It's not easy to command the stage all by yourself - but these guys make it look it
Gigwise
15:11 21st April 2016

It takes a special something to front a band - to lead your troops into battle each and every night, but it's an entirely different matter to stand alone. As a singular force, exposed, with just your own identity, the songs and a spotlight. 

With this is mind, after the recent loss of the likes of David Bowie and Prince, we thought we'd take the time to honour the very best solo artists of all time, and rank them in order of greatness. 

From the worlds of pop, hip-hop, rock, dance, folk and beyond, here's to the artists with the bravery and class to put themselves out there and make a difference. 

These are the 60 best solo stars of all time, ranked in order of greatness. 

  • 60. Paul Weller: He's much more than a haircut, the Modfather has an outstanding solo back catalogue. After disbanding The Style Council in 1990, he released his debut single, 'Into Tomorrow' and by 1992 his debut solo album came out. In an interview with The Guardian last year Weller claimed that he'd only ever written three perfect songs, and two were from his solo career - 'Wings of Speed' from Stanley Road and 'Going My Way' on Saturn's Patterns. We'd argue he's written far more than that. (Cai Trefor)

  • 59. Robyn: Robyn is responsible for two of the most perfect pop songs of our time - 'Dancing On My Own' and 'With Every Heartbeat'. Both of those tracks - along with much of the rest of Robyn's extensive back-catalogue - combine a sense of euphoria with one of intense melancholy. They leave the listener wanting to dance and cry at the same time, one of the most strangely satisfying conflicts a song can possibly invoke within a person. (Alexandra Pollard)

  • 58. Ghostface Killah: If not the most talented, definitely the most prolific of the Wu-Tang Clan, Ghostface Killah doesn't seem to have slacked any year since he left the 36 chambers. His scorching flow is instantly recognisable, and while the days of the Wu or his first solo releases were Ghost's peak, check out his work with DOOMSTARKS or with Adrian Younge to see Ghost out of his comfort zone and the best he's spat in recent years. (Will Butler)

  • 57. Johnny Marr: His guitarwork was resplendent in The Smiths, and he could have faded to nothing in the aftermath. He did great work in film and with various collaborations, but its his work in film and across his two solo records where his classicism embedded in indie and pop really shines. Many of your heroes are now just wilted flowers of what they once were, but Marr's appeal is evergreen. You may love the old classics, the future is still safe. You need not be afraid. (Andrew Trendell)

  • 56. Eminem: Mr Mathers, Slim Shady, B-Rabbit; whatever you want to call him and whatever you may think of his more recent output, he's responsible for three of the most seminal hip-hop albums of all time. The Slim Shady LP, The Marshall Mathers LP and The Eminem Show all shine brightly in uniquely different ways, from the warped and deranged alter ego of Slim Shady on 'Brain Damage' to the ferociously precise spitting of Eminem on 'Till I Collapse'. (Will Butler)

  • 55. Patsy Cline: In her short life (she died in a plane crash at the age of 30), Patsy Cline rose to the top of a male-dominated field, seamlessly crossed over into pop, and released some of the best-loved songs of the '50s. Though she didn't write her biggest hits - 'Walking After Midnight', 'Crazy', 'She's Got You' and 'I Fall To Pieces' - her caramel contralto voice injected them with an almost unbearable level of poignancy. (Alexandra Pollard)

  • 54. Laura Marling: At 26, Marling has long since evolved beyond the label of precocious folk singer with which she was unfairly lumbered as a teenager, into something darker and more sophisticated, but with the same inimitable voice and talent she'd always had. With her Americana-inflected 2015 album, Short Movie, she revealed a humour and lightness of touch, as well as a newfound reluctance to mince her words: "Do I look like I'm fucking around?" she asked her listener, daring them to answer her back. (Alexandra Pollard)

  • 53. Amy Winehouse: Towards the end of her tragically short life, Amy Winehouse's talent was buried beneath tabloid headlines, as the media took a morbid delight in documenting her struggles with mental illness and addiction, and the inevitability of where it would end. Asif Kappadia's 2015 documentary, Amy, went some way to reminding people that Amy Winehouse was one of the greatest jazz musicians of this, or any, generation. That she managed to translate it into something with mainstream appeal made her even more remarkable. (Alexandra Pollard)

