Not long after Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel De Homem-Christo started recording and performing as the house music duo Daft Punk, they began wearing masks during their public appearances, adding a sense of mystery and theater to a genre where the real show was often in the audience instead of on the stage. But it wasn’t until 2001, and the release of the group’s second album Discovery, that Daft Punk starting wearing the futuristic helmets that have been an integral part of its public image ever since. The headgear was a masterstroke of branding, not just because it made two ordinary-looking Frenchmen instantly recognizable, but because it gave fans a critics alike a filter through which to hear the music. With one bit of costuming, Daft Punk’s songs ceased to be a statement about the potential of modern electronic dance music, and instead became a commentary on the increasingly blurry lines between humanity and technology.
Daft Punk’s influence on 21st-century popular music is as undeniable as it is unlikely. The band emerged from an era when the music press was regularly publishing articles declaring that guitars and drums were passé, and that electronica had become the new mainstream. But by the time Discovery came out, the tide had turned back, due to a wave of exciting young rockers (and because some of the best-known EDM acts failed to capitalize on their breakout hits). The success of Discovery was something of an anomaly, and as two of the few remaining superstars from the 1990s electronica boom, Bangalter and De Homem-Christo were in a position to set the pace for the scene. As a result, rappers and pop divas alike have looked to Daft Punk for inspiration in cutting-edge production technique and stagecraft.
That’s because this whole project has been a demonstration of how to maintain a viable music career in the age of the MP3. After its disappointing third album Human After All, Daft Punk embarked on a 48-date arena/festival tour that quickly became one of the hottest tickets around, both because of the scarcity of the shows and the word-of-mouth about its dazzling lighting and video effects. Bangalter and De Homem-Christo then mostly laid low for the next five years, recording a movie soundtrack (for Disney’s Tron) while taking their time to meticulously craft album number four, Random Access Memories. When the pair were ready to release the record, they used teaser ads, billboards, viral videos, and a rare smattering of interviews to turn the launch into a cultural event. The gambit worked. Random Access Memories sold millions, topped critics’ lists, and won a slew of Grammys, including Album Of The Year.
But Daft Punk’s marketing genius wouldn’t matter if the music weren’t so genuinely exploratory and ambitious. Bangalter and De Homem-Christo can bang out hits—and don’t appear to have any moral or aesthetic objection to doing just that—but they’ve also continued to challenge their audience and themselves, with songs and multi-media experiences that sometimes fall into the category of “art for art’s sake.” (For further clarification—or obfuscation—see the band’s anime musical Interstella 5555, or arid experimental film Electroma.)
Though the duo haven’t talked too much to the press about their process, those in the know say that Bangalter is the team’s designated noodler, while De Homem-Christo is the organizer who shapes his partner’s experiments into actual compositions. But the two have been on the same page when it comes to their presentation, and to the evolution of their sound. Daft Punk have gradually moved from making sample-based recording to using live instruments (including full orchestras). Because of their costumes, Bangalter and De Homem-Christo can exist in the real world without the isolation that faces most platinum-level pop stars. Yet the themes within their music have remained remarkably steady all along, dealing with moments of connection and feelings of disaffection from the perspective of alien entities trying to understand what it means to be alive.
The hour of music below is missing some well-known Daft Punk songs—left out either because they’re too long, or because they’ve been heard so much already—and it contains nothing from the band’s two very good live albums, which are complete pieces of music unto themselves. But it should give a fairly full picture of Bangalter and De Homem-Christo’s work, both as dance-pop heroes and as two unapologetic music geeks who’ve used their stage as a platform to profess love for different styles. This playlist is also structured to have a narrative arc of sorts, following the Daft Punk robots as they awaken, find pleasure in their function, and then develop a self-awareness that threatens their purpose as beautiful machines.
Daft Punk left one of its most popular early tracks, “Musique,” off the debut album Homework—except for the brief snippet heard here, running under a promo for a fake radio station. Though only 30 seconds long, “WDPK 83.7 FM” creates a vivid fantasy world, where the band has been active and popular since the 1970s/1980s, applying the “sound of tomorrow” to the “music of today.”
