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From Kanye West to Johnny Cash: The 10 best Rick Rubin produced albums of all time

“I don’t know what makes someone hip. The goal is artist achievement and the best work we can do with no limitations.” — Rick Rubin

There are few producers as influential across a wide range of musical spaces than the illustrious producer and wondrous beard-owner, Rick Rubin. The producer has had his hand in an awe-inspiring array of albums across the years, and below, we’ve grabbed ten of our favourites. It acts as one of the most impressive music careers and not one that looks like slowing down any time soon.

The co-founder of Def Jam Recordings and former co-President of Columbia Records, Rubin has some serious credentials. Rubin’s first foray into music may have been heavily influenced by his own band Hose and their penchant for hardcore punk, but, soon enough, the lure of the New York hip-hop scene had grown too impressive to ignore. Working alongside DJ Jazzy Jay from Zulu Nation, Rubin quickly found his niche within hip-hop production. He started on the path to glory, founding Def Jam while he was still attending university.

Eventually, Def Jam recordings became an afterthought for Rubin and even his new label, Def American, felt wrong. Rubin accepted the word ‘def’ had been standardized in America, and the producer even held a real funeral for the world that included a tombstone, procession and eulogy. “When advertisers and the fashion world co-opted the image of hippies, a group of the original hippies in San Francisco literally buried the image of the hippie. When ‘def’ went from street lingo to mainstream, it defeated its purpose.”

It was this spirit; a continued desire to defy the confinements of commercial success in favour of artistic integrity, that has shaped Rubin into one of the greatest producers of all time. Below, we’ve got ten more reasons too.

Rick Rubin’s 10 best albums:

10. The Geto Boys – Geto Boys

Ignoring the visceral and vitriolic sound, Geto Boys had produced on this album, it ranks as one of Rubin’s best for its sheer refusal to conform. Not only did the LP largely contain songs from the group’s previous two albums, nor only risk the wrath of Beatles fans but positioning the group in the classic Let It Be positions on the artwork, but the album fought against censorship too.

The lyrics and imagery in the songs on the album ensured that Geffen Records reneged to distribute the album. Undeterred Rubin took the record to Warner Bros. ensured a deal and his place in hip-hop history as a fight of the good fight, forevermore.

9. Californication – Red Hot Chili Peppers

In 1999, as a new millennium approached and the sounds of the previous one felt a little dated, somehow Red Hot Chili Peppers, one of the remnants of ’90s rock radio, had found themselves a new sound, a new style and a brand new audience. John Frusciante’s return for the group’s seventh studio album may have been the global headline, but it was Rick Rubin’s influence on the record that likely landed most heavily of all.

After the band failed to sing on David Bowie as the producer for their new record, they returned to Rick Rubin, and it was a genius move. Rubin allowed the band room to experiment in the studio while intrinsically understanding their style and sound. It created one of the band’s best-selling records (15 million copies) and introduced it to a new generation of rockers.

8. Yeezus – Kanye West

Jumpin on as part of the production team for a Kanye West record is pretty nonsensical. As Rubin did for this Ye album, even performing as the Executive Producer feels a little bit superfluous. After all, love him or loathe him, to question Kanye West’s production techniques is to make yourself look stupid. However, on Yeezus, Rubin provided the perfect foundation for Ye to go off.

Kanye has a habit of letting his imagination run wild, and he sought Rubin’s counsel to help him strip away the needless moments on the LP. Emboldened by Rubin’s noted minimalist production career, he cherished the moments the executive producer afforded him. An expressive and artistically driven record was the start of Ye ignoring the confines of commercially and letting his work do the walking and talking.

7. Renegades – Rage Against The Machine

It’s difficult to make a covers album when the songs you are choosing are from the same field of music, but when you’re Rage Against The Machine, and nobody is really in your field, you have to improvise. It means this covers record is pulled from a wide range of different genres and artistic channels.

Rage use their expertly skilled hands to create some interesting reimaginings of songs from Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan to name a few and turn them into funk-rock bombs ready to explode at every moment. It’s a perfect rebellion—to not only use the songs of the past to make waves in the present but to do it with such disregard for the original material was truly something special.

6. 21 – Adele

Sometimes, being a great producer relies on taking a step back and allowing the talent to do their thing and sometimes it relies on pushing your star to breaking point. That’s certainly what happened with Adele’s sophomore record 21. One moment on Adele’s ascent to the top of the pop pile, the album is revered for its spares production and quality songwriting, but it had a troubled process.