  • 52. Kanye West: A true artist through and through, Kanye West is a genius and there's no denying that. For every young kid in Chicago over the last decade that decided to embrace their personality and use it to create, whether it's music or pottery or game design, Kanye is the figure that stands for this progression. Forget celebrity status, forget Zane Lowe interviews, forget Glastonbury, as a rapper and an artist, Kanye West is this generation's creative idol. (Will Butler)

  • 51. Susanne Sundfor: A hero in her native Norway, but largely under-appreciated for her genius elsewhere. With six albums to her name and having collaborated with the likes of M83 and Royksopp, her influence on bringing credibility to the dancefloor over the last decade is never in question. There's an elegiac grace to everything she does. 2015's Ten Love Songs is by far her crowning achievement. From the cinematic ghosthouse chill of 'Accelerate' to the decadent disco and infectious lust of 'Delirious', it's a delightful and flawless journey. She deserves to be a megastar the world over. (Andrew Trendell)

  • 50. Beyonce: Remember when people would 'like' jokes and phrases on Facebook? There was one that went, "Always be yourself. Unless you can be Beyonce - then always be Beyonce." Never was a truer thing said. Since her days in Destiny's Child, Beyonce has carved herself a space in the world of pop that only she can fill. Her latest single, 'Formation', is strange, bitingly witty and brilliant. (Alexandra Pollard)

  • 49. Sia: Who knew anonymity could so perfectly complement universal acclaim? Sia did. There's something about her music that feels as though she (or whatever part she happens to be playing) is constantly grasping for something just out of reach - for emotions she can't quite articulate, cliched tropes with which she doesn't connect, notes almost out of range. Her voice soars and cracks like no other, grappling with her own material better than the musicians for whom she used to write. (Alexandra Pollard)

  • 48. Lou Reed: Transformer is one of the best albums ever written. Fact. If he did nothing else is whole solo career it wouldn't have mattered, it's just so good. But fortunately, he released music readily, up until his death in 2013. 2011's Lulu, a collaborative project between him and Metallica, was the final studio album he was involved in. (Cai Trefor)

  • 47. Stevie Wonder: You can't not be happy when you listen to Stevie Wonder. As a live performer and a recording artist, he's one of the very best in the business. He's recorded more than 30 top ten hits in the US and won 25 Grammy Awards. He's also sold 100 million records. It's safe to say he's made it. (Cai Trefor)

  • 46. Jack White: He claimed that the White Stripes' red cartoon aesthetic was a test to see if people could see past the image to enjoy the treasure of the music within, now he's flipped in on its head for the same result. It's just us, the songs and no distractions. A polymath with a runaway talent and a fire in his belly, White's work is essential. No gimmicks or tricks - just class. Whether in a back alley venue or the biggest of stadiums, all we have is the music, and each other. (Andrew Trendell)

  • 45. Johnny Cash: His distinctive voice is one of the best things to ever have come out of America. It's legends like Johnny Cash that make us want to travel there and explore the places that inspired such incredible songs. From With His Hot and Blue Guitar in 1957, all the way up to America IV: When The Man Comes Around, which he wrote in 2002, just a year before he sadly passed away, Cash was an immense, prolific recording artist. (Cai Trefor)

  • 44. Sufjan Stevens: No-one revels in dismantling fragile masculinity quite like Sufjan Stevens, who plunges such depths of vulnerability that it almost feels invasive to listen to his music. After dipping his toes in all sorts of experimental oceans, he returned to basics with 2015's devastating Carrie & Lowell, and produced one of the best albums of the year. (Alexandra Pollard)

  • 43. Frank Ocean: Anyone remotely interested in popular music of the 2010s will have come across his Grammy Award winning album Channel Orange. The ten minute long track 'Pyramids' is one of the all time great contemporary R&B tracks. The way it builds is completely mesmerising. (Cai Trefor)

  • 42. Miles Davis: A Jazz icon and one of the most influential and innovative musicians of the 20th century, Miles Davis is in the same league as Mozart, Beethoven. and Bach. A total genius. He's got 48 studio albums but the picks of the bunch are probably Kind Of Blue or On The Corner. (Cai Trefor)

  • 41. Jay Z: 'I'm not a business man, I'm a business, man.' Jay has evolved into more than just a rapper, dipping his toe in every possible business venture imaginable, from fine art to music streaming with his shaky Tidal venture. Take these aspects out of the equation, though, and you have one of the sharpest lyricists and charismatic artists of our time, with Jay painting stark and unforgettable images of life as a hustler on the streets of New York. Essentials: 'What More Can I say', 'December 4th' and 'D.O.A'.

