so here i am at my second finished Top 5 list: Favorite Producers. i started this by writing up the #5 on my actual list, and the whole thing just grew from there. however, as i was listening and researching, i realized how hard it was going to be to curb this list at 5 entries. there are too many good producers out nowadays. so i’ve got a Top 5 list and then three honorable mentions. i’ve lettered the honorables rather than number them, so as to make them all equal. maybe one day if i wrote up two more, i could make a Top 10 list, which would be awesome, but for the time being, Top 5 and then 3 honorables. here we go.
a. the neptunes
the neptunes are a producing team consisting of pharrell williams and chad hugo. they have an extremely distinctive sound, one of my favorites in popular music today. i have a playlist of every song i have that’s produced by the neptunes; when i throw it on random it’s weird to hear how similar certain sounds are. the backbone of the neptunes sound is the synth-heavy beats they use. another distinctive part of their sound is their drum beats; after listening to neptunes-produced tunes for a few years now, if i hear certain drum beats, i immediately think of the neptunes. they’ve got this deep, deep, almost hollow sound, like some african tribe banging on dried animal hides. weird. i think this song is a pretty decent example of the general neptunes sound.
listen to those drums. they sound great, and the overall neptunes sound is awesome. they’ve done tons of producing work for a wealth of different artists, but my favorite work of theirs is their production for justin timberlake and for n.e.r.d.
first of all, the neptunes sound basically catapulted justin timberlake to success outside of ‘nsync, which is a pretty big deal cause do you remember j.c. chasez? neither do i. and while justin is a great performer and has a killer voice, i really don’t know how popular his debut solo album justified would’ve been without the production of the neptunes. they churned out an album of great hip-hop-influenced pop, and as a result, justin became a superstar. i like this album a lot because it’s actually got a bit of a unique sound in terms of the neptunes production. it doesn’t bombard the listener with overly synthy beats or anything, i guess you could even call it toned down neptunes. i think it’s more focused on the pop aspect of the music, and that’s what makes it shine. the record is full of phenomenal beats and melodies and sounds, but you wouldn’t mistake it for a hip-hop record; it’s definitely pop music. and it’s great. remember how great this song was/is?
the other aspect of the neptunes work i love is that of n.e.r.d. n.e.r.d. is a group that consists of pharrell williams and chad hugo and shay haley. it’s a weird thing because the two guys that make up the neptunes make up two thirds of n.e.r.d., and that the two groups sound so different. n.e.r.d. is sort of like a weird manifestation of the neptunes sound. but they’re so distinct. the neptunes don’t sound like ne.r.d., or vice versa. n.e.r.d. is a more instrument-based group, and they make fun, unique music. i guess the best genre fit i can think of would be funk/rock. that’s not really correct but it’s the best i got. their music is just crazy. weird guitars, awesome beats, thumping bass, whistling, great keys/synth, but not too much synth. it’s just a great diverse sound. really energetic and really fun. for example:
that’s why i love n.e.r.d., and why i love the neptunes. great sounds, great instruments, great production. they just rock.
b. danger mouse
i’m not sure how in the world to describe the music of dj danger mouse. some of the most unique stuff ever. i’m not even gonna attempt to classify its genre, it’s that weird. but i like it, mostly in the manifestation of gnarls barkley. this group consists of cee-lo on vocals and danger mouse on music, and they’ve made two super weird and awesome albums. you might remember crazy when it was the most popular song in the world during the summer of ’06. their first album, st. elsewhere, was an eclectic mix of musical styles of all kinds. it was hailed by basically every music publication in existence as outstanding, and for good reason, but i think they all went too far in trying to explain why gnarls barkley was so great. it’s great because it’s great. great beats, great melodies, great sonic mixes. and cee-lo’s voice is so soulful. and put together it all makes sense. there’s really not much else to say.
and then they followed it up with the odd couple. kudos to them, because they pushed the musical and lyrical boundaries of st. elsewhere and made a killer record. this next song is one of my favorite songs off the album; this tune is indelible. it sticks with me after i’ve left.
first of all, the gorgeous guitar part drives this track. such a morbid sound. and the beat in the background keeps the track afloat while the bass is so sparse you can barely hear it. i love it when the keys come in at 0:11. the tune is so gorgeous, but hearing cee-lo’s near-falcetto voice singing over it just takes it to a new level. so beautiful. gnarls rules. plus for photo shoots and their live shows, they are always dressed up in ridiculous costumes. this one featured danger mouse and cee-lo as the pink panther and inspector clouseau. other themes they’ve done: star wars, wizard of oz, back to the future, to name only a few. awesome.
aside from his work with gnarls barkley, danger mouse has produced other project, but none as good as the grey album. after jay-z’s the black album dropped and solidified jay’s position as one of the kings of rap of our generation, he released just the acapella version of the black album, all the words and “whoos” and “yeahs” without any of the music. i’m assuming with the intent of people making mash-ups. danger mouse definitely made the best slash most popular. he took jay’s lyrics and sampled the beatles the white album and made the grey album. black + white = grey. clever. the coolest thing about this album is that it’s not just a case of straight forward sampling, where the producer takes maybe a few bars worth of a sample and slows it down or speeds it up. in this extremely interesting article (mtvnews), danger mouse breaks down how he made this album.
