The thought came to me in a drug store. Or a department store. Or the backseat of a taxicab. I don’t remember where it was, exactly, except that it was the type of place where, in 2015, one might hear Taio Cruz’s 2010 hit “Dynamite” playing in the periphery. That is to say: anywhere in the world. Everywhere in the world. Anyway, the song was “Dynamite,” and the thought was, “You know, this might be the best song Max Martin ever made.”
Even as the thought occurred to me, I recognized it was crazy. “Dynamite” is a great song, but Max Martin has made so many great songs, and so many of them are genuine classics: “…Baby One More Time”; “I Want It That Way”; “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” … Even choosing a single “best” among his classics would be difficult. To assign that designation to something less than a classic, however, would be heresy.
You could argue, of course, that it’s heresy to treat any of Martin’s work with such reverence; you could say that terms like “classic” can’t be applied to music whose aspirations appear so baldly commercial. You could say that! There was a time when I might have agreed with you. Like, in 1998, maybe. At that point, I had no idea who Max Martin even was. I knew he existed — I knew somebody was writing all these songs that were being played on Z100 and TRL — but I didn’t know his name. I assumed Lou Pearlman had worked out a contract with some cynical European song-factory owner, and the two of them were just dolling-up and ProTooling the hell out of a bunch of Florida teenagers and … I dunno, pandering to the lowest common denominator and laughing all the way to the bank or something. Right? Come on. Britney Spears? *NSYNC? The Backstreet Boys? Sure, those records had some jams, but were we really taking that stuff seriously?
I started taking it seriously in 1999, when I heard the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way,” a song whose melodies and harmonies and hooks and quirks and heights were so fucking sublime and transcendent they made me feel weak and lightheaded, yet somehow giddy and indestructible at the same time. For maybe a month I sat around watching MTV and waiting for the video to come up — which happened with remarkable frequency — and finally I just gave in and bought the damn album. That’s when I learned the names of the song’s authors — Max Martin and Andreas Carlsson — and the names of the song’s producers — Max Martin and Kristian Lundin — and that’s when I decided to learn more.
I knew the Backstreet Boys were largely inconsequential. They were talented entertainers, of course, but they weren’t artists; they were just the vessel for this song. You could replace them with *NSYNC or 98 Degrees or O-Town and the song would essentially remain the same. But replace the song and … well, you don’t need to speculate on what the results might be. You can hear them for yourself just by listening to any Backstreet Boys song not called “I Want It That Way.”
That was 1999, at which point both the internet and Max Martin’s career were in relative stages of infancy. Learning more required an investment of time, the choice to develop an ear attuned to certain sounds or patterns or signatures, and a little bit of luck. In 2015, however, Martin’s body of work is exponentially larger, and that work — not to mention its author’s biography — is exponentially more accessible. You may or may not know the basic details of Max Martin’s pre-Millennium life, but here they are, in brief: Martin is Swedish. He was born Karl Sandberg. He came up playing in a metal band called It’s Alive — for which he played under the name Martin White — and when that band fell apart, he started working at Sweden’s Cheiron Studios, where he changed his name again, this time to Max Martin. At Cheiron, he worked under producer Denniz Pop, who became a mentor to Martin. There, Martin worked with Euro acts like E-Type and Herbie and Leila K. Then, he co-wrote four songs on the Backstreet Boys’ self-titled 1996 debut album, one of which, “Quit Playing Games With My Heart,” went to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100. And with that, his career took off.
You probably know most of what comes next. For instance, you probably know that, to date, Martin has co-written 19 songs that went to #1 on the Hot 100, and another 36 that charted in the top 10 but didn’t manage to hit #1. You probably know that many of those songs were recorded by Katy Perry (who has recorded 10 top-10 songs with Martin), Taylor Swift (six top-10 songs with Martin), Britney Spears (also six), P!nk (five), and the Backstreet Boys (five).
You might also know that Martin’s 19 chart-toppers put him at third place on the all-time list behind Paul McCartney (32) and John Lennon (26). It seems likely, though, that Martin will overtake Lennon’s spot within three years. Maybe two years. And Macca isn’t entirely out of reach, either. Consider this: Lennon’s last #1 was released in 1980, when he was 40 years old, and that single, “(Just Like) Starting Over,” didn’t actually hit the top of the charts until two months later, after Lennon’s assassination in December 1980. McCartney’s last #1 was 1983’s “Say Say Say,” released when he was 41. Martin is 44 years old today, but he’s in the zone right now. SEVENTEEN of Martin’s 19 #1s were released between 2008 and 2014. (His two pre-2008 #1s were Britney Spears’ “…Baby One More Time” and *NSYNC’s “It’s Gonna Be Me.”) Three of those 19 #1s were released in 2014.
Consider this, too: Prior to 2012’s Red, Taylor Swift had never released a single that hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Swift wrote every song on the album that preceded Red — 2010’s Speak Now — but none of the singles from that album went higher than #3. So, when it came time to record a follow-up, Swift’s label head suggested she work with Martin. She did. The album’s first single, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” — co-written by Martin — hit #1 its second week on the charts. (The two other Red songs Swift made with Martin — “I Knew You Were Trouble” and “22” — topped out at #2 and #20, respectively.) Swift enlisted Martin as executive producer on Red’s follow-up, last year’s 1989, and that partnership has yielded two more Martin co-written #1s: “Shake It Off” and “Blank Space.” Her current single, “Style” (co-written with Martin), is at #7 this week. Three spots above that, at #4, is Ellie Goulding’s “Love Me Like You Do,” another Max Martin joint.
Last month, Martin was awarded the Grammy in the category of Producer Of The Year, Non-Classical. The Grammys always get it wrong, of course, but this was the rare instance of them getting it right. It also illustrated how often they’d gotten it wrong in the past: This was Martin’s FIRST Grammy. But the guy was behind three #1 songs in 2012, too. And another three in 2011. And another three in 2010.
It’s fitting that Martin went unrecognized for so long; fitting too that his Grammy was presented to him in the pre-show ceremony, alongside such awards as Best Surround Sound Album and Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance. Martin is notoriously private. You’ll find more information about him in this 2013 New Yorker article about his colleague Lukasz Gottwald, aka Dr. Luke, than you will in any article about Max Martin. That’s because there are no articles about Max Martin — none that he’s participated in, anyway. And in the era of social media and 24-hour news cycles, that air of mystery makes Martin unique, fascinating.
It also makes it hard to delineate Martin’s exact contributions to any given song. His is never the sole name on any line of credits, either as writer or producer; it is always one of several. Furthermore, it’s difficult for any outsider to understand a producer’s impact on a record. I’ve been in the studio watching young rock bands make records with experienced producers, and in my limited experience, I was surprised by the degree to which the producer could effectively rewrite a song without earning a songwriting credit. They would just, like, take the bridge, make it the chorus instead; tell the band to write a new bridge; sit down with a guitar, play a few notes, and say, “Try something like that maybe.”
I’ve seen that happen, so I can imagine similar things happening in other recording studios. But who knows? What I’m saying is: The producer’s role is nebulous, and I have no idea what Martin does when he’s in the studio with Taylor Swift or P!nk. I have some idea where his writing process begins — with the melody, always with the melody — but from there, I don’t know what he does. Not really. I guess I know a few things. For instance:
- I know that one of his songwriting partners, Bonnie McKee, says he’s hyper-focused on the way syllables serve a melody. “It’s very mathematical. A line has to have a certain number of syllables, and the next line has to be its mirror image … If you add one syllable, or take it away, it’s a completely different melody to Max. I can write something I think is so clever, but if it doesn’t hit the ear right then Max doesn’t like it.”
