Music to Go Solo
Sometimes you need to stretch yourself, stepping outside your comfort zone to try something new just to find out what you’re capable of.
Some musicians are born to go it alone. Bjork started out in the brilliantly eccentric Icelandic indie band The Sugarcubes, but quickly outgrew them; The Fall’s Mark E Smith was a solo artist in all but name, hiring and firing band members on a whim, never once relaxing control. Like so many rock break-ups before and since, Phil Collins went solo because of musical differences, leaving his loyal prog rock family for his childhood sweethearts, soul and pop.
Great bands are more than the sum of their parts. Seminal pop stars Mick Jagger and Freddie Mercury wrote the book on how to entertain a rock’n’roll audience, but their solo outings consistently failed to reach the critical and commercial heights of The Rolling Stones and Queen respectively.
This collaborative playlist, containing selections by Musicto curators from around the world, celebrates every type of solo artist, past and present, from the biggest selling artists in the business to lesser-known musicians, all of whom left the safety of a group to stand alone to be judged on their own merits.
No Such Thing as Solo
Kicking off the playlist is Ian Brown’s 2001 wordplay experiment, F.E.A.R. The former lead singer of The Stone Roses went solo in the late 90s and immediately hit the UK Top 10 with his debut My Star in 1998. Since then he has had more than a dozen Top 40 singles. All this despite the fact that he is objectively not a natural singer, not particularly beguiling as a frontman, nor a virtuoso musician or polymath.
What Ian Brown does have is an acute instinct for working with very talented people, from The Stone Roses’ gifted musician and songwriter John Squire to his collaborators on F.E.A.R, the seasoned producer and sound engineer Dave McCracken and accomplished session guitarist Dave Colquhoun. Knowing who to work with to bring out the best of your talent is a key skill in a successful solo career, because even going solo is very hard to do on your own.
Vignettes of Americana
Some artists spend most of the careers playing solo and only ever make it big as part of a band. Craig Finn, best known as the lead singer of The Hold Steady, has never experienced solo success, but the band’s 2006 album Boys and Girls in America led to a flurry of radio play and touring in the US, Britain and Europe. God in Chicago, from his 2017 solo LP We All Want the Same Things, is a lugubrious vignette of Americana that calls to mind Springsteen’s classic album, Nebraska.
For a taste of what it’s like to hear the Hold Steady for the first time while getting drunk, read music journo Michael Brooks’s highly entertaining Twitter thread from January 2021. “There’s definitely something special going on right now and I’m glad you’re all here with me”.
Too Good to be a Sideman
Another purveyor of drawling Americana, Chuck Prophet, was once the sideman to Dan Stuart in underrated Eighties US indie band Green on Red, but released the first of his 15 solo albums in 1990. An extraordinary guitarist, charming and funny front man, it’s now hard to imagine that he was ever second fiddle. Get Off the Stage comes from his 2020 album The Land That Time Forgot.
Albert Hammond Jr
Son of Schmaltz
Albert Hammond Jr has quite the musical pedigree, sharing his name with his father, who wrote such schmaltzy singalongs as To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before, Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now and One Moment in Time, amongst many others. Perhaps it was inevitable that Hammond Jr would plough his own furrow, becoming the guitarist for one of the biggest indie rock bands of the early 21st Century, The Strokes. With hits including Last Nite, Someday and New York City Cops, the album Is This It went on to sell over a million copies in the US and two-and-a-half million worldwide.
The distinctly John Lennon/George Harrison influenced Blue Skies comes from Hammond’s debut solo album, Yours to Keep, which peaked at No.117 in the Billboard album chart, showing that worldwide recognition in one musical venture can’t be relied on to translate into another.
Stepping out of the Shadows
Stevie Nicks started her career in music with boyfriend Lindsey Buckingham. When Mick Fleetwood invited Buckingham to join Fleetwood Mac, the guitarist said he would only accept if Nicks came, too, thus beginning the most commercially successful period in the band’s history, recording the album Fleetwood Mac and then the blockbuster Rumours. But in a band with so many great songwriters, Stevie Nicks grew frustrated by the end of the 1970s and released her solo debut, Bella Donna, in 1981, which included the hit single Edge of Seventeen.
