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.
"Change is inevitable." So goes a sample of Eric Thomas, the self-proclaimed "Hip-Hop Preacher" that opens Settle, the debut full-length from Surrey-based brothers Guy and Howard Lawrence, better known as Disclosure. When it's finished, the brothers loop another Thomas sample — in this one, he's talking about the moment "when a fire starts to burn" — and turn it into a banging house track as hot as the summer ahead. Where UK dance culture —from grime to garage, 2-step to dubstep— for years has been obsessed with the notion of "pushing things forward," what startles about Disclosure's assured first album is not its innovation, but rather its refinement.
Instead of anticipating the future, the brothers take the present moment of UK pop and wed it to the early-'90s heyday of American vocal house. With help from the likes of Jessie Ware and Ellie Goulding, as well as newcomers like Sam Smith and London Grammar, the brothers unveil their vision of a 21st-century pop record, with a revolving cast of stellar vocalists. Smith sings of an obsessive new love on "Latch"; Howard handles vocal duties for the lovesick "F For You," and closer "Help Me Lose My Mind," featuring relative newcomer Hannah Reid of London Grammar, is an outright stunner. Despite the crowded guest roster, Disclosure have avoided making sodden Calvin Harris/ David Guetta A-list guest parade. Instead they've crafted a thrilling amalgam of a dance record that will define 2013, even as it lovingly re-contextualizes what's come before. Change may be inevitable, but the past is always ripe for rediscovery.
The Jersey House Brothers
Though they were signed to a major label in 1988, it was only when twin brothers Ronald and Rheji Burrell were unceremoniously dropped that their careers as Jersey house-masters really took off. Holed up in their mother's basement, the two teens crafted a coarse-yet-crackling take on the primitive electro, boogie and house music that was seeping out of clubs at the time. Their string of singles compiled here as The Nu-Groove Years (1988-92) bridged the gap between the shuttering of New York's Paradise Garage and the early-'90s rise of the Limelight. And while Disclosure's success stems from the Lawrence Brothers producing together, the Burrells rarely recorded together. Nevertheless, tracks like "I'll Say a Prayer 4 U" and "Apt 2A" and "Apt 1B" epitomized how the Burrells housed things.
The Vocal House Masters
"This is something special," goes the introduction to this double-album mix from 2001 that weaves together two generations of New York City club music for a new century. In the hands of the Masters at Work — the production duo of "Little" Louie Vega and Kenny "Dope" Gonzalez who also began their lauded careers on Nu-Groove — the two defined club music for most of the '90s. In much the same manner as Disclosure foregrounds the vocals of their chanteuses, making their dance tracks crackle with a pop feel, they learned from the Masters themselves. Here, Vega and Gonzalez approach the massively influential West End Records catalog — started in 1976 by impresario Mel Cheren — and show its continued relevance for dancefloors of all stripes. Disco, funk, electro, boogie, early hip-hop, garage house, all of it can be found here, mixed into a two-hour journey and as sterling as it was three decades prior.
The French House-Pop Connection
House music students Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo paid homage to the likes of American producers DJ Boo, Green Velvet and Jeff Mills on "Teachers" from their 1997 debut, Homework. For their encore, they went one better, collaborating with the likes of underground vocalists-producers in Todd Edwards and Romanthony for 2001's Discovery, which laid out the blueprints for how house music could become the template for pop music in the new century. Starting from a disco heavy base (sampling from the likes of Sister Sledge, Cerrone and even Barry Manilow), the Frenchmen pounded these snippets into mesmeric vocal house tracks that could be ecstatic, pulsing and cheesy all at once. And while the duo has since abandoned its own template, Discovery's example was later picked up by the likes of Justice, Will.i.am, David Guetta and Disclosure.
The Scottish Brotherhood
Given the intense scrutiny by cultish fans that surrounds the Edinburgh-based duo Boards of Canada, it was funny that only on their third album did it become public knowledge that Marcus Eoin and Mike Sandison were, in fact, brothers. And while their previous albums worked the downtempo end of electronic music, The Campfire Headphase introduced a few new wrinkles to their sonic template. After emphasizing vintage keyboard tones on previous albums, the brothers Sandison this time deployed processed guitars, their twang and jangle twisted into strange new textures. And since their music always felt both bucolic and wistful, it was fitting to have the latent British folk aspects rise to the fore. Throughout, their sibling telepathy made for some evocative music.
The West Coast Brethern
When childhood friends Michael David and Tyler Blake dropped out of their respective duties (David as guitarist in a band, Blake from the Berklee School of Music) in the mid-aughts to craft music as Classixx, the electronic scene in their hometown of Los Angeles was an electro-heavy wasteland. But as their remixing portfolio ballooned (for the likes of Madonna, Phoenix, Major Lazer, and more), their penchant for dashing in new wave, boogie, disco and Balearic to their mixes began to spread throughout the LA scene. And on their debut Hanging Gardens, they too — much like Disclosure — highlight their guest vocalists and place their pop hooks against a glossy dance backdrop. Classixx touch on their love for the classic DFA era with guest vocals from Nancy Whang, do the icy gleam of Glass Candy on "Stranger Love" and then offer up a "Digital Love"-esque update on the sprightly "Holding On."