Air picked the perfect band name. The music of the French duo -- a blend of sophisticated classical elements, Serge Gainsbourg-inspired French pop and atmospheric electronics -- is extraordinarily light and fills every corner of the room without drawing too much attention to itself. And like the element, it’s essential.
Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel formed Air in Versailles in the mid-90s, sprouting from the same scene that gave us other modern luminaries like Daft Punk and Phoenix. But Air’s own music is much softer and more subdued than those groups (the genre tag “chill out” is often misapplied but it truly suits Air). With the group back in the States for their first tour in seven years, here’s a look at the 10 best Air songs. For a chance to win a pair of tickets to Air’s June 24 show at the Santa Barbara Bowl, click here.
10. “5:55” (Charlotte Gainsbourg ft. Air)
As mentioned above, the music of French icon Serge Gainsbourg was a clear influence on Air’s style and in 2006, the group teamed up with his daughter Charlotte (along with Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker and producer Nigel Godrich) for the album 5:55. The title song is a beautiful demonstration of Air’s best qualities and Gainsbourg’s breathy vocals are an ideal complement to the song’s lovely, lush arrangement.
9. “Sing Sang Sung”
This standout from Air’s 2009 album Love 2 is an excellent showcase for the playfulness and whimsy that has long been a staple of their sound.
8. “The Vagabond” ft. Beck
The pairing of Air’s luxurious and laid back sound with Beck’s quirky songwriting works wonders on this cut from 10 000 Hz Legend. Opening with a mournful harmonica solo and closing with some of Beck’s Midnite Vultures-era falsetto crooning, “The Vagabond” is an odd and interesting song that plays to the strengths of both creative parties.
7. “Electronic Performers”
With its darker tone and more electronic textures, critics weren’t quite sure what to make of Air’s 2001 sophomore studio album 10 000 Hz Legend. Time has since vindicated the album and the opening song “Electronic Performers” stands as one of the band’s best songs, a hypnotic piece that doubles as meditation on the group’s own musical philosophy (“Machines gave me some freedom/ Synthesizers gave me some wings”).
6. “Cherry Blossom Girl”
After their landmark debut Moon Safari, 2004’s Talkie Walkie is Air’s second best album. “Cherry Blossom Girl” is one of its signature tracks, a smooth and flowing song that, like Air’s best music, blends pulsing electronics with organic elements like acoustic guitar and flutes.
5. “Alpha Beta Gaga”
To be an Air fan, one must embrace the ridiculous. Between the banjo plucks and the whistled chorus, “Alpha Beta Gaga” is a very silly number that somehow comes off as cinematic in its arrangement and scope.
4. “Mike Mills”
One of the group’s most sumptuous tracks (which truly says something), this Talkie Walkie highlight is named after the band’s frequent collaborator, filmmaker Mike Mills, who was nominated for an Academy Award in 2017 for the screenplay to his highly acclaimed film “20th Century Women.”
3. “Kelly Watch the Stars”
Air recorded several versions of “Kelly Watch the Stars” and they’re all tremendous. The official studio version on Moon Safari features pillowy synths, a springy bassline and some of the most affecting vocoder vocals this side of Daft Punk.
2. “Playground Love”
Air’s cinematic sound has made them a go-to for countless film and television soundtracks (and Air themselves rescored the Georges Méliès silent film classic "Le voyage dans la lune" in 2012) but the band’s most successful film partnership has been with Sofia Coppola. Before their song “Alone in Kyoto” was used in her 2003 masterpiece “Lost in Translation,” Air did the score to her debut film “The Virgin Suicides.” Air’s music is often simultaneously beautiful and sad and the film’s spectral yet lilting title song “Playground Love” compliments the themes of the film perfectly.
1. “La femme d’argent”
Air’s best song is the first track on their debut full length. It’s impossible to capture in words the mysterious beauty of "La femme d'argent," a song that’s at once funky, graceful, intimate and grandiose. To borrow the title of their fourth full length album, Air makes pocket symphonies, headphone music that is luxurious and transportive and “La femme d'argent” captures these qualities like nothing else in their catalogue. Nearly 20 years after its release, “La femme d'argent” still stops us dead every time we hear it.