Fab Firsts: The Top 25 debut albums in rock history
Artists whose first albums rocketed into rock music's elite
Sunday, March 03, 2002
By Ed Masley, Post-Gazette Pop Music Critic
Every year, the Grammys set aside a little statue for an act they feel has earned the title Best New Artist.
And they rarely get it right -- as anyone who's dusted off a Grammy-sanctioned copy of A Taste of Honey's debut album lately can attest.
But it's easy enough to see why viewers want to feel as though they've been alerted to the best new artist of the day. There's something exciting about your first time with a favorite find. The feeling is fresh, the voice is new, you never know what's going to happen next when you put on the album, and then these songs come spilling out into your world and either thrill or disappoint you.
When Bob Dylan puts another great new album out, it's easy to take it for granted.
"Oh, another great new Dylan album? Cool. I think I'll do some laundry."
When a band comes out of nowhere and the album is even half as good as Dylan's, it blows you away.
A lot of artists peak on that first album -- Elastica did -- while others rock your world and then get better -- very Beatlesque.
Still others put out fairly mediocre debut albums, then turn absolutely brilliant -- "Surfin' Safari" is so not "Pet Sounds."
In the end, a truly great debut is great regardless of what happens next. It doesn't matter that they never made another record; the Sex Pistols said all they needed to say on "Never Mind the Bollocks."
The following list is dedicated to those truly great debuts, the ones that -- like the Pistols and the Beatles -- sounded great when they were new and then went on to ace the test of time.
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John Lennon's "Plastic Ono Band," among the 10 best albums ever, didn't make the cut because it seemed a little disingenuous to treat it as a true debut. So no "McCartney" either. Or Neil Young's first album.
They'd all been around, and everyone had seen what they could do.
That's as opposed to the following artists, who had no other albums in their past when they recorded their debut. They didn't always know what they were doing, but they did it well.
Another common thread you'll find connecting nearly every album here is energy -- an energy that thrives on being new.
And excited to be in a studio making a record.
From excitement comes excitement.
And few artists or albums have captured excitement the way it was captured back in 1965 on what remains the greatest, most exciting debut album ever, "The Who Sings My Generation."
1. The Who, "The Who Sings My Generation" (1965)
This album just explodes, a soulful, frenzied celebration of the healing power of maximum R&B, all slashing power chords and young man blues and chaos masquerading as a drummer. Keith Moon's title as the most exciting drummer rock 'n' roll had ever seen was secure by the time he arrived at the chorus of "Out in the Street," an opening track that lifts its intro from the band's third single, "Anyway Anyhow Anywhere," then leaves that classic choking on its fumes as Moon goes into overdrive, leaving guitarist Pete Townshend with nothing to do but make some chaos of his own on stun-guitar. It's also got those great falsetto harmonies that so defined the early Who. But nothing would define the early Who with quite the impact of "My Generation," a stuttering youth-culture anthem that draws a line in the sand and checks your ID with "I hope I die before I get old." Roger Daltrey's performance is practically dripping with contempt, but it's the energy that really makes it sting. There's nothing quite like energy to separate the young man from the old. And that they had in surplus. Not that every track relies on energy and chaos. "The Kids Are Alright" is a shimmering folk-rock charmer. And no other British invader could have done James Brown the way the Who does James Brown here on "I Don't Mind" and "Please, Please, Please." The most impressive thing about this debut, though, is Townshend's writing. It's light years ahead of the writing you'll find on any other debut by an original British Invader. But unlike those other acts, the Who peaked early.
"Out in the Street" by The Who from the debut album "The Who Sings My Generation" on MCA Records 1966
2. The Ramones, "The Ramones" (1976)
Few bands have had a greater impact on succeeding generations than these blitzkrieg-bopping cartoon-punks from Queens. And everything you need to know to start your own Ramones can be found in the opening seconds of their debut album, the buzz-saw guitar giving way to a pinheaded chant of "Hey! Ho! Let's Go!" The sound of this record is so much a part of the cultural fabric now, it may be hard to hear it for the revolutionary step it took for mankind at the time. But rest assured, no other band had ever sounded quite like this (not even Blink-182). And yet, it was a revolution based in traditional rock 'n' roll values. From their smile-inducing cover of "Let's Dance" (a hit for Chris Montez in 1962) to the girl-group-compatible charm of their own "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend," the Ramones were all about tradition, ringing in the age of punk as B-movie rock 'n' roll cheerleaders, dumbing it down until it couldn't get much dumber. That's what made it so much fun. And therein lies the genius.
