The 100 Greatest Debut Albums of All Time

From Elvis Presley to The Specials to Lauryn Hill to Billie Eilish.

Music Lists Debut Albums
The 100 Greatest Debut Albums of All Time

Over the last handful of weeks, we’ve been positively debut album-pilled here at Paste. From our 21st century list to our recurring Saturday series of decades from the 1960s through the 1990s, we’ve traversed every era of modern music. And it all led up to this very moment, where we are looking at the 100 greatest debut albums of all time. The oldest LP on this ranking is from 1956, though the oldest song featured was released in 1953—making this a true bookend of 70 years of pop music. We’ve truly done our best to paint an accurate portrait of what this near-century of work has looked like.

In turn, we’ve refused to omit albums from the last five, 10 or 15 years. In fact, there’s a record released in the last 400 days that makes an appearance. The idea that the term “greatest” must only be attributed to something of a bygone generation just doesn’t appeal to us. A mark of brilliance knows no such bounds, and this list is our generous assessment of which projects have influenced every era of music, from the Silent Generation to Zoomers. So, without further ado, here is our ranking of the 100 greatest debut albums of all time, from Elvis Presley to Alice Coltrane to the Sex Pistols to Lauryn Hill to Bon Iver to Billie Eilish.

100. George Michael: Faith (1987)

Greatest Debut Albums 1980sA record that boasted four #1 singles on the Hot 100 and spent 12 weeks at #1 one the Billboard 200, George Michael’s Faith might just be the greatest solo debut for a bandleader in the history of modern music. Near the end of his band Wham!, Michael had grown tired of being seen as a “teenybopper” pop group making novel, rudimentary dance tracks. He and longtime best friend and collaborator Andrew Ridgeley split up, and Michael made Faith (and won Album of the Year at the Grammys in 1989). The title track is brilliant, “Father Figure” is a sensual, divine gospel, “One More Try” is one of the greatest ballads to ever top the pop charts. But songs like “Monkey” and “Kissing a Fool” establish Faith as a dangerously wide spectrum of tones—ranging from funk to synth-pop to folk and soul music. My favorite track has always been the three-part “I Want Your Sex,” and it’s where George Michael established himself as a star just as bright as Michael Jackson—perhaps even brighter, Faith sure argues in favor of such a truth. —MM

99. The Supremes: Meet the Supremes (1962)

The artists formerly known as The Primettes became The Supremes in 1961 and debuted their new sound and image with Meet the Supremes the following year. Consisting of Florence Ballard, Diana Ross and Mary Wilson, The Supremes were Motown’s first and most successful girl group. With the trio’s dynamic vocals—and the musical minds of Smokey Robinson and Berry Gordy Jr.—Meet the Supremes is a masterpiece of ‘60s R&B. The glamorous gals all have stand-out vocal performances on the album, with Ross leading on most of the tracks, but Wilson and Ballard have their moments in the sun with “Baby Don’t Go” and “Buttered Popcorn,” respectively. An album packed with love songs and a tune about a man’s obsession with popcorn shouldn’t have so many standouts, but when you come out swinging with the bluesy surf rock of “Your Heart Belongs To Me” and the snappy drums of “Let Me Go The Right Way” paired with the sultry smooth vocals of Diana Ross, you are bound to have some hits on your hands. While the women were only at the beginning of a long journey of success and undisputed reign on the Billboard Hot 100, their iconic potential seeped out in the magic of “Play A Sad Song,” where Ross leaned into the deeper tones of her voice, giving an exceptionally silky vocal performance. You could see the foreshadowing of superstardom in the minor improvements on every song they recorded for the album while still delivering timeless classics so early in their careers. It is the perfect time capsule of ‘60s doo-wop and girl group glory. —Olivia Abercrombie

98. Yeah Yeah Yeahs: Fever to Tell (2003)Few bands from the Meet Me in the Bathroom era of New York City rock ‘n’ roll have ever hit the scene in a way that was quite as powerful as the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ debut. Fever to Tell arrived in 2003 and changed the game forever, with Karen O quickly establishing herself as one of the greatest bandleaders of all time. She, Brian Chase and Nick Zinner called upon TV on the Radio’s producer David Andrew Sitek and, together, the four musicians made, in my opinion, the best garage rock album ever. Very much shouldered by the popularity of “Maps” (and for good reason), Fever to Tell widened the scope of rock ‘n’ roll’s Y2K revival by introducing elements of dance, art-punk and post-rock into their sketches—all of which would become this vast, incredible landscape of musical explosions, including songs like “Pin” and “Y Control” and “Date with the Night.” For a band with a sound as big as the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’, you’d think they made a gazillion records and not just five. But, they certainly don’t live in the shadow of their first outing—rather, they took the hype, reverence and excitement around Fever to Tell and fashioned it into an unparalleled stroke of brilliance that would, 20 years later, continue to worm its way to the forefront of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ creative and cultural existence. Fever to Tell went gold, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs became the rockstars of our greatest dreams. —Matt Mitchell

97. Big Star: #1 Record (1972)

It takes a lot of gusto to name your debut album #1 Record, but when you’ve got it you’ve got it. Big Star broke through the Memphis scene they came up in and made a bonafide masterpiece right out of the gate. It was the first power pop album to really hone in on the groundwork The Who had laid down the decade prior, and you can feel just how magnetic the songs would remain for years to come. The singular balladry of “Thirteen,” the raucous, raw energy of “In the Street,” the magic of “The Ballad of El Goodo”—Alex Chilton, Chris Bell and company were on another level. #1 Record would go on to influence artists like The Replacements, R.E.M. and Nick Lowe and cement its place as the primitive power pop LP. They’d come roaring back two years later with Radio City, building on their already masterful oeuvre. —MM

96. The Specials: The Specials (1979)

The first Specials album feels like it came from another planet. Produced by Elvis Costello, the Coventry seven-piece’s debut was a shot in the dark that wound up responsible for the existence of bands like the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Rancid and Operation Ivy. The Specials was inoculated with elements of reggae, 2-tone, bluebeat, punk and new wave, all under the glaze of righteous ska music. Once Jamaican ska germinated off the back of jump blues and R&B right after World War II, it took over 20 years for it to start translating elsewhere in the world, and the Specials were one of the first groups to truly harness it in a brilliant way. Songs like “A Message to You Rudy” and “Concrete Jungle” and “Monkey Man” were electric, rambunctious gems, while the Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde makes a great appearance on “Nite Klub.” The record is ferocious and smacked with rock ‘n’ roll and has no blemishes. —MM

95. Fleet Foxes: Fleet Foxes (2008)

Fleet Foxes constantly calls to mind images of wintry isolation and loneliness: Robin Pecknold seems to be a lonely traveler going through each of the songs’ worlds, focused more on nature and the introspection of his own existence that the boundless world around him causes him to contemplate than any interpersonal relationships he might have. What makes the band’s debut such a great record is that it’s a meditative look at nature and Pecknold’s relationship to it, but songs like “White Winter Hymnal” explore how that relationship actually affects his interactions with those around him. He seems obviously lost in the woods, on the outside of the “pack” that he follows; it’s a terrific examination of the manifestations that loneliness might take when projected into society at large. —Jeff Pearson

94. Lynyrd Skynyrd: (Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd) (1973)

Greatest Debut Albums 1960s(Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd) introduced the world to both the quintessential Southern rock band at the height of its powers and the epic “Free Bird,” empowering decades of slow-witted would-be hecklers with the ability to provoke audible groans from any audience throughout the world. More importantly the album features two of the absolute greatest rock songs of all time, “Simple Man” and the elegiac “Tuesday’s Gone.” —Garrett Martin

93. New York Dolls: New York Dolls (1973)

Even now, 50 years on from its release, New York Dolls oozes with a sense of dread. Yes, there’s aggression, but there’s also an all-consuming anxiety as well—the feeling that invasion is imminent. The band are often the invaders, like on the aforementioned “Frankenstein,” a towering, propulsive shudder of a song that traces the path of outsiders swarming the city in search of excitement—only to find themselves still considered the freaks, still ostracized. While Johansen near-screeches “I’m gonna shout about it, bitch about it, scream about it, cry about it,” as that track reaches its fever pitch, he reverses roles completely on the prior track, “Lonely Planet Boy.” He coos along with a meandering saxophone line on an isolated, potentially obliterated city street. Even in its melancholy longing, there’s a disquiet to it—if he croons too loudly, the warped cymbals (which arrive near the track’s conclusion) will morph into an actual UFO and snatch him off the street. Even the invaders fear the outside invasion looming over otherwise straightforward tales of adolescent lust. —Elise Soutar

92. Courtney Barnett: Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (2015)

The first album released by Australian slacker rock maestra Courtney Barnett—Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit—is, in no short terms, a revelation that unspools across 43 minutes of pristine, precious and compelling debut. Welcomed into the world with lead single “Pedestrian at Best,” it was established immediately that Barnett was destined to endure as one of the best contemporary singer/songwriters—as she could conjure distillations of John Prine in a rock track that flirts deftly with punk aspirations. “Elevator Operator,” “Dead Fox,” “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party,” “Kim’s Caravan,” the list goes on and on. There are no skips on this record; no moments that dull or soften. Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit has snowballed Barnett into a truly singular career built off of morbid wit, gentle examinations of the world around her and an unabashed, confident and one-of-a-kind performance persona. “Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you,” Barnett proclaims during the “Pedestrian at Best” chorus. Eight years later, and she still couldn’t have been more wrong. —MM

91. Jeff Buckley: Grace (1994)

Greatest Debut Albums 1990sThere is something about the plight of artists riddled with tragedy who create some of the most beautiful albums. After a decade of being a session guitarist, Jeff Buckley emerged with his only studio album in 1994 before his tragic death only three years later. Grace was the legacy of a young man gifted with a bloodline of musical talent wrestling with the pain of having an absent father—’60s folk singer Tim Buckley. Jeff found the beauty in pain on Grace with his moving cover of “Hallelujah,” which remains his most well-known track. The vocal intimacy strips you bare from the first sigh he breathes, as the opening notes ring out and the unapologetically naked production from every delicate pluck of the strings. Far from getting the flowers it deserved in Buckley’s lifetime, the tortured yet romantic album gave us the cries of anguish in “Lover, You Should Come Over,” a gorgeous rendition of Nina Simone’s “Lilac Wine” and the languid beauty of “Grace.” Fighting tirelessly to stand out from his father’s shadow, Buckley found himself by intimately sharing his soul and pouring it into every note on Grace. His prowess as a musician was always the root of his guitar-centric music, but the delicacy with which he feels emotion in Grace is something that gets under your skin and won’t ever crawl out. —OA

90. Talking Heads: Talking Heads ‘77 (1977)

A part of New York’s CBGB dynasty, the Talking Heads were far from punk but carved a path all their own with Talking Heads ’77. The disjointed melodies and strained yelps of David Byrne gave the new wave group an almost alien feel. Their 11-track debut is filled with jerky rhythms that would be the perfect background music to “do the Elaine” to. The quartet’s most famous track, “Psycho Killer,” was the first they recorded vocals for on the album—what a way to kick off a music career. The snappy beat, Byrne’s stutter in the chorus and random addition of French lyrics are unmistakable—and a hell of a lot of fun. Who other than the Talking Heads could make a radio hit out of a song about a homicidal maniac? Although “Psycho Killer” is the album’s most successful track, people tend to overlook some of the hidden gems when talking about the Talking Heads, like “Don’t Worry About The Government.” This poppy, energetic track is a utopian dream: “My building has every convenience / It’s gonna make life easy for me / It’s gonna be easy to get things done / I will relax alone with my loved ones.” Its absurd optimism is highlighted by bouncy rhythms and Byrne’s high-pitched, bubbly vocals. Also, a highlight remains the unlikely love song, “Uh-Oh, Love Comes to Town,” asking what most of us wonder when we fall head over heels, “Where is my common sense?” It is the perfect opening track for their debut, embodying the best of the Talking Heads, Byrne’s anxious vocals, oblique lyrics, funky riffs and bouncy bass. Talking Heads ’77 is a swirl of primitive visions of a future that could only be funneled through the distinctive tones of Byrne and his beloved bandmates. —OA

89. Charli XCX: True Romance (2013)So few pop stars have kicked off their career with such brilliance, but Charli XCX obliterated every mold she encountered on her 2013 debut record True Romance. Released by Asylum Records and produced by Ariel Rechtshaid, True Romance puts the pop in synth-pop—standing out as one of the brightest and most rewarding mainstream debuts of the last 10 years. The star that Charli XCX is now in 2023 can be traced back directly to True Romance, where she floated and soared with charismatic finesse and songwriting craftsmanship. True Romance arrives like a lifetime’s worth of love lost and found—a monumental truth only exemplified by the fact that Charli was 21 when the album came out. Look towards songs like “Nuclear Seasons,” “What I Like,” “Black Roses” and “You’re the One” and you’ll see just how singular Charli was from the jump. Tapping into True Romance is like falling in love with timelessness over and over again. Her latest records, like How I’m Feeling Now and CRASH, are wondrous and bonkers exciting—but it’s True Romance where she first turned towards stardom, and damn did she grab ahold of it. —MM