  • 40. Lana Del Rey: Lana Del Rey's career, if she was as thin-skinned and untalented as people decided she was, could easily have fallen at the first hurdle. After a shaky performance on SNL with just one single under her belt, the world - perturbed by an earlier interview in which she'd described herself "gangster Nancy Sinatra", decided that she was more style than substance, and wrote her off. Three albums down the road, and she's proven them all wrong. (Alexandra Pollard)

  • 39. Madonna: Back in December, more than 30 years into her career, Madonna performed at the O2 Arena. Her set included incredible acrobatics, sexed up religious iconography, and several hours of her biggest hits - three things one has come to expect from a live performance of one of the greatest living popstars on the planet. To say that Madonna has "still got it" would be to suggest that there was ever any chance she could lose it. There wasn't. (Alexandra Pollard)

  • 38. Elvis Presley: The daddy, the original, the King. With just a furl of his lip and a shake of his hip, he outrage a nation and unify a generation. But it wasn't just his swagger - his attitude, bite and revolutionary sound would pave the way for rock n' roll as we know it today. Accept no imitations - there will only ever be one king. (Andrew Trendell)

  • 37. Morrissey: Anger is an energy, and it runs thick through Moz's veins. Along with the morose and melancholy, there's a poetry and a passion that Mozza lays on so thick that his words and lyrics wrap around you like flowers around a trestle. Admit it, you wouldn't have him any other way (Andrew Trendell)

  • 36. Marilyn Manson: He's more than a metal menace. Whether honouring the blues, rap or rock, he's the twisted manifestation of all of his influences. He is Iggy Pop, he is Ozzy Osbourne, he is David Bowie, he is Madonna - he is the traits of all icons torn inside in nightmare form. He is sex, he is religion, he is art and ultimately pure hedonistic entertainment. He is the reaction to the horror that surrounds him. That's Marilyn Manson - the hero that we deserve. (Andrew Trendell)

  • 35. Brian Eno: An architect of sound, allowing sonics to create entire worlds alone. (Andrew Trendell)

  • 34. Marvin Gaye: Dubbed the Prince of Motown thanks to efforts in shaping the scene in the '60s, Marvin Gaye remains one of the most influential musicians of all time. There's no telling what more he could have created, and how he would have evolved, had he not been shot dead by his father at the age of 44. (Alexandra Pollard)

  • 33. Jeff Buckley: A voice that soared with the angels, lyrics that could cut glass and a tapestry of sound weaved from one man's guitar - Buckley's legacy shines in its sheer class, but the world aches for losing him so soon. (Andrew Trendell)

  • 32. Tupac: As far as anyone embedded in the music world, Tupac is the poster-boy for hip-hop and ideals of peace. What Tupac should really be revered for is his unhinged personality and the writing products that stemmed from this walking paradox. An endorser of music above all things, Tupac was simultaneously manoeuvring in shadier territories giving a duality to his music, a genuine facet of genius that is often swept under the carpet in order to promote some half-baked figure of 'peace'. (Will Butler)

  • 31. Nick Drake: Melancholic, serene, haunting, beautiful. Just four words to describe the arrangement of any song by the man, or indeed of all of Nick Drake%u2019s work. He would later go on to inspire some of the most lauded artists of the 20th century, such as REM%u2019s Peter Buck and The Cure%u2019s Robert Smith, and Goldfrapp, and undoubtedly left such an invaluable mark on the jazz and folk circuits which still resonate to this day. Having only completed three albums before leaving this plane of existence, Drake%u2019s work remains critically acclaimed from critics across the world, who view him as inspiring, influential, and irreplaceable. (Flynn Massey)

  • 30. Lauryn Hill: Given that she was always the most exciting, charismatic and, let's face it, talented member of The Fugees (whom she later described as "a conspiracy to control, to manipulate and to encourage dependence") Lauryn Hill's solo career was always destined for great things. No-one could have quite predicted the cultural impact of The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill though. It's an album of whiplash-inducing eclecticism, biting social commentary and killer hooks, all delivered in one of the greatest singing voices of all time. (Alexandra Pollard)

