On Monday, Daft Punk released a seven-minute video announcing the duo of Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter were calling it a day after 28 years.
Daft Punk have and will continue to occupy an odd place in music history: they are one of the most influential artists of all time but at the same time have never had a #1 single in the US (“Get Lucky” came close at #2). Yet they are iconic all the same, perhaps somewhat due to their helmeted personas but still mostly due to their prolific track record of making groundbreaking music time and time again. “Perfect albums” is a concept difficult to ascribe to a work of art, but Discovery is one of the first albums to pop in my head when I think of it.
I’ve said this on Twitter, but I’ll repeat it because it still applies: how many artists do you think Kanye West would be willing to take production advice from in 2013, at the absolute peak of his Kanye West-ness?
And that’s just pop music with broad appeal. Daft Punk were pioneers in electronic music, and their refusal to stay inside their French House subgenre that they initially found success in led them to be driving influences for nearly every big name electronic artists you can think of, from James Murphy of LCD Soundsyrem (who referenced them directly in a song, only to come back and title one of their most famous songs about the duo) to Skrillez, Zedd, Porter Robinson, Chromeo, Justice, Steve Aoki, Madeon, M83, and much much more.
Today to celebrate the duo’s incredible contribution to modern music, we’ll be ranking their ten best songs. This list is likely to piss someone off, but that’s by design. I’m not trying to be edgy here in any way shape, or form, Daft Punk just have so many incredible songs that ranking them is extremely subject to the beholder. You could reasonably come up with a list of 10 songs I excluded and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with it.
Note: I will not be including any of the live concert mashups, because then those would simply dominate the list.
10: Human After All
The leadoff track from the album with the same name, “Human After All” serves as something of a thesis statement for Daft Punk: a vocal loop, some long and smooth guitar notes, a vocoder, two lines of lyrics, and some snappy snares. Daft Punk can MacGyver a 45-minute album of these simple ingredients, and they have. That’s essentially what this album is.
As it relates to lyrics, Daft Punk “themselves” overall don’t have much to say (we’ll touch more on this later). But sometimes there is beauty in simplicity, and here the helmeted duo don’t really need to say more than “We are human after all, flesh uncovered after all”. It’s more than a catchy song, it’s a mission statement.
9: Da Funk
Oh yeah, the original Daft Punk song. If Human After All was the thesis statement, then “Da Funk” was the intro, the hook. Daft Punk have made bangers on bangers, but this is probably the most raw, uncut, pure house song they have made. Daft Punk would go on to stray far from this sound, listening to the right song from Random Access Memories after this one might give you whiplash, but this cut with it’s brutal bass hits and scratchy guitars stands the test of time.
8: Instant Crush
Hey, remember what I said about getting whiplash playing a RAM song after Da Funk?
“Instant Crush” is probably the duo’s attempt at a contemporary pop song, with a vocal assist from The Strokes’ front man Julian Casablancas. Most of the song is a groovy, mid-tempo smooth cut with Julian singing far above the register we’re used to hearing from his work with the Strokes. It’s without a doubt the longest lyrics sheet in the Daft Punk discography once you eliminate repeated phrases where Julian and the robots take us on an emotional journey.
Hey, remember what I said about getting whiplash playing a RAM song after Da Funk?
“Touch” is the epic of Random Access Memories, a complete journey of eight minutes that complete gambit with a lengthy synth-based intro, a piano-driven ballad verse from Paul Williams, and a downtempo disco backed verse before breaking into a ragtime jazz and disco hybrid instrumental break. Reading those word makes it sound like a jumbled mess, but it just works because it’s Daft Punk.
But the song really transcends when it reverts back to the downtempo piano-based ballad with the lyrics “If love is the answer you’ll hold on”, while the strings quietly build in the background until the synths ultimately come back in sync with the strings. This is probably the most profoundly beautiful work Daft Punk have made, and it’s this section they chose to back the majority of their retirement announcement video.
Alright, enough of the sad crap and back to the house bangers.
This track is centered around a few synth notes with heavy reverb attached to them. I don’t know how else to describe it, but it sounds like radar or sonar should sound like. There’s a point in the song where they cut the bass serving as the backdrop for the reverbed synths and allow them to just wash over you momentarily., and listening to this with a good pair of headphones or speakers is life altering. It takes a lot of insane musical talent to take music and makes it feel like it’s something tangible that physically impacts the listener, but they accomplish it here.
