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Best Boy Band Solo Debut Singles, Ranked

Harry Styles“Sign of the Times” was the classic debut single by an ex-boy bander that rockets straight to the top of the charts thanks to a ravenous fan base, but it obviously was not the first. Pop music is littered with fresh-faced ex-boy band members trying to make it on their own, with varying degrees of success. First, of course, comes the debut solo single, which can either be the highlight of the singer’s career or merely the precursor to something far grander. With that in mind, here’s our ranking of the best debut singles by boy band members hoping to go solo.

18. Sisqó – “Got to Get It”

The Baltimore group Dru Hill had a nice little run in the late ‘90s as reliable R&B balladeers, but the group’s legacy would eventually be overshadowed by that of Sisqo, who would of course hump his way into immortality with “Thong Song.” His first single, though, was “Got to Get It,” a pretty good if unexciting aqueous R&B song typical of the era that gave no hint at what would soon be coming. — Jordan Sargent

17. JC Chasez – “Some Girls (Dance with Women)”

JC Chasez once revealed in an NSYNC interview with Larry King that he was raised a mennonite. This does not really match up with “Some Girls (Dance with Women),” the single from his only solo album Schizophrenic, which was released in 2004 and comes with a raunchy music video. He was dropped from performing at the Pro Bowl over former bandmate Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson’s controversy at the Super Bowl just a few weeks before. Chasez was bound to be overshadowed by Timberlake, but Schizophrenic is a little weirder and almost as hot as some of the tracks on JT’s Justified. Chasez’s other single, “Blowin’ Me Up (With Her Love)” was even on the Drumline soundtrack.  — Geena Kloeppel

16. Zayn – “Pillowtalk”

Released in 2016 after his tumultuous departure from One Direction, “Pillowtalk” is the first single of Zayn Malik’s debut solo release. The sexy R&B slow jam is a clear departure from boy band sugar-coated pop, which, naturally, resulted in a flurry of angsty from One Direction fans. Despite the initial controversy surrounding Zayn’s retirement from the group, the single premiered in the US with 22.3 million streams in its first week.  — Emma May

15. Davy Jones – “Dream Girl”

The Monkees were orchestrated as a drainage ditch to catch any runoff Beatles fandom, but Davy Jones first solo single instead used Motown as its source material. And much like The Monkees were an enjoyable but fluffy version of something done better by its originators, “Dream Girl” is a pleasant puff of early ‘60s pop, leaning heavily into winning harmonies and leveraging Jones’ burgeoning heartthrob status for a song that feels like a kiss on the cheek. — JS

14. Slim – “So Fly” (ft. Young Joc)

As the lead vocalist of 112, Slim had one of the most distinctive singing voices of a generation, a reedy rasp that was perpetually perched on the edge of falsetto. “So Fly,” released three years after 112’s final album, buries that voice a bit under a bass-heavy beat, but it’s still Slim that carry the song, highlighting the conceit of the song with a vocal turn that feels like slowly lifting off into the air. — JS

13. Harry Styles – “Sign of the Times”

Harry Styles debut solo single “Sign of the Times” is a stadium-ready power ballad overflowing with cliches. It’s the perfect mixture: vaguely political lyrics juxtaposed over repetitive piano power chords. After one listen, it will be in your head for weeks. With “Sign of the Times” Styles is trying–maybe a little bit too hard–to show his fans that he’s moved beyond the apolitical bubble gum pop of One Direction. Although the single comes off as a bit try-hard at times, his fans seem to like it. — EM

12. Omarion – “O”

Coming from B2K, Omarion couldn’t exactly “go R&B” in the way that Justin Timberlake did, or Zayn Malik would. But in embarking on his solo career he nonetheless aimed to assert himself as a masculine, carnal sexual being, in the process landing on a song that was more traditionally R&B than B2K’s dancey, fun pop music. “O,” co-helmed by the reliable R&B songwriter Tank, is a ballad with a strong hook and even stronger concept, riffing on both Omarion’s first initial and, well, you can figure it out. — JS

