If you’ve been wary of supergroups for all the old reasons—they reek of trying to cash in on name recognition and marketability rather than the substance of the music—your suspicion has been warranted. The last few decades are littered with the remnants of concoctions that sounded great on paper but turned into self-indulgent snooze-fests. It’s an art form, like making up your own mixed drink. Tequila and whiskey are great on their own, so a random person might combine them to make a super drink. But 1 oz of each together over ice is vile, believe me.
Then again, a mixologist friend might, say, add some lime, maybe some sort of sweetener and/or carbonated drink and voilà, you’ve got an almighty Cocktail worthy of a cool name. When great musicians with their own style and way of doing things come together with the right combination of elements—watch out. For our purposes, a supergroup will be defined as an act that produced at least one official full-length album (pour one out for what might’ve been with Child Rebel Soldiers: Kanye West, Pharrell, Lupe Fiasco) and have two or more members from relatively well-known acts. Below are 10 of the best supergroup albums you need in your collection.
Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and personal fave Kris Kristofferson are each major stakeholders in outlaw country music whose names alone mean fierce independence and suffer-no-bullshit. Highwaymen, outlaws, get it? Highwayman (1985) came about as a result of playing together in Europe—the easy camaraderie between them made hitting the studio a no-brainer. Hit single “Highwayman” was about reincarnation and a soul’s various lives as a highwayman, a sailor, a construction worker and a starship captain, with each singer taking on a different role. It really doesn’t get more kick-ass than Cash singing as a starship captain. You also haven’t lived until you’ve heard their version of Guy Clark’s “Desperados Waiting for a Train.” The album is composed of covers of lesser known songs mixed with more familiar numbers like Bob Seger’s “Against the Wind” and Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos),” about racial discrimination against migrant farm workers who are being deported. All four put their personal stamp on Highwayman, making it a true collaboration between superstars willing to let their friends shine.
The self-titled album in 2009 from alt-rock supergroup Them Crooked Vultures should not have surprised anyone by how hard it rocked. Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age), Dave Grohl on drums (Foo Fighters) and John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin)—yes, that John Paul Jones—joined together in a thunderous trinity and the rock gods were pleased. With Homme on vocals and guitar there are obviously going to be some similarities to QotSA, but Grohl and Jones make their presence known, too. Aggressive and heavy, there’s no filler on singles “New Fang” and “Mind Eraser, No Chaser” or anywhere else. Zeppelin on psychedelics (“Elephants” and “Scumbag Blues”), prog rock flirtations (“Warsaw or The First Breath You Take After You Give Up”), pleas for decadent union (“Caligulove”), a few whimsical interludes interspersed throughout, the best way to describe Them Crooked Vultures is to think of how you would want to sound if you were playing with the bassist from freaking Led Zeppelin.
Kim Deal (Pixies) and Tanya Donelly (Throwing Muses) became friends while their respective bands were touring together, and during off-time decided to make dance music together. Got you in a double-take, right? As awesome as that would’ve been, they decided to stick with rock and our alternative rock-loving ears are forever thankful. Teaming with Josephine Wiggs (The Perfect Disaster) on bass and Britt Salford (Slint) on drums, they recorded Pod (1990), where jangly melodies meet angular minimalism. Deal’s lead vocals are at times hard-edged and vulnerable, begging the listener to sing along with childlike ferocity. In line with other female rockers of the decade, the Breeders fearlessly sing about sex (“When I Was a Painter” and “Only in 3s”), menstruation (“Iris”), and abortion (“Hellbound”), the catchy choruses making you forget some of the gloomier subject matter. Playful and smart, it satisfied every Pixies fan who wished for more Kim Deal songs.
The formation of the Traveling Wilburys was built on friendship and serendipity. George Harrison was in L.A. and needed to record a B-side for one of his singles off his Cloud Nine album. A dinner with Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison, a request to use Bob Dylan’s studio and a trip to pick up a guitar at Tom Petty’s house led to them writing and recording “Handle with Care” in one day. The song was determined to be too great as a throwaway, so they formed a group and recorded The Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 1 (1988), a folk-rock-pop gem. Eager to keep things fun and relaxed, they took on alternate identities as half-brothers (the Wilburys). Adding to the mythos are the hilarious liner notes by Michael Palin (of Monty Python fame). The package may scream tongue-in-cheek but these songs are the real deal. Highlights include Orbison’s heartbreaking turn on “Not Alone Any More” and the upbeat album closer “End of the Line.”
A love of sci-fi B-movies, an encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture and imaginative production combine to make Deltron 3030 (2000), a hip-hop concept album from rapper Del the Funky Homosapien, producer Dan the Automator and DJ Kid Koala, collectively known as Deltron 3030. Del takes on the role of Deltron Zero, who fights rap battles to save humanity from oppressive corporations in a post-apocalyptic future, along with his sidekicks Cantankerous Captain Aptos (Automator) and Skiznod the Boy Wonder (Kid Koala). “State of the Nation,” with narration by Damon Albarn, and “3030” loosely set up the storyline but Deltron 3030 is about more than the plot. It snatches hip-hop from violent streets and thrusts it into quirky intergalactic skies. Moody beats, samples and atmospheric bloops pair well with tracks about computer viruses (“Virus”), an absurd commercial promoting the Canadian comedy Strange Brew and women with three booty cheeks (“Love Story”). Other highlights include “Time Keeps On Slipping,” again featuring Albarn, and “Memory Loss.” Classic flow and futuristic sound make this a must-own.
