Top Pop Music Solo Artists of the '80s

Maybe it's just me, but as a music lover who came of age during the '80s, it certainly seemed like an inordinate amount of artists formerly in successful bands or groups had their solo careers explode during this decade. Perhaps the self-centeredness and materialism of the era had something to do with that, but no matter the source of the impulse, solo careers made for an impressive array of record sales for artists from Phil Collins all the way through to George Michael. So much for the phrase "lonely at the top." Here's a look at the most important solo artists of the '80s - all who built solo careers almost as big (if not bigger) than the ones they enjoyed as previous members of superstar ensembles.

Michael Jackson
Dave Hogan/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

I briefly toyed with the notion of excluding Jackson from this list only because - based on the sheer majesty of his '80s solo career - it's easy to nearly forget that he ever belonged to a group in the first place. The fact that The Jackson Five were major hitmakers in their own right serves only to illustrate that much more clearly just how massive Jackson became in the wake of one of pop music's biggest albums of all time, 1982's omnipresent Thriller. Jackson forged a nearly unattainable template. More »

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Phil Collins

Phil Collins' debut solo LP, 1981's 'Face Value,' launched him into immediate solo orbit.
Album Cover Image Courtesy of Atlantic

The long-time Genesis frontman and drummer may not have seemed destined for solo success, but he made up for his lack of sex appeal and style with a tuneful nose (or ear, anyway) for pop accessibility. Starting with 1981's Face Value and stretching across three subsequent top-selling albums during the decade, Collins delivered hit after hit. All told, he compiled six No. 1 pop singles while also managing to gain abundant play on rock radio. Collins' mix of classic rock and balladry was simply unmatched.

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Peter Gabriel

Ex-Genesis frontman Peter Gabriel built an odd but successful solo career, culminating commercially with 1986's 'So.'
Album Cover Image Courtesy of Geffen

Always a far more charismatic and mysterious figure than his former Genesis bandmate, Peter Gabriel nonetheless never came close to matching the popularity or pop music savvy of Collins. Even so, he released one of the monster albums of the '80s in 1986's So, and he contributed some definite musical watermark moments, most notably "In Your Eyes," a tune so famously used in Cameron Crowe's film Say Anything. Ultimately, Gabriel ruled the pop music outskirts as a top-selling solo artist - even as Collins earned middle-ground, traditional stardom.

Lionel Richie was essentially destined to leave The Commodores for a solo career that explored his pop music leanings.
Album Cover Image Courtesy of UTV/Motown

As a member of '70s soul and funk giants The Commodores, Richie always displayed a knack for big, juicy hooks and love songs. But none of his previous success could have prepared the listening public for his sheer potential to perfect a broad style of pop music. Although Richie hit it big occasionally with somewhat embarrassing attempts at dance pop ("Dancing on the Ceiling"), his strength always remained his sublime, lilting ballads - from "Endless Love" to "Hello" to "Say You, Say Me.". More »

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George Michael

George Michael's lone solo album, 1987's 'Faith," became one of the most popular albums of the '80s.
Album Cover Image Courtesy of Columbia

Although his success with Wham! fell just short of qualifying as a solo career from the start (sorry, Mr. Ridgeley), Michael reached ever more dizzying heights upon the release of his 1987 masterpiece, Faith. The record reached No. 1 on both the pop and R&B charts, and - based on the solid foundation of the album - Michael's reputation as a pop superstar was quickly cemented. Michael released only one solo album within the boundaries of the decade, but that's all that was required of him.

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Don Henley's solo work grew slicker as the '80s wore on, and 1984's 'Building the Perfect Beast' was a fine example.
Album Cover Image Courtesy of Geffen

While almost everyone who was ever in The Eagles has released some degree of music as a solo artist, far and away the most successful member of this department is Henley. Glenn Frey had his moments, but Henley displayed a consistency as a solo artist not common for renegades from big-time rock bands. Like Collins and Richie, Henley's solo efforts appealed to a wide variety of audiences, and as a composer, he proved himself as skilled with synthesizers as with acoustic guitars. More »

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Belinda Carlisle

Belinda Carlisle unveiled a svelte new glamorous look as she embarked on her '80s solo career.
Album Cover Image Courtesy of IRS

The music business being fickle as it is, it took a fairly thorough makeover to turn former Go-Go's lead singer Belinda Carlisle into a pop star. I don't know why it seemed so necessary for her to lose some pounds when the band had enjoyed so much success during her slightly heavier days, but that is the way it happened, I guess. Musically, Carlisle completed the transition from her former band's very early punk rock days to unabashed adult contemporary pop, a la "Mad About You" and "I Get Weak."

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Sting

Sting explored his musical eclecticism on his first two solo albums, remaining just as successful as during his days in The Police.
Album Cover Image Courtesy of A&M

Ex-Police frontman and bassist Sting boasts arguably the most interesting and divergent solo career of any '80s artist, though that doesn't necessarily make it the best. For my money, Mr. Sumner tends to be a bit too insistent about straying from his melodic pop past in favor of jazz and world music stylings. Nonetheless, it's difficult to question the quality of his songwriting on tunes like "Fortress Around Your Heart," one of Sting's more accessible solo efforts.

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Stevie Nicks

Stevie Nicks became one of the biggest female pop music stars of the '80s.
Album Cover Image Courtesy of Reprise

You definitely know you're wildly successful as a solo artist when that career takes off significantly prior to your band's official breakup. That was most certainly the case with Nicks, who almost immediately began to exceed Fleetwood Mac's '80s releases with her 1981 debut, Bella Donna. Still, even more, notable is that her most well-known solo hits (​"Edge of Seventeen" and ​"Stand Back," for example) are matched in quality by lesser-known gems like "If Anyone Falls" and "Talk to Me."

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Kenny Loggins

Kenny Loggins enjoyed his prime solo years during the '80s.
Album Cover Image Courtesy of Columbia

Having begun his career as one-half of a partnership with Jim Messina, Loggins was early accustomed to being at the forefront musically. So in that sense, it wasn't difficult for him to step into the total spotlight as a solo artist. However, as one of the '80s kings of the film soundtrack, Loggins truly embraced the decade and wrote appropriately bombastic ballads like "Meet Me Half Way" and fist-clenching rockers perfect for the silver screen such as "Danger Zone" or "I'm Alright."

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Peake, Steve. "Top Pop Music Solo Artists of the '80s." ThoughtCo, Nov. 19, 2017, thoughtco.com/top-pop-music-solo-artists-of-the-80s-10702. Peake, Steve. (2017, November 19). Top Pop Music Solo Artists of the '80s. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/top-pop-music-solo-artists-of-the-80s-10702 Peake, Steve. "Top Pop Music Solo Artists of the '80s." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/top-pop-music-solo-artists-of-the-80s-10702 (accessed December 17, 2017).