This feature originally ran in 2013. With Rostam releasing his excellent debut solo album this week, we thought, why the hell not?
Singer-songwriters going solo is like an actor saying they’d like to direct. They think they have the skills from years of playing in a group and can now take the reins themselves. Sometimes, it turns out horrifically, and the performers realize (or don’t) that strength lies in numbers — such as every KISS solo album or Shatner’s Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.
However, sometimes an artist finds their true voice when they’ve shut the door on four or five of their bandmates. It’s only then that they’re able to forge ahead into territories they’ve always wanted to explore, whether it’s a particular instrument, a recording style, or another genre altogether.
With so many solo albums from so many singer-songwriters who’ve entertained in so many other bands … this obviously wasn’t an enviable task. We turned to our stacks upon stacks of LPs, sketched out the DNA of our favorite bands, and spiraled off names as they came to us. Needless to say, we lost our minds a couple of times.
Alas, we came up with a list. Ahead of you are singer-songwriters in the rock genre who either nailed it on their first solo try or were able to hone their singular voice into albums that stand shoulder-to-shoulder with or maybe even head and shoulders above anything their bands ever did. Think we left anything off? (Of course we did.) Let us know in the comments.
Artwork by Dmitri Jackson
20. Eddie Vedder – Into the Wild (2007)
Member of: Pearl Jam
Two years before Pearl Jam would triumphantly return with 2009’s Backspacer, Eddie Vedder reunited with his Dead Man Walking and I Am Sam collaborator Sean Penn for the filmmaker’s cruelly underrated adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s 1996 non-fiction novel, Into the Wild. The biographical survival film followed the at-times peaceful, at-times harrowing travels of the late Christopher McCandless, portrayed by a very gaunt and very bearded Emile Hirsch. Vedder was tasked to score the entire film, which would wind up serving as his first solo album, and what came to be is some of the most beautiful music the singer-songwriter has ever stamped his name on. He dutifully captured feelings of adventure, loneliness, and transcendentalism through a number of stirring compositions, from “No Ceiling” to “Society” to “The Wolf”, respectively. Considering the surfer by day and songwriter by night had never set off on his own, it was remarkable he came back with something that sounded so assured and so vibrant, as if this was lingering inside him all this time. How he stole Indio’s “Hard Sun” and made it his own was a revelation unto itself. –Michael Roffman
19. John K. Samson – Provincial (2012)
Member of: The Weakerthans
The Weakerthans always felt like more of a conduit for the hyper-literate, empathetic songwriting of John K. Samson than a proper band, so it came as no surprise when, in 2009, the Canadian artist began releasing 7’’ singles under his own name. Those singles culminated with the release of 2012’s Provincial, an eclectic, heart-rending collection of 12 songs inspired by roads in Samson’s home province of Manitoba. Upbeat tracks like “Heart of the Continent” and “When I Write My Master’s Thesis” could be mistaken for Reconstruction Site-era Weakerthans, but sweeping, symphonic tracks like “Grace General” and “The Last And” deftly distinguish Samson’s solo sound. Also of note is the singer’s geographical emphasis, a motif he dabbled in on songs like “One Great City!” but threads into a running theme on Provincial. The Manitoba he paints is flawed and frigid, rich with character, steeped in melancholy, and balanced by Samson’s wry sense of humor. “And some sarcastic satellite says, ‘I’m not anywhere,’” Samson sings on opener “Highway 1 East”, a lyric that says more in one sentence than most albums can say in 12 tracks. –Randall Colburn
18. Thom Yorke – The Eraser (2006)
Member of: Radiohead
Informally announced two months before its release, Thom Yorke’s first solo record came at a strange time for Radiohead fans — three years out from Hail to the Thief (a record that garnered a mixed response from fans), with no known plans of a new Radiohead record on the horizon. In typical Yorkian modesty and reluctance, he simply posted a link to the record’s future website on Dead Air Space and emailed an informal press release to some Radiohead fan sites. Nigel Godrich would produce. It would be more beats and electronics. That’s about it. What arrived was a kaleidoscopic, experimental IDM-pop record. It sounded intimate, like Yorke had recorded it in his bedroom just before going to sleep. But the songs had weight to them. These were great tracks, filled to the brim with blips and skitters, and even a Jonny Greenwood piano drop and co-writing credit on “The Eraser”. For better or for worse, it was a first step in Yorke’s ongoing journey towards becoming an individual and independent songwriter rather than just the member of a large-and-in-charge rock band. Several years later, he’s sporting major scruff, a ponytail, and having a little too much fun with his own side-project. He now performs cuts from The Eraser and his record, Amok, with Atoms for Peace. We have only laptops and LA surf culture to thank. –Drew Litowitz
