The annals of Pop Music history are rightly filled with the talented and charismatic men and women who played, sang, and danced their way into the public consciousness. Fans memorize their songs, see their shows, and most importantly, buy their records. But great albums and singles don’t just come out of nowhere. It takes a real professional to take the talent of an artist and shape and present it in the best way possible. Record companies pay big bucks to ensure that the talent they find records albums that people want to buy. And the people they pay are producers. Here is a list of ten great producers who not only served their record company bosses some of the biggest selling records in history, but also allowed the singers and musicians they worked with to sound their very best.
10. The Neptunes
Baby, I Got Your Money (NSFW version) Ol’ Dirty Bastard
The only duo on the list, The Neptunes- composed of Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo- were basically responsible for the sound of almost every top ten record at the turn of the century. Starting with well received singles for hip hop artists like Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Busta Rhymes, they quickly became the most sought after producers in the business. Impressed with their unique synth and sample heavy mixes, everybody and their uncle wanted to work with The Neptunes. They were soon producing big records for everybody from Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake to Snoop Dogg. They remixed just about everyone, and in the process reached the rare status of superstar producers. Their influence was so great at one point that artists and labels used them to market their hits. Of course it didn’t hurt that Williams sang on most of their tracks and often had just as much ormore talent than some of the artists they were working with. There are a lot of famous producers in pop music, but few became stars in the way that The Neptunes have.
9. Butch Vig
Today Smashing Pumpkins
After a somewhat successful stint as a drummer and soundtrack composer (he even contributed a track to the b-movie classic Slumber Party Massacre), Butch Vig gave up performing and started his own record label and recording studio. From almost the very beginning of his producing career, Vig made a huge name for himself working on big records from the emerging indie scene’s best groups. Behind the controls for such milestone records as Gish and Siamese Dream by The Smashing Pumpkins and one of the most important rock records of all time, Nevermind by Nirvana, Butch Vig took the raw, grungy sounds of the alternative scene and polished them into pop classics that crossed over but lost none of their authenticity or grit. After helping to redefine what rock and roll could sound like, Vig returned to performing with the mega-successful band Garbage. He still produces for bands like The Foo Fighters and others, but he made his mark bringing a clear, crisp sheen to the greatest grunge records ever released.
Don’t Give Up Peter Gabriel featuring Kate Bush
If you bought a modern rock record in the mid to late 80s, chances are you’ve heard the production of Daniel Lanois. Responsible for the slick, smoky sound of such classic records as The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree for U2 and So by Peter Gabriel, Lanois’ work was all over the radio and video channels. A successful solo artist and multi-instrumentalist in his own right, Lanois brought an intensity and sense of perfection to his production work. Although his recording sessions are famously contentious, groups returned to him again and again for the sound he could bring to their albums and the quality work he could get out of them. One of Lanois’ greatest strengths is his ability to make synthesizers and other electronic instruments sound organic. Even in the 80s, when most pop music sounded like auditory plastic, Lanois’ (and his frequent collaborator Brian Eno) skill at making music sound natural allowed artists to explore new sounds while still maintaining an authentic, natural sound. And one that’s unmistakenly influenced by Daniel Lanois.
Paradise By The Dashboard Light Meatloaf
If Daniel Lanois was the producer who defined what great rock records sounded like in the 1980s, Todd Rundgren did the same thing in the 1970s. Rundgren started as a guitarist and singer for a garage rock band called Nazz. Unsatisfied with the sound of their records, Rundgren taught himself how to engineer and produce albums. When Nazz floundered, he turned to producing full time and amassed a resume of some great records. Rundgren produced watershed albums for rock royalty like The Band, Hall and Oates, Patti Smith, Cheap Trick, and countless others. He produced and played lead guitar one of the biggest records of all time- Meat Loaf’s Bat out of Hell. Never satisfied with previous work, Rundgren continued to record his own records solo and with various groups and has become one of rock’s great experimenters and early adopters of new technology. He’s always been an innovator and always been one of the great rock and roll producers.
6. T-Bone Burnett
Down in the River To Pray Alison Krauss
Few people have done as much as musician, songwriter and producer T-Bone Burnett to keep classic American music in the public eye. As a legendary producer and soundtrack supervisor, Burnett has had a hand in some of the most popular roots and traditional albums of the last thirty years. Whenever an artist wants to record an album of traditional music, they usually turn to Burnett to get the songs and sound they want. Elvis Costello, Robert Plant, Allison Krauss, and others have all recorded roots albums with Burnett, whose musicianship and knack for recording helped them revive interest and sales in the genre. Burnett has also been an influential soundtrack coordinator, overseeing such classics as The Big Lebowski and O Brother, Where Art Thou? When he isn’t busy putting together great records, he also helps actors like Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon not make total fools of themselves when they portray musicians on screen. Burnett also produced a lot of huge pop records for groups like The Counting Crows and The Wallflowers, but don’t hold that against him.
