Daft Punk said goodbye this week with a video; which is exactly how you would expect this innovative French duo to go out on their own terms, but their sudden end was certainly unexpected. My brother in-law who is a native Parisian and crazed fan of all things techno and dance, introduced me to the groundbreaking French duo in 1997 with a vinyl copy of Homework and I’ve been a fan for 24 years.
Dance clubs stopped being a thing for me in D.C. back in 1996 (bad timing), and I’m not sure that anything could make me go back in 2021. The music isn’t meant for me. It’s not very interesting, and I’m at that stage in my life where I’m content introducing my 3 children to groundbreaking bands like Daft Punk whose creativity inspired a generation.
I spent a few years of my life in Detroit and Chicago and there are a few albums in my collection from the Detroit techno and Chicago house years that clearly inspired Daft Punk to a degree. Techno music in Detroit was not an urban thing – in some respects it was a rejection of the urban African-American community living in the city of Detroit by more middle class blacks living in the suburbs who wanted to flaunt their wealth and share in the house/club scene that was beginning to thrive to the delight of wealthy white kids and adults in Europe.
The techno scene in Detroit was influenced by some of the more influential new wave artists like Depeche Mode and Prince, funk artists like Parliament, and pioneers in the electronica space like Kraftwerk, and Tangerine Dream. Daft Punk was inspired by all but they did it their way.
Their innovative original soundtrack to Tron: Legacy allowed Daft Punk to stretch its wings and create something that would be far more memorable than the film itself. Random Access Memories was their crowning commercial and artistic achievement; but it was sadly the beginning of the end.
Electronica and Prog Rock were more my thing growing up; Yes, Rush, Tangerine Dream, The Alan Parsons Project, Roxy Music, and Genesis (with Peter Gabriel) occupied the space inside my head before my new wave transition in the 1980s to Talking Heads, Prince, Queen, The Police, New Order, Depeche Mode, Erasure, Yazoo, the Cure, and Kraftwerk.
All of these artists carved out a space for themselves and merged multiple genres in their music.
Daft Punk’s unique compositions defined French touch style house music for a generation, and while there is some definite daylight between all of the aforementioned bands, there was a clear transition from prog rock to new wave and the house/techno movement.
We celebrate Daft Punk with some of our favorite electronica and prog rock that delivered us to where we needed to be in 1997.
Return To Forever – Romantic Warrior
In the days since we unexpectedly lost Chick Corea to cancer, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one diving into his discography in remembrance. I visited his classic Blue Note trio release, Now He Sings, Now He Sobs for a couple of enjoyable spins, but RTF’s Romantic Warrior, their final album released in 1975, won the day and my ears.
I went through a real electronic/prog-rock phase in the early ‘80s (King Crimson, Yes, ELP, Rush, Kraftwerk, Rick Wakeman, Tangerine Dream) and this one somehow snuck into the mix as well. Nowadays I can’t tell if it’s jazz, fusion, prog, funk or flamenco (there are elements of all and more), but back then I saw it as pure prog. Chick’s keyboards (both piano and synths) wander from fusion to jazz to baroque.
Al di Meola’s guitar work is at times pure rock, with some scintillating solos, and others toe-tapping Flamenco. The rhythm section of Stanley Clark on bass and Lenny White on drums drive things forward all through with pure funk energy. And in the end, though styles are hard to pin down, the album works magnificently. Other than Rush I don’t listen to much prog anymore, but this one, perhaps because it’s so different, still makes a regular appearance on my turntable. – Eric Pye
Jean Michel Jarre – Equinoxe
I blame this one on my Dutch uncle who introduced me to Jarre one evening (along with Tomita and electronic music in general) on a visit to Holland in 1979. My uncle was a music professor, and his home was littered with musical instruments, audio equipment and records, and this was one of several albums he played for me. A few minutes in and I was hooked, purchasing the cassette the following day and listening to almost nothing else the rest of the holiday.
