Vinyl & Beers | Top 25 Artists That Went Solo
As we recover from celebrating the 241st anniversary of the original Brexit, I think it’s appropriate we honor those who fought for musical independence. These brave soldiers fought against egos, narcotics, less-talented band mates and guaranteed paychecks so they could feed their own ego, recruit their own band and cash larger paychecks. Like America before them, these music makers could not be shackled by their oppressors and, like our whale-friend Willy, broke free triumphantly to the sounds of sweet music.
While I could have just posted a few photos and said some kind words, this is the internet, and the internet demands poorly supported opinions. While this ranking is a bit subjective to my own personal taste, I laid out four categories in which some scientific reasoning can be applied:
- Solo Success vs. Group Success (5pts) Was the artist more successful on his/her own, or did they fail to meet the standards that were set by the bands that birthed them? Billy Idol’s transition from Generation X to “Rolling Stone Entertainer of the Year” earns top marks here, while Scott Stapp or any Backstreet Boy solo career would earn zero points.
- The Need to Go Solo (5pts) Was what the driving force behind going solo? Band-imosity? Were you saddled with a Lebron’s-first-stint-in-Cleveland level of teammate quality? Were you born to rock instead of adult-contemp? We’re looking at you, Loggins.
- Quality of Solo Work vs. Quality of Band Work (5pts) Was the artist’s work better with the band, or better on their own? Peter Gabriel needed to be free of Genesis to pursue his own weirdness and create some incredible albums, while Steve Perry quickly realized that he would not be alright without Journey.
- Success Compared to Other Solo Artist (5pts) Out of the 25 here, who had the most hits? Who sold the most albums? George Michael has simply sold a lot more solo albums than Lou Reed.
A score out of twenty was compiled and the rankings were determined from there. Since this is Vinyl & Beers, and beer has been loving paired with one of the solo artist’s albums. But before we get to our tiers, let’s hand out some honorable mentions.
Beyonce/Justine Timberlake/Gwen Stefani/Fergie: I would have included them, but tend to not have many records to pair with beers for music post-2000s. I know, I should get with the times. If I had to put them into the tiers, Fergie is borderline Tier 5, Gwen maybe cracks Tier 5 if I’m not taking into account my own personal tastes in music, JT does well for himself joins Queen Bey in Tier 2.
David Byrne/Eddie Vedder: Great music on their own, but no real commercial success comparatively with their bands, and I always feel like their solo outputs are more akin to side projects. I would give a long, stern talking to anyone who claims their solo work is better than their band work.
Morrissey/Brian Ferry: These guys were more or less their bands.
Dave Grohl: Does the Foo Fighters count as going solo? The real question is, would the Foo Fighters have ever existed if Kurt was still around? Those two factors, and the fact that I was never able to beat “Everlong” on expert drums in Rock Band, keep Dave off this list.
Björk: I had to look up The Sugarcubes to confirm that they existed. And, in the words of Billy Madison, “Stop looking at me, swan!”
Van Morrison: Not sure that his involvement as a member of Them! was long-term enough to qualify him. I do love Van the Man, though.
Peter Cetera: He definitely had some (soundtrack) hits, but Chicago was the jam.
David Lee Roth: I hate you for leaving Van Halen.
Now that that is out of the way, let’s get to the actual rankings.
Tier 5: “Well, That Was Fun”
25. John Fogerty
Previous Band: Creedence Clearwater Revival
Solo Score: 5pts [1/2/1/1]
Put me in coach, I’m ready to play…alone? Not much to say here, John never came close to matching CCR in anything other than its sound. But hey, “Rock and Roll Girls” is a fun song.
24. Steve Perry
Previous Band: Journey
Solo Score: 5pts [1/2/1/1]
It was a coin flip for the bottom of the list, and in a similar manner as above Steeeeeeeeeve Perry never did anything on his own other than try to reproduce the same sound of the band he left. The grand prize for us listeners is that pissed-off feeling we get when we realize “Oh, Sherrie” and “Foolish Heart” aren’t on the Journey Greatest Hits album.
23. Joe Walsh
Previous Bands: James Gang; Eagles
Solo Score: 6pts [1/2/2/1]
Let me indulge a bit in my love of Joe Walsh. If you told me I was going to spend a day with Joe, I couldn’t imagine any scenario being off the table. Are we taking a boat to an island he owns off the coast of Comoros to feed exotic animals? Are we throwing darts at televisions while wearing funny hats eating a meal prepared for us by Cat Cora? Anything could happen.
