The Anniversary

Random Access Memories Turns 10


“Give Life Back To Music” is a funny name for that first track. From the title to the guest list to the retro subgenres revived throughout, Random Access Memories is expressly about nostalgia. Released 10 years ago today, the album was Daft Punk’s tribute to their forebears, to the glory days of disco, funk, and prog — a voyage back to a time when androids were as likely to look like C-3PO as those helmets worn by our guys Thomas and Guy-Manuel. At the bloated peak of dial-up-modem brostep drops and Electric Daisy Carnival untz-untz excess, the French house superstars — who’d done more than most to invent bombastic stadium EDM — were now adopting the position that popular song ain’t what it used to be, a posture usually reserved for those whose own musical instincts are too calcified to be vital anymore.

Maybe the what-have-we-done apology/corrective was necessary. It was definitely lucrative, carrying Daft Punk to new heights of commercial success and industry adulation. Regardless of whether you hold up RAM as a masterful aesthetic exercise or an overrated pivot from what made this duo great, it is indisputably a document of two guys who had helped to chart the future of music turning face and planting their flag in the past. Even robots, it turns out, grow up to believe that music peaked when they were young. Feel how you feel about that, but the fact that the Grammys awarded them with Album Of The Year for rewinding their sound by three decades is objectively hilarious.

Daft Punk already had a formidable legacy by the dawn of 2013. Their 1997 debut Homework helped to popularize the house offshoot known as French Touch and yielded a pair of iconic music videos from MTV auteurs Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry. 2001’s Discovery was a color-splattered big bang for 21st century dance music, infusing Daft Punk’s sound with disco, garage, and — crucially, emphatically — arena rock’s over-the-top showmanship and electrifying power. As the decade wore on, they inspired a whole ecosystem of so-called “blog house” acts and permeated the mainstream via a chart-topping Kanye West hit. The dazzling pyramid-based stage show they brought to Coachella in 2006 turned them into one of the most legendary live acts of their generation and, perhaps to their horror, helped to launch the booming EDM-centric festival scene they were now counterprogramming.

On the other hand, more than a decade on from Discovery, Daft Punk seemed on the brink of becoming a legacy act. They hadn’t released a proper album since 2005’s Human After All, an awkward chapter not met with the same hosannas as their first two. Their original score for Tron: Legacy was better received, but it wasn’t hard to imagine them making a Reznor-like transition into Hollywood in the long tail of their career. The hunger for new Daft Punk music was obviously voracious, but it wasn’t entirely clear whether another album would ever materialize, especially since they made Random Access Memories in secret. They really were nearing the end, relatively speaking, but we wouldn’t learn that for quite a while. Though a few scattered offerings would emerge before they announced their breakup in 2021 — most notably a pair of hit collaborations with the Weeknd on 2016’s StarboyRAM now stands as the final entry in the Daft Punk canon.

On the grand statement album that became their one true blockbuster, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo would eschew their trusty samples at every opportunity. They’d record live instruments in pristine analog in place of the computer-spliced distortion bombs that had dominated their 2000s output. They’d work with their elders and inspirations — the architects of the era they were so slavishly re-creating — as well as peers just old enough to remember what radio sounded like in the late ’70s and early ’80s. They’d craft it all into a 75-minute longform experience: not exactly a narrative arc but definitely a journey. The art direction would be exquisite. And at the center of it all would be a single so undeniable that it would come to overshadow everything else they’d ever done.

By the time Random Access Memories dropped, we’d been living with “Get Lucky” for about a month — longer if you count the pair of sneaky TV ads aired during SNL episodes that March. (Unconventional album launches became sort of a weird sport in those last few months before BEYONCÉ popularized the surprise drop.) Daft Punk couldn’t have come up with a better proof text for their new philosophy.

“Get Lucky” is essentially a Chic song, a prodigiously funky disco groove built around guitar by Nile Rodgers himself. They topped it off with a nonchalant yet monstrously catchy vocal performance by Pharrell Williams — a fellow turn-of-the-millennium production legend whose own trajectory from innovator to wilderness years had mirrored Daft Punk’s — who waxes philosophical before reverting to his basest instincts: “We’re up all night to get some.” Both the rhythm and the hook are relentless, the kind of music you could spin on infinite loop at a dance party, but for all its repetition, “Get Lucky” is never static. The arrangement is constantly morphing in little ways, dozens of impeccable details moving in and out of the mix, until about three and a half minutes in when the robots grab the microphone from Pharrell and the song blasts off into transcendent new dimensions.

