Album of the Year: Random Access Memories (2014)

With the 2022 Grammys coming up, I’ve decided to take a look back and review the albums that have won the Album of the Year award. Some of these albums have already been covered or will be covered in the Best Sellers so I won’t be touching those. I’ll be doing as much of these as I can of these until the Grammys on April 3rd.

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When people describe music or a movie as award show bait, it’s usually done in a negative way to complain about how out of touch award shows are from what people actually like. I get it. Often times I laugh at past decisions that the Grammys have made which have usually been perfectly fine yet boring middlebrow-sounding albums winning over more deserving and exciting ones that feel more representative as to what the people and critics were into. They may have been the safe choices at the time but are quickly seen as egregious missteps that’ll live on forever.

Grammy bait winning albums don’t always have to be the weakest choices of the pack. Lots of time it just works out like that. A piece of music can still be cool and exciting while fitting into the rigid conditions the Recording Academy has for what it deems suitable for their highest honor. That’s the situation Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories finds itself in. Listening to the album, boring is not a word you can use to describe it but looking back, you can see why the Academy was happy to reward these French robots for Album of the Year at the 2014 Grammys against Taylor Swift, Kendrick Lamar, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, and Sara Bareilles.

When Random Access Memories was released, it seemed like perfect timing as the EDM movement that Daft Punk helped to inspire was hitting its peak in terms of pop culture and the charts. But instead of chasing that current sound, Daft Punk decided to make a dance album that went back in time to ‘70s disco. This was an intentional decision on Daft Punk’s part. When the duo began to make what would become Random Access Memories, they got some tracks down but eventually grew tired of using samples and loops and opted instead to utilize more live production. In keeping with the disco theme, they recruited Nile Rodgers, the legendary guitarist of the disco group Chic and later producer to acts like Diana Ross, Madonna, David Bowie, and Duran Duran to work with them. There are also other big industry collaborators including Pharrell Williams, Paul Williams, Giorgio Moroder, Julian Casablancas of the Strokes, as well as various session musicians from the ’70s.

Released eight years after their last album, 2005’s Human After All, Random Access Memories gave Daft Punk something that had evaded them in the US, an actual mainstream chart smash in the Pharrell and Nile Rodgers collab “Get Lucky,” a perfect piece of repetitive retro disco that peaked at #2 on the Hot 100 in the summer of 2013 behind “Blurred Lines.” That song was everywhere for me around that time but listening further into the album there’s more that it offers outside of the big hit. Other highlights for me include the other Nile Rodgers/Pharrell Williams disco collab “Lose Yourself To Dance,” “Giorgio By Moroder” where the legendary and groundbreaking producer talks about his life and career which many more acts should do, and the vocoder driven catchiness of “Doin’ It Right.” My only major complaint is that some of the songs can drag and go on longer than they need to but overall it’s a fun listen and a great tribute to the past of disco while Daft Punk are able to put their own spin on this retro sound.

Random Access Memories is an album that feels like it was made for me, a collection of nonstop bangers that shows a love and respect for the past with lots of intricate craft. This reaction is most noteworthy in its public reception. Aside from Album of the Year, “Get Lucky” won the Grammy for Record of the Year, the award that honors a song’s production, but notably wasn’t nominated for the other general song award Song of the Year which honors songwriters. It’s not the songwriting that makes the album but the production and feel of it all.

Given Daft Punk and everything that went into this album, it’s not a surprise that critics in 2013 went crazy for Random Access Memories. Almost a decade later though, it seems like its legacy has dimmed most notably with Pitchfork recently revising its score from an 8.8 down to a 6.8 for not being as pivotal as an album like Discovery is. It feels like one of those situations where once the hype dies down people start wondering whether the album was any good and worthy of all the praise. I think it’s still worthy of the acclaim. Sure, Random Access Memories may not be the creative peak for Daft Punk but it’s still a well-made album regardless while representing a commercial peak, the moment when even casual people like me who had never heard of or weren’t familiar with the duo could hear them get played on the radio and at dances. As a gateway into Daft Punk, Random Access Memories isn’t a bad start.

Looking at Random Access Memories, it becomes pretty clear what made the Grammys go crazy for it. It’s a popular and tastefully done album that manages to be both modern and retro at the same time. It’s an album from a very critically beloved act that pays homage to older musical styles while working with lots of respected figures in the industry. Regardless, I’m fine with this win since at least a good album won. Of the other four albums nominated, it’s easy to see Kendrick Lamar’s breakthrough good kid, m.A.A.d city or Taylor Swift’s now beloved Red winning with their commercial and critical successes. But against Daft Punk, they didn’t stand a chance.

We didn’t know it then but the Grammy wins would be the last major appearance of Daft Punk we would see. Aside from a few hit collaborations with The Weeknd, Daft Punk went silent before announcing their breakup last year. In a way, Random Access Memories functions as a perfect swan song album giving Daft Punk their chance at saying farewell by making and paying tribute to the kinds of music they admire and sharing it with the world winning their biggest honors in the process.

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