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.
The title sounded like wishful thinking when Stefani Germanotta's album arrived in August 2008 to a shrug from radio programmers and record-buyers. By the spring of 2009, though, Germanotta, aka Lady Gaga, was famous indeed. Gaga's debut was a game-charger, making dark, booming dance-pop—buoyed by the almighty four-on-the-floor thump of Eurodisco—the dominant sound of the global charts. And it introduced the world to an outrageously plus-sized form of pop divadom—to a provocateur and fashion plate who treated the whole world as her red carpet. Those paparazzi she sang about weren't just metaphorical, after all.
The Flying Burrito Brothers
"We're a rock & roll band that sounds like a country band," Gram Parsons said of the Burritos, whose first album was an obscure Sixties masterpiece that drew the blueprint for both Seventies country rock and today's alt-country. Parsons and Chris Hillman formed the Burritos after they both quit the Byrds; in many ways, Gilded Palace picks up where the Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo left off. Together, the mercurial Parsons and the levelheaded Hillman concocted a crazily coherent statement of irony-fueled hillbilly anthems, inventive covers and achingly beautiful two-part harmonies, all underscored by Sneaky Pete Kleinow's radical pedal-steel guitar.
He didn't have Elvis Costello's way with words, or Graham Parker's blue-eyed-soul-man style. But Joe Jackson's debut showed that he could match his rival angry young Brits where it counted: song-for-song. Look Sharp! is a near-perfect short, sharp New Wave-pop album, toggling from wiry punk ("Got the Time") to witty ballads ("Is She Really Going Out with Him?"), from social commentary ("Sunday Papers") to bruised romance ("One More Time"). Secret weapon: Jackson's ferocious little four-piece band, especially bassist Graham Maby, who nearly steals the show.
London/Mo Wax, 1996
Unlikely DJ savior Josh Davis nearly did for the turntable what Hendrix did for the guitar – bringing vibrant technical brilliance, wild beauty and multifaceted musical texture to an instrument some rock Luddites still didn't even consider to be an instrument at all. He came out of the Mo Wax trip-hop scene but tracks like "Permanent Slump" and "Changeling" had more in common with the spaced psychedelic rock explorations than they did with whatever DJ Krush was up to. But the rich, crackling beats themselves – culled from countless records discovered over a lifetime of crate digging – reminded everyone what was fun and free about hip-hop.
The artist herself would later dismiss the post-disco pop on her debut as "the aerobics album." But it didn't just succeed in introducing the most important female voice in the history of modern music, it's also aged much better sonically than Like A Virgin, her blockbuster 1984 follow-up. Loaded with hits like "Borderline" and "Holiday" (the latter produced by her then-boyfriend, John "Jellybean" Benitez) and the great communal anthem "Everybody," it put downtown New York electro grooves all over the Top 40. Fun fact: it also works great as aerobics music.
"I came from a family where my people didn't like rhythm and blues," Little Richard told Rolling Stone in 1970. "Bing Crosby, 'Pennies From Heaven,' Ella Fitzgerald was all I heard. And I knew there was something that could be louder than that, but didn't know where to find it. And I found it was me." Richard's raucous debut collected singles such as "Good Golly, Miss Molly," in which his rollicking boogie-woogie piano and falsetto scream ignited the unfettered possibilities of rock & roll. "Tutti Frutti" still contains what has to be considered the most inspired rock lyric on record: "A wop bop alu bop, a wop bam boom!"
The Who exploded out of the West London Mod scene and pushed rock and roll to new levels of intensity and volume on their debut. They're in maximum-R&B mode: power-chorded reductions of James Brown ballads hurled forward by a manic freight-train rhythm section. When Pete Townshend was badgered by a manager into beefing up his laidback demo of "My Generation," the resulting explosion knocked a hole in the future. In its raw, delinquent intensity, My Generation is a blueprint for much of the garage-rock, punk and heavy metal that flourished after it was released.
