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Music

The 10 worst albums produced by Rick Rubin

@TylerGolsen

There is no producer of the past 40 years with a better pedigree than Rick Rubin. Known for his mystical approach to music, much of which doesn’t actually involve music at all, Rubin has garnered a famous (and slightly infamous) “guru” style of leadership that has undeniably produced some of the best records in rock, rap, and even country.

Rubin was astounding in his versatility: in the same calendar year, he could work with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Sir Mix-A-Lot, Slayer, and Andrew Dice Clay without ever seeming inappropriate for any of them. This was a man who was just as famous for pioneering rap as he is for resurrecting the career of country legend Johnny Cash. Whether it was Tom Petty, Shakira, or System of a Down, Rubin always seemed to have the right mojo for whoever he was working with.

Except when he didn’t. Rubin is notoriously not a musician by trade or skillset: he’s a rudimentary piano and guitar player, and for the first decade or so of his career, he purposefully steered himself away from learning about the technicalities of music like theory or pitch. Rubin was a producer who believed in “feeling” and “vibe”, elements that endeared him to those who were on his same wavelength but frustrated those who simply wanted a producer who could tell them in plain terms what he wanted. For artists who didn’t want a metaphysical lecture for every verse, Rubin could be confounding, irritating, and even posturing.

It is inarguable that Rick Rubin has had a hand in some of the greatest albums of all time: Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Slayer’s Reign in Blood, Tom Petty’s Wildflowers, and System of a Down’s Toxicity, just to name a few. But less talked about are the failures of his discography. Rubin is human, and for someone who prominently worked on roughly five albums a year for nearly 30 years, it only makes sense that some of the work doesn’t hold up.

We’ve collected ten examples of when Rick Rubin was unable to elevate albums to being anything but mediocre. Sometimes the fault lies with him, specifically in the mixing and production style that he adopts. Sometimes it’s with the artist, whose material isn’t up to Rubin’s high quality control. But Rubin has put his name on all of these releases, and as producer, has to take the credit, and in this case the blame, for the results. Here are ten of the worst albums produced by Rick Rubin.

The worst albums produced by Rick Rubin:

Slayer – Diabolus in Musica (1998)

No one was safe from nu-metal in the late 1990s. Rubin was actually one of the industry figures who was spearheading the genre and would help produce some of the biggest acts (more on that to come). Slayer and Rubin go back all the way to the mid-’80s when Rubin successfully convinced the heavy metal gods to sign with the hip hop-focused Def Jam Records. The results were Reign in Blood, one of the greatest metal albums of all time.

Slayer and Rubin continued to evolve with each other, producing quality albums that proved their might as the world’s fastest and most aggressive thrash metal band. But Diabolus in Musica doesn’t sound like Slayer: it sounds like Korn, Godsmack, and Mudvayne had an unholy offspring. Dated arrangements, bizarre vocal effects, and disjointed rhythms make Diabolus in Musica not just Slayer’s worst record, but also their most embarrassing.

Limp Bizkit – Results May Vary (2003)

Speaking of bad nu-metal, no band has been more confounding with two decades of hindsight than Limp Bizkit. A putrid combination of nu-metal and rap-rock, Fred Durst and his merry men managed to make the most abhorrent tuneless pap to ever sell millions of records. Not unlike Smash Mouth, Limp Bizkit have survived in modern times by leaning into just how much of a bad novelty band they were and how ludicrous it was that they ever got popular at all.

But make no mistake: Limp Bizkit were huge. From 1997’s Three Dollar Bill, Y’all to 2000’s Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water, the band were selling millions of records and had a sizeable following. But all good (and bad) things must come to an end, and Limp Bizkit’s contemporary heydey hit a massive plateau with Results May Vary. Maybe it’s because Durst was fully in charge after guitarist Wes Borland left, maybe it’s because Rubin’s production uncharacteristically sounds like complete trash, maybe it’s because the album is an unlistenable hour-long slog, or maybe it’s because Limp Bizkit were always bad. For any of these reasons, Results May Vary is easily the worst album Rick Rubin ever put his name on.

