Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
Although I could continue writing about all the wonderful debut albums in my collection, it’s time to wrap up this series with another ten that have made a big impression on me. You might have noticed that many of my favorite artists (Rush, Yes, The Beatles, The Who, Steely Dan, U2, Emerson Lake & Palmer, to name just a few) weren’t included even though they all released strong debuts. In most cases I didn’t think those albums were as consistently strong as the titles highlighted in these posts, even though they all feature classic songs, and those artists’ discographies include many albums that surpassed their initial offerings. Also, sometimes it’s enjoyable to shine a light on some lesser-known artists & under-appreciated records, and I think this series struck a good balance between those & the more obvious choices. I hope you agree and enjoy my final ten selections.
Artist: BAD COMPANY
Album Title/Year Of Release: BAD COMPANY (1974)
This was my introduction to the amazingly soulful & powerful voice of Paul Rodgers. He had already established himself as a great singer with Free, but he and his Bad Company bandmates (former Free drummer Simon Kirke, former Mott The Hoople guitarist Mick Ralphs and one-time King Crimson bassist Boz Burrell) struck gold (multi-platinum, actually) immediately with their debut, which was the first release on Led Zeppelin’s newly-formed Swan Song Records. Some of their best-known songs appear here, including rockers “Can’t Get Enough,” “Rock Steady,” “Movin’ On” and “Ready For Love” (the latter previously recorded by Mott The Hoople with Ralphs on vocals) as well as the moody ballad “Don’t Let Me Down” and their dynamic calling card, “Bad Company.” Had they never recorded again, Bad Company still would have been one of the greatest bands of their era thanks to this stellar self-titled debut.
Artist: THE ALARM
Album Title/Year Of Release: THE ALARM (1983)
This 5-song EP was part of a triumvirate of releases in 1983 that introduced me to a new generation of great bands, the others being Big Country’s The Crossing and U2’s War. In an era when robotic rhythms & icy synths were the prevailing sounds, these guitar-based bands were a breath of fresh air. The Alarm was probably the most consistently rousing of these groups with anthemic, Clash-inspired songs that cried out for audience sing-alongs. Lead single “The Stand” has an almost military vibe with its call-to-action chorus (“Come on down & meet your maker, come on down & make the stand”), and the other three studio tracks (“Across The Border,” “Marching On” and “Lie Of The Land”) have a similar urgency & immediacy. Mike Peters shares lead vocals with guitarist Dave Sharp (Peters would eventually become The Alarm’s full-time singer when their record label insisted on one frontman), and the rhythm section of bassist Eddie MacDonald & drummer (Nigel) Twist give the songs just the punch they need. The EP closes out with the live track, “For Freedom,” offering a glimpse at one of the most captivating concert attractions of their era. Had I disqualified EP’s from contention in this series, their 1984 full-length debut Declaration would surely have been included. The Alarm continued for nearly a decade before splitting up, and Peters has recorded & toured as The Alarm with a new lineup for the past decade, while also replacing the late Stuart Adamson as lead vocalist in Big Country for a few years.
Artist: DIRE STRAITS
Album Title/Year Of Release: DIRE STRAITS (1978)
Seven years before Dire Straits became arguably the biggest band in the world with their über-platinum, chart-topping Brothers In Arms album, they burst onto the scene with their self-titled debut that was “merely” a Top 10 double-platinum release. The instantly recognizable vocals & lead guitar work of songwriter Mark Knopfler was augmented by his brother David Knopfler on rhythm guitar and the killer rhythm section of bassist John Illsley and drummer Pick Withers. Their first single, the driving “Sultans Of Swing,” quickly became their defining song and introduced the world to Mark’s brilliant technique on his Fender Stratocaster. After a quiet start, album opener “Down To The Waterline” kicks into a higher gear and would have been an ideal follow-up single. Instead, they chose the slow, loping “Water Of Love,” which made little to no impact on the charts even though it’s a wonderful song. A similar laid-back mood prevails through much of the album, with “Six Blade Knife” and “Wild West End” being particular favorites, while the country-tinged “Setting Me Up” could pass for a Nick Lowe song. Dire Straits is an album that reveals its charms more with each listen, and that’s still the case nearly 40 years after it first appeared.
