After seismically changing the face of pop music as a quintet in the late '90s, the Spice Girls were always going to struggle to make anywhere near the same impact as solo artists. Yet the notion that their respective careers have little to add to the group’s legacy is entirely off the mark.
Sure, there’s been a few ill-judged missteps (see: Mel B’s entire L.A. State of Mind album, Geri’s well-meaning but mawkish George Michael tribute). But over the 16 solo albums recorded by the five members, you’ll find plenty of material worthy of sitting alongside the pure pop perfection of Spice and Spiceworld. To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the very first solo Spice release, Mel B’s Missy Elliott collaboration “I Want You Back,” Billboard ranked the 20 best individual singles from Baby, Sporty, Ginger, Posh and Scary.
20. Victoria Beckham, “This Groove” (2003)
Victoria Beckham’s hip-hop album never officially saw the light of day – her label, Telstar, folded reportedly under the weight of its recording costs. But its sessions did at least spawn one of her finest solo moments, a slick and sensual R&B mid-tempo which briefly suggested that partnering with producer Damon Dash may not have been such an incongruous choice after all. Interpolating the melody of The System’s 1987 hit “Don’t Disturb This Groove,” this 2003 track was also one of the few times that Beckham looked and sounded entirely at ease going it alone.
19. Tin Out & Emma Bunton, “What I Am” (1999)
Geri Halliwell’s “Lift Me Up” won the inter-Spice chart battle that made the front pages of the British tabloids in late 1999. But Emma Bunton’s contender, a collaboration with former tranceheads Tin Out, remains the superior song. A relatively faithful take on Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians’ 1988 Top 10 hit, “What I Am” tackles some slightly more existential themes than you’d expect from a debut Baby Spice single (“Philosophy is the talk on a cereal box/ Religion is the smile on a dog”). Yet Bunton’s typically charming vocals and the breezy production wraps them up in something entirely palatable.
18. Melanie C, “Rock Me” (2011)
Melanie C hasn't scored a genuine chart hit since the mid-‘00s, but her recent output still contains several hidden gems that would no doubt have charted had they been recorded by newer artists. There’s the break-up disco-funk of “Anymore,” the Katy Perry-esque pop-rock of “Think About It” and the dramatic balladry of “Weak.” But “Rock Me,” the vibrant first taster from 2011’s return-to-form The Sea is the finest that latter-day Sporty Spice has to offer.
17. Emma Bunton, “All I Need to Know” (2006)
Like Geri’s “It’s Raining Men” five years before her, Emma Bunton’s decision to release a cover of a well-worn pop classic as a lead single -- her 2006 rendition of Petula Clark's "'Downtown" -- worked in the short-term (it peaked at No. 3 in the U.K.) but derailed her career in the long run (it motivated few to buy poorly selling parent album Life in Mono). It’s a shame, as this follow-up single (and the rest of the LP) suggested that she had plenty still to offer. A gorgeously tender piano ballad co-written by Ben’s Brother frontman Jamie Hartman, “All I Need to Know” proved once and for all that Baby Spice was all grown up.
16. Melanie C feat. Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, “Never Be the Same Again” (1999)
The first of two consecutive U.K. No. 1s, “Never Be the Same Again” inarguably rescued Melanie C’s solo career and helped to propel Northern Star to U.K. sales of nearly a million after that LP's first two singles received a relatively lukewarm reception. It’s not hard to see why it made so much more of an impact: Rhett Lawrence’s polished R&B-lite production was easier on the ear, Mel’s vocals sounded more relaxed than ever before and Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes’ delightfully laid-back flow linked together two of the best and biggest girl groups of the ‘90s.
15. Geri, “Scream If You Wanna Go Faster” (2001)
“Scream If You Wanna Go Faster” was the single that broke Geri’s impressive run of four U.K. No. 1s in a row, peaking at a relatively lowly No. 8. But the title track from her second album is perhaps her most under-rated single. In fact, with its twangy surf-rock guitars, swirling Hammond organs and unabashedly nonsensical lyrics, “Scream…” was doing early Girls Aloud’s more celebrated schtick 18 months before Girls Aloud even formed.
