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.
fun. is one of those bands that came seemingly out of nowhere to ascend to the top of the charts. Usually, those groups piggyback the steez of some other currently radio-ruling act. fun. doesn't. On this, its breakout second album, the New York trio draws from hip-hop, power-pop, emo, '70s art-rock, singer-songwriter balladry, contemporary R&B and Broadway; a combo you'll likely only find right here. Singer Nate Ruess — who also writes the ardent lyrics and highly sing-able melodies — has a Freddie Mercury thing going on vocally, and Some Nights opens with a flurry of Queen-y harmonies and symphonic gallantry. But after that, all bets are off. The runaway success of "We Are Young," the first substantial rock song in ages to not only top the pop charts but also put a justified critic's darling, avant-R&B diva Janelle MonÃ¡e, on the radio where she belongs, is particularly amazing considering that Ruess's first band, the Format, was dropped by the same major that now distributes both fun. and MonÃ¡e. That Arizona band teamed with Redd Kross/OFF! bassist Steven McDonald for its second album, 2006's Dog Problems, and Ruess and McDonald continued honing their smarty-pants eclecticism on fun.'s 2009 debut Aim and Ignite, with the help of its multi-instrumentalists Jack Antonoff and Andrew Dost, formerly of Steel Train and Anathallo. Here the trio trade McDonald for Jeff Bhasker, a hip-hop/R&B guy who produced monster hits for Kanye West, Jay-Z and BeyoncÃ©. Together, they layer seemingly incompatible genres with reckless but radio-friendly glee, as if a music nerd's iPod somehow got into the hands of a Bruno Mars.
The Kindred Post-Emo Kids
This is akin to fun. on Aim and Ignite, before the trio cracked the code to commercial success with Some Nights. fun. and Panic! at the Disco share more than a record label, a one-off collaborative single ("C'mon") and goofy punctuation; they're both far more clever than indie snobs might deduce from their hits and mainstream followings. Referencing a long line of baroque, psychedelic and sunshine-y pop from prime-era Kinks and Beach Boys to XTC, Panic! put aside the drum machines and punk guitars of their smash 2005 debut for this far more nuanced 2008 follow-up. The whole thing flows with a continuity rare for the download era, but the killer here is "When the Day Met the Night," a string-packed, horn-swinging extravaganza, and one of the most accomplished songs to earn the term Beatle-esque. Years from now, musicologists will be scratching their heads and wondering why Panic! wasn't taken seriously in its day the same way we now can't comprehend why the Monkees got no respect.
The Contemporary beat Connection
Like many music addicts, fun.'s Nate Ruess found himself living in an idealized past defined by his favorite vinyl. So he brought himself back into the present via hip-hop and got particularly obsessed with Kanye West's 2010 opus, which meant that he traded one kind of alienation for another. For as much as West embodies 21st-century celebrity/consumption/workaholism, he's also estranged from his own success. West's fifth album sets up a dichotomy between his false self — the "Monster" he's created to cope with the pressures of being a powerful African-American — and the true self who's "Lost in the Woods," damaged and repelled by the conspicuous lifestyle lead by his other half. The monster finds representation in the distorted drums pounding through Twisted Fantasy and Some Nights, drums in part programmed by producer Jeff Bhasker, who helped helm both discs; the true self is the wounded cry of West and Ruess, divergent in tone but akin in feeling.
Despite guesting on Of Montreal's 2010's False Priest and subsequent tour, this Kansas City-born, Atlanta-based R&B visionary hadn't quite found the mainstream platform she deserved until she sang on fun.'s "We Are Young." But her 2010 debut full-length remains a must-have for fans of genre-jumping pop, rock and soul. Like Kanye West, MonÃ¡e spins metaphors from her own estrangement: She's cast herself as Cindi Mayweather, an android messiah of the future who travels back in time to mend a suppressed and divided society where love has become a criminal act — a culture much like our own. The freedom she fights for finds expression in the album's fearless and finessed amalgamations; the seamless segue from the new wave ska of "Faster" to the Off the Wall-era Michael Jackson-isms of "Locked Inside" just might take your breath away.
The Missing Link
When this San Francisco quartet arrived in the dawning of the '90s, it resembled something dreamt up by '70s kiddie-TV purveyors Sid & Marty Kroff, and sounded just like they looked: Packed with psychedelic, power-pop and art-rock references, 1990's Bellybutton and '93's Spilt Milk were everything the emerging grunge era was not — bright and playful, yet startlingly refined. But, like the Beatles, Jellyfish contained too much talent to contain, and its key musicians — singer/drummer Andy Sturmer, keyboardist/singer Roger Manning Jr. and guitarist Jason Falkner — soon went their separate-but-overlapping ways; Falkner and Manning both worked with Beck and Air, while Sturmer penned and produced hits for J-pop duo Puffy AmyYumi. A longtime pal of the Format/fun. producer Steven McDonald, Manning appears on both the Format's Dog Problems and fun.'s Aim and Ignite, the latter of which also bears his considerable arrangement skills. All the things that made Jellyfish too sophisticated for its time still sound extraordinary today; listen to the way Sturmer builds from a whisper to a scream on album opener "The Man I Used to Be," the missing link between Cheap Trick and fun.'s supercharged studio pop.
The Genre-Hopping Godfather
When it comes to fusing far-reaching rock, melodic R&B and studio-wise wildness, Todd Rundgren has few peers. He's produced key albums by Badfinger, New York Dolls, Meat Loaf, the Psychedelic Furs and XTC; his own work encompasses everything from Laura Nyro-styled pop to Zappa-ish prog. This 1973 solo disc captures him transitioning from mainstream rocker to full-on freak. Even while AM radio belatedly turned "Hello It's Me" — a piano ballad from his previous album Something/Anything? — into Rundgren's most enduring hit, this album recast the singer as a daredevil equally at home with jump-cutting, Ritalin-induced micro-rockers like "You Need Your Head" as he is with a medley of suave soul hits delivered totally straight (well, at least until he hits "Cool Jerk.") If Of Montreal and other bands of the Elephant 6 collective claim to have not been inspired by A Wizard, a True Star, they're either lying or haven't done their homework. The strongest fun. connection comes in the last track, "Just One Victory," an end-of-the-night anthem as every bit as uplifting as "We Are Young."