Boiling down any music related topic to a list of the fifteen greatest is a tough chore. Like classic novels for readers and writers, or brilliant paintings for artists and art art connoisseurs debut albums, like great albums in general, hold a special places in the hearts of music fans. Below is a list of the very best first entries in the history of rock and pop.
15) Boston – Boston (1976)
The album that invented what would later be referred to as “arena rock” would become the highest selling debut in American history. Hardly just another band out of Boston the Tom Scholtz and Brad Delp quintet synthesized hard rock swagger, danceable rhythms, and updated production technology to create an album tailored made to FM radio for the next three and a half decades. Boston opens with the anthematic classic “More That a Feeling”, closes with the sultry “Let Me Take You Home Tonight” while never letting let up in between.
Definitive Track: “More Than a Feeling”
14) Ten – Pearl Jam (1991)
Nirvana’s Nevermind may still receive the lion’s share of the credit, but Pearl Jam’s Ten became the definitive rock album of the 90s. For the casual alternative-rock crowd who leaned neither towards Nirvana’s post-punk grunge, Alice In Chains heavy-metal, or Soundgarden’s Zeppelin-esque progressive leanings, Pearl Jam was the perfect new band. Already scene veterans by the time of album’s August, 1991 release Ten’s eleven tracks are tight, thoughtful, unpretentious and immediate. Representing the best of post-70s rock and roll Pearl Jam helped bridged the gap to a new generation.
Definitive Track: “Alive”
13) My Aim is True – Elvis Costello (1977)
One of the most surprisingly brilliant albums ever released My Aim is True was a moderate success during the time of its 1977 release but seems to only grow in appreciation with each passing year. As energetic as punk rock, clever as alternative, and melodic as the very best rock and pop of the era Elvis Costello created a sound all his own. On this epic debut Costello redefines what punk music could be and what it could mean drawing from influences as varied as 50s rockabilly to reggae. It’s humor and cynicism won it fans with punk audiences and its professionalism and craft make My Aim is True a classic for both punk, rock, and pop.
Definitive Track: “Watching the Detectives”
12) License to Ill – Beastie Boys (1986)
Paul’s Boutique might have been more adventurous but it’s hard to minimize the legacy and impact of the Beastie Boy’s debut album License To Ill. Not only the first hip-hop album to top the charts but the first to reach the suburbs and middle America. By infusing hard rock and rap the Beastie Boys, with plenty of assistance from their genius producer Rick Rubin, redefined both hard rock and rap for a new generation. It would be years before License To Ill’s impact would be felt in full, but it’s instant success in 1986 proved hip-hop potency as a commercially viable force.
Definitive Track: “Fight For Your Right (To Party)”
11) The Velvet Underground and Nico – The Velvet Underground (1967)
The Godfather’s of alternative music released a string of acclaimed albums in the late-60s and early-70s but were never better than on their massively influential debut The Velvet Underground and Nico. The detached campy theatrics and dark lyrics of Lou Reed blended with a menacing yet melodic music backdrop that helped the VU sound like no one else in popular music. The John Cale co-written lead track “Sunday Morning” is the perfect foil for an album that makes no pretenses at being anything other than brutally honest and direct.
Definitive Track: “I’m Waiting For the Man”
10) Run-DMC – Run-DMC (1984)
What the Ramones were to punk Run-DMC was to hip-hop. The group’s 1984 self-titled debut didn’t event rap, but it laid the foundation for every other duo and group in the genre thereafter. Run-DMC reclaimed the identity of homegrown black music who prior to the success of the album, and hip-hop in general, saw its musical styles largely co-opted and corrupted by the time of the early-80s. It also proved the genre could be commercially viable while appealing, for the first time, to audiences far beyond the largely inner-city black community. The dated sounding production weighs it down slightly but the relentlessly hard-hitting yet catchy songs keep you listeners coming back time and again.
Definitive Track: “Rock Box”
9) Murmur – R.E.M. (1983)
After a small handful of non-LP singles R.E.M. shook the alternative world with their first full length LP in 1983. Murmur is as important as it is good, representing the critical transformation of post-punk into alternative music and providing both the band and genre a bridge to the mainstream success it would receive several years later. Like the great punk albums of the latter-70s Murmur helped inspire countless imitators, none of which could fully replicate R.E.M.’s distinct sound. Musically bettered later in their career nothing in the band’s catalog made quite the same impact.
