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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)

30. Sting, “Fortress Around Your Heart” (1985)

For all the showy jazzy flourishes and adult-contemporary slickness on the Police man’s mega-selling solo debut, The Dream of the Blue Turtles, the album’s most potent and powerful track evoked the artful stadium rock of his former band’s acrimonious final years. Sadly, he’d only get mellower as the years wore on—though, to be fair, he was wide awake during The Police’s rapturously received reunion tour in 2007 and 2008.

29. Chris Cornell, “You Know My Name” (2006) As Paul McCartney & Wings already proved (see elsewhere on this list), subtlety has never had a place in a James Bond theme song. That’s a fact the late Soundgarden and Audioslave frontman clearly took to heart when he went for broke on this gloriously bruising and bombastic accompaniment for Daniel Craig’s first foray as 007 in Casino Royale.

28. Keith Richards, “Take It So Hard” (1988)

What with the band’s much-mythologized levels of dysfunction at times, it’s remarkable that The Rolling Stones have always been the main creative focus for the two men known as Glimmer Twins. Then again, Mick Jagger got a very clear signal how fans wanted it when his two ultra-slick solo albums stiffed in the ’80s. As you might expect, Keith Richards’ extracurriculars are far more endearingly ragged, none more so than this combination of weathered rasp and the kind of guitar riff he probably used in a hundred Stones songs already. But it works just fine anyway.

27. Sandy Denny, “It’ll Take a Long Time” (1972)

The queen of the English folk-rock scene before her death in 1978, Sandy Denny had an incalculable influence on Angel Olsen, Laura Marling, Joanna Newsom, and many more talents of the present day. With her former Fairport Convention partner Richard Thompson providing the soaring and swooping lead guitar, Denny created one of her most indelible songs with the opener from Sandy, her second and finest solo album.

26. Brian Wilson, “Love and Mercy” (1988)

Later used as the title for the surprisingly solid biopic about The Beach Boys’ troubled genius, “Love and Mercy” was stunning proof that all of Brian Wilson’s personal woes had not cost him his powers. Sure, the late-’80s production values rob his first solo single of some of the warmth from his Pet Sounds peak. But the gorgeous melody and multi-tracked vocal harmonies makes this plea for kindness and understanding all the more powerful.

25. Thom Yorke, “Harrowdown Hill” (2006)

Thanks to Jonny Greenwood’s film scores for Paul Thomas Anderson (including the forthcoming Phantom Thread), plus Philip Selway’s strong solo outings, Radiohead have built up a sturdy reputation for high-quality extracurricular activities. Naturally, Yorke’s efforts have gotten the most attention, even though he’s used them to burrow deeper into the eerie electronic abstractions of Kid A. The angriest and most unnerving song on The Eraser was inspired by David Kelly, a scientist who killed himself due to the pressures he suffered after blowing the whistle on the cooked-up evidence of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. “They just want me gone,” Yorke moans over lonely beats and a suitably skeletal guitar part.

24. George Harrison, “What Is Life” (1970)

Originally stuck on the B-side to “My Sweet Lord” before becoming a hit in its own right, this is the most buoyant showcase of the Quiet One’s penchant for big sham-a-lama choruses, spiritual-minded sentiments. and the kind of bracingly badass guitar licks that always give a steely edge to the beardiest Beatle’s shaggiest solo songs.

23. Gwen Stefani, “Hollaback Girl” (2004)

By the time Stefani assembled her all-star team of producers and writers for 2004’s Love. Angel. Music. Baby., No Doubt’s spiky blend of ska, punk, and pop already seemed like a distant memory. But it was hard to begrudge Stefani her commercial ambitions in the face of the unbridled awesomeness of this masterful match-up with The Neptunes. Cheerleading practice would never be the same again.

22. Eddie Vedder, “Out of Sand” (2017)

During his almost three-decade tenure with Pearl Jam, Eddie Vedder has rarely ventured outside the fold. Indeed, his solo endeavors were limited to his somber soundtrack for Sean Penn’s Into the Wild and a low-key 2011 album that demonstrated his love of the ukulele. Maybe that’s why it had so much impact to see him alone on stage at The Roadhouse on Twin Peaks: The Return. The fact that he performs this stark folk ballad under his real name of Edward Louis Severson is the scene’s strangest (and therefore most Lynchian) touch, right up until Audrey starts dancing.

21. Lou Reed, “Satellite of Love” (1972)

Originally written during the dying days of The Velvet Underground, this was revived when David Bowie and his management set out to make Lou Reed the star they believed he could be. They made good on that bet with “Walk on the Wild Side,” but “Satellite of Love” shines the brightest now, with its combination of Tin Pan Alley hooks, sardonic humor, and glam-era fabulosity.