Holy Shit! It’s Daft Punk!
Updated February 22nd, 2021 upon their retirement announcement.
As someone who was admittedly a skeptic of the artistic value of electronic music years ago, Daft Punk put my beliefs straight to bed. Any questions of creativity, musical complexity, and flat out enjoyability in the seemingly low brow button pushers of the early 21st century are immediately answered with Daft Punk, who are easily one of the most captivating and influential artists of the digital age. Their dominance in this space makes perfect sense; Daft Punk breathes a beautifully intangible life into their chaotic technological era. Their whirs, hums, and glitches were alarmingly human and relatable, like your reflection in the silvery glass on the back of your old iPod classic. But with all heady, cultural implications considered, all notions of transcendence and persistence in an unprecedented transitional period noted, what’s still the most striking is how damn catchy their songs are. If you put this article down right now, forgetting my words and ideas regarding Daft Punk forever, you would still dance uncontrollably the next time one of their songs came on. It’s some of the most freeing and indulgent music to ever be recorded. Whether you’re a skeptic of electronic music like I was, or a full blown techno thottie, it doesn’t matter. It all melts away when the robots start spinning.
“Daft Punk breathes a beautifully intangible life into their chaotic technological era.”
Daft Punk have a surprisingly brief discography given their dominance and consistency since 1997’s debut Homework. They have only four studio albums in 23 years, but each one feels infinite in its own right, densely packed with groovy club hymns that can last far longer than just the hour or so runtime. This can create a paralysis in choosing a starting point, though I believe the best starting point to be 2001’s Discovery, the sparkling sophomore effort that proved the duo’s staying power and infinite potential.
Discovery is an interesting moment in the Daft Punk catalogue. It marks a departure from their grimey and conniving deep house sound from the 90’s and an explosion into maximalist pop superstardom. The sonic shifts and matching commercial success led many house purists to initially dismiss the record as a sell out, but it’s in actuality a celebration of the progress of electronic music thus far. Discovery is Daft Punk reaping the benefits of their pioneering work up until that point. And it certainly sounds like it. One of the reasons you should start with Discovery is so that you begin your journey with the group’s smash hit “One More Time.” It’s an excellent tone setter for what’s to come, and a brilliant summation of my thoughts on Daft Punk thus far: celebrant, indulgent, infinite.
Moreover, Discovery is a great starting point because it exists delicately between Daft Punk eras. It nods both backwards to the more pure deep house years as well as peers forward into the future where they would later incorporate instrumental jams with Random Access Memories. The 2001 album does both angles excellently and unpredictably. The tracklist has wild bangers and soulful ballads, all filled with rich and colorful electronic layers. There are truly no dull moments here, but the standout tracks for me are “Aerodynamic,” “Digital Love,” and “Short Circuit.” There are also the undeniably powerful “One More Time,” and “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger,” two massive Daft Punk hits that will establish a firm baseline of how lasting their music is.
Here’s the thing though: Discovery isn’t the best Daft Punk record, it’s just the ideal summating point of entry. Their best work, although debatable, is in my opinion their latest full length album, 2013’s Random Access Memories. It’s not only one of the best electronic albums ever made, but also in its own right the ultimate, quintessential summer album.
The only reason I don’t implore new listeners to start here is because I believe that a full appreciation requires a baseline understanding of Daft Punk and their tradition. One must be able to see how much of a statement it is, how incredibly delicate the genre bending is, and how much of a departure it is from their earlier music. That being said, once you’re ready, roll down the windows and blast this puppy. Random Access Memories is a masterclass in musical innovation that seamlessly fuses dancy instrumental grooves from the 70’s and 80’s to a modern electronic aesthetic. This album transcends genre, bringing disco, soul, motown, and pop to techno with flying colors. There are sparkling guitars, funky basslines, bouncing keys. Ladies and gentleman, for the love of god, there are HOOKS. The spirit of summer is alive and well on Random Access Memories, as it reminisces on the endless summers before and sets new landscapes for summers to come. It helped me greatly throughout the hectic clusterfuck of this summer, and I’ll return to it when winter grows too cold. This is where my safe appreciation for Daft Punk turned into a deeply consuming love. My favorite tracks here are “Touch,” “Lose Yourself to Dance,” “Giorgio by Moroder,” and “Doin’ It Right.”
“The spirit of summer is alive and well on Random Access Memories, as it reminisces on the endless summers before and sets new landscapes for summers to come.”
Next you should go back to Homework where it all started. There are still many a Daft Punk fan that believe this debut to be the duo’s peak, and for good reason. It is pure, sheer, unadulterated house music dripping with filth and funk. It’s easy to get lost in deep crevices of this album; the heavy, grimey beats are starkly captivating. It’s a beautiful genesis for the robots, as they establish themselves as techno purists first and foremost, with mere flashes of pop as a quick break on the ears. Hearing this incredibly potent batch of jams and knowing how far they still had to go is beyond impressive, and every single one of those cuts still holds up. The standouts are of course the timeless “Da Funk,” and “Around the World,” along with “Indo Silver Club,” and “Teachers.”
Human After All is a rare point for Daft Punk in that it isn’t an instant success. It can often be overlooked as the least positively reviewed, but ignoring this period is a sure mistake. The tunes here aren’t as transcendent as those on the other three albums, but there are some absolute bangers nonetheless. Coming in 2005, the record is a return to the dirty, deep roots of DP, delivering darker growls, punchier bass, and some interesting hard rock inspired flair. Some extremes of this album go farther into the techno rabbit hole than Homework, showing that the duo were still willing to experiment with new sounds. Critiques aside, Human After All is still enticing and unpredictable electronic fun and absolutely warrants a listen from any fan of Daft Punk. The best tracks are “Robot Rock,” “Steam Machine,” and of course the famously neurotic “Technologic.”
“No single artist on this planet cares more truly and deeply about the music than Daft Punk.”
If you need some more robotic bangers in your life (and many do) I strongly recommend checking out some of Daft Punk’s collaborative efforts of the 2010’s. Their work on Kanye West’s daring Yeezus is a huge benchmark, along with the features on Starboy by The Weeknd. It’s fascinating to see the influence and sonic experimentation in play years after Daft Punk’s start in the 90s in dramatically different genres. They also have some fun live albums as well as the score to Disney’s Tron remake, which is interesting to say the least. As I mentioned before, the catalogue is brief considering their massive presence in popular music, but there’s still a ton of ideas to sift through.
Maybe I was late to appreciate electronic music because I didn’t look past the initial smoke and mirrors of the genre. It’s easy to dismiss the art as trivial, uninspired, and heartless, only understood with enough ecstasy and strobe lights. But like any commercialized art form, it’s important to form your opinions on what matters, which is at the end of the day, only and undeniably, the music. As a now fan of electronic music and its unique powers, it is abundantly clear to me that no single artist on this planet cares more truly and deeply about the music than Daft Punk. Their attention and dedication to crafting pure, anthemic, and visceral music is front and center throughout their decades long career, and they’ve never lost focus. Perhaps that’s why they wear the masks and compromise parts of their humanity, rejecting the interviews and distractions. As it should be, with Daft Punk the music is the only thing that matters.