It might seem like a whole lot of fun and games, but being a music critic comes with a heavy cross to bear. When it comes to analysing and critiquing albums for publications just like this, our occasionally hastily-prepared thoughts can sometimes miss the mark. And when that happens, the stinking artefact remains online for the world to mock for all time.
With 2016 marking 15 years of Daft Punk’s landmark LP Discovery, seasoned music reviewer DAVE RUBY HOWE has brushed the dust off a creaky corner of the internet to find a number of album reviews that music journalists probably wish they could take back now. Because despite the reception at the time, a decade and a half later Discovery stands as one of dance music’s most important albums ever.
Music snobs didn’t always love Daft Punk
Today we know Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo as perhaps the most celebrated dance music outfit of all time, but at the turn of the century dance music wasn’t as keenly embraced as it is now.
After the success of 1997’s breakthrough hit Around the World, Daft Punk were known as the pair of kooky Frenchmen who’d managed to infiltrate the mainstream and were now dressing up in robot costumes. As such, some weren’t ready to roll with Discovery’s concoction of disco, house and funk, and critics served up plenty of lukewarm reviews when the album dropped in 2001.
Let’s start with Pitchfork. In his review, site founder Ryan Schreiber gives an underwhelming grade of 6.4 to Discovery, expelling particular gall on One More Time with this old-man-yelling-at-clouds impression: “Maybe I just haven’t taken enough ecstasy and horse tranquillisers to appreciate the tinny, sampled brass ensemble, the too-sincere ‘chill out’ midsection, or the fat drum machine beats that throb in time with my headache.”
Feel like hearing about more writers pissing on the bible? Good-o, because there’s a whole bunch of other blunderous reviews to revisit. Bombastic American rock critic Robert Christgau gave Discovery a sorry C+ mark in the Village Voice, calling One More Time an annoying novelty and decrying “there are better beats on the damn Jadakiss CD”. Burn! (This coming from the guy who gave The Avalanches’ Since I Left You a paltry two stars, by the way.)
“Being trapped in eternity listening to Daft Punk is one definition of hell” – The New York Times
It gets worse. The AV Club’s Joshua Klein describes Daft Punk’s sophomore effort as “resoundingly stupid”, while the record received just two stars in the Guardian with Alexis Petridis contending Discovery “just sounds like Daft Punk’s first album”, singling out the fan favourite Aerodynamic as “disjointed and episodic” and symptomatic of the album’s failings.
Perhaps too far afield from his preferred genre, the late New York Times jazz critic Mike Zwerin poured cold water over Discovery with his conclusion that “Daft Punk is worth a listen or two (three might be stretching it)” and that “being trapped in eternity listening to Daft Punk is one definition of hell”. (No shade, Zwerin – no critic is perfect and I’ve written stuff here on inthemix I’d rather recant a few year down the track.)
The real legacy of Discovery
But a decade and a half later, it’s clear that Discovery was Daft Punk at the peak of their powers. As well as shifting units in the multi-millions, the album’s cultural impact is unparalleled.
The disco resurgence of the ‘00s owes everything to Discovery, not to mention the influence the album had on the next generation of dance music makers – James Murphy, Mylo, Justice and new wave stars like Porter Robinson, Madeon and Zedd. When he ran inthemix through his favourite albums of all time, Robinson declared that he thinks he’ll “die still calling this the greatest album of all time”.
Years after its release, Discovery still had extended moments in the sun. In 2007, Kanye West showed his appreciation for the Robots by sampling Harder Better Faster Stronger for Stronger in the pre-Yeezus days, introducing a new generation to the sounds of Thomas and Guy-Manuel.
And One More Time, the track Pitchfork suggested you’d need ketamine to enjoy? It currently boasts 93 million YouTube views, was voted the #1 dance track of all time by Mixmag readers in 2013 and placed at #5 in Pitchfork’s own list of the best songs of the noughties. In 2016, you won’t find a working party DJ in Australia who doesn’t still have it on their USBs as an ace up the sleeve.
While reviews for newer Daft Punk albums Human After All and Random Access Memories have been fairly mixed, Discovery now enjoys near universal acclaim fifteen years on from its release – even among the publications who initially wrote it off.
Pitchfork, for instance, devoured a substantial serving of humble pie when naming Discovery the third best album of the last decade. Likewise, in Rolling Stone – who awarded the album a paltry three stars at time of release – Discovery clocked in at #8 on the mag’s list of the best “EDM albums” of all time (joining rank with the likes of The Chemical Brothers, Moby, Juan Atkins and Daft Punk’s own Homework LP).
And in The AV Club’s round-up of the best LPs of the ’00s the album ranks at #20, a severe about-face from calling Discovery “resoundingly stupid”. Funny how things change, isn’t it?
Why we’re still spinning Discovery
Back in 2001, inthemix wrote, what made Discovery excellent was that it did things differently.
“The true genius of Discovery is that Daft Punk have broken the rules. They’ve released house from its shackles and announced to purists that music can be fun, it can be different and that most of all, the only person you have to be true to, is yourself,” writer Andy Pickering assessed. “It’s dance music, but not as you’ve heard it before. Discovery has a thick electro-disco pulse that runs right through it, but it’s also hot-wired to a joyously glam-rock sense of performance, fun and showmanship.”