17. Neil Halstead – Palindrome Hunches (2012)
Member of: Slowdive, Mojave 3
There’s one thing you can say about Neil Halstead: he likes to take his time. This doesn’t just apply to the dirge-like builds of Slowdive or the gauzy Americana of Mojave 3, but also to Halstead’s decidedly unhurried solo work, which peaked with 2012’s earthy, magnificent Palindrome Hunches. Smoldering wood might as well be crackling beneath the gentle strums and lazy fiddle underscoring tracks like “Spin the Bottle” and “Full Moon Rising”, both of which feature gorgeous vocals that could very well be knit from wool. And those vocals are key, I think, to truly appreciating Halstead’s solo output, which, so far, includes three LPs of pretty, meandering folk. Though his voice doesn’t assert itself like, say, that of John Darnielle or Jenny Lewis, on Palindrome Hunches it’s given a chance to shine in ways it never could in the more atmospheric work of Slowdive or Mojave. Just look at his bark-lined howl on “Love Is a Beast”, the way his voice clambers after its rising wisps of violin. I couldn’t recite a single lyric from memory, but what atmosphere did for his previous efforts, Halstead’s voice does for his solo work. –Randall Colburn
16. Mark Kozelek (Sun Kil Moon) – Ghosts of the Great Highway (2003)
Member of: Red House Painters
Mark Kozelek is someone that deserves more notoriety. Maybe he’s just off the beaten path enough musically — there’s not many people who can get away with entire albums of redone Modest Mouse and AC/DC tracks — to keep a low profile. However, his music can be heard all over close friend Cameron Crowe’s movies (soundtrack cuts on Vanilla Sky, Almost Famous). He released a few albums with Red House Painters, and one or two solo EPs, but it was his debut album as Sun Kil Moon, 2003’s Ghosts of the Great Highway, where Kozelek really shown through. Though on later Sun Kil Moon albums, Kozelek shared songwriting credits with the band, Ghosts is all Kozelek. Centered around beautifully told stories of boxers dying young (“Salvador Sanchez”, “Duk Koo Kim”, and “Pancho Villa”), a Judas Priest guitarist (“Glenn Tipton”), and meandering conversations of time (“Gentle Moon”), Ghosts brings together all of Kozelek’s gifts: ornate instrumentation, his lackadaisical tenor, and his mind-bending lyrical weirdness. –Nick Freed
15. Feist – The Reminder (2007)
Member of: Broken Social Scene
Leslie Feist didn’t lose a step when she first walked away from the Canadian commune of powerhouse multi-instrumentalists that is Broken Social Scene right after participating in their self-titled third album, their grandest to date. Her own third album, meanwhile, went in the opposite direction with songs like “The Park” and “The Limit to Your Love”, which were among the most delicate of their decade, but also entrenched in a level of mystery that nullified comparisons to Norah Jones or Dido. Simultaneously, The Reminder became the most commercially recognized release from anyone in the Arts & Crafts crew, thanks especially to solid-gold singles “1234” and “I Feel It All”, and allowed Feist to assume a new role of marquee collaborator when she eventually returned to BSS. Broken Social Scene went to 11; The Reminder found the equally difficult negative-one. –Steven Arroyo
14. Ryan Adams – Heartbreaker (2000)
Member of: Whiskeytown
With all the drama that surrounds Ryan Adams, it’s probably for the best that he became and remained a solo artist. His time with Whiskeytown was fraught with issues and rotating members before they finally disbanded around 1999. Adams’ prolific writing and immense talent couldn’t be kept quiet, so his first solo album, Heartbreaker, was recorded shortly after. Once it was released, praise came from all over the place, and the album still stands as one of the best debuts around. In Pitchfork’s high-rated review, they call it “a drinker’s album, an ode to sadness that deals exclusively with all the dark and dirty corners of the human heart.” It’s said to have been written after a hefty breakup, and you can hear the despair in Adams’ voice on songs like “Oh My Sweet Carolina” and “Come Pick Me Up”. Also in his words, like heart-wrenching track “Call Me on Your Way Home”, which starts with a heavy sigh and has the acidic refrain “I just want to die without you.” It’s bleak and haunting, but gorgeous. It’s completely the best of both worlds. –Nick Freed
13. Paul McCartney – McCartney (1970)
Member of: The Beatles, Wings
