musical diversions

From Bleachers to Superheavy, Ranking Music’s Biggest Side and Solo Projects

Photo: Maya Robinson and Photo by Getty

Although Jack Antonoff is more known for his work in the band fun., his new project, Bleachers, released its debut album last week. Though Antonoff does not love it when Bleachers is called a side project, the arrangement shares many attributes of a side project — and so Vulture decided to rank other noteworthy solo or side projects against their better-known bands. Note: This list is restricted to the past decade, otherwise it could’ve stretched far longer.

Who’s in it? Mick Jagger, Joss Stone, Dave Stewart, Damian Marley, and A.R. Rahman
Years active: 2011
How different is it from their day jobs?
Imagine putting your iPod on shuffle, but instead of it just playing an individual song, it blasts every song you own at the same time. That’s Superheavy. Mick Jagger and reggae don’t mix.
Critical reception: “At its least enjoyable, however, you’re struck — not for the first time in Jagger’s extracurricular oeuvre — by a sense of star-studded pointlessness.” —The Guardian
Was it worth the distraction? Noooooooooooooooope. Nope. No.

Foxboro Hot Tubs
Years active:
Who’s in it? It’s just Green Day in new clothes.
How different is it from their day job?
Um, it’s not really that different at all? It’s a little bit punkier than the stuff the band had been producing in the mid-2000s, but definitely not quite as rocking as their earliest work.
Critical reception:Stop Drop and Roll is a holding-pattern disc — a way to keep things light as they ponder their next move in a high-stakes megacareer.” —Rolling Stone
Was it worth the distraction? If it let the Green Day guys clear their heads a bit, we’re all for it. Foxboro never really caught on with the masses, but the group’s “only” album is a well-constructed piece of the Green Day puzzle.

Frou Frou
Who’s in it?
Imogen Heap! And a gentleman named Guy Sigsworth.
Years active: 2002-2003
How different is it from her day job?
Frou Frou was a one-time-only pop remodeling of Heap’s musicality that found its way onto the Shrek 2 soundtrack among such company as Counting Crows and Lipps Inc.
Critical reception: Can a band ever really have existed if no major reviews were ever filed?
Was it worth the distraction? The duo’s “Holding Out for a Hero” cover really helped Shrek 2 come to life, so yes, I’d say that’s worth it.

The Dead Weather
Who’s in it? Jack White (The White Stripes) and Allison Mosshart (The Kills), Jack Lawrence (City and Colour)
Years active: 2009-present
How different is it from their day jobs?
It’s a lot harder rock than either of their regular projects are used to, and for once, White shares lead vocals with someone other than himself.
Critical reception: “It’s a heavy, snarly, physical rock album, and it feels like the work of people so secure in their ass-kicking abilities that they don’t have to sweat the details.” —Pitchfork
Was it worth the distraction? Depends on whom you ask. Beyond bringing Mosshart to a wider audience, the Dead Weather never really got past the “loud noises” phase of music, but their live shows were (are? Who knows with Jack White) beyond electric.

Cobra Starship
Who’s in it? Gabe Saporta (from the pop-punk band Midtown), Ryland Blackinton & Alex Suarez (This Is Ivy League), Victoria Asher, Nate Novarro (Armor For Sleep)
Years active: 2003-2012
How different is it from his day job?
Extremely different, in that one of Starship’s songs featured vocals from Gossip Girl actress Leighton Meester. Oh, and the band did the theme song for Snakes on a Plane.
Critical reception: “The hooks here are undeniably sharp — especially on ”#1Nite (One Night),” which swipes the melody from Usher’s ”DJ Got Us Fallin’ in Love.” But Cobra were more fun as party crashers than they are as VIPs.”—Entertainment Weekly
Was it worth the distraction? Besides cribbing the Fall Out Boy “let’s throw darts at notecards with words on them and name our songs that way” titling method, Cobra Starship has actually produced some half-decent pop songs. Why not?