The Hold Steady
Even on their first album, these Brooklyn-via-Minneapolis dudes had it all: drugs, sex, Catholic guilt, trashy bar-band guitars. Craig Finn splutters his crazed one-liners about killer parties gone bad, from "Mary got a bloody nose from sniffing margarita mix" to "I did a couple favors for these guys who looked like Tusken Raiders." "Certain Songs" pays tribute to a bar where the jukebox has the perfect ratio of Meat Loaf to Billy Joel. Commercial? Not exactly. Yet the Hold Steady sounded so real and raw, so loaded with wit and compassion and energy, this made them a word-of-mouth sensation.
What a beautiful mess Moby Grape were, and what an amazing noise they made on their debut album, a stunning artifact of San Francisco rock at its '67 peak. Jerry Miller, Peter Lewis, Don Stevenson, Bob Mosley and Skip Spence all sang like demons and wrote crisp pop songs packed with lysergic country-blues excitement. And the band's three guitarists – Miller, Spence and Lewis – created a network of lightning that made songs like "Omaha," "Changes" and "Hey Grandma" shine and sizzle. Columbia hyped this album to near death (issuing five singles at once), but the music is just as thrilling now as it was in '67. This is genuine hippie power pop.
"London calling, speak the slang now," crowed Anglo-Sri Lankan rapper Maya Arulpragasam, and no one could begrudge her the Clash reference. Arular was the sound of punk and agitprop meeting the 21st century – a protest march, a street riot, and a carnival, conducted over rousingly rackety beats. The production, by M.I.A. and her then-beau Diplo, recast hip-hop as low-fi global party music. But it's M.I.A. who commands the spotlight, whether flirting ("My finger tips and the lips/Do the work, yeah/My hips do the flicks), sloganeering ("Pull up the people, pull up the poor"), needling ("You can be a follower but who's your leader?"), or talking glorious nonsense: "Purple Haze/Galang a lang a lang lang."
Alex Chilton and Chris Bell were the Memphis whiz kids at the heart of Big Star. They mixed British pop finesse with all-American hard rock, from the surging "Feel" to the acoustic "Thirteen," one of the most beautiful love songs ever written. Chilton, who had been a teenage star with the Box Tops, sang in a high, bright voice that bristled against jagged, ringing guitars. Big Star's back-to-basics idealism didn't sell many records in the progressive-rock-dominated early-Seventies but over the years they inspired artists such as the Replacements and R.E.M..
The ultimate Eighties synth-pop manifesto. Alison Moyet was the brash girl singer with the soul pipes. Vince Clarke was the keyboard geek punching the buttons. Together, they made an album full of club classics like "Situation," "Too Pieces" and "Don't Go," along with "Midnight," a torch ballad Smokey Robinson could have written for Dusty Springfield. Clarke had already tasted fame with Depeche Mode; he famously quit in a huff after they rejected "Only You," which became Yaz's first hit. He moved on to Erasure, Moyet to solo hits, but their short-lived partnership was the essence of sideways-haircut romance.
Daft Punk's debut is pure synapse-tweaking brilliance. French duo Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo proved that techno and house could be as elastic, catchy and, at times, as funny as the poppiest pop without diluting its hypnotically driving, acidic essence. Homeawork had standout hits – like "Da Funk" and the anthemically bloopy "Around the World." But it was paced like a great album, weaving hip-hop and funk (and, on "Rock N Roll," even some Seventies glam) into the mix, with pauses for oceanic contemplation (the guitar-washed "Flesh") and hip-hop influenced skits like "WDPK 83.7 FM," in which a French-accented robo-DJ promises "the sound of tomorrow and the music of today." Considering their towering shadow over all subsequent EDM, that brag sounds like truth in advertising.
The New Pornographers
"Where have all sensations gone?" Neko Case asked on this Vancouver band's debut. A lot of indie-rockers were wondering the same thing during the music's late-Nineties nadir. The New Porno's gave the scene a jolt of energy and sorely missed fun. Burt Bacharach fan Carl Newman, Bowie obsessive Dan Bejar and alt-country barnburner Case didn't have much in common on paper but on songs like "Letter From An Occupant" and the title track they came up with music that surged with electric smarts, roundhouse drum-pump and hooks atop hooks. It's power pop that never lets up for a minute.
Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope, 2012
The last thing hip-hop was expecting in 2012 was a record like Kendrick Lamar's debut: a mainstream triumph by a leftfield star, a classic album that built on narratives not punchlines or braggadocio, a cracked lens view of one of rap's sacred terrains, Compton, California. In good kid, m.A.A.d city, Lamar sets spiritual yearnings and moral dilemmas against a stark backdrop of gang violence and police brutality. When Lamar does unleash a hair-raising boast – "I pray my dick get big as the Eiffel Tower/So I can fuck the world for 72 hours" – the triumphalism feels well-earned.
Rage Against the Machine
"I believe in this band's ability to bridge the gap between entertainment and activism," declared Zack de la Rocha, whose radical politics found sympathetic muscle in Tom Morello's howling one-guitar army. On songs like "Killing in the Name" and "Bullet in the Head" Morello's effects-soaked guitar sounded like a DJ scratch, an air raid siren and Led Zeppelin all at once and hardcore punk vet de la Rocha's righteous voice was louder than a bomb: "They say jump/ you say how high" They spawned a million rap-rock imitators but blaming them for Limp Bizkit it like blaming sunshine for garden weeds.
The blockbuster debut of the 21-year-old Whitney, a great pop singer with the voice of a great soul singer. She could do steamy R&B like "You Give Good Love," she could do bubble-pop electro-boogie like "How Will I Know," she could do Hollywood schlock like "The Greatest Love Of All." And – this was the confusing part – she sang them all like they meant the same thing, which to her they did. Whitney had bigger triumphs ahead of her – she hit her creative peaks as a full-grown woman. But the vocal firepower of her debut changed the way pop voices emoted for the next 15 years.
Erik B. and Rakim
4th and Broadway/Island 1987
Laid-back and diamond-sharp, Rakim was the finest rapper of the Eighties, and this album is a big reason why. Paid in Full was one of the first hip-hop records to fully embrace Seventies funk samples on stone classics such as "I Know You Got Soul" and the title track. But it was Rakim's impossibly cool voice and seemingly effortless flow that stunned listeners, along with the fearlessness of lines like: "It's been a long time, I shouldn't have left you/Without a strong rhyme to step to/ Think of how many weak shows you slept through."
Black Ark, 1977
With all due respect to the Wailers, this 1977 set by the vocal duo of "Ashanti" Roydel Johnson and Cedric Myton is probably the most psychedelic and spiritually potent roots reggae set ever made, and the greatest achievement of famed Jamaican producer Lee "Scratch" Perry. Unearthly harmonies bob in a whirlpool of echo and reverb alongside lowing cyber-cattle and other sound effects as the men sing of Jah, Africa, and the Bible, making art that's as much religious ritual – and mind-altering substance – as it is music. Which is exactly the point.
Gang of Four
Warner Bros., 1979
The Clash and the Sex Pistols had raged at rock's corporate structure but Marxist punks the Gang of Four dug into "the dirt behind the daydream" of capitalism without sounding like pallid grad students. In fact, Entertainment!'s mix of punk fury and funk attack was a revelation. Andy Gill's staccato guitar hits played perfectly off of singer-lyricist Jon King's bleat. The stiff, jerky aggression of songs such as "Damaged Goods," "Anthrax" and "I Found That Essence Rare" influenced everyone from the Red Hot Chili Peppers to the whole DFA Records dance-rock scene.
"Wow, man, you can even dance to that!" said Bob Dylan when he heard the Byrds' heavily harmonized, electric twelve-string treatments of his material. The Byrds' tender-but-tough debut defined folk rock with Pete Seeger and Dylan covers, Los Angeles studio savvy and punchy, ringing guitars. Its influence on generations of "jangly" rock and roll makes it one of the Sixties most visionary albums and while the Dylan songs got most of the ink, their originals ("I'll Feel A Whole Lot Better") were just as great.
