Every great and iconic album has a story. When Lady Gaga met Tony Bennett backstage at the Robin Hood Foundation gala in New York City, she impressed him with her rendition of Orange Colored Sky by Nat King Cole. This led to Bennett asking Gaga to sing a song on his Duets II album, the two becoming close friends, and eventually releasing Cheek to Cheek together, one of the best studio albums from 2014. And everywhere in the history of music, there are interesting tales hiding behind every album.
When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? (2019) – Billie Eilish
“We made this album in a bedroom, in the house we grew up in,” explained Billie Eilish as she and her brother, co-writer, and producer Finneas O’Connell accepted several trophies at the 62nd Grammy Awards ceremony for When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? Although you might imagine producer O’Connell’s home studio setup to be state-of-the-art, the pair actually made do with a mix of entry-level and professional equipment. This includes the Audio-Technica AT2020 mic, which microphone review site Shout4Music calls a worldwide home studio favorite. In fact, the AT2020 is the same mic they used to record Ocean Eyes in the first video that made Eilish go viral. O’Connell also has Yamaha studio monitors, a Universal Audio Apollo 8 interface, and other equipment. Apart from being arguably the greatest art pop album of the century, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? is proof that you can change music history from the comfort of your home.
Black Messiah (2014) – D’Angelo & the Vanguard
14 years in the making, Black Messiah’s story is the story of post ‘90s R&B. Apart from D’Angelo himself who is widely regarded as one of the greatest soul singers of all time, it took several legends many years to finally figure out this 56-minute collection of R&B, soul, funk, gospel, and rock. D’Angelo’s 14 years of near-silence since his album Voodoo in 2000 is key to understanding why this album is so great. Disillusioned by being regarded more as a sex symbol than a musician – along with being involved in a car accident in 2005 and some arrests – D’Angelo retreated from the spotlight. And as he recovered from these events, he taught himself guitar, continued to work with fellow soul and hip hop lumineers J Dilla, Snoop Dogg, Q-Tip, and Questlove, and kept chipping away at the new album that would later become the greatest tribute to old school soul, R&B, funk, and protest music. Pitchfork in its review of the album said it best when they called Black Messiah “a study in controlled chaos.”
Nevermind (1991) – Nirvana
Speaking of controlled chaos, there are actually a bunch of stories surrounding the making and release of Nirvana’s Nevermind. The album was produced in the famous Sound City studios in California. While living and partying in a local apartment complex for the recording sessions, the band would amuse themselves by making fun of Swedish rock band Europe, who stayed at the same place to record and sat at the pool with their girlfriends everyday. Producer Butch Vig recalls having to coerce the legendary Kurt Cobain into overdubbing and double tracking certain vocal and guitar parts. And when he wouldn’t budge, Vig would hit the record button during Cobain’s warm-ups with his ‘65 Fender. When they rehearsed Smells Like Teen Spirit, Dave Grohl’s drums which weren’t hooked up to any mics were as loud as the bass and guitar rigs which were turned all the way up, which necessitated lots of mastering. Cobain later revealed how he wasn’t a fan of how, in his opinion, Nevermind was too slick and over-produced. Somehow, despite all that, Nevermind became the album that shoved grunge rock and punk into the mainstream.
Catch A Fire (1974) – The Wailers
Between logistical, financial, and creative concerns, it’s never easy to make an album. Somehow, the making of Catch A Fire was different. In 1972, American musician Johnny Nash who sang the pop reggae hit Hold Me Tight released a cover of Bob Marley’s Stir It Up, which became a hit in the UK and the US. That same year, Nash decided to get The Wailers as a support act for his UK tour. This connected the band with Chris Blackwell, producer and founder of Island Records, who signed a deal with The Wailers to record the album in three separate eight-track studios back in Kingston, Jamaica. Armed with a studio budget which they previously didn’t have, both Marley and guitarist Peter Tosh took over production duties until the band was satisfied with the results. When Marley delivered the finished album to London, Blackwell insisted on tweaking arrangements, adjusting mixes, and overdubbing certain parts. The result was a fine-tuned and still authentic version of The Wailers’ sound, turning Catch A Fire into the album that gave reggae the international spotlight.