Review: Daft Punk - Random Access Memories (2013)
Every few years, an album comes along that strives to define a generation, change the rules so significantly, that everything else which came before it feels completely monotonous in comparison. Random Access Memories wants to change your mind about music, to redefine the boundaries between genres, to be that single special album that comes along every decade or so and rewrites conventions set in place before it. This goal was obviously going to be a little bit of a struggle for Daft Punk, a duo that, some would argue, have already rewritten the rules of EDM not once, but twice before.
Their first effort, ‘Homework’, was very well received, touted as a complete breath of fresh air for dance music, and virtually invented the ‘house’ genre (or at the very least brought it to the mainstream). Their sophomore effort, 'Discovery', was a complete celebration of house, with a small amount of rock and disco thrown in for good measure. The resulting album can only be described as breathtaking, with soaring synthesizers, fluid and funky guitars, and more hooks than a fishing tackle store. 2005's ‘Human After All’ was nowhere near as well received, fans were rightfully disappointed. By no stretch of the imagination was it a bad album, far from it, it just wasn’t as ‘Daft Punk’ as fans expected. To put it short, it was an album that was produced in 6 weeks, and it really showed.
So after such an illustrious history, how well does ‘Random Access Memories’ stand up against the back catalogue, as well as the expectations set in place for the daring robot duo? Well, I was actually afraid of reviewing this album as a whole to tell the truth. As a complete package, it is most definitely like nothing you have ever heard before. It sweeps from ‘disco’, featuring crooning robotic voices singing about love, to almost theatrical numbers, with unexpected guest vocals and fully orchestrated backing tracks. In one instance, you could be listening to something tender, almost beautiful, and in the next, they’ll be shredding your face off with high octane drum beats and noise rock synthesizers. The best way to describe this record would be; ‘disco back to the future’ (see what I did there?).
So, in light of the vast differences between tracks, I decided it would be in everybody’s best interests to do a track-by-track review. Not only does this help you, the reader, parse the information in a much easier fashion, but it helps me keep my head screwed on a little bit tighter. This album is not structured in a way that lends itself well to a single, coherent review.
Track 1 – Give Life Back to Music
From the start of this song, you can really tell the album is going to be ‘big’. Swirling synthesizers and strings give way to a soft, funky guitar track plucked by none other than Nile Rodgers. The clock has been turned back to a time in which I wasn’t even born yet, but thanks to years of popular soul and disco music filling the airwaves, I know the sound all too well. Everything about this song is filled with nostalgia, with the sole lyrics being ‘let the music of your life, give life back to music’, and boy do they deliver on this instruction. This track will find its way into your head and clamp down hard. If it wasn’t for the following songs, it would never leave.
Individual score – 9/10
Track 2 - The Game of Love
And after that joyous, almost celebratory intro, we’ve strayed down the tender path of robotic romance. The vocals on this track were created entirely using synthesizers, showing that the guys really tried hard to nail a more human sounding, electronic voice. The effort was not lost, with the vocal track frequently switching between words and sounds. Towards the end, you can barely tell the difference between the track and the vocals.
As you can tell, this is a hard track to adequately put into words, and while it fulfills its purpose as a song, it unfortunately happens to be one of the least standout songs on the album. It’s a song that is good for relaxing to, while stargazing, or sitting on your porch, surrounded by late summer twilight, but it will most certainly end up lost amongst the other, ‘bigger’ songs on the record.
Individual Score – 7/10
Track 3 - Giorgio by Moroder (Ft. Giorgio Moroder)
This one has to be heard to be believed. It is often touted by other critics as being the most standout track on the album, and it certainly stands out. The song is both a biopic, with the subject and narrator being the great Giovanni Giorgio (or Giorgio Moroder), and a love letter to late 70’s/early 80’s movie soundtracks. The string instruments filling in the background while a perfectly bouncy synthesizer chugs on in the foreground, harking back to shows such as ‘Nightrider’, and, of course, films such as ‘Midnight Express’ (which Giorgio composed).
It continuously switches tones, levels, styles, at one point even deciding to bring in a full orchestra. It’s very reminiscent of the work of Kavinsky, another EDM composer from France whose debut EP was produced by one half of the robots, Guy-Manuel.
By far and large one of the greatest tracks on the record, and one of the coolest songs composed in a long time. This one will be remembered.
Individual Score – 10/10
Track 4 – Within (ft. Chilly Gonzales)
A fantastic piano driven track composed by the pianist Chilly Gonzales. The song serves as a kind of interlude between the first act of the album and the second act, and while it stands alone very well, I’m afraid it may be lost on people who listen to the record as a whole. It’s very melancholic vocals hark back to the same crooning found on ‘The Game of Love’, but due to the two songs it has been wedged between, I feel many will skip over it to listen to the more active stuff to come. For what it’s worth, though, Chilly plays as great as expected, and the song is a nice listen, but it will most definitely become a victim of tracking placement.
