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The Five Weirdest, Worst Production Choices Famous Musicians Have Made

Chris Cornell performing at Warehouse Live in 2009
Chris Cornell performing at Warehouse Live in 2009
Photo by Mark C. Austin

When it comes to production, the general heuristic would be that the more money you have, the better production you can buy. That, oddly enough, is not necessarily true. While a lot of the richest and most famous musicians do buy some pretty stellar production from the hottest names in the business, sometimes the choices they make are so baffling, you'd think they would have been better off recording with a four-track in their garage.

For the purposes of this list, we'll be looking at those weird choices, where there was just no good reason for the production to be bad. If it was a financial issue, that's one thing, or an aesthetic choice as is the case of garage rock bands, that's another. But sometimes an idea gets into someone's head and turns out to be a catastrophe. That's what we're talking about on this one.

5. Leonard Cohen, Death of a Ladies Man In 1977, Leonard Cohen recorded what should have, by all rights, been a classic record. What we got ended up being labeled "Leonard Cohen's Doo-Wop Nightmare" by Rolling Stone and Cohen himself encouraged fans not to buy the record.

The reason was that producer Phil Spector, by most accounts a genius but also a certified psychopath, had recorded some rough vocal takes by Cohen, then barred Cohen from the studio with armed guards, at which point he took it upon himself to craft the rest of the album.

Despite its tepid reaction at the time, Cohen fans have come to appreciate the record, in spite or perhaps because of its extremely bizarre Spector-ized producton. According to Cohen, it's a favorite among "punksters," but more generally it's a favorite of younger fans who have picked up on Spector's production in a big way with the recent revival by bands like Grizzly Bear.

4. Red Hot Chili Peppers, Californication When guitarist John Frusciante made his return to the Red Hot Chili Peppers for their then-upcoming album in 1998, they had been on a downward trend in popularity. One Hot Minute, featuring guitarist Dave Navarro, had been a sales disappointment, especially after the massive success of Blood Sugar Sex Magik.

No one, then, could have predicted that Californication, released in 1999, would become one of the biggest smash hits of the '90s and would make the Red Hot Chili Peppers one of the biggest rock bands of all time, one whose enduring, unabated popularity continues even today.

Yet despite the critical and commercial success of Californication, its production was a negative harbinger for audio aficionados, considered by some to be the worst-produced record of all time. The clipping, resulting from brick-walling as part of the loudness war, earned the ire of even non-audiophiles who considered the record too loud. Producer Rick Rubin has now become notorious for bringing out the best in a band, but wrecking albums with his insistence on making everything as loud as possible.

3. Megadeth, Risk Reportedly inspired by chiding from former Metallica bandmate Lars Ulrich to "take a risk" and branch outside of metal, Megadeth -- who had already considerably softened their sound by 1999 -- decided to recruit producer Dann Huff and their manager Bud Prager to craft a record experimenting with popular styles of the late '90s.

The result was Risk, which retained certain tangential Megadeth trademarks, but had mostly turned the band into something else entirely. At least half the problem is not so much the songwriting, but the production, incorporating all sorts of bizarre, trendy quirks and tricks stolen from jungle, industrial and techno styles of dance music, as well as techniques previously employed on albums by artists like Alanis Morissette. Not coincidentally, with death of those trends, Risk has not aged well at all.

For some bands at that time, these tricks may have worked, but for Megadeth it was a disaster and about as far removed as could be from what made them good in the first place. They retreated from it immediately and returned to a classic thrash-metal sound and production for 2002's The World Needs a Hero.

 

2. Chris Cornell, Scream Similar to Megadeth's experiment, Chris Cornell decided to go trendy and it blew up in his face. After the breakup of Audioslave, the former Soundgarden front man released a mostly decently received solo record entitled Carry On, which showcased his abilities as a singer-songwriter well enough. It may not have been a classic from him, but it was passable for huge fans.

Not content with that limited success, though, Cornell looked to superstar producer Timbaland to produce a modern R&B/hip-hop-inspired electronic record for him to put vocals over. The lack of Cornell's input on Scream is palpable. He simply seems to turn in vocals, while the rest mostly sounds like one of Timbo's solo records.

It outraged fans of '90s alt-rock and grunge and failed to hook a younger audience conditioned to the voices of singers like Justin Timberlake, not the rough-hewn drone Cornell employs throughout the record. The record was so bad, it ended up being Cornell's last solo recording before rejoining Soundgarden for a much-appreciated comeback tour and new record with absolutely no electronic embellishments, thankfully.

1. Metallica, St. Anger Never has any band so disappointed its fans with its production choices as when Metallica released their long-awaited album St. Anger in 2003. The now ten year old record still regularly makes the rounds on lists of the worst records of all time and it's widely reviled among even the band's most stalwart fans. A good deal of that has to do with the production.

No strangers to controversial production choices, turning to mainstream producer Bob Rock for 1991's Black Album and burying all the bass on 1988's ...And Justice for All, Metallica and Rock decided to go for a lo-fi garage-rock sound on St. Anger. It wasn't an uncommon choice then, and it's a sound that's still popular today. So what went wrong?

Somehow, they completely botched the execution of the sound. The record still sounds overproduced, with James Hetfield's voice reflecting noticeable autotune correction on certain parts, while the guitars are so thin and distorted that they don't sound classic, they sound fucking grating.

Of course, the worst part, and the most immediately noticeable production quirk, is the horrible sound of the drums that Lars Ulrich chose for the record. Often described as a "trash can snare" tone, he took the term "metal" a little bit too literally apparently and made his drums sound like he was hitting a trash can with a lead pipe. It went over horribly.

To rectify it, they brought in Rick Rubin to produce their next record, Death Magnetic. It ended up having similar problems to Californication with clipping and brick-walling, but otherwise fans were just glad the drums sounded like real drums again.



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