Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
Here are ten more of my all-time favorite debut albums, in no particular order. These had the same kind of impact on me as the records featured in Part 1 of this series, and they’ve all withstood the test of time.
Album Title/Year Of Release: ASIA (1982)
This was a huge album for me when it was released a few months before my 16th birthday. The quartet of guitarist Steve Howe (Yes), drummer Carl Palmer (ELP), keyboardist Geoff Downes (Buggles/Yes) and bassist/vocalist John Wetton (King Crimson/UK) combined the top-notch musicianship of my favorite progressive rock bands with concise, catchy, radio-friendly songs. The result was a multi-platinum chart-topping album and single (“Heat Of The Moment”), and Roger Dean’s fantastic cover design was the perfect complement to the music. After punk & new wave turned “prog” into a 4-letter word in the music industry throughout the second half of the ‘70s, the beast awoke in 1982 and I couldn’t have been more thrilled. Between their aforementioned #1 hit single and the two songs that followed (“Only Time Will Tell” and “Sole Survivor”), Asia opens with a 1-2-3 punch that’s hard to beat. They also strike the perfect balance between catchy & complicated on semi-epics like “Time Again,” “Wildest Dreams” and “Here Comes The Feeling.” This lineup would only last through one more album, but the Asia name has continued with multiple musicians throughout the years, Downes being the one constant throughout their career. Ironically, the original Asia reunited in 2006 and released three studio albums before Howe jumped ship to focus on Yes and his solo career. It’s been great to have Asia back in circulation again, but none of their subsequent recordings reached the same heights as their magnificent debut.
Artist: STEVIE RAY VAUGHAN AND DOUBLE TROUBLE
Album Title/Year Of Release: TEXAS FLOOD (1983)
I don’t think I fully appreciated the enormity of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s guitar prowess when I first heard “Pride And Joy” on the radio in 1983. There was so much good music being played on rock radio at the time, old & new, so it was just another cool song with excellent guitar work. It wasn’t until I heard his debut album that I understood how special he was. In addition to his instrumental abilities, he helped revitalize the mostly dormant “blues” genre by exposing it to the public via regular airplay and shining a light on specific artists who influenced him via cover versions interspersed among his original compositions. Larry Davis’ late-‘50s song “Texas Flood” is a highlight of this album (and SRV’s career), Howlin’ Wolf’s “Tell Me” is given a swinging shuffle groove and Buddy Guy’s “Mary Had A Little Lamb” is tight & funky, and features Stevie’s playful vocal performance. The vocal-free album closer “Lenny,” a jazzy tune with obvious nods to Jimi Hendrix’s ballads, shows another side to him and his underrated band, Double Trouble (drummer Chris Layton and bassist Tommy Shannon). Perhaps the only misstep on Texas Flood is “I’m Cryin’,” which is a nice song but a little too similar to the superior “Pride And Joy.” Otherwise, this is quite a powerful introduction to an incredible talent, and I consider myself fortunate that I got to see him in concert twice before his untimely death in 1990.
Artist: CHEAP TRICK
Album Title/Year Of Release: CHEAP TRICK (1977)
Like most people in my age group, I was introduced to the music of Cheap Trick via their 1978 At Budokan live album. Two years later in May 1980, just shy of my 14th birthday, they were the first band I saw in concert, on the Dream Police tour at Madison Square Garden. By then I owned all four of their studio albums, but for some reason it took several more years before I fully appreciated their self-titled debut. It’s a little darker and rougher around the edges than the records that followed, but all the elements that would soon make the world fall in love with them are already evident: Robin Zander’s powerful & passionate vocals, Rick Nielsen’s quirky lead guitar, sneering backing vocals and uniquely twisted songs and the inventive & propulsive rhythm section of bassist Tom Petersson and drummer Bun E. Carlos. They were already delivering catchy melodies but most of the songs have a harder edge than anything on the next few records. “Elo Kiddies” has a bouncy glam-rock stomp and “Oh, Candy” is classic power-pop; these two are what most people would expect from Cheap Trick. Otherwise, “Hot Love” and “He’s A Whore” are fueled by punk energy, and both “Mandocello” & “Taxman, Mr. Thief” are intense, slow-burning rockers. This album was also my introduction to the underrated talent of Terry Reid, whose “Speak Now Or Forever Hold Your Peace” they cover here. Cheap Trick might seem like a dark horse in their early catalog, possibly due to the fact that none of its songs were included on At Budokan (and only two were performed at the concert), but it’s every bit as strong as their most commercially successful albums.
