The math is simple: 1 + 1 = 2. But basic arithmetic can’t account for chemistry. And that’s something a duo either seems to have or doesn’t. We’ve seen several seasoned players come together to form celebrated supergroups countless times before. It’s also not unusual for a successful act to pull a de facto nth member into its orbit from time to time — almost as a secret weapon to insure things don’t turn stale. But just how often do two artists come together as equal partners to create a truly memorable collaborative album? It really doesn’t happen all that much, which makes this week’s Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile record, Lotta Sea Lice, worth an extra listen. And, if we do listen, we soon hear Vile lay out a lingering track like “Continental Breakfast” that unfolds like a sidewalk on a glistening summer day where he and Barnett can meet, and she can explain, as only she can, how she “cherishes her intercontinental friendships/ We talk it over continental breakfast.” It’s an incredibly rare moment where two fairly established voices come together and actually speak to each other rather than merely alongside one another.
In that spirit, we began thinking about other times artists have come together, seemingly for a one-off venture, and appeared to have clicked from the very beginning. These are all first-time collaborations. In some cases, the artists may have worked again in the future together, but we didn’t want to look at albums like Richard and Linda Thompson’s masterpiece sixth album, Shoot Out the Lights. At that point, we knew what that husband-wife duo was capable of together. No, these are first-time affairs. Two artists, sometimes similar, sometimes wildly different, putting it all on the line and walking away with something neither could’ve done on his or her own. Artists who managed to find that always-elusive chemistry. That certain something that can occasionally make 1 + 1 = 3 and leave the rest of us gratefully spellbound as we check our calculators for the hundredth time.
Here are 10 other collaborative albums you should know.
Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong – Ella and Louis (1956)
It’s simple enough to take two legends, record a handful of duets, stamp their names on an album cover, and let the units shift themselves. Lord knows the music industry has made that easy buck thousands of times. But that’s far from the case with Ella and Louis. Years before we saw the jazz legend shattering drinking glasses in Memorex commercials, Ella Fitzgerald found a perfect pairing with famed trumpeter Louis Armstrong on this, the first of three albums together. The two glide through traditional standards, with the famed Oscar Peterson Quartet backing them, and somehow manage to squeeze in not only Fitzgerald’s powerhouse voice and Armstrong’s gravelly warble without ever stumbling over each other but also the latter’s iconic trumpet and Peterson’s distinctive piano.
But that’s not why Ella and Louis remains beloved by the fans of these two seminal artists. They don’t merely sing alongside each other; their voices dance with one another. Though she was nearly 20 years his junior, we believe the duo as they inhabit the protagonists of standards like “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” and “Cheek to Cheek”. We believe the memories, the humor, the shared joys and struggles, and we can’t help but wish the same “heaven” for ourselves one day that two old souls share when they assures us, “Heaven, I’m in heaven/ And my heart beats so I can hardly speak/ And I seem to find the happiness I seek/ When we’re out together dancing cheek to cheek.” Sounds like heaven to me. –Matt Melis
Paul and Linda McCartney – Ram (1971)
Astaire and Rogers, Heloise and Abelard, Beyoncé and Jay-Z … though Paul and Linda McCartney were certainly not the first or the last famous couple in history, their love always felt magnetic even after heartbreak. In 1970, The Beatles broke up, and so the McCartneys escaped to their farm in Kintyre, Scotland. Burrowing away in the midst of magical intuition and creative necessity, the two collaborated on a new album to liberate their souls and regenerate their collective passion. The union was met with critical beating and befuddlement: “Ram represents the nadir in the decomposition of ’60s rock thus far,” intoned Rolling Stone’s Jon Landau. Silly? Sure. Naive? Yep!
Gosh, it’s just the sound of two people doing whatever the fuck they bloody-well want, and decades after its release the album has lived up to its title — pushing through a challenging block, moving forward and far from The Beatles to cultivate a new sound. The album epitomizes McCartney’s superb talent, his prolific gift for extracting the most crucial elements in his mind and orchestrating rivers of lush sound around them. Linda’s breathless lyrical cadence flickers through a wall of layered trills that never collapse under their own weight, Paul dragging his vocal chords through the rubble, digging deep into the dirt to bury his demons. –Lior Phillips
Brian Eno-David Byrne – My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1981)
Brian Eno and David Byrne’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts is a mile marker for the evolution of modern pop music. This thoroughly experimental album infected the music world like a virus – taking sample-based songmaking to new extremes and leading the charge in injecting African and other non-Anglo music techniques into mainstream pop. Instead of Byrne on vocals, the two musical super geniuses used found audio culled from the radio and other sources: faith healers, politicians, and most notably singers from a variety of Middle Eastern countries. Their techniques hearken back to Steve Reich’s droning tape loop preacher samples from the 1960s and anticipate Moby’s breakthrough singles 20 years later.
