He’s been called a guru, a Zen master, a reducer, a professional wrestling mark, a coach, a punk rocker, an aspiring magician, and a studio savant. Dr. Dre said that he’s “hands down, the dopest producer ever that anyone would ever want to be, ever.” Tom Morello said that he’s actually more like an artist than a producer, someone who has a “big idea of what it should be, and how it should sound.” Johnny Cash recalled that the barefoot and bearded one reminded him of Sam Phillips, the Sun Records founder who discovered Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins, and changed music forever in the 1950s.
I’m talking, of course, about Rick Rubin.
Few individuals have affected as many corners of the musical universe for as long as Rubin. You probably know most of the legends by now. Born on Long Island in 1963, he was an early adopter of Transcendental Meditation at 14, which his doctor prescribed to help alleviate neck pain. He maintains the practice to this day. At an early age he fell in love with the sounds pouring out of his parents’ radio. First it was the Beatles and the Monkees, then Aerosmith and AC/DC, and then the Ramones and Minor Threat. He formed a band called the Pricks; they made it to the stage at CBGB, where they conspired with some friends in the crowd to kick up a pre-planned fight to try stir up some local buzz. They were tossed off after two songs, but the infamy never came. By the early ’80s, he’d moved to New York and—after enrolling at NYU, where he majored in philosophy— he became a fixture in underground clubs like Negril.
Hip-hop became his next passion. He became friends with an emerging DJ named Jazzy Jay who used to spin at Negril. In 1984, he worked with Jay and an MC named T La Rock on a single titled “It’s Yours.” From this mix of clattering 808s, scratched records, and concise rhyming, an empire—Def Jam Records—was born. It was all accomplished from the confines of Rubin’s college dorm. It didn’t take long before acts lined up to work with this mysterious, soft-spoken college kid. LL Cool J was first. Then came Beastie Boys and Run-DMC. After that he worked with the metalheads in Slayer, Public Enemy, and Danzig, and shock-comedian Andrew Dice Clay.
In 1988, Rubin left Def Jam, moved to California, and started a new imprint: Def American. A few years later, he’d drop the “Def” after hosting a funeral proceeded over by Al Sharpton. Thus, American Recordings. A new wave of projects with artists like Red Hot Chili Peppers, Tom Petty, System of a Down, and Johnny Cash followed. Rubin’s renown swelled. Awards and platinum plaques seemed to follow his every move. And then in 2007 he embraced a new challenge when he took a job running Columbia Records. For the next five years, he guided one of the biggest record companies in the world through the new, post-physical reality. His passion for creation never left, and after leaving Columbia in 2012, he went back to making records at American.
As varied as the artists he’s worked with through the years have been, there’s one principle that has motivated his every choice: taste. If Rubin liked what he heard, it didn’t matter one bit whether it bore any relation to anything he’d done previously. He was willing to pursue it.
Rick Rubin is a bundle of contradictions. He was the white punk rock kid who helped introduce suburban America to the predominantly Black hip-hop genre. He then revived the careers of numerous aging rock legends long after the spotlight had shifted to others. He was the record company suit who staunchly refused to ever actually wear a suit. “After my initial success in rap, I started making rock records, and people said, ‘Why would you do this?’” he told The New York Times. “It’s always the same answer: ‘I’ve always liked doing the stuff that I like.’”
But how good is Rubin’s taste? And how effective has he been at getting the most of the hundreds of different personalities he’s encountered through the years? It’s clear that while many have been inspired by his hands-off, big-picture approach, others have left the Rick Rubin experience pining for a more involved, technically proficient presence. Nevertheless, there is a wealth of classic records and head-scratching bricks contained within his discography, and you could patch together a pretty compelling survey of the music industry over the past four decades by examining them. That’s largely what the list below seeks to do.
Not every album here was fully produced by Rubin. For some, he worked on only a single song. In one case—an exceptional case, to be sure—his contribution came exclusively through the mixing process. The thing that binds this collection together is that for good and bad, none of these 100 albums would exist in their present form if not for his influence.
One last note: These are not Rick Rubin’s albums. To whatever extent he was involved in their creation, they belong, as they always have, to the artists who actually did the work to create them. That’s the way the man would like it. “I never wanted the records I do to sound like my records,” he’s said. “I want a thread running through the records that’s about the artists, not about me. I think my recordings are honest, almost documentary-like, explorations of who the artists are.”
For better and worse, here are 100 real ones.
100. Limp Bizkit, Results May Vary (2003)
This is what happens when you give Fred Durst creative control over a record. While the cover of the Who’s “Behind Blue Eyes” is bad, the song “Eat You Alive,” which was allegedly inspired by a romantic engagement with Britney Spears—an affair that she has vehemently denied—is some unforgivably terrible, Metallica-lite trash.
99. Kula Shaker, Peasants, Pigs & Astronauts (1999)
98. Weezer, the “Red Album” (2008)
It was a struggle deciding whether to put this Weezer album or Make Believe in the lower spot on this list. But since the “Red Album” contains the song “Pork and Beans” and Make Believe does not, here we are.