88. FKA Twigs: LP1 (2014)

FKA twigs’ debut full-length LP1 was a blend of glitchy futuristic R&B we hadn’t heard before. A music-video dancer turned singer, FKA twigs experiments with sound and space, her beats stuttering and stoping like a modern dancer. Although it may not sound like it, FKA twigs is essentially a singer/songwriter fearless in her approach to experimentation. Her vocal range forces a new take on desire, and puts her own personal signature on a theme we’ve heard before—sex. On LP1 we get all sides of FKA twigs: She sings to us digitized and Auto-Tuned from far off in space before whispering in our ear, intimate and bare. Beats drop in and out with no warning or obvious structure, and yet it’s catchy. Yes, these 10 disjointed anthems somehow manage to be catchy songs. FKA twigs released a video for every song on the album, a testament to her clear vision for LP1, a truly unique and noteworthy debut. —Alexa Carrasco

87. The Ronettes: Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes (1964)

Ranking the debut of a group who ever made one studio album together might be a stretch to some, but if that group is The Ronettes then I’d say it’s a necessity. The trio—Ronnier Spector (then known as Veronica Bennett), Estelle Bennett and Nedra Talley—are rock pioneers, and I stand by that. How many acts can say The Rolling Stones opened for them? The three teens were known for their exaggerated eye makeup, massive beehive up-dos and (in 1960s standards) tight skirts—all of which were small acts of rebellion against the demure images of other girl groups of the time. Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes is a kaleidoscope of teenage angst, manipulative producers and all the “baby” songs anyone could ever need. The 12-track LP is a compilation of singles and covers with a few originals explicitly recorded for the album. We all know their smash hit “Be My Baby”—in all its snappy romantic glory. Still, this album has so much more to offer, like Ronnie’s velvety smooth vocals on “Walking In the Rain,” the sprawling layered production of “You Baby” and the swaying melody of “So Young” paired with the heavenly harmonies of Estelle and Nedra. Sitting at just over 36 minutes, the album’s brevity is the perfect mirror to The Ronettes’ time as a group—short but sweet yet immortal. —OA

86. The B-52’s: The B-52’s (1979)

Growing up, I couldn’t make it through a single dance recital without seeing at least one “Love Shack” number with the stage covered in beach-themed items. I didn’t appreciate the cosmic wonder of The B-52’s until I rediscovered them on Just Dance 4 when I was 12. Yes, that’s right, my first experience with the new wave kitsch of The B-52’s was through dancing with an animated lobster in my parent’s house. If there is one thing I can say about this The B-52’s, it’s a party from start to finish. Opening with the morse-code beeps and a heist-movie-esque riff on “Planet Claire” cemented the space-age flair of these art punks. The B-52’s distinctive sound can be attributed to the talk-singing of Fred Schneider, the complimentary highs and lows of Kate Pierson’s and Cindy Wilson’s vocals and the unique tuning of Ricky Wilson’s riffs all of which are on display in “Dance This Mess Around.” You can’t talk about these trailblazers without mentioning “Hero Worship,” where Cindy’s raspy wails created what could be considered the very first riot grrrl song ever. Then you have the infamous “Rock Lobster” with Ricky’s funky and famous riff, a biting organ and a cacophony of animal sounds laced through a song about a rock that “wasn’t a rock.” It’s stupid fun, and its absurdity launched The B-52’s to the moon (in the sky.) —OA

85. Sex Pistols: Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols (1977)

It would’ve been more shocking if the Pistols stuck around long enough to make a second LP. Every marketing gimmick has a shelf-life and the Pistols’ was particularly short. Bollocks is a musical Ouroboros, as its reputation has cycled from “dangerous salvation of rock ‘n’ roll” to “embarrassing cartoon” multiple times over since 1977. If you can ignore big sweeping statements and the misplaced notions of grandeur forced upon it you might be able to appreciate its relatively frills-free take on caustic rock ‘n’ roll recidivism. And hey, at least two people responsible were in on the joke, which is probably two more than The Police. —GM

84. Pavement: Slanted and Enchanted (1992)

Pavement’s early vinyl scraps were spirited and mysterious and barely hinted at the songwriting skills Stephen Malkmus would later develop. Slanted & Enchanted normalized the ramshackle noise of Swell Maps and early Fall for the high schoolers of the early ’90s, wedding the band’s intentional lo-fi grime to powerful songs like the sluggish anthem “Summer Babe,” the downcast love song “Zurich is Stained” and the heartbreaking “Here.” —GM

83. Janelle Monaé: The ArchAndroid (2010)At long, long last, Janelle Monáe dropped their full-length debut on the world in 2010. It only seems fitting to look back on the moment two years prior when we first encountered them: “This is a historic night,” the emcee shouts to the crowd. Waving blue and white inspirational signs, the assembly chants louder. The excitement is palpable. The diversity of the crowd—young and old, black and white, male and female—is itself a sign of the hope offered. When the shouts reach a fevered pitch, the guest of honor emerges. Welcome Janelle Monáe. Sure, it’s only a club show, but—Barack Obama allusions aside—it does feel historic. You can’t help but feel you’re watching the birth of a superstar. “I’ve just watched Prince, Michael Jackson, Anita Baker, Judy Garland and AC/DC all at once,” a friend exclaims as we leave the show. When I first saw the 23-year-old singer, I told my wife that I’d just had a Jon Landau moment—I’d seen the future of rock ’n’ roll. Monáe—barely five-feet tall and backed only by a guitar player and drummer—delivered a performance unlike any I’d ever seen.” —Tim Regan-Porter

82. Connie Smith: Connie Smith (1965)

A revelatory and under-appreciated country record, Connie Smith’s eponymous debut album arrived around the same time vocalists like Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn were also cutting their teeth on the circuit. Upon the release of her song “Once a Day,” Smith became a country star practically overnight, as the track topped the genre chart and pressured RCA Victor to put out her first LP. She called upon Dorothy Dillard, Dolores Edgin, Priscilla Hubbard and Anita Kerr to provide background vocals, while Harold Bradley and Floyd Chance led a cavalry of studio players at the sessions performed at RCA Studio B. Connie Smith remains one of the most beautiful and saccharine country records ever produced, as songs like “Then and Only Then,” “Tiny Blue Transistor Radio” and “I Don’t Love You Anymore” are now country standards that speak to the explosion of women who dominated the genre at the turn of the 1960s. Smith was the not-so-sneaky leader of the pack, churning out records at a feverish clip back then. By the time 1970 came around, she’d already released 14 studio LPs in five years—and there isn’t a bad joint in the bunch. —MM

81. Lorde: Pure Heroine (2013)

A 16-year old girl not looking to twerk, whine or sugarshock? Meet Ella Yelich-O’Connor, who emerges as a distaff Holden Caulfield, by employing a sangfroid that punches through an acquisitional society which measures worth by a flauntatiousness divorced from meaning. “Royals,” the summer’s surprise lo-fi trance-ish alternative No. 1, finds Lorde ironically checking rap/video staples. She merges Lana Del Ray’s flat affect, Queen-evoking curtains of disembodied vocals and Massive Attack’s electronica over an anything but fizzy electro-pop. Superficiality falls beneath her razor-scrawled lyrics, which skewer the sexualization of violence (“Glory and Gore”), the willfully blissfully unaware (“Buzzcut Season”) and the unattainability/desirability of faux perfection (“White Teeth Teens”). For Lorde, youth is both the ultimate revenge and burden. To know so much, to feel so little and to embrace what is, she illuminates being young, gifted and bored with a luminescence that suggests life beyond Louis Vuitton. —Holly Gleason

80. Led Zeppelin: Led Zeppelin (1969)

Much like that first Mamas & Papas record, Led Zeppelin’s self-titled debut sounds like it was made by a band who’d already put out five records. It’s unbelievable that Atlantic found such a bonafide smash hit in Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones and John Bonham. Glyn Johns mixed the album, while Page produced it—and it yields some of the greatest songs in all of rock ‘n’ roll history, like “Good Times Bad Times,” “Dazed and Confused” and “Communication Breakdown.” The immaculate, bold and terrifying Anne Bredon-penned “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” has since become the most important track on the album, at least for me. It’s a deft showcase of the operatic, dense potential Led Zeppelin would fully embrace on later projects. Led Zeppelin is such a massive archive that it’s impossible to miss its importance in musical history. A definitive first brick in the world of heavy metal and perfect infusion of blues, this is how stars are made—and, somehow, Led Zeppelin even managed to obliterate that. —MM

79. Boston: Boston (1976)

Few albums were as destined for greatness as the self-titled debut of Boston. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. Led Zeppelin’s most recent album was a let down. Rush had helped introduce the larger world to a more commercial strain of prog rock. The radio airwaves were rife with boogie rock, folk-pop and warm vocal harmonies. And the country was awash with bicentennial madness. Swooping in was this group from Beantown who had polished every last second of their music into a gleam worthy of a freshly waxed muscle car. Every last processed guitar riff and sci-fi synth swoop was meticulously placed, and the high-tone vocals of Brad Delp sprung from it all like a waxy stem. The whole thing was bathed in a magic hour glow by band leader / producer Tom Scholz that instantly drew up memories of languid makeout sessions or stoned soul picnics or the kind of wood-paneled basements where the first iteration of this band knocked insta-classics like “More Than A Feeling” and “Hitch a Ride” into shape. Don’t let the faux humility of Scholz telling folks that he waited until the album had sold a few hundred thousand copies before he felt comfortable enough leaving his job at Polaroid fool you. He knew this was headed to the top of the charts and the rec room turntables of heshers around the U.S. They struck a cultural nerve that is still vibrating nearly 50 years later. —RH

78. X: Los Angeles (1980)

Greatest Debut Albums 1980sTo lightly mangle a phrase from a song by the former band of Ray Manzarek, the producer of this punk masterwork, in X’s Los Angeles, no one gets out alive. John Doe and Exene Cervenka’s clear-eyed vision of their hometown is brutal, poetic and unrelentingly dark. It’s a city of trash can fires, brutal hangovers, shooting speed and in the horrifying vision of “Johny Hit & Run Paulene,” a nauseating sexual assault. The two vocalists lean into each other like they’re on the nod, kept upright only by the springy drive of Billy Zoom’s rockabilly-inspired guitar work and the solid floor laid down by D.J. Bonebrake’s drums. How Manzarek is able to find his way into this airtight music to add organ swells and synth drones is a testament to his skills and his chutzpah. Punk was supposed to shove the hippies aside yet here was one in the studio, keeping these young upstarts honest. Impressive. —RH

77. Devo: Q. Are We Not Men? A. We Are Devo! (1978)

What happens when a couple of punks from Akron and Kent, Ohio band together and revolt against the propensities of the music industry? Well, you get Devo, of course. Started in 1973 by Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale, Devo had an almost mythical road to their debut record, Q. Are We Not Men? A. We Are Devo!. Casale and Bob Lewis were kicking around the idea of “devolution” while they were students at Kent State, and then the shootings happened on campus on May 4, 1970 and changed everything. They were programmed to systematically resist anything pop music was doing, and they turned their band into an art movement. Are We Not Men? boasts some of the most audacious songs of its era, including “Uncontrollable Urge,” “Jocko Homo” and, of course, Devo’s deconstruction of The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” They’d go from being mocked and pitied by right-wing, evangelical Ohioans to having Iggy Pop and David Bowie vouch for them to Warner Brothers to playing in front of 15-million people on Saturday Night Live before the end of 1978. What a trajectory, what a band—and the music industry is still trying to wrap its head around what the hell Devo were doing 45 years ago. —MM

76. The Byrds: Mr. Tambourine Man (1965)

The Byrds’ musical career began with the jingle-jangle of “Mr. Tambourine Man,” the opening title track from their 1965 debut. In it was all the DNA for their blending of Greenwich Village folk and British Invasion rock into something that felt new—and that would go on to influence scores of bands to follow. And then on track two, they switch gears to the proto-power-pop of “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better.” There’s more filler on this debut than on what would come later, but any debut with those two songs and the bright anthem “Chimes of Freedom” is a hell of an introduction. Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark, David Crosby, Chris Hillman and Michael Clarke changed the trajectory of pop music in America with this release, establishing a West Coast hub for great songwriting and even better harmonies. —Josh Jackson

75. Jockstrap: I Love You Jennifer B

I Love You Jennifer B is timeless and unbound to era, surreal and puzzling and autonomous. To have such intricate elements of jazz, pop and electronica, the album was incomparable from the jump. Truly, no other record sounds like it and, in an industry landscape where the same genres and techniques and styles are being tapped into over and over again, that originality is worth its weight in gold. The work of Jockstrap has grown from more avant-garde offerings to song cycles that explore glitchy soundscapes and classical concertos. From the sublime discotheque pulse of “Greatest Hits” to the glamor of stringed, folk delicacy on “Glasgow,” I Love You Jennifer B marked the edge of two musical minds that very well may be the most important act of my generation. The album is Georgia Ellery’s audition tape for the rest of the world. It’s on this record that she gets to sing her heart out and prove, once and for all, that she is, just maybe, the brightest and boldest multi-hyphenate in the business. “Neon” is sensual and rigid; “Angst” is an emotive slow-dance; “Debra” adopts a kaleidoscope of big feelings, told from the perspective of an Animal Crossing character. And then, there’s Taylor Skye’s production, which is as daring, bold, chaotic and instinctual as anything. It evokes tokens of 50 years of club music and nightlife orchestras, yet it is washed aglow by a startling modernity. His instrumentation is approached with a keen eye for melody and a sonic equilibrium, as he’s developed a penchant for crafting songs that can simmer in delicacy just as quickly as they might explode with angst. It’s a balance he’s perfected, and one that greatly emphasizes the wide spectrum of Ellery’s lyricism, which projects pastorals of sexuality and interpersonal tumult. —MM