Both Eno and Byrne are at their wildest, as evidenced by the meticulous assemblage techniques needed to pull off these sounds with the technology of the time, while also relying heavily on carefree improvisation, found objects, and happy accidents. From the jarring cartoon squeaks of “America Is Waiting” to the eeriness of “Mountain of Needles”, the album’s instrumentals are equal parts haunting and rhythmic fusion of Byrne and Eno’s signature sounds. “The Jezebel Spirit” is Talking Heads set to an exorcism; “Regiment” plays like a Bowie outtake with Lebanese vocals. It’s a timeless record while also being utterly pivotal to its time. –Cap Blackard
Electronic – Electronic (1991)
As Electronic, The Smiths’ Johnny Marr and New Order’s Bernard Sumner, two of the most prolific masters of guitar and synth, share intriguing skills that hinge on two principles: their eclectic variety of sounds and an unwavering reciprocity between eagerness and technicality. The essence of Electronic, which curiously crosses from Marr’s deep, dutiful guitar work to Sumner’s beautifully feverish synthpop, allows familiar elements to distill into an iconic collaborative rapture. Neither elbows the other out of the mix, while quick splurges of colorful sound hover over airy acoustic guitars and drum machine loops.
“Getting Away With It” sounds rhythmic and powerful while “Get the Message” is a fearless delivery of the duo’s powers fully formed — like the two found open ground to be themselves again. Though the former single sold a quarter of a million copies, they toured with Depeche Mode, and they collaborated with Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe of Pet Shop Boys and Kraftwerk’s Karl Bartos, it’s been 18 years since the two released an album. Sure, sure, it’s been only four since Sumner joined Marr at Jodrell Bank to perform together, but we can only hope they one day fully rekindle their electronic heat. –Lior Phillips
Black Star – Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star (1998)
Before Mos Def and Talib Kweli became household hip-hop names in their own right, they joined forces to produce one of the genre’s most thrilling and thought-provoking debuts. As the story goes, the two native Brooklynites were prepping solo debuts of their own when they realized that their shared concerns (and adeptness on the mic) were more powerful together than apart. Named for the famed shipping company founded by Pan-Africanist activist Marcus Garvey, Black Star found the two tackling the day-to-day issues of black life in America with a mixture of open-handed compassion and pointed critique; when they’re not promoting confidence and self-love on tracks like “Brown Skin Lady”, they’re using the pulpit of “Children’s Story” and “Definition” to decry the violence and materialism that threatens to derail promising lives. The record draws upon a wide swath of influence from prominent black artists, from the Toni Morrison-inspired “Thieves in the Night” to the guest spot from jazz pianist Wledon Irvine on “Astronomy (8th Light)”. Along the way, they also reinforce the third crucial pillar of ’90s East Coast hip-hop, joining fellow travelers like Digable Planets and De La Soul as mellower, more introspective counterparts to gangsta rap icons like the Notorious B.I.G. and hard-edged menacers like the Wu-Tang Clan. –Tyler Clark
Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach – Painted from Memory (1998)
This project between such unlikely collaborators began as a joint commission to write a song (“God Give Me Strength”) for the 1996 film Grace of My Heart. After successfully penning the tune long distance over phone — Burt Bacharach was in Los Angeles and Elvis Costello in Ireland at the time — the two decided to write more together the following year. The resulting album, Painted from Memory, is a fully orchestrated collection of melancholy reflections that challenges Costello’s vocals as never before and draws attention to the beautiful, intricate details within Bacharach’s seemingly simple compositions. The duo won a Grammy for the song “I Still Have That Other Girl”, appeared on late-night television, and even took the project on the road.
It’s tempting to view this pairing as a younger artist shining a light on one of his heroes, a light that perhaps had unjustly grown dimmer in recent years. But that would shortchange Bacharach’s continuing impact on Costello as an artist. For all the great songwriters Costello has collaborated with over the years, including Paul McCartney, nobody brought out the best in him as a lyricist and vocalist like Bacharach. To this day, Costello regularly performs the haunting “This House Is Empty Now” on tour to huge applause from audiences. Each time, it’s as if he’s sharing some treasure that he and Bacharach unearthed together. –Matt Melis
Robert Plant and Alison Krauss – Raising Sand (2003)
There’s a wonderful clip of Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, and John Paul Jones sitting in the honorees’ balcony at the 2012 Kennedy Center Honors. The drums kick in as Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart perform “Stairway to Heaven”, and the three former bandmates exchange glances and just bubble over in delight. There’s an overwhelming sense of joy and pride on display in that shared moment but clearly an air of contentment as well. The true battle of evermore for rock royalty like Plant will be fading questions about Led Zeppelin’s future, if any, until the day he ponies up for his own stairway. You can’t blame journalists and fans for their enthusiasm, but the Led’s been out for a while, and Plant has had a full and eclectic second career as both a solo artist and a collaborator with talents like Page and, later on, bluegrass-country singer Alison Krauss.
