Daft Punk’s ‘Random Access Memories’ At 10: Classic, Overrated, Or Both?

This month, one of the most acclaimed albums of the 21st century turns 10. The fourth (and possibly final) LP by the pioneering French electronic duo Daft Punk, Random Access Memories topped the charts in more than 20 countries, spawned one of the era’s most ubiquitous hits with “Get Lucky,” and won multiple Grammys, including Album Of The Year and Record Of The Year (for “Get Lucky”). A decade later, it remains a healthy streamer, with six of the album’s 13 tracks racking up at least 100 million spins. By pretty much any metric, it stands as a significant milestone in contemporary pop culture, an occasion marked by a special “10th Anniversary Edition” due Friday.

It is also — according to some people — overrated.

Maybe you have noticed this. Whenever there is a conversation about Random Access Memories, the matter of its supposedly exaggerated “rated-ness” always seems to come up. In lists of overrated albums, RAM is a mainstay — this is true now, and it was true in 2013. The year after the album came out — and around the time that Daft Punk was collecting all of those Grammys — journalists were already insisting that RAM was (emphasis mine) “widely considered overweening or at least overrated by dance-music purists.”

“Random Access Memories is overrated” is such a commonly stated opinion that it’s practically a meme on social media. Even professional critics have gotten into the act: In 2021, when Pitchfork “rescored” a selection of classic album reviews, the site inevitably singled out RAM, lowering it from a “Best New Music” worthy 8.8 to a lukewarm 6.8. “RAM has some jams, but it doesn’t feel pivotal in the same way that [Daft Punk’s second album] Discovery did,” Pitchfork concluded. “It didn’t push pop music forward; it merely opened the door for countless Moroder cameos and convinced Pharrell that what the world really needed was a 24-hour ‘Happy’ video.”

With all due respect to Pitchfork: 99.9 percent of albums, even the great ones, do not “push pop music forward” in any meaningful way. But most of the time we do not punish artists for not producing another Kid A or To Pimp A Butterfly. Usually, we are happy if the music bangs and the lyrics are quotable (or at least are not embarrassing). So, why is Random Access Memories, of all the prestige records that have come out in the past decade, frequently singled out as “overrated”? And is it actually overrated?

Before I answer those questions, I should concede an obvious point: Talking about art in terms of whether it’s “overrated” can be reductive and kind of stupid. Because calling something overrated is not really about the art, it’s about how other people are talking about the art. It is an expression of misanthropy toward opinions held by strangers. This is why any marginally popular or acclaimed cultural artifact can be credibly labeled “overrated” in the social media era, as it has likely inspired discourse that many of us find to be annoying.

Conversely, when something you like is called overrated, it can feel like a personal attack, because that’s basically what it is. In this instance, if you still put “Get Lucky” on your backyard barbecue playlists, there are plenty of individuals — second-guessing music critics, snarky Twitter commenters, those pesky “dance-music purists” — who are prepared to tell you that your taste is butt.

So: Why is Random Access Memories considered overrated? My investigation began in my own backyard: In the review I wrote back in 2013 — which went up right before it was released and right after it leaked — I noted that there were rumblings about hype in the run up to the album. Even before Random Access Memories was officially rated, people sensed that it might be overrated. “This will be remembered as the third-best Daft Punk album,” I predicted. (I think I nailed that one!)

To understand why that is, we need to pull back for a wider view of the musical landscape of 2013. This was a year when we were all just getting used to the ways in which music is currently distributed, consumed, and discussed. Spotify was around, but it only had about 24 million subscribers. Pandora was almost three times as popular, and piracy was still a viable alternative for freeloaders. The industry expectation that listeners would pay for digital downloads was dwindling as album sales sank to new lows. On social media, album cycles were also shrinking — the days when a big-tent record might dominate the conversation for more than a week or even a handful of days were long gone.

There was palpable anxiety among artists and record labels that music was now more ephemeral than ever. And this prompted a massive overcorrection that resulted in some truly bizarre marketing schemes that tried (and mostly failed) to drag music out of computers and back into the physical world. The gambits became instantly infamous: Jay-Z announced the arrival of Magna Carta … Holy Grail in a Samsung commercial. Eminem talked up The Marshall Mathers LP 2 with Brent Musburger and Kirk Herbstreit during a college football game. Katy Perry rented an 18-wheel semi-trailer truck and deployed it on a cross-country journey to promote her latest album, Prism. Lady Gaga strapped on something called the Volantis, purported to be the world’s first flying dress, at a lavish press event for her record, Artpop. Most spectacular of all, the eternally dopey rock band 30 Seconds To Mars celebrated Love Lust Faith + Dreams by launching the album’s first single into outer space. It was one small step for man, one giant leap for meaningless gimmicks.

Desperate times called for desperate measures, and these superstars — all of whom were hawking what can be delicately described as “not their best work” — went to extreme lengths to get somebody (anybody?) to pay attention to them for more than the length of time that it took to type out 140 characters. And then there was Daft Punk, who were the savviest when it came to marketing their first record in eight years.

Like the others, they relied initially on old media, including billboards in major cities and a tantalizing teaser that ran during an episode of Saturday Night Live. But unlike their peers, Daft Punk successfully seduced the public. Another ad featuring Pharrell Williams and Nile Rodgers that aired on the video screens at Coachella was bootlegged and pored over online by fans and media commentators.

