Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
After writing about 30 of my favorite debut albums in the first three posts of this series, I’m pleased to report that the quality level remains extremely high with the 10 records I’ll discuss here. I discovered many of them around the time they were initially released, while the others came into my life at various times over the years. They’re all tied together due to the lasting impact they’ve had on me.
Artist: JEFF BECK
Album Title/Year Of Release: TRUTH (1968)
Jeff Beck became a star at the age of 20 after replacing Eric Clapton as guitarist for The Yardbirds in 1965. Three years later his solo career got off to an incredible start with Truth, a heavy-blues album credited to The Jeff Beck Group which featured Rod Stewart on vocals, Ron Wood on bass and Micky Waller on drums. Some have claimed that Beck’s former Yardbirds bandmate Jimmy Page used Truth as the template for Led Zeppelin’s debut, which was released a few months later, and the fact that both albums included similar versions of Muddy Waters’ “You Shook Me” might have added fuel to the fire. Regardless of the similarities & the fact that Zeppelin quickly eclipsed Beck (commercially speaking), Truth stands on its own as a monumental achievement for an artist who has tackled nearly every style of music in a career that’s still going strong, and his reputation as one of the all-time greatest guitar players really took flight here. Rod Stewart would go on to tremendous success with Faces and as a solo artist, but the essence of his greatness as a vocalist is already on display here. From the heavy rendition of The Yardbirds’ “Shapes Of Things” to the dramatic reworking of the show tune “Ol’ Man River,” from the blues-shuffle Beck/Stewart originals “Let Me Love You” and “Rock My Plimsoul” to the classical-leaning “Beck’s Bolero” (which was recorded two years earlier with Jimmy Page on 12-string guitar, John Paul Jones on bass and The Who’s Keith Moon on drums), this is a spectacular album that’s still as powerful today as it was nearly five decades ago.
Artist: THE POLICE
Album Title/Year Of Release: OUTLANDOS D’AMOUR (1978)
For about five years between 1979 and 1984 there were few bands I listened to more frequently than The Police. I still love their records but they haven’t been in heavy rotation for quite some time, which explains why it’s taken until the 4th post in this series to finally shine a light on their amazing debut album. The trio of Sting, Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland created a sound that was instantly identifiable and resembled no one else. Combining Copeland’s reggae-influenced drumming (which inspired me and just about every other drummer of my generation), Summers’ quirky, slightly off-kilter guitar work and Sting’s sparse-but-powerful bass lines & impossibly high vocals, they introduced themselves to the world with instant classics like “Roxanne,” “So Lonely” and “Can’t Stand Losing You,” all of which still receive airplay nearly 40 years later. However, a great album needs more than just three killer songs, and it’s the lesser-known but equally powerful tracks that make Outlandos d’Amour so special. “Truth Hits Everybody” and album opener “Next To You” were set-list staples in my high school and college bands, “Hole In My Life” is bouncy reggae fun and “Born In The ‘50s” has a steady loping beat and a killer sing-along chorus, a common feature throughout the album. They would go on to expand their sound over the course of four more albums, but they emerged fully formed with their excellent debut release.
Artist: THE DOORS
Album Title/Year Of Release: THE DOORS (1967)
The Doors’ music has been so ubiquitous over the years that’s it’s easy to take them for granted, but then you play one of their albums and remember what an incredibly unique band they were…in their era or any other. In fact, unlike just about any artist you can name, no one has ever sounded even remotely like The Doors. Sure, some singers have mimicked Jim Morrison’s deep vocal tone and “lizard king” persona, and others have prominently featured organ sounds popularized by Ray Manzarek, but those two sounds (with Manzarek handling bass notes on the keyboard in lieu of a bass player) combined with John Densmore’s underappreciated jazz- and Latin-influenced drumming and Robby Krieger’s fluid & melodic guitar work made them a truly original band in every sense of the word. Their debut album could be mistaken for a best-of collection, with hit singles “Light My Fire” and “Break On Through” joined by FM radio favorites “Soul Kitchen,” “Alabama Song (Whiskey Bar),” “Twentieth Century Fox,” their cover of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Back Door Man” and the 11-minute Oedipally-inclined album closer, “The End.” I don’t frequently listen to The Doors, but whenever I’m in the mood to hear their music it sounds fresh & vital, and The Doors is as consistent as anything in their discography.
