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Daft Punk, ‘Random Access Memories’ – Album Review

Daft Punk Random Access Memories
Columbia

It says something about pop music in 2013 that an album created with live musicians in the studio rather than electronics is considered “ambitious,” but that’s the case for ‘Random Access Memories,’ the latest release from French robot helmet-wearing duo Daft Punk.

Mostly ditching the electronics for real musicians is a brave step for Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter, whose success at the turn of the millennium laid the groundwork for today’s EDM explosion.

Believing that EDM has become soulless and repetitive, Daft Punk embraced disco and ’70s rock like Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles on the new record. They enlisted a diverse group of collaborators, including Nile Rodgers of Chic, the legendary disco and R&B band that earned induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year, plus another famed disco-era hitmaker, Giorgio Moroder. To keep things current, they brought in hip-hop producer Pharrell Williams and indie rock vocalist Julian Casablancas of the Strokes.

The computerized effects are still here, but they serve more as accents rather than the central focus of the music. The result is a record that raises the bar for electronic music and challenges other contemporary DJs to think beyond their laptops.

Read on for our track-by-track review of one of the best albums of the first half of 2013, Daft Punk’s ‘Random Access Memories,’ which officially drops on May 21.

1. ‘Give Life Back to Music’ Feat. Nile Rodgers
For ‘Give Life Back to Music,’ a song co-written with Rodgers, Daft Punk wanted an ‘Off the Wall’ vibe, so they hired some of musicians who played on that classic Michael Jackson album. The disco-themed track featuring electronic vocals is a tasty appetizer that only hints at the genius that’s still to come.

2. ‘The Game of Love’
A robot gets his heart broken on ‘The Game of Love,’ a dreamy track oozing with melancholy. Instead of the usual technique of making human voices sound robotic, Bangalter says he wanted to make a robot voice sound human. The android sings, “And it was you / The one that will be breaking my heart / When you decided to walk away / When I wanted you to stay.”

3. ‘Giorgio by Moroder’ Feat. Giorgio Moroder
A legendary disco producer perhaps best known for his work with Donna Summer, Giorgio Moroder recites the story of his life on this fascinating track. Moroder delivers an inspirational message about his journey from a kid who had an impossible dream to get into music to the adult who learned, “You can do whatever you want.” His spoken word tale gives way to a meandering instrumental section featuring pulsing keyboards, a funky bass solo, and thunderous drums.

4. ‘Within’ Feat. Chilly Gonzales
A piano ballad on a Daft Punk album? ‘Within’ certainly starts out that way. The piano is replaced with sparse, chilled-out instrumentation while a sad robot sings, “I am lost / I can’t even remember my name.” It’s a solid track, but not one you’ll likely be pumping out your speakers repeatedly.

5. ‘Instant Crush’ Feat. Julian Casablancas
With its chugging riff and mid-song guitar solo, ‘Instant Crush’ is fairly close to a straightforward rock song, except that it’s been given the Daft Punk treatment with a Vocoder effect on Casablancas’ vocals and synth yips brightening up the chorus. ‘Instant Crush’ lives up to its name — it’s a surprising highlight even on the first listen.

6. ‘Lose Yourself to Dance’ Feat. Pharrell Williams and Nile Rodgers
‘Lose Yourself to Dance’ features Pharrell repeating the song title several dozen times over six minutes. With a fairly nondescript melody that drags on too long, ‘Lose Yourself to Dance’ feels like the lesser B-side to ‘Get Lucky.’

7. ‘Touch’ Feat. Paul Williams
‘Touch’ sounds like it should be a train wreck, but somehow the eight-minute track ends up being the highlight of the record. It manages to successfully incorporate intergalactic bleeps, earnest vocals (from accomplished but forgotten ’70s singer-songwriter Paul Williams), a funk guitar straight out of ‘Shaft,’ a rollicking, show tunes-style interlude, and a big emotional climax with strings, a choir, and laser beam effects. You really have to hear this one to believe it.

8. ‘Get Lucky’ Feat. Pharrell Williams and Nile Rodgers
It’s no wonder ‘Get Lucky’ shot immediately into the Top 20 to become the biggest pop hit of Daft Punk’s career. Disco guitars, Pharrell’s vocals and a euphoric groove make the song one of the catchiest tracks of the year and an early contender for song of the summer. The Grammys should bring back the Best Disco Recording category just to make sure this song gets an award. [Listen Here]

9. ‘Beyond’
Another downtempo, bass-heavy tune featuring robot vocals. What makes this one stand out are the Paul Williams-penned lyrics, which have a bit more depth than most of the words on the record.

10. ‘Motherboard’
‘Motherboard’ is an impressive instrumental that uses strings, flutes and drums to create laid-back mood music rather than “light up the dance floor” fare. The song briefly veers into dark, stormy territory before fading out with a pulsing pop beat.

11. ‘Fragments of Time’ Feat. Todd Edwards
Featuring vocals from producer/remixer Todd Edwards, ‘Fragments of Time’ is the song that most evokes the classic California rock vibe Daft Punk claim they wanted on this record. EDM fans may not enjoy the obvious nod to Fleetwood Mac, but we appreciate the effort.

12. ‘Doin’ It Right Feat. Panda Bear
The final song penned for ‘Random Access Memories, ‘Doin’ it Right’ is built around around a trance-like computerized vocal loop. Daft Punk get an assist on the song from Panda Bear of experimental indie rockers Animal Collective. The track is slightly repetitive, but better than most of Panda Bear’s solo work.

13. ‘Contact’
Daft Punk go out with a bang on ‘Contact,’ which packs a ferocious punch despite lacking any words except an introductory audio clip from a transmission made in space by astronaut Eugene Cernan, the last man to visit the Moon. Guitars, drums and synth notes whirl and crescendo before suddenly dropping out. Listeners are left with audio whiplash and a final minute of electronic static that affords the opportunity to reflect on a remarkable album.

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