In November 1955, RCA Records bought Presley's contract, singles and unreleased master tapes from Sun Records for $35,000. His first full-length album came out six months later, with tracks drawn from both the Sun sessions and from further recording at RCA's studios in New York and Nashville. "There wasn't any pressure," guitarist Scotty Moore said of the first RCA sessions. "They were just bigger studios with different equipment. We basically just went in and did the same thing we always did." On tracks such as "Blue Suede Shoes," that meant revved-up country music with the sexiest voice anyone had ever heard.
The Stone Roses
Before Oasis, Blur and their kin "invented" Britpop, there was the self-titled 1989 debut by the Stone Roses, who rose from Manchester's ecstasy-addled proto-rave scene with a sound that reaffirmed the glory of chiming, heady UK rock & roll. If they owed something to the sugar-smeared tunefulness of U.S. peers like R.E.M., their day-glo attack owed nothing to indie-rock coyness. The album's manifesto, after all, is titled "I Wanna Be Adored" – a line that in fact sounds a lot like "I wanna be your dog" when they sing it. Which is appropriate: The Stooges were punks who wanted to be adored, too.
Young Money/Cash Money/Universal Motown, 2010
A Canadian Afro-Jewish former teen television star who raps about the malaise of macking over dourly down-tempo ambient beats? It didn't quite sound like the recipe for an instant hip-hop landmark (nor for a commercial blockbuster), but with his 2010 debut, Drake remade rap—and for that matter, pop—in his own woozy image. Thank Me Later was a classic album-album, built to be listened to straight through, with chief producers Noah "40" Shebib and Boi-1da providing a sustained mood of swank sluggishness, and Drake's raps mixing bravado and blues—a party-hearty crown prince with a depressive side. Of course, he's also a punchline champ: "I'm busy getting rich, I don't want trouble/I made enough for two niggas, boy—stunt double."
Warner Brothers, 1978
Most bands try to go for a hot new sound on their debut album. Devo did them all one better with a hot new philosophy – impressing the gospel of societal "devolution" on a Seventies America that definitely needed to hear it. Billing themselves as "suburban robots here to entertain corporate life forms," they played tight, torrid music that contorted the assembly line pulse of their native Akron, Ohio on songs like "Jocko Homo," "Uncontrollable Urge" and a version of "Satisfaction" that stripped the Stones original down to its corroded chassis.
The most popular girl group of the New Wave surfed to the top of the charts with this hooky debut. Everyone knows "We Got the Beat" and "Our Lips Our Sealed," exuberant songs that livened up the Top Forty, but the entire album welds punkish spirit to party-minded pop – from the L.A. anthem "This Town" to splashy power-pop like "Skidmarks on My Heart" and "Can't Stop The World." It's a beachscape of catty girls and pretty boys, and an image of Southern California that's just as indelible as anything by the Eagles or Doors.
XL/Young Turks, 2009
Pop was in a maximalist phase, all pummeling Eurodance beats and rococo production flourishes, when these London indie rockers arrived with a radically different musical message: less can be much, much more. Songs like "Crystallized" and "Islands" are masterpieces of minimalism – songs built around simple chord progressions, delicate guitar and keyboard ostinatos, the gentle rub of Romy Madley-Croft and Oliver Sim's his-and-hers croons. It's beautiful music, an exercise in restraint, in the artful use of space and silence. It's also funky (check the bonus track cover of Aaliyah's "Hot Like Fire") and, against all odds, sexy – booty call music for the blog-rock set.
Blue Note, 2002
Maybe the most surprising blockbuster of the 21st century, at 10 million-plus copies sold and counting, this sultry set made easy-listening music actually worth listening to. The magic is mainly in Jones' sexy, silky tone and effortless phrasing – it's not surprising her previous efforts included diva turns on downtempo EDM jams. But the song selection, including Hank Williams' "Cold Cold Heart" and Hoagy Carmichael's "The Nearness of You" alongside gems from a new generation of craftsmen, was also first-rate, while the arrangements balanced smoky jazz and soft pop without turning to abstraction or schmaltz. The result splits the difference between a languid kiss and a juicy bong hit.