Album Title/Year Of Release: SCRIPT FOR A JESTER’S TEAR (1983)
By the early-‘80s progressive rock was at its commercial nadir, with the sole exception of Asia’s debut (see the second post in this series), but where that album streamlined the genre’s indulgences into something much more radio-friendly, young UK group Marillion used early-‘70s Peter Gabriel-era Genesis as their template. Scottish frontman Fish took Gabriel’s dramatic vocals and his flair for verbose lyricism to another level, and the quartet of guitarist Steve Rothery, keyboardist Mark Kelly, bassist Pete Trewavas & drummer Mick Pointer concocted a musical stew that drew on the giants of ‘70s prog rock while adding a more aggressive attack and never forgetting to write memorable melodies. They were obviously doing something right, since Script For A Jester’s Tear was a UK Top 10 smash (a feat also achieved by their next six albums), and they became the standard-bearers for the neo-prog genre. In classic prog-rock fashion, the 47-minute album only has six songs, with five of them clocking in at 7 minutes or more. All of them became concert staples, with the title track, “Garden Party” and “He Knows You Know” being personal favorites. This lineup (with a new drummer) would only release three more albums before Fish departed for a solo career, and the band has continued with new singer Steve Hogarth for a lengthy second life that’s different yet equally enjoyable, but their reputation was built in those early years with a debut that was out-of-time and of-its-time in equal measure.
Artist: BARENAKED LADIES
Album Title/Year Of Release: GORDON (1992)
Canada’s Barenaked Ladies are vastly underrated. Much like They Might Be Giants, whose debut I discussed in Part 1 of this series, the silly nature of some of their material…and the goofy cover photo of their first full-length album…give the impression that they’re a joke band. It didn’t help that the songs which gained the most notoriety here, “Be My Yoko Ono,” “If I Had $1,000,000” and “Brian Wilson” (“Lyin’ in bed just like Brian Wilson did”), appear to be quirky & juvenile, but scratch beneath the surface and you’ll find a group of extremely talented musicians with two very distinct lead vocalists. Steven Page’s booming voice is offset by Ed Robertson’s more down-to-earth delivery, and the harmonies provided by drummer Tyler Stewart, keyboardist Andy Creeggan and bassist Jim Creeggan add sophistication to just about every track on this record. There are plenty of highlights, including jazzy album opener “Hello City” (which pays homage to The Housemartins’ “Happy Hour”), the bombastic (in the best possible way) “What A Good Boy,” the acoustic Latin-tinged “Blame It On Me” and the prophetic “Box Set,” which jokingly suggests an extended career ahead of them (via a 6-CD box set of hits, rarities & demos) that, much to their surprise, essentially came true. A string of Top 10 albums was still a few years away but the musicianship & songwriting abilities were on full display right from the start. As someone who caught them on their earliest US tours in small New York City clubs, I can honestly say that they were one of the most thrilling live bands I’ve ever seen.
Album Title/Year Of Release: SANTANA (1969)
It’s not often that an artist bursts onto the scene fully formed & wholly original, but the group led by guitarist Carlos Santana is a rare example of this phenomenon. The percussion-heavy Latin arrangements with Carlos’ searing guitar and future Journey founder Gregg Rolie’s soulful vocals & organ embellishments created a thrilling sound that set them apart from all of their contemporaries. They basically stole the show at Woodstock a few weeks prior to the album’s release with their performance of “Soul Sacrifice,” and all the elements that won over the half-a-million-strong crowd and the millions of viewers who saw the Woodstock film the following year were intact on the studio version. The consistency of their songwriting would improve on future releases but their debut still includes the classics “Evil Ways,” “Jingo” and “Persuasion,” and lesser-known tracks like “Waiting” and “Savor” are further evidence of a group that was way ahead of its time.
Artist: MICHAEL PENN
Album Title/Year Of Release: MARCH (1989)
He’s not as well-known as his younger brothers, actors Sean Penn and the late Chris Penn, but Michael Penn proved himself to be an incredibly gifted singer & songwriter on his debut album, which includes the Top 20 hit “No Myth” (that nearly topped the US Modern Rock Tracks chart) as well as two other Modern Rock hits, “Brave New World” and “This & That.” I can still remember hearing the latter song for the first time in my friend’s car and immediately needing to know who this artist was. I owned the album within a few days and I’ve followed his career ever since. Producer Tony Berg and multi-instrumentalist Patrick Warren fleshed out these acoustic singer-songwriter tunes with clever arrangements, adding punch wherever it was needed (“Half Harvest”; “Evenfall”) and scaling back the arrangements for beauties like “Invisible” and “Battle Room.” Penn has continued to have a solid if sporadic recording career, and for nearly 20 years he’s been married to fellow musician Aimee Mann, whose own debut was included in my previous post. This is one of my favorite albums of the late-‘80s and it still sounds fresh to me today.
