Here are my highly subjective thoughts about Brel’s best (and worst) albums!
For the sake of this list, I’ve cut it down to 10″s between Brel No. 1 – No. 5 and 12″s from ‘Les Bourgeois’ to ‘Les Marquises’ – 14 albums in total.
To rank the albums, each track was scored out of 5, and then the total score was divided by the amount of tracks on the album, and a point was taken or added depending on the album’s overall consistency.
14 – Ne Me Quitte Pas (1972)
Rating: 1.7 out of 5.
I’ll be honest, this album is definitely the least listened to in my collection. My vinyl copy hasn’t even been taken out of its factory seal. Here, Brel revisits some of his past hits and introduces a new, soft-pop sound. The result is a completely unnecessary collection of songs with inferior music, and inferior vocals – Brel sounds harsh and strained on the record.
Best song: ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’ (‘Don’t Leave Me’)
The retrospective attempt at ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’ doesn’t beat the original, but it is a fantastic and emotional performance. In fact, this version is more popular than the original on streaming sites like YouTube where it has received upwards of 30 million listens.
Worst song: ‘Le Moribond’ (‘The Dying Man’)
This version of ‘Le Moribond’ is closer to ‘Seasons In The Sun’ than the much superior original…
13 – Jacques Brel – No. 3 (1958)
Rating: 2.9 out of 5.
Though this album includes some of Brel’s best compositions (songs such as ‘Dors Ma Mie’, ‘Demain L’On Se Marie’, ‘Au Printemps’ and ‘Litanies Pour Un Retour’), what lets it down is the inconsistency – perhaps due to Brel switching between Andre Popp and Francois Rauber’s orchestras throughout the record. This lack of cohesion makes for a very disjointed listen, and tracks like ‘Dors Ma Mie’ – which utilise sophisticated string arrangements and swelling refrains – jar uncomfortably with simpler songs like ‘Le Colonel’.
Best song: ‘Dors Ma Mie’ (‘Sleep, My Dear’)
This disarmingly soft song sounds like a typical 50s love song, yet the lyrics here see the narrator singing to his sleeping lover about leaving her before she wakes up.
Worst song: ‘Dites, Si C’Etait Vrai’ (‘Say, If It Was True’)
This song really sticks out as the sore thumb of the album – the spoken word poem that questions Christianity may have been groundbreaking at the time in its upfront brutality, but doesn’t really add to the album’s already apparent lack of cohesion.
12 – Jacques Brel – No. 5
Rating: 3.5 out of 5.
Although this album contains some of my favourite Brel songs, like No. 3 it is also marred by inconsistencies which mean that the album when listened to as a whole lacks the coherence of Brel’s best albums. Particularly jarring is the Latin American style that is used to great effect on a third of the tracks, but seems strange when contrasted with the chanson style used on the album’s remaining tracks. That said, most of the songs are fantastic and Brel’s experiment with the Latin rhythms is particularly interesting.
Best song: ‘Les Singes’ (‘The Apes’)
‘Les Singes’ is perhaps the best example of Brel’s humour and lyrical prowess. Here, the singer pokes fun at the destructive nature of humans, comparing them to hairless apes that seek to cause oppression and destruction. What starts as harmless fun quickly escalates into something more sinister as the topic changes from censorship and Lent to napalm bombs and gas chambers.
Worst song: ‘Le Prochain Amour’ (‘The Next Love’)
This song is pleasant enough, however it’s relatively dull when compared to Brel’s other songs on the same theme.
11 – Jacques Brel Et Ses Chansons (1954)
Rating: 3.5 out of 5.
This isn’t necessarily a bad album – the reason it features so low on this list is purely because Brel went on to produce much better and more groundbreaking albums. The style here ranges from French jazz to harpsichord-led chanson, and the lyrics are dark, and somewhat startling.
That said, this is an essential album for anyone looking to start listening to Brel’s music, as it shows his developing songwriting ability in its formative stage.
Best song: ‘Le Diable’ (‘The Devil’)
‘Le Diable’ is a striking piece that begins with a spoken word introduction about the devil spying on mankind, before coming to the conclusion that human behaviour will lead to more souls being sent to hell.
Worst song: ‘Sur La Place’ (‘In The Square’)
This is a fairly simple song in which Brel utilises the scene of a young girl’s singing and dancing in the town square being ignored by prudish onlookers. While pleasant enough, it lacks the character and drama of the other songs on the album.
10 – Les Bourgeois (1962)
Rating: 3.6 out of 5.
