Being a successful, well-respected pop artist must be rough. How else can you explain the abundance of solo records from musicians who, without the aid of their more commercially successful bands, likely would have had no career to speak of? This Trojan Horse approach to solo pop success has a long list of casualties both critically and commercially that, rightly or wrongly, cannot be overlooked. For several of these artists, some who have still managed to attain a seemingly impossible level of commercial success in the face of their clearly inferior product, the phrase “they liked you better before” could well serve as their final epitaph.

sebastopolJay Farrar

Jay Farrar’s continuous and precipitous decline in popularity and relevance since the mid-‘90s must really chap his ass. Especially considering the fact that the prestige of his former bandmate-turned-nemesis Jeff Tweedy has increased in an inverse proportion during roughly the same period. Then again, considering what a mumbling introvert Farrar is, it’s entirely plausible that he’s been retreating from the limelight on purpose. After all, he dissolved not one, but two popular bands over the course of the ‘90s – first Uncle Tupelo, then Son Volt. It’s not that Farrar’s work since his high water mark – Son Volt’s 1995 debut album Trace – has been bad, necessarily. Rather its been maddeningly inconsistent and often predictable, especially when measured against Tweedy’s experimentalism with Wilco.

After the breakup of Son Volt, Farrar released two solo albums, 2001’s Sebastopol and 2003’s Terroir Blues. Both are varyingly rewarding, yet ultimately opaque and impenetrably introspective works that, as a result, were largely ignored. Farrar reformed Son Volt in 2005, but in name only. He was the only member of the original lineup to return, and since then the band has been a revolving door, serving as little more than a continuation of Farrar’s solo career. Adding insult to injury, Farrar nixed what could have been a golden opportunity to overtake Tweedy when he turned down Billy Bragg’s initial offer to have Son Volt back him on the Woody Guthrie Mermaid Avenue project. The honor, of course, ultimately went to none other than Wilco.

goddessMick Jagger

Mick Jagger’s solo career is a common punch line for good reason. Believe it or not, one of his solo albums, 1993’s Rick Rubin-produced Wandering Spirit, is actually pretty good. The rest of the catalog? A dreadful confluence of Jagger’s characteristically outsized ego, instantly dated production and the most homoerotic music video ever made by an artist that wasn’t the Village People. Believe it or not, “Dancing in the Street” isn’t even the worst video Jagger put out in the ‘80s. That dubious distinction goes to “Let’s Work,” a heinous piece of Objectivist pro-Thatcher propaganda paired with some of the most hilariously awful green screen effects in the history of moving images. Musically, it’s typical of Jagger’s solo output.

Coming to the conclusion by the mid-‘80s that he no longer needed the Stones (“everyone at CBS was thinking that Mick could be as big as Michael Jackson…and Mick was going along with it,” Keith Richards later claimed in his autobiography), Jagger jettisoned just about everything that made the Stones great from his sound in favor of shameless, straight pop trend-hopping, resulting in two albums full of shallow, overproduced garbage. As a result, by 1989 he had come crawling back to the Stones. But arguably he reached his nadir as a solo artist in 2001 with Goddess in the Doorway, an album that Keef aptly dubbed “Dogshit in the Doorway.”


Man, remember the Police? They were fun, right? With all their cute, tight little pop songs with silly lyrics and reggae inflections? What a nice little band! So catchy, so breezy, so unpretentious! Seriously, what kind of smarmy asshole would get all full of himself because he wrote a song like fucking “Roxanne”?

Sting. The answer is Sting.

