As long time readers know, a few weeks ago I posted about our B&V favorite debut albums, Pleased To Meet You… The Epic List of Our 40 Favorite Debut Albums. As I was compiling the list of all the great debut albums out there, well, the list began to get a little unwieldy. I was somewhere around 80 albums when I realized I needed to put some rules around the thing to thin it down to something manageable. How I settled on 40 albums and not 50, I’m unclear about. One of the first rules I laid out for myself was to exclude any solo debuts. If a singer or guitar player had been in a band, and was thus an established artist, it seemed like cheating to include them on the debut list. When Ozzy went solo and recorded Blizzard of Ozz he had already established himself as the Prince of “fucking Darkness” (his words, not mine) through his work with Black Sabbath. It seemed unfair to compare that album with say, R.E.M.’s Murmur. When Michael Stipe and company were recording that album they were a bunch of pimply faced kids and certainly no competition for the Dark Lord.
The Rock Chick was the first person – since she’s always the first person to see what I write, despite her life long ban from reading B&V due to her unfair grammatical criticism, to cry foul on the rule barring solo debuts from the list. In her view a debut is a debut. As I sat staring out at the frozen tundra that is Kansas City in February watching dry, powdery snow flutter through the sky like some giant human had shaken my city like a snow globe, my thoughts as always turned to rock n roll. I had to admit the Rock Chick’s argument was persistently tugging at the edge of my mind. I had excluded a lot of really great solo debut albums from the list. Since the high temperatures this last week were in the single digits with -15 degree wind chills, I had a lot of time on my hands. I was already hiding in my attic from Covid… now bitter cold has me pinned in my attic as well.
Going solo can be a dicey proposition. In the late 60s and early 70s audiences often struggled with the whole concept of doing a solo record. You were either in a band or you were on your own and apparently never the twain shall meet. If you did your own album it meant you were leaving the band. When Paul McCartney put out McCartney, his homespun, lo-fi debut it was considered the announcement that the Beatles were over… which perhaps contributed to the critical backlash at the time. It was Rod Stewart who was the first artist to juggle the whole solo vs band career when he was a member of the Faces. He’d do a Faces album and then six months later he’d do a solo record. I think his solo stuff ended up overshadowing one of the world’s greatest bands, the Faces, and that’s a shame. People thought the Faces were just his back up band, which utterly rankled the other guys, especially Ronnie Lane. Rod was the first to try the split career but based on the fact his solo albums sold so much better I can’t say it was a screaming success. There’s always the constant allegations that you’re saving your best stuff for the solo albums.
Rod’s career does underscore the fact that chemistry matters. When an artist is in a band its a collective. There’s a give and take. The guys in the band interpret what you’ve written. When you go solo you’re captain of the ship. Where as in a band some of your worst instincts as an artist may be curbed by the members of the band when you go solo there’s no one to say, maybe you shouldn’t have a spoken-word interlude in the middle of a rock song, Mick. I think Lennon always made McCartney tougher and McCartney always made Lennon not softer but perhaps more melodic, less caustic. When you go solo you’re putting your reputation on the line. You’ve established a brand and going solo can really tarnish your reputation. I think about Sting in this realm. We all loved Sting until Dream of the Blue Turtles came out. Looking back it wasn’t that awful of an album but that jazz-lite stuff induced a lot “what the hell is this shit?” moments. His solo career has been largely a disappointment for a lot of people. If I never hear “Love Is The Seventh Wave,” it’ll be too soon.
Sometimes though, the risk of going solo is worth it. In many cases the artists on this list were kicked out of their bands or the bands broke up. A solo project was thus inevitable. I remember Mick Jagger, when asked in the 80s whether he’d ever do a solo record, saying something about doing a solo album when he had enough material that the band thought was “too stupid” to record. Who knew he was actually telling the truth there. Some of the artists on my list below had great solo careers, some only had this one great debut album. This is in no means a commentary about the solo careers of these artists it’s merely about their debut album as a solo artist. For example, the aforementioned Mick Jagger’s solo debut was, by any stretch of the imagination bad, he has put out a few great records.
For the purposes of this list, which is randomly laid out, I’ll list it like this: Solo Artist Name (Former Band Name), Debut Album Title. If there’s a great debut solo LP you’re into, let me know what that is and I’ll check it out. I hope there are a few gems on this list of 25 that if you haven’t come across them, you’ll discover something you like.