Individual Score – 7/10
Track 5 – Instant Crush (ft Julian Casablancas)
Recently touted to be one of three upcoming singles released off of the album, this song is a catchy, more rock driven tune. More synthesizers, more guitars, more robotic vocals, except this time, there is a twist. Julian Casablancas, lead singer of ‘The Strokes’, has been fed through an android assembly line and come out the other end a different being. His soft, tender vocals fill this track out perfectly, but when coupled with the Americana guitar that comes in at the mid-point, and those now familiar eighties synthesizers, this track is really brought forward from the crowd.
A toe tapping drum beat, a soft bass-line, and the usual electronic sound you come to expect from Daft Punk make this a very memorable track, and one of the album’s highlights.
Individual Score – 9/10
Track 6 – Lose Yourself to Dance (ft. Pharell Williams)
I can feel this one still moving under my feet as I type. The beat is absolutely infectious, Nile’s playing is fantastic, the song is just incredible. If I was ever to pick a single track that embodies the seventies soul/disco sound in the modern age, this would be it. Pharell Williams’ vocals are absolutely incredible, featuring a fantastic falsetto tone that often meets the music, completes it, takes it to dinner and finishes its sentences. His voice, coupled with the beat and the guitar will have you dancing over and over again all night long. I want everyone to hear this song themselves. Disco fever is most certainly alive in this one.
Individual Score – 10/10
Track 7 – Touch (ft. Paul Williams)
This song is guaranteed to raise the eyebrows of a lot of people. As you may have noticed, I haven’t mentioned the words EDM at all during this review; the album is mostly soul/disco, with a little eighties/seventies synth music thrown in for good measure. To put it nicely, the album isn’t really EDM at all at this point. Now, if the album’s goal is anti-EDM, then Touch embodies this concept of Daft punk moving away from their roots, and is a hard song to really quantify, so I’ll give a single word; ‘insanity’.
This word wasn’t chosen because the track has crazy guitar licks, pounding drums or winding synthesizers, quite the opposite in fact. If this album was never made, the next best place this song would fit is in a Disney movie about post-humanism and robotics. It is completely out of tone with the rest of the album, but in an album already spinning around crazily, licking acid stamps and rolling around in synthesizers under a moonlit disco floor, the fact that this song doesn’t fit makes it absolutely incredible.
The structure of the song has a few distinct movements, starting with a slow, ambient like keyboard, which is then accompanied by robotic, inhuman vocals. It transitions into a fantastic couple of verses sung by legendary singer/songwriter Paul Williams. Cinematic, almost Disney-like in nature, you could just about imagine an android walking down the street, touching everything he can, newly awakened to the prospect of feelings. Everything about this song so far sounds just like a fairytale come alive, and it’s at this point that the funk kicks in, reminding me of many sounds from the seventies, once again.
Not before the funk gets too much, it slows down again, demonstrating more robotic vocals, sounding even more human this time. These vocals slowly give way to a spacey-ambient synthesizer, almost dreamlike, accompanied by that glorious full orchestra again. This was a song made for the big screen, but tailored so it sounds absolutely perfect as a stand-alone track. It tells a story, it moves, it feels alive, and if people let it, it could be remembered for a very long time to come. It sits as one of two tracks that I feel really makes this album what it is, with this song representing the more experimental side of Daft Punk, the soul, the disco. If I could give it an eleven, I would.
Individual Score – 10/10
Track 8 – Get Lucky (Ft. Pharell Williams)
I’m not going to really bother reviewing this song with words, as I’m sure all of you have heard it yourself by now. What I will say is that the album version is far, far better than the single version. Extra guitar licks, a far more dynamic beat, better vocals. If you enjoyed the single, this version is better in every way. If you were to ask this reviewer, though, then I would say that it isn’t on anywhere near the same level as ‘Lose Yourself to Dance’. It is, however, the perfect song to fill the slot as first single. It really embodies the soul sound of the album.
Individual Score – 8/10
Track 9 – Beyond
Another interlude track, much like ‘Within’. This one is fully orchestrated for the first minute or so, and has a much more grand sound to it, which quickly gives way to the familiar robotic vocals and funky bass line, bringing back the soul sound again.
