This spring marks the tenth anniversary of French duo Daft Punk’s fourth and last album, Random Access Memories. There’s a chance the name doesn’t sound familiar to you now, but this album was big at the time—both before and after it came out. The rollout is still remarkable in how slow and gargantuan it was, with over two months of anticipation-building teasers anywhere from physical billboards to Coachella to SNL. And, when the album finally came out, the reception matched the hype—lead single ‘Get Lucky’ was the group’s first and only UK #1, and Daft Punk were essentially the protagonists of the 2014 Grammy Awards, two white-clad robot-heads collecting win after win after win, topping it off with the fifth and most important ‘Album of the Year’.
This still does not explain why we should be looking back at this album ten years on. Albums happen, they get big, even huge, but very few remain in the public consciousness after the last of their singles fizzles out of the Top 100. An album isn’t a child, we have no obligation to celebrate its birthdays, be they double-digits or not.
That said—when it comes to Daft Punk, it’s a bit of a different story.
Daft Punk have been around since 1997, which means we’ve had enough time to see whether their sound has had any effect on the landscape of music as a whole. And, decidedly, it has. Not only have countless artists from Avicii and Skrillex to Jay-Z heralded the duo’s early releases as life-changing, but their second album Discovery has often been credited as a pivotal predecessor to the EDM genre. So, the obvious question follows: if Daft Punk’s early 2000s music bled over into the pop and dance music of the 2010s, could we now be seeing the echoes of their 2013 project in today’s pop trends?
I’m arguing that we absolutely are.
For us to understand what Random Access Memories represents, we need to understand what it meant as a change of direction from Daft Punk’s previous sound. A lot of the talk surrounding the album does not make sense otherwise—typical album-writing activities like doing studio sessions or playing real drums or collaborating with other artists are mentioned with a tone of awed surprise, as if they are the strangest most topsy-turvy concepts. However, hearing even one Daft Punk track written before 2008 immediately explains why the duo’s fourth album was the first one they recorded in a studio: their signature sound is usually created not out of live instruments but an intricate mesh of samples chaotically worked into dance music (only to be lovingly detangled by meticulous fans).
Random Access Memories took what could be argued to be the complete opposite approach—instead of upcycling retro songs into a new-sounding product, the duo instead attempted to create music with newly recorded instruments but carrying a retro groove. Iconic disco guitarist and producer Nile Rodgers, whose instantly recognisable bright-timbred guitar appears on multiple Random Access Memories tracks, says of the project that “it’s like they went back to go forward”. If the early 2010s, when the album was being composed, are full to the brim with electronic and digital-age-sounding music—from the 2009 robopop of ‘Boom Boom Pow’ to the 2012 meme-fuelled EDM trap of ‘Harlem Shake’—then returning to vintage synthesisers and acoustic instruments is downright counterculture for a dance music group. As ‘Fragments of Time’ feature Todd Edwards says, “You’re listening to [the tracks] and they’re future classics. [Daft Punk] brought the sound of something that’s been lost for a long time.”
As of this March, interviews are not the only places where you can hear Edwards’ excitement over his collaboration with Daft Punk. As an early teaser for the Random Access Memories 10th Anniversary Edition, which contains 35 new minutes of demos and outtakes, the duo have released ‘The Writing of Fragments of Time’. During the track’s eight minutes, we can hear Todd Edwards and Daft Punk member Thomas Bangalter throw lyrical and melodic ideas to each other over an often-interrupted instrumental loop, a seemingly uncut recording taken directly from their songwriting session. This is very representative of Daft Punk’s method—the band’s collaborators talk of the way the duo recorded continuous improvised jams rather than any prewritten material, only to be mix-and-matched after the fact. The ‘Fragments of Time’ line “turning our days into melodies”, one that Edwards can be heard singing and then passionately complimenting during the new recording, is a brilliantly concise way to capture the spirit of Random Access Memories: recordings of jam sessions over four years and two continents end up coming together seamlessly to form the sound of the album. The result of this unorthodox recording method is an album chock-full of legends—overlaid upon each other, enmeshed with each other, or sometimes being given centre-stage to monologue about their careers like on the track ‘Giorgio by Moroder’. As soon as your ear starts picking these different building blocks apart, you get a real feel for what Bangalter meant when he claimed that “we wanted to do what we used to do with machines and samplers, (…) but with people”.
So, the question remains. What is there in our current pop landscape that could possibly have its roots in Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories?
Well, of course, first of all we have the monogenre. This album brings together disco, funk, pop, and electronic influences in an early example of the genre that pop music has been tending towards since the mid-2010s: that is, no genre. While the monogenre was first being conceptualised around the time Random Access Memories was released, nowadays it’s a given in the current music industry. Neither newcomers, such as Lil Nas X with his record-breaking country-fusion ‘Old Town Road’, nor established voices, like Ariana Grande with her trap-infused Positions album, shy away from blending what would usually be considered disparate genres. As overlap grows between the indie, pop, rap, and rock charts, Thomas Bangalter’s quote—”we really liked the idea of breaking all the barriers between these musical genres”—starts sounding less and less about their album exclusively and more and more about the duo’s plans for music as a whole.
But what genres do remain also seem to follow a markedly Daft-Punk-esque trajectory. The Grammy Awards’ website declares jubilantly at the end of last year that “pop has seen a disco revival seeping in over the last few years”, and gives the example of Beyonce taking inspiration from Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’ for her 2022 album Renaissance—the original Donna Summer track being, of course, produced and written by Random Access Memories collaborator Giorgio Moroder. This disco revival has certainly been in full bloom post-pandemic, but the rise of retro had been building up for years—albums like Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia and The Weeknd’s After Hours follow the Daft Punk tradition in not just sampling or interpolating 70s tracks but writing new music that could have easily fit on the charts forty years earlier. The Weeknd is actually important to mention here: not only has he been named “one of the biggest torchbearers of retro”, but his two 2016 hits ‘Starboy’ and ‘I Feel It Coming’ are the last two projects on which Daft Punk ever worked on as a duo, leaving The Weeknd with the seemingly-unlikely but actually very fitting responsibility of carrying forward Daft Punk’s legacy.
I want to make it clear that I’m not claiming Random Access Memories to be the one album that brought the retro-pastiche revolution to pop music; I can’t ignore the impact of other hugely influential musicians like Amy Winehouse and Lana del Ray when it comes to the vintage-pop trend. What I am arguing, however, is that when the Cherwell review for Random Access Memories, written almost exactly ten years ago, called the album ‘defining’, I get to confirm that as true an entire decade later. Defining, absolutely, for Daft Punk as songwriters and musicians, but also more largely defining for pop music as a whole.