Occasionally, somebody gets it completely right on the very first try. This focuses on those times.
But hold on, Gilligan: With no rules about era or genre, our 13-member list of desert island debut discs runs an amazing gamut — from Living Colour to Herbie Hancock, from Aerosmith to John Prine, from Pat Metheny to Bob Mould’s post-Husker Du band Sugar.
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Still, some (admittedly very small) consensus eventually emerges: The Beatles — in the form of both Please Please Me, and its U.S. counterpart Meet the Beatles — appear three times, and topped separate polls for Kit O’Toole and Beverly Paterson. Chicago’s debut, 1969’s Chicago Transit Authority also appears on a trio of lists, and is atop Charlie Ricci’s. Elsewhere, the Band’s 1969 release Music from Big Pink and Weather Report’s self-titled debut also were mentioned twice.
After that? Well, you and Wilson will have to haggle that out while you wait for the FedEx rescue plane. Presenting our lists of the debut albums that we simply couldn’t live without …
1. LIVING COLOUR – VIVID (1988): Positively head-turning when released, as in, “what is he doing to that guitar?!” The band was as soulful and moving as it was heavy and loud.
2. HELMET – STRAP IT ON (1990): Helmet, for better or worse, helped set up a precedent for heavy bands that would arise later in the ’90s, but they did it better, leaner, and meaner.
3. JELLYFISH – BELLYBUTTON (1990): Such weird retro power-pop, so fresh and unusual, and it should be no surprise that this band struggled to get its music into ears. But the ears that did find never stopped listening.
4. FUGAZI – REPEATER (1990): A flawless example of this band’s brand of thinking-man’s punk, but it’s too smart to simply label it punk, or even post-punk.
5. SUGAR – COPPER BLUE (1992): Bob Mould’s post-Husker Du band may have upset some of his old fans, but as time wore on, that razor-sharp guitar sound hasn’t aged a bit. As fresh today as it did 20 years ago.
[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Vernon Reid discusses bursting onto the scene with Living Colour, and his incendiary 2012 fusion collaboration Spectrum Road.]
1. THE BEATLES – PLEASE PLEASE ME (1963): This album could be retitled “the Big Bang of the Sixties,” as it signaled the beginning of a rock revolution. Incredibly the entire disc was recorded in a day, which led to John Lennon’s famously shredded vocals on “Twist and Shout,” considered one of rock’s greatest performances.
2. ELVIS COSTELLO – MY AIM IS TRUE (1977): His aim was also introduce himself as a musical force to be reckoned with. Each track is better than the next, from the cynical romanticism of “Alison” to the wink-wink sexual innuendo of “Mystery Dance.”
3. R.E.M. – MURMUR (1983): Michael Stipe’s mumbled vocals and Peter Buck’s jangly guitar pervade this timeless work, which arguably kicked off the “alternative rock” movement of the next couple of decades.
4. MAXWELL – MAXWELL’S URBAN HANG SUITE (1996): Maxwell’s silky debut represents the beginning of the neo-soul movement, one that embraced 1970s R&B while adding modern beats. This deeply romantic work recalls Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On with its sensuality and Maxwell’s smooth vocals — and paved the way for Erykah Badu, D’Angelo, Lauryn Hill (to some degree), and Jill Scott.
5. JOHN MAYER – ROOM FOR SQUARES (2001): One of the best “coming of age” albums in modern rock, it encapsulates Mayer’s gift for writing rock with just a tinge of pop. Virtually every track involves the agony and ecstasy of reaching adulthood, particularly “No Such Thing” and “83.” It’s a charmer from start to finish.
[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Former R.E.M. sideman Peter Holsapple calls their eventual split “a very sad thing,” and also examines his lengthy tenure with the dB’s.]
1. HERBIE HANCOCK – TAKIN’ OFF (1962): There were plenty of excellent Blue Note debuts in the 1960s, but how many featured Dexter Gordon and Freddie Hubbard in their prime — and the original version of “Watermelon Man”?
2. CHICAGO – CHICAGO TRANSIT AUTHORITY (1969): A band that fresh out the gate could seemingly do it all and do it well: nasty-assed blues-rock, ethereal jazz, proto noise-rock and Beatle-esque melodies. With a killer horn section and a guitar player that made Hendrix jealous, to boot.
3. WEATHER REPORT – WEATHER REPORT (1971): The true follow up to Miles Davis’ twin towering accomplishments In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew.
4. THE CARS – THE CARS (1978): Jokingly referred to by members of the band as their “Greatest Hits,” it sounded so fresh and fun in 1978, and still strikes me that way today.
5. DAVE HOLLAND – CONFERENCE OF THE BIRDS (1973): At times wildly abstract, other times beautifully lyrical, and always stunning musicianship by some of the top avant garde players in the game.
