Before any of us are even accustomed to writing a seven instead of a six, 2017 is already a year to celebrate for Daft Punk.
Dance music's dukes of Digital Love not only welcomed the new year atop the Hot 100 — their collaboration on The Weeknd’s “Starboy” was the duo’s first No. 1 — but Friday, Jan. 20 marked 20 years since the group’s banner debut “Homework” beamed down, drew the curtain on the French house movement and thumped around the world.
Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter have been linchpins ever since, in pop’s electronic obsession — the preeminent sound of the 2010s — as well as the genre’s spillover into hip-hop, rock and R&B (The Weeknd included).
So as news broke today that Daft Punk would be performing with The Weeknd at the Grammys, we cheer our favorite helmeted robot-rockers with an anniversary album ranking, spanning their six most essential records.
6. Human After All (2005)
If there is a valley, or caricature album in Daft’s catalog, it’s Human, the group’s most melodically austere and numbing record. While themes of dark, tech-fearing paranoia were fresh to the group— and employed purposefully, to contrast the buoyancy of Discovery — Human’s themes largely feel recycled; the tech-jargon labyrinth “Technologic,” piggybacks off the more memorable precursor “Harder Better Faster Stronger,” and while plenty catchy in its thick guitar leads, the lead single “Robot Rock” is too on-the-nose for a band famous for its mechanized appearance. Typically, Daft is a masterful employer of repetition, but the echoing hooks to “Steam Machine” and “Television” border on monotony, and there just isn’t enough innovation to counteract the dullness. Human is the lone Daft Punk album to feel reactionary to the band’s own success, and even if it did produce a successful inverse to Discovery, it was as impersonal as the group has ever been.
5. Tron: Legacy (2010)
A Disney soundtrack is surely the square peg in this ranking, but Tron: Legacy is no slouching, sappy film score. De Homem-Christo and Bangalter explored their inner maestros and composed a wholly imagined and thematically striking soundscape to back an otherwise lukewarm film reboot. The fearless swells in “Arena” and “Rinzler” are lush, and deeply effective bridges between DP’s electronic realm and the orchestral fields they deftly harvested for this project (an 85-piece orchestra was employed to record the album). Tidbits are stolen from the Human After All and Discovery sounds, but Legacy’s sweeping, ambient aesthetic is largely unrecognizable from the group’s other works. Sure, listening to the hour-long instrumental LP without the context of the film can be a little daunting. But Tron’s director Joseph Kosinski was correct to tap Daft Punk to create this heroic score.
4. Homework (1997)
Over time, this list’s Record Of Honor has become lauded moreso for its legacy — as pop’s first password to the French-house hard drive — than for the sum of its hypnotic parts. And maybe that’s for the best; Homework isn’t exactly cohesive, nor was it truly meant to be. The group’s initial plan was to rollout a handful of free-standing singles, but soon there were too many quality tracks not to make an album. To its credit, Homework remains an alluring hodgepodge, and our first taste of Daft’s eclecticism: the disco-tech bassline and burrowing hook of “Around the World”; the West Coast hip-hop whirring of “Da Funk” (Dr. Dre even gets a shoutout in the later track “Teachers”); the spacey swagger of Parliament-Funkadelic and Chic threaded throughout. Homework can feel overtly simple, even amateurish when compared to its successors, but we still have great respect for the project that morphed Daft from loud lords of a cultish underground scene to bonafide tastemakers.
3. Alive 2007 (2007)
It’s a fact as cold and hard as their gleaming helmets: most of Daft Punk’s fans, especially in the U.S., have never seen the group perform live. The pair has toured only twice in 20 years, but thankfully we have Alive 2007 to blast, an incendiary concert album that exists as one of the premier live LPs of this century. Alive captures Daft’s most recent roadshow -- specifically a June 14, 2007 rager in Paris -- and though the audible roaring crowd is cool, the album’s real appeal lies in its mashups, which merge the band’s first three records into a re-electrified mixtape. “Around the World” and “Harder Better Faster Stronger” blend effortlessly into a single, delicious track; “One More Time” and “Aerodynamic” intertwine as if it were the plan all along; and every Human After All entry is boosted by its brother songs. For the countless remixes the group’s music has endured over the last two decades, Alive reminds -- no one does it better than the makers themselves.
2. Random Access Memories (2013)
Don’t call it a comeback. Eight years removed from the icy minimalism (and overall reception) of Human After All, Daft strove for balance, to marry live instrumentation and electronic prowess in ways unlike anything the group had previously attempted. The meticulous output was Random Access Memories, a wonderfully warm, sprawling LP that stands not only as one of the duo’s strongest albums, but as one of the most spectacular records of the 2010s. Though Memories likely pays closest tribute to the disco and funk eras that have fascinated the group all along — almost inevitably, Chic’s Nile Rodgers plays on three songs — so much of this project was fresh to their sound, from the understated use of drum machines and vocoder, to their willingness to collaborate and cross new borders. Everyone knows Pharrell Williams’ appearance on the commercial colossus “Get Lucky” and “Lose Yourself To Dance,” but don't you dare overlook the delicate piano from Canadian pianist Chilly Gonzales on “Within,” The Strokes singer Julian Casablancas’ traipsing vocal on “Instant Crush,” or the revered folk songwriter Paul Williams commanding the science-fiction opus “Touch.” And if there’s any proof in trophies, consider that Album of the Year Grammy win R.A.M. scored in 2014.
