There are acts which represent exceptions to the rule that their best material is also their most popular material. Daft Punk is no such act, so I haven't got much of a remit for novelty here. They have three albums of original material to their name, and their own 2005 career-spanning retrospective Musique Vol. 1 only contains fifteen songs.. Plus when you consider the sheer obviousness of their hits, the clear sky-scraping peaks of 'Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger' and 'Around The World', any serious discussion of their top tier tracks will centre on these, and any list is going to contain scant curveballs. Well, let me try and put my shoulder into this one...
Around The World
The duo are infamous for their vocoder play, but should be just as known for their skill with basslines. Perhaps more than any other dance/electronica act they understand the primacy of not only the beat, but the bass, and more specifically the basslines. This comprehension places them in the lineage of the funk. Da funk. And they've never bettered 'Around The World' in bass stakes. More broadly Homework portrayed them as a kind of house/disco group, and their pursuit of soul in what is almost a necessarily soulless genre lionised them as the great popular electronic act of the last decade, at least. 'Around The World' is prime house/disco.
Probably the most essential of all the extended house workouts from Homework. I'll use words now to explain why: The sheer propulsion of that boomerang of noise which permeates over the course of the seven minutes running time, combining irresistibly with the endless-staircase rising bassline, would compel even the stoniest into liquid movement. The playful nature of the tom-programming, showing that DP know when they've struck gold, and the artful balancing of dry groove mixed with watery atmospherics all spell imperishable classic.
3. One More Time
Possibly DP's most overplayed song, you nevertheless only need to spend a little time away from it before remembering, upon that first (voluntary) re-listen, how great it really is. The wall of sampled sound, (which sounds like a brass section playing at the wildest party which somehow never completely spins out of control), is like a gale of gaiety billowing even the sallowest of sails into full-blown majesty. The song is simply overpoweringly good.
4. Digital Love
Everlastingly sweet, innocent even, 'Digital Love' defines a trapped bliss, a stalled childhood of nostalgia in its production, and in its “I had a dream about ya” lyrical conceit. The bliss is released, so to speak, at the explosive introduction of the solo which draws the song to its finish in a sort of post-coital haze. The song would also deserve inclusion in a “best guitar solos” list, which is cheating since the sound was apparently achieved, in part, via a wurlitzer piano. One of their most pop-structured pieces, from their most pop-structured album.
5. Harder Better Faster Stronger
Such are the delights offered by DP's vocoderisations throughout, it matters not a jot that a proportion of the verse backing track is a good-sized sample of Edwin Birdsong's 'Cola Bottle Baby'. The fact is totally eclipsed around the 2 minute mark, when the vocals finally hit their stride in an unbroken cadence which also sees the melody take a veering left turn. The song is one of those smashes from their 2001 album Discovery which makes you realise how apt that title really is. The music they sampled, embellished on, rewrote and reproduced is a discovery (or re-discovery) of the style which narrow, parched slogans like “Disco Sucks” buried in the late 70s.
6. Something About Us
DP don't really do quiet. There are breakdowns which build up to new fanatic fervours and fever-pitches, but they never turn the dial down for a whole song's duration. Uniquely, 'Something About Us' has an almost hushed feel. It derives a good deal of its unimposing aural status from the serenity of the vocals, underpinned by REM-sleep e-piano chords. The charming earnestness of the vocals adds to this picture, and the guitar solo also must stand as their most complete and satisfying recreation of 70s funk and soul stuff.
Penetratingly simple, this one forces you look into its lack of detail to find unexpected depth. Something in the pitch bend of the vocodered title “emotion” almost touches on real feeling, and the way the note is held on the third syllable, over rising chords... it is quite moving, oddly. It's perhaps to do with the breathtaking lack of affect, and effort. The more the word is repeated, the more it expands, taking on a worldly and woeful meaning. Tracks like this one make you wonder whether there isn't something richly ironic in Daft Punk's robot affect, beyond the rock.
'Musique' (french for “Music”, you'll be astonished to learn) was the b-side to the duo's first single 'Da Funk' (Daft Punk for “The Funk”, you're welcome) and received a justified re-exhibition as the title track of their 2005 retrospective collection. The thing shape shifts so much as to never stagnate, always travelling to a euphoric destination. So much so that you want to keep pace with it, and get there with the pair. That's another of their great strengths: They take you with them.
9. Robot Rock/Oh Yeah
Those who haven't experienced the introduction to Daft Punk's Alive 2007 tour, should. By sampling the vocoder parts from 'Robot Rock' and 'Human After All' respectively, and slowing them to at first unrecognisably churning speeds, malfunctioning and struggling, they manage to reiterate the trick of their enduring appeal; the mystique of the robot/human juxtaposition. They also manage to create an almighty banger out of it: Daft Punk are only a conceptual as you want them to be; which is usually not conceptual at all.
10. Prime Time Of Your Life/Brainwasher/Rollin' & Scratchin'/Alive
In this no-particular-order list, 'Prime Time Of Your Life...' might actually be my personal favourite. The first sound we hear, across the sea of audience raptures, is a monolithic, rave-supercomputer (which presumably is the force behind the duo Guy-Manuel and Thomas; mere men could never produce tunes so relentlessly great). The voices thunder through the circuit-boards of the world in multicoloured fists of harmony: “PRIME TIME OF YOU LIFE! NOW! LIVE IT!” It is simultaneously the most disaffected (robotic) and affecting (overpowering) way to utter that sentiment. In other words: The song starts at a peak of ecstasy, and builds upward from there. By the end the phrase has been shortened to “TIME OF YOUR LIFE”, repeated again and again and again. Daft Punk know when they're thrilling, which is thrilling in itself.