If you think you don’t like electronic music because “it’s just people pressing buttons on a computer”, take the time to listen to this song and re-evaluate your stance.
5: Face to Face
The penultimate track on Discovery, “Face to Face” serves as sort of a precursor or spiritual predecessor to “Human After All” in it’s central message of resolving conflict in person, creating the juxtaposition of (canonical) robots who believe in the human touch. This motif is what artists like Porter Robinson would go on to create their entire persona around.
And it doesn’t hurt that the song itself is a soulful mid-tempo number. What’s incredible about Daft Punk is how they flip eight different tracks in one song from the likes of Loggins and Messina, The Alan Parsons Project, and Electric Light Orchestra and make it feel like their own. Usually you can pretty easily identify a sample because it’s more of less a straight life, but on tracks like this Daft Punk only take what they need, sometimes only a snippet of half a beat here and there and created a fully fleshed out song from it.
This is just Daft Punk flexing their musical muscles. After a spoken word intro with an astronaut describing a close encounter with a UFO, Daft Punk unleash a weapon they don’t usually pull from their arsenal: incredible drumming. They got legendary Omar Hakim on the track and left him to do his thing, which is killing it.
But a little over halfway through the track, something magical happens. Hakim starts absolutely going to town on the cymbals, and that is like the starting gun for another layer of synths to come roaring in. They start out low and only grow and grow and grow, becoming more an more present.
Remember how I said that “Alive” sounded like a radar? This part of “Contact” sounds like being in a spacecraft that is entering the atmosphere, going faster and faster and getting hotter and hotter as gravity tightens it’s grip and the atmosphere burns you up. At one point it starts skipping, giving you the feeling that you’re starting break the speed of sound before dissipating. Then you’re left with another build, but this one feeling like you’ve broken through the atmosphere and are in a free fall towards the surface of the planet until the parachute thankfully deploys.
A song makes you feel like that.
3: Digital Love
Chronologically this is the first “traditional song” in the Daft Punk discography, having defined verses, a chorus, and a bridge with instrumentals between them.
And man, what a song it is. Seriously, this just a master craft display of songwriting. For the first half of the song the instrumentals are groovy yet a little subdued, but after the chorus they increase the presence of the synths and do a funky little breakdown before throwing it to the bridge. And on the other side of the bridge is a kick ass modulated guitar solo that wasn’t actually played on a guitar but rather a synthesizer and a vocoder. Seriously for the majority of my life I believe this was played on a guitar and pressed through a filter.
And for being the band’s first foray into a “real” song, the lyrics are sharp, concise, and tell a clear narrative about an unreciprocated love. I like to think this was the moment Daft Punk became more than a French House band and became the genre-defining pioneers we know them as today.
2: TRON Legacy (End Credits)
Daft Punk doing the TRON Legacy score made all the sense in the world, and they pulled through with one of my favorite soundtracks of all time. It’s all great, but the end credits theme really takes the cake.
It begins with a distinctly Daft Punk flair, fast-paced but simple synth keys arranged in a perfect matter. And then the strings with the leitmotif of the score come in and it’s wonderful mix of your traditional epic film score with the Daft Punk flair. But bit by bit they pull back on the synths and bass, letting the strings soar far and beyond the electronic aspects of the song. It’s seriously some of the most moving and emotionally stirring stuff I’ve ever heard. They’ve produced to soundtrack to just one movie, but this selection alone is on par with most of the work giants like Hans Zimmer have done.
1: One More Time
“Get Lucky” may be the most popular and “Da Funk” may have been the original Daft Punk song, but this is THE Daft Punk song. If you have to dump everything DP have done and drop it into a blender, this is what you’d get. Oh, and of course, they way they built the sample into a song is once again insane.
It’s simple, both in message and delivery. We’re gonna celebrate one more time, don’t stop dancing. To accentuate this fact, the song have driving bass and light and airy synths. It’s a song that gets your feet moving and encourages them to keep moving.
But what really elevates the song is the breakdown which feels as if they managed to pause or slow time in the club, allowing us to bathe in the euphoria of the moment. It’s pure bliss personified, and living in the moment for a minute and half is nothing short of magical.
But just like The Prestige, it’s not enough to make something disappear, you have to bring it back. And Daft Punk are musical magicians. The instrumentals slowly creep back in, and when the kick brings us back to the wall-thumping banger, it’s almost as intoxicating as getting lost in the moment.