11. Donny Osmond – “Sweet and Innocent”

As a child star, Donny Osmond was always the most promising of the Osmonds‘ barbershop routine. Donny’s “aw-shucks” adolescence alongside his sister Marie had charmed living rooms for years as late-night performers and, backed by his brothers’ breathtaking harmonies, Donny scored 12 Top 40 hits throughout the late ’70s, most of which were popular covers. One such cover first recorded by Roy Orbison in 1958, “Sweet and Innocent” captures Donny at his boyish best with a soaring vocals and his famous kickass, glammed-out jumpsuit. Backed by boogie and soul sounds just as they were making waves with a white audience, the track finds the Osmonds at a strange moment in the broader history of pop, somewhere between the frill of the post-boyband pop star and fire of the late-night TV musical guest. — RA

10. John Lennon – “Give Peace a Chance”

At the tail-end of the Beatles‘ 10 year existence, John Lennon and Yoko Ono got married. Both vocal objectors to the Vietnam War, the two held a number of week-long Bed-Ins for Peace, where they took up non-violent protest in the spirit of well-known sit-ins around the world. In the midst of one such honeymoon Bed-In in Montreal, Lennon was asked by a reporter what his aims were for the protest and, according to certain documentarians of the era, muttered the line, “Just give peace a chance.” — RA

9. Aaron Hall – “Don’t Be Afraid”

Though they reliably churned out R&B hits for a handful of years bridging the ‘80s and ‘90s, the legacy of Guy is mostly that it incubated Teddy Riley, the preeminent R&B hitmaker of an era. Still, Aaron Hall had a respectable solo career after that group’s dissolution, epitomized most obviously by “Don’t Be Afraid,” a Bomb Squad-produced track that swipes drums from “The Humpty Dance” and rides a smooth piano line to the dancefloor.  — JS

8. Michael Jackson – “Got to Be There”

As a performer and child star, Michael Jackson was obviously groomed for success in the music industry. From Jackson 5 hits “ABC” and “I Want You Back,” Michael stood front-and-center as both the face and lead vocalist of the band and as a spokesperson of the next wave of the Motown Machine. After the Jackson’s explosive success boomed throughout the US, Motown debuted Got to Be There, a solo record that repackaged hits like “Rockin’ Robin” and “Ain’t No Sunshine” behind the voice of the label’s most promising young star. Amongst these tracks, the title track “Got to Be There” found particular success, charting at number four on Billboard’s pop and R&B singles charts. Basking in Michael’s astounding vocal range, the single reveals glimpses of what would come with his solo superstardom, as the young singer floats gracefully between breathy verses and belted full-voiced bliss. — RA

7. Jermaine Jackson – “That’s How Love Goes”

Jermaine Jackson’s solo debut Jermaine was released in 1972, at the tail-end of the Jackson 5’s early 70s success. The group was known for their chart-toppers “I Want You Back” and “ABC” with a young Michael Jackson on lead vocals, but didn’t manage to place another number one hit after 1970. (Jermaine peaked at #27 on the Billboard pop albums chart–not a bad feat for the the co-leader of the Jackson 5.) In a 1972 Soul Train performance, Jermaine’s soft, smooth vocals finally take their deserved space to gingerly seduce and entrance. “That’s How Love Goes” is downtempo, removes the flashy guitar hooks and sounds a lot sexier than what fans were used to hearing from the Jackson 5. Don Cornelius, the show’s host, even referred to Jackson as a future Marvin Gaye.  — GK 

6. Bobby Brown – “Girlfriend”

From his standout presence on early hits “Popcorn Love” and “Is This End” to the glossy Thriller-esque funk of New Edition, Brown paired the sexiest moments of the era’s synth-pop with the sort of frontman bravado that always hit a wall in a group setting. After leaving the group in 1985, Brown dropped the single “Girlfriend,” which hit number one on the Billboard charts in 1986. Behind lush Yamaha jazz chords and flourishes of saxophone, Brown sings with a sensual longing, a hopeless romantic tortured by his love for the girl across the hall. Equal parts George Michael’s smooth jazz and Teddy Riley’s new jack swing, the song laid the groundwork for a more mature kind of R&B that would launch Brown into a new sort of superstardom. Though his controversies with Whitney Houston and drugs would eventually become a forefront topic of conversation in the ’90s and ’00s, “Girlfriend” is a testament to Brown’s talent in the face of fickle trends. — RA

