Over the course of a remarkable career now spanning four decades, Rick Rubin has established himself as one of the music industry’s most powerful figures — both behind the corporate scenes and on the front lines of the creative process. Even if he had stayed put with Def Jam Records, the hip-hop label he famously founded in his college dorm room, Rubin’s place in music history would have already been secured. Yet by branching out with his production ambitions (not to mention his spin-off Def American and then simply American Recordings), Rubin slowly built a resume as super producer, virtually without peer in terms of producing music of all stripes and styles. But we’ll dispense with some of that eclecticism for now in order to compile the Top 10 Rick Rubin Classic Rock Albums.
We begin our list of the Top 10 Rick Rubin Classic Rock Albums with one of the producer’s most recent superstar reclamation projects: boogie blues titans ZZ Top. Before he was tapped to join the group in the studio, the three amigos from Tejas had gone nearly a decade since their most recent LP, Mescalero, but with Rubin’s help they not only got back on the horse, but achieved the return-to-form fans hoped for.
You’ll have to forgive us as we shy away from universally renowned platinum acts for a moment, but Chicago doom metal institution, Trouble, is but one of the many cult bands (see also Wolfsbane, The Four Horsemen, etc.) whose cause was championed by Rick Rubin — particularly during the formative years of his Def American label. And, via Trouble’s fourth, frankly spectacular 1990 LP, Rubin’s name did underground metal a great service by mere association, as it helped expose both the band and one of the finest doom albums of the decade.
'12 Songs' (2005)Neil Diamond
Rick Rubin’s renowned partnership with country music legend Johnny Cash is already the stuff of legend, but in 2005, the producer came to work with another popular songwriter of comparable pedigree in ‘60s and ‘70s hit maker Neil Diamond. Like Cash, Diamond had seen his legacy unfairly tarnished by ill-advised career moves and unsympathetic pop productions, so while the spartanly recorded 12 Songs could not quite match the sales of Cash’s LPs, it too successfully reminded the world of Diamond’s incredible talents.
When the infamous, original lineup of Black Sabbath finally reunited (minus drummer Bill Ward, regrettably) to record their first studio album in 35 years, there was no one else to call but Rick Rubin, who immediately instructed them to revisit their classic ‘70s discography. Then, their homework assignments completed, not even guitarist Tony Iommi’s troubling Lymphoma diagnosis could impede heavy metal’s old iron horse from delivering another highly respectable, if not quite unanimously praised, musical column to hoist up their grim Gothic cathedral.
'Death Magnetic' (2008)Metallica
The next offering in our list of Top 10 Rick Rubin Classic Rock Albums probably best exemplifies the producer’s reputation as a career-saver. After all, not too many bands have experienced twin, self-inflicted PR disasters like Metallica did with their ill-judged fight against Napster and the legend-eviscerating feature film, Some Kind of Monster. Rubin swooped in to turn their ship around with 2008’s Death Magnetic, which succeeded at least in part in reminding the heavy metal titans of the music that made them famous in the first place.
He damn near drove them crazy in the process, but you have to admit that Rick Rubin squeezed the best results out of AC/DC throughout the rock solid Ballbreaker LP. In fact, so exacting was Rick’s purist viewpoint during the album’s recording, that not only did test the Young brothers' patience by asking them to write and rewrite songs until they were ready, but he even chased down very rare vacuum tube amplifiers capable of duplicating the band’s ‘70s sound to perfection.
'Wandering Spirit' (1993)Mick Jagger
After giving Keith Richards tons of ammunition with which to blame him for breaking up the Rolling Stones, Mick Jagger finally made up for the offenses committed by his first two solo albums with the excellent third, Wandering Spirit. The difference? Why Rick Rubin sitting in the producer’s chair, with his ample beard, bare feet, and Zen wisdom all guiding Jagger to once again tap into his blues and rock roots instead of kowtowing to the pop charts and passing trends he should by all rights fly above.
'Electric' (1987)The Cult
A pivotal album in Rick Rubin’s burgeoning production career when it arrived in 1987, Electric showed he was more than a hip-hop specialist capable of freelancing on the occasional Slayer album. On top of that, Electric was a fantastic record by any definition, one that simultaneously reinvented the Cult’s image and sound, while breaking them in America on the strength of enduring biker anthems like "Wild Flower," "Lil’ Devil" and "Love Removal Machine." Along the way, the LP also paved the way for Rick’s crossover into rock and sowed the seeds for his future successes.
'Blood Sugar Sex Magik' (1991)Red Hot Chili Peppers
The Red Hot Chili Peppers had survived unimaginable tragedy and then, against all odds, showed renewed and even untapped potential with 1989’s Mother’s Milk, but it took Rick Rubin’s recruitment as producer to push 1991’s Blood Sugar Sex Magik over the top. The album’s eclectic collection of musical styles may stretch the basic definition of classic rock but, 13 million copies later, it remains the band’s most influential best-seller and, arguably, their definitive career statement, not to mention one of Rick’s greatest achievements.
’Wildflowers’ (1994)Tom Petty
And the number one spot in our list of the Top 10 Rick Rubin Classic Rock Albums goes to his collaboration with Tom Petty, on the latter’s second official solo sojourn though he was backed by his faithful Heartbreakers. And, as with the best Rick Rubin productions, Wildflowers dispensed with fancy studio tricks and digital gimmickry in order to highlight Petty’s songwriting at its purest and rootsiest. To our mind, there’s no better endorsement for Rick Rubin’s career-long obsession with helping great artists first observe and then project their most honest artistic reflection through song.