We know groups and bands can come in all shapes and sizes, but there’s something special about having just two personalities to play off one another. Good cop/Bad cop. Yin/yang. AC/DC. Wait…
We’re only a month into 2014, but musical duos are already having a great year. From a certain pair of French robots sweeping the Grammy Awards to two soul brothers from Philadelphia getting a well-deserved induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, it’s a good time to be partners.
We grabbed a few of our friends, including several Popblerd staffers past & present, a few Twitter friends, rollingstone.com‘s Jason Newman, Popmatters‘ Crispin Kott, Johnathan from Popservations, and more (including Carlos Halston, who knows a thing or two about duos) to provide lists of their ten favorite musical duos. We restricted our list to artists who performed regularly as duos, omitting one-offs (like Page & Plant) and duos who were songwriters but not performers (i.e. Carole King & Gerry Goffin as well as Lennon & McCartney.)
What we wound up with is a list that jumps from dancefloor to bedroom with the greatest of ease. We’ll start with the 2014 Grammy Award champs.
10. Daft Punk
Would Daft Punk have even sniffed this list if it weren’t for this past year? Probably not. Daft Punk were well on their way to being a fondly-remembered relic of the late ’90s and early aughts, a time when words like “electronica” were said with a straight face and the loopy dance music of the Chemical Brothers was spoken of in the same breath as Autechre’s glitchy soundscapes. Daft Punk was a pair of anonymous, well-meaning Parisians who just wanted to make the world dance, and every so often, the world listened; they had minor pop hits in songs like “Around the World” and “One More Time”, though their most widely-recognized contribution to music up until last April was likely “Harder Better Faster Stronger”, appropriated almost wholesale as the backing track for one of Kanye West’s most popular songs to date. They’d won Grammys before this year, but those were for a live album in the Dance categories, essentially lifetime achievement awards.
Of course, Random Access Memories happened (and with it, the all-but-unstoppable radio force that was “Get Lucky”), and now the duo is the proud owner of an Album of the Year Grammy Award, one of five(!) won by the duo in 2014. The recent success likely inflates Daft Punk’s place on a list like this one — before this year, The Chemical Brothers or even Orbital could have made an argument as an “electronica” duo achieving crossover success — but the truth is, their brand of electronic music has long gathered more acclaim with the benefit of hindsight than it ever did upon release, an opposite critical trajectory as most of their contemporaries. For all the sense that Random Access Memories is an oddball of an Album of the Year winner, it is truly a wonderful album in all its ’70s disco glory, and will likely go down as Daft Punk’s crowning achievement. We may never know what they look like (unless we Google hard enough of course), but their music will last far beyond the memories of their helmeted personas. (Mike S.)
9. Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell
Although Marvin is best known as a solo artist, he and Tammi Terrell recorded three albums as a duo. With songwriting assistance from another magical musical duo (Nick Ashford & Valerie Simpson,) the Motown twosome released a string of hits that are as viable as anything in the Great American Songbook. “Your Precious Love,” “If This World Were Mine,” “If I Could Build My World Around You,” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” are just a few of the tunes enlivened by the teaming of Motown’s prince with the upstart female songstress, who cut her teeth performing with everyone from David Ruffin to James Brown. Their chemistry was so strong that many listeners assumed that they were a couple-an assertion that’s been denied by many of Marvin & Tammi’s Motown compatriots. Sadly, both singers met tragic ends-Gaye was murdered in 1984, a day before his 45th birthday, while Terrell succumbed to a brain tumor, aged just 24 years old.
The hard part in ranking Eric B. & Rakim isn’t about where they stand historically musically. They are one of the most influential hip hop acts of all-time. The hard part in ranking them as a duo is in trying to figure out how equal each was to the act. Today, we understand Rakim as maybe the single greatest emcee ever. But what did Eric B. mean to the duo?
