When Social Distancing Leads to Great Music: 10 Albums Made (Mostly) by a Single Person
By Sarah Finegold & Etan Rosenbloom
• April 1, 2020
Coronavirus isolation got you down? You’re not alone. With festivals and tours canceled around the globe, studio time postponed and writing sessions put on hold, quarantine life is putting a serious damper on that communal vibe so important to the music community.
But music always finds a way. Even if you can’t collaborate in person, there’s plenty of creative work you can do all by yourself.
To get you inspired, here are 10 of our favorite ASCAP albums written and performed (almost) entirely by a single person.
Looking for ways to collaborate during quarantine? Visit the "stay connected" section of our Music Unites Us resource guide.
Stevie Wonder: Music of My Mind (1972)
Stevie Wonder was already known as a quadruple threat singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer when he released Music of My Mind in 1972. This go round though, Wonder was fresh from his old Motown contract, and he used the freedom to flex his instrumental prowess. Instead of collaborating with the Funk Brothers as he’d done many times before, Wonder recorded vocals, drums, synths, piano, percussion, Moog bass, all himself - everything you hear except some trombone, guitar and some background vox. The result was a trippy, funky and expressive album with a sound all its own. It’s considered by many to be the first record of Wonder’s classic period, and set the stage for masterpieces like Talking Book and Innervisions.
Paul McCartney: Paul McCartney II (1980)
This wasn’t McCartney’s first time writing, performing and producing an album almost entirely by himself (his first solo album from 1970 was just him with harmony vocals from his wife Linda). But with synth-pop tracks (check “Temporary Secretary” “Front Parlour” and “Darkroom”) and a sealed-off sonic aesthetic, McCartney II was the first time when a Paul McCartney record really felt like the product of one person, experimenting by himself. In some ways it presaged the whole bedroom pop phenomenon by at least a decade.
Nine Inch Nails: Pretty Hate Machine (1989)
Trent Reznor was a 24-year old engineer and handyman at a Cleveland recording studio while he was developing the punishing industrial soundscapes that would become Nine Inch Nails’ debut record, Pretty Hate Machine. Certainly, isolation anthems “Head Like a Hole” and “Terrible Lie” were inspired by synth-pop acts like Depeche Mode and New Order. But Pretty Hate Machine is very much its own thing, with an accent on pop song structures amidst all the charcoal hues and robotic dance rhythms. It’s also a classic auteur record, with the songwriting, performances and programming done almost entirely by Reznor himself. Pretty Hate Machine set the stage for all the mammoth success that NIN, and Reznor himself, would soon be met with.
Mary Lou Williams: Solo Recital Montreux Jazz Festival 1978 (1998)
Jazz pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams was an indisputable giant of jazz throughout her long career. She was a master of every style she played - from stride to swing, blues to bop, ragtime to gospel - and she mentored (or composed/arranged music for) many of the greats, including Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker. While Williams was well-known as a bandleader and sidewoman, she was also a formidable solo performer. You can hear that in this jaw-dropping live recording, from her solo recital at the 1978 Montreux Jazz Festival. She crams in everything she knows into readings of standards like “Tea for Two” and “The Man I Love” and original compositions “Little Joe from Chicago” and "What's Your Story Morning Glory.” The fact that this was Williams’s final recording before her death in 1981 gives the album extra resonance. But it’s a fantastic listen even without the backstory.
J Dilla: Donuts (2006)
What to do when you’re all alone but need that perfect vocal, that thumping beat, that wailing horn you’re looking for? Enter the art of sampling. While sampling may seem ubiquitous in today’s music landscape, it would not exist in its current form without the innovation and ingenuity of early adopters. The late James Dewitt Yancey, known to his scores of adoring hip-hop acolytes as J Dilla, is widely considered one of the godfathers of lo-fi hip-hop. As a producer, he collaborated with a panoply of ‘90s hip-hop royalty like A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Busta Rhymes, Erykah Badu, The Roots, The Pharcyde, Madlib and Common to secure his place as one of the architects of the new hip-hop movement. But Dilla worked his magic alone just as magnificently as with others. Sampling the old fashioned way from tapes and records, Dilla weaves mystifying musical narratives that take you by the hand and lead you to another world. Press play on Donuts, close your eyes and revel in unpacking this treasure trove of exquisite details, soaring beats and undeniable swag. No better day than today to indulge in Donuts.
