Debut albums have a power all their own. For fledgling bands and artists, the debut album can serve as a mission statement, a triumphant introduction or a crash landing. For a select few, the inaugural LP served as a crowning achievement, with the power to demand the entire music industry wake up and pay attention.
These rare artists arrive on the music scene fully formed, ready to push the art form in new and profound ways, and their debut albums are a testament to that force. Let’s look back at some of pop music’s greatest debut albums of all time. From The Beatles, to Nas to Whitney Houston, each of these artists changed the way music was made.
“Illmatic” – Nas
In 1994, hip-hop Bible The Source anointed a 20-year-old MC from New York’s Queensbridge projects with an extraordinarily rare, perfect 5-mic review for his debut album. Of course, that album would go down as one of the greatest (if not THE greatest) hip-hop albums of all time: Illmatic. Nasir Jones’ (Nas) lyrical storytelling and spotless beats serve as his own origin story. With production and features from Large Professor, Pete Rock, DJ Premiere and Q-Tip, Illmatic represents a landmark in hip-hop and the dawn of a new era.
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“Please Please Me” – The Beatles
Having honed their sound and live performances in small, darkly lit bars and nightclubs throughout Hamburg and Liverpool, The Beatles burst onto the scene with their debut “Please Please Me” in 1963. Recorded in just 13 hours, the fab four’s freight train energy never lets up as they pound their way through original songs like “Love Me Do” and familiar covers like “Baby It’s You” and “Twist and Shout.” Over the next eight years, The Beatles would transform rock music in more ways than one, but their pure pop debut lives on forever.
“Whitney Houston” – Whitney Houston
Before Whitney Houston became one of the best-selling recording artists of all time, influencing generations of singers, she was a church vocalist and a baby-faced model for Seventeen magazine. That all changed when Clive Davis signed her to his label when she was just 19. Her debut album “Whitney Houston” might have been slow on sales out of the gate, but there was no denying her legendary voice on hit singles “Saving All My Love for You” and “How Will I Know.” After picking up steam and generating three No. one singles, Houston received four Grammy nominations and firmly established herself as one of the most powerful, soulful voices in pop music history.
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“The Velvet Underground and Nico” – The Velvet Underground
Brian Eno put it best when looking back on the impact of The Velvet Underground’s first LP when he said, “the first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.” Though the industry was slow to catch on, The Velvet Underground’s glam, sexy, noir, grunge sound, teaming up with German vocalist Nico, combined to create one of the most influential, prophetic rock albums of all time.
“Is This It” – The Strokes
For evidence confirming the bands birthed from The Velvet Underground’s influence, look no further than The Strokes‘ 2001 debut “Is This It.” Upon releasing their brilliant and blistering 30 minute LP, The Strokes were immediately dubbed the “saviors of rock and roll.” Some critics saw this endorsement as a bit of an overstatement. Indeed, a bold new era of rock had been ushered in at the start of the 2000s, but it’s hard to deny that any other album of this era harnessed this new sound in as refreshing and forceful a way as ‘Is This It.” The Strokes never quite reached the heights their debut album seemed to promise, but this modern masterpiece still feels like a raucous ride two decades later.
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“Tidal” – Fiona Apple
“This world is bullshit.” The words of a teenage Fiona Apple accepting the MTV Video Music Award for Best New Artist seemed to take on a life of their own in 1997, but what has faded is how Apple concluded her infamous acceptance speech, —
“Go with yourself.” Apple made a career of doing just that, following her eccentric, visionary artistic impulses. But it was her debut album “Tidal’ that firmly established her as an artist to be reckoned with. Released when she was only 18 years old, “Tidal” is a powerhouse of angst, paralysis and rage.
“Straight Outta Compton” – N.W.A.
N.W.A.’s debut LP launched the career of Dr. Dre, Eazy-E and Ice Cube and firmly established the entire gangsta rap genre. While Public Enemy’s Yo! Bum Rush the Show— released the year prior — rooted their music as a tool for political revolution, N.W.A. transformed that rage into throttling thug life anthems with “Gangsta Gangsta,” “Express Yourself” and, of course, “Fuck Tha Police.” While it wasn’t the first gangsta rap album on the scene, Straight Outta Compton created a ripple effect that reshaped how the industry saw rap as an art form and culture.
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