This story runs in Sunday’s Washington Post as part of our 2011 Fall Arts Preview.
It’s lonely at the top. Or at least it used to be.
Big-name pop stars are linking arms this season, both in the studio and on the road. A-list rappers are merging like telecom corporations. Indie-rock stars are forming supergroups and micro-partnerships. A one-in-a-million country singer just joined a band. And Mick Jagger is jamming with the son of Bob Marley while Lou Reed is shredding alongside Metallica.
The splashiest tour of the season comes to the Verizon Center on Nov. 3 when Jay-Z and Kanye West try to transpose one of the summer’s best albums — their superb collaboration disc, “Watch the Throne” — to the stage.
The album still feels like a mini-miracle. Instead of the forecast train wreck, two of popular music’s most swollen egos delivered a provocative exploration of capitalism’s death throes in “post-racial” America. And if the “Watch the Throne” tour matches the scope of the album, it’ll result in a hat trick for West, who scaled Mount Genius last year with his masterwork “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.”
In country music, Miranda Lambert’s career is just as molten. She won her first Grammy in February, and her upcoming solo album, “Four the Record,” out Nov. 1, should be a serious contender for the best country album of 2011.
Her stiffest competition? Her band. Last month, Lambert released “Hell on Wheels,” an album with her new group, the Pistol Annies, a trio she formed with longtime collaborator Ashley Monroe and songwriter Angaleena Presley, who Lambert calls “a modern-day Loretta.”
Out on the road, Lambert said band life is good.
“It’s so much more fun than being on the bus by myself with 17 guys,” she said. “Sharing a passion with two of your best friends and being able to get onstage together is just awesome.”
“I think it pushes me to be better in both projects,” Lambert said. “It makes me work harder.”
Friendly competition might be what’s pushing top-tier artists toward these kinds of collaborations. They don’t feel like tossed-off side projects or lazy cash grabs. Even in small doses, you can hear artists at the top of their game spurring each other on.
British singer and producer James Blake recently released “Fall Creek Boys Choir,” a tune he recorded with Justin Vernon of Bon Iver — the only person who released a more ravishing album this year than him. But Blake will have to play the song at the 9:30 Club by his lonesome on Oct. 9. He releases his new EP, which features “Fall Creek Boys Choir,” the next day. (And if we’re keeping score, it should be noted that Vernon sang a hook on “Watch the Throne,” too.)
Mary Timony hasn’t recorded anything with Kanye West. Yet. The Washington singer and guitarist made her name in local punk band Autoclave, then founded Boston indie heroes Helium, then went solo, then joined Washington group Soft Power. For her latest act, Timony has teamed up with Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss of Sleater-Kinney and Rebecca Cole of the Minders in Wild Flag, an indie-rock supergroup that unleashes its sharp self-titled debut on Sept. 13 and visits the Black Cat on Oct. 20.
And then there’s “Lulu,” a so-crazy-it-just-might-work album from Lou Reed and Metallica. The unlikely fivesome have been in the studio all summer and have promised a muscular collection of songs on Nov. 1.
But not every supergroup may be automatically super — even if it has “super” in its name. SuperHeavy, a new band featuring Mick Jagger, Joss Stone, Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics, Damien Marley and A.R. Rahman (of “Slumdog Millionaire” soundtrack fame) feels like a rogue faction that bolted out of the “We Are the World” anniversary recording sessions. The band’s album is due Sept. 20. Based on the early singles “Miracle Worker” and “Satyameva Jayate,” expect genre-jumping that’s less than graceful.
Still, one bad Jagger jag can’t spoil the bunch.This season’s collaborative spirit has already resulted in some great songs and a subtext that caters to our growing, Facebook-fueled sense of camaraderie. Especially in the case of West and Jay-Z. Before “Watch the Throne,” West was sulking in the deep space of celebrity. Jay was presumably working on his backstroke in a vault of gold coins.