Accordingly, we pieced together 20 of the finest records whose quality is dependent on the interaction of one male and one female singer. Whether singing together, or trading off over a record's running order, it's cross-gender chemistry that makes these albums immortal. For purity, we've excised bands with an "everybody gets their turn" approach (so no Fleetwood Mac, no Belle & Sebastian, no New Pornographers or Broken Social Scene). More painfully, perhaps, we've even chucked out the Sonic Youths and Yo La Tengos of the world, bands whose primary man/woman story is complicated by the presence of an undeniably vital third wheel (Lee and James cannot just be photoshopped out of those pictures).
These are records of two people coexisting. In love, in conflict, or in something else entirely.
Royal Trux - "Another Year"
While 70s punk brought male/female duos well past nervous kisses and cartoon hearts, there might never have been a couple in rock so blatantly debauched as Royal Trux’s Neil Hagerty and Jennifer Herrema. Accelerator is the record where the warped friction between their dead-end voices fully morphed into manic, skeezy pop.
Jefferson Airplane - "White Rabbit"/"Somebody to Love"
Surrealistic Pillow (1967)
A sweet-voiced woman is often used to contrast with a gruff or sinister man (as the rest of the list will reveal). Paleo-psychedelics Jefferson Airplane hit paydirt with the opposite formula. Grace Slick’s still hair-raising voice dwarfs the gentle folkiness of original singer Marty Balin. And while Balin's softness was still vital to the band's overall sound, you don't hear him soundtracking cinematic bad trips to this day.
Fiery Furnaces - "Evergreen"
While romantic entanglement is the story typically created by male/female pop dynamics, there are others relationships to mine. The music made by the Friedberger siblings has always had a slightly bratty big bro/little sis undercurrent: the feeling of eyes rolled, annoyed punches thrown, and mics grabbed back and forth. Their mistitled third release, EP, was their most concise statement, and the moment when they were sharing most nicely.
The Fall - "L.A."
This Nation's Saving Grace (1985)
If there was ever a band that could use a woman's touch, it was Mark E. Smith's The Fall. The barking mad post-punk crew gained a lighter pop lining when Brix Smith, the band-leader's then-girlfriend, joined with new wave guitars and loopy vocals in tow. While Mark still dominated this record vocally, her presence made this the band's brightest period.
Low - "In Metal"
Things We Lost in the Fire (2001)
One of the slowest, most deliberate rock acts in memory, the Duluth, Minnesota, trio made the prettiest record of their career (which ranks high in the whole of the 00s) as their fifth full-length. Songs like "In Metal," above, (about wanted to cast your tiny infant in bronze to keep it from growing up) leant married singers Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk's seemingly wholesome personal life a low-lying, creepy glow.
The Kills - "Last Day of Magic"
Midnight Boom (2008)
Tabbed at the start of their career as White Stripes rip-offs, despite an unleapable gulf in damaged sexiness from Alison Mossheart to sweet, girlish Meg White, The Kills proved themselves as an art-pop combo with real staying power. Midnight Boom, their underrated career best, bristles with the queasy feeling of two people who are horrible for each other, but just can’t lay off.
The xx - "VCR"
The xx (2009)
Our biggest, most of-the-moment example is also maybe the smallest and quietest on record. Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim have a familiar vocal relationship: the graceful beauty and the rough-around-the-edges bloke. But they are unusual for the empty spaces they navigate. With backing tracks so faintly suggestive, their interplay is asked to carry that much more space.
The Vaselines - "Oliver Twisted"
The Way of the Vaselines (1992)
Eugene Kelly and Frances McKee subverted the chaste, sweater-wearing image of late 80s indie-pop into something sexed-up and sour. Adolescent horniness—the messy, anxious stupidity of it—presented as both hilarious and slightly sinister.
Richard & Linda Thompson - "Walking on a Wire"
Shoot Out the Lights (1982)
Far from an idealized, young-lovers’ paradise, the final record by folk duo Richard and Linda Thompson is clear and sober in its depiction of the long marriage grind. But there’s a beauty to its weariness; a grace in the way these voices illustrate their everyday disappointments.
The Human League - "Don't You Want Me"
With the addition of teenage dancers/singers Joanne Catherall and Susan Ann Sulley, the cold electronics of the Human League’s first two records exploded into the prototypical dance pop that fills Dare. And while Catherall’s backing vocals (and mere presence) added to the band’s newfound glamour, it was Sulley‘s feisty lead duets with Phil Oakey that remain definitive of an entire genre (to a ridiculous degree).