Artist: THE REFRESHMENTS
Album Title/Year Of Release: FIZZY FUZZY BIG & BUZZY (1996)
I might be cheating a bit with this album’s inclusion here since they had released the independent Wheelie two years earlier, but 9 of its 10 tracks were re-recorded for their major-label debut (which also included 3 additional songs) and this was The Refreshments’ introduction to the world beyond their local Arizona fan base. The quartet fronted by singer/songwriter Roger Clyne is probably best known for the instrumental theme song from animated TV show King Of The Hill, but they also scored a Top 20 Modern Rock track with the song “Banditos,” its lyrics about Star Trek and lines like “Everybody knows that the world is full of stupid people” making them a perfect fit for alternative rock stations. I’ve long been surprised that they didn’t become huge, especially since Fizzy Fuzzy Big & Buzzy is loaded with catchy, cool & creative songs, often aided by the inventive drumming of P.H. Naffah. A couple of key ingredients that separated The Refreshments from their contemporaries were the atmospheric desert-inspired moods & Mexican flourishes they added to songs like “Mekong,” “Don’t Wanna Know,” “Mexico” and epic album-closer “Nada.” There’s also a non-stop sense of pure joy throughout the record, which might explain its lack of success in the doom-and-gloom ‘90s, although “European Swallow,” “Down Together” and “Girly” all deserved radio play. Clyne & Naffah went on to form the more successful Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers after The Refreshments split a few years later, carrying the sound of their previous band into the new millennium, but as much as I enjoy everything they’ve released, my love of Clyne’s music will always be tied to this incredible record that was one of the highlights of that decade for me.
Artist: FLEETWOOD MAC
Album Title/Year Of Release: PETER GREEN’S FLEETWOOD MAC (1968)
There were countless white British musicians playing pure blues in the ‘60s but few were as powerful as Fleetwood Mac. Prior to the multiple personnel changes that eventually resulted in the mega successful mid-‘70s lineup, former John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers members Peter Green (guitar & vocals), Mick Fleetwood (drums) and John McVie (bass) teamed up with Jeremy Spencer (guitar, piano & vocals) and unleashed this stellar debut. They combined covers of Howlin’ Wolf (“No Place To Go”), Elmore James (“Shake Your Moneymaker”) & Robert Johnson (“Hellhound On My Trail”) with originals that sat comfortably alongside those classics (most notably, Green’s “Merry Go Round,” “Long Grey Mare” & “Looking For Somebody” and Spencer’s “My Heart Beat Like A Hammer” and “My Baby’s Good To Me”). This version of the band continued for a few more albums of straight-up blues and ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll, and then they briefly expanded their sound before splintering. Their first album and its follow-up, Mr. Wonderful, are the best places to hear why they were such an important part of rock & blues history right from the start. In addition to the 6-string talents of Green & Spencer, the often overlooked rhythm section of Fleetwood & McVie has been the cornerstone of the group throughout its history. It’s no surprise that the band was named after them.
