The duo just signed to Columbia Records and will be releasing an LP in 2013. Get hype.
Written by David Drake (@somanyshrimp)
I first took Daft Punk seriously as artists thanks to one of my new friends freshman year of college. He was a fan of music that felt slightly off the beaten path, including Slum Village, N.E.R.D, and especially Daft Punk’s second LP, the now-classic Discovery. In a weird way, that was a natural context for the group’s work in 2001, even if Daft Punk’s profile has since skyrocketed beyond the other two groups. At the time, Discovery wasn’t panned, exactly, but it also wasn’t the kind of record which received the all-consuming hype and acclaim one would expect from a record that became so influential. We grew to love the album through an organic process, and without the pressure of media attention.
It was a very different media environment then, and Daft Punk’s career is in a very different place now. News broke that the duo will release a record in 2013, and with eight years passing since their last true solo record, it's a major event. Their albums, in large part, came to define the sound of the 2000s, and a new release will likely reach a level of anticipation granted to few artists. D’Angelo is one comparable example. Dave Chappellemight be another.
Daft Punk gained early attention for making music heavily influenced by Chicago’s house scene, particularly producers like DJ Sneak and Paul Johnson. Their first record gained considerable traction in advance of the late-'90s press-driven "electronica" boom, in which publications heavily covered the wave of European producers who came up in rave culture, and were making moves towards crossing over to the United States. Daft Punk, in particular, stood out thanks to inventive videos (directed by major names like Michael Gondry and Spike Jones). Homework, their debut, was beloved primarily in dance circles, both overseas and in the states.
Most great artists are working with a balance of innovation versus synthesis: that is, the raw creation of something genuinely new, against the blending of existing sounds in new ways. Discovery was the moment where synthesis became innovation. They no longer pulled only upon dance floor-oriented music—house, techno, electro—but began incorporating all different parts of 1970s and 1980s pop history. Many of their songs, while still reliant on house music’s four-on-the-floor kick, were more "pop" than Daft Punk’s work had been before. And the result was a joyous record that seemed to package an atomic bomb’s worth of enthusiasm within laser-focused songwriting.
Of course, this was an era when the American charts were dominated by hip-hop. So for lots of American fans of Discovery, recognizing its brilliance made you feel like part of a modestly-sized club. Internationally, songs like “One More Time” and Thomas Bangalter projects like Stardust’s “Music Sounds Better With You” were ever-present smashes, and would remain so for years. In the States, however, music critics would argue over who was more likely to crossover, Daft Punk or Basement Jaxx, and current New Yorker pop critic Sasha Frere-Jones would even admit that he put his money on the latter group.
How things can change in a few short years. By the time Daft Punk released their last full album, 2005’s Human After All, there was bubbling anticipation among writers and fans. And the record, while not a flop, was widely considered a disappointment to the older fans and dance crowds. But history has a funny way of evolving without regard to the whims of critics. Human After All seemed to have a rough-textured, rock music-edge to it, and whether it was influential or simply anticipatory, the wave of artists that came in its wake meant it marked the beginning of America’s full turn towards house. Justice and the blog-house boom of the late 2000s took little from Discovery’s euphoric highs and androgynous vocals. But they had a masculine rock star swagger that neatly followed Human After All’s craggy aggression.
And hip-hop, rather than incidentally pushing Daft Punk to the margins as it had earlier in the decade, embraced the group. A-Trak has been credited with introducing Kanye West to the idea of sampling the group’s music (which West did for the Grammy-winning “Stronger”), and the rapper must have been impressed by their landmark performance at Coachella in April of 2006. (For a fun before-and-after comparison, look at Kanye’s 2006 Coachella performance and the massive stage shows he would develop for the Glow in the Dark tour). More than any particular release, though, Daft Punk’s Coachella performance would become a flashpoint for the group’s increasing noteriety. At the time, Pitchfork said the appearance was “mindblowing”:
Not to get hyperbolic, but people were crying at two French robots. Yes, chemicals may have played a part, but Bangalter and Homem-Christo deserve much of the credit for creating a relentless, dynamic live show based around two dudes standing in front of equipment. A towering LED pyramid; dizzying light show; hilariously choreographed camera movements for the screenwatchers; and, of course, an exhausting selection from their catalogue, sequenced on a seemingly impossible upward trajectory for a solid hour. Heart-attack shit. And for all those who argued Human After All's worthlessness: You were wrong.
This is why a new Daft Punk album will matter. Esteem for the group has only grown in the eight years since their last full release, growing by leaps and bounds even as their musical output slowed. Their influence is widespread, from populist dance of the late '00s to hip-hop, and they now stand as one of the iconic groups of the 2000s. The four-on-the-floor sound that was so popular internationally at the group’s creative height is only now the lingua franca of pop music in the United States. The record, whatever its other qualities, will be a must-hear release, just to see how Daft Punk reacts. Even if it disappoints, don’t be surprised if its influence ends up looming larger than we expect.