If you’re a successful musician, it means that almost by default you had a successful debut album. Otherwise, instead of playing sold out clubs and arenas, you’d be asking people if they want fries with that during your shift at McDonald’s. But some debut albums transcend mere success and become phenomena. These are the albums that transform entire genres, change the music industry, and turn ordinarily successful musicians into worldwide icons capable of selling out huge soccer stadiums in countries that don’t even speak the same language. And of that select group of Hall of Fame worthy albums, the following are the truly elite, for they are the nine best debut albums of all time.
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9 ‘Ready to Die’ – The Notorious B.I.G. (1994)
Well, at least he was ready. Okay, obvious joke out of the way, Ready to Die not only launched Biggie into the same atmosphere as his West Coast rival, Tupac, it reinvented East Coast rap, and set the stage – along with the almost simultaneously released Nas’ Illmatic - for everyone that was to follow. Biggie became, uh, bigger than ever once he died, but people need to remember that Ready to Die promised that he would have ruled the rap world if he lived. I mean come on, “Big Poppa” alone blows away just about anything else anybody’s done since.
8 ‘The Clash’ – The Clash (1977)
The Clash’s debut album took the raw fury of punk and smartened it up, and in doing so created something unique, a simple yet complex sound that signaled the beginning of the post-punk era before anyone even knew that it was happening. While The Clash were most definitely a punk band, with this record they opened the door for more experimentation within the integrity of the genre, which eventually led to the rise of alternative rock and a good chunk of the pop music that ruled the next couple of decades. But aside from being massively important, The Clash was also just a damn good record, so good in fact that influential critic Robert Christgau once called it “the greatest rock and roll album ever manufactured anywhere.” I don’t know that I’d go that far, but for a debut album, all that’s, uh, pretty damn good.
7 ‘Run–D.M.C.’ – Run–D.M.C. (1984)
In many ways, this is where modern rap was born. It was the first time a group really sat down and put together a serious album. These weren’t just some dudes messing around at house parties, they were out to make a serious statement. The record itself, while kind of quaint by today’s standards, was harder edged than anything that came before it and instantly signaled that everyone else had to step their game up. It established hip-hop as a legit genre within the music industry and not just a fad that would eventually fade away.
6 ‘Ramones’ – Ramones (1976)
While every other band out there was busy making lush, complex concept albums that sounded like they required a PhD to make, the Ramones changed everything by releasing this sparse, garage-rock blitzkrieg filled with one to two minute songs that didn’t fuck around and just got right to the point. And in the process, punk rock was born. Yes, this was the record that inspired a musical revolution and led to everything that followed after. The entire album takes less than a half hour to listen to and only cost $6,400 to produce, but in that half hour of cheap, raw fury, the Ramones brought back a defiant fuck you attitude to rock and roll that had been missing for a long time, and offered more in your face swagger than a thousand hours of music made by millionaire rock bands all over the world.
5 ‘Licensed to Ill’ – The Beastie Boys (1986)
Three degenerate white boys decided to follow the leads of their friends in Run–D.M.C. and in the process brought rap to the mainstream in a way that it had never seen, and once it was there, it was never going to leave. Of course, you could say that their rise and success was helped by the fact that the boys were white, but that undersells just how ridiculously good this album is. The one-two punch of “Fight for Your Right” and “No Sleep till Brooklyn,” nestled right next to each other on the album, remains one of the best ever, in any genre of music.
4 ‘Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols’ – The Sex Pistols (1977)
Whenever anyone thinks about punk rock, this is the album that pops into their head. It wasn’t the first punk-rock album, nor was it the most musically blessed, but it’s the most defining punk album of them all, just a sheer assault against everything proper or decent – including properly played decent music – that turned England into Ground Zero for the punk scene, and for the post-punk scene that grew out of it. How much of a nuclear bomb was this album? Well, its explosion – and the fallout – was so massive that it landed the Sex Pistols in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame even though it was the only album they ever produced before falling apart in a haze of drugs, death and general insanity.
3 ‘The Velvet Underground & Nico’ – The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967)
This was where rock music grew up and became something truly unique and not just a collection of rearranged chords borrowed from old blues guitarists. These weren’t songs about girls and being in love, or cars and surfboards. No, these were adult songs about adult things. I mean, come on, there’s a song simply titled “Heroin” on the album. The record was also massively influential, cited by every band that came along for the next 25 years as the one that made them want to make music in the first place. It took almost a decade for the mainstream to really appreciate this album, but that’s how ahead of the game it was, and by the time critics reevaluated it properly, the entire musical landscape had been taken over by bands who worshiped the Velvet Underground and their damn near perfect debut album.
2 ‘Straight Outta Compton’ – N.W.A. (1988)
This record didn’t just change rap, it changed pop culture as a whole, both reflecting it and changing it at the same time in that weird sort of symbiotic relationship that all great art has with the times. This was the sound of the raw fury and hedonism of the inner city given a twist of laid back California cool, a sound that instantly made even great groups like Run – D.M.C. seem kind of passé. This was rap’s version of punk rock, gritty and real, and nothing would ever be the same after. It launched the careers of Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and Easy-E, and beneath the ridiculously harsh lyrics, it also brought a new musical complexity to the sound of rap. Old white people everywhere felt like they were under assault and rushed to condemn the album, which is almost always a sign that it’s both incredibly important and really, really good.
1 ‘Appetite for Destruction’ – Guns ‘N Roses (1987)
This was in many ways traditional rock and roll’s last stand, and good god what a way to go. This is pretty much the perfect rock album, combining elements of punk, classical hard rock, glam, and every other genre that came before in one glorious and brutally honest package. It worked because it was completely unique. No other band in no other time in history could have made this album other than Guns ‘N Roses. After this, rock, led by Nirvana and company, had a much more self-aware, ironic bent to it, and that’s because with this album, Guns ‘N Roses just demolished everything that had come before. This was so searing and so just perfectly rock and roll that it burned everything down to ashes and forced rock music to start all over again. No one could follow it without reinventing the genre. Not even Guns ‘N Roses themselves could pull it off. They made the perfect rock album, and that’s why it’s not only the biggest selling debut album of all time, but also the best.
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