Production is like magic - the people who are really good at it will never tell you their secrets. The reality is, however, also like magic; the only secret is hard work. These are (in no particular order) 10 of the best-produced albums we know of, created by countless hours of hard work and creative genius. Want to jump straight to the music? Here's a playlist of every album on the list (plus a couple extras) for you to enjoy.
Note: I won’t be featuring any albums here that we’ve put on other lists. Yes, I know that Dark Side of the Moon has amazing production, but it’s already on this list so it won’t be here. Same with Thriller, Donuts, etc - yes they’re amazing but let’s show you something new, eh?
Steely Dan, 1977
Steely Dan have earned their reputation as studio perfectionists, and Aja might just be their finest (and is certainly their best-selling) work. Walter Becker and Donald Fagen met when Fagen overheard Becker practicing his guitar, and they soon formed a band (sometimes featuring comedian Chevy Chase on drums!). After moving to Los Angeles they become songwriters for ABC Records’ Gary Katz, who with Roger Nichols would go on to engineer their albums and earn 6 Grammy awards in the process. After 3 successful studio albums blending jazz, rock, funk, and everything in-between, they entered the studio to create Aja.
“We're all perfectionists” [Roger] Nichols said. “It wasn't a drag for me to do things over and over until it was perfect.” He added: “It would have driven a lot of other engineers up the wall. In my own way, I’m just as crazy as they are.”
For their fourth studio album, Becker and Fagen enlisted the help of over 40 musicians, including luminaries like Wayne Shorter and Larry Carlton (as well as Dan standbys Michael McDonald and Chuck Rainey) to help them get the perfect sound. Their obsession in the studio is legendary - as shown this clip showing the making of the track “Peg”, and the 19 guitarists they brought in to play different versions of the solo:
Often cited by audiophiles as an excellent test album due to its high recording standards, Aja has stood the test of time. In 2010, the Library of Congress added Aja to the United States National Recording Registry for its artistic, historic and cultural significance. We’ll leave you with the words of British musician Ian Dury:
Well, Aja's got a sound that lifts your heart up.. and it's the most consistent up-full, heart-warming.. even though, it is a classic LA kinda sound. You wouldn't think it was recorded anywhere else in the world. It's got California through its blood, even though they are boys from New York... It's a record that sends my spirits up, and really when I listen to music, really that's what I want.
The Beatles, 1969
After the recording sessions for Let it Be, which John Lennon called “hell...the most miserable sessions on Earth.”, and was The Beatles “all-time low” according to George Harrison, things didn’t seem to be going well for the Beatles. Within the year the band would go their separate ways, yet among all this strife, Abbey Road showed the immense talent and musicianship that defined their careers and a generation of artists that followed.
After Let It Be (Get Back), I really thought we were finished. So I was quite surprised when Paul rang up and said, 'Look, you know, what happened to Let It Be is silly. Let's try to make a record like we used to. Would you come and produce it like you used to? I said, 'Well, I'll produce it like I used to if you'll let me.' So Paul rounded up John, George and Ringo and we started work on Abbey Road. It really was very happy, very pleasant, and it went frightfully well."
- George Martin, Producer
The songwriting prowess of each member was on full display on Abbey Road, from Harrison’s “Something” (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 engineering skills of the Beatles and long-time collaborator George Martin stand above the tension in the group. It would be the last time the group recorded together, and fittingly, ends with the 16-minute medley track “The End.” In true late Beatles fashion, the group was split on their opinions of the record.
"The second side of Abbey Road is incredible! The White Album, ninety-nine percent of it is very good. If I had Desert Island Discs, I'd take the White one or Abbey Road, I think. I like the boys playing together, you know. I like a group."
- Ringo Starr
"I liked the "A" side but I never liked that sort of pop opera on the other side. I think it's junk because it was just bits of songs thrown together. "Come Together" is all right, that's all I remember. That was my song. It was a competent album, like Rubber Soul. It was together in that way, but Abbey Road had no life in it."
- John Lennon
"Maybe when I get the album finished and in the sleeve, then I'll get some sort of expression of it. When I did Pepper and the White Album I got an overall image of the album, but whereas with this one, I'm kind of lost. People have said, 'It's great! It's a bit more like Revolver. Well, maybe it is, but it still feels very abstract to me. I can't see it as a whole. It all fits together, but it's a bit like it's something else. It doesn't feel like it's us. We spent hours doing it, but I still don't see it like us. It's more like somebody else. It's a very good album."
- George Harrison
In the end, though, I tend to agree with Paul on this - the only real way to form your own opinion is to hear the album for yourself.
"I don't like people explaining albums. The only way you can explain it is to hear it. You can't really use words about music, otherwise we'd do a talking album. The album is the explanation, and it's up to you to make sure what you want of it. There is no theme to Abbey Road."
- Paul McCartney
Hello, I Must Be Going!
Phil Collins, 1982
Phil Collins’ second solo album after leaving Genesis, Hello, I Must Be Going! was an immediate hit, with nine of the ten tracks charting worldwide and “I Don’t Care Anymore” giving Collins his first Grammy nomination.
