My Five Favorite Debut Albums

by Noah Kucij

In this blog’s debut list, let me see what I can do to offend you right out the gate…OK, I think my number 1 should do it.  But here’s the thing:  We’re not all born with a full head of hair, and not every band cuts a gem of a record the first time around.  Second and third and fourth albums tend to be classics, while debuts are often naive and uneven.  These five first efforts have always hit my ears as the urgent, cathartic, years-in-the-making works of true talents — sometimes flashes of greatness soon dimmed, sometimes sneak peaks at greatness to come.

1.  Counting Crows, August and Everything After  (1993)  augustandeverythingafter

Forget everything you know about paved paradises and hair extensions, and just listen for a minute.  This band, God knows how, snapped the lid on one perfect firefly before they slid into discord and self-parody.  They seized an early-‘90s moment when it was OK to play mandolins and Hammonds, not for nostalgic yuks but with urgency and artistry, and on that sonic palette, Adam Duritz painted one of rock’s most lushly detailed, verbally savvy portraits of longing.  In “A Murder of One,” the sweet-and-stalkerish closing track, he bursts into a room full of upbeat, jangling pop and croaks, “Blue morning, blue morning, wrapped in strands of fist and bone / Curiosity, Kitten, doesn’t have to mean you’re on your own / You can look outside your window, he doesn’t have to know / We can talk awhile, baby, we can take it nice and slow.”  That’s how uncomfortably intimate yet highly crafted this album feels from first note to last.  It’s where I go when I want to remember that failure and self-pity can be distilled into something exquisite.

2.  Bruce Springsteen, Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ  (1973)  greetingsfromasbury

At some point, the Boss we had anointed would inevitably struggle to be the underdog we needed him to be.  You can hear a little wind whistling through that brilliant disguise even by the Darkness-River-Nebraska era, and Bruce admits to as much in 1992’s “Better Days,” calling himself “A rich man in a poor man’s shirt.”  No such psychic conflict in Greetings, though: the singer of these songs is undeniably himself, a brilliant young ruffian deeply in love with the language he speaks and the corner of earth he stomps on.  I love how full of words this album is – from “Madmen drummers bummers and Indians in the summer,” it’s off to the races – but this isn’t mere next-Dylan shuck-and-jive.  “Spirit In The Night” is a classic of youthful debauchery and an early Clarence Clemons signature.  “For You” and “Mary Queen of Arkansas” set the stage for subsequent all-time-great rock courtships like “Rosalita” and “Thunder Road,” but weirder: Bruce sings to Mary, in Astral Weeks-ish cadences, lines like “You’re not man enough for me to hate, or woman enough for kissing.”  Rough around the edges and over-exuberant, this is exactly what a Bruce debut should be.

3.   Joni Mitchell, Song to a Seagull  (1968)

songtoaseagull

The critics have long since spoken: Rock is a man’s world, ego and libido are fail-proof muses, innovation is more important than craft, and the blues is the most authentic frame of reference for pop songs.  Which leaves Joni Mitchell, the high-minded, classically trained, arrestingly un-male Saskatchewan prairie bard.  History has been kind to Blue, and Court and Spark had commercial legs, but so much of Mitchell’s great catalog is mostly ignored.  Her first album is one of her best: its lyrics are ambitious and detail-drenched, and its melodies run circles around you.  But please, by all means, go listen to Nevermind or Horses for the thousandth time.

4.  Leonard Cohen, Songs of Leonard Cohen  (1967)  songsofleonard

This is where my lyrics bias really gets out of control.  I don’t think Cohen is an especially great singer (unlike the oft-maligned Dylan, who sounds like an angel to me), and the instrumentation (strings, hurdy-gurdies and bell choirs ahoy!) has not aged well.  But oh my God: “If your life is a leaf that the seasons tear off and condemn / They will bind you with love that is graceful and green as a stem.”  Track-for-track, the poetry of the first two-thirds of this record may be unparalleled in all of recorded music, by turns tender, shamanic, funny, and dark.  You just have to ignore the production and the last song or three and you’ve got a masterpiece.

5.  Pearl Jam, Ten  (1991)  ten

While I’m obsessing over lyrics, let me just note what didn’t occur to me until now: Eddie Vedder is the Trent Dilfer of songwriters.  Just make the words vaguely thematic and often inaudible, and let the ground-and-pound take over.  I mean, does anybody know what “Porch” or “Garden” is about?  Does anybody care?  Now, let me state the obvious: 1. The guys in this band can really play their instruments.  2.  The singer will scream his lungs out till it fills this room.  3. The album is not as great as it was when you were fourteen.  But it’s still great.

