The Best Music Duos of All Time, Ranked from 16 to 1
If too many cooks spoil the broth, two can make it just right.
“It takes two to make a thing go right. It takes two to make it outta sight.”
That’s what the rap duo Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock declared on their 1999 classic “It Takes Two.” The female trio Seduction seconded that notion in the title and chorus of “Two to Make It Right,” their 1989 number-two hit on Billboard’s Hot 100.
Both acts had a point. Twosomes have been responsible for some of the most brilliant popular music of the last 65 years. Where would the art form be without its collaborations of two? There’d be no “Cathy’s Clown,” no “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” no “We’ve Only Just Begun,” no “Here Comes the Rain Again.” This year, last year’s Best New Artist Grammy nominees Black Pumas are carrying on the tradition of duo excellence with their current Album of the Year nominee Black Pumas (Deluxe Edition).
Although it’s hard to rank such an extensive list of double players, and it might not even be altogether fair to do so, well, why not try? What follows is my personal list of the 16 best music duos in the major popular music genres, with some honorable mentions thrown in.
For this purpose, I’ve excluded excluded solo acts who came together as one-offs or even regularly (like George Jones and Tammy Wynette, Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn, and Kenny Rogers and Dottie West), and I’m focusing instead on acts whose primary recording careers have been as duos. I’ve also left out bands that revolved around a creative axis of two, like Steely Dan, Air Supply, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Mazzy Star, and Portishead.
As with all lists of this type, disagreement is expected, so please feel free to share your own picks in the comments.
16. The White Stripes
You’ve got to hand it to a band that can take a song as loud, messy and irreverently rock & roll as White Stripes’ platinum 2007 single “Icky Thump” — in which Jack White boldly admonished White American nationalism a decade before the Trump years — and made it one of the most prescient, uncompromising smashes of this millennium (number two in the UK and number 26 in the US). White has proven his versatility via collaborations with Loretta Lynn and Alicia Keys, but the duo in which he left his first mark remains his flagship legacy.
15. Tears for Fears
Everyone remembers them for “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” and “Shout,” but those aren’t even close to being their crowning achievements. They’re both solid number-ones, but they hardly hint at the musical complexity TFF were capable of and demonstrated on songs like “I Believe” and “Sowing the Seeds of Love.” And then there’s 1982’s “Mad World.” It never charted in the US, but like Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” 12 years earlier, the song, through TFF’s original recording and countless covers, reinforced the transcendent potential of the best pop music.
The late Rosa Parks may not have been much of a fan (the Civil Rights legend sued OutKast for appropriating her name for the title of their 1998 single “Rosa Parks”), but they remain the only straight-up rap act ever to achieve an Album of the Year Grammy win, which they scored for their 2003 double album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below.
13. Sam and Dave
Don’t blame them for the fact that their 1967 signature hit “Soul Man” is one of the most overplayed soundtrack songs in the history of feelgood movies, followed closely by their 1966 hit “Hold On, I’m Comin’.” They were active only for a few years, but in a decade in which Chad & Jeremy, Jan & Dean, Peter and Gordon, The Righteous Brothers, and Simon and Garfunkel kept White male twosomes on the map, Sam & Dave injected a welcome jolt of color and soul into the art of the duo.
12. Pet Shop Boys
They launched a series of techno-pop hits that, their ghastly cover of “Always on My Mind” aside, somehow managed to sidestep the datedness of so much overproduced ’80s pop. Those would be enough to qualify them for this list. But Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe were also songwriters and producers who revived the career of Dusty Springfield (via their 1987 number-two collaboration “What Have I Done to Deserve This?”), helmed career-redefining work by Liza Minnelli (her 1989 Results album) and Boy George (his 1992 Grammy-nominated top 20 single “The Crying Game,” on which, George once told me, they floored him with their prowess as musicians), and recorded one of the first masterpiece albums of the ’90s (Behaviour).
It’s easy to dismiss them as pure bubblegum, especially considering the more sophisticated pop George Michael would produce on his own after Wham! split. But reconsider Make It Big tracks like “Careless Whisper” and “Everything She Wants”: Michael wasn’t a work in progress. He was already a major talent in full bloom.
10. The Brothers Johnson
More than a decade after his breakthrough into the pop mainstream as Lesley Gore’s producer, Quincy Jones laid the groundwork for his game-changing work with Michael Jackson by producing a series of hugely successful albums for George and Louis E. Johnson that defied the prevailing disco sound of the time. “Strawberry Letter 23” remains one of the greatest musical achievements in any genre during the ’70s.