On their first album, Led Zeppelin were still in the process of inventing their own sound, moving on from the heavy rave-ups of guitarist Jimmy Page's previous band, the Yardbirds. But from the beginning, Zeppelin had the astonishing fusion of Page's lyrical guitar playing and Robert Plant's paint-peeling love-hound yowl. "We were learning what got us off most and what got people off most," said Plant. Yet the template for everything Zeppelin achieved in the 1970s is here: brutal rock ("Communication Breakdown"), thundering power balladry ("Your Time Is Gonna Come"), acid-flavored folk blues ("Babe I'm Gonna Leave You").
Mary J. Blige
Mary J. Blige and producer Sean "Puffy" Combs built a platinum-plated bridge between the then disparate worlds of hip-hop and R&B, earning her the undisputed title "Queen of Hip-Hop Soul." Blige was as tough as a rapper but smooth and sweet like an old-school diva and on inviting but rugged songs like "Real Love" and "Reminisce" she imbued a streetwise elegance that brought a fine new realism to R&B. What's the 411? was just as much as important in its own right as Illmatic or Ready To Die, laying the groundwork for independent women like Lauryn Hill and Beyoncé.
Too Pure, 1992
22-year-old singer-guitar punisher Polly Jean Harvey dropped her ferocious debut just six months after Nirvana's game-changing Nevermind. But this English rock'n'roll trio invented an alternate type of raw power to Seattle grunge, whether Harvey was breathlessly singing "I'm happy I'm bleeding" over Captain Beefheart slide guitar blooze riffing, easing herself metaphorically into a body-bag ("Plants and Rags"), or spinning a psychosexually amped-up remake of the Samson and Delilah myth. Biblical passion never rocked so hard. "I put everything I had into it," she said years later. "It was a very extreme record." It still is.
Wire were the sharpest, most inventive malcontents in the UK punk class of '77, knocking out two-chord blasts of primal blurt that made the Sex Pistols sound like Traffic. Pink Flag seemed to reimagine rock itself from the basement up — from the surging, war-torn "Reuters" to the static-cling power-pop of "Ex Lion Tamer" and the lovely, skeletal romanticism of "Fragile." It became one of the most influential indie-rock albums ever and one of the most covered records of all time — Minor Threat and Elastica did "12XU," R.E.M. did "Strange," Spoon did "Lowdown," the New Bomb Turks did "Mr. Suit," fIREHOSE did "Mannequin" and on and on.
The Heads dressed like they were interning at the IRS and embraced a tightly wound normality as rebellion. "For a long time, I felt, 'Well, fuck everybody,' " David Byrne told Punk magazine in 1976. "Well, now I want to be accepted." The result was an ingeniously constricted but upbeat sound and lyrics so normal they sounded borderline crazy: "I see the laws made in Washington, D.C. / I think of the ones I consider my favorites / I think of the people that are working for me." The chilling "Psycho Killer," on the other hand, was just plain crazy-crazy.
In Fiddy's hands, the thug life was not merely a lifestyle – it was a code, an ethos, a Zen path to showbiz glory. When Dr. Dre and Eminem unleashed him in 2003, America couldn't get enough of the ripped, tatted, bullet-riddled stud. 50's debut was full of dark, nickel-plated songs where he played up his hardcore image, but he also had no shame making songs for the ladies: With hits like "In Da Club," he packed dance floors at discos and bar mitzvahs alike. Fun fact: Get Rich or Die Tryin' went nine-times platinum, making 50 the first rapper to sell a million for each time he had gotten shot.
Fueled by "a little marijuana and a lotta alienation," the Stooges gave the lie to hippie idealism, playing with a savagery that unsettled even the most blasé clubgoers. The band was signed to Elektra, despite label head Jac Holzman's misgivings that "the Stooges could barely play their instruments. How were we going to get this on record?" Ex-Velvet Underground member John Cale produced a primitive debut wherein, amid Ron Asheton's wah-wah blurts, Iggy Stooge (né James Osterberg) snarled seminal punk classics such as "I Wanna Be Your Dog," "No Fun" and "1969." The record stiffed, but it undeniably gave birth to punk rock.
