The Five Weirdest, Worst Production Choices Famous Musicians Have Made

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

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MadMac topcommenter

Hm, wasn't 1999 about the time Dave said he was retiring due to a guitar-hand-crippling-motorcycle crash no one could find record of?

I know this is all A-listers but it's not exclusive to them. Corinne Bailey Rae's second release, "The Sea," sounds as if it was recorded at the bottom of a swimming pool. It's all low tones and chlorine. I truly love her voice and writing but listening to this album is a chore. 

Good stuff, Mr. Deiterman.

Ramon Shick
Ramon Shick

Am I the only person who likes St. Anger?


@MadMac I seem to remember actually enjoying The Sea without noticing any significant issues with its production, but it has been since the year it was released that I've given it a play. I do love her voice and writing, though.

As for Megadeth, actually, that was the story Dave started giving after The World Needs a Hero flopped (although much less exciting than a mysterious undocumented motorcycle crash, which was actually the classic Bob Dylan retirement story - Dave said it was from getting drunk and hanging his arm over a chair too long incurring what's known as Saturday night wrist). Two years later he was somehow back in top form and ready to go for a new Megadeth album, sans everyone who had been in the band before his injury. For what it's worth, bassist Dave Ellefson filed suit against him then and claimed the injury was faked to get out of honoring commitments to the label and the rest of the band, but he lost the suit if I remember correctly (they may have just settled). He has since made amends with Mustaine and rejoined like nothing ever happened. Crazy stuff.

MadMac topcommenter

Politics and bedfellows, cash and prostitues. Remember how Tommy Lee slammed, ripped, and flamed Vince but when the bank got low, he jumped right back on the track to turn his trick.

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