1. Discovery (2001)
There is no better entry point into the Daft Punk cosmos than through Discovery, an album that bursts with glorious, fine-sugar hooks and childlike rapture. Daft’s exploration beyond Euro house jams welcomed more pointed homages to the disco and synth-pop of its youth, and birthed a joyful, engaging record — and perhaps the most bulletproof upper-third of any album in the discography: see the fuzzy Van Halen guitar wails of “Aerodynamic,” or the pleasant, blinking pop of “Digital Love,” which likely could have highlighted a Mario Kart soundtrack. That playful quality cascades down to the cryptic “Veridis Quo” and its fairytale melody, and for those who still desired the more trance-like tactics, the record finishes with the 10 minutes of electro-R&B hypnosis on “Too Long.”
The LP’s moniker is apt on so many levels; for many of us, the harbinger of auto-tune “One More Time” was our first detection of the band, and for Daft themselves, the success of the song (#1 on the U.S. Dance charts, #61 on the Hot 100) and regular radio play unveiled just how vast their audience could (and would) become. Daft’s music is designed for the good times, and if Bangalter and de Homem-Christo were to blast off today and escape to Planet Robot — where better parties and sweeter headgear await — Discovery would stand as the group’s true, zenith party project.
In the mid 1990s amongst the world’s Britpop craze, a mysterious duo named Daft Punkbrought French house music to the forefront of our collective consciousness.
A stage name and what would later become cyborg identities for Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, Daft Punk saw their explosive start after the release of two singles, The New Wave and Da Funk on Soma Quality Recordings.
No ordinary debut singles, their massive popularity quickly started a bidding war which eventually saw Virgin Records sign the pair. Shortly afterwards their debut LP Homework was released on January 17, 1997, years before they put on the helmets.
Daft Punk’s DIY attitude and less-is-more approach to Homework are what makes their iconic debut LP hold together 20 years later.
In the same fashion that modern psychedelic bands will never fail to cite Pink Floydas an influence, or the way every singer/songwriter today takes nods from Bob Dylan, house, acid, techno and multiple other realms of electro credit Daft Punk as the vital stepping stone which these genres used as a springboard.
Their use of sampling, early bassline and keyboard synths, an array of live effects, vocoders and iconic drum machines created a heavy, full-bodied analogue sound that is still tough to emulate on modern hardware.
Perhaps the end-all reason for this sonic weightiness was the fact that Bangalter and de Homem-Christo composed every song on Homework for live performances. The LP itself was an afterthought, a collection of the tracks they had up their sleeve and had been playing to audiences for years.
For example Daftendirekt, the album’s opener, had been heard as early as a Belgian techno event in 1995. Their famous live album Alive 1997, a recording of a set in Birmingham’s Que Club, begins with Daftendirekt’s main sample, layered with the percussion and synth lines of Da Funk.
What had been their show’s beginnings became their debut album’s introduction, and the rest of the track list was just as considered.
In a rare 1997 interview with Dance Music Authority magazine, De-Homem Christo remarked:
“There was no intended theme because all the tracks were recorded before we arranged the sequence of the album. The idea was to make the songs better by arranging them the way we did; to make it more even as an album.”
Revolution 909, a clear reference to Roland’s staple drum machine, shows the robots’ propensity for that line of hardware, an unrelenting tour de force of just how far the piece of technology can be pushed.
Similarly Around The World, the third single released from Homework, encapsulates Daft Punk’s savvy use of vocoders, bouncy bass line synths and acid-influenced, house friendly hooks which echoed most strongly throughout their 2001 sophomore record Discovery.
Homework represents the careful distillation of an encyclopaedic knowledge of all things electronic, an unbelievably fleshed-out record that has gone above and beyond being iconic. What’s more, Daft Punk chose to record this LP at home despite Virgin Records’ best efforts to swing them otherwise.
It’s the reason Homework took that particular name – Daft Punk were doing the bedroom producer dance 15 years before it became a faint possibility to the rest of the world.
A vision of the future realised with astounding clarity, the continuing shelf life of Homework has come down to it’s prediction of modern electronic trends.
High Fidelity has a home amongst the tail-end of a daytime, slow-burning house set.
Alive, the namesake for Daft Punk’s two live albums, would warp the minds of any modern trance audience.
Rock’n Roll is the messed up distortion fest your body craves during a festival-closing acid set.
Rollin’ & Scratchin’ is the overzealous, decimated electro Justice became famous for.
Truly great albums stand the test of time for a reason. We wish you a Happy Birthday, Homework, but 20 years is just the beginning.