The 60 Greatest Debut Albums Of All Time
Some artists develop their sound over the course of a long career, working gradually towards a creative peak, while others hit the ground running and deliver a fully realised masterwork at the first time of asking. And it’s the latter group we pay tribute to here as Gary Tipp names vinyl’s greatest debut albums…
Debut albums have several advantages over what follows in a band’s catalogue. Not least that the songs making the cut for the final tracklisting have been honed over time, forged in the fire of live gigging. The downside is that the artist might be unfamiliar with the recording studio environment and unable to realise their potential amid an unfamiliar world of faders, knobs and mic placements.
In some cases, they haven’t yet found ‘their sound’ or been given the freedom by a wary record company to make ‘their record’.There are many reasons why so many bands’ finest record is also their first. And many examples of acts who’ve never managed to scale those heights again throughout lengthy careers. We’ll leave the question of ‘why?’ for another day – we’re here to celebrate the great debut album. We’re in the heady thrall of artists who’ve delivered a fully realised work from the outset – and in some cases things went downhill from there…
60 The Streets Original Pirate Material 2002 . 59 Beastie Boys Licensed To Ill 1986 . 58 Erykah Badu Baduizm 1997 .
57 Mike Oldfield Tubular Bells 1973 . 56 The Congos Heart Of The Congos 1977 . 55 Wire Pink Flag 1977 .
54 Run DMC Run DMC 1984 . 53 Arcade Fire Funeral 2004 . 52 Elvis Presley Elvis Presley 1956 .
51 Minnie Riperton Come To My Garden 1970 . 50 Leonard Cohen The Songs Of Leonard Cohen 1967 . 49 LFO Frequencies 1991 .
48 Neu! Neu! 1972 . 47 Everything Is Everything Donny Hathaway 1970. 46 Echo & The Bunnymen Crocodiles 1980
45 Pink Floyd
The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn
With its crazy, experimental blend of whimsical acid pop (Lucifer Sam) and freak-out space rock (Interstellar Overdrive), Pink Floyd’s first album is one of the great psychedelic debuts. The title is borrowed from Syd Barrett’s favourite book, The Wind In The Willows and his maniacal vision makes for one hell of a ride.
44 The Byrds
Mr Tambourine Man
Before The Byrds thrillingly added the jingle-jangle of Roger McGuinn’s 12-string Rickenbacker to the titular Bob Dylan track, the words ‘intelligent’ and ‘pop’ were almost mutually exclusive.
Mr Tambourine Man brought the two together. This fantastic debut also succeeded in dragging folk-rock out of the shadows and into the mainstream spotlight.
43 The Specials
Under the gap-toothed tutelage of Jerry Dammers, Coventry’s finest played Jamaican ska with the furious intensity of punk, plundering Prince Buster’s back catalogue while they were at it. What’s more, on the band’s stunning self titled first offering they had the balls to stand tall and confront the socio-political issues of the day.
42 Big Star
Led by Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, Memphis boys Big Star entered the studio in the thrall of The Beatles and The Byrds. What they came out with was a joyous first outing, rammed full of melody, musical invention, ramshackle harmonies and killer hooks. The LP’s lousy distribution on release all but ensured its cult status.
41 Gang Of Four
By 1979, punk rock had all but fizzled out. It was now the time of the post-punks and placed at its militant vanguard were Gang Of Four, whose abrasive debut was one of its most satisfying and intelligent statements. Stringently political, subversive and funky (in an angular way), Entertainment proved to be the band’s creative peak.
Parliament’s sister group were formed to dig George Clinton out of a contractual hole, but soon developed a profile of their own. Louder, heavier, rockier and druggier than the rest, Funkadelic’s self-titled debut was a fuzzed-out, Hendrix-inspired, psyche-funk bolt out of the blue. It was indispensable on release, and is still indispensable now. Dig it.
