There’s a truism about debut albums that an artist or band has their whole life to write one. And that is supposed to explain why the best debuts are so good — nothing that comes after will ever be prepared with as much thought or be accompanied by higher stakes. A great debut can make you, and it can also create framework by which anything you do afterward is judged.
Here’s a truism about me: I have spent almost my whole life listening to debut albums, and I think I have a good idea about what makes them good. That is why I have ranked the 100 best debut records.
Now, in order to do this, I established specific criteria that I will share in a minute. But generally speaking: My personal preference plays a role here, but I also tried to not be a complete authoritarian with my own taste. I utilized a variety of litmus tests to mitigate my own biases, which I am otherwise transparent about in this column.
Does this mean I was completely successful? Probably not. Are there choices that might upset some people? Certainly. Did I make room for the first Coldplay record but not the first Beatles album? I’m afraid so.
Let’s get into it.
100. The Exploding Hearts, Guitar Romantic (2003)
The most important thing to understand about debut albums is that they are first and foremost about hope.
It starts with the hope of the artist who dreams about making a record one day. If the artist achieves this dream, the hope transfers to the possibility that people will actually like their debut. If people like the record, the artist hopes to make other records that are also liked, hopefully more than this one.
But above all they hope that they don’t, in fact, suck.
That hope is attractive. It draws people in. Optimism posits that a debut is the first step on a journey toward fame, fortune, and a credible critical reputation. But the listener has hope, too. If you get in with an artist or band on the ground floor, you hope that your investment of time (and possibly money — artists hope you buy stuff!) will result in life-long engagement in which each subsequent record marks a new milestone in your life. The debut LP that defines your college years leads to the “difficult” sophomore effort that speaks to your early-20s malaise, which continues to the “mature” third record that coincides with the most crucial romantic relationship of your adult life. And so on and on until either the band breaks up or you die.
But we all know that most debut albums aren’t like that. Most debut albums are like most college basketball players — a one-and-done situation in which the early triumph is ultimately remembered as the single shining moment in an otherwise disappointing career.
But not all one-and-done disappointments are created equal. For instance, let’s say there is a band that puts out an excellent debut to rave reviews. And then, three months later, three of the members die tragically in a van accident. In that scenario, the band in question might be elevated in your mind as better than they really are, as they were cut down when the hope was still fresh and pure, before there was an opportunity to be let down by the “difficult” sophomore effort.
The Exploding Hearts is that band for me.
Is Guitar Romantic still on the indie-rock syllabus? I don’t hear it talked about much anymore, but it remains a potent hybrid of punk aggression and power-pop melodies that also has a deeply sad backstory. (The Exploding Hearts might be the last rock tragedy that is still under-covered by books and documentaries.) In my mind, Guitar Romantic personifies the “spend your whole life writing your first record” quality that debuts have, as well as the shooting-star trajectory that so many acts take afterward. It signifies hope, as well as hopes dashed. There are a lot of dashed hopes ahead of us on this list.
(I made a rule for myself that this list would not have any ties, but I could have written the same preceding words about Jay Reatard’s Blood Visions. RIP Jay.)
99. The La’s, The La’s (1990)
I could have also written those words about this album, though I am happy that Lee Mavers is still with us. It’s only his artistic life that appears to be over, which is just as well. When you write a song called “Timeless Melody,” and you manage to write an actual timeless melody, doing it 12 more times must be daunting. The only other option is becoming the most famous Gen X indie-rock recluse in Britain.
98. Alvvays, Alvvays (2014)
Before we go any farther, I must share the three most important criteria I applied while compiling this list:
1) I have to like the record. (This is 100 percent important.)
2) The record must be generally considered great or important by people who are not me. (This is 75 percent important in terms of getting on the list, and slightly more important in terms of where I ranked it. Though in the case of August And Everything After, it didn’t matter at all.)
3) Extra weight will be given to debuts that are clearly the best album in the artist’s discography. (This is also 100 percent important, as evidenced by the first two records on this list being one-and-done situations.)
It’s too early to say whether the first Alvvays album is definitely their best. (Plenty of people would say that Blue Rev beats it.) But the debut is the one I like the most, and it’s the one with my favorite Alvvays song, “Archie, Marry Me.” Therefore, because of Criterion No. 1, it goes here.
97. The Go-Go’s, Beauty And The Beat (1981)
The case I would make for the first Alvvays album is the same argument that’s made for Is This It — like The Strokes on their debut, Alvvays were in full command of their sound and aesthetic right away, to a degree where the subsequent records (while great) merely refine what’s on the first record.
I would say the same about the first Go-Go’s LP. This band is in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall Of Fame, and this album is 90 percent of the reason why. (The remaining 10 percent is due to the opening credits of Fast Times At Ridgemont High.)
96. Band Of Horses, Everything All The Time (2006)
It has been argued that white excellence may have peaked when Band Of Horses made “Laredo.” However, there’s no doubt in my mind that the debut is clearly their greatest work. Everything All The Time has a home on two of my personal lists — Best Debut Albums and Best Albums To Play In My Car On The First Day Of Spring When I Can Finally Roll The Windows Down. (The second list is closest to my heart, but it’s at least 250 albums long so I’ll probably never write that column.)
95. Joanna Newsom, The Milk-Eyed Mender (2004)
Another important criterion for a great debut album is especially pertinent here. It’s the “what in the hell is this?” factor. The first time you hear Joanna Newsom, it is physically impossible to not say “what in the hell is this?” Now, “what in the hell is this?” can be uttered in a good way (“what in the hell is this?!”) or a bad way (“what in the hell is this?!”). But it’s best if, at first, it’s neutral, in the sense that you literally don’t know what in the hell this is and must listen obsessively in order to find out. Which is to say: The music is new and fascinating and enigmatic and rewiring your brain in real time. All debuts aspire to that and few get there. The Milk-Eyed Mender gets there.
94. The Jesus & Mary Chain, Psychocandy (1985)
The fifth criterion for this list is somewhat related to the “what in the hell is this?” factor, but it goes one step further. It’s a debut album that actually invents something. It doesn’t have to be a big something, it just has to be a something something. (The “invented a big something” debuts are naturally further down the list.) In the case of Psychocandy, the something was a collision of oldies radio and squalling noise that evokes the concluding Roadhouse sequences from episodes of Twin Peaks: The Return. There are countless artists posting albums on Bandcamp right now who stole all of their ideas from The Jesus & Mary Chain, and they might not even know it. They might think they’re ripping off The Velvet Underground, but they are really ripping off this band who ripped off The Velvet Underground in the mid-’80s.
93. Rage Against The Machine, Rage Against The Machine (1992)
This album invented the following: White college guys who wear Che Guevara T-shirts, the missing link in melding rap with Led Zeppelin between Licensed To Ill and that Puff Daddy song from the Godzilla soundtrack, the core lineups for Audioslave and Prophets Of Rage, (possibly) nü-metal, and a million tiresome arguments about whether you can be credibly socialist while operating within the corporate capitalist power structure, maaaaaan.
92. Tracy Chapman, Tracy Chapman (1988)
It gave the world “Fast Car,” the song that invented crying by yourself while shopping at CVS.
91. The New York Dolls, The New York Dolls (1973)
The sixth criterion will surely be the most controversial: No “historically important” debuts that can’t stand alone as truly great. This ties back to Criterion No. 3, i.e. “extra weight will be given to debuts that are clearly the best album in the discography.” In the same way that the MVP in sports is a regular season award, this best debuts list is fixated on the debut and not necessarily on the career that came afterward.
Therefore, Please Please Me is not on this list, because while it is clearly very good and extremely important, it is nobody’s favorite Beatles album. The same is true of Bob Dylan’s self-titled debut. I had a harder time leaving off the first albums by U2 and Metallica, because I love both of them, but neither debut belongs ahead of the best three or four records by those bands.
