Albums Review: Homework and Discovery

This week marks the fifteenth anniversary of Daft Punk’s essential debut release Homework. Four years later, they released their second, equally essential album Discovery. The House Beatles have been treading at the top of the electronic music hierarchy since the middle of the Clinton administration, and it is fair to classify their work as the best dance music ever made.

Unlike the real Beatles, Daft Punk has released only two classic albums, but they are among the best electronic records ever and should be considered in the same realm as Revolver and Sgt. Pepper. Much like the two most celebrated Beatles albums, Homework and Discovery subject themselves to much debate. They both revolutionized how the West consumes house music (have you seen ticket prices to Electric Daisy Carnival??) and legions of fans love them as indispensable soundtracks to their existence. But which is better?

A consensus will not be met, certainly not in my lifetime. It is worthwhile to explore both albums independently, if not for the sake of comparison then for the sake of the listening experience. Much like Revolver and Sgt. Pepper, Homework and Discovery are separate entities, and a comparison would not merit itself if they were released from different artists. But I feel an investigation is necessary (and fun) because there are still too many out there who consider house music unworthy of respect (boo).

Homework’s opener “Daftendirekt” revels in a stunning vocal sample (pure gibberish) that hooks as well as any lick or line ever laid on tape. The double kick-drum and rising arrangement await the climax that never comes, but instead leads into “WDPK 83.7 FM” where a French DJ proclaims Homework as “the sound of tomorrow, the music of today.”

The next track “Revolution 909” (certainly not the only Beatles parallel on the album) out-vogues “Vogue.” It sounds like the mix of shutter lenses and high-fashion runways, but it works just fine on a dance floor. “Da Funk,” the next track, works better. The track is as misnamed as its creators, but it is also a modern masterpiece in layering, much like “Eleanor Rigby” was for the real Beatles. “Da Funk” exemplifies that a good sound does not require complex parts, because simple layers placed perfectly on top of one another work like a good outfit.

“Phoenix,” the next track, one-ups everything on the album. It leaves its listeners sweating in anticipation until the 1:23 mark, where a knee-jerk explosion promises to sustain rhythm in everything within earshot. “Fresh” follows in swirly relief, a la “Tomorrow Never Knows,” before “Around the World” shines as Daft Punk’s breakthrough. It exemplifies the band’s attention to detail and precision with their song craft. Just watch the video: so many sounds, and none of them go unnoticed, like equal-opportunity disco!

I compare Homework to Revolver for more than purposes of legacy. Much like Revolver showed what the real Beatles could do with technology, Homework showed those unimpressed outside Europe what DJs could do with inorganic sound. Thanks to the House Beatles, the stigma of Eurodance as repetitive and boring (a valid criticism, I might add) disappeared. Music critics were finally ready to dance and dissect, and Homework became the perfect test subject.

Much like Homework, the first half of Discovery is close to perfect. The opener, “One More Time,” cannot be described justly. It is in my view the greatest dance song ever made. Romanathy’s vocals similarly cannot be understated as perfect. Beyond getting anyone who is anyone to dance, the song gives its listeners a positive perspective on the finality of existence. Daft Punk shares our life is impermanent, but while we have it, we might as well celebrate. My only qualm is that it does not finish the album, as it would be the greatest closer to an album I ever heard.

The next track “Aerodynamic” serves as the diversion away from the Chicago-house released on the first album. It focuses on glam-rock structure rather than floor-readiness, but also gives testament to how they will try “whatever works” in the hopes of catching lightning. The following “Digital Love” is mushy, clichéd, sickly sweet, but who gives a shit! This is happy music, reminiscent of junior high butterflies and first dances with pleasant tension.