In a 2013 Rolling Stone interview, Bangalter decried the post-Daft Punk EDM stars as making their music “like an audio energy drink,” saying, “Artists are overcompensating with this aggressive, energetic, hyper-stimulating music—it’s like someone shaking you. But it can’t move people on an emotional level.” Even back at the beginning of Daft Punk’s run, Bangalter and De Homem-Christo avoided that kind of simple, crowd-pleasing button-pushing. The band’s debut single “The New Wave”—which mutated into the Homework track “Alive”—offers a steady industrial thump and a gradual buildup of steam, surging upward in the mode of electronica pioneers like Giorgio Moroder and 808 State. But there’s no real release—no “drop.” Instead, the song adds and peels away layers almost imperceptibly, as though all the sounds it needs are always there, just waiting for their moment to rise.
Robots have been a part of popular culture since the 1920s and Karel Capek’s play R.U.R., which is one of the reasons why robot imagery was so prevalent in early electronic music: The whole concept just feels futuristic. Daft Punk carried its public persona to its logical conclusion with the hard-hitting dance track “Robot Rock,” which nods to club classics like Kraftwerk’s “The Robots” and Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit.” Daft Punk’s take is paradoxically less mechanical than its influences, though. Science-fiction bleeps and bloops aside, “Robot Rock” eschews repetition and goes through real changes over the course of its five minutes—sounding unexpectedly organic in the way it grows.
A lot of Daft Punk songs could double as anthems, but few sound as much like a statement of purpose as “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger.” Even beyond the chorus—which evokes automatons doing a productivity chant in a factory—the song is an ode to transformation, showing how technology can be molded into something with personality. There’s a lot going on with the beat, as the tick of the high-hat and the slinky rhythm guitar bring some actual swing to the track; and the scratching and flipping of the robotic vocals turn them into a versatile instrument, capable of generating a virtuosic “solo.” It’s no wonder that Kanye West was inspired to sample this number for his own “Stronger.” In it’s own chunky way, “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” is as passionate as one of West’s heart-on-the-sleeve confessionals.
This collaboration with Animal Collective’s Noah “Panda Bear” Lennox could be read as a call for precision—similar to “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger”—or it could be about making sweet, old-school, AM radio love. It also functions both as a light, somewhat silly song (representing the sense of whimsy that critics often miss in Daft Punk) and as the soundtrack to a slow, midnight drive in a convertible through the streets of some glittering European city.
Daft Punk is both a hit-making singles act and an album-oriented one, with some songs that are meant just to serve as atmosphere, or as the connective tissue between other tracks. Discovery’s instrumental “Nightvision” is the creamy, dreamy intro for a soft-rock classic that never starts. It swirls around endlessly, like a fragment of 10cc or Eric Carmen reinterpreted as Brian Eno ambience.
Here’s another title with a dual meaning: It could be referring to some far-out machine that literally manufactures emotion, or it could just be a celebration of, y’know, screwing. Either way, “Make Love” is a standout track from the letdown album Human After All, and one that exemplifies that record’s adjustment of scale. Unlike the gusto-grabbing Discovery and Random Access Memories, Human After All is smaller and more unassuming—an artisanal product instead of something factory-stamped. There’s not a lot too this song, but that’s kind of the point. It’s an attempt to follow an idea and a tone for a while, with no destination in mind.
Talking to GQ in 2013, Bangalter said, “Homework, we did it, and it was a way to say to the rock kids, like, ’Electronic music is cool.’ Discovery was the opposite, of saying to the electronic kids, ‘Rock is cool, you know? You can like that.’” A key case-in-point is “Digital Love,” a song so super-catchy—and so beholden to the likes of Supertramp, Steely Dan, and Earth Wind & Fire—that it almost sounds like a parody of pop radio circa 1978. Really though, “Digital Love” is just staying true to an album that’s intended to be pleasurably nostalgic. And the song maintains its roots in electronica too, recalling New York disco and early techno-pop—from the eras when both of those genres could be arty and ideological, and not strictly commercial.
