Phil Ramone was not a member of the Ramones. He was also not Phil Spector. He was something in between, a musician who handled the controls for many legendary recordings beginning in the 1960s. Ramone died Saturday of a brain aneurysm at the age of 79. In his honor, here are the six best Phil Ramone productions.
6. Art Garfunkel - "Crying In My Sleep"
"Crying In My Sleep" may not be as timeless as some of Phil Ramone's other recordings. The light rock vibe is almost laughable, but there is great reward for those who can look past the sheen. Today's producers perform miracles by autotuning and robotically perfecting musicians. Phil Ramone worked a miracle organically by turning a depressive, unfun breakdown from effing Art Garfunkel into an enjoyable pop song.
5. Bob Dylan - "Tangled Up In Blue"
For being a universally regarded songwriting god, Bob Dylan is not an easy dude to record. His best records have often sounded shitty, and his voice often lands in the most annoying of frequency ranges. Ramone nailed it with 1975's Blood On The Tracks, giving Dylan a modernization without dating the album too hard. Most importantly, Dylan's singing is expressive without grating. 4. Paul Simon - "Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard"
"Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard" is a fun recording, its mischievous lyrics matched by a playful arrangement. The track is danceable with nary a drum to speak of, mostly shakers and acoustic guitars. A squeaky Brazilian instrument called the Cuica pops its head in from time to time, fully making its presence known on the song's outro. Paul Simon can take credit for the song, but the vibe is all Phil Ramone.
3. Stan Getz & Joao Gilberto - "Desafinado"
Phil Ramone engineered Getz/Gilberto, the album that brought bossa nova into the American consciousness. The definitive single "Girl From Ipanema" is barely beaten out by "Desafinado" for this list because: a. "Ipanema" is difficult to remove from its status as an elevator music classic and b. Stan Getz's saxophone playing is less irritatingly loud and white on "Desafinado."
2. The Free Design - "Bubbles"
I have an unwarranted hatred for bubble gum. If somebody blows a bubble in front of me, it triggers my gag reflex. Songs with references to bubble gum tend to be dealbreakers, as in the otherwise decent "Chewing Gum" by Annie that I cannot listen to. "Bubbles" is all about chewing gum and blowing bubbles and I should hate it, but the psych-jazz drumming and those cultish harmonies kill me. The Free Design was stupidly ahead of its time, and Phil Ramone was right there with the group.
1. Dionne Warwick - "Do You Know The Way to San Jose?"
People tend to romanticize the way music used to be recorded: an entire group, orchestra included, gathering in a room and laying a hit record to tape in three minutes. "Do You Know The Way To San Jose?" is the epitome of this old-school method. A fantastic song (thanks Burt Bacharach and Hal David) given to the perfect singer, with a group of seasoned professionals in the studio to realize the vision. "San Jose" is a masterpiece, and probably the song I've listened to the most in the last seven or eight years of my life. Ramone's work as an engineer on the track, as transparent as it may be, is crucial to my enjoyment. It is organic and honest and moving, because something magical happened in a room that day and somebody was there to capture it forever. We live in a much different time in music, with an industry that rewards disposability. I worry that few of the recordings being made today - especially those being heard by massive amounts of people - will stand up forty years from now. "Do You Know The Way To San Jose?" is neither a purely nostalgic song (ie. "It's My Party And I'll Cry If I Want To," also a Phil Spector joint) nor a Pet Sounds-esque infallibly forward work. It's a song about fame and failure, moving to the big city and coming back home. The only line that dates the song is "Put a hundred down and buy a car." Disregarding inflation, "San Jose" is one of Phil Ramone's many timeless productions.
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