Everyone’s favorite Beatle to love or despise turned in a wildly declarative personal essay in 1970. Released in the wake of The Beatles’ demise and amid one of the most contentious periods of his life, Paul McCartney’s eponymous debut album waded through a muck of bad press and polarizing reviews. Now that we’re decades removed, the drama’s been sorted, and the fingers have retreated, McCartney sounds like the wise album it’s always been — a binder of sounds and flavors of the songwriter’s past and then present. (He’d save the future stuff for its rich and bizarre follow-up.) Though he recorded most of it alone, leaning heavily on wife Linda Eastman for support as he worked through the times, that weighty isolation hardly beckons. “Maybe I’m Amazed” still sounds like the rousing sequel to “Hey Jude”, “Every Night” is as sexy as it is catchy, and “That Would Be Something” comes drenched in Mississippi swamp water. In between, he works out the shakes with a number of jams, getting groovy (“Momma Miss America”), meditative (“Singalong Junk”), or straight-up bizzarre (“Kreen-Akrore”). Upon its release, former bandmate George Harrison, who was always Macca’s yang conceptually, spoke negatively on the album, stating: “The only person he’s got to tell him if the song’s good or bad is Linda.” Well, whatever, her sonic palette was on target here, George. –Michael Roffman
12. Stephen Malkmus – Face the Truth (2005)
Member of: Pavement
When Stephen Malkmus disbanded Pavement right at the turn of the millennium, it seemed possible that he’d become a casualty of his own ingrained aloofness, that maybe he’d finally convinced himself he really didn’t care, not even about making rock music anymore. His first of five post-Pavement LPs under his own name (three were credited to Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks) didn’t totally discredit that: 2001’s Stephen Malkmus was satisfying enough, but also heavy on polished-off middling songs as opposed to half-assed great songs like the ones Pavement churned out. But his third (and second technical solo effort), Face the Truth, unexpectedly fulfilled a Pavement fan fantasy where Malkmus heavily applies synths to the guitar arrangements of his songwriting A-game. And he brought just that on the album, which still jumps around as loosely as any he’d done before it. “Freeze the Saints”, “Post-Paint Boy”, and “Malediction” are all Malkmus essentials, and the vertebrae of Face the Truth, an album that eight years later remains the truth. –Steven Arroyo
11. John Lennon – John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (1970)
Member of: The Beatles
The story goes that after The Beatles, John Lennon and Yoko Ono underwent primal therapy, uncovering buried childhood trauma (as if the breakup of the band bigger than Jesus wasn’t enough). Not long later, Lennon took this catharsis into the studio when he put John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band to tape. The album is a virtual checklist of topics that tormented Lennon, his issues with family, class, religion, war, and fame laid bare in quick succession. He even exorcises his old band, listing The Beatles along with Jesus and Hitler as things he doesn’t believe in anymore, leaving only himself and Ono as truths. That singular mindset is perfectly suited to a man attempting to establish himself as an individual rather than as one part of a band he’s just left behind. But this album isn’t all aimed at expulsion, frustration, anger, and revenge; the achingly simple “Love” sits at the album’s core, reiterating the couple’s belief that love could conquer all those problems. –Adam Kivel
10. Phil Collins – No Jacket Required (1985)
Member of: Genesis
For all intents and purposes, Phil Collins owned the ’80s. Between Genesis hitting their mainstream stride with Duke, Abacab, Genesis, and Invisible Touch, and his solo albums, Face Value, Hello! I Must Be Going, and then No Jacket Required, Collins took over the charts one drum machine at a time. No Jacket Required was his most successful solo album, going 12 times platinum in the US, winning three Grammys, and charting four top 10 singles (“Sussudio”, “Don’t Lose My Number”, “One More Night”, and “Take Me Home”). Collins’ songwriting on No Jacket Required is a lesson in how pop hooks are made. The aforementioned singles still stand strong today, namely because of Collins’ drum machine and synth work. The listener isn’t immune to their catchy choruses; even the somewhat dramatic “Take Me Home” pushes you to an eyes-closed belter in the car. Though, the true genius of this album is Collins’ ability to still pepper in the ominous, weird feelings of Genesis. The tracks are upbeat and driving, but you can hear the paranoia and doom lurking underneath. It’s definitely the jolliest (but still unsettling) album of his career. –Nick Freed
09. St. Vincent – Strange Mercy (2011)
Member of: The Polyphonic Spree
