Last week, Random Access Memories — the ballyhooed fourth studio album from L.A./Paris duo Daft Punk — leaked on the web, leading to a cavalcade of instantaneous and intense responses, loving or loathing the product with almost no space in-between. Call it an ode to the sound of major label studio albums circa 1979-82, or an étreinte to all the other sounds of that era: disco, hustle, boogie, prog-rock, piano balladry, vocoder pop and soft-rock, but with its million dollar marketing roll-out, it was all but impossible to ignore. For those put off by the robots moving far away from the euphoric dance music they once embodied, and towards a music whose spectrum ranges from cheesy to corny, from wonky to wanky, here are a few further listening tips:
If you wished RAM had more vocoder fusion-jazz, then try:
Herbie Hancock: “Sunlight”
Former Miles Davis sideman and jazz titan in his own right, Hancock faced serious backlash from pundits as he moved towards funk and R&B in the late 70s. But when he began crooning through a vocoder on Sunlight, he was disowned by the jazz establishment.
If you wished RAM had more vocoder fusion-jazz but with more guitar, then try:
Lee Ritenour: “Captain Fingers”
A master of jazz-funk guitar and slap bass accompaniment, Ritenour has released 42 studio albums through his career. In his early session days, he earned the nickname “Captain Fingers,” so it’s appropo his finest disco move bears that name as well. Ritenour moved closest to the dancefloor with his 1981 album, Rit, this single even finding its way into discotheque playlists and for good reason.
If you wished that the vocoder fusion-jazz were instead rendered by someone in a visored helmet acting like a robot, then try:
Mandré: “Solar Flight (Opus 1)”
An oddity of the era, session pro and onetime member of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention Andre Lewis created a motorcycle-helmeted, synth-obsessed alter ego in Mandré, releasing four albums of heady futuristic jazz-funk that were all but ignored at the time. Before his passing in 2012, Mandré thankfully experienced a renaissance of sorts.
If you wished there was more robo-emoting amid the choirs and vocoders, then try:
The Alan Parsons Project: “I Robot”
Studio engineer turned concept album-maven Alan Parsons started off in the realms of progressive rock, his first album set to the short stories of Edgar Allen Poe. It got nerdier for the 1977 epic, I, Robot, a concept album taking cues from Isaac Asimov’s Robot trilogy, meditating on the meaning of artificial intelligence and what it means for a robot to act human after all. Sound familiar?
If you wished that the Paul Williams piano ballad on RAM sounded more like something from a film that also featured a black leather get-up and visor mask, then try:
The Phantom of the Paradise
This astounding 1974 musical film, a twisted retelling of Faust, featured songwriter Paul Williams at the peak of his powers, penning chart-topping hits for the Carpenters and about to perform a similar feat for Kermit the Frog. Here, he plays the Devil himself as a smash hit record producer, pitted against a cast-off and record plant-disfigured figure in black leather and gleaming silver mask. A midnight movie classic.
This L.A.-based electronic duo also embraces the schlocky end of ’80s music, with this single paying homage to that decade’s cheesy sub-genre that I like to call stepdad-rock. The rest of the album also uses such sounds but rather than just revel in the simulacra of them, they are used as springboards into more danceable fare.
If you simply wished that RAM sounded more like Daft Punk circa Discovery, then try:
While Disclosure’s Guy and Howard Lawrence were still in short pants when Daft Punk dropped their second album, Discovery, the two British brothers took that album’s template to heart for their own strain of electronic dance music. Disclosure know their Chicago and New Jersey house music, but it’s in how they deploy vocals on their debut album that they show their debt to the robots. They dice vocals to the point of abstraction, yet also use their vocalists to bring the choruses home, redolent of DP’s heady work with Todd “The God” Edwards on classics like “Face to Face.”