The Debut Album Project: May (“Going Solo”)

Debut Album Project

Throughout May, the Debut Album Project turned its focus to initial solo offerings from artists who had previously established themselves as part of a group. Over thirty-one days, we featured records by a host of iconic figures, as well as some long-time personal favorites. While a few of these albums were from artists that continued on with the bands that they launched their careers with, most of these represented said artists truly “going solo” for good.

And going solo can prove to be a tricky endeavor, as even some of the records here prove. For every Lauryn Hill — who we already featured as part of February’s ‘One-Album Wonder’ theme — there’s a Wyclef Jean and a Pras. Success as part of a group doesn’t always translate to a noteworthy (or lasting) solo career. However, some of the records that we featured this month inaugurated solo careers that matched — or even surpassed — their respective artists’ first act.

We’ll be shifting our emphasis to a new theme in June. To see those picks in real-time — and to read these mini-reviews in full — give our Instagram and Facebook pages a follow.


May 1 (#121)

Curtis Mayfield

Curtis

(1970)

Rating: 10.0

What We Said: “[It’s] a career-redefining masterstroke that reflected the continued pain, persistence, and urgency of a fractured Civil Rights Movement: one that “Middle America” preferred to believe (with little to no evidence) had achieved its goals in the preceding decade.”


May 2 (#122)

Frank Black

Frank Black

(1993)

Rating: 8.9

What We Said: “Freed from the expectations of continuing the catalog of such a fundamental band, Black takes this record as an opportunity to indulge styles and themes that had only been hinted at with the Pixies: an affinity for sixties pop, sci-fi obsessions, and mid-century cultural references.”


May 3 (#123)

Syd Barrett

The Madcap Laughs

(1970)

Rating: 9.1

What We Said: “Of course, everything here is now informed by the tragic biography of its creator, and this context is both a blessing and a curse for those approaching The Madcap Laughs. It’s not an ‘all-purposes’ listen, but caught it the right light, it’s stunning.”


May 4 (#124)

Brian Wilson

Brian Wilson

(1988)

Rating: 7.8

What We Said: “There are a few obvious highlights here. There are a few decently charming pieces. There are a few well-intentioned swings and misses. All in all, it’s about as good as one could’ve hoped from Brian at this point; especially since its mere existence is somewhat miraculous.”


May 5 (#125)

Rita Lee

Build Up

(1970)

Rating: 7.7

What We Said: Mutantes were a rapidly-changing band at this point, and Build Up seems to represent the end of their golden era. The wild disorientation of their first three records would prove to be unsustainable, and here, Rita Lee makes an admirable effort to assert her own voice — albeit with a little help from her friends.”


May 6 (#126)

Paul Simon

Paul Simon

(1972)

Rating: 9.0

What We Said: “[The] branding as a self-titled record offers further confirmation that this is a particularly personal and introspective set of songs from Simon. While the album’s two best-known tracks (“Mother and Child Reunion” and “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard”) stand among his most effervescent work, plenty of these songs bear the weight of a tumultuous phase in both Simon’s personal life and his career.”


May 7 (#127)

Neil Young

Neil Young

(1969)

Rating: 7.5

What We Said: “While a lot of Neil Young fans essentially consider Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere to be his ‘proper’ debut, one might argue that this self-titled record — released earlier in the same year — actually does a better job of previewing the wildly eclectic nature of Young’s career.”


May 8 (#128)

Hamilton Leithauser

Black Hours

(2014)

Rating: 7.7

What We Said: Black Hours seems to promise a connection to the great crooners of the fifties; Frank Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours and Peggy Lee’s Black Coffee are actually reasonable touchpoints here. However, it also feels of a whole with the shaggy dog persona that Leithauser perfected with The Walkmen. Put another way: these songs feel appropriately ‘lived in’ by their creator.”


May 9 (#129)

Elliott Smith

Roman Candle

(1994)

Rating: 8.5

What We Said: “While it’s true that his artistry would come into sharper focus on his subsequent LPs — peaking with the masterpiece of masterpieces that is 1997’s Either/Or — the craftsmanship and vulnerability that would make those works so impactful is present and accounted for here.”


