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.

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Andrew Ridgeley and George Michael of Wham! (Photo: Epic Rights)

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.

14. OutKast

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).

11. Wham!

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.

6. Eurythmics

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.

2. Carpenters

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.

1. Yazoo

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.

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).

A Duo Playlist: 20 Hits Everyone Should Know

“3 a.m. Eternal” The KLF

Brother Son Husband Friend Loner Minimalist World Traveler. Author of “Is It True What They Say About Black Men?” and “Storms in Africa”

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