The 10 Most Essential Daft Punk Songs, From ‘Da Funk’ To ‘Instant Crush’
'Around The World' changed dance music forever.
One of the strangest things about being Australian is waking up to news.
You can never tell what it’ll be. I rolled over in bed this morning to see Daft Punk trending, and it immediately brought a smile to my face. It seemed like what I’d been hoping for: the new record, eight years on from the blockbuster Random Access Memories. That wasn’t the case — instead, we woke up to the end of an era.
It’s been a long time since we’ve seen anything new from Guy Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter, which makes their breakup all the more unexpected. In the wake of Random Access Memories, the robots receded from the musical landscape, appearing only a handful of times. They took a central role on Kanye’s Yeezus, producing ‘On Sight’, ‘Black Skinhead’, ‘I Am A God’ and ‘Send It Up’, landed featured credits on The Weeknd tracks ‘Starboy’ and ‘I Feel It Coming’, and helmed a single for Australia’s very own Parcels. It’s an impressive list, albeit strangely short.
That doesn’t mean that Daft Punk felt any less present. It was just weeks ago that, in spite of their longtime absence, fans gossiped about the chance of an unlikely (and ultimately fictitious) cameo at the Super Bowl. It’s an enduring love that speaks to the scope of their impact, carved out with elements of disco, synth-pop, rock, funk, and orchestral music. That versatile skillset helped them break in during the late ‘90s, endure throughout the shifting 2000s and maintain well into the 2010s — all the while exerting incredible influence on electronic music and popular culture at large.
In honour of the robots and their deft French touch, here’s a quick tour through ten of the duo’s most essential tracks. That you’ve probably heard them all before is testament to their success, just as the hundreds of posts from saddened fans speaks to their influence and — now that they’ve called it quits — their legacy.
The story of Daft Punk starts in 1993, but it was ‘Da Funk’, the first single from the duo’s debut, Homework, that really kicked things off. An exercise in compelling simplicity, the five-and-a-half minute track is built about little more than an unyielding beat, a four-bar melody, a handful of drum patterns and a sharp synthesizer stab.
It’s the final ingredient — a looping 303 bassline, fuzzy and relentless — that pulls everything together into one of the best house tracks of the ‘90s. It also gave us one of Spike Jonze’s best music videos, which is no mean feat.
‘Around The World’
In that same spirit, Homework single ‘Around The World’s found undeniable catchiness in insistent repetition.
In theory, it might sound like a bore — “around the world” is repeated 144 times — but in the hands of the robots, the deceptively barebones track is compulsively listenable. It’s in the way they toy with those scarce elements, each fleeting phrase giving way to another compelling combination. You’d be surprised just how well you retain all those little details: if it comes on the radio, you might even find yourself singing along with the bleeps and bloops that dance about the vocal.
‘Rollin’ & Scratchin”
A hypnotic slow-burn with a serrated edge, ‘Rollin’ & Scratchin’’ is the kind of song Daft Punk just didn’t make after Y2K. Initially the b-side to ‘Da Funk’, and later the track that chased ‘Around The World’ on Homework, this seven-minute crescendo is anchored by a big beat and adorned with a grating dissonance.
The beauty of ‘Rollin’ & Scratchin’’ lies in just how raw it sounds, putting down a harshness that’s best experienced in a dim-lit club or a small sweaty show. That probably helps explain why the ever-escalating dissonance has proved a live staple, with Daft Punk working it into both Alive 1997 and Alive 2007.
‘One More Time’
It might be the track that opens Discovery, but ‘One More Time’ makes for the record’s smash-hit centrepiece. The edges have been sanded back, the textures smoothed out, the songwriting finessed. Hefty drum hits break out across the hazy sample, pushed to the back like a distant memory, as the lean lyrics — almost certainly unforgettable — take hold.
The album was envisaged as an exploration of childlike wonder, and pulling from their own upbringings, Homem-Christo and Bangalter turned ‘One More Time’ into the perfect song to keep the party going just that little longer. It’s a love letter to the transformative power of music — one strong enough to get a room of people on their feet with little more than a contagious beat.