May 10 (#130)

Thom Yorke

The Eraser

(2006)

Rating: 8.5

What We Said: “While I’ve had a tendency to argue that other non-Radiohead Yorke projects are better (particularly 2019’s ANIMA and last year’s debut from The Smile), I’m actually not so sure. Every track here is solid, and several are straight up outstanding: particularly the title track and “Harrowdown Hill.”


May 11 (#131)

Nico

Chelsea Girl

(1967)

Rating: 8.6

What We Said: “The ‘iciness’ that is often claimed in reference to Nico’s vocal delivery is certainly on display here, and while at first glance these songs can come off as detached, there is an emotional directness here that is often arresting. With help from songs by her Velvet Underground cohorts, plus Bob Dylan, Tim Hardin, and Jackson Browne (the latter of whom wrote the stellar one-two opening punch), Nico largely plays the role of interpreter, and she does so admirably.”


May 12 (#132)

Gordon Downie

Coke Machine Glow

(2001)

Rating: 9.3

What We Said: “[It’s] an album of small wonders: wheezy accordions, delicately decaying reverb tails, and the same lyrical micro-details which ensured that The Tragically Hip would transcend their bar band roots… There’s tension, mystery, and magic running all throughout these sixteen sleepy evocations. It’s all about mood, atmosphere, and the undeniable poetic quality of Downie’s lyrics.”


May 13 (#133)

Gram Parsons

GP

(1973)

Rating: 8.7

What We Said: “With seven of these eleven songs being original compositions, the success of GP hinges largely on Parsons’ writing… [And] even if it falls short of transcendence, what’s here is genuinely excellent. Parsons’ plaintive melodies; Emmylou Harris’ backing vocals; those truly ‘authentic’ country arrangements: it’s all good stuff.”


May 14 (#134)

Paul McCartney

McCartney

(1970)

Rating: 8.4

What We Said: “This is really an endearing record. As plenty have argued, McCartney sounds like a genuine precursor to the indie bedroom pop of forty-plus years later. Its lo-fi production, minimalist arrangements, and emphasis on melody over meaning was — in a sense — well ahead of its time.”


May 15 (#135)

Ringo Starr

Sentimental Journey

(1970)

Rating: 5.7

What We Said: “Even when judged on a more reasonable curve, Sentimental Journey is little more than an intermittently charming curiosity. More than anything else, it reveals the vocal limitations that were endearing in small doses, but that struggle to sustain an entire LP.”


May 16 (#136)

George Harrison

All Things Must Pass

(1970)

Rating: 10.0

What We Said: “The wealth of material here — both in terms of quality and quantity — is staggering. While one could make the argument that ATMP would’ve made for a perfect single LP — and plenty have, just as they do in regard to the White Album — there’s little here that I would personally be willing to sacrifice… In sum total, this is a monster record, and a massive fucking accomplishment.”


May 17 (#137)

John Lennon

Plastic Ono Band

(1970)

Rating: 10.0

What We Said: “No single item in his catalog — with or without The Beatles — is more raw, more intense, or more personal… Any understanding of John Lennon is incomplete without knowing this record. And ultimately, to know Plastic Ono Band is as close as you or I will ever get to knowing John Lennon, warts and all.”


May 18 (#138)

Yoko Ono

Plastic Ono Band

(1970)

Rating: 8.9

What We Said: “It’s a highly experimental and improvisational form of rock. Legitimate comparisons to the work that German acts like Can and Faust would become known for prove that Plastic Ono Band was very much on the cutting edge of rock music at the dawn of the seventies.”


May 19 (#139)

Mike Watt

Ball-Hog or Tugboat

(1995)

Rating: 7.6

What We Said: Ball-Hog is a bit all over the place, and you probably won’t feel like you know ‘Watt the Solo Artist’ any better after listening to it. He’d truly break through with his own voice — literally and figuratively — on Contemplating the Engine Room, but in the interim, this was a hell of a fun diversion.”


May 20 (#140)

John Linnell

State Songs

(1999)

Rating: 7.6

What We Said: “Ostensibly a collection of songs about fifteen of the United States, State Songs merely uses this framing device to unite a set of unconnected tracks that, ultimately, have little (if anything) to do with their namesake states. And while that would’ve been a fun exercise to hear Linnell take on, the loose adherence to concept arguably helps these pieces stand on their own compositional merits.”