14. Truesteppers feat. Victoria Beckham and Dane Bowers, “Out of Your Mind” (2000)
Beckham’s first musical venture outside the group will forever be overshadowed by the high-profile chart battle that surrounded it. A collaboration with production duo Truesteppers and Another Level frontman Dane Bowers, “Out of Your Mind” was an inspired attempt to gatecrash the two-step garage movement that dominated the London club scene at the turn of the century. Of course, it was still beaten to the U.K. chart's top spot by the Ibiza anthem of the year (Spiller ft. Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s “Groovejet”). But few other Spice tracks, with group or solo, have had their fingers so firmly on the pulse.
13. Melanie C, “Melt” (2003)
The campaign for Melanie C’s less-successful second album could have turned out oh so different had it led with this majestic pop-rock ballad instead of the plodding “Here It Comes Again.” Co-written with British hitmaker Guy Chambers, “Melt” undoubtedly shares some DNA with one of the songwriter’s greatest Robbie Williams collaborations, “Feel.” But Melanie C’s haunting, vulnerable vocals ensure that the Reason standout is far from just a carbon copy.
12. Geri Halliwell, “Bag It Up” (1999)
Geri’s fourth release from her debut album, Schizophonic, could never be described as understated. There's the neon-pink video in which Geri bosses around a parade of shirtless, oiled-up and bunny ear-wearing sex slaves. There was the show-stealing BRITs performance when she entered the stage a a pair of giant, inflatable spread legs. And then there’s the song itself, a full-throttle tongue-in-cheek disco number which even outcamped her future cover of The Weather Girls’ “It’s Raining Men.” But you don’t turn to Geri for subtlety, and “Bag It Up” captures what made her one of '90s pop’s most colorful figures.
11. Melanie C, “Goin’ Down” (1999)
After testing the rock waters with Bryan Adams, Melanie C then threw herself completely into the deep end with her first proper solo release -- and pretty much scaried away half of her young fanbase in the process. Gone were the ponytails and tracksuits, and in came bleached-blonde spikes and a tartan miniskirt which left her resembling more Johnny Rotten than Sporty Spice. But once you got over the shock factor, you were left with a gloriously defiant statement of intent which channeled elements of Garbage and The Cardigans to surprisingly thrilling effect.
10. Emma, “Free Me” (2003)
Released simply under the mononym of Emma, Free Me is perhaps the most cohesive solo Spice album to date. The gorgeously-produced tribute to the vintage pop of the Swinging Sixties predated similar efforts from the likes of Duffy and Candie Payne by several years, and it arguably did the whole throwback thing even better. A sumptuous, string-soaked pastiche of John Barry’s classic James Bond themes, this title track also helped Bunton sell more copies of her sophomore album than her debut -- the only Spice Girl to achieve such a feat.
9. Mel B ft. Missy Elliott, “I Want You Back” (1998)
The very first solo Spice single -- and what a curveball it was. Featuring both cutting-edge production and some imposing opening rhymes from the cooler-than-cool Missy Elliott, “I Want You Back” couldn’t be further removed from the pure, hook-laden pop of Mel B’s day job. Indeed, the sparse yet seductive track consists of little more than an eerie violin loop, some fractured beats and the odd crunching guitar riff. But this intriguing, almost minimal approach brilliantly complements a commanding vocal from Mel B which, alongside the dominatrix-themed video, truly lived up to her Scary Spice nickname.
8. Victoria Beckham, “Let Your Head Go” (2003)
The other, more playful half of her 2003 double A-side (see No. 20), “Let Your Head Go” was Victoria’s last musical hurrah before her move into the world of high fashion. It also turned out to be her finest hour. The U.K. hit took an "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" approach, aiming for the kind of irresistible dance-pop that resurrected Kylie Minogue’s career just a few years prior. And its inspired satirical video proved that, despite her deadly serious image, Posh Spice certainly wasn’t averse to poking fun at herself. It’s just a shame she only found her sound when it was too late.
