It was 50 years ago that the Beatles‘ released their first album, Please Please Me. In honor of that world-changing LP, we’ve compiled a list of the 100 Greatest Debut Albums of All Time. A note on how we made the list: Albums got docked points if the artist went on to far greater achievements (which is why Please, Please Me and Greetings from Asbury Park, great as they are, didn’t made the Top 10); conversely, we gave a little extra recognition to great debut albums that the artist never matched (hello, Is This It and Illmatic!). We also skipped solo debuts by artists who were already in well-known bands, which is why you won’t see John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band or Paul Simon. We focused, instead, on debuts that gave you the thrill of an act arriving fully-formed, ready to reinvent the world in its own image.
Produced by Ray Manzarek of the Doors, this is the first great West Coast punk album. Searing songs fly off like sparks, including a zippy cover of the Doors' "Soul Kitchen," opener "Your Phones Off the Hook but You're not" and the torrid, William S. Burroughs-influenced "Johnny Hit and Run Paulene," all propelled by guitarist Billy Zoom's rockabilly flash, D.J. Bonebrake's drums and John Doe and Exene Cervenka's cat-scratch harmonies and street-poet vibe. One song title perfectly sums up their scrawled message: "The World's A Mess, It's In My Kiss."
Everything got a lot livelier when these mod Scottish dance-whore boys showed up, wearing tighter trousers and flaunting catchier tunes than any band out there. The Franz lads declared their mission was making "music for girls to dance to," with frantic guitar jitters and a disco sense of melodrama in hits like "Take Me Out," "Michael" and "Darts of Pleasure." Alex Kapranos' vocals are full of smeared-mascara goth sex as he sighs pick-up lines like "I can feel your lips undress my eyes." Kanye West called them "white crunk music," Lil Wayne covered "This Fire" and the band still gets girls dancing.
Jonathan Richman moved from Boston to New York as a teenager in hopes of sleeping on Lou Reed's couch. That influence shows on the two-chord anthem "Roadrunner." Recorded in 1972 but not released until 1976, Lovers turned the tough sounds of the Velvet Underground into an ode to suburban romanticism, pure love, parents, the Fifties and all kinds of other things were that were totally uncool in the early Seventies. "[Rock] wasn't about drugs and space," he said years later. "It was about sex and boyfriends and girlfriends and stuff."
"I'm full of dust and guitars," Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett told Rolling Stone. Here's what that sounded like. The band's debut is all playful, psychedelic imagery and acid guitars. "Astronomy Domine" shows the group's pop side; "The Gnome" gets high on observations like "look at the sky/Look at the river/Isn't it goooood"; "Interstellar Overdrive" is a orgiastic guitar freakout that still leaves a burning sensation in the back of your brain. Barrett's vision of psychedelia was blues-free, a huge innovation in late-Sixties England, and his genius-freak persona has been a chimeric lodestar for scads of trippy shut-ins.
When their debut came out, Pearl Jam were competing with Nirvana in a grunge popularity contest they were bound to lose. Yet Ten is a near-perfect record: Eddie Vedder's shaky, agonized growl and Mike McCready's wailing guitar solos on "Alive" and "Jeremy" push both songs to the brink and back again. Where Nirvana proposed a violent broke with classic rock, Pearl Jam worked in the tradition of the Who, giving estranged, forgotten Gen X refugees the arena-stage they deserved. Their influence has been incalculable and – Creed notwithstanding – pretty great.
The Jesus & Mary Chain
Scottish boys with amazing hair, terrible skin, leather pants and black shirts buttoned up to the neck surfing a wave of gloom and enjoying every moment of it. The Mary Chain's debut is a decadent masterpiece of bubblegum pop drowned in feedback (see "Just Like Honey," "My Little Underground" and "Never Understand"). Psychocandy proved a massive influence on both sides of the pond, inspiring shoegaze in England and the noisy strain of indie pop in the States. Bands such as The Pains of Being Pure at Heart and albums such as My Bloody Valentine's noise-on-noise masterstroke Loveless are impossible to imagine without this album's jet engine mope.
