Debut albums have always carried a certain mystique to them in the music world, at least back when albums mattered a lot more than they do now. They could be the notoriously bad start to an eventual great artist, or they could be the high point of an act that could never match the creativity of their first work. In rare cases the first album was good and the start of a solid run of albums. Few artists have been able to accomplish this, although we have featured a few in our Anthology series: REM and U2 being two of them. Here we look at some of our favorite debut albums.
I started out loving top-forty 80s tracks, and it took me a while to come around to enjoying full albums and not just the hits. Even then, I was rarely adventurous enough to go back into an artist’s catalog to check out their earlier stuff. Some of that was simple economics – not having the cash to risk on an album where I didn’t know any songs – so the rise of used record/tape/CD stores was a big driver of me being able to dive deeper into back catalogs. Of course, it was always a mixed bag, but it was also awesome to find a solid debut album, one that usually stayed with me the rest of my listening days. Here are three of my favorites.
Live – Mental Jewelry (1991)
This is one of my rare claim-to-fames of saying I liked a band before they broke big. A former friend of mine in 1993 randomly suggested I take a listen to Mental Jewelry from a band I never heard of named Live. From my first spin through the album I was hooked and immediately went out and bought the CD. This may be the only time I can recall liking an album on first listen having never heard anything by the band before. Obviously, Live would top the charts about a year later with the release of Throwing Copper, but their debut album is still my favorite. It plays as a true album – no songs standing out in particular, but all the tracks working together as one work of art. “Pain On The Riverside” sounds like it would be the single, even though “Operation Spirit” was the release that made some headway on the Modern Rock chart in 1992. I love the introspection of the lyrics by singer Ed Kowalczyk, reflecting on struggles of doing the right thing and inner spiritual turmoil, without being religious. Unfortunately that former friend would later cause me a lot of internal turmoil with a rather harsh betrayal, but I never let that experience taint my feelings about this album.
Bonus: The band first called themselves Public Affection and did a self-recorded album called Death of A Dictionary in 1989. About 1,000 cassettes were made, now long out of print.
DJ: Yes! I absolutely love this album. I also prefer it to their sophomore effort. “Mirror Song” is amazing and “Mother Earth is a Vicious Crowd” always spoke to me. The lyrics were powerful and obscure at the same time. I was very close to picking this one myself.
The Fixx – Shuttered Room (1982)
The Fixx album Reach the Beach was the first cassette I ever had – a gift for Christmas 1983. It would take almost a decade before I would listen to their debut album, Shuttered Room. This was another friend recommendation, although this friend would go on to remain one of my best friends to this day. Shuttered Room is a confident and artistic debut from the band, and it leans more new wave than the rest of The Fixx catalog. The album starts out with the frenetic energy and quick lyrics of “I Found You” then soon gets to Fixx concert classics “Stand Or Fall” and “Red Skies”. Side two starts with my three favorite songs from the album “Lost Planes”, “Cameras In Paris”, and “I Live”. Outside of the latter track, the album’s songs are mostly short and energetic with lyrically less introspection and worldview than later writings of lead singer Cy Curnin. Musically, the band is bolder and brasher, which makes for a more fun album. I know The Fixx is not up there with an REM or U2, but considering there are several “greatest hits” from Shuttered Room, I’m surprised this album is not available on streaming services and is basically out of print. Check it out on YouTube or find a CD online if you are a fan of this band.
Bonus: The album had some early success due to videos for “Red Skies” and “Stand or Fall” that made it into the early MTV rotation. The “Red Skies” video isn’t bad, by 1982 standards:
DJ: Since seeing The Fixx live a couple years ago I started to dive into their back catalog, my favorite will always be Ink an album I absolutely loved from the start but Shuttered Room is not bad and you are right much more New Wave influenced. I am glad that I have listened to their back catalog, it’s been fulfilling and The Fixx has started to creep into my playlists.