7. Geri Halliwell, “Mi Chico Latino” (1999)
“Mi Chico Latino” may have arrived in the summer of 1999, a period in which Ricky Martin, J. Lo and Enrique Iglesias all lit up the charts. But it has far more in common with a Latin pop hit from the previous decade: Madonna’s “La Isla Bonita.” The second single from Schizophonic undoubtedly borrows a few tricks from the Queen of Pop, from its flamenco guitars to the phrasing of the song’s title. But the whole thing -- yes, even Geri’s Spanglish! -- is so gloriously infectious that it’s hard to care.
6. Melanie C, “Northern Star” (1999)
Madonna also proved to be a major source of inspiration for another Spice Girl in 1999, although it was an entirely different era that interested Melanie C. Northern Star is full of the soaring strings, electronic bleeps and bloops and soul-searching lyrics that defined Ray of Light. And it’s on this gorgeous windswept title track, produced and co-written by regular Madonna collaborators Marius de Vries and Rick Nowels, respectively, where they most came to life.
5. Mel B, “Feels So Good” (2000)
Head-scratchingly released just a month before the Spice Girls’ underwhelming 2000 comeback, Mel B’s debut solo album, Hot, featured contributions from R&B heavyweights Rodney Jerkins, Sisqo and Teddy Riley. But its opening track left you wishing that Jimmy Jam and Lewis, who produced it, had taken control of the whole project. A bouncy, feel-good slice of urban pop, “Feels So Good” evoked the duo’s regular muse Janet Jackson at her most carefree. Still, with its sweet nothings delivered in that strong Yorkshire accent (“I’m gonna get all soft and smoochy”), Mel B ensured that you wouldn’t mistake her for anyone else.
4. Geri, “Look at Me” (1999)
Just like how “Wannabe” highlighted everything that was so magical about the Spice Girls in one compact debut single, so did "Look at Me” for the artist formerly known as Ginger Spice. Ballsy, brash and slightly bonkers (that operatic middle-eight!), the first release following her shocking exit immediately quashed any doubts that the Spice Girl with the weakest vocal chops would struggle to make it on her own. She committed to her solo reinvention with a brassy jazz-pop production heavily inspired by The Propellerheads and Shirley Bassey’s equally magnificent “History Repeating” -- and got the exact reaction she was hoping for in the song's title.
3. Emma Bunton, “What Took You So Long?” (2001)
“What Took You So Long?” isn’t the showiest solo Spice Girls single. In fact, it’s one of the simplest. But Bunton was never the showiest Spice Girl herself, and this shimmering slice of adult contemporary pop perfectly fits the inherently sweet tones which often anchored the group’s finest ballads. Taking influences from early Sheryl Crow, Texas and a whole host of other female-fronted AOR acts, this U.K. No. 1 sounds tailor-made for drive-time radio, which is exactly where Bunton’s career later ended up.
2. Melanie C, “I Turn To You” (1999)
The album version of “I Turn to You” was perhaps the Northern Star track most indebted to Madonna’s Ray of Light. However, the single version remix saw DJ Hex Hector shave off nearly 90 seconds and throw in some epic, trancey synths and four-on-the-floor beats, resulting in the only Spice Girls single that could realistically be described as an absolute banger. The radical transformation worked: Mel secured a second consecutive U.K. chart-topper and a No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Dance Music chart stateside, while Hector picked up a Grammy Award for his efforts.
1. Emma, “Maybe” (2003)
Bunton had five songs that charted higher than “Maybe” in the U.K., but the fact the she performed this one during her solo slot on the Spice Girls’ reunion tour proves just how much more of an impact it made. The second single from Free Me doubles down on the 1960s aesthetic, transporting listeners back to the heyday of London’s Carnaby Street with its stylish blend of bossa nova, lounge music and Gallic pop -- not to mention a superbly choreographed video inspired by Bob Fosse’s Sweet Charity. Emma also looks and sounds like she’s having the time of her life, and it’s little wonder why: No other solo Spice track exudes as much joy.