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5 songs producers need to hear by… Max Martin

Britney Spears
(Image credit: L. Busacca / Contributor)

Whether it’s converting nursery rhyme repetition into pop gold or turning brains inside out with unexpected chord shapes and changes, Max Martin is the man with the plan.

Whether writing, producing, co-writing or co-producing he blurs the lines of songwriting and recording, whipping up a whirlwind of talent around him and always grabbing input from the artist to Taylor-make his hits, extra Swift… 

So, get ready for English-as-a-foreign-language lyrics that make zero sense, an inability to pronounce the word ‘me’, bizarre musical drops - learn the rules of the breakdown - and a lesson in how to get to a chorus in record time. Oh, and hear so many hits from one guy that you’re going to think we’re making this up.

Here are our top five Martin Monsters (plus - of course - your essential further listening).

1. NSync - I’ll Never Stop

But first, let’s pretend it’s 30 April and, guess what? It’s gonna be May! NSync’s first of May meme (featuring a pic of Justin Timberlake beside an ‘It’s Gonna Be May’ caption) became so officially huge this year that - for one day only - the track was even retitled on streaming platforms to celebrate.

So, what is it with Max Martin and the pronunciation of ‘me’ as ‘may’? And don’t go thinking it’s just a Justin Timberlake thing. Oh no. Britney herself performs a perfect “no-one else but may” on her excellent Overprotected (also on our list) and never forget the greatest offender - Backstreet Boys It’s Gotta Be You, which opens with a mispronunciation blitzkrieg of “bay-bay, it’s the way you may-ke may, kinda get me go cray-zay”.… Ouch.

Well, turns out it’s all because Max Martin said ‘I Want It That Way,’ with both Timberlake and bandmate Lance Bass both stating in interviews that Martin told them to sing ‘me’ as ‘may’ simply “because it sounded better”. He may well have a point.

And while the likes of It’s Gonna Be Me and I Want You Back truly hit the spot, of all of Martin’s superb NSync output we’re plumping for this underappreciated (but solid gold classic) that was criminally omitted from NSync’s smash US breakthrough album No Strings Attached. I’ll Never Stop was a single in Europe - reaching number 13 in the UK - but had to wait until its inclusion on 2005’s Greatest Hits to be available Stateside.

A close partner to I’ll Be There For You, also on our list (and, by association, NSync’s own Tearin’ Up My Heart) I’ll Never Stop drops telephone operator trickery and dial tone beeps as hooks but ultimately delivers by virtue of pure pop melody and arrangement.

2. Britney Spears - Overprotected

Yup, we’re giving Hit Me and Oops the swerve and heading for Britney’s third album - the self-titled Britney - and a troubling case of overprotection. 

By now, the fabulously famous Spears and team had a notion to switch it up a little and Britney features a scant four Martin tracks. Lead single instead went to The Neptunes and I’m A Slave 4 U - a bold R’n’B gamble for the pop superstar - which, while a global smash, only scaled number 27 in the US.

Under pressure to stay fresh and come up with something new for their biggest star, Martin and team pretty much threw the kitchen sink at Overprotected. It’s laden with ear-catching spot effects as the gang ramp up the plugin trickery throughout its length, popping up ear-candy wherever there’s space in the vocal, most notably for the dreamy vocal treatments at the start of the song before the track’s director shouts ‘Action!’.

Never one to interchange songs with singers, Martin worked closely with Spears on the lyrics for their songs, tailor making them both for Spears’ vocals and public persona (both Martin’s Cinderella and I’m Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman from the same album share identical ‘fame-as-torture’ themes.)

The song features a remarkable drop break at 1:55, laying bare many of the hidden dub elements of the song (and that intro vocal trickery again) before building with a full orchestra for the closing choruses (watch out for that minor 7th chord movement around 2:40 for dramatic impact).

It’s a shame, therefore, that - despite being some of Martin’s best work - Overprotected wound up a little lost, caught between Spears’ desire for a more urban sound and a label caught on the hop by the merely mild Stateside success of I’m A Slave 4 U. 

