Love at First Listen: Best Debut Albums of All-Time
Some people peak early in life. I was never any better at basketball than I was in 7th grade. So do some bands. There’s something especially intriguing about bands whose best work is their first work. These bands burst onto the scene with flashes of greatness and the promise that they will captivate our ears for years to come, while never quite reaching those early heights (and sometimes never again coming close). With that in mind, I present my favorite debut albums of all time, with the caveat that in each case (and in my should-be-more-humble-than-it-is opinion) the debut album is also the artist’s best album.
First, a few ground rules:
- The album must be the artist’s true debut, not the first album widely released or widely known. For example, for Nirvana this is Bleach, not Nevermind.
- Despite rule #1, EPs don’t count.
- The artist must have released at least three albums to date. Asking which of the two Vampire Weekend albums is the better one really isn’t the point.
- It’s not about the artist, it’s about the album. I’m only concerned with how good the debut album is, not how I feel about the rest of the artist’s body of work. So the question isn’t which is better, Oasis or Pearl Jam; it’s which is better, Definitely Maybe or Ten.
Now, without further ado (what a great phrase), my favorite debut albums of all time where the album is also the artist’s best album (whew):
23. Rage Against the Machine – Rage Against the Machine
Why were we so angry in the 90s? Isn’t the current era more appropriate for music like Rage Against the Machine? Whatever, I sang along with “Killing in the Name” like I was ready to do just that. Groundbreaking debut.
22. Mudhoney – Mudhoney
My favorite Mudhoney release is actually their debut EP, Superfuzz Bigmuff. But I don’t mind including their debut full-length on my list, since either way one was going to make it. Any fan of the Seattle sound that hasn’t listened to Superfuzz though really needs to spend some time with it. Don’t believe me? Check this crazy list for confirmation.
21. Portishead – Dummy
Barely making the cut by releasing a third album (the aptly named Third) in 2008, 11 years after Second (actually called Portishead), it’s impossible to forget nearly 20 years later what spooky fun Dummy was. I can still hear “Numb” in my head and feel it in my veins.
20. Snoop Dogg – Doggystyle
Snoop Doggy, Do-owww-ohhhh-oggg (yeah yeah yeah).
19. Stone Temple Pilots – Core
As far as I’m concerned, STP was the beginning of the end for the grunge era. Nevertheless, Core is a good album. In fact, I think that if STP had continued making music that sounded like Core it could have developed into a really good band. Instead they followed (or arguably began) the trend of making radio-friendly bubble-grunge music, starting with their next album Purple (which does have some standouts that prove to me that STP could have been great, like “Pretty Penny”). It’s ironic that the bands that didn’t sell out, like Pearl Jam and Smashing Pumpkins, can sell out 20,000 seat arenas 20 years after their debuts, while STP couldn’t sell out the Stone Pony last summer. PS: If you’re wondering, the Stone Pony is available for weddings, sweet sixteens, bar mitzvahs, birthdays and every other festive occasion. For further information and pricing please contact Caroline at Cot508@aol.com or call 732-502-0600 Extension 8.
18. Alanis Morissette – Jagged Little Pill
Technically her third studio album, but Jagged Little Pill is her international debut (her first two albums were only released in her home country Canada), which means for me (and everyone else I’ve ever met) this is Alanis’ debut. Not to mention that unless you’re a hard-core fan, there’s virtually no chance you’ve ever heard of Alanis (the self-titled album) or Now Is the Time. So I’m qualifying it. The next question is, why include it on the list? Here’s an album that I hated when it came out and mocked incessantly for years. But the album has gotten better with age; I’m not sure when I stopped mocking it and started liking it (maybe it was when I found out that “You Oughta Know” is about Uncle Joey), but the transformation has definitely occurred. Isn’t it ironic? Don’t you think? Like rai-aia-ain on your wedding day? (Sorry, couldn’t help myself.)
17. The Cars – The Cars
Shocked? Confused? Where is this list going anyway? Frankly, so am I. But here’s an album as old as I am by a band that was clearly ahead of its time in the New Wave scene. It has 4 really great hit songs that still hold up and, if you go back and check the archives, it was not only well-received by the public (not surprising), but also a critical darling upon its release. 35 years later, it still makes all kinds of “best of all time” lists. Honestly, look me in the eye and tell me you don’t enjoy “My Best Friend’s Girl” and “Just What I Needed.” I knew you couldn’t do it.
