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.
For anyone whose passage into music fandom began within the past 45 years, it's impossible to imagine a world without Pet Sounds. This is largely because so many of the album's tracks "Wouldn't It Be Nice," "God Only Knows" and "Sloop John B" in particular have become immutable classics, played and replayed on radio stations and movie soundtracks and wedding recessionals to the point that they seem to have always existed. But it's hard, too, because while there was nothing like Pet Sounds before there was Pet Sounds, after its arrival, we've had so much else like it. It's as if the album's release annihilated some vacuum that perhaps only Brian Wilson knew existed, and in the days and weeks after May 1966, we've been silly with the stuff just rolling in it. By the time the record came out, the Beach Boys had already proven themselves anomalies in the pop world, with frontman Wilson early on earning the right to helm many of the band's early records at a time when big-label artists especially those specializing in songs about girls and cars and surfing were allowed scant control. He'd been dropping hints of his groundbreaking talents a few songs at a time, but on Pet Sounds, his genius was finally in full force. It wasn't the first time a pop artist had had a grand vision for a record, but the way in which Wilson brought together seemingly incompatible elements of instrumentation, composition, lyricism and vocal performance was wholly new. Despite four-and-a-half decades of discussion, dissection and endless riffing, it still feels that way today if you approach it with the right ears.
The Psychedelic Rock Pioneers
Three months after Pet Sounds' May 1966 release, the debut record from The 13th Floor Elevators came skittering and smoking out of Austin, Texas. "You're Gonna Miss Me" was a regional hit, but The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators remained mostly a cult favorite for years until its re-issue in 2002 as the three-disc Psychedelic World of the 13th Floor Elevators (the first disc, here, comprises the album's original track list). Still, it's now considered one of the earliest entries into what would eventually become the canon of psychedelic rock a list that Pet Sounds often finds itself on, too, despite obvious differences. Pet Sounds plays like exactly what it is: a deeply crafted studio album, its tracks pieced and layered together by a steady, deliberate hand (albeit one connected to a fragile, slowly-crumbling psyche). Psychedelic Sounds, meanwhile, was made in a studio but sounds like the product of some kind of feral musical orgy at which a mic and four-track just happened to be present. Even the album covers are a study in contrasts. On Pet Sounds' cover, five clean-cut looking fellows in smart jackets kindly feed snacks to some mild-mannered farm animals. The eye on Psychedelic Sounds' cover contains another eye, unwittingly foreshadowing the paranoid schizophrenia that would soon overtake frontman Roky Erickson the most unfortunate among several parallels between his and Brian Wilson's lives.
The Pre-fab Counterparts
While much of Brian Wilson's creative energy stemmed from his unflagging sense of inferiority to nearly every working musician in the world, no other performers indirectly goaded his genius quite like The Beatles. Rubber Soul and its inimitable track-to-track flow can take some of the responsibility for pushing Pet Sounds into the world and, in turn, Sgt. Pepper pulled some inspiration from Pet Sounds. The Monkees are the flip side of this, cobbled together, as they were, by Hollywood producers, an engineered entree for a Beatles-hungry America. On this album, the band's second, their pop is hardly on the same sublime level as Pet Sounds, but it's as disarmingly enjoyable as it is corporately contrived (thanks in no small part to the contributions of on-the-rise stars like Neil Diamond and Carole King). And while they were driven by a wholly different creative processes, the actual making of More of the Monkees and that of Pet Sounds is oddly similar: In each case, the album's helmsman (on The Monkees' side, producer Don Kirshner played Wilson's part) made most of the production choices on his own or with collaborators not in the band, drafting session players to provide most of the instrumentation and bringing in bandmates mostly just to record vocal lines (though everyone would play their own parts in concert). Unshockingly, the ubiquitous Carol Kaye laid down bass lines on both albums.
The Fellow Pop Iconoclast
Attempting the leap from commercially-successful, beloved teen idols to artistically self-directed, critically acclaimed artists is a feat that has consumed more than a few unwitting souls. But Pet Sounds helped the Beach Boys over the chasm, and in 2010, the three-part Body Talk series landed Swedish dance-pop singer Robyn safely on the other side, too. In the late '90s, her songs "Show Me Love" and "Do You Know What It Takes" were decent hits on U.S. mainstream radio, which meant that her stateside re-emergence more than a decade later was essentially doomed to involve a feeble mid-level arena tour and a sparsely re-packaged "greatest hits" collection. And while her 2005 self-titled LP won the hearts of the stateside indie set, it was her 2010 three-part opus Body Talk that not only absolved Robyn of her flash-in-the-pan status, but cemented her as a fiercely legit force to be reckoned with. Though Wilson would shiver and balk at her relentless tour schedule (she wrote most of Body Talk on the road), Robyn crafts pop bliss out of raw personal pain in a way he might admire, and the album's 15 tracks are at once stunningly personal, hilarious, uplifting and imminently danceable at a time when most pop hits are lucky to manage one of the four. While Body Talk may not have been the initial chart success that Pet Sounds was (thanks, highly atomized modern media landscape!), it's tough to argue against Robyn's guileless transformation from '90s froth to a should-be permanent fixture on the modern pop landscape.
All the meltdowns, drug use and diagnoses (both casual and formal) of mental illness Brian Wilson spread out over several decades, Nathan Williams seems on track to match in just a few years. The young Californian's second record, 2009's Wavvves, was rough-hewn, if you could even call it hewn at all every track sounded like a demo of a demo, but somehow all the better for it. King of the Beach, his third album, is still all snaggly at the edges but has a center that holds tight, orbiting around so many of the same sonic elements that Wilson worked into Pet Sounds: Layered choruses of harmonized male falsetto, clattering chimes, drums that might've well as been overseen by Phil Spector. Lyrically, too, Williams has a kindred spirit in the Wilson of the mid-1960s, with his "Baseball Cards" especially echoing the crippling alienation and hapless lovesickness of so many Pet Sounds tracks. Some of the songs both benefit and suffer from a certain kind of millennial sneer that the Beach Boys lacked completely, and the songs aren't nearly so obsessively composed. But the false idyll of California's endless summer serves as a backdrop for both of the songsmiths neither of whom, despite all evidence to the contrary, is any kind of surfer.
The Indie Rock Heir
These days, the legacy of Pet Sounds looms so large that you can't always be sure if what you're hearing takes a direct line from the album itself or if it pulls from a second tier one of the hundreds of thousands of its beneficiaries now trickling down their own influence. Okkervil River is one of the many modern acts whose eclectic, layered recordings owe much to Wilson's Pet Sounds studio work, with chimes and horns and baroque piano and ticking clocks often comfortably situating themselves among more traditional rock accompaniment, and with boisterous arrangements and Will Sheff's heartening delivery often masking dire emotions burbling barely under the surface. The band's conscious Wilsonian affinity becomes utterly apparent on this album's penultimate track, "John Allyn Smith Sails," a first-person narrative tracing the suicide of American poet John Berryman that ropes in a chilling, fantastically-executed homage to "Sloop John B," itself an adaptation of a Bahamian folk song.