The first New York Dolls LP, however, does belong because in addition to being historically important, it also has the song where David Johansson snarls, “When I say I’m in love you best believe I’m in love, L-U-V.”
90. The Traveling Wilburys, The Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 1 (1988)
Let me tell you a story about unintended consequences: Because of Criterion No. 6, I also did not include debut albums made by Tom Petty, Electric Light Orchestra, and Roy Orbison. And then I made up a seventh criterion: If you make the list with one band, you can’t also make the list with a solo record or another band. Which meant that all five members of The Traveling Wilburys were now qualified to make it with The Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 1.
Is it possible that this was not unintended but in fact engineered by me in a manner that could be described as “rigging”? To quote Bob Dylan from “Tweeter And The Monkey Man”: Anything’s legal as long as you don’t get caught.
89. The Feelies, Crazy Rhythms (1980)
Let’s steer back toward sanity for a moment. The eighth criterion won’t be controversial at all: A great debut should be influential. This album is influential. It’s so influential it’s hard to imagine modern indie rock without it. It’s so influential that it has influenced bands that didn’t know they were influenced by it, which is the most profound kind of influence. For example, Rivers Cuomo claims he didn’t know this album before Weezer accidentally copied the album cover for their own influential debut record. Which makes no sense when you look at the cover of Weezer and all the sense in the world when you listen to Weezer.
88. The Black Crowes, Shake Your Money Maker (1990)
Influence is important, but it’s not that important. (It is only the eighth criterion, after all.) I could possibly argue that Shake Your Money Maker informs the sound of modern Americana and country music — I know for a fact that Jason Isbell rocked this record when he was in middle school, and the rhythm guitarist on this album now plays with Eric Church. But that’s not why I’m including it here. I’m including it here because it kicks ass, and debut albums that kick ass should not be taken for granted.
87. 50 Cent, Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ (2003)
The ninth criterion might also be controversial, though it’s really just a practical reflection of how most people listen to albums: A great debut does not need to be great all the way through if there are at least three-to-five undeniable peaks that everybody ends up focusing on.
I don’t know that I have ever actually listened to this album all the way through. Why do I need 16 other songs when I have “In Da Club,” “P.I.M.P.,” and “21 Questions”?
86. Air, Moon Safari (1998)
Of course, if your debut is great all the way through, that certainly isn’t a negative. I once called this “one of the best albums of the ’90s,” which is probably an overstatement. But I swear this statement is not: Moon Safari is like a Steely Dan record if Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were French and determined to write soundtracks to Stanley Kubrick films that do not exist.
85. Cyndi Lauper, She’s So Unusual (1983)
I’ve told this story before but it applies here so bear with me: The worst interview of my life occurred in 2001 when I was 23 years old. It was entirely my fault. My subject was Cyndi Lauper. She was already unhappy about doing a phoner with a very anxious cub newspaper reporter from a small Midwestern town. I could detect her disinterest and it instantly amplified my awkwardness. I delivered my questions with the calm assurance of George McFly asking Lorraine to the Enchantment Under The Sea Dance. Failure was my density. I mean, my destiny.
Finally, I really pissed her off. I asked, “So Cyndi, how does it feel to be judged by the standard of your smash hit first album?” What I learned about debuts that day is that artists don’t like to be asked that question. What was already a frosty vibe turned positively polar. More than 20 years later, the memory still makes me cringe.
And yet, even with all of that, I still think She’s So Unusual is incredible. That’s how good this record is. Not even my awkward 23-year-old self can ruin it.
84. Jay-Z, Reasonable Doubt (1996)
The only person on this list who made a debut LP so good that it set him on a path to marry Beyoncé.
83. Coldplay, Parachutes (2000)
“Pretty, lovely, fine, fair, comely, pleasant, agreeable, acceptable, adequate, satisfactory, nice, benign, harmless, innocuous, innocent, largely unobjectionable, safe, forgettable.” That’s how Pitchfork‘s review of this record opens. But that’s too many words. Here are the adjectives that actually apply: The first, the second, the fifth, the 11th, and the 15th. If we remove the irony, I would also include the 16th.
82. The Shins, Oh, Inverted World (2001)
Another Garden State soundtrack alum, which was great in the short term and perhaps not in the long run for the band’s reputation. There are Shins truthers who will insist that Chutes Too Narrow is better, but I chalk that up to “New Slang” fatigue. The debut really is the superior one, and it stands proudly in the “blue-themed guitar-pop” trilogy with Crazy Rhythms and Weezer on this list.
81. PJ Harvey, Dry (1992)
The same year that Tom Morello reimagined Jimmy Page as a turntablist, Polly Jean Harvey looked at Robert Plant, ripped his heart out with her bare hands, and installed herself as the reigning banshee wailer of bombastically violent blues-punk. While this is an instance where the second record, Rid Of Me, might in fact be better, the fearless audacity of Dry makes it impossible to deny even amid a golden age of classic early ’90s indie and alt-rock debuts.
80. MGMT, Oracular Spectacular (2007)
If you like this album at all, you like it more than the two guys who made it. The single most half-assed concert performance I have ever witnessed has to be MGMT’s encore on the Congratulations tour, when they cued up “Kids” and “Electric Feel” on an iPod and sang along to backing tracks like they were dragged along to office karaoke night. And you know what? Those tunes still killed more than anything off the “difficult” sophomore effort (which I love, by the way). This is what happens when you accidentally write anthems that a generation will forever associate with doing drugs and having sex in dorm rooms.
79. Billie Eilish, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? (2019)
As a man in his 40s, I am required to stump for this album. It is the designated “music for young people” record that every surviving ’90s alt-rocker on the planet — from Dave Grohl to Billie Joe Armstrong — has publicly endorsed. The Grammys similarly glommed on for the sake of much-needed hipness cred when they showered Eilish and this record with trophies. Without trying, Eilish bridged the generation gap by making an extremely internet-friendly record — her style of whisper-singing is ideal for earbuds and laptop speakers — that also cultivates an outsider vibe that feels very, well, alternative.
78. The Mothers Of Invention, Freak Out! (1966)
As a man in his 40s, I am also required to stump for Frank Zappa. Though, of all the artists I love, he is the one I am least invested in convincing skeptics to embrace. I completely understand why people can’t stand the guy. He writes stupidly complicated music and stupidly stupid lyrics. Personally, I think Zappa is 1) a genius and 2) one of the most obnoxious men who ever lived. These are not incompatible concepts. They are, in fact, intimately related. I have actually come to enjoy his obnoxiousness, though that’s likely a product of being Stockholm Syndrome’d by “Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow” during my pot-smoking twentysomething years.
If there is one record that non-fans might like, however, it’s probably this one, which offers a more palatable ratio of genius vs. obnoxiousness than any other Zappa/Mothers LP.
77. Lana Del Rey, Born To Die (2012)
The album that launched a zillion thinkpieces. The controversy Born To Die generated seems almost quaint now — were people really mad that a singer-songwriter named Lizzie Grant adopted an arch persona that celebrated video games, Diet Mountain Dew, and evening gowns? Back then, social media was new and there was anxiety about the authenticity of art that adopted the mood-board sensibility of Tumblr. But after a decade-plus of online brain poisoning, Born To Die practically sounds like an old-school singer-songwriter record, in which a witty and insightful tour guide takes you through her own fully realized world.
76. Father John Misty, Fear Fun (2012)
2012 truly was the golden age of giving yourself a wacky name and striking a messianic pose. A few years before this record came out, I saw Josh Tillman open for Phosphorescent in a small club when he was still in his J. Tillman guise, which wasn’t really a guise at all as it involved him singing very sad songs while seated on a stool and staring at the floor. The audience was unmoved. So while I had some reservations about even considering this a debut album, I ultimately concluded that J. Tillman died so that Father John Misty could live, and that this is where he really begins.