16. Phil Collins – Face Value
Can’t you feel it coming “In the Air Tonight”? This album moves me emotionally … JUST KIDDING!! Who am I, Patrick Bateman? Now, back to the list. Glad you’re still with me.
16. Liz Phair – Exile in Guyville
Oh man did I think she was going to be a star after this album. Also, I can’t lie, as a teenage boy this album made me a little frightened of women.
15. Guns N’ Roses – Appetite for Destruction
See #14, Beastie Boys, Licensed to Ill and replace “Girls,” “Fight for Your Right” and “No Sleep till Brooklyn” with “Welcome to the Jungle,” “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and “Paradise City.”
14. Beastie Boys – Licensed to Ill
Maybe it’s because I was 8 years old when this album came out, but I still enjoy hearing “Girls”, “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!),” “No Sleep till Brooklyn,” “Brass Monkey,” “Paul Revere” and “She’s Crafty,” even if I’d never actually put this album on today. At least six fun songs that I wouldn’t switch off the radio if I happened upon them now and know at least half the words to … I’d be embarrassed if, well, I wasn’t then 8 years old!
13. Jimi Hendrix – Are You Experienced?
Did you hear that Jimi is releasing another posthumous album on March 5? This will be posthumous album #12 (not to mention countless bootlegs and unofficial albums); he put out 3 studio albums and 1 live album in his life. People, just let the man rest in peace, please.
12. Morrissey – Viva Hate
Put an asterisk on it if you like, but Moz has enough of a solo body of work to be considered independently for this list and Viva Hate is an all-time album, as well as his solo best. (Your Arsenal probably has more songs that I enjoy, but “Everyday Is Like Sunday” and “Suedehead” on the same album? Come on.)
11. The Killers – Hot Fuss
I’ve seen the Killers twice live, and there was a time I would have guessed them to be the heir apparent to the Strokes and the White Stripes. Alas, while Hot Fuss held so much promise, Sam’s Town was merely good, Day & Age had a decent single or two and Battle Born is utterly unlistenable. Consider that in November 2009, “Mr. Brightside” was voted the best song of the decade by the listeners of the British alternative rock station XFM. “Somebody Told Me” was ranked #9 and “All These Things That I’ve Done” was ranked #22. Over 14,000 individual votes were cast by XFM listeners. What do those three songs have in common? They’re all off of Hot Fuss. And by November 2009, both Sam’s Town and Day & Age had already been released. There are few bands I’ve been as disappointed in at the Killers (another one is down at #8 below), but I’m pretty sure there’s no turning back now.
10. The Smiths –The Smiths
I could spend an hour waffling back and forth while arguing the merits of The Smiths vs. The Queen Is Dead, and if you argued for Strangeways I probably couldn’t refute that either. Along with Meat Is Murder, you have a 4-year stretch of 4 albums that may never be topped in my lifetime. This is a perfect example of my last rule though (“only concerned with how good the debut album is, not how I feel about the rest of the artist’s body of work”). 4 amazing albums, but none better (I think) than the next 9.
9. Nine Inch Nails – Pretty Hate Machine
Nothing against The Downward Spiral, but given the choice to take one NIN album on a desert island I’m pretty sure it would be PHM.
8. Oasis – Definitely Maybe
I really don’t like Oasis. I haven’t liked a single thing that has come from the Gallagher brothers in many years. In fact, I was one of the few that was extremely disappointed with (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? But a lot of that hatred and disappointment stems from the fact that I absolutely loved Definitely Maybe, especially when it was originally released. I ran to Hammerstein Ballroom to see the band in one of the first small-venue shows I’d ever been to. Obviously I don’t agree with NME that it’s the greatest album of all time (ahead of Sgt. Pepper and Revolver! – someone needs to hire a VP of Common Sense) but it represents everything I had in mind when I thought of creating this list. After Definitely Maybe, people were discussing Oasis in the same sentence as the Beatles. Now, they’re generally discussed with (and considered beneath) their Brit-pop brethren Blur. Sigh.
7. Pearl Jam – Ten
Great f**king album. Yet not as good as Nevermind. And that’s how I’ll always think of Ten until the day I die. It’s probably unfair; judged independently on its merits, Ten should probably be higher on this list. But life isn’t fair – if it was, Nirvana would still be making music too.
