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.
By 2011, the year James Blake released his beloved self-titled debut, a crop of like-minded young musicians (including fellow Brits the xx) were revolutionizing electronic music, blurring the borders between dubstep, indie rock and R&B. Blake ultimately emerged as the poster boy for this blossoming musical culture: layering icicle keys with disorienting electro hiccups, singing in a soulful, melismatic croon — one typically looped and chopped and auto-tuned and sampled into surreal, static-y choirs. But for all its lavish textural splendor, James Blake was fascinating more for its influential production style than its actual songs.
With his sophomore full-length, Overgrown, Blake has expanded his reach in every area: as a singer, as a producer and especially as a songwriter. Where James Blake rarely exuded any degree of warmth (burying his voice so deep within mountains of effects that it hardly registered on an emotional level), Overgrown has a prominent human pulse, best evidenced on a pair of striking new collaborations: "Digital Lion" balances electronics with organic instrumentation (including a brief acoustic guitar passage) from ambient godfather Brian Eno, while Wu-Tang veteran RZA crashes the party for a gruff guest verse on the dust-blown "Take a Fall For Me." Working with other artists (even dating back to 2011's "Fall Creek Boys Choir," his one-off collaboration with Bon Iver's Justin Vernon) has helped Blake realize the importance of tension and release. "Retrograde" is the most fully-realized song he's ever written, building gradually, layer-by-layer (pianos, gurgling bass, digital handclaps), until the chorus opens into a haunting whirlwind of synths and vocal acrobatics. By refining his style, Blake hasn't tarnished his pioneering mystique — he's added to it.
The Ambient Godfather
It's no shock that Blake sought out a collaboration with Eno on Overgrown — after all, during his pioneering run in the 1970s, Eno basically invented the blueprint for blending acoustic and electronic elements in the recording studio. The duo's new collaboration, "Digital Lion," points back to Another Green World, Eno's 1975 masterpiece, particularly that album's fizzy, grandiose synthesizer tones (best evidenced on the funky instrumental "Over Fire Island"). Both Eno and Blake are masters of sonic space and texture, but they're both also both capable of writing intricate, off-kilter pop music. Another Green World represents Eno at his peak in both areas — from the evocative, dream-like ambience of "The Big Ship" and "Zawinul/Lava" to the quirky sing-along of "St. Elmo's Fire." They may have been born 40 years apart, but Eno and Blake are obvious kindred spirits.
The Dubstep Icon
Before Blake and his late-aughts peers brought dubstep's influence into the mainstream, obscure Brits like Burial were making the genre a critical buzzword on a smaller scale. Untrue, the mysterious producer's sophomore LP, remains the dubstep pinnacle — defining the movement's sonic hallmarks and refining them through one immersive headphone journey. It's clear Blake spent plenty of hours absorbing this album — its oceanic pacing, its fractured R&B vocal loops (sampling neo-soul artists like D'Angelo and contemporary hit-makers like Christina Aguilera), its left-field sound effects (culled from video games like Metal Gear Solid and films like David Lynch's Inland Empire), its woozy bass, its skittering snares and rim-clicks. It's a relatively simple sound, and a fairly repetitive one; the album basically plays like extended track — a hypnotic radio transmission from a mid-'90s R&B station, decaying quietly in outer space. Basically every electronic artist, Blake included, has been hovering inside Untrue's shadow ever since.
The Indie Falsetto Bro
Like Blake, Bon Iver's Justin Vernon is a rare breed of vocalist: distinct, emotive and polarizing — blurring the line between cartoonish and spiritual. And also like Blake, Vernon's voice (particularly his melismatic falsetto) is the essential ingredient in his music, no matter how much orchestration or how many sprawling overdubs he throws into the mix. Vernon broke out to international acclaim with his debut, the heart-melter For Emma, Forever Ago — but in a roundabout way, his most influential release is the Blood Bank EP, his slightly obscure follow-up from 2009. Three of the four tracks are more in line with the folky art-rock of Vernon's earlier repertoire, but the disc's standout, the a cappella stunner "Woods," was a bold leap forward, layering Vernon's gorgeous falsetto harmonies through the densest auto-tune ever laid to tape. It was a groundbreaking moment, cemented in history when Kanye West wrote an entire song around its main melody for his 2010 track "Lost in the World." But the song's influence also rippled through the indie community, and Blake is no exception.
The Art-Rock Pioneers
Regardless of genre, it's practically impossible to name an artist that hasn't been influenced, at least in some small part, by the eclectic body of work Radiohead have amassed over the past two decades. But ever since the quartet's groundbreaking fourth album, 2000's Kid A — in which restless frontman Thom Yorke pushed their adventurous art-rock sound into the glitchy unknown — the lines separating "rock" and "electronica" have been thrillingly indistinct. That ambiguity between organic and synthetic, acoustic and electronic, is a defining element in Blake's style; and with his abstract lyrical approach and fondness for vocal manipulation, he's no stranger to a Thom Yorke comparison. Over a decade since its original release, can feel the ghosts of Kid A lurking throughout Blake's music — from the layered, choppy loop-pedal chaos of "Everything in its Right Place" to the muffled synth-pad lullaby of "Kid A" to the frenetic programmed hallucinations of "Idioteque."
The Like-Minded Collaborators
Like Blake, British duo Mount Kimbie (Dominic Maker and Kai Campos) make very unconventional electronic music — too organic to be dubstep, too soulful and busy to be ambient in the traditional sense. But Blake's connection to the band runs deeper than that: He actually contributed vocals and keyboards to Mount Kimbie's live shows in 2010 — the same year they released their hugely acclaimed Warp Records debut, Crooks & Lovers — and he's also collaborated with the band on a remix for their 2010 EP, Remixes Part 1. The template for Crooks & Lovers is a bit spacier and more trance-like than Blake's work, layering pitch-shifted R&B vocal loops into a blissful instrumental stew of fractured acoustic guitars, synths, and programming. But there's a reason these guys are such close friends — in many ways, Blake is the enigmatic frontman that got away.