Note: This article was originally written in November-December 2013 as a serialized, ten-part feature. This post compiles all ten of the original articles into a single piece, running in the proper chronological order (e.g. the conclusion is at the bottom, not the top, as happens in blogs) to help avoid spoilers if you weren’t reading along with the original posts in real time. This version of the article preserves structural relics from the original series in noting things like “yesterday we did . . . ” or “tomorrow we will . . . ” and with re-introductions of each of the sections, so hopefully those aren’t a distraction. The entire piece is copyright 2013, J. Eric Smith, and should not be reproduced in digital or print formats without the author’s specific authorization, and proper attribution back to this website.
PART ONE: FRAMING THE SCENE
Much of my internet notoriety (such as it is) stems from a series of articles that I wrote in the early 2000s that took interesting musical questions, and used them to frame NCAA-style, head-to-head tournaments, pitting records or artists against each other over a long series of blog posts to (in theory) reach arguably definitive answers to the questions posed.
The first one I did was called The Worst Rock Band Ever, and it ran in 2004, and generated no small amount of online fire. It blew up globally before we even had a settled term for web virality, and I still get hate mail from it. When that was over, I felt somewhat bad about wallowing in awfulness for as long as it took to produce the piece, so the next one I did evaluated a more enlightening scenario — the best band that few people have ever heard of — in a series called Beneath the Radar: Rock’s Greatest Secret Bands. Then, once again, I pivoted and evaluated Best of the Blockbusters: The Greatest (Popular) Record Ever, which sought to identify the highest quality album among the 64 most purchased records in history. I started a series called Slaughtering the Sacred Cows, designed to pick the most over-rated albums in rock history, but I aborted that one, since I decided that I knew what the likely answers were going to be before I wrote it, and I didn’t want to spend two weeks getting there. Then I took on a real labor of love: a 26,000-word essay called March of the Mellotrons: The Best Classic Progressive Rock Album Ever. That’s the defining gem of the bunch, if I say so myself. (After the fact editorial note: I later added Let’s Take It to the Stage: The Greatest Live Album Ever, as a collaborative tournament with two fellow music nerds).
In 2005, I decided that the next series I should run would be called “Great Out the Gate,” and it would analyze the 64 best debut albums ever, seeking to identify the greatest of the bunch. I spent a lot of time crafting the field of 64, incorporating input from two online communities in which I was active at the time, Upstate Wasted and the Xnet2 Liste. I finally came up with what felt like a good list . . . but just as I was about to start writing the series, I decided to take a blogging sabbatical instead, and the list of 64 albums went onto the back burner, where it has been sitting for the better part of a decade.
This week, though, I took that old list out, updated a few items, and plan to grind through a new list of 64 in the week(s) ahead to pick a best debut album ever.
What made me resuscitate this old and abandoned piece? The fact that Rolling Stone recently did a “Best Debut Album Ever” feature on their website, and badly botched the job, naming the dire Licensed to Ill by The Beastie Boys as the greatest debut album ever. No freakin’ way!!!! Here’s what I think about the Beastie Boys (with all due appropriate respects to their recently fallen member, whichever one he was, as I am sure he was a very nice man, when he wasn’t hurting childrens’ ears by singing at them).
So I have a list of 64 contenders for the best debut album ever, and you know what? There’s not a Beastie Boys record in the mix. Before I give it to you, though, I need to lay down the ground rules used to select the opening list, so you know why I and my collaborators included or (more likely) excluded your favorite record(s):
- Only long play albums are considered. No debut EPs, no debut singles.
- The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame sets a “25 year after debut album rule” for qualification, and I and my Xnet2 colleagues modified that slightly to set a 20-year rule: until your album has been proven to have legs over two decades, you don’t deserve to be considered “best ever.” So nothing released after 1993 makes this list, as much as it pained me to drop Korn (1994) from the pool. I think this is also fitting because 1993 marks a period of time when changes in radio programming philosophy and the emergence of digital playback devices fundamentally altered the way that many people perceive and play albums as singular entities, rather than collections of songs. This is not to say that grand music and grand debuts are not still being made: if you want to know which debuts I find the most compelling from 1993 to now, see the lists linked from here (1992 to 2011) and here (2012). My last two “Albums of the Year” (Planningtorock’s W and Goat’s World Music) were both debuts, but I’m not ready to pit them against The Velvet Underground and Nico or Never Mind the Bollocks or Enter the Wu-Tang or anything else in this list as great releases for the ages.
- As a general rule, a debut release had to be conceived as an album by the artist, not as a collection of singles put together with some filler by a record label. Admittedly, two of the early essential albums cited below (Elvis Presley and The Beatles’ Please Please Me) were bypassed through this particularly filter, largely because their nominal filler tracks are as good as the A-sides that most of their peers were releasing at the time. Somewhat arbitrarily (but no less authoritatively), we also decided that Bob Dylan’s and the Rolling Stones’ debut albums did not meet that “more than just a collection of songs” criteria. Because that’s how we roll here, the end.
- A debut release had to have a real impact: commercially, critically or creatively, there had to be some buzz and heat around its creation, and it should be regularly cited as an inspiration for groups that follow. And it should have some legs, too. Get the Knack and Foreigner were monster sellers out of the gate that spawned big radio hits, but nobody much cites them as musical landmarks all these years later, and neither group ever evolved much beyond what they were on day one, nor creatively influenced many people who followed.
- The cited debut should be one of the creating group’s better records, if not the best. If a group really made it’s mark with a later release (Nirvana’s Nevermind, for instance), their long-playing debut (Bleach, in this case) generally won’t make the cut, even if it is pretty good. Which Bleach isn’t, just for the record.
- Supergroups with pre-built-in buzz (Emerson Lake and Palmer, Crosby Stills and Nash, Cream, Asia, Derek and the Dominoes and suchlike) don’t qualify. We wanted the impact of surprise. A debut is not really a debut if it has already sold two million copies before it ships to stores due to the band members’ prior famous careers.
- The debut long playing record generally had to be the record that made the band in its audience’s and critics’ mind. For instance, bands like the Minutemen, Bauhaus, Black Flag, Tool, Clutch, Mission of Burma and Pavement didn’t make the list because their first LPs came well after definitive standalone EPs and singles that do not reappear on their debut albums had really gotten people interested in them already.
- For solo artists emerging from bands, there has to be a clear difference between the work of the band and the work of the solo artist. Bob Pollard coming out of Guided By Voices would not qualify, since he is Guided By Voices, for all practical intents and purposes. Brian Eno coming out of Roxy Music, on the other hand, would qualify. (Though Roxy Music themselves didn’t make the cut, since their debut album was badly recorded and paled in importance when placed against their early singles, most especially “Virginia Plain.”)
- 64 albums have been chosen for consideration. While I made the final call on which 64 made it, this list was developed far more collaboratively than any other ones I’ve done, with extensive suggestions, feedback and discussion via the aforementioned musical communities in which I am (or was) involved.
- The 64 albums were sorted chronologically, oldest to newest. The list was then cut in half, with #33 (chronologically) going up against #1 on the calendar, then #34 vs #2, etc. As it turns out, this puts the masters of the early rock era against the masters of the punk revolution, and then some of those class of ’77 bands against the early hip-hop pioneers, which seems fitting, since those are arguably the three most important musical revolutions of the past half century in popular music. At each round until the final four, the list will be sorted and parsed this way again to set subsequent competitions.
- When we get to the final four, all four of the records will go head to head against each of the others in a round robin format. Two points awarded to a winning album, zero to a losing album, one point each in the case of a tie. The record with the most points after the round robin is declared the victor. In the event of a tie, a track-by-track analysis will be conducted.
- As is the case with all of these sorts of essays, the opinions expressed in the reviews and commentary are mine. Yes, they are subjective. All music criticism is subjective. If I don’t pick an album you like, it doesn’t mean I think you are stupid or that I hate your group or you. I welcome and will respond to feedback of all varieties except this one: “Dude . . . [my favorite record] is awesome. You suck.” You can do better than that, right? Right.
Okay . . . those rules covered, here are the contenders in their 32 initial head-to-head pairings:
- Elvis Presley, Elvis Presley, (1956) vs. The Sex Pistols, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, (1977)
- The Beatles, Please Please Me, (1963) vs. Television, Marquee Moon, (1977)
- The Byrds, Mr. Tambourine Man, (1965) vs. Wire, Pink Flag, (1977)
- Mothers of Invention, Freak Out, (1966) vs. Richard Hell & The Voidoids, Blank Generation, (1977)
- Love, Love, (1966) vs. The Clash, The Clash, (1977)
- Buffalo Springfield, Buffalo Springfield, (1966) vs. Van Halen, Van Halen, (1978)
- The Doors, The Doors, (1967) vs. The Police, Outlandos D’Amour, (1978)
- The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Are You Experienced?, (1967) vs. Devo, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, (1978)
- Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, Gorilla, (1967) vs. Dire Straits, Dire Straits, (1978)
- Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band, Safe as Milk, (1967) vs. Pere Ubu, The Modern Dance, (1978)
- Pink Floyd, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, (1967) vs. The Cars, The Cars, (1978)
- The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground and Nico, (1967) vs. The B-52’s, The B-52’s, (1979)
- Leonard Cohen, Songs of Leonard Cohen, (1967) vs. Gang of Four, Entertainment!, (1979)
- The Band, Music from the Big Pink, (1968) vs. Joy Division, Unknown Pleasures, (1979)
- King Crimson, In the Court of the Crimson King, (1969) vs. The Specials, The Specials, (1979)
- The Stooges, The Stooges, (1969) vs. The Pretenders, The Pretenders, (1980)
- The Allman Brothers Band, The Allman Brothers Band, (1969) vs. X, Los Angeles, (1980)
- Black Sabbath, Black Sabbath, (1970) vs. U2, Boy, (1980)
- Big Star, #1 Record, (1972) vs. The Feelies, Crazy Rhythms, (1980)
- Steely Dan, Can’t Buy a Thrill, (1972) vs. The Go-Gos, Beauty and the Beat, (1981)
- Brian Eno, Here Come the Warm Jets, (1973) vs. R.E.M., Murmur, (1983)
- Lynyrd Skynyd, Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd, (1973) vs. Violent Femmes, Violent Femmes, (1983)
- Mike Oldfield, Tubular Bells, (1973) vs. Metallica, Kill ‘Em All, (1983)
- New York Dolls, New York Dolls, (1973) vs. Run-D.M.C., Run-D.M.C., (1984)
- Patti Smith, Horses, (1975) vs. Guns n’ Roses, Appetite for Destruction, (1987)
- The Dictators, Go Girl Crazy!, (1975) vs. Public Enemy, Yo! Bum Rush the Show, (1987)
- Ramones, Ramones, (1976) vs. Napalm Death, Scum, (1987)
- The Modern Lovers, The Modern Lovers, (1976) vs. N.W.A., N.W.A. and the Posse, (1987)
- Heart, Dreamboat Annie, (1976) vs. Cypress Hill, Cypress Hill, (1991)
- The Damned, Damned, Damned, Damned, (1977) vs. Rage Against the Machine, Rage Against the Machine, (1992)
- Talking Heads, Talking Heads: 77, (1977) vs. Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville, (1993)
- Elvis Costello, My Aim Is True, (1977) vs. The Wu-Tang Clan, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), (1993)
Over the next couple of weeks, I will analyze all of these pairings, pick winners, sort the survivors, and keep winnowing the field down until I can declare one record as the best debut album ever. This one is going to be a tough slog, on some plane, because there are no patsies on this list, unlike some of the other analyses I conducted. So it may be ugly, but it should be fun. Stay tuned!
PART TWO: THE FIRST QUARTER OF THE FIRST ROUND
So shall we kick this thing off and get going with the reviews? Yes, I believe we shall . . . as today I am going to try to get through eight of the 32 first-round contests on the road to “Greatest Out of the Gate.” Eight of these mini-essays are about as many as I can typically stand to do at a single sitting, so it’ll probably take four posts to get through the first round, two posts to get through the second, one to get through the Sweet Sixteen, and then it can start to accelerate from there, if I have the time to write. So probably a couple of weeks, soup to nuts, if all goes well. And without further ado, let’s start winnowing the herd . . .
Elvis Presley, Elvis Presley (1956) vs. The Sex Pistols, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols (1977): As noted in the intros, there are no patsies in this tournament, and we open with a head to head contest against arguably the bellwether albums of both the rock and roll era and its radical reinvention during punk’s reboot of the same. Both of these albums feature iconic cover images that have been widely parodied or imitated over the years. Both acts were highly divisive, often censored, and largely sniffed at by the musical powers that had been before them, but both found fervent audiences, and inspired countless other young people to embrace the power of three chords and a beat. Both Elvis Presley and Never Mind the Bollocks were highly anticipated in their home markets due to the impact of mass media: Elvis has garnered national attention through a series of appearances on the Dorsey Brothers Stage Show; the Sex Pistols, under the tutelage of skilled provocateur Malcolm McLaren, had deftly used radio, television and print media to raise both hackles and curiosity. Elvis’ debut was before my time, so I can’t attest first-hand to its impact, but I certainly remember living in the New York metropolitan area, desperately scanning the music trades to get a sense of what this “punk rock” thing looked and sounded like. Interestingly enough, once I actually got Never Mind the Bollocks, I realized that it sounded very little like what the Sex Pistols sounded like in the live snippets I’d caught on television. The recorded version of the Sex Pistols featured a veritable orchestra of over-dubbed mass guitars and basses (both played by Steve Jones, under engineer Chris Thomas’ direction) with Johnny Rotten’s spiky, spat vocal lines crisp and clear atop all of the riffage and roughage. And this, ultimately, is what makes me lean toward the Sex Pistols over Elvis in the first match of this contest: Elvis basically popped into the studio, did what he did live, caught it on tape, and off it went to the presses. We can wax effusive over the magic of early microphones or the sonic qualities of those classic Sun and RCA Record studios, but there’s not really a whole lot of production and engineering skill demonstrated on these early hits. Elvis was a product fully formed, and his debut album presents him, as he was. Never Mind the Bollocks takes a shambolic something clearly constructed to provoke, and pulls something magical out of the mess, something capable of inspiring even as it offends. The Better Debut Album: The Sex Pistols, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols (1977)
The Beatles, Please Please Me (1963) vs. Television, Marquee Moon (1977): Sure, Parlophone rushed Please Please Me onto the market to capitalize on the explosion of Beatlemania following the release of its title single and “Love Me Do.” And, yes, six of the album’s 14 songs (in its original U.K. edition) were covers of either classic rhythm and blues numbers, or cuts by polished professional songwriters (Carole King and Burt Bacharach among them), all well and enthusiastically played, but none really inspirational (with the possible exception of the John Lennon-helmed “Twist and Shout.”) And, absolutely, the Beatles public persona was as carefully, crassly conceived and managed at this stage in their career development as the Sex Pistols’ career was under Malcolm McLaren’s heavy guiding hand during their first (and last) year in the sun. But, boy, then there are those eight songs that Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote themselves, and the fact that the four Beatles played most of the instruments and sang most of the vocals on their own album, and that changed the way that music was made and marketed, forever. The Beatles were smart, sure, and they assimilated and incorporated from a variety of disparate literary and musical sources, but at the ultimate bottom line, on their debut album, they made a joyous, raucous, accessible, short and punchy noise, so universally liked that it’s almost a cliche when you encounter one of those “I don’t like the Beatles” people, who want to be different, just like all of the other “I don’t like the Beatles” people. On their debut album, New York’s Television went a different direction: Marquee Moon and its precursor single “Little Johnny Jewel” are defined by longer, solo-filled, complicated, angular songs, filled with evocative lyrics inspired by 19th Century Frenchmen, all exquisitely conceived and executed, but ultimately somehow off-putting, perhaps intentionally so. A Beatles lyric: “I saw her standing there!” A Television lyric: “There stood another person.” Similar words, but which one moves you most urgently? Exactly. The Better Debut Album: The Beatles, Please Please Me (1963)
The Byrds, Mr. Tambourine Man (1965) vs. Wire, Pink Flag (1977): The title track, and lead single, from the Byrds’ debut album is very much a product of its time: put a band together, find a Bob Dylan song, hire Terry Melcher to produce, get the Wrecking Crew to lay down your backing tracks, and sing tight three-part vocal harmony on top of it all. What made “Mr. Tambourine Man” sound so different from other similar studio products, then and now, was Jim (later Roger) McGuinn’s distinctive twelve-string Rickenbacker guitar, the only Byrd-played instrument allowed on the cut. (Note: If you describe the sound of this guitar as “jangling,” then I get to punch you in the head). By the time the group went into the studio to record the full album, Melcher had decided they could play their own instruments, though he only let them write five of the album’s original twelve cuts, and most of the songs that people remember from this album are ones penned by Dylan. It sounds gorgeous, sure, but it feels a bit more like a throwback to the studio machine days of yore than like the hippie revolution it presaged. Wire’s Pink Flag, on the other hand, was almost uniformly forward-looking: while they earned their early trips to stages and studios under the punk umbrella, by the time Pink Flag was released, they’d eschewed a lot of the trappings and topicality of punk (though Colin Newman still sang in the expected snotty voice), slowed down some of the tempos, and created fractured, minimalist songs that had virtually nothing to do with anything that came before them. “Three Girl Rhumba” and “Mannequin” demonstrate a particularly striking level of creative vision and execution, far ahead of virtually any of Wire’s punk peers, then or now. Wire’s producer, Mike Thorne, was an integral part of the group’s studio existence through their first three albums, and he did not make them play Bob Dylan songs, nor suggest that Larry Knechtel might be better at that bass part than Graham Lewis, what say we give that a try, fellas, huh? Plus, David Crosby was never a member of Wire, so that’s to their favor too. The Better Debut Album: Wire, Pink Flag (1977)
Mothers of Invention, Freak Out! (1966) vs. Richard Hell & The Voidoids, Blank Generation (1977): These seemingly disparate albums share one important, common trait: they reflect a point where their songwriters took a look at the world around them, right then, right where they were, and decided that they didn’t like it very much, at all. On the Mothers’ album, Frank Zappa’s sneered at California cool, Hollywood, Haight, advertising, hippies, suburbia, car culture, commerce. With the Voidoids, Richard Hell took a somewhat cooler, hipper, more French-poetry inspired view (he was in the original line-up of Television, after all), though he oozed just as much disapproval as Zappa did when he looked at the world on his stoop: junkies, urban blight, whores, vacant lots, trains, perpetual dives. Hell carried a commitment to intricate two-guitar interplay out of his time in Television, and Robert Quine and Ivan Julian make up one of the most improbably exceptional guitar tag-teams in rock and roll history, with just the perfect balance of abandon and skill, release and restraint, brutality and beauty. Like Wire’s Pink Flag, Blank Generation is largely composed of short, sharp shocks, with the exception of the stretched-out “Another World,” which takes up about 20% of the album’s sub-40 minute run time. The Mothers’ Freak Out!, on the other hand, was one of the very first double rock albums issued, running at just over a hour. Which seemed like a long time, then, even though that’s a short compact disc in these bloated days when bands often feel that more is more, even though more is less, most of the time. And that’s the case here too: there’s a load of brilliance on Freak Out! and many of the themes and styles that Zappa and his incredible cast of collaborators would pursue over the ensuing decades are here, in nascent form, but Side Four’s “The Return of the Son of Monster Magnet (Unfinished Ballet in Two Tableau),” with its sub-movements “Ritual Dance of the Child Killers” and “Nullis Pretii (No Commercial Potential),” really cause the album to end more in a “wore out its welcome” mode than with a feeling of triumphant accomplishment. Plus, Blank Generation is easily the best thing in Richard Hell’s relatively limited canon, while Freak Out! is nowhere close to the greatness that Zappa would ultimately attain. Game, set, match . . . on a broken television in an empty lot with a needle sticking out of its side, as a train goes by. Blankly. The Better Debut Album: Richard Hell & The Voidoids, Blank Generation (1977)
