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Carter Alan

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The Top 20 Classic Rock Debuts Of All Time: From The Vikings To The Present

I’ve been offering up lists of the best 4th albums in Classic Rock history the best 3rd album releases, and the finest sophomore releases. Since I’m counting backwards for some reason, I guess that gets me to the best debut albums in the history of rock. I’m sure there will a great deal of debate over these choices, but rest assured, CURB, Nickelback’s 1996 debut isn’t on here. How about I make this article a real source of controversy, like there isn’t enough elsewhere, and do this as a Top 20!

#20  U2 - BOY (1980)      When this album appeared, it stoked only passing interest in the mainstream, but ignited the first, fiercely loyal and passionate cadre of followers. Saddled somewhat by an underwhelming vocal performance from Bono (who’d catch up quickly in just a couple years), the result was balanced by exciting songwriting and a ring of truth from one of rock’s most influential guitarists of the future – The Edge.  

#19   THE EAGLES - THE EAGLES (1972)   This debut in 1972 gets a lot of credit for inventing country-rock. It did not; that honor going to the Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers and Poco among some lesser known others. However, THE EAGLES did crystallize the solid vocal talent of this quartet and put that powerful blend behind some potent songwriting. Out of the gate with two huge American hit singles, this album was the start of something very big.

#18   BEASTIE BOYS - LICENSED TO ILL (1986) The debut from New York City’s Rap trio has sold well in excess of 10-million copies in the States. It’s a clever blend of the black street-music pioneered by artists like Grandmaster Flash with some screaming hard rock (“No Sleep Till Brooklyn”).  At the time, it was said that if a white group ever got a hold of Hip-hop and presented it in a widely-available format that the music had the real potential to explode all across the American mainstream. That it did, making this album a cultural ground-zero.

#17  THE CLASH -  THE CLASH (1977 – U.K., 1979 – U.S.)    One of the most significant and powerful documents of the English punk scene. Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, and Terry Chimes created some of the most potent songs of the period – “White Riot,” “Remote Control,” “London’s Burning,” and “I’m So Bored With the U.S.A.,” so when this album came out in 1977 it was an instant monster in the U.K. Strangely, the American arm of Columbia Records thought the music was insignificant in this market. That miscalculation caused the U.S. label to miss out on a revenue windfall as Stateside fans bought so many import copies that the suits finally realized they screwed up. THE CLASH (with an altered song lineup) came out over here two years later.

#16   DEREK & THE DOMINOS - LAYLA AND OTHER ASSORTED LOVE SONGS  (1970) After Cream and Blind Faith, Eric Clapton had had enough of stardom and fame. He wanted to create music without all the expectation and baggage of the music press and fans, so he created this band and didn’t even bother to put his name on the brand. The sessions with Duane Allman and the rest of the musicians resulted in some of the most inspired blues-rock to ever be recorded. The world failed to take notice, however, and it wasn’t until nearly two years later after “Layla” became a hit, that Eric Clapton and his brilliant group were finally exposed. By then, though, Duane Allman was already dead and the band members had all gone their separate ways.     

#15  ALICE IN CHAINS  -  FACELIFT (1990)  This was the first album of the Seattle grunge scene to sell Gold – 500,000 copies. To borrow a Jim Morrison lyric, FACELIFT was a ‘dusky jewel,’ establishing Alice in Chains’ dark and moody sound and sullen lyrics from singer Layne Staley. The single “Man in a Box” would become a hit and even be nominated for a Grammy, sending the group’s career into a soaring projectile.Alice’s career, shepherded by guitarist and found Jerry Cantrell, would survive beyond Staley’s death in 2002 and continues to this day.


#14  THE PRETENDERS -  THE PRETENDERS  (1980) Actually released in the final fours days of the previous decade, THE PRETENDERS carried the ethos of aggressive punk energy and attitude into a new, more musically diverse decade. Chrissie Hynde’s sweet songs (“Kid,” “Brass in Pocket,” and the Kinks remake “Stop Your Sobbing”) might have scored the mainstream airplay, but the grit and malice of “Precious,” “Mystery Achievement,” and “Tattooed Love Boys” made this a band not to be messed with. 