74. The Pretenders: Pretenders (1979)

Merging the industrial brutalism of the Ohio Rust Belt with UK new wave rebellion was only going to work once, and The Pretenders were the first band to capture the flag. The band—a combination of Chrissie Hynde, Martin Chambers, Pete Farndon and James Honeyman-Scott—built the last great rock album of the 1970s, one packed to the brim with chart-worthy tunes like “Precious,” a Nick Lowe-produced cover of the Kinks’ “Stop Your Sobbing,” “Private Life,” “Kid” and, of course, “Brass in Pocket.” It was here where Hynde positioned herself as the foil to Blondie’s Debbie Harry, as one of the most important bandleaders in all of music. The work was innovative and culled influences of proto-punk, R&B and singer/songwriter, merging the forces together into one evocative, immersive benchmark of personal, astonishing rock ‘n’ roll that would make The Pretenders one of the most important bands throughout the next decade. —MM

73. The Avalanches: Since I Left You (2000)

Since I Left You is one of the earliest entries on this list, but it also set a precedent upon its release 23 years ago. The debut outing from Australian electronica outfit The Avalanches, the record is a daring, 18-track foray into the wondrous universe of sampling and a Phil Spector-style, bassless production scope. There are varying estimates of how many samples exactly emerged from the thousands of hours Robbie Chater and Darren Seltmann spent concocting Since I Left You—some say over 3,500, while others argue it’s closer to 1,000. The band had roots in punk scenes, and you can hear that foundational rebellion throughout Since I Left You—notably in how Robbie Chater and Darren Seltmann (Bobbydazzler) cut up every piece of source material under the sun and fashioned it into this ambitious, relentless and buoyant masterpiece. Standout tracks like “Frontier Psychiatrist,” “Electricity” and “Radio” boast some of the album’s rowdiest energy, while entries like “Summer Crane” and “Tonight” are much more subdued and sublime and whimsical—showcasing jazz elements as often as they are bits of pop and soul. But, the cornerstone of Since I Left You is its title track, a slice of plunderphonics that endures as, quite possibly, one of the greatest songs of the last 25 years. The Avalanches wouldn’t make another record together for 16 (!) years, but not even their near-two-decade hiatus could ever even come close to puncturing the legacy built on the shoulders of Since I Left You. Perfect records are like that—unshakable and effortlessly singular. —MM

72. The Postal Service: Give Up (2003)

It’s mind-boggling sometimes that a band featuring the frontman of Death Cab For Cutie and the frontwoman of Rilo Kiley were able to come together and make one of the best synth-pop albums of the last 30 years. But, under the tutelage of Jimmy Tamborello—known by his DJ stage name Dntel—anything is possible. When The Postal Service released Give Up in 2003, there wasn’t a true synth-pop identity in the mainstream. The Meet Me in the Bathroom era had engulfed rock ‘n’ roll, and even a band like Phoenix wouldn’t become fully entrenched in dance music for another half-decade. Thus, what Ben Gibbard, Tamborello and Jenny Lewis were able to assemble here is, truly, a revelation. Combining indietronica with 1980s keyboard sensibilities, Give Up has only aged with grace since its release 20 years ago. A song like “Such Great Heights” exudes just as much wonder now as it did in the death rattle of Y2K premonitions. Gibbard would also release the legendary Death Cab For Cutie album Transatlanticism later that same year, but it’s Give Up that fully cemented his shape-shifting artistry—and has remained one of the best synth-pop albums in recent memory. —Paste Staff

71. Black Star: Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star (1998)

New York rappers Mos Def (known now as Yasiin Bey) and Talib Kweli were set to launch their own individual careers when they began crossing paths within the hip-hop community and immediately recognized a kindred spirit. They put a pause on their solo work and opted instead to lean into their obvious chemistry, joining forces under the pointed name Black Star. The duo’s first album was subtly explosive—a creation by two young men with a deep understanding of the history of their chosen art-form and a pointed perspective on the plight of the Black community in the U.S. They dared to challenge Black women to eschew Western standards of beauty and call out the continued violence befalling many of their fellow artists and still left time out to include some anthems that took joy in each other’s company and in the nuances of the English language. —RH

70. Missy Elliott: Supa Dupa Fly (1997)

I remember hearing Supa Dupa Fly for the first time and being swept off my feet, having never experienced such a perfect rap album before. Missy Elliott got her start with Timabaland writing songs for Aaliyah’s record One in a Million in 1996 and, a year later, the two musicians made Missy’s first record. Supa Dupa Fly features everyone from Busta Rhymes to Ginuwine to Lil’ Kim to Aaliyah, and Missy even executive produced the joint herself (alongside Timbaland). The work is steadfast and hypnotic, as tracks like “Sock It 2 Me,” “Hit Em Wit Da Hee,” “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” and “Best Friends” are just unbeatable benchmarks of avant-rap and experimental funk. The successes of the record—which included a tour with Jay-Z and a #3 peak on the Billboard 200—vaulted Missy into the echelons of rap history, and she’s remained one of the greatest MCs of her generation. Few rappers have ever established themselves in such a punctuated manner on their first outing but, then again, there’s no one like Missy Elliott. —MM

69. Blondie: Blondie (1976)

Midway through the ‘70s, Blondie looked back to the ‘60s for inspiration in their self-titled debut. Before Debbie Harry became known as the platinum-blonde bombshell of rock, she and her fellow bandmates almost faded into obscurity upon the failed original release of Blondie with Private Stock. Thank the punk gods that the group persevered and resigned with Chrysalis Records the following year to re-release their eponymous album, which became a cornerstone of new wave sound. A band can rarely do multi-genre music well, but that’s just what these early punks did with the blend of ‘60s music genre staples like the surf rock of “Little Girl Lies,” the electro-funk of “Rip Her To Shreds,” the doo-wop of “In The Flesh” and even the sci-fi aesthetic of “The Attack of The Giant Ants.” Even with the retro influences, Harry was a staunch believer that Blondie was a new wave band, and with a song like “X Offender” opening the debut, I tend to agree with her. The quirky tone and outrageous line “You wanted the love of a sex offender” were indicative of the melodic punk style new wave was peddling. Contrary to the other new wave singers of the time, Harry’s vocal power on their debut set Blondie apart as not just a part of the new wave movement but as pioneers. —OA

68. Herbie Hancock: Takin’ Off (1962)

A testament to Herbie Hancock’s legacy is that he’s still out here making the rounds and festivals and clubs. The jazz virtuoso has been rock-steady for over 60 years, performing in Miles Davis’ band, working as a sideman for Wayne Shorter, Eric Dolphy and Freddie Hubbard, winning over a dozen Grammy awards and enduring as one of the greatest pianists of his time. All of that can be traced back to Takin’ Off, his 1962 debut album that featured Hubbard, Dexter Gordon, Butch Warren and Billy Higgins. It’s the primitive example of hard bop jazz, and its most recognizable song, “Watermelon Man,” even hit the Hot 100. Takin’ Off isn’t just one of the greatest jazz records ever, it’s one of the Blue Note label’s most signature releases, as Hancock would stand tall in the company of players like Jimmy Smith, Hank Mobley and Art Blakey. For all of the reasons that Head Hunters became one of jazz’s greatest triumphs 11 years later, Takin’ Off built the frame of which Hancock’s legacy rests proudly atop. —MM

67. Taylor Swift: Taylor Swift (2006)

taylor-swiftThere is truly nothing like Taylor Swift’s self-titled debut. It’s a once-in-a-generation miracle. Swift was just 16 when the album was released, and she wrote some songs as early as age 12. Pulling from her own experiences of heartbreak and high-school romance and modeling her fiddle-laced sound after her heroes like The Chicks, Shania Twain and Faith Hill, Swift somehow both converted millions of young people into country fans and found major mainstream success. It’s difficult to believe the lyrical perfection of “Tim Migraw,” pop-country prowess of “Picture to Burn” and wisdom of “Mary’s Song”—not to mention the album’s radio juggernauts, “Our Song” and “Teardrops On My Guitar”—came from the mind of a middle schooler. The album that launched Swift as a girl wonder is a masterpiece in its own way. Taylor Swift affirmed, celebrated and often grieved the enormous feelings of adolescence in a way few albums had before or have since. —Ellen Johnson

66. Wire: Pink Flag (1977)

Wire’s Pink Flag is a fragmented, pulverizing reflection of the brash explosion that was punk; a stock measurement of its particular place in time, and moving the genre’s ethos into an increasingly more expressive future. Call it art-school punk; call it the first post-punk album—whatever moniker you give it would probably be incomplete, as articulating the novelty of what Wire accomplished on their debut is no easy task. Rather than stalling and taking their time to unravel, these tracks bounce in and out with such an urgency that refuses to let you settle into even the most straightforward of their grooves. The longest track by far clocks in at just under four minutes; the shorter ones burn out before even the one-minute mark. For all of its restless brevity, Pink Flag is impossible to pin down. Once you figure out the poppy structure of a song like “Mannequin,” the group hits you with the torrid “Different to Me,” more of a 43-second writhing of sound than anything that resembles a traditional verse/chorus/verse song. Hell, the dirty melody that makes up the track “Strange” features a flute arrangement—albeit a dissonant, industrial sounding one that sounds more like a howl than any sort of whistling. Pink Flag was, simultaneously, the crumbling of the punk movement’s walls and its inevitable consequent; Wire’s angular weirdness paved the way for decades of acts making noise in the aftermath of punk with an uncanny clairvoyance. —Madelyn Dawson

65. D’Angelo: Brown Sugar (1995)

Greatest Debut Albums 1990sD’Angelo has only put out three records across the last 28 years, but each one has been a masterpiece that, you could argue, have all been 10 out of 10s. Starting with Brown Sugar way back in 1995, the Richmond singer and multi-instrumentalist established himself as the best R&B performer of his generation. The record went platinum within a year of coming out, spending 65 weeks on the Billboard 200. Aside from some guitar and mixing work from Bob Power, D’Angelo wrote, arranged, performed and produced every single instrument on Brown Sugar. He was on his Prince shit and, yet, even that feels like an unfair comparison—no one was doing it like D’Angelo in the late-1990s. He was a pioneer of the neo-soul movement, enriching a dormant R&B scene with sensual, terrific instrumentation and silk-spun vocals. I’m still not so sure that TLC’s CrazySexyCool should have outmuscled D’Angelo for Best R&B at the 1996 Grammy Awards, but he would get his due six years later with his follow-up LP Voodoo. It’s been nine years since D’Angelo put out an album, but whatever comes next for him will undoubtedly be another glimpse of his always enduring stardom—and you can trace that back to Brown Sugar. —MM

64. Run-D.M.C.: Run-D.M.C. (1984)

In the world ranking of power trios, the hip-hop titans from Hollis, Queens would most certainly be a top 5 contender. Run-D.M.C. broke copious amounts of new ground on their first album. On “Rock Box,” they set the stage for fellow New Yorkers like Beastie Boys and Public Enemy to blend slashing guitar riffs and street beats. They formalized the diss track on songs like “Sucker M.C.’s” and “Krush Groove,” and touched on social ills on the bangers “It’s Like That” and “Wake Up.” The call-and-response attack of rappers Run and D.M.C. set the template for the many groups that followed in their wake. But more than that, Run-D.M.C. proved hip-hop’s commercial power when it became the first record in the genre to achieve gold status. They helped the world see the potential of this still-nascent art form. —RH

63. The Beastie Boys: License to Ill (1986)

Greatest Debut Albums 1980s‘80s hip-hop was dominated by the likes of Public Enemy, Run DMC and N.W.A., so who would have thought that a group of NYC white boys would have one of the best hip-hop debut albums of the decade? Released after going on tour with Madonna of all people, Licensed to Ill is packed with Led-Zeppelin samples and undertones of their punk beginnings when they played with Bad Brains, Dead Kennedys and the Misfits at the legendary CBGB. Brash and bratty, the hardcore beatbox fusion was a combo that could only be born in the experimental streets of NYC. It’s an album that the assholes you went to high school with would have made in their parent’s basement on the weekends, but that relatable juvenile energy is why Licensed to Ill endures. While we can’t ignore the lyrics riddled with misogyny and violence, these cocky kids created a musical amalgamation that drove kids wild and scared their parents half to death, which is the crux of any successful countercultural group. No matter the Beastie Boys’ legacy, if you put on “Fight For You Right” at any function, you’re bound to stir up the angst of any child of the ‘80s and beyond. Even I can’t help myself when the opening riff of “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” plays. —OA

62. DJ Shadow: Endtroducing….. (1996)

Greatest Debut Albums 1990sWhile I can’t bring myself to agree that Josh Davis, the artist who has been making music for nearly 30 years as DJ Shadow, peaked way too early, I can understand the bias. His first full-length Endtroducing….. is just that good. After the promise of his early mixtapes and singles, Davis put his best foot forward with his debut. He cracked open his voluminous record collection and used the wax to build Bomb Squad-level skyscrapers of sound. Each of the tracks on this album is rooted in hip-hop but reaches out into other realms of jazz, downtempo, funk and dub with long, wired up tentacles and devilish sense of humor. Breaking down every last sample used on the album does seem fun, but a better use of one’s time is to just let Davis take you on his personal journey into sound and soul. —RH

