A Controlled Lunacy: Brigitte Fontaine's Manic French Pop

French pop's most peculiar figure has been baffling and delighting audiences for decades with her challenging blend of global music styles.

Brigitte Fontaine shouldn’t have had a place in pop music history, if everything was based purely on convention alone. She didn’t really look the part, rebuffing the coy, feminine mystique that surrounded her other contemporaries in the French music market for a tomboyish, sometimes asexual look. She most certainly didn’t sound the part; her music a strange, garish hue on the canvas of delicate '60s French pop. And her aura beamed in from another planet, some outlandish world where horror, humour, rhythm, desire, beauty and love collided in a fatal fusion of sound and fury.

Indeed, she was at once an oddity and a welcome presence that could only belong to the French. If you listen to her works, you may be struck by the tonal registers of her elastic voice. Sometimes her vocals stretch endlessly in a marathon of heat and breath, rushing forward toward a vanishing point of artistic desire and invention. Other times, her voice shatters with the force of smashed glass; a song of pure melody quickly becomes a halting rhythm of harmonious assault. Whatever drumbeat Fontaine marches to, whatever tune is buzzing in her head, we are privy to it, in all of its messy, undulating and sensuous glory. We get to hear it all. And it isn’t always easy listening.

Born in 1939, Fontaine began her music explorations first in the theatre; she had started to learn the ropes of her vocal dynamics and onstage interaction, a working base which would provide the artist with training ground for her complex future work. Here, at such esteemed venues like the Bobino (one of France’s long-running and most popular music halls), Fontaine would begin to develop her understanding of artistic-transmission, an exchange of enigma which had the singer trading her strange bemusings for the audience’s bewilderment.

Her collaboration with the much more straightforward Jacques Higelin (a protest pop-singer with much renown in France) resulted in a stage play at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, the appropriately-titled Maman j'ai peur (Mother, I’m Scared). The play was popular enough, but when Fontaine struck out on her own as a music artist in her own right, the rewards were endlessly reaped – even if her undertaking of reframing French pop wasn’t always completely understood by the general public.

Around the mid-'60s, Fontaine would release what were her most conventional albums; her debut consisted of mostly typical “yé-yé” girl pop, the kind that was normally penned by the prolific Serge Gainsbourg and usually sung by Françoise Hardy, France Gall or Sylvie Vartan. It was a pleasant enough debut, which pretty much featured arrangements that typified the yé-yé movement and was formatted for radio.

On her 1968 follow-up, Brigitte Fontaine Est…Folle (Brigitte Fontaine Is…Mad), things got a little weirder. Still employing the familiar structure of pop music (recognizable rhythms, hummable tunes), Fontaine graffitied over the gloss with an approach and style that was incredibly alien. The structures may have been firm and intact, but she coloured out of the lines. Sometimes the arrangements were skewed in such a way so they could stretch with her keening vocals, swaying to and fro with a gentle wayward force. Brigitte Fontaine Est…Folle was incredibly lush, an unfolding blanket of sensual pleasures. Comme à la radio (Like the Radio), however, was jarring, abstract and hopelessly confusing – and it cemented the artist as one of France’s most thrilling, daring and experimental provocateurs. French pop would never be the same.

Recorded with the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Areski Belkacem (a Berber musician from Algeria whom Fontaine would continue to work with in the years to come), Comme à la radio, released in 1971, was the pronouncement of a woman who was fed up with the ways in which radio formatted both music and women. Comme à la radio played around with convention, rhythm and melody, indeed, but Fontaine herself was most certainly not playing around. She intended for a difficult and challenging listening. And that is what we got.

Comme à la radio featured a new strain of influence that came courtesy of Belkacem: polyrhythmic drumming and percussion, which gave the album an almost tribal, ethnic pulse. The album was infused with the sounds of African drums, refracted through the angular jazz of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Often, the rhythms and melodies were at odds with one another; an upright bass drawing circles with a fluid tune of warmth before having to play catch-up with the rash of drumbeats that were pounded on the skins of djembes.

In the midst of it all, Fontaine – the mystic concierge of homebased musicians from around the globe – kept the underpinnings secured with her poetry: fractured and lucid ramblings containing the heart of her personal, human story. On the judgement of Comme à la radio alone, Fontaine may have been the first woman to introduce a world-music consciousness to France and, perhaps, the rest of Europe, as well.