The solution was to commission a hasty Rodney Jerkins ‘Darkchild’ remix for the track’s release as the second single in the States and Canada. This Darkchild version dispenses with Martin’s perfect backing track and saps much of the drama in favour of Jerkins-flavour tin can ‘n’ bucket drums. It even changes and simplifies the chord structure in places, wantonly dissipating the tension.

3. Solid HarmoniE - I’ll Be There For You

Solid HarmoniE were another (US manager) Lou Perlman creation, being a female take on his earlier monsters NSync and Backstreet Boys.

Despite years of touring, four singles and an album, the band never broke in the States where it mattered and, after numerous line-up changes, time was called when there were no record company takers for their second album (their first rocketing to number 111 in the UK). 

The band were home to some blazing Martin tunes, however, and this one - while not even their biggest hit, stalling at number 18 in the UK - is certainly their best. Falling between the stools of synthpop and the Swede’s wayward take on R’n’B and with a bouncy 115bpm rhythm, this solid, dense pop powerhouse plays the Martin arrangement rules by the book.

Dropping to the break at exactly 2:00, I’ll Be There For You is perhaps the prime example of Martin’s early-career ‘second hook’ trick. While always denying the use of a formula, the ‘second hook’ is a familiar feature of his first-wave hits (see also I’ll Never Stop and When You’re Looking Like That from our top five). 

The ruse involves using the chorus chords and structure as the backing for the middle eight but infusing an entirely new lead vocal melody - the second hook - on top. The original chorus backing then kicks back in at 2:17 (revealing that this second hook was simply an alternative chorus)… which is then usurped by the ORIGINAL chorus melody at 2:36… only to be then JOINED by the second hook (now as a backing vocal) at 2:51. Textbook. 

It’s a trick Martin and team used on countless hits - see also NSync’s Tearin’ Up My Heart, which not only does the exact same thing but even uses the same chorus F, G, Am, G chords too. Sneaky.

4. P!nk - Who Knew

The second wave starts here. After the Darkchild remix debacle of Overprotected it appeared that Martin’s number had been called. He and his team closed the famous Cherion studios - home to all his early hits - and 2002 and 2003 saw the once great writer/producer suffering a hit drought. Tracks for ex-Backstreet Boy Nick Carter, Celine Dion and even Def Leppard failed to ignite in the way they had before. But never one to throw in the towel, Martin seized the moment as an opportunity for reinvention. 

After packing his family up for a new life in New York, leaving the Stockholm empire he’d built behind him, Martin arrived in the US complete with a daughter with a bad case of chickenpox. Faced with spending weeks in the hospital and on nursing duties he used the downtime to finally get round to learning the guitar, having previously always written on keyboards.

His first US-based hit - and the true start of his current career second wind - was 2004’s remarkable Since U Been Gone by Kelly Clarkson which - visible in the basic nature of the strumming - was literally the first song he’d written on guitar. However, of all of Martin’s US-based rebirths we’re plumping for the fantastic Who Knew from P!nk in 2006 as our true highlight return to top form. 

Story has it that after three days of intensive work co-writing with P!nk, Martin and collaborator Shellback found themselves with a few hours spare during which P!nk understandably asked ‘so what else you got’? Martin reluctantly produced another of his early my-first-guitar jams and P!nk went to work filling the multitrack with adlibs and solos over a drum track when the single verse and chorus on tape expired. The team then went to work crafting the song around the ammo that P!nk had left them.

Deeply moving in content and fully formed as a verse-chorus-bridge-chorus song in pure trickery-free form, it’s a true modern classic.

5. Westlife - When You’re Looking Like That

As a precursor to the indie rock overtones that were to reignite Martin’s writing and production career Stateside, this tangibly rock ‘n’ roll workout marks the start of Martin’s move away from pure pop. OK, so the rock guitar is sampled and Westlife aren’t the most rock ‘n’ roll band in the world, but the driving 148bpm tempo and guitar-plus-drums backing is pure indie rock.

It’s an object lesson in song structure and pacing and - like Britney Spears’ Overprotected – marks a ‘phase one’ 2001 high with Martin and team at the peak of their powers. 

Brutal in its insistence to get to the point, it flies through its verses, reducing them to stripped back drums, guitar samples and zero bass. In fact, the track only truly fills and makes any kind of sense when it hits its first chorus - which happens at just 46 seconds in.