Artist: HUEY LEWIS AND THE NEWS
Album Title/Year Of Release: HUEY LEWIS AND THE NEWS (1980)
Huey Lewis & his group of musical cohorts have never gotten the respect they deserve, possibly because of their meteoric rise with third album Sports, the good-natured vibe of their music & videos and Huey’s “everyman” quality. Sure, they’ve never been “cool” or “edgy,” key components for critics & music snobs, but they’re all world-class musicians, songwriters & arrangers (and, after this debut album, they produced their own records) and Huey Lewis is as strong a singer & frontman as anyone from their era or beyond. The hit singles would start showing up on their next album, but most of the elements that made them so popular a few years later were already on display. “Trouble In Paradise” is likely the best-known song here thanks to a live version that appeared on the U.S.A. For Africa We Are The World album in 1985. Throughout the record they combine elements of doo-wop, classic rock ‘n’ roll and soul/R&B with a then-current new wave sensibility, driving rhythms and herky-jerky arrangements. They were likely too modern for traditionalists and too traditional for youngsters, stranding them in no-man’s land in spite of winners like “Some Of My Lies Are True (Sooner Or Later),” “Don’t Ever Tell Me That You Love Me,” “Don’t Make Me Do It,” “Stop Trying” and “If You Really Love Me You’ll Let Me.” I know I won’t convince skeptics or haters to give Huey & the boys a chance, but if you like their later material and never heard anything prior to Sports consider this a hearty recommendation for their debut and its follow up, Picture This.
Artist: DAVID CROSBY
Album Title/Year Of Release: IF I COULD ONLY REMEMBER MY NAME… (1971)
I didn’t always appreciate David Crosby’s contributions to The Byrds and Crosby, Stills & Nash (& Young), but once I began paying attention it was clear that he was the most musically adventurous member in both of those groups. He has followed his own rules without ever sounding like he was aiming for a hit. Instead, his songs tend to travel in strange, unexpected directions while staying grounded & approachable, and his voice is a thing of beauty whether he’s belting out a rocker, vocalizing a wordless tune or harmonizing with one of his bandmates. For his debut solo album, he used a constantly evolving group of musicians & singers from bands like The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Santana and even CSNY to help him unspool a collection of intense, hypnotic & often ethereal tunes. Although not officially a song-cycle, it’s an album that should be listened to as one continuous piece of music, as songs seems to flow into one another. In fact, that’s the only way I’ve ever played it, and I often can’t identify specific tracks without looking at the packaging. At the time, Crosby was basking in the glow of his incredible success with CSN & CSNY but grieving the loss of his girlfriend in a car accident, and you can hear elements of celebration, grief & healing throughout the record, often within the same song. Although I will always recommend hearing If I Could Only Remember My Name… in its entirety, “Cowboy Movie,” “Tamalpais High (At About 3)” and “Song With No Words (Tree With No Leaves)” are standout tracks, any of which would be the perfect introduction to this stunning record.
Artist: BLUES TRAVELER
Album Title/Year Of Release: BLUES TRAVELER (1990)
Blues Traveler released four albums before hitting the big time in 1994 but everything that eventually made them into a multi-platinum band was in place on their self-titled debut. The New Jersey-based group is lumped in with the jam-band scene, yet their songwriting abilities and the game-changing harmonica talents of then-humongous frontman John Popper were the two key reasons they stood out from the pack and made such a strong impression on me. I bought this CD with no expectations or knowledge about the band shortly after it was released, basing my purchase on someone’s recommendation, but it was a road trip with two of my closest friends that summer which helped me to fully appreciate the scope of their talents. Popper is the obvious focal point but guitarist Chan Kinchla, bassist Bobby Sheehan and drummer Brendan Hill are all top-notch players who stamp their personalities all over these songs. They grab your attention right from the start with “But Anyway,” the tight, nuanced playing setting the stage for Popper’s rapid-fire vocal delivery and jaw-dropping harp work. “Mulling It Over,” “Dropping Some NYC” and “Gina” continue that sonic assault, culminating in the mid-album epic, “Crystal Flame,” which has long been my favorite Blues Traveler song. They also display a lightness of touch on the lovely “100 Years” and the slow blues of “Warmer Days” (both featuring a then-unknown Joan Osborne on backing vocals). I hadn’t played this album in several years before giving it a spin last week and I enjoyed it as much as I did back in 1990.
