10 Side Projects That Are Better Than the Primary Band

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Earlier this week, we had the privilege of hearing the new Atlas Sound record. Our professional opinion thus far is that the album is really good, and it got us thinking about how much more we like Bradford Cox’s solo project than his work with Deerhunter. Anyway, this in turn got us thinking about other cases where we’ve enjoyed a musician’s side project more than their “real” band. We’ve pulled together a selection of our favorites after the jump, and for these purposes, we’re calling anything formed while the musician was still in their former band a side project (so Sebadoh count, but a band like, say, New Order doesn’t). Anyway, as ever, we’d love to hear your suggestions.

Atlas Sound

Deerhunter have certainly had their moments — in particular, we were big fans of Microcastle — but listening to their extended psych jams (especially in a live setting) can be like being punched in the head repeatedly by a large man. On his own, Cox seems to embrace the subtlety that his band often lack, and the songs are the better for it.

Panda Bear

The song on the last page gives us a convenient segue to this entry. It’s hard to read a music blog these days without falling over references to how Noah Lennox’s 2007 record Person Pitch “invented chillwave.” That’s as it may be, but whether or not you think this is a good thing, there’s no denying that Person Pitch was an endlessly fascinating and involving piece of work, even in comparison with the already experimental work that Lennox was doing with Animal Collective. Whether you prefer Lennox’s solo work to that of his band is ultimately a matter of taste; for us, Person Pitch remains the pinnacle of all Animal Collective-related output, even if this year’s Tomboy was a (relative) disappointment.

This Mortal Coil

It may have been essentially 4AD founder Ivo Watts-Russell’s baby, but This Mortal Coil was also a side project for several of his bands, most notably Cocteau Twins and Modern English. And for all that we love pretty much anything 4AD-related, we find that it’s This Mortal Coil’s wondrous 1984 debut It’ll End in Tears to which we keep returning — again and again and again.

Sebadoh

Chafing at the dictatorial style of the eternally grumpy J Mascis, Lou Barlow started Sebadoh while he was still in Dinosaur Jr., meaning that we guess it technically qualifies as a side project. The fact that Barlow chose to call his debut as Sebadoh The Freed Man gives an idea of how liberating he found the project (even if he insists the title doesn’t actually refer to Dinosaur Jr.). Anyway, Sebadoh’s distinctly downbeat and lo-fi sound contrasted to the guitar pyrotechnics of Barlow’s other band, and to our ears, did so in a refreshing and pleasing way.

The Breeders

Even though Kim Deal had a band with her sister Kelley in the early 1980s, we’re calling The Breeders a side project because she resurrected the idea while she was still in the Pixies, and used it as an outlet for songs that weren’t getting heard in her other band. While The Breeders’ work never quite approached the glory of the Pixies’ best material, it was certainly better than the music they were making by the time Deal started her new project (particularly the relatively lackluster Trompe Le Monde).

The Postal Service

Being as we’re not huge Death Cab for Cutie fans, it’s perhaps not surprising that we preferred Ben Gibbard’s work with Jimmy Tamborello to the output of his full-time project. But judging by the unexpected success of the band’s one and only album Give Up, we’re not alone — it’s one of only two Sub Pop records to reach gold status (the other being Nirvana’s Bleach). “Such Great Heights” is arguably the best song Gibbard’s ever written, and the album’s enduring popularity is a testament to how well-regarded The Postal Service were (and, indeed, remain).

Fripp & Eno

We’re huge fans of anything Eno-related, but this is really here because of the Fripp side of the equation — his work with Eno was very much a side project to his main work with prog behemoths King Crimson. The latter certainly have their defenders, and often in unexpected quarters — Nick Cave once spent a good ten minutes telling us how much he loved Larks’ Tongues in Aspic — but as far as we’re concerned, the simple, understated nature of Fripp’s atmospheric instrumental work with Eno (particularly the magnificent No Pussyfooting) is several miles more effective than any of his journeys into the court of the Crimson King.

A Perfect Circle

Tool purists may well turn off about now, but we’ve always found Maynard Keenan’s side project somewhat more palatable than the relentlessly out-there sounds of Tool, perhaps because of our aforementioned aversion to all things proggish. In our defence, though, we’re not alone here — out of curiosity, we did a reasonable amount of reading on Tool-related forums to see if anyone else felt the same way, and the consensus appears to be “I like Tool better, but I listen to A Perfect Circle more.” Which pretty much sums it up, really.

Tom Tom Club

This is also a touchy one, considering just how good Talking Heads were at their best. But in our opinon, Talking Heads peaked artistically with 1980’s Remain in Light, and since Tom Tom Club didn’t get happening until the year after, there’s an argument to be made that during the side project’s lifetime, it was better than the main band. Either way, there’s no denying the quality of Tom Tom Club’s output, especially their landmark 1981 debut.

Fever Ray

And we’ve saved the best for last. It’s fair to say that no one expected Karin Dreijer Andersson’s side project to be as jaw-droppingly good as it was. Marrying the immaculate production and spooky vocal effects of The Knife with ten songs that were far more intimate and engaging than those of her main band, her self-titled album as Fever Ray was far and away our favorite album of 2009, and still gets a good old workout on our stereo. We’re very much hoping that there’s more to come.