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.
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.
40. Stephen Malkmus, “Jenny and the Ess-Dog” (2001)
After the 1999 breakup of alt-rock critical darlings Pavement, Malkmus continued to pursue his ever-peculiar muse with songs that often boasted his cryptic sense of humor yet sometimes added an unexpected depth and poignancy. That was never truer than on this song, about a May-December romance between a slumming hipster rich girl and a “man in a ’60s cover band.” Alas, the romance doesn’t last and the story ends with him busing tables and Jenny starting pre-law. Always a master of little details, Malkmus signifies Jenny’s final rejection of her less conservative ways with the decision to remove her “awful toe rings.”
39. Courtney Love, “Mono” (2004)
“Did you miss me?” asks Courtney Love not long into “Mono,” a should’ve-been-comeback single whose greatness no one could have predicted or expected. After all, it had been 10 very messy years since Live Through This, and for her to pull this out of the bag deserves a Rudy-like slow clap—even if that’s all wrong for the song’s blistering tempo. Bizarrely, she’d revert to using the Hole moniker (despite not including any other members) for 2010’s swiftly forgotten Nobody’s Daughter.
38. Robert Plant, “Big Log” (1983)
It takes a strong man to resist the constant demands for a Led Zeppelin reunion as steadfastly as Robert Plant has. Instead, Plant’s career has been amazingly varied, ranging from the sock-hop schmaltz of The Honeydrippers and a Grammy-winning collaboration with bluegrass star Alison Krauss to the mix of rock, folk, and Middle Eastern music on albums like this year’s Carry Fire. But with its Zep-like grandeur, this evocative hit from his second solo album has an obvious appeal for any boomer who longed to replicate Plant’s godlike locks.
37. Diana Ross, “Upside Down” (1980)
Motown boss Berry Gordy made no bones about who he thought was the true star of The Supremes, even if Ross wasn’t the strongest vocalist. Nor did she disagree. Later fictionalized in the musical Dreamgirls, Ross’ ambitions were first signaled when her group became Diana Ross & The Supremes before she became a full-fledged solo diva by the mid-’70s. And while the advent of disco could have rendered her obsolete, it became another chance for her to show her tenacity, collaborating with Chic’s Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards on one of several impeccable demonstrations of her new dancefloor dominance.
36. Dennis Wilson, “River Song” (1977)
With disco at its commercial zenith and punk galvanizing the underground, the music world of 1977 had zero interest in a sumptuously produced and orchestrated solo album by the drummer of The Beach Boys. Indeed, it took a few decades, and Dennis’ death, for Pacific Ocean Blue to get its due. That includes its opening track and lead single, a deeply melancholy slice of SoCal decadence.
35. Ice Cube, “It Was a Good Day” (1992)
Ice Cube was at the peak of his powers in the years that spanned his 1989 departure from N.W.A. and his first Friday movie in 1994, the stoner flick being the first sign of the non-threatening Cube who’d suit Hollywood family comedies just fine. The single that helped make The Predator his biggest seller was a nostalgic, Isley Brothers-flavored tribute to all the things that made a day great, from breakfast with his mom, to basketball with his homies, to a few long-sought-after hookups, to the fact that “nobody I know got killed in South Central L.A.” Only a few months after the Rodney King riots, the significance of that last line was impossible to miss.
34. Syd Barrett, “Terrapin” (1970)
Pink Floyd’s co-founder was arguably the most significant architect of British psychedelia until the abundance of LSD trips took their toll on his fragile psyche. Begun after his forced departure from the band, much of Syd Barrett’s first solo album, The Madcap Laughs, brandished the same cracked-up-nursery-rhyme appeal of early Floyd singles like “See Emily Play.” But the oddly chilling likes of “Terrapin” suggested that something had broken deep inside.
33. Q-Tip, “Vivrant Thing” (1999)
Sly, sexy, and funky as hell, “Vivrant Thing” is a precisely calibrated club banger unlike anything in A Tribe Called Quest’s back catalog—but irresistible all the same. Mostly produced by Q-Tip and Jay Dee, his solo debut, Amplified, had a few tracks that were nearly as hot. Yet Q-Tip would make only two more solo albums—plus the reunited Tribe’s 2016 masterpiece We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service—in the two decades since, eschewing the fur-coat-wearing, block-rocking playa image he flirted with here.
32. Richard Ashcroft, “A Song for the Lovers” (2000)
With “Bittersweet Symphony” and “Lucky Man,” The Verve became one of Britpop’s international breakout acts. Yet the band’s constant turmoil prevented them from following through. No wonder frontman Richard Ashcroft took so many big swings on 2000’s Alone With Everybody, launched with a single that boasted all of the sweep and scope of The Verve’s most epic efforts.
31. Big Boi, “Shutterbugg” (2010)
While it’s been hard to subsist on nothing but occasional guest spots by Andre 3000 in the 11 years since OutKast’s original split, it’s not been so painful for fans who knew which man really brought his A game to Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. With his first legit solo smash, Big Boi didn’t see any reason to start skimping on the bounce or the swagger.
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 endeavours 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.
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 endeavours 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.
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.