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.
When Madonna turned to the bold, buzzy sound of stadium-sized dance music for her 2012 album MDNA, some fans — those older than the teens at Miami's Ultra Music Festival, anyway, who cheered when the 54-year-old singer, businesswoman and mother made a not-very-subtle reference to the drug ecstasy — may have felt a sense of déjà vu upon déjà vu. A young Madonna Louise Ciccone got her start in New York's discos, and her debut album featured contributions from club DJ John "Jellybean" Benitez, who lent a touch of freestyle to her world-conquering pop. That wasn't the last time she would lean on New York club scene, either: Her 1987 album You Can Dance collected dance-floor edits from the likes of Shep Pettibone and the Latin Rascals, and her 1990 hit "Vogue" nodded to gay ballroom culture. But her 1998 album Ray of Light offered an even more direct precedent for MDNA, incorporating as it did the whooshing synthesizers and rushing breakbeats of what was then being called "electronica."
Just as MDNA found Madonna rushing to keep up with younger, hipper stars — most notably Lady Gaga, who ushered in the current era of dance pop — Ray of Light was also a rare instance where Madonna turned up slightly behind the curve. Rave had been bubbling up in pop-culture consciousness for several years, and by 1997 it had crossed over in a big way, thanks to acts like the Chemical Brothers, the Prodigy and Underworld. Regardless, it's safe to say that Madonna's LP, a kind of stylistic Trojan Horse, gave many listeners their very first taste of trance, trip-hop and deep house.
To fashion the album's sound, Madonna made a somewhat surprising choice of collaborator: William Orbit, an electronic-music producer whose Strange Cargo project had a solid niche following but no major breakout success. He brought to Ray of Light the humid, breeze-kissed sound of Ibiza's chillout bars, imbuing songs like "Swim," "Ray of Light" and "Drowned World/Substitute for Love" with shuffling breakbeats, lilting guitars and warm, glowing synth pads; for "Shanti/Ashtangi," a rendition of a Hindu prayer in Sanskrit, Orbit even turned in a passable imitation of breakbeat hardcore, borrowing (and tempering) Aphex Twin's industrial menace. Several of the album's songs were co-written by Patrick Leonard, a New York dance-music DJ who had worked with Madonna in the band Breakfast Club, prior to her solo career. "Sky Fits Heaven" and "Skin" both recall the thumping pulses and trance arpeggios of Underworld, while "Nothing Really Matters" rides a silky house groove that wouldn't have been out of place on Everything But The Girl's club-oriented crossover, Walking Wounded. "Little Star," meanwhile, dips a toe into the ambient drum and bass of LTJ Bukem.
Even by 1998's sprawling, double-album standards — Goldie's epic Saturn Returnz was released the same year, and Roni Size's Reprazent had come out in 1997 — Ray of Light is all over the place and overlong; as "pure" club music goes, it can be dilettantish. However, a decade and a half later, it's a fascinating snapshot of electronic dance music's first big crossover moment, with at least three major singles ("Ray of Light," "Nothing Really Matters" and "Frozen") that live up to the potential of subcultural sounds writ large.
If William Orbit didn't exist, the marketing executives behind the Café del Mar compilations would have had to invent him. The missing link between Bill Laswell and Deep Forest, no other artist better typifies the lackadaisical vibe of '90s chillout music — both for better and for worse. Between 1987-93, the British producer released three albums under his Strange Cargo alias, draping feathery Flamenco guitars over slo-mo breakbeats and pairing dub bass with new age affect. It's a mixed bag: "Riding to Rio" sounds like Penguin Café Orchestra refashioned for a Lite-FM station, and the electric guitars of "Fire and Mercy" sound better suited for the end credits of a teen comedy from the '80s. But "Love My Way" is an engaging, Vangelis-inspired synthesizer excursion, and the digi-dub "Silent Signals" sounds surprisingly ahead of its time, right down to the proto-dubstep bass oscillations. A young Beth Orton turns up on "Water from a Vine Leaf," and Underworld turn in a moody remix of the same.