If you dig into the back stories of any of these albums, they are likely preceded by at least one of the following: A shitty ska album, a regrettable synth-pop phase, reams of bad poetry, or some other obscure false start that nobody cares about now. A debut is almost never an actual first album. A debut is the first album where you figured it out.
75. Vampire Weekend, Vampire Weekend (2008)
Lana Del Rey and Father John Misty immediately annoyed people who were not into the “giving yourself a wacky name and striking a messianic pose” thing. And that’s understandable — both of them were deliberately pushing people’s buttons. What’s less understandable is the rancor this otherwise delightful album inspired.
I can’t think of a record where there’s a larger gap between what was projected on the music and the music itself. Anyone with daddy issues who ended up misdirecting that anger post-adolescence toward Paul Simon’s Graceland hated this record. Apparently, this is a demographic predisposed to enter journalism! Music critics resented the members of Vampire Weekend for being young and handsome and confident and talented and preppy and good at everything. They were accused of cultural appropriation and wearing boat shoes on stage. It was all very intense for a few years there. And yet when you listen to Vampire Weekend 15 years later, it sounds … incredibly breezy and charming and impossible to hate! You put it on and it lights up any room! I still don’t know how I’m going to explain it all to my kids one day.
74. Dire Straits, Dire Straits (1978)
Has a dad-rock album ever dad-rock’ed more than this? I realized the best way to describe Dire Straits a few years ago when a millennial-aged co-worker brought them up on Slack, and said, “This is like if the Grateful Dead sounded more like Steely Dan.” I’m still not sure if this was a compliment or not but in my world it absolutely is.
(I would also like to mention that in my mind — because again there will be no “technical” ties on this list — that I am also slotting J.J. Cale’s Naturally here. You are free to insert this album into your mind as well.)
73. The Flying Burrito Brothers, The Gilded Palace Of Sin (1969)
Even if this album was bad it would still have to make the list based on the “it invented something” criterion. The Gilded Palace Of Sin is a foundational work of the Americana genre — what was known in the ’90s as alt-country — though what brings me back on summer nights at dusk isn’t necessarily the honky-tonk hippie vibe, but rather the heart-melting harmonies of Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman. With all due respect to queen Emmylou Harris, Gram’s bromance with Chris remains one of my all-time favorite duet partnerships. Dudes rock, yes, but these dudes also roll.
72. King Crimson, In The Court Of The Crimson King (1969)
This album didn’t necessarily “invent” prog rock, but it certainly set a high water mark for the genre. Along with Jethro Tull, King Crimson introduced the concept of sinister flute-playing to popular music, a true gift that doesn’t get enough appreciation.
71. The Stooges, The Stooges (1969)
More invention! Punk music of course is unimaginable without this album. Before 1969, nobody considered the utility of taking your shirt off, smearing your washboard abs with peanut butter, and singing about a desire to transform into a canine. This idea might seem obvious now, but back then it was truly revolutionary. And that’s because of The Stooges, Unfortunately, I had to dock this record 20 spaces because nearly a third of the running time is taken up by the interminable “We Will Fall,” which given its placement between two absolute bangers — “I Wanna Be Your Dog” and “No Fun” — makes it one of the most egregious momentum killers on any great album.
70. Bruce Springsteen, Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. (1973)
Let’s pause the conversation about debuts for a moment. Here is a much more specific topic: Third albums that feel like debuts, either because they were more commercially successful than the first two or because they’re way better than what came before. (Often both things are true.) Examples include Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain, Prince’s Dirty Mind, Janet Jackson’s Control, and The National’s Alligator. But the best example is Born To Run by Bruce Springsteen. That’s the record where the Boss finally arrives fully formed.
Having said that: I love Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. And I love it precisely because Bruce doesn’t have it together yet. The sound is thin and loose and semi-amateurish and way too reminiscent of Van Morrison. But the songs are there — any debut that has “Growin’ Up,” “Spirit In The Night,” “For You,” “Lost In The Flood” and “Blinded By The Light” must be counted among the all-time best.
69. Tame Impala, InnerSpeaker (2010)
Bruce Springsteen has nothing in common with this band save for one thing: Tame Impala became a markedly different proposition after its first two records. Currents doesn’t fit exactly in the “third album that feels like a debut” camp, because Tame Impala’s second record Lonerism is also a classic. But Currents certainly took them in a different direction from their fuzzed-out psych-rock sound of the early 2010s. A division exists in the fanbase between pre and post-Currents listeners, though the former feels like a shrinking minority. I love the whole catalog, though I do miss the days of InnerSpeaker when they felt like the blog-rock Pink Floyd.
68. Eric B. And Rakim, Paid In Full (1987)
One of the first “real” hip-hop albums I ever heard. (And when I say “real” hip-hop I mean no disrespect to Crushin’ by The Fat Boys.) It was the kind of music that my older, cooler neighbor liked. He lived on the other side of the duplex where I grew up, and sometimes he would invite me over to play rap CDs. His bedroom was in the basement, and he had this banner on his wall with the Public Enemy logo emblazoned on it, which was a very edgy thing for a kid from small-town Wisconsin to hang in his room in the late ’80s.
Anyway, I could front about the complex internal rhyme structure of Rakim’s lyrics like I knew what the hell I was talking about. But the truth is that when I hear “I Ain’t No Joke” I think about two white guys sitting in the basement of a crappy duplex and having their minds blown.
67. Daft Punk, Homework (1997)
What if I told you there was a song called “Da Funk” made by two French guys in the late ’90s and it was actually great? In the history of white people writing songs with “funk” in the title, this must be considered as part of the elite and non-embarrassing one percent.
66. Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago (2007)
This is the 66th best debut album ever, but the backstory is in the debut album top 10. If you know the record, you know the mythology — guy loses his band and his girl, guy retreats to a cabin, guy writes and records some songs, guy releases those songs, guy becomes one of the biggest indie stars of the 21st century. For the next several years after For Emma, Forever Ago, my inbox was clogged with PR notices about would-be bards and nature boys who escaped into the wild and returned with a collection of heartbreaking tunes just like you-know-who. I’m convinced that the popularity of AirBnB in the 2010s was powered in part by indie musicians who booked cabins in the hopes of making their own For Emma, Forever Ago. But there is still only one For Emma, Forever Ago.
65. The B-52’s, The B-52’s (1979)
A criminally high percentage of the population only knows The B-52’s as the “Love Shack” band. (No shots at “Love Shack” by the way. It’s a funky little shack!) As a public service, I am sharing this video. I have watched it 25 times and I suggest you do the same. And then make this album a cornerstone of your life.
64. George Michael, Faith (1987)
One of the all-time cassette albums. What Faith invented was a path forward for one-time teen heartthrobs who yearn to make “mature” and sexy music for adults. Harry Styles owes this album a debt of gratitude. So do Justins Bieber and Timberlake. (Shoutout to Justified, which didn’t make the list but gets an honorary mention here.) So many artists have followed in George Michael’s footsteps that the pinup-to-genius pipeline no longer seems remarkable. But 36 years later, Faith remains the best example of this kind of record.
In the liner notes, George makes a point of stating that the album was written, arranged, and produced entirely by him, which by modern critical standards makes him a rockist. But the man was just rightfully proud of creating one of the best pop records of the era. By the way, he also plays most of the instruments, and I’m guessing that he catered all the meals and cleaned up the studio at the end of each day as well.
63. The Killers, Hot Fuss (2004)
This album has a reputation for being front-loaded, and it is, though I apparently like Side Two more than most people. While hits abound on Side One, I spent many after-bars in the mid-aughts winding down to “Andy, You’re A Star” and “Midnight Show.”
