So many co-sung tunes are a man and a woman trading bars about love and heartbreak, but only a handful of them have enough tone, intent, content, and chemistry to resonate. Here are 20 of the most memorable. By Maura Johnston and Julianne Escobedo Shepherd
Talk about the pathos of thug love: On this 2005 NYC mixtape hit, Mashonda and Jadakiss embodied the pain felt by drug dealers and the women who love them. Over a beat that's almost sinister in its recollection of a summertime ice cream truck, the R&B singer expresses her fear and worry that her man might be arrested or worse. Jadakiss is the dealer in question, rapping "Long as the love never outwears the trust/And you understand that I'm out there for us."
"The best way to express an emotion like love is through storytelling," Ne-Yo said in a 2007 interview. "It makes it more, 'I can relate to this character in this song because I've been through something similar.'" He was talking about "Hate That I Love You," a beguilingly breezy track that he wrote for Rihanna's breakthrough album Good Girl Gone Bad. Ne-Yo and the Barbadian dynamo trade off lines about being crazy in love — in the bad way, alas — and the way their voices soar and blend is enough to make one hope that they eventually figure out a way to work things out, or at least duet again.
One of the most substantial love tracks in the entirety of the new wave catalogue, its phrasing and story is so Eighties downtown New York that it's amazing Human League were British. "You were workin' as a waitress at a cocktail bar when I met you," opens singer Philip Oakey, in a scene so pastoral it could be the opening to an Updike novel. Susan Ann Sulley, just 17 at the time she cut this classic, responds in kind. "That much is true, but even then I knew I'd find a much better place either with or without you," she sings, turning this push-and-pull into a de facto feminist anthem. Don't be misled by the glossy, Nagel-style make-up in the video: This song is deep.
Dripping with drama and dressed up with enough attitude to come off as simultaneously blustery and funereal, this duet between guitar goddess Lita Ford and Ozzy Osbourne was one of the hard rock era's most powerful ballads, at least as far as the pop charts were concerned. Ford recalled in an interview that the track came about after Osbourne and his wife Sharon had stopped by her house to give her a life-sized replica of Koko the gorilla as a housewarming present — Sharon eventually "got bored and left," which left the other two ample room to spend the rest of the night drinking and writing this dreary, emotion-soaked duet.
It's so close to the most important duet of 2013 and 2014, if only Jay Z hadn't invoked Ike Turner and Mike Tyson in his rap. Ostensibly a glimpse into the spouses' boozy, loving nights, Bey's not singing her best – listen to the a cappella and experience true pitchiness – but she's at her most heartfelt, which is why this song has quickly become a women's bar-sing-along jam for bosses and bachelorette parties. "We woke up in the kitchen like, 'How did this shit happen?'" she wonders, and Jay's slurred, slovenly-minded raps offer an answer: drunk, in love, you know how it goes.
Weeks before her death in 1934, notorious criminal Bonnie Parker wrote "The Trail's End," a poem about the tribulations faced by her and her partner Clyde Barrow, whom she'd known since he was "honest and upright and clean." (She gave it to her mother.) The source material proved irresistible for the slightly sleazy yé-yé legend Serge Gainsbourg, who recast a French-language adaptation of the poem as a duet between him and his then-muse, the breathy Brigitte Bardot. Even for non-Francophones, the combination of Bardot's weary sighs and Gainsbourg's rasp oozes with the sort of eroticism that can only come from impending doom.
"All I Need" is widely considered the first track to successfully conjoin R&B and hip-hop – two genres that hated each other with a passion before it was discovered they're like peanut butter and jelly. Sure, it took the queen of hip-hop R&B to tempt one of Wu-Tang's premiere weedmongers to do it, but the result changed pop history. Two New York street stars expressing their love to each other in the shadow of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, whose "You're All I Need To Get By" they sampled and interpolated. "You are my destiny," sang Blige, while Meth dropped lines about her beauty and strength — but not before shouting out "cheeba," setting another precedent: the rapper who shields his love for a woman with other, more day-to-day concerns.
George Michael's liberation from the cheeky pop act Wham! reached another milestone when he got to team up with one of his R&B heroes — the Queen of Soul, as a matter of fact — on a love-conquers-all anthem that topped the Hot 100 for two weeks in 1987. This glittering duet allows Michael and Franklin the chance to showboat all over the place, their vocals reaching ever more ebuillent highs right through the song's fade-out; it also paved the way for Michael to fully shed his teen-idol image with his solo debut Faith, which hit stores a few months after "Waiting" reached Number One.
Talk about real-life drama spilling upwards into art: Wynette and Jones had a love that was well-documented for its tumult – but boy did it ever sound good with a slide guitar. On "Golden Ring," one of their most popular numbers, these two sing sweetly about two lovers buying a wedding ring at a pawnshop. Sweet enough, but over the course of a few verses the tale escalates to the point that the lovers become fighters, and the ring ends back where it began. So sad they slowed down the tempo and howled like two lone wolves, with a little country twang.
If ever there was a video that perfectly captured the intent of a song, it's the clip for "Don't Give Up," which simply features Gabriel and Bush in an embrace for dear life, a camera panning around their singing visages. There's an insular, intimate feeling to this song of struggle and hope, which Gabriel initially wrote for Dolly Parton, who declined. It's hard to imagine if she hadn't – Bush and Gabriel are so completely in sync their yearning gentility enveloping one another with hug-like strength.