In 10th place is Brel’s first 12″ release with Barclays Records, which contains two of Brel’s most endearing songs: ‘Le Play Pays’ and ‘Madeleine’.
‘Le Plat Pays’ is Brel’s homage to his home country, which was often a controversial theme in his work (‘Les Flamandes’, ‘La, La, La…). Here, instead of the relentless anti-Flemish attitude we see Brel strike a more conciliatory tone – although he does say that the Belgian sky is so grey that it makes the canals want to hang themselves…
That is more interesting about this album, however, is Brel’s intelligent wit – best heard on the sarcastic “Casse Pompon” and “Rosa”. In the former, Brel sings mockingly of the Germans and their troubled history – speculating that they look back on their Nazi past with fondness about a time when “Berlin was a bed of flows stretching from Moscow to the Auvergne” and they could march through Paris in springtime singing dirty songs. In “Rosa”, Brel uses wordplay effectively – the refrain mirrors the rhyme taught to Latin students, as the narrator sings a reminiscent song about a childhood crush on his cousin.
Best song: ‘Les Paumes Du Petit Matin’ (‘The Lost Ones Of The Early Morning’)
‘Les Paumes…’ perfectly captures a mood the majority of us have all experienced – the end of a long night of drinking when the party’s gone on longer than anticipated, yet a few people are insisting that the evening continues into the early hours of morning. We all know the types of people Brel describes here – pretentious young people who speak of art and poetry they are working on but never seem to materialise, who use ‘culture’ as a tool to persuade people into sleeping with them…
Worst song: ‘Chanson Sans Paroles’ (‘Song Without Lyrics’)
The song is let down by its atonal singing, which may fit the concept of the song (“Why should I write this song for you when you don’t love me?”) but doesn’t make for pleasant listening.
9 – L’Olympia (1961)
Rating: 3.8 out of 5.
Brel’s live performances bring even more energy and charisma to his songs. Presented here is pretty much a ‘greatest hits’ collection of Brel’s best songs so far. Brel’s residency at the Paris Olympia is now legendary, and the performances contained on this record are taken from a number of shows, bringing together some of the best live performances on record. Furthermore, this stint on the stage helped to to propel Brel into the realm of legendary French-language singers, and cemented his status as one of Europe’s top channsonieres.
While there is little in regards to audience participation, this record is remarkable for the way it portrays Brel as such a master of song so early in his career.
Best song: ‘L’Ivrogne‘ (‘The Drunk’)
L’Ivrogne is one of Brel’s best character performances, as he takes on the role of the drunk man at the bar who wants to spill out his life story to anyone who will listen.
Worst song: ‘Zangra’
This song never really worked on the studio record, and its rambling snare-drum-lead rhythm sticks out like a sore thumb when compared to the rest of the perfect songs on this album.
8 – Olympia ’64 (1964)
Rating: 3.9 out of 5.
The second of three live albums recorded at the Paris Olympia (the third was released posthumously) features the only version of the iconic ‘Amsterdam’ released during Brel’s lifetime. It also features the only recordings of the songs ‘Le Jardins Du Casino’ and ‘Les Timides’, which is why this album beats Olympia 1961 in my opinion.
Also available is an expanded version of the album released on CD which includes songs such as ‘Les Bonbons’, ‘Mathilde’, ‘Au Suivant’ and ‘Madeleine’, making it preferable over the LP.
While the performance captured is fantastic, the album is marred by technical issues such as echo which is intrusive in some places. The ultimate Brel live album is Olympia 1966, Brel’s last performance at the Paris Olympia which was captured on film and recorded for a proposed live album which didn’t see the light of day until a limited cassette release in 1988 (followed by CD in the early 2000s). On this, we hear Brel’s masterful performance accompanied by an orchestra, with intimate performances of ‘Mon Enfance’ and ‘Le Plat Pays’, as well as the best version of ‘Amsterdam’.
Best song: ‘Amsterdam’
Brel’s Bruegelian masterpiece, and the first Brel song that many people become aware of, is a powerful example of Brel’s use of language and crescendo. It is a dramatic piece of poetry which captures mundane moments in sailors’ lives and amplifies them to a status of the upmost importance through the impassioned delivery.
Worst song: ‘Les Timides’ (‘The Timid’)
It’s evident that Brel never recorded ‘Amsterdam’ in the studio because the power of the live version couldn’t be matched in a sterile environment, when Brel’s performance was removed from the actions and drama of the piece. ‘Les Timides’, on the other hand, is the exact opposite. I wonder if its inclusion in the live setlist was to give Brel a chance to recover after ‘Amsterdam’ (its original placement in the concert was directly after this song). ‘Les Timides’ is ironically timid, particularly when following Brel’s most powerful song.
