Amidst waves of electronica and dance, you have to stand out. Discovery does just that. Few albums are as timeless, reconciling past, present, and futuristic styles of music in a fusion of house, disco-funk, and synthpop. Daft Punk’s Discovery can only be called pop art – layers upon layers of pop culture appropriation and recontextualization in a blend of futuristic electronica and French house.
On Discovery, the helmeted duo of Bangalter and de Homem-Christo even create what is to some extent the first dance pseudo-concept album, pairing each track with scenes from the animated film Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem, a collaborative project with Toei Animation. Daft Punk made dance sophisticated, giving it pop appeal while at the same time attesting to the sensibilities of art music.
Daft Punk began a resurgence for modern post-disco and further exposed French house to the mainstream. Discovery’s hits permeate pop culture; One More Time is instantly recognizable, and who doesn’t know Harder Better Faster Stronger – Kanye even sampled it for his 2007 Graduation single Stronger. Even if you don’t know the songs, the grooves and hooks are instantly captivating and universally funky. Album opener One More Time and the closer Too Long are uplifting anthems, but Daft Punk are equally talented in creating subdued electronic ballads like Something About Us.
Discovery begins with One More Time’s instantly recognizable melody – intuitive horn samples of Eddie Johns’ More Spell on You (although Daft Punk deny it) that find themselves accompanied by a four-on-the-floor house rhythm. Romanthony’s overcompressed and auto-tuned vocals sound jarring on paper, but his robotic hooks transform One More Time from a catchy French house track into a pop anthem.
Aerodynamic sees Daft Punk venturing into electronic rock – church bells one minute, then distorted guitar solos the next. Discovery’s instrumental experiments shine as much as its poppier songs, but all are equally catchy and danceable. The key to Daft Punk’s style is their focus on groove and rhythm – their music is both obviously electronic yet surprisingly human. This contrast is nowhere more evident than on the tracks Digital Love and Something About Us, where the duo sing through a vocoder haze over lush instrumental grooves.
Samples of George Duke’s I Love You More open Digital Love, providing a bass groove that works as the foundation for one of the album’s most unforgettable listens. Daft Punk’s lyrics are simple and romantic, but anything more would be too much. Acoustic guitars glide beneath their robotic vocals, only drawing the audience further into the song’s emotions rather than distancing them from digital romance. The track’s second half breaks down into typical house rhythms before evolving into layers of thick electronica and beautiful synthesizer solos. Few songs are as distinctive and mesmerizing as Digital Love.
Harder Better Faster Stronger is a no brainer. Daft Punk transform Edwin Birdsong’s Cola Bottle Baby into a classic French house anthem, with smooth vocoders gliding over it all. Despite becoming repetitive, somehow none of Discovery’s tracks ever find themselves growing dull before they’re over. Crescendolls only gathers momentum as it goes on, the tensions of the song growing before culminating in a breakdown at the end of the track.
The brief ambient composition Nightvision bridges the album forward to Superheroes, a track with booming kicks and inventive vocal samples. Daft Punk know the limits of precisely how long one of their ideas has before it needs to move on – Superheroes ends with synth arpeggios and spacey sci-fi ambience. Superheroes and High Life are easily this album’s most straightforward house tracks, but even they manage to progress musically. Where typical house records would rinse and repeat, Daft Punk keeps their tracks interesting by reinventing the structure of dance music.
Something About Us sees Daft Punk deliver a low-key funk ballad, a style they wouldn’t return to until 2013’s Random Access Memories. An electric piano opens the track, quickly joined by an unobtrusive bass groove and some understated drums. Bangalter and de Homem-Christo once play with vocoders, giving an enchanting element to what could have been far less interesting. It’s Discovery’s most subtle track, but it’s an experiment that works in the framework of the project. Something About Us may be slower paced and seemingly an odd one out in terms of the tracklist, but it separates Discovery from being a conventional electronica album.
Voyager, Veridis Quo, and Short Circuit form a trio of atypical house tracks that reflect Discovery’s moodier and more melancholy second half. Voyager is a groove-laden piece of Garage house, while Veridis Quo begins with mournful flute imitations before becoming an ode to krautrock and synthy 80s film scores. Short Circuit is a danceable combination of French house and classic electro-funk that begins joyful and groovy, but suddenly coalesces into an orchestrated mess of distortion and pensive synthesizers.
The penultimate track, Face to Face, features Todd Edwards on singing duties as he joins the duo for an irresistible mix of house and synthpop. His verses are catchy, but this track shines in its hook, a beautiful composition of sound art constructed from numerous tiny samples from ELO’s Evil Woman and Kenny Loggins’ House at Pooh Corner to name a couple.
Finally, on Too Long, Romanthony joins Daft Punk again for a lengthy closer to Discovery. It’s a finale, an epilogue, and a resolution all in one; at no point in its ten minutes does it become boring or overdone. It’s the sort of long closing track you can just ride out to, giving you time to reflect on Discovery’s ups and downs and the culmination of Daft Punk’s career up to this point. As it slowly fades out, listeners are left resolved and content.
Discovery, even today, acts as a point of reference for what every good dance record should strive to aim towards. Not every house hit needs to be as avant-garde or forward as this album, but when most dance projects are collections of songs rather than innovative consistent works, Discovery really shines. It’s the sound of the past, the sound of the future, and the sound of the present. It’s a classic.