Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
It seems like every major music publication, website & blog has already published their lists of the “best debut albums of all time,” so it wasn’t a subject I considered writing about even though I don’t always agree with their choices. Then a couple of weeks ago I played a few of my favorite debut albums for the first time in years and before I knew it I was compiling a list of more than 100 artists who began their recording careers with a bang. Since you’ll rarely hear me speak in absolutes, I’m not presenting these as “the best” but merely some of my all-time favorites. In the first couple of posts I will highlight the debut albums I’ve heard so many times that I can extoll their virtues without needing to play them. These are my no-brainer choices; the ones that have been a part of my life for such a long time. You’ll notice that a majority of my choices were released between the mid-‘70s and the mid-‘80s, which makes complete sense since those were my formative years, between the ages of 10 and 20. There’s no doubt that the music released during our school years usually has the biggest impact on us, and it came as no surprise to me when I realized that a large percentage of my top debuts were released during that era. I’m sure anyone 10 years older or younger would have a drastically different list of favorites, but hopefully there will be many albums featured in this series that a lot of us can agree on. Some artists take time to develop, but here are some who were “great out of the gate.”
Artist: LED ZEPPELIN
Album Title/Year Of Release: LED ZEPPELIN (1969)
Of course my all-time favorite artist had to appear first. When I became a fan at the age of 13 in 1979, their debut was just one of eight studio albums in their discography that I absorbed at the same time, so it was hard for me to fathom the impact this album must have had when it was unleashed on the world a decade earlier. From their heavy take on blues classics like “You Shook Me” and “I Can’t Quit You Baby” to fast & furious originals like “Communication Breakdown” and “Good Times Bad Times,” this was the blueprint for so many other artists that followed in their wake. It’s also full of light and shade, which helped me as a musician to understand the concept of “dynamics” at an early age thanks to “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You,” “How Many More Times” and one of their defining songs, “Dazed And Confused.” Then there’s the fact that you had four world-class musicians who instantly became so much more than the sum of their parts, making this my ultimate debut album by my ultimate band.
Artist: BIG COUNTRY
Album Title/Year Of Release: the CROSSING (1983)
This Scottish/British quartet has had a bigger impact on me than any other artist since my teenage years. Sadly labeled one-hit-wonders in the US due to their sole Top 20 hit, “In A Big Country,” they were much bigger overseas, scoring eight Top 20 singles and four Top 10 albums in the UK. Late singer/songwriter/guitarist Stuart Adamson was an underrated, one-of-a-kind talent, and the rhythm section of bassist Tony Butler and drummer Mark Brzezicki (one of my biggest drumming heroes), along with second guitarist Bruce Watson, elevated Big Country beyond many of their less-gifted contemporaries. Of course, musical ability means little without good songs, and this album is packed with classics from top to bottom, including singles “Fields Of Fire (400 Miles)” and the beautiful ballad “Chance,” along with soaring epics like “The Storm” & “Porrohman” and would-be hit singles “Inwards” & “Harvest Home.” Steve Lillywhite deserves special mention for his typically great production, especially the drum sound. The Crossing is one of the rare albums that truly changed my life, and I’m transported back to the summer of 1983 whenever I play it.
Artist: JOE JACKSON
Album Title/Year Of Release: LOOK SHARP (1979)
I instantly became a lifelong Joe Jackson fan the moment I heard “Is She Really Going Out With Him” blasting out of the radio for the first time in ‘79. It’s been a fun journey following his career through more genres than most artists are even aware of, starting with this blast of new wave that doesn’t have a weak moment over the course of its 11 songs. His songwriting was as strong as the two contemporary artists he was most often compared to (Elvis Costello and Graham Parker), and his unique vocal phrasing, self-deprecating sense of humor & a band that was the equal of The Attractions, The Rumour and even The E Street Band, all combined to make Look Sharp a timeless collection that might otherwise sound dated by now in less capable hands. From the youthful punk-inspired energy of “Got The Time” and “Baby Stick Around” to songs featuring reggae & jazz influences like “Sunday Papers,” “Fools In Love” and “Look Sharp,” I’ve never grown tired of this album…and the same holds true for just about everything in his discography.
