IN THIS PHOTO: Arcade Fire (whose debut, Funeral, stunned critics in 2004)
The Artists Who Never Bettered Their Debuts
IT might seem like a rather negative title and one…
IN THIS PHOTO: Björk (one of the few artists who has improved and evolved her music after a stunning debut release)/PHOTO CREDIT: Jean-Baptiste Mondino
that employs a modicum of schadenfreude. The idea behind this is to highlight some of the best debuts ever but show how hard it can be topping something so revered and celebrated. Maybe certain acts go in so hard they cannot better themselves. When critics do get behind a record and elevate it to stunning heights: so few manage to go on to record better material or take that kind of pressure. Rather than mock those who have failed to live up to their debut-release stage; I have collected some of the finest introductions from giants of the music scene.
The Stone Roses – The Stone Roses (1989)
The Manchester band have talked about a third album but, as it stands, they have only released the two. It may seem insignificant and pointless saying a band that has created only two albums cannot be judged too harshly for not topping their debut. Such was the impact and strength of their eponymous debut; songs like She Bangs the Drums and I Am the Resurrection became the cornerstones of the 'Madchester' scene. Critics noticed its blasts of 1960s-music and Psychedelia; invention and swagger from the band. They failed to capture that same spark on the ironically-titled, Second Coming - similar-sounding to their debut but minus the timelessness and magic. Maybe the fact it arrived in 1994 – right in the middle of Britpop – made it an ill-fitting outsider. Regardless of its disappointing follow-up: few can deny the potency and legacy of The Stone Roses.
The Strokes – Is This It (2001)
Bands like The Libertines were keen to capture the same sort of energy, Punk rawness and youthful abandon like New York’s The Strokes on Is This It – perhaps not as potently done on The Libertines’ debut, Up the Bracket. Arriving a year into the '00s; the album seemed to represent a feeling that was in the air at the time. The songs, all penned by leader Julian Casablancas, resonate and connect the moment you hear them. They do not have the polished and vapid sound so much of today’s music does – the songs are edgy, raw and underproduced; allowing their true spirit to shine. Their 2003 follow-up, Room on Fire, was an impressive record but could not live up to the standard they set on their phenomenal debut. The band’s current record, 2013’s Comedown Machine, was met with mixed reception – it seems the best days for the band have passed. There have been diminishing returns but Is This It represents a single moment and snapshot perfectly captured by The Strokes. A timeless classic!
Arcade Fire – Funeral (2004)
There are debates as to whether the band’s follow-up, Neon Bible, is their best offering but I feel nothing rivals Funeral. The Canadian band’s latest, Everything Now, has been met with critical coldness. They are a band, like The Strokes, who have gone in hot and have been unable to reach the heady peaks of their first offering. Rebellion (Lies) is, perhaps, the best-known song from the album. Wake Up is a classic whilst the ‘Neighbourhood’ songs – four tracks with similar titles that form a sort of suite – show there is a conceptual arc to the narrative. It is a wonderfully rich and beautiful album that mixes Art-Rock strands in such an interesting and unique manner.
Pretenders – Pretenders (1980)
The legendary American band launched the 1980s with a timeless album packed with classics. They have released as recently as 2016 but, on Alone, it is more a solo project for Chrissie Hynde. The band’s introductory statement contains Precious, Brass in Pocket and Kid – three staples from the band that showed what they were all about. Pretenders debuted at number-one on the U.K. album charts and stayed there for four weeks straight. It is seen as one of the best albums of the 1980s and, to many critics, one of the finest albums ever. The fact the group never scaled the same peaks as they did here is not a reflection on their talent and consistency – such was the gravitas and ambition they put into their debut. It remains a startling album that has influenced a number of bands through the years.
Television – Marquee Moon (1977)
There are few albums that rank alongside Television’s debut, Marquee Moon – let alone debut releases. The incredible songwriting of Tom Verlaine makes every song seem like an adventure and epic. The sonic overdrives and explorations; the lyrics complicated, intriguing and arresting. An essential album in the American Punk-Rock movement defined the times and highlighted Television as natural leaders. Their 1978 follow-up, Adventure, is a startling work but doesn’t quite have the same genius and durability of Marquee Moon. Listening to Marquee Moon forty years after its release means one has fresh ears and perspective. It is timeless and ever-relevant. The music does not age and the performances, if anything, reveal fresh nuance after all this time!
The Velvet Underground – The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)
1967 was a year that saw celebratory and pioneering works like The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. That Summer of Love and feeling of rebellion was in the air. Along came an album that addressed heroin, sadomasochism and sexual deviancy – prostitution and loose morals – to challenge that order and balk against the conventions of the day. That was not the intention of the group but, with the likes of John Cale and Lou Reed in the ranks, they were never going to provide a traditional and toned-down record. It was, at the time, given bad press by critics and embroiled in controversy and lawsuits. Retrospective acclaim has seen the album given the kudos and acclaim it deserves. Their follow-up, White Light/White Heat, got great reception but, after splitting with Nico and artist Andy Warhol; they wanted to create better albums sales and fewer controversies. Nothing compares to the influence and original spirit of their debut – another album that has had an immeasurable impact on modern music.