Love, Love (1966) vs. The Clash, The Clash (1977): Our prior contest pitted pre-Summer of Love California against New York’s Lower East Side at the height of the Punk Era. This head-to-head finds one contender from that same mellow season in California, with the other representing yet another concussion from the punk explosion, one spawned by four chaps whose feet in modern times did walk upon London’s grey and unpleasant lands. Because they’re English, you see. Right. The Clash’s debut album has a messy release history; it was not issued in the U.S. at the time of its original 1977 release, sold well as a high-priced import, then was put out in the States in ’79 with a different collection of songs, after the Clash’s inferior sophomore slab, Give ‘Em More Rope, served as the first readily-accessible record of Clashdom in the Sam Goody’s and Records Bars of the day. In the U.K. though, the album was highly anticipated, sold well, and was critically acclaimed. Its incorporation of reggae styles and songs was hugely influential, as the emergence soon thereafter of the 2 Tone ska revival, and that movement’s ties to political punk, made clear. Where many of the early English punk bands’ politics were of the generic “down with the man” variety, the Clash’s targets were topical, specific, and very effectively skewered. This is a great disc, at bottom line, and it’s somewhat remarkable that they were able to produce an even greater one on this template two years later with London Calling (which, for the record, has an album cover inspired by that first Elvis album we talked about above). What’s nice about The Clash is that when you listen to it side by side with the later London Calling, the newer album doesn’t make the debut sound half-formed. You can hear that they are cut from the cloth, with the latter album just sewed into a larger, sharper suit. That’s not the case with Love’s self-titled debut album. It’s good, for sure, and a lot of the key elements of the band’s later greatness are in place: Arthur Lee was a visionary songwriter and arranger with an awesome voice, and the classic era Love line-up has got chops to spare, and deploys them across a wide variety of song styles and structures. But when you listen to Love side by side with the better known (and better) Forever Changes from 1967, it’s clear that this debut disc was simply an embryonic form of something that didn’t grow to full form until its creators had three albums under their belt. And that makes it hard for me to get excited about this particular debut album, where The Clash still invigorates me, even from deep within the penumbra of London Calling‘s formidable shadow. The Better Debut Album: The Clash, The Clash (1977)
Buffalo Springfield, Buffalo Springfield (1966) vs. Van Halen, Van Halen (1978): Buffalo Springfield (the band) have spawned an incredible family tree of incredible musicians collaborating in an incredible number of configurations over the years, some of them involving David Crosby, but that happens later, so we can’t hold it against them here. Much. The line-up that appears on their self-titled debut album (Neil Young, Stephen Stills, Richie Furay, Bruce Palmer and Dewey Martin) had a reputation for fiery live shows, largely built on the ferocious interplay between the Mercurial, egomaniacal geniuses Young and Stills. Unfortunately, you don’t get much of that on their debut album, which finds the focus shifted to pretty harmonies (and, boy, they really, truly are gorgeous) and early country-rock crossover numbers of the sort that Furay would truly make his own with Poco, after he split from the Springfield with fellow traveler Jim Messina. Buffalo Springfield had a great hit song, “For What It’s Worth,” the year their debut came out, though it wasn’t actually on the album in its original configuration, but instead had to be grafted on after the fact in a rushed reissue. By all accounts, the members of Buffalo Springfield themselves were disappointed by this album, so that’s not a strong endorsement of it, despite the long reach it has maintained down the years through the knotted family tree it spawned. Van Halen’s debut, on the other hand, radically changed the way that a whole generation of players approached the electric guitar, with the two minute instrumental “Eruption” inspiring legions of teenage boys (mostly, Marnie Stern notwithstanding) to widdle and widdle and widdle away with abandon at the music store, desperately seeking sustain. Van Halen‘s album cover finds the quartet rocking out big like rock stars, even though they weren’t, yet, and they had a logo that looked great if you carved it into a school desk. Their debut has got plenty of bad attitude to spare, introduces their trademark pulsing bass and drum beat (you know it . . . you can just go “Womp! Womp! Womp! Womp!” at regular intervals in any Van Halen song, and it works), and instead of stopping, children, to figure out what that sound is, David Lee Roth is freakin’ RUNNING WITH THE DEVIL!!! I’m sold. The Better Debut Album: Van Halen, Van Halen (1978)
The Doors, The Doors (1967) vs. The Police, Outlandos D’Amour (1978): Do you remember back in the days before anybody knew just how much of a tool Sting really is? Yeah, I know it’s hard to believe, but it’s true! When Outlandos D’Amour first came out, it seemed at first to be a nice progression further down that jazzy-punky-reggae path that the Clash had first mapped on their own debut, and after a bit of a false marketing start, the album actually became popular on both side of the Atlantic, with “RAAAAAAAAACK-SAN” quickly entering the greater cultural vernacular as one of those words and voices that anybody can say, and everybody else will know where it comes from. (Eddie Murphy’s a capella with a Walkman rendition from 48 Hrs is probably the best example of this, of course, though I think Eddie was probably tapping a cultural meme that had already galloped out of the barn at that point, rather than making an original creative statement). And even before we got to see Sting all buff and sleek in a winged codpiece in David Lynch’s Dune, he and his two band mates certainly had that perky, edgy, spiky blonde thing going great guns on their broody album cover shot, which features what appears to be an electric exclamation point popping out of Andy Summers’ head, unbidden. Of course, we know that this was all well-machined styling, since Summers was actually much older than the group’s target audience and had once played with the Soft Machine (among others of a decidedly non-punk provenance), and drummer Stewart Copeland was the scion of a wealthy family of spies and record company executives, and Sting was a master of tantric sex who hoped the Russians loved their children too. Oh, did we mention that there’s a creepy piece called “Sally” about a blow-up doll, and it’s no “In Every Dream Home, A Heartache”? Do we need to? Can any of this compete with all the sexy baritone and swirly organ and electric sitar and poetry, man, not lyrics, and brushed cymbals and ticky-tock snares and all the other madness that was the Doors first album? C’mon baby, let’s light Jimbo’s fire and break on through to the other side, since this is the end for the Police. No appeal. No parole. And put your shirt back on, Sting. Nobody wants to look at that. Thank you. The Better Debut Album: The Doors, The Doors (1967)
The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Are You Experienced? (1967) vs. Devo, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! (1978): Most music geeks (is anybody reading this deep into this article who would not claim to be one?) can cite defining moments in their listening experiences, when they heard or saw or heard and saw things that fundamentally re-wired their brains with regard to how they (okay, we) perceive music. For me, the first time I heard Robert Fripp’s guitar solo on Brian Eno’s “Baby’s on Fire,” somewhere on Long Island, on then-progressive rock radio station WLIR (progressive did not mean then what it means now, by the way) was probably my own most amazing, a-ha moment as a music lover, and my subsequent record collection reflects the huge influence that both Fripp and Eno and so many of their collaborators have had on my listening habits over the years. (Though, for the record, at the time it was kind of embarrassing that in order to get “Baby’s on Fire,” I had to go buy Eno’s Here Come the Warm Jets at a suburban mall chain record store, where a slightly older, sort of slutty looking female cashier gazed at me with open derision, gum smacking loudly, as she rang up my purchase; click the link if you don’t know what the album cover looks like). But anyway, this piece is not about Eno (we get to him later), it is about Hendrix and Devo, and I can tell you about the second most influential moment in my life as a listener, another point where everything changed for me, for the better. It occurred when Devo appeared on Saturday Night Live in October, 1978 to play “Jocko Homo” and “Satisfaction.”I was horrified and fascinated, in equal measure, and I still think these are among the greatest live music performances I have ever seen, by anybody, anywhere. And then we get back to Eno: imagine my delight when I learned that the creator of “Baby’s On Fire” was also the producer of Devo’s debut album, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! I hoovered it up quickly, and fell in love with its bizarre instrumentation, catchy (but hellaciously weird) songs, and the perverse worldview embodied in the concept of “devolution.” As I did research in those pre-Internet days (Readers Guide to Periodic Literature on microfilm, anybody?), I learned that Devo had been diligently practicing their highly eccentric fare in the post-industrial wastelands between Akron and Cleveland, Ohio since the early 1970s, and that they had ties to the Kent State shootings (!) and James Gang guitarist Joe Walsh (!!). When I listened to them, I truly had the feeling that I was looking decades ahead into the history of music, and that I was an early part of something very, very important, musically, socially, culturally, holistically. Oh, what’s that you say? What about Hendrix? Well, my introduction to him was when I went to see a late-night screening of Jimi Plays Berkeley at the Uniondale Mini Cinema on Long Island. As it turns out, I got to touch a girl’s boobs that night, in the back row, while Hendrix did his thing onscreen. Ummmmmmmmmm . . . . The Better Debut Album: The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Are You Experienced? (1967)
Okay, so there you go, eight contests down, twenty-four to go in the first round, huttah! (You thought I was going to pick Devo, didn’t you?)(Go ahead, tell the truth . . . you were getting all puffed up with righteous indignation, planning your scathing comments, plotting the witty repartee with which you would skewer me . . . come on . . . admit it . . . you know you were). The following eight albums move on to the second round, though I cannot tell you what they will compete against, until we complete the entire field of 32. See you in a day or two, for the second quarter of the first round. Happy listening!
The Beatles, Please Please Me (1963)
The Doors, The Doors (1967)
The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Are You Experienced? (1967)
The Sex Pistols, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols (1977)
The Clash, The Clash (1977)
Richard Hell & The Voidoids, Blank Generation (1977)
Wire, Pink Flag (1977)
Van Halen, Van Halen (1978)
PART THREE: SECOND QUARTER OF THE FIRST ROUND
Zoom, zoom, zoom . . . let’s keep rolling on the road toward the best debut album ever! Today I will work through the second eight contests of the original 32 head-to-heads, and when I am done, half of the second round will be populated. Ready, steady . . . go!
Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, Gorilla (1967) vs. Dire Straits, Dire Straits (1978): Before their debut album hit the racks, The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band’s shambolic, frenetic, big band vaudeville act (see this 1966 clip of “Won’t You Come Home, Bill Bailey?” for a benchmark) had earned them friends in high places: they were cast as regulars on the popular U.K. television show Do Not Adjust Your Set (along with pre-Monty Pythons Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin), and Paul McCartney had invited them to perform their original number, “Death Cab for Cutie,” in the woefully misconceived Magical Mystery Tour television special. With a stripper onstage, no less, and front-man nutter Vivian Stanshall providing one of the most quintessentially pure versions of Vegas Lounge Lizard Sleaze ever captured on vinyl or film. “Death Cab” appears on the Bonzo’s debut disc, Gorilla, along with a delightful mix of originals by Stanshall and Neil Innes (who later earned additional cult fame for his work with Monty Python and The Rutles), and some truly disrespectful deconstructions of such then canon classics as “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” and “The Sound of Music.” The band had tightened considerably by this point, shedding extraneous horn players and percussionists, with Stanshall and Innes being joined by “Legs” Larry Smith, Rodney Slater and Roger Ruskin Spear as the core creative entity for the remainder of their unfortunately brief original run. But Stanshall and Smith were all over the place during the early ’70s, performing on loads of other people’s records, and being scenesters and bon vivants par excellence. “Cool Britannia” and “The Intro and the Outro” remain fresh to this day as perfect nuggets of jazz flavored weirdness, with Stanshall ever perfect in his role as (seemingly) straight man narrator above the frenzy around him. Gorilla (“Dedicated to Kong, who must have been a smashing bloke”) doesn’t much sound like anybody or anything else not named Bonzo, and it finds the sweet spot where their jazz and rock influences mingled most effectively, with rock taking the lead on later discs, after the McCartney-produced, Innes-penned “I’m the Urban Spaceman” became a big hit in ’68. When Dire Straits’ debut album came out a decade later, reviews often evoked its vibe with references to jazz clubs and other noir elements (the hit single “Sultans of Swing” certainly helped evoke such images), but this was cool jazz, not hot, with Mark Knopfler’s exquisite guitar work serving as the most engaging and memorable element on many of the disc’s songs. The Bonzos’ Gorilla features a song called “Jazz (Delicious Hot, Disgusting Cold)”. While I certainly wouldn’t go so far as to call the cool Dire Straits disgusting in any way, shape or form, I can clearly tell you that it is not as delicious as a hot Gorilla. The Better Debut Album: Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, Gorilla (1967)
Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band, Safe as Milk (1967) vs. Pere Ubu, The Modern Dance (1978): Now this is an interesting contest, in terms of how we must consider cause and effect when evaluating albums from different eras that might have influenced each other. Pere Ubu’s stalwart frontman and visionary David Thomas is often cited as holding Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa as key role models and inspirations during his formative years as a performer; in Clinton Heylin’s From the Velvets to the Voidoids, in fact, Thomas notes that Zappa’s Hot Rats and Uncle Meat and Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica were the first three albums he ever purchased. Thomas’ love for such wildly experimental fare contributed to the demise of his original band, Rocket from the Tombs: the rockers from the Rockets went on to form the punkier Dead Boys, while the weirdos in the group founded the arty Pere Ubu. At their artiest, though, even Ubu would be hard-pressed to hold a candle to that shining pinnacle of magical, musical weirdness, Trout Mask Replica, one of the most argued over albums in rock history, either a brilliant masterstroke or a masturbatory mess, or maybe both, depending on where you view it from. But Trout Mask was two years and many members removed from Beefheart’s 1967 debut, Safe as Milk; only Beeheart and drummer/arranger John French appear on both discs. While Safe as Milk is a great blues-based record featuring some hot licks from a young Ry Cooder, there are really only two songs that would generally be called “Beefheartian” in the sense that people would understand that adjective, post-Trout Mask: “Electricity” and “Abba Zaba.” Ubu’s The Modern Dance, on the other hand, is about as “Ubuesque” as you can get: its opening aural impression is of Allen Ravenstine’s squealing EML Synthesizer, which wails on like a old fax machine trying to connect down a bad phone line for far longer than is comfortable, before being joined by the loping rhythms created by Scott Krauss, Tony Maimone and Tom Herman, and Thomas’ instantly recognizable warble. It’s a better record than Safe as Milk, at bottom line, even if Safe as Milk had to happen for it to exist. Ubu got it right out of the box. It took Beefheart longer to get there. Sometimes the students surpass their masters. The Better Debut Album: Pere Ubu, The Modern Dance (1978)
Pink Floyd, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967) vs. The Cars, The Cars (1978): It has seemingly always been cool to love The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, and to embrace the legendary, fractured genius of Syd Barrett, which pours out most lucidly on Pink Floyd’s debut album, the only one where he appears prominently. (By the time of the group’s sophomore disc, A Saucerful of Secrets, David Gilmour had joined to provide vocals and guitars as Barrett became more erratic, leaving Syd as essentially a guest cameo performer on three tracks, only one of which he wrote). As best I can remember, it has virtually never been cool to love The Cars, even though their album and the surprisingly deep series of hit singles that it spawned were absolutely ubiquitous on radio for the better part of two years as the Seventies wound to a close. The Cars were one of those groups that sounded great, and didn’t offend sensibilities, though very few people would have gone out of their ways to brag about having their debut album in their record collections, even though lots of them did. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, on the other hand, would be a record that you’d readily pull off the shelf and show off to demonstrate your critical cred, ideally in front of impressionable members of the opposite sex. Piper makes you look cool, even as it offers a hodge-podge of sounds, both musical and non, ranging from the raging experimental guitar freakout of “Interstellar Overdrive” to the twee, childish sing-song of “Bike” and its mechanical clockwork closing sequence. There are brilliant bits, for sure, but also some dross, and early singles “Arnold Layne” and “See Emily Play” were not among the original track listings; the latter cut was added to the U.S. edition, replacing the clearly superior “Astonomy Domine.” The Cars, to compare and contrast, is slick and consistent: pretty much every song has the same great sonic sheen, and even having two lead vocalists (Ric Ocasek and Benjamin Orr) doesn’t make that much of a difference, since it was hard to tell them apart until you listened to their songs side by side. Which you rarely did, since you mainly heard them on the radio, singing along when you didn’t think anybody was paying attention, lest the Piper kids look up from their Dungeons & Dragons game in the school cafeteria to ooze disapproval at you. As you can probably tell, the iconoclast in me wants to challenge the unassailable mythology of look-back bore favorite Piper: it’s not Pink Floyd’s greatest album, the lyrics are almost universally dreadful (I can’t make it through the puerile “The Gnome”), it sounds very dated and of its time, and Syd’s genius is, I think, tragically over-stated in terms of what actually happens on this record vs what he did before it (scintillating, charismatic live performances) and after it (madness and isolation). We pity him, and we over-inflate the value of his limited recorded work as a result. But, sigh, I just can’t bring myself to credibly advance The Cars over The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, no matter how good The Cars sounded on Seventies rock radio, oftentimes side by side with superior later Gilmour-fronted Pink Floyd cuts. I guess that’s just what you needed, right, Grimble Crumble? Now get back to your Dungeons & Dragons game and shut up. The Better Debut Album: Pink Floyd, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967)
The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967) vs. The B-52’s, The B-52’s (1979): The B-52’s exploded at a time when quirky female singers were all over New Wave-flavored radio, and gems like “Planet Claire” and “52 Girls” and (most especially) “Rock Lobster” fit right in when snuggled up against tracks by the likes of Nina Hagen, Lene Lovich, Flying Lizards and others. If you’d asked me at that time, though, which of those quirky female-fronted groups would still be making a fortune on their back catalog 30+ years later, I am not sure that I would have picked the B-52’s as the group that could do it, especially after they lost founding guitarist-songwriter Ricky Wilson to AIDS. While Fred Schneider adds his instantly recognizable and distinctive nasal tone to the proceedings, the real magic in the B-52’s has always happened when Cindy Wilson takes the lead, with Kate Pierson offering tight harmony or counterpoint lines, and because of this “Dance This Mess Around” is, to me, the greatest song on the band’s greatest album. The B’s also get credit for putting Athens, Georgia on the nation’s musical radar screen, even though they had actually left it and moved to New York by the time they got famous. But as lovely and loveable and fun as they were (and remain), they’re competing against The Velvet Underground and Nico, which introduced us to the seedy underbelly of New York, and to Lou Reed, and to Andy Warhol, and Nico, and John Cale, and to the banana cover, and to so, so, so much more. The Velvet Underground did not dance any mess around. They did not do the Camel Walk. Their 52 girls were junkies, or transvestites, or whores, or masochists, or all of the above. The Black Angel will trump the Rock Lobster, every time. Eric says. The Better Debut Album: The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967)
Leonard Cohen, Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967) vs. Gang of Four, Entertainment! (1979): Leonard Cohen was, and remains, an extraordinary songwriter. His aptly-titled debut disc contains a beautifully rich and mature collection of lyrics and melodies that have been covered over the years by everyone from Fairport Convention to Nick Cave, Harry Belafonte to the Lemonheads, and Will Oldham to the Flying Lizards, among countless others. Cohen’s songs are so strong, and so universal, that they readily lend themselves to reinterpretation and assimilation into other artists’ canons, with the most famous example of that these days being his ubiquitous “Hallelujah” in either its John Cale or Jeff Buckley version. (“Hallelujah” is not on Songs of Leonard Cohen, but came much later, on 1984’s Various Positions, ably demonstrating the longevity of Cohen’s songwriting skill). Unfortunately, Songs of Leonard Cohen is sung with the Voice of Leonard Cohen, and that’s not quite as grand as the material itself, nor many of the later, superior cover versions. On his debut album, Cohen sort of sounds like a cross between Neil Diamond and Nick Drake, which might be good if he captured the best facets of those two singers voices, but he tends to mine the weaker facets instead: breathy delivery in a somewhat monotone baritone. The sparse horn and string arrangements on Songs of Leonard Cohen are also a bit on the studio hack side (Cohen himself is said not to have cared for many of them), so the overall listening experience is not particularly thrilling, despite the A+ caliber material. Gang of Four’s Andy Gill seems to have taken some pointers from Cohen’s vocal stylings, offering a similar flat, monotone, breathy delivery, only with the added burden of an exceptionally thick English accent. Fortunately, Gill sings only to offer occasional contrast with Jon King’s powerful tenor, spending most of his time spraying his incredibly distinctive, broken-glass and shrapnel sounding shards of guitar noise atop the gargantuan rhythm rumblings of Dave Allen (bass) and Hugo Burnham (drums). Entertainment! also offered strong songs, though very, very different from Cohen’s: politically astute, socially sharp, and rich with word play every bit as angular as the music itself. It was filled with smart music, and its frenetic, edgy energy was infectious in ways that the laconic Songs of Leonard Cohen could never, ever be, and it ends with Gill and King intoning this epic lyrical line: “Love will get you like a case of anthrax, and that’s something I don’t want to catch.” Hallelujah! The Better Debut Album: Gang of Four, Entertainment! (1979)
