Last Friday, April 7th (a hallowed day), everyone’s favorite boy bander released his highly-anticipated first solo single, finally signalling the beginning of his destined transition from pop prince to rock star.
With “Sign of the Times,” Harry Styles also became the fourth One Direction member – out of only five! – to release solo material. They’re certainly not wasting any time. That’s not the only thing they’ve been quick to work on; the official number of 1D progeny is up to two. Two! Two whole kids! That may not sound like much, but it’s been less than 18 months. How did they manage to make it the whole five years together without having even one?
Anyway. If you can remember all the way back to December 2015, we predicted what the Great Hiatus of 2k16 would hold for our boys, and we’re happy to report that we were largely correct. Harry DID vacation with a scantily-clad model! Liam DID rush back into monogamy! Niall DID get his moment!
We didn’t foresee that they’d all drop solo work, and so soon. They didn’t listen to us – they’re all trying to be the JT. Unfortunately, that’s just not possible.
That’s why today we’re weighing in on what 1D solo material worked and what missed the mark. This is all done with love, of course. (Disclaimer: We’re still anxiously awaiting Liam’s album. Hurry up and raise your kid already, Payno – Republic Records ain’t gonna wait forever.)
“Just Hold On” – Louis Tomlinson & Steve Aoki
I have to say, I’ve listened to this song exactly once. That was plenty. I can’t really even remember how it goes. As soon as I saw “featuring Steve Aoki,” I was out. I listened once for good measure, and that was enough. I feel a little cruel being so hard on this single, which is dedicated to his late mother, Johannah Deakin, but it’s sadly not enough to move the song up from its spot in last place in my ranking. I hope for better from his inevitable next single. Or better yet, he should stick to his strong suit, which is songwriting.
“This Town” – Niall Horan
This single is so fucking catchy, I’ll give it that. I find myself singing along when I hear it in the locker room of my gym or the occasional coffeeshop. It’s not on any of my Spotify playlists though. Truly, if this song wasn’t Niall’s, it wouldn’t even be on my radar. It’s very mediocre, but it’s exactly the kind of music I expected him to put out – “This Town” is pretty much Ed Sheeran lite. If you like Ed, you’ll love “This Town.”
Mind of Mine – Zayn
This album has me torn. I adored it when it first came out – I probably blasted “Pillowtalk” nonstop for three days when it premiered in January 2016, and the rest of the album didn’t let me down. There are some genuinely great tracks, like “Like I Would” and the beautiful “Intermission: Flower,” which showcases Zayn’s roots in a way we’d never, ever get on a 1D album. But I’m bummed Zayn didn’t do much promotion or any touring behind this album. Just a couple of shows would have solidified its place as a strong breakaway from the music he was probably forced into recording with 1D – instead, his lack of promotion makes it seem like he’s just as over this album as he was Four. His own apathy has led to my abandonment of this album too, which is a shame because it’s really quite good.
“Sign of the Times” – Harry Styles
Come on. You all knew what was going to be #1. This is everything I wanted from Harry’s solo work. This ballad is so bold, so Bowie and such a middle finger to everyone who thought he was only capable of mindless pop that maybe/kinda/sorta was written about Kendall Jenner. Harry gave us five minutes of the Styles brand of drama – all violin and grandeur and just enough falsetto to remind you he’s right up there with Zayn as the best 1D vocalist without showing off. I don’t need to preorder his album but you bet your ass I did anyway.
First off, I like the countdown format of this ranking. It feels very AT-40 and I feel a little bit like Ryan Seacrest — frosted tips included. Unfortunately, we don’t have any celeb guests to bully gossip out of, just us and our opinions. Allison and I were generally on the same page when it came to our rankings, but there are a few differences and I have given lengthy explanations to support my claims (thx history degree). Disclaimer: After reading Allison’s rankings, which show actual knowledge about the guys in One Direction as individuals, you’ll be disappointed in my jumbled responses. (Allison’s edit: So not true – Meg is way more thorough.) Alas, carry on…
“Just Hold On” – Louis Tomlinson & Steve Aoki
When I made my 2016 prediction for Louis, it was less about what he would do and more about what he should do. Unfortunately, Louis didn’t listen to my generous advice to go into fashion or something, but rather decided to release a song. Meh. While Allison gave Louis and Steve a full listen, I still haven’t heard the song in full, from start to finish. Vocally, I’ve always found Louis’ voice to be a little weak. He doesn’t have a terrible voice but it isn’t fantastic and while it may have been fine paired with the other One Direction voices, he would need something stellar and paired for his voice in order to produce a good solo track. “Just Hold On” is not that. I want to root for Louis. I really do, but from the parts of “Just Hold On” I have heard, this song just isn’t for him. Maybe it’s him, maybe it’s me, but I’m just not a fan and drowning his voice out in house music isn’t doing him any favors. In a nutshell: Sympathetic eye-roll.