Jarre was one of the pioneers of electronic music, using synthesizers, sequencers, vocoders and custom equipment developed by him and collaborator Michel Geiss. His music is hard to categorize; “impressionist electronica” might be appropriate. While there is rhythm and melody, his works are rather free form with mesmerizing washes of colour and atmospheric, layered instrumentation. Critics panned both Equinoxe and predecessor Oxygene on their release, but the public was more accepting and both charted well and have gone on to sell millions in the four-plus decades since their initial release. – Eric Pye
Yes – Fragile
When I think prog rock, I think of Yes. Fragile was my introduction to the genre. My mom had this album on cassette, and it was one we constantly played in the car. “Roundabout” is the first song longer than three to four minutes that I can remember hearing. It blew my mind as a kid to realize that a song could go on that long and be that good. While Fragile is home to another classic track in “Long Distance Runaround,” the wide-ranging instrumentals that surround the chart toppers make this a home run record for me. – Lauren Halliday
Sylvan Esso – Sylvan Esso
I admittedly don’t have a lot of electronic music in my collection. A more recent standout for me is Sylvan Esso’s 2014 self-titled debut. Breakout track “Coffee” skyrocketed them to indie stardom with its simple beat and sparse synth driving behind Amelia Meath’s singular vocals. This duo presents a special blend of folksy, electronic pop that is unlike anything else. Sylvan Esso is a perfect spin to power late night dance parties or motivate you through dishes during an ice storm. – Lauren Halliday
Kraftwerk – Tour De France
While originally created and recorded as a tribute to the world’s most gruelling bike race that traverses France for almost a month, Tour De France became a techno-pop soundtrack that found its way inside dance clubs across Europe. The minimalist nature of the tracks are pure Kraftwerk and “Tour de France (Etape 3)” is a roadmap to landmarks along the way. Perhaps not their most daring album; the music can feel rather repetitive at times, but an interesting concept album from the most prolific electronica band of all-time. – Ian White
Tangerine Dream – Phaedra & The Very Best Of
One of the oldest and most influential electronic bands of all-time, Tangerine Dream’s music spans more than five decades and a multitude of cast changes. Founded by the late-Edgar Froese, Tangerine Dream began its musical journey as a psychedelic rock band playing festivals in Europe, before the band found its legs in electronic music. Its first release for Virgin, Phaedra, was the band’s first opportunity to compose with Moog synthesisers and sequencers and they took full advantage of the opportunity to create a memorable album that influenced a generation of artists to come.
Critics hated the album for its anti-rock sound, but it helped build an audience for the band. The band transitioned to scoring films and found a hit with their soundtrack to Risky Business — the track “Love on a Real Train” was created for the film exclusively, but surfaced years later in a live version on The Very Best Of. The steamy scenes between Tom Cruise and Rebecca De Mornay would forever change the popularity of the track and earn an aluminium and vinyl-covered train seat a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. – Ian White
Gary Numan – The Pleasure Principle
Released in 1979, This is a must have album drawing in fans from the mega hit “Cars.” Not that “Cars” is bad, but there’s even better songs on the album like “Metal” and “M.E.,” the latter of the two Basement Jaxx samples from “Where’s Your Head At.” Numan is still actively recording with a new album Intruder to be released May 21st, 2021. In addition to The Pleasure Principle, I cannot recommend enough the collaboration between Gary Numan and Nine Inch Nails — London 2009 which is available on YouTube. – Jeremy Sikora
The Postal Service – Give Up
The Postal Service is a supergroup collaboration between Ben Gibbard and Chris Walla; both from Death Cab for Cutie, Jenny Lewis from Rilo Kelly, and Dntel. Their only release in 2003 went platinum. The band reunited briefly in 2013, spawning the live album Everything Will Change, which was released in late 2020. The first side of Give Up is one of the best pieces of music I have ever listened to. If you’re a Shins, Iron & Wine, Arcade Fire, and Death Cab for Cutie fan you, probably already have this album. – Jeremy Sikora