The Band, Music from the Big Pink (1968) vs. Joy Division, Unknown Pleasures (1979): The Band’s debut album, Music from the Big Pink has one of the longer periods of maturation and incubation to be found among the 64 contenders in this contest. Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Robbie Robertson and Richard Manuel came together as a performing group between 1957 and 1962 in Toronto, serving as a backing band to Ronnie Hawkins until their band leader’s dictatorial ways led them to strike out on their own, as Levon and the Hawks, in 1964. In 1965, Bob Dylan was looking for a backing group for his first electric tour, and through a fortuitous series of introductions, the Hawks hit the road with him as “Bob Dylan and the Band.” On that long tour, The Band were often resoundingly reviled by folk purists who could not stomach the fact that Dylan had “gone electric,” an experience that traumatized Helm into leaving the group. After Dylan’s infamous motorcycle accident, the Band migrated to Woodstock to be near him during his convalescence, and during that time, they recorded the epic and widely-bootlegged Basement Tapes (which eventually received an official release in 1975), capturing over 100 tracks that incorporated new songs, classic American folk material, and covers by other contemporary artists, mostly delivered in intimate, acoustic, house-bound, homey settings. So by the time the Band (with Helm back in the fold) got around to recording their nominal debut, they’d achieved a level of notoriety, fame, touring and recording experience that far out-stripped the experiences most debut artists could ever bring to the table for their first studio forays. That depth shows in the finished product: Music from the Big Pink is filled with great songs and performances, and all sorts of Americana and Roots and No Depression and Neo-Folk musical threads trace their lineage back to this great, home-spun, story-tellers album. It was not quite rock, and not quite country, and not quite folk, but it forged something greater from the best facets of each of those genres. It’s a uniquely American album, made by Canadians. Go figure. In many ways, Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures comes from, and represents, almost completely diametrically opposing creative positions. Where Big Pink is warm and inviting, Unknown Pleasures is cold, forbidding, austere. Where Big Pink offers gorgeous singing by five deeply talented, very distinctive vocalists, Unknown Pleasures features Ian Curtis’ plaintive baritone bleat, occasionally supplemented by the very same-sounding Peter Hook and Stephen Morris. Where Big Pink is rural, Unknown Pleasures is urban. Where Big Pink used simple recording technology to capture traditional instruments, Unknown Pleasures featured studio madman Martin Hannett using every processing trick at his disposal to create a soundscape that is still startlingly other-worldly. Big Pink‘s album cover featured a childish, colorful painting by Dylan, Unknown Pleasures came in a stark black sleeve with a white graphic rendering of radio waves emanating from a dying star. And so on, and so on, and so on. Neither album sold well upon release, though both were generally well received, critically. Joy Division, sadly, benefited in the marketing department after Ian Curtis’ tragic suicide, which retroactively added heft and menace to the claustrophobic words and images that fill Unknown Pleasures‘ lyrics. And it’s that retroactive reassessment following a tragedy that leads me to tip my hand toward Music from the Big Pink as the better album in this contest, though an hour ago, before I wrote this blurb, I probably would have considered Unknown Pleasures a shoe-in to advance. Big Pink is simply a joy to play and hear. Unknown Pleasures is important, but sad. I’m going to embrace the sunshine on this one. The Better Debut Album: The Band, Music from the Big Pink (1968)
King Crimson, In the Court of the Crimson King (1969) vs. The Specials, The Specials (1979): In the Court of the Crimson King offered a startling, unique musical vision, one where classical music motifs, techniques and themes were abused by abrasive cutting edge recording technology, stretched over ungainly rhythmic patterns, and topped with powerful vocal declamations of some of the most truly hippie-tastic lyrics even penned. The line-up that created In the Court (Robert Fripp, Greg Lake, Michael Giles, Ian McDonald and Peter Sinfield) had an unbelievable life cycle: they first rehearsed in January 1969, played their first live show in April 1969, won rave reviews for a blistering performance on the undercard of the Rolling Stones’ famed Hyde Park concert in July 1969, released their debut album in October 1969, and fell apart at the end of a U.S. tour in December 1969, never to play together again. Less than a one-year life, but they left behind a truly remarkable record that can readily be touted as the first great manifestation of the progressive rock movement. We must also note Barry Godber’s shocking red scream album cover painting, which somehow perfectly captured the frenzied, frightening energy within; Godber died young, soon after the band broke up, so there’s another example of how many of those associated with this record flamed fast and brilliantly, then were gone. Robert Fripp has soldiered on, intermittently, with King Crimson to this day, while Greg Lake went on to Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Ian McDonald went on to Foreigner, and Peter Sinfield went on to be a producer and lyricist for hire to everyone from Roxy Music to Celine Dion. Their impact, together and apart, has been huge and far-reaching. And, to be fair, so has the impact of The Specials, whose 1979 self-titled debut was one of the first records to fully exploit that great and perfect space where punk energy and Jamaican musical traditions fit together most effectively. The Specials were also visually powerful: a multi-ethnic band at a time when racial tensions ran high in England, dressed in porkpie hats, and distributed on keyboardist-songwriter Jerry Dammers’ own 2 Tone record label, whose products were almost all packaged in striking, retro-themed album sleeves. Elvis Costello, still young and angry himself at that point, produced The Specials, which features a blend of reinterpreted classic Jamaican ska songs, and topical original numbers by Dammers and his bandmates. This album was urgent, political, explosive and, best of all, crazy fun to listen to. As with the original King Crimson, though, the original Specials line-up was not built to last, and after a solid second album (that added interesting cocktail lounge music elements to the mix) and the epic Ghost Town single, vocalists Terry Hall, Neville Staples and Lynval Golding left to form The Fun Boy Three, while Dammers reorganized the band for one final record, which included the wonderful (and perhaps effective) “Free Nelson Mandela.” Any modern ska band, and many modern political bands, owe a debt to The Specials and their wonderful debut album. But, at bottom line, it was a reinterpretation of a musical idiom that already existed, while the best moments of In the Court of the Crimson King actually invented new sounds and styles that had never been heard before. We’ve gotta go with the innovators in this case, though I had to think about this one longer than I would have thought necessary to reach that conclusion. Hmmm. The Better Debut Album: King Crimson, In the Court of the Crimson King (1969)
The Stooges, The Stooges (1969) vs. The Pretenders, The Pretenders (1980): As noted multiple times already, one of the hard things about this series, compared to earlier series, is that there aren’t really any weak links, so there aren’t a lot of contests where I can just dispatch somebody with a witty line or two, because the outcome is so clearly obvious up front, given the relative objective strengths and weaknesses of the contenders. And because the albums cited here are, objectively, all pretty darn good, I actually enjoy listening to the vast majority of them, and get excited about pitting them against each other. But this particular contest does not fill me with that sense of miracles and wonders, since I don’t really like to listen to either of these albums. Oh, yeah, I know they’re good, and I know they’re important, but I just would never sit down in my office, look at the 12,000+ songs in my iTunes account and declare: “A-ha! I must hear ‘Brass in Pocket’ right now!” or “Gee! Tonight is a great night for ‘No Fun,’ isn’t it?” So as I ponder this contest, what I end up really thinking about is not what’s great about these two records, but why I find them off-putting. Let’s look at the Stooges first: they were an undeniably spectacular live band, but a lot of their schtick is just dead on arrival after having been processed through John Cale’s production on their self-titled debut album. I know there is all sorts of proto-punk and raw power happening here, but it all sounds thin and enervated to me, and no amount of sub-woofer bumping can improve that. For what it’s worth, David Bowie screwed up The Stooges’ third album in the production and mixing process, too, leaving their sophomore disc, Fun House, as the one that I actually really like to listen to, as it’s got great songs, recorded far better than anything else in the early Iggy canon. And what about the Pretenders? I really love their third album, Learning to Crawl, but much of their debut leaves me cold. I don’t care for any of the debut’s singles (“Brass in Pocket,” “Stop Your Sobbing,” and “Kid”), all of which feel too precious and processed to me, and the deeper album cuts that I like aren’t enough to draw me in deep enough to actively listen to them anymore. Chrissie Hynde is obviously an undeniable force of nature, and I always loved the fact that she managed to jump from the same geographic gene pool that produced Devo and Pere Ubu to the world of international superstardom. But, for me, her creative voice after the loss of James Honeyman-Scott and Pete Farndon is much more appealing to me than what she offered on her debut disc, as well-produced and well-performed as it is. So, you know, I’m not excited to write much about either of these two albums, so I’m going to defer to critical convention and pick Iggy over Chrissie, since he’s been doing his thing for a decade or more longer than she has. But there’s no enthusiasm in my choice, just for the record, as you look to round two. The Better Debut Album: The Stooges, The Stooges (1969)
So there we have it, with half of our second round field of 32 already in place. I add the winners above to yesterday’s crop to create the list below, in chronological order from oldest to newest. More great contests to come soon. Stay tuned!
The Beatles, Please Please Me (1963)
The Doors, The Doors (1967)
The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Are You Experienced? (1967)
Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, Gorilla (1967)
Pink Floyd, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967)
The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967)
The Band, Music from the Big Pink (1968)
The Stooges, The Stooges (1969)
King Crimson, In the Court of the Crimson King (1969)
The Sex Pistols, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols (1977)
The Clash, The Clash (1977)
Richard Hell & The Voidoids, Blank Generation (1977)
Wire, Pink Flag (1977)
Van Halen, Van Halen (1978)
Pere Ubu, The Modern Dance (1978)
Gang of Four, Entertainment! (1979)
PART FOUR: THIRD QUARTER OF THE FIRST ROUND
And the beat goes on . . . . today I assess eight more first round head-to-head contests in our trek toward identifying the best debut album ever. Without further ado, let’s get to the matches . . .
The Allman Brothers Band, The Allman Brothers Band (1969) vs. X, Los Angeles (1980): As with The Band in yesterday’s contests, there was a lot more depth and history to The Allman Brothers Band at the time when they released their debut album than met the eye. Gregg and Duane Allman had been performing together in bands in Florida, most notably the Allman Joys, since the early 1960s. In 1967, they moved to California, formed a new band called The Hour Glass, signed with Liberty Records, and released two (flop) albums. After The Hour Glass broke up, Duane Allman moved to Muscle Shoals, Alabama and became a choice session guitarist for the legendary FAME Studios, while Gregg moved back to Florida and began working clubs with most of the other musicians who would form the original lineup of The Allman Brothers Band. In the same year that The Allman Brothers Band was released, Duane Allman appeared on albums by Boz Scaggs, Wilson Pickett, Clarence Carter, Otis Rush, King Curtis, and countless others whose albums generally sold a whole lot better than the first Allman Brothers Band record did. Which is surprising, really, because the Allmans’ debut contains six classic Gregg Allman compositions (including concert stalwarts “Dreams” and “Whipping Post”), plus a pair of covers from the Spencer Davis Group and Muddy Waters catalogs that fit perfectly among the originals. While Duane Allman’s guitar had already earned him acclamation beyond his own band, and his interplay with Dickie Betts on this and subsequent albums was truly the stuff of legend, Gregg Allman proved to be the real harbinger of the band’s sound, with his powerful vocals and swirling organ giving the proceedings a rich and powerful resonance, deeply tied to the South’s great rhythm and blues traditions. Duane Allman would be dead a couple of years later, and Gregg Allman would soon enter into a long-term struggle with Dickie Betts over creative and songwriting control of the band, but on this debut and the subsequent Idelwild South, they are a tight and deeply talented band, with far-reaching influence on “Southern Rock” (a genre they arguably founded) and the jam band scene that embraced them as heroes after the Grateful Dead expired post-Jerry. But don’t hold that against them. X emerged from the Los Angeles punk scene, but they, too, were not all snot-nosed newcomers, either, when they made their way into the recording studio: Billy Zoom had been an L.A. session player for a decade, working with the likes of Gene Vincent and others, and legendary Doors member Ray Manzarek provided keyboards and production on X’s paean to their adopted hometown, Los Angeles. While X certainly paid their dues in the trenches of L.A.’s particularly noxious punk scene (they were prominently featured in Penelope Spheeris’ The Decline of Western Civilization), they were never much like their peers and colleagues, musically: John Doe and Exene Cervenka’s powerful he-she harmonies and vocal call and responses, the country overtones of Doe’s songwriting, Zoom’s rockabilly guitar skills, and the tight rhythm section of Doe and D.J. Bonebrake were about as far from the Germs, Black Flag and Screamers as you could get, in L.A. or anywhere else. With Manzarek remaining in the producer’s chair, X released an extraordinarily high quality string of four studio albums in just over three years, with nary a sophomore, junior or senior slump among them. While I would not cite Los Angeles as the best of those first four X albums, it’s slightly more solid, beginning to end, than the excellent The Allman Brothers Band debut, so I’m awarding them the victory in this case, by the slimmest of margins. The Better Debut Album: X, Los Angeles (1980)
Black Sabbath, Black Sabbath (1970) vs. U2, Boy (1980): Black Sabbath pulled off the Spinal Tap-worthy coup on their debut by having a song called “Black Sabbath” on an album called Black Sabbath by a band called Black Sabbath. (See also “Bad Company” on Bad Company by Bad Company, and “Motorhead” on Motorhead by Motorhead, among others). This accomplishment notwithstanding, Sabbath’s album was almost universally reviled by critics upon its release, though it soared into the top ten album charts in the U.K., and sold a million copies the U.S. within a couple of years. While they probably didn’t do it intentionally, Black Sabbath now receive retrospective accolades for producing the first (name your poison) heavy metal, stoner rock, doom rock, death metal, whatever album in history, with its sluggish rhythms, portent-laden vocals, sludgy riffage, and design aesthetic pretty much guaranteed to offend parents, churchgoers, and other upstanding citizens of all stripes and flavors. Again: did Ozzy, Geezer, Bill and Tony mean to found a new genre of music? Probably not: they just came into the studio with unknown producer Rodger Bain and played their live set (which included two covers and five originals, none of which are particularly great or original, honestly) in a single day session, with virtually no overdubs. I personally think you can attribute their oddly slow and stilted performance to a bad case of “studio-itis,” but that’s the beauty of rock and roll, when such shortcomings somehow become magical once audiences get their hands on the fruits of a band’s labors. U2’s Boy (produced by then-hot hired hand Steve Lillywhite) was a far more tightly manufactured and marketed product, with legendary manager Paul McGuinness shepherding his adolescent charges through the early stages of their career, on their brisk way to global super-stardom of a level rarely achieved before or since. While Boy‘s opening single, “I Will Follow,” is a great, great song, very little that follows it on U2’s debut rises to the same level of engagement. In this case, I’ll take the glorious misguided accident over the earnest corporate product, any day. The Better Debut Album: Black Sabbath, Black Sabbath (1970)
Big Star, #1 Record (1972) vs. The Feelies, Crazy Rhythms (1980): The random pairing generator did an interesting job on this particular match-up, which competes two true cult classics against each other. I really think you’d be hard pressed to find another pairing in this contest with smaller combined sales, but higher combined critical respect than #1 Record vs Crazy Rhythms. Which kind of bums me out, actually, since this is like when the NCAA basketball selection committee pits two scrappy mid-major, at-large teams against each other, lest they take down better known (but not actually better) squads from the money conferences. In a just world, both of these discs would get to thrill another day, but short of me kicking out the Stooges or Pink Floyd retroactively for rules violations or undue abuse of performance enhancing substances, that ain’t gonna happen, alas. Big Star’s debut album featured bassist Andy Hummel and drummer Jody Stephens backing the guitar-vocal-songwriting pair of Chris Bell and Alex Chilton, the latter of whom had provided lead vocals six years earlier for the legendary Top 40 hit “The Letter” as a teenaged member of The Box Tops. The album merged gentle acoustic numbers with guitar-heavy boogie rockers, Beatles-like harmonies with blue-eyed soul, and an earthy muscle with mystical aspirations, creating an album of great immediacy and warmth. The critics loved it, right from the get-go, but Big Star’s label, Ardent Records, botched the distribution, and it vanished largely without a (commercial) trace. Chris Bell left the group soon thereafter, and after a few troubled years as a solo artist, he died young in an auto accident. Chilton, Hummel and Stephens stuck it out to release Radio City in 1974, and to record what ultimately became Third/Sister Lover, though they lost interest in the project and went their separate ways long before it was actually released. Of Big Star’s recorded and released canon, #1 Record is the best sounding of the lot from a production standpoint, in large part because Chris Bell was more passionate about the technical aspects of recording than Chilton was. But as hard as it to say this, given how badly things turned out for Bell, his vocal performances are nowhere near the quality and clarity of Chilton’s, and I find myself wanting to skip some of the Bell-sung songs accordingly, to get to those smoother, less-strained Chilton leads. Though I feel guilty about that, honestly. As far as the Feelies’ debut goes, I have to admit that my initial and current take on it is somewhat influenced by the way in which I first encountered it. I really liked the band Felt in the mid-’80s, and while buying one of their discs at Olsson’s Records in Georgetown, Washington, D.C., the clerk asked me if I had heard the Feelies’ new album The Good Earth. He thought that I might like it, as it was inspired by the Velvet Underground, and featured nice guitar work and a vaguely Lou Reed-y sounding singer, like Felt did. I took his advice, and I really liked The Good Earth, a lot. So I looked up the Feelies back catalog, and discovered that it had been six years since their prior disc, Crazy Rhythms, which featured (gasp!) Anton Fier on drums, who I knew from his later stint with Pere Ubu and from the awesome Visions of Excess album by Golden Palominos. So I was stoked to hear this album, given that unexpected family tree twist (Fier was gone long before The Good Earth) . . . but then it left me wanting a little, I have to admit. The Lou Reed-y vocals of The Good Earth seemed to cross over from “inspired by Lou” to “imitating Lou.” And I found Fier’s rhythms to be, indeed, crazy, and itchy, and nervousness inducing, but a little bit of them went a long, long way. While the guitars on Crazy Rhythms were great, the album sounded thinner to me than the more lush and inviting The Good Earth. So since I came at their catalog backwards, Crazy Rhythms has always felt like a sophomore slump to me, because I didn’t hear it when I was supposed to, since it apparently didn’t make it to the record stores of North Carolina where I lived when it was first released. I’ve warmed to it a bit over the years, sure, but I still like The Good Earth and the latter-day Feelies line-up that made it much better. So I think in this case, my trepidation about Chris Bell’s lead vocals notwithstanding, I’m going to have to advance Big Star to the next round. Chilton had made a mark before it came out, and after he was lovingly name-checked by Paul Westerberg in the Replacements’ song bearing his name, he went on to inspire children by the millions just by walking by. Or so Paul said. What’s that song? The Better Debut Album: Big Star, #1 Record (1972)