62. Jane’s Addiction, Nothing’s Shocking (1988)
We circle back to hope. In the late ’80s, these guys seemed like the reincarnation of Led Zeppelin. After two perfectly over-the-top masterworks that melded back-alley punk with naked-torso arena-rock theatrics, they essentially invented the alt-rock template that scores of other bands took to the bank in the ’90s. Jane’s Addiction meanwhile imploded in a mess of absurd egotism and drug addiction.
To make yet another sports analogy: Dave Navarro must be regarded as the Dwight Gooden of rock, a potential generational talent who shone brightly for a few years before flaming out in spectacular fashion. Last year, I saw a Navarro-less version of Jane’s Addiction open for Smashing Pumpkins, and Perry Farrell and his implausibly smooth face made me mourn for what was lost. Alas, as we’ve already established, this is a regular season award, and Perry Farrell’s implausibly smooth face from 2023 does not matter, and Nothing’s Shocking still stands as an incredible rookie season.
61. Jeff Buckley, Grace (1994)
Another tragic one-and-done situation. If Jeff Buckley doesn’t decide to take an impromptu swim in a Memphis river, what does his career look like? Does he become one of the great singer-songwriters of the ’90s? Do people give Thom Yorke a rougher time for aping Buckley’s vocal style on The Bends and OK Computer? Is it possible that Grace is actually held in lower esteem because it becomes one of many Jeff Buckley albums?
All of these questions are unanswerable, as is the one that bothers me the most: Why does this record sound like it was made by a man who knew he was going to die young in a strange and haunting manner?
60. Fiona Apple, Tidal (1998)
I debated not including this album on “anti-historically important debut” grounds, as I believe that this is easily the weakest of her five studio albums. Thankfully, I did not adopt this idiotic stance. While Fiona went deeper and harder on subsequent releases, the fact that she was still two months shy of her 19th birthday when this dropped is frankly amazing. At the risk of being overly granular — as if I haven’t already been granular as hell during this exercise — this might very well be the greatest debut album made by a teenager. I am exactly six days older than Fiona Apple, and I was working a customer service job in the summer of 1996, which is a million times less impressive than writing and recording “Shadowboxer.”
59. Talking Heads, Talking Heads: ’77 (1977)
Another album I’m penalizing slightly because the next three albums are all-time masterpieces. And yet Talking Heads: ’77 still makes the list because it’s great on its own. This album also deserves credit for pioneering the “anti-frontman frontman” archetype, in which David Byrne — at the height of arena-rock swinging-dick macho men — inverted the paradigm for magnetism in lead singers in a way that influenced an emerging generation of indie and alt-rock performers.
58. Elvis Costello, My Aim Is True (1977)
One more foundational anti-frontman frontman, who began a run of “articulate incel” rock classics with this record. Given his cuddly contemporary image, it can be disconcerting to revisit his early misanthropic era. (Even the tender “Alison” has a serrated edge if you imagine, as I always have, that Elvis is singing while looking at his love via an assassin’s scope.) The only track on My Aim Is True that’s not convincing is “I’m Not Angry,” which is like Marvin Gaye recording a tune called “I’m Not Horny.”
57. Son Volt, Trace (1995)
Cue the inevitable “Son Volt was better than Wilco in 1995” conversation. It’s a cliche but it’s true: The minute you heard Jay Farrar apply his ancient-beyond-his-years baritone to “Windfall” — which I will forever consider the definitive alt-country song — it was impossible not to think that this was the next great American rock band. Ultimately, the other Uncle Tupelo offshoot was the one that vied for the distinction. Not that this matters in the specific context of this list. For our purposes, Son Volt is still the band. (As much as I like A.M., it’s not included here.)
56. Devo, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! (1978)
One of my favorite songs on Trace is “Ten Second News,” an almost comically bleak song about a town outside of St. Louis that was evacuated in the 1980s after a mass chemical contamination. It’s a real toe-tapper!
The first Devo album addresses that same Midwestern rot from a funnier vantage. The concept of this band and their debut was that American culture was devolving, an idea that’s even more self-evident 45 years later. But what’s really incredible is how they covered “Satisfaction” and improved on it, teasing out the anti-marketing thesis and expressing it as a full-on musical nervous breakdown.
55. The Clash, The Clash (1977)
I know this is a punk masterpiece, but I’m giving the finger to purity on this one. I prefer the bastardized U.S. version released two years after the British debut, because it replaces the weaker cuts with ringers like “Complete Control,” “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais,” and “I Fought The Law.” I feel this way because that’s the version I purchased on cassette from Best Buy when I was 12, and also because it’s just a better record. (If this is considered a contrary Clash opinion, don’t get me started on the greatness of Give ‘Em Enough Rope.)
54. Bee Gees, Bee Gees’ 1st (1967)
Before they strapped on the white suits and gold chains and fluffed up their chest hair, these guys were the finest Beatles rip-off band on the planet. Seriously, listen to this song and convince me it’s not secretly John Lennon.
So, how can I justify not putting The Beatles on this list while placing the Bee Gees so high? First, like Tidal, this album is staggeringly good given that two-thirds of the brothers Gibb were still teenagers. But beyond that, they were already writing timeless songs like “To Love Somebody” that stand with anything in the Bee Gees’ vaunted discography.
53. Nine Inch Nails, Pretty Hate Machine (1989)
You don’t have to look hard to find videos online of Trent Reznor looking like a huge dork in the years before this album dropped. You can take these clips in one of two ways:
1) “Reznor’s Pretty Hate Machine guise was a transparent posture and these videos undermine its power.”
2) “Reznor’s Pretty Hate Machine guise was a transparent posture and these videos make its execution even more impressive.”
Obviously, I subscribe to the second notion, though ultimately the staying power of this album is related to how it now plays as a fairly straight-forward (and melodic!) synth-pop album rather than the shock visuals of those old Nine Inch Nails videos.
52. The Sex Pistols, Never Mind The Bollocks Here’s The Sex Pistols (1977)
This album has been disparaged by purists and revisionists for “not being punk enough.” They argue that Never Mind The Bollocks Here’s The Sex Pistols is “merely” a snotty hard-rock record. I agree with those people. I love this album precisely because it’s not punk enough and instead sounds like snotty hard rock.
51. Pavement, Slanted And Enchanted (1992)
My thing with this album is that I like Crooked Rain Crooked Rain and Wowee Zowee more, which means I should slot it several spots back with the Elvis Costello, Talking Heads, and Fiona Apple debuts that are similarly great but less great than what comes after. Instead, I’m placing it just outside the Top 50 because this really is the definitive ’90s indie rock album, even if “definitive” isn’t exactly synonymous with best. In the proverbial “what would you play for an alien to sum up this kind of music?” scenario, Slanted And Enchanted must be regarded as the go-to soundtrack for any hipster extraterrestrial.
(“Phantom tie” shoutout to Stephen Malkmus’ brother-in-arms David Berman and the first Silver Jews record, Starlite Walker.)
Now that we’re at the midpoint, let’s all take a moment to complain about what I haven’t listed yet. I’m including myself in this conversation: Here are 15 albums that I’m upset about not making my own list.
- DJ Shadow, Entroducing….. (1996)
- Sky Ferreira, Night Time, My Time (2013)
- Fiery Furnaces, Gallowsbird’s Bark (2003)
- The Hold Steady, Almost Killed Me (2004)
- Jackson Browne, Jackson Browne (1972)
- Kris Kristofferson, Kristofferson (1970)
- Roxy Music, Roxy Music (1972)
- The Slits, Cut (1979)
- Smashing Pumpkins, Gish (1991)
- Sugar, Copper Blue (1992)
- SZA, Ctrl (2017)
- Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble, Texas Flood (1983)
- Ween, GodWeenSatan: The Oneness (1990)
- The Wipers, Is This Real? (1980)
- Dwight Yoakam, Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. (1984)
By listing these records (unranked and in alphabetical order) I hope to underscore the following: 1) These lists are always inherently flawed because 2) they are compiled by inherently imperfect humans who 3) acknowledge that many of you will simply CTRL-F this list to search for your favorites and therefore 4) including some of those favorites here might trick those people into thinking I did include them.
