What makes an impressive debut album? A million copies sold? Hit singles? Your face on the cover of Rolling Stone?
Having fans and critics stand up and take notice. Lasting impact. The start of something greater.
These are ones that are familiar to me. This list is certainly not inclusive and is obviously just my opinion. Genres I am less familiar aren’t represented here. What’s on your list?
Dreamboat Annie (1975) – Heart. Muscular guitar riffs and a powerful lead vocalist pushed “Crazy on You” and “Magic Man” up the charts. The record company pushed the Wilson sisters in ads, but this was a great rock and roll band, who could also write very good ballads too.
Look Sharp! (1979) – Joe Jackson. The Englishman with the love for reggae was put in the New Wave category, but he would record all kinds of music later. “Is She Really Going Out With Him” was the big track along with “Sunday Papers.” Jackson was one of the quirky songwriters in the same groove as Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Paul Carrack and the guys from Squeeze. In three years, Jackson would switch gears and record the highly acclaimed Night and Day.
Mr. Tambourine Man (1965) – The Byrds. Electric guitars meet folk music. Dylan was obviously a huge influence as The Byrds recorded several of his songs including the title track. The electric 12-string guitar, made famous by George Harrison was standard equipment for the Byrds who really popularized the jangly sound that has been copied ever since. “All I Really Want to Do” and “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better” are the other popular tracks from the album.
Beauty and the Beat (1981) – The Go-Go’s. “Our Lips Are Sealed” and “We Got the Beat” were radio-friendly pop songs and made for MTV videos. Our course their record company heavily marketed these five young women. The album topped the Billboard chart.
Come Away With Me (2002) – Nora Jones. Grammy Awards and over 27 million copies sold. Enough said.
Led Zeppelin (1969) – Led Zeppelin. A very good debut, but the difference between this album and their next one is light years. “Communication Breakdown” and “Good Times Bad Times” are good, but the Zeppelin groove is in “Dazed and Confused”, “How Many More Times” and “I Can’t Quit You Baby.” The best was yet to come.
I Just Can’t Help It (1980) – The English Beat. A marriage of ska, reggae and English R&B flavored this group’s music. A blistering version of “Tears of the Clown” was the first single, followed by “Mirror in the Bathroom” and “Hands Off…She’s Mine.” These were danceable but not disco.
Boy (1980) – U2. That first album was pretty subtle by later albums, but it contains the earmark guitar sound, though The Edge would use many different guitar effects through the years. They have a definite early 1980s sound but they were never content to repeat themselves. “I Will Follow” is a great introduction to this band. Steve Lillywhite produced the early U2 albums and helped to shape their sound. What ever happened to these guys?
Piper At the Gates of Dawn (1967) – Pink Floyd. The album is a mixture of short, trippy, psychedelic pop, and longer, psychedelic hard rock. “Astronomy Domine” and “Interstellar Overdrive” are the keepers which would remain fixtures in their live shows.
Black Sabbath (1970) – Black Sabbath. Atmosphere of doom, is what critics said of this band. Dark and unrelenting. Blistering power chords and Ozzy’s rough vocals assaulted the listener like nothing ever had. The title track, “The Wizard” and “NIB” are the standout tracks.
Boston (1976) – Boston. This album wore out 1970s radio. This was party rock. “More Than a Feeling”, “Longtime” and “Peace of Mind” were the singles but just about every song was played on the radio. This album clocked in at under 38 minutes but it sold 17 million copies. The band would have a hard time topping this effort.
Outlandos d’Amour (1978) – The Police. Whatever label was stuck on these guys, they sure sounded different. “Roxanne” was different than anything else on American radio. “Can’t Stand Losing You” and “So Lonely” followed. These guys looked different, blonde, tough guys, that the police would probably be chasing.
The Doors (1967) – The Doors. What a mature sound and lyrical mastery on a debut album. There’s no filler here. “Break On Through”, “Light My Fire” and “The End”, what a killer trio of songs! The Doors had such a tremendous mystique. The music had a darkness along with Morrison’s deeply complex psychological lyrics.
Van Halen (1978) – Van Halen. These hard rockers shifted into high right off the line. That wicked guitar, Keith Moon type drums, thumping bass line and theatrics of the lead vocalist put the show back in rock concerts. “Runnin’ With the Devil” was an apt song title with this band’s persona. “Eruption” showed off Eddie Van Halen’s guitar mastery.
My Aim is True (1977) – Elvis Costello. Wow, it was hard to know what to think of him at first. His songs were like pop on speed, but you had to admire his songwriting even if you did not like his voice. “Alison” and “Watching the Detectives” got the most airplay, but there are other gems on the album. Elvis is a tremendous talent and is in several Hall of Fames for songwriting.