Warner Brothers, 1970
While the hippies huffed flower power in 1970, this Birmingham crew preferred sulfuric fumes. The album that arguably invented heavy metal was built on thunderous blues-rock – see "The Wizard," which suggested the same juke-joint Lord Of The Rings obsession Led Zeppelin had. But the title track, with its famously downtuned Tony Iommi riffage, would define the sound of a thousand bands. And by the time Ozzy Osbourne sings "my name is Lucifer, please take my hand" on "N.I.B." it was hard not to feel pulled over to the dark side yourself.
Blessed with impressive pedigree (he was the son of the Sixties folk-pop icon Tim Buckley) and a voice of great range and deep character, Jeff Buckley was cursed with a perfectionist's streak. Buckley had scrapped one stab at a second album and was gearing up to start over when he drowned in a freak accident in Memphis in May 1997, leaving Grace as the only studio album completed to his satisfaction in his brief lifetime. But it is a rich legacy: the transportive blend of serpentine guitars and Buckley's melismatic singing in "Mojo Pin" and "Grace"; the garage-band swagger and velvet pathos of "Last Goodbye" and "So Real"; the way Buckley turns Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" into delicate, personal prayer.
With a guitar fire-storm that raged like primo Stones, this Manchester crew declared their intent on "Rock 'N' Roll Star," a bold declaration released amid alt-rock's cult-of-the-anti-star culture, and only months after Kurt Cobain's suicide. All bluster, bravado and borrowed Beatle-isms (not to mention Bowie and T-Rex bites), it soars from hook to juicy hook. And when Liam's snarl slips up into falsetto for the titular line of "Live Forever," it's clear that – on record, anyway – that this crew would.
A landmark of Seventies hard rock, from the not-so-mean streets of Swampscott, Massachusetts. Tom Scholz, an MIT-educated Polaroid engineer, spent years in his basement studio, devising the perfect sonic formula. He found it, which is why Boston has remained in constant radio rotation ever since. The guitars feel epic, yet delicate and intimate in emo moments like "Something About You" and "Peace of Mind." In "More Than a Feeling," Scholz built a cathedral to young-adult male romantic yearning, with every second scientifically crafted for maximum impact – right down to Sib Hashian's climactic drum fills in the final fade-out. Come back, Mary Ann – come back!
When the members of Television materialized in New York, at the dawn of punk, they played an incongruous, soaring amalgam of genres: the noirish howl of the Velvet Underground, brainy art rock, the double-helix guitar sculpture of Quicksilver Messenger Service. As exhilarating in its lyrical ambitions as the Ramones' debut was in its brutal simplicity, Marquee Moon's singular vision still amazes. "Friction," "Venus" and the mighty title track are jagged, desperate and beautiful all at once. As for punk credentials, don't forget the cryptic electricity and strangled existentialism of guitarist Tom Verlaine's voice and songwriting.
From the git-go, these shaggy folks from deepest Jacksonville, Florida played hard, lived harder and shot from the hip, all three guitars blazing in music that blew past the Mason-Dixon line to become America's next top boogie-rock. Discovered and produced by from essential mid-Sixties Dylan sideman Al Kooper, Skynyrd offered taut rockers including "Poison Whiskey" and the perpetual lighter (well, now iPhone) waving anthem "Freebird." Perhaps the ultimate Southern rock band and this record aged shockingly well; just ask the Drive-By Truckers.
They would get bigger, but they never sounded fresher. From Sting's smoothly syncopated bass to Andy Summer's prog-rock guitar and Stewart Copeland's precision drumming, the Police were post-punks who could play their instruments, absorbing reggae and jazz into the spare, bouncy sound of their debut album, a record that didn't sound quite like anything before it. The risque "Roxanne," "Next to You" and "So Lonely" proved that Sting was already a top-notch pop songwriter and these songs are in the DNA of everyone from No Doubt to U2.
"Madmen, drummers, bummers, and Indians in the summer with a teenage diplomat" begins the future Boss, going on to unspool a sound and a cast of characters from a New Jersey seaside town that would change the landscape of rock & roll. "Growin' Up" was a creation myth of a kid inventing himself on stages, "For You" anticipates the screen-door slam and lets-blow-this-town chivalry of "Born to Run," and "Spirit in the Night" launches the indomitable soul of Clarence Clemons and his horn. The beginning of one helluva ride.