“Her singing was so strong and heartbreaking in the studio, it was clear something very special was happening,” recalled Rubin of the process. Adele said the daunting idea of working with Rubin was accentuated by his unusual techniques. “The musicians were inspired as they rarely get to play with the artist present, much less singing … Today, most things are recorded as overdubs on track. This was truly an interactive moment where none of the musicians knew exactly what they were going to play and all were listening so, so, deeply and completely to figure out where they fitted in … all of the playing was keying off the emotion on Adele’s outrageous vocal performance.”

5. Wildflowers – Tom Petty

This album is a Heartbreakers LP in everything but name. Co-produced by Tom Petty, Campbell and Rick Rubin, the album provided Petty with a chance of creative freedom and artistic salvation. No longer tied to the Heartbreakers sound, this album saw Petty run wild as a stallion.

The album may well come complete with orchestral arrangements and an iconic producer in Rubin, but, in truth, the real beauty fo the record is how connected Petty is with his sound. Rootsy and bluesy in equal measure, Petty is never overcome by what surrounds him; instead, using it to embellish his own brilliance.

The album is full of soul and excitement as it offers both a guiding hand and a chance of a new future. It’s a piece of Petty’s life that feels charged with the electricity of something new, and, for that reason, it deserves its place on our list.

4. Reign in Blood – Slayer

Few bands have influenced the wide range of musical factions without compromising themselves as perfectly as Salyer. Despite being continuously adorned on the front of various Kardashina’s t-shirts, the band have remained as true to the ethos laid out on Reign in Blood as ever.

The band’s third album landed with aplomb and became the archetypal heavy metal record, thanks in no small part to Rick Rubin. It was one of the few experiences Rubin had endured with heavy metal and it was certainly a learning curve for the fledgeling producer.

Rubin had already secured his spot in the hip-hop world hierarchy but when the 28-minute speedball of hardcore, heavy metal and whatever else Slayer deemed fit to mine from their instruments landed, it cemented his position in rock music forever.

3. Blood Sugar Sex Magik – Red Hot Chili Peppers

The Red Hot Chili Peppers may well be one of the biggest names in rock, but when Rick Rubin got to them, the group were in tatters. Anthony Kiedis was cut adrift from the band thanks to his newfound sobriety, while the group’s previous effort Mother’s Milk had been regarded as low-grade rock fodder. The band left their old label EMI and headed for pastures new.

Rubin finessed the band’s rock-funk stylings into something a bit more melodic. Rubin added a smoothness that the band had previously lost. The thumping moments like ‘Suck My Kiss’ and ‘Give It Away’ were bristling with bombastic bounce; Rubin also encouraged Keidis to put a personal poem into a song. Thus, ‘Under the Bridge’ was born, and RHCP had a new avenue of musical exploration.

The album sold 12 million copies and still ranks as one of the decade’s best.

2. Licensed to Ill – Beastie Boys

Ad Rock, MCA and Mike D were in the salad days of the creation when, pushed forward by the intense desire to make something new, they began holding sessions with an NYU student by the name of Rick Rubin. “Rick definitely came from a whole AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, Long Island, like, rock background,” Mike D explained in The Beat documentary. “He, pretty much … introduced it to us. Because we kinda came from punk rock … ‘forget about that shit’.”

With the band’s punk roots and Rubin’s growing project at Def Jam Records, the producer saw an opportunity to work classic rock sounds into a brand new format which, when matched with the group’s growing book of bratty rhymes and snotty lines, could prompt a whole new wave of hip-hop.

Licensed To Ill soon became a playground for Rubin to exert his command of classic rock sounds and bring them into a new era.

1. American IV – Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash may have had a storied career by the time he started working with Rick Rubin in the mid-90s, but he perhaps did his best work with the producer. One such pinnacle of his career was the brilliant American Recordings.

It sees Cash take on the likes of Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Kris Kristofferson and so many more. It may not feature some of his most notable covers but it ranks well because it speaks so highly of an ageing artist once again finding his voice. It’s one of those moments where artistic integrity meets a legendary showman and combine to form something utterly magnificent. While Cash was undoubtedly the star of the show, Rubin also made his name on the album’s sincerity.

Featuring Cash’s classic rendition of the Nine Inch Nails song ‘Hurt’ this record, the fourth collaboration between Rubin and Cash, stands head and shoulders above the rest. It showed that Rubin was capable of overseeing not only the hot flashes of fervent youth but the smouldering embers of legend too. Rubin allowed Cash that most unattainable of things — grace.

It’s a joy from start to finish.