The most glorious aspect of the all-star collaboration is the feeling that, finally, finally, whatever scene you were hoping would develop has crystallized. Case in point: “The Last Huzzah.” An army of New York misfits (Das Racist playing the smart-aleck bros, Danny Brown playing the loose cannon, El-P as the elder statesman and, of course, Mister Muthafuckin’ Exquire featured as the prodigal son of bizarre hip-hop, equal parts slacker and Wu-Tang acolyte) coming together and exemplifying pre-Giuliani weirdness while celebrating the simple joys of “drunk driving on a Wednesday” is enough to convince someone, if only momentarily, that something awesome and, more importantly, unique is happening.
Perhaps this is all bred of a youth playing with mismatched action figure sets, but I always imagined that all my heroes were hanging out and kicking ass in their spare time. As my obsessions transitioned from Power Rangers to athletes and then to music, I still maintained this idealistic perspective. It’s why people cream their pants when Daft Punk comes out to play with Phoenix, or when David Bowie cuts Win Butler off to sing a line in “Wake Up.” Being a musician, in my imagination, is like being in the Justice League, except instead of Superman having Batman free him from a Kryptonite-induced stupor, you have Stephen Malkmus asking Beck to lend a hand on his latest album or The Flaming Lips taking in new kids Neon Indian to record a single. Admittedly, it’s a bit less epic, but the idea that they’re working in a collaborative framework just makes me feel a little fuzzy inside. That being said, here are five fantastic artist collabs that had a bit more impact than just sheer starpower (apologies to Sarah Angell for stealing her lists shtick):
1. “C is the Heavenly Option” by Heavenly featuring Calvin Johnson
The early twee-pop scenes were hyper local. Their headquarters lay on opposite sides of the Atlantic: the C86 scene of Great Britain and the almost cultish following developed around Beat Happening frontman Calvin Johnson in Olympia, Washington. While the twee bands of the era were very insular, playing shows with each other and forming multiple bands to showcase their different friends (the scene was partly about democratizing pop music, after all). “C is the Heavenly Option” was the moment when twee’s two biggest heartthrobs — Heavenly lead singer Amelia Fletcher and the aforementioned, deep-voiced Calvin Johnson — met on one track. Like most indie pop, its lyrics are concerned with boys-who-like-girls-who-like-boys, but instead of being descriptive, it’s prescriptive: let love “bowl you over” like it does those two songwriters, though it comes with a three-pronged caveat (“Don't play games if you're broken-hearted, don't try to finish what your ego started and if you've got problems, then don't bring them to me”). It’s a divine slice of indie pop and for members of a certain nerdy breed of romantic, it’s enough to make your heart go aflutter.
2. “International Player’s Anthem (I Choose You)” by UGK featuring Outkast
Flashback to 2007: Andre 3000 and Big Boi were well-established members of pop-rap’s elite. UGK were true to the moniker Underground Kingz: Pimp C and Bun B were, up to that point, long-time toilers in the hip-hop underground. Is this the grand moment where overground met underground and gritty, street-smart hip-hop finally got its way? No. Did it contain a hilarious transition from Andre 3000’s eulogy to the single life to Pimp C’s advice to “never fuck without a rubber”? Yes, and we were all the better for it: soul samples, references to Paul McCartney’s divorce and all.
3. “All of the Lights” by Kanye West featuring SO MANY PEOPLE
Okay, so maybe one of these is going to be mentioned based off the sheer volume of starpower contained within. But seriously: Rihanna, Elton John, Kid Cudi, Drake, Fergie, John Legend, Alicia Keys — it’s a veritable Justice League of pop stars. Hell, I remember a rumor going around that John Williams — yes, the man responsible for the Jaws, Star Wars and Indiana Jones themes — played French horn on the track. Even though that was (unfortunately) ultimately untrue, “All of the Lights” stands as the very definition of musical opulence. Strings and brass over a rugged beat and a story about public visitation rights sound farfetched, but Kanye — along with a slew of his famous friends — makes it work.
4. “Blue Arrangements” by Silver Jews
Being the Pavement fanboy I am, I always admired Stephen Malkmus’s penchant for melody and phrasing, but it was usually with respect to his vocals. Working with former college roommate David Berman could have gone completely under the radar. After all, Malk’s biggest assets were his stretchy delivery and eccentric vocabulary. But here on “Blue Arrangements” — in fact, throughout the entirety of 1998’s American Water — Berman’s lyrics shine, and the voices of the former roommates blend in a heterogeneous manner similar to what The Band could muster back in the late 1960s. But what blows the top off the track is Malkmus’s six-string. The more avant-garde leanings of Pavement belayed his love of Creedence Clearwater Revival, but Berman’s country-tinged rockers let him jam to his heart’s content, letting his brilliant sense of melody shine through the rugged basement production.
5. “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” by The Beatles featuring Eric Clapton
It lets you know how arrogant Lennon and McCartney were at this point in their careers when it took the appearance of Eric freakin’ Clapton for them to take a George Harrison track seriously. It’s a good thing, though, that George had to act so drastically, because who could imagine anyone else playing here? If a guitar has ever been recorded crying, this is where it happened. Clapton’s being a showoff, George makes observations about the ever-turning world and John and Paul just have to sit there, play along and admit that this might be the best song they’d ever been a part of.