Serge Gainsbourg’s 20 greatest recordings – ranked!

<span>Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

20. Aux Enfants de la Chance (1987)

A man who existed in a state of permanent dissipation and an equally permanent cloud of Gitanes smoke, Serge Gainsbourg wasn’t really in a position to be lecturing anyone on self-destructive habits. But let’s overlook the anti-drug message here, and instead wallow in the sweet sadness of its tune, among the finest of his final years.

19. Couleur Café (1964)

Feeling trapped by the confines of French pop, but unwilling to go down the yé-yé route (yet), Gainsbourg released Percussions, its stark, experimental sound, African and Cuban rhythms and Miriam Makeba-inspired backing vocals decades ahead of their time for a European artist. It’s packed with highlights, the airily pretty Couleur Café among them.

18. Requiem pour un Twister (1962)

Like a lot of artists in France’s chanson tradition, Gainsbourg was initially cagey about rock’n’roll: on 1964’s Chez les Yé-Yé, its clubs are useful merely as a place to pick up young girls; on the appealingly creepy, jazz-influenced Requiem pour un Twister, its subject has literally danced themselves to death.

17. La Chanson de Slogan (1969)

The theme from the film that first paired Gainsbourg with Jane Birkin minted their duet style: dramatic orchestration, killer melody, a funky swing to the rhythm track, Birkin singing in a cracked, fragile “choirgirl’s voice”, and Gainsbourg mumbling breathily in a way that sounded filthy, even if you couldn’t understand the words.

16. Comme un Boomerang (1974)

Comme un Boomerang was rejected as France’s 1975 Eurovision entry – too aggressive and sexual, apparently – and went unheard until Etienne Daho recorded it in 2001. Gainsbourg’s original was finally released in 2011, a prime example of his early 70s purple patch: brooding but blessed with an amazing cyclical melody.

15. Je T’aime … Moi Non Plus (1969)

Gainsbourg’s solitary UK success was more complex than a mere smutty novelty single: the stately churchiness of its music at odds with all the panting, the weird lyrics (“I come and go between your kidneys”), the title borrowed from Salvador Dalí. It made Gainsbourg briefly famous but blinded the anglophone world to his oeuvre’s real richness.

14. Baudelaire (1962)

Gainsbourg was never a straightforward chansonnier – his early albums offered a sound blending intelligent, sardonic chanson with jazz that ranged in style from cool school to bop. Baudelaire is a perfect example: melancholy ambience, brass and woodwind over a languid Latin American rhythm, lyrics borrowed from the titular poet’s La Serpent Qui Danse.

13. L’Eau à la Bouche (1960)

Early on, Gainsbourg embarked on a parallel career writing film soundtracks that lasted until his death, with his work on Jacques Donoil-Valcroze’s comedy L’Eau à la Bouche: that the soundtrack sold better than his standard releases as a singer-songwriter might have been linked to the film’s success or the sighing gorgeousness of its title song.

Related: ‘A very arranged mess’: Serge Gainsbourg’s Paris home to open to public

12. Cannabis (1970)

Gainsbourg’s soundtrack work was flatly brilliant in the late 60s and early 70s, the era of Manon 70, La Horse, Les Chemins de Katmandou. Meanwhile, the theme song from the thriller Cannabis – in which he and Birkin also starred – is terrific: a rare excursion into surprisingly heavy guitars, epic and elegiac.

11. L’Anamour (1969)

Je T’aime … might have been the hit, but there were better songs on the subsequent album Serge Gainsbourg/Jane Birkin, among them L’Anamour, its irresistibly freewheeling mood and blissful-sounding chorus completely at odds with the lyrics, which appear to reflect Gainsbourg’s concern about the potential failure of his burgeoning relationship with Birkin.

10. Aux Armes Et Caetera (1979)

Of all Gainsbourg’s provocations, none created as much outrage as reworking the French national anthem as a reggae track. No matter that it was beautifully done — Sly and Robbie and the I-Threes performed on it — there were death threats, bomb warnings, newspapers demanding he be stripped of his nationality. It sold 1m copies. Job done.