61. N.W.A.: Straight Outta Compton (1988)

Greatest Debut Albums 1980sHow powerful was the first album by gangsta rap group N.W.A.? It sold hundreds of thousands of copies with little support from mainstream radio and MTV, both of which had deemed the group too hot to handle. Their unabashed hatred of the police and all authority figures landed the on the radar of the FBI whose assistant director sent a letter to the group’s label urging them to think twice about releasing a record with the song “Fuck Tha Police” on it. The group was banned from performing in some cities due to the incendiary tone of their rhetoric and a lot of fear mongering from the press. That’s power. While fully acknowledging this also remains one of the most grossly misogynistic albums ever recorded, we can’t deny the impact of this album on the hip-hop community. It established the West Coast as a prime player in the culture and turned its creators—especially Eazy-E, Ice Cube and Dr. Dre—into instant icons. And if you can’t see how their more politicized messages are still applicable in our modern times, you really haven’t been paying attention. —RH

60. Weezer: Weezer (1994)

Greatest Debut Albums 1990sAffectionately (and properly) referred to as the Blue Album, Weezer’s debut is, without a doubt, one of the best rock records of the 1990s altogether. In terms of first efforts, it’s #1 with a bullet. The LA quartet—Rivers Cuomo, Patrick Wilson, Brian Bell and Matt Sharp—made something truly catchy and immaculate. It wasn’t quite as alternative as what Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains were doing, as it was radio-friendly enough to make a big splash. But, regardless, it’s still an alt-rock gem of massive proportions. I mean, just look at the singles: “Undone – The Sweater Song,” “Buddy Holly” and “Say It Ain’t So.” From a quality perspective, Weezer haven’t even been able to match that three-song run. Factor album cuts like “My Name is Jonas,” “Surf Wax America” and “Holiday” into the equation and you’ve got a masterpiece on your hands. Cuomo established himself as one of the best living pop songwriters and he would carry that into the making of the band’s follow-up record Pinkerton (on recent albums, though, not so much). The Blue Album closes with “Only in Dreams,” one of the finest alt-rock epics ever. Even now, 29 years later, how these 10 songs haven’t been around forever amazes me; the whole album sounds like a time capsule inspired by everything from The Crickets to Jan & Dean to The Clash. Weezer’s first record is an exodus of pop construction, a perfect collection ensconced in guitar-focused instrumentation and clever lyricism. This is what brilliance sounds like. —MM

59. Van Halen: Van Halen (1978)

It can be easy to underscore the importance of Van Halen’s eponymous debut record, given that they were never the most primitive or marquee name working in rock ‘n’ roll. But, Van Halen is, to say the least, a perfect album packed to the brim with some of the most exciting and energetic rock tunes post-Beatles break-up. From their riotous, sensual cover of the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” to the anthemic, blistering “Runnin’ with the Devil,” Van Halen pulled no punches when it came to stockpiling all of their hits and letting them unravel right out of the gates. “Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love” is an underrated stunner that showcases David Lee Roth’s enigmatic frontman sensibilities, while Eddie Van Halen’s guitar solo “Eruption” is, perhaps, one of the greatest instrumental tracks in rock history. And we can’t forget about “Jamie’s Cryin’” and “Ice Cream Man.” Without Van Halen, glam and hair metal wouldn’t exist the way it does today—there would be no Appetite For Destruction or foil to mainstream pop. There’s an unquantifiable, daring magic here, and it’s what has made Van Halen a household name for nearly 50 years. —MM

58. Ray Charles: Ray Charles (1957)

In some ways, including this Ray Charles record is cheating. But who cares, he’s one of the greatest entertainers we’ve ever seen. It is technically his debut album, but it’s also a glorified compilation of singles he released through Atlantic Records—11 of the 14 tracks, in fact, had broken the Top 10 on the Billboard R&B chart between 1953 and 1957. But, it’s the first collected example of Charles’ genius, from the romp of “Mess Around” to the charismatic anthem “I Got a Woman” that would find a second life through Kanye West’s “Gold Digger” over 50 years later. But the highlight of this album, the beautiful, orchestral bliss of “Hallelujah I Love Her So” is pure jazz-soul candy to the ears, and a bold example of just how incredible and singular Charles’ vocals were. Charles would go on to make gigantic records with ABC—like Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music and The Genius Hits the Road—but what Ray Charles presents is brilliance in workshop, the germination Albany, Georgia’s greatest son. —MM

57. Clipse: Lord Willin’ (2002)

Clipse—the rap duo of twin brothers Pusha T and No Malice—are, perhaps, one of the most undersung talents in all of hip-hop’s long, historic existence. They began in Virginia Beach as far back as 1994, but their debut album didn’t come until 2002. Lord Willin’ is an ambitious, unbelievable first statement from, arguably, the greatest rap outfit of the last 25 years. The record was produced by The Neptunes, who had helmed the boards on Clipse’s Exclusive Audio Footage—the project that was initially supposed to be the duo’s debut, but later was shelved and had, for a long while, lived only through counterfeit pressings and online leaks. Lord Willin’, however, was a proper first outing that shined as much as it dazzled—as it evoked forays into gangsta, hardcore, experimental and East Coast rap unlike anything oldheads had ever heard prior. Tracks like “Grindin’,” “Cot Damn” and “When the Last Time” are all-timers and, when I play them back in 2023, they sound as beholden to the early 2000s as they do fresh enough to steal the show 20 years later. Knowing what we know now, that No Malice and Pusha T (especially the latter) would go on to have great solo careers, it’s a gift that we got Clipse when we did. —MM

56. Elvis Presley: Elvis Presley (1956)

Elvis would go on to make much better records than his first one—From Elvis in Memphis and Elvis, to name a few—but this is where rockabilly became rock ‘n’ roll. The record spent 10 weeks at the top of the Billboard albums chart and has gone on to be remembered as one of the earliest cornerstones of modern music altogether (and it would inspire The Clash’s London Calling cover). Elvis would get his popularity off with weaker versions of songs perfected by the Black artists who came before him, like Ray Charles’ “I Got a Woman,” Billy Eckstine’s “Blue Moon” and Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti,” and that’s a shadow still cast over the King’s legacy 67 years later (and one that he’d embrace even further and more obtusely, as his most famous song ripped off Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog”). You can make the argument that most of those songs were written by white men like Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, which is true, yes, but it’s not just about laying down tracks in the studio. It’s about performance, about mannerisms, about a charisma that he so obviously lifted from that of Black rock ‘n’ rollers. The one song Elvis didn’t whitewash was Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes,” which has become synonymous with his brand altogether and the one glimmer of hope that suggests this album’s legacy remains valid to some extent. Elvis Presley carries a complicated yet necessary legacy, in that the album is credited in popular culture with creating rock ‘n’ roll but the man who made it built his royalty off the backs of artists his audiences exiled into the margins. —MM

55. PJ Harvey: Dry (1992)

Greatest Debut Albums 1990sIt’s rare to come across a debut album that sounds so fully fleshed out, but Harvey had been preparing for the chance to record her own material for years, and wasn’t about to waste it. At this point, “PJ Harvey” was still a band, consisting of its namesake, bassist Steve Vaughn and drummer Rob Ellis. Believing they would never get another opportunity to make a record, they made what, even now, sounds like a core thesis statement that Harvey would only embellish with each subsequent release. Though that means the production remains fairly simple, with most of the instruments played by the core trio, it’s impressive what they accomplished with their limited resources. The theme of gender roles that Harvey would revisit again comes up early, evident in the sing-along playfulness of singles “Dress” and “Sheela-Na-Gig” (“Heard it before, no more!”). Elsewhere, the immense atmosphere of the incredible “Plants and Rags” and “Water” showed Polly had the songwriting and arranging chops of someone who had been doing it professionally for decades. Sure, lots of people had picked up a guitar and made compelling music before, but never quite like this. Though it’s an easy statement to make when we have hindsight and a whole discography to back it up, let’s make it: Even if this had been the only thing PJ Harvey released, as they’d believed it would be, we’d still regard it as essential. —Elise Soutar

54. Bad Brains: Bad Brains (1982)

Greatest Debut Albums 1980sThey began life as a fusion jazz group. But one taste of punk rock was all they needed to switch gears, realizing, as bassist Daryl Jenifer put it in a 2020 interview, “The cats couldn’t really play but they had something interesting to say.” The Bad Brains, on the other hand, could seriously play, bringing their redoubtable instrumental skills to bear on the assaultive sound of hardcore. Oh, and they could easily switch gears and play some killer reggae jams when so moved. The band’s debut captured all of that and more, as they recorded the bulk of it live to tape. The experience of listening to this for the first time is trampoline-like—that feeling in your stomach as you hit the apex and the sturdy yet forgiving cushion when you come crashing back down. —RH

53. The Strokes: Is This It (2001)

It’s 2001. Hybrid Theory, Linkin Park’s shouty, self-pitying debut, is the best-selling album in America. This same year, five young men cast turn-of-the-century rock into stark relief with a half-hour-long album of 11 swaggering, scruffy pop songs—a fictional greatest-hits collection that seemed to capture everything great about underground 1970s rock. Is This It might not have toppled the nü-metal Goliaths in terms of sales, but it saved rock ’n’ roll from the bloat that seemed inescapable in the Fred Durst era. Assertive but not boorish, charming but not sleazy, ironic but not empty, The Strokes’ debut was as cool and arrogant as it had the right to be—as it suddenly seemed, once again, that rock music had to be. Julian Casablancas’ ambivalent lyrics and the band’s pinpoint precision rendered the album both wry and accessible. The record’s mood and attitude—those ineffable, un-reproducible qualities—solidified its status as a masterpiece. By 2001, modern rock had become so generic as to be placeless, but the first time you played Is This It, you heard the elusive, seductive sound of New York, a city devastated by 9/11 that somehow lost none of its gritty allure. Is This It, it turned out, was—and is—as dynamic, soulful and enduring as the city itself. —Mark Krotov

52. SZA: Ctrl (2017)

The first lady of Kendrick Lamar’s Top Dawg Entertainment, SZA acquired a cult following with her 2014 mixtape Z, a downtempo project rife with ambient beats and understated vocals—a pleasing combination for fans of artists like XXYYXX and Sky Ferreira. On her debut LP, SZA trades Z’s whispery vocals for a robust timbre steeped in jazz and soul, evoking Amy Winehouse and earlier predecessors like Billie Holiday. In keeping with jazz tradition, there’s an improvisatory quality to the way she sings throughout the album, unraveling structured pop hooks with stream-of-consciousness riffs and scat-like repetition. But in contrast to the self-seriousness that often comes with impressive vocal chops, Ctrl is comically blunt: “Highkey, your dick is weak, buddy / It’s only replaced by a rubber substitute,” she croons on “Doves in the Wind.” It’s lines like these that make Ctrl feel as intimate and fun as a slumber party with your best girlfriends. —Nastia Voynovskaya

51. King Crimson: In the Court of the Crimson King (1969)

Praised in some corners as “a brilliant mixture of melody and freakout” and dismissed in others as “ersatz shit,” the debut album by prog rock giants King Crimson doesn’t engender any kind of casual fandom or circumspect listening. From the opening blast of “21st Century Schizoid Man,” listeners are given a choice to follow this group down whatever winding path they choose and face potential threats both internal and external or stay in a safe, warm place, blissfully unaware of the danger. With guitarist Robert Fripp at the helm, twisting his instrument out of all proportion and lyricist Peter Sinfield dipping into the lore of Tolkien and Asimov, the journey of this album takes on an epic scale — the soundtrack to a quest for a key to unlock vast stores of wisdom or riches untold. Or simply a great record to get stoned and lose oneself in for the better part of an hour. Both are befitting the grandeur and surreality that the group tapped into early on and found scores of fans ready to heartily imbibe. —RH

50. Loretta Lynn: Loretta Lynn Sings (1963)

It’s easy to quantify just how essential Loretta Lynn’s debut record, Loretta Lynn Sings, is in the history of music—not just in the history of country or the Nashville Sound. Lynn had signed to Decca and spent two years making these 12 tunes at two different studios. She brought in a coterie of players—including fiddler Cecil Brower, guitarist Don Helms, pianist Floyd Cramer and drummer Willie Ackerman—to fill out the sound, and out came all-time cuts like “The Girl That I Am Now,” “I Walked Away from the Wreck,” “Success” and “The Other Woman.” Lynn’s first offering was an establishment of musical identity, a star-making effort that, if it didn’t exist, we wouldn’t have singers like Tammy Wynette, Emmylou Harris or Linda Ronstadt. Loretta Lynn Sings paved the way for women in country music, as she picked up Patsy Cline’s torch and became a legend. —MM

49. The Jesus and Mary Chain: Psychocandy (1985)

Greatest Debut Albums 1980sWhat do you get when you combine The Velvet Underground & Nico, the Shangri-Las and a German industrial band called Einstürzende Neubauten? Well, you get the Jesus and Mary Chain, a Scottish quartet built by brothers Jim and William Reid. After their dad lost is job at a factory, he gave 300 pounds of his redundancy money to the them, and they’d go out and buy a four-track and demo songs like “Upside Down” and “Never Understand.” Little did they know that they were on the brink of building one of the most essential noise pop and post-punk albums of all time (“Upside Down” wouldn’t make the album, but it was the Chain’s debut single). Psychocandy has become the not-so-lost masterpiece of the 1980s. It’s beautiful and perfect, yet largely overshadowed by efforts from the band’s peers—like Depeche Mode and New Order. But let it be known, Psychocandy is worthy of eternal greatness for the brilliance of “Just Like Honey” alone. The Jesus and Mary Chain were ahead of their time, yet they couldn’t have come alive at any other point in history than in 1985. It’s a meta, unbelievable truth. But Psychocandy is still registering 38 years later, and the work of Jim and William Reid is forever etched in stone. —MM