9. Ike and Tina Turner
Their legacy may forever be tainted by the domestic abuse documented in the 1993 biopic What’s Love Got to Do with It, but the Turners’ work actually deserves so much better. Credence Clearwater Revival’s 1969 number-two hit “Proud Mary” is a pop classic today, and they owe it all to Ike and Tina Turner’s 1971 cover, which reached number four on Billboard’s Hot 100.
8. The Judds
Country music has produced a number of fantastic related performing duos, including The Louvin Brothers, The Kendalls, The Bellamy Brothers, and Sweethearts of the Rodeo, but none have been as successful as Naomi and Wynonna Judd. During the traditional country renaissance of the late ’80s, the mother-and-daughter team managed to lead the pack with a sound soaked in soulfulness with nary a hint of twang.
7. Ashford & Simpson
You probably know them from their 1985 crossover hit “Solid,” but before taking off as a performing duo in the ’70s, Nicholas Ashford and Valerie Simpson were the Carole King and Gerry Goffin of Motown, writing and/or producing such classics as “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” “You’re All I Need to Get By,” and “Your Precious Love” along with key hits by Ray Charles (“Let’s Go Get Stoned”) and Chaka Khan (“I’m Every Woman”), among so many others.
Few acts have seemed more destined to be one-hit wonders before evolving into something more closely resembling timeless. The proof of their pop mastery is in their versatility, with encompasses the chilly Teutonic new wave of “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” and “Here Comes the Rain Again,” the blue-eyed British soul of “Would I Lie to You?” and “Missionary Man,” and a top 20 hit “(Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves”) in which they more than hold their own with the Queen of Soul herself, Aretha Franklin.
5. Simon and Garfunkel
Like Wham! in the ’80s, Simon and Garfunkel provided the launching pad for one of the most talented musicians of a generation, Paul Simon, who wrote most of their hits. But unlike Wham!, Simon and Garfunkel benefitted from the presence of an equally gifted, if not more so, vocalist. For proof, listen to “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” the duo’s signature song. The only voice you’ll hear on that Grammy-winning best-selling single of 1970’s is Art Garfunkel’s.
4. The Everly Brothers
The conventional pop duo is usually a perfect storm of specific and distinct talents — a great voice and great musician. Phil and Don Everly, though, helped to create the pop duo of separate but equal vocalists. The Everly Brothers’ harmonies remain unparalleled, as is the artistry of their late ’50s and early ’60s pre-Beatles string of hits. They scored number-one singles in the three major genres — pop, country, and soul — which underscores the breadth of their commercial appeal. Would we have gotten Simon and Garfunkel, who covered their 1957 number one “Wake Up Little Susie” in 1981, without them?
3. Daryl Hall and John Oates
Some of their ’80s pop hits might seem a bit on the throwaway side today, but forget everything you know about overproduced ’80s pop and just listen to Daryl Hall’s voice. The UK has produced an inordinate number of great blue-eyed soulful male vocalists, including Elton John, George Michael, Joe Cocker, Paul Weller, Paul Young, Rod Stewart, Steve Winwood, and Van Morrison, and as a blue-eyed soulful male vocalist from America, Daryl Hall ranks right alongside them. “Kiss On My List” and “Maneater” sound even better in retrospect, but it’s the straight-up R&B of “Sara Smile,” “She’s Gone,” “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do),” and “One on One” that makes these two Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees so much more than major hitmakers who knew their way around a persistent pop hook.
One of the top chart acts during the first half of the ’70s, Karen and Richard Carpenter produced a number of the decade’s most-beloved pop standards, including “(They Long to Be) Close to You,” “We’ve Only Just Begun,” “For All We Know,” “Rainy Days and Mondays,” and “Yesterday Once More.” Love them for their unabashed romanticism or hate them for it (and for being incurably uncool), there’s no denying the angelic effect of Karen Carpenter, who remains one of the most recognizable and acclaimed vocalists in pop history.
If you’re rolling your eyes right about now and going “Yaz-who?,” hear me out. Before Eurythmics discovered R&B in the mid-’80s, Alison Moyet was introducing soulfulness to synth-pop’s AI soundscapes through Yazoo’s electro-gospel blues. Yazoo (billed as Yaz in the US) released just two albums in an 18-month span before breaking up in 1983, and although neither 1982’s Upstairs at Eric’s nor 1983’s You and Me Both produced any major Hot 100 singles in the US, over time, both have come to be regarded as milestones of the early ’80s techno-pop movement.