Indeed, Sting, hereafter known as Stink, is rock’s biggest egomaniac this side of Bono. And, man, Bono is the worst, but at least he makes (terrible) music that sounds as big as his ego. Stink, on the other hand, has inexplicably come to the conclusion that the fact he wrote “Message in a Bottle” qualifies him to fancy himself some kind of tortured musical visionary. Yeah, the Police were great in their heyday, but this would be like Seth Rogen proclaiming himself to be the next Fellini based on Pineapple Express. Yes, Pineapple Express is great for what it is, but it doesn’t exactly qualify Rogen to make 8 ½. And yet Stink carries on making artsy fartsy jazz and world music crap and generally acting like a prick. Oh, and his cameo in Zoolander 2 was the most painfully unfunny part of a painfully unfunny movie.

messengerJohnny Marr

Any Smiths fan will tell you that Johnny Marr’s skills as a musician and a composer were just as important – if not more so – to the legacy of The Smiths as Morrissey’s outsized persona and witty, poetic lyrics. But, while Morrissey has gone on to receive considerable acclaim for his solo work, Marr has…not. In fact, since The Smiths dissolved, Marr’s career has been something of a non-starter. His work with Electronic was digestible, but that group never rose beyond being the side project that it was. The Healers, his band with Beatle scion Zak Starkey, was pretty much dead on arrival, and his two solo records are little more than pleasant guitar pop. Given that this man is responsible for writing some of the finest songs in the history of modern pop music, Marr’s lackluster solo output and his seeming contentment with being a glorified sideman in groups like Modest Mouse and The Cribs all demonstrate a startling lack of ambition. Marr’s best years may not be behind him, but from the looks of things, he doesn’t even want to find out if that’s the case.

jack-sellsRobert Pollard

Quantity is not the same thing as quality, yet still Robert Pollard has spent most of his adult life trying to disprove this very adage. Each new year usually guarantees at least two or three releases from Dayton, Ohio’s proudest son, either under his own name or the guise of his various bands. Not that it matters a whole lot: Pollard has his particular songwriting quirks honed down to an exact science at this point. There’s no surprise that comes with a Robert Pollard, Boston Spaceships or even a Guided By Voices record anymore. The latter is especially disappointing given that Pollard recently reunited with old foil Tobin Sprout for a series of GBV “classic” albums, only to kick him to the curb when he felt it was time to return to business as usual. Perhaps Pollard’s relentless work ethic prevents him from maintaining any sort of fruitful collaboration. But it also holds him back from achieving the greatness that once, years ago, came so easily.

lysandreChristopher Owens

Christopher Owens came agonizingly close to brilliance with Girls. Over the course of two albums, Owens displayed a knack for smart, classicist pop while hinting at greater ambitions with songs like “Vomit” and “Hellhole Ratrace.” Then, he abruptly threw it all away, “quitting” the band (a difficult thing to do when you are the band) and promising a new, more complex side of himself whenever he returned. What fans got instead was Lysandre, a brief, indulgent mess of a record on which Owens attempted to display a maturity that was, at the time, very much out of his reach. Since then, Owens has been content to spin his wheels a bit, releasing pleasant pop without much focus or direction. In one act of artistic hubris, Owens cut his career at the knees, and now any sort of ambition seems beyond him. Sadly, all we can do now is wonder what could have been.

aloneRichard Ashcroft

As lead singer of the critically hailed and commercially successful (at least in the UK…) Britpop group the Verve, Richard Ashcroft found himself on top of not only the charts, but, for a brief moment, the world as well. With the massive success of 1997’s Urban Hymns and its ubiquitous single “Bittersweet Symphony,” Ashcroft and the Verve threatened to breakthrough into the previously Britpop-impervious US market. Unfortunately, in-fighting and a less than subtle (and, it turned out, unauthorized) copping of an Andrew Loog Oldham orchestral arrangement of the Stones’ “The Last Time” saw the band crumble and fall apart. In the wake of their dissolution, Ashcroft seemed confident and ready to maintain the momentum begun by Urban Hymns. Yet it would be three years by the time he released his debut solo album, Alone With Everybody, and by that time, any commercially advantageous goodwill – not to mention critical acceptance – had long since vanished. And while he still occasionally garners favorable reviews with his post-Verve recordings, his ‘90s peak has cast an inescapably long shadow that has followed him well into the 21st century.

Billy_Joel_-_River_of_DreamsBilly Joel

This one requires a bit more of an explanation. While Billy Joel is primarily and (rightly so) thought of as a solo artist, there are a handful of mid-to-late-‘60s group recordings that stake a claim to the contrary. First there was his middling work with the Hassles – a group that specialized in slightly better than milquetoast blue-eyed soul and psychedelia – producing two albums for United Artists that were commercial failures. But in between the Hassles and his eventual rise to adult contemporary demi-god by the late-‘80s/early-‘90s, was a little group called Attila who managed to release one of the very best proto-metal organ-and-drum albums of all time.

