From Sophie Monk To Harry Styles: The Best And Worst Of Pop Stars Going Solo
Beyonce: nailed it. Kelly Rowland: not so much.
In Greek mythology, there is a beast known as the Hydra. It’s said that if you cut the head off the beast, then two more will grow back. We may be living in a post-One Direction world, but a quick glance at the charts would certainly suggest otherwise – Harry Styles, Niall Horan and Liam Payne have all made their presence felt in their still-burgeoning solo careers after Zayn Malik was first cab off the rank in 2016.
The recent schism of American hopefuls Fifth Harmony, too, has seen a lot of attention drawn to its own Ginger Spice – Camila Cabello, who already had two hits last year in collaboration with Shawn Mendes and Machine Gun Kelly and is now set to release her debut solo album in September.
Of course, pop music has been cutting the head off the Hyrda for decades – wanting your own spotlight is nothing new. The decider, of course, is how you choose to proceed with it. Here’s a list of dos and don’ts across the history of team players ready for their close-up.
Best Solo Girl Group Breakout Album
Melanie C – Northern Star
Regardless of who was ready to admit it or not, Melanie Chisholm was the out-and-out star of the Spice Girls. She had the strongest voice, the most active songwriting presence and the strongest identity as an individual figure.
Northern Star, released in 1999, is the embodiment of this – a diverse, state-of-the-art pop record that still holds up nearly two decades removed from the turn of the century. From the bright piano-laden ‘Suddenly Monday’ to the distorted and fierce ‘Goin’ Down,’ Sporty Spice left no stone unturned as she explored every possibility that came with her independence. No wannabes allowed.
Worst Solo Girl Group Breakout Album
Sophie Monk – Calendar Girl
Bardot was a fascinating experiment during the initial rise of reality television. It produced at least one truly fantastic single – the undeniable ‘Poison’ – but also served up some truly undercooked, forgettable dross among the rest of its discography.
Sophie Monk never had the draw or the personality to make it as a solo star – which is somewhat hilarious, given she is the only Bardot alumni to still hold any degree of public profile. Calendar Girl, her debut album, was also wisely her last – the entire thing sounds as though it cost less than $50 to make.
Best Solo Boy Band Breakout Album
Robbie Williams – Life Thru A Lens
With all the hysteria surrounding One Direction, it’s easy to forget there was a national day of mourning that came with the end of Take That at the height of their UK stardom.
Robbie Williams was earmarked as one to watch – and, although his solo album Life Thru A Lens didn’t instantly take off, songs like ‘Angels’ and ‘Let Me Entertain You’ that are now regarded as pop classics eventually found their way into the collective conscience. Even in its weaker moments, Williams sounds like he is having more fun than he ever did within Take That.
Worst Solo Boy Band Breakout Album
Abs – Abstract Theory
Interestingly, Richard “Abs” Breen was certainly easy to see as a colourful character in the context of his initial surroundings, the underrated UK quintet 5ive. Once that was out of the picture, however, it became increasingly clear that Mr. Abs had very little to offer as an individual.
Abstract Theory is partially a wannabe Justified, the 2002 debut from Justin Timberlake, and partially a pop-reggae splatter. Across the board, however, it was low on hooks and even lower on original ideas. A life of farming eventually called for Breen, which literally bore much more fruit in the long run.
Best Solo Girl Group Breakout Single
Beyoncé – Crazy in Love
Many younger fans of Beyoncé’s may honestly not know of her history as a part of Destiny’s Child — it truly feels so long ago. Besides, once you drop something as gargantuan as ‘Crazy in Love,’ there really is no going back.
A single that would go on to define the entire 2000s, the song’s uncontrollable bombast and switched-up rhythms still sends out a speaker-shaking shiver down the spine. Much has been written on ‘Crazy in Love,’ but none of it matters when the trumpets blare out and the dancefloor fills up – it’s a song to be felt.
Worst Solo Girl Group Breakout Single
Tamara – Ooh Ahh
This one comes in on a technicality, given that Scandal’Us were one of the short-lived and hilariously sexually-tense mixed-gender vocal groups (see also: Steps and S Club 7). Still, it’s a very honourable mention: Not only is ‘Ooh Ahh’ one of the worst songs ever written, it’s also on an eerily high level of creepy.
Here’s a double whammy for you: the song attempts to make a children’s rhyme sexy, but there’s also the indelible context of the “boyfriend” alluded to in the lyrics being Lord Muck himself, “King” Kyle Sandilands. Apologies if you have difficulty sleeping after reading that.
Best Solo Boy Band Breakout Single
Justin Timberlake – Like I Love You
The dust had barely settled on *NSYNC, a year on from their swansong LP Celebrity, when the unmistakable minor-chord acoustic guitar first let out the strum heard around the world.
No other boy-band breakaway got it this right on their very first go: the mastermind arrangement, Pharrell Williams’ funky-drummer snare cracks, even the minimalist keyboard outro. Hell, switch out the fashion in the music video and this could be a hit today, 15 years on. It’s that timeless and that impressive. In saying “bye bye bye” to *NSYNC, Timberlake more or less revealed them to be, ostensibly, his back-up dancers.
