The Best One-Man Bands in Recent Memory

Okkervil River is Will Sheff, especially on new album 'Away.'
Okkervil River is Will Sheff, especially on new album 'Away.'
Photo courtesy of Shorefire Media

Okkervil River began as a band in the late '90s, when Will Sheff and his fellow Austinites joined up to have some fun and make some music. Over the years, myriad factors – kids, 8-5 jobs, etc. – led one member after another to depart from the band, to the point that Sheff was the only founding member left. Since then, the band has gone the turnstile approach as it pertains to band members. People come and people go, but Sheff and Okkervil River remain constant. As much was evident during the recording of Okkervil River’s latest album, Away, which features a totally new lineup, Sheff notwithstanding.

Point being, Will Sheff is Okkervil River, which plays White Oak Music Hall’s downstairs room tonight. He isn’t alone in this regard. Music is littered with solo musicians masquerading as bands.

Dinosaur Jr. began with the trio of front man J Mascis, drummer Murph and bassist Lou Barlow, and despite numerous bumps in the road, that is the current Dinosaur Jr. lineup (the trio reunited a decade ago and began touring and releasing new music). However, for most of the ’90s, the band was essentially a J Mascis solo project. Barlow left the band in 1989 and Murph, who contributed to a couple of early-’90s records, officially left Dinosaur Jr. in 1993. While he assembled some backing musicians, Mascis took even more control of the band for Without a Sound and Hand It Over before retiring the band’s name in the late ’90s. The original Dinosaur Jr. lineup has been back in the fold for quite some time now, but as Barlow basically admitted in a recent interview with the Houston Press , this was, is and will continue to be a band influenced primarily by the vision of its front man.

Vladimir Ondrasik was totally cool rolling with his given name when setting out on his musical career more than 20 years ago. There was one problem, however: His record label wasn’t so cool with it. Convinced the name Vladimir Ondrasik wouldn’t exactly sell to pop audiences, Ondrasik’s label at the time (EMI) requested he come up with a stage name. He chose Five For Fighting, a hockey term for a situation in which someone is assessed a five-minute major penalty for fighting (Ondrasik is a big L.A. Kings fan). The musical results have been mixed (Ondrasik’s piano-based catalog can be a bit melancholy), but it’s hard to argue with the results — since the switch, Five For Fighting has moved more than 2 million records over the past 20 years.

Give Dave Grohl credit for this: How many guys could be a part of one of the most famous, influential bands of all time (Nirvana), then have a career second act of consequence? Not only has Grohl moved on from his Nirvana roots; he’s outpaced them since forming Foo Fighters in 1995. If you’re wondering whether this is me subtly suggesting that Foo Fighters are better than Nirvana, yes, that’s what I’m suggesting. Grohl has since added a number of members to Foo Fighters’ stable — Pat Smear and Taylor Hawkins, most notably — but he pretty much recorded the band’s 1995 self-titled debut by himself. That debut includes hit singles like “This Is a Call,” “I’ll Stick Around” and “Big Me,” which set the tone for many, many, many more hit singles to follow over the ensuing two decades.

LCD Soundsystem’s live show is one that every music fan should experience at some point. The raw energy from James Murphy and crew is matched by few in today’s musical landscape. Of course, when it comes to recording the band’s studio material, there really is no crew. Rather, Murphy — who formed the Brooklyn-based LCD in 2002, plays the majority of the instrumental parts on the band’s albums (understandably, he is unable to do so live, though it would be interesting to see him try). The approach has paid dividends. While never a commercial force — of the band’s three full-length albums, none have gone platinum and only one (2010’s This Is Happening) debuted inside the Billboard Top 10 — LCD has developed one of the most avid, loyal fanbases in all of music.

Like many other one-man bands, Nine Inch Nails features a number of studio and backing musicians, mostly for touring purposes. But make no mistake — this has been and always will be Trent Reznor’s band. Reznor – that’s Academy Award winner Trent Reznor, mind you – formed NIN nearly 30 years ago in Cleveland. The mind, heart and voice behind the band, Reznor is responsible for one of the more diverse, fulfilling musical catalogs in the history of rock music.

In a live setting, Passion Pit features a keyboardist, drummer, bassist, two guitarists and, of course, front man Michael Angelakos. In the studio? It’s just Angelakos, who has become one of indie electronica’s biggest voices since forming Passion Pit nearly ten years ago. Over the past decade, Angelakos has released three Passion Pit albums and charted five singles on the U.S. Alternative Radio charts. But it’s Passion Pit’s live show, among the more energetic you’ll find (think a slightly more caffeinated LCD Soundsystem), where Angelakos truly thrives.

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