It's not easy being the center of attention. That's why pop stars like to retreat into side projects that let them start from scratch again. Take, for instance, Jack White of the White Stripes' current gig with the Raconteurs, or Blur singer Damon Albarn's rebirth as a cartoon rock star with Gorillaz. Not every extracurricular act is a success -- don't bother recalling David Bowie's un-listenable Tin Machine -- but this year has brought an avalanche of headliners rediscovering the thrill of piling into the van and seeing the whites of their fans' eyes again. Does it make for sweet music? We break down the results for you.
The Band: The Raconteurs
Undercover Star: White Stripes big wig Jack White.
Supporting cast: Detroit singer/songwriter Brendan Benson and the rhythm section from Cincinnati garage rockers the Greenhornes.
The Story: White has long considered the idea of recording with his pals. The group came together after Benson toured with The White Stripes, and White employed the G'Hornes as the backing band on Loretta Lynn's hot-shit comeback, Van Lear Rose.
The Sound: The primitive blues of the early Stripes discs gets scalded by the Greenhornes' paisley pop flair and the raunchiness of classic '70s cock rockers like Bad Company. Turn it up to 11.
Don't give up the day job? Meg White might want to brush up on her bartending skills.
The Band: The WreckersUndercover Star: Madonna-approved singer/songwriter Michelle Branch
Supporting cast: Jessica Harp, who sang backing vocals on Branch's 2003 album Hotel Paper.
The Story: The Wreckers might have saved singer Michelle Branch's career. Shortly after posting on her Web site, "I'm sick of sucking d*cks to get my music heard," she rediscovered her love of making music by cutting an entire disc with Harp.
The Sound: The Wreckers is a classic California country-rock album that could have been made in 1975. Both singers show off their voices on songs that sound like a mix of the Dixie Chicks and the Flying Burrito Brothers.
Don't give up the day job? Maybe. Branch certainly sounds happier here than wailing with Carlos Santana.
The Band: The Little Willies
Undercover Star: Norah Jones
Supporting cast: Downtown journeymen Lee Alexander (bass), Richard Julian (guitar/vocals), Dan Rieser (drums) and Jim Campilongo (guitar).
The Story: These friends first convened in 2003 to play covers of dusty country ditties by some of their favorite artists (Hank Williams, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson). They kept up doing stealth shows in low-key New York bars even as Jones was rocketing to superstardom.
The Sound: Imagine Jones' mellow jazz mixed with some swinging C&W and you'll have the retro feel of their self-titled debut. Singer/songwriter Julian helped write the album's original numbers, including the wonderfully silly "Lou Reed."
Don't give up the day job? Lack of originals aside, it's hard to hear the difference between this and Come Away With Me.
The Band: Gnarls Barkley
Undercover Star: Cee-Lo Green, former MC with Atlanta hip-hop crew Goodie Mob.
Supporting cast: Danger Mouse, producer extraordinaire with Gorillaz and others.
The Story: Cee-Lo has released two wildly inventive but largely unheard solo albums, while Danger Mouse made his rep mashing-up the Beatles and Jay-Z on 2004's The Grey Album. Friends since the late 1990s, they recently broke U.K. chart records with their gospel-tinged download, "Crazy."
The Sound: St. Elsewhere mixes Mouse's electronica-tinged soulscapes with Green's unmistakable falsetto and introspective, sometimes scary lyrics.
Don't give up the day job? What day job?
Undercover Star: Wilco main-man Jeff Tweedy
Supporting cast: With members of Soul Asylum, Big Star, and the Jayhawks on board, Golden Smog is a power pop fraternity. Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche and alt.rock oddball Jim O'Rourke round out Loose Fur.
The Story: Tweedy has a history of laying low in his side gigs, playing sideman, and letting someone else assume front-man duties. Loose Fur's second disc Born Again in the USA takes a sloppy "anything goes" approach to classic pop. Golden Smog's Another Fine Day mixes roots rock originals with desert anthems and sentimental Kinks covers.
Don't give up the day job? You have to wonder when Tweedy finds time to sleep.