Steely Dan, Can’t Buy a Thrill (1972) vs. The Go-Go’s, Beauty and the Beat (1981): While the prior Big Star vs Feelies battle featured two somewhat obscure bands with obvious talents that coulda shoulda woulda made them superstars, had the planets aligned properly for them, this Steely Dan vs The Go-Go’s battle matches two of the most improbable superstar bands of the past half century. The Go-Go’s emerged from the foulest elements of the Los Angeles punk scene, as delightfully documented in Mark Spitz and Brendan Mullen’s We Got the Neutron Bomb: Belinda Carlisle was an early, non-performing member of the Germs, and all of the early band members were residents at the notorious Canterbury Apartments, nearby the Masque Club, which served Los Angeles punk community in the ways that the more famous CBGG served New York’s punks. By all accounts, the only people in the L.A. punk scene who thought the Go-Go’s had any chance of success in any way whatsoever were the Go-Go’s themselves. Amazingly enough, though, they were right: during a grinding tour in the U.K. supporting Madness, the original version of “We Got the Beat” was released as a single on Stiff Records, then improbably climbed up the English pop charts and U.S. dance charts. By the time Beauty and the Beat was released in the States, the Go-Go’s had eschewed all the filth and fury of their punk days, creating instead an epic and effervescent summer trifle, which became the first ever platinum-selling album to be entirely written, sung and performed by an all-female band. That’s quite a leap from there to here! Steely Dan was founded by Donald Becker and Walter Fagen, a pair of sardonic and ungainly jazz nerds from Bard College in New York, who after a pseudonymous performing apprenticeship with Jay and the Americans (Jay Black referred to them as “Manson and Starkweather”) and a stint as songwriters-for-hire in New York City, took their bearded and overalls-wearing guitar-playing buddy Denny Dias to Los Angeles, where they recorded their debut album with an impromptu band of session players pulled together under the direction of producer Gary Katz. They named the band after a famous literary dildo, as if they weren’t already off-putting enough to start with. Fagen and Becker wrote all the songs (as they have done throughout Steely Dan’s auspicious career), but neither of them particularly wanted to sing, so drummer Jim Hodder and ostensible front-man David Palmer took three lead vocals between them, with Fagen reluctantly singing the remainder of the album. Surprise, surprise, surprise: two of the Fagen-sung songs, “Do It Again” and “Reelin’ in the Years,” were big hits, and Can’t Buy A Thrill became an improbable best-selling album. Fagen and Becker would tour and record with that original band for a couple of years, but by the time of their fourth album, Katy Lied, they’d defaulted to using an army of crack session players to bring the sounds in their heads to fruition. (Though it is worth noting that even on Can’t Buy A Thrill, session players beyond the core band contributed heavily, with Elliot Randall’s guitar solo on “Reelin’ in the Years” standing as a particular highlight). While Can’t Buy a Thrill is not exactly representative of the Steely Dan canon as a while, it does set a tone that allowed Becker and Fagen to grow in directions recognizable from the sprouts on this first offering. The Go-Go’s, on the other hand, didn’t really grow much after Beauty and the Beat: that was their sound, it worked, and they stuck with it, to decreasing returns. I’m going with Becker and Fagen in this contest, as the (slightly) more improbable superstars who hit a completely unexpected creative home run in their first at-bat, even before they’d learned to work the saxophones. The Better Debut Album: Steely Dan, Can’t Buy a Thrill (1972)
Brian Eno, Here Come the Warm Jets (1973) vs. R.E.M., Murmur (1983): Brian Eno’s solo debut caused a little bit of debate when I was trying to decide what qualified for inclusion on the list of 64 and what did not, since Eno had been a highly visible and well-known member of Roxy Music on their early singles and first two albums, so there was ample interest in and support for his solo career when he struck out on his own. I ended up deciding to include Eno because he had not been the primary songwriter or singer for Roxy Music (that was Bryan Ferry), so Here Come the Warm Jets represented the debut of his voice (both as a singer and as a lyricist/composer), in addition to being the first album to bear his name on its front cover. As it turned out, I actually then ended up removing the debut Roxy Music album from consideration; it has some incredible songs on it (though not Roxy’s brilliant “Virginia Plain” single in its original release), but it also has some clunkers, and the production (by ex-King Crimson lyricist Peter Sinfield) is pretty dire. Roxy hit their stride on their magnificent second album, For Your Pleasure, after which point Eno split. Or was pushed by Ferry, depending on whose stories you believe. However he came to be out on his own, though, Eno’s debut album is an absolute masterpiece, featuring members of Roxy Music, Hawkwind, King Crimson, and a variety of lesser-known studio players nailing track after track after track of weird and wonderful music, with Robert Fripp’s legendary “Baby’s On Fire” guitar solo standing as the highest point among a field of shining pinnacles. Eno put out three more ostensibly rock-oriented albums out over the years that followed, then gained acclaim as a producer of merit (Devo, U2, David Bowie, many others) as well the father of ambient music, for better or for worse. R.E.M.’s Murmur was ubiquitous on, and somehow seemed to play a role in the actual promulgation of, college radio at the time of its release, though their earlier Chronic Town EP and “Radio Free Europe” single had primed the pump to some extent, as had the B-52’s work a few years earlier to put Athens, Georgia on America’s cultural radar screen. While I liked (and like) Murmur, it was always an easy album to make fun of, right from the git-go: people called it Mumble (after Michael Stipe’s singing style), and I can remember a group of friends singing the phrase “two-headed cow” (a Stipe lyric) tunelessly over and over again in a bar or at a party on more than one occasion when an early R.E.M. song came on the jukebox or stereo, to great amusement from bystanders. Plus, some years later, I actually lived in Athens, Georgia, and their guitarist, Peter Buck, insulted my musical tastes when I purchased records by Einsturzende Neubauten and Fad Gagdet at Wuxtry, the record store where he once worked. And then there was the time that some friends and I got to the Uptown Lounge really, really early to get good booth seats near the stage for a gig by Adrian Belew’s Bears, and right before the show started, the bouncers made us move elsewhere, so Stipe and Mike Mills could have our seats. So I’m gonna go with Eno in this contest, despite the story I relayed earlier in the Devo vs Hendrix contest about being sneered at by a sexy cashier when I presented Here Come the Warm Jets for purchase. This contest is just filled with feelings of shame and mortification. The Better Debut Album: Brian Eno, Here Come the Warm Jets (1973)
Lynyrd Skynyd, Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd (1973) vs. Violent Femmes, Violent Femmes (1983): If the Allman Brothers Band founded the Southern Rock genre on their 1969 self-titled debut album (knocked out of the running above), then Lynyrd Skynyrd perfected it with their 1973 debut release, which helpfully informed us all how to say their name, lest all those y’s confuse the poor readers among us. Pretty much everything you know and either love or hate (and there aren’t a lot of people who split down the middle on this question) about Lyrnyrd Skynyrd is here from the git-go: the triple-lead guitar attack, the Al Kooper-produced choogle-boogie rhythms, the misguided attempts at writing socially relevant lyrics, the proud use of native Southern accents when singing, and, of course, “Free Bird.” While that song has become a punchline all these years on, just like “Stairway to Heaven,” (note: I have always wanted someone to cover the songs together . . . “and she’s buy-uy-ing a stair-air-way . . . to FREEBIRD [solo to fade]), it really was pretty awesome before it wore out its welcome, as were the slightly less-well-known “Gimme Three Steps” and “Tuesday’s Gone.” Kooper was a pro in the production seat, and the bar-tested band is tight and effective throughout. It’s better than most of you Yankee snobs think it is, honestly. The Violent Femmes’ self-titled debut is also quite an accomplishment, but in a lot of different ways. There’s no mellotrons on it, for starters, nor any of the other production tricks that Kooper used to give Skynryd some extra studio depth; Violent Femmes is pretty much a live studio rip through the set that the precocious trio had honed busking in Milwaukee, where they were discovered by Pretenders James Honeyman-Scott and Chrissie Hynde and offered an opening slot at a Pretenders show. Gordon Gano’s voice was also something of a shock the first time you heard it, passionate and raw and attention-getting, for sure. Where Skynyrd needed three guitars and an organ to get their point across, the Femmes did it with acoustic instruments and pots-and-pans style drum kits. Gano’s was a horny teenager living in a highly religious household when he wrote most of the songs on his debut album, and that sense of awkward repression still gives them a weird sense of uncomfortable urgency. Most amazingly, though, given Violent Femmes’ roots in traditional American folk and country gospel music, you could dance like hell to their stuff. Thirty years on, “Blister in the Sun” and “Add it Up” are pretty much guaranteed to get people out on a bar’s dance floor (if there’s been enough alcohol deployed, anyway), eagerly shouting “why can’t I get just one screw” and “big hands, you know you’re the one” as if they’d written those words themselves. And that’s an album with impact. The Better Debut Album: Violent Femmes, Violent Femmes (1983)
Mike Oldfield, Tubular Bells (1973) vs. Metallica, Kill ‘Em All (1983): Boy, here’s a study in contrasts, and I suspect I am one of a relatively small number of people anywhere, ever, who actually owns and knows both of these albums well. Tubular Bells was a truly audacious accomplishment for a gifted young composer and performer, with 19-year old Mike Oldfield playing most of the instruments on his 49-minute long, interwoven suite of songs. If you think you have never heard it, you are probably wrong: one of its tinkly opening themes was used in the score of The Exorcist, so the music you hear in your head when you think of that movie, well, that would be Mike Oldfield. The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band’s Vivian Stanshall makes a delightful appearance at the end of side one of Oldfield’s debut, effusively introducing all of the instruments used on the album, culminating, of course, with the tubular bells. (This is a nice mirror to Stanshall’s similar list of instruments in “The Intro and the Outro,” from the already advanced to the next round Gorilla). Tubular Bells, like the Who’s Tommy, has gone on to be released in a variety of formats over the years: orchestral, live, revisited, revamped, original ending, new mix, whatever . . . but it never sounded (or looked, what a great cover!) as good as it did when he put it out the first time. Metallica originally planned to call their debut album Metal Up Your Ass, with a record cover image depicting a dagger-wielding fist emerging from a toilet bowl. While Metallica made an important and influential sound on their first long-player, they were, and remain, fairly loathsome, self-important idiots whose best results usually seem like happy accidents, and whose purposeful actions usually turn out to be bad ideas. No contest, and this comes from a guy who counts Napalm Death as my favorite band, so don’t bother lecturing me about not understanding metal or being a prog sissy, okay? You’re wrong, I’m right. Period. The Better Debut Album: Mike Oldfield, Tubular Bells (1973)
New York Dolls, New York Dolls (1973) vs. Run-D.M.C., Run-D.M.C. (1984): The cover of the New York Dolls’ 1973 debut album depicts the quintet decked out in their normal on-stage drag outfits, with the band’s name scrawled in red lipstick. It was designed to shock and offend, and I imagine that it probably did so, introducing some number of impressionable youths to the concept of “glam.” But when you step back and look at it in context, it seems way late out of the gate in terms of being influential in that regard: by 1973, The Sweet, Slade, T. Rex, Elton John, Gary Glitter, Alice Cooper, Mott the Hoople, Roxy Music, David Bowie and countless others had already taken the glam thing to the stage and the recording studio, most of them looking and sounding better in the process. When the Dolls are cited as influences, it largely seems to be because the early U.K. punks embraced junkie Johnny Thunders when his post-Dolls band, The Heartbreakers, “toured” England, and I put “toured” in quotes, because by most accounts, Thunders’ performances and recordings were more about the Sid Vicious-like dysfunctional junkie loser with good hair view of punk than they were about the Steve Jones or Mick Jones approach to actually writing, playing and recording some good energetic songs, rather than dozing off onstage under the influence of the day’s chosen narcotic(s). So, you know, I’m not really a fan, shall we say, of the Dolls, nor of their debut album, which even the dependable Todd Rundgren couldn’t really make sound like much more than an amped-up set of bad Rolling Stones out-takes. While I am sure that the New York Dolls were quite entertaining onstage in their early days, if you liked copycat glam by a group that weren’t as good at putting their make-up on as David Bowie was, the bottom line is that you can’t see lipstick and mascara when you listen to a record, and absent the visuals, the Dolls music really wasn’t much of anything special. (Note for the record: many years later, I had the opportunity to interview Dolls guitarist Sylvain Sylvain, and he was absolutely delightful, shopping a demo tape that I wish I still had of punchy, well-written songs. I also appreciated the documentary some years back about Arthur “Killer” Kane, who became a librarian. But I find David Johansen to be among the most annoying human beings in rock music, and I have a hard time respecting the junkie contingent of the Dolls, so, you know, respect for Kane and Sylvain aside, I just go “yuck” at what’s left). Run-D.M.C’s debut album isn’t my favorite hip-hop or rap record, by a long shot, but it was one of the first to add a harder, rock-flavored edge to the beats and flow, and that made it accessible to an entirely new audience of folks who were never going to embrace the soul and funk-based loops of the Sugar Hill Gang and Kurtis Blow era. “Death to Disco” was still a recent memory in the early ’80s, so rocking up rap was a real creative coup in terms of its crossover success potential, and Run-D.M.C. were the first to capitalize on that. And they did it without lipstick and heroin, so there’s that too. The Better Debut Album: Run-D.M.C., Run-D.M.C. (1984)
Alrighty, with that one done, we are now three quarters of the way through the first round, with the following 24 albums having survived to fight again. Next time I post, we’ll fill the second round and get the brackets assigned, looking to winnow the herd down to 16 in the days ahead. All aboard for fun time!
The Beatles, Please Please Me (1963)
The Doors, The Doors (1967)
The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Are You Experienced? (1967)
Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, Gorilla (1967)
Pink Floyd, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967)
The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967)
The Band, Music from the Big Pink (1968)
The Stooges, The Stooges (1969)
King Crimson, In the Court of the Crimson King (1969)
Black Sabbath, Black Sabbath (1970)
Steely Dan, Can’t Buy a Thrill (1972)
Big Star, #1 Record (1972)
Brian Eno, Here Come the Warm Jets (1973)
Mike Oldfield, Tubular Bells (1973)
The Sex Pistols, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols (1977)
The Clash, The Clash (1977)
Richard Hell & The Voidoids, Blank Generation (1977)
Wire, Pink Flag (1977)
Van Halen, Van Halen (1978)
Pere Ubu, The Modern Dance (1978)
Gang of Four, Entertainment! (1979)
X, Los Angeles (1980)
Violent Femmes, Violent Femmes (1983)
Run-D.M.C., Run-D.M.C. (1984)
PART FIVE: COMPLETING THE FIRST ROUND
Okay, folks, at the end of this article, we will have completed the first round of “Great Out of the Gate,” and we will announce our 16 match-ups of the surviving 32 teams. 24 albums have already advanced as I sit down to write tonight. Ready? Let’s do this!
Patti Smith, Horses (1975) vs. Guns n’ Roses, Appetite for Destruction (1987): Back in 2005, I undertook one of these long-form competitive essay projects called “Slaughtering the Sacred Cows: An Abbreviated Look at the Most Over-Rated Records Ever.” I created a spreadsheet of other magazines’ “Best 100 Albums Ever” lists, and aggregated the points to get a list of the most critically beloved records ever. It was kind of amazing how quickly critical consensus and homogeneity were achieved, and if you are much of a music journalism reader, I’ll bet you could probably name 40 of the top 50 albums without thinking very hard. But in the next step, to capture the “over-rated” element, I also looked at the sales figures for each of those critically beloved albums, under the premise that if critics loved something to death, but nobody ever wanted to buy it, then the albums with the most skewed ratios of critical love to commercial failure can be considered the most over-rated albums ever. I came up with a list of the 64 critical-favorite albums with the worst ratios of critical admiration to commercial success, and I got ready to go at them, head to head, to identify the one album that most represented music critics being completely out of touch with the regular listening world of the average American human being. But then . . . I stopped. Because I looked at the list, and unlike any other of these tournaments that I have ever done, I knew exactly where I would end up when all was said and done, and I didn’t want to waste weeks of time and 20,000 words worth of effort explaining how I reached that conclusion. Because there’s not a shred of doubt in my mind that Patti Smith’s Horses is the most critically over-rated album in rock music history. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know all of the counter-arguments you can throw at me on this one (“Poetry! Mapplethorpe! Empowerment! John Cale! Jesus died for blah blah blah! Go Johnny! Nuggets! Lenny! Poetry! Mapplethorpe! [repeat, ad nauseum]”), so before you explain them to me again, go listen to this, then come back and keep reading. I’ll wait. Go ahead. I’ll read some of poet Patti’s Blue Oyster Cult lyrics while you are gone. Hmmm . . . “I had this bitch you see / She made lies to me / Her deceit ah, it gave me a chill / But I found out now /That baby, that baby ice dog.” Well, then. Okay, are you back? Yeah, I’ve heard it before, whatever it is you want to tell me about Horses. But more important from that video trip: Authority! Bullshit! Authority! Bullshit! I simply do not accept the rigid critical orthodoxy that labels Horses as a must-love, genius, landmark album, if for no other reason than its cover of Van Morrison’s “Gloria,” which immediately takes me back to every awful version I’ve ever heard of that song by every awful happy hour performer looking to connect with every awful frat house or fern bar audience via one of the most lowest common denominator crowd-pleasers ever. Well, this side of Morrison’s other great lowest common denominator hit, “Brown Eyed Girl,” anyway. (I am assuming the chord changes in the latter were too complicated for Patti’s Group, or they might have tried that one too). No sir, I don’t like it. At this point, I will pause to ask that you all observe one of the opening premises of this contest: just because I hate something you love, that doesn’t mean that I hate you, too . . . and that’s important to note right now, knowing just how many people who I admire and respect actually do love this album. But I do not. At all. The end. Now, let me tell you about the first time I heard Guns n’ Roses. I was out dancing at a sort of post-punk/New Wave bar in Washington, D.C. during the Summer of 1987 with a very fun group of friends (Marcia among them, though we were not romantically involved at the time), busting moves to some great dance numbers from faves like Shriekback and the Cure and New Order and Tones and Tail and the Cult and such-like. And then the DJ put on a song that first caused people to pause at its skittery guitar opener and rising background shriek, then caused pretty much the whole club to rush the dance floor once the riff kicked in. Holy crap! What the hell was this? We didn’t know, we didn’t care, we just knew that it sounded so, so, so good, with a long bridge that just built and built and built until the weirdo-sounding singer screamed “Do you know where you are? You’re in the jungle! You’re gonna die!” When it all ended, the crowd actually applauded the DJ, and he ended up playing “Welcome to the Jungle” a few more times before the evening was over. And when I finally figured out who the band was (Guns n’ Roses, obviously) and scored their awesome Appetite for Destruction, I was thrilled to discover that there was a whole album’s worth of songs that were that awesome, and that exciting, and that fun. And that is how a debut album should hit you, Johnny. Go. The Better Debut Album: Guns n’ Roses, Appetite for Destruction (1987)
The Dictators, Go Girl Crazy! (1975) vs. Public Enemy, Yo! Bum Rush the Show (1987): The Dictators’ Go Girl Crazy! is a really, really fun and entertaining album, wherein chunky Neanderthal riffage meets strongly accented New York City proletariat vocals waxing passionate about girls, teenagers, and cars, and also teenaged girls and cars. For which The Dictators lived, apparently. The cover of the group’s debut featured a fully-posed photo of roadie and sometime vocalist Handsome Dick Manitoba flexing in his best professional pose next to a sparkly jacket bearing his name, years before Cyndi Lauper popularized the link between professional wrestling and rock music. It was an image that was clearly designed to say “Pick this album up to have fun, because we, the Dictators, really do not take ourselves very seriously, at all, as evidenced by the fact hat we let our roadie pose on the cover, and sing lead vocals on our debut album, thank you very much!” And Go Girl Crazy! completely delivers on the message communicated by its cover: it is a lot of fun, it is very blue collar, it comes from a world with clearly-defined traditional gender roles, and (did we mention?) it’s a lot of fun. A whole lot of fun. More than a barrel full even. But does that much fun make a great debut album? Ennnhhh . . . I don’t really think so. Punk was such a complete and total game changer, circa 1977, that many music critics thereafter made a career of looking for commercially dead-on-release albums from the era between 1967 and 1977, and posthumously declaring them as proto-Punk masterpieces. See The Stooges. See The MC5. See The New York Dolls. See Eddie and the Hot Rods. And see The Dictators. And you know what? None of those bands’ critically-adored, but commercially bust, debut albums from that era between the Summer of Love and the Summer of Punk are particularly masterful, at all, if you aren’t depending on them to fulfill some sort of predestination punk prophecy linking that which was to that which became, world without end, amen. At bottom line, Go Girl Crazy! was a great and fun summer trifle, and not much more. Public Enemy’s Yo! Bum Rush the Show was also a great summer album, though a lot more people experienced it in the Summer of ’87 than experienced The Dictators in the Summer of ’75. Yo! Bum Rush the Show is not, by any stretch of the imagination, Public Enemy’s greatest record, but it was certainly riveting and influential in its first year of release, and it set the stage for Chuck D, Flavor Flav, Terminator X and the Bomb Squad to truly blow the roof off of every sucker with 1988’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. So if forced to choose between a near-novelty record that gained cult status years after it was released, and a seminal long player whose audiences didn’t really know what to make of it, because there was nothing to compare it to in 1987, I have to select the confusing later record over the easily-accessible earlier one. Even though I am 100% certain that Handsome Dick Manitoba would mop the floor with Flava Flav in a cage match, if given the opportunity to do so. The Better Debut Album: Public Enemy, Yo! Bum Rush the Show (1987)