FWIW, you can hear evidence of that in this early demo of “I Want It That Way,” in which many of the words are entirely different from those that wound up in the final version of the song, but the phrasing is exactly the same throughout:
- I know that another of Martin’s songwriting partners, Savan Kotecha, says that in the recording of Ariana Grande’s “Problem,” Martin “came up with the horns and all those melodic things in the pre-chorus. Part of his genius is knowing that little thing that takes a song from 80 percent to 100 percent.”
- I know he’s obsessed with comping vocals: a tedious, time-consuming process in which the producer listens to every syllable of every vocal take, and then, pieces together the strongest of those countless syllables to create the best-possible vocal performance. Per The New Yorker: “Comping is so mind-numbingly boring that even [Dr. Luke], with his powers of concentration, can’t tolerate it. However, ‘Max loves comping,’ [Luke] said. ‘He’ll do it for hours.'”
- I know Kelly Clarkson said Martin’s initial demo for “Since U Been Gone” was:
… real bare and there were hardly any words. [Laughs] It was just, like, mumbling. It was one guitar and really funny. I remember my label was like, “This song is so amazing!” And my manager and I were like, “It sounds cool, but they’re not really saying anything.” And they were like, “Listen to the melody,” and I was like, “The melody doesn’t really sound like it’s solidified yet!” They were like, “I know, I know, but it’s the production,” and I was like, “There’s really only a guitar and a snare!” … We ended up getting together in Sweden and they got to know me as an artist and we amped up the track and made it a little more rockin’. But they didn’t know I was going to go an octave above on the chorus.
So I don’t know what it means to say Max Martin made a song, or helped to make a song. All I know is, his name is on so many great songs. And even though he’s invisible, I know, almost instantly, a Max Martin song when I hear it. OK, sometimes I get it wrong — One Direction’s “That’s What Makes You Beautiful,” or Ke$ha’s “Die Young,” or Tove Lo’s “Talking Body” — but even then, it’s usually because the song in question was made by one (or several) of Martin’s disciples. In the aforementioned cases, those disciples are, respectively: (A) Savan Kotecha; (B) Dr. Luke; and (C) Shellback.
Those guys (alongside others) have extended Martin’s vision far beyond the man’s own reach. For instance, Martin has never worked with One Direction, but Kotecha has worked with One Direction, somewhat extensively, and in an interview about his approach to writing One Direction’s second album, 2012’s Take Me Home, Kotecha credited Martin’s influence: “We work melody first. That’s Max Martin’s school. We’ll spend days, sometimes weeks, challenging the melody. The goal is to make it sound like anyone can do this, but it’s actually very difficult. In Sweden, you don’t do anything until you do it right.”
Meanwhile, Dr. Luke is the most successful (to date) of Martin’s disciples; he’s co-written or co-produced more than 30 top-10 singles since meeting Martin in 2004. That meeting was absolutely the catalyst for Luke’s newfound artistic vitality — Luke admits as much, calling their connection “magical.” Said former Rawkus Records head Jarret Myer: “You can’t overstate the influence Max had on Luke. One day he is remixing underground records, and the next day he is doing Kelly Clarkson. After Max, he had no inhibitions.”
As for Shellback, the man born Johan Schuster came from a metal background — much like Martin in that regard — playing in bands influenced by Swedish countrymen Meshuggah. But after graduating college in 2006, Schuster contacted Martin, who decided to take on the young musician as an apprentice at Martin’s Maratone Studios. And, as the story goes:
The second song [Shellback] wrote during his first year at Maratone was a catchy rock tune with a “Seven Nation Army”-like rhythm track. When P!nk arrived in Stockholm to record what was to be her album Funhouse, she fell in love with the track and within half an hour had the core of the lyrics for “So What.” Martin suggested changing the beat to a more hip-hop feel, which immediately transformed the song to a P!nk track. The song ended up with a Grammy nomination for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, and the album was nominated for Best Pop Vocal Album.
Shellback was 22 when he wrote that song. He turned 30 last month, and as of today, he has eight #1 singles to his name.
So you’re free to say what you will about Max Martin, but if you dismiss him, you’re dismissing pop music in the 21st century. And you can do that, if you want. But man, why would you want to do that? Max Martin makes money, yeah, but he also makes great music. There’s remarkable precision, attention to detail, power, color, and life in his songs. I said up top that Backstreet Boys were the vessel for “I Want It That Way” more than they were its essence, but the vessel is an important thing. That song might essentially remain the same if *NSYNC had recorded it, but it wouldn’t be exactly the same. They would have done things differently; the song would have a different identity. How would “Since U Been Gone” have sounded if it had been recorded by its intended singer, P!nk? How would “…Baby One More Time” have sounded if it had been recorded by the Backstreet Boys, for whom it was originally intended, or TLC, to whom it was offered when the Backstreet Boys passed?
Somehow, those songs were not only reshaped for the artists who recorded them, but reshaped by those artists. But the songs shaped those artists, too. “Since U Been Gone” will always be synonymous with Kelly Clarkson, and she deserves to own that song; what she brought to it was only hers to bring. But what Max Martin brought to her was a gift. It’s not a coincidence that his name is listed among the credits of so many great songs, not a coincidence that artists and labels want to work with him, not a coincidence that he has such an impressive group of disciples surrounding him, and not a coincidence that his disciples praise him so openly: They credit him for changing their work ethic, their approach, their ears. It’s not a coincidence that I can hear a song on the radio anywhere, everywhere, and even if I don’t know the singer, I can still recognize the voice. You don’t have to love Max Martin — I love him, but you don’t have to — but as the man says: Respect motherfucking craft.
Now, on to the list. My methodology here included only two real criteria:
Only one song per recording artist was eligible. So this is not a list of Max Martin’s 30 best songs — that list would have had a lot more Taylor Swift and Britney Spears songs and a lot less of the sorta-esoteric stuff that’s on here now. That list would have been a lot less fun for me to write and for you to read, I think, and it would have presented a less compelling picture of Martin’s career. As it stands, this is something of an overview. I should note too that NOT ALL THESE SONGS ARE GOOD. I can find something I like in all of them, but I’m not by any means endorsing all of them. Especially not “It’s My Life.” I hate that song.