- Gregg Allman (The Allman Brothers Band), Laid Back – I just repurchased this one on vinyl! Frustrated with inter-band conflict, especially with Dickey Betts, Allman recorded this solo gem while also recording Brothers And Sisters with the band. More soulful and less guitar-centric, Allman even redid “Midnight Rider” and turned it on its head and into a classic on its own right.
- Jeff Beck (The Jeff Beck Group), Blow By Blow – Tired of squabbling with lead singers, Beck pulled in George Martin of Beatles fame to produce and put out one of the only instrumental albums outside of jazz that I can listen to. There is such a rich and beautiful tone Jeff pulls out of his instrument. This is a fascinating listen.
- Robbie Robertson (The Band), Robbie Robertson – It had been almost a decade since the Band had broken up and Richard Manuel had recently committed suicide when Robbie finally put out his solo debut. He had a lot of help from producer Daniel Lanois, U2, Peter Gabriel, and members of the Bodeans but the songwriting on this record is all Robertson. “Somewhere Down the Crazy River” is my favorite song here. “Testimony” is an epic statement of purpose.
- Jack White (The White Stripes), Blunderbuss – Listening to the White Stripes’ greatest hits LP makes me miss that band and Meg White even more (Review: The White Stripes ‘Greatest Hits’ – A Lovingly Curated Romp Through Their Career) but Jack White really comes through on his solo debut. He’s one of rock’s most important artists.
- Paul McCartney (The Beatles), McCartney – Depressed as the Beatles imploded McCartney retreated to his home and invented DIY, indie rock. I love this little lo-fi gem. It’s heavy on instrumental jams but as usual with McCartney the melodies bore into my brain. He just released his second sequel to this one, Review: ‘McCartney III,’ A Homespun Gem, the perfect lockdown project.
- Joe Walsh (The James Gang), Barnstorm – I know that Barnstorm was considered an actual band but I think of this as Joe’s solo debut anyway. I left Dio’s Holy Diver off the list because I actually did consider them a band not a solo artist so perhaps I’m bending the rules a bit. I had to include this album as the song “Turn To Stone” which is the greatest riff in the history of guitar makes it debut. It’s a surprisingly laid back affair which makes his joining the Eagles makes sense.
- Rod Stewart (The Jeff Beck Group), The Rod Stewart Album – With that title it’s pretty easy to see this as Rod introducing himself to the world post-Jeff Beck Group, pre-Faces. With his sidekick Ronnie Wood on guitar this album has always seemed like an interview for the job as Faces lead singer. He does some great interpretations on covers (“Man of Constant Sorrow,” “Street Fighting Man”) but the originals are just fantastic. The passionate “Blind Prayer” has always been a personal favorite. I think he should have stuck to the original title, An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down.
- George Harrison (The Beatles), All Things Must Pass – The single greatest Beatles’ solo album. Harrison had been largely stifled as a songwriter in the Beatles – they typically gave him only 2 songs per album (if that) and he had a huge backlog of great material as evidenced by the original 3-vinyl LP package. (Yes, I’m ignoring his Wonderwall project).
- Ozzy Osbourne (Black Sabbath), Blizzard of Ozz – Everybody thought Ozzy was finished after Sabbath fired him for being out of control on booze and drugs. Along came Randy Rhoads and the rest was history (Review: Ozzy’s ‘Blizzard of Ozz, 40th Anniversary Expanded’ – Is It Worth It?).
- John Lennon (The Beatles), Plastic Ono Band – I tend to ignore those 2 awful records he did prior to this with Yoko. For me this is his first solo album. Fresh from primal scream therapy Lennon delivered this, his most raw, brutally honest album. “Mother” sears itself into your memory. He’s exercising every demon in his soul here. Riveting listen.
- Eric Clapton (Yardbirds, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Cream, Blind Faith), Eric Clapton – After playing in virtually every British blues-rock band ever, Clapton finally put his solo debut LP out. He recorded this with members of Delaney and Bonnie who he’d met when they opened for Blind Faith on their tour. “Bottle of Red Wine” is a personal fav.
- Stephen Stills (Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young), Stephen Stills – Stills, alongside Neil Young, had established himself as a guitar hero but surprisingly he leaves the solo’ing to his guest stars – Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix on his last studio recording. This is just a great, great eclectic record. The rest of his solo career was up and down but he was on the money here.
- Paul Simon (Simon & Garfunkel), Paul Simon – Surprisingly, I don’t think this little gem of an album sold that well. “Mother And Child Reunion” and “Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard” hint at his world music influences that we’d eventually see blossom on Graceland.