The once babyfaced Tom Chaplin, frontman of middle-of-the-road early-2000s British pop act Keane, never seemed like a hellraising Rolls-Royce-in-the-swimming-pool type, but it didn’t stop him from becoming a casualty of the music business, a privileged, middle-class public school boy whose addiction to cocaine almost killed him. But after his lifestyle ripped the band apart, his solo album The Wave, from which See It So Clear is lifted, was the clean and sober comeback. Fittingly for a playlist about going solo, he describes it on the Spotify commentary track as “a song about finding peace with myself”
The Musician’s Musician
The young Aimee Mann had a brief pop career in the band Til Tuesday, best known for their US Billboard 10 hit, Voices Carry. But the singer’s heart did not belong to electropop and she began recording gently acoustic rock music as a solo artist in the early 90s, eventually achieving critical acclaim when the huskily miserable Save Me was included on the soundtrack of Paul Thomas Anderson’s film Magnolia. Mann has become a critics’ darling in the USA with the cult status of a musician beloved by fellow musicians.
Consumed by Self-Doubt
Like Eels or Tame Impala, Frightened Rabbit was one of those bands that is really a solo act at heart. But after touring with his band to promote their fourth album, Scott Hutchison felt the need to get away from the band that was essentially his own brainchild and took a break to record under the name Owl John. The exquisitely cacophonous Hate Music was nothing like Frightened Rabbit, described by The Guardian’s Harriet Gibsone as “a cathartic, caustic war of words that comes across like Biffy Clyro and Queens of the Stone Age at a couples therapy session”.
Mouseketeer Who “Cared About the Music”
Flipping the playlist to side B, we turn from a tortured artist consumed by self-doubt to a strutting, self-confident child star turned pop icon. At around 12 years old, Justin Timberlake was a Mouseketeer along with Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Ryan Gosling before graduating to boy band superstardom with NSYNC.
After the hits dried up, Timberlake failed to follow the script and disappear into the where-are-they-now files. “I felt like I cared more about the music than some of the other people in the group,” he told the Hollywood Reporter in 2017. His debut solo album alone won two Grammy awards where the entire NSYNC back catalogue had never surpassed the nominations.
Another child star, Curtis Mayfield was a teenage doo-wop singer who joined the Impressions in 1958 at the age of just 16. He wrote many of their best known songs, including 1965 hit gospel record People Get Ready, but by 1970 he had outgrown the tame pop music of his youth. As a solo artist he began to explore a more edgy, funk sound accompanied by socially-conscious lyrics. We Got to Have Peace comes from his second solo record, Roots, and his big breakthrough came the following year when he soundtracked the controversial blaxploitation movie Super Fly, starring Ron O’Neal as coke dealer Youngblood Priest.
Falsetto Disco Pioneer
Having co-founded Motown legends The Temptations with Paul Williams, Eddie Kendricks was another black artist who used his pop platform to help expand the horizons of soul music to include social and political change. Whilst he is indubitably best known for his falsetto vocals on Temptations classics like Get Ready and The Way You Do the Things You Do, his solo success peaked in 1973 with Keep on Truckin’, a Number 1 hit in the US. Girl, You Need a Change of Mind (Parts 1 & 2), cited as one of the first ever disco records, was released a year earlier and the lyrics betray what one might diplomatically call a naive understanding of the concept of feminism.
The Black Elvis
Philadelphia’s Teddy Pendergrass, the “black Elvis”, made it big in the early 70s as lead singer of Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes and left the group not so much due to musical differences as to financial wrangles. Having become a star in his own right fronting hits like If You Don’t Know Me by Now and The Love I Lost, Pendergrass quit in 1976 and went on to great financial success as a live performer and recpording artist in the late 70s before his career was cut short by a car accident in 1982 which left him paralysed. You Can’t Hide From Yourself is the opening track from his self-titled solo debut album. His colourful story is told in the fascinating 2019 documentary Teddy Pendergrass: If You Don’t Know Me.
She Even Does Country
The sad truth for many music industry superstars can be dehumanising and sordid. But not always. Beyoncé is a living legend, an artist who exploded from her girl group beginnings to become acclaimed as a daring and original songwriter, performer and pop superstar. Beyoncé was already huge when she parted company with Destiny’s Child in 2001 and has gone on to become the highest-earning Black musician in history. Daddy Lessons, at the mid-way point of the acclaimed 2019 album Lemonade, is her first foray into country music.
