My buddy Terry (who occasionally listens to every album he owns in alphabetical order) engages in exercises like this, so I thought I would give it a shot: out of all of the outstanding debut albums, what band leaped out of the gate with the best First Song First Side First Album.
There are a couple of weird little details to be ironed out. The Beatles and The Stones and even Jimi Hendrix debuted in the era of singles – Hendrix released six before Are You Experienced debuted – so “Foxy Lady,” colossal as it doesn’t qualify for my list. We’ll call the beginning of the album debut-era the late sixties. And we’ll call the end of the album era ’99 or so with the advent of Napster. That’s not to say that there aren’t great debut albums in the past 17-18 years, just that the impact of the album order and all other factors are different in the digital age.
This space is intentionally left blank for all additional unwritten rules that I need to state – like no supergroups like the Flying Burrito Brothers or Little Village. Sorry, Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins. I will skip many records because the opening track doesn’t speak to me – Talking Heads: 77 is unbelievably good, but I don’t care for “Uh-Oh, Love Comes to Town.” I’m not going to bother apologizing for the rest.
Let’s dig in, shall we?
First Song First Side First Album: Who Did It Best?
16. REM “Radio Free Europe” on Murmer
“It’s got a good beat – I can dance to it.” I should have name-checked REM in my post about the 3 Pillars of Americana. I saw them on the Fables Tour at The Austin Coliseum. I believe the Long Ryders opened. REM was rocking that night, and so I have more than a little admiration for them.
15. B-52s “Planet Claire”
Another Athens band! “Planet Claire” is quirky, but makes very clear that the purpose of this band is to fuel your party. A little Peter Gunn riff and a little Casio keyboard 40 years before EDM.
14. Joe Jackson “One More Time” Look Sharp
This album is amazing, and every track is amazing. The rhythm section, in particular, is what impresses me about this record and this lead-off track, although overall the production and songwriting is immaculate.
13. U2 “I Will Follow” Boy
Yeah, I’m a little sick of them, too. But to my 9th-grade mind, every single thing about this song made sense. The guitar lick, the bass riff, and the drum part were among the very first things I learned to play on those instruments.
12. X “Your Phone’s Off the Hook, But You’re Not” Los Angeles
I love this band, and I love this album, and I love this song. These guys were on the same label as Los Lobos, Slash, which meant that my parents learned about them independently of me. The Doors’ Ray Manzarek produced this record, and according to an interview I just heard with DJ Bonebrake, had a very hands-off approach that paid off well.
11. Gang of Four “Ether” Entertainment
Wow – what a sound. This record is so epic in my mind that I hate everything else they ever did – because it’s not as good. “Ether” sets the stage for the disjointed sound, as well as the back and forth vocals. Every time someone tells me they think I will love such-and-such band, I secretly hope that the band sounds like this.
10. Devo “Uncontrollable Urge” Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!
For years I would forget how hard rocking Devo is, and then this track would come on, and I would lose my mind with how wrong I was yet again. oh well, memory is fiction. The live take on Urgh! A Music War is breathtaking.
9. Violent Femmes “Blister in the Sun”
For many years I remembered exactly where I was when I heard this track and this album for the first time. I’ve since forgotten that piece of information, but it’s fair to say this opener tells you exactly what you are in for with this band – great acoustic music played like rock-n-roll. I never quite got those bass solos right, but I learned an awful lot from missing.
8. Elvis Costello “Welcome to the Working Week” My Aim Is True
Elvis hadn’t even synced up with the full power of The Attractions yet (although Steve Nieve played on “Watching the Detectives”). No matter – “Now that your pictures in the paper being rhythmically admired and you can have anyone that you have ever desired all you gotta tell me now is why, why, why, why,” is a pretty spectacular place to start.
7. The Cars “Good Times Roll”
As much as I don’t want to think I’m a hifalutin guy, I’m pretty snobby about a lot of stuff. but I’m not too snobby to recognize that The Cars were a fantastic band (and Elliot Easton is a motherfucking great player). That chunky rhythm sounds so perfect and lasts forever.
6. The Band “Tears of Rage” Music from Big Pink
When I first heard this song and this record (at the aforementioned Terry’s house) I plum lost my mind. I could not conceive how human beings could gather and make such gorgeous music. I’m still pretty confused by the whole thing.
5. Pretenders “Precious”
The Pretenders debut is a serious contender for the best first album – it is perfect, track to track and tone to tone. If it weren’t for the fact that the version of Precious on Extended Play is even better, this would be higher on the list.
4. Guns N’ Roses “Welcome to the Jungle” Appetite for Destruction
Things changed in the world when this track came out. I heard it on the radio (in Nacogdoches) and had to call the station to find out who that was and what had just happened. It was as mystifying as the Big Pink situation. Too bad nothing else they ever created was even close to as good.
3. Van Halen “Runnin’ with the Devil”
I am very thankful that I wasn’t already playing guitar when this came out. Minutemen (who I admire greatly) covered it on Double Nickels.
2. The Police “Next to You” Outlandos d’Amour
A lot of these debuts are very energetic, but this one takes the award (in this list). Excellent musicianship, songwriting, and performance. Under three minutes with perfectly arranged parts, a full on slide guitar solo, and a fade away chorus at the end.
1. Led Zeppelin “Good Times Bad Times”
Those drum triplets are amazing right off the bat, amazing riffage, 20-year old Robert Plant singing about the days of his youth, blisteringly perfect guitar solos, sublime bass fills. It’s the best.
If you like strong debut songs, check out Boo by Baby got Bacteria.
Alrighty, this was bound to happen – I missed a few. So consider these as well.
“Cannibal” on Scratch Acid’s The Greatest Gift
“1969” on The Stooges self-titled debut
“21st Century Schizoid Man” on King Crimson’s In The Court Of The Crimson King
“Fee” on Phish’s Junta
“Do It Again” on Steely Dan’s Can’t Buy a Thrill
“Break On Through (To the Other Side)” on The Doors self-titled debut
“Blitzkrieg Bop” on Ramones by the Ramones