  • 29. Leonard Cohen: One of the geniuses on this list that thankfully hasn't died too young. He's still going strong! His debut album is one of the best albums of all time as few artists have ever made a better crafted and durable album as this. (Cai Trefor)

  • 28. Otis Redding: This seminal soul and R&B singer changed American music for the better. He released six albums in the mid 60s, before tragically dying in a plane crash in 1967. One can only wonder the musical riches he would have left us with had he had more time. (Cai Trefor)

  • 27. Bob Dylan: Probably the most mimicked songwriter of all time, everyone wants to be Bob Dylan. The peak of his songwriting was definitely the mid 60s, when Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde came out. If you ever pick up a Bob Dylan Best Of, it'll be littered with tracks from those albums. (Cai Trefor)

  • 26. George Harrison: George Harrison began releasing solo albums whilst The Beatles were still going, but his best work came in the form of his debut solo album, All Things Must Pass. It's been inducted into The Grammy Hall of Fame and regularly comes high up in the lists of greatest albums of all time. The album includes 'I'd Have You Anytime', which he co-wrote with Bob Dylan. It also includes one of pop music's greatest ever songs, 'My Sweet Lord'. The beauty of this album shouldn't overshadow the rest of his output and Dark Horse is another highlight from his ridiculously great oeuvre. (Cai Trefor)

  • 25. Aretha Franklin: Franklin's voice is a rare wonder. She brings people to tears and goosebumps. Even Obama was seen wiping a tear from his eye when she played '(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman' at The Kennedy Center Honors at the end of last year. (Cai Trefor)

  • 24. Tom Waits: Whether down and out, gutted or in love, Waits delivers something from another, much darker world. The gravelly tones, dry wit, haunting sounds, twisted idiosyncrases and streetwise grit of Waits sound like they're coming from the very pit of his soul. He's truly incomparable. (Andrew Trendell)

  • 23. David Byrne: A musical and lyrical architect who effortlessly blends music and art, performance and theatre, low and high culture. The result? A richness of sound, a totality of experience and a fulfilment of imagination. In short: a complete joy. (Andrew Trendell)

  • 22. The Notorious B.I.G: It's all 'business instead of games' (B.I.G) as the late Biggie Smalls leapfrogs (probably with great difficulty) over Tupac for the No.3 spot. Regardless of the arguably negative impact he created by bringing 'money rap' to the forefront of hip-hop culture, nobody can deny his lyrical talents and infectious flare for colourful story-telling. Essentials: 'Hypnotize', 'The Wickedest Freestyle' and 'Warning'. (Will Butler)

  • Bob Marley: Probably the most influential solo artist ever. He's had a deep impact in helping spread Rastafari and made magical reggae music that still hasn't been eclipsed. (Cai Trefor)

  • 20. Etta James: In her music - with the likes of 'At Last' and, one of the greatest heartbreak songs of all time, 'I'd Rather Go Blind' - James was deep and soulful, her voice rich and expansive. In life, she was delightfully acerbic. "She's gonna get her ass whupped," she said when Beyonce covered 'At Last' for Barack Obama, "singing my song that I've been singing forever." Don't worry Etta, no-one could replace you. (Alexandra Pollard)

  • Bruce Springsteen: Not many people can captivate huge festival, stadium, and arena crowds as well as he does. He's a great singles artist and tracks like 'Streets of Philadelphia, 'Born In The USA, and 'Dancing In The Dark' have become part of the essence of America. You wouldn't got on a road trip there without some high levi's, chucks, and a cassette of The Boss. (Cai Trefor)

  • 18. PJ Harvey: No remain so firmly atop their game, essential and constantly on form throughout 20 years of reinvention. From alt-rock pin-up to leather-clad grunge queen she was in the 90s and on Stories From The City, onto the experimental folk poet laureate, and everything in between. The only artist in history to claim the Mercury Prize twice, and that's because every avenue she takes, she explores to the Nth degree. Everything she does is complete. (Andrew Trendell)