Artist: THE CARS
Album Title/Year Of Release: THE CARS (1978)
In the late-‘80s, there was a clear divide between fans of synth-based new wave music and what’s now known as classic rock. The only band that seemed to bring those two sides together was The Cars. Main songwriter/vocalist Ric Ocasek’s offbeat delivery & quirky songwriting (inspired by early Roxy Music) was embellished by Greg Hawkes’ space-age synths & keyboards and Elliot Easton’s jangly, melodic, Beatles-influenced lead guitar. Bassist Benjamin Orr added his warmer vocals to several songs and David Robinson supplied solid-but-never-boring drumming. This is one of the rare albums that could pass for a best-of collection, with radio staples “My Best Friend’s Girl,” “Just What I Needed,” “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight,” “Bye Bye Love,” “Good Times Roll” and “Moving In Stereo” (the latter etched in the minds of every male in my age group thanks to Fast Times At Ridgemont High). Queen producer Roy Thomas Baker was an inspired choice, making these songs sound huge and emphasizing their vocal harmonies.
Artist: PINK FLOYD
Album Title/Year Of Release: THE PIPER AT THE GATES OF DAWN (1967)
Pink Floyd is probably my second-favorite artist of all-time, just behind Led Zeppelin, but it took me a long time to fully embrace their debut album. My first exposure to their music was 1977’s Animals, shortly after my 11th birthday, and within a couple of years I loved everything from Meddle through The Wall. Their earlier releases were a little less accessible, especially to my teenage ears, with The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn being as far removed from the Pink Floyd sound I loved as anything I could imagine. That makes sense when you consider it was the only album they released under the guidance of founding member Syd Barrett, whose brief solo discography I previously discussed. His whimsical, almost-childlike and distinctly British songwriting was mixed with psychedelic arrangements and occasional journeys into complete weirdness, resulting in off-kilter gems like “Matilda Mother,” “Bike” and “Lucifer Sam.” The musically adventurous side of the band is also represented by “Astronomy Domine” and “Interstellar Overdrive.” I started appreciating this album in the ‘80s, but it wasn’t until the release of the mono version in 1999 that I fully understood its mad brilliance. Prevailing wisdom might suggest that stereo is the preferred format for this type of music, but in this case the mono mix packs a much stronger punch, and I highly recommend it as the definitive way to hear this record.
Album Title/Year Of Release: PRETENDERS (1980)
I fell in love with Chrissie Hynde’s voice when I heard Pretenders’ cover of The Kinks’ “Stop Your Sobbing.” I had only discovered The Kinks about a year earlier so I can’t recall which version I heard first, but there’s a warmth to Hynde’s delivery that makes theirs more definitive to me. Like the other artists discussed above, there’s some amazing musicianship at work here, especially Martin Chambers’ creative & energetic drumming and James Honeyman-Scott’s inventive & melodic lead guitar work. Hynde’s songwriting veers from the snarling punk influence of “Precious,” “The Wait” and “Tattooed Love Boys” to the instantly catchy melodic rock of “Kid” and “Brass In Pocket,” and there are some longer, less-commercial (but no less impressive) tracks like “Private Life” and “Lovers Of Today.” Through it all, they prove themselves to be a seriously kick-ass rock band. I often cite Chrissie Hynde as my all-time favorite female singer, but that almost sounds like a backhanded compliment for someone whose gender is significantly less important than the quality of the songwriting, and it rarely got better than on their self-titled debut.
Artist: MARSHALL CRENSHAW
Album Title/Year Of Release: MARSHALL CRENSHAW (1982)
My introduction to the music of Marshall Crenshaw came via a cover of his “Someday Someway” by rockabilly singer Robert Gordon, which was a minor radio hit in 1981. A year later I heard Crenshaw’s version on his debut album and was initially disappointed in the simple, sparse arrangement, but I quickly came around and realized that it was merely a different approach. The entire album is full of songs that sound simple due to the basic guitar-bass-drums trio set-up, clearly an homage to his similarly bespectacled hero Buddy Holly, but there’s a lot of diversity in the songwriting. You won’t find a weak track here, with plenty of highlights like “Rockin’ Around In N.Y.C.,” “Cynical Girl,” “There She Goes Again,” “Mary Anne” and the melancholy-yet-uplifting “Not For Me” (my personal favorite here). There are other Crenshaw albums I enjoy as much as this one, but for the uninitiated his debut is the perfect place to start.
