It’s rare for a band to put out a truly classic album on their first try. Most bands take years to hone their sound, so expecting them to nail it on the first try is asking a lot.
Sometimes though, bands come out of the gate with a seminal work that stands the test of time. To be fair, you could easily compile a list of the 100 best debut rock albums and still miss some important ones, so narrowing it down to only 20 is a difficult task. However, one thing that’s hard to deny about the following 20 albums is that they all arrived fully formed; these bands struck gold the first time out and never looked back.
20. Van Halen – Van Halen (1978)
Van Halen quickly wore out their welcome, becoming almost a parody of themselves by the early 80s, but you have to give credit where credit’s due: their 1978 self-titled debut was an absolute monster of a rock record. Guitarist Eddie Van Halen rewrote the rules of guitar playing with his heavily-distorted shredding style, best exemplified in the standout instrumental track “Eruption”. To be fair, the album is front-loaded, as the back half doesn’t hold up very well, but Van Halen is an undeniable rock classic thanks to the strength of the first 4 tracks alone, which perfectly encapsulate why Van Halen was such an influential hard rock outfit.
19. Guns N’ Roses – Appetite For Destruction (1987)
The best-selling American debut album ever also happens to be one of the best. Guns N’ Roses arrived on the hard rock scene and proceeded to tear it down thanks to their grimy sound and aesthetic, exemplified by lead guitarist Slash’s virtuoso, yet still distinctly rock-based guitar playing and singer Axl Rose’s powerful vocal capabilities. Lead singles “Welcome to the Jungle”, “Paradise City”, and “Sweet Child O’Mine” are rock radio classics and Appetite For Destruction as a whole is a ballsy affair that encapsulates the sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll stereotype — but in the best way possible.
18. Rage Against The Machine – Rage Against The Machine (1992)
The band that spawned a thousand imitators, Rage Against the Machine’s status as the godfathers of the rap-rock movement is rather unfortunate in retrospect. While acts such as Limp Bizkit and Crazy Town were prospecting new depths of atrocious audio in the late 90s/early 2000s, Rage Against the Machine were a group concerned with not just creating memorable riffs, but setting them to politically-charged lyrics that made a statement.
All of this is evident on their landmark 1992 debut, which is overflowing with angry protest songs totally lacking in contrivance. Vocalist Zack de la Rocha raps and roars over Tom Morello’s howling guitar work on tracks such as “Killing in the Name, “Fistful of Steel,” and the epic anthem “Wake Up.” Released in 1992, Rage Against the Machine is the first and last word on rap-metal for many and remains as explosive and rebellious as it did upon release.
17. Boston – Boston (1976)
It’s hard to find albums where every track is a winner, but the debut self-titled album from the 1970s rock outfit Boston fits this category precisely. There are only 8 tracks on the album, but each one is strong enough to be considered a classic— in fact, the first 5 tracks were all released as singles. Boston was largely the brainchild of guitarist Tom Scholz, who assembled the band with lead singer Brad Delp as a way of releasing demo tracks he had been working on in his spare time. The album is considered by many to be an essential of classic rock and still stands as the group’s best album.
16. Black Sabbath – Black Sabbath (1970)
Right from the opening of the title track, with its infamous demonic guitar riff, it was clear that Black Sabbath had changed the course of rock music forever. Indeed, the band’s self-titled debut is often credited with giving birth to heavy metal and the fact that it was released at the beginning of the 70s, right as the music world was pulling away from the hope and optimism of the hippie generation, is fitting. It’s not hard to see why Black Sabbath scared the crap out of concerned parents and church groups everywhere; if the crushing doom of the band’s slowed-down rock playing didn’t fill you with dread, the album’s haunting cover surely did the trick.
Of course, the real reason behind the band’s sound – guitarist Tony Iommi had to tune his guitar down three semitones after losing the tips of his middle and ring fingers of his right hand as a teenager – is decidedly less cool than thinking the four lads from Birmingham were sent by Satan to play the devil’s music, but that didn’t stop Sabbath from starting a whole new movement in popular music in one fell swoop.