Fiona Apple – Tidal (1996)
As DJ notes below, the 90s did seem to be chock-full of great debut albums, and solo female artists had a ton during this decade (Alanis Morrissette, Natalie Merchant, Sarah McLachlan, etc.). Fiona Apple marked her debut by her distinctive voice in the lead single “Shadowboxer”. It was one of those songs that mesmerized me on first listen, especially with her deep, soulful, smoky voice over a bluesy track that was unlike any of the grunge and alternative music that dominated the radio at the time. I picked up this album on the strength of this song alone and really enjoyed listening to Tidal from start to finish, particularly when I was in a chill mode and needed to wind down (and it also became a go-to “romantic time” album if I recall). The big hit “Criminal” was overplayed so much on the radio and MTV that it wore thin for me, but the rest of the album still holds up and is a great listen. I know Apple went on to make at least three critically acclaimed follow-up albums, but for whatever reason I didn’t give them much listening time outside a few tracks. Maybe I thought she got weird with her lengthy-titled albums and wrote her off, which is silly, I know.
Bonus: Well, since I brought it up, her second album, referred to as “When The Pawn…” is fully titled:
When the pawn hits the conflicts he thinks like a king
What he knows throws the blows when he goes to the fight
And he’ll win the whole thing ‘fore he enters the ring
There’s no body to batter when your mind is your might
So when you go solo, you hold your own hand
And remember that depth is the greatest of heights
And if you know where you stand, then you know where to land
And if you fall it won’t matter, cuz you’ll know that you’re right
I suppose when you read it in poetry form, vs. all the words smashed together, it isn’t so bad.
DJ: I loved “Shadowboxer” and I was lucky enough to have it on a compilation of new music CD. I think a friend had got me a subscription to a magazine about music that came with a disc – I think…So I never bought the album, I have obviously heard “Criminal” but not sure I have heard the album – but it’s on my list. I have liked some songs from the other albums, such as “Limp” and “Paperbag” but never listened to a full album.
I wanted to go back to some of my favorite bands and pick out their best debut albums but I found a lot of bad albums, see INXS or Toad the Wet Sprocket for examples. Going back to the 60s I found lots of first albums with covers and throwaway tracks, see The Beatles, The Stones, The Hollies, The Beach Boys. They just weren’t complete. The 80s and the 90s by far seem to let the musicians carve their own way, see R.E.M. (which we discussed previously), Live, Counting Crows, Pearl Jam, Green Day, Nirvana, Veruca Salt, Spin Doctors, Blind Melon so many good to choose from. I picked three completely different bands and genres and three of the best debut albums you can find.
Guns N’ Roses – Appetite for Destruction (1987)
In 1987 I was far removed from listening to any heavy music of the time. I was not a metal head nor was I into hairbands. I was still mostly pop and oldies. The hardest rock I listened to was recorded in the sixties. Of course just a few years later I would be a huge fan of “Grunge”. The bridge in-between was this hard rock band called Guns N’ Roses. Hearing “Welcome to the Jungle” for the first time was an epiphany. The opening chords and the ramp up to total chaos. Axl Rose’s voice screech when he says “you are going to die” was like nothing I had heard before. “Jungle” has now become the go-to song for sporting events. It’s so powerful. Appetite for Destruction was not well-received but this debut album went to number one selling billions including a cassette to me. Along with “Jungle” they had two other monster hits, “Paradise City” and “Sweet Child o’ Mine”. Both also used in various stadiums across the country. Slash’s guitar work is pretty impressive for a debut. The songs outside the hits have a real Aerosmith/Van Halen sound to them without Axl’s distinct vocals. My personal favorite song was always “Mr. Brownstone”, when Axl drops the “mean mf’er” I was shocked as a teen but loved it and it’s a great track. And that was before I heard “You’re Crazy”. There is no doubt that the lyrics aren’t always about inspiring ideas or even written all that well but the music is dynamite and immerses you to forget the lyrics. “My Michelle” is a great example but the song rocks and so does Appetite.
Bonus: “November Rain” from the Use Your Illusion albums was slated for this album but Axl thought another ballad was a bad idea, where is the other ballad?
