Throughout the last seven decades of popular music there have been some hugely successful artist and producer partnerships. Here we trace the most dynamic of such duos, the pop star and record producer mind-melds that have produced the biggest and best songs in music history. Yes, it's time for the humble record producer to take centre stage with their proteges.
Behind every great song there is a great artist, and behind every great artist there is a great producer. Someone probably said once. And while not all recording artists will admit it, it is very often their producer that must take some of – if not a lot of – the credit behind their success. A brilliant record producer is able to do everything from keeping a band in sandwiches to determining their sound and studio recording processes.
Very often artists choose to work with different record producers every time they embark on a new project. Just ask Madonna. She has chosen to mostly work with different producers as her musical moods and images change over the years, and she can now count some of the biggest and coolest names in production as collaborators, including Patrick Leonard, Mirwais Ahmadzaï, William Orbit, Max Martin, Mark 'Spike' Stent and Nile Rodgers.
But then there are the artists who like the security blanket of one or just a handful of collaborators – better the devil you know and all that. And it's these artists we are focusing on here. These producers might have made regular appearances over long careers – think Visconti and Bowie's five-decade long relationship – or been with the artists every step of the way.
Either way, here are the production partnerships that have defined the music we know and love today.
David Bowie and Tony Visconti
While Tony Visconti certainly didn't produce every David Bowie album, he was involved in (arguably) the most important, and also produced the track Heroes, and that song alone makes him our number one Bowie producer.
The duo first started working together on Bowie's second album, and second to be self-titled, although it would later become known as Space Oddity thanks to its most successful track of the same name.
Visconti's career with Bowie didn't get off to the finest of starts, though, as he handed the production duties of the track Space Oddity over to Gus Dudgeon, considering it too much of a novelty record.
Later albums cemented their partnership though, and Visconti would team up with Bowie for his next record, The Man Who Sold The World and, later, Young Americans.
But it was the Berlin trilogy of albums that put their artist and producer partnership on the historical map, with Low, Heroes and Lodger now widely regarded as Bowie's greatest long players – not in terms of chart success, maybe, but certainly in terms of the recording techniques and sonic ground covered across all three recordings.
Visconti would regularly return to produce further albums including the brilliant Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) and Bowie's final two recordings, The Next Day and the incredible Blackstar.
"We finished his last two albums in my New York studio," Visconti told the Irish Times. "He was very comfortable in that contained, cosy space, often bringing with him as many as three books that he would read whilst I would be doing technical stuff. He’d light up a room and everyone involved knew they were part of a great record. There was always a feeling of adventure in the air. Musically, too, we were always on the same page – we’d reach a point in a developing song and say, ‘now how do we throw a spanner in here and make it something no one’s heard before?’”
George Martin and The Beatles
You can't really talk about successful producer and artist partnerships without mentioning The Beatles and George Martin. This was such a successful team up that Martin has often been called 'the fifth Beatle', although there are so many 'fifth Beatles' around – including manager Brian Epstein, bassist Stuart Sutcliffe, drummer Pete Best and even the Liverpudlian comedian Jimmy Tarbuck – that perhaps this isn't the honour that Martin deserves.
Let's just say 'most successful record producer and band in history' instead then. Yes, that will do. Martin produced 13 Beatles albums and 22 of the band's singles – nearly everything they released. Between them Martin and The Beatles have shifted some 600 millions albums, which is quite the result considering theirs was a relatively short partnership of just eight years.
Martin was not necessarily the same kind of record producer we all know and love today. At Abbey Road Studios, producers there were more problem solvers, white-coated engineers who, especially in The Beatles' case, were trying to stretch the gear to keep up with the ideas, and coming up with many now famous recording techniques along the way.
It's doubtful whether a production and artist partnership will ever be bettered by Martin and The Beatles, certainly in terms of that success. Martin said of the relationship in a video clip shared by his son Giles in 2022:
"I met them in London and when I listened…it was ok but it wasn’t brilliant. But the magic bit came when I started to get to know them because they were terribly good people. They were funny, they were very clever and the kind of people that you liked to be with. So I thought, ‘if I feel this way about them, other people will feel this way about them. So therefore, they should be very popular.'"
- Read more: "We take the original image and split it through a double vibrocated sploshing flange with double negative feedback": The Beatles, Les Paul, or Larry Levine? Who really discovered flanging?
Finneas and Billie Eilish
Brother and sister Finneas and Billie Eilish Pirate Baird O'Connell have the kind of upbringing that was probably destined to throw them both into show business in some form or other, but neither could have ever expected to rule it as much as they do in 2023.
With actor and musician parents, they were schooled in the art of songwriting from an early age, with Finneas and Billie recording their first songs, She's Broken and Fingers Crossed, when Billie was just 13 years old in 2015. Later that year they recorded the Finneas-written song Ocean Eyes which was the song that, with a little Soundcloud uploading here and there, proved to be the one where we write "… and the rest was history".
