Max Martin isn’t just an influence on pop music — he is pop music. For more than two decades, the 45-year-old Swedish producer/songwriter/pop-star-whisperer has consistently redefined what music sounds like and how it’s produced, remolding Top 40 as he goes. From his early days as an upstart working with acts like Ace of Base and Leila K, he’s chiseled his sound and skill with chart-topping singles for theBackstreet Boys, *NSYNC, Britney Spears, Katy Perry and Taylor Swift — sharpening mainstream conventions along the way. Not only is his resume long, but it’s so comprehensive that it’s difficult to find a chart-topping album that he hasn’t touched during his time.
Outside of his Billboard hits, which counts 22 number-ones on the Hot 100 and 42 top-10s, Martin has worked with a litany of artists who didn’t choose to go the single-release route. On them, Martin’s work still shines through, buried as treasures on projects that history forgot.
Ace of Base, “Blooming 18” (1995)
At the infant stage of his career in 1994, Martin mostly stuck to working on tracks for a tight-knit group of musical acts — namely the reggae-tinged Herbie, the caricature Euro-dance collective E-Type and the most successful of the bunch: Ace of Base. Alongside Denniz Pop and Joker, he helmed four tracks on their sophomore set The Bridge, including its three singles “Lucky Love,” “Beautiful Life” and “Never Gonna Say I’m Sorry.” Lingering at the conclusion of the LP came “Blooming 18,” which followed the musical template of hits prior, and while not exactly the catchiest of the Swedish pop quartet’s singles, it has far more merit than The Bridge’s weaker fare.
Backstreet Boys, “Don’t Want You Back” (1999)
Martin took a step up from relatively regional producer to pop prince with his 1996 work with the Backstreet Boys, lacing four of the 13 tracks on their breakthrough debut Backstreet’s Back. In the years that followed, he buttoned up hits for Robyn (“Show Me Love,” “Do You Know (What It Takes)”), *NSYNC (“I Want You Back,” “Tearin’ Up My Heart”) and Britney Spears (“… Baby One More Time”). But he hit full throttle in 1999 with BSB’s Millennium, on which he produced all four singles. Not to be confused with *NSYNC’s “I Want You Back” (which Martin also handled!), “Don’t Want You Back” was one of three non-singles from the smash LP with all the hallmarks of early Martin production: the groggy vocal sample, synth hits and accouterment knick-knacks also employed on singles from Spears and *NSYNC.
*NSYNC, “Tell Me, Tell Me… Baby” (2000)
*NSYNC had already found considerable success with Martin, who sat behind the boards for two songs off their explosive sophomore album No Strings Attached, which sold 2.4 million copies in its first week. At this point, Martin had crystallized his abilities as a master of pop song structure, and was in the process of ushering his sound into the next millennium. Aside from single “It’s Gonna Be Me,” “Tell Me, Tell Me… Baby” was classic turn-of-the-millennium *NSYNC, slick and synth-powered with an expedient chorus.
Britney Spears, “Bombastic Love” (2001)
Surely every Britney stan would argue that her non-singles should have been singles — after all, the Britney Army is one of the most loyal groups of allegiants, given the duration (and intensity) of their fandom. So it’s hard to pick “Bombastic Love” over “Cinderella” — two songs that Martin produced off Britney. Where “Cinderella” felt like a retread of Martin’s conventional late ‘90s style, “Bombastic Love” was right on the nose with its twinkling keys and jerking percussion. In retrospect, it feels a bit dated, much like the majority of the output from Martin’s early days as a producer, but it stacked up against anything else on the experimental set.
