When Killer Mike and El-P teamed up to become Run the Jewels for the first time in 2013, it was the kind of collaboration we didn’t know we needed but immediately realized was indispensable. By this year, however, Run the Jewels no longer fits our definition for “Best Musical Collaborations,” which is meant to honor those pairings that are between two distinctly separate personas. You could say that Run the Jewels was almost a little too successful with their debut and Run the Jewels 2, creating a group that is recognizably a fully-functioning rap duo that will be together for some time.
So, who came together this year to make beautiful music? The list runs the gamut from classic crooners to avant garde bluegrass, as we rank this year’s best collaborations.
The much-anticipated follow-up to 2010’s Broken Bells debut LP was more ambitious conceptually than it’s predecessor and ultimately has more staying power. Mercer and Danger Mouse (real name Brian Burton) put together a collection of songs set in an intergalactic world. The two-part videos for singles “After The Disco” and “Holding On For Life” starring Kate Mara and Anton Yelchin mapped out the themes of the record, namely dealing with love in changing times and the forces that draw us together and apart from each other. After The Disco ultimately succeeds in its repeatability and the seamless duality between Mercer and Burton. – Adrian Spinelli
20 years after the release of Souls of Mischief’s iconic 93 ’til Infinity, the Oakland crew put out their sixth studio album. There Is Only Now succeeds largely on the effort of producer Adrian Younge, who is flat out one of the best producers in the game. Seriously, this guy is like J-Dilla good, and drops classic soul samples throughout. But A-Plus, Tajai, Opio and Phesto also step to the mic with conscious rhymes, tackling relevant themes like police brutality and the justice system with multiple appearances from Busta Rhymes and Snoop Dogg. This is a money hip-hop release and Younge’s instrumentals on the deluxe version of the record’s second disc are likewise essential. – Adrian Spinelli
2014 was a little quiet for Yeezus in terms of releasing new music, though he did headline quite a few high-profile festivals. Of the rapping by Kanye in 2014, no verse was more memorable than his lines on Rick Ross’ “Sanctified.” Never one to shy away from self-parody, West proclaims “God sent me a message, said I’m too aggressive. Really!? Me!? Too aggressive!?” With Big Sean tying things together with yet another memorable hook (though less memorable than the Betty Wright non-sample refrain) and Rick Ross finishing off the party over a production by West, DJ Mustard, and Mike Dean, “Sanctified” was a classic hip-hop single from day one, enough that an emoji video recreation seemed almost an inevitability. – Philip Cosores
Cline and Lage apparently met at one of the regular dinners held by fellow jazz guitarist Jim Hall before his passing in late 2013. The two six-stringers hit it off immediately and quickly set to cementing their new friendship at some duo shows in New York and with a recording session that yielded the incredible album Room. Both men play off each other perfectly, with Lage reining in Cline’s offbeat tendencies; and Cline urging Lage to explore more discordant tones. – Robert Ham
Listen to the song here
The best hip-hop these days still pays homage to the jazz and soul that shaped its identity from the beginning. Madlib has always been respectful of the classics and a chance to work with the Beat Conductor is an opportunity for any MC to shine. Freddie Gibbs seizes the moment with confident flows and comes across like the narrator to a Rudy Ray Moore Dolemite movie. Gibbs is tough with lines like “But fuck my enemies what you looking for bitch I got ‘em.” Which can read sorta hollow, but when layered over Madlib’s soul beats and horn samples on a song about fried chicken among other things, it’s mad fluid. Gibbs and ‘lib loop in Ab-Soul & Polyester the Saint for LA-anthem “Lakers,” with Saint’s hook “My home, my home L.A. I ride for you/ When I am gone, just know that I owe you” that’ll surely play in your head the moment you land on the tarmac at LAX. – Adrian Spinelli
Acclaimed crooner Tony Bennett and pop songstress Lady Gaga join forces in 2014 to craft the Grammy-nominated collaborative album Cheek to Cheek. Disillusioned with the pop music machine, Gaga’s foray into jazz reaffirms a natural talent that was more and more being cloaked under layers of editing and production. The 60-year age difference between the two artists could have been weird, but instead brings history and life experience to the table, and deeply felt emotions bleed into the tracks. – Liz Shinn
Both Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn had prolific careers before finding each other. Fleck, arguably the most virtuosic and experimental banjo player of this generation, won 15 Grammy awards with his experimental group Béla Fleck and the Flecktones and other projects. Washburn, a traditional clawhammer-style banjo player with Chinese interests and influences, earned her own accolades through thoughtful solo albums and collaborations. The two musicians married in 2009, but they only just released this self-titled debut of covers, originals and instrumentals. Arranged for nothing more than two banjos, Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn captures the confluence of their different playing styles. From modernized lullabies (“Railroad”) to reverse murder ballads (“Shotgun Blues”) and shredding instrumentals inspired by recent events (“New South Africa,” which honors Nelson Mandela), the duo continually finds ways to reimagine the role of this traditional instrument throughout their first album together. – Hilary Saunders
Someday World, the first studio effort by Brian Eno and former Underworld leader Karl Hyde, was decent enough, with the latter adding guitar rhythms and vocals to some unfinished tracks that the former had been sitting on for two decades. But when they moved forward to make High Life, a true collaborative effort built completely in the studio, the pairing finally felt true and complete. The seven tracks on this second 2014 album are a marvel, born under the influence of world beat rhythms, spacious drones, and audio trickery that turned Hyde’s guitar and voice inside out and upside down. – Robert Ham
Although Röyksopp might have left their mark on 2014 with their final LP release, The Inevitable End, in September (though the Norwegian electronic duo will continue making music), May saw the release of a joint mini-album, Do It Again, with frequent collaborator Robyn. The record saw a pretty amazing co-headlining tour, where each received solo sets and closed with a joint jam session, and if the record seems a little brushed aside because of the size of it, it is in no way lacking in artistic or sensational pleasures. The title track alone, for its pulsing, club-ready beat and classic Robyn melodic punch, is worth the price of admission, and because it is technically not an LP, this might be the future of Röyksopp releases, allowing them to keep their word on both fronts (no new albums, but not stopping on the music making). – Philip Cosores
Who among us didn’t greet the news of a studio collaboration between pop star-turned-musical magus Scott Walker and drone metal beastlings SunnO))) with a mixture of confusion and excitement? The pairing had a weird kind of logic to it, but could it work? Oh boy, did it ever. Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson let their deeply felt waves of subterranean guitar and Moog melt all around the whipcrack-punctuated, feverish visions of Walker and his usual gang of collaborators. And instead of collapsing under the combined weight, the music became a dark creature barely visible as it soared against the night sky. – Robert Ham