PRETENDERS – PRETENDERS (1980): Brassy and brooding, it’s not so much a mystery achievement as it is a self-assured success.
ELVIS COSTELLO – MY AIM IS TRUE (1977): Disgusted and amused, Costello was rolling in Clover, but the songs are the main attraction.
THE NEW YORK DOLLS – THE NEW YORK DOLLS (1973): Raucous and rough-edged, and fun, fun, fun. Till their daddies takes the lipstick away.
TELEVISION – MARQUEE MOON (1977): A poetic and punk-ish masterwork, marked by the lacerating and riveting guitar-work of Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd.
TALKING HEADS – ’77 (1977): They’re tense and nervous, and they can’t relax. But it’s a good kind of tense and nervous.
1. AEROSMITH – AEROSMITH (1973): In my opinion, this is probably Aerosmith’s most underrated record. It’s raw, bluesy and fantastic. There’s not a bad song on it. My second favorite Aerosmith album after Rocks.
2. BLACK SABBATH – BLACK SABBATH (1970): Those three doom-bell notes of the title track ringing out signaled the beginning of something completely different in rock music. Some of the band’s best songs are on this one, too – “The Wizard,” “N.I.B.” and the cover of Aynsley Dunbar’s “Warning” are all faves.
3. METALLICA – KILL ‘EM ALL (1983): My second desert-island list to feature this album. I was trying to avoid duplicates, but I can’t leave it off. It’s a huge milestone in my musical history, and I’d absolutely never be without it.
4. SHOOTER JENNINGS – PUT THE ‘O’ BACK IN COUNTRY (2005): Shooter Jennings’ return to his country roots for his debut is not my favorite of his records, but it is essential listening in my collection. “Lonesome Blues” is an all-time favorite of mine, “4th of July” is a better pop country song than any on the radio, and there’s a nod to Black Sabbath in “Busted in Baylor County.” Can’t go wrong with that.
5. PANTERA – COWBOYS FROM HELL (1990): I went back and forth on including this one because of their four independent releases in the 1980s, but it is their label debut and the one that most people think of as their first album. It’s just a great thrash record from front to back, and no matter how many times I hear the title track, I never get tired of it.
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1. U2 – BOY (1980): U2 blasts on to the scene with a chunk of jubilant post-punk that manages to be too wide-eyed for New Wave but too desperate for pop. The Edge’s echoing guitar shines, while Bono’s eagerness spills over in songs like “I Will Follow” and “Twilight.” It’s as good an arrival statement as you can get.
2. RAMONES – RAMONES (1976): Fuckin’ punk exuberance at its finest, this is one of the albums that taught me how to count and one of the most exhilarating records put to wax. It is full of gas, covering themes from Nazism to male hookers, and never lets up on the throttle.
3. GUNS N’ ROSES – APPETITE FOR DESTRUCTION (1987): While the Ramones pounded the shit out of the 1970s, Guns n’ Roses arrived to bring the nasty to the ’80s. Their debut is a confident, scandalous rock record packed with theatrical riffs and a gutsy asshole for a lead singer.
4. WU-TANG CLAN – ENTER THE WU-TANG (36 CHAMBERS) (1993): The debut from the best rap group ever is filled with chops, slashes and drops the likes of which we’ve not heard since. It is a dark record, raw as hell and bristling with soul music samples and stuff from the world of martial arts movies.
5. N.W.A. – STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON (1988): The debut from the “World’s Most Dangerous Group” (DJ Yella, Dr. Dre, Easy-E, Ice Cube, MC Ren, and Arabian Prince) is a downright reckless and explicit. It is somewhat terrifying in its depictions of street violence and gang life, even garnering warnings from the FBI for its controversy and explicitness.
[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Axl Rose’s refusal to join the rest of the 2012 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame class begs the question: Are they still Guns n’ Roses?]
1. VAN HALEN – VAN HALEN (1978): I brought this record home from my drugstore job one evening and proceeded to ignore my girlfriend for the next couple of weeks. A rock album overruling a 16-year boy’s old’s hormones? That’s how great this record is.
2. DEVO – Q: ARE WE NOT MEN? A: WE ARE DEVO! (1978): What … the … hell … is … that? Devo performed “Jocko Homo” on Saturday Night Live and my head exploded. I still cherish by pink marble vinyl copy of this one.
3. MARC RIBOT – ROOTLESS COSMOPOLITANS (1990): The screwy, jack-in-box cover of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” may offend some, but it’s what drew me in. Ribot refers to himself as a “noise guitarist.” Oh, but it’s such beautiful, lopsided noise.
4. PAT METHENY – BRIGHT SIZE LIFE (1975): Every time I listen to this album, I find it heard to believe that it was Metheny’s first. With Bob Moses on drums and the man, Jaco Pastorious on bass, the music pretty much redefined what a jazz guitar trio could be.