7 – Les Bonbons (1966)
Rating: 3.9 out of 5.
From hereon in are Brel’s unmissable albums, starting with ‘Les Bonbons’.
This collection of songs was created by combining two 10″ albums, so technically it’s a compilation, however it’s the definitive collection of these particular songs.
Here you’ll find Brel at his funniest in songs such as the title track in which the narrator describes taking a female companion on a date and being the perfect gentleman “At eight o’clock… I’ll walk you home…”, only to have her leave him for Leon, a real man.
On this record you’ll also find touching tracks like ‘Lex Vieux’ (‘The Old’), which describes the shrinking world of the aged (and whose lyrics were borrowed by David Bowie in his 1977 song ‘Sons of the Silent Age’). The song centres around a silver clock on the mantlepiece, which is “waiting for you” as it ticks away to infinity. The last line presents a fantastic Brelian twist, where the subject of the song is directed away from the anonymous old person to “us”, reminding the listener that – if they are lucky – they too will be old one day.
Best song: ‘Le Dernier Repas’ (‘The Last Meal’)
“I’ll throw stones at the sky… and shout “God is Dead”… I’ll insult the bourgeois!” exclaims Brel in this dramatic, amusing and ultimately honest portrayal of a man’s dying hours. One cannot help to notice the autobiographical nature of the lyrics, which portray a narrator who values male companionship above his wife (he lists her after his cattle as the things he wants to see at his deathbed) and sings romantic songs at the top of his lungs. The final stanza is a moment of honesty concluding that, despite his prior indifference to his own mortality, in his dying moments he’ll be afraid…
Worst song: ‘J’Amais’
As with most songs that earn the ‘worst song’ title, this song it pleasant enough, but doesn’t have the character of Brel’s greatest.
6 – Jacques Brel – No. 2
Rating: 4.1 out of 5.
Brel’s second album, the ‘Grand Prix Du Disc’ winning Quand On N’A Que L’Amour, is an excellent collection of songs which sees Brel move into jazz and swing territory. Like Jacques Brel Et Ses Chansons, this album is particularly well-rounded, however unlike that debut release the songs are more developed.
Here we see Brel also foray into mock-opera in the fantastically witty ‘L’Air De La Betise’ (‘The Aria of Stupidity’), where the narrator sings to his muse, Lady Stupidity, asking for the power to deceive as she does.
The album’s title track is an iconic French song, and a global hymn of unity. I often refer to it as Brel’s ‘Imagine’. No cover version has ever done it justice.
Also of particular note is ‘Heureux’, which is one of Brel’s lesser known romantic ballads – but one of my favourite. Here, Brel sings of the happiness of lovers that are separated but know that they will meet again.
Best song: ‘Quand On N’A Que L’Amour’ (‘When We Only Have Love’)
One of Brel’s best songs, and one of the best French-language songs ever written. This is an early example of the ‘Brelian Crescendo’, a musical device which sees the complexity, speed and volume of the track and singing increase as the song reaches its climax.
Worst song: ‘Les Bles’
This song sounds like it was leftover from the previous album and doesn’t really fit with the quality of the other songs on this release.
5 – Jacques Brel – ’67 (1967)
Rating: 4.1 out of 5.
Barclay Records initially intended for Brel’s 1967 album to be a live album recorded at the Paris Olympia in 1966, however Brel decided to take to the studio to record Brel ’67 in December 1966. This decision was for the best, and the resulting album contains some of Brel’s best and most challenging songs.
The album starts with the enchanting ‘Mon Enfance’ (‘My Childhood’) – which earns my pick for best song. The song structure mirrors the lyrics – which depict some of Brel’s childhood memories – with the orchestration building up around him as he grows and learns his place in the world. As he reaches his teenage years, the brass section swells triumphantly as he discovers love and beauty, and the barrier of childhood is lifted. The music abruptly stops as Brel announces the beginning of the Second World War, which is punctuated by the orchestra, before concluding: “And… here we are tonight.”
Almost immediately after ‘Mon Enfance’ fades out, the speakers erupt with a fanfare as the comic ‘Le Cheval’ (‘The Horse’) bursts into life. This song is fast-paced and contains some of Brel’s most abrupt criticism of his profession – comparing himself to a trained horse that has been dragged from his stable to perform songs like ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’ every night against his will.
