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.
10. Bomb Squad/Public Enemy
The production on classic Public Enemy records, like It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, is post-modern collage art for your ears. That’s not to diminish the impact of Chuck D and Flavor Flav’s street-tough rhymes; it’s just that the Bomb Squad production team, anchored by bothers Hank and Keith Shocklee (along with Chuck D under his Carl Ryder alias), helped give PE’s emcees the perfect, chaotic canvas upon which to do their thing. James Brown samples. Drum machine orchestration. Terminator X’s trumpet-like turntable squiggles. “Hank is the Phil Spector of hip-hop,” Chuck D has said of the team's undisputed genius. “He was way ahead of his time, because he dared to challenge the odds in sound.”
9. Bob Ezrin/Alice Cooper
How does one turn a ragged garage-rock group into cinematic album artistes? Ask Mr. Bob Ezrin, who pulled off that trick with Alice Cooper. Ezrin began working with Alice Cooper, then a band and not just one dude, on 1971’s Love It to Death, notable for the grimy single “I’m Eighteen.” The Ezrin-Alice Cooper combo continued to flourish on the group’s second LP that year, Killer, with such tunes as prog rocket “Halo of Flies” and 1972 disc School’s Out, the title track of which became Cooper’s signature song. But Billion Dollar Babies is truly their finest hour together. The 1973 chart-topper effortlessly slithers from grandiose glam (“Hello Hooray,” “Elected”) to FM-grabbing hard rock (“No More Mr. Nice Guy”) to even show-tunes (the brief but beautiful “Mary Ann”). And of course, aural horror films (“Billion Dollar Babies” and “I Love the Dead”). Cooper’s first disc as a solo artist, 1975’s Welcome to My Nightmare, got even more schizophrenic. Ezrin also produced landmark albums by KISS and Pink Floyd, and continues to work with newer artists as diverse as Fefe Dobson and 30 Seconds to Mars, but his career will forever be entwined with Cooper's. He even produced the 2015 debut album from Cooper's new supergroup, Hollywood Vampires, featuring guitarists Joe Perry and Johnny Depp.
8. Ted Templeman/Van Halen
Maybe it’s a coincidence that Ted Templeman produced all of pop-metal masters Van Halen’s best records. And maybe it’s not. Yes, their work together happened to fall during David Lee Roth’s hairy-chested, six-LP original run, which VH aficionados generally regard as vastly superior to the slicker Van Hagar era. And Eddie Van Halen’s genius guitar playing could turn any band, even if they were otherwise comprised entirely of sock puppets, into Rock and Roll Hall of Famers. Still, with Templeman behind the board, Van Halen morphed from Pasadena’s raddest keg-party cover band to an arena-gobbling monster. That’s undeniable.
7. Nigel Godrich/Radiohead
For their first two records, Radiohead was a moody alternative rock band. Starting with OK Computer, their first with Nigel Godrich producing, and on they were an anything-freaking-goes ensemble. Godrich has produced every single Radiohead LP since then (as well as albums by Beck, Paul McCartney and Air among many others) and the results have deconstructed where guitar music can go and what it can evolve into.
6. Teo Macero/Miles Davis
It’s difficult to imagine anyone being a producer for an iconoclast like jazz giant Miles Davis. Yet, Teo Macero produced a stack of Davis’ steamy, transportive jazz records, from the ice-cool Kind of Blue to far-out fusion on Bitches Brew and beyond. On 1969's In a Silent Way, he became one of the first jazz producers to borrow the studio editing techniques of rock and pop producers like George Martin, helping Davis transform jazz from a live ensemble art form into something more abstract and experimental. “There’s very little dialogue between Miles and myself,” Macero once said. “If we say 20 words in the course of a three-hour session, that’s a lot. But there’s no mystery. I spend as much time listening to it as he spent creating it.”
5. Roy Thomas Baker/Queen
Queen and Baker were a supersonic British tandem from their first notes on wax together, the phased guitar chug of “Keep Yourself Alive.” Knob-twiddler Roy Thomas Baker helped Queen widen their sound, as heard on the majestic, spine-tingling “Father to Son” on Queen II. And on the 3D vaudeville of “Killer Queen” and magic-metal of “Now I’m Here” on Sheer Heart Attack. Baker and the band went gonzo on the centerpiece of Queen’s fourth LP, A Night at the Opera, “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The symphonic tour-de-force zoomed from baroque balladry (and a choir of overdubbed Freddie Mercurys) to Zeppelin-style riff-rock in less than six minutes. In 1999, Baker told Mix Magazine that on “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the “middle part started off being just a couple of seconds, but Freddie kept coming in with more ‘Galileos’ and we kept on adding to the opera section, and it just got bigger and bigger. We never stopped laughing.”
