*Picture of assorted debut LPs by the intrepid Rock Chick, who has an eye for this sort of thing…
Maybe it’s the way the cold, grey winter settles in on the midwestern plains, but I’ve always perceived January as a long continuation of that whole New Year’s Eve period of self contemplation. I’m not talking about the New Year’s Eve party here, I’m always a sucker for a good party… I mean the whole resolutions and goal setting that goes on. The new year always greets us with a fresh set of months, or if I may lapse into a sports/football analogy, January is like a new set of downs…first and ten to go. This year 2021 sort of started off with a bang, and not in a good way, but the second half of the month has been a bit of a slow slog. Maybe it’s my insistence on doing dry January every year that leads to my navel gazing. During this stretch I began to contemplate the meaning of the new year and all it could become. January always feels like its greeting me with opportunity and possibility.
As usual, when contemplating anything, my thoughts quickly turned to rock and roll. When I sat gazing out in my mind’s eye on the new possibilities held in January’s frosty greeting, I couldn’t help but start pondering rock n roll’s great “greetings.” By “greetings,” I mean the great debut albums that have been released over the years. For some reason I’ve always had a soft spot or call it a fondness for an artist’s first album. I have an old college roommate who is referred to in these pages as Drew who shares my love of the debut album. I especially love the debut album when it was a record I picked up when it actually, well, debuted. Like Van Halen… I was in junior high school when Van Halen came out and I jumped on that bandwagon early. Later it was Pearl Jam’s Ten that I bought as it came out. More recently I picked up Starcrawler’s eponymously titled debut. If it’s a band whose career I’ve followed since their first album they tend to stick with me longer. Don’t get me wrong, there were great debut albums that came out before my rock n roll “awakening” that I went out and purchased as well, and you’ll see some of those on here a well.
The debut album is a band or artist’s chance to make that very important first impression. As Will Rogers used to say, “you never get a second chance to make a first impression.” Although perhaps Kafka said it better, “First impressions are always unreliable.” Kafka must have dated as much as I did, trust me Kafka knew what he was talking about… If we look at the rock and roll “first impressions,” they range in as many categories as you can imagine. For most bands they’re the blueprint for everything that comes after. In some cases they’re widely ignored except for a few hard core fans and the critics. Many of those debut albums that were ignored get some retrospective appreciation and in some cases belated commercial success. Occasionally the first record a band puts out is so big and popular they struggle to ever do anything that big again. There’s an old saying in rock n roll, that you get your whole life to write your first album and only a matter of months to write your second. In the old days, so many bands didn’t hit it “big” until their third album – one could think of Springsteen, U2 or the Police – that debut albums were seen as a mere beachhead towards bigger and better things. Bands were given more time to develop and record companies weren’t looking for that immediate, enormous success. The labels were willing to invest time and money in music…
All of that said, there are a ton of really great first records. When I started contemplating this topic, as I usually do, I started putting a list together in my head. When I sat down and put pen to paper, or more accurately, stylus to iPad, I had close to 80 titles. While nothing would have made me happier to list all of those records here like I did for the list of essential live albums (BourbonAndVinyl Comes Alive: The Epic List Of Essential Live Albums), I felt some editing was necessary… something I rarely engage in, editing. I decided to set some boundaries on the list this time. First and foremost, I limited myself to only 40 albums. Also, if an artist was in a band, especially if they were successful, and then embarked on a solo career, those debuts are not included. Think Robert Plant or Ozzy, those guys were established artists in Zeppelin and Sabbath before going solo. It would feel like cheating to compare Blizzard of Ozz to some newly minted band slogging away in a small independent studio, self producing some DIY project to a guy who’d already been dubbed the Prince of Darkness. I could put McCartney or All Things Must Pass on here except Paul McCartney and George Harrison had been um, sort of popular in their original band. You won’t see my beloved Faces here because half the band was in the Small Faces who were established already and Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood had been in the Jeff Beck Group (Artist Lookback: The (Original) Jeff Beck Group – Jeff Beck, Rod Stewart & Ronnie Wood). Perhaps I’m being too strict here but hey, its my list.
