In an age ruled by the single it’s nice that what will probably go down as the single of the year comes off an album that’s as good as Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories.
The robot-headed French duo first burst onto the scene in 1997 with the big beat electronica anthem “Da Funk.” But now, as a generation of younger EDM artists ride the sequenced digital sound wave from stadium tour to festival main stages, Daft Punk have gone back to the roots of modern dance music and tapped heavily into what is perhaps its rawest source: Seventies disco.
Not only is Random Access Memories a huge departure from most contemporary dance music, it’s also a pretty big departure from Daft Punk’s previous three studio albums; in that it eschews nearly all traces of electronica and instead features live session musicians playing on all its tracks.
The album’s ubiquitous single “Get Lucky” is already in contention to be the definitive song of 2013, this year’s “Hey Ya” if you will. But while the Pharrell Williams voiced single may indeed be the most immediate cut on Random Access Memories, after a few listens, it may not necessarily sound like the album’s best.
The whole thing kickoffs off with “Give Life Back to Music,” a big, shimmering disco anthem that gets your feet moving and instantly sets the stage for the French robot disco party that’s to come It features the signature Daft Punk vocal style of singing through vintage vocoders; that along with drum machines and a modular synth, are just about the only elements of electronica present on Random Access Memories.
“Lose Yourself to Dance” the other Pharrell voiced number on the album is also a shimmering disco barnstormer with handclaps, wah-wah pedal, vocoder background vocals, and a stomping, hooky chorus.
Famed Chic guitarist Nile Rogers provides the album’s through-line, lending his signature guitar grooves to all the disco standouts. His work on “Get Lucky,” “Give Life Back to Music” and “Lose Yourself to Dance” gives Random Access Memories its heartbeat and keeps the party going strong enough to allow for quieter, moodier tracks like “The Game of Love” and “Within.”
One of the albums more ambition tracks, “Touch” features Seventies icon Paul Williams delivering a theatrical lead vocal over a classic disco groove that gives way to a sort of grand disco space rock opera. Listening to it, you get the feeling that somewhere up in rock and roll heaven Freddy Mercury is beaming down with pride. Williams also contributes lyrics to “Beyond,” another of the more rock operatic moments on the album.
Then there’s the strangely infectious “Giorgio by Moroder.” A sparse, layered disco synth freak-out, it features a voiceover from the legendary Italian disco producer recalling how he first got started in music and began incorporating the sound of the click track into his recordings in Munich back in the Seventies. It’s rather surprisingly perhaps, one of the best cuts on the album.
Animal Collective’s Panda Bear provides another of Random Access Memories best guest-star turns on the synth-vocoder driven “Doin’ it Right.” Along with the less appealing Julian Casablancas-voiced “Instant Crush,” it’s among the least retro disco tracks on offer, and helps lend the album a bit of contemporary indie pop sensibility.
L.A. garage producer Todd Edwards provides the album with its most soft rock moment, delivering the vocals on “Fragments of Time,” a number that would surely have been a yacht rock classic had it been released in 1981.
Surprisingly, “Get Lucky” is somewhat buried down the track listing. But coming as it does, immediately following the complex melodrama of “Touch,” when you hear it in all its breezy robot disco glory, with Pharrell’s smooth vocals and that driving, infectious beat, you’re remembered again why it’s the song of the summer, and possibly the year (Enjoy it now, before it’s spun into the ground a la M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes!”)
It’s interesting that at the height of EDM’s popularity, an electronic dance music institution like Daft Punk would choose to make a deep, heady, Seventies rock disco album that calls out for a beanbag, a bong rip and a pair of headphones as much as it does for a night out clubbing. But in so doing, Daft Punk have created the closest thing to a masterpiece they’ve yet produced, and an album that’s easily amongst the best of the decade so far.