  • 17. Jimi Hendrix: One may question if he was truly a solo artist or the frontman of The Jimi Hendrix Experience, but we're going to give him this one. We can't think of another artist more synonymous with the word 'guitar' - he literally set fire to rule book of what could be done with music, and broke the boundaries of how generations of would-be rock gods would express themselves. Mixing sex and soul with a runaway spirit, the world of music would have been a much poorer place without Mr Jimi Hendrix. (Andrew Trendell)

  • 16. Paul McCartney: In addition to a stunning output with The Wings and his seminal work The Beatles, Paul McCartney has built a highly respected solo career. He has released a remarkable 17 solo albums and 1973's Band On The Run is widely regarded as his best LP. Later releases are great too, and 2005's Chaos and Creation In The Backyard shows that he hasn't fatigued in his songwriting. (Cai Trefor)

  • 15. Ryan Adams: As a solo artist, he's dropped 15 solo albums in 15 years. Such an insanely prolific turn-around of music would lead most artists to drop their standards, but never with R'Adams. Screw release cycles and promotional habits, here's a man simply exercising his need to create - and that compulsion flows through everything he does. With impeccable banter and a devastating poetic wisdom and brutal honesty, he can break your heart, tear you apart, revive your soul or rock your face off. His reimagining of Taylor Swift only proves his knack of conquering emotional landscapes. Heroes are rapidly disappearing from this Earth, but Ryan Adams is the true great that our generation needs. (Andrew Trendell)

  • 14. Joni Mitchell: When Joni Mitchell covered her own song, 'Both Sides, Now', in 2000 - more than 30 years after she first released it - she imbued its lyrics with a new sense of poignancy. "I've looked at life from both sides now," she sang, her crisp falsetto having long since given way to a husky rasp (the result, though she vehemently disagrees, of having smoked since the age of 9), before concluding, "CI really don't know life at all." Those lyrics, cynical and beautiful in equal measure, were written when she was in her 20s. (Alexandra Pollard)

  • 13. John Lennon: After leaving The Beatles, John Lennon gave the world even more timeless classics to play. His first solo stuff was three experimental albums with his wife Yoko Ono, but the real magic didn't come until his proper debut John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band was released. That album is one of Lennon's greatest pieces of work, with 'Mother' and 'Working Class Hero' still some of the best songs ever written. The follow up, Imagine, spawned even more songs that are still cutting edge today, with the title track and 'Jealous Guy' particularly well known. (Cai Trefor)

  • 12. Patti Smith: "Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine." Has there ever been a more powerful opening line than that? In fact, 'Gloria' was the first track on Smith's first album, and was a statement of intent, the battle cry that kicked off a 40 year career. (Alexandra Pollard)

  • 11. Iggy Pop: He was punk before punk had a name, and that can only come from a source of pure aggression - with no fucks given. He remains a monolithic force of nature because his pure vision for what music and art should be remains the same. From his punk output to his game-changing work with Bowie up into his latest reincarnation with the twisted brilliance of Post Pop Depression with Josh Homme, Iggy Pop still matters. He's not only the alpha, but he's the omega too. (Andrew Trendell)

  • 10. Nina Simone: There was always an unknowability to Nina Simone - as a musician, as a performer, and as a woman. Her deep, distinctive voice was instantly knowable though - and resonated with a generation of people. Combing gospel, pop and classical music into something strange and unique, all while tirelessly campaigning for civil rights and facing a lifelong battle with Bipolar Disorder, Simone was one of a kind. (Alexandra Pollard)

  • 9. St Vincent: Annie Clark's stage moniker isn't an alter-ego exactly - it's more an extension of her own fluctuating, ambiguous self. Revelling in falling somewhere in-between the rigid binaries of personhood - gender, sexuality, even genre - St. Vincent's music follows an exquisitely crafted road to nowhere. Her every move on stage is a masterclass in performative theatricality, never once buying into the belief that authentic rock music must be messy, shambolic and ill-thought-out. (Alexandra Pollard)

