The 50 Best Songs by Musicians Who Went Solo

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - NOVEMBER 10: Michael Jackson performs on stage during is "HIStory" world tour concert at Ericsson Stadium November 10, 1996 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

Being in a band can be hard. There’s all the travel and accommodation spent in close, smelly quarters, the jockeying to get more (or less) of the spotlight, the creative differences, the personal dynamics, the sexual tension — the Fleetwood Mac-yness of it all. Any of these can be a good reason for artists to strike out on their own and discover—sometimes the hard way—whether their fame and success will carry over to solo endeavours.

Eight years on from Oasis’ acrimonious breakup, both Liam and Noel Gallagher have dropped new albums this fall. The former’s As You Were came out in October, while the latter released Who Built the Moon? with this band High Flying Birds on Nov. 24. Despite what’s surely healthy familial competition, neither Gallagher shows signs of reaching the heights Oasis once did with songs like “Wonderwall” or “Don’t Look Back in Anger.” Theirs look like they’ll be more modest solo careers.

To provide a few inspiring examples of artists who had better luck (or maybe just to rub it in their face), we compiled the best songs by truly good solo acts. In compiling this list, we left off famous singers who started in groups that didn’t last long enough to make it big, or else followed their tenure in one huge band by founding another one (sorry, Dave Grohl). We also left off both Gallagher brothers. Enjoy!

50. Ryan Adams, “Come Pick Me Up” (2000)

Ryan Adams was clearly champing at the bit to get his solo career going after enduring the record-company problems that plagued his alt-country act Whiskeytown. This gorgeous, plaintive, and thoroughly Dylan-esque love song was one of many stunners on Heartbreaker, the first in the scrappy singer’s extraordinary run of genre-hopping albums through the early ’00s.

49. Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros, “Mondo Bongo” (2001)

The Clash may have been one of rock’s greatest ever acts, but their driving forces made precious little music that was truly noteworthy after the band’s 1983 breakup. (Apologies to Mick Jones and Big Audio Dynamite.) Joe Strummer’s long semi-retirement was one reason, which made it especially cruel timing for the singer to die of a heart attack only three years after such a strong return with his backing band The Mescaleros. A low-key charmer with spicier flavors of flamenco and tango, this late-career highlight got much better known when it was used in a steamy dance scene for the newly forged entity known as Brangelina in 2005’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith.

48. Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, “The Block Party” (2001)

Though TLC’s third album, FanMail, was another Grammy-winning smash, the girl group’s wild card struggled to get her solo career going, despite appearances on Top 10 singles by Lil’ Kim and Donell Jones. An earworm-y wonder as ingenious as any of Missy Elliott’s classics of the era, “The Block Party” was a hit in the UK but stiffed so hard in America that the label canceled the release of her first solo album, Supernova. Lopes died in a car crash in Honduras a year later, but that tragedy doesn’t mar her best solo song’s irrepressibly loopy spirit. 

47. Paul Weller, “The Changingman” (1995)

From his earliest days as The Jam’s teenage dynamo through the chic soul-pop of The Style Council through to his reign as mod’s elder statesman, Paul Weller has been an icon of the UK music scene—yet perhaps too stubbornly British to become more popular on the opposite shore of the Atlantic. A fan fave that marries The Jam’s fervor to the ’60s stylings of his Britpop-era triumphs, “The Changingman” proves that it’s everyone else’s loss.

46. Scott Weiland, “Lady, Your Roof Brings Me Down” (1998)

Stone Temple Pilots had their biggest hits when they were at their grungiest, which means the actual breadth and depth of singer Scott Weiland’s artistry tends to be overlooked. Originally appearing on the Great Expectations soundtrack before its inclusion on his first solo effort, this old-timey tune evokes the cabaret music of German composer Kurt Weill, a musical interest he shared with The Doors. Even more surprising: Sheryl Crow can play a mean accordion.

45. Eddie Kendricks, “Girl You Need a Change of Mind” (1972)

Ignore (if you can) the Paleolithic sexual attitudes expressed in this single by the former Temptations frontman, an apparent response to the women’s movement of the early ‘70s. (“Why march in picket lines? Burn bras and carry signs? Now I’m for women’s rights–I just want equal nights.” Oh, jeez.) What you need to do is submit to these eight sublime minutes of rhythmic ebb and flow, which made for a disco masterpiece years before the music had a name. No wonder it was a favorite at David Mancuso’s pioneering New York club The Loft—D’Angelo covered it, too.

https://open.spotify.com/embed/track/64bnTYBCQsHAsZUmA2JDH0

44. Jarvis Cocker, “Don’t Let Him Waste Your Time” (2006)

Cocker’s secretly-dirty-librarian allure was such a huge part of Pulp’s appeal, it’s no surprise his solo efforts don’t sound or feel so different from his many albums with Britpop’s greatest contrarians. What’s more, former bandmates like Steve Mackey, Mark Webber, and Richard Hawley all guest on his solo debut. Even so, this glam-rock-style singalong has an uncharacteristic degree of machismo that makes it more Mott the Hoople than Different Class.

43. Jenny Lewis, “Just One of the Guys” (2014)

Whereas alt-country and indie rock were Jenny’s main menu items in Rilo Kiley, her love of ’60s girl-group pop came more to the fore in the music that emerged under her own name during and after her tenure with the well-loved L.A. band. This would be a sterling example even without the instantly infamous video, in which Kristen Stewart, Brie Larson, and Anne Hathaway get goofy as Lewis’ band, donning Adidas track suits and fake mustaches for the occasion.

42. Damon Albarn, “Everyday Robots” (2014)

One of alt-rock’s most industrious multi-taskers (alongside Dave Grohl and Josh Homme), Damon Albarn has typically filled his downtime between Blur reunions with Gorillaz and shorter-term projects like The Good, the Bad & the Queen (there’ve been a few operas too). Yet his belated solo debut gave him a chance to show off a more personal side, especially in the title track, a warning about our loss of individuality due to digital-era distractions.

41. Pharrell Williams, “Come Get It Bae” (2014)

Though the Neptunes producer always had ambitions beyond the production booth, Williams was largely content to funnel his extracurricular energies into cameos on his clients’ songs and The Neptunes’ quasi-band N.E.R.D. until his Minions-inspired smashes of recent years. With its irresistible handclap rhythm, a “hey!” from Miley Cyrus and a super-cool guitar lick, “Come Get It Bae” is actually the most irresistible of Girl’s many ubiquitous hits, which is no small feat.

IMPACT

you may like

Scroll to Top