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10 Years, 100 Songs: #48. “Last Night, I Had a Dream About You…”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on August 31, 2009

Over the final months of our fine decade, Intensities in Ten Suburbs will be sending the Naughty Oughties out in style with a series of essays devoted to the top 100 songs of the decade–the ones we will most remember as we look back fondly on this period of pop music years down the road. The archives can be found here. If you want to argue about the order, you can’t, because we’re not totally sure what the qualifications are either. Otherwise, sit back and enjoy.

One of the important things to remember about Daft Punk is that before they became the de facto dance crush of indie kids who couldn’t tell Autechre from Paul Oakenfold, nobody in this country seemed to have any fucking clue what to make of Discovery. It got lukewarm reviews from publications like Rolling Stone and Pitchfork, sold unimpressively, and generally just confused stateside fans used to the growling, often caustic funk of 1997 debut full-length Homework, by then an established classic. Personally, I had trouble just getting through the album my first time out, put off by the obvious pop structuring, the cheesily emphatic (and robotized) vocals, and just the general lack of exhilerating menace to be found among these light, almost retro-sounding party songs. It was jarring, it was disappointing, and it seemed like an absolute career-killer.

Credit to the Brits on this one, then, who understood right away. I remember reading the rave reviews for Discovery in Q and NME after the fact and being stunned by how unreservedly gushing they all were, calling the album brilliant, saying things about how in the future, this was how all pop music would sound. It didn’t change my opinion right away, but it forced me to do a mental double take. Then, that summer, while I was spending a month at a summer program in Massachusetts, I heard the album a bunch of times when the French kids across the hallway would blast it from their dorm room. Eventually, the insidiousness of the melodies, the righteousness of the production and instrumentation, and the cleverness of the concept and execution started to win me over, until I was about ready to annoint the album as Homework‘s very equal. Over the next year or two I noticed more and more people coming to the same realizations, until by about the middle of the decade, Discovery was being hailed by many rock-focused publications as possibly the greatest pop album of the Naughty Oughties.

What happened? Well, obviously a lot of it has to do with the audience, as attitudes towards unabashedly pop-oriented acts softened in previously stringent underground rock communities over the course of the decade, with Daft Punk being one of the more palatable ones due to their appealing to certain art-rock sensibilities (high-concept albums, interesting music videos) as well as certain guilty-pleasure ones (big, unavoidable hooks, unapologetically exuberant lyrics, general over-the-topness). But also, it might have just taken a couple years for people to get used to its sound. At a time when most underground dance acts were using Human League or Gang of Four or even the Stooges and Velvet Underground as their musical touchstones, Discovery was bumping 70s soft-rock dinosaurs like 10cc, Supertramp and Barry Manilow and combining them with Balearic and Italo dance influences that American listeners like myself were totally unfamiliar with. It sounded like it was either ten years ahead of or behind its time, but it certainly didn’t sound like something from the year 2001.

“One More Time” was the biggest pop hit–though even that didn’t really catch on the way it should have–but “Digital Love” was the definitive song, and probably the one most fondly remembered by fans today. Right off the bat, it nailed the entire feel of the album with its title–“Digital Love” pretty well describes the way the album presented that most human of emotions with a distinctly unhuman filter, taking the Kraftwerkian concept of “Computer Love” (invented 20 years prior) to its logical conclusion. Basically, it sounded like a scene out of A.I. or The Man Who Fell to Earth or a significantly mushier Terminator 2: Judgement Day, where after a lifetime’s worth of research into the human species, a group of aliens or robots (or alien robots) present their best approximation of what an album of partying and love and other human good times should sound like–with a precise, technically proficient, but ultimately disquietingly soulless result. That sounds like it should be a bad thing, but it isn’t–it even becomes weirdly touching in a way, making you want to go home and hug your laptop after you hear it in a bar or club.

