Since the mid-1980s, few producers have exerted as much influence on modern rock as Daniel Lanois. He most high-profile credits has come with three artists: U2 ( The Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby, All That You Can't Leave Behind), Bob Dylan ( Time Out of Mind, Oh Mercy) and Peter Gabriel ( So, Us). Lanois has also worked on records by Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson and Killers frontman Brandon Flowers.
As with any producer whose sound is as uniquely identifiable as a fingerprint, Lanois has garnered his fair share of supporters and detractors. From the artist's point of view, he can be slow, distant and meticulous to a fault; he cares little for spontaneity. In the "Oh Mercy" chapter of Chronicles: Volume One (Simon & Schuster, 2004), Dylan sums up the producer's time-consuming methods in just two sentences: "Jesus, I thought, this is only the first song. It should be easier than this." Despite his exasperation, Dylan worked with Lanois again; in the process, he created what is considered one of the best records of his storied career, 1997's Time Out of Mind. In fact, a lot of the artists who've worked with Lanois have come back for more.
Exactly why Lanois' production style is so laborious has to do with his roots in ambient and New Age electronics. In the early 1980s, he worked closely with "non musician" Brian Eno. During this time, he learned much about the studio-as-instrument approach to production. This revolves around the process of re-imagining the music-making process as painting with sound, space and texture for colors. The studio isn't merely a lifeless room in which a bunch of musicians record their tunes; its a kind of alchemical chamber in which live music is deconstructed and rebuilt from the ground up into something new and totally hermetic.
A few rock critics have decried Lanois' ambient-informed style as heavy-handed. All that rich atmosphere does nothing save smother the artist's vision. Indeed, when Dylan initially heard an early take of the Oh Mercy track " Political World," one treated by the producer, he thought it "sounded like I was singing from the midst of a herd, a lot of artillery and tanks in the background."
In contrast, I'm one of the rock critics who believe the exact opposite. The more experimental Lanois gets, the more I dig his aesthetic. I love the sound of "artillery and tanks." Don't get me wrong: I enjoy the Dylan records just fine, but they feel a tad tame when compared to Emmylou's Wrecking Ball or Neil Young's latest full-length, Le Noise. On the latter, the producer filters Young through dubby bass, black-hole negative space and earth-shaking reverb. There are times when the record sounds like a space-rock/shoegaze album. No lie. Another record that boasts edgier production is the 2010 debut from Black Dub, which is Lanois' new band featuring neo-soul singer-songwriter Trixie Whitley.
For the playlist below, which you can also check out here, I attempted to address the whole of Lanois' career. In addition to tracks from his most popular productions ( Time Out of Mind, The Joshua Tree), you get a nice sampling of his ambient work, including selections from Brian Eno's Ambient 4: On Land and Roger Eno's Voices. This allows you get a song-by-song understanding of how the producer has applied basic ambient-music concepts to the worlds of rock and pop.