The slick recording techniques and inclusion of amazing artists (like Earth, Wind and Fire’s Phoenix Horns and guitarist Daryl Steurmer) showed Collins’ pop sensibilities could lead to tremendous artistic creations as well as commercial success, with Hello, I Must Be Going! selling over three million copies in the US alone.
Der Ring des Nibelung
Sir Georg Solti & the Vienna Philharmonic, 1956 - 1965
It is exceedingly difficult to capture the power of a live orchestra on a recording, but Decca’s recording of Der Ring des Nibelung, directed by legend Georg Solti and performed by the Vienna Philharmonic, is as close as you can get. Consistently rated as one of the highest-quality classical recordings ever, it showed that the nascent recording industry could do more than just pump out pop songs.
‘Very nice,’ sneered a rival producer, hearing that Decca were embarking on the Ring. ‘But of course you’ll never sell any.’ To him it was just an obscure, prestige project. But at a stroke – Donner’s awesome hammerstroke in Rheingold, to be precise, the loudest sound then recorded – Decca’s new venture was to galvanise classical recording, and begin a new era.
- E. Davis, Classical-music.com
Recorded over nine years from 1956 - 1965, the album still sounds as crisp and fresh as ever. Decca pioneered the idea that LPs could record grand works, and with hundreds of releases of the Nibelung cycle since, it seems they proved themselves right. The first release in 1956, Rheingold, was such a success it even landed on the pop charts alongside artists like Elvis and Dean Martin. When a classical recording can compete on the charts with “Heartbreak Hotel”, you know you have something special on your hands.
What's Going On?
Marvin Gaye, 1971
Consistently ranked as one of the greatest and most influential albums ever made, What’s Going On? is as (or maybe even more) resonant today as when it was recorded. The entire album and concept were initially rejected by Motown founder Berry Gordy (who had no place for anything topical or political). When he heard the first cut of the title single, Gordy told Gaye point-blank that he wouldn’t release the song. However, Barney Ales, Motown’s head of sales, went over Gordy’s head to release the track as a single in January 1971. An immediate hit, reaching #2 on the charts, it inspired Gordy to arrange a meeting with Gaye.
“Berry came to Marvin and said, ‘Fine, you can have your album - you’ve got 30 days to get it done,’ “To which Marvin said, ‘No problem.’ Which was a bluff - because at that point, he hadn’t recorded a thing.”
- Harry Weinger, VP of A&R, Universal Music Enterprises
Using every recording practice in the book (including happy accidents like layering Gaye’s voice an octave apart in a mono channel), the album was recorded in a series of whirlwind sessions. Though initial mixing finished on April 5th, Gaye (who was filming a movie at the time) decided to re-record his overdubs and then re-mixed the album himself in two day’s time. It would become the last major album recorded at Motown’s Hitsville, USA studio, and created the entire genre of conscious soul and left a huge impression on not only listeners, but on the musicians who helped bring it to life.
“[Bassist] James Jamerson was a guy who recorded day in and day out,” notes Weinger. “But the day he came home from working on ‘What’s Going On,’ he went up to his wife and said, ‘Honey, I just cut a classic.’ That says it all.”
Dusty in Memphis
Dusty Springfield, 1969
When Jerry Wexler (famous for working with little-known artists like 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 literal inventor of multi-track recording) are an album’s listed producers, you know you have something special on your hands.
However, Dusty in Memphis wasn’t all magic, especially at the start. According to Wexler, of all the songs that were initially recorded for the album, "she [Dusty] approved exactly zero." For her, "to say yes to one song was seen as a lifetime commitment." That said, this album is a testament to finding the best talent possible, and letting them do what they do best. According to producer Arif Marden:
“With Dusty this is what happened: Jerry Wexler would play the demo. If we had lead sheets, fine. If not, they would write out their own lead sheets, the five musicians. Then they would start to play, would start to get a groove. It’s a family affair, almost like a soup--it’s being made. And we are there, “Keep that lick!” “Add two beats here.” That kind of thing."
Topped off with Springfield’s incredible voice, it was a recipe for amazing music. To further showcase Springfield’s incredible range and talent, here’s a live clip showing her covering Bill Withers’ ‘Ain't No Sunshine” and moving into a blues jam with BB King and Gene Krupa - all in under 15 minutes!
When released in 1969, Dusty in Memphis was a commercial flop. However, upon further reflection it has become one of the most-loved and respected albums of the 20th century - Rolling Stone ranked it 89th in their Top 500 Albums of All-Time rankings in 2003. It just goes to show that just because something's popular, doesn’t mean it’s any good, and vice versa (looking at you, Despacito).
Fleetwood Mac, 1977
When your band includes one just-split couple (Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham), one going through a divorce (Christine McVie and John McVie), and an inter-band affair (Stevie and drummer Mick Fleetwood), you’re going to have some interesting recording sessions, to say the least.
“We refused to let our feelings derail our commitment to the music, no matter how complicated or intertwined they became...It was hard to do, but no matter what, we played through the hurt.”