Any song on which Max Martin has a co-writer and/or co-producer credit was eligible. Like I said above: I don’t know what Max Martin does when he’s producing a track, what he does when he’s writing a track, or what he does when both producing and writing a track. I have no idea. So for the purposes of this list, I considered anything he worked on in any capacity, period. None of this is meant to suggest that Max Martin is some string-pulling puppet master. He is not that. He is always collaborating, always sitting next to someone else, always exchanging ideas. He works with a host of artists, both the individual performers as well as other writers and producers and engineers, on every song. He was Denniz Pop’s protege and he’s had many proteges of his own, including Shellback and Kotecha and McKee and lots of others. I don’t mean to steal credit from those artists, but in the list below, I didn’t give them as much credit as they deserved, either. Due to the opacity of the writing and recording process, as well as constraints of space and time, that was unavoidable, so I’m apologizing for it upfront. To be clear: Without his co-workers, Max Martin wouldn’t have achieved a fraction of the success he’s enjoyed over the years. And he knows it. He gives back. He identifies talent and nurtures it. Most recently, he and Shellback started a songwriting team called Wolf Cousins, one of whose members is the excellent Swedish artist Tove Lo. This is what she had to say about Wolf Cousins and Max Martin:
[Wolf Cousins] is six different producers and me as the top-line writer. So maybe Martin and Shellback will write a song and produce it together with one of these new young writers, which obviously gives us a huge chance to be on a bigger project that we would never get a chance to be on otherwise. And it’s also kind of like mentoring: We’re all sitting together in this big studio complex in Stockholm, which is awesome, and they’re just working their asses off … It’s cool to see, because you understand why [Martin] is so successful. When you’re writing a song, it’s easy sometimes to settle, but I’ve never seen him do that in that way.
So I guess that’s another thing I know about Max Martin. Here are 30 more.
30. Bon Jovi – “It’s My Life” (2000)
Look, we’re starting at the bottom here. I don’t think “It’s My Life” is one of Max Martin’s best songs or one of Bon Jovi’s best songs. (I really don’t like Bon Jovi at all, frankly, but I’ll ride for those Slippery When Wet singles.) But this list is an overview of Max Martin’s career, and this is the kind of work Max Martin was getting right around the turn of the century — he’s got co-writing and/or -production credits on circa-2000 records from folks like Michael Bolton and Bryan Adams, too, and those songs are worse than this one. “It’s My Life,” in fact, was a bona fide hit. Internationally, it’s far and away the biggest Bon Jovi single of the millennium, and it’s probably the closest thing to a “classic” that Bon Jovi have released since 1994, if not 1989. I’ve seen a few interviews with Jon Bon Jovi talking about this song, and he’s never once mentioned Martin’s involvement. I guess no one wants to hear about how the melody was constructed; they just want to know how JBJ came up with the line, “Like Frankie said, ‘I did it my way.'” It’s probably better that Martin isn’t getting credit for that one, although he’s written his own share of stinkers, too, and I don’t think he cares too much. They’re just syllables to deliver the melody. JBJ could have instead sang, “Like Backstreet said, ‘I want it that way,'” and Martin would have probably felt the same way about the song. FWIW, I would like the song more if those were the lyrics, but those are not the lyrics. Fun fact: That song inspired this excellent tattoo.
29. Daughtry – “Feels Like Tonight” (2006)
This song is no better than the Bon Jovi song; it ranks a slot higher because Chris Daughtry isn’t as irritating as Jon Bon Jovi. Remember Chris Daughtry? He came in fourth on the fifth season of American Idol. Taylor Hicks won that year. 2006. Remember that? Max Martin does these things now and then: a song or two for an Idol contestant’s debut album, more or less assuring those albums will have at least one serviceable single. He did a couple of songs for Bo Bice (who came in second on the fourth season of Idol) and a couple for Allison Iraheta (who came in fourth on the eighth season of Idol). He also did a couple songs for the second album by Kelly Clarkson — who came in first on the first season of Idol — but that’s a different story. We’ll get to that later. Daughtry didn’t need Martin’s assistance: His self-titled debut was the fastest-selling debut rock album since the inception of the Soundscan sales-tracking system (which first came into use on March 1, 1991). “Feels Like Tonight” was its sixth single, released to radio more than 13 months after the album dropped. Still, it was everywhere: It went to #24 on the Hot 100 and was used in commercials for everything from Charlie Wilson’s War to General Hospital. If the Daughtry-penned lead single, “It’s Not Over,” hadn’t been a hit, I think “Feels Like Tonight” would have been its second single. But “It’s Not Over” was a hit — it went to #4. I think too, though, that a certain type of artist — the aggro-ish, guitar-wielding alpha dude — is reluctant to associate himself with Martin, because Martin is so closely associated with glossy pop productions. Daughtry’s own ear for hooks, though, is not entirely dissimilar to Martin’s. Fun fact: Daughtry wrote a track for that Allison Iraheta record, too.
28. Living Things – “Oxygen” (2009)
OK, so this one is arguably worse than the songs at #29 and #30, but none of these three songs are actually any good, and this one gets points for having the most bizarre backstory. Living Things were a grimy garage-punk band from St. Louis who were often compared to the Stooges and the Ramones. They were inexplicably signed by Jive Records who were, I guess, trying to find their own version of the Strokes. Living Things’ 2005 domestic debut album, Ahead Of The Lions, was recorded by — I am not fucking with you — STEVE ALBINI. It didn’t produce any hits, although its lead single, “Bom Bom Bom,” was licensed for a Cingular commercial. When it came time to record a follow-up, Martin was brought in to help out. This was presumably Jive’s call — Jive and Martin had achieved fruitful results working together in the past on records by non-Albini-affiliated artists like the Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, and *NSYNC. Martin co-wrote two songs for Living Things — “Oxygen” and “Let It Rain” — both of which were included on the final version of the band’s sophomore album … which, the band stated afterward, was not their preferred version of the album; the one they wanted to release had allegedly been vetoed by Jive. The album that Jive did release was called Habeas Corpus, which is: “a legal action or writ by means of which detainees can seek relief from unlawful imprisonment.” Fun fact: A month after the album came out, Living Things played SXSW where — I shit you not — the band’s frontman, Lillian Berlin, brought nine homeless men to the stage and literally started lighting money on fire up there. He was immediately arrested. Living Things did not work with Max Martin again; the band broke up in August 2010.
27. Becky G – “Can’t Get Enough” (Feat. Pitbull) (2013)
Aside from a random guest verse here or there, Martin doesn’t work with rappers very often, and when he does, the rapping seems … a little out of place. This makes sense, considering the guy builds songs around melody and vocals, and he employs lyrics only to the extent those lyrics serve the melody. Rapping is the exact antithesis of Martin’s entire approach to music. But he can fuck with Pitbull a little bit, because Pitbull just mails in nonsense verses that sort of serve as rhythm tracks or clattering sonic filler, and he can fuck with Becky G, too, because Becky G is really only rapping to get to the chorus, where she explodes with melody. (It’s no coincidence that her biggest song, “Shower,” features no rapping at all.) I considered giving this spot to a different song employing a similar template, not to mention one of the same singers — Pitbull’s “Wild Wild Love” (featuring G.R.L.) — but I think “Can’t Get Enough” is the better of the two tracks. Neither is great, but both are actually good, owing almost entirely to their choruses, which are, I assume, the things Martin brought to both songs.
26. Marion Raven – “Break You” (2005)
It’s hard to refer to any of Martin’s 21st century records as “deep cuts,” but there are songs he’s made with a number of artists that Americans probably wouldn’t know unless they were Max Martin obsessives. Among those artists are Marion Raven (from Norway) and Lesley Roy (from Ireland), both of whom Martin invested in pretty heavily. Martin produced Raven’s 2005 debut album, Here I Am, and he co-wrote seven of the album’s 14 songs. He was the executive producer of Roy’s 2008 album, Unbeautiful, and he co-wrote seven of that album’s 14 songs, too. Those are both pretty good records with a few magnificent singles that failed to get much traction in the States for a number of reasons. I could have used this slot for Roy’s “I’m Gone, I’m Going,” but chose Raven’s “Break You” instead, even though the songs are equally good and aesthetically very similar: hard-edged post-“Since U Been Gone” pop-punk guitar anthems delivered by high-octave though somewhat indistinct singers. Marion Raven was one half of M2M (the other half was Marit Larsen), a Norwegian teen-pop duo who released a terrific bubblegum single in 1999 called “Don’t Say You Love Me,” which was initially featured on the soundtrack for Pokémon: The First Movie. M2M released two albums, one in 2000 and another 2002 (followed by a greatest-hits collection in 2003!), and then split, with both halves of the duo moving on to solo careers. Larsen released a summery folk-pop record, and Raven teamed with Martin to make the Avril-esque Here I Am. That album was never released in the US, although it was pretty successful in both Scandinavia and Asia, where it was released. A drastically altered version of the record came out in the States in 2007 — this time under the title Set Me Free, presumably a reference to Raven’s label struggles — featuring two of the Martin tracks (“Break You” and “Here I Am”). It didn’t make a difference: The Norwegian singer didn’t have the charisma of her obvious influences — P!nk, Avril, and Kelly Clarkson — and America didn’t need another one of those anyway.
25. The Veronicas – “4Ever” (2005)
So America didn’t need another one of P!nk, Avril, or Kelly Clarkson … but maybe we needed another two? The Veronicas are Australian identical-twin sisters Lisa and Jessica Origliasso, and their debut album, 2005’s The Secret Life of…, came out on Sire with some serious muscle behind it. Along with Martin, the album’s writing and production credits included Martin associates Dr. Luke and Rami Yacoub, plus Kara DioGuardi (Gwen Stefani’s “Rich Girl”; Christina Aguilera’s “Ain’t No Other Man”), Toby Gad (John Legend’s “All Of Me”; Beyoncé’s “If I Were A Boy”), and Billy Steinberg (Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors”; Madonna’s “Like A Virgin”), among others. But the first two songs on the album — as well as its first two singles — were the ones with Martin’s name on them. “4Ever” kicks off The Secret Life Of…, and it’s about as good as anything you’ll get from second-tier mid-aughts Martin. The Veronicas don’t have demonstrably greater charisma than Marion Raven or Lesley Roy, but they have a presence and a look, at least, and this song is a charger. It almost becomes transcendent during its final half-minute, when the two Origliasso sisters trade high notes over the repeating chorus. Fun fact: Billy Corgan dated Jessica Origliasso from 2010 – 2012, and during that period, he reportedly collaborated with the band on an album called Life On Mars, which was never released.
24. Justin Bieber – “Beauty And A Beat” (Feat. Nicki Minaj) (2012)
Fun fact: Justin Bieber has a co-writing credit on all but one of the 13 songs on his 2012 album, Believe. The one exception? “Beauty And A Beat,” which was co-written by a team led by Martin and pop-EDM producer Zedd (the two would pair up again on Ariana Grande’s “Break Free”). “Beauty And A Beat” is, to date, the only Bieber track on which Martin has worked, and it has all Martin’s melodic trademarks alongside Zedd’s spongy synths and a verse from Nicki Minaj. Minaj’s verse is total lunacy: She rhymes “Bieber,” “ether,” “wiener,” and “Selener,” and you can probably connect those dots to figure out where she was going with that. “Beauty And A Beat” was the third single released off Believe, but its second-highest charter — peaking at #4 on the Hot 100 (lead single “Boyfriend” went to #1). It’s actually the third-highest charting single in Bieber’s career (2010’s “Baby” went to #3). Another fun fact: Zedd and Bieber’s ex, Selena Gomez, are reportedly an item. So a collaboration between these parties isn’t likely to occur again anytime soon. And yet another fun fact: There exists rare video footage of Martin working with Bieber in the studio on “Beauty And A Beat.” Says Martin to Bieber: “You sound so good; I’m really, really impressed. It feels really special. And I’m hard to please.”
23. Maroon 5 – “One More Night” (2012)
I know Maroon 5 are supposedly a contemptible band, but honestly, I don’t have any strong feelings toward them either way. I don’t go out of my way to listen to them, but sometimes I hear their songs on the radio and they sound OK to me. There are ancillary factors that warm me to them, too. Like: I watched the first few seasons of The Voice and I thought Adam Levine came off like a nice guy. Also: Levine and another member of Maroon 5 went to a college on Long Island where my mom used to teach. Also: The guitar player’s sister was on two seasons of Project Runway, a show that I watch. Anyway! Maroon 5 have worked with Max Martin on two songs, “Daylight” and “One More Night,” both of which were featured on their 2012 album, Overexposed. I know just about every bar of both those songs on a deep-subconscious level, even though I had never sought out or intentionally listened to either one prior to making this list. Both were released as singles, and both were huge. “One More Night” is the better (and bigger) of the two songs: It was inescapable for the better part of an entire year and it’s still probably in semi-heavy rotation today, three years later. It spent NINE CONSECUTIVE WEEKS at #1 on the Hot 100 — making it the most successful single of Maroon 5’s career. I don’t know anyone who actively listens to this stuff, but I know that everyone passively listens to it, because it’s everywhere. It’s got this really chirpy, earwormy, stuttering pop-reggae sound. But you don’t need me to describe it to you, because you know every bar of it, too.
22. Christina Aguilera – “Your Body” (2012)
This placement — Christina Aguilera one spot higher than her Voice colleague Adam Levine — is a coincidence; I didn’t recognize it had shaken out this way until just now. Consider it a rare, small victory for Aguilera; “Your Body” was released the same year as “One More Night,” but the two songs could not have been met with more disparate receptions: “One More Night” spent nine weeks at #1 on the Hot 100; “Your Body” debuted at #32 and just fell from there. But “Your Body” is the better song! That said, it didn’t need Aguilera to be good — the hooks are just monstrous — and it (mercifully) doesn’t put too much emphasis on her famously vast vocal range. “Your Body” is one of two Martin-aided songs on Aguilera’s 2012 album, Lotus, and they represent the only two collaborations between the two parties to date. It’s actually a little insane to think that Aguilera didn’t work with Max Martin until 2012 — she was part of the same class that produced Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, and *NSYNC — but Aguilera talked a little bit about that in the promotion leading up to Lotus, saying: “[I] like to experiment and collaborate, and I think it’s taken me and Max this long to work together because of that — because what he does is genius, and he is a classic hitmaker … [but] I’d heard that he was a stickler for melody and a melody king, and I was scared; I was like, ‘Oh my god, I won’t be able to collaborate here.’ But he couldn’t have been more great.”