Champion of World Music
Best known for his hit 1986 album So, Peter Gabriel had started out as lead singer of Charterhouse public school prog rock phenomenon Genesis, up to and including their proposterously ambitious cult double concept album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway.
After going solo he released four confusingly self-titled albums between 1977 and 1982 before breaking through into international commercial success with So, featuring smash hit Sledgehammer and the beautiful Don’t Give Up, featuring vocals by Kate Bush.
A champion of so-called world music, Gabriel has helped to give a platform to talented musicians from around the globe, founding Real World Studios and Real World Records to promote them as well as being a founder of international arts festival, WOMAD. An instrumental piece written for the soundtrack of Martin Scorsese’s 1988 film, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Feeling Begins was profoundly influenced – and performed by – musicians from Britain, Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, including Indian violinist L Shankar and Armenian duduk player Vache Hovsepyan.
Solo by Name, Solo by Nature
Splitting critics between those who love and those who hate him, former Police frontman Sting had an exceptionally successful early solo career, beginning with The Dream of the Blue Turtles in 1985, from which this playlist takes the opening song, and in 1987 with the album …Nothing Like the Sun, featuring hits Englishman in New York and Fragile. As a familiar voice on the Band Aid hit Do the Know It’s Christmas?, Sting, came to epitomise the sermonising privileged rock star, telling the great unwashed how to live their lives from an ivory tower. Unfair? Perhaps.
Others have characterised him as a quiet perfectionist. A solo artist by nature as well as in name. “He is more comfortable in his own company, with his own thoughts,” according to The Observer’s Elizabeth Day back in 2011. “He strikes me as a loner who, by dint of his profession, finds himself spending a lot of time around other people”.
Dallying with the Devil
Black Country heavy rock legend turned reality TV star Ozzy Osbourne was of course the voice of Black Sabbath on and off for almost half a century. Crazy Train is a glam metal pop song from the album Blizzard of Ozz. Sabbath’s plangent early music was inspired by “the Vietnam war and nuclear holocaust” and Ozzy’s solo material played up to the campy, apocalyptic stereotype, coming from a non-specific counter-culture that has refused to live conservatively or accept the establishment’s view of the world, dallying with the Devil and Aleister Crowley, tongue always slightly in cheek.
Ozzy didn’t write lyrics, but he had a natural ear for melody and helped write the book on how to be a heavy rock frontman. Like Ian Brown, who opened this playlist, his talent may not have been enough to quality him as a musician, but he deserves better than to be remembered as that guy who bit the head off a dove.
Working Class Hero
When the Beatles split up in 1970, no one had ever imagined a pop group could have a lifelong career. Pop music simply had not existed long enough and was considered a job for good-looking teenagers singing songs by proper songwriters. Until the Beatles and the Beach Boys, pop was purely disposable, not taken seriously as a form of artistic expression. But when John Lennon parted company with Paul McCartney, they each began a new career and went on to achieve huge success independently. Lennon, in particular, was influential not only as a musician but as a spokesman for a generation. Tragically, of course, his career was cut short in December 1980.
Only months after the split, Lennon released his debut album with the Plastic Ono Band, featuring songs that were deeply personal, like Mother, and stridently political, like Working Class Hero. Unconstrained as a solo artist, Lennon was making music that perhaps he could never have recorded before, not least because the lyrics contained the word “fucking”. Great as the Beatles had been, the 1960s had not brought Lennon happiness and he experienced a new sense of artistic freedom as a solo artist.
Being in a band had turned Lennon into a product and he had long ago lost control of how that product was marketed and consumed. Suddenly he was able to take complete creative control. As he sang elsewhere on the album: “I don’t believe in Beatles, I just believe in me, Yoko and me, that’s reality“.
Chris – Burn a Million Miles
Henry – Stay Up Late at Night
Matt – Groove you
Matt – Escape Reality
Tim – Feel To
Jane – Vintage Mustang
Federica – Stop your Brain
Paul – Shake A hoof
After graduating from the University of Keele in England with a degree in Politics and American Studies, Jon worked as editor of a music and entertainment magazine before spending several years as a freelance writer and, with the advent of the internet, a website designer, developer and consultant. He lives in Reading, home to one of the world’s most famous and long-running music festivals, which he has attended every year since 1992.