10 Essential Solo Debut Albums

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Brian Eno solo debut albums

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 debut albums released by artists who went solo after leaving their sometimes famous, sometimes obscure bands.

Verve/Polygram; 1967

Nico – Chelsea Girl

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

best solo debut albums Lennon
Apple; 1970

John Lennon – Plastic Ono Band

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. Two Virgins) 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 Mayfield
Curtom; 1970

Curtis Mayfield – Curtis

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

best solo debut albums Here Come the Warm Jets
Island; 1974

Brian Eno – Here Come the Warm Jets

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 Pop the idiot
Virgin; 1977

Iggy Pop – The Idiot

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 on 1977’s The Idiot. 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

Sire; 1992

Morrissey – Viva Hate

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. Dre The Chronic
Death Row/Interscope; 1992

Dr. Dre – The Chronic

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

best solo debut albums Bjork debut
One Little Independent/Elektra; 1993

Björk – Debut

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, while technically an outlier among this batch of debut albums, 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

Roman Candle best solo debut albums
Cavity Search; 1994

Elliott Smith – Roman Candle

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

solo debut albums Lauryn Hill
Columbia; 1998

Lauryn Hill – The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill

Each of the members of The Fugees—Wyclef Jean, Pras Michel and Lauryn Hill—released their solo debut albums over the course of the year, following the breakout success of their 1996 album The Score. The success of that album came with internal conflicts between the three artists in the group, their handful of reunions involving a few interruptions and hiccups. But to date, Hill’s lone solo album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, stands as perhaps the greatest record released by The Fugees, either solo or as a group. It’s a remarkably versatile album, showcasing Hill’s talents as singer, rapper and songwriter, but also her ability to move seamlessly from hip-hop to R&B to vintage soul and reggae without missing a step. She never released a second studio album, and her Unplugged performance will forever go down in history as one of the strangest moments in the series’ history. But Miseducation never loses its shine, a brilliant and inspired album from a moment in time that will never be replicated. – Jeff Terich

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