Just this year alone, solo debuts have appeared from Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor, Hamilton Leithauser, Damon Albarn, and coming in July, Jeff Tweedy. These join a tradition that spans every genre, from Peter Tosh to each individual Spice Girl, and has produced some of music’s most iconic and most regrettable collections. Below, we have 20 favorite solo debuts from key members of established bands, picked according to our own arbitrary rules and surely forgetting a gem here and there. These 20 solo albums are all special and worthy of attention.
20. Pusha T (Clipse)
My Name Is My Name
Probably the most overdo album when it finally came out last year, though a couple mixtapes were released to hold over Clipse fans, Pusha T may not have hit the grand slam that some wanted. After all, with Kanye West making beats for you with years to perfect the songs, you’d think a classic was due. And maybe classic is a little beyond what was achieved, but the album still is often excellent, with “Numbers on the Boards,” “Nosetalgia,” and “King Push” all commanding people’s attention for something beyond Pusha’s name, yet the album still holds the title My Name Is My Name.
19. Jónsi (Sigur Ros)
Many of the artists on this list will be praised for living up to their band’s high standard, and for continuing the sounds explored in their past. Jonsi is an example of the other spectrum, where Go sounds nothing like Sigur Ros except for the same voice coming through the speakers. Jonsi even sings in English partially on this album. Trading post-rock for whimsical, new age pop, Jonsi had people wishing he remained a solo artists, which is rare, and likely was changed by the release of Sigur Ros’ most recent.
18. Jason Lytle (Grandaddy)
Yours Truly, the Commuter
Grandaddy wasn’t a band in the traditional sense, and the albums were all Lytle’s songs, with the band contributing what always seems like a minimal amount. So, Yours Truly, the Commuter sounds like a Grandaddy album because Jason Lytle solo isn’t much different. More importantly, it sounds like the Grandaddy album their final collection should have been, with Lytle seeming inspired by his new isolation, choosing to focus on the in-between state rather than here or there.
17. Atlas Sound (Deerhunter)
Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See but Cannot Feel
In 2008, when Bradford Cox offered up his first solo album as Atlas Sound, it was probably the least anticipated solo offering on this list. Pitchfork acclaimed the record, as well as anything Bradford had done or was to do, but it is still not an easy listen. What is fascinating about Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See but Cannot Feel is how much of future Deerhunter and Atlas Sound is seen in the collections DNA. “River Card” is a longing dream that could fit on any of Cox’s releases. “Winter Vacation” drifts close to what Panda Bear was doing around them. And the closing title track is shoegazey filtered through Cox’s knack for mixing the beautiful with the abrasive. A good solo debut can be a sign of what is to come, and Cox’s first is exactly that.
16. Jack White (The White Stripes)
Before he recorded Blunderbuss under his own name, Jack White had launched side projects The Dead Weather and The Raconteurs, broken up with Meg White, the other half of the White Stripes, and even tried his had at acting and production. The fear with a Jack White solo record was that it was just a result of running out of other things to try. Needless to say, the album was a huge hit across the board and picked up right where the White Stripes left off.
15. Björk (The Sugarcubes)
It’s debatable whether Björk can be included, as her actual solo debut was released in 1977 when she was 11. But, after the demise of her band The Sugarcubes, Björk titled her first solo album Debut, letting everyone know exactly what she felt about her child recordings. The album was probably Björk’s most commercially viable release, but now 20 years after appearing, “Human Behavior” still sounds like the future. Impressive.
14. Beyonce (Destiny’s Child)
Dangerously in Love
The first three real songs on Dangerously in Love are “Crazy in Love,” “Naughty Girl,” and “Baby Boy.” And that was all anyone needed to be convinced that Bey was much more than anyone anticipated when the Destiny’s Child solo projects were first discussed. Beyonce took the reigns in every aspect, from writing to hiring to recording. She surrounded herself with the best in the business, including her future husband Jay Z, but the only one responsible for where she is now is Beyonce, and the five Grammys she took from her debut paved the way.
13. Doug Martsch (Built to Spill)
Now You Know
One of the more obscure titles on our list, Now You Know was the solo debut from Doug Martsch, songwriter from Built to Spill. The reason why it is ignored is the same reason it is great, namely that it plays against Martsch’s band and their sound and opts for acoustic slide guitar frequently. The result is an intimate, often beautiful collection that is as affecting as any Built to Spill album, with recently songs turning up as Built to Spill songs to cover. Sadly, Martsch has not made an album of near as high quality since, but “Impossible,” “Heart,” and “Dream” are all such gifts, it makes that pill easy to swallow.
12. Fever Ray (The Knife)
As half of The Knife, Karin Dreijer Andersson’s progression as an artist is easy to track, from “Heartbeats” to Silent Shout to Shaking the Habitual. The constant is always her voice, at least in terms of how the music sounds, and that voice is even more crucial on Fever Ray, a powerfully cold album that emersion itself in minimalism, creating an illusion that little is happening until your guard is down. By disarming the listener, Fever Ray creates an environment where beauty and danger coexist in the most natural ways, creating an album that feels like instinct, like Andersson knows something that all of us don’t.
11. Morrissey (The Smiths)
Viva Hate was released just six months after Morrissey’s final Smiths album, making you wonder if he just was hiding these songs under his pillow or what. Regardless, Moz’s solo career seamlessly extended from his band career, with iconic singles “Suadehead” and “Everyday Is Like Sunday” pleasing fans that were worried his songwriting magic might be lost outside of his band.
