When Daft Punk announced their breakup earlier this week, they did it through iconography. The duo let the world know that their whole enterprise was ending by sharing a scene from their 2006 movie Electroma: Two robots wandering through the desert, one of them self-destructing and one of them moseying off into the sunset. Much of that video is silent — or, in any case, silent save for the sound of whistling wind and softly bass-heavy robot explosion. Daft Punk hadn’t made any music in the eight years before they posted that video. This wasn’t a band breakup. It was the retirement of a shared persona. It was the end of the helmets.
Daft Punk didn’t always wear the helmets. Once upon a time, Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter were dorky DJs who spun records at clubs or even at sprawling Midwestern open-air raves. The duo’s debut album Homework came out amidst the 1997 electronica gold rush, when labels and critics were convinced that faceless dance music would be the proverbial next grunge. That didn’t happen. Like everybody else, Daft Punk had a gimmick. The Prodigy made druggy, punky droog music, and they had a frontman who looked like a villain’s henchman in a post-apocalyptic action movie. The Chemical Brothers specialized in starry-eyed psychedelic odysseys, sometimes with rock stars along for the ride. Fatboy Slim was the face of the shameless, repetitive hard-partying subgenre known as big beat. Daft Punk, on the other hand, made vast, thumping, insistent house tracks, sculpting huge hits with minimal material. Their singles wormed their way into your brain and stayed there. Since Daft Punk had the best videos, nobody much cared what they looked like.
The helmets came later. In a 2001 cover story for The Face, the duo debuted their slick, post-human new look and the backstory justification for it. Bangalter and de Homem-Christo insisted that they’d gotten into some sort of laboratory accident on September 9, 1999 — that a mysterious computer virus and an exploding sampler had forced the two of them to rebuild themselves as robots. Really, they didn’t need an explanation. Daft Punk had figured out the dance-music equivalent of Kiss facepaint — a whole new evolved-Kraftwerk aesthetic that let them be facelessly anonymous and grandly theatrical at the same time. By the end of 2001, Daft Punk were wearing the robot helmets in a Gap commercial with Juliette Lewis.
The new makeover mattered because Daft Punk’s second album was a big deal. It had expectations. The Homework singles “Da Funk” and “Around The World” had been top-10 hits in the UK and France, and the album had gone platinum in both countries. In the US, where Daft Punk’s form of house music was utterly detached from the pop mainstream, Daft Punk were still a big cult act whose videos stayed in late-night MTV rotation, and Homework went gold. Bangalter’s side project Stardust had made the 1998 robo-voice anthem “Music Sounds Better With You,” a global smash that caused instant euphoria every time I heard it in any kind of rave-type context. Daft Punk had helped catalyze a whole ascendant wave of French filter-disco house music. Hype around Daft Punk had been building and building for several years. The duo’s sophomore LP Discovery — released 20 years ago today — paid off all that hype.
For a good solid year and a half after the release of Discovery, when someone would play “One More Time” in any kind of communal setting, shit would get wild. I don’t think I can properly convey the feeling of hearing “One More Time” in a group of people during that stretch. It really didn’t matter where you were. “One More Time” was an instant serotonin-rush floor-filler in absolutely any context. I heard it in big clubs, at weddings, in downright-disgusting DIY punk venues, in someone’s kitchen while maybe five people were sitting around drinking wine. In all those places, “One More time” had the same effect. People lost their shit. It was glorious.
“One More Time” built a whole world out of the horn fanfare from Eddie Johns’ 1979 disco-funk obscurity “More Spell On You.” The late New Jersey house producer Romanthony, a hero to Daft Punk, sang gospel-informed party exhortations through the same kind of early Auto-Tune filter that Cher had just used on “Believe” while drum-machines skitter-thumped and aqueous organs sighed. “One More Time” didn’t have a pop-song structure, but it had its own kind of architecture. It was more song than track, and it compressed the classic dance-music build-up/breakdown rush into five relatively concise minutes. I’ve read hopefully-apocryphal stories about soldiers in Vietnam dropping acid and then putting on Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love,” charging into battle when the ambient section ended and the guitar riff kicked back in again. For the baristas and barbacks and dorm-lobby security guards of pre-9/11 America, the part where “One More Time” comes rushing back in served much the same function. When that shit kicked back in, you went off.