Artist: DONALD FAGEN
Album Title/Year Of Release: THE NIGHTFLY (1982)
Donald Fagen may have had an advantage heading into his solo career, having been half of the creative duo behind Steely Dan throughout the ‘70s, but that doesn’t diminish what he accomplished with The Nightfly. Some fans might have seen this as a continuation of his work with “The Dan,” but it has a unique feel that separates it from anything in that band’s catalog. Sure, he surrounded himself with top-notch studio musicians like they did on Aja and Gaucho, but the subject matter seems a lot more personal than anything he had previously recorded. From the late-night disc jockey in “The Nightfly” to the bouncy lounge-jazz of “The Goodbye Look,” from the faithful cover of Lieber & Stoller’s “Ruby Baby” to the radio hit “New Frontier” (whose lyrics were my impetus for checking out the music of jazz legend Dave Brubeck more than three decades ago), this has been one of my desert-island discs for as long as I can remember. I’ve enjoyed his other solo albums and his work with the reunited Steely Dan, but none of them have struck me with the same intensity as The Nightfly.
Album Title/Year Of Release: BOSTON (1976)
Even more than their fellow New Englanders The Cars, Boston’s debut album might be the closest any artist has ever come to releasing a “greatest hits” at the start of their career. Sure, they had other successful singles and albums, but there was no way they were ever going to top this record, which pretty much came to define AOR (album-oriented rock). The combination of Tom Scholz’s songwriting & one-of-a-kind guitar sound and Brad Delp’s seemingly limitless vocal range made them the perfect band for both AM and FM radio in the ‘70s. All eight tracks have received airplay over the years, with “More Than A Feeling,” “Peace Of Mind” and “Foreplay/Long Time” the most recognizable thanks to classic rock stations. Those three took up Side A, and the consistency of the remaining tracks on the flip side set Boston apart from anything else released at the time: “Rock And Roll Band,” “Smokin’,” “Hitch A Ride,” “Something About You” and “Let Me Take You Home Tonight” are all cut from the same cloth but each has its own distinct charms.
Artist: THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS
Album Title/Year Of Release: THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS (1986)
I don’t think the duo of John Flansburgh and John Linnell get the recognition they deserve as incredibly gifted songwriters. That’s likely due to the fact that many of their songs are humorous, they’ve released several collections of children’s music (which are as good as any of their “adult” albums) and they started their career using sampled sounds, dressed in silly outfits, included accordion in their instrumental arsenal & produced quirky, low-budget promotional videos. In many ways they were like Devo Mach 2, without the de-evolution manifesto of their quirk-rock predecessors. Instead, they churned out incredibly inventive songs at an impressive rate, their first four albums containing 18-19 songs each, all of them in less than 45 minutes. For me it doesn’t get much better than their self-titled debut, which I first checked out in 1988, the same year I saw the video for “Don’t Let’s Start” on MTV. Some tracks are merely sketches with one or two hooks before wrapping up in less than 90 seconds, while more fully fleshed out songs like “Put Your Hand Inside The Puppet Head,” “(She Was A) Hotel Detective,” “She’s An Angel,” “Youth Culture Killed My Dog” and “Rhythm Section Want Ad” make the case for them being one of the most creative artists of their time. They released more mainstream-friendly material in later years, but I always come back to their debut, which has remained my favorite TMBG album for nearly three decades.
Here’s a list of some great debuts already discussed at KamerTunesBlog, with links to the original posts:
BIG STAR – #1 RECORD (1972)
BLACK SABBATH – BLACK SABBATH (1970)
SUPERGRASS – I SHOULD COCO (1995)
TOM WAITS – CLOSING TIME (1973)
NICK DRAKE – FIVE LEAVES LEFT (1969)
TELEVISION – MARQUEE MOON (1977)
THE BAND – MUSIC FROM BIG PINK (1968)
How many of the albums discussed here would appear on your list of all-time favorite debuts? I’ll be back in a few days to highlight another 10 great ones, so if any of your favorites were missing they may show up in Part 2.