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