Elsewhere, the stunning string arrangements clash brilliantly with bawdy lyrics. In ‘Le Gaz’ (‘The Gas’), Brel describes a woman’s luxurious living quarters, filled with Buddhas, a big bed, small dogs and big cats – noting that he’s only there to “read the gas”, which turns out to be the codeword that people say when they want to enter the establishment – which is revealed to be a brothel with the fantastic lyrics: “You have tits, just like suns, like fruit, like honey… when you cover them up it goes dark, but when I see them I feel like pegasus.” The song concludes with a list of notable people that also visit the brothel. In live performances, Brel would often point at men in the audience as he sung the professions – jokingly accusing them of visiting the same brothel.
Best song: ‘Mon Enfance’ (‘My Childhood’)
One of Brel’s most touching compositions, featuring stunning piano work by Gérard Jouannest, ‘Mon Enfance’ charts Brel’s formative years. Incredibly autobiographical, he sings of his taciturn father smoking his pipe, and the feeling of enclosure is portrayed through the lines “I wanted to take a train, I still haven’t taken yet.” This song contains one of Brel’s best lines, which encapsulates his longing for adventure in the context of his overly-safe childhood: “I was dreaming of China… growing old on the shelves.”
Worst song: ‘Les Bonbons ’67’ (‘The Candy (1967)’)
This song was fantastic during the live performances recorded in 1966 and 1967, but the audiences’ laughter, applause and gasps in shock at the song’s homosexual twist are what made the live version so special. Instead, the studio version includes a ‘laugh track’ consisting of Brel’s voice sped up (a la Bowie’s ‘Laughing Gnome’) which is frankly annoying and makes the song almost unlistenable.
4 – Jacques Brel – No. 4 (1959)
Rating: 4.3 out of 5.
The album that catapulted Brel into the English-speaking world, La Valse A Mille Temps, is one of his most compelling works. The songs on this album formed the bulk of Brel’s American Debut – without which, I doubt Brel’s work would have had as much resonance in the Anglosphere.
The album starts with the drunken swaying of ‘La Valse A Mille Temps’ (‘The Waltz in Thousandth Time’), which is notable for its dramatic tempo changes and the incredible speed at which Brel manages to sing. This is followed by the controversial ‘Les Flamandes’ (‘Flemish Girls’), which depicts the Flemish as prudish and unsophisticated, through the metaphor that they only dance because “the priest tells them to”.
Elsewhere are the dramatic ‘Seul’ (‘Alone’) and ‘La Colombe’ (‘The Dove’). In the former, the narrator sings of the loneliness of finding themselves on their own after being with their partner. Each stanza sees an increase in the number of lonely people that Brel sings about, highlighting that everyone feels loneliness and depression. At the halfway point, the amounts of people referred to in the stanza decreases until, in the last stanza, only the narrator and his partner remain – until death takes one of them.
In ‘La Colombe’, Brel sings of the horrors of war – juxtaposing patriotic scenes of mothers waving their sons off at train stations as they’re sent to fight on the front line with the knowledge that they’re being sent to their deaths.
Also included is Brel’s soothing ode to his daughter, Isabelle, in which he imagines the dreams that his sleeping baby daughter must be having.
Best song: ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’ (‘Don’t Leave Me’)
‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’ needs no introduction to anyone familiar with Brel’s work. The emotion in this song alone is powerful enough to explain to the listener what the song is about – even if they don’t speak a word of French!
Worst song: ‘Je T’Aime’ (‘I Love You’)
This song lack structure and seems to stumble along. It’s pleasant, but doesn’t match the other songs on the album.
3 – Brel (1977)
Rating: 4.3 out of 5.
Brel’s final album is the perfect bookend to the great man’s career and sees Brel draw inspiration from his previous work to create one final tour de force. What makes this album even more remarkable is that Brel recorded it knowing that it would be his last, and the vocals were mostly recorded in one take as Brel struggled to make it through the sessions.
Even more impressive is that – despite having one lung removed – the vocals on this album are rich, textured and strong. Songs such as ‘La Ville S’Endormait’ (‘The Town Falls Asleep’) and ‘Orly’ rank among his best recorded performances.
Needless to say, after a decade without an album of new material being released, Brel catapulted Jacques back into the limelight and secured him both critical and commercial acclaim – eventually selling over 1 million copies.
Best song: ‘Les Marquises’
Although the album contains many songs worthy of claiming this title, it’s the final song on the album – Brel’s last words – that stays with the listener long after the record has finished spinning. Accompanied by plucked strings, Brel sings of his final resting place in French Polynesia, concluding that his memories will become what the local elders make of them – but that the tradeoff of being in the Marquesas and its tranquil setting where “time stands still” and the “future is random” is worth obscurity.
