Late to the party as ever, I recently caught up with the new Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album, Push the Sky Away, in light of the hype over their SXSW showcase last week. The album is fantastic, of course, but one thing that immediately jumped out at me upon listening to it was the interesting choice that Cave and his ever-present production partner Nick Launay had made for the sonic landscape: the slick, yet warm sensibilities of it reminded me of one of the greatest producers of our time, Daniel Lanois.
For those not familiar, Lanois has one hell of a track record of classic albums under his belt. Three albums with his stamp on them have won Album of the Year at the Grammys, and four have been nominated. Many might know him today for his indelible contributions to U2's long string of hit albums, but you might find his name in the production credits of any number of your favorite albums.
I decided to revisit those records this week and come up with what I believe to be his five greatest achievements.
5. Brian Eno, Thursday Afternoon Lanois is an amazing producer in his own right, but any fan of experimental or pop music alike knows that Eno is the master, and a dream producer. So consider it an amazing compliment for Eno to ask Lanois, his closest protege, to step in and collaborate with him on the production on a few of his albums in the '80s. Now when Brian Eno asks you to do something, you do it, so Lanois got down to work immediately.
The greatest fruit of their labor was 1985's Thursday Afternoon, a peaceful, ambient record that calls to mind much of Eno's greatest works. The tranquility of it all holds a darker undertone which is pervasive throughout the sparse, melancholy piano melody. You could easily imagine it as the calm before the storm, or a perfect album to play immediately after leaving the bunker during a nuclear war and surveying the ruins. It's not a light, fluffy album, but it is an experience.
4. Neil Young, Le Noise You might be surprised to see a fairly recent album on this list, especially one by Neil Young, but never count Young out. Though he has one of the most inconsistent careers, due to his interest in changing up his sound and experimenting with each and every record, Young every once in a while still writes an amazing album. The most recent of those has to be Le Noise.
With this one, Young decided to strip it all away and make an electric-guitar-and-vocals-only album with some of his angriest songwriting since Bush was President on it. He asked Lanois to produce and lest you think Lanois can only provide the slick, shimmering production he's known for, he turned out some of the most distorted, gravelly sounds you'll ever hear for this record. He perfectly captured Young's vitriol and dutifully followed the feel of the songs to create the perfect world to surround them with.
3. U2, The Joshua Tree Put aside the recent douchebaggery of Bono or the less than stellar material the band has put forth for Lanois and Brian Eno to twiddle the knobs on. Put your mind back in the '80s, when U2 had yet to release anything less than amazing and were the hottest rock band on Earth. Now listen to The Joshua Tree with those ears again.
The Joshua Tree was the exact moment when U2 achieved pop-rock perfection. With the chilled out, ambient landscapes traced in by Lanois and Eno on their previous record, The Unforgettable Fire, now refined into a thick, lush, atmospheric portrait for them to work on, U2 brought forth their strongest set of pop songs and achieved not only one of the sharpest albums ever, but one whose sound was so singularly powerful and influential that you can hardly turn on a radio even in 2013 without hearing at least one band on a rock station trying its best to emulate it.
2. Bob Dylan, Time Out of Mind Bob Dylan might as well have been out of the game by 1997 when he finally released Time Out of Mind. Prior to that, it had been almost a decade since 1989's Oh Mercy, which had been widely hailed as a comeback among critics, but was followed with a children's record and two lukewarmly received cover albums.
Dylan was restless again though, so he asked Lanois back to work with him again. Lanois had also produced his prior comeback on Oh Mercy, but this time Dylan was armed with an even greater asset: the best songs he had written since Blood on the Tracks. Together, the two orchestrated not only another critically acclaimed album for Dylan, but a few Grammys including Album of the Year, and one of the most celebrated albums of Dylan's entire career.
In recent years, Dylan had expressed dissatisfaction with Lanois' production on the album, choosing to produce more recent albums himself. While the man is capable of handling it himself of course, I feel that no album since has captured the raw emotion of Dylan's voice or the beautiful darkness of his songwriting like Lanois did for Time Out of Mind.
1. Peter Gabriel, So By 1986, Peter Gabriel was at a crossroads. He had achieved minor commercial success with his solo career up to that point, but nothing to write home about. His records were critically lauded and beloved for their influential new wave inflected art rock, but people were selling more records copying his ideas down for one hot single than he was able to sell in four records.
The problem was that his records were too deeply intellectual, too dark and moody, and most of all, too obscure and weird. So after an extended break following his fourth self-titled record, Gabriel made a decision to vie for the success his peers were enjoying. He asked Lanois to come in and produce to provide him with the sort of production blueprint that would break his music into the mainstream.
That it did. Together, they went to No. 1 with So. But far from diluting Gabriel's music, Lanois simply enhanced the eccentricities that were already there while bringing out the pop potential inherent in all of Gabriel's songwriting.
By fleshing out those high-art ideas into wholly crafted songs, the album became not only a deep and uncompromising record which dealt with serious subject matters and musical tones, but it was also a pop masterpiece that stood out in the '80s like no other.
See how Rocks Off sized up Lanois' catalog three years ago.