5. Dr. Dre
Gin and Juice (Uncensored Version) Snoop Dogg
Rock and Roll isn’t the only genre with super producers. In the 80s, a kid from Los Angeles called Andre Romelle Young (better known as Dr. Dre) was busy defining the sound of West Coast rap music and helping create the careers of the genre’s biggest acts.. After a successful start as a local D.J., Dr Dre met up with an enterprising drug dealer and rapper called Eazy-E to form NWA. With Dre producing, the group shot to almost instant national fame and notoriety with their raw sound and controversial lyrics. Once the group dissolved over financial problems, Dre embarked on a successful solo career and became a producer for just about every rap artist who mattered. Besides his own platinum albums, he worked on hit records for Snoop Dogg, 2Pac, Eminem, 50 Cent, The Game, and others. Influenced by funk stalwarts like George Clinton and Curtis Mayfield, Dr. Dre avoided samples, preferring the flexibility of using live musicians to create his beats. The resulting tracks were heavy on synthesizers and keyboards, creating a unique sound that came to dominate the West Coast scene and continues to influence hip hop records to this day.
4. Sam Philips
Rocket 88 Ike Turner/ Jackie Brenston
When young Sam Phillips realized he didn’t have enough money to pursue his dream of being a lawyer, he settled for his second choice and went to broadcasting school. The legal system’s loss was rock and roll’s undying gain. Starting a little label called Sun Records, Sam Phillips was responsible for discovering some of early rock’s most influential artists. Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, B.B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis, Howlin’ Wolf, and Carl Perkins were among the rock gods who laid down tracks overseen by Phillips. An artist’s producer first and foremost, he allowed young singers like Elvis to play around in the studio and find their way naturally to the best take. Less interested in audio perfection than most producers, Phillips chose the takes he felt best captured the emotion of the song and the people performing it. One of the architects of rock music, Phillips will always be remembered for his fantastic ear for new talent and his ability to get real, raw performances out of it. A lot of people have claimed to have invented Rock and Roll, but few people have as strong a claim as Sam Phillips.
3. Berry Gordy
My Girl The Temptations
Berry Gordy revolutionized popular music and basically created a brand new genre with his star-packed record label Motown. Assembling perhaps the greatest collection of musical talent in the history of popular music, Gordy brought the world The Temptations, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Marvin Gaye, the Supremes, The Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder and many more. Gordy knew how to spot talent, but more importantly, he really knew how to package and market that talent. By creating a wholesome image for his stable of singers, he was able to bring Black American music to mainstream white audiences in a way no one else ever has. But all the marketing in the world wouldn’t have made a difference if the music wasn’t good. And boy was Motown music good. Gordy employed a small army of incredibly talented song writers and session musicians and had a magician’s knack for matching artists to songs. Despite the long whispered rumors and accusations that he was a control freak who exploited his artists, Gordy’s legacy in popular music is forever cemented. The guy produced “My Girl.” If that isn’t worth a lifetime pass, what is?
2. Phil Spector
Then He Kissed Me The Crystals
While Barry Gordy was busy creating the Motown sound to great acclaim and sales in Detroit, a musician, songwriter and session player called Phil Spector was putting the final touches on one of the other trademark sounds of the 60s. Dubbed by Spector “The Wall of Sound” it involved densely layered multiple tracks, plenty of echo, and a mix custom designed to sound great in mono on AM radio and jukeboxes. The technique allowed Spector to create single after single of lushly arranged pop masterpieces and create a reputation for himself bigger than the artists he produced. In later years, he worked extensively with former Beatles John Lennon and George Harrison, producing Let it Be (without Paul McCartney’s blessing) and several of their solo hits. Still incorporating the Wall of Sound technique, he produced timeless Lennon solo tracks like Happy Christmas (War is Over) and Imagine. Unfortunately, Spector’s increasingly erratic behavior (and his penchant for pulling guns on the artists he worked with), led to a slow demise of his career and reputation. Still, his legacy is firmly cemented in rock history and his songs still define classic rock to this day.
1. George Martin
Strawberry Fields Forever The Beatles
On February 13th, 1962, a record producer called George Martin had the most important meeting in the history of pop music. Already a successful producer of classical albums, cast recordings of musicals, and comedy acts, Martin was interested in branching out to rock and roll. Auditioning a young group of Liverpool musicians, he initially wasn’t all that impressed with their skill, but liked their vocals and personality. Martin swallowed his reservations and- after firing their drummer- signed the Beatles to a recording contract. Martin nurtured the group through their first recording sessions and helped Paul McCartney and John Lennon shape and hone their massive, but still raw, talents. Under his guidance, the two songwriters, along with George and Ringo, blossomed into the greatest band of all time. The Beatles wrote great songs, but they recorded amazing records. Working with Martin, they expanded the boundaries of pop music and smashed all preconceived notions of what a rock and roll record could sound like. Martin was an old hand at producing, but he shared a love of experimentation and helped the Beatles bring classical instruments, sound effects, and studio tricks to their records. George Martin produced a lot of other groups in his career, but he’ll always be remembered for creating the greatest pop records the world has ever heard.
By Geoff Shakespeare