Paul McCartney

Top 10 Musically Satisfying Solo Careers

Going it alone is hard, even when you’re incredibly talented. I learned this the hard way every weekend for my entire high school life. But sometimes a musician breaks away from the band and not only doesn’t fall flat on his face, he manages to release music that measures up to or even bests those from the old group.

Before we begin, I feel compelled to point out that I don’t equate “musically satisfying” with “had a bunch of hits,” although sometimes that happened too. I should also point out that for the purposes of this list I’m not counting artists who were in some obscure band for like one or two albums (so no Billy Joel), nor am I counting artists whose “bands” were really just a solo act in all but name (so no George Michael).

#10. David Lee Roth

If you were around for my Diamond Dave Top 15 last week, this choice certainly shouldn’t come as a surprise. Sure, Dave’s commercial fortunes evaporated like so much pot smoke by the mid-’90s, but it is my considered opinion that his music was uniformly strong regardless. Whether he was riding a giant, inflatable microphone or showing his more serious and philosophical side, I can’t think of one DLR album I don’t enjoy.

#9. David Sylvian

There are few artists whose music immediately brings to mind the word sumptuous, but former Japan lead vocalist is one. Since Japan split in 1982, Sylvian has spent the last three decades releasing some of the most gorgeously textured and dense music you’ll likely hear. And he’s collaborated with the likes of Robert Fripp, Bill Nelson, and Holger Czukay to boot.

#8. Björk

Björk had already shown her willingness to explore musical life outside of the Sugarcubes — perhaps most notable with the straightforward 1990 Icelandic jazz album Gling-Gló. Then came her solo debut, appropriately called Debut, and some of the best music of the ’90s. Her music has tilted more toward the experimental side and less away from anything immediately accessible over her last four releases, but the rewards have not diminished.

#7. Ozzy Osbourne

Put aside the image of Ozzy Osbourne as an indecipherable house husband and shambling punchline — thanks MTV! — and you can appreciate how much excellent music he’s recorded since being unceremoniously booted from Black Sabbath in 1979. While he never quite equaled the twin triumphs of his first two solo LPs — Blizzard of Ozz and Diary of a Madman — he’s come close on more than a few occasions.

#6. Sam Cooke

Before his all-too-short career as one of the greatest soul singers of all-time, Sam Cooke spent several years in the Soul Stirrers, one of the most famed black gospel outfits of the time. Cooke made his recorded debut with the group in 1951, at the age of 20, and stayed with them until 1957. That year his star was launched with the single “You Send Me,” which hit #1. For the next six years he released some of the most successful and beloved R&B and soul music, until his tragic and controversial death in December 1964.

#5. Neil Young

Even if you erased every last note of Neil Young’s music during his time in Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, what you’re left with is one of the richest catalogs in rock history. Now to be fair, in some cases Young’s prodigious output is a case of quantity over quality, but he still continues to release excellent material almost five decades after his debut. Keep on rockin’ in the… well, you know the rest.

#4. Peter Gabriel

Peter Gabriel crafted such a strong musical identity as a solo artist that a not insubstantial portion of his fans doesn’t even know he was the frontman and co-founder of prog rock titans Genesis. It took a few albums for Gabriel to find his footing as a solo act, but with the release of his self-titled third album in 1980 — the so-called Melt album — he truly came into his own. Although Gabriel is perhaps more of an activist than an active musician these days, his legacy as a brilliant solo artist is secure.

#3. Michael Jackson

In terms of pure commercial success as a solo artist, Michael Jackson is untouchable. It’s purely personal preference — and his more uneven latter-day output — that keeps the King of Pop out of the #1 spot on this list. If you ever need a reminder of just how potent MJ’s music was and still is, there is plenty of evidence.

#2. Paul McCartney

Of all the musicians on this list, none has been burdened with the weight of expectations quite like Paul McCartney. And none has taken more grief from critics and sometimes fans for simply doing what comes naturally to him — namely, write and record effortlessly catchy pop songs. People throw terms like “lightweight” and “superficial” around as if those are things pop music is never supposed to be, and that’s bullshit. I’m not about to defend every single album Macca has released since the Beatles broke up, but his hit to miss ratio is still satisfyingly high.