The Eagles were flying well before Joe came on board, and he’s been back touring with them. Low points all around as his solo work is squarely in the shadow of the Eagles impressive wingspan, but Joe puts points on the board for being in not one, but two notable bands before realizing the world needed “Life’s Been Good”.
22. Pete Townsend
Previous Band: The Who
Solo Score: 7pts [2/2/2/1]
Another artist who never really cast off the shackles of his previous band. In fact, Pete is back to windmilling while Roger swings that microphone ever so handsomely, so all is good in the world. Pete’s solo work is full of quality songs and albums, but never stacks up to the bombastic might of the The Who albums.
Bonus points for the gaggle of movies where “Let My Love Open the Door” has played an integral role: Look Who’s Talking, Dan In Real Life, Vanilla Sky, Mr. Deeds, Grosse Pointe Blank, and I’m sure more.
21. Michael McDonald
Previous Band: The Doobie Brothers
Solo Score: 8pts [2/2/2/2]
The smoothest blue-eyed soul vocal list can’t quite crack the top 20. When you’re best solo track becomes more famous as an early 90s rap track, you can’t complain about your spot. Michael’s best work was always when he was partnered with someone else, anyways, like “On My Own”, “Ya Mo Be There”, doing background work for Steely Dan or Christopher Cross, and his many collaborations with Loggins (we’ll get to him later). His success covering Motown hits and growing one of the best grey beards this side of Westeros bumps him up a bit, but he was always better as a Doobie.
18. Lou Reed
Previous Band: The Velvet Underground
Solo Score: 8pts [2/2/3/1]
Two albums in Rolling Stone’s Top 500 and a reference in Almost Famous can get you on the list, but a lack of commercial success keeps you out of the VIP area. “Walk on the Wild Side” is James Dean-level cool, but he was never able to build on that success commercially.
Lou Reed has a voice that was lovingly described in a Rolling Stone review as “outrageously unmusical”, and his dead-pan delivery is inimitable. David Bowie, who helped produce “Transformer”, was greatly influenced by Lou and called him “revelation”. That said, his solo work never differed much from what he produced in the Velvet Underground, and he didn’t really help in keeping them together. The long-lasting impact of “The Velvet Underground and Nico” overshadows his solo career, and keeps Lou lower on this list, which I’m sure won’t bother him much.
19. Ozzy Osbourne
Previous Band: Black Sabbath
Solo Score: 9pts [2/3/2/2]
What do you do when you’re fired from your band? You replace Tommi Iommi with multiple stand-ins on guitar, release some radio friendly hard-rockers, become one of the first celebrity reality stars, and get dubbed the “Godfather of Heavy Metal” and the “Prince of #*@%ing Darkness”.
Ozzy’s solo work is not as good as what he put out with Sabbath, but he learned how to make his music more accessible. Negative points for not biting the head off whatever producer is responsible for Kelly’s cover of “Papa Don’t Preach”.
18. Janis Joplin
Previous Band: Big Brother and Holding Company
Solo Score: 9pts [4/1/4/1]
The biggest “What if?” on this list, Janis’s star burned out too quickly to know if she would have reached superstar status. Pearl is a phenomenal album, and she was undoubtedly one of the most talented vocalists to ever grace a track.
Tier 4: “Why Does Everyone Ask Me If The Band Is Getting Back Together?”
17. Stevie Nicks
Previous Band: Fleetwood Mac
Solo Score: 10pts [2/4/2/3]
“Bella Donna” has four certified mega-hits: duets with Tom Petty and the next gentleman on this list, a song written for her by Prince, and a song whose riff Beyoncé used to tell us we’re not ready for her jelly. High points for needing to get out of the flaming tire fire that was Fleetwood Mac, but low points for not being able to sustain this level of hit production and eventually going back to the well.
16. Don Henley
Previous Band: Eagles
Solo Score: 11pts [2/3/3/3]
Don eventually reconciled with the rest of the band, but that was after ripping off a string of solo albums and huge hits. Considering the Eagles are one of the most successful bands of all-time, he was never going to match that, but “Boys of Summer” heads a line-up of at least seven solo songs you know and love. Don loses a little cred by having late-career John Travolta posing for the cover of “End of the Innocence”. Oh, wait? That’s you, Don? Yikes.