"I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend" by the Ramones from the debut album "Ramones" Warner Brothers 1976
3.Little Richard, "Here's Little Richard" (1957)
Among the more pervasive boomer myths is the idea that no pop act made a proper album until the Beatles came along to save the world. I could name at least a dozen albums to disprove this theory, but few make a case as compelling as this electrifying debut from the man who calls himself "the architect of rock 'n' roll." This shockingly consistent effort features many of the songs that now define his legacy, from "Ready Teddy," "Jenny Jenny," "True Fine Mama" and "She's Got It" to the true hits, four Top 40 singles -- "Tutti Frutti," "Long Tall Sally," "Slippin' and Slidin' (Peepin' and Hidin')" and "Rip It Up." For further proof of Richard's genius, go directly to "Can't Believe You Want to Leave," a gospel-flavored track that proves he could have cut it as a soul man in the '60s if he hadn't found religion.
"Jenny, Jenny" by Little Richard from the debut album "Here Comes Little Richard"
4. The Stooges, "The Stooges" (1969)
Led by Iggy Pop (then Iggy Stooge), a knuckle-dragging visionary with more imitators on the mike than Eddie Vedder, the Stooges rolled out of the gutter in 1969 with a sound more primitive than rock had ever known. At times, the industrial grind is almost hypnotizing. But mostly, it rocks. You'd swear the guitarist was paid by the number of times he used the wah-wah pedal. And when the Stooges went all Spectoresque and threw piano on "I Wanna Be Your Dog," they played the same note through the whole song. Lyrically, this album took the darkness of the Doors and cranked it up a notch. But there was humor, too. On "1969," a song about the promise of "another year with nothin' to do," the singer deadpans, "Now, I'm gonna be 22 / I say, 'Oh my' and, uh, 'boo hoo.' "
"1969" by The Stooges (Iggy Pop) is from the debut album "The Stooges" on Elektra / Asylum 1969
5.The Jimi Hendrix Experience, "Are You Experienced?" (1967)
As guitar heroes go, Jimi Hendrix was truly heroic, redefining not only the way a guitar could be played but the way it could sound. And best of all, his psychedelic reinvention of the blues was also insanely accessible. The smash hits here are smash hits for a reason -- from the sexed-up funk of "Foxey Lady" to "Manic Depression." At one point, a voice from the musical wilderness says, "You'll never hear surf music again," which didn't prove to be the case, as fate -- or Quentin Tarantino -- would have it. But it's certainly easy enough to see how Hendrix (and the world) may have felt that way when this amazing invitation to experience arrived just in time for the Summer of Love.
"Love or Confusion" by The jimi Hendrix Experience is from "Are You Experienced" on Experience Hendrix / MCA 1967
6. Elvis Costello, "My Aim Is True" (1977)
The playing got a whole lot better on the second record, once he'd signed on the Attractions. But there's no mistaking what it was that had the critics foaming at the mouth when this one hit the streets. A newer-than-average Dylan with an attitude to suit the punk-rock times, the man who would be Elvis never met a phrase he couldn't turn. And those phrases were turned in the service of songs that rarely stopped at being clever. The character sketches could be devastating ("Alison," "No Dancing") when he wanted you to sympathize or really funny ("Less Than Zero") when he didn't. But the character he kept returning to was Elvis ("I said 'I'm so happy I could die' / She said 'Drop dead' then left with another guy").
"Welcome to the Working Week" by Elvis Costello is from the debut album "My Aim is True" Stiff Records / Rhino 1977
7. The Kinks, "The Kinks" (1964)
You can hear the adrenaline racing through their veins as the British Invasion's most unruly R&B group hydroplanes through "Beautiful Delilah," the opening cut of a debut album that would also yield the single that defined their early sound. "You Really Got Me" is electrifying, a sonic reduction of all the most exciting elements of early rock 'n' roll into an even more exciting sound, a trash-rock thrill that even "Louie Louie" could only suggest. While nothing here -- not even "Stop Your Sobbing" -- suggests that Ray Davies would one day be responsible for many of the most inspired ballads of his generation, that's no reason not to turn it up and re-experience a sound that would inspire everyone from punks to metalheads to Chrissie Hynde.