97. Wu-Tang Clan, A Better Tomorrow (2014)
The Wu-Tang expanded universe is rife with classics and bricks alike, from the thrilling highs of Liquid Swords and Only Built 4 Cuban Linx to the disappointing lows of Mr. Xcitement and Tical O: The Prequel. And while there are some notable highlights on A Better Tomorrow—Method Man and GZA come alive on “Keep Watch”—this disjointed, uninspired effort falls into the latter category.
96. Kid Rock, Born Free (2010)
His name is Kiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiid … Kid Country?
95. Manmade God, Manmade God (2003)
94. Eagle-Eye Cherry, Living in the Present Future (2001)
93. Slayer, Diabolus in Musica (1998)
Slayer goes nü metal. Forgets people love öld metal.
92. Flipper, American Grafishy (1993)
91. Weezer, Make Believe (2005)
Though this album doesn’t contain “Pork and Beans,” it DOES contain an almost impressively cloying array of tracks like “We Are All on Drugs” and “Hold Me,” filled with big hooks and empty calories. Pinkerton this is not.
90. Eminem, Revival (2017)
Rubin nabbed credits for four of this album’s 19 songs, but one of those tracks, “Walk on Water,” features Beyoncé. You always wanna be the person who produced Beyoncé. You certainly don’t want to be the person who produced “Untouchable.”
The Merely OK
89. Red Hot Chili Peppers, I’m With You (2011)
Rubin produced six studio albums for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. His collaboration with Anthony Kiedis, Flea, Chad Smith, and whoever happened to be playing guitar at the time is the longest and most commercially fruitful relationship of his career. I’m With You represented the end of that relationship, at least for now. Though this album nabbed a Grammy nomination, Rubin and the band went separate ways after its release, with the Peppers electing to work with Danger Mouse on the The Getaway five years later. Though I’m With You doesn’t reach the highs Rubin and the Peppers were accustomed to, “Brendan’s Death Song” is an underrated gem.
88. Jake Bugg, Shangri La (2013)
87. Luna Halo, Luna Halo (2007)
86. Smashing Pumpkins, Shiny and Oh So Bright, Vol. 1 / LP: No Past. No Future. No Sun. (2018)
This is by no means Smashing Pumpkins’ worst album. It is, however, the one that feels the least essential. Rubin got vastly better results out of Billy Corgan when they collaborated on his solo album Ogilala just the year before. Either way, the 1975 wishes they dreamed up an album title this gloriously elaborate.
85. The Red Devils, King King (1992)
84. Four Horsemen, Nobody Said It Was Easy (1991)
83. Masters of Reality, Masters of Reality (1989)
82. Howlin’ Rain, The Russian Wilds (2012)
81. Angus & Julia Stone, Angus & Julia Stone (2014)
A brother-and-sister indie-folk rock duo from Sydney, Australia. Though they were broken up and pursuing solo careers when Rubin came calling, after some prolonged convincing they flew out to his Shangri-La Studio in Malibu and laid down some tracks. I wonder what the band Grizzly Bear thought about the song “Grizzly Bear.”
80. Saul Williams, Amethyst Rock Star (2001)
79. Linkin Park, A Thousand Suns (2010)
The album where Linkin Park tried to marry Public Enemy’s political consciousness, U2’s sweeping grandiosity, and Nine Inch Nails’ synth-fueled aggression. The closing, acoustic track “The Messenger” is hands-down the most affecting song here.
78. Melanie C, Northern Star (1999)
Northern Star is one of the most unexpected collaborations of Rubin’s career. You might not figure that a former Spice Girl and the founder of Def Jam Records would find common ground, but they somehow did. And while this Melanie C record isn’t the brightest highlight in Rubin’s discography, it has its moments. The single “Never Be the Same Again,” featuring a guest verse from Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, is certainly among them.
77. Kate Tempest, The Book of Traps and Lessons (2019)
76. Jakob Dylan, Seeing Things (2008)
Dylan is one of a handful of artists who came away from the Rick Rubin experience feeling underwhelmed. He later told Marc Maron on his WTF podcast that “I don’t need a guru,” and “I like everybody in the room to talk in musical terms.” To be fair when your dad is Bob Dylan, you’ve got all the gurus you need.
75. Lady Gaga, Artpop (2013)
The lone song Rubin produced on this underwhelming album, “Dope,” is a slow-building piano ballad that crests into a wall of synthetic, EDM bass notes. Both Gaga and Rubin have a litany of superior, slow-building piano ballads attached to their names elsewhere.
74. Yusuf, Tell ’Em I’m Gone (2014)
73. Sir Mix-A-Lot, Return of the Bumpasaurus (1996)
Thousands of producers have flipped the immortal “Apache” drumbeat, but few have ever done so with as much zeal as Sir Mix-A-Lot on “Jump on It.” It’s also not every day you hear someone shout out Tacoma, Kansas City, or Denver on a rap track.
