There’s a video that Daft Punk made to promote 2001’s Discovery in which the French duo, wearing their famous robot helmets, dance on the Tokyo subway. Some riders smile and stare, while others look politely away. At the time, Daft Punk was big enough business to dismiss goofing off—their first album, 1997’s Homework, had already sold two million copies. And yet, when asked about Discovery’s turn toward ’70s and ’80s pop, Thomas Bangalter said the goal wasn’t to evoke a specific sound or era, but the raw wonder they’d felt encountering that music as children. Dancing on the subway in a city where they didn’t speak the language, liberated from judgment and self-criticism: It’s all there in the title.
The album’s biggest singles—“One More Time,” “Harder Better Faster Stronger,” “Digital Love”—were as useful to wedding DJs as they were to pop philosophers. And the rest—the faux-metal guitars of “Aerodynamic,” the sci-fi daydream of “Veridis Quo,” the UK garage showcase of Todd Edwards on “Face to Face”—glimpsed down dozens of stylistic alleyways without disrupting the album’s course. “Electronic music”—a term that always suggested the future, however vague—was demonstrated to be as familiar and comforting as classic rock, and no less real in its depth of feeling.
You can easily trace Discovery forward to EDM and the continuing entwinement of techno and rock. But you can also trace it back to The Beatles circa Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or The Beach Boys circa Pet Sounds and Smile: music that took pop seriously as art, but also recontextualized older, seemingly uncool styles in ways that felt progressive and fresh. Most of all, though, Daft Punk wanted to be universal. And as implausible as it may have seemed for two French men in robot helmets, Discovery got them there. “We hope all the kids will love the video,” a disembodied voice says near the end of the promo clip. “As well as their parents.”