It was pretty much impossible to hang around a cool girl's dorm room in the mid 1990s and not see this indie-rock landmark on the CD shelf. A studio expansion of Phair's homemade Girlysound tape, Exile was a stunning double album that sounded like its songs had gone from her firecracker brainstem straight to tape with the only slightest guitar-drums mediation. The barebones songcraft caused as much of a stir as her frank sex talk on "Flower" and "Glory." But it's the lacerating honesty of tracks such as "Divorce Song" that sticks, and "Fuck and Run" is one of the saddest songs ever written about dreaming of romance and settling for less.
The English Beat
They called themselves the Beat, and they lived up to the moniker: no other UK ska-revival act had their knack for festive rhythm. I Just Can't Stop It showed they were a great dance band, with the ragamuffin toasting of Ranking Roger and sweet saxophone lines of graybeard horn-maestro Saxa floating atop the incessant beat. But they were also a razor-sharp pop group. Lead singer Dave Wakeling wrote deft melodies and lyrics that cast a sharp, cold eye on romance and Thatcher-era politics. The album title doubles as a party-credo and – if you listen to words of the torrid "Mirror in the Bathroom" – a lampoon of preening pretty boys.
Lauper's first band had broken up, she had filed for bankruptcy, and she was singing in a Japanese restaurant. Then this debut album of exuberant, razor-sharp dance pop became the first by a female performer to score four Top Five hits, including "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" and "Time After Time." The Queens-bred singer looked like a punked up Betty Boop and her sound was admirably elastic – from here cover of Prince's "When You Were Mine" to the reggae tinged "Witness" to an amazing take on the Brains' "Money Changes Everything," which sounds at once like a pissed off song about careerist jerks and a anthem of pure now's-my-time ambition.
In England in the early Seventies, there was nerdy art-rock and sexy glam-rock and rarely did the twain meet. Until this record, that is. Roxy Music mixed future-shock experimentalism in the form of Brian Eno's synth-doodles with Old-world charm in the form of Bryan Ferry's tuxedoed croon. "2HB," an ode to Humphrey Bogart, looked back to the grace of vintage Hollywood, while the storming electro-glitz of "Virginia Plain" proved they could write wham-bam hits and translucent cyber-rock like "Ladytron" laid the cloud-car highway to Radiohead and beyond.
Rough Trade, 2002
Before he became famous for all the wrong reasons, Pete Doherty led the Libertines to gutter-punk glory on the band's 2002 debut. Produced by Mick Jones of the Clash, Up the Bracket (the title was British slang for a punch in the throat) was a blur of slurred harmonies, budget-guitar grime and songs that always seemed like they might disintegrate or careen off the tracks. It could have been a mess, but thanks to Doherty and Carl Barat's giant stash of swishy, Kinksian hooks, the album was as off-handedly tuneful as it was trashy – music that felt like a slightly dodgy, ultimately thrilling night on the town.
In the age of Alanis and Jewel, the airwaves were crawling with troubled ingénues singing tragic ballads about their haunted eyes, but Fiona Apple stood out as a bad, bad girl. Apple was still in her teens when she made Tidal, but the New York art waif's husky voice and jazzy piano gave her confessions a surprisingly adult tone. She also came up with a knockdown theme song in "Criminal," the tale of a young woman who's been careless with a delicate man and even more careless with her delicate self. Tidal was just the beginning – and Apple has kept topping herself artistically ever since.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Ladies and gentlemen, Karen O! The Yeah Yeah Yeahs' debut introduced the world outside New York to the beer-swilling frontwoman, who sounded like she'd eaten Pat Benatar for breakfast while rocking out to Siouxsie and the Banshees. The gorgeous ballad "Maps" was the surprise hit, but most of the album found O spitting fiery slogans – "We're all gonna burn in hell!" – like a crazed art-school diva. With Nick Zinner dishing thick, badass riffs and Brian Chase laying down thudding drums, this was vicious garage punk that put fear into the hearts of bass players everywhere.