Album Title/Year Of Release: ZEBRA (1983)
In the years following the 1980 demise of Led Zeppelin, any artist treading similar musical ground would get airplay on rock radio stations. Billy Squier was an early beneficiary but Zebra had the best shot at becoming huge. The incredibly gifted trio of singer/guitarist/songwriter Randy Jackson, bassist Felix Hanemann and drummer Guy Gelso delivered one of the fastest-selling debut albums in the history of Atlantic Records, combining Zeppelin’s dynamic hard rock with the keyboard & synth textures of progressive rock, ticking all of my musical boxes at the time. Opening track “Tell Me What You Want” is straight-up hard rock, and “Who’s Behind The Door,” a Top 10 hit on the Rock chart, blended the mysticism of Yes’ Jon Anderson with Zeppelin-inspired music. “One More Chance” and “As I Said Before” are killer tracks that might have been more successful a few years later during the “hair metal” era, but it’s the two epics that really make this a special record: “Take Your Fingers From My Hair” and “The La La Song” are showcases for their instrumental abilities and knack for clever arrangements. They never overstay their welcome over the course of the 6- or 7-minute running times. Throughout it all, Jackson’s multi-octave range is one of the key aspects to Zebra’s sound that separates them from their contemporaries. There are three other studio albums in their discography, as well as an excellent live album, but as much as I love just about everything they’ve released, their debut is a classic that still sounds fresh to my ears all these years later.
Artist: THE SMITHEREENS
Album Title/Year Of Release: ESPECIALLY FOR YOU (1986)
New Jersey’s The Smithereens had been around since 1980, releasing a couple of independent EP’s, but their first full-length album is where the story officially began for anyone beyond their local scene. When the bass-driven single “Blood And Roses” hit the airwaves, it fit in perfectly with both classic rock & current music. Here was a band steeped in ‘60s British Invasion groups like The Beatles, The Who, The Kinks and The Hollies, but in lead vocalist/songwriter Pat DiNizio they had a unique talent who used those artists as inspiration for songs that sounded like no one other than The Smithereens. His bandmates (lead guitarist Jim Babjak, bassist Mike Mesaros and drummer Dennis Diken) were deceptively sophisticated, providing clever arrangements to seemingly straight-ahead songs like “Time And Time Again,” “Strangers When We Meet” and “Behind The Wall Of Sleep.” As good as their rockers are, it’s the subtler tracks that make Especially For You so special. Suzanne Vega adds sweet harmonies to the lovely “In A Lonely Place,” and the acoustic break-up song “Cigarette” is an accordion-accented delight. My college cover band played a few Smithereens songs which were always well-received, and since I went to school in New Jersey I’ve always felt a close connection to their music. They went on to release more great records but Especially For You is probably their most diverse collection of songs and it holds up extremely well nearly 3 decades later.
Artist: KING CRIMSON
Album Title/Year Of Release: IN THE COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING (1969)
By now it’s not a revelation to report that I’m a huge fan of progressive rock, and no discussion of that subgenre can start without mentioning King Crimson and their massively influential debut album. Guitarist Robert Fripp, the only constant in the ever-changing KC lineups over nearly half a century, was joined by future ELP vocalist/bassist Greg Lake, future Foreigner keyboard/woodwind player Ian McDonald, drummer Michael Giles and lyricist Pete Sinfield for a collection of five mind-blowing tracks that range from 6 to 12 minutes long. McDonald’s organ and Mellotron give these songs an orchestral grandeur, while Fripp’s groundbreaking guitar playing is still mind-blowing. I can only imagine how out-of-this world it all sounded in 1969. The album is bookended by the aggressive “21st Century Schizoid Man” and the quiet-loud dynamics of “The Court Of The Crimson King.” The jazzier “I Talk To The Wind” and “Moonchild” allow the album to breathe while taking listeners on a journey, while the gorgeous “Epitaph” has long been my favorite song here. Lake would later incorporate a portion of it during ELP’s live performances of “Tarkus.” Sporting one of the ugliest or most iconic album covers of all time (depending on your taste), In The Court Of The Crimson King is a record that grows in stature as it ages.
Album Title/Year Of Release: WEEZER (1994)
I didn’t immediately respond to Weezer’s music when “Undone – The Sweater Song” became their first hit. I wasn’t really into “alternative” music at the time so I probably didn’t pay much attention to them. It was the second single, “Buddy Holly,” with its Happy Days-inspired video, which first caught my eyes & ears. It was likely the combination of great melodies and their sense of humor that won me over. I bought Weezer (aka “The Blue Album) and absolutely loved it. “My Name Is Jonas,” “Say It Ain’t So” and “Surf Wax America” are catchy songs with crunchy guitars, and the melancholy undertones within “The World Has Turned And Left Me Here” and “In The Garage” pack a much-needed emotional punch. They became massively successful so quickly that there continues to be backlash against their later albums, although many of them are very good (with follow-up Pinkerton belatedly receiving much-deserved praise), but a debut this strong was always going to be hard to beat. Rivers Cuomo wrote all of these memorable songs that have stood the test of time, and Cars frontman Ric Ocasek did a great job producing them to a high gloss shine.