Previous Band: The Police
Solo Score: 11pts [2/3/2/4]
Sting has had a great solo career, so great that even a guest appearance in Zoolander 2 and the countenance of a lumberjack can’t make him any less sexy. What keeps him lower on this list is that the Police were so incredibly great. The honest evaluation I’ve made about Sting is that while I adore lots of his solo work, there isn’t a Sting solo album that I would rather listen to than a Police album. Even if “Fields of Gold” gets me all tingly in certain areas.
Sting’s solo Live Aid performance deserves a special mention here. There aren’t many performers who can take on a stadium full of people with just their voice and a guitar. I’ll try and limit my references to Live Aid, but I can’t promise to show restraint in bringing up the pinnacle of human artistic existence again.
14. John Lennon
13. Paul McCartney
12. George Harrison
Previous Band: Not sure, I think it was called Los Beatles
Solo Score: 11pts [2/3/3/3], [2/2/2/5], [2/4/3/2]
These guys who all played in a small, underground band from Liverpool eventually couldn’t continue on as a unit, and the world wept. Somehow even though I did all of the tabulations separately, they all ended up with the same score. I promise.
Paul narrowly edges out John by being slightly less responsible for the break-up as well as being one of the most successful solo artists ever, even though a lot of those hits had about as much substance to them as a vape cloud.
George takes the crown for three reasons… 1) He was being suffocated by the Lennon/McCartney writing team and had to get out. 2) He was the first Beatle to score a #1 hit with “My Sweet Lord”. 3) “All Things Must Pass” is the best selling solo Beatles album. Boom, argument finished.
Ringo, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry. I commend you for your efforts, and the All-Starr Band is swell. You did not make the list. Enjoy the riches and fame life have showered on to you as compensation.
Tier 3: “The 1980s Were Awesome To The Max… and also Neil Young”
11. Steve Winwood
Previous Bands: Spencer Davis Group; Blind Faith; Traffic; Go; others…
Solo Score: 12pts [4/2/4/2]
Maybe a bit of a surprise up in these lofty echelons, but after playing keys for famous bands since he was a teenager, Steve dropped a couple of award winning and profitable albums in the 80s. Steve also wins the Elizabeth Taylor Award for most band relationships, but to his credit it seems the break-ups ended on good terms. Extra points for a run of albums that produced “When You See A Chance”, “Valerie”, “Higher Love” and the rest of “Back In The High Life”.
10. Neil Young
Previous Band: Buffalo Springfield; Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young
Solo Score: 12pts [3/3/3/3]
Big points for transitioning from exceptionally successful and revered bands and cementing his own spot in music history. Five albums in the Rolling Stone Top 500, some #1 hits, and some interesting political actions later, Neil kicks off the top 10. But the real reason he’s here: In the 60s he played in a band with Rick James. Seriously. Anyone who can survive that deserves to be our highest-ranking Canadian.
9. Paul Simon
Previous Band: Simon and Garfunkel
Solo Score: 13pts [3/2/4/4]
Paul misses out on a few points because he dropped Garfunkel like he was an overweight girl on sorority recruitment night. He might have felt bad, but he knew there was something that was a better fit out there for Art. Paul has the highest level of sustained quality over time, which helps and hurts in this ranking as his S&G output was just so good. It’s his award-winning Graceland from 1986 that gives him an extra bump, as anyone who challenges Apartheid by recording an album gets a spot in the top-10.
8. Billy Idol
Previous Band: Generation X
Solo Score: 13pts [5/2/3/3]
When Generation X fell apart due to, supposedly, band narcotics use and the band members wanting to live in different cities, Billy put on his leather, bleached his hair, and ruled the 80s. To rub in the I’m better off without you feeling, Billy used a Generation X song, “Dancing With Myself”, to kick off his solo career, and we’re all about extra points for petty actions around here. This is our first artist to score a 5 in a category, as Billy’s solo success has relegated Generation X to a punk rock footnote while the Vital Idol got to announce that first class passengers do pretty much whatever they want.
