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Globe Arts' Artists of the Year: Daft Punk, defenders of disco


Give life back to music. That's what the robot sang. That's what the two French ahead-of-the-curvers in the sleek helmets came up with. Pretty good, Daft Punk, pretty damn good.

Giorgio by Moroder is a track off Daft Punk's elegantly conceived new dance record this year, Random Access Memories. On it, disco pioneer Giorgio Moroder recites a monologue involving the advent of the synthesizer, which he foresaw as the "sound of the future." In 1977, the Moog-manipulating Moroder produced I Feel Love for Donna Summer. With the dreamy, visionary single, Moroder and Summer established the boogie of tomorrow.

Club music evolved. We can probably look at 1997 as the beginning of the arena-electronica era, with the Chemical Brothers' Dig Your Own Hole, Prodigy's Fat of the Land and Daft Punk's Homework as the vanguard "big-beat" albums that fused techno, house, rave and electro styles. Fatboy Slim's You've Come a Long Way, Baby was a pop-crossover revelation in 1998. Moby added a bluesy humanity to the circuitry with 1999's Play.

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Since then, somewhere along the way, what has become known as electronic dance music (EDM) lost its soul. Computer programs have given rise to an automated and repetitious aesthetic. "You only need one finger," Moroder told The Globe and Mail recently. "Everybody's doing it these days."

Thomas Bangalter, who with Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo forms the secretive Parisian duo Daft Punk, told Rolling Stone in a rare interview this summer that electronic music is in a "comfort zone," and that the genre isn't moving forward. He lamented, "That's not what artists are supposed to do."

So Daft Punk changed the game. Random Access Memories, which uses the tango between humanity and technology that characterized 2005's Human After All as a jumping-off point, returns to the disco-funk of the seventies, with a little eighties yacht rock mixed in with modern electronica. The Chic's guitarist Nile Rodgers was brought in to help, as were hip-hop wunderkind Pharrell Williams, Canadian expat pianist Chilly Gonzalez and long-forgotten songster Paul Williams.

The result? A little song, a little dance, a little robot romance. Get Lucky was the breezy song of the summer. Lose Yourself to Dance was the year's catchiest marching order. And EDM was resuscitated before most of us even suspected it was dying.

"People lost respect for the groove," said Pharrell Williams, speaking about dance music in the online video series The Collaborators. "It's so synthetic – it's missing the gut." But with Random Access Memories, according to Williams (who co-wrote Get Lucky and Lose Yourself to Dance), Daft Punk created something vividly real. "It's beyond 3-D. It's 4-D. It's in your mind … you don't need [drugs] for this music."

Thing is, Daft Punk itself played a large role in creating what the dance genre has become. Its visually staggering concerts in 2006 and 2007 were the forerunners of the giant EDM spectacles of today. Bangalter and de Homem-Christo could have easily ridden the wave and ecstasy-drenched raves.

They changed it up though. Said Paul Williams, in an interview with the Globe, "They could have recreated what they'd done before in spectacular fashion. But they chose to do something that explored a depth of emotion and a depth of concept and a depth of philosophy." Adds Gonzales, a provocative musician himself and teammate of singer-songwriter Feist, "They've clearly taken a risk. They went all the way with it."

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Dance music is today's youth music, whether it's the knob-tweaked pulses from DJs or the Auto-Tuned radio singles of pop stars. "When we're feeling all right," a vocoder-voiced robot sings on Random Access Memories, "everybody will be dancing tonight."

But are we willing to settle for automated boogie and sameness? Daft Punk shook up the hive mentality. "It's time to have something new in the dance world," says Moroder. "This is a step forward. It's still dance, it's still electronic, but we get that human touch back."

Funny, but despite all this humanness, Daft Punk has chosen to remain remote and alien, hidden behind their futuristic robo look. Some see it as silly or gimmicky; I see it as playful and refreshingly selfless.

Pharrell Williams has his own (beautiful) take on the enigmatic personas of de Homem-Christo and Bangalter. "We're lucky to hang out on the planet, but they can just get back on the spaceship that brought them here and go and leave us," the Grammy-winning freelancer explained on The Collaborators. "But they're gracious – they're nice robots. They chose to stay."


Pharrell Williams: Like a pro athlete playing for a new contract, the hip-hop and R&B musician made it count in 2013. He collaborated on smash-hit singles (Daft Punk's Get Lucky and Robin Thicke's controversial Blurred Lines) and released a groundbreaking 24-hour video for his own song Happy. He scored seven Grammy nominations and capped it all off by signing a deal with Columbia Records.

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T Bone Burnett: Long the go-to producer when it comes to roots music, the towering Nashville-ian slowed down not at all in 2013. He rescued John Mellencamp and Stephen King's Ghost Brothers of Darkland County (which toured as a stage musical and was released as a star-studded album); helmed Elton John's best album in years (The Diving Board); and served as executive music producer for the Coen brothers' folk-music film, Inside Llewyn Davis. Burnett also brought his newly formed Electromagnetic Recordings imprint to Capital Music Group, and is working on records coming from Gregg Allman and Jerry Lee Lewis.

Lorde: The mature teen songstress from New Zealand broke through with her addictive alt-pop debut LP Pure Heroine and the socially commenting single Royals, which ruled the Billboard Hot 100 charts for nine weeks. She's nominated for four Grammys, including record and song of year for Royals and top pop vocal for Pure Heroine.

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