6 thoughts on “My Five Favorite Debut Albums

  1. What makes a great debut? The ability to surprise the music consuming public? The ability to heighten that community’s expectations? To get their attention? I think Noah’s (admitted) per-occupation with the lyrics gets at something else. Communication. A debut record has to communicate something new, or exciting or real. It has to say something that has not been said before. Springsteen was taking the 50s singles he loved and re-purposing that sound to tell the kinds of stories that had never made it to vinyl before. Cohen was exploring the dark, piss-stinking corners of New York city, and even “Round Here” has some things to say. I had forgotten about “Round Here.” That’s a good fucking song and a really good track 1, side 1.

    So, are those 5 records the most vital and sturdy debut communications in rock history? Maybe. But I can’t let the topic slip away without calling attention to at least a few other candidates. I am pretty sure it would be criminal to ignore Ryan Adams’ debut Heartbreaker. The kid who made that record was making songs so urgently he couldn’t even to be bothered to come up with original titles (half-snipeing titles from Pure Prairie League and Neil Diamond). The record growls out messages of loneliness and hope, anger and lust. Then again, Adams was the former front man of a successful band before he went solo for this record. And just because he has had far more success as a solo artist than he did with Whiskeytown, doesn’t make it any less of a “screw you guys, I’m going solo,” situation. So maybe Heartbreaker is disqualified, but “come pick me up / steal all my records,” is still a great line and “Shakedown on 9th Street” is still a great song.

    Hip Hop has more great debuts than probably any genre of music with Straight Outta Compton being so culturally significant, Nas’ Illmatic being almost anthemic in nature, Dre’s The Chronic, and (15 years later) Kanye’s College Dropout being so perfectly slick so as to define production for more than a decade each, but nothing was as unique and stunning and nothing holds up as well as Wu Tang’s debut. Enter the 36 Chambers certainly launched 1000 (literally?) solo careers. It snuck up on so many people because the kids who made that record were so young, so hungry, and so good. And what they said was so new and weird that nothing else has quite matched its completely out of this world premise (black kids from the 5 boroughs taking on the persona of kung fu heroes?). Not only did it launch 1000 solo careers, but 1000 imitators as well. It also contained multitudes with the no holds barred chant of “Bring Da Ruckus,” and the violent a statement of purpose “Wu Tang Clan Ain’t Nothin to Fuck With,” being on the same record as the dreary, and fatalistic “C.R.E.A.M.,” and a song called “Can It Be All So Simple,” where RZA reminisces “Remember back in the days when shit, everything was all smooth and calm? … ’87 that was my favorite shit God. Polo shit, everything, everything was lovely…” And what other debut record can be pointed to as the world’s introduction to a singular talent like Ol’ Dirty Bastard whose madman lyricism is yet to be matched?

    The White Stripes debut record from 1999 has the benefit of being massively influential, as well as holding up quite nicely. “Astro,” “The Big Three Killed My Baby” and “Sugar Never Tasted So Good” are driving rock songs that introduce us to Jack’s whining howl and his hiccupping guitar lines. Part of the record’s peculiar charm is that all the songs seem like and do not seem like covers, but the actual covers Dylan’s “One More Cup of Coffee,” and Robert Johnson’s “Stop Breaking Down,” are not only statements of purpose, but dynamic and aggressive rock tunes played by kids who need to get their sound out.

    But as far as skill and craft, Big Star’s #1 Record is the easiest to argue. The cats on that record were making the kind of perfectly constructed pop tunes like “The Ballad of El Goodo” and “In The Street,” that could only ever be matched by bands like The Beatles and early Weezer records. The real draw here is the aching and naked “Thirteen,” which is one of rock and roll’s most overlooked gems. All any budding music aficionado needs to know is that it was a staple of Elliot Smith’s live shows for years. I dare you not to cry during the bittersweet backup vocals of the chorus. The immense power of this almost weightlessly perfect tune alone might be enough to call this the best debut in rock history.

    So, I am not sure which is the best debut, but the ones that age the best seem to be the ones that are the angriest, the least self conscious and the most arrogant. These are records made by kids who are sure they are going to take over music. It is that attitude, that hubris that we love. It creates a kind of momentum, because even though the 19 year olds who make these records are pretty much wrong about everything they think they know, letting us see them be wrong about life and love is one of the most intoxicating and profound experiences of listening to great pop music.

    1. Right you are, Matt, about all those other records. I definitely don’t want to say that my 5 are the most [anything] in rock history. In fact, I guess the very notion I’ve been toying with is that “rock history” doesn’t quite exist, at least in the monolithic way we often give it credit for. It’s really a collection of ideologies, theories, and anecdotes, loosely strung together by nerds like us. Sometimes we try to establish a voice of authority when we talk about music, because we’re dudes and because it’s fun. We classify, rank, and evoke with all the swagger we can muster. But at the end of the day it’s just street ball.

