Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
I’m thrilled to present another 10 wonderful debut albums that made a big impact on me. I’ve known most of them since I was a teenager but a few didn’t come into my life until my 20s & 30s. As in the previous two posts, these are in no particular order. I simply love them and they’ve all held up extremely well. I hope you find a few of your favorites here.
Album Title/Year Of Release: CHICAGO TRANSIT AUTHORITY (1969)
Has there ever been a more audacious debut album than this one? A band with three distinct lead vocalists (keyboardist Robert Lamm, guitarist Terry Kath and bassist Peter Cetera), a ferocious drummer (Danny Seraphine) and a 3-piece horn section with its own unique sound (Lee Loughnane, James Pankow and Walter Parazaider) unleashed a 76-minute 2-LP set to begin their career, veering from extended free-jazz-inflected pieces like “Introduction” and “Poem 58” to stomping bluesy workouts like “South California Purples,” “Listen” and their percussive cover of The Spencer Davis Group’s “I’m A Man.” There’s also the experimental, Jimi Hendrix-inspired six-string showcase, “Free Form Guitar,” which might explain why Hendrix himself told one of Kath’s bandmates that “I think your guitarist is better than me.” All of these performances would have guaranteed Chicago’s place among the most groundbreaking artists of their era, but when you add in perennial radio hits like “Beginnings,” “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” and “Questions 67 & 68,” we’re left with a multi-platinum Top 20 record that’s the cornerstone of an impressive discography. Their later success with soft ballads hasn’t done their reputation any favors but for at least a decade they were one of the most exciting bands on the planet, and Chicago Transit Authority might be their most essential album.
Artist: VAN HALEN
Album Title/Year Of Release: VAN HALEN (1978)
I first discovered Van Halen in 1980 with the release of their third album, Women And Children First. It didn’t take long for me to get their previous releases and they quickly became one of my favorite artists. Eddie Van Halen is rightly regarded as the most influential guitarist of that era (and one of the all-time greats), but what made Van Halen truly special was the combination of excellent musicianship (bassist Michael Anthony & drummer Alex Van Halen), the charismatic presence of lead singer David Lee Roth, consistently stellar songwriting that mixed heavy metal aggression with instantly catchy pop melodies and Michael Anthony’s inimitable high harmonies. All of these qualities were evident on their first album, especially the four tracks that opened the record: “Runnin’ With The Devil,” Eddie’s jaw-dropping instrumental “Eruption,” their cover of The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” (which introduced me and many in my generation to that great British band) and “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love.” The quality never dips throughout the record, with more classics like “Jamie’s Cryin’,” “Atomic Punk,” the swinging blues cover of “Ice Cream Man” and the glam-metal stomp of “Feel Your Love Tonight.” The album still sounds fresh nearly 40 years later thanks to Ted Templeman’s perfect production job; it’s huge without being overblown.
Artist: BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN
Album Title/Year Of Release: GREETINGS FROM ASBURY PARK, NJ (1973)
Bruce Springsteen’s recording career got off to an impressive start with an album featuring songs that would be covered by David Bowie (“Growin’ Up”), The Greg Kihn Band (“For You”) and Manfred Mann’s Earth Band. The latter scored a #1 hit with their version of “Blinded By The Light,” and they also covered “Spirit In The Night” & “For You.” Plenty of songwriters release records that are improved in other people’s hands, but that wasn’t the case here. With the assistance of the original E Street Band, the man billed as “the next Bob Dylan” burst out of the gate with his own unique style and a clutch of tunes that most artists would kill to write over the course of their careers. In addition to the aforementioned songs, “Lost In The Flood” and “It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City” are two more standouts which help to make Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ one of the most consistently enjoyable albums in his discography. Considering he was only 23 when the album was recorded, you get a sense of just how special a writer & performer he was right from the beginning, and why so many artists clamored to cover his songs.