4. Jerry Wexler/Aretha Franklin
It took an atheist to help sanctified singer Aretha Franklin ascend to soul sister stardom. Jerry Wexler first produced Franklin on 1967 platter I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You. Although this was Franklin’s 11th studio album, it was the first on which she truly smoldered, on such tracks as the title cut and, of course, her sassy version of Otis Redding’s “Respect.” Wexler brought in Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section sessions musicians Spooner Oldham and Jimmy Johnson to play on the record. Those musicians, as well as Shoals drummer Roger Hawkins, would return for Franklin’s next album, Aretha Arrives, which Wexler also produced. The Southern vibe (recorded in New York) continued on Franklin’s 14th LP, the definitive and appropriately titled Lady Soul.
3. Tony Visconti/David Bowie
Tony Visconti helped David Bowie realize his recording ambitions before Bowie was Ziggy Stardust — and long after he’d shed that androgynous alien rocker’s skin, too. Visconti was there for the singer’s 1969 astro-folk single “Space Oddity” and for Bowie’s foray into Jeff Beck Group-style blues-rawk on 1970 LP The Man Who Sold the World. He was also behind the board for the arty-ambience of Low and Heroes, the angular throb of Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), and Bowie’s 11th hour footprints in the sand, Blackstar. All told, Visconti produced 13 Bowie albums and played bass with the Thin White Duke as well. “I really have little agenda of my own in a production,” Visconti told recording mag Tape Op in 2002. “My name's not going to be bigger on the album than theirs — I have the ratio right. So I've always had a sense that my job is to make that artist sound as great as possible — and they know it.”
2. Quincy Jones/Michael Jackson
We should all thank the makers of The Wiz. While starring in the 1978 musical film, then 19-year-old Michael Jackson asked Wiz music supervisor/producer Quincy Jones to produce Jackson’s next LP. Jones, a jazz producer and arranger who seldom worked with pop artists, initially declined. But fortunately for all of us, he soon reconsidered Jackson’s seismic talent, which the precocious singer had been displaying since he was a tween belting out “I Want You Back” in The Jackson 5.
Jones’ jazz-schooled, free-thinking production style brought the former child star's music into the now. The first fruit of their collaboration was 1979’s Off the Wall, Jackson’s fifth solo disc, which shimmered with mirror-ball ragers like “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” “Working Day and Night” and “Rock with You.” Off the Wall was a fun jam, but nothing could prepare fans for what would come next: the best-selling album of all-time, Thriller. Tracked at West Hollywood’s Westlake Recording Studios over a period of about seven months, the album redefined popular music forever. From the funk-pop of “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” and horror boogie “Thriller” to the rocked-out “Beat It” and pulsing, irresistible “Billie Jean,” Thriller commanded enough listeners to form a decently sized country — an estimated 65 million albums sold at the time of Jackson's death in 2009. If Jones and Jackson had never worked together again, their chemistry would still be legendary. But five years later, they returned with Bad, a 30-million-selling LP with an even sleeker sound and its own flock of hits, like the title track, “Smooth Criminal” and “Dirty Diana.”
1. George Martin/The Beatles
Martin brought a classical music sense of composition and orchestration to the Fab Four’s youthful cleverness and transcendent vocal harmonies and melodies. As time went on, Martin was a direct influence in the band’s own arrangements becoming more sophisticated. If Paul McCartney wanted a piccolo trumpet solo on “Penny Lane,” McCartney could hum a melody to Martin and the genteel producer could transcribe it for a session musician to play on the record. Then there are Martin’s gorgeous, artful string arrangements on tracks such as “Eleanor Rigby,” the tape-speed-manipulated swirl on “Strawberry Fields Forever” and brilliant abstraction on “I Am the Walrus.” Martin also played notable keyboards on many Beatles tracks, including “Lovely Rita,” “A Day in the Life” and “Fixing a Hole.” Aside from the Phil Spector-captained Let It Be, Martin produced every Beatles studio LP, including the band’s dizzying, unequaled run of Rubber Soul through The White Album.
After Martin passed away at age 90 this March, McCartney said in a statement on his website, “If anyone earned the title of the fifth Beatle it was George. From the day that he gave The Beatles our first recording contract, to the last time I saw him, he was the most generous, intelligent and musical person I’ve ever had the pleasure to know.”