Music production is like magic – people who are really good will never tell you their secrets. However, the reality is also like magic; the only secret is hard work. Revolutions in music technology have always accompanied changes in the way records sound. Of course, there’s no scientific way you can measure the impact of production, nor is it limited to the millions of records, CDs, and digital downloads that have been released over the past quarter-century to just a handful. But such lists are meant to provoke discussion, not kill it. These are (in no particular order) the ten best-produced albums we know, created by countless hours of mixing and mastering music, hard work, and creative talent.
King Jammy & Wayne Smith (Sleng Teng 1985):
Although you may not know this instrument by its proper name, anyone who knows them must be familiar with reggae and dancehall music, and all the genres derived from it (including jungle) will immediately notice the simple four-note bassline and somewhat naff electronic recognize the drum. However, in Jamaica, the practice of cutting instrumental tracks for MC’s songs was in place long before its release, with ‘slang teng’ being the first track, or ‘rhythm,’ to be produced entirely electronically. As such, these multitrack songs can be considered the forerunner of modern dancehall and ragga. It has been utilized as backing by many of reggae’s most influential singers and can still be heard today.
Steely Dan (Aja 1977):
Steely Dan has earned his reputation as a studio perfectionist, and Aja may be his best (and certainly his best-selling) work. Walter Baker and Donald Fegan met when Fegan overheard Baker rehearsing his guitar, and they soon made a band (sometimes featuring comedian Chevy Chase on drums!) after moving to Los Angeles. He became the songwriter for Gary Katz of ABC Records, who would go on to engineer his albums with Roger Nichols and earn 6 Grammy Awards in the procedure. After three successful studio albums that were the blend of jazz, rock, funk, and everything in between, he entered the studio and formed Aja.
The Beatles (Abbey Road 1969):
After the recording session for Let It Be, which John Lennon called “the most pathetic session on earth,” and according to George Harrison, The Beatles was “all-time low,” things didn’t seem to be going okay for the Beatles. Within the year, the band would part ways, yet in the midst of all this struggle, Abbey Road displayed the immense talent and musicality that defined their career and a generation of artists that followed. From Harrison’s “Something” on Abbey Road (which has been called the greatest love song of the last 50 years by Frank Sinatra) to Lennon’s “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” the writing and writing of Beatles and longtime collaborator George Martin K’s engineering skills stand above tension in the group.
Paul Simon (Graceland 1986):
The critical and mercantile success of the highly eclectic Graceland, released in 1986, was somewhat of a surprise. Paul Simon’s creative juices had dried up over the years, and in the mid-80s, the mainstream music market in America showed little sign of being open to radically different tastes. Yet Graceland was almost universally appreciated. Somehow, the upbeat references made by his black South African colleagues kept Simon’s brief, low vocal performance fresh and contemporary and took his songwriting into new territory.
Marvin Gaye (What’s Going On? 1971):
Throughout, they were ranked as one of the greatest and most influential albums of all time, What’s Going On? Resonates today as (or perhaps even more so) than when it was recorded. The complete album and concept were initially rejected by Motown founder Berry Gordy (who had no room for anything political). When he listened to the first cut of the single’s title, Gordy told Gaye point-blank that he would not release the song. However, Motown sales chief Barney Els went over Gordy’s head to release the track as a single in January 1971.
Metallica (Justice for All.. 1988):
Thrash metal was never meant to be famous. Much of this, from the odd timing, signature change in abrasive guitar sounds, was designed to make the music unreachable, but that didn’t stop the Metallica genre veteran from reaching the top 10 of both the UK and US albums charts with their thrash metal LP, and Justice for All.
Oasis (What’s the Story, Morning Glory 1995):
As we all know, Blur won the early conflict in the battle for Britpop, but Oasis won the battle, and ownership of their second album that would soon become mandatory throughout the civilized world. Its recording was more noteworthy for sibling violence than a studio experiment, but in the mastering phase, producer Owen Morris introduced a devastating new weapon.
Dusty in Memphis 1969:
When Jerry Wexler (famous for working with artists such as Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, and Ray Charles), Arif Marden (Queen, Roberta Flack, Phil Collins, Norah Jones, and also 10 Grammys), and Tom Dowd (the inventor of multitrack recording) listed as the producers of an album, you know you have something exceptional on your hands.
When your band consists of an undivided duet (Stevie Nicks and Lindsay Buckingham), a divorce (Christine McVey and John McVey), and an inter-band affair (Stevie and drummer Fleetwood), you can have some interesting recording sessions that are going to happen, to say the least.
2 Many DJ’s (2002):
Imagine the dismay of Belgian indie group Solvax when their band was completely eclipsed by the mix of CDs they made in their free time. The CD, as it Heard on Radio Soulwax PT 2, did so much to launch the mashup genre – arguably more so than any other release – and by 2002, it was entirely impossible to go to a party without hearing it. Richard X’s bootlegs from Edina Howard’s “Freak Like Me” and Tubeway Army’s “R Friends Electric” gave the Sugababes their first number one, and suddenly SOS forums were asking people how to remove vocals from a track. The mashup has since become a chart staple and amuses copyright lawyers everywhere. And it’s all because of the Belgian indie band.