10 Essential Solo Debut Albums

Brian Eno

This week, Jack White, the more outspoken half of the White Stripes, released his first proper solo effort, Blunderbuss, and it’s not half bad! But stepping out from behind the shadow of an established band can be tricky. Inevitably, the artist is bound to be continually compared to that band, and it doesn’t always work out. Then again, sometimes an artist can be liberated from the constraints of a previous project and given the room to fully grow and expand into something even more ambitious and innovative. In that spirit, we’ve assembled a list of our favorite albums released by artists who went solo after leaving their sometimes famous, sometimes obscure bands.

NicoChelsea Girl
(1967; Polygram)
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The implication behind the name of Velvet Underground’s first album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, is that German vocalist Nico was something of an outsider. She was a featured performer, but her name is nonetheless separate from the Velvets’. But she was, at least for a short time, definitely a member of the Velvet Underground, and for a few years thereafter, Lou Reed and John Cale would actually continue to collaborate with her, despite the split. Nico’s first solo effort, Chelsea Girl, is a starkly different album than her debut with the Velvet Underground. There’s little in the way of avant garde noise rock, and instead, features several gorgeous chamber-folk pieces, a handful of which were written by Jackson Browne. The semi title track, “Chelsea Girls,” stands as a particular highlight, a dark and brooding number that puts Nico’s deep vocals against elegant strings and mournful flute. It’s a dark and stunning album, though compared to what came next, it’s practically bubblegum. – Jeff Terich

John LennonPlastic Ono Band
(1970; Apple)
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Despite splintering possibly the greatest assemblage of rock songwriters in pop music history, each Beatle went on to release some great solo material, though the one who got off to the best start is undoubtedly John. Certainly, Lennon had his share of frustrating turns of indulgence, and a variety of weird shit released with Yoko (e.g. The Wedding Album) his true debut as a solo artist, Plastic Ono Band, is an awe-inspiring work. It’s also somewhat uncomfortable in parts, as his primal scream therapy sessions with Dr. Arthur Janov resulted in the most personal album he’d ever record. Lennon’s manic howls in “Mother” are anguished, but there’s no affectation here; he’s laying it all out for the listeners, whether they’re able to handle it or not. – Jeff Terich

Curtis MayfieldCurtis
(1970; Curtom)
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In the 1960s, Curtis Mayfield fronted Chicago’s soul vocal group The Impressions, whose “People Get Ready” ranks among the finest gospel-soul tracks to be released in the last 50 years. As Mayfield entered the 1970s, however, his scope became a lot broader, more experimental and, most importantly, a lot funkier. His debut album, simply titled Curtis, puts soul music through a funky, psychedelic filter, the results of which range from gorgeous (“We the People Who are Darker Than Blue”) to socio-politically ominous (“(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go”). Curtis also contains “Move On Up,” arguably the finest song Mayfield ever wrote, and an absolute soul classic. – Jeff Terich

Brian EnoHere Come the Warm Jets
(1974; EG)
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In his brief couple of years with Roxy Music, Brian Eno didn’t so much play melodies as add atmosphere, texture and experimental direction to the group’s avant garde glam rock songs. Once he split, however, he revealed himself as a strange but nonetheless brilliant pop songwriter, whose blend of glam flair and Velvets-style noise rock added up to one of the more eye-opening debuts of the 1970s. What makes Here Come the Warm Jets stand out, aside from being one of only a handful of pop albums in his discography, is just how cohesive and powerful a statement it is. For someone who was better known for his electronic work, Warm Jets is about as perfect as rock music gets. – Jeff Terich

Iggy PopThe Idiot
(1977; Virgin)
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As the frontman for The Stooges, Iggy Pop was as unpredictable, volatile and just plain manic as singers came. The wiry Michigander twisted himself into strange shapes, cut himself with broken bottles, writhed on his belly and made rock `n’ roll as physical as possible without resorting to actual public fornication. After the end of that band, however, Pop checked himself into a mental hospital, traveled to Berlin with David Bowie, and recorded some of the most harrowing, personal and brilliant music of his career. Bearing similar production techniques as Bowie’s own pair of albums released the same year, Low and “Heroes“, Pop embarked on a dark journey that even the most twisted Stooges fans likely wouldn’t have seen. His wail during the bridge of “China Girl” comes across like a cry for help, his love serenade in “Baby” is cold, detached and disturbing, and “Mass Production” is, essentially, a walking nightmare. Iggy never recorded anything this dark again, and with rare exception, he wouldn’t record anything this good again either. – Jeff Terich