Worst Solo Boy Band Breakout Single
Liam Payne – Strip That Down
We’re four from five on One Direction alum releasing new music by themselves, but it’s getting pretty clear that Liam Payne has assumed the role of your Howie D, your Chris Kirkpatrick, your Kevin Jonas. Yep, he’s The Other One.
While Harry came bursting out of the gates and Zayn switched it up on us, Payne has gone with one of the most non-descript and genuinely unlikeable lead singles that could have possibly been assembled. His delivery honestly makes it sound like he’s never had an actual friend before, let alone multiple sexual partners. Plain, Payne, it’s all the same.
Best Solo Girl Group Breakout Video
Geri Halliwell – Look At Me
Always with a flair for the camp and dramatic, Geri Halliwell was inevitably going to step out in style for her first single. In classic black-and-white, the artist formerly known as Ginger takes on a myriad of personas in a mix of spy-movie suave and rom-com playful; all with a sharp, vintage feel to them.
When she appears au naturale toward the end, it’s clear hers was a personality that could have never been contained within the confines of a group. Besides, who could deny the cheeky ending of Halliwell emerging from a pool naked with the caption “Geri’s back”?
Worst Solo Girl Group Breakout Video
Victoria Beckham – Not Such An Innocent Girl
In one of the more hilariously ill-advised moves of her career, Posh decided to follow directly in Geri’s footsteps and make a video of her playing different personalities. Both are incredibly unconvincing – a “bad” and “good” girl, respectively – and the entire affair looks remarkably cheap and tacky.
One truly has to hope who ever designed that diamond-encrusted “VB” logo never worked in graphic design again. We’d get started on the song, but why bother when the song barely gets started itself? The red carpet always did suit Beckham (nee Adams) way more than the recording studio ever did.
Best Solo Boy Band Breakout Video
Harry Styles – Sign of the Times
Yeah, look, sorry, but… can any OTHER members of One Direction fly? Or walk on water? Didn’t think so.
Worst Solo Boy Band Breakout Video
Brian McFadden – Real to Me
Long before he wrote country-pop anthems about sexual assault (look it up), your boy B-Mac was attempting to get away from Westlife and establish himself as an “authentic” “artist.”
In another dual part, McFadden plays both his cool, casual self and his arsehole/rockstar persona. Anyone’s guess as to which one required more acting. This also leans in heavily on the “guitar equals authenticity” angle that many boy-band alum take up, but more on that later.
For now, take in this perfectly tacky and essentially plotless film clip for an already-unremarkable song. Your life truly won’t be better for doing it.
Most Underrated Solo Girl Group Breakout Album
Geri Halliwell – Schizophonic
Geri was never a strong singer, but that’s not what sets Schizophonic apart. It’s all about Halliwell’s larger-than-life persona – sassy, strong, street-smart and sexy. Her solo endeavours were always lavish, playful and invariably fun – and yet, they’ve gone largely overlooked in the intervening years.
In fact, the only thing people seem to remember of Halliwell’s solo career is her Bridget Jones-featuring cover of ‘It’s Raining Men’ from a few years later – and even that seems to be by association. Schizophonic is an impressive and entertaining effort that deserves way more credit than its legacy gives to it.
Most Underrated Solo Boy Band Breakout Album
JC Chasez – Schizophrenic
JT: The Popular One. Chris Kirkpatrick: The Other One. Joey Fatone: The… well, you know. What of JC Chasez? Well… he was The Weird One.
Less concerned with being a megastar, Chasez ended up taking the road less travelled with his synth-pop debut. Schizophrenic ended up being more indebted to Gary Numan and Fischerspooner than Timberlake’s Prince and MJ – and, for what it was going for, it was a surprisingly solid album filled with coulda-been-hits and wonderfully-odd obscurities.
This wasn’t just chosen for its titular proximity to Halliwell’s – although both are closer in alignment than you might think.
Most Underrated Solo Girl Group Breakout Single
Kelly Rowland – Stole
It was never a fair fight when Rowland was always second fiddle to Queen Bey, so the fact they’re still compared after all these years means Rowland never had the proper chance to break out on her own.
In fact, her last big hit – the anthemic ‘When Love Takes Over’ – seemed to only take off due to the ascent of its producer, one David Guetta. ‘Stole,’ heartbreakingly, never gets brought up in the discussion of great 2000s singles – pop or otherwise. Its emotive storytelling and strong key-change shifts, however, attest to the fact it really should be.
Most Underrated Solo Boy Band Breakout Single
Fightstar – Paint Your Target
You hear that scream 11 seconds in? That’s years and years of pent-up aggression from Charlie Simpson, formerly of the clean-cut and kid-friendly Busted, finally being let out in an environment he feels most comfortable in.
Simpson’s rejection of the cookie-cutter mold of Busted meant he was finally able to explore his love of emo and post-hardcore. His past life, frustratingly, would haunt him throughout the trajectory of the band; with Fightstar never being taken seriously on a wider scale due to his previous associates. Fans of the genre, however, will find plenty to enjoy from this hugely-unexpected left turn.
David James Young is a writer, podcaster and pop nerd. He tweets at @DJYwrites.