May 21 (#141)

Brian Eno

Here Come the Warm Jets

(1974)

Rating: 9.7

What We Said: “It’s all about texture: be it from Eno’s decidedly ‘bent’ vocals, years-ahead-of-their-time production flourishes, or the otherworldly guitar solos of Robert Fripp. Nothing about it feels ‘normal,’ but it all feels ‘right.'”


May 22 (#142)

Kim Gordon

No Home Record

(2019)

Rating: 7.8

What We Said: “Granted, exactly no one should’ve been surprised by a decidedly arty record from Gordon, no matter what phase of her career. But still, there’s something genuinely exciting and unexpected about these tracks, and the real surprise is that they all work together so well.”


May 23 (#143)

Robert Pollard

Not in My Airforce

(1996)

Rating: 7.7

What We Said: Airforce has the vibe of contemporaneous [Guided by Voices] releases, which is definitely a good thing… The songwriting doesn’t quite match up to that of [Bee Thousand or Alien Lanes], but this is still a fine addendum to GBV’s classic era.”


May 24 (#144)

Foo Fighters

Foo Fighters

(1995)

Rating: 7.6

What We Said: “It’s easy to forget how different Foo Fighters is from a majority of the project’s subsequent work. While [Dave] Grohl often displays the ability to go ‘big’ here, this is a surprisingly insular record: one that doesn’t feel too far removed from the bedroom pop that it kinda sorta was.”


May 25 (#145)

Stephen Malkmus

Stephen Malkmus

(2001)

Rating: 8.3

What We Said: “It’s decidedly more laid back than Malkmus had sounded in years. It’s mellow, but not timid. It’s nimble, but not showy. It’s summery, but not cloying. Ultimately, it finds a near-perfect balance between Malkmus’ more direct side, and his well-documented penchant for fuckery. And, it’s another excellent record from one of the best songwriters of his era.”


May 26 (#146)

Ben Folds

Rockin’ the Suburbs

(2001)

Rating: 8.1

What We Said: “[It] was released on September 11th. The September 11th… And so, [these songs] would become deeply embedded within complex memories of some really heavy times. And they remain permanently lodged there.”


May 27 (#147)

Peter Gabriel

Peter Gabriel

(1977)

Rating: 7.4

What We Said: “It’s likely that just “Solsbury Hill” will be familiar to the casual fan — and that is the easy highlight — but there is plenty more here for any enjoyer of Gabriel’s previous or subsequent work. But there are also some curious oddities that score points for eclecticism, while not exactly enriching the experience as much as one might hope.” 


May 28 (#148)

Paul Westerberg

14 Songs

(1993)

Rating: 6.2

What We Said: “The thing is, by 1993, there were a ton of songwriters cast in the Westerberg mold. And unfortunately, to these ears at least, 14 Songs sounds more in the spirit of Goo Goo Dolls than Wilco. It’s not bad — though a few tracks come close — but it just doesn’t feel all that vital.”


May 29 (#149)

Iggy Pop

The Idiot

(1977)

Rating: 8.5

What We Said: “[It] has grown on me, after many years of skepticism. This is a decidedly thorny record, but most of the things that its most ardent supporters say about it are true. Bottom line: The Idiot is worth the effort that it might take for you to ‘decode’ it.”


May 30 (#150)

Bob Mould

Workbook

(1989)

Rating: 7.4

What We Said: “Fans were likely left scratching their heads at the folky strains that opened Mould’s first solo effort. And while Workbook often does draw from this particular well, this is still the same singer-songwriter that traded off hyper-paced classics with Grant Hart in Hüsker Dü. As is usually the case with Mould, the hooks are there, even if they take some time to unearth.”


May 31 (#151)

Björk

Debut

(1993)

Rating: 8.7

What We Said: “While it’s tempting to call Debut ‘front-loaded,’ it’s not lacking for quality in the second half; it’s just that the first half contains some real headliners. It’s also easy to overlook Debut, given the fact that Björk’s next three albums were all-time classics. Thing is, this one’s not all that far off the mark itself.”


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