  • 8. Beck: Held together by elastic dance moves and exquisite showmanship, Beck's output makes for one hell of a disco carnival. The ageless twisted charm of 'Black Tambourine', 'The New Pollution', 'Loser' and 'Hell Yes' rank Beck as an artist in a class of his own, while soulful cuts from the Grammy-winning Morning Phase provide tender respite as 'Blue Moon', 'Lost Cause' and 'Wave' soulfully tug at the heartstrings as the twilight hour sets in, before the party returns in full swing with explosive renditions of new single and ultimate summer jam 'Dreams', 'Girl' and a raunchy rush of 'Sexx Laws'. The closeless thing our generation has to Prince, he takes boundaries, twists them inside out and creates his own sonic territory. (Andrew Trendell)

  • 7. Kendrick Lamar: An artist that has dragged West Coast rap out of the dirge of hedonism and excess, Kendrick is an intellectualist voice of a people who are subjected to a treatment unbefitting of them. There is no wiser artistic voice in the music world. While Kanye inspires and Drake entertains, Kendrick strives, and always will strive, to inform the unformed and stimulate the minds of those that believe they are mindless. Essentials: 'A.D.H.D', 'm.A.A.d City', 'Wesley's Theory'. (Will Butler)

  • 6. Michael Jackson: The man who defined what it was to be a pop-star - an all-singing, all-dancing, global phenomenon. Few dancers could touch him, few voices could match his and no one knew their way around a universally unifying hit like MJ. He wasn't a man, he was a brand, he was an idea, a symbol, he was from a world all of his own. Troubled as he may have been, none can deny the far-reaching impact as the whole world got swept away and inspired by the magic that he made reality. (Andrew Trendell)

  • 5. Nas: The best rapper of all time, Nas represents the bridge between the genesis and progression of the culture of hip-hop. He is deeply invested in music - but something ultimately much greater than the scope of loops, breaks and verses. Originally, Nas was a prodigious voice in a culture that is programmed to try and stifle him. Hip hop, at its core, is a reactionary art form, and no one is more emblematic of that fact than Nas. Essentials: 'Memory Lane', 'NY State of Mind', 'Ether'.

  • 4. Bjork: An eccentric, but never contrived, Bjork is her every wild-eyed idea made manifest. Drawing on all of the arts and calling upon culture and nature in beautiful harmony, it is her harnessing and curation of the elements, both physical and metaphysical, that makes her an artist like no other. With such a purity in her voice, a devastating honesty, boundless ideas and an unparalleled fearlessness, she's truly a gift from Mother Earth herself. (Andrew Trendell)

  • 3. Prince: We're devastated to have lost His Royal Badness, and the loss is pretty monumental. With a wry smile, elastic movements and a fluid sense of musicianship, he'd effortlessly become the party as one hour unnoticably slipped into another - in a space where the soulful met the celebration, where you'd burst out of your own skin for 'Let's Go Crazy', before totally falling apart for 'Nothing Compares 2 U' and witnessing an artist reborn on 'PRETZELBODYLOGIC. Hits were held together by charm and a loving nod to the greats that came before him. All of this was intercut with a catty wit and relentless jamming from an artist who played like he was born with a guitar between his legs. This man sweated music. Hell, he was music. He gave everything to you. Thank you, Prince. (Andrew Trendell)

  • 2. Kate Bush: A goddess, an artist, a force of nature, a true original. Who else would be brave enough to launch their career with a debut single like 'Wuthering Heights'? Bush burst onto the scene in a blaze of glory back in 1978, with her acclaimed debut album, The Kick Inside, released when she was just 19-years-old. Once she reached the ripe old age of 21, she decided to take a 35-year break from touring. It's not the conventional career trajectory for a musician - but then, there's very little conventional about Kate Bush. Over the past 40 years, her distinctive sound, her blend of art and pop, and her unflinching aesthetic have influenced generations of brilliant musicians - and kept us all in love with her. Who can complain about a 35 year wait when it's the show of a lifetime from one of the all-time greatest? (Andrew Trendell)

  • 1. David Bowie: Essentially, he single-handedly invented pop-culture - and defied and well as defined genres. As a single, solo force in music, he meant and achieved more than any other. As well as both defining and defying countless genres, his every evolution held a whole new world. He had a song for every high and every low, for every birth, death, wedding, union, rebellion, friendship, loss, war, celebration, act of love, act of lust. While we will not hear anything new from him, his vast body of work and artistic spirit remains. David Robert Jones was born on 8 January 1947, and died on 10 January 2016 - but David Bowie lives on. An idea cannot be killed. (Andrew Trendell)


Photo: WENN