      To add to the catalog of omissions, by the way, I have three words: Are You Experienced? If we really want to talk about rock history, what’s a more “vital and sturdy” debut than Jimi’s? So why is it not on my list? I guess the best answer I can give is that while I’ve owned it at various points over the years (mostly on a copied cassette adorned with amateur magic-marker tie-dye), I’ve rarely been sucked into the album as an album or compelled to wonder or worry over the world it created. Maybe because at the times in my life when I should have been studying at the feet of the masters, I was busy listening to the Figgs or Buffalo Tom or Phil Ochs. Maybe because Hendrix can do so much magic in 14 seconds that I don’t have the same need to listen for 46 minutes. None of these reasons are good enough, of course, to justify mentioning Counting Crows and Ryan Adams and Wu Tang and leaving out Jimi. Hence the greatest tagline in the history of music blogs.

      So I’ve resigned myself to being wrong, to being unprepared for class, to being out of my element. I figure if Greil Marcus can write 288 pages about the Basement Tapes and not be considered a paranoid schizophrenic, then I have little to lose.

  2. Yes. Of Course. Mr. Hendrix. How could I have left him off. In my defense I will offer that the Mount Rushmore of rock and roll feels sort of like a “goes without saying,” type of situation. But I only say that because my position is indefensible. Are You Experienced is clearly one of the weirdest and volatile records in rock and roll history. I worshiped at the alter of Jimi for so long that he has become less a musician, in my mind, and more just the air I breathe and the water we swim in.

    But touche. Are you Experienced? would probably be the best debut in rock and roll history… if Rock and Roll history existed.

    Does it? It’s an interesting question. The story of rock and roll has been retconned more times than that of a DC superhero. Often those who write about it, or discuss it at length specialize in an almost ridiculously specific sub genre, or period. Post-Hardcore, early Rockabilly, Blues of the Mississippi Delta… There are thousands of these specialties, all of them valid and relevant to a certain population. So, what is rock music? I often find myself using the term “pop,” so that I can easily compare songs by artists as diverse as Sun House, The Bee Gees, The Misfits and Captain Beefheart. It seems to be the most fun way to do it, but does it actually reflect the music’s impact on culture? Maybe the artists who are the most relevant are not concerned with the history of rock and roll at all. Maybe they are concerned with something else. Something more immediate and urgent.

  3. I haven’t listened to a proper album in ages. (I use Cassadaga as my benchmark for listenable, complete albums made in the last half decade.) But I recently got hooked on Nina Simone’s Little Girl Blue. She brings a musicianship and a classical style to jazz singing and playing that entrances me. Of course I’ve had a love affair with old style jazz and blues for most of my life, including Robert Johnson, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, etc., but I haven’t listened to these records in years. Maybe it’s that I haven’t had the time for jazz lately, but clearly Little Girl Blue had something new to say to the jazz world in 1958 that I think it almost served as a musical counterpart to her revolutionary approach to sociopolitical issues.

    Anyway, I just thought I’d throw that out there. Little Girl Blue by Nina Simone. Look for it at your local youtube.com.

    1. Hey TC, Listening now. Not only a great voice but compelling playing and perfectly classic production. Your comment brings up a whole bunch of blind spots and landmines I generally try to ignore.

      For instance, jazz: Love listening to it live once every few years or Spotifying that shit, but don’t know anything about it and (even relative to the rest of my charlatan’s palette) feel totally unqualified to evaluate or discuss it.

      But also, it brings up the whole issue of trying to discuss older albums in the same breath as, say, anything post-1965. To my mind, it was right around that time of Bringing it All Back Home and Rubber Soul when the modern *album* really took shape. The albums that came out of the late 50s and early 60s (and certainly those before) feel more like collections of songs packaged for commercial sale, rather than carefully constructed whole works of art with a distinct narrative, thematic or sonic identity. As a result, I tend to know many artists I love, like Nina, Otis Redding, Hank Williams, Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, etc., etc. more through singles and compilations than through studio albums. And that puts our musical forebears at a distinct disadvantage when making these silly little lists (lucky for Pearl Jam and Counting Crows, who came along a quarter-century into the “album age” – talk about wind at your back).

      Still, it’s fun to look at who was putting out first studio albums back then. Nina Simone in 1959. The Ventures in 1960. Etta James in ’61. Dylan, the Beatles, the Stones, and the Who in ’62, ’63, ’64, ’65. Fecking incredible.

  4. Also Chester, I believe our affection for certain Bright Eyes records is old hat… But just for the sake of the room, let me say that I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning is a favorite of mine… Thanks Chris Aycox, Alaska, 2007-ish.

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