72. Various Artists, Less Than Zero Soundtrack (1987)
The project that brought Rubin to Los Angeles. In fact, LL Cool J’s contribution to the soundtrack, “Going Back to Cali,” sprung from Rubin’s own reluctance to call the Golden State home. LL asked his producer for a concept he could rhyme about, and Rubin offered this one up. It was the last track that the pair have worked on together to date. The “Hazy Shade of Winter” cover by the Bangles is pretty excellent too.
71. Johnny Cash, American V: A Hundred Highways (2006)
The one where Johnny Cash covers Bruce Springsteen.
70. Gossip, Music for Men (2009)
69. The Strokes, The New Abnormal (2020)
Rubin’s most recent entry on this list and maybe the best Strokes album since First Impressions of Earth in 2005. “Brooklyn Bridge to Chorus” is the droll dance-rock anthem we need in 2020.
68. Neil Diamond, 12 Songs (2005)
Let me tell you something about Rick Rubin: Rick Rubin loves Neil Diamond. Rick Rubin loves Neil Diamond so much that he almost turned down the job of running Columbia Records in 2007 because of the way it mishandled the release of this album. Columbia included some spyware on the physical CD copies of 12 Songs to prevent it from being pirated online. People found out, there was a dust-up in the media, lawsuits were filed, and Columbia pulled the CDs from the shelves. “We came out on a Tuesday, by the following week the CD was not available,” Rubin told The New York Times. “Columbia released it again in a month, but we never recovered.” It’s a shame, because there’s some good songwriting among these 12 Songs. Rubin was keen to apply the Johnny Cash treatment to Diamond, convincing him to pare things down and bringing in an all-star collection of performers to accompany him, including Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers alumni Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench, as well as Billy Preston. Brian Wilson even added guest vocals to a bonus 14th song titled “Delirious Love.” Despite the semi-bungled rollout, Diamond and Rubin enjoyed their collaboration and worked together again on the follow-up to this record, Home Before Dark, which, at the time, made the singer the oldest performer ever to chart a no. 1 album.
67. Johnny Cash, American Recordings III: Solitary Man (2000)
The one where Johnny Cash covers U2.
66. James Blake, The Colour in Anything (2016)
65. Slipknot, Vol. 3 (The Subliminal Verses) (2004)
Not as great as the first two Slipknot records, but to be fair, it’s historically difficult to nail the third installment of a trilogy. Just ask Godfather III, Blade Trinity, or The Matrix: Revolutions. Fortunately, Vol. 3 (The Subliminal Verses) avoids the fate of those maligned efforts with epic nu metal chuggers like “Duality” and “Welcome.”
64. Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz, Crunk Juice (2004)
Lil Jon handled most of the production duties on Crunk Juice, but Rubin’s contribution, “Stop Fuckin’ Wit Me,” hits as hard as anything on the entire record. The sample of Slayer’s “South of Heaven” is inspired.
63. Johnny Cash, American VI: Ain’t No Grave (2010)
The one where Johnny Cash covers Sheryl Crow.
62. Red Hot Chili Peppers, One Hot Minute (1995)
One Hot Minute is the only Chili Peppers album to feature guitarist Dave Navarro, who took over after John Frusciante quit the first time. It was largely written while lead singer Anthony Kiedis was battling a renewed addiction to opiates, and by most accounts the process was painfully slow. With Navarro in the fold, the band drifted from their funk aesthetic and embraced hard rock riffage on songs like “Warped,” “Coffee Shop,” and “Shallow Be Thy Game.” Three years later, Navarro was shown the door, and Frusciante was back once again, dreaming of Californication.
61. Dan Baird, Love Songs for the Hearing Impaired (1992)
60. Santana, Africa Speaks (2019)
59. Wolfsbane, Live Fast, Die Fast: Wicked Tales of Booze, Birds and Bad Language (1989)
58. Eminem, The Marshall Mathers LP 2 (2013)
The best part of The Marshall Mathers LP 2 is 100 percent, no question the “Berzerk” video, featuring a certain super-producer mean-mugging in front of a gigantic boombox.
57. Billy Corgan, Ogilala (2017)
56. GoldLink, And After That We Didn’t Talk (2015)
55. Ed Sheeran, x (2014)
I haven’t written a word yet, and you already have “Thinking Out Loud” stuck in your head, don’t you? My bad.
54. Lana Del Rey, Paradise (2012)
Technically, Paradise is an EP released 10 months after Del Rey’s breakthrough full-length, Born to Die. But at 33 minutes long, it’s still five minutes longer than Slayer’s Reign in Blood. Rubin’s contribution came on “Ride,” a hazy elegy filled with pounding tom-toms and a stirring string section. Prime Lana.
53. Linkin Park, Minutes to Midnight (2007)
This album didn’t shake the world with the same magnitude that Hybrid Theory or Meteora did, but some of its peaks are just as high. “Bleed It Out” was the final song that Chester Bennington sang before his death, at Linkin Park’s final show in July 2017. It’s a song that demanded everything from him, and he rarely failed to deliver in awe-inspiring fashion.