#13  OZZY OSBOURNE  -  BLIZZARD OF OZ  (1980)  The former (at the time) lead singer of Black Sabbath was kicked out of that band because he was partying even harder than the others. Certainly the group had wandered from its consistently impressive path after the overlooked and brilliant SABOTAGE in 1975.So, it was easy to write off Osbourne in those early days as he tried to jump-start a solo career. A fortuitous meeting with guitar wunderkind Randy Rhoads rekindled the creative juices, resulting in this remarkable return. “I Don’t Know,” “Crazy Train,” and “Mr. Crowley” highlight a metal masterpiece that so far has sold 5-million copies throughout the American wasteland.

#12  THE CARS  - THE CARS  (1978)   One of Boston’s best and a blueprint for 80’s New Wave, THE CARS mated the fullness of 70’s guitar rock, punk freshness, and cool electronics. It took that bouillabaisse to the top of the charts, moving six-million copies and becoming Rolling Stone Magazine’s 1979 Band of the Year in its annual poll. The album is loaded with so many recognizable tracks that guitarist Elliot Easton once joked that it should be called THE CARS GREATEST HITS.  


#11  LYNYRD SKYNYRD  -  PRONOUNCED ‘LEH-NERD ‘SKIN-NERD  (1973) This album followed in the wake of the Allman Brothers’ establishment of the Southern Rock genre but brought forth several songs that easily transcended that genre. A textbook example of great songs that were kneaded through painstaking rehearsals over years, then recorded with musicians that had grown into experts after dozens of performances in a long trail of shitty southern bars. The iconic “Free Bird” got to be nine-minutes long because the band needed to fill long sets onstage with too-few available songs. By the time this album was recorded, that was not a problem - “Gimme Three Steps,” “Simple Man,” and Tuesday’s Gone” are all the stuff of legend.  

#10  THE POLICE - OUTLANDOS D‘ AMOUR (1978)     This U.K. trio was thrust out of the mob of bands jostling for attention in the late-70’s by its dynamic musicianship and the keen songwriting skill of its bassist and lead singer Sting. Ironically, the punk scene was the catapult to fame, even though the members of the Police were far above bashing out 2-minute bursts of 2-chord rock onstage. Reggae, even jazzy elements were spread throughout a collection of commercial-sounding songs ignited by the success of the single “Roxanne.”

#9  BOSTON - BOSTON  (1976)   The peak of ‘stadium-rock,” guitarist Tom Scholz’s songs mated the sparkling allure of pop melodies with a massive assault of guitars and rhythm that pasted you against the far wall. Ouch! That hitherto-unexplored mix found favor with an audience that grew so exponentially so quickly that before long, 17-million copies of this Boston band’s debut had flown out of stores back in the day or downloaded far more recently. That the band’s legacy would, instead, be dominated by the legal battles to follow is tragic.    

#8  THE DOORS - THE DOORS (1967)   The dark and brooding artistic presence of singer and lyricist Jim Morrison elevated a tight trio of Ray Manzarek on keyboards and bass, guitarist Robbie Krieger, and drummer John Densmore to a place unique among it’s peers. The Doors gave wings to Morrison’s often abstruse poetic visions that, even if misunderstood, always prompted interest, passion, and sometimes violence from its audience. Indeed, Morrison’s drunken goading onstage lead to all-out riots at many of the band’s concerts.  From the Oedipal tale “The End” to the magical first #1 hit “Light My Fire,” THE DOORS became a blueprint for hundreds of groups who tried, but never matched, the original.

#7  PEARL JAM -  TEN   (1991) One of the twin peaks of the grunge period from Seattle (the other, of course, being Nirvana’s NEVERMIND), Pearl Jam’s debut eventually sold over 13-million copies in the U.S. And how do you match that? In that quandary, Pearl Jam would find a way out by moving forward and not attempting duplication. How could you possibly duplicate the success of having the right set of monster songs positioned in just the right place at just the proper time to repeat a moment of world-changing fission. You know all of these songs, and they’ll never get tired.  

