The 20 Greatest Producer-Band Pairings of All Time

Producer George Martin (third from left) in the studio with The Beatles in 1966
Producer George Martin (third from left) in the studio with The Beatles in 1966

In the studio, record producers can be song doctors, audio wizards, incense lighters or performance psychologists. Or various combinations thereof.

Sometimes, though, when paired with the right artist and right material, a producer becomes more than that. He (or she, though music production has historically been a boys' club) becomes a seamless creative and musical counterpart to the band or solo act he's working with, channeling his talents into music that marks the apex of that artist’s career (and his own).

Here are our picks for the 20 best producer and artist pairings of all time. Of course, you’re welcome to agree or disagree with our choices, and tell us about it in the comments section. The discussions these sort of lists ignite are just as fun as assembling the lists themselves. (Note: For the purpose of this list, we only considered producers who were not also a member of the band they were producing, or solo artists producing themselves. This automatically excludes notables such as Jimmy Page and Prince.)

20. Max Martin/Britney Spears
Even without the accompanying video that burned itself into our collective cerebral cortex, “… Baby One More Time” is an earworm for the ages. The track sounds like a sex toy entangling itself in pink bubblegum. Both the Backstreet Boys and TLC previously passed on the song, which the cut’s Swedish producer Max Martin also wrote. Martin’s sugary R&B bedrock was the ideal platform for singer Britney Spears’ dreamy coos. Martin also co-produced other Spears blockbusters like “ Oops! ... I Did It Again,” “Lucky,” “Stronger” and “Overprotected.”

19. Brian Eno/Talking Heads
The Afrobeat spiderwebs. The new wave twitch. The mathematical get-downs. Though they worked together on just three albums between 1978 and 1980 — More Songs About Buildings and Food, Fear of Music and the triumphant Remain in Light — Eno and the Heads reinvented what was possible for a guitar-based band, and produced some indelible hits along the way, including "Life During Wartime," "Once in a Lifetime" and their trippy cover of Al Green's "Take Me to the River." As a producer, engineer and synthesizer wizard, Eno has brought his "lateral thinking," "treatments" and "sonic landscapes" (among the many unusual ways he's been credited in liner notes) to artists from David Bowie to Grace Jones to U2 — but his Talking Heads trilogy continues to be his most influential work. 

18. Brendan O'Brien/Pearl Jam
Yes, Pearl Jam’s 1991 debut Ten was a huge hit. But the grunge rockers sounded like themselves on record for the first time on their second disc, Vs., after Brendan O'Brien assumed production reigns. The album was more natural sounding, more volatile. The band responded with Bic-lighter raising jams like “Daughter” and “Animal” and the poignant "Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town." Pearl Jam and O’Brien continued to challenge themselves on Vitalogy, No Code and Yield, on standout tracks like the percussive “Who You Are” and powerful “Going to California”-nicking cut “Given to Fly.” There was a fork in the road after that, but Pearl Jam and O’Brien (who's also produced albums for AC/DC, Rage Against the Machine and Bruce Springsteen among others) reconvened in recent years to record feisty LPs Backspacer and Lightning Bolt.

17. Phil Ramone/Billy Joel
No wonder The Stranger is a piano-pop masterpiece. Sessions for Billy Joel’s first album with Phil Ramone were reportedly “a blast” and you can hear the joy on bright, sharp rockers like “Movin’ Out” and “Only the Good Die Young” as well as the unforgettable song suite “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” and champagne-Valentine “Just the Way You Are.” The Joel-Ramone cocktail only got catchier and more evocative in years to come: “Big Shot,” “Zanzibar,” “You May Be Right,” “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” “All for Leyna,” “Keeping the Faith,” “Tell Her About It, “Uptown Girl” … wow. Following Ramone’s 2013 passing, Joel told Rolling Stone, “I put him on the back cover of The Stranger with the rest of the band. By the time we got to the end of making the whole album he was one of the guys in the band. He was probably the most important guy in the band as far as I was concerned.”