52. Audioslave, Out of Exile (2005)
51. Rage Against the Machine, Renegades (2000)
Typically, a covers album is the surest sign that a band has run out of ideas. But Renegades, released shortly before Rage called it quits for the first time, is one of the more thoughtful, bombastic ones you’ll ever hear. “Renegades of Funk” is an inspired interpretation, as is “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” but I can’t think of a more fitting group to tackle the MC5’s “Kick Out the Jams.”
50. Slayer, South of Heaven (1988)
49. Macy Gray, The Id (2001)
48. Danzig, Danzig II: Lucifuge (1990)
47. System of a Down, Steal This Album! (2002)
What better way to discourage rampant internet piracy than by imploring your fans to pocket your latest album? Admittedly, not a great strategy to bolster the record company bottom line, but the clout!
46. Various Artists, Chef Aid: The South Park Album (1998)
A soundtrack that’s supposed to sound like a full concert recording, where Isaac Hayes performs as his animated alter ego, Chef. Ozzy Osbourne jumping on a track with DMX scored by an EDM duo named the Crystal Method is some deeply 1998 shit.
45. ZZ Top, La Futura (2012)
44. Mick Jagger, Wandering Spirit (1993)
Jagger’s lone solo album released in the ’90s. The duet of Bill Withers’s “Use Me” performed with Lenny Kravitz is one of the wildest things you’ll ever hear.
43. AC/DC, Ballbreaker (1995)
Can you believe it took AC/DC 20 years and 12 albums before they put out a record called Ballbreaker? A massive show of restraint from the Aussie/English rockers. Rubin first worked with AC/DC two years prior to this record on “Big Gun” for the Arnold Schwarzenegger film The Last Action Hero, and the band apparently liked the results. Unfortunately, the Ballbreaker sessions were reportedly fraught. They began at the Record Plant in New York City, before moving west to Ocean Way in L.A. after banging their heads against a wall trying to get drummer Phil Rudd’s kit to sound right. Rubin and Malcolm Young are also said to have clashed over the album’s direction, and the rhythm guitarist was by no means happy about the repeated takes that the producer requested. In the end, the results speak for themselves. Sometimes all you need is three chords, a Marshall stack, and some very unsubtle innuendo to achieve greatness.
42. Justin Timberlake, FutureSex/LoveSounds (2006)
Rubin’s big contribution to Timberlake’s second solo album is the molasses-slow “(Another Song) All Over Again.” To help inspire Timberlake, Rubin posed a question: “He said, ‘If you were to write a song for Donny Hathaway, what would it sound like?” the pop singer recalled. “‘Then sing it and make it your own.’” Timberlake thought about it, wrote lyrics, popped over to Neil Diamond’s studio, and laid it down. He placed “(Another Song) All Over Again” at the very end of the record—the last word on FutureSex/LoveSounds.
41. LL Cool J, Walking With a Panther (1989)
40. Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros, Streetcore (2003)
Joe Strummer died before he could finish Streetcore. He didn’t even get the chance to lay down vocals for the song “Midnight Jam.” Nevertheless, it remains a fitting, final statement from the onetime leader of the mighty Clash. Songs like “Get Down Moses” and “Coma Girl” rank among his finest.
39. Tom Petty, Echo (1999)
The period through the late ’90s, just after Petty released Wildflowers, was perhaps the darkest of his life, as his marriage ended and he began to clandestinely experiment with heroin. You can hear Petty’s inner conflict all across Echo. “Counting on You” alone will rip your guts out. Ultimately, Rubin interceded to try to get Petty help. “He finally dealt with it by going behind my back and telling my kids,” Petty told biographer Warren Zanes. “I was pissed off for a long time.” Echo was the final album that Petty and Rubin collaborated on together.
38. Red Hot Chili Peppers, By the Way (2002)
The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ eighth studio is their mellowest. Frusciante unfurls a few gnarly solos, but the record is stacked with sweet-sounding ballads.
37. Sir Mix-A-Lot, Mack Daddy (1992)
Do you know who the first Seattle artist was to hit no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100? A few hints:
It wasn’t Jimi Hendrix or Heart.
It wasn’t Nirvana or Pearl Jam or Alice in Chains or Soundgarden.
It also wasn’t Death Cab For Cutie or Macklemore.
It was Sir Mix-a-Lot, and it was for “Baby Got Back.” It was on Mack Daddy, and it was glorious.
36. Metallica, Death Magnetic (2008)
Metallica had a lot riding on the success of Death Magnetic. Despite going double-platinum, their last album, St. Anger, was a highly publicized critical flop. Combined with the Napster debacle and the inner-strife captured in Some Kind Of Monster, Metallica felt pressure to right the ship. So, for the first time since …And Justice For All in 1988, they worked with someone other than Bob Rock. Rubin told them to think back and try to recapture their mindset when they recorded Master of Puppets. He also pushed them to perform together in the studio while laying down basic tracks. But perhaps most importantly, he stayed out of their way. “The great thing about working with Rick is he’s never around,” Kirk Hammett told MTV. “Rick was there for part of that process—when we recorded drums and vocals—but the fact that we were isolated in our studio, working on the songs ourselves, made a big difference, because it kept our sound pure. We got more Metallica that way than we had previously with Bob Rock.”