Ten years later, ITM named Discovery the second best album of the 2000s (losing out only to The Avalanches) and set out to describe its genius as simply as possible. “There’s a reason that Daft Punk’s Discovery is rated so highly amongst fans: It’s just freakin’ great. Basically every track on the album stands out as staples of modern dance music.” Now, ain’t that the truth?
Dave Ruby Howe is the Music Director at triple j Unearthed. You can find him on Twitter.
Daft Punk started working on Random Access Memories in 2008, playing almost everything on their own and making loops, just like they had done before. But it didn't feel right. “It became clear that we were limited by our own disability to hold a groove the way we wanted for more than eight or 16 bars,” admits Bangalter. “Something we love about disco is the idea of playing the same groove over and over again—your brain can tell it's not a sample that's being replayed.”
So they enlisted technically masterful instrumentalists (the kind of guys who grace the covers of magazines like Modern Drummer and Bass Musician), put different combinations of players together, explained their ideas, laid down sheet music or hummed melodies, and collected tons of original recordings on analog tape. “The idea of working with musicians was way beyond making it sound better,” says Bangalter. “It was an opportunity to create something on a very personal level with people that we admire the most.”
To that end, they would often meet with these collaborators beforehand to talk about the ideas and inspirations behind the album before even stepping inside of a studio. Chic's Nile Rodgers, the hitmaking funk Zelig behind some of the slickest guitar licks of all-time, recalls breaking out his old-fashioned L5 jazz guitar in his living room during his first meeting with Bangalter and de Homem-Christo last year. “They just got all hyped,” he says. The three ended up recording Rodgers’ parts over the course of a few days at Manhattan's Electric Lady Studios, the same spot where Chic laid down their first single in 1977. Along with his guitar playing, Rodgers showed Daft Punk some of his trademark recording methods, too. “That's how you did it in the old days—when a person is paying you top dollar, you want to make sure that they're happy and they don't have to call you back,” says Rodgers, laughing. “So I just bombarded them with ideas and said, ‘OK, now you guys figure that shit out.’”
Indeed, deciding how to arrange what Bangalter calls “an overwhelming amount of assets” was the most difficult part of putting RAM together, and why it took so long. For instance, even though they recorded orchestra parts for nearly every song on the album, those strings only ended up on three or four tracks. Even a seemingly straightforward tune like first single “Get Lucky” took about 18 months from start to finish, as it slowly mutated from a Wurlitzer-based track to the chugging summer anthem we now know. The album's title, which was settled early on, became a guidepost and a justification for the record's whiplash jump cuts from song to song and guest to guest. “It helped us understand how all of these collaborators could live together,” says Bangalter, “because if you look at this bizarre list of people on paper, you could be like, ‘Whoa, that's gonna be a big mess.’” While figuring out what direction the album would eventually take, the two considered indexing the whole thing as one big track, like Prince's Lovesexy, or even releasing a quadruple album.
But of all the moving parts that make up Random Access Memories, the most head-scratching section to put together was the album's eight-minute centerpiece, “Touch”. The kaleidoscopic track stars 72-year-old Paul Williams, who wrote immense hits for the Carpenters, Barbra Streisand, and more in his 70s heyday, before descending into drug and alcohol abuse in the 80s, and then recovering in the 90s. Daft Punk were obsessed with Williams from an early age, largely due to his role in director Brian De Palma's schlocky 1974 pop opus Phantom of the Paradise, in which he plays a Faustian ghoul who trades his soul in order to become rock'n'roll's preeminent impresario. The movie is ridiculous, funny, entertaining, and endlessly referential—just like Daft Punk. (At one point during our interview, Bangalter let it slip that he and de Homem-Christo recently had a meeting with De Palma to “discuss some things,” though he declined to divulge any specifics.)
For inspiration, Bangalter gave Williams a book of stories about people who had died, came back to life, and remembered parts of past lives. And Williams' lyrics are about an awakening: “I remember touch,” he croons, longingly. “As somebody who has been pronounced dead and came back, I could connect to this idea in the song,” says Williams, who's now 23 years sober and the subject of the quietly triumphant recent documentary Still Alive. Meanwhile, the song warps and bends, floating through genres, epochs, and emotions with a sense of hallucinatory wonder, recalling nothing less than the Beatles' “A Day in the Life”. “It's like the core of the record,” says de Homem-Christo, “and the memories of the other tracks are revolving around it.”
As Bangalter and de Homem-Christo talk about “Touch”, there's still a sense of astonishment in their voices. “It was the most complicated thing we've ever done,” says Bangalter. “And it became so exciting because it didn't feel like we took the easy route. With this record, we had the luxury to do things that so many people cannot do, but it doesn't mean that with luxury comes comfort.” It's this high-stakes, high-wire mindset that keeps these guys in an enviable position within the collective imagination, no matter how long they take between magic tricks. Because if Daft Punk are still able to amaze themselves, there's still some hope for the rest of us.
Additional reporting by Michael Renaud