MG: Definitely a top 25 for debut albums, maybe even top 10. This is a solid album throughout, even if I personally am not a fan of “Sweet Child O’ Mine” (although I can recognize it as a great song). My favorite is also “Mr. Brownstone” along with “You’re Crazy”. I love that the album is badass, but also well written and composed. The band would never approach the high point of this album.
Better Than Ezra – Deluxe (1993)
My alarm woke me up the other day and “Good” was playing, and I was happy to see this Better Than Ezra single was still being played on the terrestrial radio. It’s a great song and their debut album Deluxe was brilliant. In the middle of Counting Crows, Live, The Spin Doctors and Blind Melon came Better than Ezra, a band that was not as successful but put out a debut just as good if not better than those more successful bands. “Good” and “In the Blood” did well on the Modern Rock charts and were great tracks but probably not a lot of people know this band today. I wish they would have had more success. They had a couple nice singles on their second album, “King of New Orleans” and “Desperately Wanting” but that really was it. I like every song on Deluxe and would bring this album to a desert island. “Cry in the Sun” has some great lyrics, the chorus, “Cry in the sun, when the devil beats his wife…” is haunting and meaningful. Kevin Griffin writes personal meaningful songs. They call this music modern rock but Griffin puts some southwestern flavor on these songs that makes it hard to categorize, almost as if country music went college alternative. “Southern Gurl”, “Roselia” and “Coyote” even have titles that give you that down home theme. Outside the two big singles “Heaven” is probably my favorite of the songs.
Bonus: Although Coyote is a perfect ending to the album I can’t say enough how much I hate what comes next; 1 minute and 9 seconds after Coyote ends there is an industrial metal song called “Der Pork and Beans” that is awful and the only black mark on a great album.
MG: Another great selection – solid from start to finish and works well as a complete listening experience. For some reason I get the sense that Better Than Ezra was written off as a lightweight band, but I think both Deluxe and Friction, Baby were well-made and accessible. I don’t recall giving their next two albums a listen – not sure why, maybe I should sometime.
Sinéad O’Connor – The Lion and the Cobra (1987)
“Nothing Compare 2 U” was the big hit that put Sinéad O’Connor on the map but I did not like it and at the time I had no clue that Prince wrote it. Not that Prince writing it would have mattered, I didn’t like it, I know it was powerful but I just didn’t. I didn’t get on board until she released “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and bought it on, I know I am old, a cassingle. Yeah, that was a thing. I never paid much attention at the time to her debut album, The Lion and the Cobra. I had remembered seeing the video for “I Want Your Hands (on me)” a few times and just thought she was nuts. Very narrow-minded thinking in my youth. The Lion and the Cobra not only may be one of the best debut albums, but it also may be one of the best of all time. It’s powerful with a restrained intensity. O’Connor wrote all the songs, and they are personal. Her religious upbringing shines through, her sexuality, themes of independence and social activism shines through. “Jackie” leads off the album perfectly with a nice build up. “Mandinka” one of the singles off the album is energetic and has a Joan Armatrading sound to it. The best song is “Jerusalem”, the music is fantastic and the clandestine lyrics sound like she is talking to a significant other about potential cheating or abuse. O’Connor doesn’t hold much back. “I want Your Hands (On me)” is a danceable track. I know “Troy” is beloved and powerful, with Enya doing a speaking part but for me it’s the weakest of the tracks. “Just Call Me Joe” is a pretty cool tune and a good way to end the album.
Bonus: The album cover depicts O’Connor as an angry young woman in all her bald beauty but when they released the album in the Americas they depicted her as a much softer restrained artist. America I guess was not ready for an Irish, angry, young, woman.
MG: I only gave this album a listen recently, in the last five years, and I enjoyed the album from start to finish. I need to give it a few more listens to full appreciate all the tracks, but I know “Mandinka” and “Jerusalem” both stood out as exceptional. This debut had such a renegade spirit, and she would go on to stand up for women’s rights and rail against organized religion (i.e. ripping up the Pope photo). In light of that, her recent conversion to Islam in 2018 is a bit of a head scratcher.
And don’t forget: