Top 10 Debut Albums/CDs of All Time
There have been some promising debuts in Rock and Roll. And while some artists created amazing waves in culture when first appearing on the scene, often, their records don’t convey the same excitement. So if you look for great debuts through a purely musical lens, these ten debut albums have to rank near the top.
A great debut is unique in that it both makes a dramatic statement about the artist and has excellent playing and songwriting. In many cases, it is the artist’s best work ever.
Glaring omissions, the Beatles, Clash, and Bruce Springsteen, to name three, who had terrific debuts – are highly uneven and not here. Also, Plastic One Band (aka John Lennon’s first solo record) are amazing on so many levels, but over time has become more of a novelty than something you’ll listen to today. All these records listed below, I still play today.
Also, another requirement is no clunkers. You have to be able to listen to the whole record side to side. Chicago Transit Authority is a fantastic debut, but “Free Form Guitar” is unlistenable. Out.
Here are my highly subjective and personal Top 10 Rock and Roll Debuts.
- Are You Experienced – Jimi Hendrix Experience
Jimi Hendrix was a phenomenon in London, infiltrating the British scene like Austin Powers with his single “Hey Joe.” Clapton, Page and Beck thought, ‘Oh crap, it’s over for us with this guy!” This record, uneven in parts, presents a fully-formed future music icon who revolutionized the guitar with each over-driven E7#9 chord (and there are many) and feedback-laden solo.
The best US version of Hendrix’s debut shows a remarkable range. From the hard rock of “Purple Haze” to the blues of “Red House,”: from the tenderness of “The Wind Cries Mary ” to the experimentation of “Third Stone from the Sun,” no record before or since said, “hey world look at me, the guitar world will never be the same.”
It hasn’t been since.
- The Pretenders – The Pretenders
In the middle of US punk importation of bands with attitude and no musical aptitude came the odd combo of the Pretenders. Ohio native Chrissie Hynde pulled this group together in the UK. Every song on the debut encapsulated the Clash’s angst with the Kinks’ pop sensibilities. Plus, everyone could play. It was a delicious combination made even more so when their leader said, “not me baby, I’m too precious, F off!” Attitude!
James Honeyman-Scott was a guitar chameleon, playing a dizzying display of rhythm and single-note lines behind Martin Chambers’s beefy drumming.
The real star was the enigmatic front-woman whose vulnerable-yet-strong vocals and terrific songwriting would carry her career for decades with various bandmates and never quite as good albums.
- Boston – Boston
Saturated guitars, overdubbed vocal harmonies, and songs that came out of some sinister archetypal time machine have ensured that forty years after the fact, somewhere, a track from this debut is playing in the world. As much as I disliked this record at first as corporate rock, over time and repeated listenings, Boston’s craftsmanship and durability are undeniable.
Mastermind Tom Scholz created in his basement enough songs for two mega-selling, genre-producing (corporate rock!), arguably outstanding records. The late Brad Delp’s vocals are terrific, even if no one could recognize him in a police lineup, and their life depended on it. Without Delp, Scholz is just another tall vegetarian with a guitar and a degree from MIT.
- Elvis Costello – My Aim is True
The reflective singer-songwriter wave was over. The wimpy Topanga Canyon guys had put a fork in the genre spewing ersatz introspection, Joni turned to Jazz, and Cat Stevens was praying he wouldn’t drown (ending his career in the process).
Then came this record from a new kind of singer-songwriter named Elvis. This was a stunning debut, from the poignancy of the title cut to the hard Farfisa-rooted ska of Watching the Detectives. Elvis is an artist who is still relevant today. Whether it is as a musician, the host of the TV show Spectacle, or the author of one of the best music autobiographies, “Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink,” you can be sure whatever Elvis does is impressive.
- Van Halen – Van Halen
Rock guitar is stunningly reinvented. Edward Van Halen grabs the torch that began with Chuck Berry and was most recently in the hands of Hendrix. By the time Running with The Devil finishes, EVH makes guitarists all over the planet weep with the solo guitar instrumental Eruption. Dive bombs and right-handed finger tapping are introduced and expanded in this often copied song. Upon hearing for the first time, all guitarists knew it was time to woodshed.
Then there is the rest of the album.
David Lee Roth might be the best frontman in the history of rock. He slept with more chicks than Rod Stewart and could kick the crap out of Roger Daltry while making everyone laugh their asses off. Over time we all learned that a little DLR goes a long way. But it was all new here, and the Van Halen/Lee Roth combo was irresistible. More than other bands, they brought some much-needed fun back to rock and roll.
- Jackson Browne – Saturate Before Using
More than any other, Jackson Browne set the table for the new sensitive singer-songwriter with that California/Topanga vibe with his literate lyrics and surfer good looks. Soon Linda Ronstadt, the Eagles, and many others followed his path, often signing his songs or co-writing with him. Everyone knew how great a songwriter Jackson was. That’s why Crosby and Nash sing background vocals on this record. David Geffen “discovered” him building an empire starting with Asylum and this record.