21. Carolina Liar – “Show Me What I’m Looking For” (2008)
You know this song. Yes you do. You thought it was by Snow Patrol. But it’s by Carolina Liar, an indie-sounding “band” built around frontman Chad Wolf. The Carolina Liar story is a weird one: Wolf is a South Carolina native (hence the band’s name) who at 22 moved to L.A., where he got an internship with pop-songwriting titan Diane Warren, who helped Wolf hone his own craft. Then, one of Wolf’s demos ended up in Martin’s hands via a mutual friend. Martin liked what he heard, so he invited Wolf to come to Sweden to make a record. Martin surrounded Wolf with a band made up of Swedish musicians, and Martin produced their debut album, Coming To Terms (for which he co-wrote three songs, too). Coming To Terms was released by Atlantic, and while it generated a bunch of licensing deals, it didn’t make stars out of Wolf or Carolina Liar. The band were then, I assume, dropped by the label, because their 2011 sophomore album, Wild Blessed Freedom (a subtle jab at Atlantic?), was ostensibly released by Maratone — Max Martin’s studio and production company, not a label — with credits from Martin, Shellback, and Kotecha, among others. That one totally flatlined. Sometime after that, Wolf and his Swedish band parted ways — he’s currently the only official member of Carolina Liar — and I have no idea if he’s still working with Martin. I’m not sure it’s a great fit for either party. Still, this is an interesting anomaly in Martin’s catalog. “Show Me What I’m Looking For” wasn’t a high-charting single — it peaked at #67 on the Hot 100 — but it was employed on soundtracks everywhere: The Hills, 90210, Gossip Girl, and more than a half-dozen other places. It’s perfect for such placement; it’s blandly yearning, the definition of aural wallpaper. But even though that’s pretty much why the song exists, engaging with it in that capacity does it an odd disservice. Listen to it on headphones, where you can hear all of the insane production and arrangement touches added by Martin — the Cars-esque synth solo; the rafter-raising gospel choir; the frantic drum fills; the chiming xylophone — and it’s genuinely compelling. The second half of the four-minute song must have about 600 different tracks overlapping at once.
20. Ace Of Base – “Beautiful Life” (1995)
It’s fitting that some of Max Martin’s very first production work was done on The Bridge, the second album by Ace Of Base, perhaps the most quintessentially Swedish pop band since Abba. “Beautiful Life” is the only song on this list from Martin’s nascence, and it’s here to represent that period more so than it is to represent Martin’s actual genius. Back in the mid-’90s, Martin was an apprentice to Denniz Pop at Sweden’s Cheiron Studios, and under Pop, Martin helped produce records by Euro acts like Rednex, Army Of Lovers, and Leila K. Those bands had almost no American presence, but Ace Of Base were huge everywhere. Their debut album, The Sign, went 9x platinum in the States. Pop and Martin produced four songs on The Bridge, three of which were released as singles (the only singles released from the album, in fact): “Lucky Love,” “Never Gonna Say I’m Sorry,” and “Beautiful Life.” The Bridge was a comparative flop after The Sign, going only 2x platinum in America, but all three of its singles feel like staples today. “Beautiful Life” was the highest-charting of the three, peaking at #15. Fun fact: Martin borrowed the title of this Ace Of Base song for a song he co-wrote on Ke$ha’s 2012 album, Warrior, called “All That Matters (The Beautiful Life).” Another fun fact: There are very few videos of Martin online, and almost none with both Martin and Pop (who passed away in 1998, at the age of 35), but there is this one, in which the two men smoke cigarettes and talk about how they came to work on The Bridge. Martin says maybe 10 words and looks like he’s about 14 years old.
19. Jessie J – “Domino” (2011)
Did you know Jessie J co-wrote Miley Cyrus’ 2009 hit “Party In The USA”? Did you know Jessie J and Adele went to the same performing-arts school, and graduated from the same class (’06)? No? Of course you didn’t. Jessie J has released three albums since 2011 and she’s a HUGE STAR in England — she has 18 million Facebook followers! That’s insane! Kendrick Lamar only has 6 million Facebook followers! — but for whatever reason, she’s just never connected with American audiences. To give you an example of her actual popularity in the US: She’s playing New York City next month at the same venue where, just a few weeks ago, I saw Cannibal Corpse play to a packed room. “Domino” was probably her best chance; it’s her highest-ranking single to date (for the purposes of both this conversation and this list, I’m not considering “Bang Bang” a Jessie J song, but we’ll get to that later), peaking at #6 on the Hot 100. And she must have known it was her best chance, because she flogged the hell out of this song. Consider this: “Domino” was released as a single in August 2011. In November 2011, she performed it on the American version of The X Factor. Eighteen months later, in May 2013, she performed it on the finale of American Idol. I feel like I’ve seen Jessie J do this song on four or five different awards shows, and I’ve only heard three Jessie J songs in my life AND I rarely watch awards shows. It’s a song worth flogging though — it’s bright and weird and fun, with a jangly ’80s guitar lick and a big disco beat. This mines a lot of the same territory as “Shake It Off,” and frankly — speaking as a fan of Taylor Swift! — I’ll take this song over that one every time.
18. Celine Dion – “That’s The Way It Is” (1999)
Yep. Look, I didn’t have to put this song on the list. I could have gone with something else — something cool like Ke$ha’s “Blow” or something current like Ellie Goulding’s “Love “Me Like You Do” or something totally random like Bullet For My Valentine’s “Watching Us Die Tonight” — and I would have been totally safe. But I would have been lying, and we both know it. WHAT DO YOU WANT ME TO SAY? You can’t like this shit ironically and you can’t try to own it without being excommunicated, so I’m just going to jump in the damn fire and say it: This song has incredible hooks! “That’s The Way It Is” was one of seven(!) new songs recorded by Celine Dion for her 1999 greatest-hits album, All The Way: A Decade Of Song. It was released as the collection’s first single, and since its release, it has become one of Celine Dion’s actual greatest hits. It peaked at #6 on the Hot 100, but this thing still gets spins today. Since its release, it has been included on three other Celine Dion greatest-hits collections. This was the only time Martin ever worked with Dion, and … listen, I’ve heard from numerous sources that Celine Dion is a genuinely kind and cool person, and she obviously knows how to sing, and this one song probably added like $10 million to Martin’s net worth, but even so: It is almost certainly ultimately for the best that this partnership never evolved beyond this point. It would have been bad for Martin’s brand. It would have been bad for music! There is an alternate universe where Max Martin never met Dr. Luke or Kelly Clarkson, where this was the path he followed instead, just writing guilty-pleasure adult-contemporary schmaltz that plays in the ether, leaving you lingering in the shampoo aisle at Duane Reade for an extra two minutes. Fun fact: The “ye-ah”s and “no-oh”s in this song almost identically mirror the same syllabic and melodic patterns as those in “I Want It That Way.”
17. Cyndi Lauper – “Into The Nightlife” (2008)
I’m probably overrating this one a little bit, but it’s a sentimental favorite. Don’t get me wrong, the song goes hard, but it’s not exactly a defining moment in either Martin’s career or Cyndi Lauper’s career. But Lauper’s career won’t have any more defining moments — her career doesn’t even have any definition at this point. This is Lauper’s recorded-musical output since 1998: a Christmas album, a pop album so inessential it was released exclusively in Japan, a fucking standards album, an album on which she delivered acoustic reinterpretations of her own best-known songs, a pop-EDM album, and a blues album. Lauper can sing anything, so it’s not like she’s ever out of her depth, but I grew up on the Cyndi Lauper who was a cool, weird, exciting alternative to Madonna; the Cyndi Lauper of She’s So Unusual, an ’80s classic fusing new-wave, dance, Euro balladry, pop, and punk. There’s a pretty direct connection between the seminal Cyndi Lauper sound and the Max Martin sound, so it was a real thrill for me when Martin worked with Lauper on one track from the aforementioned pop-EDM album — 2008’s Bring Ya To The Brink — especially because the song is a goddamn beast that showcases the very best version of Lauper two-and-a-half decades after her peak. The song’s construction is crazy, too — my favorite part is the two-chord progression that leads into the chorus: All the other tracks cut out and you hear nothing but a single modulated synth, and it sounds goddamn gigantic. Lauper has been critical of Martin’s approach in general — in her memoir, she suggested his militaristic stance regarding cadence and melody was ultimately detrimental to Britney Spears’ vocal performances. Fun fact: Lauper is reportedly contributing to the upcoming Carly Rae Jepsen album. Also contributing to that album is Wolf Cousins, the songwriting team assembled by Martin and Shellback, which includes Tove Lo. Martin wrote a song for Jepsen’s last album, too. (It’s nothing special, which is why it’s not on this list.)