6. eels – Beautiful Freak
Beautiful Freak is the lost great album of the 1990s. Brilliant songwriting start to finish. Fantastic imagery. Five amazing singles. Sweet, melancholy, quirky songs, able to be adapted to nearly any kind of situation, from Scream 2 (“Your Lucky Day in Hell”) to Shrek (“My Beloved Monster”). And those aren’t even the two standout hits from the album (“Novocaine for the Soul” and “Susan’s House”). The eels have been compared to the Beatles, Beck and Cobain, yet are largely an afterthought. Don’t sleep on this album.
5. The Velvet Underground – The Velvet Underground & Nico
Mix Andy Warhol and Lou Reed, add a dash of Nico and you get this masterpiece. I described this album as “the unification of the two mediums [visual art and music] to create a single work of art that was at once both auditory and visual and required both senses to be properly received by the listener/viewer.” Shameless self-promotion: go read my essay “Punk + Art = 98bowery.com.”
4. Weezer – Weezer (Blue Album)
In the rush to criticize Weezer (and specifically Rivers Cuomo) for everything they’ve done post-Pinkerton, people forget that their debut album was one of the best albums of the 1990s and holds up to this day. At a time when every new band seemed destined, if not determined, to be a crappy imitation of Nirvana / Pearl Jam, Weezer somehow stayed above the fray while still being a commercial success. And if you don’t like it … well, you take your car to work, I’ll take my board.
3. Violent Femmes – Violent Femmes
Sometime in the early to mid-2000s, I saw the old men that make up the Violent Femmes perform at Irving Plaza. The only reason I was there was this debut album. I’m pretty sure that the only reason 95% of the crowd was there was this debut album. How is it possible that a band can put out such an amazing debut, be together for close to 30 years, and never again put out anything decent other than a few singles? The answer is: I have no idea. But Violent Femmes went platinum 8 years after its release and to this day holds up as one the best alternative rock albums ever written. Rob Mitchum (yes, I’m quoting him twice) stated “I used to feel sorry that the Femmes were stuck playing the same material through their graying years, but they can at least take comfort in the fact that their debut will be loved as long as there are horny 10th graders in the world; in other words, forever.” I couldn’t agree more.
2. The Strokes – Is This It?
Do I really have to explain this choice? Arguably the best album released in the past 15 years. By possibly my favorite post-Nirvana band. Plus, Is This It? revived rock music at a time when everyone was convinced it was dead and ushered in a post-grunge style that would be copied (often successfully) to this day.
1. The Doors – The Doors
It’s a little harder to isolate the impact of a debut album for artists whose entire body of work ended before I was even born. That’s probably why I didn’t fully appreciate how much better this debut album is than the rest of the Doors studio albums until after reading Greil Marcus’ book, “The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years .” You don’t need me to tell you how great “Break On Through” and “Light My Fire” are. Frankly, if you don’t love the Doors (or their self-titled album) by now, I’m unlikely to be the one to convince you. But trust me on this one – read the Marcus book, even if you’re not a huge fan of the Doors. It’s wonderful. And The Doors is (as of today, this moment, will probably change right after I hit “publish”) my #1 debut album of all time.
Toughest omissions for various reasons, in no particular order:
- Cake – Fashion Nugget
I never would have believed that this 1996 album – featuring the still-powerful “Going the Distance” and amazing cover of “I Will Survive” – is actually the band’s second. Motorcade of Generosity was re-issued in 1999 but is actually Cake’s debut album, having been released independently in 1994 (and sold by the band out of their van!). Another shocker: Fashion Nugget went platinum. The pre-download days were such a simpler time.
- Nirvana – Nevermind
Ask anyone who isn’t a devoted grunge fan to name Nirvana’s first album and they will say Nevermind. This album represents everything that my list is supposed to be about; band explodes onto the scene without anyone (outside of Seattle) having heard of them before and reinvents music with a debut album that can never ever be topped. If Bleach wasn’t so damn good I’d be upset that Cobain & co. ruined my narrative.
- The Clash – The Clash
Terrific debut, but I’ve always preferred London Calling.
- Ramones – Ramones
I find it hard to distinguish the Ramones first four albums, which came out in a 3-year span from 1976-1978. Maybe it’s because the albums are before my time and the singles are so ingrained in my brain, but I don’t think that’s it. It really is all a blur of 2 minute punk, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Don’t agree? Try matching these 3 hits to these 3 albums without looking it up. Answers in the footnote.