"Beautiful Delilah" by The Kinks is from the debut album "Kinks" on Pye/EMS 1964
8. The Beatles, "Please Please Me" (1963)
Most Americans didn't get a chance to meet the Beatles until their American label threw together "Meet the Beatles." But this is the proper debut. And while it doesn't boast as many hits, it does at least as good a job of capturing the charm that made the early Beatles such a pop sensation. The sense of enthusiasm they bring to their favorite American records -- from an awe-inspiring "Twist and Shout" to "Boys," as sung by Ringo -- is contagious. But the song that wins you over in a heartbeat when you bring this album home is the Lennon-McCartney original with which they introduce themselves, "I Saw Her Standing There." It's quintessential early Beatles. And it rocks, the only aspect of the Beatles legacy for which they may be underrated.
"I Saw Her Standing There" by the Beatles is from the debut album "Please Please Me" Apple records 1963
9. Bob Marley and the Wailers, "Catch a Fire" (1973)
"Catch a Fire" both defines and transcends reggae as the Wailers catch a fire at Bob Marley's back on "Concrete Jungle," "Stir It Up" and "Midnight Ravers," classics all. The singer preaches peace and love like a Rastaman's Lennon on "No More Trouble," lets his dreads down on the playful "Baby We've Got a Date (Rock It Baby)" and lashes out at his people's oppressors in "Slave Driver," breathing some actual fire as he tells them "the table is turned/ Catch a fire/ You're gonna get burned." And while it's clearly Marley's show, the album also features Peter Tosh's every-bit-as-worthy contributions "Stop That Train" and "400 Years."
"Concrete Jungle" by Bob Marley and The Wailers is from the debut album "Catch a Fire" on Tuff Gong / Island Records 1973
10. The Sex Pistols, "Never Mind the Bollocks Here's the Sex Pistols" (1977)
This album rocks. There's so much else to focus on -- the Pistols gave good scandal, after all. But it's the way they rock that makes their one true album such a timeless thrill. A lot of people misinterpret what the Pistols did as anti-rock. But that's just nonsense -- bollocks, if you will. The band recycles 20 years of rock 'n' roll excitement here. It's funny, too. Unlike the Clash, the Pistols waged their war against society as class clowns in a cartoon-punk burlesque of nihilistic rage. And they were blessed in that respect to have auditioned one of rock's most hilarious rebels, Johnny Rotten. Never mind the anarchy. Here's the showmanship.
"God Save the Queen" by The Sex Pistols from their debut album "Never Mind the Bollocks Here's the Sex Pistols" on Warner Brothers 1977
11. The Clash, "The Clash" (1977)
"London Calling" is for rock 'n' rollers. This is the Clash as punks adore them -- young, loud and snotty and tossing a brick at the world outside the windows of their own garage. They want a riot of their own, and you can hear that in the music, which rocks with a youthful abandon and passion and rage and hooks as big as any big ideas that would come to dominate their later albums -- hooks they thrash away at in arrangements that are more sophisticated than they sound. And when they tackle Junior Murvin's reggae hit "Police & Thieves," it couldn't be more clear that while the premise of the movement was that anyone could play, the Clash could play.
"Police & Thieves" by The Clash is from the debut album "The Clash" on Epic Records 1977
12. The Muffs, "The Muffs" (1993)
These songs have better hooks than anything commercial radio or MTV was playing at the time, but the closest the Muffs came to making a splash was, sadly, a Fruitopia commercial -- that would be the one that had the better hook than anything the other fruit-drink companies were using. The sound is essentially punk, but the writing is steeped in classic '60s songcraft marked by Beatlesque arrangements. Add to that a youthful "Hey, I know! Let's start a band!" enthusiasm and a singer, Kim Shattuck, whose voice can range from Ronnie Spector tender to a shriek that sounds like Courtney Love in traffic on her way to see the stylist.
"Lucky Guy" by The Muffs from their debut album "The Muffs" on Warner Brothers 1993
13. The Rolling Stones, "England's Newest Hit Makers" (1964)
Sure, it's mostly covers. But as faithful as the boys can be, they make these songs their own. Go back and listen to the Buddy Holly version of "Not Fade Away." The words and the beat are the same. But the menace of Jagger's performance transforms it. He is gonna tell you how it's gonna be. And you're gonna like it, or else. "Route 66" is rock's definitive "Route 66." Chuck Berry's "Carol" is among their greatest hits. And the swaggering "Little by Little" and "Tell Me" find the Jagger-Richards hit machine in fine form long before they couldn't get no satisfaction.