Ecstatic choral pop collective Polyphonic Spree has such an extensive roster of past and present members that founder Tim DeLaughter could stand in for Kevin Bacon in a Six Degrees scenario for indie musicians who’ve ever even passed through Texas. The most prominent of these links, though, would be Annie Clark, whose post-Spree work as St. Vincent has differentiated herself from her robe-clad compatriots. While she charmed the masses with 2007 debut Marry Me, subsequent releases have revealed an even more incredible depth of talents. Those various strengths coalesce on 2011’s Strange Mercy, in which her readily apparent guitar wizardry, alluring vocals, and quirky songwriting paired up with her most intense, emotional lyrics to date. While her shock of curly hair and guitar shredding surely caught some eyes back in her Polyphonic Spree days, mischievous admissions like “I’ve told whole lies with a half smile” on “Cheerleader” and the flawed loveliness of “Champagne Year” connect far deeper to the heart of an astonishingly talented individual. –Adam Kivel
08. Paul Simon – Graceland (1986)
Member of: Simon & Garfunkel
Paul Simon’s post Simon & Garfunkel solo work had Simon experimenting with different genre fusing, but it wasn’t until his interest shifted to South African music that he hit pay dirt. Graceland began from Simon hearing a Boyoyo Boys instrumental and then writing lyrics over it and re-recording it — that track became track four: “Gumboots”. From there, he began drawing inspiration from South African musicians Johnny Clegg, Juluka, and Sipho Mchunu. The success of Graceland not only pushed Simon further into the pop culture lexicon, it also made the musicians that inspired (and performed with) him popular. Ladysmith Black Mambazo, who performed and assisted on a few songs, shot to international fame because of the album. Granted, there was some controversy with using South African musicians, since it was still apartheid, and there was a world-wide cultural sanction. Nevertheless, Simon stayed strong and assured no money was going to the South African government, and eventually the world community relented. Graceland went five times platinum in the US, reached No. 3 on the charts, and cemented Simon’s rebirth as a solo artist around the world. –Nick Freed
07. PJ Harvey – Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea (2000)
Member of: Automatic Dlamini, PJ Harvey Trio
After a stint with Bristol-based Automatic Dlamini, Polly Jean Harvey decided it was time to move on. But, before she could go solo, she took an intermediate step, stepping into the shallow side of the solo artist pool with the PJ Harvey Trio. But it was clear from the Trio’s debut, Dry, that Harvey was the force to be reckoned with, and that’s never been as clear as on Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea. Her fifth studio release, the record polished up some of the rough edges, focusing Harvey’s guitar prowess, knack for hooks, and rich vocals into bold proclamations of self like the fierce “This Is Love”. Another English alt rock heavy-hitter makes an appearance on Stories from the City, and it’s telling that not even Thom Yorke can steal all the spotlight from Harvey. “This Mess We’re In” may trade in classic Yorke falsetto, but Harvey’s full-throated rejoinders carry significant weight. While not as visceral or raw as the Trio albums, Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea brims with the confidence of a mature solo artist. –Adam Kivel
06. George Harrison – All Things Must Pass (1970)
Member of: The Beatles
Long favored by many as the strongest of The Beatles’ solo albums, All Things Must Pass revealed George Harrison as anything but the third fiddle. Backed by a massive group of contributors (including close friend Eric Clapton), Harrison had free rein to explore his own personal musical vision. Finally able to release material that didn’t fit in with The Beatles, he delved deeper into the spiritual and expressed his love of soul, folk, and roots music, resulting in a massive, three-LP collection full of sumptuous slide guitar, compromises between bhajan and Motown, and a song co-written with Bob Dylan. While the world already knew what Lennon and McCartney were capable of, this solo record revealed an imaginative, far-reaching, subtly brilliant mind often relegated to the corners. –Adam Kivel
05. Björk – Vespertine (2001)
Member of: The Sugarcubes
It seems odd now to think of Björk as anyone except, well … Björk. She’s all swan dresses, elaborate thematic albums (and outfits), and weird, haunting, and sometimes creepy videos. But her start came with bands like Tappi Tikarrass, KUKL, and The Sugarcubes, where she served as frontwoman. But she became ubiquitous through her solo work, and indicative of that is the delicate, shattering ice of her fourth LP, Vespertine. Songs like “Cocoon” and “Aurora” were quiet, unassumingly powerful slices of broken and broken-hearted poetry, apropos for an album named for a phenomena only observed at night. She may have cut her teeth in bands, but Björk found her place when she started singing about Pagan Poetry. –Chris Bosman
04. Peter Gabriel – So (1986)
Member of: Genesis
Peter Gabriel leaving Genesis had a kind of three-fold effect on music:
1. It pushed Genesis into more mainstream pop that catapulted them to the top.
2. Phil Collins began writing more songs, which would lead him to a successful solo career (see above).
3. Peter Gabriel was free to experiment and expand his musical scope without alienating his bandmates.
Gabriel’s solo career was unlike any other in the ’80s. He was successful beyond anything Genesis had seen, and his music was what others looked toward and tried to imitate. He wasn’t following trends, but setting them. His fifth solo album, 1986’s So, was Gabriel’s attempt to move away from instrumental experimentation and write more conventional hits. Of course, he succeeded — likely to the dismay of Collins, who was filling that conventional gap between Gabriel and everyone else — and the album spawned hits like “Sledgehammer”, “In Your Eyes” (the song of the ’80s), “Don’t Give Up”, and “Big Time”. Certified triple platinum in the UK and five times platinum in the US, So patented his eccentric sonic noodling and world music sensibilities with ease. –Nick Freed
03. Lou Reed – Transformer (1972)
Member of: The Velvet Underground
After the decidedly contentious end of the legendary Velvet Underground, the late Lou Reed took some time off from music, working as a typist. But, office work clearly wasn’t the destiny for the Metal Machine Music maestro. His self-titled return album can only kind of be considered “solo,” as it was composed almost entirely of unreleased Velvets songs. That proportion fell significantly on follow-up Transformer, proving Reed to have much, much more up his sleeve. Produced by David Bowie and Mick Ronson, the album ranges from the BBC Sympony Orchestra-backed “Perfect Day” to the glam smash “Walk on the Wild Side”, Reed’s wry, subversive persona leading the way. Plus, the few tracks that do come from The Velvet Underground catalog take on some key changes, Reed actively differentiating himself from his band. –Adam Kivel
02. Elliott Smith – XO (1998)
Member of: Heatmiser
Elliott Smith became, inadvertently and reluctantly, the embodiment of the tortured soul. His feelings and inner turmoil paced around his music with a languid shuffle. It was never in your face like Kurt Cobain or permeated in dark chords like Ian Curtis. It was in his delivery, his word choice, and his melodic turns. Smith’s most celebrated album, XO, had more of an overall happiness to it than the rest of his catalog, but that still just puts the mood to middling. Spin originally wrote that the songs hung “around like stray dogs shown kindness for the first time,” which perfectly matches Smith’s head lowered, but not down, demeanor. Songs like “Waltz #2 (XO)”, “Baby Britain”, and “Bled White” have bouncing beats behind tales of loss, alcoholism, and depression. He was most comfortable in his basement, with his music, not bothering anyone. XO gives us the most insight into that room — cup to our ear, pressed against the door. –Nick Freed
01. Neil Young – Harvest (1972)
Member of: Buffalo Springfield; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
It’s hard to pin down exactly when Neil Young “went solo”; his origin story bounces between playing in bands (including a stint in the Mynah Birds, at one point fronted by none other than Rick James), playing on his own, and songwriting credits. He founded Buffalo Springfield, went solo again, joined Crosby, Stills & Nash, and left to release records on his own. Country rock masterpiece Harvest topped charts internationally, catapulting Young from folk contributor to out-and-out star, its wild success fueled by mega-hit singles “Old Man” and “Heart of Gold”.
Many of Young’s friends made appearances on the record (his CSN compatriots, Linda Ronstadt, and James Taylor, among others), providing a golden warmth quite dissimilar to the psych-tinged mysticism of the Crazy Horse-aided solo records that came before it, but just as effective. Although those singles made the biggest splashes, the deeper cuts gnawed deep. The mournful “The Needle and the Damage Done” eulogizes victims of heroin damage, while the honkytonk of “Are You Ready for the Country” rattles with Vietnam War uncertainty. Few solo records have a single song with the impact of a “Heart of Gold” or the honesty of “Old Man”, yet Harvest has both, as well as mass pop appeal and timeless emotional depth. –Adam Kivel