The singer would continue her afro-pop musings on her follow-up to Comme à la radio, her self-titled release Brigitte Fontaine, once again working with Belkacem who provided the exotic instrumentation. Brigitte Fontaine (1972), pushed in either direction, caught between the popular, traditional chanson of her home country and the earthy rhythms of Africa and beyond. More art-pop than global-pop, Fontaine’s self-titled release preferred a softer, domestic homebody romance than the adventurous travels of Comme à la radio.

Throughout the '70s, the artist would continue a successful streak of material that further explored the more bizarre dynamics of pop music, pulling from jazz and world music equally to create a sonic universe that was as fascinating and exhilarating as it was disturbing. Fontaine’s collaboration with Belkacem during the '70s culminated in her most critically lauded release, Vous et Nous (1977), a double-album that explored electronic textures, employing synthesizers and processed drums for a sound that was definitive of the burgeoning new wave scene that would eventually follow punk. In essence, Fontaine arrived at a place before there was even a place to arrive at.

A long stretch of absence followed Vous et Nous, and the singer was not heard from by the French public for almost 13 years. In reality, Fontaine returned to theatre, published a novel and continued working on music privately until 1990, with the release of French Corazon. The album had been composed years prior but had only found distribution later and, this time, the artist was completely reinvented for the new decade. French Corazon would see the artist toying with more conventional pop-rock rhythms, trading in the exotic instruments of her '70s albums for blazing guitars and standard rock n’ roll drums.

Still, her abstract designs on pop had not been completely eradicated from her musical blueprints. The album featured one of her oddest compositions to date, "Le Nougat”, a stark, continental groove full of Arabic percussion, Latin sway and a sensuously cool air swept in from Corsica Island. The song’s lyric described an even stranger story: A woman finds an elephant in her shower one morning and the kindly beast demands she give him a candy nougat. Other tracks on French Corazon honoured the traditional songs of the artist’s homeland, like the moody and somber piece “Leila”, in which the singer was accompanied with only an accordion, an instrument synonymous with French chanson.

Later works, like the 1995 release Genre Humain, introduced samples and hip-hop loops into her multifarious work. She was aiming for a commercial pop market, but was bringing along a bag of tricks that the jaded market was not entirely expecting. Her image and sound was still one that startled and overwhelmed the senses, much in the same way that Björk’s music had done at the time.

Genre Humain’s title-track was the first single and the accompanying video displayed Fontaine’s theatrics in startling, bizarre fashion. Shaven-headed and costumed in a black rubber dress, the singer swans around maniacally in an underground tunnel where she encounters a giant, mysterious sculpture. For the most part, audiences stuck with their tried-and-true pop formulas of the day, perhaps overlooking Genre Humain a little. But those who were listening intently knew Fontaine had a clear vision of vast musical horizons that only she could see.

Subsequent albums would follow, further exploring the many offshoots of electronic music, including jungle and trip-hop, in addition to her previous dalliances with afro-beat and jazz. All along, bands like Stereolab were taking note. Stereolab had already written an homage to the Frenchwoman’s artistic sensibilities and she collaborated with Sonic Youth for her album Kekeland (2001). Still a marginal figure in commercial pop terms, Fontaine exuded magnificent force as an influential artist with strong appeal to many artists outside of France.

Today, Brigitte Fontaine continues to write and record her fantastic-realities of pop music. Whether using African drums, a jazz riff or culling beats from the noodlings of an MPC drum machine sampler, her work continues to provoke, inspire and challenge. Now, at the age of 74, the septuagenarian remains on the pulse of invention, far ahead of her time than any artist has a right to be.

In hindsight, one can see how Fontaine served as a reference point for equally inspiring performers like Kate Bush, Björk and Meredith Monk. It was never the notoriety, the look or even her enigmatic aura that kept her afloat all these years. It was the presence of mind and determination to continuously create something new, to challenge listeners in curious, thought-provoking ways. And to ultimately dispel the illusion of pop music with yet another illusion: her own version of our collective realities. In Fontaine, we see, feel and hear the sound of lunacy harnessed.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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