“Some are born to sweet delight,
some are born to endless night.” – William Blake
Some artists just get it right the first time. The debut album is meant to be a stepping stone to future greatness, but sometimes the pieces come together and magic is made on the first try. A great debut is no guarantee of future success (Moby Grape, NY Dolls, Dr. Feelgood), and conversely some legendary artists have coughed up sub-par debuts (Neil Young, Prince, Radiohead), but is there anything more exciting than hearing a lights-out debut album by an exciting new band?
One ground-rule: solo debuts by artists in well-known groups were not considered here. The two most wrenching exclusions under this provision were Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks (he’d been part of Irish R&B sensation Them) and George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass (Harrison was the guitarist for a band from Liverpool who’s name I’m presently forgetting). Alas, the lines had to be drawn somewhere.
Here then are 20 debuts that captured a musical moment in time, launched a great career, or simply rocked from front to back, over and over again…
The Doors | The Doors (1967)
Introduced the world to the dark charisma of Jim Morrison through hits like ‘Light My Fire’ ‘Break On Through (To The Other Side)’ and ‘The End’. But the entire album is an assured and accomplished run through the sound that would make this group one of the biggest acts in rock.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience | Are You Experienced? (1967)
The electric guitar would never be the same after Jimi Hendrix dropped this love letter/anarchist manifesto on the world. ‘Purple Haze’ ‘Third Stone From The Sun’ and ‘Love Or Confusion’ are sonic assaults, while ‘The Wind Cries Mary’ and ‘Manic Depression’ show a masterful depth of touch. The axis of Jimi’s work would forevermore trace a line between boldness and loveliness.
Moby Grape | Moby Grape (1967)
Columbia Records loved Moby Grape so much that they decided to take the unprecedented step of releasing five singles at the same time. This so confused the record-buying public that the album tanked, sending the band into an artistic spiral from which it wouldn’t recover.
Captain Beefheart | Safe As Milk (1967)
From the blues/rock of ‘Sure Nuff ‘N Yes, I Do’ and ‘Zig Zag Wanderer’ to the straight doo-wop of ‘I’m Glad’ and ‘Call On Me’ to the savant ramblings of ‘Autumn’s Child’ and ‘Dropout Boogie’, Safe As Milk serves as a roadmap to the many places the good Cap’n would visit during his eccentric career.
The Band | Music From Big Pink (1968)
Music From Big Pink is a timeless masterpiece that changed the direction of rock music in the late 60’s. The Band eschewed psychedelic noodling in favor of solid roots rock, and inspired albums such as Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, Let It Bleed and the White Album.
Led Zeppelin | Led Zeppelin (1969)
Led Zep’s brand of bombastic blues rock may have sounded radical in the late 60’s, but it became the cornerstone for harder bands to come. The first of four self-titled albums is overshadowed by later releases, but ‘Dazed And Confused’ and ‘Communication Breakdown’ are among their heaviest songs, and ‘Babe I’m Gonna Leave You’ and ‘I Can’t Quit You Baby’ among their purest blues.
Nick Drake | Five Leaves Left (1969)
Nick Drake sang melancholy, confessional folk songs that came from the bottom of his heart. Five Leaves Left is light as a feather, but cuts like a scalpel, and while it sounds rather spare, it has much more musical accompaniment than either of the other two albums Drake would release during his short life.
Black Sabbath | Black Sabbath (1970)
If Chuck Berry’s Johnny B. Goode “could play the guitar just like a ringing a bell” then Sabbath guitiarist Tony Iommi played the guitar just like he was ringing the bell of doom. Ozzy Osbourne sang like a demented loon, and Black Sabbath helped build the temple of heavy metal. This is the first brick…
John Prine | John Prine (1971)
Prine was among the unfortunate handful of talented singer/songwriters of the late-60’s to be hung with the title of the “New Dylan”. On his debut, Prine showed the songwriting chops to earn that comparison, but songs like ‘Illegal Smile’ ‘Hello In There’ and ‘Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore’ flashed a wit that Dylan would rarely display after Highway 61 Revisited.
Steely Dan | Can’t Buy A Thrill (1972)
In the grand tradition of Tropicalia music, Steely Dan disguised biting social commentary as mainstream pop fluff. ‘Do It Again’ raps about addiction, ‘Kings’ compares Nixon and JFK, ‘Midnite Cruiser’ is about growing old – and that’s just part of side one of Can’t Buy A Thrill. The Dan would create more sophisticated music, but none that sounded better.
Patti Smith | Horses (1975)
“Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine” might just rank as the greatest opening line of any debut album in rock history. With that vivid declaration, poet/priestess Patti Smith expanded the scope of what constituted rock and who could be a rock star, and brought a genuinely artistic attitude to a genre (punk) that prided itself on artlessness.
Ramones | Ramones (1976)
By reducing rock and roll to its base elements – 2 minute songs, leather jackets, and absolutely no solos – the Ramones led the way for a fledgling musical movement called punk rock. In 14 songs and just less than 29 minutes, their debut album revolutionized and breathed new life into popular music.
Sex Pistols | Never Mind The Bollocks (1977)
John Lydon understood that everyone loves a good villain, and he did his best to oblige. The Pistols were provocative, but they also made great music – Steve Jones’ layered guitar amounts to a Phil Spector-ish wall of punk, and still sounds fresh three decades later. A musical supernova, this group left behind just one perfectly anarchist album. Bollocks!