String arrangers rarely get their moment in the spotlight; in pop music, they play the most literal of supporting roles, laying down a bed of tone designed to cushion the music without ever drawing attention to itself. (They're sort of the Sealy Posturepedic of the music industry.) But the Scottish composer Craig Armstrong parlayed his work on Massive Attack's 1994 album, Protection, into a successful solo career, as well as work with Madonna and U2 and film soundtracks for Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge. His debut album, The Space Between, built on his mood-setting work for Massive Attack (and featured the band on several tracks, along with Cocteau Twins' Elizabeth Fraser), and the follow-up, As If to Nothing, is an even more wide-screen affair, alternating between scene-setting vignettes like "Waltz," reminiscent of Ryuichi Sakamoto's score to The Sheltering Sky, and scene-stealing rave-ups like "Inhaler," which pairs dramatic string vamps with gnarled electric blues. Guests vocalists including Bono, Evan Dando and Wendy Stubbs give the album's most distinctive songs a sense of human scale, offsetting the bathetic swells with a quietly commanding presence.
The Indie Antithesis
There's no confusing Beth Orton with Madonna; the British singer's acoustic-tinged arrangements and husky delivery take their cues from Joni Mitchell, Sandy Denny and Portishead, rather than from Madonna's anodyne club-diva tradition. From the cover of Orton's 1996 debut, Trailer Park — featuring the singer clad in jeans and red Converse and sprawled out on pavement, her face hidden behind her hair as she basks in late-afternoon light — it's clear that she's the antithesis of Madonna's high-gloss image. It is tempting to wonder, however, if the cover of Ray of Light, with a windswept Madonna looking far more covered up than usual, wasn't influenced at least in part by the radical anti-glam of Orton's sleeve, just as the album's chiming, downbeat electronica followed from the "folktronic" sound of Orton's album. (Just compare Madonna's "Swim" with Orton's "She Cries Your Name," and you'll agree that there's a connection there, as unlikely as it may seem.)
William Orbit, who featured Orton on his own Strange Cargo 3, co-wrote "She Cries Your Name," and his influence is all over Trailer Park's low-key sonics, but he wasn't otherwise involved in the album, which was mixed and produced by Andrew Weatherall and Victor Van Vugt. "In the end I had to break away from William because it was too much," Orton recalled in a 2009 interview with The Quietus. "I'd written all these songs and William wasn't really into them."
You might not expect that a group that started out covering Cole Porter and the Jam — not to mention collaborating with Robert Wyatt and the Style Council — would become club-music icons. It's a testament to the strength of Everything but the Girl's vision (as well as mention their musical open-mindedness and knack for choosing talented producers) that they could transition so seamlessly from the British indie scene to New York's discos. It was a 1994 Todd Terry remix of EBTG's "Missing" that first introduced dance-music fans to the British duo, and they built upon that success with their 1996 album Walking Wounded. Featuring production from dance producers like Spring Heel Jack, Howie B, Omni Trio and Todd Terry, the album takes its rhythmic inspiration variously from New York house, drum and bass, and breakbeat, but it never loses sight of the songwriting that distinguishes their music.
The Rave Outliers
Electronic music is famously niche-driven, but Madonna's Ray of Light takes a relatively agnostic approach to dance music subgenres. The album's tracks range from downtempo to deep house to hi-NRG, and the style of each depends largely upon her collaborators. But if you were going to name one record from the rave scene that exerted the most influence over Ray of Light, you couldn't go wrong with Leftfield's 1995 album, Leftism. Leftfield's Paul Daley and Neil Barnes knew how to rock a dance floor: the pulsing "Afro Left," "Black Flute," "Space Shanty" and a John Lydon-fronted "Open Up" were calibrated for teeming crowds knee-deep in mud and MDMA, but the duo's roots in the Balearic and acid-jazz scenes made them equally inclined to experiment with more contemplative (if equally psychedelic modes). Dubbed-out breakbeats, hip-hop and dancehall references and spiraling synth work made many of their debut album's tracks prime choices for chillout rooms and comedown mixtapes, while "ethnic" flutes and drums paved the way for Madonna's own fourth-world fixations.