- Mick Fleetwood
In spite of the soap-opera drama involved in its creation (or perhaps because of it), Rumors quickly became Fleetwood Mac’s magnum opus. Conceived as a vehicle for radio-friendly hits, all four singles ended up in the Top 10 (“Go Your Own Way”, “Dreams”, “Don’t Stop”, “You Make Loving Fun”) and the album has sold over 40 million copies worldwide. This wasn't just a radio-friendly compilation though - Fleetwood Mac was famous for their perfection in the studio. For example, when recording "Never Go Back Again" guitarist Lindsey Buckingham re-strung his guitar every 20 minutes to maintain the clarity and crispness of tone! The songs were mainly written by the individual members, without collaboration. This led to some interesting circumstances - such as “The Chain” being cobbled together from about 4 different songs and nearly being left off the album
While the making of Rumors had far too many twists and turns (and drugs) to fully explore here, I’ll leave you with the words of Stylus Magazine’s Patrick McKay in the hopes that you look further into the story of one of the best albums of the 70’s:
"What distinguishes Rumours—what makes it art—is the contradiction between its cheerful surface and its anguished heart. Here is a radio-friendly record about anger, recrimination, and loss."
Miles Davis, 1970
Miles Davis never stayed in one place for long. By the time of Bitches Brew, he was more interested in artists like Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix than in other jazz musicians, and with Bitches Brew he set out to create what he heard in his head. Producer Teo Macero speaks here about working with Miles (and some of the...difficulties...that entailed) on the album:
Cutting and editing together bits and pieces of a three-day recording session where the musicians were given little to no direction, Davis created an avant-garde masterpiece, filled with staccato start-stop sections and repeated grooves that blaze the way for the jazz-rock fusion of the 1970’s. Though certainly not the most accessible of Davis’ albums, it is one of the most innovative and important. I'll also fight anyone who says it doesn't have the best album art of anything Miles ever did. The surreal painting perfectly represents the revolutionary music inside. You can learn more about the story behind the sleeve and the artist, Mati Klarwein, in this article.
The Beach Boys, 1966
“Pet Sounds was something that was absolutely different. Something I personally felt. That one album that was really more me than Mike Love and the surf records and all that, and 'Kokomo'. That's all their kind of stuff, you know?"
- Brian Wilson
Brian Wilson had fully taken over creative control of the Beach Boys at this point, writing songs so complex the original members couldn’t even perform them without hours of practice. Some even consider Pet Sounds a Wilson solo project, and indeed “Caroline, No” was released as his solo debut.
“If you take the Pet Sounds album as a collection of art pieces, each designed to stand alone, yet which belong together, you'll see what I was aiming at. ... It wasn't really a song concept album, or lyrically a concept album; it was really a production concept album."
- Brian Wilson
With pioneering engineering techniques (including Wilson’s refinement of the famous ‘Wall of Sound’ style), unheard of instrumentation , and a litany of amazing musicians (including L.A’s famous ‘Wrecking Crew’), Pet Sounds still stands among the greats of recorded music, and 50 years after its release, shows no signs of going anywhere.
Dubbed by label executives as uncommercial, OK Computer cemented Radiohead as the pre-eminent British rock band of the 90’s (Yes, even over Oasis. ) and was an immediate commercial success for the group. Breaking from the guitar-driven sound of The Bends, it showed the world a group unafraid to try anything and everything in pursuit of something new.
"Everyone said, You'll sell six or seven million if you bring out The Bends Pt 2, and we're like, 'We'll kick against that and do the opposite'."
- Ed O’Brien, Guitarist
Produced by Nigel Godrich in collaboration with the band and recorded inside an English manor house owned by Jane Seymour, OK Computer epitomizes its title. Sparse, electronic arrangements and songs focused on consumerism, social alienation, and emotional isolation contribute to an album that eerily foreshadowed the 21st century’s largest philosophical concerns. Drawing inspiration everywhere from Miles Davis to Noam Chomsky, Thom Yorke describes some of the thought process that went into the recording:
“We had a sound in our heads that we had to get onto tape, and that's an atmosphere that's perhaps a bit shocking when you first hear it, but only as shocking as the atmosphere on Pet Sounds. Pet Sounds is an incredibly amazing pop record, but it's also an album. It doesn't quite fit the "format," or whatever, but then the sort of things we were listening to were so removed from all that anyway. We weren't really listening to any bands at all--it was all like Miles Davis and Ennio Morricone and composers like Penderaki, which is sort of atmospheric, atonal weird stuff. We weren't listening to any pop music at all, but not because we hated pop music--because what we were doing was pop music--we just didn't want to be reminded of the fact. Bitches' Brew by Miles Davis was the starting point of how things should sound; it's got this incredibly dense and terrifying sound to it. That's what I was trying to get--that sound--that was the sound in my head. The only other place I'd heard it was on a Morricone record. I'd never heard it in pop music. I didn't hear it there. It wasn't there. It wasn't like we were being snobs or anything, it was just like, "This is saying the same stuff we want to say."