New York’s Martin Rev and Alan Vega’s stripped-down sonic template dripped with punk’s nihilistic tendencies but was served up cold, with challenging soundscapes dominating the piece. The band promoted this uncompromisingly edgy, self-titled debut in the UK in a support slot for The Clash. Needless to say, it was confrontational.
38 Prince Buster
I Feel The Spirit
Prince Buster, real name Cecil Bustamente Campbell, was the first Jamaican artist to sign a licensing deal with a British record label (Blue Beat) and his subsequent debut the first ska album to be released outside of the island. It proved to be a revelation and contains the cream of his early 45s. His part in the rise of 2 Tone is beyond measure.
37 King Crimson
In The Court Of The Crimson King
A bold and challenging debut by anyone’s standards, King Crimson managed to seamlessly shoehorn elements of jazz, folk and classical into a series of powerfully visceral progressive rock soundscapes. The band in this original line-up fell apart under the weight of expectation. It’s also a contender for greatest debut album artwork.
36 Missy Elliott
Supa Dupa Fly
The post-modern MC got out of the blocks quickly on her genre-altering debut album. In tandem with deeply groovy producer Timbaland, avant-funkster Elliott set about deconstructing hip-hop and R&B with a deeply idiosyncratic collection of experimental songs, including The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly) and Sock It 2 Me.
35 The Strokes
Is This It
The New York pretty boy rich kids just about overcame the pre-release hype engulfing them with a self-assured first studio album full of chugging, memorable indie anthems. Fun, incredibly lean, and yet intense at the same time, despite The Velvet Underground comparisons, Is This It created the blueprint for a new breed of indie for the new millennium.
34 The Stooges
The Michigan outfit’s brand of brutal, bad-attitude garage rock was produced by John Cale and plays belligerent host to proto-punk gems such as I Wanna Be Your Dog, No Fun and incendiary opener 1969. It’s nothing if it’s not direct – fair to say Iggy and the Asheton brothers didn’t overthink their hugely influential debut.
33 The Clash
The Clash finally stepped out of the shadow of the Sex Pistols to deliver a raw, blistering, barely produced debut of memorable sloganeering songs. Recorded over three weekends, it was as fast and furious as it was treble-heavy. The Clash remains a wonderful document of its times, with opener Janie Jones an obvious highlight.
Turntable wizard DJ Shadow’s first album sounded like nothing that came before it. The entire album is a collage of sounds created from samples lovingly lifted from any obscure vinyl he could lay his grubby mitts on. It has no right to sound as thrilling as it does, such are the visionary skills of Shadow as a producer and arranger.
The 20-year-old NAS came out of the blocks firing with Illmatic, a debut album that stands as a landmark release in the history of hip-hop. Complemented perfectly by a top production team (DJ Premier, Large Professor, Q Tip), Nas drew on his upbringing in a housing project in Queens and dazzled with his narrative ability and incredible lyricism.
30 Steely Dan
Can’t Buy A Thrill
Ever the consummate craftsmen, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen hopped coasts to deliver a fully realised, immaculately constructed masterwork straight out of the gate. From the trademark world-weary lyrics to the silent air of studio perfectionism, all the familiar Steely Dan tropes are already firmly in place.
29 Arctic Monkeys
Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not
The Sheffield rockers hit the ground running, shifting a staggering number of copies of their debut in the first week on sale. With Oasis a spent force, the door was open.
28 Dr Dre
On his self-produced solo debut, Dre distanced himself from the political and, in doing so, transformed the entire sound of the West Coast rap scene. The Chronic not only ushered in his G-funk sound, it also introduced Snoop Dogg to an unsuspecting world. It has to be one of the great party albums.
The boys from Burnage kicked off with a debut album full of killer songs, swaggering vocals and a sackful of dumbass lyrics. It was the perfect antidote to the dour introspection of grunge. Seattle 0 Britpop 1.
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Before REM got all shiny and happy as people, for their freshman offering the Athens quartet somehow distilled the best bits from The Byrds, The Velvet Underground, Wire and Big Star to produce a mood and tone distinctly their own. The lyrics may be incomprehensible, but Murmur is an incredibly coherent work nonetheless.