16. Larry Butler/Kenny Rogers
Teaming with psych-folk gone country-pop singer Kenny Rogers, producer Larry Butler knew when to hold ’em and knew when to fold ‘em, as the lyrics go in “The Gambler,” one of the duo’s signature hits. Butler was amazing at wrapping the right songs and sound around Roger’s lusty-raspy vocals, whether it was the tear-in-my-beer sing-along “Lucille,” story-song hoedown “Coward of the County” or the immortal, aforementioned “Gambler.” Rogers once said, “You take a song like ‘Lucille,’ I defy you not to sing it the second time through. That’s how you get a hit song.”

15. "Mutt" Lange/Def Leppard
Fresh from helping turn AC/DC into international megastars with Highway to Hell and Black in Black, Robert John “Mutt” Lange would soon do the same with glammy Brit metallers Def Leppard. Lange's first work with the band, the Mott the Hoople-meets-Thin Lizzy sophomore disc High 'N' Dry, was a good start, with power ballad “Bringin’ On the Heartbreak” foreshadowing things to come. But it was the group’s following record, Pyromania, which put a whole lot of pop into the Lep’s pop-rock, particularly on the radio-strangling hit “Photograph.” The choruses were now so big they each needed their own zip codes. Things went completely stratospheric on Hysteria, Def Leppard’s fourth LP, which sold more than 12 million copies. That disc was basically one, massive, 62-minute hit single, highlighted by the wonderfully saccharine “Pour Some Sugar on Me.”

14. Mike Chapman/Blondie
“My relationship with Blondie was very interesting,” producer Mike Chapman told M Magazine in 2011. “I was a perfectionist in the studio, and it was extremely hard for Debbie [Harry, Blondie’s singer] and the guys to accept my authority. I expected greatness from them and I got it. I had no choice but to use the whip to get those performances and make all those hits.” Oh yeah, the hits: “Heart of Glass,” "The Tide Is High,” “Rapture,” “One Way or Another,” “Hanging on the Telephone.” Blondie was originally a punkish new wave band, but with Chapman in the producer’s chair the band took on reggae, disco and even rap sounds. And were much better for it.

13. Rick Rubin/Red Hot Chili Peppers
Turns out all L.A. funk-metal quartet Red Hot Chili Peppers needed to ascend to the music-biz stratosphere was some bearded Zen. Their fifth album, Blood Sugar Sex Magik, was the band’s first Rick Rubin-produced record. And the Chilis took a quantum jump forward. To cut what became Sex Magik, Rubin and the group decamped to a Laurel Canyon mansion, where recording equipment was set up. In this communal setting, RHCP’s Anthony Kiedis, Flea, Chad Smith and savant guitarist John Frusciante were free to jam up their stickiest grooves (“Give It Away”) most ambitious excursions (“Breaking the Girl”) and a terrific, melancholic Los Angeles anthem (“Under the Bridge”). Rubin would go on to produce the band's next five albums, four of which, like Blood Sugar, went multi-platinum. Maybe all producers should grow Rubin-esque beards.

12. Chris Blackwell/Bob Marley
British producer Chris Blackwell made key moves to make Bob Marley’s band The Wailers’ Catch a Fire disc connect with a larger audience — not least of which was bringing in Alabama session guitarist Wayne Perkins to add solos and leads that would impart rock appeal to songs like the title track, “Stir It Up,” “Concrete Jungle” and “Baby We've Got a Date.” Catch a Fire, the fifth Wailers LP, was the group’s debut for Blackwell’s label Island Records. Marley and Blackwell would go on to collaborate on such resin-caked essentials as Burnin’, Natty Dread and Uprising.

11. Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis/Janet Jackson
Hooking up with then 19-year-old Janet Jackson to record what became Control, Minneapolis producers (and The Time expatriates) Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis sought out to create the definitive black record of the era. The ended up building a chart-dominating, crossover dreadnought. The disc generated a staggering slew of Jam/Lewis-produced singles: “Control,” “Nasty,” “What Have You Done For Me Lately,” “When I Think of You,” “Let’s Wait Awhile.” Slinky synths and neon, nocturnal beats propelled Jackson’s nubile, spirited vocals. The sound and subject matter grew increasingly serious and sexual on later Jackson albums such as Rhythm Nation 1814, Janet and The Velvet Rope, and she's mixed up her sound with a growing army of other producers. But with the exception of 2008's Discipline, every Janet Jackson album since her breakthrough has featured Jam and Lewis' unmistakably punchy production.



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