Artist: THE VELVET UNDERGROUND
Album Title/Year Of Release: THE VELVET UNDERGROUND & NICO (1967)
Few bands have been as influential on future generations of musicians with little commercial success as The Velvet Underground, the quartet consisting of New Yorkers Lou Reed (guitar, vocals & principle songwriter), Sterling Morrison (bass, guitar & backing vocals) & Maureen “Mo” Tucker (drums & percussion) and Welshman John Cale (viola, piano, bass & much more). They were championed by artist Andy Warhol, who produced their debut album, designed its iconic cover and recommended the addition of German model/singer Nico to their lineup. I don’t think I heard any of their music until I was well into my 20s, and even then I was just a casual fan. All of that changed in 2001 when my band at the time was hired as the house band for a Halloween party at a hip New York club, where we performed this album in its entirety with different singers & musicians joining us on each song. In preparation for that gig, I played the album dozens of times so I could learn Tucker’s drum tracks perfectly, and in the process gained a new-found appreciation for this record. They may have a reputation as noisy, dissonant, avant-garde outsiders (which applies to tracks like “Venus In Furs” and “The Black Angel’s Death Song”), but there’s a lot of subtlety & even serenity to be found on songs like “Sunday Morning,” “Femme Fatale,” “There She Goes Again” and “I’ll Be Your Mirror.” Reed also delivered two songs that capture the essence of New York’s gritty, drug-addled underbelly: “Heroin” and “I’m Waiting For The Man.” It’s not always easy listening but the mood is intoxicating, and Nico’s deadpan vocal contributions on a handful of songs, while not to everyone’s taste, are surprisingly endearing.
Artist: DAVID GILMOUR
Album Title/Year Of Release: DAVID GILMOUR (1978)
I’ve stated before that Pink Floyd has long been my second-favorite band of all time, after Led Zeppelin, and David Gilmour’s vocals & guitar playing are one of the main reasons for that. I was often skeptical of solo albums from bands I liked (other than Kiss and Zeppelin), so even though I saw this album in record stores many times, it was his 1984 follow-up About Face that became my first Gilmour solo record. I fell in love with that album so quickly that I wasted no time in picking up its predecessor, and I was not disappointed. Performed by the small combo of Gilmour, future Foreigner bassist Rick Wills and drummer Willie Wilson (a member of Gilmour’s pre-Floyd band, Jokers Wild), David Gilmour includes three instrumental tracks (beautiful album opener “Mihalis,” atmospheric Floyd-esque “Raise My Rent” and bouncy rocker “It’s Deafinitely”) and six tracks that showcase his musical diversity and warm, soothing vocals. Of these, my favorites are “There’s No Way Out Of Here,” “Cry From The Street,” “I Can’t Breathe Anymore” and “Short And Sweet,” the latter co-written with his old friend, folk/rock legend Roy Harper. The other members of Pink Floyd have all released good-to-great solo albums, but none have had the same kind of impact on me as Gilmour’s.
Album Title/Year Of Release: SOUTHSIDE (1989)
When I saw an ad for the debut album by new Scottish band Texas in 1989, somehow I knew that I would like them just based on the cover design (which used the same bold white letters on a red background format as Ry Cooder’s moody, slide guitar-heavy soundtrack to the film Paris, Texas). My suspicions were confirmed when I heard their first single, “I Don’t Want A Lover,” shortly thereafter. The rock-steady rhythm laid down by drummer Stuart Kerr & bassist Johnny McElhone was the bedrock for lead singer/rhythm guitarist Sharleen Spiteri’s passionate & powerful vocals and Ally McErlaine’s biting-yet-tasteful lead guitar wizardry. I was convinced that McErlaine was going to be one of his generation’s guitar heroes based on his performances throughout this album, and having seen them live on their first couple of tours I stand by that assertion, even though he never achieved the kind of acclaim I expected. Tim Palmer’s clean production has kept the album from sounding dated, although the big drum sound occasionally date-stamps it to the late-‘80s. Not having played Southside for several years, I was pleased to discover how well it’s aged when I revisited it earlier this week. The album is filled with excellent rock songs like “Tell Me Why,” “Thrill Has Gone,” “Fight The Feeling” and “Everyday Now,” while the strummed acoustic blues of “Prayer For You” and atmospheric ballad “Future Is Promises” are proof that this young band weren’t a one-trick pony. They would go on to global success (outside the US) a decade later when they switched gears to a slicker, more soul-oriented direction, but their debut and the couple of albums that followed are the reason Texas has been an important band to me for more than a quarter century.
So, how many of these selections do you agree with, and which ones have you rolling your eyes? Hopefully there aren’t many of the latter. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on these albums, and please let me know about your favorite debuts. There will be at least one more post in this series, so some of those might still appear.