Sub Pop, 2003
Released 20 years after synth-pop was left for dead and just after "electronica" had been written off amid an indie-rock revival, this 2003 gem was created by Death Cab For Cutie singer Ben Gibbard, who was just hitting his stride, with EDM maestro Jimmy "Dntel" Tamborello. Full of skittering fractal beats and buoyed by cameo vocals from Rilo Kiley's Jenny Lewis, this emotional travelogue achieved a one-off perfection Gibbard's main crew never quite managed. A million-some copies later, it's a blueprint for electronic pop; just ask that Owl City kid.
When it came out, Weezer's debut was merely a cool, quirky power-pop album with a couple of hit singles: "Buddy Holly" and "Undone (The Sweater Song)." But Rivers Cuomo's band became a major influence the young sad-sack punkers who today claim Weezer as one of emo's pioneers. Mixing winking deadpan delivery with serious hooks, guarded sensitivity and a deep disinterest in alt-rock's then-roiling culture wars, they came up with a record that's aged much better than a lot of the serious indie-rock of the time – denizens of which dismissed the Weez as a bad, major-label joke. Well, who's smirking now?
After blowing minds as the house band at the Whisky-a-Go-Go, where they were fired for playing the Oedipal drama "The End," the Doors were ready to unleash their organ-driven rock on the world. "On each song we had tried every possible arrangement," drummer John Densmore said, "so we felt the whole album was tight." "Break On Through (to the Other Side)," "Twentieth-Century Fox" and "Crystal Ship" are pop-art songs that were beyond Top Forty attention spans. But the Doors hit pay dirt by editing one of their jam songs for airplay: "Light My Fire," written by guitarist Robby Krieger when Jim Morrison told everybody in the band to write a song with universal imagery.
So what if they were from Vegas, not the U.K., and the year was 2004, not 1983? The Killers were determined to be Duran Duran anyway. Hot Fuss was a blast of irresistible synth grooves and lyrics about sex, dancing, jealousy and gender-bending, delivered by Brandon Flowers in the world's greatest bad British accent. "All These Things That I've Done" was the roof-raiser, building to the magnificently dippy chorus, "I got soul but I'm not a soldier!" "Mr. Brightside" and "Smile Like You Mean It" will always sound great in sleazy rock bars at 2 A.M. Best line: "I take my twist with a shout."
De La Soul
Tommy Boy 1989
At the end of the Eighties, De La Soul rolled out a new style called "D.A.I.S.Y. Age," which stood for "Da Inner Sound, Y'All." They led the Native Tongues posse – no gold chains, just samples, skits, jokes and beats. This happily sprawling album is the sound of middle class pals pushing rap's possibilities by expanding its subject matter and sonic makeup; their ingenious producer Prince Paul bit everyone from P-Funk to Hall and Oates and Johnny Cash. And on tracks like "Eye Know" and "Me, Myself, and I" De La Soul presented an optimistic eclecticism that served as a buoyant alternative to the rap scene's swaggering conformity.
Go! Discs 1994
Portishead used some of the same building blocks as fellow Bristol, England, trip-hoppers Massive Attack – woozy break beats, jazzy samples, live guitar, girl singer/guy programmer dynamic – but Beth Gibbon's brooding, pop-cabaret vocals showed to the world that you could feel real pain over a slow-dissolve groove. Dummy had a lot in common with the creepy beatscapes of the Wu-Tang Clan's RZA but its depth-charge emotional power also evoked Forties noir and late-night, last-cigarette balladry. When Gibbons' sings "nobody loves me…it's true/Not like you do," against the fragile, cold-storage Lalo Schifrin sample of "Sour Times," she's a Billie Holiday for the chillout room.
Now this was one strange Brit-pop success story: Where were the fashion statements and model girlfriends? It turned out that all the Monkeys needed to conquer the world was scrappy, lager-fueled tunes about being young and bored in a bleak steel town. Alex Turner sang about waiting all week for Saturday night, only to strike out with the same local girls he bombed with last week. Thanks to Turner's big bag of creaky melodies and the band's snaggletoothed guitar attack, even America couldn't resist pub-punk gems like the raging, sexy "I Bet You Look Good on the Dance Floor." It’s the fastest selling debut album by a band in the history of the UK, quite an achievement if you consider their competition.