Ramones – Ramones (1976)
Again, many might tussle against the assumption a band like Ramones peaked on their debut. Their first four albums are all exceptional and faultless but there is something extra-special about the eponymous debut. The fact it came first and, in my mind, contains stronger songs, means it is the finer record. The band barely recorded a sub-standard record in their career but there was nothing to rival the first four years of their career – before they headed into the 1980s and saw a slight dip in impact. Ramones created a simple and direct album that addressed drug abuse, relationships and the far-right – songs that rallied whilst others went straight for the groin. The fact there are few adornments made the album connect with critics and the public easily. Great Punk albums would follow – The Clash’s London Calling in 1979, for one – but this is the spearhead and godfather that showed their peers how it should be done. British bands like Sex Pistols were listening closely as, one year after Ramones was released, they put out Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols. It is clear what an effect Ramones’ debut has and how it helped define and shape the Punk movement.
Oasis – Definitely Maybe (1994)
What’s the Story (Morning Glory)? is a classic Oasis album but, in terms of its timeliness and impact; I feel Definitely Maybe is their peak. Released in 1994, at a time when huge bands like Blur and Radiohead (and Pulp) were coming to prominence; there was something refreshing and direct about Oasis. The Northern, working-class equivalent of Blur – closer to Pulp, in that sense – the Gallagher brothers-led band penned a classic in Definitely Maybe. Tracks like Live Forever gave hope to a generation and became a festival anthem. The album reflected the voice of the youth: those with few stresses and the need to embrace everything in life. Supersonic, Cigarettes & Alcohol and Slide Away are remarkable songs that, like all great tracks, have not aged or lost their edge. Oasis, as we know, fell victim to the tensions between Liam and Noel and were unable to sustain the pace and genius of their first two tracks. What’s the Story (Morning Glory)? marked a confident and consistent step from the band but it is Definitely Maybe that announced them to the world - and proved the equal (or superior rival) to Blur’s Parklife.
Norah Jones – Come Away with Me (2002)
Norah Jones might not be everyone’s cup of tea but there are few that can deny the place Come Away with Me holds in music. An alluring and sophisticated batch of Jazz-Pop songs that highlighted an incredible voice and accomplished songwriter. Gentle and serene throughout – its mood and personality do not alter much through the record – proved popular with many but it was the standout song, Don’t Know Why, that everyone remembers. Day Breaks, Jones’ album released last year, marked a slight return-to-form (following a fallow period) but she never matched the beauty and soothe of her incredible debut album.
Dizzee Rascal – Boy in da Corner (2003)
There are strange comparisons between Dizzee Rascal and Norah Jones. Dizzee Rascal’s Boy in Da Corner arrived a year after Jones’ debut: his current album, a year after her latest (Raskit was released a few weeks back). Both peaked on their debut album but that is where the similarities end. London’s Dizzee Rascal created a Grime classic on his initial outing. A teenager at the time of its release: the record displayed slick and impassioned raps; incredible wordplay and consistently confident performances. There was a period – before Raskit; after Showtime – where Dizzee started to lose his edge and identity. Too many collaborators going into the mix; themes moving away from the manor and more needless profanity. He has regained his Grime crown this year - but Raskit cannot begin to capture the same majesty and brilliance of Boy in da Corner.
Weezer – Weezer (1994)
Weezer put out their eleventh album, Pacific Daydream, later this year and it is going to be another exciting release from the American band. They are a group that, in my mind, provided their best work right at the start of their career. Pinkerton, the sophomore album, gained some negative reviews – getting retrospective acclaim and appreciation – but it was their eponymous debut (or their ‘Blue Album’) that provided those rich vignettes (from Rivers Cuomo) about video games and Kiss posters; self-depreciating wit and classic standouts – Buddy Holly has become their signature tune. In a year (1994) that produced more classic albums than any other year: it is a compliment to say Weezer ranks alongside the finest of them.
The Doors – The Doors (1967)
Again, like 1994: 1967 was not short of incredible albums. The Doors arrived on the scene and were like nothing else out there. The poetry and sexuality of Jim Morrison; the incredible fusion of Jazz and Rock – a band that was solid and exceptional right from the off. It is hard to believe a single album contains so many world-class and famous songs. Light My Fire, The End and Break on Through (To the Other Side) are a trio of examples. Future albums like Strange Days proved popular but there was nothing that gained the same sort of love and adulation as The Doors. The raw vocals of Jim Morrison and the incredible performance-connection of Ray Manzarek, Robby Krieger and John Densmore was a unique brew that made every song absolutely essential.