15. The Beatles – Please Please Me (1963)
Unlike most bands, The Beatles’ music only got better over time, as the Fab Four constantly evolved their sound over the course of the 1960s. Indeed, if you were to give someone just Please Please Me and their final album, Abbey Road, they’d think they were the work of two different bands. While Please Please Me is far from their best effort, even a lesser Beatles album is better than the best work produced by many other bands and on one hand, you just have to marvel at what the group accomplishes on their debut given the circumstances of its recording.
The Beatles recorded 10 of the album’s 14 songs in just over 12 hours at Abbey Road studio on February 11th, 1963, which is just obscene. Fortunately, the band’s rushed schedule doesn’t come through on the actual recording. Instead, the exuberance of John, Paul, George, and Ringo shines, especially on outright classics like ” I Saw Her Standing There,” “Boys,” and “Twist and Shout,” the latter of which was recorded last due to Lennon’s throat-shredding vocals. In truth, Please Please Me only looks like a lesser work because The Beatles reached such vast artistic heights in their later years but as far as debuts go, there are few that can measure up.
14. Pearl Jam – Ten (1991)
The Seattle grunge scene was the biggest movement in American music in the 1990s and Pearl Jam was one of the main groups to emerge from the scene. The band rose out of the ashes of another influential Seattle group, Mother Love Bone, with bassist Jeff Ament and guitarist Stone Gossard recruting new members, including vocalist/songwriter Eddie Vedder, to form Pearl Jam. The band’s debut, Ten, is a towering achievement front-to-back and showcased the band’s (at the time) unique blend of the heavy sound associated with the grunge scene and classic rock sensibilities, exemplified by guitarist Mike McCready’s blues-based soloing. The band unfortunately spurred a lot of inferior copycat groups that mimicked Vedder’s deep-toned vocal style, but if you strip that away, it’s hard not to view Ten as a very strong debut for a band that continues to make good music.
13. The Doors – The Doors (1967)
Bringing together enigmatic frontman Jim Morrison’s poetic songwriting with hard rock sensibilities, The Doors arrived on the scene fully formed with their self-titled debut, which was recorded over the course of just six days in the summer of 1966. Driven by the two hit singles “Break On Through (To the Other Side) and “Light My Fire,” The Doors is a powerhouse of raw, psychedelic rock and roll fused with jazz, blues, and even classic music to deliver a knockout first album.
Depending on who you ask, the 11-minute album closer “The End” is either a work of genius or an overambitious failure but regardless, The Doors were able to hit on something that was desperately missing from popular music at the time: dangerous, distinctly weird music. A defining work of 60s rock, The Doors would arguably never again reach the creative peak seen on their first album.
12. The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Are You Experienced (1967)
As is surely noticeable by now, the best debut albums are usually the ones that had an enormous impact on the rock music genre as a whole. Jimi Hendrix is one of the greatest guitar players of all time, so it’s fitting that his band’s debut album is also considered to be one of the best. Are You Experieced introduced the world to the legendary guitarist’s unique approach to songwriting and musicianship and contains classic tracks like “Foxy Lady”, “Purple Haze”, and “The Wind Cries Mary”. Really, the best thing that can be said about Are You Experienced is that it doesn’t sound anything like a band’s debut album — it’s much too confident and robust.
11. Weezer – The Blue Album (1994)
Weezer’s debut, commonly referred to as The Blue Album, is considered by many to be one of the greatest albums of the 90s, containing 10 tracks of pop rock perfection. There is not a bad track on this thing. The brainchild of vocalist Rivers Cuomo, The Blue Album is without a doubt also one of the most important albums of that decade, as it represented an early precursor to the modern cultural dominance of the “uncool.” With songs that referenced comic books and the heartache of breakups, Weezer were most definitely not cool. And yet, their inherent squareness resonated with a generation of youth who were sick of hiding their personalities and niche interests from the world. Weezer’s Blue Album helped define a generation…but it’s also just an exceptionally good rock album, pure and simple.