Back to the list!
50. Pink Floyd, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn (1967)
Since we’re at the halfway point, let’s review the criterion for determining the albums on this list:
1) I have to like the record.
2) The record must be generally considered great or important by people who are not me.
3) Extra weight will be given to debuts that are clearly the best album in the discography.
4) The “what in the hell is this?” factor.
5) It’s a debut album that actually invents something.
6) No “historically important” debuts that can’t stand alone as truly great.
7) If you make the list with one band, you can’t also make the list with a solo record or another band.
8) A great debut should be influential. (This is similar to No. 5 though you can be influential without inventing something. To name an obvious example: Oasis was the most influential Britpop band of the ’90s and they stole proudly and blatantly.)
9) A great debut does not need to be great all the way through if there are at least three-to-five undeniable peaks that everybody ends up focusing on.
This album passes most of the criteria, except for No. 3. Pink Floyd is in the super-rare category of a band whose eighth album (The Dark Side Of The Moon) seems like their first in the minds of the general public. Nevertheless, it hits Nos. 4, 5, and 6 so hard that you can deny it a spot in the Top 50.
49. Snoop Dogg, Doggystyle (1994)
I’m going to add one more criterion that I’ve hinted at throughout but haven’t officially codified yet: A great debut should be extremely you. What I mean is that if you only listened to this one album, you would have a completely full and accurate view of the artist. That is definitely true of this album, in which Snoop Dogg stepped out of Dr. Dre’s shadow and presented himself as the laidback hustler of smooth streetwise malevolence, a man who could rap about being charged with murder like he was delivering an Al Green ballad. Plus: In the annals of filthy ’90s hip-hop album skits, “WBallz” is the pinnacle.
48. The Replacements, Sorry Ma Forgot To Take Out The Trash (1981)
This album is extremely The Replacements. And, as I have previously written, it also invented a personality type for a certain type of Midwestern guy who utilizes bravado and alcoholism to conceal extreme sensitivity and depressive tendencies. Unfortunately, that personality only works for Paul Westerberg, and only on the first five Replacements albums.
47. Interpol, Turn On The Bright Lights (2002)
When Pitchfork “rescored” a selection of reviews a few years ago, the decision to lower the score on this record from 9.5 to 7.0 was the most contentious. It was definitely the most contentious for me. But I also understand it. I get why someone who was teenager or younger at the time might wince at the lyrics or roll their eyes at the haircuts and dark suits. This really is a “you had to be there” album, and by “there” I mean “bars and clubs in the early aughts.” Dismissing it otherwise as pretentious or dour misses the point; for a certain kind of person in 2002, this was a total party record.
I was 25 when Turn On The Bright Lights came out, which means I am predisposed to rank it at No. 47 on a list of the best debuts ever. Twenty-plus years later, few albums transport me back to my barhopping era as vividly.
46. Lynyrd Skynyrd, (Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd) (1973)
As we have seen, one of the most common conventions for a debut record is naming it after yourself. The idea is that you are introducing yourself to the audience, and that this album is a summation of everything you are and will become. It’s also simple and easy to remember — you’re not giving the public any more data than it needs at the beginning.
In the case of this southern-rock landmark, the band decided to do a fun variation on the self-titled debut by explaining how to pronounce the band name in the title. This is fine enough if you are speaking the title, but it is very difficult to remember how to correct stylize (Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd) in print. In the days before copy-and-paste, it must have been downright impossible.
45. Boston, Boston (1976)
(Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd) is a debut album that doubles as a virtual greatest hits LP. It boasts several of Skynyrd’s most famous tracks, including “Free Bird,” “Tuesday’s Gone,” and “Gimme Three Steps.” But the ultimate example of the “debut that doubles as a greatest hits LP” is the first Boston record. Every song on this record is a fixture on classic-rock radio. If your station has “The Bear” or “The Eagle” in its name, you simply will not be able to function without Boston’s Boston. But even with that high level of exposure, the best songs still hit like power-pop gems on steroids, starting with the first track, “More Than A Feeling,” which was already one of the greatest rock songs of all time before Kurt Cobain borrowed the riff for “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” (Shoutout to Bleach, which regrettably didn’t make the list. Yet another decision I regret, even though I can justify it.)
44. The Modern Lovers, The Modern Lovers (1976)
Am I the first person to connect Boston with The Modern Lovers? Let’s walk through this: Both bands are from Boston, obviously. Both bands put out their self-titled debuts in 1976. Both albums open with one of the greatest rock songs of all time. “Roadrunner,” like “More Than A Feeling,” also ranks as one of the best driving tunes ever. And both tunes are about listening to the radio and letting the music carry you away. Does anyone know how Jonathan Richman feels about spaceships? I’m this close to really landing this comparison.
43. Pearl Jam, Ten (1991)
The Boston of the ’90s. Not every song on this album was a radio hit, but it feels like it was. Ten is also a good example of a record that didn’t necessarily invent anything but was nonetheless extremely influential, mostly in ways that Pearl Jam themselves came to resent and even despise by the end of the decade, which I have explained in much greater detail elsewhere.
(Shoutout to Stone Temple Pilots’ Core, which was not a Pearl Jam rip-off record.)
42. Counting Crows, August And Everything After (1993)
Tupac’s favorite Counting Crows LP. If it’s possible for an album to sell more than seven million copies and still be underrated, it’s this one. “Mr. Jones” was the hit, but there are several other tracks that seem more important because of the era’s mixtape network. Especially if you were making a tape for someone that you were trying to seduce, August And Everything After was an essential text. “Round Here” was a good and sort of sexy (without being explicitly sexy) atmospheric opener. “Perfect Blue Buildings” was ideal for conveying a kind of brooding but sensitive intensity if you wanted the tape’s recipient to think you were like Luke Perry from 90210. “Anna Begins” was a powerful tool if you were interested in taking a friendship to the next level. (Though it was also very risky to include if those feelings weren’t reciprocated. “Anna Begins” was basically romantic dynamite.) “Raining In Baltimore” worked for signaling that you watched Homicide: Life On The Street. It seems complicated now but back then it was instinctual. Before Tinder, it’s how you got laid.
41. Pretenders, Pretenders (1980)
The best debut album ever made by a former rock critic, and I’m confident it will never lose that distinction. That is, unless I ever complete my concept LP about putting August And Everything After deep cuts on romantic mixtapes in the ’90s.
40. Crosby, Stills and Nash, Crosby, Stills, and Nash (1969)
It must be stressed that I am talking about CSN, not CSNY. CSN is superior to CSNY, even though CSNY includes the single most talented member of the collective (Y). That’s because CSNY equals the sum of its parts, whereas CSN is greater than that sum. Introducing Neil Young to the equation threw off the delicate equilibrium of the first record. On the debut, Crosby and Nash showed up to sing and contributed some really good tunes, and Stills did everything else (with an assist from Dallas Taylor on the drums). That system worked. Inserting Neil meant adding another admiral, and the balance tilted. But on this record, the Laurel Canyon hippie dream is flawlessly presented and feels as comfy as the front-porch sofa on the cover.
39. Brian Eno, Here Come The Warm Jets (1973)
I didn’t realize how good this album was for the first year or two after I bought it, because I would only listen to “Needle In The Camel’s Eye” on repeat. How do you listen to any other song when that’s your Side 1, Track 1? Clearly Eno himself did not think this though, given what the second track is called.