Was he the producer? While the duo of Eric B. & Rakim together get credited for producer and executive producer credits on their four classic or near classic albums, Eric B. himself is generally listed as a performer. Rakim is given many different credits including producer. So what did Eric B. do? Well, it seems like he at least had the foresight to put himself with a rapper to create the act. After talking to Big Money, it seems like Eric B. is also given credit as the business man. But outside of that, the group was entirely Rakim, samples, and the few producers they worked with (Large Professor included).
Does it hurt them that Eric B. wasn’t Rakim’s near equal like Big Boi is to Andre 3000? I think it does a little bit. However, they’re still on the list. While they were a successful act when it came to selling albums, they wouldn’t become as rich as Rakim’s style made other rappers who took his evolved rhyme game and made it a version of the most popular spitting style ever. But, from 1987 to 1992, you could argue that nothing influenced the genre like they did. In fact, because of their four album run, Rakim’s solo career is looked at as a failure as he was never able to get back to the same level.
For my money, Rakim carries Eric B. on his back enough to be hip hop’s greatest duo, even if I know many may not feel the same. And that’s not taking anything away from Outkast. (GG)
7. The White Stripes
Openly acknowledging debts to their hometown, The White Stripes were in some ways a pastiche of Detroit rock, refreshing and representing the city’s rich history of guitar-driven rock. Their early work reflects that tradition, but each album saw the duo stepping further outside of their comfort zone, with generally great results. As duos are concerned, Meg White has roundly been criticized for her drumming. And yet, her plodding, sometimes a hair off-rhythm style was perfect for the stripped down aesthetic that she and Jack White cultivated. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine that any other person behind the kit would have contributed to quite the same dynamic the developed between Jack and Meg (underscored by the myth that they were brother and sister – all the creepier when you consider that they were married for a time). Across six albums in eight years, The White Stripes produced consistently interesting or at least enjoyable records. Most of all, they knew when to stop, ending the project in 2011. (Dr. Z)
6. Sam & Dave
Hold on! They’re a-comin’! Sam Moore & the late Dave Prater were linchpins of soul music. With songs expressly written for them by the likes of Isaac Hayes, the twosome served up some of the most memorable records of the Sixties. “Soul Man” is a declarative statement that enlivened civil rights demonstrations as well as dance parties, bringing the spirited vocals and call-and-response shouts from the church to pop radio. Everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Michael Jackson to The Blues Brothers (who are perhaps best known for a cover of “Soul Man”) owes them a debt of gratitude. It’s a shame that Dave Prater, who died in 1988, was unable to witness the full power of his influence.
5. Steely Dan
There was some contention as to whether Steely Dan should be considered a duo or not, but the fact of the matter is that the public faces of the group were Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. The duo’s combination of jazz, soul and rock flavors lit up the radio waves in the early Seventies. Buried amid smashes like “Do It Again,” “Hey Nineteen” and the immortal “Peg” were some of the most sardonic and inscrutable lyrics committed to a Top 40 act. Albums like Pretzel Logic, The Royal Scam and the Grammy-nominated Aja are modern classics, boasting a who’s-who of L.A. and New York’s finest musicians (most notably head Doobie in charge Michael McDonald.) Becker and Fagen finally got their Album of the Year Grammy in 2001 for Two Against Nature, and remain a viable touring act. Not bad for a group that got its name from a dildo.
It wasn’t just their seven top-five hits, including No. 1 singles “Wake Up Little Susie,” “All I Have to Do Is Dream,” and “Cathy’s Clown,” that set The Everly Brothers apart. Their music became influential to bands we consider the greatest of all-time. The Beatles, Beach Boys, Simon & Garfunkel and the Bee Gees all have stated that The Everly Brothers influenced the music they made, and perhaps the best example is in “Bye Bye Love,” a track that not only Simon & Garfunkel recorded live for the 1970 Bridge Over Troubled Water album, but that a casual listener could assume was a Beatles hit. Personally “Cathy’s Clown” holds a special place in my heart, mostly because it is one of my grandpa’s karaoke go-to songs. Fitting, because his daughter, my mom, is named Cathy, and well, I’m positive that when he saw my dad walk into the house, both for the first time in 1976 and presently, he’s singing, “I die each time I hear this sound. Here he comes, that’s Cathy’s clown.” (KJ)
“Until they close the curtains…it’s him and I, Aquemini.”