35. Tom Petty, Songs and Music From “She’s the One” (1996)
A rare soundtrack that’s miles better than its film. It is kind of odd that Tom Petty wrote a soundtrack for a movie named after a Springsteen cut. Check out “Hung Up and Overdue” to hear a mini-Beatles reunion between Ringo Starr on drums and George Harrison on slide guitar.
34. Trouble, Trouble (1990)
Trouble is one of the defining bands of the doom-metal movement. The Illinois-based band signed to American Records after three influential albums in the 1980s. The resulting self-titled album sounds like a meld of Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, Shout at the Devil, and Louder Than Love.
33. Slayer, Seasons in the Abyss (1990)
When Slayer went, “Dun—dun-dun-DUN! [impossibly fast guitar riffage]” during the opening to “War Ensemble” … I felt that shit.
32. The Avett Brothers, I And Love And You (2009)
Rubin has produced five albums for the Avett Brothers, including 2019’s Closer Than Together. Yet their first collaboration remains their best. James Taylor wishes he’d written “Ten Thousand Words.”
31. Run-DMC, Tougher Than Leather (1988)
I shouldn’t have to tell you that “Run’s House” and “Mary Mary” are classics. But I can tell you about Tougher Than Leather, which was released in conjunction with this album and stars Run-DMC, the Beastie Boys, and Slick Rick. It was written and directed by Rick Rubin, who also plays a criminal named Vic Ferrante who murders Run-DMC’s friend Runny Ray. It’s less than an hour-and-a-half long and it’s available on YouTube.
30. Danzig, Danzig III: How the Gods Kill (1992)
Many consider this to be the best Danzig album. I watched Glenn and the band perform the entire thing a few years back. “Dirty Black Summer” ruled.
29. Johnny Cash, Unchained (1996)
The one in which Johnny Cash covers Soundgarden.
28. Geto Boys, The Geto Boys (1989)
Many couldn’t see past the violent imagery in this remix album to hear the excellence lurking underneath. That said, rapping in exact detail about necrophilia and violent, bloody dismemberment is admittedly … a lot. One person who couldn’t get over the content was distributor David Geffen, who begged Rubin not to release the record. Rubin refused. “I thought the art was good,” he told The New York Times. “As a fan, the Geto Boys were thrilling in the same way that a horror movie might be thrilling.” The Geto Boys was ultimately released by Warner Bros. Records instead. “Fuck Em,” right?
27. Red Hot Chili Peppers, Stadium Arcadium (2006)
Some may say that 28 tracks are far too many to include on a single album. They may argue that releasing a double CD’s worth of material that runs more than two hours is ridiculously self-indulgent. They might listen to songs like “Wet Sand” or “Death Of A Martian” and ask: Is this really necessary? To those people, I would say: It isn’t, it absolutely is, and hell yes!
26. Black Sabbath, 13 (2013)
Rubin tried to work with Black Sabbath in 2001, but the sessions never moved past the jamming stage. A dozen years later, the metal icons rejoined again and attempted to go out on a high note. It wasn’t an easy process. Because of guitarist Tony Iommi’s cancer diagnosis, the band recorded near his U.K. home rather than the L.A. confines Rubin preferred. And due to legal, financial, and personal factors, original drummer Bill Ward was not invited to participate. Rage Against the Machine drummer Brad Wilk took his place. Despite the obstacles, the band proved that their chemistry had lost little potency. The mood remained sinister, the riffs punishing, and Ozzy’s voice as foreboding. The acoustic “Zeitgeist” is as mesmerizing as anything from their heyday.
25. Shakira, Fijación Oral, Vol. 1 & 2 (2005)
Working with Shakira may seem like a massive left turn for Rubin, but as he explained to Zane Lowe, she’s really a singer-songwriter working in a pop-star system. “At the time we got together she was essentially … a rock musician,” he explained.
The Pretty Excellent
24. Brandi Carlile, Give Up the Ghost (2009)
“Caroline,” the duet with Elton John, rightfully gets a lot of the attention, but do me a favor: Stop reading right now, crank up “Pride And Joy,” and tell me that’s not one of the most incredible voices you’ve ever heard.
23. The Cult, Electric (1987)
Rubin probably should’ve been hard at work editing his footage for the Run-DMC film Tougher Than Leather and turning it into a coherent film, but he instead produced an album with these British hard rockers. This was probably a wise choice. The Cult planned to work with Steve Brown, who helped craft their blockbuster second album, Love. After working on a dozen different tracks at Manor Studio in Oxfordshire however, they called Rubin for help. The Reducer went to work, stripping down Billy Duffy’s rhythm guitar parts and sticking Ian Astbury’s vocals at the very front. Every song feels like a punch to the jaw; none so more than “Love Removal Machine.”