Weezer – Make Believe (2005)

Weezer were firmly in their toothless comeback phase when they tapped Rubin to produce their 2005 effort Make Believe. Having completely jettisoned the emotional honesty and proto-emo of their first two records for generic power-pop on 2001’s The Green Album, the group stumbled through the occasional likeable song as they began to move closer to pastiche with every new record.

And then came Make Believe. A trainwreck of simplicity and self-consciousness, Make Believe only actually has one song worth listening to – ‘Perfect Situation’, a pretty great cut from a band who were quickly losing touch with what people actually liked about them. But that’s only four minutes long, which means an entire 40-minute album of nonsense and drivel stares you down afterwards. ‘Beverly Hills’ is the only interesting-bad song, and after you move past it and ‘Perfect Situation’ in the first seven minutes, the rest of the album is pure boneheaded boredom. Instead of being calm and zen, Rubin appears asleep at the wheel.

Poison – Poison’d (2007)

Perhaps it’s slightly unfair to include this album on the list, considering how Rubin only produced a single song on this earache of a covers album. That would be Poison’s take on Kiss’ eternal hard rock classic ‘Rock and Roll All Night’, which Rubin produced all the way back in 1987, a full 20 years before this album came out. But Rubin never had a problem putting his name on good albums that he mostly had nothing to do with (see The Black Crowes’ Shake Your Money Maker), so he still has to answer for the schlock that he had almost nothing to do with as well.

A full length covers album is the clearest sign of creative bankruptcy, but most of them are at least breezy and harmless. Poison’d will make you actively dislike some amazing songs: The Rolling Stones’ ‘Dead Flowers’, David Bowie’s ‘Suffragette City’, The Romantics’ ‘What I Like About You’. The only time this album goes full-ridiculous is on Justin Timberlake’s ‘Sexyback’, but for the rest of the runtime, it’s just braindead cock rock covers from the worst of the L.A. hair metal bands. And don’t worry – the Rubin-produced version of ‘Rock and Roll All Night’ sucks too.

Metallica – Death Magnetic (2008)

For whatever reason, Death Magnetic was seen as a return to form for Metallica. Certainly, the atrociousness of their previous record, 2003’s St. Anger, had a lot to do with that. With experienced metalhead Rubin behind the desk, Metallica brought back guitar solos, complex arrangements, and thrash ethos. This was Metallica back to their roots, making the album that they should have made for years, perhaps even decades.

Here’s the thing though: Death Magnetic isn’t any good, and I would argue that it’s not even any better than St. Anger. There’s still the mindless bashing, random double-time sections, and indulgent arrangements that mostly push beyond the seven-minute mark. We find Metallica at their worst, course-correcting so hard that they refuse to take any risks whatsoever. As a result, Death Magnetic is an album that lasts 75 minutes and produces exactly zero minutes of memorable material. This is also Rubin at his nadir of over-compressed production, making the already limp material neigh-on unlistenable.

Jakob Dylan – Seeing Things (2008)

Being unimpressed with the Rick Rubin experience isn’t as uncommon as you might think. Despite being hailed as a visionary by a number of his clients, there is a vocal minority of musicians who claim that Rubin’s “hands-off” technique is actually detrimental to the final product of whatever album he’s working on. Slipknot’s Corey Taylor was famously dismissive of Rubin and his work on the band’s Vol. 3 (The Subliminal Verses), while Muse fired the producer due to their unhappiness with his work on The Resistance.

You can add Jakob Dylan to that list as well, whose 2008 solo debut Seeing Things got the Rubin treatment. “I don’t need a guru,” Dylan told Marc Maron on his WTF podcast. “I like everybody in the room to talk in musical terms.” It doesn’t help that Rubin crafted one of his most toothless and snooze-worthy production sounds for Dylan. For someone who was able to bring acoustic acts like Johnny Cash to life with ease, Rubin sure does sound lost on how to make Dylan’s acoustic guitar sound good.