East Coast hip-hop made a return in 1993, thanks to a nine-man troupe of Staten Island, New York, MCs with a fascination for Hong Kong martial-arts mythology and producer RZA's love of menacing atmospherics. Hip-hop had been harder, but it had rarely been this dirty. Steeped in dusty soul samples and spine-crawling pianos, the RZA's epochal beats seem to hang suspended in billows of weed smoke, the perfect lush, menacing ambient for the project-stairwell grandstanding of Raekwon, GZA, Method Man, Ghostface Killah, et al. As the Nineties progressed, the Wu would infect the rest of hip-hop and R&B like an unshakable virus.
Warner Bros. 1979
The debut by the B-52's sounds like a bunch of high school friends cramming all their running jokes, goofy sounds and private nicknames into a New Wave record. "We never thought it would get past our circle of friends in Athens [Georgia]," vocalist Fred Schneider told Rolling Stone. It turned out nobody could resist the band's campy, arty funk, or the eccentric squeals and bouffant hairdos of Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson. (Playing organ, Pierson also defined the band's sound.) They played toy instruments, and their thrift-store image was as inventive and colorful as their music – which, with "Rock Lobster," was pretty inventive and colorful.
Warner Bros. 1978
The strutting frontman as spandex-clad love machine, the finger-flying guitar hero, the kegstand rhythm section: Van Halen was the ultimate party band and their debut feels like the Eighties arriving two years ahead of schedule. Tunes like the fist pumping "Runnin' With the Devil," the muscular "Atomic Punk," a thunderous cover of "You Really Got Me" and "Ain’t Talkin' 'Bout Love" put the show-biz swagger back in hard rock, and Eddie Van Halen's jaw-dropping technique raised the bar for six-string pyrotechnics, particularly on "Eruption," the solo that launched a thousand dudes messing around at Guitar Center.
A rap album? The idea was esoteric back in 1984, but the debut full-length by Joseph "Run" Simmons, Darryl "D.M.C." McDaniels, and D.J. Jason "Jam Master J" Mizell changed that—and transformed American pop culture. Songs like "Sucker M.C.s" and "Hard Times" jettisoned the party-hearty disco bounce of early rap for blunt, blasting beats and rhymes. It was music that had the swagger, the attitude—the volume—of rock and roll; on "Rock Box," Run-D.M.C. even had the audacity to toss in a wailing heavy metal guitar. "Our DJ's better than all these bands," they rapped, a boast that turned out to be a prophecy.
Pavement were the quintessential American independent rock band, and this is the quintessential indie-rock album. The playing is loose-limbed, the production laid-back and primitive, the lyrics quirky and playful, the melodies sweet and seductive. But the sound is as intense as the white noise of the Velvet Underground. Recorded on the super-cheap in Brooklyn and in their thirtysomething drummer's Stockton, California studio, Slanted and Enchanted is one of the most influential rock albums of the 1990s; its fuzzy recording style can be heard in the music of Nirvana, Liz Phair, Beck, the Strokes and the White Stripes.
Vampire Weekend came out of Columbia University in the late 2000s, showing a pronounced affinity for boat shoes and button-downs as well as an intimate knowledge of African guitar music. Their debut backed up massive press buzz with suavely seductive pop-rock songs about college campuses and trysts with Benetton-wearing ladies. Ezra Koenig's Paul Simon-esque melodies were as refined as his education, floating over bright keyboards and Afropop-tinged grooves. Koenig had a term for VW's music: Upper West Side Soweto. However you label the sound, it was manna for Brooklyn-y boys and Molly Ringwald girls all over the world and helped fuel a discovery of global sounds in indie-pop.
The Notorious B.I.G.
Bad Boy 1994
"At the time I was making the album," B.I.G. told Rolling Stone in 1995, "I was just waking up every morning, hustling, cutting school, looking out for my moms, the police, stickup kids; just risking my life every day on the street selling drugs, you know what I'm saying?" B.I.G. (a.k.a. Biggie Smalls) took all that gritty life experience and crammed it into Ready to Die, the best record by the greatest rapper who ever lived and hip-hop's finest debut by a stretch. "Big Poppa" is the hit sex jam; on "Things Done Changed" and "Everyday Struggle," he relates gangsta tales in a voice as thick as his waistline. "I'm definitely a writer," Biggie said. "I don't even know how to freestyle."