48. Britney Spears: …Baby One More Time (1999)

We all know it. The pigtails. The mini skirt. The complete schoolgirl fantasy. However, when a 16-year-old future pop phenomenon grabbed that narrative and made it her own, the mainstream musical landscape was altered forever. A star straight from the crib, Spears spent her entire childhood crafting a persona fit for a pop princess performing in the Mickey Mouse Club, appearing in Broadway shows and even on Star Search. It was practically written in the stars that she was destined to become a megastar, and she proved it on …Baby One More Time. With her distinctive mellowed-out sexy vocals and unstoppable presence, the album’s lead single, “…Baby One More Time,” blasted her to international success. While it’s impossible to compare the caliber of the other tracks to such a mega-hit, the dial-up pop ballad “Sometimes” and the bubblegum pop fantasy “(You Drive Me) Crazy” proved that Spears’s vocal ability was one to be reckoned with. —OA

47. Whitney Houston: Whitney Houston (1985)

Greatest Debut Albums 1980sThere isn’t much left to say about Whitney Houston’s singular brilliance. In discussing her debut album, we can try pointing to Clive Davis, the producer that signed Whitney back in 1983 after seeing her perform at a New York night club. We could reminisce on the sales, the smashing success, how it was the first debut album to produce three number one singles—much less the first time a female solo artist completed such a feat. We could talk about these things, celebrate the storm that brought Whitney such profound and immediate grace, but God, what good would that do? Why would we spend our time thinking about anything but the sound. No one will ever sing like Whitney did. Anthemic ballads like “All At Once,” “Saving All My Love For You” and “Greatest Love Of All” bat note for note with soulful dance tracks like “How Will I Know” and “Take Good Care Of My Heart.” Whitney Houston is pure sentiment—and I mean this in the best possible way. Sure, Whitney could sing the digits in a phone book and have made millions happy, but what she does choose to lend her voice to is monumentally affecting and has the everlasting emotional genuineness to never grow old. —MD

46. Notorious B.I.G.: Ready to Die (1994)

Greatest Debut Albums 1990sI discovered Notorious B.I.G. for the first time when I was 12 years old and heard “Big Poppa” in Superbad, and I was blown away by the production, by the flow, by the silk-spun groove. It was so smooth yet danceable to no end. Ready to Die being the only album released during Biggie’s lifetime is still as heartbreaking as ever, but what an album to stake your claim on. “Juicy” remains, for my money, the greatest lead single from a hip-hop album ever, and he followed it up with the equally brilliant “Big Poppa.” Throw “One More Chance” on top of that and you’ve got a trio of tracks that go toe-to-toe with any three songs made by anyone in rap history. Immediately, Biggie established himself as one of the greatest storytellers in modern music, something dashingly clear on “Juicy,” a rags-to-riches tale where he chronicles a childhood spent in poverty, being young and dealing drugs, committing crimes and then, of course, tasting success for the first time. To start your career with such a proclamation, this announcement of your stardom before even hitting the Billboard charts, was such a flex that would turn into a lifetime and a legacy of adoration. Had Biggie not been taken from us so soon, who knows what the landscape of rap would look like right now. I’d bet that, without a doubt, the conversation around who the greatest MC of all time is isn’t even a discussion. —MM

45. The Clash: The Clash (1977)

At the beginning of the 1970s, John Graham Mellor was, at various points, a gravedigger, a busker in the London Underground, a pinch-hitter vocalist and guitarist for bar bands. Then came the release of The Clash’s eponymous first album in ’77, a year associated forever with the explosion of punk rock. Mellor would become Joe Strummer and lead his band charging onto the scene with their debut, 35 minutes of pure energy, challenging the youth of Britain and the world to listen and to get up and dance (er, pogo). The Clash is an important reminder of how diverse the influences on the scene were, especially for a style of music that seems so simple. “Police & Thieves” recontextualizes the words of reggae greats Junior Murvin and Lee “Scratch” Perry; the harmonica and guitar fuzz on “Garageland” recalls the American R&B and early rock that Joe Strummer played in pubs when he was getting his start. But what stands out are the lean, guitar-driven howlers and sing-a-longs, like gleeful opener “Janie Jones,” “White Riot” and “I’m So Bored With the U.S.A.” Indeed, The Clash took their influences and environment and all the things that were pissing them off and turned it all into a riot of their own. —Lindsay Eanet

44. Kanye West: The College Dropout (2004)

Every so often, an album rewrites the musical rulebook, and this one effectively murdered gangsta rap. It also redefined what a rapper could look and sound like, expanding the role an MC could play in popular culture. With his precocious debut, the collar-popping, Jesus-walking, beat-making provocateur became a kind of hip-hop prophet, venting about his interior life in a way that spoke for millions. Witty, angry and eminently quotable, The College Dropout kick-started a four-album streak that made West the most important pop solo artist since Prince. —Nick Marino

43. Leonard Cohen: Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967)

Greatest Debut Albums 1960sLeading up to release of Leonard Cohen’s debut album, he’d been getting noticed around New York for his poetry and prose. Many years prior, he was a guitarist in a country band called the Buckskin Boys, and the orbits of his writing and musicality were beginning to converge. He wrote a song called “Suzanne” and then Judy Collins recorded it. Folks in the industry, namely John Hammond, came to notice Cohen’s lyricism and he got a contract from Columbia within a year. Songs of Leonard Cohen sets itself apart from most other folk records of its era, namely for how pronounced and thoughtful it was from the jump. Cohen was 33 when he made it, and being that old in New York City was like being 75 in the Midwest. There’s ample wisdom and thoughtfulness across every speck of the record, on songs like “So Long, Marianne” and “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” and “The Stranger Song.” Songs of Leonard Cohen was ahead of its time, with Nancy Priddy’s harmonies and David Lindley’s use of violin, jaw harp and flute; when I listen to it now, 56 years later, it still feels that way. —MM

42. The Band: Music From Big Pink (1968)

As the legend goes, The Band knocked out their debut album live in the studio in a matter of just two weeks. Apocryphal or not, Music From Big Pink certainly sounds as organic as that—the product of five musicians that have spent years on the road or in rehearsal spaces with one another, honing a sound that combined their varying interests in folk, R&B, jazz, country and soul. Why wouldn’t these 11 songs come out in one great big gush of inspiration as if guided by the Holy Spirit and a mess of weed and beer. Following their lead were folks like George Harrison and Eric Clapton, envious that this Canadian-American group were as authentic as it gets and trying desperately to ride their collective coattails toward a rootsier sound. But as Big Pink lays out, these boys had this sound in their bloodstream, in their bones, in their muscle memory. It all came natural and sounded as perfect and lived-in as could be. —RH

41. Fiona Apple: Tidal (1996)

Greatest Debut Albums 1990sThe ’90s were a peak time to be an angsty teen girl. With riot grrl taking over and Alanis Morissette telling men what they oughta know, it was the perfect moment to enjoy the grit of female rage. However, hidden in the grime-covered musical landscape of the grunge era, Fiona Apple was taking a different approach to that anger. The jazzy poetry of Apple’s debut album Tidal is a fully formed deep-dive into the female condition. Writing most of the songs at only 17 years old, she proved the depth women could carry at such a young age—and in a world where female emotions are belittled and disregarded no less. “The Child Is Gone” is a raw expression of the harsh reality of love in adult relationships, while Apple sings about sexual empowerment in “Criminal.” She exposes her forced maturity in “Sullen Girl,” singing, “But he washed me ‘shore and he took my pearl / And left an empty shell of me” in an all too familiar musing of exploitation. The quiet contemplation of Tidal remains a mecca of womanhood for all the girls out there who just want to be heard. —OA

40. Pet Shop Boys: Please (1986)

As a dear lover of ‘80s synth-pop, “West End Girls” stands at the top of a very competitive pile, but when the sizzle of the drum machine starts, you better clear the dance floor. The duo claimed that they chose the album’s name so that when people went to the record store, they had to say, “Can I have the Pet Shop Boys album, Please?” and I’m all for a good bit. Please is the heady collaboration of Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe—who became the Pet Shop Boys through a chance meeting at an electronics shop—with its surprisingly intellectual lyrics wrapped up in cascading synths crafted for club culture. With its squeaky-clean production and topical commentary on sex, crime, and technology in conspiracy of the ‘80s, Please was also unapologetically fluid with sexuality. Amid the AIDS crisis, even a hint of homosexuality was shunned in the media, but with lyrics like “I don’t want another drink or fight, I want a lover tonight” from “I Want A Lover” and “That boy never cast a look in your direction, never tried to hook for your affection / He is the head boy of a school of thought that plays in your intentions, night and day,” in “Later Tonight” the duo wasn’t afraid of a little sexual ambiguity. Sonically, Please is cleaner and simpler than their later work; it is one of, if not the most lyrically poignant. This uber-successful debut was the kick-off point for Tennant and Lowe to create their perfect creative experiments in the future. I, for one, will always love the simplistic nostalgia of the moody thumping bass in “West End Girls.” —OA

39. The Go-Go’s: Beauty and the Beat (1981)

Greatest Debut Albums 1980sArtists like Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino, Jenny Lewis and La Sera’s Katy Goodman make the Go-Go’s’ Beauty and the Beat sound surprisingly contemporary. The group’s debut album proved not only that they could make a consistent, perky sound that made room for several hit singles, but that they would leave a lasting impression on girl groups everywhere. “We Got The Beat,” “Our Lips Are Sealed” and “How Much More” deliver on the sunny, infectious hooks that make this group so approachable, while “Lust to Love” and “This Town” hit on intricate harmonies and refreshing arrangement. —Annie Black

38. The Beatles: Please Please Me (1963)

The Beatles would go on to make many records better than their debut, this much is true. But, like the debuts of the Rolling Stones and the Who in the years after, Please Please Me is an immediate foreshadowing of what brilliance was to come. Even during the record’s most rudimentary moments—in covers of songs like the Cookies’ “Chains” or the Shirelles’ “Baby It’s You”—you can see how these four lads from Liverpool had a better handle on pop melody and vocal harmony than any band who’d come before them. Of course, this album boasts two of the band’s best early-era originals, especially “Love Me Do” and “I Saw Her Standing There.” But, it’s the enduring greatness of “Twist and Shout” that keeps Please Please Me in our hearts. John Lennon’s performance there is immaculate and unbeatable, a stirring account of the rock stardom that the Beatles would take beyond the stratosphere. It might be weird to see the debut record of the most important rock band in history so low, but not every genius is born decorated in gold. —MM

37. Lady Gaga: The Fame (2008)

Through an autobiographical lens, The Fame documents Gaga manifesting her way from a “no one” to number one on the Billboard Hot 100—twice. Supersized synth-pop asserted her avant-garde visions, a true fake-it-til-you-make-it approach that sent her first fans staggering across dancefloors to the woozy bridge of “Just Dance,” and later stunned them with the ominous strut of “Poker Face.” And while “LoveGame” never advanced beyond #5 on the Hot 100, its melody could shatter stadium speakers with its bulletproof buzz—perhaps the soundtrack for a musician making their grand entrance onstage, or two lovers commencing an animalistic smackdown. Outside of the immaculate lineup of singles, Gaga culled inspiration from her own unfabulous trek towards relevance. She advocates for a life of excess from the gutter of New York City against a snappy snare drum beat on “Beautiful Dirty Rich,” and spits venom at her first record label on “Paper Gangsta.” (Prior to her deal with Interscope, L.A. Reid fumbled the disco ball when he dropped Gaga from Def Jam.) The 2011 music video for “Marry The Night” would eventually reveal her triumphant rebound in bedazzled detail, but “Paper Gangsta” stews in the beef, sharpening an arsenal of insults. Gratuitous vocal effects practically pixelate Gaga’s pipes as she admits she feels so “deaf in the jam,” a jab not even a vocoder could conceal. —Victoria Wasylak

36. The Modern Lovers: The Modern Lovers (1976)

It begins with a casual yet insistent countdown. A voice that jumps out, not with a Ramones-esque four count but with an off-kilter six count that puts listeners dead center into the first bar of the first song, a rollicking, Velvets-inspired joyride down the Mass Turnpike with the windows and the radio on. The next four minutes and the 30 that follow for the most part maintain a similar pace, at cruising altitude and top speed as the fang-free leader Jonathan Richman invites folks to meet him on an astral plane, wonders why he can’t be as cool as Pablo Picasso and kindly spells out what he’s looking for in this modern world (a girlfriend). For decades now, a varying cast of characters has been riding shotgun and listening closely to Richman and the gang. What has followed is a cavalcade of jangle pop groups, punk bands and college rockers. Not a bad way to go for a group that recorded these tracks years earlier and had broken up by the time they were released. A pebble dropped into the pre-punk world that is still sending ripples of joy and inspiration into the known universe. —RH

35. The Stone Roses: The Stone Roses (1989)

Greatest Debut Albums 1980sThe only album on this list to be so great that it consequently ruins the band who made it, The Stone Roses is a masterpiece that, sadly, was irreplicable. The Salford quartet—Ian Brown, Mani, Reni and John Squire—broke the mold and then could no longer fit into it. The Stone Roses is one of those records that, with every listen, I still can’t quite understand how it got made. Every guitar lick, every bassline—it all feels futuristic even 34 years after it first came out. The record made the band fixtures of the Madchester scene, while also building on the jangle pop The Smiths had made a hallmark and injecting it with shoegaze-influenced distortion and dream pop psychedelia. Songs like “I Wanna Be Adored” and “Waterfall” and “Fools Gold” are breathtaking and helped etch the blueprint for the next decade’s foray into Britpop. But it’s “She Bangs the Drums,” arguably the most perfect song on any record that’s featured on this list, that turns The Stone Roses into one of the single greatest debuts in the history of modern music. —MM

34. Wu-Tang Clan: Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (1993)

Greatest Debut Albums 1990sInto one of the greatest years in hip-hop’s half-century history came the Wu-Tang Clan, a rough assemblage of MCs zonked on a cocktail of urban blight, kung fu movies and scratchy soul singles from their grandparent’s record collections. Leading the charge was a producer who called himself the RZA, a survivor of the rap industry who rejected his past attempts at hit-making and instead tried to make music that sounded elegant, earthy and more than a little dangerous. Falling in behind him was a cadre of rappers who brought a cock-eyed flow and healthy draught of surreality to the proceedings. On paper, the numbers don’t seem to add up, but in the studio, RZA plays three-dimensional chess with the various components. Like his production work, seemingly disparate threads are tied together to create something strong and enduring. —RH

33. Frank Ocean: channel ORANGE

(2012)As a guest voice on Watch the Throne or a modest presence in the rabble-rousing rap group Odd Future, Frank Ocean tends to leave a calming effect on everything he touches. It’s interesting, then, that he seems at his most comfortable when he’s making big statements, like the one he made with that letter he posted to his Tumblr on July 4, a response to a music critic who asked about gender pronouns on his new album. The letter, originally intended to be liner notes for the physical copy of channel ORANGE, told the story of Frank’s first love, who happened to be a male. It was a soft, lovelorn thing that reached for understanding, rejecting labels. “Whoever you are, wherever you are, I’m starting to think we’re a lot alike,” the letter began. “Human beings spinning on blackness, all wanting to be seen, touched, heard, paid attention to.” That right there, that compassionate understanding of human nature, is the guiding ethos behind channel ORANGE, a very beautiful album about not-so-beautiful people. Prostitutes and pimps, drug mules and drug lords, rich kids with too much money to be happy, and at moments, the narrator himself—these are the cast of alienated, paralyzed SoCal misfits swirling around in Frank Ocean’s moral imagination.