22. Jay-Z, The Black Album (2003)
Rubin produced only one song on Jay-Z’s “retirement album,” but good god, what a song! The inspiration behind “99 Problems” came from Chris Rock, who suggested to Rubin that Jay could make something using a line from a similarly named Ice-T track as inspiration: “I got 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one.” Hov agreed, and after Rubin and Co. put together a bombastic array of 808s drums reminiscent of the early Def Jam aesthetic, he let loose a powerful narrative about the limits of the law that professors would one day use in class.
21. The Black Crowes, Shake Your Money Maker (1990)
Rubin didn’t do much studio work to earn his producer credit on here. Almost all of the musical decision-making and production was handled by George Drakoulias. But as the guy signing the checks at Def American, he made one very important point. He told the band, who at that point were called Mr. Crowe’s Garden, they needed a new name. He pitched a few Southern-fried monikers that the band hated, so much so that Chris Robinson reportedly threatened to kick the producer’s ass. Ultimately, they settled on the Black Crowes. The debut went triple-platinum and the band sold another 30 million albums throughout their tumultuous career.
20. Dixie Chicks, Taking the Long Way (2006)
This was the first album the Dixie Chicks dropped after Natalie Maines told a crowd at a show in London, on the eve of the Iraq War, that she was “ashamed that the president of the United States was from Texas.” The Chicks responded to the furor from country music fans by telling the world that they were “Not Ready to Make Nice.” Taking the Long Way eventually earned the trio an Album of the Year and Country Album of the Year Grammy in 2007, bringing their total Grammy haul up to 13. Toby Keith has yet to win one.
19. Public Enemy, Yo! Bum Rush the Show (1987)
Rubin was one of the earliest fans of Chuck D. He loved the records Chuck put out in the early ’80s under the name Spectrum City, and had a Post-It note taped to his phone with the MC’s number, so that every time he was nearby, he’d remember to give him a call and try to sign him to Def Jam. Chuck consistently begged off. Rubin persisted, especially once DMC played him an early, minute-long cut of “Public Enemy No. 1.” After months, Chuck D relented. He’d sign with Def Jam, but not as a solo artist—only if he could bring the whole crew, hip-hop’s version of the Clash. The choice was a no-brainer for Rubin, a huge Clash fan. Public Enemy became one of the most pro-Black groups on the planet, and Yo! Bum Rush the Show became one of the fastest-selling hip-hop albums of the 1980s.
18. Danzig, Danzig (1998)
There are an astounding number of songs written about mothers: “Dear Mama” by Tupac, “A Song for Mama” by Boyz II Men, “Julia,” by the Beatles, “Hey Mama,” by Kanye West to name just a few. But do any of them rock harder than “Mother” by Danzig?
“Twist of Cain” also knocks.
17. Johnny Cash, American Recordings (1994)
The one in which Johnny Cash covers Glenn Danzig.
16. System of a Down, System of a Down (1998)
This is one of the great introductions in the history of alternative metal. Just a full-blown gothic punch to the solar plexus.
15. Kanye West, The Life of Pablo (2016)
Songs on The Life of Pablo ranked:
20. “Freestyle 4”
19. “Frank’s Track”
18. “Siiiiiiiiilver Surffffeeeeer Intermission”
17. “Low Lights”
15. “I Love Kanye”
14. “Saint Pablo”
13. “Facts (Charlie Heat Version)
9. “30 Hours”
7. “Pt. 2”
6. “Real Friends”
4. “No More Parties In LA”
3. “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1”
1. “Ultralight Beam”
14. Red Hot Chili Peppers, Californication (1999)
Frusicante’s back, baby! After leaving the band following Blood Sugar Sex Magik in 1991, the guitarist was invited back after he entered rehab and kicked his addictions to heroin, cocaine, and alcohol. Frusciante took up yoga, abstained from sex, and adopted a healthier lifestyle while composing some of his best work. The group had someone else in mind to produce Californication before the sessions began: David Bowie. Unfortunately for the Peppers—or fortunately, all things considered—the Thin White Duke was busy, and they decided to go with their bearded sage again.
13. Lucinda Williams, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (1998)
Although Rubin didn’t produce Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, he signed Williams to his label American Recordings and was instrumental in presenting this superb collection to the world. Williams worked with many producers on this record, beginning with her longtime collaborator Gurf Morlix. Then Steve Earle took over, before ceding the responsibilities to the E Street Band’s resident professor, Roy Bittan. When the time came to mix the album however, Rubin became involved. Rubin and engineer Jim Scott honed its sound to its most basic elements, giving room for Williams to shine as she poured her heart out.
