Review: Daft Punk ‘Random Access Memories’

“Random Access Memories” is a landmark album that will change the face of dance music in a similar way that Radiohead’s “Kid A” changed indie music. Make no mistake – this is, without a doubt, the most important album of 2013.

To give you some context, Daft Punk have a lot to prove here. After the relative misstep of “Human After All” in 2005 they returned with a live album / greatest hits mixtape of sorts with “Alive 2007,” which in following years seemed to spread like a dirty secret across America. Previously, Daft Punk had been pushed to the side as a ‘techno’ act by the more, shall we say, steaknecked bros. By 2009, those same were putting “Alive 2007″ on as workout music. “Alive 2007″ was a big release for Daft Punk; it condensed everything great about their sound into one hour. This helped take dance music out of the clubs and into the, uh, streets. “EDM” is now a massive mutli-billion dollar industry and musical genre enjoyed by kids in the suburbs. It’s been a long, long, interesting path for Daft Punk since their 1996 groundbreaking debut “Homework.”

What one must understand before listening is that this is not a Daft Punk album as they have come to know them. There is no standout “One More Time,” nor is this a party album. This is a party album made by people who have graduated to more sophisticated parties. It isn’t quite a wine-and-cheese party yet, but don’t expect to pop in “Random Access Memories” in to kick the party off the same way you might have done with their “Discovery” or “Homework.” It is by no means a perfect album, but “Random Access Memories” is a brilliant, revolutionary statement – one that befits exactly where Daft Punk are in their careers right now. This is dance music with live instruments. It’s a bold choice. It’s also fucking brilliant.

Anyway. Here’s a track by track review.

Give Life Back To Music: The album opens with a callback to “Revolution 909″ off of “Homework.” “Give Life Back To Music” sets the tone for the album with an (almost melancholic) dance number that stops right before melancholy. There’s a sample of a party that even now, a week later, I can still remember hearing: it’s the first time since “Revolution 909″ where we’ve heard actual people on an album of theirs (outside of a sample). It reminded me a little of Weezer’s “Undone (The Sweater Song)” – and sets a message of palpable humanity throughout this album that wasn’t there on previous releases.

The Game of Love: This almost sounds like HBO porn music until the lush production kicks into a higher gear and you realize that this is being played almost entirely with live instruments. My notes here say “vocoder soul.”

Giorgio by Moroder: It is perhaps this song and the last song on the album that pack the most punch – “Giorgio…” is a standout, huge, and ballsy track that deserves repeated listens and hopefully, if there’s any humanity in this world, will inspire people to dive a lot deeper into dance music and hopefully inspire more dance musicians to work with live instruments. There are real live strings here, a full orchestra. Live drums kick in over the synths. There is some impeccable live bass. Here, more than anywhere, does Daft Punk’s choice to use live instruments shine. This is a monumental track – nearly 8 minutes in length – that left this reviewer close to ecstatic tears. Eh fuck you, I’ve waited years for this album, and this is the best return to form I can think of for them. Outstanding.

Within: To from “Giorgio…” to this is a massive (but well-needed) step down. Think The Buggles “Elstree” intro being played by a robot and you’re halfway there. This was one of the only tracks on the album that left reviewers scratching their heads, not knowing what to make of it. It’s entirely piano and vocoder vocals. It sounds exactly like you’d think a robot playing soul music would.

Instant Crush: … featuring Julian Casablancas, apparently, who sounds so unlike himself that it caused me to ask the label rep who was singing. The chorus is the main draw here and is as close to a regular Daft Punk chorus as you’re going to get on “Random Access Memories.” Julian sounds keening on here and there’s a sense of urgency here, much more than on the last couple of Strokes albums. He seems at home here, providing the robots with a wonderfully flawed human touch. Even when Julian’s voice steps out of bounds here as it does on occasion (this being the age of ProTools and all) it’s a welcome addition.

Lose Yourself To Dance: This is Pharrell Williams’ first appearance on the album and is a clear single and, within thirty seconds, the most accessible song on the album thus far. It’s a welcome lift from the relative downer of the 2 previous tracks, bringing a definite disco feel back to the album; something that had disappeared a little since “Giorgio…” This is, by far, one of the best and most accessible songs Daft Punk has ever made. This song will be huge. Expect a late-summer single release. This is massive.