“Pillowtalk” / Mind of Mine – Zayn
I’m going to be honest: I really like this album as a whole. “Pillowtalk” is really catchy and I love “Fool for You.” However, my countdown is not just based on the music itself, but more about the whole package. The music itself may be catchy the but everything about Zayn’s solo debut is a mess. As much as I appreciated the album, the sound was kind of all over the place. Zayn could sing a grocery list and it would be stunning but there wasn’t really a cohesive sound to the album, as if he still wasn’t sure what he wanted. That’s just one reason why I think the album was a little too rushed. There was certainly hype surrounding his debut as the first to go solo, but then, everything kind of flatlined. He did little press for the album, other than a few late night performances and didn’t tour at all.
I completely respect that Zayn struggles with depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues, and in light of that, I don’t think he should have released the album so soon. I definitely agree with Allison that by the time the album came out, he seemed kind of apathetic towards it, which is surprising seeing how he was supposedly making the type of music he wanted. As for his label, I don’t think it was a smart business decision for Zayn to release his debut so soon. I get wanting to release it before he fades into obscurity but they couldn’t just rely on his modest sales. The album did okay on its own but it’s pretty well known that the tour is what really makes the killing for the artist and label. I could write and talk for hours about my thoughts on Zayn and this album but in short, I’m rooting for him but he needs to work through some of his anxiety and confidence before he can do his best work. In a nutshell: Rooting for you.
“This Town” – Niall Horan
I know, in theory this should have belonged to Zayn but I think I’m justified in my decision. Here’s why Niall gets number two in my book: he played up to his talents and didn’t try to be anything other than himself. Let’s be real, Niall spent years in the background of One Direction, as Harry, Liam, and Zayn were touted as the trio of talent in the group. It wasn’t until Zayn left were most moderate fans of One Direction realized he had a decent voice. Niall seemed like the most likeable guy in the group, which is why the surprise release on BBC Radio 1 was a great choice. One second he’s hanging out with Greg James, the next thing we know, he has a new song!
It’s fun, catchy, and doesn’t claim to be changing the face of music, so let’s not overthink it, ya know? He made a number of appearances to perform it, was clear there was more music on the way — but later, and then went back to golf or whatever he does in his spare time. To be honest, I knew about the song but didn’t hear it until it appeared on a coffee shop playlist on Spotify that I like and now it’s on my writing playlist. Again, “This Town” is probably not for everyone, but it’s a good song, he did a great job promoting it and it actually seemed like Niall released the song when he was ready. In a nutshell: Pleasantly surprised eyes and a thumbs up.
“Sign of the Times” – Harry Styles
Everything about this release was really well done. By the time the final One Direction album came out, Harry had become the de-facto frontman, the one to watch. People had been anticipating his solo material since early 2016, right after the “hiatus” began, but then Harry announced he was going to be in a movie by Christopher Nolan. A year later, two solo songs from bandmates, a solo album from a from a former bandmate, and no music from Harry Styles. It was a good, dramatic build and his publicity people absolutely killed it. When he posted three white squares on Instagram, people freaked. Then the Saturday Night Live announcement came. By the time “Sign of the Times” was actually released, fans were hyped and even non-fans were curious.
As with Niall, he released the song on Radio 1, during friend Nick Grimshaw’s “Breakfast show.” Let’s be honest, Harry’s social media is carefully curated and the release of “Sign of the Times” seemed very “this is all being well-managed managed by my publicity people” but Harry’s interview with Grimshaw was really grounded and fun, everything people have come to love about him. He appeared as musical guest on SNL over the weekend and appeared in two sketches, the monologue, and sang two songs, which impressed most critics, many of whom suggested that Harry upstaged host Jimmy Fallon and believed Harry host and serve as musical guest next time. Harry’s album debuts next month and his movie is being released over the summer, so it’s safe to say Harry knows what he’s doing. In a nutshell: Simon Cowell saying “This may be the best performance I’ve heard so far.”
Bonus: “Unnamed Baby” – Liam Payne & Cheryl Cole
This was a spectacular drop. Liam hasn’t released any solo tracks and it’s been a few years for Cheryl but boy was this spectacular. Sure, it was kinda odd when you realize that they met when Liam was 14 and Cheryl was a mentor figure on the X-Factor but they didn’t get together until they were older and had a number of failed relationships between them. The best part about their baby was they never even confirmed the pregnancy (other than that photo shoot Cheryl did like right before the birth but whatever). That is such a bold move, especially when the paparazzi snapped pics of the two, and Cheryl looked very pregnant. Everyone was so curious but they stuck to their guns and never confirmed or denied anything. Talk about owning the conversation. In a nutshell: Another One Direction baby, but less drama.