10. The Clash – The Clash (1977)
One of the earliest (and best) punk rock albums, The Clash’s self-titled debut hit like a rallying cry for disdainful young people growing up in Britain in the late 1970s. Lead vocalist Joe Strummer and the rest of The Clash’s rapid-fire tunes touch on subjects such as unemployment, race relations and anti-American sentiment and though punk rock has come a long way in the intervening decades, this album still stands alongside the likes of the Sex Pistols’ debut album as a blueprint for the genre as a whole.
Though some critics have pointed out that Strummer’s own privilege frequently undercuts the points he’s trying to make, his righteous anger on songs like “What’s My Name” resonated with a whole generation who felt their voices were going unheard in Britain’s march to ultra-conservatism under Margaret Thatcher in the 80s and the songs still rock regardless. The album was also a massive hit across the pond, but American listeners had to wait two years for a version that replaced some U.K. tracks with recent singles, which only pissed off people more.
9. Joy Division – Unknown Pleasures (1979)
Unknown Pleasures works as not just as a defining work of a cultural movement — in this case, the darker, atmospheric side of punk rock — but also as a look into the tortured mind of Joy Division singer-songwriter Ian Curtis, who committed suicide at the age of 23, a year after the album’s release. Featuring Martin Hannett’s exquisite production, which made use of all sorts of unusual techniques and sound effects, Unknown Pleasures’ 10 tracks ebb and flow between themes of passion and despair, with Curtis’ haunting vocals backed by Bernard Summer’s distortion-heavy guitar work and a propulsive rhythm section comprised of bassist Peter Hook and drummer Stephen Morris.
The early passing of Joy Division’s frontman certainly played a role in this and the band’s follow-up album Closer attaining legendary status in the music press but even if the band hadn’t dissolved on a tragic note, their debut speaks for itself as a landmark work that has earned every bit of the praise heaped upon it.
8. The Strokes – Is This It (2001)
Widely heralded as the definitive work of the early 2000s rock revival, Is This It truly lives up to its pedigree. The low-fi sensibilities of the album were an attempt to recapture the sound of 1970s garage rock, but in the process, The Strokes helped launch a new movement in rock. The laid-back drawl of vocalist Julian Casablancas pairs perfectly with the band’s driving rhthym section and the dual melodic guitar lines of Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond Jr. While their later musical output has remained high in quality, The Strokes havenever able to live up to the pedigree of their debut release, which we can only assume must be a common problem for bands that inadvertently revolutionize a genre on the first try
7. Patti Smith – Horses (1975)
Patti Smith’s debut albums remains one of the most brilliant marriages of poetry and rock and roll. Beat-poetry infused lyrics combine with a killing backing band to create a statement record that would, in Smith’s own words, “make a certain type of person not feel alone. People who were like me, different …” Horses’ importance to rock music as a whole cannot be overstated, as it was not just a landmark achievement in the punk rock movement (which was still very much in its infancy in 1975) but established Smith as one of the rock’s earliest and most influential female idols.
While the actual music on Horses is somewhat standard rock and roll fare, it’s all elevated by Smith’s evocative delivery, which still sounds transgressive even to this day. Sure, it all borders on pretentiousness and self-indulgence but that’s part of the charm of Horses, an album in which feeling matters much more than technical craft. This is raw rock and roll in all its glory and imperfection.
6. The Velvet Underground – The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)
The Velvet Underground’s debut was a commercial failure upon release but interestingly, even the music press took little notice of it. It would take many years for the album’s legacy to firmly catch on and following a wave of reappraisals in the late 70s, critics began to realize that The Velvet Underground & Nico may just have been the most important rock album that no one purchased.
Part of the problem may have been that Singer-songwriter Lou Reed’s songs about drug addiction, prostitution, and sexual deviancy ran counter to what else was being released in the year of the “Summer of Love,” but the album’s brilliance lies very much in its nihilism and transgressions. Featuring now-iconic cover art by Andy Warhol, The Velvet Underground & Nico is now regarded as one of the most influential albums ever made and paved the way for entire genres, as you can very much trace the origins of glam rock and punk rock to Reed’s catchy pop songs about back-alley blowjobs and scoring heroin.