"I just could hear Billie’s voice on it," Finneas told The Hollywood Reporter in 2021. "I was like, 'This would be a great one for her to sing,' and she just murdered it immediately. That was kind of the a-ha moment of like, 'Wow, this is as good as I could hope for.'"
Almost by word of mouth, Ocean Eyes kickstarted what has turned into a monumentally successful career for both siblings. It has seen Eilish top the charts on both sides of the Atlantic with albums like 2019's When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? and 2021's Happier Than Ever, with all tracks on both albums cowritten by the brother and sister, and Finneas on production duties.
There have been number ones in tens of countries, Golden Globes, Brit awards, a Bond theme, countless Grammys and even a Barbie (the Billie-written song What Was I Made For? featured in that film).
While the Baird O'Connells' success might not have eclipsed that of The Beatles or Bowie just yet, this is already one of the biggest musical partnerships in music history, and it could well continue for years – they are brother and sister, after all. If only we got on with our siblings and had a Soundcloud account. And some talent.
Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson
Some relationships sour, of course, but our next artist and producer duo certainly made their mark before any bitterness entered the studio, including recording the biggest selling album of all time. That is quite a mark then.
Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones collaborated on three mighty Michael albums in the 1970s and 80s. Their first release together as artist and producer was 1977's Off The Wall, although they actually met on the set of The Wiz, Jackson's take on the Wizard of Oz, in which Quincy Jones played an uncredited role as the Emerald City Pianist (make sure you remember that – it's bound to come up in a pop quiz).
As exceptional as Off The Wall was, it would be eclipsed by Jackson and Jones' next album, Thriller, aka the biggest selling album ever recorded. With tracks including The Girl Is Mine, Wanna Be Startin' Somethin', Beat It, Billie Jean and the title track Thriller, it stood atop the Billboard 200 for an incredible 37 weeks.
The title track's video alone pretty much redefined what a pop video was, and songs from the album bothered worldwide charts for much of the early part of 1980s, while the album went on to sell over 60 million copies.
'Top that' someone might have said to Jones and Jackson when they started work on their third collaboration, 1987's Bad. And while the album wasn't (bad) it would never top Thriller, 'only' shifting around 40 million to take the duo's sales well into nine figures.
Despite that success, we did promise up front that this relationship would end in sourness, and Jackson and Jones never worked together again. There has been much said by Jones on Jackson, including a famous interview with Vulture in which he accuses Jackson of stealing songs and takes swipes at The Beatles, U2 and other musicians.
Still, over 100 million sales has meant that both go down in history as one of the biggest partnerships in music – whether they like it or not. Jackson and Jones defined the sound of a decade and made some of the best recordings of the best songs in a generation.
Taylor Swift and Jack Antonoff
For anyone out there who thinks Taylor Swift has come, like an alien, from nowhere and taken over the entirety of planet Earth just this year, you might be surprised to learn that she has actually been a-strummin' and a-singin' for nigh on 20 years. Yes, it's true, Swift signed her first deal at just 14 years of age in 2004.
(As a side note, we were also surprised to learn that Taylor Swift was born in Reading, although that turned out to be Reading, Pennsylvania and not Reading, Berkshire, which left our surprise somewhat short-lived.)
Anyway, for about half of that career, Swift has been joined in the studio by none other than Jack Antonoff who, it turns out, is almost as annoyingly successful as she is. Not that we're bitter or anything. Their first success together came by way of the track Sweeter than Fiction for the film One Chance, starring James Corden as Paul Potts, winner of UK talent show Britain's Got Talent. Yes, we're resisting the obvious dig and, yes, we didn't see it either.
More success would follow with the two collaborating on an ever-increasing number of tracks for further Swift LPs. They wrote and produced three songs for the album 1989 (the biggest selling album of 2014 in the US), including the track Out of the Woods which Antonoff claims was the song that started him off as a producer.
"I put my heart and soul into that thing," he told Rolling Stone. "Right at the moment when I was expecting some heavy was going to come in and do the production, she [Taylor] was like, 'Can’t wait for this to come out!' And I was like, 'That’s it?' She was like, 'Yes, perfect.'"
The duo then co-wrote and produced six songs for the next album Reputation (2017), including the number one single, Look What You Made Me Do.
After that success, Swift and Antonoff reached something of a peak, cowriting eight and co-producing 11 tracks for yet another number one selling album, 2019's Lover. While Antonoff's input dipped for the next two albums, Folklore and Evermore, he did help Swift rerecord some of the tracks from her earlier albums embroiled in the infamous dispute with her former label.
With writing and production credits on pretty much every track from Swift's latest album Midnights, it's fair to say that Antonoff is now Taylor's go-to writer and producer.
And while every other artist here can claim a 'biggest-selling album' here, a 'coolest Berlin trilogy' there, or 'most records ever sold' there, if you are going to be a 'go-to' producer in 2023, it's Taylor Swift you are wanting to, er, go to.
Know any bigger production duos than these? We don't think there are any, but let us know if you do...