However, the song’s biggest secret is the single stunning chord change reserved for its conclusion. Martin has often made a virtue of repetition, hammering home a hook throughout his career, but for When You’re Looking Like That, that shimmer of pure gold shines only once, at 3:44, a mere six seconds from the song’s end.

It takes the form of a pronounced, ear-tingling, Maximum Max minor chord that could (should?) have fallen in any one of the three choruses before it. But, by reserving it for the final seconds of the song - and once you know it’s there - it imbues the track with a final destination that’s genuinely inexorable. And when that moment hits it’s like having that plaster cast removed and finally being given access to that itch. Conclusion? The listener leaves the song in pure ‘WTF just happened’ mode before immediately reaching for the rewind.

In a word: Ballsy. And we never thought we’d say that about a Westlife track.

Even more stunning is the fact that the track was never officially released as a single in the US or UK. Scheduled as the sixth single from Weslife’s second album Coast To Coast it only actually received a release in Asia and Latin America relegating it to hidden gem status for the rest of us. So not just ballsy, but actually nuts.

Extended Remix! Allow us to hit you 10 more times…

Katy Perry - Chained To The Rhythm

No Perry in the five? There are clearly rich Perry pickings from the modern-era Martin mountain (see the five stunning singles from Perry’s 2010 Teenage Dream album and six equally brilliant smashes from its 2013 sequel Prism) but it’s this spacious, always interesting, underappreciated earworm from 2017’s Witness album that bests her entire daisy-dukes output in terms of maturity and scope.

Britney Spears – ...Baby One More Time

Of course. The classic, and clearly too obvious for our top five. Simon Cowell tells the story in his 2003 autobiography I Don’t Mean To Be Rude But… of how he heard this immortal track at Arista records after it had been rejected by TLC and how he had never “heard such a brilliant song in my life”.

He immediately phoned Max Martin to bag it… for [cough] boyband Five… Thankfully, Martin had already promised it to the as-yet-unknown Britney Spears and, despite Cowell’s offer of a Mercedes in exchange for the song, he remained true to his word. Phew.

Fact 1: This single was number one in every country it was released in (except Iceland - number 11).

Fact 2: The famous schoolgirl outfit Spears wore in the video - purchased from Kmart for $17 - is now inside a glass case in the reception of the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas. Alongside Christina Aguilera’s chaps from the Dirrty video. Natch.

Ariana Grande, Jessie J, Nicki Minaj - Bang Bang

What just happened!? This rule-bending, truly banging track is so dynamite that both lead vocalists made it their own and it appears on both Ariana Grande’s My Everything and Jessie J’s Sweet Talker albums. And while you’re in the J-zone, see also the pop perfection of Domino.

Taylor Swift - Style

Yup. No Swift in the five… Of course, Shake It Off is a monster and you absolutely must hear it. But you knew that already. So we’re picking Style, also from her huge 1989 album, by virtue of its melody, production trickery and that chorus chord change at 1:41…

Backstreet Boys - Shape of My Heart

Backstreet’s back! And about time! Shamefully absent from our top five and with so many classics to choose from (I Want It That Way, As Long As You Love Me, Show Me The Meaning of Being Lonely…) but it’s this lesser known, late career single that raises the bar for writing and performance.

Robyn – Show Me Love

An early gem. Perhaps the first instance of the ‘Max Martin chord change’ - compare and contrast the chord movements at 1:50 and at 2:10. See what we mean? Also check out the brilliant Do You Know (What It Takes) (aka the song that should be called Always Be Around…)

Leona Lewis – Out Of My Head

A hidden, promoted-but-not-released single and a mad, buzzing, comfort-zone escapee from the - as ever - flawlessly on point Lewis.

Ariana Grande - No Tears Left To Cry

A shimmering classic. And don’t get us started on Grande’s equally arresting Into You…

Ed Sheeran & Justin Bieber - I Don’t Care

He’s making it look pretty effortless by now, right?

The Weeknd - In Your Eyes

Yes, Can’t Feel My Face is a masterpiece, but ‘80s throwback In Your Eyes just edges it for us. Is this the last known outing of that most extinct of dinosaurs, the saxophone solo?