11 Unforgettable Debut Albums
Cover photo: Radio.com
Some artists take a long time before they make it big. If Radiohead had stopped at Pablo Honey or Wilco at A.M., they would not have reached their artistic vision and would have left a far lesser impact on the music industry. Other artists knock it out of the park at the beginning of their career, and sometimes even peak on their first release. Here are a few of some of the debut albums that left a great impression right out of the gate.
1. Violent Femmes - Violent Femmes (1983)
Folk punk Wisconsinites Violent Femmes' self-titled debut is a wild and heartfelt ode to teenage angst. Written at the age of 18, frontman Gordon Gano touches on a range of subject including anxiety, alienation, depression, and lost loves. Released in 1983, the album did not receive much mainstream attention until the '90s, thanks in part to the band's irreverent sense of humor and rebellious approach to alt-rock which would become popularized through the decade with Generation X and Nirvana. With its tightly played and energetic anthems, like '90s staple "Blister in the Sun," Violent Femmes crafted an exceptional debut album that was ahead of its time and still sounds fresh and fun to this day
Key tracks: "Blister in the Sun," "Kiss Off," and "Add It Up"
2. Arcade Fire - Funeral (2004)
The title of Arcade Fire's debut album Funeral comes from the loss of multiple family members of the band that occurred during recording sessions. This lead to a mature and bittersweet collection of songs that tugged at the heartstrings and captivated listeners. From vocalist Win Butler's passionate delivery on "Tunnels" and the anthemic "Wake Up", to the heartbreaking closer "In the Backseat," Arcade Fire tapped into their emotional core, recording a captivating album that also set the stage for their later, more conceptual work like 2010's Grammy-winning The Suburbs.
Key tracks: "Crown of Love," "Wake Up," and "Rebellion (Lies)"
3. Leonard Cohen - Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967)
Canadian folk singer-songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen left a lasting mark on the world of music throughout his six-decade career. There are multiple albums in his lengthy catalog that could be considered his best, but he came out of the gate strong with 1967's Songs of Leonard Cohen. Featuring poignant ballads about lost loves and heartache, Cohen showcased class and musical maturity that was rarely found at the time. Songs like "Suzanne" and "Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye" are particularly strong examples of his verbose and poetic style that was often replicated, but never duplicated.
Key tracks: "Suzanne," "So Long, Marianne," and "Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye"
4. Interpol - Turn on the Bright Lights (2002)
Channeling the ghost of legendary Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis, Paul Banks and his band Interpol were one of the founders of the so-called "post-punk revival" that dominated the 2000s, along with groups like The Killers, The Fratellis, and Bloc Party. They may have lost their touch with later releases (2014's underrated El Pintor being an exception), but Turn on the Bright Lights to this day continues to be a monumental release. It signified a sea change in the world of indie rock, with its blend of emotive lyrics and a tight rhythm section, with melodic guitar lines accenting the music in a big way.
Key tracks: "Untitled," "Obstacle 1," and "NYC"
5. Jay Reatard - Blood Visions (2006)
The late Jimmy Lee Lindsey Jr. was a punk rock force of nature. While technically not his first album (he was previously a member of The Reatards), it's his debut release under the solo moniker Jay Reatard. And man, what a strong release it is. With 15 tracks and a 29-minute running time, it's all killer and no filler, with fast, energetic guitar riffs and super-catchy power pop hooks. Blood Visions captures the essence of what rock music is all about, and after his untimely death in 2010, it continues to leave a lasting legacy for one of rock and roll's most unique figures.
Key tracks: "Blood Visions," "My Family," and "Oh It's Such a Shame"
6. Nas - Illmatic (1994)
Nas' Illmatic made waves in East coast hip hop, capturing the zeitgeist of '90s New York with its poignant lyricism and clever wordplay. Boom-baps dominate the record, and then 20-year-old Nas' flow is on point the full 40 minutes. "I never sleep/Cuz sleep is the cousin of death" he repeats on "NY State of Mind," a song that serves as a strong example of Nas' ability to deliver conscious lyrics over powerful beats that stand the test of time over 20 years later.