Vince Clarke had left Depeche Mode in 1981 after one album (DM’s debut, Speak and Spell, for which he wrote all but two songs), taking his flair for chilly, Kraftwerk-ian musical precision with him. He soon formed an alliance with Alison Moyet, a young contralto in her early twenties who was already sounding like a dazzling mix of Dusty Springfield, Diamanda Galás, and Aretha Franklin. On Yazoo’s big UK hits “Only You,” “Don’t Go,” and “Nobody’s Diary,” as well as on the US dance hits “Situation” and “State Farm,” she proved herself to be Britain’s finest female White soul singer since Dusty Springfield. There’d be no Adele without Alison Moyet.
After splitting, the pair went on to separate distinctive and distinguished careers, Moyet as a solo star and Clarke as a member of yet another notable duo, Erasure, which, though longer-lived, has never eclipsed his stint in Yazoo. Perhaps the biggest benefit of the duo’s short lifespan is this: No other twosome on this list can claim a recording career that produced not one single dud song.
20 Honorable Mentions
Basement Jaxx: For having the guts to collaborate with both Siouxsie Sioux and NSYNC’s JC Chasez on the same album (2003’s Kish Kash).
The Bellamy Brothers: For filling my early ’80s with the sounds of feelgood country (especially “Dancing Cowboys,” “Lovers Live Longer,” and “For All the Wrong Reasons”).
The Captain & Tennille: For covering Neil Sedaka (“Love Will Keep Us Together”), Smokey Robinson (“Shop Around”), and America (“Muskrat Love”), while saving the smoky, soulful best for last (their 1979 top 40 swan song and final number one, “Do That to Me One More Time,” written and sung by Tennille, produced by The Captain).
Daft Punk: For redefining electronic dance music with their 1997 debut album, Homework, and paving a path for future French electronic duos Air and Modjo.
Disclosure: For introducing Sam Smith to the global masses (via their 2012 collaboration “Latch”).
Erasure: For techno-pop and soul, part 2 (following the break-up of member Vince Clarke’s previous duo, Yazoo).
Eric B. & Rakim: For their sterling rap albums and for pioneering the credited rap-sung collaboration that would dominate in the ’90s and beyond, with Jody Watley on the 1989 top 10 hit “Friends.”
Everything But the Girl: For giving vocalist and songwriter Tracey Thorn a place to grow … and grow.
The Kendalls: For bringing a certain respectability and girlish innocence to a string of gospel-flavored country hits about cheating.
Loggins and Messina: For recording “Danny’s Song” (written by Loggins and produced by Messina) in 1971 and inspiring Anne Murray to cover it the following year.
The Louvin Brothers: For writing and originally recording “If I Could Only Win Your Love,” which became Emmylou Harris’s first and best top 10 hit, in 1975.
Moloko: For quoting the giant in “Jack and the Beanstalk” (“Fe-fi-fo fun for me” in “Fun for Me”) and making it sound perfectly normal.
Rene & Angela: For recording one of the front-to-back solid (and solidly underrated) R&B albums of the ’80s, 1985’s A Street Called Desire.
The Righteous Brothers: For “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling,” “Unchained Melody,” and especially “Ebb Tide.”
Roxette: For producing some of the most finely crafted guilty-pleasure pop of the last 30 years.
Röyksopp: For allowing guest vocalist Robyn to take their 2009 single “The Girl and the Robot” to the next level.
Seals and Crofts: For producing a perfect trio of number-six hits: “Summer Breeze,” “Diamond Girl,” and “Get Closer.”
Shakespears Sister: For allowing opposites to attract so gorgeously and messily.
Soft Cell: For mastering the art of reinvention with their tag-team covers of Gloria Jones’s “Tainted Love” and The Supremes’ “Where Did Our Love Go?”.
Sonny and Cher: For introducing us to one of our most enduring music and movie stars.
A Duo Playlist: 20 Hits Everyone Should Know
“3 a.m. Eternal” The KLF
“Always Something There to Remind Me” Naked Eyes
“Be My Lover” La Bouche
“Bulletproof” La Roux
“The Captain of Her Heart” Double
“Don’t Stop the Music” Yarbrough and Peoples
“I Can’t Wait” Nu Shooz
“I Love It” Icona Pop
“It’s Raining Men” The Weather Girls
“Let’s Go All the Way” Sly Fox
“Love Changes Everything” Climie Fisher
“Love Is the Answer” England Dan & John Ford Coley
“Oh Darlin’ The O’Kanes
“Respectable” Mel & Kim
“Stressed Out” Twenty One Pilots
“Teardrops” Womack & Womack
“Tenderness” General Public
“White Horse” Laid Back
“Would I Lie to You?” Charles & Eddie
“You Are in My System” The System