You’ve read our guide to albums with great production but what about the standalone tracks with stunning studio trickery? Let’s begin with Grandmaster Flash’s The Message, a fizzing rap fever dream courtesy of Sugar Hill Records regulars Ed Fletcher, Clifton Chase and Sylvia Robinson.
The Smiths – How Soon Is Now?: Though Stephen Street is often considered the key Smiths producer, ‘How Soon Is Now?’ was helmed by John Porter, who worked on many of the group’s early recordings. The track is inarguably his greatest triumph: underpinned by Johnny Marr’s iconic, oscillating guitar line, it’s a track that drips atmosphere, conviction and swagger.
The Ronettes – Be My Baby: One of the greatest ever examples of the intertwined relationship of artist and producer and a song so full of warmth, hope and romance it’s impossible to untangle Ronnie Bennett’s sweetened vocal from the brilliant Phil Spector Wall of Sound that surrounds it.
The Beach Boys – I Guess I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times: Though there are more well known tracks on ‘Pet Sounds’, ‘I Guess I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times’ is when Brian Wilson’s obsessive relationship with the production desk reached its peak. Backed with soaring, Spector-indebted harmonies and reverb-laden drums, this track truly shines.
Beyoncé – Crazy In Love: Claiming writing as well as production credits on Bey’s 2003 smash, Rich Harrison is as core to the track as Jay-Z’s verse or even that dance routine. Built around a retro-tinged horn flourish sampled from The Chi-Lites’ ‘Are You My Woman? (Tell Me So)’, it’s this exuberant hook that keeps the pace up, allowing Bey’s vocal to soar.
Marvin Gaye, What’s Going On: Rather than enlist outside help, Marvin Gaye decided to man the production desk on the title track of his socially-engaged classic ‘What’s Going On’. Bringing in a host of people (including two members of the Detroit Lions) to socialize and chat in the background, it was this laid back approach and atmosphere that gave the song it’s uniquely party feel.
The xx – Crystalised: Minimal and intimate but underlined by a hooky and danceable beat, the band’s Jamie Smith (better known as Jamie xx) created a track that represented the group entirely – sparse yet warm, simple yet intelligent – on this breakout hit.
Aphex Twin – Windowlicker: Electronic innovator Richard D James’ pioneering work is as much about shapeshifting noises as discernable melodies. ‘Windowlicker’, a six-minute, contorted array of samples, modulated vocals and a final discordant rush of rhythm is a weird and wonderful testament to this.
Massive Attack – Unfinished Sympathy: A trip-hop anthem, ‘Unfinished Sympathy’’s smart arrangements expertly combined disparate musical elements – singer Shara Nelson’s soulful vocal, a sweeping string section, percussion samples and hip-hop beats – into something emotive and cohesive, pushing a burgeoning genre into the public consciousness.
Talk Talk – Desire: Taken from highly influential 1988 release ‘Spirit of Eden’, ‘Desire’ benefits from subtle production that hardnesses the power of dynamics, moving from undulating minimalism into crashing guitars and percussive intrumentals over its seven minutes while maintaining enough control to never spiral too far into wig-out territory.
Led Zeppelin – Kashmir: Though famous for Jimmy Page’s (who also produced the track) tense, rising chord progression, Zep have stated that the effects on Bonham’s drumming are actually the key to the song’s success. Featuring a phasing effect, they – coupled with Page’s guitars – offset the string flourishes perfectly in order to create the ominous atmosphere the track is renowned for.
Kanye West – Runaway: The rapper’s “toast to the douchebags” on 2010’s phenomenal ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ was an intricate and understatedly epic track that swelled from sparse pianos through orchestrated undercurrents to the kind of unexpected outro curveball that only Kanye – who entered the hip-hop world as a beatmaker for the likes of Jay Z – could carry off.
Public Enemy – Harder Than You Think: Surely the most confident move you can make as a producer is to sample the band themselves, as long-time Public Enemy collaborator Gary G-Wiz did on ‘Harder Than You Think’ – which sampled the band’s 1987 track ‘Public Enemy No.1’ alongside Shirley Bassey’s ‘Jezahel’. The result was a timeless hip-hop call to arms.
Nirvana – Heart Shaped Box: Steve Albini’s work on ‘In Utero’ is legendary, helping the Seattle trio out of MTV hell back into the visceral territory they always aimed for. Though the band would later remix the song for a single release, Albini ensured all the raw anger and energy of ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ stood strong and unapologetic at the centre of the track.
Joker – Digidesign: The Bristolian’s 2009 single showed the intricacies and intelligence behind the popular face of dubstep. Mixing an array of distorted, wriggling synth lines with heavy beats, the beauty of his 3am-dwelling ‘Digidesign’ was in the carefully-constructed balance.
The Beatles, A Day In The Life: Essentially three songs in one, ‘A Day In The Life’ (helmed by customary Beatles production wizard George Martin) is a track that should be too convoluted to work, but one that’s so expertly sequenced and precisely arranged that every lyric, sound effect and string sweep sounds perfectly in place – right down to the final, iconic chord.
Radiohead, Paranoid Android: And so to another track that’s theoretically bonkers in terms of structure, yet works not only because of its songwriting mastery but due to the constantly contorting yet masterfully-controlled dynamic shifts implemented by producer Nigel Godrich – ‘Paranoid Android’ wasn’t named our greatest track of the last 15 years for nothing.
