No, that picture above is not Ernest Hemingway and Steve Earle’s love child. It is in fact uber-producer Rick Rubin, the man who has successfully navigated alt-rock, hip-hop, country, and just about every other genre in music with startling success. Currently on Rubin’s radar is helping Kanye fine-tune Yeezus, easily the most eagerly awaited hip-hop album of 2013. This is interesting, because Kanye has always been a bit of a “do-it-your-selfer” which has served him very very well. It makes sense though to bring in the man who produced some Public Enemy, Beastie Boys and Run D.MC. when Kanye is aiming for a more minimalist experience (explained more fully in the New York Times interview). This minimalism Ye is going for highlights an overriding theme for the albums on our list: Strip down artists to their most raw and basic qualities and build the album up from there. Rubin may not have one musical style he can be attached to, but there does seem to be a way of making music that is very clear.
We tried to limit this list to albums Rubin had a large hand in producing, leaving off the likes of Jay-Z’s Black Album and JT’s FutureSex/LoveSounds where he only produced one track each. We also left off sure top-5 Lucinda Williams album Car Wheels on a Gravel Road because Rubin only handled the mixing of the album. The only other major qualm people might have with this list is the lack of a Slayer album. Well, I personally just don’t like metal, and so even if Slayer is the cream of the crop, I’m not gonna listen to it. Enjoy the list, and as always feel free to comment on albums you think we missed or erroneously included.
10. The Black Crowes – Shake Your Money Maker
Interestingly, I read Rick Rubin wouldn’t allow his name to be put on as producer of Shake Your Money Maker until it sold one million copies. Was he not happy with the outcome? Did he think it was destined for commercial and/or critical failure? I don’t know, but I do know The Black Crowes in 1990 did The Stones better than The Stones were doing themselves. With the alternative scene blowing up at the time, Shake Your Money Maker was a nice respite from the uniformity of most everything else out there.
9. Rage Against the Machine – Renegades
Renegades, the last proper Rage album, features covers from artists as diverse as Erik B. and Rakim, Bob Dylan and MC5. Rubin loves overseeing a good cover album, and Renegades is one of the best. Drawing from several different genres, Rage puts their own spin on classics and lesser-known tracks alike, with the crowning achievement being a vicious re-imagining of “Maggie’s Farm”.
8. Tom Petty – Wildflowers
Tom Petty is known more for his hits than his albums, but he has put out a nice catalog of good if not great records. Wildflowers is one of gems of his collection, relying on stripped-down storytelling over the big chorus. This is a clear example of Rubin’s minimalistic approach to helming an album.
7. Johnny Cash – American IV: The Man Comes Around
American IV can at times be a dreadfully uneven listen, but the highs so clearly mask the lows that it is more than deserving of a place on our list. Rubin once again shows his knack for assisting an artist in choosing poignant songs to cover and make their own. “Hurt” is the consensus favorite, but I go more for “I Hung My Head” or “The Man Comes Around” (a Cash original, maybe his last great one).
6. Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros – Streetcore
Joe Strummer’s solo career post-Clash consisted of a lot of experimentation with different genres, but on Streetcore Rubin did some of his best work by reigning in the enigmatic Strummer to produce a more back-to-basics record. Back-to-basics does not mean the album is not infinitely interesting though, because as we all know, even with The Clash, Strummer never held too tight to any particular genre norms.
5. The Mars Volta – De-Loused in the Comatorium
Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodriquez are two crazy dudes, so its no surprise after their debut under the steady production of Rubin, their work got more abstract and less accessible. But for the one album Rubin did work on, The Mars Volta created some of the most inventively frantic rock to ever reach our ears. We would not hate to see The Mars Volta return to Rubin for seconds.
4. Public Enemy – It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back
Rubin cut his teeth on mostly hip-hop albums in the 80’s before moving more in a rock/pop direction with his projects. So it is no surprise his production is behind one of the most successful political hip-hop albums to date. His job doesn’t seem too hard on this one, production minimalism + Chuck D ranting for an hour = mega-hit.
3. Red Hot Chili Peppers – Californication
Managing such unique personalities as Anthony Kiedis, John Frusciante, and Flea for an entire album seems like a test of a man’s salt. Rubin did it three times, and with Californication coaxed the Red Hot’s into making the most cohesive entire album of their career, which also features towering highs of pop achievement.
2. Red Hot Chili Peppers – Blood Sugar Sex Magic
Californication may be the most cohesive, but Blood Sugar Sex Magic features such artistic fury that it nearly beat out the former. From the in-your-face “Suck My Kiss” to the low key “I Could’ve Lied”, the Chili Peppers creativity shows no bounds in their big-ticket breakthrough.
1. Beastie Boys – License to Ill
A drum kit and scratching never sounded so good. And I believe everything had to be perfect or very near for three white dudes from Brooklyn to transition from the punk rock scene into their patented hip-hop hybrid. Rubin led this crusade with aplomb, and many years later The Beasties are viewed as true pioneers.
Todd: Red Hot Chili Peppers – By the Way
The Chili Peppers were bound for a letdown after Californication, and By the Way was exactly that. Still a very strong album in its own right, By the Way was still a critical and commercial success but never quite took hold the way its predecessor did.
Wes: Eagle-Eye Cherry – Living in the Present Future
Eagle Eye Cherry’s debut, Desireless, tugged on 11-year old Wes’ heartstrings like nothing he had experienced before. Dovetailing further with little Wes’ pubescent awakening was Eagle-Eye’s less heralded, but no less moving, follow-up. Rubin helped usher in the end of Eagle-Eye Cherry’s career, who is now no more than a candle in the wind.
Austin: System of a Down – Toxicity
System of a Down were a breath of fresh air to the stale feel of most of the alt-rock in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. Their non-linear songwriting and out-and-out unhinged performances were better than most everything on the rock scene for one very simple reason: they were different.