* Quick experiment: 80s SYNTH POP. (Did the first lines of “Don’t You Want Me” just start on your head upon reading that? 1 in 3 chance.)
The B-52s - "52 Girls"
The B-52s (1979)
Some willfull rule-breaking here. Sure, the still astonishing debut record from The B-52s featured lead vocals from both Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson (adding to the unmistakably nasal sass of Fred Schneider). But they are so tightly unified when singing together, so indistinguishable in their solo turns, that the effect is still of two distinct voices pairing off. Schneider is the outsized master of ceremonies, the girls a single aching heart. While "Southern Rock" has beardy, dude-ish connotations, this version is roughly one billion times more fun.
* For a better view of this band's awesome early charisma, watch them play "Dance This Mess Around" on Saturday Night Live in 1980. (Embed disabled.)
Serge Gainsbourg & Jane Birkin - "Je T'Aime"
Jane Birkin/Serge Gainsbourg (1969)
60s pop was as subtly sex-obsessed as any other era, but it tended to focus on the dreamy build-up or the heartbreak aftermath. Leave it to dirty French-pop genius Serge Gainsbourg to make hot-and-bothered songs that finally sounded like the act itself. (Years later, the mere existence of their famous daughter Charlotte confirms that Serge and Birkin were not just play acting.)
Pixies - "Gigantic"
Surfer Rosa (1988)
Black Francis' control-freak tendencies eventually squeezed Kim Deal's voice out of Pixies' records (and into some great Amps' and Breeders' ones), but her loopy charm is absolutely crucial to the appeal of this first big record. Goofing on field hockey players and super-heroes named Tony, Deal is seriously crucial. Amid all the ferocity, all the sex and death, there's this open-hearted, grinning sweetheart, and her big, big love.
Arcade Fire - "Haiti"
That big, earnest communal yelling that dominated indie-rock for about five years there? Yeah, that was Arcade Fire. But even in the middle of that triumphant, jittery din the band revolved around married Montrealers Win Butler and Régine Chassagne's love-among-the-ruins. Regine would get her disco star turn a few years later on The Suburbs' "Sprawl II," but she's more load-bearing to Funeral’s foundation.
Lee Hazlewood & Nancy Sinatra - "Some Velvet Morning"
Nancy & Lee (1968)
Like Romeo and Juliet for the late 60s, Lee Hazlewood’s zonked cowboy and Nancy Sinatra’s liberated woman made little sense on paper, but completed each other in ways that must have been difficult to predict. While the differences in their voices are compelling throughout, it’s “Some Velvet Morning” that continues to baffle and awe. It’s one of the most successful opposites attract moments ever attempted in pop.
X - "The Unheard Music"
Los Angeles (1980)
Punk’s prom king and queen, making the most nihilistically romantic version of the late-70s primal urge. It’s instructive to listen to Stephen Malkmus and Justine Frischmann’s pretty rad cover version of "The Unheard Music," if only to remind yourself that the menacing gravitas of John Doe and Exene Cervenka is practically unmatchable.
Tricky - "Hell Is Round the Corner"
In which the mysteriously troubled, heavy-lidded Martina Topley-Bird waltzes with Tricky’s rusty-piped gremlin. Definitely my favorite example of “beauty and the beast” vocal dynamics, and just maybe the strangest, most chilling version of rhythm and blues ever recorded.
My Bloody Valentine - "Only Shallow"
Most of these albums make the list for contrast—how one voice effects the way we hear another. MBV's inscrutable epic is included for its seamless coherence. Kevin Shields and Bilinda Butcher's voices combined with those sky-scraping guitars create an impenetrable wall of sound so perfect that gender, and even individuality, almost ceases to exist.
Johhny Cash & June Carter - "Jackson"
Carryin' On with Johnny Cash and June Carter (1967)
Johnny Cash's twenty-fifth record was the first to feature love of his life June Carter. And while her rich, smooth voice perfectly balanced his rich, rough one, the pairing was even more effective in embodying an pop culture archetype that persists to this day. A bad boy softened by a good girl. An outlaw redeemed by love. And if the truth is always messier than the image, well, I guess that's why we've got records.
The Velvet Underground & Nico - "Femme Fatale"
The Velvet Underground & Nico (1966)
Even if the creative partnership couldn't last, this one timeless record still stands as the most influential pairing of gender archetypes ever made. (Andy Warhol knew a thing or two about iconography, I guess.) They are too disdainful to ever actually interact vocally in a single song, but even that distance helps maintains a state of cool so impossible, that it went well beyond anything so common as romance.