10. AC Newman (The New Pornographers)
The Slow Wonder
AC Newman will never get the respect he is due, whether as main songwriter for the New Pornographers, or on his solo albums, the first of which is an unheralded masterpiece. Songs like “Miracle Drug” and “On the Table” are deceivingly easy on the ears, but the pop song craft that Newman displays is actually quite versatile, and the melodies are more often than not much more complex that expected. “Drink to Me, Babe, Then” has a verse that climbs up and down like stairs, punctuated with the thump of toms, handclaps, and eventually some whistling. Newman adds cello to “The Town Halo” and trumpet to “The Cloud Prayer by record’s end, The Slow Wonder proves to be an apt title. Still, it’s his bandmates Neko Case and Dan Bejar who continue to get the accolades.
9. Jenny Lewis (Rilo Kiley)
Rabbit Fur Coat
Jenny Lewis’ first solo album came out a year before her last Rilo Kiley album, so she must have liked not working in a more democratic environment. Still, Rabbit Fur Coat is indebted to The Watson Twins and producer M. Ward. But Lewis is a revelation lyrically on Rabbit Fur Coat, taking a cue from another of her guests, Conor Oberst, by not being afraid of saying too much and going for homeruns with every swing. This approach makes “You Are What You Love,” “Melt Your Heart” and “The Charging Sky” among the best of her career.
8. Kevin Drew (Broken Social Scene)
Kevin Drew was coming off a pair of critically acclaimed albums that had already seen supporting players Feist and Emily Haines (with her band Metric) become successful outside of Broken Social Scene. But Spirit If… was not a show of vanity, but made out of necessity of the entirety of the band needing a break from the grind. Drew went ahead and still found a way to represent BSS on the album cover, but the band is best represented by the songs on it, not throwaways but vital pieces of Drew’s catalog. The album stands up to the work he did with a full band, and features some of his strongest moments, like “Gang Bang Suicide” and “Lucky Ones.”
7. Justin Timberlake (‘N Sync)
Some solo albums aren’t trying to live up to something, some are trying to push away from their past. This was the task Justin Timberlake faced with his debut Justified, and he walked a fine line by maintaining his wholesome image while still getting more adult, more evocative and simply making better music. Timberlake has improved over time, but the quality of Justified took everyone by surprise, from the indie kids to the weekend warrior. “Like I Love You” still is immediate and sexy more than a decade later, while “Cry Me A River” might still be a career high point for Timberlake.
6. Raekwon (Wu-Tang Clan)
Only Built for a Cuban Linx
There are a number of classics among the Wu-Tang Clan members in their respective solo careers (Liquid Swords, Tical, Fishscale, Return to the 36 Chambers – The Dirty Version, Supreme Clientele, Ironman and others), some of which could easily be argued to placement on this list. Raekwon’s Only Built for a Cuban Linx has the fortune of being a perfect storm of artists at a masterful time period and not putting too much pressure on himself in the solo endeavor. Like Kevin Drew, Raekwon gives a lesson in how to succeed: never really go solo, even when you are solo, and thus his album is heavily in debt to Ghostface Killah and RZA’s production. But the album is successful because it was honest in its depiction of the harsh reality that Raekwon and Ghostface came from, to the extent both RZA and Nas, who guests on a track as the first non-Wu member to ever do so, claim to have known it would be a classic when it was still being made. Smart guys.
5. Dr. Dre (NWA)
The Chronic may be Dr. Dre’s debut solo album, but it might be best known as the album that launched Snoop Dogg into the world, who 22 years later has surely had a bigger presence in the recording world, while Dre has left his biggest mark on the business end. These days it is hard to differentiate Doggystyle with The Chronic and Chronic 2001, but Dr. Dre’s debut became an instant classic upon release and kickstarted the Beats empire.
4. Ozzy Osbourne (Black Sabbath)
Blizzard of Ozz
“Crazy Train” is a Black Sabbath song, right? NOPE. Turns out it and “Mr. Crawley,” two of Ozzy Osbourne’s trademark songs were both written for Blizzard of Ozz, the frontman’s debut solo album. Randy Rhodes played guitar on the album and it literally confused people to believing that Ozzy was Black Sabbath just by himself. That’s impressive, and something unique to Ozzy.
3. John Lennon (The Beatles)
Plastic Ono Band
Plastic Ono Band is a hard album to rank or really compare to others. An iconic moment from one of music’s greatest icons. The album was made 44 years ago and it feels nourishing to hear, like something you should do ritualistically or something.
2. Ryan Adams (Whiskeytown)
I don’t know if any solo career has launched quite like Ryan Adams. Sure he isn’t the most successful, and Heartbreaker didn’t sell as much or receive the awards of other collections. But Adams defined what his career would be in his first album. Some peak on their first album because they burn themselves out, but not Adams, he just nailed it on his first try and never has felt like an attempt to recapture that. Heartbreaker is a timeless album that manages to sound mature and youthful simultaneously. And now, at this point, who even thinks of Whiskeytown when they think of Ryan Adams. Not many people on this list can say that.
1. Lauryn Hill (The Fugees)
The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
The instinct in reflecting on Lauryn Hill is to discuss the unfulfilled potential. But the fact of the matter is that Miseducation still sounds vital and inspired today, a masterpiece in every sense of the word. Her screaming “my joy” over Carlos Santana’s guitar solo at the end of “To Zion,” the Kanye West forbearing of “Doo Wop,” to the iconic “Everything Is Everything,” albums like The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill are like shooting stars: rare, bright, beautiful.