Kid Rock – Born Free (2010)

Rick Rubin isn’t afraid of a challenge. If he had bowed out every time something looked like a bad idea on paper, we likely never would have gotten his collaborations with Slayer and Johnny Cash. Then again, if he listened to logic more often, we probably would have been saved from records by the likes of Andrew Dice Clay, Limp Bizkit, and Kid Rock. Such is the nature of a challenge.

Born Free is Kid Rock going full country, abandoning his previous reliance on white boy rap. That should be a positive step, considering how his rap albums were largely awful. But Born Free is just another side of Kid Rock’s shallowness as a musical talent, stretching the inane bumpkin-themed nonsense of ‘All Summer Song’ to a full-length album. A rehashed duet with Sheryl Crow on ‘Collide’ goes nowhere, and a bizarre team-up with T.I. on ‘Care’ is just strange. Not even one of country’s most reliable figures, Zac Brown, can do anything to make ‘Flyin’ High’ something more than a cliche. Even for someone who is notoriously hands-off, Rubin is basically a ghost on Born Free, letting Kid Rock indulge in his worst twangy tendencies.

Wu-Tang Clan – A Better Tomorrow (2014)

Despite being one of the most legendary acts in all of hip hop, Wu-Tang Clan only really have one all-time great album – 1993’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). The members themselves have top-tier rap classics, like Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx and GZA’s Liquid Swords, but when it comes to full-group material, the Wu have stumbled since their phenomenal debut.

It’s hard to argue that albums like Wu-Tang Forever and The W aren’t good, but its been diminishing returns as the years continue to flow by. It’s not exactly clear what Rubin contributed to A Better Tomorrow, since he’s only credited as a producer on the opening track ‘Ruckus in B Minor’, but it clearly wasn’t enough to salvage a wildly uneven post-glory mishmash of a record. Wu-Tang Clan don’t need another great album to solidify their legacy, but a reach out to Rubin certainly looks like a desperate move in hindsight.

The Smashing Pumpkins – Shiny and Oh So Bright Vol. 1 / LP: No Past. No Future. No Sun. (2018)

The reunion of The Smashing Pumpkins is one that seems only motivated by monetary means. I would love it if Billy Corgan truly felt the need to rebuild bridges with James Iha and Jimmy Chamberlain, the results of which eventually turned into the modern lineup of the Pumpkins. But those three had chemistry back in the ’90s, and whatever happened to it is unclear, because 2018’s Shiny and Oh So Bright is nothing more than the Pumpkins on autopilot.

Rubin knows how to work with Corgan: he produced Corgan’s 2017 solo album Ogilala, which is mostly acoustic and actually quite good. But when it came to replicating the overblown majesty of The Smashing Pumpkins, Rubin opted instead to keep the band restrained. At just barely over half an hour, Shiny and Oh So Bright is the slightest and least interesting Smashing Pumpkins release to date. Corgan learned his lesson, opting to produce the follow-up Cyr on his own and sprawling out to over twice the length of Shiny and Oh So Bright. The Smashing Pumpkins are at their best when they’re bombastic, something Rubin clearly didn’t get.

Imagine Dragons – Mercury, Act 1 (2021)

The 2010s most aggravating act were perfectly fine putting out intensely catchy and aggressively irritating pap like ‘Radioactive’, ‘Thunder’, and ‘Beliver’. But no, Imagine Dragons wanted more. They wanted respect. They wanted prestige. They wanted to be taken seriously as something more than one of the world’s biggest, and stupidest, pop bands. So they expanded their genre tastes, focused on a weighty concept, and tapped Rick Rubin to make what would surely be their masterpiece, Mercury, Act 1.

The results sound exactly like every other Imagine Dragons album, except that their desire to be a band that can play any style of music means that they end up playing none of those styles well. Mercury, Act 1 is just as mind-numbing as any other release from the band, and Rubin’s zen touch is nowhere to be found on this cluttered mess of an album. A lot of Rubin’s misses have come in the past 20 years, and Mercury, Act 1 proves that he still has plenty of stinkers in him.