P!nk, “It’s All Your Fault” (2008)
Of all the songs included on this list, it’s most mindblowing that P!nk’s “It’s All Your Fault” was never selected as a single. At this point in his career, Martin had already proved himself peerless — he’d already scored dominant hits including Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone,” Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” and Britney’s “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman.” His history with P!nk had been fruitful: “Who Knew” and “U + Ur Hand” both topped the Mainstream Top 40 by 2006. Which is why, come 2008, their collaborations had enough padding to be surefire successes. “So What,” the lead single off of Funhouse, was one of six songs Martin produced for the project, including fellow singles “I Don’t Believe You” and “Please Don’t Leave Me.” “It’s All Your Fault” was shockingly left off the promotional to-do list. It has the same guitar-plucked verse that leads into a power chorus a la Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone,” with the classic P!nk edge. A missed opportunity for chart success.
Robyn, “Time Machine” (2010)
After finding crossover success in the mid-‘90s with Martin and then regrouping with the forward-leaping Robyn in 2005, it took about five more years for the Swedish singer to craft one of the most classic pop albums of the new millennium, Body Talk. Initially released as a series of three EPs, the third included “Time Machine,” as zippy and effervescent as anything she’s ever done. This, of course, came from the duo that made “Show Me Love,” and the results were palatable: Robyn sings of hopping in a DeLorean to turn back the clock after letting her emotions get the best of her, prompting her to start a fight with a lover over one of Martin’s tightest pop constructions.
Britney Spears, “Inside Out” (2011)
Martin and Spears made music magic together over the years dating back to her entry point in the industry. There was a lot riding on 2011’s Femme Fatale, a record that came as the second successor to the sharp, finely assembled Blackout, recorded when Britney was at her lowest point and yet yielding some of her best work. Circus was overblown, admittedly, but Femme Fatale re-centered the focus, this time on EDM-flavored pop. Martin was to credit for singles “I Wanna Go,” “Hold It Against Me” and “Till the World Ends,” as well as a few other cuts including “Inside Out,” heralded by many fans as the lost single from the project. With a wheezing dubstep-inflected beat, Brit delivers a breakup sex song for the ages.
Kesha, “Only Wanna Dance With You” (2012)
Kesha may have started out as a crackpot pop starlet, messy yet intoxicating, and while the disgraced Dr. Luke architected many of her first hits, one of her best overindulgences came in the form of “Blow,” produced by Martin. He reconnected with her for 2012’s Warrior, an undersold gem cut short by the fact that its single “Die Young” was disavowed by Kesha after the Sandy Hook shootings. Her second full-length album was so much more than the controversy surrounding it, and Martin had a hand in the fantastic title track, as well as “C’Mon” and “Supernatural.” But the true standout, aside from a collaboration with Iggy Pop, was the Strokes-cribbing “Only Wanna Dance With You.” It harkened back to Martin’s earlier production with Bo Bice and Bon Jovi, while taking a few notes from the aforementioned New York City collective. It would have been a detour for Kesha to release it as a single, but worth it.
Tori Kelly ft. LL Cool J, “California Lovers” (2014)
Don’t roll your eyes. Despite the watered-down singles that Tori Kelly has released throughout the years, she truly achieved her best with Martin on her breakthrough album Unbreakable Smile — as shiny and optimistic as her Foreword EP. Martin handled her lead single “Nobody Love,” a monster-sized record that failed to deliver on its clear promise, but truly shined on his other productions “Falling Slow” and “California Lovers.” Granted, Kelly and LL Cool J are like water and oil, but they work wondrously on “California Lovers,” with satisfyingly restrained vocals and an non-resolving melody that maintains an air of intrigue.
Ariana Grande, “Sometimes” (2016)
Grande and Martin already served up numerous pop crushers on 2014’s My Everything, counting “Problem,” “Break Free,” “Love Me Harder” and “Bang Bang” to their resumes. While difficult to follow such a hot streak, this year’s Dangerous Woman had its moments — not necessarily including the title track, but other singles including “Into You” and “Side to Side.” But in addition to three other tracks they worked on for her third LP, “Sometimes” stands out as the victor: it’s aching, melodic and flawless, both in production and vocal performance. It makes sense they unite so consistently — they’re both masters of their craft. Granted the recent delivery of the album, there’s still time for “Sometimes” to get a promotional push.