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Making Beautiful Music Together: 15 of the Best Duets/Musical Partnerships Ever Recorded
What makes a song duet genuinely good? Two or more singers who complement each other without trying to outdo each other? A song that’s easy to dance to? Honestly, there are no set rules for why certain duets and song collaborations work better than others. It ultimately depends on the song’s content and the performers who can properly convey its message. Sometimes the partnership is just a disaster from start to finish. (Remember Seal’s duet with wife Heidi Klum? It’s quite understandable. The song was a lesson in vocal nepotism at its worst.) Occasionally, the best collaborations aren’t always done in front of the microphone. It’s the partnerships behind the scenes that have the most impact. The mixing of two different musical styles to make an album a lot more unique than it once was.
Here is a list of fifteen of the best song duets/musical collaborations that are divided into five categories that range from updates, remixes, and unique partnerships that defied most logic to make an impression with listeners. Read on to see if you agree and what songs should be added to the mix or need a second shot at musical glory.
David Bowie and Mick Jagger “Dancing in the Street” (1985) - This duet, especially the music video, was prepared at the last minute for that year’s Live Aid event. It was a dream pairing of two rock icons singing together for the first time. Jagger’s confident bravado and voice prominent throughout the song signified that a party was about to commence, whether people liked it or not. Bowie’s appearance was a departure from his usual heavier fare, but it was still nice to see him mix it up with The Rolling Stones’ lead singer. The music video, on the other hand, was enjoyable to watch but it bordered on 80s campiness with both singers acting a little goofier than normal. It’s recommended to watch this video whenever you’re in a bad mood, because it’s guaranteed to make you smile.
Natalie Cole and Nat King Cole “Unforgettable” (1991)- This duet is one of the few time where a daughter actually got to perform with her father, after his death. Cole got to sing this classic song with a recording of her later father as a way of paying homage to him and put her own spin on it. This “Unforgettable” song also helped garner Cole some musical praise as well, which she has tried to emulate for years since without the same impact.
Mariah Carey and Luther Vandross “Endless Love” (1995) - This version of “Endless Love” was a cover of a Diana Ross/Lionel Richie song that also sparked well with listeners. The Carey/Vandross pairing also made a similar impression that mixed both singers in their prime with both of them belting out the highs and lows of an enduring love affair that defied all logic. Listen to this song whenever your relationship hits the best and worst milestones. You can’t not help but get emotional when you listen to this duet.
David Bowie and Nine Inch Nails “I’m Afraid of Americans” (2002) - This song was originally released on Bowie’s 1997 Earthling album got remixed by Trent Reznor and his band with surprising results for Bowie’s 2002 greatest hits album. The new version was full of Bowie cool and NIN darkness. The music video was just as full of complexity which followed a paranoid Bowie running through the city being chased by a dangerous looking Reznor. Paranoia never sounded, or looked, so fascinating.
Justin Timberlake and Timbaland “Sexy Back” (2006) – For his Future/Love/Sex Sounds album, Timberlake took a huge risk in working with popular music producer/performer Timbaland. He recruited him in an effort to shake up his second album with a riskier style and tone that took him away from the innocent pop numbers that his former band N’Sync was popular for. “Sexy Back” showed that Timberlake could take a risk with making a pop album double with club beats that everyone wanted to dance to. It was a gamble because this song made it hard to discern his voice from the beat, but it was a risk definitely worth taking and listening to. Future was so successful that Timberlake hasn’t made an album since because of his recent focus on acting instead of singing. He has made cameos on other artists’ songs, but he hasn’t performed his own in years. Hopefully, one day his third album will be released with Timbaland along for the ride.
Chris Cornell and Timbaland “Scream” (2009) – The former Soundgarden/Audioslave front man hasn’t had much luck as a solo performer and recruited Timbaland as well to shake up his latest solo album Scream. The album mixed club friendly beats and Cornell’s raspy rocker voice that talked about such painful topics as the destruction of a relationship. This was a more stripped down, dance friendly version of Cornell that allowed the emotion in the songs build instead of being angry right off the bat. Sadly, most music fans skipped this album and it caused Cornell to lose a lot of credibility with record labels. It’s a shame because the album’s a decent effort that needs to be rediscovered sooner rather than later.
Ying and Yang Partnerships
Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush “Don’t Give Up” (1986)- This duet came from Gabriel’s super-successful So album, which spawned the mega-hit “In Your Eyes.” This song was about a man who was battle-weary and tired of fighting an endless battle. His voice signified that he wanted to lie down and give into the upcoming defeat. Bush’s part was to force Gabriel not to give into his defeated mentality and rise above it in a last ditch effort to continue fighting. Gabriel’s moody intellectual tone and Bush’s bright optimism made this song standout on an album full of hits. It’s worth listening to regardless.