Not only is there the hit “Doctor My Eyes” but also several deep perplexing songs like “Song for Adam” and “Something Fine.” These dense melodic songs with lyrics like,
The future hides, and the past slides; England lies between
Floating in a silver mist, so cold and so clean
had folks passing doobies then (and maybe even today) discussing how heavy and poetic Jackson was.
- REM – Murmur
In college, REM was something new, underground, and exciting. Rolling Stone singled them out from the “Athens, GA” music scene. For us in college at the time, this was “our band.” With Murmur, REM was starting a career leading to Grammies and induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Who knew?
Well, we did.
REM was on to something new. Indecipherable vocals, no lyric sheets, and a lead singer that wouldn’t face the audience. REM in this album was a musical embodiment of the overused term “enigmatic.” It is apt.
“Radio Free Europe,” “Sitting Still,” and “Laughing” are among their best. This whole album introduces us to some great players. There are the jangly arpeggio guitars by Peter Buck, McCartney-Esque baselines by Mike Mills, and constantly forging ahead drumming by Bill Berry (in a drum booth). Combined, these players create a unique vibe they never had again as they become more commercial.
- Guns N’ Roses – Appetite for Destruction
Appetite was the kick-in-the-ass rock and roll was looking for out of its MTV hair-band days. Who wins the fight, Winger or Guns N’ Roses?
“Welcome to the Jungle,” “Paradise City,” and “Sweet Child ‘0 Mine” were all in heavy rotation on MTV, AM, and FM radio. All this play helped Apppetite sell over 30 million copies (making David Geffen yet another fortune). With frontman Axel Rose and his cousin-it guitar foil “Slash,” this band was always on the verge of imploding. It was like everyone was on hard drugs at the time and could barely play. But what a record.
- Rickie Lee Jones – Rickie Lee Jones
This record was the best new artist winner in 1979. This record combines impeccable production by Lenny Waronker and Russ Titelman with an artist who brought something very new to the pop music table. Jones’s vocal range, including a flawless falsetto, radiated completed confidence throughout the record. Number 4 hit “Chuck E’s in Love” with its infectious opening guitar riff and Steve Gadd’s brilliant underlying shuffle groove are pop arrangement at its finest – as is the whole record. Warner Brothers brought in all the “big guns” to ensure a brilliant debut. And it is.
Yet those expecting a record full of similar finger-snapping confections (Chuck E part two) instead found an artist whose debut had dark lyrics coupled with odd-time-signature delivery sensibilities. Instead of an album full of songs like “Last Chance Texaco” and “YoungBlood,” pretty straightforward pop, there were more adventurous songs like “Nightrain” and “Coolsville.” The whole package was fantastic but had many scratching their heads, wondering what to make of this artist and record.
- Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin
Recently YouTube star Rick Beato rightfully singled out Led Zeppelin’s debut as the best. He’s right. It’s audacious and timeless. I dare you to put on the first track, “Good Times, Bad Times,” and not be wowed. Bonham’s triplets on the kick drum, Jones’s full-stop bass fills, Page’s riffs and solo, or Plant’s vocals – it sounds as good today as ever. And all the songs in this collection are great!
Led Zepplin 1 was the record that introduced the world to arguably the most exceptional rock and roll group of all time. Today we all know Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones, and John Bonham. Then, Page had some notoriety but not the others. Hard to imagine, but in 1969 this was just another rock release.
With four songs clocking in over 6:00, the band gets to stretch, showcasing their great musical chops. This type of playing was the perfect fodder for FM radio and live renderings. Zeppelin would go on to conquer the world.
But for me, it’s the production that stands out. Jimmy Page knew how to record this band. He also learned how to create a memorable riff, which he would do for years.
Any list like this is bound to have detractors. So what. Make your list. This list is mine, and it has merit.
That being said, for sure, three anticipated criticisms. First, Boston.
I understand Boston will take a few tomatoes. They are lumped in with “corporate rock.” They will never make the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Everyone else on this list (except Jones) is already in. Concerning Boston, let me ask you, “If you had to choose between Styx or REO Speedwagon, wouldn’t you choose Boston every time?” You would, and it’s solely because of this excellent debut record.
Then there is the critic’s darlings argument. Critic’s darlings are beloved by critics but hardly sell anything. I am talking about Leonard Cohen, Velvet Underground, Patti Smith, Laura Nyro, MC5, Love, and the Talking Heads. There are many others, some in the RRHOF. All of them are the musical equivalent of Beowulf, historically interesting, but God bless you for slogging through them.
Finally, there is your darling. Why isn’t Rush on the list? How about CSN? Pearl Jam? Or some Jazz? I thought Elvis’s RCA debut was terrific!
That’s great! Come up with five more, and you’ll have a top 10 too!