16. Jennifer Lopez – “First Love” (2014)
Do you remember what made Jennifer Lopez famous? First, she was a Fly Girl dancer on In Living Color. Then she was an actress in movies. Then she was a singer. Then she was a tabloid item. Then she was a judge on American Idol. Those are just the landmarks; those are the things that forced Jennifer Lopez into your consciousness. That doesn’t even take into account all the secondary and tertiary things: the green dress she wore to the Grammys; the modeling/spokesmodeling/”Face Of L’Oreal” gigs; her clothing and accessories line; her SEVENTEEN (and counting) fragrance lines (which have totaled sales of more than $2 billion); the fact that she was the inspiration for Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” (itself the inspiration for Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda”). This fall, you’ll see her on a new NBC series called Shades Of Blue — about a cop who goes undercover for internal affairs — a show for which she will serve as both star and executive producer. Jennifer Lopez is 45 years old and she’s reportedly worth $400 million and the only reason she needs to do anything is to keep herself in your consciousness. (And I like Jennifer Lopez! I’m more than happy to have her in my consciousness!) So she didn’t really need to hire Max Martin to co-write and -produce a song for her 2014 album, A.K.A., and she didn’t need him to deliver a song as good as this incredible disco banger. But she hired Martin, and this is what she got. “First Love” is sort of a weird look for Lopez — it’s really sleek Scandinavian pop in the Abba mold — but that’s irrelevant; it’s a joy and a triumph on every level. Except commercially. It debuted at #87 and dropped from there. “First Love” deserved better, but that hasn’t seemed to affect Jennifer Lopez’s visibility. On working with Martin, Lopez said: “I had really wanted to work with Max for many, many years, and it just never happened … For [A.K.A.] I was like, ‘I want to work with you.’ I met with him in the summertime, and he was like, ‘I’m just going off to do Adele’s album!’ or somebody he works with all the time. I was like, ‘When are you back?’, he was like, ‘October’, I was like, ‘I’ll wait for you.'” … He’s a super producer, maker of great pop hits. I’ve always wanted to work with him but our paths [hadn’t] crossed. I sought him out.” Fun fact: Martin has never worked with Adele. I wish he would though! Jesus, can you imagine?
15. Jessie J / Ariana Grande / Nicki Minaj – “Bang Bang” (2014)
So this list features other songs by Jessie J, Ariana Grande, and Nicki Minaj, but I’m including “Bang Bang” too, because it’s credited to all three singers, and it doesn’t really being to any one of them. It’s also a ridiculous song: “Lady Marmalade”-esque chaos with all three vocalists upping the ante throughout, each one eventually going all-in, but nobody ever folds or calls — you’re just left looking at a gigantic pot overflowing with gold. “Bang Bang” debuted at #6 on the Hot 100 and peaked at #3, and it seems impossible that it got no higher than that, because the song was ubiquitous and actually great and featured two of the hottest singers of the past few years. I don’t necessarily want to put it on Jessie J, but I feel like Nicki Minaj and Ariana Grande weren’t the things holding it back. I don’t hate Jessie J! But I’m trying to be realistic here. Regardless, “Bang Bang” was one of the songs of summer 2014. Fun fact: “Bang Bang” was co-written with Rickard Göransson, the guitarist enlisted by Martin to play alongside Chad Wolf in Carolina Liar. Göransson also worked with Martin on the upcoming debut album from Scooter Braun client Tori Kelly, which Martin is executive-producing.
14. Usher – “DJ Got Us Fallin’ In Love” (Feat. Pitbull) (2010)
Usher’s Versus was an EP that was sort of clumsily tacked on to his 2010 album Raymond Vs. Raymond: an album that debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200 and produced five singles. It probably didn’t require an EP-length extension, but that’s what Usher chose to deliver, and he recruited Martin to co-write and -produce a song for the EP. That song, “DJ Got Us Fallin’ In Love,” wound up being a bigger hit than four of the five singles from Raymond Vs. Raymond, and is now recognized as one of the most successful singles of Usher’s career. There’s not a whole lot to say about it: It’s a song you’ve heard more than two dozen times over the past five years if you’ve left your house more than two dozen times over the past five years. It’s got a hilarious verse from Pitbull. It’s a Euro-EDM track that sounds more like a Martin song than an Usher song, and — fun fact — Martin more or less recycled its synth melody for Christina Aguilera’s “Let There Be Love” in 2012. Martin’s services were again retained by Usher for his 2012 album, Looking 4 Myself, and the pairing delivered another hit, “Scream,” which went to #9 on the Hot 100.
13. Avril Lavigne – “What The Hell” (2011)
Following up on something I said above re: Christina Aguilera: It’s also a little insane to think that Avril Lavigne didn’t work with Max Martin till four albums into her career, on 2011’s Goodbye Lullabye. Lavigne is a woman who specializes in crisp, compressed, dance-y, bratty, radio-ready pop-punk, and Martin had that market otherwise cornered for the entire second half of the aughts. Even more insane: Two of the four songs they wrote together for Goodbye Lullabye were ballads, playing to neither artist’s strengths. But “What The Hell” is peak Avril, a “Girlfriend”-esque call-and-response-style faux-retro ripper that absolutely ignites when it hits the chorus. Lavigne has a pretty thin voice compared to many of her contemporaries, but listen to this alongside the Veronicas or Marion Raven tracks on this list, and you can see how much more she brings to the music. Lavigne co-wrote this with Martin and Shellback, but — fun fact — prior to the stuff they did for Goodbye Lullabye, the three had actually teamed up to write a song for another artist: “Dancing Crazy,” for Miranda Cosgrove. (Not surprisingly, it sounds like a lesser version of Avril Lavigne.) “What The Hell” was the first single off Goodbye Lullabye, and its most successful by a considerable margin, peaking at #11 on the Hot 100. Said Lavigne of working with Martin: “I flew out to Sweden for a couple weeks, sat down, played him my record, got to know each other, wrote some songs together, and then I was out. It switched it up for me. It was a new creative space, a new relationship, and we got a lot done. He’s very talented.”
12. Nicki Minaj – “Masquerade” (2012)
Nicki Minaj is one of the few rappers with whom Martin has worked; they’ve actually teamed up a few times on some pretty big singles including the aforementioned “Bang Bang” and “Beauty And A Beat.” But Martin has only co-written two songs for Minaj herself — “Masquerade” and “Va Va Voom” — and both those songs got kinda buried. They weren’t even included on the standard edition of Minaj’s 19-track 2012 album, Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded. They were issued only as bonus tracks on the “Deluxe” version. You had to make it through 20 other songs (spanning 72 minutes!) to get to those things. But they’re worth it! “Va Va Voom” was so good, in fact, that it was eventually released as the album’s fourth single, seven full months after the album’s release. It still went to #22 on the Hot 100. “Masquerade,” in my opinion, is even better. That chorus, man. I mean, I say that about every Max Martin song, but still: That chorus, man.