25 Wu Tang Clan
Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)
For the rap collective’s debut, the Wu-Tang Clan took the hip-hop rule book and shredded it with a samurai sword. With genius producer RZA at the helm, the inventive 36 Chambers was edgy and dangerous, minimal and funny – pretty much the sonic antithesis of the laid back G-funk scene emanating from the opposite coast.
24 Roxy Music
Back in the days when the two Br(i/y)ans were talking to each other, kitsch and clever, Roxy Music were playfully warping perceptions about what a rock group should look and sound like. Released, initially, without the matchless Virginia Plain, the eponymous debut was a truly adventurous art-rock manifesto.
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23 Boards Of Canada
Music Has The Right To Children
The band’s lucid opening statement was a wistfully nostalgic work imbued with a sense of longing, with its banks of analogue synths marking it out from the crisp digital electronica scene of the day. Meditative, pastoral, layered, mature, this landmark release has been much copied, but never bettered.
In the shapely art-rock form of Television’s Marquee Moon, New York’s Bowery scene had ushered in one of the great debut guitar albums. Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd’s inspired two-pronged assault was a million miles away from the punk scene this side of the Atlantic. At 9:58, the title track remains a serious statement of artistic purpose.
21 The Doors
With its perfect fusion of bluesy rock and Jim Morrison’s rich vocals and trippy lyrics, The Doors never bettered their astonishing debut. Steered by Ray Manzarek’s electric organ, Light My Fire is an undeniable highlight, while Oedipal psycho-drama The End wraps everything up with a suitably over-the-top theatricality.
20 De La Soul
3 Feet High and Rising
The Long Island trio’s opening salvo created a vibrant new template for hip-hop, radically different from the gangster posturing of their macho peers. Forged in the suburbs rather than the projects, the group’s perfectly pitched use of sampling made for an impressively imaginative and lively debut. Still sounds as fresh as a D.A.I.S.Y to this day.
19 Elvis Costello
My Aim Is True
Resembling Buddy Holly’s psychotic kid brother, Costello’s debut aligned him to a new wave/punk scene with which he had little in common. He had the bitterness, sure, but the sheer scope and intelligence of his songwriting craft was light years removed. Costello wrote much of the album on the Underground while commuting to work.
18 The Jesus and Mary Chain
The Reid brothers’ riotous calling card consisted of Phil Spector-esque melodies hidden under swathes of feedback and tribal drumming. The attitude of East Kilbride’s backcombed finest was confrontational and thrilling, which added up to make one of the greatest first-up offerings of al time.
Two Sevens Clash
Culture’s debut was recorded at Joe Gibbs’ studio. The title refers to a Rastafarian prophecy that foresaw 7 July ‘77 as the end of the world. An upbeat album considering its apocalyptic message, it’s a roots-reggae classic.
16 Curtis Mayfield
After a decade fronting The Impressions, Mayfield went it alone with Curtis. The shift to solo meant a broader canvas on which to share his artistic vision. The debut was a soulful triumph, with Move On Up a highlight alongside the funky (Don’t Worry) If There’s A Hell Below We’re All Going To Go.
After breaking free from the limiting shackles of The Sugarcubes, Björk teamed up with producer Nellee Hooper, and together they summoned up a richly diverse work of trip-hoppy, electro-pop wonder.
14 The Beatles
Please Please Me
As earth-changingly important as the rush-released Please Please Me undoubtedly was, The Beatles’ first studio offering witnessed a band still finding their feet. The eight Lennon-McCartney originals were utterly joyous, but the half a dozen cover versions had a whiff of the end of the pier about them. Better was to come.
13 PJ Harvey
Polly Harvey’s blistering debut left no room for doubt that a major artist had arrived. The songs on Dry are fierce and brutally honest and the playing follows suit, as Harvey is revealed as an already fully realised songwriter equally capable of delivering a hook (Dress, Sheela-Na-Gig) as a visceral all-out attack (every other track on the album).