‘Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger’
A series of fractured mantras and interjecting breakbeats, ‘Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger’ is as iconic as it is singular. Opening with a fairly simple flip of Edwin Birdsong’s incredible ‘Coca Bottle Baby’, the titular lyrics slowly piece themselves together, quickly devolving into sharp fragments and quick cuts as the robots flaunt their dexterity. It’s even more impressive on Alive 2007, where they blend it with ‘Around The World’.
Six years later, it gave Kanye his biggest track (at least, on Spotify), and both Homem-Christo and Bangalter cropped up in the ‘futuristic’ music video. ‘Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger’ endures, but luckily, shutter shades stayed in 2007.
An outright synth-pop love song, ‘Digital Love’ paints longing in soft textures and earnest lyrics. There’s a simplicity to the story that unfolds within, but as is the case with ‘Something About Us’, that only makes for a more tender telling.
The loop that runs throughout ‘Digital Love’ comes courtesy of jazz guitarist George Duke, but it’s where the flip ends — moments before the chord progression resolves — that provides the track’s melancholy harmony. DJ Scratch’s lyrics channel a juvenile innocence, cutting all complications from a fleeting moment of dancefloor intimacy.
The incredible guitar solo at the close is actually a stunning synth break, with traces of vocoder breaking through in the synth’s curious intonation. It’s unspoken closure, a soaring high that conjures the dizzying peaks of a realised love.
We might’ve warmed to it since, but there’s no pretending that Human After All measured up to expectation. Many point to the curious electro-rock fusion project as spotlighting the repetitive nature of Daft Punk’s approach, and though ‘Robot Rock’ won’t exactly disprove that idea, there’s still something about it that’ll pull you under.
The variation is a bit milder, the alterations less arresting, but there’s still room to get lost in the looping guitars and the titular techno-mantra. That phrase is the one that opens Alive 2007, and that live rendition — paired with Homework cut “Oh Yeah” — marked the very moment that the critical re-evaluation began.
‘Television Rules The Nation/Crescendolls’
You could ask any Daft Punk fan about their favourite songs, and most would point to something off Alive 2007. It’s not all that usual to have a live record held up as a crowning achievement, but Daft Punk do more on tour than just play the hits — they mix and match them, fusing basslines, melodies, asides and quips from their vast catalogue.
So consistent is Alive 2007, there’s not even a definitive highlight. The way the robots fused Human After All joint ‘Television Rules The Nation’ and wild Discovery instrumental ‘Crescendolls’ stands out to me, but there’s a case to be made for each and every song. That’s without even considering the brilliant light show that goes along with them.
‘Giorgio By Moroder’
An influence for as long as they’d been a duo, Giorgio Moroder had long held a special place in the hearts of Daft Punk. The disco maestro, Donna Summer collaborator and digital recording pioneer laid the foundations of modern synthesizer usage, and with a band in tow, Homem-Christo and Bangalter turned an interview with their idol to an expansive nine-minute journey through musical history.
It’s no surprise that ‘Giorgio by Moroder’ has disco in spades, but that’s hardly the end of it. It segues to electro synths, kicks back into a comfy lounge arrangement, opens up to an orchestral passage, and introduces jagged turntable scratches, all coming together in a searing, chaotic crescendo.
It mightn’t have been as omnipresent as ‘Get Lucky’, but ‘Instant Crush’ is a massive hit in its own right. A pitch-perfect collaboration with The Strokes’ Julian Casablancas, the forlorn synthpop tune finds the duo revisiting that childhood longing that underpinned ‘Digital Love’ a decade earlier.
There’s a delicate balance of collaborators that makes the track such an interesting, engrossing listen: the vocoder that partially obscures Casablancas’ vocal is firmly Daft Punk, but the short electric guitar solo brings hints of his Strokes lineage to the mix. You can so easily get lost in the little details here, like the faint harmonies that sit beneath the semi-garbled lyrics. I always get caught up in the vocal line weaving about the shifting synthesizers on the hook…beautiful.
Conor Herbert is a freelance music writer who has written for Pilerats, DJBooth and more. Catch him on Twitter.