"Little by Little" by The Rolling Stones from their debut album "The Rolling Stones: England's Newest Hit Makers" on Abkco Music 1964
14. Led Zeppelin, "Led Zeppelin" (1969)
The original blues explosion, Zeppelin didn't waste much time announcing its intentions. The opening riff of "Good Times Bad Times" hit the speakers with a force that redefined the concept of a power chord. And it only got better from there, with Jimmy Page's trash 'n' flash guitar competing for the spotlight with the heavy-metal wail of Robert Plant while the other guys hammered away at the rhythm in a way that was both danceable and heavier than rock had ever been. It's not all heavy, though. The second song begins as understated folk before the thunder hits. And then, of course, you've got "Your Time Is Gonna Come," as majestic a rocker as any in the band's amazing catalog, with organ fit to make you wonder how they got the keys to that cathedral.
"Your Time is Gonna Come" by Led Zeppelin from their debut album "Led Zeppelin" on Atlantic Records 1969
15. Ben Folds Five, "Ben Folds Five" (1995)
Ben Folds couldn't help but stand out from the crowd. He played piano in the post-Nirvana '90s, after all. And like a virtuoso. Then, you had the image -- geek whose mood could swing from sensitive to cynical and back again with little warning. Here was a guy who could skewer the underground in a hurtful, hilarious novelty song, then turn around and break your heart while singing to Howard Cosell in the voice of Muhammad Ali. But look beyond the things that made him stand out in the first place, and you're left with a serious talent whose ear for a melody would have made him stand out either way.
"Boxing" by the Ben Folds Five from their debut album "Ben Folds Five" on Caroline Records 1995
16. New York Dolls, "New York Dolls" (1973)
New York City's answer to the Rolling Stones, the Dolls played faster, wore more makeup and, in many ways, anticipated punk as much as Iggy. But the sound and spirit are essentially the Stones without the private jet, to the extent that if you're into "Rip This Joint," there's absolutely nothing here that wouldn't speak directly to you. Johnny Thunders makes the most of every lick Chuck Berry ever played while David Johansen is only as likely as Jagger to go for attitude when notes are too much bother. And the songs are timeless, fueled by killer hooks and lyrics smart enough to cut the bad-boy swagger with a healthy dose of camp.
"Personality" by the New York Dolls from their debut album "New York Dolls" on Mercury/Polygram 1973
17. D'Angelo, "Brown Sugar" (1995)
Grooving on a soul foundation laid by everyone from Marvin Gaye to Smokey Robinson (whose "Cruisin' " he covers) to Prince, D'Angelo emerges as the leader of the '90s soul revival and his own man here, his sweet falsetto used to great effect on such infectious new-soul classics as the title cut and the Wonder-ful "When We Get By." The vocals are amazing, but what really makes "Brown Sugar" taste so good is that he's every bit as capable of writing new-soul classics as he is of singing them, from sexy come-ons to a cheating song that ends in "Why the both of you's bleeding so much?" and eventually "Why am I wearing handcuffs?"
"Brown Sugar" is by D'Angelo from the debut album "Brown Sugar" on EMI Records 1995
18. The dB's, "Stands for Decibels" (1981)
Brainy pop revivalists intent on undermining all their biggest hooks with quirky production and quirkier vocals, these guys never had a prayer of getting over on the public. That would be a shame if everything that doomed this album to its cult-rock status wasn't such a major part of its appeal. You can't blame radio for passing on a song with vocals as potentially annoying as the ones in "Dynamite," but I'd blame anyone who couldn't hear the genius in the better songs here. And by better songs, I'm talking nearly every one, from "Black and White" to "Moving in Your Sleep." The guys in R.E.M. were big supporters, by the way, so send your cards and letters their way.
"Bad Reputation" by The dB's from the debut album "The dB's Stands for Decibels" Internation Record Syndicate 1981
19. The Cars, "The Cars" (1978)
A New Wave hit machine that wore its art-rock aspirations on its inner sleeve, the Cars' first album let the good times roll in nine refreshing blasts of keyboard-driven power-pop whose secret weapon may have been, surprisingly, a lead guitarist. Then, of course, out front, you had your not-so-secret weapon, Ric Ocasek, who could play neurotic like nobody this side of Anthony Perkins. While those twitchy stalker-next-door vocals didn't stop the hits he sang from being hits (in fact, they may have helped), it clearly didn't hurt to have a guy like Ben Orr in the band to take the wheel on a single as perfect for airplay as "Just What I Needed."