Cream was a trailblazer with its blend of British blues, jazz influences and psychedelic rock that foreshadowed progressive rock and heavy metal. Journeyman Eric Clapton, looking for another band to unleash his blues guitar eargasms, joined up with drummer Ginger Baker and bassist Jack Bruce, who had both played with the Graham Bond Organisation, and together they signaled a move to epic, get-fucked-upside-your-head rock. As the cover art on Disraeli Gears (1967) demonstrates, Cream’s second album takes a step away from the blues rock of the first album and turns up the psychedelia. It features Clapton and Bruce trading off lead vocal duties, soaring guitar solos, throbbing basslines and pounding drums. Their signature song, “Sunshine of Your Love,” somehow manages to be both hard rock and a pop song, an unforgettable bass riff paired with lyrics declaring “I’ll be with you when the stars start falling!” From the ascendant “Dance the Night Away” and the heavy “Tales of Brave Ulysses” to the rocking “SWLABR” and bluesy “Take It Back,” Disraeli Gears is hard-hitting and leaves you begging for more.
If you’re a music lover who melts over sweet harmonies, prepare yourself for puddlesville. Trio (1987) hits its mark with harmonies so perfect, so effortless, so layered yet easy to differentiate that you’ll want to spin this record again and again. Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris keep things simple and don’t choose a band name, but it’s not about ego. They had long respected each other’s work, and had even tried to collaborate with each other on an album many years before. Parton’s classic country, Ronstadt’s country rock/pop and Harris’s skills at adapting to any form of country she wanted proved a fruitful combination. From the moment the singing starts on “The Pain of Loving You,” you know this album is the real deal. And their cover of the Teddy Bears’ “To Know Him Is To Love Him” is pure heaven. With the help of notable musicians like Ry Cooder and Albert Lee, a stellar selection of songs, and the willingness of the three singers to support each other, Trio is that must-own album you’ll be pulling out whenever you need to explain to your kids what real singing sounds like.
It seems like an odd combination: Bernard Sumner of New Order and guitarist Johnny Marr of the Smiths. One helped lay the foundations for British house music and the other was hailed as a jangly guitar hero. Together they formed Electronic, which is basically the alternative-pop supergroup of the early ’90s. Sumner, wanting to take his interest in synth-based music further than New Order would allow, set off to make an album on his own and turned to Marr for help. But Electronic (1991) wasn’t New Order-lite. First single “Getting Away With It” (not on the original LP but is included on the reissue) was a hit with a fresh electropop sound and included contributions from Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant. Electronic oozes Madchester, emotional detachment, cool synth beats and subtle organic guitars. Album highlights include “The Patience of a Saint” (which features contributions from PSB’s Tennant and Chris Lowe), “Get the Message,” and “Tighten Up,” the last two best illustrating how well Marr’s guitar-work blends with the synthesizers.
Spawned from the ashes of King Crimson, bassist John Wetton and drummer Bill Bruford recruited guitarist Allan Holdsworth (Soft Machine) and keyboardist/violinist Eddie Jobson (Roxy Music) to form U.K., a progressive rock powerhouse. If there was ever a reason to invest in a laser light show system for your home, their 1978 debut album U.K. is it! The album opens with the “In The Dead of Night” suite, made up of three movements, which sets the tone of symphonic jazz fused with majestic art rock. Jobson turns it up with a face-melting electric violin solo in “Thirty Years.” Mood and atmosphere explode on “Alaska” in a tense duel between Jobson and Holdsworth, prog and jazz duking it out, respectively. Beautiful melodies, Wetton’s emotional vocals, and the battles between the keys, violin, and guitar make U.K. an example of uncompromising progressive rock; their decision to stay away from what was then radio-friendly actually helps the music have staying power.
The best kind of supergroup is the one that makes you forget its members are stars in their own right. Run the Jewels is the ultimate connection between two hip-hop artists (rapper Killer Mike and rapper/producer El-P) who were meant to create music together. Their first album knocked people on their asses but 2014’s Run the Jewels 2 sets all in its path on fire before blowing it apart in a blast wave. The album includes explosive production from El-P, his futuristic walls-closing-in sound finding a match with Killer Mike’s more grounded flow. RTJ2 has muscle and menace (“Oh My Darling Don’t Cry” and “Blockbuster Night, Pt. 1”) and Killer Mike’s heartfelt check on police brutality (“Early”). There are also notable features from Zach de la Rocha (“Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)”) and, I don’t care what anybody else says, Gangsta Boo’s verse on the kinky “Love Again” is great and cracks me up every time so be sure to get the pressing which keeps her feature.
Marcella Hemmeter is a freelance writer and adjunct professor living in Maryland by way of California. When she's not busy meeting deadlines she frequently laments the lack of tamalerias near her house.
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