Now when I say precise, I’m talking bloody immaculate. Production-wise, “Digital Love” is an absolute marvel, every note of every instrument landing cleanly, fluidly and stunningly on point. Back before 80s nostalgia made the keyboard an acceptable lead instrument and The Darkness, Dragonforce and the Guitar Hero series brought guitar shredding back in vogue, “Digital Love” pushed the synth hooks to the very forefront and unleashed a near-face-melting guitar solo towards the end of the song. But within the glossy sheen of Discovery, the synth leads kind of sounded like guitar riffs, and the guitar solo was embellished by computers and music sequencers until it sounded like it was played on a synthesizer. But it all sounded great, from the filter-distanced intro to the “Logical Song”-reminiscent breakdown section to the airy, rapturous final notes.

And the lyrics–those sweet, romantic, occasionally cringe-worthy lyrics. They were probably the hardest thing for listeners to get around at first, especially in their heavily vocodored (or as we would later know to more accurate describe it, auto-tuned) manner. Back in 2001, there were two primary precedents for the use of auto-tune in such a manner–Cher’s “Believe” and Kid Rock’s “Only God Knows Why,” neither of which most artists would really want to associate themselves with to be considered on the cutting edge of the pop realm. Yet Daft Punk would use it throughout Discovery, and nowhere more prominently than on “Digital Love.” It’s an absolutely necessary effect for the overall feel of the song and album, however, giving the vocals that conspicuously robotic, inhuman touch without giving them an overtly retro feel by being as brash as the vocodored hooks to, say, “Planet Rock” or “Mr. Roboto.”

The “Digital Love” lyrics are a genuinely nice little love story, relating a dream the singer had of (shocker) partying, dancing and romancing, devestating him (it?) when, uh, they wake up to find that the dream was just that. It’s a sighing, sad number, one which most people can probably relate to in some respect, but it still has that feeling of emotional distance, where the singer seems unfamiliar enough with the genuine feeling of love (only able to dream about it in a highly ambiguous manner) that it betrays their true nature as being just a series of 0’s and 1’s. Best of all, the song avoids being the overkill victim that “One More Time” and “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” both eventually became, by being just one verse and a maybe-chorus long–after which the words get out of the way to let the sticky-sweet beat and that attention-hogging guitar-synth-computer-whatever solo do their thing.

The impact of Discovery and its singles on US pop culture was far from limited to the critical sphere. Within a year of Discovery‘s release, similarly robotized-sounding love songs like Dirty Vegas’s “Days Go By” and Kylie Minogue’s “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” became crossover smashes, and by the end of the decade, the duo had become unlikely pop icons, appearing in commercials, playing at the Grammys and getting sampled in hits by rappers like Kanye West and Busta Rhymes. Hell, even the success of Wall-E was presaged somewhat by Discovery, providing precedent that humans could find a relationship between a robot and a trash can to be emotionally compelling. Unfortunately for the duo, it proved something of a difficult act to follow, as their follow-up album Human After All (released nearly a half-decade later) failed to really capitalize on all the good will that Discovery had generated for them over the years, and as of recently had yet to age as appreciably as that album either (though I did hear “Robot Rock” a couple days ago and was surprised how good it sounded–perhaps it is time to delve back in after all).

Two albums (one poorly received) and a whole lot of touring isn’t much to hang a whole decade on, but Discovery was cool, innovative and long-lasting enough to make them one of the key pop artists of the decade all on its lonesome. For a song released in 2001, “Digital Love” may have seemed a little too much like something Hal 9000 would get down to, but it comforted that should the computers ever officially take over, at least the dance floor will not suffer for it particularly.

(Have any thoughts or remembrances of this song? Want to correct our lyrics or call us out for relying too much on Wikipedia? Please feel free to leave a comment here, or (gulp) Tweet us about it at twitter.com/intensities. Your input is lusted after and appreciated.)