12. Audioslave, Audioslave (2002)
After Rage Against the Machine disbanded in 2000, its three instrumentalists gathered at Rubin’s house to plot their next steps. Rubin had produced the band’s last album, Renegades, and was eager to help guide their next project. Tom Morello, Brad Wilk, and Timothy Commerford knew they wanted to keep making music together, but they didn’t know what their future looked like. That’s when their producer threw on Soundgarden’s lacerating Badmotorfinger cut “Slaves & Bulldozers.” As Chris Cornell’s stratospheric voice filled the room, the way forward suddenly became clear. The subsequent self-titled album is an action-packed collection of soaring ballads and lacerating hard-rock anthems. Cornell’s show-stopping screams on “Cochise,” “Shadow on the Sun,” and “Like a Stone” collided with Morello’s stultifying guitar acrobatics. Critics largely hated Audioslave when it first debuted—Pitchfork afforded it a lowly score of 1.7 out of 10— but audiences loved the record. It didn’t take long to turn triple platinum.
11. LL Cool J, Radio (1985)
In 1984, a 16-year-old from Long Island named James Todd Smith heard a new 12-inch single titled “It’s Yours” by an artist named T La Rock. He loved what he heard, and he noticed the producer’s phone number was listed on the back. The teenager, who would one day become LL Cool J, called incessantly trying to get the man on the other end to give him a chance, until finally, thanks to some prodding from Rubin’s friend Ad-Rock, Rubin threw on the kid’s demo tape. He liked what he heard and took it to his business partner Russell Simmons, who found the rhymes unremarkable. But Rubin felt he was onto something. “He was much better than anything else I heard,” Rubin recalled in 2007. “And he still is. ‘I Need a Beat,’ LL’s first single, was the real birth of Def Jam.” That single was just the beginning. The album the pair subsequently produced—brimming with braggadocious swagger, youthful exuberance, and charisma—changed everything. It sold 500,000 copies in its first five months and produced era-defining singles like “I Can’t Live Without My Radio,” “I Can Give You More,” and “Rock the Bells.” Def Jam became an empire. LL Cool J became a superstar. And Rubin became one of the most in-demand tastemakers on earth.
10. System of a Down, Toxicity (2001)
There just aren’t any records that sound quite like Toxicity. It’s a bracing, 44-minute-long assault on your ears and mind; a 14-track collection that melds together elements of metal, classical, jazz, prog, folk, the Armenia heritage, and the American condition. “The beauty of System of a Down is that it’s so weird and so groovy but hard as fuck,” Rubin explained. Toxicity was released on September 4, 2001, and was the no. 1 album when the Twin Towers fell. Songs like “Aerials,” “Chop Suey!” and the title track will forever be linked to that tragic chapter.
9. Beastie Boys, Licensed to Ill (1986)
A few important statistics about Licensed To Ill:
- It’s the first and only album Rick Rubin produced with the Beastie Boys.
- It was the first hip-hop album to hit no. 1.
- Seven of the album’s 13 tracks were released as singles, but only one “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party!)” hit the top 10. It remains the group’s highest-charting single.
- The album contains three different Led Zeppelin samples, two writing credits for Run and DMC, and one Kerry King guitar solo.
- Ten million copies sold and counting.
8. Red Hot Chili Peppers, Blood Sugar Sex Magik (1991)
Rubin and Chili Peppers’ first collaboration remains their best. On Blood Sugar Sex Magik, Rubin sought to help the band unlock their inner Beach Boys. He put them up in a mansion, built a recording studio, and lent them his personal chef. For a month, they lived, worked, painted, and recorded in the seemingly haunted space, producing some of the most affecting material of their lives. Though Rubin’s attempt to push Anthony Kiedis to write a song about girls and cars like “The Greeting Song” didn’t always measure up to Brian Wilson’s lofty bar of excellence, the singer found a great deal of success writing about his personal experiences on “Breaking The Girl” and “Under the Bridge.” Actually, “Under the Bridge” probably wouldn’t exist if not for Rubin randomly flipping through one of Kiedis’s notebooks one day and stumbling on the simple, handwritten poem. Kiedis worried that it would sound too slow, too melodic, and too dramatic for the band. But Rubin pushed. John Frusciante helped him figure out a nice chord progression, and the rest is history.
7. Adele, 21 (2011)
The best-selling album of the 21st century, and it’s not even close. Thirty-one million copies sold worldwide. What else is there to say?
6. Slayer, Reign in Blood (1986)
Any list of the greatest heavy metal albums of all time that doesn’t include Slayer’s third record in the top five should be ignored. The Huntington Park foursome needed only 28 minutes to make their case, and they did so in beautifully aggressive, breakneck speed while changing the trajectory of the genre. “It’s as if they were speaking a different musical language than the rest of the world,” Rubin said.
5. Public Enemy, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988)
Sometimes, the mark of a great producer is recognizing great talent and simply getting out of the way. Rubin was a Public Enemy fan first and foremost and he saw his role as executive producer as more of an adviser one, allowing Chuck D, Terminator X, Professor Griff, the S1W’s, and the Bomb Squad the freedom to create. “I really trusted them to make the music that they wanted to make, and the way The Bomb Squad worked with them … they created their whole own world of music,” he said in 2013. While the group’s debut Yo! Bum Rush The Show left its mark, It Takes a Nation of Millions was a monumental, sonic assault of America and its hundreds of years of systemic ills. It’s Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On for a new generation, but louder, and infinitely more raw. On “Rebel Without a Pause,” Chuck D rapped, “They praised the music, this time they play the lyrics.” With anthems like “Don’t Believe The Hype” and “Night Of The Living Baseheads” it was impossible not to listen.