Artist: ROBERT PLANT
Album Title/Year Of Release: PICTURES AT ELEVEN (1982)
It should come as no surprise that I was thrilled when the lead singer of my favorite band began his solo career two years after Led Zeppelin disbanded. Aided by his friend Phil Collins on drums (former Rainbow drummer Cozy Powell played on 2 of 8 tracks), Plant collaborated with guitarist Robbie Blunt on a collection of tunes that veer from Zeppelin heaviness (“Slow Dancer” and “Like I’ve Never Been Gone”) to offbeat new-wave inspired rockers (“Burning Down One Side,” “Fat Lip” and “Pledge Pin”) and an exotic ballad (“Moonlight In Samosa”). A lot of wonderful albums were released in 1982, but I don’t think I played any of them quite as often as Pictures At Eleven. Plant’s voice was still in its prime, the musicianship is top-notch (Blunt is a sympathetic & tasteful guitarist and Collins is, of course, one of the best rock drummers of all time) and there’s not a weak song to be found. I love the majority of the dozen or so albums he’s released to date, and this one remains among my 2 or 3 favorites.
Artist: CANDY BUTCHERS
Album Title/Year Of Release: CANDY BUTCHERS (1996)
Here’s a band that should have been huge. Songwriter / singer / guitarist / keyboardist Mike Viola had just provided vocals & contributed to the writing of “That Thing You Do” from the Tom Hanks film of the same name, and that song’s early-Beatles homage carries over into many of his own songs. This is no mere pastiche, however, as he blends influences like Elvis Costello, Squeeze, The Beach Boys and pretty much any melodic pop/rock artist of the preceding 25 years, on songs like “Love’s Long Sleep,” “I Will Not Be Afraid,” “What I Won’t Give” and “Love Like Her.” I also hear more than a hint of Dan Fogelberg on the pretty ballad “I’m Not Over You,” and “Truckstop Sweetheart” could be a #1 hit for a contemporary country artist. Candy Butchers were essentially a duo consisting of Viola and his childhood friend Todd Foulsham on drums and vocal harmonies. They had released an EP, Live At La Bonbonnierre, which included two songs from their upcoming debut album (“Bells On A Leper” and “Cupid Complained To Venus”) along with three other melodic gems. Sadly, their record label, Blue Thumb Records, closed its doors before the album could be released and it sat on a shelf for more than a decade before Viola released it on vinyl a few years ago. Several friends & I had connections with touring members of the band and employees at Blue Thumb in ‘96, and suddenly there was this underground scene where cassette copies were being swapped, and every sold-out Candy Butchers show in New York City had the crowd singing along to all of their unreleased songs. Viola eventually signed with Sony Music for a couple of Foulsham-free Candy Butchers albums, released several solo LPs as well as collaborations with other artists (including Ryan Adams), and contributed music to several movie soundtracks. There are numerous great albums in his catalog, but nothing as perfect from start to finish as the Candy Butchers’ debut.
Artist: PHIL COLLINS
Album Title/Year Of Release: FACE VALUE (1981)
Phil Collins’ first solo album has been overshadowed by its ubiquitous hit single, “In The Air Tonight” and his ridiculously successful work with Genesis & as a solo artist throughout the ‘80s (and the overexposure that came with it). By the time he released Face Value, Collins had been Genesis’ lead singer for four studio albums, each charting higher than the previous one, but he wasn’t yet a household name. There was no guarantee that a collection of personal songs written & recorded in the immediate aftermath of his divorce would have any commercial success, but it turned out to be a hit on both sides of the Atlantic. There are plenty of upbeat songs featuring Earth, Wind & Fire’s Phenix Horns (minor hit “I Missed Again,” “Hand In Hand,” “Thunder And Lightning” and a peppy re-working of the previous year’s “Behind The Lines” from Genesis’ Duke album), but it’s the downbeat ballads that give the album its defining mood: “This Must Be Love,” “The Roof Is Leaking,” “You Know What I Mean” and “If Leaving Me Is Easy.” In the future his ballads would become more sappy & predictable, but here you can still hear the raw emotions he was dealing with at the time. Collins plays most of the instruments, adding some notable guests like guitarists Daryl Stuermer & Eric Clapton and singer Stephen Bishop on certain tracks. Unsurprisingly, there’s plenty of impressive drumming, but Face Value is really a showcase for his burgeoning songwriting abilities rather than an excuse to show off his chops. I know plenty of people who dismiss everything he’s ever done due to his mainstream pop material from a few years later, but they’re missing out on an excellent record that’s not only a fantastic debut but also one of the best post-breakup albums I can think of.
In my previous post I forgot to mention a couple of wonderful debut albums that I re-discovered thanks to my blog posts about those artists:
TALKING HEADS – TALKING HEADS: 77 (1977)
THE STOOGES – THE STOOGES (1969)
I’ve only scratched the surface so far. There are still plenty of classic debut albums I’ll be discussing in the next few posts. If some of your favorites still haven’t appeared, they’ll either show up soon or we have different tastes in music. Please let me know what you think of the 10 albums featured above. Thanks.