Pearl Jam – Ten (1991)
One could say Nirvana never topped their debut, Nevermind, but I feel In Utero is its better. There is no doubt Pearl Jam’s Ten is the summation of their career – and arrived right at the start of their career. The 1991-release contained pearls in Jeremy, Black and Even Flow; Alive Oceans and Porch. It is a Hard-Rock classic that arrived at a time when Grunge was taking hold. Eddie Vedder’s powerhouse vocals and impressionistic lyrics differed from a lot of what was out there. Singers like Kurt Cobain went for more scorched and unsophisticated vocals; lyrics that were more direct and unambiguous. Vedder’s semi-operatic delivery raised the songs to new levels and, in Ten, helped create a 1990s masterpiece. One of the strongest and most talented bands of that era: the Seattle band went on to release some fine albums but nothing lived up to the standard and brilliance of Ten.
The xx – xx (2009)
I See You is the recent, Mercury-nominated album from the incredible trio. Many would say their latest album matches their debut but nothing can quite equal the beauty and unexpectedness of xx. It was released in 2009 and found few like-minded records at the time. Romy Madley Croft, Oliver Sim and Jamie Smith showed an incredible chemistry and connection that made their dreamy, near-flawless Pop songs shine. An unconventional and truly original album; xx saw many new bands copy the xx and throw the same elements into their music. The reason I See You is not as impactful is, because, the xx, to avoid repeating themselves, have changed their sound – the fact so many ape them means they cannot replicate the same sounds as heard on their debut. Whilst they continue to make music of the highest order: they hit a rich, gorgeous and rare vein on xx.
Supergrass – I Should Coco (1995)
The same way Ramones amazed with a stripped-down and simple album: Supergrass burst into music with a direct and uncomplicated album - that still managed to throw in musical sophistication. Their key tune, Alright, became a summer anthem and one of the essential Britpop gems. Caught by the Fuzz, Lenny and Mansize Rooster are epic and rousing – showing how the band could create Rock and Pop songs that differed from anything out there. The boys would go on to create sensational albums like In It for the Money and Supergrass - but it is their first flourish that really stands the test of time. It arrived at a time when the likes of Oasis and Blur were tussling for chart superiority. The cheeky chaps were unconcerned with getting involved and provided the world with an album that could match the quality of Blur and Oasis - but didn’t have to compete with the same levels of stress and media attention.
Patti Smith – Horses (1975)
If one has to mark out the debut that betters the remaining body of work: maybe Patti Smith’s Horses is the quintessential example. Of course, she went on to produce some world-class albums but such was the standard and quality of Horses that it washes everything away. Even in 1975; Rock had not encountered anyone quite like Patti Smith - one could argue Joni Mitchell had the same impact on Folk. Placing prominence on words and delivery; the poet-cum-musicians turned the art-form into something new and incredibly vivid. Her reinterpretation and elongation of Van Morrison’s Gloria opens the album – it is split into two parts: the first, she wrote and the second is a more traditional cover of Morrison’s song – but songs like Free Money and Birdland are incredible works. Smith is someone who continues to write music and there is that undeniable passion and dedication to her work. One listens to Horses and it is an aural experience that gets into the mind and takes your imagination somewhere truly wonderful.
ABC - The Lexicon of Love (1982)
A New-Wave/Pop masterpiece of the 1980s saw ABC arrive in music with something elegant, sophisticated and emotive. The album went against the plastic and manufactured nature of a lot of the day’s music and created something more natural, symphonic and honest. Martin Fry’s stunning voice and personal lyrics gave one a window into an enigmatic singer wrestling with relationships and their meaning. The Look of Love (Part One) – no parts two and three, you’ll notice – is a classic track of the 1980s. Poison Arrow is no slouch - and the entire album has a solidity and consistency that hit critics hard. Many place it among their favourite records of the decade. The Lexicon of Love has inspired bands and songwriters since 1982.
Guns N’ Roses – Appetite for Destruction (1987)
In 1987; Appetite for Destruction became the biggest-selling debut album ever. It has sold over thirty-million copies and remains the finest record by Guns N’ Roses. The guys are currently touring and it appears there might be new material in the future. To be fair, it is going to pale in significance compared with their epic and astonishing debut. Slash’s explosive and sensational guitar work perfectly matches Axl Rose’s dark and sexual lyrics. The album was vital because it helped shepherd away from the Hair Metal bands of the time to a more credible option. Guns N’ Roses were in no mood to prance on stage and perform cheesy ‘anthems’. They were a gritty and hardcore proposition with coruscating riffs, incredible strings-percussion unity and some of the most impassioned vocals in the world. Appetite for Destruction is one of the finest albums from the 1980s and remains the apex of Guns N’ Roses eventful career.