The early Eighties was a ripe time for smoldering R&B duets between stars in the making, with radio stations specializing in love songs of the smoother variety sprouting up all over the country. This seven-minute chronicle of ex-lovers looking back at their past lives together, which appeared on James's 1981 full-length Street Songs, was never released as a single, but it lit up R&B radio. Marie and James had collaborated previously — he co-produced her 1979 debut Wild And Peaceful — but the way the two wind around each other on this particular track is pure, well, fire.
One of the greatest duets in history was actually a fluke: Each cut was a take of this Neil Diamond song individually. But in 1978, a scorned, just-divorced radio jockey from Louisville, Kentucky, spliced them together as a spiteful missive to his ex-wife. Thus an apparently messy end sparked a beautiful beginning: The makeshift duet was so popular that Diamond and Streisand were compelled by their label to record an actual duet, which brought the pain of a break-up to a whole new level — and shot to Number One on the Billboard charts.
This staple of early-'80s smooth jazz playlists is one of two pairings between the precocious Austin (her first Apollo appearance came when she was four years old) and the Ohio-born Ingram, who was just getting his performer bearings when he laid down the track for Austin's 1981 album Every Home Should Have One. "James did not consider himself a singer," Austin told the Palm Beach Post in 2005. "He was a writer and a musician, and he had no stage chops. Here I had been in the music business for 30 years, and he hadn't been doing it five minutes!" Their chemistry, however seemingly mismatched, proved undeniable, and they paired up again for the Oscar-nominated 1983 track "How Do You Keep The Music Playing?"
The key to this song is not the bombastic chorus, nor its triumphant disco synths. It's in the subtle curlicues: Simpson's breathless counter-harmonies on Ashford's verse; the half-key ascension on the pre-chorus; and, especially, when the duo sings "ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-hot!" It's a study in composition and chemistry, and an example of what takes a song from being great to being a lasting pop hit. Granted, songwriting powerhouses and real-life spouses Ashford and Simpson together could do no wrong, but this is a high point, a song perfect for weddings and the roller rink (and, if you're adventurous, both at the same time).
It's currently all over the airwaves thanks to a cheeky tax-preparation ad, but back at the turn of the Eighties this duet between Herb Fame and Linda Greene (the second woman to fill the "Peaches" role on record) was even more ubiquitous, its tale of two lovers drawn back together after too much time spent apart serving as a wedding staple, a massive radio hit and even as a seduction accompaniment for people who were just getting to know one another. "I always hear people saying that their child was made off of that song," Fame told The Washington Post in 2009.
One of R&B's great singing duos, there's a sweet restraint on Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell's hit "I'm Your Puppet" – both singers have extremely powerful voices but they're trodding along this song almost gingerly, the "I'll do anything for you" sentiment conveyed by their tenderness. It also showcases why these two were such a great pair: They have similar vocal tone, but they could vary them just enough to hit a sweet spot in their harmonies, implying total surrender to the music.
This wistful remembrance of a romance that first bloomed over a weekend is a showcase for the production talents of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, with shimmering keyboards, towering 808s and guarded-yet-giving interplay between the two singers. It gets a little bit of added backstory on Cherrelle's High Priority — O'Neal spots his ex-flame at a bar and agonizes over seeing her, leading up to Cherrelle's shy "It's been a long time, I didn't think I was going to see you again" opening gambit.
The grizzly-voiced leaders of Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles, respectively, were practically born to sing together about difficult love: Their voices cracked in complimentary places and, on this 1981 hit, both sounded like they'd been caravan-ing on motorcycles across the open highway for a long time. A relationship conversation in real time, they devote the song to singing how true they promise to be to one another, but in a lonely minor key so you get the feeling they both know they're lying to themselves. But here in the moonlight, they need each other today – and for now, it's all that matters.
This Lionel Richie-penned track topped the Billboard Hot 100 for a solid two months in 1981, and it's easy to hear why; the lush production and restrained yet powerhouse performances by Richie and his duet partner Diana Ross made it the type of song that any human with even an inkling of romantic feeling could relate to. The reaction startled Richie, who at that point was still with the soul outfit the Commodores: "Things got unbelievable," Richie said in a 1982 interview with the Chicago Tribune. "It was 'Endless Love,' endless award shows, endless everything." Endless variations on that song's theme, too — it's since been covered by Mariah Carey and Luther Vandross, a slew of American Idol hopefuls, and Richie himself (with Shania Twain as his foil).
The Bee Gees — Barry, Robin, and Maurice Gibb — worked with Kenny Rogers on his 1983 country chart-topper Eyes That See In the Dark. The fact that they wrote this fidelity-minded smash surprised people —although their handiwork is made plain by the exquisite harmonies on its chorus. (That chorus returned to the pop charts 15 years later, when Mya and Pras appropriated it for the briefly ubiquitous "Ghetto Superstar.") The blindingly obvious chemistry between Rogers and Parton turbocharged this track's popularity, and it became the Number One song of 1983 and the second crossover hit for both of the Nashville superstars.