38. Steely Dan, Can’t Buy A Thrill (1972)
When I started listening to Steely Dan, this was the first album I checked out. Not because it was the debut, but because it was the most “rock” LP in their catalog. (One of the songs I knew going in even sounded a bit like Thin Lizzy.) This seemed like a smart approach in the late ’90s. Twenty years ago, the early Steely Dan albums were better regarded, while 1980’s Gaucho was dismissed as antiseptic, and this was all based on their perceived rockiness. But now “perceived rockiness” standards go against the grain of current conventional wisdom on this band. The “most Steely Dan” Steely Dan records — basically the super smooth post-Royal Scam era — are now the most beloved, while Can’t Buy A Thrill is viewed as one of the weaker efforts. So, given Criterion No. 3, Can’t Buy A Thrill might seem vulnerable. Only I still adore this record, even though I’m otherwise a Gaucho guy. It’s not their best record, but it’s also not “just” historically important. It sets a high bar that the subsequent records proceed to match or surpass through the end of the ’70s.
37. Weezer, Weezer (1994)
The unspoken criterion for this list is that any album that came out when I was in high school will be ranked at least 25 spots higher than it probably deserves. I’m stating it outright now in the interest of transparency, so that you may mentally re-align these records to remove my bias.
Anyway, here is my critical analysis of Weezer by Weezer: It’s the sound of being 16. Therefore, it must be regarded as the 37th greatest debut ever.
36. Van Halen, Van Halen (1978)
This is Weezer by Weezer for people who were born in 1962. It’s the heavy-guitar album you play on a loop while driving the same downtown loop with your friends because you have nothing better to do. I put it one spot higher because I’m trying to make an honest effort to mitigate my prejudices as we move up the list. But, again, in the interest of transparency: I will probably not do a good job with this.
35. Missy Elliott, Supa Dupa Fly (1997)
Van Halen also gets the edge because of the “what in the hell is this?” factor of “Eruption.” And this album gets the edge on Van Halen because it has an even greater “what in the hell is this?” factor.
Some historical context: In 1997, rap was coming out of the gangsta era and entering an imperial phase of wanton materialism. Super obvious samples ruled the day. Flashy images captured by a fish-eye lens set the visual template. Into this world enters Missy and her creative partner Timbaland with a sound that deconstructs funk and infuses it with bump-and-grind electronic textures and a bevy of found and/or distorted sounds. On Supa Dupa Fly, you hear echoes of ’70s soul — most memorably on the bracing single “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly),” which draws on a 1973 Ann Pebbles hit — mixed with chuckles, burps, sighs, and various other alien-sounding asides. The final result was infectious and weird and as forward-looking as any album in any genre at the time.
34. Kanye West, The College Dropout (2004)
Remember when he was famous for making good music? His rookie season was truly excellent, and kicked off a run of (at least) five more classic records, when he could seemingly do no wrong. Or, if he did do wrong, at least it was a fascinating failure that might seem like genius a few years later. He was like O.J. Simpson coming out of USC! (Rather than O.J. Simpson coming out of a white Ford Bronco.) But 2004 is a long time ago now. Back then, Tom Cruise was still making dialogue-driven adult dramas and Kanye was putting out sweet radio hits like “Slow Jamz.” Were we ever so innocent?
33. Beastie Boys, Licensed To Ill (1986)
This album was a smash in the mid-’80s, and then it became the record that the Beasties had to live down for the rest of their career. And now it’s the Beasties LP I most enjoy revisiting. How do I justify this? Let me clear my throat: I concede that it’s not as clever as Paul’s Boutique or as adventurous as Check Your Head and Ill Communication. It is, in fact, far dumber and less accomplished than those records. Here’s what Licensed To Ill has that those other albums don’t: Uncut Id. Uncut Id is taking the riff from Sabbath’s “Sweet Leaf” and combining it with the drum break from Zeppelin’s “When The Levee Breaks,” and then inviting three idiots to chant “Ali Baba and the 40 thieves” eight times over it.
32. Wu-Tang Clan, Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (1994)
I came up in an era where a pop song might be composed of classic rock samples and lyrics about being a huge scumbag. That’s what groups like the Beastie Boys gave us, and we loved it. But what was even better is that there were groups.
I love groups! I wish there were more of them today. But our favorite artists don’t have that “group love” instinct anymore. Now the question seems to be: Why join a group when you can be on your own? Allow me to answer that: Because an album by a group has a different energy than an album by a solo artist, especially debut albums. In a group, all the members are equally invested in that special “first record” hope. There are no hired guns here – everyone stands to gain if ineffable aspiration can be transformed into tangible reality. And that raises the stakes, as well as the potential. Hope blooms.
And you can really hear that on Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). This album is like that scene in The Dirty Dozen where Lee Marvin delights in hearing his soldiers bicker about how “we” aren’t going to shave any longer with cold water. In that moment he knows that these fighters, who came in as solitary psychopaths, now have a pack mentality. And he can unleash that pack on the world as a 12-headed monster.
Now, packs fall apart. It’s a law of nature. And groups often never recover that debut album energy. The debut isn’t really the first step toward greatness; it marks the inexorable slide into dissolution and solo projects. But we can worry about that during the next album cycle. For now: The Nazis can bring the motherfucking ruckus. But this Dirty Dozen (or so) ain’t nothing fuck with.
31. The Strokes, Is This It (2001)
Everything I said in the previous paragraph applies here. Though if I ever write a column about the best second albums ever, Room On Fire might rank higher on that list than Is This It does here.
30. Suicide, Suicide (1977)
If the only criterion was the “what in the hell is this?” factor, this would be in the top five. The CD edition packages the original album — a bare bones affair featuring Alan Vega panting and screaming over Martin Rev’s soundscapes created by ancient keyboards and punch-drunk drum machines — with the infamous live bootleg 23 Minutes Over Brussels, in which the audience violently attacks the duo as the set devolves into a riot. This was not an uncommon occurrence at the NYC band’s early gigs. And Suicide always gave as good as they got, attacking their audience sonically with a fearlessness that was both exciting and professionally ill-advised. “They came in off the street,” Vega explained later, “and I gave them the street right back.”
29. Nick Drake, Five Leaves Left (1969)
A subcategory of debut albums that’s about to become more relevant as we reach the highest levels of this list is the “classic in retrospect” debut. This is a debut that was ignored in the moment, but over time became a touchstone for future generations. Suicide is a record like that, and so is this.
In the case of Nick Drake, it’s not just his first record that came and went upon release. The three studio albums he put out before taking his own life in 1974 sold a grand total of 4,000 copies during their initial run. Let me repeat: 4,000 copies combined of three masterful British folk records that have since enchanted millions of listeners. A rounding error for Harry Styles was Nick Drake’s whole career. If I feel super depressed pondering this, I can understand why it also took a toll on Nick.
28. Big Star, #1 Record (1972)
Painfully gorgeous music is extra susceptible to “classic in retrospect” status. It’s as if the lack of commercial success makes the songs sound even prettier. (It is the opposite effect that money has on people.) On Five Leaves Left, Drake recorded live with a string section, which emphasizes the raw melancholy of downbeat ballads like “River Man” and “Way To Blue” and makes them hit your gut like a body blow from Mike Tyson in 1986.
The first Big Star record doesn’t affect the same sweeping grandiosity; it can murder you just with an acoustic guitar and a story about two kids walking home from school. Arguably the most famous “classic in retrospect” debut ever, #1 Record is relatively light-hearted by Big Star standards. It has that debut-album hope. It’s when the frustrations over not making it set in that their albums really grind you into dust.
27. John Prine, John Prine (1971)
When I interviewed him in 2018, I brought up a question I’ve long had about his first album: Why is he sitting on a bale of hay? “It’s taking me years to live down that record cover, especially with my family” Prine replied. “I grew up in the west side of Chicago and here I am on a bale of hay.”