David Bowie – Let’s Dance: Anyone who kept half an eye on Chic’s recent live dates and their hit-packed setlists will be more than aware of Nile Rodgers’ seemingly endless contributions to music history. On ‘Let’s Dance’, Rodgers took on production duties, adding an infectious disco-tinged space age cool to Bowie’s new wave classic.
Watch The Throne – Niggas In Paris: That a collaboration between two of hip-hop’s most gargantuan stars would yield exciting results was hardly a surprise. Dropping a sample from Will Ferrell’s Blades of Glory midway through the track, however, perhaps was – just one thing about Hit-Boy’s production on ‘Niggas In Paris’ that edged the track from great to classic.
The Specials – Ghost Town: Augmenting The Specials’ famous missive on the 1981 riots and inner-city traumas with sampled noises of police sirens and street chatter, John Collins made ‘Ghost Town’ sound less like a track recorded in a professional studio and more like a snapshot of the view outside your window.
The Streets – Has It Come To This: Labeled an “evolutionary route for UK garage” in NME upon its release in 2001, Mike Skinner’s debut single was an unapologetically fresh take on the genre, centred around the rapper’s local-boy delivery and scintallatingly smooth electronics.
Beastie Boys – Sabotage: As well as melding elements of hip-hop with a slew of distorted, heavy guitars and discordant turntable scratches, Beastie Boys’ unusual mix on ‘Sabotage’ – which seemed to almost prioritise the abrasive instrumentation over their vocal – massively added to the confrontational appeal of the track.
Jon Hopkins – Open Eye Signal: Taken from Mercury-nominated 2013 release ‘Immunity’, ‘Open Eye Signal’ took its roots from ambient techno but undulated and evolved with a surprisingly human heart. Though the core beats are glitchy and computerized, it’s Hopkins’ deft production touch that mixes in the glacial, angelic synth sounds with such cohesion.
White Stripes – Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground: It’s no surprise that modern music’s most famous analog devotee has developed a distinctive recording style over the years. White Stripes’ back-to-basics garage rock is as indebted to its old-school recording methods as it is to their simple two-piece set-up, and on ‘Dead Leaves…’ Jack White showed off the band’s raw power with panache.
Rage Against The Machine – Wake Up: Lacing Led Zeppelin’s ‘Kashmir’ guitar blitz with politically-charged lyrics, ‘Wake Up’ was a typically provocative move from RATM. Garth Richardson’s production work – a clipped style that allowed each aggressive element to sound reasonably isolated – ensured the track never felt claustrophobic and the band’s message was allowed to resonate through.
Blondie – Heart of Glass: a career peak from this year’s Godlike Geniuses, ‘Heart of Glass’s pop perfection was fine tuned by producer Mike Chapman who polished up the guitar and keyboard sounds and added layered vocals to achieve a seemingly effortless slice of New York cool.
Velvet Underground – Femme Fatale: Though Pop Art godfather Andy Warhol is technically credited as the track’s producer, history suggests the real hands on deck were a mix of band members and producer Tom Wilson. Either way, the wide-eyed innocence and simplicity that pervades the track provided an atmosphere integral to its success, and one that was pure Warhol in its knowing naivety.
The Zombies – She’s Not There: The first single from the St. Albans group may have been more beat-indebted than their classic work on psych-pop cornerstone ‘Odessey and Oracle’, however its organ sounds and singer Rod Argent’s breathy vocal already contained the trademark qualities that would characterize the band, no matter what direction their songwriting went in.
Outkast – Gasoline Dreams: Having purchased a studio, Stankonia, Outkast not only acquired a handy title for their 2000 LP but also a newfound autonomous freedom. On ‘Gasoline Dreams’, taken from said album, the duo’s sound is punchier than ever– a reaction to both the social climate of the time and the freedom of being able to experiment and work whenever and however they liked.
Grace Jones – Slave to the Rhythm: From an innovative concept album that consisted of eight different re-workings of the same track, ‘Slave To The Rhythm’ was potentially one of the most radical production moves to date. The original used slow, mellifluous funk beats and dusky atmospherics, courtesy of producer Trevor Horn.
The Tornadoes – Telstar: The ultimate bedroom producer, Joe Meek’s intense inner sanctum (his flat on Holloway Road) was both the making and undoing of his short-lived career. On The Tornados’ instrumental ‘Telstar’, however, Meek showcased his pioneering techniques using reverb and echo chambers all the way to a US Number One and his biggest ever hit.
Refused – New Noise: Steering away from their more traditional hardcore punk roots, Refused’s 1998 album ‘The Shape of Punk To Come’ instead tried to challenge expectations by melding genres in hitherto unseen ways. ‘New Noise’, then, was just that – a track that was hardcore at heart, but that fused experimental arrangements and dynamics in unexpectedly innovative ways.
Destiny’s Child – Say My Name: Produced by Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins, who – from Britney to Brandy – basically owned pop from ’95 to the early 2000s, ‘Say My Name’ was a masterstroke of understatement, showing that, with voices as strong as Destiny’s Child, you actually had to do very little to pack one hell of a R&B pop punch.
Pink Floyd – Us and Them: Though the whole of ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ shows production mastery, ‘Us And Them’’s all-encompassing, lethargic atmospherics and gently climaxing chorus showed the work of a band (Pink Floyd self-produced the record) who were in complete control of every minute sonic detail.
LCD Soundsystem, Daft Punk Is Playing At My House: One of the most innovative musicians of the last decade, James Murphy’s production chops are at the core of LCD’s genre-smashing genius. This is a mesh of rock, electro and whatever else came into Murphy’s brain, effortlessly thrown together in a way that makes crafting pioneering club fillers sound like the easiest thing in the world.