It used to be easier to pretend that an album was its own perfectly self-contained artifact. The great records certainly feel that way. But albums are more permeable than solid, their motivations, executions and inspirations informed by, and often stolen from, their peers and forbearers. It all sounds awfully formal, but it’s not. It’s the very nature of music — of art, even. The Six Degrees features examine the relationships between classic records and five other albums we’ve deemed related in some way. In some cases these connections are obvious, in others they are tenuous. But, most important to you, all of the records are highly, highly recommended.
From the very start, Daft Punk have made music that reflected their influences. At first the results were, as the French duo's name suggests, disarmingly crude: Their 1997 debut Homework track "Teachers" is little more than an extended shout-out to three dozen underground house DJs (plus, tellingly, Brian Wilson, George Clinton and Dr. Dre) over an unchanging beat. From this funky techno minimalism, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo have swung in the opposite direction, arriving with Random Access Memories in full disco-prog opulence. Daft Punk are still paying tribute to their heroes, but they do so not with samples, but with astoundingly elaborate pastiches of some of the most exquisitely played, arranged, produced, and engineered records of the '70s and '80s.
Anyone with a basic knowledge of classic rock and pop can spot at least some of them — Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall, Michael Jackson's Off the Wall and Thriller, and the smoothest moments of Fleetwood Mac, Toto and the Doobie Brothers. It's as if that Supertramp-esque bit in Discovery's "Digital Love" was expanded into an entire album of like-minded licks. RAM features an appropriately over-the-top cast of guest singers, players, producers and songwriters, including not just current R&B and indie kingpins like Pharrell and Panda Bear, but also a few key behind-the-scenes OGs. It's those old-school icons of disco, jazz-funk, prog-rock, and soft pop we celebrate in this Six Degrees of RAM's exactingly specific recollections.
The Disco Sophisticates
Chic's Nile Rodgers recently triumphed over cancer, and the fruits of his victory — RAM's "Give Life Back to Music," "Lose Yourself to Dance" and "Get Lucky" — are three of the most profoundly glad-to-be-alive songs you'll hear all year. If there were any justice, he'd be universally hailed among the greatest rhythm guitarists of all time: His syncopations are as tricky as danceable riffs get, but he also lays down equally complex jazz chords, streamlines them through his funk strum, and then flips them harmonically so that there's constant movement and variation. It would take a boatload of music theory to explain how he does it, but the very fact that absolutely no one plays exactly like him serves testimony to how deep this guy gets. Chic's particular sort of disco grabs upon impact but also gradually reveals infinite layers of pleasure. Rodgers and his primary Chic cohorts — bassist Bernard Edwards and drummer Tony Thomas — spread their songwriting, arranging, producing and instrumental dexterity through subsequent smashes with Diana Ross ("Upside Down"), David Bowie ("Let's Dance"), Madonna ("Like a Virgin"), and many others, but their 1978 album remains the greatest introduction to their simultaneously lofty and populist genius. It's got Chic's biggest, boldest hit ("Le Freak"); the follow-up, their most velvety declaration of desire ("I Want Your Love"); and a ballad so heartbreakingly beautiful even experimental rocker Robert Wyatt covered it ("At Last I Am Free").
The Darth Vader of the Jazz-Funk Vocoder
Romantic longing is the core of what it means to be human — that's Random Access Memories' implicit theme. So to sing of longing while making the voice deliberately robotic is deeply uncanny. Decades before T-Pain, Herbie Hancock mastered this effect on disco jams many of his old jazz fans found deeply distasteful. There's little doubt that Daft Punk dug 'em, though: They've been alluding to Hancock's vocoder work since their earliest records, and with RAM's "The Game of Love," they absolutely nail the tone and phrasing the keyboardist employed on his 1978 UK hit "I Thought It Was You" while aping bits of its melody. The Hits! collects most of Hancock's dancefloor excursions: Bookended by his mainstream smashes "Chameleon" from '73 and "Rockit" from '83, it showcases the sonic clarity and jazz-funk chops that RAM pays tribute to with every fastidious groove.
The Mom and Dad of EDM
Like Random Access Memories, I Remember Yesterday looked backward in order to move forward. Much like Daft Punk, Donna Summer and her producer Giorgio Moroder represented the commercial end of dance music's avant-garde. In 1975, this Boston-born singer and her Italian collaborator pioneered from their shared Munich base what was soon known as Eurodisco, an artier, more extreme version of the largely American sound that drew from the LP side-long suites of progressive rock as well as the string-intensive romance of Philly soul. Their fifth album's A-Side maintained the suite-ness while broadening Summer's stylistic range to encompass big-band swing (the title track), Brill-Building girl-group sounds ("Love's Unkind"), and classic Motown ("Back in Love Again"). Side B took on Blaxploitation funk ("Black Lady"), Summer's own super-sensual disco ("Take Me"), and contemporary R&B balladry ("Can't We Just Sit Down (And Talk It Over)"). As he explains in his RAM monologue "Giorgio by Moroder," these songs were designed to represent the past and present, and the album's final track was designated to suggest the future. So, Moroder turned to, as he says on RAM, his Moog "zinthezizer," synched it to a click track, and with British co-writer/producer Pete Bellotte and Summer herself wrote "I Feel Love," the most influential track in contemporary dance music history. Moroder rightly gets plenty of credit for this milestone, but it's Summer's nearly peerless versatility that inspired and enabled "I Feel Love." She sings as if coital connection with Moroder's machinery was a deeply spiritual act. As decades of dancers will tell you, she absolutely made it so.
The Light Side of the Moon
Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon proved so hot that even its engineer landed a recording contract. Fronting this collaboration with singer-songwriter Eric Woolfson, a fluctuating cast of vocalists, and musicians cribbed from previous productions for Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel, Pilot and other art-poppers, Alan Parsons filled his records with lush filigree sometimes at ends with Woolfson's typically concept-bound lyrics. Here, though, most everything is as smooth as the almond oil in a well-trained masseur's palms. Although the Project's 1977's I Robot undoubtedly also appeals to the android pair, the gentle chug of this 1982 album's hit title track gets more direct appropriation in RAM's "Instant Crush." Both it and the cosmic disco instrumental "Mammagamma" got deserved turntable time from adventurous club DJs in the early morning hours when tempos decelerate and vibes mellow.
The Rainbow Connection
L.A.'s laid-back perfectionism exerts a profound influence on RAM, and none of its practitioners got more Hollywood than Paul Williams, a diminutive child actor-turned-songwriter-turned-talk-show-celebrity who became absolutely omnipresent on '70s TV. Recorded just before his hits for Three Dog Night ("Out in the Country," "Just an Old Fashioned Love Song," "The Family of Man"), the Carpenters ("We've Only Just Begun," "Rainy Days and Mondays," "I Won't Last a Day Without You") and other paragons of early '70s AM radio turned him into a superstar, Williams's 1970 album is a shining example of sunshine pop. Producer and co-writer Roger Nichols surrounds the singer with effusive arrangements and top-drawer session players: If you love Carol Kaye's swooping, virtuoso bass lines on Pet Sounds, a major treat awaits you here. Williams's snarky sense of humor is obvious in his greatest film roles (stop what you're doing right now and put The Loved One and Phantom of the Paradise — the film in which he inspired Daft Punk to don masks — at the top of your Netflix queue), but the singer largely compartmentalized it away from his songs once he became an easy listening icon. It's here though: Check how he deadpans, "I just haven't got what it takes to put up with you."