5. The Smiths – The Smiths (1984)
The greatest songwriting duo of the 1980s arrive fully formed on The Smiths’ self-titled debut. Morrisey’s morose lyrics and weirdly heartbreaking singing style end up being the perfect accompaniment to Johnny Marr’s chiming guitar playing, crafting a wholly unique sound that would transform UK pop music forever. Of course, Morrissey and Marr shouldn’t get all the credit, as bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce form a strong rhythm section that proved indispensable, especially on tracks such as “You’ve Got Everything Now” and “Hand In Glove,” just to name a few.
Indeed, the band’s stripped down focus on guitar, bass, and drums reflected a bold rejection of the synthesizer-based dance music that was popular at the time and established The Smith’s as the unofficial “first” indie band. Morrisey and Marr’s partnership would go on to produce three more studio albums – including The Queen is Dead, arguably one of the greatest rock albums of all time – before in-fighting led to the band’s dissolution in 1987.
4. The Cars – The Cars (1978)
It’s hard to think of another band that has released a debut album as filled with radio-friendly hits as The Cars. Guitarist Elliot Easton admitted as much when he said that, “We used to joke that the first album should be called The Cars’ Greatest Hits,” and it’s not hard to see why. Though only three tracks- “Just What I Needed,” “My Best Friend’s Girl,” and “Good Times Roll” – were released as singles, the truth is that The Cars could have picked any of the album’s nine songs and had an instant radio hit, so strong were the band’s pop sensibilities right out of the gate.
Featuring two strong lead singers in rhythm guitarist Ric Ocasek and bassist Benjamin Orr, The Cars stands as a defining record of the New Wave scene with its mix of bright guitar riffs and keyboards. At a time when lines were being drawn in the sand between hard rock and new wave/punk, The Cars did the unthinkable and blended the two styles together to craft an album that remains relentlessly catchy to this day.
3. Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin (1968)
Led Zeppelin, the Gods of hard rock, put out a monster of a debut album, which is actually pretty incredible when you consider the time crunch it was made under. As many know, Led Zeppelin arose out of the disbanded rock band The Yardbirds, which had contractual obligations for a series of concerts. Guitarist Jimmy Page was the only remaining member and had to scramble to put a new group together — hence, Led Zeppelin was born. The group’s self-titled debut somehow arose out of this mess as a landmark achievement, laying the groundwork for Zeppelin’s eventual ascension to the upper echelons of rock music. The band would go on to have much better albums, but their first has so much raw energy and power that it remains an essential component of rock history.
2. Oasis – Definitely Maybe (1994)
If you’re looking for a good summation of why Oasis was able to make such a strong debut album, it’s all really contained in the first track of Definitely Maybe, “Rock and Roll Star”. Oasis, fronted by the infamous Gallagher brothers, Liam and Noel, made no qualms about wanting to be a commercial act (as the title of the song makes pretty clear). Many bands get accused of selling out, which can be a pretty disparaging remark for some artists. Oasis were huge sellouts and they were damn proud of it. It also helped that they wrote phenomenal songs. The album’s track listing would seem to read like a greatest hits package, only Oasis put out a lot of great work after their debut. Definitely Maybe is everything a great rock record should be: loud, confident, and full of great tunes.
1. The Stone Roses – The Stone Roses (1989)
When it comes to first albums, it really doesn’t get much better than the 1989 debut from The Stone Roses. A standout act from Britain’s “Madchester” scene, named after the musical movement of the Manchester area, the Roses’ self-titled debut was an immensely influential album, to the point where Noel Gallagher has claimed that there probably wouldn’t be an Oasis without them. While it wasn’t a significant commercial success, The Stone Roses was critically revered and is widely considered to be among the best rock albums ever made. The Roses tapped into everything from psychedelic rock to electronic dance in their debut and accomplished the rare feat of creating a near-perfect album on the first try. Unfortunately, legal disputes and inner turmoil led to only one follow-up album, 1994’s uneven The Second Coming, before the group disbanded. Fans still hold out for a new album, but it’s hard to imagine The Stone Roses will ever be able to again live up to their remarkable debut.