It fulfills its purpose, but, again, it’s stuck in between some very exciting songs, which make it a track that will highly likely be skipped over. One of the stand out parts of this track is, again, the ambient synthesizers that come in close to the end. Again, it fills its place very well, but because of this, it only feels like a place filler, albeit one that is a nice, relaxing break from the more active tracks before it.
Individual Score – 6/10
Track 10 - Motherboard
A very strange song, filled with phaser module synths, heavy drums, and what sounds like a flute. It’s hard to tell whether they intended for this or Beyond to be the true interlude before the third act begins, but out of the two songs, this one is a much more refreshing sound. Jumping back to the sound of ‘Discovery’ somewhat, but moving forward at the same time.
The highlight of this track, again, is the ambient synthesizer that comes in mid way, followed by the 'dreamscape-esque' keyboard. I get the distinct feeling that the song is supposed to make you feel like you’re hurtling through space, though this may be lost on some people. All I know is, I didn’t think much of this track at first, but after a few listens with the headphones on, it really grew on me. It has a nice atmosphere to it, one you can really get lost in.
Individual Score – 8.5/10
Track 11 – Fragments of Time (Ft. Todd Edwards)
The soul returns, but this time it brought some very nice keyboards with it. This is a real chill-out, laid back song, one that will definitely have you tapping your toes again after that brief rush through space. Some very soothing guitar playing fills out the song, with Todd Edwards doing what he does best, and doing it well. It will likely be one of those songs that people skip at first, due to the two songs to come, but given a fair chance, it will really grow on you. Grab a beer, put up the deck chairs, and get lost in the moment of this song. You certainly won’t regret it.
Individual Score – 8.5/10
Track 12 – Doin’ it Right (Ft. Panda Bear)
An great song composed nearly entirely of vocals. The subtle metronomic beat constantly looping in the background compliments the robotic vocals perfectly, stating (with varying deviations) ‘everybody will be dancing if you’re doing it right’, over and over again. Not far into the song, Panda Bear (of Animal Collective) joins in, demonstrating how much of a fantastic singer he is.
A song that is much more Daft Punk than the rest of the album, and will be greatly appreciated by older fans, particularly fans of the style of music found on Discovery. It’s already gathering a large fan following after the album was leaked, and I feel it will be one of the more highly remembered tracks off of this album.
Individual Score – 9/10
Track 13 – Contact (Ft. DJ Falcon)
And here we are, the final track, and to say they’ve saved the best until last would be a massive understatement. This is, quite frankly, one of Daft Punk’s greatest achievements, a song that shows just how far Daft Punk have come since their early EDM days.
The song starts off with a lonely synthesizer, sampled from ‘The Sherbs’ Song ‘We Ride Tonight’ (many will know this sample from an early set Thomas Bangalter performed with DJ Falcon, it’s the same sample). If Motherboard was supposed to make you feel like you were hurtling through space, this song brings you right back down to Earth and has you imagining what it would be like to do it. In an album full of slow, tender, soul music, Contact is a swift kick to the face that is very highly reminiscent of Discovery, but with cinematic production values.
The song opens with the voice of the last man on the moon, Eugene Cernan, describing what he believes to be a UFO, hovering just above Earth. The voice of Eugene himself makes this track transcendent of anything they have done before. The song begins with a real sense of place, a sense of grounding, then lifts you up with a completely face melting keyboard, accompanied by a constantly rolling drum fill. Before long, the ambient noise begins seeping in, and without you even realising, it’s taken over, and you have just completely lost yourself in the sound, in the music. I know that older fans will be wishing the whole album sounded like this, but the fact that we got a song that is this electronic on a soul album is what makes the song. It’s as though the entire album has been building up to this moment, luring you into a false sense of security, and then taking you for the ride of your life.
Not only is this a song you won’t soon forget, it is a song that ends this wild ride of an album perfectly; in a euphoric cacophony of noise and synths. I think I'm going to give out that 11 now.
Individual Score – 11/10
This is not an album that everybody will be able to accept at first. This is an album that really shouldn’t even have come from an EDM act, but it did, and the world is far better for it. Music this good hasn’t been produced in a long time, with every track feeling like they have had every ounce of effort poured into them. This is an album that will not soon be forgotten, and much like ‘Discovery’ and ‘Human After All’, it may not be appreciated fully until a few years down the line.
Regardless, Daft Punk have managed something very special here, they’ve brought together acts from a wide variety of genres, thus creating an album that transcends the limitations of genre. I foresee a summer of Daft punk ahead of us, and it’s going to be absolutely glorious.
Overall Score: 9.5/10
(Please note, this score is not an average of the tracks, rather a score reflecting the overall album, the effort put in, the production quality, etc. Also, that 11 was purely for the sake of fun, the track actually received a 10.)