The List So Far (Now With Links!):

100. Green Day – “Jesus of Suburbia
99. The Ying Yang Twins – “Wait (The Whisper Song)
98. Crazytown – “Butterfly
97. Taylor Swift – “Teardrops on My Guitar
96. The Fray – “Over My Head (Cable Car)
95. Fergie – “Fergalicious
94. Lidstrom – “I Feel Space
93. Chevelle – “Send the Pain Below
92. T-Pain f/ Yung Joc – “Buy U a Drank (Shawty Snappin’)
91. The Arctic Monkeys – “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor
90. Cassie – “Me & U
89. Nelly Furtado – “Maneater
88. Mike Jones f/ Slim Thug & Paul Wall – “Still Tippin’
87. Bat for Lashes – “Daniel
86. The Darkness – “I Believe in a Thing Called Love
85. Dynamite Hack – “Boyz n the Hood
84. DJ Khaled f/ T.I., Rick Ross, Fat Joe, Birdman, Lil’ Wayne & Akon – “We Takin’ Over
83. Matchbox20 – “Bent
82. The Game f/ 50 Cent – “Hate It or Love It
81. 311 – “Amber
80. 3 Doors Down – “Krptonite
79. Nas – “Made You Look
78. Royksopp – “Eple
77. The Pussycat Dolls – “Don’t Cha
76. DMX – “Party Up (Up in Here)
75. Junior Senior – “Move Your Feet
74. Twista f/ Kanye West & Jamie Foxx – “Slow Jamz
73. The Streets – “Weak Become Heroes
72. Jimmy Eat World – “The Middle
71. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs – “Maps
70. Snoop Dogg f/ Pharrell – “Drop It Like It’s Hot
69. Alice DeeJay – “Better Off Alone
68. Xiu Xiu – “I Luv the Valley OH!
67. Incubus – “Stellar
66. Mariah Carey – “We Belong Together
65. Andrew W.K. – “Party Hard
64. Jurgen Paape – “So Weit Wie Noch Nie
63. Taking Back Sunday – “MakeDamnSure
62. Kid Cudi – “Day n Nite
61. Paramore – “That’s What You Get
60. System of a Down – “Toxicity
59. dNTEL f/ Ben Gibbard – “(This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan
58. Three 6 Mafia f/ 8Ball & MJG – “Stay Fly
57. Good Charlotte – “The Anthem
56. The Lonely Island – “Lazy Sunday
55. Darude – “Sandstorm
54. Yellowcard – “Ocean Avenue
53. The Killers – “Mr. Brightside
52. Luomo – “Tessio
51. Blink-182 – “Stay Together For the Kids
50. My Chemical Romance – “I’m Not Okay (I Promise)
49. Freelance Hellraiser – “A Stroke of Genius
48. Daft Punk – “Digital Love”

4 Responses to “10 Years, 100 Songs: #48. “Last Night, I Had a Dream About You…””

  1. adam said

    perfectly said andrew. i’d only add that after seeing daft punk at coachella ‘human after all’ suddenly made all sorts of sense and was put back into heavy rotation. i still don’t love it as much as discovery but it’s certainly a worthy addition to their discography.

  2. Garret said

    You know what other post-millennial dancefloor classic processes its vocals through autotune? “Dust Me Selecta.”

    Just a fun fact!

  3. Pete said

    Not everyone in the U.S. was sleeping on this album or didn’t “get it”…I enjoyed it from the first listen when the promo copies came in. And no, I wasn’t a total fan of the stuff off of “Homework” at that point….perhaps that’s why I liked it more. My eventual viewing of the Interstella anime movie years later has cemented my love for this album.

    And I hated the third album so much I have a hard time believing that will change over time. I thought it was severely underdeveloped.

  4. Sam Skeen said

    I didn’t like “Discovery” the first few times I heard it either. With each listen though, you notice something new, and how can you complain about such flawless production?

    I always thought “Something About Us” was seriously underrated.

    “Human After All” was mostly useless but it did have “technologic,” which was cool in its own right and also spurred that cool Busta Rhymes song and was used in a good party scene on “the O.C.”

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