The rest of Discovery branched off in a million different directions. The sound was rooted in the primal house thump of Homework, but it was deeper and more textured, and it was also suddenly jammed full of new hooks. This stuff had emotional resonance; back when they still talked to magazines sometimes, Daft Punk explained that the album was a tribute to the music that they loved as kinds in the ’70s and ’80s. You can hear all sorts of echoes in the album — not just the disco implied in the title, but also shiny plastic early-’80s synth-funk, smirky soft rock, wheedly hair-metal, starry-eyed prog, new-romantic twinkle-sighs. Daft Punk internalized all of that, ran it through their own filter, and translated it into gleaming future nostalgia. Tracks sampled Tavares, George Duke, Barry Manilow, Sister Sledge, Rose Royce — stuff that was not in any sort of hipster rotation at the time. It still hit some deep memory-chords. Daft Punk took all that and made it new.
With Discovery, Daft Punk fully embraced the idea of the album — of a holistic cohesive listening experience with peaks and valleys. Virtually anything on Discovery could work in a party context, but the landscape varied. Certain tracks were pure space-funk workouts. Others were the robots’ equivalent of power ballads — lost, romantic interludes that cut their euphoria with longing. On “Face To Face,” Todd Edwards, another New Jersey house producer who Daft Punk regarded with awe, sang about distance and hidden urges. On “Something About Us,” the beat slowed down so that Daft Punk themselves could sing a vocoderized hymn of devotion. On “Digital Love,” Daft Punk’s truest lighters-up moment, the robots sang the lovelorn lyrics that Chicago producer DJ Sneak had written for them: “Why don’t you play the gaaaaaaame?”
Discovery is a work of obsessive craft. Bangalter and de Homem-Christo used vintage equipment whenever possible, fussing over each individual sound to make sure it had just the right pitch and resonance. But Discovery isn’t a product of overthinking. Every sound and idea and feeling seems to flow naturally into the next. Even the album’s silly conceptual stunts — like ending things with a track that lasts exactly 10 minutes and has the title “Too Long” — never get too cute. Instead, the album finds a careful, delicate balance between internal memory-journey and dancefloor catharsis. Nobody — including Daft Punk — has ever managed to fuse those two urges in quite the same way.
The first time I played Discovery straight through, the song that stood out the most was track four, “Harder Better Faster Stronger.” This was the one moment where Daft Punk went for the full electro-rumble vocoder effect, bringing the same sort of silly futurism that had made “Around The World” so irresistible. Over the squelchy groove from Edwin Birdsong’s 1979 Philly soul single “Cola Bottle Baby,” Daft Punk intoned computerized commands, taking dizzy joy in increased productivity. That song already felt immortal when Kanye West flipped it and made it into a #1 hit seven years later.
The ripples from Discovery have continued to undulate in the past two decades — in dance music, in indie rock, in bedroom-pop, in rap, in commercial syncs and movie soundtracks. In the US, Daft Punk were still a cult act when Discovery came out, but they were rocking stadiums by the end of the decade. (Their 2007 Alive Tour date at Brooklyn’s KeySpan Park, the minor-league stadium in Coney Island, remains the single greatest stadium-rock spectacle I have ever witnessed.) Daft Punk’s later singles became actual no-shit American chart-pop hits, and people were slightly bummed when they didn’t show up at the Weeknd’s Super Bowl Halftime Show mere weeks before they announced their breakup. The entire futuristic Daft Punk project now exists in the past. That’s sad, but it also lets us see the contours of the duo’s whole story. We now know, definitively, that Discovery is the best album that Daft Punk have ever made and will ever make. We know it’s the robots’ greatest gift to the world.