9. Melody (1971)

None of Gainsbourg’s work has proved quite so pervasively influential on anglophone pop as the opening track of Histoire de Melody Nelson: its string arrangement has been mimicked by everyone from Beck to Belle and Sebastian; its dark-hued slow-motion funk hung heavy over dance music of a more chilled persuasion in the 90s and 00s.

Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot.
Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot. Photograph: INA/Getty Images

8. Initials BB (1968)

Gainsbourg’s romance with Brigitte Bardot provoked a glut of songs: Bonnie and Clyde, Je T’aime … Even after it ended – and Gainsbourg had been dissuaded from throwing himself in the Seine – came the fantastic Initials BB, which depicts him moping in a pub, the strings on the chorus evoking his wracked lovelorn intensity.

7. L’Homme à Tete de Chou (1976)

After Histoire de Melody Nelson, L’Homme à Tete de Chou’s saga of lust, murder and madness is Gainsbourg’s second album-length masterpiece. It’s far bleaker, weirder and more eclectic, although its title track – Gainsbourg husking bitterly over an addictive, doom-laden, faintly proggy riff – offers an indication of its dark charms.

6. Serge and Charlotte Gainsbourg – Lemon Incest (1984)

Gainsbourg in full-on troublemaker mode: a duet with his 12-year-old daughter clearly made with the intention of offending everyone in earshot. But, with Gainsbourg, it’s never as simple as mere outrage. Lemon Incest isn’t just deeply unsettling and in wilfully bad taste: most disturbing of all, its Chopin-derived melody is also extraordinarily beautiful.

Related: Charlotte Gainsbourg: ‘Maybe Lars von Trier is capable of that. But he didn’t do it with me’

5. Requiem pour un Con (1968)

The title suggests an example of Gainsbourg’s penchant for publicity-generating provocation – “con” could translate as “idiot”, it could equally mean “cunt” – but the supremely cool, fabulously minimal Gallic funk of Requiem pour un Con offers far more than shock value. Entirely coincidentally, a remix was released 48 hours after Gainsbourg’s death.

4. Je Suis Venu Te Dire que Je M’en Vais (1973)

In a typically perverse move, Gainsbourg opened Vu de l’Exterieur – an album primarily focused on the topics of excrement and breaking wind – with one of his most heartbreaking love songs: inspired by the brush with death that was a recent heart attack, it bids farewell to an utterly lovely melody. (If you haven’t seen Gainsbourg fall apart while a choir of boys dressed as him serenade him with the song, rectify that now.)

3. La Javanaise (1963)

Ironically, a song that seems pretty embedded in French culture – initially a hit for Juliette Greco, it’s subsequently been covered dozens of times – was recorded in England. But its heart was Parisian, the lyrics referencing both a risque dance and a word-game, the soaring melody the musical zenith of Gainsbourg’s chansonnier era.

2. Ballade de Melody Nelson (1971)

Since his death, Histoire de Melody Nelson has been rightly acclaimed as Gainsbourg’s masterpiece: the spoken-word mood pieces that bookend it have been ransacked for inspiration, but the brief, gorgeous second track, its gentle acoustic fingerpicking and cinematic strings repeatedly interrupted by a hook played on bass guitar, is its highlight.

1. Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot – Bonnie and Clyde (1968)

It’s intriguing to compare Bonnie and Clyde to the British hit also inspired by the 1967 Warren Beatty/Faye Dunaway movie. Georgie Fame’s Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde is straightforward period pastiche, complete with trad jazz banjo. Gainsbourg’s song is something else: sultry atmosphere, Brazilian cuíca, ominous strings, Bardot’s tone-deaf duet vocal and a lyric – based on a poem by Bonnie Parker – that its author happily called “immorale”, delving into the fatalism of the duo’s actions, depicting them as fearful victims of “la société”. It’s a strange, intoxicating, inflammatory and incredible four minutes, the product of an entirely unique musical imagination: Gainsbourg en un mot.