What drew people to Random Access Memories was nostalgia for a simpler media era when an album like Michael Jackson’s Thriller or the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack could seemingly be everywhere all at once. The point was never to “push pop music forward.” Rather, it was a deliberate reach-back to a less cluttered time, a journey from a modern multiverse to an idealized, shared universe ruled by two largely anonymous Frenchmen. In the end, they did what everybody else attempted and failed to achieve — they turned their record into a genuine event, like the musical equivalent of a summer blockbuster.

The marketing campaign worked extremely well. Maybe too well. When people heard Random Access Memories, they discovered that it wasn’t quite the album they had been promised. It was, in some respects, the opposite of what was expected. Though not everyone was prepared to admit this right away.

In that same Pitchfork “Rescored” article, the review of Daft Punk’s 2001 album Discovery was also amended but in a positive direction, going from a mediocre 6.4 to a perfect 10. And that aligns with how music criticism in general has evolved. To put it in somewhat oversimplified terms, Discovery is a pop album loaded with bops, which was not something that a typical indie-leaning critic would have been into in 2001. But by 2013, which coincided with the height of “anti-rockism” in critical discourse, that had flipped as a new generation of writers rose to prominence.

And yet when Daft Punk arrived for their moment of critical re-evaluation, they perversely delivered the most rockist electronic album ever made — “serious” music made by “real” musicians in an old-school, analog kind of way. If hearing “Get Lucky” in those pre-release ads felt like an invitation to a party, Random Access Memories was more like hanging out with two sad-sack dudes obsessed with their collection of classic vinyl from the ’70s and ’80s, a scenario straight out of High Fidelity. The album’s tone was melancholic and elegiac; the sense of loss could be sentimental (like on the Paul Williams-assisted mini epic “Touch”) or pedantic (the polarizing musical history “Giorgio By Moroder”). What it wasn’t was remotely modern — Daft Punk committed their resources to making well-moneyed music with excellent studio players, the kind of practice that used to be standard in the 20th century but by the early 2010s was being phased out by native online phenoms making music cheaply on their computers.

Listening to Random Access Memories now, the two words that come immediately to mind are “yacht rock.” In places, you can make a one-to-one comparison, like the song “Beyond,” which gently rips off Michael McDonald’s early-’80s smash (later sampled by Warren G) “I Keep Forgettin,'” as well as “Fragments Of Time,” a Gaucho pastiche that emulates that record’s spotless cocaine chill. But it’s the overall vibe that really evokes the era. Pivotal early tracks like “Game Of Love” and “Within” are unabashed expressions of stately, sensitive-guy longing dressed up as sad-robot music, like the first Christopher Cross album crossed with Blade Runner.

Daft Punk have been likened to Pink Floyd, in part because of their spectacular live shows, but I think a more apt comparison is Steely Dan, particularly when it comes to Random Access Memories. Though the most accurate analogue is probably Donald Fagen’s first solo album The Nightfly, in which the most commercially successful cynic of the Me Decade retreats to the comforts of his childhood as a bulwark against a new, colder, and more technological era he doesn’t understand. For Fagen, that meant fetishizing jazz, late-night radio, and Cold War-era politics. For Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, it was Nile Rodgers, Giorgio Moroder, and the guy from The Phantom Of The Paradise.

The Nightfly was released in 1982, the same year as Thriller, which like Random Access Memories places it as an end-of-an-era statement. Steely Dan was already on hiatus at the time, and Fagen didn’t make another solo record for 11 years; Daft Punk meanwhile announced their break-up in 2021, and Bangalter recently released a low-key album of orchestral music. “We were always on the side of humanity and not on the side of technology,” he told the BBC earlier this month. “As much as I love this character, the last thing I would want to be, in the world we live in, in 2023, is a robot.”

Daft Punk’s latent hostility to the contemporary EDM movement typified by pleasure-seeking endorphin hounds like Skrillex, and an emerging digital music apparatus designed to reward instant accessibility over slow-born relevance, put them at odds with a music scene they helped to invent but did not want to inhabit. And that, I think, is why so many people think Random Access Memories is overrated. Yes, the album is overlong, it drags a bit in places (and a lot in others), and it isn’t terribly fun. But it’s also a prescient critique of the modern world. What Daft Punk was attacking is us. Or, more specifically, the kinds of musical experiences so many of us seem to value now. They think we’re overrated.

But do I think Random Access Memories is overrated? Let me put it this way: Like the Daft Punk guys, I’m part of the generation that has lived most of our lives online, but can also remember the world as it was before the internet. It is, in a way, the worst combination of experiences to have — we know just enough to realize exactly how much has been lost in the transfer from IRL to URL. So I understand instinctively an aesthetic that mashes up Michael Jackson and Chic with Julian Casablancas and Panda Bear. It’s a world that still feels like home. More than that, Random Access Memories speaks to me as an insightful commentary on the very thing it rebelled against — the accessorization of music, where songs are regarded simply as adjuncts to phones, computers, and other tech devices.

Daft Punk were robots who wanted to be people, at a time when people were happily turning themselves into robots. In 2013, you could dismiss that as reactionary alarmism. In 2023, it hits as a self-evident truth.