Murmur (1983) – R.E.M. This band appealed to college and alternative listeners before mainstream found them. The quirky beat and jangly guitars were immediately noticeable. Their sound was closer to garage bands of the 1960s than 1980s. “Radio Free Europe” and “Catapult” were the most familiar of the songs here. R.E.M. would be one of the biggest things for the next decade.
Please Please Me (1963) – The Beatles. “Please Please Me”, “Twist and Shout” and “I Saw Her Standing There. The rest is history.
The Cars (1978) – The Cars. Lumped in a New Wave band, the Cars were a trippy rock and roll band with power chords and synthesizer grooves. This first album included “My Best Friend’s Girl”, “Bye Bye Love”, “Just What I Needed” and “Good Time Roll.” Every song is great. Ric Ocasek was a wonderful songwriter.
Pretenders (1980) – The Pretenders. This had the energy of a punk album, but the swagger of rock and roll. Two of the singles released “Stop Your Sobbing” and “Brass in Pocket” are not even the best tracks on the album. This album is tight and mature, as if the band had been playing for years.
Music From Big Pink (1968) – The Band. Written in the pink house in upstate New York, the band behind Dylan stepped out front. The music of the late 1960s was often an amalgamation of different styles, this album being a prime example. “The Weight” became a classic, with even better music to follow on upcoming albums.
Are You Experienced (1967) – Jimi Hendrix Experience. A mixture of jazz, blues, hard rock and psychedelia, Hendrix fed it through his guitar in a way not heard before. Hendrix used feedback, distortion, bending notes and nursed sounds pushed the boundaries of popular music. The title track, “Hey Joe”, “Fire”, “The Wind Cried Mary” and “Manic Depression” became Hendrix classics.
In the Court of the Crimson King (1969) – King Crimson. One of the founders of progressive-rock. “21st Century Schizoid Man” and the title track are an exemplary beginning. Jazz, hard rock, classical and folk all blended into a delicious brew.
Crosby , Stills & Nash (1969) – Crosby Stills & Nash. The start of something big. Harmonies, laidback folk-rock and strong songwriting. “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” and “Marrakesh Express” are among the treasures.
Can’t Buy a Thrill (1972) – Steely Dan. “Do it Again” and “Reelin’ in the Years” are classics from this album. Fagan and Becker were already showing how they turned traditional pop-rock songwriting on its head.
Santana (1969) – Santana. This album was very different, combining Latin rhythms, jazz and psychedelic rock. “Evil Ways” and “Soul Sacrifice” were songs that stayed in the live set. Carlos Santana and Greg Rolie were the main songwriters, although they mixed in other material.
My Generation (1965) – The Who. A landmark in the next wave of British bands, this album captured the angry and rebellious energy of the period. Five singles were released from this set including the title track.
Emerson Lake & Palmer (1970) – Emerson Lake & Palmer. Progressive-rock at its best. ELP were known for loud, busy, classical infused rockers like “The Barbarian” and “Take a Pebble”, but also ballads like “Lucky Man.” An impressive debut.
Foreigner (1977) – Foreigner. “Feels Like the First Time” and “Cold as Ice” were the hits, but the album packed muscular, but polished rock. Crunchy guitars and soaring synthesizers in tightly arranged songs would be the hallmark sound of the band and for the next few years, FM radio.
Kristofferson – Kris Kristofferson. Already gaining respect as a songwriter, “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down”, “Me and Bobby McGee” and “Help Me Make It Through the Night” are heard in his own, gruff and rough voice. Country music was changing, and Kristofferson was part of that new sound.
America (1971) – America. The “Horse With No Name” album. Those harmonies and melancholy tunes. “I Need You” shows the lyrical romanticism that would follow.
Please (1986) – Pet Shop Boys. It started with “West End Girls” and three over singles. Thirty-five years later and over 100 million albums sold, this Euro-dance and pop duo continue on. They have incorporated other styles into the mix.
Eagles (1972) – Eagles. The start of it all. “Take it Easy” and “Peaceful Easy Feeling” were the hits, but the entire album sounds mature, yet fresh, mixing country-rock, pop and hard rock.
Isle of View (1971) – Jimmie Spheeris. A cult album, loved by those who have heard it. Spheeris had a relatively short career, but this album captured his mythical and romantic spirit. The arrangements soar to paint symphonic soundscapes. “I Am the Mercury” and “The Nest” are great examples.
Home Free (1972) – Dan Fogelberg. This album was not a big hit, but it introduced the world to his intricately arranged romantic pop. You can hear the threads of his later hits in these songs. Fogelberg was not your typical balladeer, he infused jazz, folk, country and rock into his songwriting.
More Than a New Discovery (1967) – Laura Nyro. All these years later, Laura Nyro is not a name most are familiar. She was an artist of the 1960s and 1970s, and is more known by her songs that others made into hits. “Wedding Bell Blues”, “And When I Die” and “Stoney End” are notable songs here that were made famous by The 5th Dimension, Blood Sweat and Tears, and Barbra Streisand, respectively.