Top 10 Phil Ramone Rock Albums
Since the early ’60s, Phil Ramone has worked behind the scenes on some of the biggest-selling records of the past five decades. He started by engineering sessions at the New York recording studio he founded. By the 1970s he was producing artists like Paul Simon and Billy Joel, adding layers of lush strings and horns and a sharp, clean style that has distinguished his work. During his 40-plus years in the business, he’s racked up nearly three dozen Grammy nominations, winning 14 of them, including a special award for his technical contributions. Our list of the Top 10 Phil Ramone Rock Albums includes records he engineered, produced and ultimately shaped.
Before he joined the E Street Band in the mid ’80s, Nils Lofgren had a pretty good solo career going, recording a dozen albums since the ’70s. Before that, he led Grin, a quietly rocking power trio that released four albums before calling it quits in 1973. Ramone engineered their self-titled debut (and their best) album.
After their split in 1970, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel had a few fleeting reunions on record and on stage. But their monumental free benefit concert in NYC’s Central Park on Sept. 19, 1981, was the first major public concert appearance since their breakup. The double album, released the following year, contained 21 songs, most of them Simon and Garfunkel classics. Ramone co-produced the record with Simon and the duo’s longtime producer Roy Halee.
‘Before the Flood’ (1974)
Dylan took his old backing band — big enough now to receive co-billing — on the road with him for a 1974 tour, which was part Dylan showcase, part Band showcase, and part nightly exorcising of the joint demons they had picked up over the past half-decade or so. This double album, on which Ramone served as recording engineer, gathers nearly two dozen songs from three separate performances.
McCartney produced his second solo album with wife Linda, who received co-billing. But a bulk of the sessions was recorded at Ramone’s A&R Recording Studios in New York, and he was a visible presence during the making of ‘Ram,’ engineering huge chunks of the record and helping the former Beatle shape the sound of his first fully formed solo work.
The Band were at the peak of their popularity when they recorded their double live album ‘Rock of Ages’ during the last couple of days of 1971. New Orleans great Allen Toussaint arranged the stellar horns; Ramone helped engineer and record the album. Ramone would also engineer another live Band album two years later, ‘Before the Flood,’ culled from their tour with Bob Dylan (No. 8 of our Top 10 Phil Ramone Rock Albums).
The story behind Dylan’s 1975 breakup classic is almost as legendary as the album: The singer-songwriter recorded the record at Ramone’s NYC studio with session musicians. The LP was pressed and all set to ship when Dylan decided to return home to Minnesota and re-cut some songs with local musicians. In the end, five of the album’s 10 songs came from the New York sessions, which Ramone engineered. They’re the softer, less angry ones.
‘So Beautiful or So What’ (2011)
One of Ramone’s most recent albums as producer is also one of his best, a classic-sounding record by his old friend Simon (see Nos. 9 and 1 on our list of the Top 10 Phil Ramone Rock Albums). Simon checks in with his best set of songs in years, and Ramone’s tasteful production puts the singer-songwriter at the center of the music. Ramone’s wonderful grace notes help guide it along.
’52nd Street’ (1978)
Ramone won his second Album of the Year Grammy for producing Joel’s follow-up to his breakthrough ‘The Stranger’ (see No. 2 on our list of the Top 10 Phil Ramone Rock Albums). And both men took some chances here, moving out of their comfort zones for a luscious-sounding record that zigzags between pop, jazz, soul and rock.
‘The Stranger’ (1977)
After four mediocre albums, Joel entered Ramone’s A&R Recording studio in the summer of 1977 to make his fifth, with Ramone producing. They struck gold — actually, they went platinum 10 times over. ‘The Stranger’ was Joel’s breakthrough, reaching No. 2 and spawning five hit singles. And Ramone picked up another Grammy for producing Record of the Year ‘Just the Way You Are.’
‘Still Crazy After All These Years’ (1975)
Ramone’s soft, warm tones — which can be heard on his Grammy-winning work with Tony Bennett and Ray Charles, among others — were pretty much perfected on Simon’s fourth solo album. Ramone deservedly won Album of the Year honors for producing ‘Still Crazy After All These Years.’ He’d work with Simon on other records, including his most recent (see No. 4 on our list of the Top 10 Phil Ramone Rock Albums), but the pair was never better than on this soft, cozy slice of ’70s melancholia.