Debut records from bands have always been given a sort of free pass; if it’s not fully formed, or if their sound isn’t quite discovered and is rather cliché, it’s passed off as the band simply not being there yet...and the band gets a bit of a freebie in that area. A decent debut is considered about equivalent to a good second or third record (perhaps only the latter, as the second record is always, always the hardest to create, so in that sense a slightly less than decent second record is equivalent to the decent debut and good third record).
But me? I’m better than that. Sort of. When a record is presented, that is the perfect time to present a cohesive vision branded with a group’s unique sound. Any sense of derivation is perhaps allowed, but looked down upon with some degree of severity. A group’s debut is not as if the band just formed yesterday and are recording immediately. Most group’s debuts come a couple years down the road, so the group does have enough time to put something reasonable to release as a record.
This is not to say that the development of a group’s sound must have occurred only before their debut. Change is necessary in a group’s sound; stagnation throughout a career is a surefire way to make an early exit. Bands, groups, or artists with chameleonic careers (i.e. the Beatles, Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Talking Heads) have always been the most interesting, most groundbreaking, and the best catalogues.
The impression is that a debut record should be treated differently than a record farther down the line. In some sense that is true, but on the greater whole, a record is still, well, a record. So it must be good, first off. Then the rest of the process is merely just making sure a record is just their first record. In compiling a “best debut records” list, one can promote or demote good records beyond the normal criteria of a “good” record, to include the elements described above, strictly concerning cohesiveness of sound and lyric. In addition, a good debut can be groundbreaking: forging a new sound that is copied earns that particular debut record brownie points in my book.
And, well, this is what I’ve done (surprise, surprise). Without further ado:
1. The Velvet Underground - The Velvet Underground & Nico
Did you seriously expect any other result? As a record, it stands tall as a titanic feat of achievement. Absolute perfection in every facet of its existence, from the childish sounds of the celeste ringing in “Sunday Morning” to the cacophony that ends the record on “European Son.” The same raw sound permeates the record, both forecasting punk as the first proto-punk record and the avant-garde experimentalism that would become the norm for any band seeking some sort of “credentials.” For what it’s worth, this record is fast becoming a personal favorite of mine, and if I were to definitely construct a top records of all time (eventually, I will get around to it), this would be in the top ten, and perhaps even shaking up what once was, in my mind, a top five list (which has been discussed earlier at length).
2. The Sex Pistols - Never Mind the Bollocks
No, you have not heard me talk about this record before. But yes, it is necessary to hear. The Sex Pistols were the opposite side of punk compared to the Clash. The Clash were activists in every sense, aiming to right the wrongs of the world with violence, if perhaps necessary. The Sex Pistols, though, embodied the rampant nihilism of the genre, which acknowledged the dour state of affairs but simply refused to do anything about it, choosing to self-destruct rather than destroying the existing system. This record is ranked above my beloved Clash mostly because the rampant nihilism had wider implications on the whole of rock music; while certainly there were a good amount of politi-punk bands running around, the lion’s share of the punk bands chose to be nihilists rather than activists. That is not to say that this record is not as good as the Clash’s debut or, given argument, as good as London Calling. Never Mind the Bollocks is quite simply one of the two finest punk rock records of all time. And, mind you, one of the finest records of all time.
3. Television - Marquee Moon
I’ve talked about this record at length. But it is incredible to note that the feat of achievement that Marquee Moon is it is a debut record. It sounds as both a coming shot of perhaps what is to come but it also sounds like a final salvo of virtuosic bliss and the potential of post-punk, which, unfortunately, did not last as long as it could have. The guitars weave in and out like swords in a dance of death, both perfectly moving in unison and creating a force perfectly complemented by the propulsive force of the rhythm section, which still recalls punk in many ways.
And another record I have talked about at length already. This record is not only brilliant, but its application of atmospherics can be considered key to a whole host of genres, both in and out of rock music: dubstep, alternative rock, among others, owe a great deal to the path that Joy Division paved with this record. Part of it is that you feel the record to the greatest degree; the application of such atmospherics means that the fading in of the album itself chills to the bone, and until the final track fades, you are in the merciless grip of Joy Division’s melancholia that is truly affecting.
5. The Clash - The Clash
As I mentioned earlier, this is the flip side to the Sex Pistols. The activism and desire for change here are contagious, and undoubtedly around the time this record was released, many did probably go out and start their own “white riot.” They saw the decay in their country and wanted to change it. This record is considerably more raw than the Sex Pistols’ record. That was likely a conscious decision by both parties. The fact is, though, the Clash’s record perhaps embodies more of the “simplicity” inherent that had defined punk: keeping it simple...stupid. The Clash seems to essentially be a live record: a testament to the righteous fury that punk was capable of. The Clash perhaps chose the right route through activism, as the Sex Pistols combusted soon after their debut record, concerning “career opportunities” (I am terribly sorry for these puns, so I will blame it on the jet lag). Regardless, this fact is a masterpiece of raw power, and it undoubtedly went on the influence many.
From there, the list really goes nowhere at all. You can list them, but from this juncture it degenerates into an absolute mess of arguments without a clear set of rankings, unlike above. What I would consider as other great debut records:
Pavement - Slanted and Enchanted
The Beatles - Please Please Me
Elvis Costello - My Aim Is True
Arcade Fire - Funeral
The Strokes - Is This It
R.E.M. - Murmur
Tom Waits - Closing Time
The Replacements - Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash
Weezer - Weezer
The Avalanches - Since I Left You