French electronic music duo Daft Punk announced their breakup on February 22, 2021, 28 years after Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter came together to popularize house music in the 1990s, then generally represent the contemporary electronic sound. Famously eccentric and almost always covered in robot masks, Daft Punk wasn’t exactly the most prolific group, releasing just five albums from 1997 to 2013, a 16-year span. A new album has been eagerly awaited from the duo for some time, but their sudden split of course dashed any hopes for that. Although I just wrote they weren’t prolific, Daft Punk was also known for branching out into all kinds of directions with other projects, most famously a whole suite of videos and remixes that support their core releases. But most importantly, at least to me, Daft Punk was a gateway for other kinds of electronic music, kinds that were similarly influenced by disco and R&B, not really the deep house and “pure” electronica that the duo originally represented. Daft Punk made accessible and fun music for dancing and reflection, and their disbandment is disappointing, sure. But listening back to their five albums and ranking them (yes, I’m including the TRON: LEGACY  soundtrack), I’m glad they were even around at all.
#5 — HOMEWORK (1997)
Favorite track: “Around the World”
HOMEWORK was Daft Punk’s first album, and it reached an international audience with its display of raw French house music. I’m inclined to say that HOMEWORK is Daft Punk’s most “technical” album, with a real attention to pure club dancing dynamics and aesthetics, although it’s not necessarily an unpleasant album to listen to out of that context. The famous “Around the World” is just a good song to “sing” along to; it’s made up of just the three words! But the rest of the album isn’t as tight. Daft Punk wasn’t yet going for those pop hooks, necessarily, and in my book, that means I can’t get too into HOMEWORK. It’s an important album, and a fine one to listen to in the background, but I can’t really stay engaged with it.
#4 — TRON: LEGACY (2010)
Favorite track: “Rinzler”
Daft Punk’s TRON: LEGACY soundtrack, much like the movie itself, has taken on a cult fanbase in the decade or so since their release. TRON: LEGACY came after the biggest gap between albums for the duo, five years after HUMAN AFTER ALL; this is of course if you consider it a full, “canonical” album and a release of such in the middle of the eight years between HUMAN AFTER ALL and RANDOM ACCESS MEMORIES. But why include it as a full, “canonical” album here? Well, it all came from Daft Punk (the soundtrack is not a “various artists” compilation) and I do think TRON: LEGACY is an important part of the duo’s, well, legacy. Mostly, nerds in my sphere proclaim it to be perfect accompaniment for writing and working, and I do think it is best suited for that. As with HOMEWORK, it is difficult for me stay engaged with TRON: LEGACY, although for a different reason. While it is called a soundtrack, this is really the score for the movie, so it’s meant to complement visuals. I’m not someone who can’t get into film soundtracks or scores as a rule, but there is a bit more of a barrier to entry for me. And TRON: LEGACY doesn’t give me enough of a leg up to totally get over that barrier scot-free. I think it is really cinematic music, however, something Daft Punk has always been conscious of, and as mentioned, I like to listen to TRON: LEGACY while it is on in the background.
#3 — HUMAN AFTER ALL (2005)
Favorite track: “Television Rules the Nation”
HUMAN AFTER ALL is Daft Punk’s coldest album, a trait that critics picked up on after its release. The record might be seen as a nadir for the duo, but I think it’s a compelling, almost threatening digital treatise. And in fact, I think it competes with HOMEWORK as the coldest, or most distant, entry in Daft Punk’s discography, although for different reasons. HOMEWORK is certainly intended for the warmth of dancing bodies in a club, but removed from that scene, it can feel a bit ineffectual. HUMAN AFTER ALL is cold because Daft Punk is crafting a dystopian vision, leveraging their robotic personas for the sci-fi warnings we always hear about. It’s not all successful, and maybe there’s a reason HUMAN AFTER ALL is the duo’s shortest album (besides the record being produced in just six weeks). But with something like “Television Rules the Nation,” you really get what Daft Punk was going for. “The Prime Time of Your Life” and “Robot Rock,” too, positively showcase the heavier guitar sound and repetitive nature of the album. HUMAN AFTER ALL snowballs into an almost overwhelming soundscape, but I obviously don’t dislike it. It’s a little strange and out-of-step with the albums that sandwiched it, but HUMAN AFTER ALL does carry an important Daft Punk trait: it is still danceable, after all.
#2 — DISCOVERY (2001)
Favorite track: “Digital Love”
With DISCOVERY, Daft Punk’s second album, the duo emerged with the sound that would come to define them, and the sound that I love them for. DISCOVERY eschewed the raw house of HOMEWORK in favor of R&B, disco, and garage rock influences. There are more lyrics on DISCOVERY, delivered with those now-familiar robotic voices, and the record is warmer and more sentimental. That’s most true with “Digital Love,” my favorite Daft Punk song, and it is reflected by another part of the duo’s legacy, which accompanied the album. INTERSTELLA 5555: THE 5TORY OF THE 5ECRET 5TAR 5YSTEM (2003) was an anime film that essentially acted as a big feature-length music video for DISCOVERY, and it’s quite a beautiful work. Daft Punk had also adopted their trademark robot helmets during the production of the record, and so DISCOVERY represented the development of a lot of important themes for the duo. Ultimately, though, the album is just really fun, poppy dance music, infinitely replayable and accessible beyond the electronic music Daft Punk helped pioneer.
#1 — RANDOM ACCESS MEMORIES (2013)
Favorite track: “Lose Yourself to Dance”
But with RANDOM ACCESS MEMORIES, which ended up Daft Punk’s final album, the duo really went full pop music. And I love it. They collaborated with a ton of artists and producers in the mode of modern pop music, and they structured their songs to hit those hooks I so desperately crave yet so find so hard to describe in substantive terms. I’m not a music theorist! But I can also clarify that this isn’t bubblegum shit; Daft Punk still goes long with their electronic noodlings, especially with their ode to a hero, “Giorgio by Moroder” (featuring a monologue from the man himself). Of course, there’s also the uber-hit “Get Lucky” with Pharrell, which, despite its overplay in my junior and senior years of high school, is objectively a great pop song. But it’s the other Pharrell collaboration, “Lose Yourself to Dance,” that, well, makes me lose myself to dance. It’s just such a joyous song, and even more than DISCOVERY, RANDOM ACCESS MEMORIES is about joy. See, DISCOVERY still had some latent melancholy, and while I would also qualify RANDOM ACCESS MEMORIES as thoughtful and mellow at times, this last record goes deep with its fun. Rarely do you have an artist’s or group’s last work be their best, but that is the case with Daft Punk. With the benefit of hindsight, the closing track of RANDOM ACCESS MEMORIES, “Contact,” is a fitting conclusion to the career of one of the most important, and one of the best, electronic groups of all time.