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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)

10. Ozzy Osbourne, “Crazy Train” (1980)

“All aboarrrd!” cries Ozzy as his titular train leaves this station. “HA-HA!” Then Randy Rhoads starts hammering out a riff so demonic and thrilling, even Tony Iommi would’ve struck a deal with Beelzebub to get his hands on it. Yet rather than serve as one more exercise in Black Sabbath-style heaviosity, “Crazy Train” was a nimbler, catchier blueprint for the hair metal to come. Tragically, Rhoads died along with two members of Osbourne’s band and crew in a bizarre plane-hits-bus accident in Florida in 1982, ending the most triumphant phase of Ozzy mayhem.

9. Jack White, “Lazaretto” (2014)

What the hell’s a lazaretto? That was the first question prompted by the funky, weird, and uncommonly intense lead single from Jack White’s second solo album after wrapping up The White Stripes. The second is how he has any time for his own pursuits amid duties for The Dead Weather, The Raconteurs, production clients, and his multi-faceted Third Man empire. In any case, the mystery word is for a station used to quarantine sailors. There’s some Spanish in here too, and a violin solo. Whatever else is happening within these four frantic minutes, it all adds up to one of the man’s most combustible songs.

8. Beyoncé, “Formation” (2016)

Both with Destiny’s Child and on her own own, Beyoncé has arguably enjoyed the most consistently incredible run of hits by any major artist this century. Even so, nothing quite matches the boldness of this militaristic, militant piece of fractured funk, a radical expression of radical Blackness released the day after what would’ve been Trayvon Martin’s 21st birthday. No wonder the sight of her performing it at the Super Bowl caused America to lose its collective shit.

7. Paul McCartney & Wings, “Live and Let Die” (1973)

The ex-Beatle’s solo career had a slow start, the Fab Four singer and bassist preferring a more low-key, downhome feel for his first efforts on his own and with new band Wings. Then came the offer to write a song for the James Bond movie Live and Let Die. The result showcased both McCartney’s softer side (the verses) and new affinity for full-throttle, stadium-ready rock bombast (the chorus). Somewhere out there, the future Axl Rose was listening.

6. Don Henley, “Boys of Summer” (1984)

Was there ever a more vivid symbol of boomers selling out their ’60s ideals than “the Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac” Don Henley mentions in his finest moment? Even if there is, the Eagles drummer and singer definitely rose to the occasion when penning the haunting lyrics for music that guitarist Mike Campbell first wrote for Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. The song makes equally iconic use of a drum-machine pattern the duo borrowed from Pat Benatar’s “Love Is a Battlefield.” (If you don’t believe it, play them back to back.)

5. Björk, “Human Behavior” (1993)

The Sugarcubes may now only be dimly remembered by college-radio DJs of the ’80s, but they still put Iceland’s surprisingly robust music scene on the map. Björk was always the band’s star in waiting, something she confirmed with “Human Behavior” and the many more sensual, rhythmic, and deeply odd songs that filled Debut.

4. Dr. Dre, “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang” (1992)

Eager to put some distance between himself and the recently departed N.W.A., Dr. Dre doubled down on the sound he started developing for the Deep Cover soundtrack, combining live players and a dense thicket of samples to create the G-funk style that would dominate hip-hop for most of the decade to come. It was pretty much all about blunts, block parties, and Snoop from the moment the album’s first single hit the airwaves.

3. Iggy Pop, “Lust for Life” (1977)

The title track for Iggy’s second album during his time with David Bowie in Berlin was exhilarating long before Danny Boyle repurposed it for Trainspotting’s opening scene. Like Ewan McGregor’s junkie Renton, the song boasts an energy that seems genuinely boundless. Yet with references to the writings of William S. Burroughs and a heroin dealer he knew during his time palling around with The Doors, the lyrics point toward the darkness and chaos that swirled around The Stooges.

2. Michael Jackson, “Billie Jean” (1982)

As a boy who grew up very much in public in The Jackson 5 and then The Jacksons, Michael Jackson felt like he had a lot to prove when he sought to establish himself as his own man. However powerful 1979’s Off the Wall had been as a statement of his autonomy and artistry, he took it to a whole other level with Thriller’s first mega-smash. “Billie Jean” was actually the album’s second single—after the cutesy McCartney duet “The Girl Is Mine”—but that hardly mattered in the face of the song’s all-conquering, irresistibly danceable awesomeness. The same goes for the disconcertingly cryptic lyrics, which allegedly detail MJ’s encounters with a stalker fan. Then again, the chilly darkness at the heart of “Billie Jean” might be why it feels like Jackson’s greatest single.

1. Phil Collins, “In the Air Tonight” (1981)

Seriously, could we have ended this list with anything else? Surely there are few musical moments that ever felt as powerfully dramatic as the point at the three-minute-and-15-second mark when Collins shatters the almost bearable tension by hammering on his drums with all the fury you’d expect from an angry gorilla. Collins’ menacing slice of primo early-’80s gloom—with lyrics reflecting his bitterness and anger in the wake of his first divorce—might’ve been a Genesis song if bandmate Tony Banks hadn’t passed on it. The keyboardist refutes Collins’ version of its history, rightly pointing out that he would’ve been insane to say no.