It is my goal, as always, to turn you onto something new. If you’ve only experienced a band through their greatest hits, or their most famous records, maybe I’ll give you something to check out. If there is a great debut that isn’t on this list – as I said, I limited myself to just 40 – please mention it in the comments. These are merely my favorite debut albums. Enjoy!
- The Allman Brothers Band, The Allman Brothers Band – Their epic Live At the Fillmore East gets all the attention on the “greatest albums of all time lists,” but this is one of the great blues/blues rock albums of all times. They set the template for southern rock. I love both their first two LPs, Artist Lookback: The Allman Brothers’ First Two Albums, 1969-1970.
- The Band, Music From Big Pink – Recorded while hanging out with Dylan in Woodstock… some albums are legendary because they deserve to be.
- The Beatles, Please Please Me – The birth of Beatlemania. It starts with “I Saw Her Standing There” and ends with “Twist And Shout.” The beginning of a love affair with the world that has lasted almost 60 years.
- Big Star, #1 Record – Criminally ignored upon its release, for years I thought they were a disco band. I have no idea where I got that notion. Such a huge influence on so many bands including Cheap Trick, this is a great overlooked album, The Music of Cinemax’s Quarry Led Me To Big Star’s “#1 Record”.
- Black Crowes, Shake Your Money Maker – I am currently obsessed with the Black Crowes and their debut. Great Stonesy album that I bought when I heard “Jealous Again.” (Black Crowes: New Song “Charming Mess” From The 30th Anniversary ‘Shake Your Money Maker’ Expanded Edition.
- Boston, Boston – Rock snobs and critics would snort at this one, but this is an awesome, arena rock masterpiece.
- Jackson Browne, Jackson Browne aka Saturate Before Using – Jackson’s first four albums are an amazing body of work. “Doctor My Eyes” was the big hit on this one but I love the quiet “Something Fine” and the rowdy “Rock Me On the Water.”
- The Byrds, Mr. Tambourine Man – 2020 saw me finally getting into the Byrds. I’d always thought they were a Dylan cover band… I was wrong. Gene Clark’s songwriting is their secret weapon. I was turned onto this band through Movie Review: ‘Echo In The Canyon’ – Flawed, Enjoyable Look at Cali ’65-’67.
- The Cars, The Cars – Rick Ocasek was perhaps correct when he joked, “We should have named the first album The Cars Greatest Hits.”
- The Clash, The Clash – Not to sound like the aforementioned rock snobs, but I prefer the original U.K. version of this album vs the later altered U.S. version.
- Elvis Costello, My Aim Is True – This might actually be my favorite Costello record. This was before he started recording with the Attractions.
- The Doors, The Doors – If you went through your teens without a rebellious phase where you idolized Jim Morrison and listened to this album constantly, did you really go through puberty? “This is the end my friend…”
- Foreigner, Foreigner – Give me all the shit you want about this album being on the list, but its fantastic and I know my friend Stormin’ agrees with me. I love “Headknocker” and “Long Long Way From Home.” “Fool For You Anyway” and “The Damage Is Done” are downright additive ballads.
- Guns N Roses, Appetite For Destruction – Epic, amazing, hard rock. I never get tired of this momentous album.
- The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Are You Experienced? – The world’s greatest guitarist ever putting on a psychedelic blues extravaganza.
- Norah Jones, Come Away With Me – I realize I’m straying out to the mellow end, but this woman’s voice is just mesmerizing. This jazzy, traditional, gorgeous album only sold a kajillion copies. I love it still when I’m feeling mellow. You can’t listen to GnR all the time, or can you?
- Lenny Kravitz, Let Love Rule – There was a time when every woman I went out with would play this record for me. Eventually I had to buy it myself and am I glad I did. “Mr. Cab Driver” and the title track are my favorites.
- Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin – This was the foundation of everything they did afterwards. They stretched blues and rock n roll until you’d have thought it’d break. This was the first LP of theirs I bought… after I’d purchased In Through The Out Door (LP Lookback: In Praise of Led Zeppelin’s ‘In Through The Out Door’), I wanted to start at the beginning.
- Lynyrd Skynyrd, Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd – The Allmans may have established southern rock as a thing but Skynyrd took it to the next level with three lead guitarists. “Freebird,” indeed.
- Metallica, Kill Em All – One of the best heavy metal albums ever committed to tape.
- Pearl Jam, Ten – I’m still in love with this album. I was super jazzed when they finally released their ‘Unplugged’ from this era last year, Review: Pearl Jam Release ‘MTV Unplugged’ (Finally!).
- Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers – It took until the third LP for these guys to become household names (Damn the Torpedoes) but if you were listening closely it’s all here on their debut. “Breakdown” and “American Girl” are the staples of their greatest hits but there isn’t a bad song on this record.
- The Police, Outlandos D’Amour – This was their punkiest, punchiest album. “Can’t Stand Losing You” and “So Lonely” are such great songs. They have more popular, probably better records, but this is a highlight for me.
- Elvis Presley, Elvis Presley – An iconic from the King. RCA recorded some new tracks and gathered a few from his days at Sun Studios. It’s amazing.
- The Pretenders, The Pretenders – Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders’ masterpiece. Such a great punk record.
- The Ramones, Ramones – One of punk rock’s landmark albums. Harder, faster… the whole record doesn’t last 30 minutes.
- Otis Redding, Pain In My Heart – Such a huge influence on all that came after, including the Stones and Rod Stewart. This is an epic soul record.
- R.E.M., Murmur – Still, to this day, my favorite album by R.E.M., and I love R.E.M.
- The Rolling Stones, England’s Newest Hitmakers aka The Rolling Stones – When they were the anti-Beatles… a rough and ready blues band. I’d have loved to seen them in the Marquee Club.
- Smashing Pumpkins, Gish – Siamese Dream got more attention but this is one of the best debuts of the grunge era.
- Patti Smith, Horses – Poet, punk, rocker, female shaman, sorceress – it’s all on display for this record.
- Bruce Springsteen, Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. – This album didn’t sell well but everybody knew the songs were awesome as evidenced by how many people covered them – from Bowie to Manfred Mann.
- Steely Dan, Can’t Buy A Thrill – The only Dan album with vocalist David Palmer. He only sang “Brooklyn” and “Dirty Work” but they’re great songs. This whole record is fabulous. “Change of the Guard” may be my favorite.
- Talking Heads, Talking Heads ’77 – The early stuff is so twitchy and anxious. This is before all the poly-rhythmic stuff. It’s simple but extremely affecting music.
- U2, Boy – They didn’t break it big until War but this is a great start. “I Will Follow” and “Twilight” are such great songs.
- Van Halen, Van Halen – I won’t expand on what I put in my post about this LP, Album Lookback: Van Halen – The Smirking Menace of Their Debut at 40.
- Stevie Ray Vaughn, Texas Flood – One of the all time great guitar, blues albums.
- Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground & Nico – The first night I owned this LP, I was drinking tequila and feeling paranoid. It was dark and stormy… I put this album on and ended up hiding under my futon. Despite that it’s one of the greatest albums of all time.
- Tom Waits, Closing Time – I’ll quote my friend Drew, who turned me onto Waits, “Waits’ first album ruins all his other albums and they’re all great.”
- The Who, My Generation – The birth of Maximum R&B. Heavy, spirited, I love the Who.
There it is folks. I hope this sends you to the turntable… god knows its too cold to go outside. Let me know if you’ve got any debuts that you just love and I’ll check ’em out.
Take care of one another out there. Cheers!