Ramones, Ramones (1976) vs. Napalm Death, Scum (1987): As someone who writes and talks about music a lot, I am often asked to name my favorite band, and for probably the past five years or so, my response has been “Napalm Death.” I wrote about why, here, if you want the details, beyond the fact that they are a great, great, very important, very influential band, I mean. Napalm’s 1987 debut album, Scum, is widely regarded as one of the landmark albums of extreme rock music, as the first public offering of a genre that would become known as “grindcore” in the years ahead. But, for the record, as much as I love Napalm Death, I think that their debut is similar to Black Sabbath’s Black Sabbath: a happy accident of ineptness resulted in something monstrous emerging from what should have been a quickly forgotten studio session. Or, in Napalm Death’s case, a pair of studio sessions, as the group was in such tumult when this record was released that it actually features a completely different band on its A-side and its B-side: Nicholas Bullen (later of Scorn), Justin Broadrick (Head of David, Godflesh, Jesu) and Mick Harris (also later of Scorn) played the first side of the album, while Harris, Lee Dorian (Cathedral), Bill Steer (Carcass) and Jim Whiteley played the second. If you’re keeping score, that means the only person who appears on the entire album is Mick Harris, and he was the drummer. After one more album and EP with Dorian and Steer, Napalm Death was essentially reinvented on their third album, Harmony Corruption, around Harris, guitarists Mitch Harris and Jesse Pintado, bassist Shane Embury, and vocalist Mark “Barney” Greenway. And then Mick Harris was gone soon after that, leaving the longest-lasting and most widely known version of the band with nary a single member of the group(s) that played on Scum. So when I say that I love Napalm Death, who am I talking about? Clearly the latter day and current line-up of the band: Greenway, Mitch Harris, Shane Embury and drummer Danny Herrera. Do I love Scum? No, not really. I like it, and I appreciate its import and impact, but it’s not a record that I spin very often anymore, since so many latter-day Napalm Death albums are far superior to it, in terms of song-writing, production and performance. And then there’s The Ramones’ debut album, which is one of the few proto-punk albums from the 1967-1977 era that actually lives up to, and probably exceeds, its own reputation. This is pretty darn close to a perfect rock and roll album, all the way through, with iconic visuals, awesome songs, great production, the whole works. There’s so much to be said about The Ramones, and it so easily tops Scum, and I have already written over 15,000 words in the first round of this contest, that we’re just gonna advance it to round two, with nothing else needing to be said. For now. The Better Debut Album: Ramones, Ramones (1976)
The Modern Lovers, The Modern Lovers (1976) vs. N.W.A., N.W.A. and the Posse (1987): John Cale is one of my favorite musicians, songwriters, and all around influential artists. But he’s also one of my least-favorite producers when it comes to capturing other bands in the studio (except for his work with Nico, which was perfect), and several of his less-than-stellar production projects actually show up on the list we’re dissecting here this month. I begrudgingly advanced the Cale-produced The Stooges into the second round, even though I think it sounds lousy, and I kicked the over-rated Horses by the Patti Smith Group to the curb earlier in this post, and Cale’s muddled production plays a part in my distaste for that album, too. Cale also produced Squeeze’s and Happy Mondays’ dodgy-sounding debuts, and it’s probably worth noting how few bands and artists (again, Nico being the exception) worked with him in the producer’s chair more than once. Why I am mentioning this now? Because John Cale also produced most of The Modern Lovers, the album that introduced the world to eccentric frontman Jonathan Richman, as well as drummer David Robinson (later of The Cars) and keyboardist Jerry Harrison (later of Talking Heads). Plus bassist Ernie Brooks, who’s great, but didn’t play in any famous bands after the Modern Lovers. When I first framed this list of 64 albums back in 2005 or so, I actually excluded The Modern Lovers, using it as an example of an album that had no clear and definitive version, given its long and tortured performance, production and release cycle, which ran from 1971 to 1976, and involved all sorts of non-musical folks making all sorts of corporate decisions about what should be released how, when and where, with little involvement from the band. Richman himself has said that he considers his real debut album to be 1976’s Johnathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, which he was recording with a new band around the time that the old Cale-produced tracks were finally released and began wowing music critics (but not many record buyers). Within a few years, Richman had completely eschewed amplified rock music altogether, and he still pursues his Mercurial muse as the best, quiet rock star songwriter you’re ever likely to see, so do catch him when you have the chance, it will totally be worth it, I promise. But, so, then what do we do with The Modern Lovers? It certainly has some great songs on it, most famously the oft-covered “Roadrunner” and “Pablo Picasso” (Cale himself actually did the latter one on one of his own albums), though its primary songwriter has largely disavowed it, the band it represents had broken up two years before its release, its recordings aren’t all that hot (later editions of the album also added a couple of tracks helmed by the unctuous Kim Fowley), and nobody is quite sure what the sequencing of the album is supposed to be, since no one directly involved in writing or producing it was still on hand when it was released, ostensibly in the hopes that it might make some money to recoup the investments of the suits behind it. So it’s a good record, sure, but it’s also got some deep flaws, and I remain less than convicted that it actually belongs in this list of 64 best debut albums ever. So what about the competition, N.W.A.’s N.W.A. and the Posse? Most people don’t realize that N.W.A. actually put out a record (sort of) before the legendary Straight Outta Compton, which was a game-changing album that introduced the world of gangsta rap to a largely suburban audience, who bought over two million copies of the album, even though the group had no media promotion, and never toured. Yes, the content of the lyrics on both of these early discs were truly deplorable, and the ugly, racist, sexist, violent worldview espoused here can be tough to swallow, even all these years on. But in many ways, N.W.A. and the Posse is just as much of a commercial construct without artist influence as The Modern Lovers was: Macola Records compiled it from a variety of standalone Dr. Dre singles and other productions, and the “group” N.W.A., such as it was, didn’t really exist until these unrelated cuts were put together on disc by the record label, not by the producer who made them, nor by the rappers whose work defines them. The success of N.W.A. and the Posse led to a (slightly) more formalized line-up on Straight Outta Compton, with Dr. Dre being joined by Ice Cube, MC Ren, Eazy E, DJ Yella and Arabian Prince, and that album changed the world, literally, in terms of the reach and impact that West Coast rap and hip-hop experienced. So two flawed contenders here, at bottom line, and I’m going to go with the easier listening disc in this case, despite John Cale’s ham-eared production. The Better Debut Album: The Modern Lovers, The Modern Lovers (1976)
Heart, Dreamboat Annie (1976) vs. Cypress Hill, Cypress Hill (1991): I can still very clearly remember the first time I heard Heart’s “Magic Man” on the radio, in the back seat of a car on Long Island’s Southern State Parkway on a Sunday morning, the week that it made its debut on American Top 40. It sounded awesome, as did the album from which it sprang, Dreamboat Annie. While the music trades actively celebrated the fact that this album was largely written and played by sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson, there was also certainly a subtext of subtle sexism in how the album was packaged and promoted: the cheesecake album cover didn’t look out of place next to the ubiquitous Farrah Fawcett posters of the era, and critics and commentators were often quick to bring up the Fisher brothers (guitarist Roger and manager/producer Mike), who happened to be Ann and Nancy’s significant others, as though the Wilson sisters could not have done what they did without firm guidance and management from the boys in their band. Heart’s long-time success, long after they jettisoned the Fishers, demonstrated who really wore the pants in the band, but in 1976, right on the cusp of the punk explosion, a female-fronted rock group still seemed to require a male Svengali (or two) for popular culture to accept them. Which is kind of sad, looking back, all these years on. Dreamboat Annie went on to spin off two additional high-charting singles, “Crazy on You” and “Dreamboat Annie,” and a year later, “Barracuda” from Little Queen emerged as one of the greatest riff-based rock songs in the history of the genre, gender of its creators be damned. But it must be noted: as good as those singles were, Dreamboat Annie is somewhat slight, with three variations on the title song during its 40-minute run, and most of the second side of the album feeling like the b-side of a single, with all of the hits up front and on top. I can also remember the first time that I heard Cypress Hill, which was more of an active pursuit on my part than a passive radio revelation. We were living in Idaho Falls, Idaho, at the time of its release, and I read a rave review about it in one of the music trades, and headed to Music Land at Grand Teton Mall (which, we were regularly informed, was the largest indoor shopping center between Minneapolis, Seattle and Salt Lake City) to get a copy. Guess what? They did not have it in stock, since thuggish West Coast rap was not all that popular in the heart of Mormon Idaho. So I special ordered a copy from the helpful store manager, Marianne, on cassette, because we were sort of poor at this point, and it was cheaper to buy tapes than compact discs. Why do I recall all of this detail? Because years later, I used an old answering machine tape in a musique concrete piece called “Marianne from Musicland,” based on the cheerful message that she had left me, telling me she had the cassettes I had ordered (including Cypress Hill) and hoped to see me later that weekend. Want to hear her? Here she is. (You can also hear my young self leaving Marcia a message about a nuclear incident at my workplace, plus a lot of other weirdness, if you are so inclined). But anyway, when I got my Cypress Hill cassette home, I was totally blown away by the druggy weirdness that B Real, DJ Muggs and Sen Dog laid before me, and I still listen to this album (and its equally excellent follow-up, Black Sunday) on a fairly regular basis, so I know that it has legs, even if they are wobbly, weed-infused ones. Cypress Hill’s lasting cultural legacy, I think, was demonstrating that hip-hop and rap were not just the purview of the urban African-American community (the group’s core members were Spanish-speaking Angelenos), a point which DJ Muggs really hammered home when he served as a producer a few years later on the Irish-American House of Pain’s spectacularly successful self-titled debut album. So I’ve gotta go with the “stoned is the way that we walk” crew here, despite my unflagging support for the female empowerment demonstrated by Heart’s debut album. Both of these records were pioneering efforts, though Cypress Hill’s was the better of the two. The Better Debut Album: Cypress Hill, Cypress Hill (1991)
The Damned, Damned Damned Damned (1977) vs. Rage Against the Machine, Rage Against the Machine (1992): I like the Damned a lot, and while they may not be the most famous or most influential of the early U.K. punk bands, they did manage to beat their less speedy colleagues out of the gate on a couple of important milestones: Damned Damned Damned was the first full-length album issued by a U.K. punk band, following “New Rose,” which was the first punk single to be issued on that side of the pond. “New Rose” (which is included on Damned Damned Damned) is a stone cold masterpiece, as was follow-up single and album opener “Neat Neat Neat.” For the record: the b-side of “New Rose” was a double-time desecration of the Beatles’ “Help,” and Elvis Costello, who we have already met as producer of the Specials, and whose debut album is one of the contenders in the final round of this contest below, once covered “Neat Neat Neat,” so there’s lots of connectivity here, especially when you note that Nick Lowe produced these early Damned tracks. Those two killer singles really do make the rest of Damned Damned Damned pale in comparison (the lengthy Stooges cover, “I Feel Alright,” is a low point), though it is still better than most of what was being committed to vinyl at that time in England. Soon after its release, The Damned added second guitarist Lu Edmonds (now of P.I.L.), and engaged Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason to produce their exceedingly dodgy sophomore slab, Music for Pleasure, at which point Brian James (who wrote most of Damned Damned Damned) called it a day and split, later to form the loathsome hype machine, Sigue Sigue Sputnik. Amazingly enough, though, the other members of The Damned recouped, and went on to issue some of their best work, even as they became increasingly less punk and increasingly more Goth in the years that followed. Founders Dave Vanian and Captain Sensible (who left, and then returned, to play the role of prodigal son) continue to tour and record as The Damned to this day, and they are always worth catching live, if you’re able to get to see them. Even if they don’t sound much of anything like Damned Damned Damned did. Rage Against the Machine’s self-titled debut album was revelatory in its day, with Zack de la Rocha forcing politically intense, rap-flavored flow into the metal idiom, and brilliant guitarist Tom Morello creating some of the most unexpected and influential six-string sounds since Van Halen’s “Eruption” a decade and a half earlier. But everything that they did on their debut got a whole lot better four years later when they issued their sophomore disc, Evil Empire, which clearly marks their creative high point. And there’s no nice way to address the point that a little bit of Zack de la Rocha goes a long way, as his hectoring, didactic style would appear on the “antonyms” list if you looked up subtlety in the dictionary. When Zack left Rage, and the instrumental trio decided to stick together, I had high hopes for them (sort of the same way I feel whenever Van Halen loses lead singers), but they went on to add Soundgarden’s shrill Chris Cornell when they regrouped as Audioslave, squandering a great opportunity when they had it. I’ve got to go with the goofball Englishmen over the overly-earnest Americans in this contest, since I like being entertained more than I like being lectured. The Better Debut Album: The Damned, Damned Damned Damned (1977)
Talking Heads, Talking Heads: 77 (1977) vs. Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville (1993): I absolutely adore Talking Heads’ third album, Fear of Music, which I consider to be one of the finest albums ever issued, a true accomplishment on all creative musical fronts. But before it came out, when everyone else was busy playing gush, gush, enthuse about the Heads’ two earlier records, Taking Heads: 77 and More Songs About Buildings and Food, I was playing cool and hard to get, and to this day, I do not much care for either of those discs. The “hit” from the debut album is “Psycho Killer,” and few things get my hackles up like going to a bar and listening to the booboisie doing the “Fa fa fa fa, fa fa, fa fa fa fa” part of that song while they drink their Jagermeister. Sadly, that song has become as much of a bad bar band anthem as “Gloria,” all these years on. Maybe someone should do them as a medley: “G-L-O-R-I-A . . . fa fa fa fa, fa fa, fa fa fa fa . . . go, Johnny, go . . . etc.” Tony Bongiovi’s production on Talking Heads: 77 is so thin and anemic that you’d never, ever imagine that he was the cousin of the bombastic Jon Bon Jovi, who understood the impact of a solid rhythm track when he saw it. There’s no denying that the Talking Heads were culturally influential in the early days of the CBGB punk explosion, and there’s no denying that they produced some unbelievably great music later in their careers, but Talking Heads: 77 was more hype than substance when it was issued, and it has not aged well in the decades since its release. Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville, on the other hand, was a punch in the face and a blast of fresh air when it was released, and it still plays like a timeless masterpiece, two decades after it first exposed us to Phair’s girly sound (her phrase, not mine, lest you accuse me of sexism). While Talking Heads moved on from a tepid debut to make some monumental records, Phair’s debut stands to this day as the unassailable pinnacle of her career, with its Exile on Main Street aping sequence of lo-fi songs being as vibrant and gut-punching in 2013 as they were 20 years before. I could go on and explain a lot of extraneous stuff about a lot of things related to these two contenders, but I’m already 18,000 words into this project, so I’m going to cut to the chase, right here, right now, with the obvious choice in this particular contest. Done. The Better Debut Album: Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville (1993)
Elvis Costello, My Aim Is True (1977) vs. The Wu-Tang Clan, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (1993): Elvis Costello’s Attractions (Steve Nieve, Bruce Thomas and Pete Thomas) were one of the greatest bands of the late punk/early New Wave era, but, unfortunately, they do not appear on Costello’s debut album, My Aim Is True. Instead, the lad known to his mother as Declan MacManus is backed on his debut album by a journeyman American country-rock band called Clover, whose core members went on to achieve commercial fame a few years later under a new name: Huey Lewis and the News. Who’da thunk, right? While My Aim Is True is filled with some great songs, most notably “Alison” (from which the album takes its title) and “Less Than Zero,” it’s less than exciting in terms of the instrumental performances that Clover and Elvis captured during their brief studio collaboration. Costello seemed to recognize this, and actually re-recorded the entire album with The Attractions, intending to release their superior versions to the original album takes once the original pressing of My Aim Is True was exhausted, but its popularity at the time seemingly precluded such an audacious piece of historical revisionism, even if the re-release might have resulted in a better album. My Aim Is True is also another example in a long sequence of debuts that was reissued after its initial pressing to incorporate a single or singles that didn’t make the cut on the initial release; in this case, it was “Watching the Detectives,” which was easily the best song on that second version of My Aim Is True, after “Alison.” But it was not part of the original disc, and we will not consider it when we assess this particular competition. The Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) was one of those discs that seemed to come out of nowhere, though once we had it in our grubby little hands, it seemed like we had known The RZA, The GZA, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Ghostface Killa, Raekwon, Method Man and the rest of the crew for ages and ages and ages. Enter the Wu-Tang is one of those great, rare debut discs that sounds like nothing that came before it, but manages to pull of its innovation in a way that’s not off-putting or hackle-raising. The production process associated with Enter the Wu-Tang is also notable, as the nine members of the loosely-based collective would actually compete with each other for time in the (tiny) studio that they’d commissioned, as perhaps best documented in the delightful “Meth vs Chef,” which showed up some time later on Method Man’s debut album. The RZA’s production on Enter the Wu-Tang is exceptional, as his beats were sparse, gritty and menacing, while still providing exceptional beds for the lyrical flights of fancy and foulness that were laid atop them. While I am very much of the generation that should automatically pick any member of the Class of 1977 to move forward in this contest, I have to play the iconoclast here, picking the later, louder, richer, rounder and better Enter the Wu-Tang over My Aim Is True, which came festooned with punk credibility, but actually sounded like the middle-of-the-road, mid-tempo, country rock album that Clover made it, Elvis be damned. Here’s wishing that the Attractions version of Elvis Costello’s debut album had actually seen the light of day. This contest might have ended differently, if it had. The Better Debut Album: The Wu-Tang Clan, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (1993)
And, wow, what do you know, we are actually done with the first round now, and can allocate the 32 surviving albums into their second round brackets, which I post below. Stick with us as we move forward . . . things are going to get more exciting and (likely) more controversial in Round Two. See you there . . .
The Beatles, Please Please Me (1963) vs. Richard Hell & The Voidoids, Blank Generation (1977)
The Doors, The Doors (1967) vs. The Damned, Damned Damned Damned (1977)
The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Are You Experienced? (1967) vs. The Clash, The Clash (1977)
Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, Gorilla (1967) vs. Wire, Pink Flag (1977)
Pink Floyd, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967) vs. The Sex Pistols, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols (1977)
The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967) vs. Van Halen, Van Halen (1978)
The Band, Music from the Big Pink (1968) vs. Pere Ubu, The Modern Dance (1978)
The Stooges, The Stooges (1969) vs. Gang of Four, Entertainment! (1979)
King Crimson, In the Court of the Crimson King (1969) vs. X, Los Angeles (1980)
Black Sabbath, Black Sabbath (1970) vs. Violent Femmes, Violent Femmes (1983)
Steely Dan, Can’t Buy a Thrill (1972) vs. Run-D.M.C., Run-D.M.C. (1984)
Big Star, #1 Record (1972) vs. Guns n’ Roses, Appetite for Destruction (1987)
Brian Eno, Here Come the Warm Jets (1973) vs. Public Enemy, Yo! Bum Rush the Show (1987)
Mike Oldfield, Tubular Bells (1973) vs. Cypress Hill, Cypress Hill (1991)
The Modern Lovers, The Modern Lovers (1976) vs. Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville (1993)
Ramones, Ramones (1976) vs. The Wu-Tang Clan, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (1993)
PART SIX: FIRST HALF OF THE SECOND ROUND
And so here we are, 32 albums gone, 31 left to dispatch, on our way to anointing the greatest debut album ever. It took over 20,000 words (!) to get out of the first round, but things will go quicker as we move forward, since I’m not going to repeat all of the introductory information about these albums from the first round, but instead will simply focus on the compare and contrast necessary to make a decision. Alright, then, let’s get to the judging!