Alcest: Souvenirs d'un autre monde (2007)
There is a long history of one-man black metal bands, stretching at least as far back as Quorthon (the Swedish visionary behind black metal godfathers Bathory). French musician Neige extended that tradition into calmer, more pastoral territory with the second album from his project Alcest. While Souvenirs d'un autre monde retains the tremolo guitars and double kick drums of black metal, there isn’t a whiff of hostility in this album. Alcest’s music is all in service of uplift and reflection. With the major keys and dreamy atmospherics he mixes in, Souvenirs feels like an immersive daydream.
Bon Iver: For Emma, Forever Ago (2007)
Written in the shelter of a secluded Wisconsin cabin, Justin Vernon’s debut album as Bon Iver is as vast and expansive as the rural wilderness from which it was born. For Emma, Forever Ago echoes with both the beauty and the sadness of solitude. Vernon’s trademark falsetto weaves a hypnotic web around echoing choral arrangements, plaintive acoustic guitar and warm horns. The evocative lyrics tell stories of heartache, mediocrity and malaise; they rival the melodies in their arresting beauty. Since his melancholic solo debut, Bon Iver has gone on to become one of the most innovative collaborators in the music business. Some of his latest recordings feature more creative partners than you can count on your hands. But as a consummate creator, Bon Iver makes magic whether he’s creating alone in the woods or in a studio with a legion of other musicians.
Tame Impala: Lonerism (2012)
Written by Australian psych rocker Kevin Parker while he was on tour with his band Tame Impala, Lonerism explores feelings of isolation and disconnect in the trippiest, most stylish ways imaginable. The sense of contradiction in how someone surrounded by people can feel so solitary spills over into the lush soundscapes of Lonerism. It is deeply psychedelic but also accessible. It is mellow yet propulsive. Songs that would sound at home on a heady ‘70s mixtape nestle perfectly next to songs that are radio-ready for the 2010s without missing a tonal beat. The production is nothing short of sublime, so make sure you bump it from your best cans or speakers to revel in the stunning soundscapes.
Grimes: Art Angels (2015)
Written, produced and engineered by Claire Boucher and Claire Boucher alone, Art Angels came as a furious response to an industry Grimes felt refused to take her talent seriously. And Art Angels truly delivered on that promise to showcase her multi-hyphenate nature as a music creator. Like her previous work, it is ecstatically bizarre and contains multitudes; there is screaming rage, ominous whispery vocals and unsettling dialogue. However, there are also exhilarating dance pop tracks and plaintive, honest ballads. With no other cooks in the kitchen, Grimes the autodidact created an album that is undiluted Grimes - mesmerizing method in her madness.
Billie Eilish: WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? (2019)
Yes, this album was actually the product of two people: Billie Eilish and her multi-instrumentalist/producer brother, FINNEAS. But the two of them wrote and recorded it entirely by themselves in their childhood home, so this is most definitely an example of what can happen when the rest of the world is shut out, and you rely on your own creative instincts to guide you. With Eilish’s supple, expressive voice and FINNEAS's alien sonics, WWAFAWDWG? sounds like nothing else, and its success was unprecedented. It earned rapturous critical and commercial acclaim, becoming the year’s best-selling album in the US and several other countries; it also set a record for most simultaneously charting Hot 100 songs (14) by a female artist. With the release of her “Bad Guy” single and a subsequent Justin Bieber remix, Eilish became the first artist born in the 2000s to notch a #1 single in the US (it topped the charts in another 15 countries). And to cap off their incredible 2019, Billie and FINNEAS won 10 Grammys for their work on WWAFAWDWG?, making Eilish the first woman to win all four major Grammy categories, and FINNEAS the youngest ever winner of Producer of the Year. Not bad for a pair of homeschooled siblings, making musical magic in creative isolation.