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.
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.