The Beatles, Please Please Me (1963) vs. Richard Hell & The Voidoids, Blank Generation (1977): Blank Generation is the sole studio document of the Richard Hell-Ivan Julian-Robert Quine-Marc Bell (Marky Ramone) version of the Voidoids, and it is filled with impeccable songs and performances. By the time Hell got around to making the second (and last) Voidoids album, five years later, only Quine remained from the original group, and the collection of songs offered was a bit thin, compared to the debut disc. By way of comparison, in the five years after Please Please Me was released, The Beatles released nine studio albums (in the original U.K. editions of their catalog), including Help!, Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and The Beatles (White Album). While we can’t harshly or retroactively judge debut albums by that which followed them, we can certainly say that Blank Generation was proven to be essentially a one-hit wonder, except that it wasn’t a hit. By the time The Beatles had gotten their debut out the door, though, they were already a rock and roll juggernaut of epic proportions, and the template laid out Please Please Me (that of a killer live band who sing, play and write their own songs) clearly plotted the course ahead. No contest. The Better Debut Album: The Beatles, Please Please Me (1963)
The Doors, The Doors (1967) vs. The Damned, Damned Damned Damned (1977): The Doors entered and exited their original lineup’s studio phase with two big bangs: their strongest, most resilient albums are their self-titled debut from 1967 and Morrison swan-song L.A. Woman from 1971. (In between those poles, there were four other studio albums, once again reiterating how extraordinarily prolific recording artists were in the 1960s, compared to their lazier, later progeny). The debut is a gem: it’s got the long (and vastly superior) version of the hit single “Light My Fire;” it’s got the epic “The End” in all of its ooky Oedipal glory; it’s got Willie Dixon’s “Back Door Man” and Brecht-Weill’s “Alabama Song,” both choice, expertly executed covers; it’s got “Soul Kitchen,” a song that X covered a decade later on their own ex-Door Ray Manzarek-produced debut, Los Angeles, which is still alive in this contest. It’s just a great album, soup to nuts. Damned Damned Damned is pretty, uh, damned good, too. I have to admit that in the first round, I fully expected to advance Rage Against the Machine over The Damned, until I actually went back and listened to both albums. Damned Damned Damned has aged really well. Rage Against the Machine has, most certainly, not. But Damned Damned Damned‘s sole cover song, of The Stooges “I Feel Alright (1970),” is pretty dire, and as good as singles “Neat Neat Neat” and “New Rose” are, and as important as this record was as the first full length album issued by an English punk band, Dave Vanian, Captain Sensible and colleagues can’t claim to have trumped Morrison, Manzarek, Krieger and Densmore. Break on through to the third round, Mister Mojo. The Better Debut Album: The Doors, The Doors (1967)
The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Are You Experienced? (1967) vs. The Clash, The Clash (1977): Oof, this is a tough one to tackle this early in the contest, as I’d love to see both of these albums go deep into the tournament. But that’s not going to happen, alas. Listening to the records again this afternoon doesn’t help the decision-making process, since they’re both as good, if not better, as I’ve always considered them. They’ve both aged brilliantly, and are both chockablock with great songs. So as I try to think about how to distinguish one from the other, I find myself thinking about the contexts in which they were released. The Clash were part of a movement: they were early, important players within that U.K. punk scene, obviously, but they were not alone, and record label and media interest had to be influenced by the sheer volume of punk bands forming and emerging from their creative cocoons in 1976 and 1977. The Jimi Hendrix Experience, on the other hand, were something of a weird anomaly in their (or any, probably) time: a power trio merging a black American guitar player with a white English rhythm section, managed by the former bass player of U.K. blues bashers, The Animals. They were one of a kind in their day, not the best of their kind in their day, as was the case with The Clash. Then I look at the fact that the Experience were (with Cream) among the first great rock power trios, and that format requires so much from its players, exposed as they are without the ability to throw some chunky rhythm guitar into the mix to make things sound more full. The dual-guitar Clash were playing in a long-established format, and they weren’t trading on technical proficiency, anyway, though they were better than they might have wanted you to know at the time. But nowhere near as technically proficient as Hendrix, Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell, who were all player’s players, for sure. And that’s one of the tough parts about these 1967 vs 1977 contests, is that the punks were rebelling against everything that came before them, including (presumably) Hendrix and the like, even though the Experience were pretty great, and could have mopped the floor live with anybody who emerged from the U.K. punk scene in ’77. So with something of a heavy heart, since I’m in love with the rock and roll world, we bid The Clash adieu, because Hendrix and crew clearly offer the better, more important, more resonant, longer-lasting experience. And the Class of ’77 is now zero for three in the second round. Uh oh. The Better Debut Album: The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Are You Experienced? (1967)
Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, Gorilla (1967) vs. Wire, Pink Flag (1977): Okay, this one’s going to turn out better for the Class of ’77, I think. Gorilla is a wonderful, clever album, but it is largely backward-looking, with its songs often inspired by, aping, or literally taken from the early 20th Century Vaudeville era. It is whimsical and fun, but very little of it would have sounded terribly out of place had it been played on big 78 rpm acetates in the 1930s. Which is fine, if not Earth-shattering in any way. Wire’s Pink Flag, on the other hand, is a weirdly forward-looking masterpiece. By the time Graham Lewis, Colin Newman, Bruce Gilbert, Robert Gotobed and producer Mike Thorne recorded it, the band had largely already given up on the high-tempo fare that had gotten them lumped in with the punks of their era, and was working a live set that included very few songs on their debut disc. But, oh, what songs those were: cryptic little musical puzzles that said and did what they needed to say and do, and then stopped. There are few spare notes, few wanky solos, few untrimmed excesses and few inessential songs on Pink Flag. And because of that economy and forward focus, it still sounds great and somewhat dateless today, even though Colin Newman’s occasional snotty English punk voice does ground it in 1977, here and there. Both Wire and the Bonzos went on to release very different sounding, and very excellent records, but Wire did a better job on their first one, so I happily move them into the Sweet Sixteen, while doffing my cap respectfully to the late Vivian Stanshall and his delightful crew of talented Bonzo nutters. The Better Debut Album: Wire, Pink Flag (1977)
Pink Floyd, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967) vs. The Sex Pistols, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols (1977): And here’s another clear victory for the Class of ’77. I’m actually sort of regretting advancing The Piper at the Gates of Dawn past The Cars in the first round, but once I type and post, I never go back and change the outcomes, so I’ll be living with that for as long as this remains on the Interwebs. I guess I let the cool kids get to me, dammit. That being said, I truly love Pink Floyd, and I rewarded their The Dark Side of the Moon the title in my Best of the Blockbusters contest, but The Piper at the Gates of Dawn isn’t really what moves me about the group. I appreciate the tragedy of Syd Barrett’s descent into mental illness and retirement into hermitage, but I do not think that his recorded work merits the delirious accolades that were bestowed upon it after the fact. His solo albums are largely unlistenable, and much of Piper touches at the edges of those boundaries where creative whimsy actually becomes uncomfortable, when it’s being offered by an adult male performer. It’s hard to separate the myth from the record, and the myth makes the record worse, not better, at bottom line. If there are any myths surrounding Never Mind the Bollocks, then they are probably of the variety that this record represents a quartet of untalented yobbos being thrust into the studio to capture their shambolic live show, though nothing could be further from the truth: producer Chris Thomas, guitarist Steve Jones, drummer Paul Cook and singer John Lydon were talented folks, and this album is a well-recorded, well-played, world-changing disc, hands down. Sorry, Syd. The Better Album: The Sex Pistols, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols (1977)
The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967) vs. Van Halen, Van Halen (1978): Van Halen ran with the devil. The Velvet Underground sang the Black Angel’s death song. The Velvet Underground’s poor girl wondered what costume she should wear. Van Halen’s Jamie cried. Van Halen wasn’t talking about love. The Velvet Underground weren’t talking about love, either, but there were more shiny, shiny, shiny boots of leather involved. The Velvet Underground would be your mirror. Van Halen would be your ice cream man. Van Halen were on fire. The Velvet Underground felt like Jesus’ son. Van Halen’s debut album changed the way people played lead guitar. The Velvet Underground’s album changed the way people played rhythm guitar. And viola. And drums. Van Halen has sold more than 10 million copies since its issue, though most of the people who bought it never went on to make music of their own. The Velvet Underground and Nico has never even been certified as a gold record, but it inspired at least half of the people discussed in this long-form essay to start their own bands and to release their own great debut albums. That makes for a pretty simple choice, when all’s said and done. You better say so long, Van Halen. Hey hey, bye bye bye. The Better Debut Album: The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967)
The Band, Music from the Big Pink (1968) vs. Pere Ubu, The Modern Dance (1978): The Band’s debut album was recorded and created by an extremely seasoned touring ensemble, and it offered a very accessible set of music that drew heavily from decades’ worth of traditional American country and folk music heritage. Pere Ubu’s debut album was the product of a band that had not been playing together in a stable format for very long, though two of its members (singer David Thomas and guitarist Peter Laughner) at least had a history together in another band, the critically-hailed Rocket from the Tombs. Ubu’s music was rhythmic and very danceable, but if it drew upon any earlier musical traditions, then they were very experimental and often actively off-putting ones. While David Thomas’ voice is probably the most clearly recognizable signature sound of Pere Ubu (he’s been the sole permanent member of the band, who are still actively touring and recording to this day), the most striking and memorable sounds on The Modern Dance are probably those made by EML Synthesizer player Allen Ravenstine, who used his instrument to create layers of texture and solo lines that were unlike anything heard in a rock and roll setting before him. These synths weren’t used to help the drummer stay in time (as was the case with Pete Townsend’s sequences with the Who) or to create orchestral textures without the expense of an actual orchestra (see Wendy Carlos’ Switched on Bach, or any of Jean-Michel Jarre’s early albums) , but were instead played as lead instruments in their own right, sounding like nothing that had ever come before them. Whether they know it or not, most noisy electronic musicians, post-1978, owe a debt to Allen Ravenstine and his amazing work on this and half a dozen subsequent Pere Ubu albums. The songs and performances on Music from the Big Pink are great, indeed, but there’s nothing on that comfortable, pastoral album that’s half as revolutionary as the most pedestrian moments of The Modern Dance, so I’ve got to go with the low-profile innovators over the high-profile professionals in this case, or (honestly) in just about any other cases where I am presented with that sort of comparison. Merdre, merdre! The Better Debut Album: Pere Ubu, The Modern Dance (1978)
The Stooges, The Stooges (1969) vs. Gang of Four, Entertainment! (1979): As I mentioned in the first round, critical orthodoxy aside, I am not a fan of the Stooges’ debut album. While I am certain that their long, free-form, solo-heavy, Iggy-centric live shows of the era were undeniably scintillating, the menace and promise they showed in the concert hall did not translate well to vinyl, where the visual and visceral elements were largely eradicated from what was likely a loud, sweaty, stinky, full, noisy, over-the-top, five-senses experience when you saw it on a live stage. The fact that the Stooges presented their record label with their normal five-song live set, and were directed to go write and record three more songs on short notice to please the corporate suits, shows that this one is not the “keep it real” proto-punk classic that historical revisionism has branded it. It’s a sludgy sounding album with some good songs and some dross, and not much more. Gang of Four’s Entertainment provides a striking contrast in many ways: it is cleanly and clearly recorded, its anti-establishment lyrics are pointed and precise, it introduces an innovative guitar sound that’s built on more than simply turning the knobs on the reverb and wah-wah pedals to 10, and it swings like nobody’s business, where The Stooges is pretty much one of the most soul-free albums in the history of rock. While I know a nation of rock critics will be chewing their arms off for me saying so, I think Gang of Four clearly and easily stomp the Stooges in this contest, so I am happy to move them on to the Sweet Sixteen. The Better Debut Album: Gang of Four, Entertainment! (1979)
And there we have it: half of our Sweet Sixteen is now populated, by the eight albums recapped below. I’ll try to get the other eight Third Round contenders and the next set of pairings identified before the Thanksgiving holiday, so we can all ponder the Elite Eight while in a tryptophan haze on Thursday. Mmmmm . . . . sleep-inducing bird meat . . .
The Beatles, Please Please Me (1963)
The Doors, The Doors (1967)
The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Are You Experienced? (1967)
The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967)
The Sex Pistols, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols (1977)
Wire, Pink Flag (1977)
Pere Ubu, The Modern Dance (1978)
Gang of Four, Entertainment! (1979)
PART SEVEN: COMPLETING THE SECOND ROUND
Okay, with Thanksgiving travel looming on the horizon, I want to make sure that I’ve got us at least down to the Sweet Sixteen Greatest Out of the Gatest before we’re all turkey basted into quasi-sentience. We’ve got eight contests today, and eight survivors from yesterday, so when you finish reading this installment, you’ll get the see the final eight match-ups, ooo!
King Crimson, In the Court of the Crimson King (1969) vs. X, Los Angeles (1980): In March of the Mellotrons, a 2005 long form essay in this style designed to identify the greatest classic progressive rock album ever, I cited King Crimson’s 1969 debut album as ground zero for the genre, the point at which prog began. In the Court of the Crimson King made it to the Elite Eight before being knocked out by the tournament’s eventual winner. (I won’t name that album, in case you want to read that essay without spoilers). There’s no denying that In the Court features three of the most distinctive, original and uncanny masterpieces in the history of rock: the title track, “21st Century Schizoid Man” and “Epitaph.” But then there’s also a mellow six-minute ballad called “I Talk to the Wind” and the twelve-plus minute long “Moonchild,” which merges a two-minute mellotron ballad with ten minutes of largely tuneless, formless improvisation. When Crimson stalwart Robert Fripp compiled the band’s first career retrospective, A Young Person’s Guide to King Crimson, in 1976, he replaced the In the Court version of “I Talk to the Wind” with an earlier, three-minute shorter, much better version sung by Judy Dyble (later of Fairport Convention), and he lopped off ten minutes of “Moonchild.” So that’s 13 minutes of music that even the band’s mastermind considered extraneous, with 20/20 hindsight. The total running time of X’s debut album, Los Angeles, is just a few seconds over 28 minutes. So the excised “Moonchild” and “I Talk to the Wind” segments are almost as long as an entire side of Los Angeles, which must be judged the superior album for its terseness, tightness, and complete lack of fluff or filler. The Better Debut Album: X, Los Angeles (1980)
Black Sabbath, Black Sabbath (1970) vs. Violent Femmes, Violent Femmes (1983): Black Sabbath’s debut is certainly the more influential of these two albums: it is generally considered as the first heavy metal or doom rock album, and Sabbath’s lineups and members’ solo projects have evolved over the years to produce rock family tree connections with scores and scores of other hard rock bands, never mind making it possible for The Osbournes to exist. But as is the case with King Crimson’s debut, there’s a lot of fluff here among the sludge, most especially the 10:00+ cover version of the Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation’s “Warning,” which just goes on and on and on, and isn’t a very good song to start with. For my money, Sabbath didn’t intentionally produce a masterpiece until the assessed what they’d achieved on their debut, and then tightened and brightened things up a bit to produce their superior sophomore album, Paranoid. Violent Femmes’ sparse yet spirited debut and sophomores discs were huge on college rock radio when they hit, and their lo-fi, high-energy music did a great job of merging traditional American hootenanny idioms with post-punk energy. They were far more insular than Sabbath (though they did work with Modern Lover and Talking Head keyboardist and guitarist on their slicker, but still outstanding, third album), and much less prolific, and it’s a whole lot harder to find performers today who would cite them as influences (maybe some hopeful buskers, but that’s about it), even though lots of folks enjoy their music. But the little musical world they created for themselves was a powerful one, and it receives its fullest airing on their debut disc, which advances, though not by an overly wide or enthusiastic margin. The Better Debut Album: Violent Femmes, Violent Femmes (1983)
Steely Dan, Can’t Buy a Thrill (1972) vs. Run-D.M.C., Run-D.M.C. (1984): Rolling Stone‘s ludicrous assertion that The Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill was the best debut album ever is what inspired me to take on this project, so I don’t hold some of their critical opinions in very high regard. But as I was re-listening and researching this particular contest, I did note that Rolling Stone had ranked these albums #238 and #240 in their 2003 “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” list. And that relative proximity to each other and median position in the (A-list) pack pretty well coincide with my thoughts on this particular contest: I would generally regard these albums of being about equal quality, and right in the middle of the list of records that I like to listen to. Run-D.M.C. were certainly more influential and culturally groundbreaking: their debut was the first rap record to be certified gold, their guitar-based “Rock Box” was the first rap video to be played on MTV, and Run-D.M.C. were the first rap artists to receive a Grammy Nomination, though their 1987 “Best R&B Vocal Performance by Duo or Group” nod was almost as absurd as Jethro Tull’s infamous “Best Heavy Metal Album” win. Steely Dan’s debut did better out of the box than Run-D.M.C. did, scoring two big, unexpected hits with “Reelin’ in the Years” and “Do It Again,” but it occasionally shows some of its formative seams, especially on the cuts sung from short-term lead vocalist David Palmer, who sounds more Southern California Smooth than is ideal for the Dan. I’d sort of like to come up with a counter-intuitive or iconoclastic argument to advance Can’t Buy A Thrill here, but I can’t, so I won’t. The Better Debut Album: Run-D.M.C., Run-D.M.C. (1984)
Big Star, #1 Record (1972) vs. Guns n’ Roses, Appetite for Destruction (1987): Big Star’s #1 Record has gained a cult following as the little album that coulda, shoulda, woulda been a hit, had those accursed suits at the record label only realized what they had, and properly marketed and distributed it. Guns n’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction, on the other hand, found the powers that be at Geffen Records managing their product to perfection, creating an instant commercial behemoth out of a band that had barely been known beyond the Los Angeles metal club circuit before their debut album’s release. While some folks might try to make a “hype over substance” argument against Appetite for Destruction, its contents readily refute such dismissals, with the dozen songs herein being so well written, played and recorded (by producer Mike Clink, in the latter case), that the strongest arguments against them would have to be based on the offensiveness of some of the lyrics. Or, perhaps, the original “robot rapist” album cover in which they were first packaged. But if we discard rock and roll records for offending people, then this would be a shorter, weaker, lamer list. So let’s not do that. Do you know where you are, Big Star? You’re in the jungle . . . The Better Debut Album: Guns n’ Roses, Appetite for Destruction (1987)
Brian Eno, Here Come the Warm Jets (1973) vs. Public Enemy, Yo! Bum Rush the Show (1987): Brian Eno’s debut was an uncanny masterpiece, wherein the former Roxy Music synthesist and peacock demonstrated that he had vocal, songwriting, arranging and recording chops to match his flamboyant stage appearances as a “non-musician” with Roxy. He pulled extraordinary performances from a cast of great players, and he deployed them on a series of weird character studies about spontaneously immolating black men, maraca players who collect cigarette butts to resell them, Luana’s black reptiles, coldly calculating assassins, perfect masters who thrive on disasters, and Lucy, who hides her madness in a jar, among others. The variety of tones and textures, and the perfect blend of rock oomph and experimental ahhhh makes it a hard album to compete with. Public Enemy’s Yo! Bum Rush the Show is a worthy contender, though it ultimately falls short. All the pieces (especially the visual ones, with the S1Ws and the famed crosshairs logo featured prominently) are in place for greatness, but the first full flowering of everything that P.E. could be really comes on the follow-up album, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, which more clearly and intentionally used the hip hop soapbox to communicate important messages, as the Bomb Squad’s productions moved into a whole ‘nother level of power, malice and density. While I’m somewhat surprised to see four of five of today’s contests so far going to the later artists, in this case, the earlier artist represents the correct choice, no matter how much P.E.’s Uzi weighs. The Better Debut Album: Brian Eno, Here Come the Warm Jets (1973)
Mike Oldfield, Tubular Bells (1973) vs. Cypress Hill, Cypress Hill (1991): Another interesting hip-hop vs prog matchup here, between a 19-year old English wunderkind who produced and played most of the instruments on a two-sided suite of (mostly) instrumental music, and a trio of Spanish-speaking, weed-obsessed, inner city Los Angelenos, who laconically declaim some of the violent imagery in recorded history, over their unique and influential woozy boozy beats. Dr Dre’s The Chronic and Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle probably would have sounded a whole lot different without Cypress Hill blazing (literally) the trail before them, though they don’t often get credit for that. While Cypress Hill’s sound is distinctive and influential, a little bit of it can go a long way, especially Sen Dog’s generally tuneless barking in the foil roll of the call and response sections. There’s a lot of potent material on this album, but not a lot of variety, at bottom line. While Tubular Bells may go on a bit longer than it should, it truly is a remarkable performance by an audacious and visionary musician, and its surprising popularity and robust sales put Virgin Records (it was that label’s debut, too) on the map, so that four decades later, we still have to care about what Richard Branson says, thinks and does. So we should probably disqualify Tubular Bells for that, right? Nah. Just kidding. The Better Debut Album: Mike Oldfield, Tubular Bells (1973)
The Modern Lovers, The Modern Lovers (1976) vs. Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville (1993): The Modern Lovers was a collection of old cuts from multiple sessions with multiple producers and no artist-vetted sequencing, released a couple of years after the band that recorded them had broken up. It’s somewhat amazing how good it is, and many critics embraced it, given its difficult, suit-managed path to the market, but it’s exciting, stripped down rock is definitely infectious, no matter its provenance. Exile in Guyville, on the other hand, was an expertly conceived song cycle, with many numbers culled from Liz Phair’s earlier self-released Girly Sound cassettes, that delivered a track-by-track reflection on that masterpiece of drug-addled cock rock, The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St. Phair’s debut album is surprisingly punchy and powerful, given its lo-fi production and fairly rudimentary instrumentation. Her ability to churn out shocking, yet contextually effective, lyrical phrases will startle the first-time listener again and again and again as the record runs its course, and I still flinch at some of what comes out of her mouth. But in a good way, you know? While Jonathan Richman of The Modern Lovers turned his back on commercial, amplified music, and Liz Phair went on to try to become some sort of milfy Averil Lavigne clone, we can’t hold her later commercial success (however she earned it) against her debut, nor can we let our fond views about the wonderfully eccentric latter-day Jojo cause us to over-sanctify a collection of tracks that he had eschewed before they were issued, and does not play to this day. At their respective points and places in time, Liz Phair made the stronger disc. The Better Debut Album: Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville (1993)
Ramones, Ramones (1976) vs. The Wu-Tang Clan, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (1993): Both of these albums would have been considered to be unholy rackets by many listeners upon their release, though they are now hailed as landmarks in their respective fields of influence. In The Wu-Tang Clan’s case, it took ten performers, competing for mic, sampler and turntable time, to create the dense web of voices and beats and the surrounding martial arts source mythology that frames them. Despite the heavy, often off-putting sounds emanating from its tracks, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) found a popular market, and has since been certified as a platinum album. It’s alumni, both collectively and apart (minus the late lamented Ol’ Dirty Bastard), continue to keep the Wu-Tang brand vibrant two decades later, and they remain on of our Nation’s most important artistic collectives. Three of the four young men who played on The Ramones (as well as “fifth Ramone” Arturo Vega, who handled their iconic designs and visuals) are dead, leaving only Tommy (Erdelyi) Ramone still standing. But their legend lives on, and if casual listeners know anything about The Ramones (and many do, whether they know it or not), then most of what they know comes from this debut album: “Beat on the Brat,” “Blitzkrieg Bop,” Tommy’s wonderfully sweet “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend,” Dee Dee’s wonderfully debased “53rd and 3rd” and “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue.” And pretty much every band who has ever stood in front of brick wall to take their group photo owes a debt to Roberta Bayley’s awesome shot of the four Ramones in a full state of leather and denim dishevelment, graffiti peaking out between their legs. The Ramones (from the vinyl era) delivers all of its goods in a tight 29-minutes. Enter the Wu-Tang (a CD era release) drags a bit after it crosses the one-hour mark. So I’ve gotta go with the Lower East Side over Staten Island in this contest, even though I know that Wu-Tang Clan ain’t nuthin’ ta f*ck wit. The Better Debut Album: Ramones, Ramones (1976)
And there we are, we take the eight victors above, we add them to yesterday’s list, we sort by date, we slice in the middle, and we’ve got the following pairings to ponder for next time. Stay tuned . . . we will cut it to the Elite Eight the next time I type here.