Another one for the retro file, “Fragments Of Time” is the rare Daft Punk song that sounds like it could’ve been copied directly from an album by fellow French dance-pop band Phoenix (but with the vocals of collaborator Todd Edwards replacing Thomas Mars). The electronics here are muted, used more as shading—in the manner of 1970s soft-rock acts like Starbuck and Starland Vocal Band—while a steel guitar gives the whole number a breezy west-coast vibe. By the end though, when the instruments are all pinging off of each other, “Fragments Of Time” has turned a “mellow gold” throwback into a piece of music as dense and strange as any other Daft Punk track.
The eruptive Yngwie Malmsteen-style guitar solo at the midpoint of “Aerodynamic” isn’t that out of character for Daft Punk, whose members have frequently attempted to ape the excesses of heavy metal, even if only with synthesizers and samplers. The difference is that the duo usually weaves sounds like the Malmsteen guitar throughout their mix, while here it’s a singular propulsive element, introduced to kick the song into overdrive. The first half of “Aerodynamic”—from the ominous gong onward—is like a buildup to launch. After the explosion, the song breaks down and descends. It’s a full ride.
In early Daft Punk songs, the hook is central, and repeated with very minor variations and very little that could be called improvisation. But that doesn’t mean they’re unwavering from intro to fade. The beginning of the band’s first big hit single “Da Funk” sounds overheard, as though someone were walking down a New York city street in 1982 and just happened on a circle of kids breakdancing to Afrika Bambaataa. But the music intensifies as it goes along, until by the end the dance party has moved from the corner to outer space.
Some of Daft Punk’s biggest hits (namely “Around The World” and “Get Lucky”) can become a little exhausting on repeated exposure, but “One More Time” is as invigorating now as it was 14 years ago, when it kicked off the 2000s in style. Maybe that’s because the chorus itself is so stirring, suggesting an appealing indomitability. Or maybe it’s that the aggressively auto-tuned vocals of guest-singer Romanthony make no attempt to hide the artifice behind the art.
Maybe it was a little too on-the-nose for Tron: Legacy director Joseph Kosinski to recruit Daft Punk to score a movie about humans trapped inside a computer mainframe; and for the band’s fans, it was a little frustrating to hear them forced back into the box of simple melodic and rhythmic patterns after the more fruitful expansions of Discovery and Human After All. But it’s because of the opportunity to work with an orchestra (at Hollywood’s expense) that Bangalter and De Homem-Christo started rethinking the music that would become Random Access Memories. And if nothing else, the Tron: Legacy soundtrack produced this brief burst of ominous pump and scrape, which approximates the nightmare of a computer program disappearing.
Speaking with NPR about Random Access Memories, Bangalter described “Touch” as a song with “invisible technology.” He explained:
It’s a song that has a certain timeless quality. There’s definitely some Dixieland part in it and some more psychedelic synthesizers and some kids choir and a lot of effects. It has about 250 tracks in the song and we could not have handled as many tracks 30 or 40 years ago… We were trying to create something that’s timeless but at the same time using the up-to-date modern horsepower of computers today. This record definitely uses computers and technology in many ways—it just doesn’t really use computers as musical instruments. They’re to handle assets and pieces of audio and also in order to edit the music and put it together.
In the case of “Touch,” the massiveness of the mix allows Daft Punk to create its own version of progressive rock, taking a sweeping, epic, multi-part suite, then dropping 1970s pop icon Paul Williams into the middle of it all. This is the oft-forgotten version of Williams: the one who was willing to be weird for The Muppets and even weirder in Brian De Palma’s Phantom Of The Paradise (the latter of which was a major stylistic/fashion influence on Daft Punk). And the way the band uses his yearning, fragile voice as an expression of loneliness and alienation points the way toward an even more complex—and human—approach to Daft Punk’s music in the years to come.
Total time: 59:00