’en souvient/On se dit qu’ a vingt ans on est le roi du monde/Et qu’ éternellement il y aura dans nos yeux/Tout le ciel bleu.”(Because the time of love/Is long and short/It lasts forever, we’ll remember/At 20 you think you’re the king of the world/And that eternally/the whole blue sky/will be in our eyes”)

Part of the charm of the song is that it implicitly either looks back on youth’s belief in its own eternity, or shows a rare moment when youth becomes conscious of its fleeting nature.

But screw the ponderous analysis. It’s fun. C’est tout.

8. Edith Piaf: C’était une Histoire d’Amour

You may have guessed that at least one classic track performed by the legendary Edith Piaf would make it into the top 10– and you were correct. While “La Vie en Rose” is probably her most-recognized song (see the cover from Dalida further down on the playlist), “C’était une histoire d’amour” (It Was a Love Story) is probably my favorite.

It admittedly helps that accordions are refreshingly absent from this 1943 song. It’s a relatively pared-back composition whose semi-muted, jazzy strings complement Piaf’s robust vocals.

The song tells the story of a love affair come and gone, with the present-day “chagrin” worth the joys of the past.

It’s a wistful, deeply moving portrait of someone surveying the ashes of un amour perdu, but proving the truism that “It’s better to have loved and lost…”

Lines to remember: “Mais quand les histoires sont trop jolies/Ça ne peut pas durer toujours…/C’était une histoire d’amour/Ma part de joie ma part de fête/Il a bien fallu qu’elle s’achète/Pour me faire un chagrin d’amour.” (But when {love} stories are too pretty/They can‘t last forever/It was a love story/My share of joy, my share of celebration/It had to spend itself/To give me heartache)

After listening to the track, consider taking a self-guided tour of Edith Piaf’s Paris. It works well as a virtual exploration, too.

More Tracks: Listen to the Paris Unlocked Playlist on Spotify

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A thoughtfully curated playlist of Paris songs to take you there virtually, from Paris Unlocked

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