7. Kenny Loggins
Previous Band: Loggins and Messina
Solo Score: 13pts [3/5/2/4]
Loggins had to cast aside Messina to become the king of the Hollywood soundtrack hit. I don’t know if the fact that many of his hits came from soundtracks helps or hurts his case, but it’s his decent into the madness of being a country artist that damages his rating the most. There are movies out there that need you, Kenny. Please come back. We all had to listen to 21 Pilots do a song for a superhero movie because of you.
Tier 2: “We Can Go Our Own Way”
6. Phil Collins
Previous Band: Genesis
Solo Score: 14pts [4/3/3/4]
While Genesis was extremely popular, Phil Collins and his shiny dome is even more. The guy called the world from a cellular telephone on the Concorde as a part of Live-Aid. We couldn’t get enough. High all-around scores for Phil, as I’m a guy who has two ears and a heart.
5. George Michael
Previous Band: Wham!
Solo Score: 15pts [3/4/3/5]
If I was Andrew Ridgeley, I probably would have started becoming suspicious when “Careless Whisper” was released under the name “Wham! ft. George Michael”. Who else was it going to feature??? Apparently they remained on good terms, probably because Andrew has mansions and cars all because George has the voice of an angel.
Wham! sold a lot of albums, but George sold even more. The “Faith” album is a pop masterpiece, and George Michael went on to become one of the most successful solo artists to grace your MTVs, radios, and Beverly Hills bathrooms. Bonus points for show-stealing performances at both Live Aid and the Freddie Mercury Tribute concert. The guy was born to be on stage.
4. Peter Gabriel
Previous Band: Genesis
Solo Score: 16pts [4/4/5/3]
Is Genesis an allusion to the beginning of grand solo careers for its members? Even Mike Rutherford had a decent solo career. Peter Gabriel sits high on this tower of individualism for a few reasons: 1) his solo albums, creepy covers and all, are far better than his Genesis work. 2) He obviously needed to leave to pursue his own vision, but perhaps was working in secret to give us a grand gift: the raw power of Phil Collins as a lead vocalist. 3) Solsbury Hill, which is more or less his break-up song from Genesis, has the magical power to make someone happy immediately upon hearing it, as this trailer proves. 4) He was able to be both critically and commercially successful, and 5) He’s the only person on this list with a song you can play from an outstretched boombox while remaining expressionless and the song will explain everything. EVERYTHING.
3. Lionel Richie
Previous Band: The Commodores
Solo Score: 16pts [4/4/4/4]
Lionel Richie accomplishments, post-Commodores: He triumphantly closed out the 1984 Olympics, co-wrote “We Are The World” and was the charismatic leader of the American side of Live-Aid, won Grammys and Oscars, sold 100+ million records, and apparently is so beloved in the Middle East that “All Night Long” was being played by the Iraqi people on blast the night American tanks rolled into the city. That’s just about enough for the #3 spot.
2. Rod Stewart
Previous Bands: The Faces; The Jeff Beck Group
Solo Score: 17pts [5/3/4/5]
That voice. That hair. At first it’s easy to get mad at Rod for leaving The Faces, which I’m pretty sure are the nightly band at the pub in heaven. Rod even tried to pull double-duty for a stretch, churning out both Faces and solo albums, but the music gods had bigger plans. He’s done rock, disco, ballads, American songbook covers, recorded the greatest soundtrack song ever, performed the largest free concert ever in front of 3.5 million people in Rio, and has been knighted.
Funny thing, Rod is a huge football/soccer fan, and even tried out for a professional team. Luckily, it didn’t work out and he had to fall back to music, “Well, a musician’s life is a lot easier and I can also get drunk and make music, and I can’t do that and play football.” Well said, Rod, and thank you Brentford F.C. for not calling him back.
Tier 1: “The King of Solo Pop”
1. Michael Jackson
Previous Band: The Jackson 5
Solo Score: 19pts [5/4/5/5]
While cute Lil’ Michael was the soul of the Jackson 5, he eventually had to grow up, kind of, and take his rightful title as the King of Pop. He was the biggest star on the planet, broke records for tours and album sales, had 13 Billboard #1s, and was such an electric performer that many credit him for helping to bridge the racial divide on television and in music. He is the greatest solo artist of all.
Did I leave someone out? Are these ratings, and thus science, completely off? Leave a comment!
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