Album Title/Year Of Release: SMPTe (2000)
The 1990’s were a tough time to be a progressive rock fan. In the pre-internet days we had to rely on fanzines & mail-order catalogs, and then it was online chat rooms & fledgling websites. Record store clerks would look at you with derision but it was worth the effort when a new discovery emerged that excited us like the original prog bands of the ‘60s & ‘70s. For a long time the only progressive band to enter the mainstream was Marillion in the mid-‘80s, but by the next decade there were dozens of exciting artists from all over the world making a name for themselves. When it was announced that key members from four of my favorite prog bands would be forming a supergroup with the sole intention of creating a massive, classic-sounding progressive rock album, naturally I was excited, and I’m happy to say it lived up to expectations. Marillion bassist Pete Trewavas was joined by Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy, Spock’s Beard singer/keyboardist Neal Morse and The Flower Kings singer/guitarist Roine Stolt, and they delivered exactly what they promised. There are four originals credited to the four band members, with the opening 6-part suite “All Of The Above” clocking in at 31 minutes, and my personal favorite, “My New World,” making an impression at “only” 16+ minutes. There are also two shorter tracks, Morse’s ballad “We All Need Some Light” (whose melody often reminds me of John Denver’s “Annie’s Song,” believe it or not) and the quirky “Mystery Train,” which sounds like a 50/50 hybrid of Spock’s Beard & The Flower Kings. The album ends with their version of Procol Harum’s gargantuan 17-minute “In Held (‘Twas) In I,” an inspired cover that set the stage for many others they would include on the bonus discs of their three subsequent albums. For anyone who likes their prog over-the-top but filled to the brim with strong melodies & great vocals, SMPTe could be your gateway to the third generation of progressive rock that continues to thrive.
Artist: JASON FALKNER
Album Title/Year Of Release: PRESENTS AUTHOR UNKNOWN (1996)
Incredibly talented multi-instrumentalist singer/songwriter Jason Falkner has been mentioned at this blog numerous times, as a founding member of ‘90s power-pop groups Jellyfish and The Grays, and even in my series on Foo Fighters (since his voice often reminds me of Dave Grohl at his most melodic). His debut is a “solo” album in the truest sense of the word, as Falkner plays every instrument with the exception of a single guitar part on one song. In spite of this one-man-band approach, it’s as catchy & diverse as anything recorded by a full band, and he proves himself to be not just adept but truly skilled at every instrument. All of that wouldn’t mean much if the songs were forgettable but that’s not a problem here. From splashy album opener “I Live” to the moody & intense “Don’t Show Me Heaven,” from the propulsive “Miracle Medicine” to the bright & shiny “Miss Understanding,” from the slow-building “She Goes To Bed” to the chugging “Hectified,” it’s one melodic gem after another. He’s gone on to work with Beck, Air, Paul McCartney, Brendan Benson and many others, and his solo career has been consistently great.
Honorable mention goes to the debut albums by the following artists (in alphabetical order), all of whom were considered for this series as they’ve been favorites of mine for many years: Ambrosia, Badlands, Badly Drawn Boy, The Bears, Ben Folds Five, Better Than Ezra, Blackfield, BoDeans, John Cale, Eric Clapton, Billy Cobham, Leonard Cohen, Elvis Costello, Counting Crows, Cream, Crowded House, Steve Earle, Melissa Etheridge, Fish, Steve Forbert, Garbage, Richard X. Heyman, Bruce Hornsby, Rickie Lee Jones, King’s X, The Knack, Lenny Kravitz, Lyle Lovett, Nick Lowe, The Mars Volta, Paul McCartney, Sarah McLachlan, Men At Work, Oasis, Ozzy Osbourne, The Alan Parsons Project, The Proclaimers, Rainbow, REM, Emitt Rhodes, Solas, Stephen Stills, Suede, Swing Out Sister, George Thorogood & The Destroyers, Vanilla Fudge, Dwight Yoakam and Pete Yorn.
Please let me know which of your favorite debut albums didn’t make the cut…and which of my choices you agree with. Thanks for stopping by & spending some time reading these posts.