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Music

The five best albums produced by Butch Vig

When looking at the best producers of 1990s rock, look no further than the legendary Butch Vig. Over his extensive career, Vig has seen it all, ranging from Nirvana and Foo Fighters to Urge Overkill, AFI and L7.

Butch was born Brian David Vig in Wisconsin and earned the somewhat unfortunate nickname – depending on which way you look at it – from a distinctive crew cut that his father gave him during his school years. Vig was initially a pianist, but after watching Keith Moon play with The Who, he swapped his piano for a cheap drum kit.

Finding his feet, Vig played the drums in the band Spooner in his early adulthood and contributed electronic composition to cheap Hollywood films, which sparked his interest in production and the manipulation of sound. 

Vig, along with his future Garbage bandmate, Steve Marker, built a production studio in Marker’s basement and self-produced Spooner’s debut EP and a variety of other local Wisconsin bands, which would serve as his introduction to a soon-to-be glittering career in music production.

Today marks Butch Vig’s birthday, so to commemorate the heroic producer’s big day, we’re taking a look and some of the best albums that he has ever produced. Here they are.

The five best albums produced by Butch Vig:

Nevermind (1991) – Nirvana

The second album of the most significant American rock back of the 1990s, Nevermindhad a more polished sound than the band’s previous full-length release, Bleach. This radio-friendly production led to an absolute explosion in the band’s popularity and the grunge movement, and it remains one of the best-selling albums of all time.

Nevermind was a special record,” Vig told Far Out in 2020. “I mean, the band had been playing really well, and they were really tight and focused when they came into the studio. Kurt had written a bunch of amazing songs that were super hooky, but I had no idea it was going to be a zeitgeist moment. It just completely exploded; it really was like a revolution. It completely changed my life for the better; everybody I know closely associated with the band will say the same thing. No one saw it coming, but we’re all really thankful that we were along for the ride.”

Dirty (1992) – Sonic Youth

Dirty is the seventh full-length album by Sonic Youth and was the band’s first effort following the major grunge waves that Nirvana had been making with the release of Nevermind. Sonic Youth did not explicitly choose to record with Vig because of Nevermind’s success but had considered it on something of a semi-conscious level.

“It’s important to understand how a drummer plays – do they hit the cymbals loud, or do they play the fills louder than the groove?” said Vig. “Steve Shelley is amazing in the way he fits into the symphonic sound that Sonic Youth makes. Often, he’ll play drums more as a pulse than a clearly defined part. He glues it all together. Dirty was recorded on an old radio broadcast console and cut in a smaller room, where we tracked a lot of things live with the band playing in a circle around Steve’s kit. Again, a simple set-up.” 

Siamese Dream (1993) – Smashing Pumpkins

Vig had also produced the Pumpkins’ first full-length effort, Gish, and the album’s unexpected success – which led to the band being dubbed ‘the next Nirvana’ – led Billy Corgan to entrust their high-pressured second album to the hands of Vig once more. Check out our ranking of the tracks of Siamese Dream here.

“I’m very proud of it because that was a really difficult record,” Vig told Far Out. “It was before Pro Tools; Billy and I set the bar really high in terms of how sonically we wanted it to sound. I had to deal with all of the dysfunctionality of them as four people together, but I think the record still sounds really good. It has a sound to it that we kind of came up within the studio, and to me, it still sounds as powerful now as it did when I recorded it.”

Garbage (1995) – Garbage

The debut effort of the band featuring Vig himself on drums. Vig and fellow producer Steve Marker had grown somewhat tired of their busy production schedules, working on “really long records”. Vig and Marker had been working on remixes and wanted to replicate the sensibility of a remix in a new band. They were inspired to name their band as such, as someone once commented that it sounded like “garbage”.

“Garbage was us screwing around and not adhering to what a proper drum sound should be like,” said Vig. “I’d just bought my first sampler and was listening to Public Enemy, so I wanted to take that into a rock context, using live drums as well as programming, loops and processing. Because it was me, people expected it to sound like a grunge band – then they heard ‘Queer’ or ‘Stupid Girl’, and [it] was obviously totally different. Did I mind being side-lined by a drum machine? No – it was quite liberating.”

Sound City: Real to Reel (2013) – Sound City Players

Sound City is a documentary directed by Vig’s frequent collaborator, Dave Grohl. The film chronicles the setting up of the Sound City Studios in Los Angeles – the location at which Vig recorded Nevermind – and its historical and cultural importance. Vig produced the soundtrack to the film, which received two Grammy Awards. Vig also revealed that the project nearly featured folk-rock legend Neil Young at the helm.

“The only project I’m bummed didn’t happen was when we were doing Sound City; Dave Grohl was inviting people in to jam in the studio, and we had set up a session for Krist and Dave from Nirvana to play with Neil Young,” Vig said. “It would have been fucking awesome. And I know if Neil Young played with them, he’d go, ‘oh, let’s go on tour and play some shows together!’ It would be like Crazy Horse on steroids. But then it didn’t happen. Neil Young had a book coming out, so he was on a book tour, and Dave had to go interview him somewhere else. It’s a bummer, man.”