28. July 2023

The 5 best duets of all time

Young man and young woman singing a duet into a studio microphone

I love a good duet. Two men, two women – or a male/female collaboration…it doesn’t matter. When two fine voices come together and complement each other in ways you never expected, it’s time to press the repeat button and keep it there for hours.

Diana Ross & Lionel Richie, Tammi Terrell & Marvin Gaye, Elton John & George Michael…pop is full of fabulous musical team-ups.

Here are my personal favourites – from the classic to the offbeat!


5. Sisters Are Doin’ it for Themselves – Annie Lennox & Aretha Franklin

This song taught me about female empowerment long before I went out into the world and found out for myself just how hard it is for a woman to make it in a world (still) geared towards men.

This defiant anthem of independence by two of the best female voices of the 20th century told us girls all we needed to know in 4.5 minutes. Wherever we were in the world, whatever we were doing, we had already made enormous progress. We are on the up, and all in the same boat – but we still have an almighty fight on our hands. We can do it – yes we can! Girl power – years before the Spicegirls made it trendy.

4. Somebody That I Used to Know – Gotye & Kimbra

A contemporary classic which I actually discovered via a cover. About 10 years ago, I stumbled across the viral YouTube video of the Canadian band Walk Off The Earth playing this song – with 5 of them playing a single guitar. I became a “WOTE-ling” on the spot on the strength of that performance.

Following my curiosity, I checked out the Gotye version too – and found it to be one of those rare instances when the original and cover are just as good as one another, and yet cannot be compared (see also: Tina Turner’s cover of Ann Peebles’ “I Can’t Stand the Rain”). Each stands as its own work of art.

“Somebody That I Used To Know” is a powerful musical depiction of a love souring and unravelling; of two hearts alienating and once tender feelings twisting irrevocably into bitterness. One of the best breakup songs ever written.

3. Johnny Cash & June Carter – Jackson

Johnny Cash was not a part of my parents’ musical library – I only discovered his music after watching the 2005 biopic “Walk The Line” starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon.

Big River, Folsom Prison Blues, Get Rhythm, A Boy Called Sue…the list of Cash songs that then caught my imagination is long.

Yet it is the duets with his beloved June that are my favourites. “It Ain’t Me, Babe”, “Long-Legged Guitar-Pickin’ Man”, “Time’s a Wastin’”…all so good!

It’s “Jackson” that gets me singing every time though – there is no other Cash-Carter duet that captures the couple’s spirited but deeply loving relationship better than this. And no-one should ever try and cover it – outside of playing the couple in a movie, that is! The chances that you’ll do the song justice are just so slim. Best leave it well alone.

2. Madonna & Prince – Lovesong

This one is a proper off-piste choice. Many Madonna fans wouldn’t be able to tell you which record it’s on.

Spoiler: Like a Prayer, track no. 3.

My dad came home from a business trip to the States in the early 90s and pressed this cassette album into my sticky little palms. In so many ways, it seemed like a missive from another world. Not just because the States was the place where everything cool and worthwhile was coming from at that time – Madonna and Prince were singing to me from an unknown emotional world too.

At 9 years old, I was still years away from any kind of understanding about love and how relationships form, work, or break down. “Lovesong” had come to tell me all about the messiness and complication of romantic relationships – and I was hooked.

Perhaps it’s because the track comes straight after the album’s two juggernaut hits “Like a Prayer” and “Express Yourself” that it’s easy to overlook in the great scheme of things. But that would be a great shame, as it is one of the best tracks on the album.

Some may not like “Lovesong”’s slightly disjointed feel. In fact, it is less a song than a conversation – and a performance rather than a story being told. You are listening to two lovers talking to – and yet past one another. Failing to understand each other, not knowing if they are really in love at all (“Are you wasting my time?/Are you just being kind?”). This feels like a relationship sliding unstoppably towards a precipice.

There is something so sad – and yet so deliciously subverted about this song. And the appeal of it is still as fresh as it was 30 years ago when Madonna and Prince were at the height of their creative powers.

As the song repeats over and over: “This is not a love song”.

1. Islands in the Stream – Dolly Parton & Kenny Rogers

Now, my relationship to this song had a rather inauspicious, thoroughly embarrassing start. Rewind back to the summer of 1998 and I am 16 years old, enjoying the long summer holidays after sitting my GCSE exams. That was a good summer for music, with such greats as Massive Attack’s “Teardrop”, “Looking for Love” by Karen Ramirez and the re-released Don Henley classic “Boys of Summer” rocking the airwaves.

Another song which jammed itself into my mind for many a long week at that time was “Ghetto Superstar” by the US rapper Pras, featuring the smooth, sweet vocals of Mya. It was part of a movie soundtrack of some description, although I think the film quickly sank into obscurity while its R&B hit soared.

As it happened, the song sampled “Islands in the Stream”, the 1983 hit by Dolly Parton & Kenny Rogers. A fact which was entirely lost on me for at least another 10 years until I discovered the true greatness of Dolly on one of my many forays into country music. Oh dear, oh dear – shame on me! So much shame on me!

As soon as I heard the real thing, it entirely eclipsed the sampled version – as it had to. What a wonderful track, such lovely words. Whenever I hear the opening bars, I try to stop whatever I’m doing so I can fully enjoy the song from start to finish.

It is a song that just makes me happy: it’s all about having found the person that completes you, the yin to your yang, the missing piece in the puzzle of your life. And once you find that person, you’re a team forever, come what may. Something much bigger than you is at work – you don’t have to explain. If you are lucky enough to know this feeling of a true love connection, this song will always be an arrow that goes straight to the heart.


Related articles:

Tina Turner in 10 songs

My favourite albums…and the best tracks on them

My 5 favourite lyrics of all time


Photo by Kostiantyn Voitenko on Envato Elements