As the Hank Williams of the upper Midwest, Prine wrote simple but affecting songs about regular people living regular lives in places like Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. And his core audience are those same people, and they play his songs over and over on long car trips to summer cabins in the northwoods. He sings with a twang, which (I guess?) tagged him as country by his label, Atlantic Records. But his self-titled first album — a “debut that doubles as a greatest hits LP” opening salvo that’s loaded with many of his best-known tunes — is really a masterclass in observational songwriting that’s influenced scores of artists across genres. And that’s because those artists grew up riding in the backseats of cars where they were exposed to John Prine over and over again.
My point is, the man should be sitting on a pile of brats on the cover.
26. Warren Zevon, Warren Zevon (1976)
A top five L.A. album. A “debut that doubles as a greatest hits LP” except none of the songs are hits (though some of them became hits when Linda Ronstadt sang them.) It’s Hotel California for perverts. The saltiest margarita. The sweetest air-conditioner hum. So long, Norman.
(This is technically not the first Warren Zevon album. 1970’s Wanted Dead Or Alive is technically his first album. However, I don’t think that counts. It feels like a footnote. It’s his equivalent of a shitty pre-fame ska album. Can I defend this on legal grounds? Not really. But I can defend it on “I really want Warren Zevon by Warren Zevon on this list” grounds.)
25. N.W.A., Straight Outta Compton (1988)
Another top five L.A. album. Admittedly, I probably prefer AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted or The Chronic. (I even have some love for Eazy-Duz-It.) But because of the seventh criterion, I had to either go with those albums or Straight Outta Compton, and you can’t not put Straight Outta Compton on a best debuts ever list. Plus, anytime I hear Dre say “I’m expressing with my full capabilities / And now I’m living in correctional facilities,” I can’t help but smile.
24. Wire, Pink Flag (1977)
As we approach the summit, I must point out two important facts:
1) This is the part of list where every album could legitimately be my No. 1.
2) 1977 is one of the three greatest years for debut albums.
The other contenders are 1967 and 1994. (In the modern era, it’s probably 2013, the year of first albums by Haim, Lorde, The 1975, Sky Ferreira, and Chvrches. None of those records are on this list but I’m giving them the honorary “phantom tie” shoutout here.) But for punk, there’s no question that ’77 is the all-time champ. This record is actually slotted by historians as “post-punk,” which shows you how fast things were moving that year. Just as punk was getting established, this London quartet said, “Hold on, we can write short and fast songs, too. But we’re going to sneak in a bunch of avant-garde and arty stuff as well as dashes of pop and prog. And then, 18 years in the future, Elastica will borrow some of our riffs and make an excellent debut album of their own.” (Shoutout to Elastica here.) “Prescient” doesn’t even begin to describe how forward-looking Pink Flag is.
23. Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin (1969)
I refer to the third criterion: “Extra weight will be given to debuts that are clearly the best album in the discography.” This benefits an album like Is This It, and it hurts an album like Led Zeppelin. A weird loophole of my methodology is that a band with six or seven classics in their catalogue will likely fare a little worse than a band with only one or two classics. That is how you end up with Led Zeppelin at No. 23.
22. R.E.M., Murmur (1983)
And that is how you also end up with Murmur at No. 22. I love this album. It is unquestionably a milestone in the history of American indie rock. I just listened to it and it holds all the way up. It’s an all-time masterpiece. And yet it’s probably my third or fourth favorite R.E.M. record released in the 1980s, and sixth or seventh overall.
21. Oasis, Definitely Maybe (1994)
People love to say that Oasis put out two great albums and then fell off the map. But this is not true. If I ever make a Best Third Albums list, Be Here Now will be there. (Even though the blurb will cost millions of dollars to write and run on 20 minutes too long.) I’ll go one step further: If I ever make a Best Sixth Album list, Don’t Believe The Truth will have a special place of honor. (Naturally, The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society will likely be No. 1.)
Of course, it is true that the first two Oasis albums are in a different league in terms of cultural significance. And Definitely Maybe is in a different league from (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? What distinguishes the debuts we’re about to cover in the top 20 is that most of them are obvious and deliberate attempts to make a paradigm-shifting masterpiece. Humility is going to be short in supply from here on out. Oasis set out to become rock stars with Definitely Maybe, they called their shot on the first song, and then they did it. And the records we are about to cover were borne of a similar mentality.
20. Frank Ocean, Channel Orange (2012)
For example, the drive to be great explains why Channel Orange can be credibly described as Frank Ocean’s debut, even though it was preceded by a well-regarded mixtape, Nostalgia, Ultra, only one year prior. The practice of referring to albums as mixtapes temporarily confused discography accounting in the early 2010s. It’s why The Weeknd is not on this list — House Of Balloons technically is not his debut, even though it’s basically an “album” that was released “first,” and that’s because it was classified as a mixtape. The Weeknd’s actual debut is Kiss Land, an album that lives down to its title.
Back to Frank: Nostalgia, Ultra really does feel like a mixtape because it’s a collection of promising sketches that doesn’t really cohere into something greater, while Channel Orange feels like his proper debut because it does cohere into a grander statement of artistic purpose and generational importance. (It also slaps harder.)
19. Liz Phair, Exile In Guyville (1993)
The most quotable indie-rock record of the ’90s. I’m convinced this is the rare debut that would have been a sensation in any era. This album would have exploded in the ’70s, and it would dominate social media if it came out next week. As much as I love Slanted And Enchanted, I’m not sure that record has the same impact if it was released in any year other than 1992. But Liz Phair singing “I want to be your blowjob queen” in a deadpan voice is timeless.
18. Ramones, Ramones (1976)
This record inspired practically every great rock band who came after (at least up through the end of the 20th century). And it inspired almost every terrible one, too. It’s so good that not even the indignity of absurdly rich men who launder their privilege by tucking their crisply vintage $300 Ramones T-shirts into their designer jeans can ever make this album seem lame.
17. Cheap Trick, Cheap Trick (1977)
How can I put this punk-adjacent self-titled debut with a black-and-white cover one space higher than the punk-centric self-titled debut with a black-and-white cover? Because I’m from the Midwest, motherfuckers! My bias for once overrules East Coast bias, and this is a top 20 rock album on any list, period. This one is for all the bands who played bowling alleys in Waukesha during the mid-’70s and didn’t get discovered by Aerosmith’s producer. To me, you will always be as legendary as any band who played CBGBs.
16. Nas, Illmatic (1994)
The Citizen Kane of hip-hop albums, in the sense that people eventually got so sick of seeing it at the top of best hip-hop albums lists that they started underrating it. Some critics have even talked themselves into believing that It Was Written is better. Honestly, I’m probably underrating it by putting it at No. 16. This really is a perfect record. My only criticism is that sleep isn’t really the cousin of death; according to physicians, not sleeping is the cousin of death.
15. De La Soul, 3 Feet High And Rising (1989)
This album undoubtedly is ranked so high because of the recency bias of De La’s albums coming to streaming platforms. It wasn’t that long ago that editors thought it was a good idea to assign takedown pieces of 3 Feet High And Rising because … well, there was never a good reason for that. Like Illmatic, it attained an undeserved reputation over time as a stuffy “canonical” hip-hop classic that was corny by modern standards. (And then there are the multitudes of skits — this is probably the most influential “rap skit” rap album ever.)
But now that 3 Feet High And Rising is accessible again, that tired myth has been put out to pasture. The volume of samples and arcane references that rapidly pile up amount to nothing less than a deliriously fun pocket history of late 20th century pop culture. In 1,000 years, historians will study this album in order to understand the after-school habits of American teenagers in the late ’80s.
14. Black Sabbath, Black Sabbath (1970)
Possibly the weakest of the Ozzy-led albums, but the “this debut invented something” credentials are off the charts. (Also, the bar for Ozzy-led Sabbath albums is impossibly high. This album slays by any other standard.) Simply put, we don’t have metal as we know it without this record. Nor do you have the mystical singularity of “Black Sabbath” by Black Sabbath from the album Black Sabbath.