“Around their World” and “Harder, Better, Faster Stronger,” “Digital Love’s,” successor, are Daft Punk’s intricate masterpieces, both succeeding in precision and both showing how hard work can be made beautiful. The following track “Crescendolls” bursts open like a Pandora’s box of pure ecstasy. Included is every sound known to make people happy, including the untouchable lyric, “WOO! HEY! IT’S Y’ALL.” This all comes before the bridge explodes into the greatest…climax…ever. “Nightvision” follows, and because Daft Punk realized there is no proper upbeat song to follow “Crescendolls,” they settled for a lovely cool down that stretches the idea of how earthly electronic music can sound. It startles me how close to perfect the first half of each album reaches.

It is easier to compare Discovery to Sgt. Pepper with regards to intent rather than actual sound (because they sound nothing alike). If Revolver and Homework were each band’s proof of their technological abilities, then Sgt. Pepper and Discovery were the creations of bands with nothing to prove. Indeed, when asked about Discovery by Remix Magazine Online, Thomas Bangalter said, “This album has a lot to do with our childhood…When you’re a child you don’t judge or analyze music. You just like it because you like it.” With that freedom, Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem Christo were able to make an album for the sake of creative freedom.

So, which is better? I’ve come this far, and I’ve not decided. Both dazzle equally, but they are not without faults. In fact, both albums have the same problem: mediocre tracks after brilliant introductions.

With this regard, it is easy to contrast. On Homework, “Rollin’ and Scratchin’” and “Rock ‘n Roll” stand out as the tracks that try to innovate with daring hooks, but instead strike as unpleasant. On Discovery, “Superheroes” sounds like jazzercise music, while “Veridis Quo” is the uncontested low point of the album. All of these songs are technically sound, but sound either harsh or boring.

Discovery has the advantage with its low points. That’s not to say any song is worse than any other (they’re all equally dull), but the low points on Homework are far longer than those on Discovery. While true that Homework is the longer album, Discovery has less than ten minutes of bad material, while Homework nears twenty, and that is a long time of unpleasant listening for an album of any length.

One should also take into account that Homework was traditionally made. In their early years, Daft Punk created many tracks in response to the popularity of “Da Funk’s” 1995 release, and when they realized they had enough material to complete a proper album, it was all collected on Homework, released two years later. Homework gets more leeway than Discovery in organization because it is more of a mix tape than an LP (though it still sounds like a greatest hits collection).

Even though Homework slows down after its impeccable first half, treasure awaits the patient listener. “Teachers” is essentially a Rolodex of the band’s inspiration, most of whom we have never heard (though American audiences should appreciate the Brian Wilson/George Clinton/Dr. Dre shout outs). The “whatever works” mentality works beautifully with two of the final tracks, “Burnin’” and “Indo Silver Club.” The latter especially intrigues (where on earth do these sounds come from??). The collection ends with “Funk Ad,” a piece of “Da Funk” played backwards, another nod to the real Beatles, though neither Bangalter nor de Homem Christo are presumed dead.

Discovery’s midsection cools instead of slows down. It picks back up with “Face to Face,” a song that is the best on the album in terms of pop composition. It contains the sampled gibberish strewn throughout Homework and, what do you know, actual lyrics! And they don’t suck! Not to mention it kills on the floor, making a nice one-two punch with the album’s ten-minute closer “Too Long” (much like this review). On “Too Long,” Romanathy makes a triumphant comeback, once again lending perfect vocals to an exhilarating and carefree instrumental. By the time “Too Long” ends (too soon, if you ask me), little doubt remains that Discovery contains joyous music worthy of celebration.

So, which is better? If I had to choose one for my desert island, I would bring Discovery. Of course, I presume there won’t be much dancing on this island. If there was, I would bring Homework. Discovery is the better headphones album, Homework the better stereo album, though both still excel through the other mediums. It’s too unfair to choose. They both deserve ownership.

What Bangalter and de Homem Christo understand better than any other musicians is people dance to be happy. We don’t want to dance dirty, conflicted, embarrassed, enraged, or in a trance. We want to feel joy coursing through every vessel in our body. In this case, Daft Punk succeeds more than any other artist in producing the happiness we desire within ourselves. No one should care if the sound is synthisized, because happiness is not synthetic.

Here’s a little Homework:

Aren’t I clever?

 

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