MorrisseyViva Hate
(1988; Sire)
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With the The Smiths’ break-up occurring even before the release of Strangeways, Here We Come, there were bound to be a few questions surrounding Morrissey’s solo debut. Will Morrissey take up some instruments? Can he write a solid record without songwriting partner Johnny Marr? Will it live up to the hype for Smiths fans? To put it abruptly: Never, evidently and absolutely. While not as cohesive as The Smiths, this debut was equally enchanting and embellished Morrissey’s sardonic crooning with a highly embellished pop-soundtrack. And the touch of producer Stephen Street, who had worked with The Smiths since 1984, kept things close enough to home that Smiths fans could easily jump into the record without feeling betrayed. Viva Hate is a smashing set of songs, and showed that Morrissey was still kicking strong in the wave of the break-up. – A.T. Bossenger

Dr. DreThe Chronic
(1992; Death Row-Interscope)
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Back in N.W.A.’s heyday, Dr. Dre was known more for his production skills than his rapping ability, which paled in comparison to his more charismatic comrades, Ice Cube and Eazy-E. But when Dre dropped his first full-length, 1992’s The Chronic, he gave g-funk its first masterpiece, surpassing even his work with N.W.A. with an epic gangsta rap chronicle, loaded with Parliament samples and obscure funk, that somehow found a happy medium between caricature and gritty realism. Mostly, though, it stands as one of the greatest party records of the ’90s, as well as a launchpad for a budding young emcee named Snoop Dogg. If there’s a party that can’t be started with “Nothin’ but a G Thang,” it’s already dead. – Jeff Terich

(1993; One Little Indian-Elektra)
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If you want to split hairs, Björk’s technical debut was released in 1977 in Iceland, under her birth name, Björk Guðmundsdóttir. This long predated her tenure in the Sugarcubes, of course, as she was only 12. It contained only covers, and is essentially impossible to find. So, protest if you insist, but let’s be real: Björk’s 1993 album Debut is named as such for a reason. Teaming up with Nellee Hooper and working on a completely new mixture of electronic, ambient, trip-hop and pop sounds, Björk carved out a bold new path with Debut. Though Post, Homogenic and Vespertine were even more ambitious in scope, this was the point where Björk emerged as a singular artist, one whose vision and creativity would take listeners to any number of strange and beautiful places. – Jeff Terich

Elliott SmithRoman Candle
(1994; Cavity Search)
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The launch of Elliott Smith’s legendary career as a lo-fi singer/songwriter did not come about
in the same fashion as most solo careers. In fact, Smith never intended on releasing the entire album. At the time, Smith was still a member of Portland’s grunge-punk act Heatmiser and, unlike many solo efforts, Roman Candle was its own animal, not a re-hashed version of Elliott’s work with Heatmiser. Home recorded on four-track, with only a few songs featuring more than acoustic guitar and Elliott’s emotionally-draining croon, Roman Candle took the energy and desperation of Smith’s Heatmiser compositions and gave them a more raw and vulnerable stage. – A.T. Bossenger

Ryan AdamsHeartbreaker
(2000; Bloodshot)
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Ryan Adams took the lead on Whiskeytown’s ragged alt-country dustups, but while he more or less was the face of the band, Caitlin Cary’s vocal harmonies were every bit as important in drawing the singalongs and drunken tears out of listeners. Left to his own devices, on Heartbreaker, Adams took a much more polarized approach that, on the whole, stuck to starker arrangements and intensely profound bummers. It’s called Heartbreaker, folks — those who seek a soundtrack for brighter days should best apply their efforts elsewhere. That said, a handful of tracks find Adams in much more of a rowdy rock `n’ roll mood, and despite the title, “To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, To Be High)” is one of the rare moments (following the Morrissey argument), in which Adams seems to make an effort to crack a smile. – Jeff Terich


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