“A lot of people just assumed I took some Beatles and, you know, threw some Jay-Z on top of it or mixed it up or looped it around, but it’s really a deconstruction. It’s not an easy thing to do.”
in the article, he goes on to explain that he scoured the 30 tracks from the white album for isolated drum beats, beats without other instrumental or vocal tracks on top of them. he did the same thing for bass and guitar parts, and after collecting a stockpile of sounds, tinkered around with them to get the beats you hear on the grey album. way cool, almost every musical thing on this whole record is straight from the white album. danger mouse reconstructed these beatles tunes in such a unique way. he actually turns them into legitimately cool hip-hop beats. awesome. this is one of the most original hip-hop albums i’ve ever heard, and it’s great how cool it turned out. jay rapping over the beatles. sweet.
for a taste of how cool this album is, here’s a video of the track encore. danger mouse isn’t affiliated with this video in any way, but i think it carries the same sentiment as danger mouse’s record: taking prerecorded footage of the beatles and playing with it to get something new and great. check it out.
c. mark ronson
not many people know this guy, but since the 2008 grammy’s, he’s been getting recognized much more. mark ronson is the producer responsible for the gorgeous soul sounds of amy winehouse’s breakout album back to black. the reason he’s only an honorable mention is mainly because he hasn’t done enough work to warrant a higher spot. however, judging from the work he has done, i feel like he will be fighting for a higher spot on my list as he produces more.
the other reason he’s not actually on my list is cause i’m not a huge fan of his earlier stuff. his first album here comes the fuzz is a much more hip-hop oriented album, and it’s alright, but nothing great. there are a few standout tracks, but most of it is passable.
now here’s what i love about mark ronson. it seems to me like he’s got soul music on his mind at all times. while other producers nowadays (including some on my list) sample old soul beats, mark ronson is interested in making new soul music that reaches back to golden days of soul but still retains a current feel. and he nails it. the most obvious example is back to black. obviously, a huge part of this album is the gorgeous, rich, boisterous, soulful voice of amy winehouse. but so much of the soul comes from the music, produced by mark ronson. track after track on this album is just laden with gorgeous soulful guitars and keys, and drums that sound like they could’ve come from a sam cooke or otis redding record. and the horns, the horns! most of the horns on this album are done by the dap-kings, of sharon jones and the dap-kings fame. the dap-kings are just too good to be ignored. if you are an adult who grew up in the 50s or 60s, and you listened to the meters, marvin gaye, curtis mayfield, aretha franklin, solomon burke, or any of the other vintage soul from that era, you will love all three albums by sharon jones and the dap-kings. i actually guarantee it. but back to amy winehouse’s album. the dap-kings bring such a soulful sensibility to this record, and ronson’s production just takes it so far. get a load of this tune.
how great is that? in every sense possible, back to black is one of the best records that has been released since i started paying attention to music. due in huge part to mark ronson.
another great part of mark ronson’s style is his original vision for music. this last winter, he released a remix-ish album called man in the mirror with rapper rhymefest. they took interviews, old tracks, new tracks, and unreleased tracks from michael jackson, and threw them all into a hodge-podge of hip-hop music. it’s not the greatest thing i’ve ever heard, but it’s original and very cool. mark ronson and rhymefest are both self-proclaimed huge mj fans, so the whole album is like a tribute to the man and his work. and it’s funny. they rework interviews with mj so it’s as if he’s talking with the two of them. good stuff.
and speaking of originality, his second album, version, consists completely of covers. doesn’t seem the most cutting-edge, but they are ridiculously good covers and the way he pulls them off are so great. this guy can hear a tune and reinvent it so well. two of my favorite tracks off the album are a cover of coldplay’s god put a smile on your face and a cover of britney spears toxic. the coldplay cover consists completely of the dap-kings just blasting the horns like there’s no tomorrow, and toxic is a complete departure from britney’s tune. all these tunes on version are rethought so well. he hears a melody line or a bridge break and translates it into another instrument or another rhythm or something great. a perfect example is the tune just, originally done by radiohead. the bulk of this tune is pounding electric guitars during the chorus and then the little guitar part during the verses. what mark ronson does is takes care to shy away from the heavy guitar parts and exchanges them for horns. it doesn’t seem all that complicated but it makes for such a great fun sounding song. way more fun to listen to than the radiohead song anyway. check them out.
now give this a listen.
pretty drastic difference huh? super cool. he’s just a smart guy musically. arranging music is way hard, and mark ronson is just good at it. here’s the best way to sum this album up:
“With Version I’ve taken these songs that I love and turned them into Motown/Stax 70’s versions. I keep the utmost respect and appreciation for the original versions of songs I use. It’s not like I’m thinking it’s a shit song that I can make good, it’s more like it’s a great song and I’m now going to make it bounce.”
and now i’m going to make it bounce; i love that. i wish more producers thought like he did.
a few other recommendations; if you like that radiohead cover, he’s got a few other good covers/remixes for sale on itunes. first, an enjoyable remix of wake up call by maroon 5, with a bit more of a head-bobbin’ groove and mary j. blige. secondly, a great cover of no one knows by queens of the stone age. and lastly, a killer remix of most likely you go your way (and i’ll go mine) by bob dylan. it’s the first time bob dylan’s ever allowed anyone to remix any of his tunes and mark ronson was the first. sweet. spend the 99 cents. it’s worth it.
so there you go. honorable mentions done. next up: the actual Top 5.