5. DAR WILLIAMS – THE HONESTY ROOM (1993): I spent nearly an hour in the car at work one morning listening to Emerson college’s WERS, waiting for the back announcement for the song “When I Was A Boy.” I’ve followed Dar Williams ever since and have never been disappointed.
[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: In a pre-release review, we called Van Halen’s 2012 reunion album “a return to form in the most complete sense of the word.”]
1. THE BAND – MUSIC FROM BIG PINK (1968): Born out of what Levon Helm called an almost “mystical spirit” that peppered their early Woodstock recordings was a sound that was drenched in Appalachian and Southern flavor. Through songwriting and musicianship, four Canadians and an Arkansan somehow tapped into the backbone of the American south, in all its beauty and tragedy.
2. THE VELVET UNDERGROUND – THE VELVET UNDERGROUND AND NICO (1967): With the cast of characters involved on this project, it was almost too easy for the Velvet Underground. Under the creative direction and oversight of Andy Wahol, the band constructed a melodically gorgeous story of the darkest sides of rock and roll.
3. JOHN PRINE – JOHN PRINE (1971): The postmaster troubadour’s finest ballads are some of his earliest. This collection is a showcase of storytelling that sits at the same table as the works of Dylan, Simon, Guthrie and Twain.
4. THE DOORS – THE DOORS (1967): I was 11 when I discovered this one on wax in the bin marked “the good stuff” in my dad’s garage. Nearly two decades later and still nothing has changed, well, except now most dads call their garage a man cave, whatever that means. But the Doors’ debut album is still as massively popular as ever and as far as I’m concerned, is still one of the best freshman efforts ever released.
5. OLD CROW MEDICINE SHOW – O.C.M.S. (2004): I couldn’t survive without this album in the hopper, ready to roll at all times. Under the production of Nashville regulars David Rawlings and Gillian Welch, O.C.M.S. displays a fresh, energetic take on a genre older than trees. It’s Woody and Bob on steroids. A folk string band with a punk edge.
[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Travel back now to those thrilling days of roman numerals and Terry Kath. Here are five hand-picked sides from Chicago’s pre-guilty pleasure era.]
1. BOSTON – BOSTON (1976): Featuring bombastic vocals and a typically loud band, Boston was the ultimate example of mainstream, arena rock. While this platter became one of the biggest selling debuts of all time, Tom Scholz and Brad Delp never really achieved these heights again. It seems like everyone has at least one good album in them.
2. THE BEATLES – MEET THE BEATLES (1964): This is the guys’ American, major label debut and it’s a perfect example of the sound that made the Fab Four famous. The Beatles invented power pop (or so it seems) and while this isn’t even close to being their best LP almost nobody else opened their careers with a record this exciting.
3. LITTLE RIVER BAND – LITTLE RIVER BAND (1975): The music that resonates most with the public appears to be the mainstream acts that turn in quality work — and that is a hallmark of LRB.
4. CHICACO – CHICAGO TRANSIT AUTHORITY (1969): Despite anything negative that has ever been said or written about Chicago as a whole, almost everyone who loves rock music recognizes the excellence of this glorious debut.
5. CROSBY STILLS AND NASH – CROSBY STILL AND NASH (1969): Pop music usually isn’t this sophisticated anymore. How many rock bands can come up with intricate arrangements like “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” these days? A fine mix of intelligent songwriting and pop sensibilities.
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1. NICK DRAKE – FIVE LEAVES LEFT (1969): Once you understand Drake’s music, you’ll be under his spell for life — there’s no getting out. Simply put, “River Man” is one of the great compositions of all time. And if you haven’t heard Brad Mehldau’s adoption of the song on piano, then RUN to the record store and take a listen … or just go to YouTube.
2. JEFF BUCKLEY – GRACE (1994): I don’t have to tell you that there’s something about “Hallelujah” that digs deep into the depth of one’s soul. It is the key that unlocks the basement door that when opened, unleashes those parts of life that we often keep in hiding — and if you’re curious about what those parts are, then dissect the final track, “Dream Brother”.
3. WHITNEY HOUSTON – WHITNEY HOUSTON (1985): In no way am I comparing or saying that Whitney was a better singer than Ella — all I’m saying is that I can’t seem to stop getting those aesthetic chills when listening to “The Greatest Love of All.” Plus, this album has got a lot of juice and flavor — you can’t deny it. Oh, and if you’re ever around me when a Whitney record is playing — yes, I’m going to sing, I’m going to be loud and out of tune, and I’m going to think I sound good … kind of like a modern day male version of Florence Jenkins, for those who know who she was.
