20. Ol’ Dirty Bastard, “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” (1995)
Such was the ’90s avalanche of Wu-Tang-related solo albums that even the most obsessed fans struggled to keep up with Method Man, Genius/GZA, and Raekwon, never mind lesser lights like Cappadonna and U-God. But somehow it was the wildest card in the deck who left the most indelible mark, both due to his infamy and to a handful of singles that were as dope and delirious as anything RZA ever touched. “Got Your Money” is unstoppable too, but hey, you like it raw.
19. Steve Perry, “Oh Sherrie” (1984)
Journey’s leather-lunged frontman proved he knew his way around a power ballad with “Open Arms” and other junior-high slow-dance staples by the stadium rockers. But nothing could match the drama of his “you should’ve been gahhh-ahnn!” and equally potent moments in what was surely Perry’s signature achievement. Thank god the cast of Glee didn’t destroy it like they did “Don’t Stop Believin’.”
18. Justin Timberlake, “Rock Your Body” (2002)
Another early Neptunes triumph, this was an irrefutable sign that the biggest star to escape from N-Sync was not going to be J.C. Chasez (don’t laugh—he had a decent shot). “Rock Your Body” would also be JT’s most fervent display of Michael Jackson worship—in fact, The Neptunes wrote it for Jackson, but it got cut from Invincible. It was the song being performed during Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction, an incident that would forever change the meaning of “have ya naked by the end of this song.”
17. Stevie Nicks, “Edge of Seventeen” (1981)
Though most famous as Fleetwood Mac’s wispy, ethereal white-magic woman, Nicks wanted to toughen up her sound. Indeed, she often claimed she wanted to join Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers–she settled for getting them to play on her solo debut, Bella Donna. The title for its most enthralling single was borrowed from a phrase she misheard in a conversation with Petty’s wife (she said they met at the “age” of seventeen). For lyrical inspiration, Nicks drew from her feelings of anger and despair over the deaths of her uncle and John Lennon. All that emotional turbulence is there in Waddy Wachtel’s driving riff, without which there’d be no “Bootylicious”—and that’s a world you wouldn’t want to live in.
16. Bobby Brown, “My Prerogative” (1988)
Thanks to the irresistibly sweet “Candy Girl,” New Edition were America’s preeminent boy band before impresario Maurice Starr figured out that he might have an even bigger success if he recruited a bunch of white kids instead (hence New Kids on the Block). The band were officially on hiatus during the initial deluge of side projects by Ralph Tresvant, Johnny Gill, and Bell Biv DeVoe. But it was the future Mr. Whitney Houston who truly owned the moment with the ultra-fly new jack swing of 1988’s Don’t Be Cruel and this stunning statement of autonomy in response to haters who resented him for going solo. “Everybody’s talking all this stuff about me/Why don’t they just let me live?” If only he knew what was ahead…
15. Morrissey, “Everyday Is Like Sunday” (1988)
No longer saddled with the acrimony that filled The Smiths’ final year, Morrissey was free to warble and wallow like only he could. The symphonic touches added greatly to the song’s widescreen scope and vividness. The singer’s lamentations may concern a drab coastal town that’s “silent and gray,” but the song is a marvel of color and texture.
14. Peter Gabriel, “Games Without Frontiers” (1980)
In between his departure from English prog-rockers Genesis and his mid-’80s commercial triumph with “Sledgehammer” and So, Peter Gabriel delighted in confounding his audience. For one thing, none of his first string of solo albums even had titles (this was from the third). He also loved nothing more than matching bright melodies with more unsettling content, like this allegory about global conflict disguised as an ode to children’s games. Still, he didn’t intend for the misinterpretations spawned by his use of French in the chorus. What he’s singing is “jeux sans frontières,” not “she’s so funky, yeah,” though the latter is pretty cool too.
13. Lauryn Hill, “Doo-Wop (That Thing)” (1998)
After nearly 20 years’ worth of individual endeavors by Ms. Hill, Wyclef Jean, and, yes, Pras, it’s easy to forget how massive The Fugees were in their day, with The Score going six times platinum and earning Grammys galore. Of course, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was even bigger, so much so that the success seemed to do a real number on its creator’s head. But that didn’t become clear until years after this unstoppable solo single, a savvy neo-soul groover on which she demanded gender equality.
12. George Clinton, “Atomic Dog” (1982)
As you might expect given the long and very intertwined history of Parliament and Funkadelic–the two nominally different ensembles that made some of the funkiest and most adventurous Black music of the ’70s–George Clinton’s most famous hit is hardly a solo joint at all. Instead, the P-Funk leader recorded it with players who’d been in his universe for years. Nevertheless, the emphasis on synthesizers pointed more to the future than the past, a fact that was confirmed when Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre used the groove as a cornerstone of the G-funk sound.
11. John Lennon, “Imagine” (1971)
It’s one of those songs that’s so familiar, it’s hard to imagine a time when it didn’t exist. Fittingly, Lennon said the song came to him one morning pretty much intact. Though the writer himself described it as “anti-religious, anti-nationalistic, anti-conventional, [and] anti-capitalistic,” it may be the most cherished solo song by any former Beatle. It’s undoubtedly the most covered too, unless you can think of another song that has somehow survived the attentions of Blues Traveler, Lady Gaga, Dolly Parton, CeeLo Green, and Train.