Van Halen | Van Halen (1978)
Van Halen was a four-headed rock and roll beast that came roaring out of the Los Angeles club scene during the mid-70’s. By the time they released their self-titled debut album, they were a well-seasoned live band, and Eddie Van Halen was a guitar god on arrival. Van Halen is loaded with great riffs, amazing tunes, and plenty of David Lee Roth’s groaning and gyrating. A classic party starter…
Joy Division | Unknown Pleasures (1979)
Ian Curtis was one glum dude. He dabbled in Nazi imagery, suffered from severe epilepsy and depression, and hung himself at age 23 in May of 1980, on the eve of Joy Division’s first tour of the United States. Unknown Pleasures is the sound of a bad dream, a horror movie, a primal scream – and just another day in the short, unhappy life of Ian Curtis.
Dead Kennedys | Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables (1980)
Jello Biafra really knows how to piss people off. Like Jonathan Swift, Biafra is a social satirist of the highest order, matching his uber-liberal lyrics with the Kennedys’ high octane punk to startling effect. ‘Kill The Poor’ ‘Holiday In Cambodia’ and ‘California Uber Alles’ constituted some of the best political commentary of the 80’s. The band would eventually end up fighting obscenity charges in a lengthy court case that bankrupted them.
Guns ‘N Roses | Appetite For Destruction (1987)
When punk rock cornered the market on nasty in the late-70’s, regular rock-n-roll lost its swagger for the next decade. It took Appetite For Destruction to reintroduce rock fans to razor blade guitar riffs, scandalous lyrical content, and a lead singer who just didnt’ give a f*ck. It felt damned good, and songs like ‘Mr Brownstone’ ‘It’s So Easy’ and ‘Rocket Queen’ still have the power to kick your ass.
Eric B & Rakim | Paid In Full (1987)
Paid In Full isn’t just one of the best debut albums of all-time, it’s also one of the greatest Hip-Hop albums ever produced, period. This masterpiece saw MC Rakim Allah displaying an effortless yet incredible verbal dexterity on the mic, while DJ Eric B spun pioneering beats that popularized the sampling of James Brown records. This album is so good that it’s a natural dividing line between Hip-Hop’s old and new schools.
Massive Attack | Blue Lines (1991)
Massive Attack’s debut seemingly came from a new place – half hip-hop and half electronica – that charted a fresh course for both genres. Tricky, Horace Andy, and Shara Nelson each took thrilling turns behind the mic for this shape-shifting musical entity. And while the album was a radical departure in its time, ‘Safe From Harm’ ‘Be Thankful For What You Got’ and ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ are slow-burning gems that still sound contemporary.
Jeff Buckley | Grace (1994)
Every track on Grace cuts to the quick about love lost (including the definitive reading of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’) and the entire album is nothing less than the sound of a human heart falling to pieces, one fragile, intricate piece at a time. Buckley drowned during a midnight swim the day before he was due to record his second album, so we’ll never know what kind of music he might have made. But Grace is such a unique and lovely masterpiece that it’s hard to see how he could have topped it.
And 40 more outstanding debuts…
Elvis Presley | Elvis Presley (1956)
Rolling Stones | England’s Newest Hit Makers (1964)
The Byrds | Mr. Tambourine Man (1965)
Fred Neil | Bleecker & MacDougal (1965)
Neil Diamond | Just For You (1967)
Dr. John | Gris Gris (1968)
Funkadelic | Funkadelic (1970)
Lynyrd Skynyrd | Pronounced Leh*Nerd Skin*Nerd (1973)
Bob Marley & The Wailers | Catch A Fire (1973)
New York Dolls | New York Dolls (1973)
Tom Waits | Closing Time (1973)
Dr. Feelgood | Down By The Jetty (1975)
The Modern Lovers | The Modern Lovers (1976)
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers | Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers (1976)
The Clash | The Clash (1977)
Talking Heads | Talking Heads: 77 (1977)
The Cars | The Cars (1978)
Dire Straits | Dire Straits (1978)
The Undertones | The Undertones (1979)
Black Flag | Damaged (1981)
Metallica | Kill ‘Em All (1983)
Stevie Ray Vaughan | Texas Flood (1983)
Beastie Boys | Licensed To Ill (1986)
Public Enemy | Yo! Bum Rush The Show (1987)
Nirvana | Bleach (1989)
Stone Roses | Stone Roses (1989)
The Black Crowes | Shake Your Money Maker (1990)
Pearl Jam | Ten (1991)
PJ Harvey | Dry (1992)
Wu Tang Clan | Enter The Wu Tang (36 Chambers) (1993)
Nas | Illmatic (1994)
DJ Shadow | Endtroducing… (1996)
Queens Of The Stone Age | Queens Of The Stone Age (1998)
The Strokes | Is This It (2001)
Kings Of Leon | Youth & Young Manhood (2003)
Arcade Fire | Funeral (2004)
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah | Clap Your Hands Say Yeah (2005)
LCD Soundsystem | LCD Soundsystem (2005)
Bon Iver | For Emma Forever Ago (2008)
Fleet Foxes | Fleet Foxes (2008)
Tags: Black Sabbath, Captain Beefheart, Dead Kennedys, debut album, Eric B. & Rakim, Guns N Roses, Jeff Buckley, Jimi Hendrix, John Prine, Joy Division, Led Zeppelin, Massive Attack, Moby Grape, Nick Drake, Patti Smith, Ramones, Sex Pistols, Steely Dan, The Band, The Doors, Van Halen