Key tracks: "NY State of Mind," "The World Is Yours," and "It Ain't Hard to Tell"
7. The Strokes - Is This It (2001)
2001 was the beginning of a new wave of catchy garage rock bands, and no other band got it as right as New York band The Strokes did with Is This It. With every member being in their early 20s, a youthful energy is found on every song here. Singer Julian Casablancas channeled the spirit of Lou Reed in a charismatic way all his own and having two lead guitarists gave the music a fiery punch, culminating in a half-hour of melodic and entertaining rock magic at a level that they couldn't quite seem to capture again.
Key tracks: "Is This It," "The Modern Age," and "New York City Cops"
8. Television - Marquee Moon (1977)
If The Strokes popularized virtuosic guitar in indie rock, Television most certainly provided the blueprint for that style 24-years earlier with Marquee Moon. Hailing from New York City during a time when the city was rampant with drugs and crime, Television channeled that tension into a unique and artful approach to punk rock, which was still in its infancy at that time, as bands like The Clash and The Sex Pistols were only just beginning their careers. With exquisite performances from guitarists Tom Verlaine and Jimmy Rip and Verlaine's surreal lyricism, Television paved the way for later artistic approaches to punk music that would become known as "post-punk."
Key tracks: "See No Evil," "Marquee Moon," and "Elevation"
9. Wu-Tang Clan - Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (1993)
Among the original great posse groups in rap music, Wu-Tang Clan struck gold with their 1993 debut 36 Chambers. Equal parts stylish and aggressive, 36 Chambers was an important forefront to the "hardcore hip-hop" movement. RZA's angry delivery on opener "Bring Da Ruckus" does just that, and Ol Dirty Bastard's entertainingly off-kilter verses always bring a smile to my face. Many of Wu-Tang's members like RZA, GZA, ODB, Ghostface Killah, and Raekwon would go on to have fruitful solo careers, but as a group, they never quite repeated the magic that was found on 36 Chambers.
Key tracks: "Bring Da Ruckus," "C.R.E.A.M.," and "Protect Ya Neck"
10. Weezer - Weezer (The Blue Album) (1994)
Oh, Weezer. How frustrating it is to be a fan of you. Say what you will about their later work (like the preposterous 2005 single "Beverly Hills"), but there's no question about the quality of their first two albums, Pinkerton and their 1994 power pop debut The Blue Album. Weezer tackled some delightfully quirky and nerdy subjects on The Blue Album, including Dungeons & Dragons, X-Men, and taking your surfboard to work instead of your car.
Other songs are more sentimental, like "Say It Ain't So", an emotional anthem that mentions frontman Rivers Cuomo's concern about his family's history of alcohol problems. Other songs like "In the Garage" have a theme of being an outcast in a world of alienation. It's an album that was important to me in my youth, and is still a great listen to this day. I was disappointed in many of Weezer's later career choices, but thankfully they redeemed themselves with Everything Will Be Alright in the End in 2014 and The White Album in 2016.
Key tracks: "My Name Is Jonas," "Undone - The Sweater Song," and "Say It Ain't So"
What can be said about The Velvet Underground & Nico that hasn't already been said? Name any form of alternative rock music. Punk, indie, psychedelic, etc. Chances are they wouldn't exist without The Velvet Underground's seminal debut album. This unlikely group consisted of artists including Lou Reed, John Cale, and German singer Nico, with help from legendary pop artist Andy Warhol, all bringing their unique touch into an album that is in equal measures messy, artful, hypnotic, nihilistic, peaceful, and downright captivating. It's an album that had never really been seen before at the time.
Considering that the album just reached its 50th-anniversary last month, it's quite an astonishment how fresh and interesting it sounds to this day, even after the countless groups it would later inspire. There's an often repeated quote about how "the record only 30,000 copies, but everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band."
Key tracks: "Sunday Morning," "Venus in Furs," and "Heroin"