Touch: “Touch” is the strangest track on the album, starting out with vocals straight out of a Styx / Neil Diamond song. Somehow, after a minute or two, this turns into some storming 2013 dance music as if channeled through an old-school late 1970s funk band. This track is the most indicative of how the entire album is: trying something completely different: throwing people off only to bring them back even closer: something which you’ll listen to again and again to try and figure out. Hopefully it inspires a bunch of kids to pick up Neil Diamond records. It probably won’t. It is, however, a challenging, if rewarding, listen. One that I loved, anyway. It made a lasting impression once you got past the first minute or two. It’s here that I think some listeners will get frustrated with “Random Access Memories” for not being a classic Daft Punk album, much to their loss.

Get Lucky: Pharrell returns and we’ve all heard this song and on the album it’s still fucking glorious. The album version is solid one-to-two minutes longer than the radio version that has been floating about, and the song is all the better for it. Expect a more drawn out opening and ending to the song.

Beyond: I didn’t take any notes here. I was too busy talking to the label rep guy. There was wine at the listening party. It was my birthday.

Motherboard: This is either a shout-out to their French electronic music brethren in Air, or an accidental sound-a-like: “Motherboard” sounds like Air’s 2003 song “Mike Mills” as channeled through the new Daft Punk live instrument backing band. After a somewhat strange middle (I’ve written down “fart sound halfway through”) the song picks back up, sounding not entirely unlike The Verve’s “This Time” sans vocals. It’s a curious jam, and a great point in the “Random Access…” that calls back to their earlier work on “Discovery.” It should be worth noting that “Random Access Memories” bears more than a passing resemblance to Air’s oft-slept-on album “10,000Mhz Legend” in it’s weirdness and “there’s a soul in the computer”-ness, although “Random…” is infinitely more accessible. Still, though, the two albums compliment eachother in a strange and beautiful way.

Fragments Of Time: This is either going to be a single off the album or is crying out for it… it sounds EXACTLY like driving through Los Angeles near sunset with the top down and not much traffic. It brings back “Discovery”-era vocalist (“Face To Face”) Todd Phillips, who brings out the old Daft Punk sound without neglecting anything about their 2013 sound. This song (combined with “Giorgio…” and the album closer “Contact”) nearly had me in tears. Of joy. This album will do that to you if you let it. Fantastic.

Doin’ It Right: Featuring Animal Collective’s Panda Bear, “Doin’ It Right” is an astonishing dance track that will leave you breathless. I hate to sound like I’m talking in hyperbole but here, Daft Punk return to a straight dance track. “Everybody will be dancing and be feeling alright” says the chorus over and over, and by the end of it, you’re struck with the message of the album. Through the album there is a sincere and not-at-all contrived message of unity. Really. Truly. This is as close as you’re going to get to robots bleeding the truth, moreso than humans can. I know that Daft Punk are two French dudes in masks, but if you believe just for one listen of this album their backstory, the album makes that much more sense. It’s frank, honest, and gorgeous in it’s simplicity. Panda Bear has never, ever sounded this accessible and this good. “Doin’ It Right” is an astonishing song. One that can only be topped by…

Contact: All I have written here is “MY GOD,” circled it multiple times, and there may be possible tear marks on the paper from when I practically wept at the sheer fucking brilliance of this song. “Contact” is childlike in its simplicity, but don’t let that fool you: by a minute in the song will be stuck in your head for days, weeks, forever. This is a song that will leave you pounding the desk or wall for more by the end of it. The last 30 seconds sound like an entire orchestra is falling on you. There is nothing to compare this to. Jawdropping. Simply incredible. Awe inspiring in the truest sense of the word. I don’t want to spoil this track. It’s a phenomenon.

In closing, “Random Access Memories” is one of the best albums not only in Daft Punk’s career but in dance music as a whole. People will be citing this for years, it’s an at-times challenging listen, but the work that you put in only makes it all the more rewarding. An astonishing album.