4. Tom Petty, Wildflowers (1994)
Wildflowers is the result of one of the most incredible explosions of creativity from one of America’s most consistently incredible songwriters. It sits like Mount Everest, towering ever-so-slightly above the Himalayas of Petty’s discography. With his marriage failing, Petty channeled his pain, and songs exploded out of him almost as fast as he could commit them to tape. The album includes incredible tunes like “Wake Up Time,” on which he thinks back to that cool high school kid he used to be and wonders, “What happened?” “It’s Good To Be King” is a sprawling, almost sardonic glimpse at what life is like at the top. On “House In The Woods,” “Wildflowers,” and “To Find A Friend,” he yearns for a simple existence spent in the company of someone to love. Petty wrote so much music for Wildflowers that some of the best material—“Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” for instance—weren’t on the final tracklist. “He told me Wildflowers scares him, because he’s not really sure why it’s as good as it is,” Rubin said on the Broken Record podcast. “It has this, like, haunted feeling for him.”
3. Kanye West, Yeezus (2013)
When Kanye West approached Rubin in 2013 to help him complete his sixth studio record, he brought along a rough cut that ran more than three hours long. And it still wasn’t finished. Five songs didn’t even have vocals yet, and the deadline to turn it in was weeks away. In previous years, on projects like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and the Jay-Z collab Watch The Throne, West had embraced maximalism. Now, he was asking music’s most successful reducer to help tear it back. Rubin got out the shears, slashing every nonessential sonic element, until it became a skeletal, 40-minute exercise in raw aggression and angst. A prime example of the energy Rubin brought can be found in its finale, “Bound 2.” West’s original vision was more of a straight-ahead R&B track. Rubin heard the song and thought instead about the ’70s New York punk group Suicide. He pulled everything out but the sample and a distorted bassline over which Charlie Wilson soared during the chorus. It’s certainly possible that West’s original, bloated designs for Yeezus would’ve received its share of adulation, but through Rubin’s guidance, it became a serrated, minimalist masterpiece.
2. Run-DMC, Raising Hell (1986)
At first there was rock, and it was good. But then, there was rap and it was also good! And then along came Run-DMC and Rubin who thought, “Well, this one thing is good … and this other thing is good … what if we … put them together???”
Raising Hell was pretty much complete by the time Rubin suggested they flip Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way” into an entirely new track. He still felt, however, that the album needed another element before it was finished, and pushed Run and DMC to write some lyrics for the song. After some persuasion from Jam Master Jay and Russell Simmons, they gave in. Steven Tyler and Joe Perry got an $8,000 check, and the barrier between the two genres was obliterated. Along the way, Run-DMC also single-handedly made Adidas THE apparel of choice among America’s youth long before Kanye and laid down “It’s Tricky” and “You Be Illin’.” Raising Hell became the first rap album to earn a platinum plaque. Between this album, Licensed To Ill, and Reign In Blood, 1986 remains the high-water mark of Rubin’s creative life.
1. Johnny Cash, American IV: The Man Comes Around (2002)
It’s difficult to appreciate the nadir Johnny Cash’s career had reached before Rubin came along. No longer a hot commodity by the 1990s, the Man in Black was touring the casino circuit and playing to dwindling crowds. Cash later said in his autobiography that his label Mercury pressed only 500 copies of 1991’s The Mystery of Life, which was an exaggeration, but not a big one.
But in Cash, Rubin saw an opportunity to work with one of music’s greatest voices. “What I came to realize about that whole Johnny Cash experience was that he was a great storyteller,” the producer told Genius in 2015. “The song didn’t matter—all that mattered were the words.” Rubin understood that if the mythical character of “Johnny Cash” were saying those words, people would feel them.
Released 10 months before Cash died, American IV: The Man Comes Around remains the perfect culmination of their creative relationship. Listening to it can feel like witnessing a man delivering his own eulogy. From the opening track, “The Man Comes Around,” to the duets with Fiona Apple and Nick Cave, the acoustic rendition of Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” put together by John Frusciante, and Cash’s mesmerizing take on the mournful Nine Inch Nails ballad “Hurt,” it’s a record brimming with sadness and wisdom.
Ultimately, there is one guiding principle that led Rubin to work with Johnny Cash in the twilight of his career, and it’s the same one that informed nearly every choice he made along his incomparable 35-year run in the music industry. Whether it was the early Def Jam projects with the Beastie Boys and Run-DMC, the metal records he made with Danzig and Slayer, or the commercial pop projects and veteran rock records, the end goal was always the same. “From the beginning, all I’ve ever cared about is things being great,” he once said. “The things that can’t be a factor are time, chart position, radio success, sales—none of those things can get in the way of something being great.”
Corbin Reiff is a music writer based in Seattle. His next book, Total F*cking Godhead: The Biography of Chris Cornell, comes out in July.