Definitive Track: “Radio Free Europe”
8) Van Halen – Van Halen (1978)
The 1978 debut from Van Halen stands as one of the monumental achievements in all of hard rock and metal. Rescuing a seemingly flagging genre taken over by disco, punk and arena-rock Van Halen both reinvigorated and expanded the vocabulary of hard rock music, adding swagger and musicianship sorely lacking. Along the way lead guitarist Eddie Van Halen inspired a new generation of rock fans to pick up the electric six-string and David Lee Roth became the prototypical front man for the new decade. While clearly drawn from several influences the unprecedented sound of Van Halen seems musically indebted only to itself, which of course made it endlessly copied and massively influential.
Definitive Track: “Runnin’ With the Devil”
7) Appetite For Destruction – Guns N’ Roses (1987)
With late-80s hard rock dominated by a horde of dimwitted hair bands Guns N’ Roses debut Appetite For Destruction arrived like a breath of fresh air. Axl Rose’s wail combined with the brilliant guitar interplay of Slash and Izzy Stradlin rewrote the rules for hard rock and metal. At a time when loud music was more about party than passion GNR stunned the mainstream with a serious, dangerous record that was as loud as anything coming out of the metal underground and as listenable as anything on the charts. Appetite took nearly a year before it found mainstream acceptance, but once it did it became one of the most successful debuts of all time.
Definitive Track: “Welcome to the Jungle”
6) The Doors – The Doors (1967)
The Doors’ landmark self-titled debut is one of a handful of albums from the late-60s and early-70s that changed the course of rock music. Jim Morrison’s poetry put to sound through a mix of stunning vocal prowess, highly professional musicianship and brilliant fusions of rock, pop, jazz, classic and spoken word, made for an album that sounded truly unique yet often imitated. The album bursts through the gates with the masterfully forceful “Break on Through” and closes with the nearly twelve-minute epic “The End”. In between the Doors offer us a career’s worth of music on a single record for the ages.
Definitive Track: “Light My Fire”
5) Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin (1969)
Although it wasn’t the first hard rock or heavy metal album, Led Zeppelin’s self-titled debut did more for either genre than any album in history. By doing so Zeppelin would of course transcend the labels usually ascribed to heavy rock bands, having formed only a few months prior upon guitarist Jimmy Page’s departure from the Yardbirds. If redefining the genres of hard rock and metal weren’t enough Led Zeppelin’s greatest accomplishments lie in setting the course for all rock music for the next decade, and introducing the world to arguably the greatest band of the 1970s.
Definitive Track: “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You”
4) Never Mind the Bollocks – the Sex Pistols (1977)
Perhaps the most dangerous album ever released the Sex Pistols’ punk landmark Never Mind the Bollocks was a phenomenon. Easily dismissed by critics and music purists of the day and being a jumbled mess of loud guitars and disjointed melodies time and has only added to the luster of an album that defined British punk. Johnny Rotten’s howl pulls the listener in (or pushes them away), but a consistent batch of well developed hook-filled songs keeps one engaged from track one through twelve. There are several classics in between and it’s difficult to understate the cultural impact of Never Mind the Bollocks.
Definitive Track: “God Save the Queen”
3) Please Please Me – The Beatles (1963)
Measured against the mind boggling string of classic albums the Beatles would produce between 1965-70 the band’s debut album is naturally easy to overlook. But as far as debut’s are concerned it would be difficult to understate the quality and importance of Please Please Me. The Beatles first official British release introduced all of England to the world’s greatest band, and it also introduce the era of album rock. Incredible to think the Fab Four knocked out all fourteen tracks in a day given their tender age and under enormous record company pressure. Several songs are classics, and while Please Please Me is clearly not the best album in the Beatle catalog it is an indisputable fact that here is where it all began.
Definitive Track: “I Saw Her Standing There”
2) The Ramones – The Ramones (1976)
The definitive punk album from the first punk rock group spawned countless imitators. The Ramones is brilliant in its simplicity and remains a landmark achievement that transcended the ordinary narrow confines of the punk genre. The Ramones’ fourteen song attack is in many ways a throwback of sort, celebrating the best of 60s pop-music, surf rock, girl groups, and garage rock. But the repackaging created something new altogether. The album doesn’t miss a beat or let up for a single moment, but unlike many of even the best punk records, each song is consistently catchy and memorable.
Definitive Track: “Blitzkrieg Bop”
1) Are You Experienced – Jimi Hendrix Experience (1967)
The album the completely changed the rules both for rock guitar and rock music in general tops out list of greatest ever debuts. Jimi Hendrix expanded the language of popular music and redefined how guitar rock could sound, what it could mean and what it could do. Three classic studio albums in a brief three year reign, Hendrix was never better or more revolutionary than on his debut Are You Experience. It’s brilliance, from “Purple Haze”, to “Hey Joe”, “Manic Depressed” to “Fire” are common knowledge to all serious rock fans. It’s performances match the quality of its songs and its vision helped change the landscape of popular music.
Definitive Track: “Purple Haze”