Nine Inch Nails
When Trent Reznor made Pretty Hate Machine, he was just another New Wave synth dork who failed to hit the big time during the Eighties gold rush. His big claim to fame was playing back-up to Michael J. Fox and Joan Jett in the flop flick Light of Day. But in his studio fantasies, he became an industrial demon lord, barking commands over mechanical stun-beats: "Bow down before the one you serve / You're gonna get what you deserve!" With "Head Like a Hole," "Terrible Lie" and "Kinda I Want To," Reznor was the king of the goth dance floor.
Two hipster geeks from Wesleyan plug in their rad vintage keyboards, pick out some fetching headbands and compose a suite of damn-near-perfect synthesized heartache. The songs on Oracular Spectacular get even better if you tune in close to the vocals – but you don't have to figure out a single word of "Kids" to feel the poignant kick of that massive nine-note keyboard hook. The whole album is an odd collection of Seventies psychedelic love-bead sensibility and Eighties New Wave cool.
Justin Vernon sulked out of exotic Eau Claire, Wisconsin to become the indie bard of the late 2000s. At core, Emma is the sound of a dude sitting in a woodland cabin with an acoustic guitar singing in slurred falsetto about… well, it's hard to parse what, exactly. But the gist is unmistakable: gorgeously tuneful, and at times hallucinogenic melancholy, dressed in shimmering drones and vocal harmonies, anticipating a folk-rock renaissance that kindled kindred spirits like Fleet Foxes and Grizzly Bear.
Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott
The Goldmine/Elektra, 1997
No album summed up the glories of Nineties radio as perfectly as Supa Dupa Fly, the spaced-out avant-funk bomb that introduced Missy as the don of Virginia Beach. With her partner in crime, Timbaland, Missy claimed hip-hop and R&B as her personal playground, with a voice that dripped soul whether she was singing, rapping, or just chanting the words "beep beep" wherever she could fit them in. Missy struts her stuff in hits like "The Rain," "Sock It 2 Me" and the hysterical "Izzy Izzy Ahh," conquering the world and getting her vroom on. Years later, Supa Dupa Fly still sounds futuristic.
Check out that awesome band picture on the back cover – these guys looked nothing like Eighties rock stars. Instead, they looked like four shaggy headbanger kids with nothing going for them except the fervor of true believers. Yet that was enough to change the world. Metallica might have taken inspiration from U.K. bands like Iron Maiden or Diamond Head, but they channeled it all into something new and distinctive, in the speedy thrash riffs of "Hit the Lights – and that's exactly what it sounds like.
New York Dolls
"Could you make it with Frankenstein?" these glammed-out proto-punks asked, not kidding at all, baby. Produced by Todd Rundgren, the fast, cheap and out of control New York Dolls cooked down the Stones' decadent blues, the Crystals' street-tough sassiness and the Velvet Underground's torrid noise into songs like "Personality Crisis," "Trash" and "Bad Girl." They dressed like hookers but they single-bootedly kicked low-life New York swagger into a new era, with a hunger and intensity that no British glitter-rock prima donna could match. Rock still hasn't gotten over it.
Too ingenious for punk, too unironic for New Wave, U2 arrived on Boy as big-time dreamers with the ambition to back it up; it was the first time anyone had the guts to think post-punk could have the mass and scope of arena-rock (the band's original choice for producer, before going with Steve Lillywhite, was Martin Hannett, of Joy Division fame). The Dublin foursome boasted Bono's flag-waving voice and Dave "the Edge" Evans' echoey, effects-laden guitar, as well as anthemic songs such as the club favorite "I Will Follow." Every part of every arrangement is played for exhilarating impact. Pretty soon, they'd have plenty of followers of their own.
Sexual frustration, long sighs, an Oscar Wilde fetish, the Velvets and Stones and girl groups and movie worship – it's all there on the Smiths' insanely original debut. The groundbreaking sound was equal parts Morrissey's morose wit and Johnny Marr's guitar chime. Moz trudges through England's cheerless marshes in "Still Ill" and "This Charming Man" and sings about child murder on Suffer Little Children" He was a whole new kind of rock star (one who sang things like "For the good life is out there somewhere/ So stay on my arm, you little charmer/ But I know my luck too well"), and he transformed the iconography of UK pop forever.