#295: Random Access Memories, Daft Punk
I had been subscribed to Rolling Stone for nearly four years by the time Random Access Memories came out, so I was ready for it. (Though maybe that’s because I had huge crush on Julian Casablancas of the Strokes (#114, Is This It) and he sang on “Instant Crush”. They made a mannequin of him for the music video, and I have a crush on the mannequin, too.)
Daft Punk released four perfect albums before breaking up in 2021, two of which are on Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. (If it were up to me their debut Homework would also be listed, but what do I know.)
Discovery, #236 on RS’s list, was released twelve years before this record, but the chasm between Discovery and RAM is huge. In fact, the duo released two full records inbetween, 2005’s Human After All and 2010’s Tron: Legacy soundtrack. A song like “Within,” with its syrupy piano intro, would have no place on any of those three records. It sounds too… human. The only thing giving away the Punk’s presence is the vocaloid effect, a trick they use throughout the whole thing.
Between all the sunny California guitars and the bright synthesized beats, you can tell that Daft Punk’s head is firmly in a Los Angeles disco in the Seventies. And it’s also clear that they have an agenda, especially with songs titled “Give Life Back to Music” and “Lose Yourself to Dance.” They don’t just want to make you dance, they want to give you life.
Notice anything else? There aren’t any samples here, no cold beeping noises or drum loops or cash register sounds. In fact the only sample is on the closer “Contact,” which features bits from “We Ride Tonight” by the Sherbs and the Apollo 17 mission. The record gets a bit more EDM-y as it goes on — despite the stringy intro of “Beyond,” the beat would be right at home in a Star Trek movie. “Motherboard” shows a similar contradiction, with acoustic guitar and also a spongy mechanical explosion. But you can tell that computers aren’t the driving force anymore.
Rather than leaning on the technologic magic that had won them their success, Daft Punk opted to use live musicians this time. But it reportedly wasn’t so much of a collaborative effort between DP and their featured artists as it was a dictatorship: Daft Punk told their musical guests exactly what they wanted and asked for no creative input. That’s kind of crazy when you consider that they were working with people like Giorgio Moroder. Moroder worked with legendary artists like Donna Summer (holla Bad Girls, #283) and yet his contribution to “Giorgio by Moroder” is limited to a monologue about his life. (Although when Giorgio declares that the click is the Sound of the future, and Daft Punk supplies him with a chilly click, I smiled to myself.) “Touch” displays Paul Williams’ stately voice over rich orchestral instrumentation. It’s beautiful, it’s just not what I expect from Daft Punk.
Vocaloid is heavily utilized — if you asked Daft Punk what the sound of the future is, that’s what they might say. “The Game of Love” and the aforementioned “Within” are two striking examples of this, but my personal favorite is “Doin’ it Right,” with Panda Bear’s voice acting like an enchanted synthetic choir. If/ You/ Lose/ Your/ Way/ To/ Night/ That’s/ How/ You/ Know/ The/ Mag/ Ic’s/ Right. (I have no idea who Panda Bear is, by the way — some of these features are extremely UK, like Todd Edwards on the chill-lounge track “Fragments of Time.”)
I may have been “ready” to listen to Random Access Memories upon its release, but I wasn’t equipped to process their sonic genius yet. But that’s the beauty of a really great dance record: you don’t have to process anything.
Song I Can’t Believe I’m Sick Of: “Get Lucky,” which has the badass Niles Rodgers’ playing guitar. I’ve always loved this song but it is SO repetitive. Maybe Pharrell Williams is haunting me.