- Hits: “I Wanna Be Sedated,” “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker,” “Blitzkrieg Bop”
- Albums: Rocket to Russia, Road to Ruin, Ramones
- Sex Pistols – Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols
Feels kind of weird to even mention a “debut” by a band that only put out one studio album, but I think we can all agree that if only these guys had stuck together to release more music as the Sex Pistols, Never Mind the Bollocks would have made the list. Given their influence and legacy, it’s impossible to ignore this album completely, yet there’s no doubt that even if they’d had the longevity of a group like the Violent Femmes, the Sex Pistols would never achieve this level of brilliance again.
- Foo Fighters – Foo Fighters
Probably belongs on the list, but every year since this debut in 1994 I’ve hated this band and specifically Dave Grohl more and more. So despite violating one of my own rules (“it’s not about the artist, it’s about the album”) Foo Fighters isn’t making my list. Honestly, I’m not even sure I like this album any longer with all the FF baggage it carries. So there.
- Jane’s Addiction – Nothing’s Shocking
Really good album that wouldn’t have surprised me to make the cut, but their second, Ritual de lo Habitual, is even better. Had these two albums been reversed chronologically, Jane’s would have followed quite perfectly the typical trajectory of a band that peaks with a terrific debut and continues a downward trend from there on, and despite Perry Farrell’s charm we would have long ago stopped remembering this band fondly. They would have been the Oasis for the late 1980s. Instead, by surprisingly building on a good debut album with an excellent follow-up, they fooled us all into thinking they were a great band. More than 20 years later they’re still hanging around and producing music that sounds worse and worse as each day passes. Though by hanging around they stumbled into a fun opening theme song for “Entourage” so I guess it’s all good.
- Elvis Costello – My Aim Is True
I like Elvis Costello, and if I ever bothered to listen to all of his albums I suspect this debut album would be my favorite. But I just can’t get past listening to his “Greatest Hits.” So I can’t justify putting My Aim Is True on my list when I’ve never actually put it on my turntable or my iPod.
- Arcade Fire – Funeral
A near perfect album … yet not as perfect as The Suburbs.
- The Pixies – Surfer Rosa
A near perfect album … yet not as perfect as Doolittle. One day I will create the ultimate list (i.e. my favorite albums of all time) and both Surfer Rosa and Doolittle will be in my top 20. Consider that both are in the top 10 of Pitchfork’s list of the Top 100 Albums of the 1980s. Seriously, stop and consider that – one band produced two of the top 10 albums of an entire decade in the span of 2 years! Black Francis and Kim Gordon, I salute you.
 As a complete aside, I want to mention that this is one of the most enjoyable pieces I have ever written. The fun of combing through these albums and figuring this stuff out was immeasurable. (Literally. How do you measure fun?) If you enjoy reading it even half as much as I enjoyed writing it, I won’t be disappointed.
 Please don’t take this as a sign that I care for the Smashing Pumpkins. I don’t consider them a sell-out band, but I loathe Billy Corgan for so many other reasons.
 I’m not sure I can put it any better than Rob Mitchum of Rolling Stone, who discussed Exile as follows after it lands #30 overall on the RS Top 100 albums of the 1990s: “Alright, so I’ll just come right out and say it: It’s been all downhill for Liz since this one. Nevertheless, I don’t see her predilection for slickness and radio-courting as the true engine of her decline… Rather, what seems to have faded is Phair’s translational gift, giving the sausage party that is the indie scene a rare taste of estrogen, sugar-coated with mid-fi packaging. Beneath the overanalyzed potty-mouthed surface of songs like “Fuck and Run”, “The Divorce Song” and “Flower” were relationship testimonials that offered a flipside to the woe-is-me posturing of indie’s many passive-sensitive gents, while also impressively maintaining an audience balanced along gender lines. That she’s moved on is hardly a crime, but Exile fortunately remains a feminine counterbalance to the current wave of tattooed acoustic self-loathers.”
 Consider this quote from sputnik music: “I’ve always regarded ‘E’ as one of the best songwriters around in terms of pure melody, and he also curiously possesses both Lennon’s sardonic wit and Paul McCartney’s sweetness.” That is some seriously high praise.
 And if you are listening to this album, please make sure you get a copy that includes “New York City Cops.” It was the right call to remove this song back when they did, but too bad that there are so many copies out there without one of the band’s best songs.
 “I Wanna Be Sedated” is from Road to Ruin (album #4), “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker” is from Rocket to Russia (album #2) “Blitzkrieg Bop” is from Ramones.