13. The Band, Music From Big Pink (1968)
The most notorious instance of a group hitting a huge peak on the first record, and then heading into a steep, heartbreaking decline. I don’t necessarily mean that in the artistic sense — the second album is just as good and arguably better. Instead, I refer to an interpersonal deterioration so profound and troubling that it can’t help but color the otherwise pastoral innocence of Music From Big Pink. This is wonderful music, of course, but it’s an even better idea: Hang out in a cool house in the woods with your best pals, jam all day, party it up at night, and then put your music out in the world and become legends.
Like I said: A debut album isn’t really the first step toward greatness; it marks the inexorable slide into dissolution and solo projects. Music From Big Pink is Exhibit A for that argument. But when this album is on, I can’t almost forget all that.
12. John Lennon, Plastic Ono Band (1970)
This album is about trauma and bad childhoods and the salvation of finding the right partner. But above all it is an LP about moving on after your band breaks up. A solo record about the process of making a solo record, it’s extremely meta in a way that would only be acceptable coming from an ex-Beatle. If — to name one example — Scott Stapp had sang “I don’t believe in Creed, I just believe in me” on his first solo LP, it would not have hit as effectively.
11. Guns N’ Roses, Appetite For Destruction (1987)
I am glad GNR is still with us, and that Axl Rose has arrived at a place where he regularly drops kind and politically correct tweets. Incredibly, not even the people who quit or were fired from this band died prematurely. Nothing speaks more to the power of the human spirit than the resilience of these guys’ nervous systems. But as a thought experiment, imagine if the entire band went down in a plane crash in 1988. This would be a terrible tragedy, no question. I do not in any way wish that this happened. Buuuuuuuut, of the sake of conversation: No way Appetite isn’t No. 1 on this list in that scenario, no?
10. Madonna, Madonna (1983)
This is not a skipless album. It falls off considerably on Side 2. The quality gap between hits and filler is wide. Nevertheless: This record is at least as responsible for inventing modern pop as Thriller. A sexually provocative marketing genius from Michigan sets out to conquer the world by taking the grabbiest aspects of NYC’s punk and disco scenes and infusing it with pranksterish wit and naked ambition, and comes up with “Lucky Star,” “Borderline” and “Holiday.” When it comes to the fourth, fifth and eighth criteria, this one is hard to beat.
9. Lauryn Hill, The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill (1998)
When this album came out, it was obvious that Lauryn Hill was trying to make an album as good as The Wailers’ Burnin (which is evoked by the album cover) and Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key Of Life (which has similar range and heft) combined. She didn’t succeed, because it was an impossible task. But she did produce the most lauded and iconic debut LP of the last 25 years. And then she didn’t do much musically after that. This is a sad thing for the world but — given my flawed but nevertheless ingenious methodology — a good thing for this list. The stature of The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill only grows over time.
8. The Doors, The Doors (1967)
Yeah, I said it.
I loved this album as a teenager. Then I hated it in my 20s. And then I came back to loving it in my 30s, and that’s where I have stayed. It has the “virtual greatest hits LP” factor. It has the “what in the hell is this?” factor. (I refer to “The End,” a song that Francis Ford Coppola and I will defend to the death.) And it is way more influential than the haters will ever admit. Countless punk and post-punk bands have aped this record for decades. Anyone who reflexively mocks Jim Morrison probably loves at least one singer he has influenced.
Stop fighting the awesomeness of The Doors! Break on through! Ride the snake!
7. Joy Division, Unknown Pleasures (1979)
Here’s one of the most notable Doors-inspired bands! In the biopic 24 Hour Party People, there’s a Doors poster hanging in Ian Curtis’ house, which we see right before he takes his own life. I don’t know if Curtis actually had a Doors poster in his living room, but you can hear him on this record taking what Jim Morrison started — singing doom-laden lyrics in a deep croon like an undead zombie prophet — and stepping even deeper into the pitch-black abyss. And then he died young, just like Jim, which proved that he wasn’t messing around.
6. The Notorious B.I.G., Ready To Die (1994)
Of all the big hip-hip debuts from ’94, this is the one I go back to the most. I’m pulled in by Biggie’s cinematic storytelling, the hard-hitting and relentlessly on-point production, and the disarming sweetness at the album’s core. Christopher Wallace wants you to know that he’s a bad man, but like Tony Soprano you can’t help but love the big fella. He has an indelible teddy-bear quality that draws you in and makes you instantly forgive the times when he refers to himself as “Bigga the condom filler.”
5. Television, Marquee Moon (1977)
I could write a blurb about why this is the fifth best debut album ever, but it seems more appropriate to convey my love of Marquee Moon by playing a long, lyrical guitar solo that fits beautifully with an equally complex and emotionally searching rhythm part. Nevertheless, I’m stuck with this blurb.
4. Leonard Cohen, Songs Of Leonard Cohen (1967)
To quote Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet: “Goddamn, you are one suave fuck!” To answer a question I posed earlier: 1967 is the best year for debuts. (I realize that no music critic will make this argument in 10 years. I am likely on the outer edge of music writers who revere the debut albums of 1967. The generational Overton window will inevitably shift. Nevertheless, this has no bearing on the actual truth of the statement.) Three of my top four are from that year, but this one might be the most radical. At the height of hippie trendiness, here was a genuine poet and author who dressed like an ad man from Sterling Cooper. And he sang sad and sexy prose over stately folk rock like he was reading it from stone tablets passed down from up on high. On paper, it sounds like the most pretentious music imaginable. And it might sound that way, too, upon first listen. But Songs Of Leonard Cohen has a way of taking over your life in the aftermath of your worst romantic experience, and then retconning it as your best romantic experience.
3. Patti Smith, Horses (1975)
Another Jim Morrison acolyte! And another poet! And another record that on paper seems horribly pretentious: Long and talky songs that merge Beat poetry and French symbolist writing with full-on evocations of rock mythology. But it all works because Patti is not some egghead intellectual but one of the realest rockers there ever were. So many people heard their own future when this record came out, and I think that’s because Patti manages to be both the fan and the star. Like another classic released in 1975, Born To Run, Smith treats music as a religion on Horses, and it’s impossible for me to resist joining her cult whenever it is on.
2. The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground And Nico (1967)
What can I say about this album that hasn’t already been repeated in 27 rock documentaries? The paradox of The Velvet Underground And Nico is that it explicitly warns the listener about the downfalls of being junkie, and also makes living the junkie lifestyle sound incredible. I realize this is not exactly a compliment, though it does suggest that Lou Reed was an amazing artist and an ineffective journalist.
1. The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Are You Experienced (1967)
Let’s review the criteria one more time:
1) I have to like the record. (I love this record)
2) The record must be generally considered great or important by people who are not me. (Are You Experienced is widely regarded as a classic.)
3) Extra weight will be given to debuts that are clearly the best album in the discography. (This is the best Hendrix record. At worst, it is tied for best with the two other studio records.)
4) The “what in the hell is this?” factor. (Have you heard this man play guitar? Imagine what it must have been like in 1967.)
5) It’s a debut album that actually invents something. (This is self-evidently true of this album.)
6) No “historically important” debuts that can’t stand alone as truly great. (Also self-evidently true that this is “stand-alone great.”)
7) If you make the list with one band, you can’t also make the list with a solo record or another band. (Was Jimi in the Traveling Wilburys? Pretty sure he wasn’t. OK, all good here.)
8) A great debut should be influential. (Self-evidently true.)
9) A great debut does not need to be great all the way through if there are at least three-to-five undeniable peaks that everybody ends up focusing on. (It’s great all the way through, but even if you disagree at least five of his most famous songs are here.)
10) A great debut should be extremely you. (No one is mistaking this for Eric Clapton.)
There you have it. Jimi is the best. I have a lot of hope for this guy. Wonder how his story ends.
Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.