#6  JIMI HENDRIX EXPERIENCE  -  ARE YOU EXPERIENCED?  (1967) In the Summer of Love, the Beatles SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND album is credited with changing so many attitudes about the music of the period, but the far more alien-sounding guitars, spatial feedback, and purple passion of Jimi Hendrix actually hit the record store shelves two-weeks before the Beatles epic. Recognized as the greatest guitarist in history, Hendrix also had a keen songwriting gift and the need to follow his songs through the recording process until they came as close to his vision as possible.  Iconic and timeless from the basic blues of “Hey Joe” to the psychedelic light-jump of “Third Stone from the Sun.”

#5 VAN HALEN  - VAN HALEN  (1978)   This release will be forever remembered as the moment one of the world’s most visionary and talented guitarists emerged from the cage. Eddie Van Halen’s sheer talent may have dominated, but brother Alex, Michael Anthony, and singer David Lee Roth were all vital components that sparked this tight repast of songs into classic rock immortality. “Eruption” is the most recognizable guitar solo in history and the song that catapulted them into the limelight, a cover of the Kinks “You Really Got Me,” is a steroid overdose. Selling this overwhelming attack of music was the irrepressible Roth, whose ego was more than large enough to soar over it all – for better or for worse!

#4  BLACK SABBATH  BLACK SABBATH  (1970) Recorded in one day, Sabbath’s debut is the collected stage set spilled out in haste in a studio while under the gun. Even so, the power of Tony Iommi’s doom-laden guitars, Ozzy Osbourne’s wail, Geezer Butler’s bass throb and inspired lyrics, plus the under-rated brilliance of drummer Bill Ward had been hammered out onstage for months and months, so they were ready. This is Ground Zero for the entire hard rock and metal universe that followed. Arguably, if there was no BLACK SABBATH, there’d be no Metallica or even Nirvana.It could have been Supertramp or America all the way, which is fine if you like those bands, but man doesn’t live by Bread alone.

#3  GUNS N’ ROSES   APPETITE FOR DESTRUCTION   (1987) Guns n’ Roses learned its lessons on the Strip like a whole host of 80’s hair bands, but realized something else that set it apart from nearly all the lot of them. Hooked on the reasons for the music and not just the success of it, the power vs. the pop, Guns tapped into the roots of rock and roll and not just the appearances of it. So they ended up understanding what the Rolling Stones were all about and the genius of being in it for music’s sake, rather than the endless lines and constant traveling party (although they’d end up getting all that too). This wasn’t just a dangerous-sounding band, they were actually dangerous - the real thing, and they could really play. One in a million. Too bad they let it get away from them way too early.

#2   LED ZEPPELIN    LED ZEPPELIN    (1969)       No one will dispute this album’s presence in, at least, the top three.  Built on the backs of a thousand blues songs, Led Zeppelin also benefited critically from the vision of guitarist and (even more importantly) producer Jimmy Page, and three other diamonds in the rough. Well, John PaulJjones was already a proven studio genius, but Plant and Bonham were true unknown quantities that would fully unmask on this debut. Plant’s shriek on “How Many More Times” rivals Daltrey’s lungful on “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” and Bonham’s thumping bass drums threatened to unseat even the mighty Ginger Baker of Cream. This is where the Hammer of the Gods was first revealed. We are not worthy!

#1   THE BEATLES   PLEASE PLEASE ME  (1963) Now I know that to most of the current classic rock listening audience this is ancient history, but it’s arguable that none of the previous 19 selections on this list would have ever been recorded had the Beatles not kicked in the wall to let the big beat through back in the black and white years of the early 60’s. A lot of people had heard of the Beatles over in England in 1962, but it wasn’t until this album captured the power of the group’s tight stage performance and uncanny songwriting skill that Beatlemania first exploded. I avoided the American releases because they both derive from this original British release, which was recorded in one marathon day-long session. 14-songs – from “I Saw Here Standing There” to the final ragged John Lennon gasp on “Twist and Shout,” PLEASE PLEASE ME is Genesis.             


Vinyl record with copy space in front of a collection

Photo: Getty Images

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