Kylie Minogue and Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds “Where the Wild Roses Grow” (1995)- A match made in musical heaven when these two seemingly mismatched performers got together for this song. Minogue was always the picture of musical lightness and Cave was her polar opposite. His band Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds tended to focus on the darker side of life in such songs as “Red Right Hand” which profiled someone who was capable of murder. This duet seemed like a romantic ballad about love growing, until everyone realized it was about a relationship based in death. A guy obsessed with a woman killed her and buried the evidence. The song seemed like a bad idea on the surface, but it paired the unlikely duo with an unconventional backstory that worked despite some misgivings.
Coldplay and Rihanna “Princess of China” (2011) - Most people would assume that Rihanna’s duet with Eminem “Love The Way You Lie” would have made the cut, but its dark tone was eclipsed by “Where the Wild Roses Grow” instead which also mixed love and violence as well. “Princess of China” also followed another destructive relationship crashing and burning, but instead it’s a quieter end for this Coldplay song from their latest album Mylo Xyloto. Lead Singer Chris Martin’s moody atmospheric vocals go hand-in-hand with Rihanna’s playful backup support about a relationship on its last legs. Rihanna has become the premiere go-to gal for song duets (Jay-Z, Kayne West, etc.).
Eurythmics and Aretha Franklin “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves” (1985) - Picture this. Annie Lennox’s rocker girl attitude mixed with Aretha Franklin’s soulful grit in a song about female empowerment. Both women match each other in personality and note. This song was originally released on the Eurythmics’ Be Yourself Tonight album and has been a staple on their greatest hits albums. Listen to it and see why.
Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes “(I've Had) The Time of My Life” (1987) - This song has become synonymous with the movie Dirty Dancing and is one of the most memorable songs on the soundtrack. It’s a song about love and how it impacted two people for the better, no matter how long or short it was. Listen to it and dare not to remember your first summer love with a hint of nostalgia.
Maroon 5 and Christina Aguilera “Moves Like Jagger” (2011) - This song was featured on a re-release of Maroon 5’s Hands All Over album as a cheeky dance number that was a tribute to Rolling Stones lead singer Mick Jagger. The music video began with a Jagger audition full of imitators that bordered on hysterical. Lead singer Adam Levine projected some of the Jagger swagger as he proved that it was okay to have fun just like Mr. Jagger himself. Aguilera’s part in the song provided a female perspective of how women can be just as powerful as men. Her part was one of the best performances she’s had in a long time, since her last album Bionic tanked badly. Aguilera should work more with her colleague on The Voice for a comeback album worth listening to.
Songs about Love
Sonny and Cher “I Got You Babe” (1965)- A real life love affair between Sonny Bono and his better half Cher in a song that demonstrated their differing personalities. Like the relationship, the song just seemed to work and helped skyrocket them to fame and a variety show. Unfortunately, their on-stage and off-stage partnership couldn’t endure and they had to part ways. Cher went onto an extremely successful solo career and Bono into another direction. Even though their partnership couldn’t survive, their relationship will continue to live on and has long since Bono’s passing. Just watch episodes of their variety show or listen to their music to see why.
Tom Petty and Stevie Nicks “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” /Stevie Nicks and Don Henley “Leather and Lace” (1981) - Both Nicks songs were featured on her 1981 Bella Donna album which showcased the start and the conclusion of a relationship. “Leather and Lace” showcased how two unlikely personalities can better complement each other more than anyone ever expected. This song was written by Nicks and was intended for another artist. When that opportunity flew through, she partnered up with friend Don Henley to sing the tune. For “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers partnered up with Nicks to sing about a destructive relationship that was best over sooner rather than later. Petty’s mellow vocals matched wonderfully with Nick’s pleas for her dysfunctional partner to leave immediately. Listen to these two songs together to get the full portrait of a relationship from start to finish.
Beyonce and Jay-Z “Crazy in Love” (2003) – This song was the start of a vocal partnership between the pop diva and the rap royalty. The song was featured on her debut album Dangerously in Love and spawned a few more partnerships for both. Their chemistry was intense and turned into a real life marriage with a future that will spawn more musical progeny to come. A true partnership vocally and personally that wonderful to watch unfold.
In the end, a good duet works simply by pairing the right performers and producing wonders to make the right song worth listening to. A prime example was the pairing of David Bowie and Bing Crosby for a rendition of “Little Drummer Boy.” It was an inspiring match-up of Ziggy Stardust and Mr. Holiday Cheer himself. The duet helped elevate this song from mere Christmas music and made it a classic duet great easy listening. Not every pairing works and some artists tend to overdue duets instead of focusing on their individual work. (Timbaland is a heavy offender on his album which tends to be a double edged sword for him.) Ultimately, it’s all about control and using singing partners for the better and not as a way to hide a performer’s weaknesses. Future artists should use their predecessors for tips on what to do and what not to do in preparing for any type of duet. If not, they run a huge risk in being considered in the other end of the duet spectrum. The not so favorable one.