This year, instead of putting our favourite albums into a no-doubt 100% objective list, we're taking a deeper look at how 2013's most influential records have shaped the landscape of independent music. Today, Daft Punk's "living samples" of Nile Rodgers and Giorgio Moroder, and how this year's dance music went back to go forward.
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First, we heard "Get Lucky." Then we couldn't stop hearing it. It was cute, dumb fun, but we all knew it had the oomph to crossover from the radio to the club to aerobic class, and probably rake it in on iTunes, too. But when Random Access Memories came out, it wasn't at all what we expected. Not an hour's worth of "Get Lucky" (which would have been an understandable second-coming campaign aimed for mainstream payoff), certainly not a return to Discovery and sweetened French house, which some fans were not-so-secretly hoping for after the Tron soundtrack. Instead, they gave us an all-out epic, a heady challenge to listeners who just wanted to flick something on and dance for a while.
No, what our guides monsieurs Bangalter and de Homem-Christo offered up on RAM, was an abridged history of dance music, from the '70s on, shone through the lenses in those robot helmets of theirs. RAM is a revue of club tunes performed from the near future. In an early promo clip, collaborator and Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers said, "they went back to go forward."
It should be no surprise that the intersections of funk and disco, two of the longest enduring Western dance musics of the last half-century and some of the first genres to flirt with electronic music, figure prominently. It was a special touch to tap on the disco guitar king Rodgers to lend a hand (and his signature chk) on three tracks. If they wanted to "go disco" or even just tip their hats, Rodgers, the living legend, was an unmistakable signifier. He added a valence of authenticity to the effort.
But Daft Punk knew Nile Rodgers isn't some relic hauled up from the basement and dusted off for display; with about four decades of hitmaking under his belt, he certainly knows a thing or two about making people dance. And it seems they were onto something. In 2013, everyone wanted a piece of whatever Rodgers' presence meant. Swedish house producer Avicii welcomed him onto "Lay Me Down." Youngster electronic duo Disclosure teamed up with Rodgers and Sam Smith for the cocaine woozy "Together." And he turned up again in the Massive Attack-tinged "What Is Right?" by Chase and Status.
The words "feat. Nile Rodgers" have become shorthand for a particular type of guitar, hearkening back to a particular time and place. When pop music has doubled down in eclecticism, finding "the new sound" in snippets pulled from different cultures and different moments in history all ground together, Nile Rodgers is a beacon, something easy to spot — he's ready-made disco.
But Daft Punk didn't end their textual cherrypicking with Rodgers. There's "Giorgio by Moroder," a nine-minute epic produced in tandem with Giorgio Moroder, one of the undisputed fathers of electronic music. (Brian Eno famously ran into the studio sometime in the middle of Bowie's Berlin trilogy with Donna Summer's Moroder-produced "I Feel Love" in hand, saying: "That black voice! That Teutonic sound! I have heard the sound of the future. This is it, look no further.") For "Touch," an unflinching show tune, Daft Punk called on legendary pop songwriter Paul Williams, the man credited with the theme to The Love Boat and The Muppets' "The Rainbow Connection" as well as songs for The Carpenters and The Monkees.
The Parisian duo have very deliberately hitched their wagon to a select group of touchstones, each very important to the history of pop music, to tell us about their own musical ancestry.
Not that this is a new phenomenon - pastiche is the lingua franca of our postmodern moment - but 2013 was particularly rich in these eclectic guest spots and allusions. The notion that the right guest appearance or sample could itself bring a different historicity, an entirely new value to a song, especially in dance music, prevailed.
Realizing the crossover potential in electronica and Dabke, Syrian dance star Omar Souleyman had Four Tet produce his official debut. Kanye used Nina Simone's Civil Rights-era rendition of "Strange Fruit," jammed against a C-Murder-riffing bridge to draw a line from early 20th century lynchings to the gangster culture and conspicuous consumption practices that have become the hallmarks of hip-hop. Sure, West is a tireless, and at times, sloppy provocateur, but it's only because he knows the social and historical imports of the pieces he's collaging that "Blood on the Leaves" means anything at all.
To me, these experiments in eclecticism, whether they're contrived or not, suggest that 2013's dance music, or at least some swath of it, is becoming more self-referential, more reverent of its own past, more aware of its immediate surroundings, and all in all, a good helping more sophisticated. Sure, "Lose yourself to dance" is still the resounding maxim, but there's much happening below the surface.
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