“Get Lucky” helped propel Random Access Memories to two weeks atop the Billboard 200 albums chart and a staggering 339,000 in first-week sales. The song itself was blocked from #1 on the Hot 100 by “Blurred Lines,” the other inescapable Pharrell-abetted smash from what New York Times critic Jon Caramanica dubbed the “Summer Of Smooth.” Undoubtedly there are listeners who have never knowingly engaged with Daft Punk beyond this one song. But there was so much more to RAM than its signature hit — too much more, its critics might argue. I’ll cop to believing the album was mediocre 10 years ago, to missing the mechanized rush of “Harder Better Faster Stronger” or “Around The World” and the flabbergasting explosiveness of “Aerodynamic” and “Robot Rock,” to feeling like they’d padded out this tracklist with an abundance of filler that didn’t reflect as kindly on the good old days as they intended. I don’t feel that way anymore.

It makes sense that a record so pointedly vintage would age like wine. I’d still pick the spectacularly fizzy Discovery if I could only have one Daft Punk release, but over time the majesty of RAM has revealed itself to this former skeptic. My respect for the album has evolved so much that I found it surprising to see esteemed critics recently suggesting that the album has lost some luster with the distance of years. To these ears Random Access Memories has never sounded better. I don’t think at the end of my 20s I was ready for a Daft Punk album that had so much in common with Steely Dan. At the end of my 30s, I still haven’t crossed over into Fagen and Becker fandom, but the finicky largesse of Random Access Memories now hits the spot. This was an entirely different kind of indulgence than whatever was blaring from the Sahara Tent, laced with melody and surging peaks yet also obsessive about vibe and texture. Rather than bashing you over the head with euphoria, it sent your endorphins on the scenic route.

There are lots of fun characters along the way. My instant and permanent favorite was Panda Bear showing up on the penultimate “Doin’ It Right” to skywrite psych-pop melodies over a harmonized, digitized hook; it’s possible I acclimated to this one first because it’s least congruent with the album’s old-fashioned M.O., sounding more like a trap remix of Person Pitch than the luxuriant soundtrack to your skeezy uncle’s basement lounge. And as a shameless Comedown Machine devotee, of course I gravitated toward Julian Casablancas extending the synth-Strokes routine on the moody, metronomic, ultimately exultant “Instant Crush.” I’ve since come to appreciate Daft Punk recruiting soft-rock don Paul Williams to croon over percussive wah-wah guitars on “Touch,” garage house pioneer Todd Edwards to sing on the finger-snapping Hall And Oates pastiche “Fragments Of Time,” and especially actual genius Giorgio Moroder to reflect on his life story for the proggy Euro-disco adventure “Giorgio By Moroder.”

Even with all that star power on deck, some of the finest moments on RAM are when Bangalter, Homem-Christo, and creative director Cédric Hervet keep to themselves — sad, soulful cyborgs venturing deep into their concept, showing off a mastery of the old-school independent of outside help. Easygoing midtempo gems like “The Game Of Love” and “Beyond” are subtle flexes, polyester worlds to get lost in. “Within” is maybe the best android slow jam since Grandaddy’s The Sophtware Slump, while the percolating prog-folk symphony “Motherboard” has me dreaming of what Daft Punk might have concocted in the studio with Jim O’Rourke. And who needs a laser light show when your imagination can be activated by a planetarium-rocking sci-fi prog-dance epic like album closer “Contact”? As both a culmination of the retro Random Access Memories shtick and of Daft Punk’s travels through the larger dance music universe, it works wonders.

If it all seems like a little much, the (tasteful, meticulously sculpted) overabundance was core to the concept. And anyhow, now that the 10th anniversary reissue has revealed bits of album-ready material they excluded, reducing RAM’s runtime to somewhere around HBO season finale length feels like a feat of self-restraint. As the album ages into the kind of immaculate relic it drew inspiration from, it’s becoming ever clearer that those of us who shrugged at this project in the moment didn’t realize what we had until it was gone. Fortunately, although Daft Punk have powered down, Random Access Memories remains available in all its splendor. All it takes to bring the music back to life is to press play.

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