Artist: AIMEE MANN
Album Title/Year Of Release: WHATEVER (1993)
I didn’t know much about ‘80s band ‘Til Tuesday beyond their 1985 Top 10 hit, “Voices Carry,” when a friend at the recently-formed Imago Records sent me a pre-release copy of the debut album by their lead singer, Aimee Mann. I fell in love with it on first listen, and it’s only grown in stature over the years. Her biggest success would come a few years later with the Magnolia soundtrack and an Academy Award-nominated song, as well as a handful of critically acclaimed solo albums filled with mostly slow, melancholy tunes, but Whatever finds a much more adventurous & playful artist at work. Powerful slower songs like “4th Of July,” “Jacob Marley’s Chain” and “Stupid Thing” are offset by the bouncy melodicism of “I Should Have Known,” “Fifty Years After The Fair,” “Put Me On Top” and “Could’ve Been Anyone.” Co-produced by Tony Berg, Jon Brion and her ‘Til Tuesday bandmate Michael Hausman (the latter two contributing much of the musical accompaniment), this album never stumbles across its 14 songs and 52 minute running time. Other artists might have padded out their debut album with subpar songs, but clearly Aimee Mann had a lot to prove here and she delivered a beauty that deserved a wider audience.
Artist: CRASH TEST DUMMIES
Album Title/Year Of Release: THE GHOSTS THAT HAUNT ME (1991)
Crash Test Dummies are widely regarded as one hit wonders, and that hit (1993’s “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm”) is considered a novelty by many people. While it’s true that they only had that one hit single in the U.S., they enjoyed wider success in their home country of Canada, and there’s a lot more to their music than just one song. Lead singer Brad Roberts’ deep baritone is the band’s most prominent distinguishing feature, but it’s his quirky, thought-provoking and often humorous songs, along with the haunting backing vocals of keyboardist Ellen Reid, that make them truly special. I fell in love with them the first time I heard their debut and its leadoff single, “Superman’s Song.” That melancholy ode to the Man Of Steel was unlike anything I had heard before, and a similar mood pervades the acoustic waltz of “Androgynous” and the surprisingly uplifting dirge that is album closer “At My Funeral.” They also display an affinity for folk, country & Celtic music on tracks like “Comin’ Back Soon (The Bereft Man’s Song),” “Here On Earth (I’ll Have My Cake),” “Winter Song” and “The Ghosts That Haunt Me.” Prior to last week I hadn’t played this album in several years, and I was pleased to discover that everything I loved about it all those years ago remained. I was grinning ear to ear the entire time.
Artist: THE JIMI HENDRIX EXPERIENCE
Album Title/Year Of Release: ARE YOU EXPERIENCED (1967)
No list of great debut albums is complete without this one from the most influential rock guitarist of all time. In just a few short years before his death in 1970, he exponentially expanded the limits of what can be done on guitar, and the records he made with bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell as The Jimi Hendrix Experience took songwriting, arranging & producing into new & exciting directions. The U.S. & U.K. editions of the album each include 11 tracks, but only 8 appear on both. These include undisputed classics like “Manic Depression,” “Fire,” “Foxy Lady,” “I Don’t Live Today,” “Third Stone From The Sun” and the title track. American audiences got to hear early singles “Purple Haze,” “The Wind Cries Mary” and their version of “Hey Joe,” while British audiences were wowed by his blues masterpiece, “Red House.” Whichever version you hear, there’s no denying the staying power of Are You Experienced, a record that’s equally of-its-time and a vision of the future. I have a 1993 CD pressing that includes all of these songs and 3 others. I’ve heard that later editions have better mastering but this one sounds great to me and it has all the music in one place.
Artist: CROSBY, STILLS & NASH
Album Title/Year Of Release: CROSBY, STILLS & NASH (1969)
I don’t recall the first time I heard “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” but I clearly remember the excitement I felt anytime I heard this epic opening track from the debut album by former members of The Byrds (David Crosby), Buffalo Springfield (Stephen Stills) and The Hollies (Graham Nash). That’s because I still feel the same excitement whenever I take a journey through this sparsely arranged acoustic song that features stellar guitar work from the criminally underrated Stills and those one-of-a-kind harmonies. If that was the only memorable song here it would still be an essential album, but there’s also a Crosby & Stills collaboration (the haunting “Wooden Ships”), a couple of tunes by Crosby (the mysterious “Guinnevere” and the moody & powerful “Long Time Gone”), two lovely tracks by Nash (the exotic “Marrakesh Express” and the pulsing “Pre-Road Downs”) and Stills’ acoustic ballad “Helplessly Hoping.” They would soon join up with Stills’ old bandmate Neil Young for the supergroup’s supergroup, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (and if CSNY is considered a separate group then their debut album, Déjà Vu, belongs in this series as well), but the first album by the trio has a simplicity missing from their later records which allows us to focus on their individual & collective voices.