"Good Times Roll" by The Cars from their debut album "The Cars" on Elektra 1978
20. The Pretenders, "Pretenders" (1980)
With a voice that pretty much defines the art of cool detachment, Chrissie Hynde escapes the wrath of tattooed love boys as she rewrites Alice Cooper's "Only Women Bleed" from a woman's perspective. As she sings, she'll never feel like a man in a man's world. Nails have rarely been as tough as Miss Ohio on rock songs as over-the-top as "Precious," but she's even better when she lets her guard down and reminds us that there is a heart beneath the scabs inside that leather jacket -- on "Kid," in particular. And while it may be Chrissie's show, the blokes she found in England are just punk enough to paint outside the quickly forming punk-rock lines, as brilliant on the tender moments as they are when rocking out.
"Kid" by The Pretenders from the debut album "Pretenders" on Sire Records 1980
21. Funkadelic, "Funkadelic" (1970)
"If you will suck my soul, I will lick your funky emotions." And so it begins (with extra echo on the tongue) -- a psychedelic raw-funk odyssey that takes off asking "Mommy, What's a Funkadelic?" answers that with funk to spare, then brings your journey to an end with "What Is Soul." The way George Clinton sees it, feels it, lives it, heavy-breathes it, soul is both a ham hock in your corn flakes and the ring around your bathtub. Fair enough. But the groove is as good as the humor, Eddie Hazel's lead guitar is genius, and the vocals make it sound as if they're tripping in the Psychedelic Shack with the Temptations. "Can you feel that, baby? It's called Funka-delic music. It will blow your funky mind." And if it doesn't, well, you may be suffering from a mind that can't be blown.
"Mommy, What's a Funkadelic" by Funkadelic is from the debut album "Funkadelic" on Wsstbound Records 1971
22. Elastica, "Elastica" (1995)
Sure, the hit is as blatant a steal as anything this side of all those Eddie Vedder knockoffs in heavy rotation as you read this. But how many people who heard "Connection" on the radio could even tell you what the Wire song they're cribbing is. I'd wager half a dozen. Or possibly seven. Either way, it's no big deal. What Elastica did was nothing more or less than carry on the rock 'n' roll tradition of wearing all your coolest records on your sleeve. And as the Strokes can tell you, sometimes sounding cool can be its own reward. With Justine Frischmann pushing sassy to a new high on the mike, this album stands as the ultimate triumph of style over substance.
"Stutter" by Elastica is from the debut album "Elastica" on Geffen Records 1995
23. Chuck Berry, "After School Session" (1958)
Before Bob Dylan came along, Chuck Berry was the poet laureate of American rock 'n' roll. An amazing guitar hero, too. You can hear both sides of Berry's legend on his first release, from the humor with which he addresses the "botheration" of the working-class experience in "Too Much Monkey Business" to "Havana Moon," a comic narrative about what happens when you're waiting on your ship to come in with a jug of rum to keep you company. On "Brown Eyed Handsome Man," he even sneaks a black-pride anthem in under the white man's radar with a simple substitution. Had the label simply thought to substitute some early singles ("Maybellene," "Rock 'n' Roll Music," etc.) for a couple of the instrumentals here, this album would have ranked a whole lot higher. As it stands, it's merely classic.
"Too Much Monkey Business" by Chuck Berry is from the debut album "After School Session" 1958 MCA re-release
24. Run-D.M.C., "Run-D.M.C." (1984)
On point for the future shock, this album was street when being street did not require calling everyone in sight an n-word. But these rappers keep it plenty real (while finishing each other's sentences). This album rocks with conscience, from the warning of hard times "spreading just like the flu" to "Wake Up," a utopian dream from which they wake up with a vision of the world "working as a team." You'll also find their breakthrough hit, "It's Like That," in addition to the Funkadelicized guitar of "Rock Box," while Jam Master Jay, their DJ, earns the hype they throw his way on two cuts dedicated to telling the world how great he is, scratching his fingers right into the history books.
"Hard Times" is by Run-D.M.C. from the debut album "Run-D.M.C." on Profile records 1984
25. The B-52's, "The B-52's" (1979)
Shortly before he was murdered, John Lennon was raving about this New Wave party band as proof that the world had finally caught up to Yoko. There's certainly plenty of Yoko in the quirky vocal stylings of the thrift-store chicks in beehive wigs, but The B-52's have degrees from a campier school of art -- a surf-guitar, B-movie school. The sound is both ridiculously catchy and deceptively original; the words, hilarious. "There's a moon in the sky/It's called the moon." "Why don't you dance with me?! I'm not no limburger!" And "Rock Lobster," the single that made them an overnight legend. If this record doesn't make you smile, your smile is more than likely broken.
"Dance This Mess Around" by The B-52's from their debut album "The B-52's" on Warner Brothers 1979