From Bob Dylan rapping with Kurtis Blow, to Ozzy Osbourn and Miss Piggy covering Steppenwolf, and last year’s WTF winner Grizzly Bear and Michael McDonald, seemingly incongruous musicians have always shacked up with one another for some reason or another. Sometimes it’s been for a quick cash grab, or a peace offering, or in memorium, and often it can be cringe-worthy. With the bad ones, either you can smell the falsehood, or you just left wondering “why?” or worse, “who cares?”
But something seems to be in the air in 2010, and diametrical opposites are joining forces to create works that are interesting, challenging, engaging, original, and overall successes. It’s like wrapping chocolate in bacon: you wouldn’t think they’d go together, but — tried and tested — they do. Sure, there have been some clunkers this year (imagine drinking orange juice after you brush your teeth), but here we take a look at some of the chocolate bacon delights that have come out in 2010.
Jeff Tweedy + Mavis Staples
Two weeks ago on 30 Rock, Queen Latifa’s character quipped that NBC was “more white than a Wilco concert.” I watch a lot of NBC and have been to three Wilco concerts and you can’t really argue with her. The Godmother of Soul and Stax Records legend Mavis Staples has a musical disposition that might be classified as “way more black” than Wilco, But both embody slices of good ol’ American pie, and Jeff Tweedy‘s production on Staples’ latest You Are Not Alone is a great example of two artists who share a similar vision from different backgrounds.
Wilco is roots rock, but Staples brings offers us some different roots that we indie kids may too often ignore. CoS’s Evan Minsker accurately summed up the album by saying “It’s warm. It’s hopeful. It’s American.” Finally, a good kind of perfect harmony.
I wonder what Zach Braff and Natalie Portman’s characters from Garden State are doing right now. My guess is riding around in that broke-ass motorcycle and listening to Broken Bells. In fact, if you could dilute that soundtrack down to its essence, it would be an electronic Shins, which is exactly what James Mercer and Danger Mouse produced with their collaboration. Danger Mouse (born Brian Burton) mostly works within the hip hop genre, producing most notably the underground hit The Grey Album, Demon Days, or as a member of Gnarls Barkley. But his work with The Shins’ front man James Mercer represents a shift in his focus and together they produced an absolutely serviceable album with just the right amount of groove mixed in with Mercer’s melancholic indie sound.
I don’t believe it was the revelatory album that they (we (I?)) were hoping for, but it’s a nice bon mot that sees two heavyweights from indie and hip hop come together and simply work well. Favoring ease over complexity, Broken Bells feels like an album of solid remixes, though hopefully the collaboration inspires more hip hop producers to work with indie darlings. DJ Shadow/Ezra Koenig anyone?
Kanye West + Justin Vernon
So Kanye West is no stranger to odd collaborations. From Jamie Foxx to Justin Beiber to samples from the most cobwebbed corners of music, the man works like a genius movie director by culling the most out of the tools he has.
But when news came that Yeezy flew Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon to Hawaii to lay down some vocals, that about sealed the deal as the oddest cross-pollinating collaboration for Ye. The Wisconsin-bred folk singer laid down some distorted vocals that bookended the Kanye/Jay-Z/Niki Minaj banger “Monster” and he will also appear on Ye’s forthcoming My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in some form or another. Now if Vernon can get Kanye to produce the next Bon Iver album, that’s when things are really going to fly off the handle.
Neil Young + Daniel Lanois
As we get older, we have to see the doctor more often. Gums recede, all that benzedrine abuse finally catches up with you, and turns out those freckles aren’t just “kisses from God.” The one doctor aging folk artists seem to turn to is Daniel Lanois — Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Emmy, Lou Harris, and now Neil Young stepped into Lanois’ office. Where once there were 8 tracks, now there are 128 and super digitalized.
It’s not like this is Young’s first step into electric land, but Lanois’ aura of reverb and gloss don’t seem congruent to Young’s barren blues. But one listen to Le Noise and you hear a match in these two. It’s like Crazy Horse meets U2 — there’s distortion and noise, there’s Young’s stark voice with reverb, and it works so well. Some may say that Lanois is just smoke and mirrors hiding Young’s age, but one listen and you’ll see that Young’s songwriting is still spot on. “Hitchhiker” is one hell of a song.
Gorillaz’s Plastic Beach
Collaborations can create some rough stuff, we know, but sometimes it’s the single key to success. If your song is labeled as a crossover hit, then you can just ride that song all the way to Top 40 Radio/The Grammys/college dorms/casual conversations with your mother. Remember when you first heard “Clint Eastwood” almost 10 years ago? That song had crossover written all over it. Deltron, Blur, those four low-Hz bass hits, and something about some cartoons.
Now, Gorillaz have transmogrified from cartoons to something quite real in Plastic Beach, one of 2010’s most versatile and promising albums. At the group’s creative core is still Damon Albarn, but a buck-shot of guests appear on the record, each one expanding on already diverse universe the album creates. From more obvious collaborations like De La Soul and Gruff Rhys to, well, Lou Reed, Mark E. Smith, Snoop Dogg, Paul Simonon and Mick Jones, Bobby Womack, etc… You’d think it was some benefit for some impoverished country, but no, it’s just consortium of legends contributing the The World of Plastic Beach. And when the majority of them show up and play it live? It’s unbelievable.
Ben Folds + Nick Hornby
Ben Folds has got his fans, and he ain’t losing them. I’m not sure if he’s gaining new ones at this point, but we all have a little place in our hearts for him somewhere, I’m sure. His collaboration with author/screenwriter Nick Hornby on his Lonely Avenue is confusing, since at this point in Folds’ career, I am more interested in watching him try to grow as a songwriter. But his nerdiness and lightheartedness may never leave him, and that’s wonderful, so why not get the guy that wrote High Fedilety to write the lyrics for your album. For a Ben Folds jam, it feels off-kilter, but there are some nice moments. Folds’ knack for a quick and catchy melody married with Honrby’s wry humor is just innocuous enough to listen to once or twice.
Thom Yorke + Flying Lotus
When you think about it, this isn’t strange one bit. But then when you think about it a little more, you wonder: why Thom Yorke? Who called who? Getting Yorke on your album is like getting Kanye: guarnteed hype and buzz. Of course, when you listen to the Flying Lotus track “…And The World Laughs With You”, Yorke’s processed voice loops around Ã la “Kid A” and before you know it, the song is over. Cool, I guess, but for Cosmogramma and its density, that one floats right on the surface. I mean, Ravi Coltrane is on the album, wouldn’t you rather listen to him? No? Ok, I understand.
Bethany Cosentino + Weezer
Details are scarce, but Paste tells a tale of twitter flirting turned collaboration between Best Coast frontwoman Bethany Cosentino and Weezer linchpin Rivers Cuomo. The song is “kind of a duet” — apparently “duet” now a subjective term — and Cosentino offered this quote about the team-up: “When we were writing lyrics, he didn’t look at me like, ’That’s really cheesy,’ like some people might. He was like, ‘Oh that’s cool.’ I was like, ‘Finally, somebody gets it.’ It took Rivers Cuomo to make me feel confident that someone else understands.” No details on when we’ll hear this, but my bets that it’s going to be worthwhile. Trust me, it beats Weezer’s collaboration with Hurley.