The Postal Service
Who’s in it? Ben Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie), Jenny Lewis (Rilo Kiley), Jimmy Tamborello (Headset)
Years active: 2001-2005; 2013
How different is it from their day jobs?
Very! It’s drenched in synthesizers. It’d be like if the Rolling Stones made a (very, very good!) Owl City album.
Critical reception: “It’s the sound of heartbreak. It’s the sound of that quiet sob when you realise [sic] your ‘last-forever’ love is slowly wilting; the sound of an adolescent’s diary, documenting some unrequited obsession; and the sound of wide-eyed optimism melting into melancholy.” —Drowned In Sound
Was it worth the distraction? People really dig the Postal Service, so sure, if only because the band’s 2013 tour helped Lewis through some tough times.

Broken Bells
Who’s in it? James Mercer (The Shins) and Danger Mouse
Years active: 2009-present
How different is it from their day jobs?
Not at all, really, just more of a mash-up.
Critical reception: “Instead of trying to mask or distort Mercer’s identity, the duo instead presents a clearer, more soulful rendering of the singer while strengthening his bond to Burton, who broadens the sonic palette while boosting the BPMs.” —Spin
Was it worth the distraction? Yes. Honestly, this is one of the more fully formed side projects in recent memory, one that almost washes away any work prior to the band.

Who’s in it? This is Jack Antonoff from fun.’s band (how do you make fun. a possessive noun? Grammar is fun!) and it shows in the best way possible, with grand ambitions and grander choruses.
Years active: 2014-present
How different is it from his day job? Antonoff gets lead vocals and frontman duty.
Critical reception:Strange Desire is like a John Hughes film without the nuance and humor, all ‘80s schmaltz and all catharsis, or at least attempted catharsis.” —Consequence of Sound
Was it worth the distraction? Yes! Lead single “I Wanna Get Better” is a worthy Song of Summer contender. Down with Magic, let Bleachers reign.

Child Rebel Soldier
Who’s in it?
Kanye West, Pharrell, and Lupe Fiasco
Years active: 2007-2008; 2010
How different is it from their day jobs?
The same; they were just doing it together.
Critical reception: “It’s fast, punchline-laced and lacking a hook.” —Village Voice
Was it worth the distraction? Yes. It brought out the best in all three rappers, like a hyperspeed version of Watch the Throne. Two official songs were not nearly enough.

Father John Misty
Who’s in it? Joshua “J.” Tillman (the former drummer for Fleet Foxes)
Years active: 2012-present
How different is it from his day job?
It’s a solo project, which was new for Tillman. It’s also a lot darker and more psychedelic than Fleet Foxes’ material.
Critical reception: “Imagine an angel being cast out of heaven to live a profoundly weird life in Laurel Canyon with nothing but a stack of Neil Young and Harry Nilsson LPs to guide him. That sums up the aesthetic, and the appeal, of Fear Fun.” —The A.V. Club
Was it worth the distraction? Yes, Fear Fun is so excellent that it can make its listeners forget about Fleet Foxes.

Volcano Choir
Who’s in it? Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), Jon Mueller (Death Blues), Thomas Wineck & Matthew Skemp (All Tiny Creatures), Daniel Spack, Chris Rosenau
How different is it from his day job? Imagine if Vernon sang vocals over an Explosions in the Sky record and you’ll have this, so the answer is “not too different if you close your eyes.”
Critical reception: “If you were to wake up one morning with the ability to fly, it’s the music you might want to have playing on your earbuds when you watch the world disappear beneath your feet for the first time, when you first feel cloud-vapor in your lungs.” —Stereogum
Was it worth the distraction? A lot of reviewers noted that if Vernon had simply repackaged this as a Bon Iver album, nobody would’ve known the difference, and that’s one of the most ringing endorsements that someone could give a side project.

Ranking Music’s Biggest Side-Projects