In 2007, that duo released Raising Sand, a collection of covers that saw two unique voices fall comfortably in place alongside each other with the help of veteran producer T Bone Burnett. While listeners expect Plant, even now, to be the piper who enchants us with an otherworldly wail, he’s more than content here to harmonize lines with Krauss (“Please Read the Letter”), ramble together (“Gone Gone Gone”), or lift her up with his airy tones (“Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us”). The duo went on to win five Grammys, including Album of the Year, in 2009, not because Plant is rock royalty. They won because Plant’s always been willing to lay his crown down for the sake of the song. –Matt Melis
Jay-Z and Kanye West – Watch the Throne (2011)
When Jay-Z and Kanye West teamed up to form arguably the most star-studded collaboration in music history, the pair were at very different stages in their career. Jay-Z was still turning out hits, ascending to festival headliner status on his 2009 album, The Blueprint 3, while also receiving criticism for falling off musically as he got older. West, on the other hand, was also headlining festivals, but his last album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, is one of the most acclaimed albums ever released by anyone. It was a partnership that had long been rumored, stemming from years of one-off collaborations. But Watch the Throne wasn’t a guaranteed slam dunk, as fans didn’t know whether the pairing would bring out the best of the two stars or if these two would indeed become musical royalty when combined.
The resulting record and tour wound up being iconic, leaving behind a number of tunes, notably “No Church in the Wild” and “Niggas in Paris”, that have become staples for both artists. The tour behind the album would become the highest grossing hip-hop tour in history, only recently passed by another collaborative duo, Drake and Future. But the lasting effect of the album has seen Jay and Ye have a hot-and-cold relationship. For this moment, they were able to put their egos behind and share both a stage and a mic. As massively successful as they are on their own, the sum of the two proved something bigger than anyone would have imagined. –Philip Cosores
Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels (2013)
Taken on their own, the careers of Killer Mike and El-P had enough critical high points to earn them side-by-side spots on any critic’s list of brilliant-but-somehow-underappreciated hip-hop geniuses. Fortunately, their 2012 guest work on solo records R.A.P. Music and Cancer 4 Cure led not to just a one-off tour, but an ongoing collaboration. Their subsequent debut as Run the Jewels sharpened and amplified their strengths (Mike’s swaggering flow, El-P’s penchant for apocalyptic production and body-blow beats) and similarities (outsized confidence, an inherent distrust for authority figures) in a way that no previous record had. The album’s 10 snarling tracks serve as a chest-thumping statement of purpose; when the two of them aren’t touting their considerable prowess for anyone unfortunate enough to show up late to the game, they’re issuing warnings to peers who dare underestimate them (a well-earned posture best exemplified by the Kanye and Jay-Z disses found on “Sea Legs”). Although the record’s biggest highs emphasize the pair’s irresistible knack for bullshitting braggadocio, they also hint at the agitpop to come; “DDFH” burns with bitter contempt for the war on drugs and the police brutality it brings and serves as a preview to the pair’s escalating disobedience that would spark into full conflagration on 2015’s Run the Jewels 2. –Tyler Clark
Drake and Future – What a Time to Be Alive (2015)
From rising stars to aging legends, the appeal of collaborative projects doesn’t bypass any level of musician. But perhaps none in history caught two artists at their absolute peak of commercial and critical power as when Drake and Future teamed up for a rap album. In 2015, Drake had already proved that not even a lackluster Coachella headlining appearance could slow down his momentum, with his album If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late turning kindergarten penmanship into a certified meme on its way to the top of the charts. Future also visited the top of the Billboard 200 in 2015 with his Dirty Sprite 2, which all makes the collaboration between the two that happened later that year all the more unprecedented.
That feeling of breaking new ground is present on the record as both rappers deliver inspired performances, and it’s even felt in the Ernest Baker-coined album title. In the end, the album is strong enough to stand on its own, even spawning a song in “Jumpman” that would become a cultural reference point. But maybe most interesting is how the record would inextricably link the two artists for the years to come, including a joint tour and guest appearances at each other’s high-profile gigs. At the time, it felt like a flexing move that rap’s two of-the-moment stars would share the spotlight. Now a couple years later, it’s clear that the collaborative album only bolstered the careers of both men, with Future gaining from Drake’s reach and Drake banking off Future’s authenticity. –Philip Cosores