Very few duos have played off of the yin/yang roles as well as OutKast did. Big Boi was the grounded, Southern player. Andre 3000 was the spaceship weirdo. Largely staying in character, the two established Atlanta on the hip-hop scene while expanding their sound with each successive album. After achieving the height of crossover success with 2000’s Stankonia, OutKast split in half (sort of) and became even more popular. 2003’s Speakerboxx/The Love Below was a double album set consisting of one LP from each member. It is, to date, the only rap album to ever win the Album of the Year Grammy (depending on whether you consider The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill more of a rap album or an R&B album.) Since then, they’ve released one significantly less successful album in a similar format (the soundtrack to the ill-fated Idlewild) and pursued separate interests. Big Boi’s two solo albums are uniformly excellent (and may make you reconsider the whole “Andre is the weird one” method of thinking,) while 3000 has produced, acted, appeared in commercials, and occasionally dropped guest verses that frustrate everyone waiting for either a solo album from him or a new OutKast album. 2014 has brought forth the announcement of a reunion tour. Can a group album (a real group album) be far behind? A man can hope…
2. Daryl Hall & John Oates
There’s a reason that a large segment of music fans rejoiced and said “well overdue” when Daryl Hall & John Oates were voted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame earlier this year. The Philadelphia duo has turned out to be way more influential than the condescending public opinion of them even a decade ago would have indicated. As purveyors of pure pop music, they had few equals in the ’70s or ’80s. A quick rundown of their #1 singles-“Rich Girl,” “Kiss On My List,” “Private Eyes,” “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do),” “Maneater” and “Out of Touch” reveals a flawless catalog of goodness. Even their lesser-known efforts-“Your Imagination,” “Do What You Want, Be What You Are,” “Don’t Hold Back Your Love,” “Melody for a Memory” and more-sound like lab-perfected smashes. H2O certainly doesn’t get enough credit for their seamless fusing of styles, either. They moved from new wave to art rock to folk to smooth soul to hip-hop infused pop with the greatest of ease. Still performing (and sounding great) today, their significance is only increasing with each passing year.
1. Simon & Garfunkel
Every college kid who ever picked up a guitar, played three chords and wrote a little song should pray a little thank you to Paul and Art. Every band who makes an album filled to the brim with simple little two-to-three minute songs that talk about boys and girls and life and politics should send a check to Paul and Art. And if we had to mail a nickel to Paul and Art every time a song of theirs just randomly popped into our head and we started singing it, they would both be sitting on top of piles of money the size of which might be enough to muck with the very orbit of the earth.
It’s hard to quantify the artistic merit of Simon and Garfunkel, because the songs they’re known for aren’t epic songs, they’re not the sorts of frame-able works that pushed bands like The Beatles and The Beach Boys into the upper echelons of modern critical fawning. “Mrs. Robinson”, maybe their most famous song, is defined by its simplicity, a concise slice of poetry with some of the most memorable melodies (not to mention harmonies) ever put to tape. “Bridge Over Troubled Water” has been played and covered enough times to turn it into a cliché, but when it first came out, it was just a beautiful little song about trust and friendship. And they don’t get nearly enough credit for this, but “The Sound of Silence” (and, honestly, most of the songs on the similarly-titled album) is far more sophisticated than anything The Beatles were doing in ’64 and ’65.
Simon and Garfunkel were done come 1970. Paul Simon’s done plenty of brilliant stuff since then, and while Art Garfunkel hasn’t quite maintained the profile of his other half, he’s managed a successful career by most measures on his own. They’ve rarely been above getting together for the occasional one-off live performance or tour, either. Their time writing and recording in the ’60s, however, yielded nothing short of pure magic. (Mike S.)