11. *NSYNC – “It’s Gonna Be Me” (2000)
Martin’s career can probably be divided into four, maybe five distinct periods, but there’s one major dividing line — “Since U Been Gone” — and it’s really easy to distinguish the differences between everything that came before that point and everything that came afterward. “It’s Gonna Be Me” might be the archetypal example of pre-“Since U Been Gone” Martin. It’s not his best song from that era — it’s not transcendent like “I Want It That Way” or timeless like those Britney singles — but it’s perfectly emblematic of its moment, and it perfectly captures all of Martin’s old tricks and quirks, strengths and weaknesses. It’s got those whirring electronic drum sounds, that springy funk bass, the halting string blurts asserting brightness, the staccato piano notes asserting urgency, the tense, slow-building verse leading into the explosion at the chorus, the endlessly layered vocals, and the quiet-loud-quieter-louder structure that eventually ends in the confetti-falling-from-the-ceiling climax. It’s obvious that Martin’s music from this era is inferior to what would come later, but for many, this was the style that defined the man. Those people are wrong; this was still an early stage of his evolution. “It’s Gonna Be Me” was Martin’s second song to go to #1. (“…Baby One More Time” was his first.) It would be eight more years before he got there again.
10. Adam Lambert – “Whataya Want From Me” (2009)
I watched all nine seasons of American Idol when Simon Cowell was a judge, and I watched a couple seasons after he left, and I never loved any contestant more than I did Adam Lambert, who came in second on the show’s eighth season. (I was rooting so hard for that guy! And he lost to Kris Allen! I still can’t believe it). Lambert’s 2009 debut album, For Your Entertainment, is loaded with ridiculous songwriting credits — Justin Hawkins of the Darkness! Matthew Bellamy of Muse! Lady Gaga! Rivers Cuomo! — but the album’s best and biggest song was written by Max Martin, Shellback, and P!nk. “Whataya Want From Me” was initially intended to be recorded by P!nk, and included on her 2008 album, Funhouse, but it didn’t make the cut. Lambert lucked out: “Whataya Want From Me” is a soaring pop-glam anthem totally suited to his remarkable vocal range. It didn’t need his vocal range, though: P!nk eventually recorded the song herself, and included it on international editions of her Greatest Hits… So Far!!!, and her version is also outstanding. Lambert’s second album, 2011’s Trespassing, was also loaded with contributions from huge songwriters — Pharrell! Dr. Luke! Bruno Mars! — but no Martin. Coincidentally or not, its only charting single topped out at #76 — a great distance from the #10 achieved by “Whataya Want From Me.” Later this year, Lambert will release his third album, The Original High, and Martin is serving as the album’s executive producer. I’m hoping for great things. I’m still rooting really hard for that guy.
09. Robyn – “Time Machine” (2010)
Before either Robyn or Martin were superstars, they worked together on two songs, “Do You Know (What It Takes)” and “Show Me Love,” both of which appeared on the US version of the Swedish singer’s debut album, Robyn Is Here. (“Show Me Love” wasn’t included on the initial Swedish release, which came out in 1995; the US release didn’t arrive till 1997.) Both songs were legitimate hits in the States — both went to #7 on the Hot 100 — and I’m sort of cheating here by instead going with “Time Machine,” from Robyn’s 2010 Body Talk Pt. 3 EP. “Do You Know (What It Takes)” and “Show Me Love” are classics of Robyn’s early catalog, while “Time Machine” wasn’t even released as a single. But when I listen to all three tracks back-to-back, “Time Machine” sounds the best to my ear. (They’re all genuinely great, though.) Fun fact: Robyn’s primary Body Talk co-writer, Klas Åhlund, also wrote Ke$ha’s “Blow” with Max Martin. Another fun fact: Alexander Kronlund — who co-wrote Body Talk’s amazing single “Call Your Girlfriend” — worked with Martin on a couple songs on Britney Spears’ sophomore album, Oops!…I Did It Again.
08. P!nk – “Raise Your Glass” (2010)
Martin has writing and production credits on 11 P!nk songs dating back to 2006, which makes his partnership with P!nk one of the longest-lasting and most fruitful of his career. Two of the P!nk songs co-written by Martin went to #1 on the Hot 100, and one of those — “Raise Your Glass” — is also my favorite P!nk song. “Raise Your Glass” was one of two previously unreleased songs included on P!nk’s 2010 compilation, Greatest Hits… So Far!!! (The other previously unreleased song, “Fuckin’ Perfect,” was also co-written by Martin, and also released as a single; it went to #2.) “Raise Your Glass” has a couple of lyrics that make me cringe so hard I get nauseous: 1. “If you’re too school for cool …” and 2. “We will never be, never be anything but loud/ And nitty gritty dirty little freaks.” The former line might be P!nk’s own creation, but the latter is definitely Martin’s. It displays a distinct misunderstanding of an English-language idiom: “nitty gritty” is defined by Webster’s as “what is essential and basic: specific practical details,” but it’s being used here to mean “grimy” or “grungy” or something — although it’s basically being employed solely for its sonic and syllabic value. That said, I actually love the “never be, never be” repetition, as well as about 10,000 other little things in this song (including the false vocal start that kicks off the final chorus). This thing just roars, and I still hear it all the time even today, five years after its release.
07. Ariana Grande – “Problem” (Feat. Iggy Azalea)
Martin and Ariana Grande teamed up on two of summer 2014’s defining songs: the great “Bang Bang,” which we talked about above, and the even-better “Problem.” Martin actually worked on three tracks on Grande’s 2014 album, My Everything: “Problem,” which was the album’s lead single and went to #2 on the Hot 100; “Break Free,” which was the album’s second single and went to #4; and “Love Me Harder,” which was the album’s third single and went to #7. Rolling Stone did a comprehensive story on the the creation of “Problem,” titled “How Ariana Grande And Max Martin Made ‘Problem’ The Song Of The Summer,” for which Martin (naturally) did not provide any quotes. However, there is this:
Wendy Goldstein, Grande’s A&R rep at Republic, spent two years trying to get Martin involved; finally, when work was about to begin on Grande’s album, he said he was in. “He has a young daughter that’s a huge Ariana fan,” says Goldstein. “He said, ‘I’ve never seen my daughter excited about someone that I’ve worked with, and that’s really saying something.'”
06. Katy Perry – “Teenage Dream” (2010)
Katy Perry and Martin have teamed up on 10 top-10 singles to date, and 17 songs in total, and most of those are also collaborations with Dr. Luke. In 2013, Perry said the following of the triad’s success: “I am very lyrics-based, and Max is very melody-based, and Luke is very track-based, so put the combination of us together and you get that ultimate pop song.” She’s not necessarily wrong: SEVEN of those songs went to #1. Picking a “best,” then, is a judgment call: I prefer “Teenage Dream” to “California Gurls,” “Dark Horse,” “E.T.,” “Hot N Cold,” “I Kissed A Girl,” “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.),” “Roar,” “Wide Awake,” et al. You might feel differently. Perfectly understandable. FWIW, of all the singers with whom Martin has worked extensively, Perry is probably my least favorite, so I’m not especially invested in this one. Incidentally, I wonder what the future will bring for Perry: Dr. Luke is embroiled in an ugly legal battle with Ke$ha. Martin and Luke haven’t worked together in at least a year. It seems reasonable to imagine that Perry’s “ultimate” team won’t collaborate again. Even if that’s the case, though, it’s gonna be hard for any other artist on this list (or anywhere else in the universe) to reach the level of success achieved by Perry, Martin, and Dr. Luke. It may be slowly burning down, but they built an empire.