Artist: BILLY BRAGG
Album Title/Year Of Release: LIFE’S A RIOT WITH SPY VS SPY (1983)
My introduction to the punk-influenced-folk of Billy Bragg (aka “The Bard Of Barking”) came via his 1988 Workers Playtime LP. It was the perfect entry point for me, as I enjoyed his thick English accent and the sparsely arranged songs that balanced his political leanings and pop sensibility. Not long after falling in love with that record I picked up Back To Basics, a CD that includes every song from his first two albums and an EP. His first album is more of an EP, with only 7 songs in 16 minutes, but in that short time he establishes himself as a singular performer with a lot of attitude to go with his songwriting abilities. From opening track “The Milkman Of Human Kindness” (“I will leave an extra pint”) it’s clear that he thrives on mixing a raw musical approach (just his electric guitar plugged into an amp) with heartfelt lyrics you might not expect to hear from that voice. His best-known song from this era is “A New England,” later a U.K. Top 10 hit for Kirsty MacColl, and all the elements that made it successful are already there in his original version. “The Man In The Iron Mask” is a haunting ballad and both “Richard” and “The Busy Girl Buys Beauty” sound like demos for a power pop/punk band like The Buzzcocks. Even if this was an EP and not his official debut, his first full-length recording (Brewing Up With Billy Bragg) is equally impressive and would earn a place in this series.
Artist: FOUNTAINS OF WAYNE
Album Title/Year Of Release: FOUNTAINS OF WAYNE (1996)
There was a thriving power-pop scene in the ‘90s, with dozens of artists following in the footsteps of Big Star, The Raspberries, Cheap Trick and The Knack. Some of them managed to break into the mainstream while others flew just under the radar, and a fine example of the latter is Fountains Of Wayne. In 2003 they achieved huge commercial success with the single “Stacy’s Mom,” but 7 years earlier the songwriting duo of Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood was just an unknown artist signed to a division of Atlantic Records, with little promotion beyond alternative radio. Their self-titled debut blew me away on the first listen with its blend of upbeat melodic rock (“Radiation Vibe,” “Survival Car” and “Sink To The Bottom”) and melancholy pop (“She’s Got A Problem,” “Everything’s Ruined” and “Sick Day”), making a case for themselves as one of the best purveyors of this type of music. This album continues to be my favorite in their impressively consistent discography.
Artist: THE MAHAVISHNU ORCHESTRA
Album Title/Year Of Release: THE INNER MOUNTING FLAME (1971)
During my high school years, fusion became my gateway into the seemingly impenetrable world of jazz with its rock instrumentation and improvisational music, and the fusion artist that made the biggest impact on me was The Mahavishnu Orchestra. The brainchild of former Miles Davis and Tony Williams Lifetime guitar master John McLaughlin, the original incarnation of the group (keyboard whiz and future Miami Vice composer Jan Hammer, violinist Jerry Goodman, bassist Rick Laird and drum god Billy Cobham) lasted only three albums but their impact was tremendous. The first Mahavishnu album I heard was 1973’s Birds Of Fire, which remains my favorite, but their debut from 2 years earlier is equally impressive. Here was a musical collective that was capable of soft, subtle passages like those found in “Dawn” and “You Know, You Know” as well as mind-blowing ferocity on epics like “Meeting Of The Spirits” and “Vital Transformation.” Throughout it all, McLaughlin makes a case for being one of the greatest guitarists of all time (in any genre), and the others have ample opportunity to strut their stuff, yet it’s not merely a chops-fest. The melodies stick with you as much as the performances. Fusion has often been derided my jazz purists, so this music is more suited to open-minded listeners who believe that music should have no limitations.
Somehow I previously overlooked another great debut album that was previously covered in one of my artist series, so I wanted to acknowledge it here:
ROXY MUSIC – ROXY MUSIC (1972)
Even after revisiting 30 of my favorite debut albums, I feel like I’ve just scratched the surface. I’ve already begun revisiting another batch of debuts and I look forward to sharing them with you soon. Please let me know how many of the albums discussed above have had a similar impact on you. Thanks.