4. ELLA FITZGERALD – ELLA SINGS GERSHWIN (1950): Surprise, surprise! I had to throw a classic jazz album on here, and who better than Ella? If her rendition of “Someone to Watch Over Me” doesn’t bring at least one tear to your eye, then I don’t what will.
5. STING – THE DREAM OF THE BLUE TURTLES (1985): Sting is in my top 10, maybe top 5 artists of all time, and I’m itching for the opportunity to put him at the top of one of these lists: If “Message in a Bottle” was on this album, then it would have been first or second.
[BEYOND THE BEATLES’ HITS: Think you know the Fab Four? Kit O’Toole’s ‘Deep Beatles’ series takes you into some undiscovered corners of the group’s ageless musical legacy.]
1. THE BEATLES – PLEASE PLEASE ME (1963): Deceptively simple songs performed in a deceptively simple manner that sound just as fresh and exciting today as they did back then. Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!
2. THE BYRDS – MR. TAMBOURINE MAN (1965): Folk music ties the knot with rock and roll, resulting in a revolutionary union. Here’s the album responsible for introducing intelligence and sophistication to a pop context. Love those jingly jangly guitars and heaven-sent harmonies!
3. THE WHO – THE WHO SINGS ‘MY GENERATION’ (1965): The British Invasion came in many different flavors, with the Who reigning as the wildest and loudest of the bunch. Draped in distortion and feedback, The Who Sings ‘My Generation’ not only thrived on flash and technique, but the songs are so strong they would still hold up minus the perks and quirks.
4. WEST COAST POP ART EXPERIMENTAL BAND – WEST COAST POP ART EXPERIMENTAL BAND (1966): A super rare relic worth something like a billion dollars, West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band twitches and turns with freaky garage rock activity. The songs are so jagged and ragged, they’re hanging by the seat of their pants — yet the arrangements and overall approach is unbelievably unique and innovative, leading to a record seated acres ahead of the curve.
THE RASPBERRIES – RASPBERRIES (1972): Heavy was hip and progressive was praised the year this album was released. But Raspberries marched to its own muse, paying major allegiance to the kind of tight, catchy pop songs that ruled radio prior to the advent of underground rock.
[SOMETHING ELSE INTERVIEW: Bill Champlin makes an impassioned defense for the David Foster-era of Chicago, saying he “really put some life back in that band.”]
1. CHICAGO – CHICAGO TRANSIT AUTHORITY (1969): There’s an energy and musical adventurousness to this album that the band has come close to replicating a few times but has never quite succeeded in doing so.
2. SONS OF CHAMPLIN – LOOSEN UP NATURALLY (1969): The band had been playing most of the material on this double LP live for years, so it was already well polished and well honed. The lyrics are a bit dated today, but the music and the vocals are still a joy to listen to.
3. TOTO – TOTO (1977): While not Toto’s best album, it was surely an auspicious debut with gems like “I’ll Supply the Love,” “Hold the Line,” “Georgy Porgy,” and the lesser known “Angela” still hold up very well — and have even aged a bit better than some of Toto’s later releases.
4. BILL CHAMPLIN – SINGLE (1978): Featuring a who’s who of LA session cats, this is one of the first examples of “West Coast Pop.” The album blends well polished jazz, R&B, and pop influences masterfully.
5. BLOOD SWEAT AND TEARS – CHILD IS FATHER TO THE MAN (1968): A brilliant release from start to finish. Some may say that David Clayton-Thomas was/is a better singer — I would disagree wholeheartedly. Al Kooper’s vocals on “More Than You’ll Ever Know” still gives me chills.
[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Joey Molland discusses working with George Harrison on his blockbuster debut ‘All Things Must Pass,’ as well as some of Badfinger’s most memorable moments.]
1. JOHN LENNON – PLASTIC ONO BAND (1970): This album’s heart — and its art — is not in the spare instrumentation but in the tour de force vocal performance from Lennon, as he whines, growls, whispers, howls, croons and then cries with total, heart-rending abandon.
2. THE BAND – MUSIC FROM BIG PINK (1968): From its introductory song, a devastating ballad about love gone wrong called “Tears of Rage,” this album was determinedly different — yet somehow timeless. Big Pink, still so original and deeply evocative, could rightly be called instant folklore.
3. WEATHER REPORT – WEATHER REPORT (1971): One of the very best experiments in the then-new fusion sound — not because this all-star group — featuring two recent Miles Davis alums — aped the heaviness of that era’s similarly tagged offerings, but because it transcended those expectations with the lightest touch.
4. GEORGE HARRISON – ALL THINGS MUST PASS (1970): Harrison’s six-time platinum selling debut (tops for any former Beatle) remains the go-to comparison point for every out-of-nowhere solo success.
5. KING CRIMSON – COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING (1969): Daring, even today, and far darker than anything then going in psychedelic rock, this album was the match-light moment for prog.
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