05. Taio Cruz – “Dynamite” (2010)
This was the song that got me started thinking about making this list. I couldn’t push it any higher than #5, but I couldn’t let it fall any lower than that, either. Taio Cruz isn’t an icon or even a superstar. He’s a British electro-R&B singer whose first album, 2008’s Departure, wasn’t even released in the US. His second album, Rokstarr, eventually did get issued Stateside, seven months after debuting in the UK. Its first single, “Break Your Heart,” was a surprise hit, jumping to #1 a week after debuting at #53. That single was followed by “Dynamite,” which eventually got to #2. Both “Break Your Heart” and “Dynamite” were inescapable hits, but “Dynamite” is the only song in Cruz’s catalog that was co-written by Martin, and it’s sublime. It’s hard for me to explain why I love it so much, beyond: that melody. Not just the chorus — which is, of course, delirium — but the verse and bridge, too: the way the notes descend when Cruz repeats the words “brands”; the way they ascend when he sings “on and on and on.” Am I overstating the case by saying “Break Your Heart” is inessential mush while “Dynamite” is Abba-level pop genius? Probably. But consider this: “Dynamite” never achieved the #1 status enjoyed by “Break Your Heart,” but right now, on Spotify, “Dynamite” has six times as many plays as “Break Your Heart.”
04. Britney Spears – “…Baby One More Time” (1999)
Another judgment call. “…Baby One More Time” isn’t actually my personal favorite Martin-assisted Britney Spears song (that would be either “Stronger” or “Till The World Ends”) and it’s not the consensus choice for most-beloved Martin-assisted Britney Spears song (that would probably be “Oops!…I Did It Again”). But it’s the first Max Martin song to go to #1 in the US, and it’s the song that set in motion Britney Spears’ entire career, and it’s pretty hard to argue against its status as a classic. You can hear all of the same techniques here that are in “It’s Gonna Be Me,” but “…Baby One More Time” is simply a superior recording on every level. Spears and Martin have worked together so much that their respective successes are often conflated, and there might be some merit to that view: It’s hard to imagine either one achieving such lasting dominance without the other. …Baby One More Time, the album, included the pair’s first collaborations. Their last (to date) came on 2011’s Femme Fatale. That album produced a Martin-penned #1, too: “Hold It Against Me.” I wouldn’t bet against them working together again, and I wouldn’t bet against them producing another chart-topper.
03. Taylor Swift – “22” (2012)
As I mentioned in the intro to this whole thing, Taylor Swift first teamed with Martin on 2012’s Red, in the hopes of generating a #1 hit. They managed that, no problem, with “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” They worked together on two other Red songs, “I Knew You Were Trouble” and “22,” both of which were also released as singles, and both of which charted high: #2 and #20, respectively. Swift’s 2014 release, 1989, was executive-produced by Martin, and he has writing credits on seven songs: “Blank Space,” “Style,” “All You Had To Do Was Stay,” “Shake It Off,” “Bad Blood,” “Wildest Dreams,” and “How You Get The Girl.” It seems like both parties recognize the serendipity of the partnership. All due respect to Katy Perry and Dr. Luke, there is presently no performer/writer/producer team more likely to generate hits than Swift and Martin. With the exception of “Shake It Off,” which I actively dislike, I love all the songs they’ve come up with together, but I don’t love any of them as much as “22,” which captures the best attributes of both artists: Swift’s diaristic lyricism and best-friend charisma, and Martin’s insane melodies and sparkling sound. Fun fact: “Bad Blood” is, in fact, a diss track about Katy Perry, which gives additional fuel to my above-stated speculation that Martin and Perry might not have much of a future together.
02. The Backstreet Boys – “I Want It That Way” (1999)
This is how you know it’s magic. It’s science, too, and technique and technology and precision and practice and craftsmanship and money and trial and error … but it’s also magic, and you know it’s magic because you only have one of these. There is nothing else in Martin’s entire oeuvre that reaches these heights, certainly nothing else like it in the rest of the Backstreet Boys’ catalog. “I Want It That Way” is a “God Only Knows”-level work of pure sonic beauty. I’m a heretic, I know. But I’m not wrong. It doesn’t matter that the words are nonsense; it might be better because the words are nonsense. By way of explaining the lyrics, Backstreet Boy Kevin Richardson once said, “[Martin’s] English has gotten much better, but at the time…” All the better. You assign it your own meaning, or don’t even look to the song for meaning. It’s a piece of music you fall in love with because it overwhelms you with an impossibly glorious display of sound. Fun fact: According to co-writer Andreas Carlsson, the song’s prominent arpeggio guitar riff was inspired by Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters.” Also, while Martin is never interviewed anywhere by anyone, he did speak at the Backstreet Boys’ Hollywood Walk Of Fame induction ceremony, and that is the single-longest speech I’ve ever seen or heard from the guy. At that point, in 2013, the Backstreet Boys were well past their prime, while Martin was at the height of his success, but when you watch it, you get the impression Martin is still genuinely awed by the Backstreet Boys’ voices and he still genuinely loves the people in that band. “This is my opportunity to say thank you to you guys,” says Martin, “because you changed my life.” He then quotes Abba. You should watch it; it’s really very sweet.
01. Kelly Clarkson – “Since U Been Gone” (2004)
Here’s the thing: Even if “Since U Been Gone” weren’t the most important song in Max Martin’s catalog, it would still be the best. And the reverse, too, is true. But “Since U Been Gone” is in fact both those things. And more. It’s one of the best songs of the last 20 years; it was the moment an American Idol winner became a legitimately great recording artist; it was perhaps the first real shot fired against rockism on behalf of poptimism — the first to draw blood, at least. The legend goes like this: Martin was trying to write a Strokes song, and he came up with “Since U Been Gone” instead. The legend also goes like this: Martin met Dr. Luke, and they both gave to the other something vital — Martin gave Dr. Luke a better understanding of how to write melodies, and Dr. Luke gave Martin gargantuan guitar sound. “Since U Been Gone” was the beginning of their partnership, representing a rebirth for both producers. The legend also goes like this: Martin and Luke wrote “Since U Been Gone” for P!nk, but she passed on it. Then they considered giving it to Hilary Duff, but she didn’t have the vocal chops for it. Clive Davis begged them to give it to Clarkson. Said Davis: “I really spent time convincing them that an American Idol winner could bring all the feeling and passion that was required to the song.” Finally, the legend goes, they approached Clarkson with the song — the sketch of the song — and she laughed at what she heard. But she did it anyway, and she went up an octave on the chorus. Everything goes up on that chorus: the vocals, the guitars, the volume, your heart. It all just erupts. That song changed everything for Martin and Luke and Clarkson and American Idol and popular-music criticism and popular music. And god knows what it changed for everyone who was listening, everyone who just heard the thing and walked away different: empowered, exuberant, awed, breathless, renewed. That was the song. It just had that much power. And it still does.