Restraint is key to the execution ofchannel ORANGE, a neo-R&B album that, for all its layered beauty, never overwhelms. Ocean’s not one to shout his words, so his well-wrought stories reveal themselves as organic, integrated parts of the mix. From “Start” to “End,” channel ORANGE is a narrative album meant to be heard in the traditional manner. It sounds best when taken in that way. The whispy “Thinkin Bout You” makes a case for Ocean as an R&B revivalist, while the sunny, Motown-inspired choruses of “Sweet Life” and “Forrest Gump” recall Stevie Wonder for all the right reasons. The dealer on “Crack Rock” is forbidden from attending all his family functions, discovering how “little he matters” when he winds up in the middle of Arkansas with nothing to his name but his crack pipe. That’s precisely the thing, though. In Ocean’s imagination, these broken people do matter. The stories of their sad, empty lives have to be told—if, for no other reason than for their capacity to enrich our understanding of people who aren’t like us. Across cultural, religious and lingual distances, he’s grasping at commonality. Whoever you are, wherever you are, Frank Ocean has been starting to think we’re a lot alike. —Lane Billings

32. Madvillain: Madvillainy (2004)The only studio album made by MF DOOM and Madlib for their Madvillain project, Madvillainy is one of those hip-hop records that lives in the spaces beyond the limits and continuums of time and space. Madlib created most of the instrumentals on a Boss SP-303 sampler, a turntable and a tape deck in a hotel room in Brazil, while DOOM penned relaxed, confident and free-associative lyrics. The product of their collaboration is a string of vignettes that glow like full-bodied portraits. Much of the tracklist is full of brevity, yet cuts like “America’s Most Blunted” and “Rhinestone Cowboy” sprawl where they need to and boast impeccable beats and slick, attractive and soulful verses. “Fancy Clown” is a devastating effort that orbits a relationship crumbling to pieces, while “Accordion” is catchy yet minimal. Released into a hip-hop landscape that bent to the will of the pop charts, Madvillainy was a revelation and a risk. The work is methodical, intricate and wholly sublime album—influenced greatly by crate-diggers and flow-scholars alike and unabashed in its scope. Look no further than the pinnacle of Madvillainy—“All Caps”—where you’ll find the crux of the best debut record from this century: “Hit it on the first try, villain, the worst guy. Spot hot tracks like spot a pair of fat asses,” DOOM spits. “Shots of the scotch from out the square shot glasses, and he won’t stop ‘till he got the masses and show ‘em what they know not through flows of hot molasses.” Like one-half of its namesake, Madvillainy rebels against the safety of living in lowercase. —MM

31. Ramones: Ramones (1976)

The Rosetta stone of punk rock came together in a blur. A week-long recording session wherein all the instrumental tracks were knocked out in a few days and the vocals were kicked down in a few more. Sure, that speaks to the boneheaded three chords and a dream truth behind the quartet and the amount of time that they had to hone their arrow-like trajectory while dominating the underground clubs of New York. Yet it still feels bold for an era of major label, arena rock bloat and overproduced palaver that was all over the airwaves. What the Ramones had to offer was rock music stripped down and lean, inspired by the hooky radio hits of Phil Spector and the Beatles but not beholden to it. They understood the structures of pop songcraft but were young and steamed up enough to use it as a canvas on which to paint scenes from their favorite horror films, real-life scenes from the grimy streets of downtown New York and valentines to potential partners rendered in garish colors. The snotty and the sweet presented in one under-30 minute speed trip. —RH

30. Black Sabbath: Black Sabbath (1970)

If we called Led Zeppelin’s debut “A definitive first brick in the world of heavy metal,” then I think it’s safe to say that Black Sabbath was the next brick or, rather, the next 500 bricks, the coals burning inside, and the grenade that would blow the whole house to bits. The band’s first foray into the music world would prove to be one of the most influential ever, bringing a tenebrous heaviness to the blues tradition that would etch the first renderings of metal into stone. According to Sabbath, it was a perfect storm of risks and mishaps that brought them into that sound. Guitarist Tony Iommi had lost two fingers in an accident, forcing him to tune his strings down so that his makeshift prosthetics would be able to bend them. Iommi was left-handed, but during the singular 12-hour session it took to record the album, his Fender Stratocaster malfunctioned and he was forced to switch to a right-handed Gibson SG and play it upside down. Bassist Geezer Butler was always trained as a guitarist, not a bassist, so rather than playing separate, more stabilizing melodies, his fretwork only underscored the riffs Iommi was already playing, making the sound that much heavier. The whole thing was recorded live as it was played. Now, I’m not sure that I believe in fate, but from the crack of thunder and tolling bells that open the album, to Ozzy Osbourne’s droning “My feelings were just a little bit too strong,” it’s hard to imagine that there wasn’t some sort of divine or, more likely, anti-divine intervention that brought this album into the world. —MD

29. Olivia Rodrigo: SOUR (2021)2021 was the year of Olivia Rodrigo, full stop. The 18-year-old pop sensation made a multi-platinum entrance with “drivers license,” proved she was no fluke on “deja vu,” and put her range on display with “good 4 u.” Still, the lingering question in the lead-up to her debut album SOUR was, “Is Rodrigo for real, or just a flash in the pan?” From the record’s opening moments, it was clear we had our answer: “brutal” begins with a mock orchestral intro before uncorking a left hook in the same pop-punk revival vein as “good 4 u,” with Rodrigo confessing over chugging guitars, “I feel like no one wants me / And I hate the way I’m perceived.” From that song’s supremely relatable teenage angst (“jealousy, jealousy” is another standout of that stripe) and heartfelt ballads like “enough for you” and closer “hope ur ok,” to the hits that made this album an event, SOUR cemented Rodrigo as an artist deserving of the year’s most meteoric rise. —Scott Russell

28. Tracy Chapman: Tracy Chapman (1988)

Greatest Debut Albums 1980sStanding in for Stevie Wonder—who was dealing with technical difficulties with his equipment and walked out of the stadium—Cleveland singer/songwriter Tracy Chapman took the stage, alone, at Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday tribute concert at Wembley Stadium and performed a solo set. She played “Fast Car” and “Talkin’ ‘bout a Revolution” for 72,000 people in the arena and to millions across 60 countries watching at home. Prior to the concert, Chapman’s eponymous debut album had sold about 250,000 copies. Afterwards, it sold around 2,000,000—and it’s endured as one of the best-selling albums of all time, clocking in at 20,000,000 copies sold.

The record was a beautiful rendition of folk music that splintered a mainstream that was buoyed by synth-pop and hair metal. Chapman’s presence was a balm, as was her music. She was called a protest singer at Tufts University, and she made a record firmly placing her in the company of the most compassionate and revered songwriters of all time—not just of her era. “Baby Can I Hold You” and “Across the Lines” were great fulcrums of pop and roots, while “Fast Car” is a song that knows nothing about the boundaries of generational lines—it’s a song that will outlive us all, with an instantly recognizable melody and the greatest opening lyric on this list: “You got a fast car, I want a ticket to anywhere. Maybe we make a deal, maybe together we can get somewhere. Any place is better.” —MM

27. Liz Phair: Exile in Guyville (1993)

Greatest Debut Albums 1990sMuch has been said about Liz Phair’s ball-busting brashness (and rightly so). But in addition to Exile in Guyville’s potty-mouth sass is also a smidge of vulnerability. That Phair could be both capable of so much varying desire—she wants to be your friend; she wants to be your lover; she wants to be your blowjob queen; she wants love letters and sodas (and all that stupid old shit)—makes her the embodiment of the complex wants our hearts and bodies crave. But even through all the tumult she remains confident. She might like you, but she likes herself more. And because of that Guyville remains a destination of three-dimensional realness devoid in most confessional music, regardless of the gender of the writer. —Jessica Gentile

26. John Coltrane: Coltrane (1957)

Before he was the saxophonist responsible for records like Blue Train and Giant Steps and A Love Supreme, John Coltrane was a budding jazz autre from Hamlet, North Carolina who’d been performing in the Miles Davis Quartet. His debut album Coltrane came on the heels of his uptick in exposure through gigs with Davis, and it was quite immediately a landmark in the hard bop realm. He recorded the album for Prestige Records at Van Gelder Studios in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey with Johnnie Splawn, Sahib Shihab, Red Garland, Mal Waldron, Paul Chambers and Tootie Heath, and songs like “Violets for Your Furs” and “While My Lady Sleeps” saw Coltrane and his crew translating standards with great ease. But his own original compositions—“Straight Street” and “Chronic Blues”—were important introductions to Coltrane’s genius, which would send him into immortality with Blue Note and Atlantic. These are the sketches that would make Coltrane the greatest jazz saxophonist we’ve ever heard. —MM

25. Eric B. & Rakim: Paid In Full (1987)

Greatest Debut Albums 1980sThe legend goes that DJ / turntablist Eric B. put out a call to find “New York’s top MC” to complement his wizardly work on the decks. Boy, did he get what he asked for. Rakim was the antithesis to the shouty spirit of most New York rappers. His flow was smooth and laid back as if he recorded the entire album while seated in a cozy throne. It would be off putting if Rakim didn’t have the kind of cutting lyricism that commanded respect and sliced down his enemies—perceived or legit—with deceptive ease. Let’s not forget what Eric B. brought to this party. His choices of samples and breakbeats were judicious and thoughtful, minimalist and clean in contrast to the hard-edged assault of what producers like Rick Rubin and the Bomb Squad were up to at the time. The duo didn’t break new ground so much as suggest an alternate path through the hip-hop landscape. One that would allow them to collect their dead presidents by a show of subtle strength instead of brute force. —RH

24. The Cars: The Cars (1978)

When the Paste team began debating on the order of this list, there was one thing we agreed on immediately: The tracklist of The Cars’ eponymous debut album is stacked from front-to-back. There is, quite possibly, no greater nine-song run to start a record—“Good Times Roll,” “My Best Friend’s Girl,” “Just What I Needed,” “I’m In Touch With Your World,” “Don’t Cha Stop” and “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight” in succession is maddening. But then, to plump the back-end of side two with “Bye Bye Love,” “Moving in Stereo” and “All Mixed Up”? Ric Ocasek, Benjamin Orr and the boys were de-facto mad scientists for drumming up such an unthinkable first chapter for themselves as a band. I don’t even feel the urge to try and convince you about whether or not The Cars have earned this place; the songs speak for themselves and endure as benchmarks of the grey area caught between new wave and post-punk. The band would continue to make hits well into the 1980s, but nothing breaks or bends the perfection and mastery they exhibited across their debut. —MM

23. John Prine: John Prine (1971)

For all of the ways that Bob Dylan became one of our lifetime’s greatest storytellers across 40 studio albums, John Prine achieved all of that on his very first record. Released in autumn 1971, John Prine is a perfect assembly of 13 songs, many of which endure as some of Prine’s all-time greatest. From “Illegal Smile” to “Flashback Blues,” the Illinois folk troubadour took us through a century’s worth of stories told from the attic of a nasally voice. Prine was a poet with no interest in fashioning a catchy imprint; the work was hard-nosed and blunt, compassionate and universal. Some of the cornerstone tracks, like “Hello in There” and “Sam Stone” and “Angel From Montgomery,” are their own novels, populated with characters that arrive like we’ve known and loved them forever—from drug-addicted war veterans to strip miners to middle-aged women to junkyard treasure hunters. There is also “Donald and Lydia,” Prine’s ode to a young couple who’ve become narrow-minded in their own love. And then “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You into Heaven Anymore” comes at us as an anti-war tune waging critiques at performative patriotism. From top to bottom John Prine is not just one of the greatest debut albums ever; it’s the greatest folk record ever written. —MM

