After sharing about the best bands of all time, it’s only natural to talk about the best solo artists of all time. As you will no doubt realise, many of the selected artists have also worked within the group dynamic, although with the branding of a front person. All choices in my own personal experience and in my humble opinion, of course. Let’s go! (In alphabetical order, once more)
Growing up in the 60s/70s, I was naturally exposed to Dylan’s music without realising who he was. I mean, “Blowing in the Wind” has been covered by so many artists, it can be difficult to remember the source. But I really only became a proper Dylan fan (finally) in 1979 with Slow Train Coming. Back then I was very involved in church and was part of an evangelistic rock band (I will share that story, one day) that covered “I Believe in You” which led to a journey of discovery of Dylan’s work which continues till this day.
Again, impossible to ignore Bowie in the 70s when he was ubiquitous. But of course, my strict conservative upbringing (again, more of that one day, I promise) made it rather conflicting to address Bowie’s androgyny in my early teens. However, by 1980, I was able to come to terms with my issues with Bowie’s image and simply embraced the music with the magnificent Scary Monsters LP. With the mainstream success of Let’s Dance, it was not so risky to love Bowie anymore and even got to see him live in Singapore (what a shock to the system that was!) at the National Stadium in 1983. Over the years since, I have become obsessed with David Robert Jones and his death in 2016 hit me like a sledgehammer. Bowie FOREVER!!!
A 70s superstar that I picked up on relatively early on. “Your Song” was the tentative dip of the toe before diving in deep with Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Caribou. I started out as a performer on the piano/keyboards and so, Elton John was instrumental (heh) not only in my style of playing but also in the figuring out of chords to aid in my own songwriting. His first seven albums are indispensable, chock full of illuminating melodies and harmonies, built up on Bernie Taupin’s evocative lyrics. A massive influence on the pop-rock music that followed, without a doubt.
Elvis Costello/The Attractions
It is fair to say that Elvis is close to my heart in my development as a singer and songwriter. I have – subconsciously perhaps – modelled my vocals on his style and have been inspired by his way with a caustic lyric, that’s for sure. Like the best artists, Elvis has never been afraid to expand his craft by collaborating with the likes of Brodsky Quartet, Burt Bacharach, The Roots and of course, Paul McCartney. And the icing on the cake is somehow marrying Diana Krall! The man is a genius.
Probably strange to say this but John Lennon is deeply under-rated as a solo artist. There always seems to be a rank prejudice against Lennon, a popular fallacy that he basically lost his way after the Beatles broke up. And while it is probably true that Lennon did not develop too much beyond his obligatory familiar sound in his solo years, he always had a knack for a hook – both musically and lyrically. I mean, how can anyone be dismissive over a range of musical approaches from the minimalistic Plastic Ono Band to the lushly textural Imagine is simply illogical. Also, the 5-year hiatus that he took in order to raise his son Sean seems to have been levelled against him as well – despite the fact that it demonstrated his ability to re-invent himself. Not just as an artist but as a person. Now, how many of us can claim that distinct achievement?
Neil Young/Crazy Horse
When I was a teenager, I associated Neil Young mainly with his biggest hit – “Heart of Gold” but as I discovered more about rock music in the 80s, it become impossible to ignore Young and for me, this understanding crystallised with 1989’s Freedom and 1990’s Ragged Glory, the follow-up album with Crazy Horse. After that, it was a feverish drive to pick up as many Neil Young albums as possible, which by and large I certainly did, at the time. Written off sometimes as a Dylan clone, I could argue that in many ways, Young has outstripped Dylan in terms of his influence on alternative rock. If nothing else, Young (like Dylan) represents the wild spontaneity of creation that is uncompromising, with scant recognition of the marketplace. Something always to aspire to, as a true artist.
The consummate melodic songwriter, McCartney’s place in rock history was already assured as an integral part of The Beatles but his solo years proved that he is/was a musical genius in his own right. Even without that association, McCartney deserves every accolade for his uncanny ability to coax a memorable melody out of almost mundane chord progressions. Kudos to the great man as he continues to be vital and relevant even in these dark times of the music industry. It is not too difficult for me to put together an infinite playlist of every song significant in my own musical development. Suffice to say that that the first songs I performed live on stage as a 15 year-old were Wings songs.
Weller’s place on this list of the best solo artists of all time was challenged by Billy Joel. However, when I thought about how prolific Weller has been even in his twilight years as an artist, there is really no contest. (Joel has not released new material since 1993) Weller has had three careers – breaking up The Jam at the height of their popularity, changing directions with The Style Council before making a powerful comeback as the elder statesman of 90s Britpop with a vital solo career that still shines to this day.
To be honest, I only got into Todd Rundgren because of my former musical partner, Tim Nolan’s own passionate promotion of the singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist/producer. So I began cautiously by picking up one of those handy ‘best of’ albums, which certainly persuaded me to go on a buying spree which filled out my Rundgren CD collection (this was the 90s) in double quick time. From this vantage point almost 30 years, it’s clear that Rundgren’s 4-album sequence of The Ballad of Todd Rundgren, Something/Anything, A Wizard A True Star and Todd is pretty much unparalleled in rock history. Sure, there are excursions into prog territory with Utopia, which morphed into New Wave in the 80s but Rundgren’s blend of rock and soul sensibilities guarantees him a spot in this list of the best solo artists of all time, even if the ridiculous Rock N Roll Hall of Fame continues to exclude his genius.
Tom Petty/The Heartbreakers
Last but certainly not least, an artist who perfectly encapsulated the myriad strands of 60s pop and rock and yet somehow managed to be aligned with the punk and new wave of the late 70s/early 80s. Tom Petty – with or without the excellent Heartbreakers – had the uncanny knack of distilling the wonders of folk, country, the blues and rock n’ roll into a heady melange that sounded new and familiar at the same time. The kind of formula that the likes of Max Martin has wet dreams over. Petty straddled over so many different rock genres – without sacrificing his own distinctive sound – that his commercial success was all but assured. Another star who’s untimely departure all rock fans feel keenly to this day.
You can quibble all you want with this list of the best solo artists of all time. Share your thoughts over at the Power of Pop Facebook page. Will see you there!
… still there’s more …