Worst song: ‘Le Lion’
While its instrumentation is interesting, with its mixture of ethnic music and jazz, ‘Le Lion’ has repetitive lyrics and the outro (which features Brel cooing to a female companion) is a bit too Serge Gainsbourg for my taste!
2 – Ces Gens La (1966)
Rating: 4.4 out of 5.
This album is often cited as Brel’s best, and ranks among the top albums of 1966 (alongside pop classics such as the Beatles’ ‘Revolver’ and the Beach Boys’ ‘Pet Sounds’) on review sites such as rateyourmusic.com. It’s easy to see why – ‘Ces Gens La’ contains some of Brel’s most gripping songs and his delivery combined with Rauber’s orchestration is absolute perfection.
The title track alone is a masterful example of prose. Brel introduces us to an entire family with mocking disdain, before the song explodes with passion as the narrator sings about the member of the family that he loves – before the passion melts away and fades out as the narrator explains that the family won’t let them be together.
The rest of the album maintains the atmosphere perfectly, as Brel takes us on an emotional journey, meeting interesting characters along the way. We meet Jef, whose friend is trying to pull him out of depression with alcohol and hope; Jacky, who sings of reinventing himself to escape the limelight; Fernand, who is being mourned by a close friend; “wretched” Mathilde, who has come to ruin the life of her former lover; and a grandmother who’s having an affair with her husband’s mistress.
We journey from bar to bar, through casinos and opium dens, through fields where shepherds watch their flocks, to funerals where mourners compete to show how sad they are, finally finding ourselves at the beach where desperate lovers’ footprints are being washed away by the tides.
It’s a remarkable journey, sometimes unpleasant, but a rewarding one nonetheless.
Best song: ‘L’Age Idiot’
This powerful song is one of Brel’s most captivating performances. Starting with a triumphant brass section and snare drum rolls, this song is about coming of age, and how each decade has a ‘coming of age’ of sorts as you are hit with new challenges. This contains some of Brel’s most blisteringly blunt lines: “30 years is the start of the ‘great countdown’…” and: “The age of gold comes after hell, after the age of wealth, when you’re like a small child (buried) in the womb of the earth.”
Worst song: ‘Les Berges’ (‘The Shepherds’)
This isn’t necessarily a bad song, it just has the misfortune of being the weakest song on an album full of fantastic songs! While pleasant enough, with a syncopated rhythm that is interesting, the subject matter isn’t that interesting.
1 – J’Arrive (1968)
Rating: 4.8 out of 5.
And finally, the number one Brel album is the last album of new material before his hiatus from the music business commenced in the late 60s. A main reason for this album’s high marks is its conceptuality and how the narrative is structured to present a series of scenes that build up into a coherent depiction of a range of themes and subjects.
The album begins with the powerful ‘J’Arrive’, where Brel explores the familiar themes of love and death – blurring the two until it’s hard to distinguish between them.
Also perfected on this album is Brel’s humour, with songs such as ‘Vesoul’, ‘Comment Tuer…’ and ‘La Biere’ strategically placed to keep the listener on their toes and to lift the mood before plunging back into the depths with tracks such as ‘L’Eclusier’ that present a vulnerable picture of isolation.
In fact, it’s Brel’s depiction of isolation on this record that makes it a remarkable collection of songs. Whether it’s the Ostend girl who’s been left behind as her father travels the world, the lookout who spies a stranger riding in the distance and dreams that it’s his brother returning to him after the war has ended, or the lock keeper who battles with suicidal thoughts – each depiction of isolation is written with such elegant prose that it’s hard not to feel empathy for the characters.
The combination of this poetry, Brel’s impassioned performance, and Rauber’s fitting arrangements makes ‘J’Arrive’ Brel’s most engaging and artistic work – very deserving of its place as his number one album.
Best song: ‘J’Arrive’
‘J’Arrive’ is an unforgettable song that bursts out of the stereo with powerful orchestration and a gripping performance by Brel. A remarkable opening number for what was supposed to be his ‘final’ album.
Worst song: none.
It would be wrong to pick out a ‘worst’ track on this album as every single one of the tracks is at least a 4 out of 5. The tracks that scored lowest were ‘L’Ostandaise’ and ‘Un Enfant’, which I felt couldn’t be awarded 5 points because they aren’t as good as the other songs on the record – all of which earned top marks.