The Beatles, Please Please Me (1963) vs Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville (1993)
The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Are You Experienced? (1967) vs Guns n’ Roses, Appetite for Destruction (1987)
The Doors, The Doors (1967) vs. Run-D.M.C., Run-D.M.C. (1984)
The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967) vs Violent Femmes, Violent Femmes (1983)
Brian Eno, Here Come the Warm Jets (1973) vs X, Los Angeles (1980)
Mike Oldfield, Tubular Bells (1973) vs Gang of Four, Entertainment! (1979)
Ramones, Ramones (1976) vs Pere Ubu, The Modern Dance (1978)
The Sex Pistols, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols (1977) vs Wire, Pink Flag (1977)
PART EIGHT: THE SWEET SIXTEEN
It’s Thanksgiving morning, and the lady members of the household are still asleep, so I figure I’ll try to slip in a little debut album demolition while they snooze. As we parse the Sweet Sixteen down to the Elite Eight, it is probably worth revisiting some of the tenets from post one on how I am evaluating these albums, as things get tighter and tougher the deeper we get into the tournament. Some of the initial metrics had to do with qualified or did not qualify for the tournament, so we don’t need to revisit those, but the three key ones related to in-contest action include:
1. Did the artists themselves (or close, integral associates) conceive of the album and its sequencing themselves, or was it compiled by industry outsiders?
2. Did it have strong commercial, critical or creative impact?
3. Is it one of the group’s better records, if not the best?
Alright . . . hand’s up, who wants to rock?
The Beatles, Please Please Me (1963) vs Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville (1993): A lot of times, when you get a couple of rounds deep into these contests, the choices between contenders became really tough, because you’re dealing with epic albums or artists who by luck of the draw are forced to go head to head before what seems like a natural point for dismissal of one or both of them. And then, other times, when you get this deep, you end up with scrappy mid-major talents finally running out of steam, after probably surprising themselves and their fans for staying alive so long. This contest is one of the latter. Sure, Exile in Guyville is a dynamite album, and, yes, you could make a case that Please Please Me was an industry compilation job that did not reflect The Beatles’ vision for their own music, but when you factor in that “commercial, critical, or creative impact” criteria, this one becomes a no-brainer. And even though Please Please Me and its crass North American doppelgangers Introducing . . . The Beatles and Meet the Beatles were very much industry-created products, the fact that they contained music largely written, sung and played by the actual artists on the album covers was so much of a game changer that the very idea that we expect artists to have some control over the catalog really would not have existed if not for these early Beatles records. So Phairwell, Liz. We never said that you weren’t worth talking to. The Better Debut Album: The Beatles, Please Please Me (1963)
The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Are You Experienced? (1967) vs Guns n’ Roses, Appetite for Destruction (1987): Oh dear, am I sorry to see this match-up this early, as I could have easily accepted an argument that put both of these records into the Top Four Debut Albums Ever. But, dammit, we have to play the cards we’re dealt, and we have to make a choice here. Both of these albums were critical, commercial and creative masterpieces, and both of them sort of came from nowhere to introduce bands of great, rich talents to the music-loving masses. Both bands (in their initial configurations) were short-lived: The Experience managed three records before Jimi moved on to the Band of Gypsies, and after the over-the-top Use Your Illusion quadruple CD extravaganza, the original Guns n’ Roses flamed out, too, leaving behind a burnt husk of Axl-approved, unobtrusive, possibly robotic sidemen carrying the band into its weird present day incarnation. Obviously, Jimi Hendrix’s death at a prematurely young age limited his output, and also may could have led to posthumous historical revisionism (see Ian Curtis, Syd Barrett, Guns n’ Roses associate Shannon Hoon, and many others), but my sense is that the Experience’s albums were genius on release, and were recognized as such, regardless of what happened to Jimi a few years after they landed. So as I try to find distinctions that merit selecting one of these albums over the other, I find myself reflecting on a decision point that I reached in the final head-to-head of my “March of the Mellotrons” series about the greatest classic progressive rock albums ever, which pitted Emerson Lake and Palmer against Yes: ELP was a trio, and Yes was a five-piece. The power trio format forces every member of the band to play at the top of their game, oftentimes covering multiple roles (e.g. Hendrix on amazing guitar and amazing vocals, while those roles were split between Axl Rose, Slash and Izzy Stradlin on the first Guns n’ Roses album), where the five-piece format allows breathers, breaks, cover-ups, layers, and luxuries that the smaller band can never embrace. So as much as “Welcome to the Jungle” was one of the greatest first-encounter songs of my personal music-listening life, I’ve got to go with Jimi Hendrix, Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding here, the forebears once again having their way with the followers. The Better Debut Album: The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Are You Experienced? (1967)
The Doors, The Doors (1967) vs. Run-D.M.C., Run-D.M.C. (1984): This is a really tough contest for me to parse. While there’s no doubt in my mind that Run-D.M.C.’s debut album is the more influential of the two here (essentially carrying rap and hip-hop both into the mainstream and into the rock community), there’s also no doubt in my mind that The Doors’ debut is a higher-quality product, within its own idiom. Now don’t get me wrong here: I love rap, and am in no way predisposed to select rock artists over hip hop artists, at all. But when I look at the great and influential raps albums that I actually listen to regularly and enjoy, they tend to be of a somewhat later vintage, when sampling and production techniques and technology had evolved past the primitive rock box and guitar of Run-D.M.C. So as crucially important and influential as it was, I do not feel that Run-D.M.C.’s debut album has aged all that well, anymore than I think that the Beastie Boys’ debut album is listenable in 2013. You can hear potential and impact in both, but they sound thin to modern ears, alas. The Doors were somewhat instrumentally weird in their own right, obviously, in their bass-free onstage incarnation, but when they went into the studio, they did tend to pull in bassists to round out the sound, and session ace Larry Knechtel appears on almost half of The Doors with his electric four-string in tow. And all these years on, The Doors still sounds good, even if you strip away the posthumous Jim Morrison mythology as you listen to it. The covers are well-selected and richly interpreted, the originals are well-played and striking, and Morrison never sounded better and sexier than he does on this disc. Again, I love my hip hop, but the Lizard King at his prime moves me more than the occasionally hectoring Run-D.M.C. did in theirs . . . and since Run-D.M.C.’s prime actually came an album or two after their debut, that further skews me toward, one again, choosing the classic album (and the second representative of the Class of ’67) over the newer upstart album. Am I an old fart, or what? The Better Debut Album: The Doors, The Doors (1967)
The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967) vs Violent Femmes, Violent Femmes (1983): Neither of these albums sold particularly well in their early releases, so on some plane, this is a contest of scrappy little bands offering weird little albums for our perusal and entertainment. But in terms of influence, this contest, like the first one in today’s report, is simply a case of mismatched opponents, with the Velvet Underground so clearly eclipsing the Violent Femmes that all we really have to say is “Thanks for playing, Gordon, Victor and Brian, we appreciate the effort, very much.” And if you ever had any doubts about the impact and influence of The Velvet Underground and Nico, then watching the amazing outpouring of tributes and commentary following Lou Reed’s passing last month should recalibrate you in that regard, even if loathsome tools like Metallica’s Lars Ulrich were among those surveyed. (And, hey, for worse and worse, Lou’s last studio performances were on the inept and inelegant Lulu with Metallica, so he apparently saw something in Lars and James and Kirk and Robert that the rest of the world didn’t). (Or . . . he knew his time was short, and he just wanted to go out with one of the biggest kiss-offs since his own unlistenable Metal Machine Music). (I like the latter theory). Either way you look at it, the Class of ’67 has placed a third album in the final eight. The Better Debut Album: The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967)
Brian Eno, Here Come the Warm Jets (1973) vs X, Los Angeles (1980): While Brian Eno never endured the squalor of Los Angeles’ early punk scene, in some ways his debut album is more punk than X’s paean to their hometown. For starters, Here Come the Warm Jets‘ “Blank Frank” is as frantic and frenetic as just about anything that emerged from the punk revolution, with Robert Fripp providing the guitar fury. (And lest you think that “Fripp” and “punk” are mutually exclusive terms, don’t forget his great early production work and onstage performances with Blondie during their most ferocious years). Fripp also offers a time-space fabric ripping guitar solo on “Baby’s on Fire,” while “Driving Me Backwards” is as awkward and ganky and offputting as the most intentional audience-baiting jazz odyssey’s from the artier side of the punk spectrum. While many would not admit it, much of the early punk fashion took its cues from the most extreme provocateurs of the glam era, and as evidenced by the album cover art on Here Come the Warm Jets, Eno may have been first among equals in that regard in terms of his stylistic innovations. While Los Angeles documents some of the seedier elements of the early West Coast punk era and its signature characters, Eno’s debut pretty much matches it song for song in that regard, though its decadence is a bit more urbane and cosmopolitan than that described by John Doe and Exene Cervenka. At bottom line, Here Come the Warm Jets truly flies into musical conventions in ways that the stellar, punchy, wonderful Los Angeles, rooted in rockabilly and American folk idioms, does not. Both albums were influential, but generations of performers have tried to get Eno to produce their records, and many of those records have become massive commercial and critical hits, while X has always pretty much been X, and was never quite the same from a quality-standpoint after they stopped working with ex-Door Ray Manzarek. And with The Doors having already advanced to the Elite Eight, I think we can let this other Manzarek project fall, reluctantly, by the wayside. Ray’s dead, but he would still likely be too self-pleased if he had a hand in 25% of the final eight, and we don’t want that to happen, lest he go bug Hendrix in heaven or something. And, so, once again, old beats new. Are older albums really better, or does an extra decade of resonance just make it hard to compete with them? Let’s see what happens in our final three contests before we decide. The Better Debut Album: Brian Eno, Here Come the Warm Jets (1973)
Mike Oldfield, Tubular Bells (1973) vs Gang of Four, Entertainment! (1979): Tubular Bells was a huge seller upon its release, while Entertainment! was not. Score one for Mike Oldfield. Both records are arguably the best in their creators’ canons. Tie score on that count. Both records clearly reflect their creators’ singular creative visions, so that one’s a tie too. Both records are generally well-regarded, critically, though Entertainment! probably enjoys a bit more love and reverence these days that Tubular Bells does, in large because its music is more timeless than the very-’70s sounding Oldfield album. Slight advantage, Gang of Four. But then we come around the matter of creative impact and influence on other artists, and I think in this case, Gang of Four clearly and strongly carry the contest. For the most part, the only person obviously influenced by Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells was Mike Oldfield himself: he created a couple of additional album-long suites (Ommadawn and Hergest Ridge) cut from pretty much the exact same cloth, he produced multiple sequels to his original masterpiece, he scored Tubular Bells for orchestra, and generally returned to what he did first and best regularly, even if no one else could or would tackle that sort of project successfully. Gang of Four’s early merger of abrasive guitar, strident political lyrics and awesome, funky rhythms has, on the other hand, inspired a lot of bands, even though many of them are not the sorts that people who are likely to read this far into this article would like. You wouldn’t have Red Hot Chili Peppers, for example, without Gang of Four (whose guitarist, Andy Gill, produced the Peppers’ debut album, at their request). A lot of nu-metal bands can trace their funky-guitar hybrids back to Gang of Four, too, and the group’s alumni went on to form, produce, manage or perform with such influential oddballs as Shriekback, The B-52s, Killing Joke, The Jesus Lizard and others. And I’ll take those sorts of influences over self-repetition of the Orchestral Tubular Bells any time. Score one for the whippersnappers! The Better Debut Album: Gang of Four, Entertainment! (1979)
Ramones, Ramones (1976) vs Pere Ubu, The Modern Dance (1978): As the time gaps between albums close here at the end of this round, given the way we’ve parsed the lists, we get an interesting pair of match-ups from bands who were actually peers at their peaks, rather than having debuts that represent truly different eras, styles and genres. Pere Ubu emerged from the industrial wastelands of Cleveland, Ohio, while the Ramones were products of the scuzziest areas of the Lower East Side in Manhattan, focused around Bleecker and Bowery and the legendary CBGB OMFUG club, where many of the 1970s bands surveyed in this article played in their formative years. There was a surprising amount of overlap between the Cleveland and CBGB scenes: founding Ubu guitarist, journalist, and tragic early fatality Peter Laughner was briefly a member of New York’s seminal Television; Ubu bassist Tim Wright was a key player in New York’s No Wave scene with DNA, as documented on the Brian Eno-produced No New York compilation; early Feelies drummer Anton Fier played on the last Ubu studio album before their first long hiatus; and long-time Ubu bassist Tony Maimone went on to become an acclaimed producer, player and engineer from his current Brooklyn headquarters. The Ramones, while at ground zero of the CBGB scene, were far more insular in their approach to interacting with other bands: they didn’t trade members often, with founding drummer, producer and studio lead guitarist Tommy Ramone being replaced by Marky Ramone (formerly of Richard Hell’s Voidoids, who we met earlier in the contest), bassist-lyricist Dee Dee being replaced much later with a former Marine dubbed C.J., and a couple of brief stints with drummers Elvis Ramone (also known as Clem Burke of Blondie) and Richie Ramone. So they didn’t really play all that nicely in the sandbox with others, though they had an extraordinary wingman in the late, great Arturo Vega, who played an instrumental role in the iconography, mythology, and incredible (if improbable) success over the years. When The Ramones was issued in 1976, it came out of nowhere (well, unless you were tuned into the New York punk scene anyway), with its first single, “Blitzkrieg Bop,” being issued on the heels of the album. When Ubu’s first album hit, it followed an incredible influential and important series of singles of David Thomas’ Hearthan label (the name of the label contained an untypeable gaelic rune, but this is how it is normally transcribed), featuring earlier incarnations of the group with the erratic (but talented) Peter Laughner and others. If you’d been fortunate enough to score any of those singles (most especially “30 Seconds Over Tokyo” and “Final Solution”), then The Modern Dance probably would not have been that much of a surprise to you, since it’s very much cut from the same cloth. I’m not sure that anything could have prepared listeners for The Ramones, though, absent having experienced them live, and that may not have even done the job. It’s tight, well-produced, features great songs and great imagery, and it laid down the template for many of the other Class of ’77 debut albums that we’ve been discussing throughout this article. The Ramones may not have been the best New York punk band, but they were the first to get a record out that sounds like what most people associated with the word “punk” (Patti Smith, Blondie, Talking Heads and Television do not fit that bill), and this record’s influence is immense and unassailable accordingly. The Better Debut Album: Ramones, Ramones (1976)
The Sex Pistols, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols (1977) vs Wire, Pink Flag (1977): In a wonderful 2013 obituary for long-time collaborator Desmond Simmons in The Quietus, Wire singer-guitarist-tunesmith Colin Newman notes: “We were totally ready for punk when it came, saw the Sex Pistols in ’76 at least three times together, attended the Punk Festival at the 100 Club (both nights), and saw Patti Smith at the Roundhouse supported by The Ramones.” It’s something of an extraordinary commentary on that era that the Pistols and Wire managed to both release major label-backed albums within six weeks of each other in the closing days of 1977, given that Newman had been an audience-bound fan boy a mere year before. Even more amazing: by the time they got around to recording and releasing Pink Flag, Wire had essentially already moved past their “punk phase,” and while the album is a minimalist gem, it’s more of a bellwether for post-punk than it is a postcard from the front lines of the pogo and gobbing scenes. Of course, on some plane, Never Mind the Bollocks is just as post-punk as it is proto-punk: it’s dense, huge banks of layered guitars and basses and rich studio sheen was a far cry from the shambolic live act that concert-goers experienced around the time of the album’s release, after mostly talentless yobbo Sid Vicious had taken over the bass from Glen Matlock, who was really the pop songwriting genius behind many of the Pistols’ early singles and album tracks. And part of what makes Never Mind the Bollocks, like The Ramones before it, so damn good is that it is filled with what are really a series of great pop songs, lyrical themes and social issues notwithstanding, played really fast. It’s fun. It’s topical. It speaks to the hips, where Wire often speak to the brain first, then worry about what the sexy bits are up to later. Brains vs braun is almost always going to go to the beefier party, and Steve Jones’ guitar and bass orchestra here is so very beefy (like Steve himself), that it’s hard to pass him and the other Pistols by. Though it tears me asunder to see Wire set by the wayside, there’s nothing strange going on tonight about my decision to put them there. The Better Debut Album: The Sex Pistols, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols (1977)
And look at that, will you? We now have four contests left to go between eight very worthy, highly-battle tested contenders. We sort by release date, slice in the middle, and come up with the following match-ups that will take us to our final four the next time I write. Wow!
The Beatles, Please Please Me (1963) vs Gang of Four, Entertainment! (1979)
The Doors, The Doors (1967) vs The Sex Pistols, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols (1977)
The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967) vs Ramones, Ramones (1976)
The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Are You Experienced? (1967) vs Brian Eno, Here Come the Warm Jets (1973)
PART NINE: THE ELITE EIGHT
I am back in Des Moines tonight after a weekend away trip to St. Louis, with most of our final eight albums in the Great Out of the Gate contest on the car stereo for some brushing up and memory refreshing, where necessary. They all sounded great, honestly. It’s going to be hard to choose between them to get to our Final Four, but such is the task that I have set for myself, and such is the commitment that I shall fulfill. One key refresher point to note: the Final Four will be processed round robin style, so we will have the four competing albums at the end of tonight’s posts, but there are no matchups, because each album gets pitted against each of its three competitors. All set? Let’s do this . . .