22. The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Are You Experienced (1967)

Greatest Debut Albums 1960sPower trios rarely get as powerful as The Jimi Hendrix Experience. The rhythm section of Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell were the perfect match for the guitar wizardry of Jimi Hendrix. They held down the low end with loose yet steady grooves that their fearless leader vamped over with the colorful splashes of an action painting. Their debut album was, at least in its American version, a perfect summation of the speedy evolution of this project. The doors of perception are forcibly opened by “Purple Haze” and the psychedelic luge ride that follows carries you along hopped up expressions of lust and longing (“Fire,” “Love or Confusion”), cushy balladry (“May This Be Love”), sweaty blues (“Hey Joe”) and the kind of pleasantly meandering playfulness that goes all too well with the peak of an LSD trip (“Third Stone From the Sun,” the title track). Everyone says that it was Sgt. Pepper that sent dozens of bands scrambling to make their own psychedelic masterpiece, but in our heart of hearts, I think we know that it was this masterpiece that truly turned people on in the best possible way. —RH

21. Guns N’ Roses: Appetite for Destruction (1987)

Greatest Debut Albums 1980sWhat makes a record like Appetite for Destruction so damn important is that, without a doubt, it might just be the greatest debut rock ‘n’ roll album ever released—and not the proto-indie stuff like The Smiths or the jangly alt-pop of Murmur. I’m talking about stone cold rock and hair metal. Los Angeles quintet Guns N’ Roses had put out the Live ?!*@ Like a Suicide EP a year prior, and they’d later get a re-release on GN’R Lies in 1988. But Appetite for Destruction is the album that has defined the masses of a generation—and it’s the seventh best-selling album of all time in the US, which is a bonkers accolade to get with your first-ever album. The classics—“Welcome to the Jungle,” “Sweet Child o’ Mine” and “Paradise City”—are classics for a reason, as they represent crystalline, anthemic benchmarks of hard rock. But non-singles like “Rocket Queen” and “My Michelle” are brilliant and catchy. Other cuts like “Nighttrain” and “Mr. Brownstone” established Axl Rose, Slash, Izzy Stradlin, Duff McKagan and Steven Adler as rock gods then and there. What’s impressive, though, is that GN’R would continue to build on that moment, as the two-part Use Your Illusion release in 1991 would be the perfect end-cap on the greatest four-year run in rock ‘n’ roll history. —MM

20. Sade: Diamond Life (1984)

Greatest Debut Albums 1980sThere’s hardly a more killer opening to a debut than “Smooth Operator,” a song about the “American Psychos” of the world. For the London band Sade—yes, band, not a solo act — their simplistic soul sound stood out against the glitz and glamour of the ‘80s hits caked in heavy production. It’s hard not to appreciate the classic sound that Sade recreated on Diamond Life, with every song meticulously crafted with soul roots that flowed into effortless new school pop. The nine-track album covers everything from longing for a lover to missed opportunities—the type of musings everyone can relate to but made even better with the impeccable tones of Diamond Life. I’m a sucker for a saxophone solo, and “Your Love Is King” captures the energy of a smoky jazz club with Sade’s flawless vocal talents and the big band backing. Sade, while heavily defined by the unique richness of their frontwoman, succeeded because of their all-around talents, creating the silkiest, easy-listening melodies. It’s more than music; it’s a feeling—a dark, sexy feeling. —OA

19. Alice Coltrane: A Monastic Trio (1968)

Greatest Debut Albums 1960sThe contemporary reviews of Alice Coltrane’s first album as bandleader and the first batch of music she was to release following the death of her husband John Coltrane were brutal. DownBeat dismissed it, noting that “piano and harp [were] unsuitable instruments for transmitting [John’s] passionate utterance.” Such was the reality of the time when the jazz community had little patience for female creators and the critics had yet to catch up with the innovations being made by artists like Ms. Coltrane. Into this album, she poured all of herself—her spiritual yearnings, her unabiding love of her late husband, her command of her chosen instruments. They clashed together on these compositions like two weather patterns slowly moving over a lake before slamming together to make a terrifyingly beautiful lightning storm. Her fellow players, all of whom came from her husband’s band (drummer Rashied Ali and bassist Jimmy Garrison, tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders), join in this session like a wailing chorus as they try to make sense of losing a creative giant and plea for the salvation of their own eternal souls. —RH

18. The Crickets: The “Chirping” Crickets (1957)

This was one of the first albums I ever bought on vinyl, if you can believe that, coming from a Zoomer. But I adored Buddy Holly as a kid and I still do. His ability to make a guitar sound so perfect and worn-in struck deep within me. Holly and his band, The Crickets, were a marvel to behold at the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll, and their debut record—The “Chirping” Crickets—is 26 minutes of pure rockabilly bliss. I mean, to have your first album boast songs like “Oh, Boy!,” “Not Fade Away,” “Maybe Baby” and “That’ll Be the Day,” that’s like a greatest hits collection. But Holly and company were primitive in that way, as they made tunes built to last. For all of the reverence and accolades that Elvis Presley gets, in a fair and just world Buddy Holly gets that admiration instead. There’s a reason that his death is considered the day that music died and not Presley’s. It’s hard to say what would have come of modern music had Holly not met his tragic end in 1959, but having a record like The “Chirping” Crickets helps us remember just how crucial he was in etching the earliest benchmarks of rock ‘n’ roll. Without this album, we don’t have The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton or Bob Dylan. —MM

17. Joy Division: Unknown Pleasures (1979)

The most recognizable album cover post-Dark Side of the Moon, Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures continues to find audiences—in some way or another—in 2023. The work of Ian Curtis, Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook and Stephen Morris was just a stepping stone for what direction post-punk and new wave could take. The results are sometimes menacing, as Curtis’ deadpan delivery on songs like “Disorder” and “Shadowplay” are haunting and stirring. Other cuts, like “She’s Lost Control” and “Wilderness” exude gothic tones and hues, as Joy Division primed themselves to become one of England’s greatest bands. It’s hard to know what might have come of the band had Curtis lived beyond 1980, but I’d like to think that Joy Division was on a crash-course for the heights and reverence that The Smiths would get four years later. Of course, New Order would arise from the ashes of Unknown Pleasures and Closer, but the groundwork laid by Curtis and his bandmates in 1979 can still be felt 44 years later. It’s a perfect album that continues to influence groups like Fontaines D.C., shame and Yard Act. —MM

16. Portishead: Dummy (1994)

Greatest Debut Albums 1990sIt’s lucky that the dysfunctionally sad Beth Gibbons gets as much synergy out of her genius samplers Adrian Utley and Geoff Barrow as she does. Occasionally she’s genius herself: the way she spills the “Sour Times” chorus “nobody looooooooooooves meeee / It’s true” is almost parodic before cheekily pulling back: “…not like you do.” And few depressives could’ve matched the sexiness of that clanging-haunting Lalo Schifrin sample. But Gibbons’ whispery contours were crucial hooks for mood-setting horror (“Numb”), orchestral Cowboy Junkies (“It’s a Fire”), and a scratched-up spaghetti Western (“Wandering Star”). And when the dust-caked soul ballad “Glory Box” called for a raunchy guitar solo, her band stepped up to the plate. —Dan Weiss

15. De La Soul: 3 Feet High & Rising (1989)

Greatest Debut Albums 1980sThe conversations around 1980s hip-hop almost certainly always revolve around the larger-than-life heavyweights, like N.W.A., Run-D.M.C., Beastie Boys, LL Cool J and Kurtis Blow—but it’s imperative that we never forget about De La Soul, the trio that, when at their best, outshined all of them. It wasn’t just about the chemistry between Posdnous, Maseo and the late Trugoy the Dove; these three New Yorkers were constructive geniuses. 3 Feet High and Rising came out in March 1989 and it punctuated a decade that saw rap music obliterate the mainstream—and you can point to the workings of De La Soul as a big, enduring piece of that. 3 Feet High and Rising is the greatest hip-hop debut to ever be released, an alpha joint in the echelons with 36 Chambers, Madvillainy and Illmatic. From the impenetrable brilliance of “Eye Know” and its interpolation of samples from Otis Redding and Steely Dan to the Johnny Cash-inspired “The Magic Number,” De La Soul threw this masterpiece of art and jazz rap into the belly of a cultural beast swallowed by the budding excitement around gangsta rap. But 3 Feet High and Rising is surreal and weird and gorgeous and primitive—using boundary-pushing samples, skits and bizarre subject matter (dandruff, gardening and talking animals, just to name a few) to further evolve hip-hop altogether. —MM

14. Ornette Coleman: Something Else!!!! (1958)

If Coltrane was the greatest jazz saxophonist, then you can make the argument that Ornette Coleman was the genre’s greatest multi-instrumentalists. His Atlantic Records debut in 1959, The Shape of Jazz to Come, remains one of the very greatest avant-garde and free jazz albums of all time but, just a year prior, he was signed to Contemporary and merging templates of blues and jazz and distilling that Frankenstein concoction into bebop. His first-ever album, Something Else!!!! completely reinvented free jazz altogether, thanks to the crew of Don Cherry, Walter Norris, Don Payne, Billy Higgins and producer Lester Koenig that he assembled to help construct it. Something Else!!!! ushered in a new era of jazz that flourished unhinged from conventional melody and arrangement. It’s an immense accomplishment, given that the record clearly boasts sidemen who were not so keen on breaking ordinary patterns. And yet, Coleman still shines on nine tracks he wrote himself. Something Else!!!! is the greatest jazz debut of all time, and one of the most important record’s in the genre’s long, storied history. —MM

13. Gang of Four: Entertainment! (1979)

All our modern post-punk roads lead back to this starting point. Reared on a diet of Marxist tracts, the slashing guitar playing of Dr. Feelgood’s Wilko Johnson, disco and Krautock, four young men from Leeds set the course for generations of artists by winding together this taut, lacerating masterpiece. The connective tissue that they discovered within all of those influences was the power of repetition. Singer Jon King circled back on the same phrases throughout his lyrics while drummer Hugo Barnham and bassist Dave Allen had a collective understanding of the hypnotic power of locking into a singular groove. The X-factor throughout was Andy Gill, a guitarist whose tone was as corrosive and sharp as a rusting spool of barbed wire. With their collective power and force of will, the four were able to drill down to the core of still-simmering issues like capitalism, the Great Man Theory, media manipulation and sexual politics. Few albums from this era remain as prescient and as influential. —RH

12. Johnny Cash: Johnny Cash with His Hot and Blue Guitar! (1957)

One of the greatest country albums of all time also just happens to be a debut, and it’s Johnny Cash’s with His Hot and Blue Guitar!, released via Sun Records in October 1957. Not only that, the album contains four of the greatest country singles of all time: “I Walk the Line,” “Cry! Cry! Cry!,” “So Doggone Lonesome” and “Folsom Prison Blues.” Cash was the outlier among his Sun peers, not possessing the bubblegum crossover and charisma that Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis had. And yet, he became greater than them all. with His Hot and Blue Guitar! boasts a dozen tracks that keep in tune with similar chord progressions and rhythms. Cash would take years to finally ditch his F-sharp propensity and make songs with much grander, diverse arrangements. But the skeletal melodies of “I Walk the Line” and “Folsom Prison Blues” aren’t simple; it takes a mark of brilliance to make that construction work over and over. Toss in a little bass and lead guitar finesse from the Tennessee Two, and you’ve got yourself a revelation. with His Hot and Blue Guitar! changed what country music could become. The blueprint fashioned by Hank Williams was in complete disarray, as the bass-baritone voice of an Arkanasas troubadour all but reinvented the wheel. The songs come at you like a freight train that won’t slow down. You already know the rest of Cash’s story, but its pages began right here 66 years ago. —MM

11. The Stooges: The Stooges (1969)

Greatest Debut Albums 1960sEven as it arrived around the same time as equally heavy works like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, the first utterance of the Stooges did a better job than all of them in capturing the ugliness that was right around the corner in the decade that followed. The artwork is tinted in off-putting tones of brown and yellow. The four gents on the cover looked like a street gang scowling and sneering as they got ready to knife you because you accidentally wandered into their territory. And the music felt like it was stimulating all of the other senses, leaving a thin film in your mouth, spots in your eyes and an acrid smell that wouldn’t leave your nostrils for days. Born in Detroit, this group of ruffians got down in the muck of life and rolled around with wild-eyed glee. Or they simply leaned on each other to deal with the boredom of suburban life and the lustful aches emanating from their tight pants. The only thing that saved them and the people of Michigan from a series of petty thefts and minor arsons was that these young men chose to let out all these pent up hormones and anger on their instruments. Together, they pounded out a sound that borrowed some details from the Doors and the Velvet Underground but translated them with a kind of corrosive energy that wound up resonating within the already tainted hearts of young people on either side of the Atlantic, stirring the punk movement to life with one distorted guitar chord and one animalistic wail from charismatic frontman Iggy Pop. Nothing would ever be the same once this album hit the streets, a truth that deserves our thanks and praise. —RH

10. The Smiths: The Smiths (1984)

Greatest Debut Albums 1980sTaking a moment to ignore anything Morrissey has said in his post-Smiths life, The Smiths is a masterpiece from start to finish. For a band that only made four albums yet became so legendary, every album has to kick ass—and the Manchester indie pioneers delivered a myriad of poetic musings against traditional masculinity and the blissful riffage of Johnny Marr making a perfect debut. The Smiths isn’t necessarily The Smiths as we know them; it’s grittier with flashes of post-punk that paint a much darker sound in some of the tracks. While Morrissey’s characteristic droney lullabies deliver some of the most painfully honest lyrics in music history, there is an uncharacteristic edge to the melodies—but I think that debut rawness is what drew people in.