12 Sex Pistols
Never Mind The Bollocks
While the DIY punk ethic was all about snatching rock away from musical accomplishment, the Sex Pistols’ first outing is paradoxically a highly polished affair. The production is precise, the songs are tightly constructed and Johnny Rotten’s lyrics add a vital snarl. It’s might not be the sound of youth rebellion, but it’s a great guitar album.
One-trick ponies, but what a trick! The boys from the Bowery stripped rock ’n’ roll back to the three-chord basics on their stupidly influential first outing. The hook-laden songs (Blitzkrieg Bop, Beat On The Brat, Judy Is A Punk) were delivered at a speed far beyond breakneck, and in doing so created the prototype for a legion of punks to follow.
10 Guns N’Roses
Appetite For Destruction
One of the biggest-selling debut albums of all time, G’N’R were larger-than-life rapscallions with a bigger fuck-you attitude than all of the other 80s metal bands put together. It was the successful distillation of this cocksure attitude onto vinyl that made Appetite For Destruction so hard to resist.
9 The Jimi Hendrix Experience
Are You Experienced
One of the most impactful debut LPs of all time, Are You Experienced is an explosive salvo of psychedelic pop/rock. Tracks such as Purple Haze and Foxy Lady ensured that Jimi’s first captured that moment in time when the electric guitar truly came of age.
8 Black Sabbath
With pitch-black riffs, satantic lyrics and primal vocals, the Brummie foursome’s doom-laden debut pretty much lays down the blueprint for the heavy metal genre. Incredibly, it was recorded in only eight hours, which meant the band were able to make it down the pub for last orders after the recording sessions were over.
Straight Outta Compton
NWA set out their stall right off the bat with a furious album of no-compromise, incendiary gangster rap. The brutally relentless opening triptych of the title track, Fuck Tha Police and Gangsta was viscerally exhilarating and not at all suitable for the faint of heart. Inarguably, this was a legendary debut from a legendary line-up.
6 The Band
Music From Big Pink
Dylan’s former backing band turned their backs on the all-pervading psychedelia of the day to usher American rock music back to its folky roots. The collective’s big, raw rock ’n’ roll sound was the polar opposite of studio-manufactured albums such as Sgt. Pepper’s… and proved to be one of those watershed moments in rock.
5 Patti Smith
Versed equally in 19th century French poetry and Nuggets-era garage rock, Patti Smith, with the help of producer John Cale, (somehow) coherently fused the two on her wildly influential initial outing. Complete with ultra-cool Robert Mapplethorpe album sleeve photography, it was the very epitome of New York cool.
4 The Stone Roses
The Stone Roses
The eponymous debut from The Stone Roses twinned retro 60s guitar pop with 80s dance culture to create the most loved album of its generation. It was the complete package, with great artwork and a batch of monumental songs such as I Am The Resurrection and She Bangs The Drums that radiated the band’s irresistible swagger.
3 Led Zeppelin
Led Zeppelin rose from the ashes of The Yardbirds to produce an insanely thunderous debut of heavy blues with a tinge of psychedelia and the merest whiff of folk. The songs may have paid close ‘homage’ to old blues standards, but Page, Plant, Jones and Bonham’s singularly distinctive sound was fully formed from the outset.
2 Joy Division
Joy Division’s debut album is a post-punk masterpiece. Maverick producer Martin Hannett constructs the perfect sonic landscape to house the band’s darkly poetic collection of songs. Peter Saville’s iconic duotone sleeve rounds the job off nicely.
1 The Velvet Underground
The Velvet Underground & Nico
While The Beatles sang “All You Need Is Love”, the Velvet Underground were waiting on a street corner for their smack dealer to turn up. With Lou Reed’s street-smart pop sensibility and John Cale’s avant-garde leanings, the band’s debut brought rock music into to the world of art, depravity and sonic experimentation like never before. It proved to be a perfectly good fit.
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