#1. Robert Plant

It would’ve been so easy for Robert Plant to spend a few decades either cashing in on his rock god cred or releasing warmed over, derivative Led Zeppelin-style music. Instead, he has spent the last three-plus decades chasing his very singular creative muse and seemingly not giving a rat’s ass if the denim jacket crowd followed him along for the ride. Sure he’s teamed with Jimmy Page and done the occasional Zeppelin thing, but he has also managed to forge his own unique vision and identity. Oh yeah, and on his worst day his music is simply very good.

  • mikesensei

    Excellent list! I’d add Richard Thompson (Fairport Convention) and, especially, Frank Sinatra, who got his start with Harry James and Tommy Dorsey, both of whom had powerhouse bands.

  • Malchus

    Great list, Chris. And I love your number 1! Now, if I could just get my act together…

  • Ron Albanese

    Just came across this, and YOU SIR DESERVE A LOT OF CREDIT! There are lots of good entries here, but the one perhaps that doesn’t ordinarily get its due is the output of David Lee Roth. There really is a lot good playing, production, and songs of all kinds to be enjoyed, on each and every album … very cool to see him mentioned!

  • Guy Smiley

    Wow… DLR solo?? That pretty much invalidates this entire list right there. I don’t think I’ve ever met someone who takes solo Dave seriously, or who doesn’t laugh derisively at the very mention of it.

    Anyhow, while Sam Cooke, technically, qualifies, I’m sure most people don’t think of him as having been in a group first (or even realize that he was). I think the list should be more people who gained big fame in a group, and then went solo. Maybe the Soul Stirrers were bigger in their time than I realize? Anyone here old enough to know

    I wholeheartedly agree about McCartney. In spite of many lousy post-Beatles records, there’s more good than bad and the good stuff is really, really good (Great to see the Ram album finally getting its vindication). Also, Paul gets points for having a great late career comeback with excellent albums like Chaos and Creation, Memory Almost Full, Electric Arguments (as “The Fireman”), and (the new) New.

    But… How do you include Paul’s solo career and not John’s? Album for album, song for song, John had the best solo career of the Fabs… He also (sadly) had the advantage of not living long enough to ever really suck, and he skipped the back half of the 70s too, but that’s still a solo career that’s far better, and more enduring, than David Lee Roth’s.

    And how about George? His first two proper albums were his best by far, but even with a host of mediocre efforts between Living In the Material World and the Cloud Nine comeback, there’s still a fair amount of really good songs to choose from.

    Where’s Eric Clapton or Jeff Beck? How about Don Henley (no, seriously)? Peter Tosh? Jerry Garcia?

    Robert Plant is a good choice, though I don’t know if I’d call him #1 (I think that has to be Neil Young, hands down). His first few solo efforts were incredibly dull (such as “Big Log” that was included here and hardly the best example of his solo work), but he really turned things around at some point… Maybe it was the Now and Zen album? I didn’t like “Tall Cool One” at all, but the music started getting more ambitious, and eventually we got gems like Dreamland, Mighty Rearranger, and Band of Joy.

    Let’s not forget Raising Sand either… Not a “solo” effort per se, but still one of my favorite albums of the past decade or solo and probably the single best project he’s done since Zeppelin. I also liked The Honeydrippers for what it was.

  • Guy Smiley

    Here’s two more for you… Would Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen qualify? Billy had two albums with The Hassles (and that first Hassles album is actually pretty damned good) and another with Atilla before going solo. Springsteen had Steel Mill, though I’m not aware of them having ever recorded an album so maybe he doesn’t count.

    Whoa… What about Paul Simon? Yeah, both he and Billy Joel would have to make my top ten.

  • Will Randolph V

    Peter Gabriel and not Phil Collins? Hmm, everyone has their different takes on the men of Genesis I suppose