- Graham Nash (Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young), Songs For Beginners – I considered David Crosby’s If I Could Only Remember My Name but left it out as I feared it sounded like too much of a hippy clambake for most people. Nash is probably my least favorite songwriter of the CSNY family (Artist Lookback: Crosby, Stills, Or Nash – The Essential Solo and Duo Albums), but I love this album. Its informed largely by his recent searing heartbreak from his split with girlfriend Joni Mitchell which is what makes this one so poignant to me. As I’ve often admitted, I’m a sucker for recent searing heartbreak. Well, I was until I met the Rock Chick… but those records are sealed.
- David Lee Roth (Van Halen), Eat ‘Em And Smile – Kicked out of Van Halen for making a solo EP and wanting to make a movie, Roth’s split with Eddie is probably one of rock’s ugliest divorces. He recruited some top notch musicians – Billy Sheehan on bass and most notably Steve Vai on guitar wizardry – and actually treated this like a band project. After this it looked like Roth would be the one with the long, more successful career, not his former band. Alas, on his next record his megalomania took over and he started indulging his worst instincts.
- Stevie Nicks (Fleetwood Mac), Bella Donna – I love this album. Every man of a certain age has/had a crush on Stevie. Sure she had help from Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and Don Henley but this is a uniquely Stevie album. This thing was so big I’m still surprised she returned to Fleetwood Mac. The disappointing sales figures for Tusk is what drove her to record solo, not the break up with Buckingham which I always found fascinating.
- Gram Parsons, (The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers), G.P. – Gram never met a band he couldn’t quit. He bounced from band to band in an almost Clapton-esque fashion. This, his final LP before his death is a country-rock masterpiece. The Eagles were clearly listening…
- Peter Frampton (Humble Pie), Winds of Change – When compared to Humble Pie’s boogie rock classic Smokin’, which was their first album without Frampton and this largely acoustic album it’s easy to see that Peter was moving in a different direction than the band. I don’t know why his pre-Frampton Comes Alive studio albums aren’t more popular. This is a really engrossing listen.
- Liam Gallagher (Oasis, Beady Eye), As You Were – When Liam’s band Beady Eye, which was basically a Noel-less Oasis, imploded I remember reading Noel saying, “Liam needs to put out a solo album, put his own name on something, put it all out there.” I guess Liam was listening. I described this album as a pleasant surprise from an unpleasant man. As much as I dislike Liam, I love his solo stuff, LP Review: Liam Gallagher, ‘As You Were’ A Pleasant Surprise From an Unpleasant Man.
- Robert Plant (Led Zeppelin), Pictures At 11 – We were all still pretty raw that John Bonham had passed and Led Zeppelin had broken up. I remember guys in my high school were renting a bus to see them in Chicago when the news of Bonham’s death broke. This was such a great album and it helped us all move on. Phil Collins showed up to play drums and help Plant figure out how to produce an album. Plant seems embarrassed by his early albums but this is a classic. “Burning Down One Side” is an absolutely fantastic track.
- Natalie Merchant (10,000 Maniacs), Tigerlilly – I hated the 10,000 Maniacs, they never made any sense to me. But this solo debut from Natalie Merchant was a stunner. A friend of mine described the guitar work on this record as “smokey.” I even saw her on the ensuing tour for this record. This, for me, is the lone gem in her solo catalog.
- Van Morrison (Them), Astral Weeks – Brilliant, poetic, transcendent, Celtic mysticism. One of the greatest albums of all time.
- Mike Ness (Social Distortion), Cheating At Solitaire – If you dig the “cow punk” of Social Distortion, you’ll love this record. The duet with Bruce Springsteen, “Misery Loves Company” is a classic. I remember texting the Rock Chick, who turned me onto Social D, “worlds collide, Springsteen/Ness together!” The whole record blows me away.
- Iggy Pop (The Stooges), The Idiot – Iggy and Bowie on the loose in Europe recording Iggy’s classic first solo album. Some say Bowie’s influence is too pronounced here but that’s just crazy talk. Iggy comes through on classics like “China Girl” and “The Dum Dum Boys.”
- Keith Richards (The Rolling Stones), Talk Is Cheap – The solo record Keith never wanted to make. Tired of trying to get Mick interested in the Stones again, Keith put together a great band with Steve Jordan (drums) and Waddy Watchel (guitar) and put out a classic (Keith Richards: ‘Talk Is Cheap (Deluxe Version),’ The 30th Anniversary Edition With Bonus Tracks).
Stay safe but more importantly stay warm if its cold where you are. I don’t think the son is going to shine again here until late next week. I’ll be gritting my teeth to get through it… Hopefully some of this classic rock and roll will help keep you warm!