5. Ralph Tresvant – “Sensitivity”

Matching Bobby Brown’s starpower would have been impossible for pretty much anyone as the ‘80s bled into the ‘90s, but his New Edition bandmate Ralph Tresvant scored a smash with “Sensitivity,” a Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis production that rides a soothingly breezy groove. Tresvant was not nearly as charismatic as Brown or even Johnny Gill, but the way he lets his falsetto evaporate into the textures of “Sensitivity” ensured at least one indelible solo single. — JS

4. Paul McCartney – “Another Day”

When the Beatles called it quits, Paul McCartney began work on a number of recordings with his wife Linda. After a tense legal battle with songwriting partner John Lennon, Paul and Linda tried to hone a new sound, one that would eventually become their only joint album, Ram. The first glimpse of his broader solo career to come, “Another Day” takes the sort upbeat violin bass rhythm that’s as old as the Beatles themselves and pairs it with the sort of crystalline harmonies and breezy guitar that feel like an official introduction to the seventies. As McCartney’s would continue with acts like Wings as well as produce more solo material under his birth name, “Another Day” shows a world new aesthetic changes soon to come from the aging musician. — RA

3. Johnny Gill – “Rub You the Right Way”

Gill was a solo artist before he was recruited to join New Edition after Bobby Brown was kicked out of the group in 1987. His first ever single, 1983’s “Super Love,” was great in its own right, a snackable slice of post-disco R&B that would have suited Off the Wall-era Michael Jackson just fine. But “Rub You the Right Way,” released in 1990, made it clear that New Edition had imbued him with a newfound swagger. It steps out immediately with the sort of thwacking drum loop that defined new jack swing, but it’s Gill’s impressive and rangy vocal performance that gives the song an undeniable electricity. — JS

2. Jordan Knight – “Give It to You”

New Kids on the Block missed out on the TRL era, ceding the spotlight come Y2K to progeny like the Backstreet Boys and NSYNC. But founding member Jordan Knight made a smooth, if brief, transition into Carson Daly’s kingdom thanks to “Give It To You,” a ridiculous but nonetheless amazing song written by the legendary duo Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis along with… Robin Thicke. The song quite curiously starts off with a carnivalesque accordion loop but quickly gives way to a composition that would be a fine representative of turn-of-the-millennium pop music. The stuttering rhythms of the verses essentially predicted the entirety of Destiny’s Child’s The Writing’s on the Wall but with mouth-made percussion that referenced Timbaland and Aaliyah, while the skipping, glitchy chorus would be nicked by Jam and Lewis for Janet Jackson’s “Someone to Call My Lover.” — JS

1. Justin Timberlake – “Like I Love You”

Like several artists on this list, Justin Timberlake’s solo career started to bloom before the dissolution of the group that made him famous. NYSNC released its final album Celebrity in 2001, and unlike its previous two records, that one featured songs primarily written by members Timberlake and JC Chasez. “Pop” and “Gone,” Celebrity‘s first two singles, were collaborations between Timberlake and the choreographer Wade Robson, but it was the third, “Girlfriend,” that previewed where Timberlake’s career was headed. Written in tandem with the Neptunes, “Girlfriend” transitioned Timberlake out of the boyish pop of Max Martin and into the far cooler, and more mature, future-funk R&B of Pharrell and Chad Hugo. “Like I Love You,” Timberlake’s instant classic debut single, went directly down that path, asking Timberlake to mutter breathy come-ons over itchy guitar strumming. To this day it remains one of his best songs, complete with very memorable appearances from the Clipse brothers, even if in an alternate timeline, the song was Michael Jackson’s. –JS