Of course at this point Joel practically refuses to acknowledge its very existence, yet copies still crop up from time to time on the collectors’ market. And while it’s rather infamously been deemed the “worst album of all time” (by Allmusic, proving they’ve no idea what they’re talking about), Attila is a surprisingly rocking, heavy record that, despite more than a few decidedly embarrassing lyrical moments, is not nearly the fiasco it’s been made out to be over the years. If anything, it’s more intriguing and engaging than the majority of his later solo output.

Notice he hasn’t put out a pop album since 1993’s River of Dreams? It’s because, around that time, he came to the realization he had taken the wrong career path. Organ metal, poodle hair and medieval dress in a meat locker, that should’ have been his destiny. But alas, he fancied himself more of a piano man.

broad-streetPaul McCartney

Without the other Beatles to reign in his more cloyingly saccharine proclivities, Paul McCartney was suddenly free to do exactly as he pleased, regardless of how inane the results might be. From his initial solo forays post-breakup on through his work with Wings, it’s as though he were on a perpetual downward slide into insidious pop pap. The nadir – if there has to be just one – would likely be his execrable 1979 Christmas single, “Wonderful Christmastime.” How this song became a perennial holiday staple is anyone’s guess, but it does a fine job serving as a representation of just how far he’d let himself go.

And while none of the Beatles necessarily came even remotely close to equaling, let alone bettering, their Fab Four recordings, the other three at least had the decency to know when to leave well enough alone and either take a break (Lennon), stop altogether (Harrison) or rely on an eternally bankable, seemingly endless supply of nostalgia (Starr). That he continues making “music” as though he were still culturally relevant beyond his unimpeachable Beatles connection is just a sad reminder of what was. For proof of this, look no further than his atrocious collaboration with Kanye West and Rhianna on the nonsensical “FourFiveSeconds.”

dave-hauseDave Hause

It isn’t so much that Dave Hause’s post-Loved Ones output has been bad. Shit, it hasn’t even been especially off-brand. Aside from some scattered DJ sets in and around the greater Philadelphia area, the dude has been slinging his wares as a solo artist, session musician and part-time (full-time?) member of The Falcon. It’s more the sense that Hause has another great Loved Ones record rumbling around somewhere inside of him. As consistent and busy as he’s been, he’s yet to release anything with the uplifting teen-power loft of Keep Your Heart or Build & Burn. Here’s hoping that the recent Loved Ones reunion show is a sign that he’s ready to strap on the Chuck Taylors again.

jim-jones-capoJim Jones

Lord, why did it have to be Jim Jones who landed a major pop hit? Anyone could have released a song like “We Fly High” in the mid-’00s, when all it took to make a rap hit was a beat that sounded a little bit like “Candy Shop” and a dance move that would appeal to frat boys. That hit is the thing that has sunk the one-time lord of the Weed Carriers. As a member of Dipset, when his role was “dude who makes some funny jokes and says problematic stuff on endlessly hot songs,” he could fade into the backdrop and punctuate the raps of his group’s far better members, Cam’ron and Juelz Santana. With “We Fly High” under his belt, though, Jim was expected to be an actual artist. It takes a special kind of dude to head up a successful rap group, and Jimmy ain’t it. We aren’t all meant for the spotlight. Jones should have passed that song to Hell Rell.

the-instigatorRhett Miller

It took Rhett Miller six records to release a solo effort with anywhere near as much shine as what his full-time band, The Old 97s, have capably been churning out since the ‘90s. In that time, Miller wrote about three great pop songs, plagiarized his own past and, rather than confirm his bona fides as a pop songwriter, created a world of doubt as to what was the real engine behind the Old 97s’ country-punk magic. Miller is a hell a front man and an above-average songwriter, but the “better than the sum of the parts” argument has never felt more true than it has for Miller. The Traveler is rad, though.

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