The Beatles, Please Please Me (1963) vs Gang of Four, Entertainment! (1979): We open with the easiest contest of the four tonight. Gang of Four’s debut is a great, bracing album filled with awesome guitar, great beats, smart lyrics, interesting dual-lead vocals, and more melodica than you’d think possible on a post-punk disc of note. But when all’s said and done, Andy Gill, Jon King, Dave Allen and Hugo Burnham over-achieved to get this far in the contest, and there’s no way they can advance against Please Please Me from The Beatles, even on technicalities. Please Please Me opens with Beatles’ original “I Saw Her Standing There” and closes with the definitive version of “Twist and Shout” (and that’s saying something, given that The Isley Brothers took it to charts first). Entertainment! opens with “Ether” and closes with “Anthrax.” Need we say more about what transpires in the middle? No, not really. No weak men in the books at home. The Better Debut Album: The Beatles, Please Please Me (1963)
The Doors, The Doors (1967) vs The Sex Pistols, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols (1977): Before I went back and revisited both of these albums while working on this series, I would have viewed this particular match-up as something of a no-brainer, with The Sex Pistols easily moving on, while The Doors were dismissed with some clever repartee, maybe involving the killer putting his boots on before he walked down the hall, followed by a caution against posthumously inflating the value of works after their creator(s)’ come to unfortunate ends. But after a fortnight with The Doors debut album on regular rotation, this one’s not quite as cut and dried for me anymore. Both The Doors and The Pistols used the studio to accomplish things that they didn’t or couldn’t on stage, with The Doors bringing in session bass guitarists, freeing Ray Manzarek (who handled bass via keyboards and pedals in concert) to focus more on melodic textures and solos, while the Pistols dumped their live bassists and let the far-more-talented Steve Jones play both guitar and bass, over and over and over again, creating vast banks of crunchy guitar goodness until the ministrations of the very able Chris Thomas. The Doors offered a wide range of styles, textures and structures on their debut, ranging from the two-and-half minute “Break On Through (To The Other Side)” (which alternated jazzy, cymbal-driven verses with a thundering organ-dominated chorus) up to the epic 12-minute “The End,” which evolved like a slow-burn Indian raga, with more sex and violence. While there are some brief dodgy points on the album (most especially “Take It As It Comes” and “I Looked at You,” both of which might not have made the cut on a mid-tier Iron Butterfly album), the unique character of the band’s instrumental approach, the fabulous playing throughout, and the undeniable charisma of Mr Mojo Risin make this a more formidable album than most folks might think, despite the ever-present posthumous mythologizing, especially the parts that involved branding Jim Morrison a poet, since, you know, well, the killer put his boots on, before dawn (yawn!), and then he walked on down the hall. But absent Jimbo gibberish, this album is still sounding fantastic to me, and it certainly has proven its legs, and influenced a lot of would be Lizard Kings over the years. Impressive! I have also, obviously, been going back through Never Mind the Bollocks with an equally open critical comb. Did it exceed expectations, the way that The Doors did? No, it did not. But it certainly equaled my expectations for it, and they were very, very, very high indeed even before I replayed the album with a few year’s distance. Never Mind the Bollocks was a game changer on so many fronts — musical, political, lyrical, social, design aesthetic, guerrilla marketing tactics, etc. — and it has inspired reams and reams of critical evaluation and re-evaluation over the years, yet when all is said and done, when you actually listen to it, it’s remains a fantastic blast of great rock and roll of a shockingly high quality, especially given contemporary media portrayal of the Pistols as vulgar, untalented idiots. Oh how nice it was to live at a time when media outrage and public outcry allowed one to discover something new and exciting and lasting, as opposed to today, when the hype and hysteria machines are carefully tuned to the churnings of second tier talents like the loathsome Miley Cyrus and her ilk, who provoke to promote puerile pap of no lasting cultural significance. Never Mind The Bollocks is a great album that changed the world. That’s hard to beat, and so, alas, it means that we need to say that this is the end, beautiful friends, to The Doors. Please, gentlemen, will you walk on down the hall? But take your boots off, okay? We’re indoors, and there’s carpeting and everything, you know? Great. Thanks. Appreciate it. The Better Debut Album: The Sex Pistols, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols (1977)
The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967) vs Ramones, Ramones (1976): This here’s a tough one, since this is another case where I could easily envision both of these albums in the final four. Both bands are strongly associated with key scenes in New York’s cultural history, with the Velvets serving as the house band for Andy Warhol’s Factory crowd, while The Ramones essentially filled the same role at Hilly Crystal’s CBGB for most of New York Punk’s critical seminal phase. While probably 75% of the bands in this tournament would admit to being inspired by The Velvet Underground (and of the 25% who would not admit, most would be lying), I actually think The Ramones may be one of a very small number of bands who became what they became and did what they did without paying much attention at all to the Velvets. Of if they did, then they ignored artsy-fartsy things like “European Son” and “All Tomorrow’s Parties” and zeroed in on the sweet pop numbers like “I’ll Be Your Mirror” and “Sunday Morning,” perhaps using those templates to make their own perfect pop gems “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” and “Judy Is A Punk.” Or perhaps not. But, then, a huge number of groups in this poll also owe a tremendous creative debt to the Ramones, too, since their debut album was a key template for many (most?) of the punkiest bands that followed them in the great explosion of 1977. So something of a draw on that front, really. Subject matter is frequently discussed when assessing these groups, as both wrote about such subterranean subjects as drugs and prostitutes, although it’s arguable that Lou Reed’s “Heroin” was (at the time, before he was a junkie) more of a character sketch based on research than actual autobiography, where Dee Dee Ramones’ first-person narrative on “53rd & 3rd” is unquestionably authentic in tone, if far less literate in execution. Image was crucial for both of these bands, with the Velvets making their black leather and sunglasses uniform look somehow urbane and sophisticated, while the same costume created an air of menace and grit when adopted by the Ramones, especially when deployed in front of graffiti-filled, brick-walled alleyways. With the Ramones, what you saw was what you got: they took the stage, delivered their songs, and split, one-two-three-four. With the Velvets at this era in their development, you might not have even really been able to see much of them, what with Warhol projecting films into their faces (hence the sunglasses at night). The Velvets also offered the confounding presence of Teutonic chanteuse Nico, who might have been hired as eye candy, but had such a completely bizarre vocal delivery that you can’t really accuse anybody involved in the band of sticking her into it to make the music easier for a mass consumption audience to digest. She was just another deliciously weird element in a group already rich with them: the Welsh art school viola player, the female drummer and her mallets, the nebbishy looking pair of guitarists from Long Island. When you threw them all together, you ended up with a truly bizarre combination of musical styles and sounds, and The Velvet Underground and Nico carries a range of creativity that’s lacking on the more monochrome, if expertly delivered Ramones. It pains me to see them go, but Dee Dee, Johnny, Joey and Tommy ultimately can’t overcome the undeniable explosion of original, groundbreaking, record-making genius that the Velvet Underground unleashed in ’67. Choose to choose. Choose to lose. Choose to go. The Better Debut Album: The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967)
The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Are You Experienced? (1967) vs Brian Eno, Here Come the Warm Jets (1973): Brian Eno’s Here Come the Warm Jets offers a riveting blast of great, atmospheric, lyrically-rich songs, decked out in weirdness, and delivered by an awesome assortment of deeply-talented players. There are tape manipulations, there are weird sounds, there are interesting character studies, there are blistering guitar solos, there are odd rhythms, and they are all offered for our pleasure by an impresario singer-songwriter who spent most of his public face time dressed like a peacock. It’s a brilliant record by a hugely influential artist, writer, producer, player and playboy . . . and pretty much everything on it was offered six years earlier, and often better, on The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s debut record. You want weird sounds and tape manipulations? “Third Stone from the Sun” should give you everything you need, and this was all done before synthesizers were widely available. You want characters? Who was Mary, and why did the wind cry her name? You want awesome players? Messrs Hendrix, Redding and Mitchell at your service, on every song, all the time, with few overdubs, and no supporting studio players. You want blistering guitars solos? Well, duh . . . Hendrix, right? You want a charismatic bandleader dressed like an explosion at the feather factory? Well, duh . . . Hendrix, again, right? You want odd rhythms? What Hendrix and Mitchell do to standard waltz 3/4 time on “Manic Depression” is a mind-blowing lessons in turning the familiar into something terrifying. There’s not much to discuss here, ultimately, with Hendrix and team clearly leaving a bomb in Eno’s driveway, after looking at him sideways. The Better Debut Album: The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Are You Experienced? (1967)
And there we are . . . we have a final four. The next time I write, we will have a winner in this contest. Again, a refresher on the rules from this point forward: in the final round, each of four albums goes head to head with each of its rivals. There are two points to claim in each contest, with the winner taking two, the loser taking none, and both taking one in the case of a tie. At the end of the round, the album with the greatest number of points will win. If we have a tie, then we go to overtime, where the two or three surviving albums will be evaluated track by track, accumulating points as they go. If that doesn’t result in a decisive outcome, then I pick from whatever has survived, and we call it a contest. However it goes down, it will be fun, with a Final Four as accomplished as the one recounted below:
The Beatles, Please Please Me (1963)
The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967)
The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Are You Experienced? (1967)
The Sex Pistols, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols (1977)
PART TEN: THE FINAL FOUR AND THE WINNER
And so it come down to this: six round robin battles royal between four very worthy contenders (for the non-math majors in the house, those numbers work out because “A vs B” is the same thing as “B vs A,” don’t worry your little heads about it) to determine the best debut album ever, Indie Moines-style. I am 32,000 words into this thing, which is a testament to just how hard a process it is to pick between these great records, and how subtle or nuanced some of the choices needed to be.
Let’s reintroduce our finalists, shall we? In the north corner, we have The Beatles’ Please Please Me from 1963, close to the dawn of the album oriented rock era as we know and love it. In the south corner, 1967’s The Velvet Underground and Nico. In the east corner, The Jimi Hendrix Experience also represent the Class of ’67 with Are You Experienced? And in the west corner, the sole survivor of the punk explosion of ’77, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols.
As a reminder, in each mini-head-to-head there are two points at stake: two for a winner, zero for a loser, one each in the case of a tie. At the end of the six contests, we tally the points and if one album manages to score more than any of its competitors, then we have name our winner. In the case of a tie, we do a sudden death song by song analysis of the surviving combatants, one point awarded for each victorious song, until we have a winner.
I also want to remind everyone of the key criteria I am considering when evaluating these records head-to-head:
1. Did the artists themselves (or close, integral associates) conceive of the album and its sequencing themselves, or was it compiled by industry outsiders?
2. Did it have strong commercial, critical or creative impact?
3. Is it one of the group’s better records, if not the best?
And with that as prologue and preamble, we begin . . .
The Beatles, Please Please Me (1963) vs The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967): The Beatles wrote most of their debut album themselves, though it does contain a variety of covers, some sublime (“Twist and Shout” and “Anna”) and some not so much (“Chains” and “Baby It’s You”). The album essentially invents to concept of the self-contained rock band, where group members successfully write, sing and play their own material, and its impact and influence are immense accordingly. Please Please Me was, however, still something of an industry construction, as the Beatles’ early singles were coming so fast and furious that their U.K. and American labels were essentially slapping them to long-play vinyl in whatever configurations they could market to eager buyers. Very few serious listeners would likely cite Please Please Me as the best Beatles album ever, given the incredible depth and breadth of their catalog. The Velvet Underground and Nico also saw the band being somewhat manipulated by external forces, although Andy Warhol was probably a more benign and sympathetic string-puller than any of the Parlophone, Vee Jay or Capitol Records suits who were involved with getting Beatles’ records out the door. Arguments could be made for any of the Velvets’ first four records as their finest recorded moments, so uniformly high are their quality, and the group wrote and arranged all of their own material, with John Cale essentially serving as the de facto producer on their debut. While its commercial impact obviously paled in comparison to Please Please Me, it’s lasting critical and creative impact, and the truly unique vision it offers make The Velvet Underground and Nico the better album in this contest. Points: Zero for Please Please Me, Two for The Velvet Underground and Nico.
The Beatles, Please Please Me (1963) vs The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Are You Experienced? (1967): U.S. and U.K. listeners had radically different experiences with these bands’ first releases, as track listings were shuffled to get the latest breaking singles onto American albums after the original English and European versions had already gone to print. In The Beatles’ case, the names of the albums were different, so it was somewhat easy to distinguish them one from the other, and to perceive them as different products. For the Jimi Hendrix Experience however, their debut was dubbed Are You Experienced? on both sides of the pond, even though the original English version did not contain “Purple Haze,” “Hey Joe,” and “The Wind Cries Mary,” three songs that American and Canadian audiences would almost indelibly associate with this album, since those singles were part of the U.S. edition. I note this discrepancy and take it under consideration, but don’t consider it a show-stopper for Hendrix and company: the tracks on both versions of the album were culled from the same series of early 1967 studio sessions, only a few months separated the releases (as was the case with the Beatles’ early, competing editions), Hendrix approved the re-sequencing, and the true international impact of Are You Experienced? was not felt until after Jimi returned to his native land to blow up people’s perceptions of live rock guitar at the Monterey Pop Festival. Either version of Are You Experienced? could readily lay claim to being the Experience’s best album (or at least one among equals of the magnificent three albums that the trio issued), and it managed to be experimental, revolutionary, grounded in musical history, inspirational, weird, wonderful and hugely commercially successful all at once. It’s worth noting that Are You Experienced? was the first release on Track Records, owned and operated by The Who’s management team of Kit Lambert and Kit Stamp, and its financial success made possible many of the most egregious and creative excesses of that other band and its everybody associated with it expanded entourage of influence, many of whom have featured in this survey. So that’s an important part of rock and roll history, too. This one’s close, but I’ve got to give it to Jimi, Noel and Mitch in the end, as their album (in either configuration) demonstrates a level of creative audacity that has rarely been matched, before or since. Even by John, Paul, George and Ringo. Points: Zero for Please Please Me, Two for Are You Experienced?
The Beatles, Please Please Me (1963) vs The Sex Pistols, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols (1977): The material contained on The Sex Pistols’ debut album, just like the early material offered by The Beatles and The Jimi Hendrix Experience, originally came out in a variety of conflicting forms, with Virgin Records “official” release (which included four previously-issued singles) competing with a bootleg edition called Spunk and a French edition that added “Submission,” which was then included as a one-sided, 7-inch single with most early editions of the Virgin Never Mind the Bollocks. Early Virgin versions of Bollocks had inconsistencies between the printed label and contents of the vinyl contained there, and 10-song, 11-song and (ultimately) 12-song versions were pressed with varying degrees of distribution during the first year of the album’s release. For clarity’s sake, I’m evaluating what has now come to be the standard edition of the Sex Pistols’ debut: the 12-track Virgin version. Both the Beatles’ and the Sex Pistols’ debuts were confusing rush jobs in large part because the singles that came before them had been so successful and had fueled such demand that long player product was pumped into stalls as soon as it could be pressed, details be damned. Never Mind the Bollocks stands as the Sex Pistols’ crowning achievement, since John (Rotten) Lydon, Steve Jones and Paul Cook (the three performers actually featured on the album) never managed to make it into the studio again together to produce a follow-up. Lydon went on to form the hugely influential Public Image Ltd., while Cook, Jones and manager Malcolm McLaren nursed the corpse of the Pistols through a series of increasingly exploitative endeavors involving new lead singers (Ronnie Biggs, Ten-Pole Tudor) and dodgy film-making (The Great Rock n Roll Swindle), before finally falling apart sometime around the dawn of the ’80s. These two albums are more alike (e.g. hot singles created demand, album then created to sate demand) with each other than they are with Are You Experienced? (album issued, hot singles create additional demand, album reissued with new singles) or The Velvet Underground and Nico (not much interest in albums or singles, from anybody, before or after its issue). Please Please Me is not the best Beatles album, but it had huge commercial success, spawning a transformational movement in its wake. Never Mind the Bollocks represented the high-water mark of an English punk movement that was essentially already past its prime by the time the album was released, and John Lydon’s quick move into what became known as post-punk demonstrates that he probably knew this, too, at the time. I’m calling this one a tie. Points: One for Please Please Me, One for Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols.
The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967) vs The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Are You Experienced? (1967): This is a tough one. Both groups were tremendously experimental and influential, drawing on a variety of creative traditions in crafting their unique sonic visions. Both groups were culturally distinctive and unusual in their day, with the Velvets (with Nico) offering a blend of two women (one a statuesque German, one a drummer), a Welsh viola player, and good old Lou and Sterl from Long Island, while the Experience offered a flamboyant black American guitarist fronting a white English rhythm section. Both groups wrote their own material, for the most part, though Hendrix grabbed “Hey Joe” for the American issue of Are You Experienced? Both wrote about controversial topics — drugs, strange sex, mental illness, altered states, crime, death by foul play — though both also offered the occasional straight-up love number. Both groups flamed out relatively quickly: John Cale left the Velvets in 1968, Noel Redding left the Experience in 1969; both bassists flirted with later reunion returns, which became moot points after Lou Reed left the Velvets in 1970, just a month before Jimi Hendrix died. As noted routinely throughout this survey, it’s important not to reinvent musical history and accord undue import or respect for an artists’ work just because they are taken before their time, but there is little or no evidence that this has happened with Hendrix, since his recordings and his performances at such titanic events as Woodstock and the Monterrey Pop Festival were legendary in real time. Both groups had shadowy Svengali figures lurking behind them, with the Velvet Underground in a strange co-dependent relationship with artist Andy Warhol, while Hendrix benefited from the skilled attention of former Animals bassist Chas Chandler, who took Jimi from a club in New York City to England, helped him form the Experience, and made him the toast of London in shockingly short order, while the Velvets were still playing art school happenings of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable variety. These are both extraordinary albums by amazing songwriters and players. An uncountable number of bands cite the Velvet Underground as inspirations, while far fewer would cite Hendrix, though in this case, I believe that is because up-and-coming artists look at the technique manifested on The Velvet Underground and Nico and think “Well, I could do that,” while people look at what Hendrix, Redding and Mitchell did on Are You Experienced?, and simply whistle in admiration, knowing that Jimi was such a one of a kind talent that aspiring to his particular form of greatness will ultimately be an exercise in futility. That’s a crucial distinction, I think, as is the fact that millions of people around the world wanted to see Jimi Hendrix live and buy his records, where mere hundreds (maybe) would queue up in New York or Boston to see the Velvets in their pre-reunion heyday. Filthy lucre isn’t a determining factor, per se, but the fact that The Jimi Hendrix Experience were able to make something as weird as Are You Experienced? and get people to buy it gives it the slightest edge over the equally weird Velvet Underground and Nico, which didn’t really gain the reputation it holds today until a decade after its issue, when other, later weirdos started name-dropping it as a quick way of communicating connection, and cool, and cache. I didn’t see this coming when I started this project, but as I think, and listen, and write, and think some more, I’m going to have to go with Jimi on this one. You’ll never hear surf music again. Points: Zero for The Velvet Underground and Nico, Two for Are You Experienced?
The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967) vs The Sex Pistols, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols (1977): This one’s a lot more straight-forward. Never Mind the Bollocks is a great rock and roll album, filled with awesome riffs, influential vocal stylings, provocative lyrics, and boundless energy. It was important and influential, though it captured a dying scene, rather than defining a scene yet to be. While it is far more technically accomplished than people give the band credit for, it still remains fairly monochrome, with the riffs and the rants changing, but the wall of guitars sound and barreling tempos are pretty much consistent from beginning to end. The Velvet Underground and Nico covers rockers, dirges, noise fests, pop songs, and plenty more during its relatively brief run, using unusual instruments on unusual songs about unusual topics, creating a far more diverse experience that certainly hold up better to repeated listens. No contest. Points: Two for The Velvet Underground and Nico, Zero for Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Are You Experienced? (1967) vs The Sex Pistols, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols (1977): As is often the case when you get to the last of these round robin contests, simple mathematical properties of inequalities come into play: if A is greater than B, and B is greater than C, then A is greater than C. And not even the sorts of cosmic wormholes that Jimi Hendrix and his cohorts create on Are You Experienced? will be able to change that: Hendrix tops Velvets in a squeaker + Velvets top Pistols in a runaway = Hendrix tops Pistols, period. Which, of course, is the right answer, even without math. Points: Two for Are You Experienced?, Zero for Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols.
And speaking of math, now is the time to use it, rolling up the points above to see what we see . . . drum roll please . . .
The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Are You Experienced? (1967): Six points.
The Sex Pistols, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols (1977): One point.
The Beatles, Please Please Me (1963): One point.
The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967): Four points.
And so it goes . . . without having to go to bonus rounds, we have a winner:
THE GREATEST DEBUT ALBUM EVER IS:
ARE YOU EXPERIENCED? BY THE JIMI HENDRIX EXPERIENCE
So how do I feel about this, having spent so much time and spewed so many words to get here? I feel good. It feels right. It’s not what I expected when I started writing, but I like it that way, because if I know how the contest ends, then I don’t want to play it (see “Slaughtering the Sacred Cows” for proof). It certainly feels better than being told by Rolling Stone that the Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill was the greatest debut album ever, that’s for sure, especially as I’ve reminded recently by media happenings of the Beasties’ truly awful “Girls,” which still remains unlistenable to me even after the Goldieblox people swiped it from them and attempted to turn it into an anthem for young female empowerment. Ugh, still. Just yuck.
When all’s said and done, it has been delightful re-listening to many of these albums years after I’d last heard some of them. Some were better than I remembered. Many, though, were worse. Longevity over generations of evolving musical sounds, styles and tastes is a remarkable accomplishment, and Jimi Hendrix, Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell achieved that legendary degree of permanence and perpetual import on their first, and greatest, album, in either its U.S. or its U.K. editions. Well done!
Thanks for reading along on what ended up beating out “March of the Mellotrons” as the longest of these sorts of articles that I have ever written, at about 33,000 words. I will leave this up in its serial format for a week or so, but in a little while will just leave this single article here, as I’ve done with the earlier ones. But right, now, I don’t want to look at it anymore, as satisfying as it was to create.
What’s next? Keep an eye out for my Top Albums of 2013 in the next week or. I’ll bet there will even be some debuts among them . . .
THE COMPLETE LIST OF JERICSMITH.COM MUSIC TOURNAMENTS
The Worst Rock Band Ever (2004)
Slaughtering the Sacred Cows (2005)