A cursory Google search of best-worst duets points fingers squarely at Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder's "Ebony and Ivory."
To that, I counter, you've never watched Jewel attempt to out-vamp Jessica Simpson in a 10-years-after-the-fact take on "Who Will Save Your Soul." (Hat tip to Louise Burns for having introduced me to the aforementioned clip.)
There's something very special about stumbling across a best-worst duet. More so than just making fun of something terrible, because that's just kind of mean, there's an irrepressible passion and conviction in a best-worst anything that's moves a performance past an ironic enjoyment and into real, emotionally affecting territory. This is where one can parse the good from the bad, the best from the worst, which I have attempted to do below with what I think are the 15 best-worst duets in music history.
Artists: Jessica Simpson & Jewel
Song: "Who Will Save Your Soul"
Best: This sexed-up performance of Jewel's song about a man experiencing a crisis of morality, ethics, humanity and faith is bizarre, but neither woman holds anything back.
Worst: This is a show-stopper of a number, though maybe not always for the right reasons. At one point the audience inexplicably claps following the line, "another tower went up / where the homeless had their homes." Yay? Nay. Simpson's contorted emoting, mostly through her lips, resembles that of Mr. Ed attempting to get peanut butter off the roof of his mouth. It's less a duet than a terrible game of one-upmanship where everybody is a loser, most of all me because I can't stop watching it.
Artists: Glenn Hoddle and Chris Waddle
Song: "It's Goodbye"
Best: These soccer players are better musicians than most athletes who pick up a microphone (sorry, Shaq). The song has quite a distinct '80s feeling and at least they attempt a key change, which is interesting. And it's not "Diamond Lights," their other song, which is arguably their most maligned and mocked track.
Worst: "It's Goodbye" is gloriously vacant, empty and occasionally off-key. The stiff dancing (loosely synchronized in what I like to call the white dude, elbows-in shuffle) looks more like frat brothers at a Hall & Oates show than pro athletes.
Artists: Bryan Adams and Melanie C
Song: "When You're Gone"
Best: The song is catchy! It's a great, hooky number, easy to sing along to and high energy.
Worst: Melanie C, or Sporty Spice as she's sometimes known, feels like she's trying incredibly hard to keep up with Adams, who is not so much known for the technical achievements of his vocals but rather the uniqueness of the vocals themselves. (Consider the alternative, I suppose, with this long-lost version Adams allegedly recorded with Pamela Anderson, h/t Dave Shumka.) The video finds them trying very hard to keep up with the energy of the music, moving in and out of ghost-white rooms and up and down staircases and through hallways, but the song's momentum just continues to outpace and outshine them. And it is not a sexy song, it's a fun one, no matter how many smoldering eyeliner stares (Adams) or impassioned chest thumps (C) they give the camera.
Artists: Brad Paisley and LL Cool J
Song: "Accidental Racist"
Best: There's a saying that's tailor-made for duets like this: the road to hell is paved with the best of intentions. But they both turn in good vocal performances, so there's that.
Worst: Pretty much everything, from the good ol' boy justifications of waving the Confederate flag because of civic pride to the meandering "White man's burden" lyrical queries that basically ask, "Why can't we just move on? Why do I have to pay the price because of what my ancestors did?" Really? Really??
Artists: Gwyneth Paltrow and Huey Lewis
Best: Paltrow acquits herself fine, better than some actors-turned-singers, and she and Huey's voices blend and complement each other well. But...
Worst: Paltrow and Lewis's characters sang this to each other in a flop of a film called, appropriately enough, Duets, and the song ended up getting released as a single. Their characters were father and daughter. This song is about sex and having sex; they even sing it in a weirdly sexual manner, which makes sense since it's full of lyrics like this: "if you want it you got it forever / this is not a one-night stand" and "inch by inch we get closer and closer to every part of each other."
Artists: David Bowie and Mick Jagger
Song: "Dancing in the Street"
Best: Everything but the song is the absolute best. The video is an elaborate middle finger to convention. It's hilarious, intentionally so, and I feel like Bowie and Jagger were both so cool and confident that they were like, sure, who cares, we can do anything we want. The video is about love, peacocking, one-upmanship and dancing in the street. It's the ultimate '80s experience.