There is something I always find funny when bands write lyrics that are so torturous but, then, pair them with the most danceable rhythm. Like on “Pretty Girls Make Graves,” with the chorus being “I’m not the man you think I am / And sorrow’s native son / He will not smile for anyone,” played over Marr’s groovy riffs. “Miserable Lie” proved that this was a band, not just a singer with background musicians. With the beginning of the track keeping the soft rhythm of the aesthetics of many The Smiths songs, Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce burst through with a high-tempo rhythm that is uncharacteristically punk. “This Charming Man” (which was only available on the cassette printing of the record in the UK) is about young Morrissey grappling with his sexuality in overt sexual encounters: “Will nature make a man of me yet? / When in this charming car / This charming man,” he sings about the act of cruising, which was a common yet unspoken activity during the time. That’s the thing I love about The Smiths—the unapologetic expressions of sexuality and asexuality that even endure now with lines like “Does the body rule the mind, or does the mind rule the body? I don’t know.” —OA

9. Billie Eilish: When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? (2019)

Billie Eilish’s career to this point has been one that could only have happened now. She has only ever made music in the streaming age, where she’s translated copious plays into press hype, rather than the other way around. But her music, songs that emphatically encapsulate teenage angst for an existential era, is very much of this period as well. So perhaps, when we eventually look back on the music of this era a few years from now, there will likely be no singular album that absolutely nailed the sound of 2019 quite like Billie Eilish’s debut record, When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, for better or worse. She delivers the record that her generation has been waiting for, one with loads of in-jokes and language (the album literally begins with a joke about pulling out her Invisalign, while “all the good girls go to hell” ends with a joke about “snowflakes”). After all, this album isn’t made for critics—or even anyone born more than a few years before 9/11—it’s for those who share the same teenage hormonal desires and emotional pitfalls that Eilish is currently going through. While someone like Snail Mail, only 18 months her elder, can put out a record with largely the same themes as When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, yet still speak to an older audience, Eilish’s debut largely doesn’t care, well aware that she doesn’t need anyone above, say, 25 to make her the biggest pop artist on the planet. —Steven Edelstone

8. Madonna: Madonna (1983)

Greatest Debut Albums 1980sThough sometimes overshadowed by Like a Virgin and Like a Prayer, Madonna’s self-titled debut endures as a steadfast pop masterpiece. At 27 years old, she’d already studied dance with famed choreographer Martha Graham, played drums and sang in a Corona, Queens band called the Breakfast Club and signed with Sire Records after her single “Everybody” blew up in clubs all across NYC. There was no possible way that Madonna’s first LP could fail, and it didn’t—instead becoming a transcendent exercise in post-disco and electro-pop. Singles “Holiday,” “Lucky Star” and “Borderline” were immediate hits that vaulted the singer into the echelons of the zeitgeist in near-insurmountable ways. Few artists are more emblematic of the MTV era, and Madonna’s stranglehold on pop music can be traced back to this very record. Without Madonna, the landscape of dance music suffers greatly. It’s the best debut album of the 1980s by a woman, and, perhaps, one of the greatest debuts of all time. —MM

7. Nas: Illmatic (1994)

Greatest Debut Albums 1990sFor nearly 30 years, Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones has been trying to live down and live up to the brilliance of his first full-length. It’s a lot for any artist to bear, but it says so much about how Illmatic landed in the hip-hop world like a meteorite. A nimble and poetic MC, Nas caught the attention of early mentor Large Professor who helped him craft this LP with the crucial beats and assistance of some of the best beat makers around: DJ Premier, Q-Tip and Pete Rock. Nas rose to the occasion, painting vivid lyrical murals of street life in his native Queens and the struggles of the Black community in New York. Call it hardcore if you please, but the tone of Illmatic is far more laidback and smooth than that descriptor would suggest. That’s just another layer of brilliance to peel back as Nas lays out some truly harrowing truths with an unhurried flow and the heart of a poet. —RH

6. R.E.M.: Murmur (1983)

Greatest Debut Albums 1980sAthens, Ga., was as unlikely a birthplace for a nationally renowned music scene as Muscle Shoals, Ala., before it. But there’s something about a college town nestled in some small corner of rural America that ignites creativity in kids who grow up and discover that there actually are others out there who share their passion for music, film or art. In 1983, the spotlight was on Athens, thanks to R.E.M.’s full-length debut, Murmur. All four of the band’s members spent part of their lives far from Georgia, but Murmur became indelibly tied to its city of origin because it sounded unlike anything from anywhere else. Peter Buck didn’t invent the jangly Rickenbacker tones he employed so wonderfully on the album, but it had been a long while since The Byrds had taken flight. And the way Buck’s guitar and Mike Mills’ bass busily bounced around otherwise simple choruses created something entirely new.

Michael Stipe put his stamp on this already singular sound, crooning mumbled, enigmatic phrases like, “They called the clip a two-headed cow / Your hate clipped and distant, your luck, pilgrimage,” and it sounded like the most important sentiment uttered on record since Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde. Even the album’s now-iconic cover art, a railroad trestle covered in leafy green kudzu, seemed exotically Southern, though it looked to locals like every other railroad trestle or abandoned shack or shrubbed hillside drowning in the imported Japanese weed. There was nothing mystical about the four musicians who meshed together on Murmur, but their sound emerged so fully formed that it’s still arguably their best. And those albums that might contest the honor—Reckoning and Lifes Rich Pageant—rely so heavily on the Murmur template as to make the argument moot. —JJ

5. Lauryn Hill: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998)

Greatest Debut Albums 1990sThe mythology around Lauryn Hill continues to grow. When the Fugees frontwoman set out on her own and began writing and producing for Whitney Houston, Mary J. Blige and, yeah, Aretha Franklin, it was clear that her brilliance was always going to transcend the band she’d helped turn into Grammy-winning legends. But she’s only ever put out one album under her own name. One. And what a damn incredible album it is. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is a revelation from start to finish. It’s a desert island album for me every time, and I could go the rest of my life only listening to it and be more than content. Ms. Hill never held back from injecting the record with her own autobiographical history, touching on her pregnancy, her fallout with her Fugees bandmates and the intersection of love and God. She recorded much of Miseductation in Kingston, Jamaica at Tuff Gong Studios, collaborating with New Ark and producing the songs with Che Pope and Vada Nobles.

The slate of songs on this record, including “Doo Wop (That Thing),” “Everything Is Everything,” and her cover of Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” are immaculately constructed and distinctively perfect. The whole album is this grand amalgam of neo-soul, rap, singer/songwriter and R&B, and it originally broke the record for the most first-week sales for a female artist (422,000 copies). The single “Ex-Factor” very well might just be the greatest soul song (and breakup song) written in the last 30 years—I’d surely say so. I mean, who else could make “reciprocity” sound so damn devastating? It’s hard to say much of anything new about Miseducation. Ms. Hill carved out her brilliance from the jump. What else is left to add? It’s never been a secret that it’s the greatest debut album of the 1990s; it’s no secret that it’s the greatest debut album of the last three decades. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is, just maybe, the greatest debut album of all time. —MM

4. Patti Smith: Horses (1975)

In 1975, Patti Smith wasn’t just starting out. She had schlepped it up to New York in the late ’60s, poked around enough in the art world as the ’70s began and, by ’74, was a mainstay at the East Village’s CBGB. Horses was Smith’s assertion of herself and her place in a musical world that was changing more rapidly than anyone could keep track of. Smith’s debut was a rather deft one—she could see exactly where she was along this timeline, and she wrote incisively, poetically and honestly about that. “Psychologically, somewhere in our hearts, we were all screwed up because those people died,” she said of the rapid loss of many of the 60s’ most innovative, free spirited musicians. “We all had to pull ourselves together. To me, that’s why our record is called Horses. We had to pull the reins on ourselves to recharge ourselves… We’re ready to start moving again.”

Smith was simultaneously punk’s augur and its harbinger. Her foresight was as strong as her recollection of the past. What else is there to say about how the album opens, how she growls it into motion with the lyric “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine”? I can’t help but hear the way she sings it as a rallying cry for all outsiders. Maybe all of the damned can be saved by punk rock, hell if Horses hasn’t got you to believe that yet, then you’re long overdue for another listen. —MD

3. Television: Marquee Moon (1977)

Around the time of the album’s 40th anniversary of Television’s peerless debut album Marquee Moon, guitarist Richard Lloyd told Consequence, “It’s been on top 10 lists and top 50 lists and top 100 lists, and I hope it stays on those lists.” Placing it at the top of this particular list may then feel like just another accolade to throw atop an already teetering pile of praise and wonderment for this nearly 50-year-old LP. But there are few albums capable of shouldering that load. When it arrived in the world amid a head-spinning run of releases (out the same month as Marquee Moon: Rumours, Damned Damned Damned, Peter Gabriel’s first solo album, the first Cheap Trick record and The Saints’ (I’m) Stranded), the record couldn’t help but rise above the fray like leader Tom Verlaine’s lanky body popping out amid a sea of bodies at CBGB’s or Max’s Kansas City.

There were recognizable molecules within the group’s DNA—Bob Dylan’s knotty poetry; the tangling saxophones of Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders and Archie Shepp on Ascension; the rhythmic sproing of Cream—but the quartet’s months of woodshedding and gigs around New York allowed them to twist those fragments into new shapes that kept listeners in a state of blissful confusion. It all flowed from the hands of Lloyd, Verlaine, Billy Ficca and Fred Smith so effortlessly that the technique and dynamic construction of each song was easy for the layperson to comfortably grasp the epic-length sprawl of the title track or the constantly shifting ground underneath “Prove It” or the heady romanticism of “Venus.” It’s the same reason that Television could share the stage with wildly different bands like Blondie and the Ramones and yet it still fit. Even with its avant garde leanings, Marquee Moon had music that was malleable and approachable and enlightening and true. —RH

2. The Velvet Underground: The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)

Greatest Debut Albums 1960sIn some circles, calling The Velvet Underground & Nico the greatest debut of the 1960s is a safe pick—and maybe it is, but safe picks are usually called that for a reason. No one in the decade could touch what Lou Reed, John Cale, Maureen Tucker, Sterling Morrison and Nico were doing on this record, and their work was so influential and off the wall and avant garde that hardly anyone knew it existed. It wasn’t stone cold rock ‘n’ roll or flower-power folk or club-worthy soul music; it just was. There’s a reason why that Brian Eno quote about how all 30,000 people who bought that album started a band has maintained such a strong relevance 56 years later: The Velvet Underground & Nico influenced at least a dozen subgenres—including punk, garage rock, shoegaze, drone, indie and post-punk—and became, likely, the greatest thing Andy Warhol ever had a real hand in (my apologies to the Campbell’s soup can truthers).

The Velvet Underground & Nico boasts some of the greatest songs ever made, period. “Sunday Morning,” “Femme Fatale,” “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” “I’m Waiting for the Man,” “Heroin”—the Velvets missed zero beats making this record. I love what Robert Christgau wrote in a 10-year retrospective in The Village Voice in 1977 about the album, that the record had been a tough listen “which is probably why people are still learning from it. It sounds intermittently crude, thin, and pretentious at first, but it never stops getting better.” When the opening celesta and bass notes on “Sunday Morning” roll in, the wonder immediately sets in. Then, a lush guitar solo from Reed along with his chamber-style singing. How did five people make this record in 1967, when it sounds like it could have been made in 2023 and still sound just as primitive? —MM

1. Little Richard: Here’s Little Richard (1957)

Here’s Little Richard is not just the greatest debut album of all time, it’s the birth of rock ‘n’ roll as we know it. Without these songs, there is no Elvis, no Beatles, no Rolling Stones, no Elton John. There’s no one. When a scrawny, flamboyant pianist—who played like his entire body was on fire—broke out of Macon, Georgia and into the Billboard Top 40, the entire landscape of modern music’s past, present and future was forever transformed. “Tutti Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Rip It Up,” “Slippin’ and Slidin’” and “Jenny, Jenny” all got major radio play, while “Ready Teddy,” “She’s Got It” and “Miss Ann” were mainstays on the R&B stations and charts. Little Richard recorded the album in New Orleans and Los Angeles with his producer Bumps Blackwell, and what came of those sessions was a bonafide greatest hits collection. He took the “swing and shuffle” beats that had ruled R&B and transfigured them into even eights that were as potent as electricity. The album is frantic, hypnotic, catchy and refined; it’s a marvel older than nearly every other entry on this list. Sure, maybe the Velvet Underground still manages to tumble into the avant-garde drones without Little Richard; maybe the UK punk scene is unavoidable regardless. But Little Richard’s first album is why we have rock ‘n’ roll in the first place. Even folks starting bands in 2023 have him to thank for their wide-eyed ambitions.

And yet, Little Richard was quickly relegated to the background as Elvis and The Beatles took his songs and delivered them to white audiences across the globe and became lauded as the most important artists of all time. They lifted his moves and his mannerisms and performed cookie cutter renditions of his music and still flourished. Here’s Little Richard isn’t just a documentation of our greatest musician, in real time, giving rock ‘n’ roll a lifetime warranty, it’s an astute projection of where all of our interests and obsessions stem from. No debut album gets a Top 10 bid just because it was an originator. It has to be great, too. And let me assure you, Here’s Little Richard is both of those things and about a dozen more. —MM

Listen to a playlist of our favorite songs from these albums below.

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