Worst: The song's kind of terrible. Sure, it'll get a party started, because we all love dancing in the street, and it's pretty catchy, but the song's kind of the worst.
Artists: Ricky Martin and Christina Aguilera
Song: "Nobody Wants to Be Lonely"
Best: They both sing in a way that works for them and in a way that many people find pleasing.
Worst: The vocal histrionics and laughable lyrics drag the song down rather than letting it soar. As for the video, both do their best (I guess?) to try and sex-up the action at every turn, but it just looks like the beginning of a soft-core porn or the opening credits of a pilot for a new soap opera.
Artists: Barbra Streisand and Don Johnson
Song: "Till I Loved You"
Best: Barbra does Barbra, which is a win for Barbra fans.
Worst: Don. And the song, which marries all of the worst '80s sonic tropes with dreadful lyrics.
Artists: Spice Girls and Luciano Pavarotti
Song: "Viva Forever"
Best: It's the fourth best Spice Girls song.
Worst: Shoe-horning a tenor into a pre-existing song was absolutely the worst trend in the late-'90s. Why did so many people this this was a great idea? (Tracy Chapman, U2, Jon Bon Jovi, Mariah Carey, etc.) At least spend a little more time rearranging the songs, rather than just tossing Pavarotti a verse or two. Occasionally the two approaches would overlap, but mostly it was like watching a messy mash-up happen live, with Pav looking on in a mixture of delight and vague confusion about how his life had come to this.
Artists: Hilary Duff & Haylie Duff
Song: "Our Lips Are Sealed"
Best: It's a cover of a great song by the Go-Gos.
Worst: This is the sound of two sisters doing at-home karaoke at a party in the basement before they go and make out with a set of brothers in the same room at opposite ends of the couch.
Artists: Nelly and Tim McGraw
Song: "Over and Over"
Best: The song's kind of catchy and it's so repetitive, so it really owns its title.
Worst: McGraw is so inessential here that it's distracting. Occasionally he busts out a little country growl or echoes a line with a little drawl, but it never works in any meaningful way and ultimately drags the song down needlessly.
Artists: Avril Lavigne and Chad Kroeger
Song: "Let Me Go"
Best: Avril plays piano (at least in the video) which saves the song from feeling too much like a Nickelback track.
Worst: It sounds like a throw-away Nickelback track, and it shows just how much Lavigne and Kroeger's worst indulgences mirror each other musically. Both are talented songwriters (yes, they are) and gifted performers in their own right, but this track doesn't show how two's better than one. If anything, the math might be against them here. Plus, the weird extended product placement in the video is so obvious. I'm just going to say it: Avril's better than this song.
Artists: Michael Jackson and Eddie Murphy
Song: "What's Up With You"
Best: The video opens with Murphy cradling a dove and Michael Jackson does some of his Jackson-isms, which are always entertaining.
Worst: Eddie Murphy's foray into music was rocky at best. His delivery of the line, "What's up?" seems to have inspired that irritating beer frog who asked "Whazzzzup?" Plus, the video depicts some odd power moves on Murphy's part; at one point he leans in and whispers something in Jackson's ear and ruffles up his hair with his nose, and at the end he suddenly, from behind, clasps a hand over Jackson's mouth. The song also feels like zero effort on either man's part, like perhaps they recorded it originally as a series of answering machine messages that were never really resolved: "What's up with you?" "Hey, what's up with you?" "What's up with you???"
Artists: Dolly Parton and Sylvester Stallone
Song: "Sweet Lovin' Friends"
Artists: Frank Sinatra and Bono
Song: "I've Got You Under My Skin"
Best: Frank Sinatra keeps it classy and plays it straight, refusing to give an inch to Bono's interpretation.
Worst: Bono oozes his least-likable Bono vocal quirks all over this classic and there's just no common ground between the big band flourishes and Bono's weird burst of unpalatable falsetto.
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