The 100 Greatest Debut Albums Since 2000

Music Lists Debut Albums
The 100 Greatest Debut Albums Since 2000

I have been thinking a lot about the debut albums that have come out during my lifetime—which covers all of this millennium so far, with a few extra prologue chapters. First efforts by an artist have been essential topics of discussion since Elvis dropped his self-titled album via Sun Records back in 1956. Since then, some of the most enigmatic, cornerstone work in music altogether occurred on debuts—be it The Doors or Murmur or or Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). But, to me, there are two distinct halves in the history of modern music: 1955 through 1999, and 2000 until now. To put a record like Clipse’s in the same conversation as The Beatles’ is a pointless undertaking; the landscape of people who obsess over and consume and find reverence in music looks so much different now than it did 65 years ago—though the appreciation factor has remained untouched. Music reaches people across generations, centuries.

I was humming around assembling this list for weeks, trying to figure out if it was going to include the first 50ish years of mainstream music or not. I settled on no, just because the idea of picking only 100 records from damn near the same amount of years is a fool’s errand. I’m sure some can do such a thing, but I simply cannot. So, I narrowed the scope—only pulling records released between January 1st, 2000 and September 1st, 2023 for consideration (though, if an all-time great debut album comes along anytime in the future, amendments will be made as needed). The result is a stacked list. You might see the debut of your favorite band in the 71-80 range and feel really upset about it being so low—and I get why. But, remember, these are only 100 of the thousands of debut albums that have come out in the last 23 years. Everyone in music starts somewhere, these are just 100 acts who we think kick-started their careers better than the rest.

After careful curation and some piping hot, fresh blurbs to show for it, we’ve got a really sweet balance of Y2K, late-2000s, Tumblr-era and recency-biased records to boast throughout this list—and I promise that I did not consciously strive for such an equitable spectrum of music. I was fully prepared for this to be a list dominated by records that came out between 2001 and 2010—and I’m very sad that Maroon 5’s Songs About Jane was left on the cutting room floor. There are quite a few of those releases in here, to be fair, but I’d wager that what our Top-10 looks like will surprise you greatly. So, without further ado—from Joyce Manor to Kendrick Lamar to Ethel Cain to Chief Keef to Billie Eilish—here are the 100 greatest debut albums since 2000 ranked. —Matt Mitchell, Music Editor

100. Lana Del Rey: Born to Die (2012)Best Debut AlbumsThe understanding of what record is truly Lana Del Rey’s debut is widely debated. Though she did release a self-titled record in 2010, we’re looking at her major label debut Born to Die—which arrived two years later. What also factors into our choice here is that Lana Del Rey has been fully scrubbed from streaming services—and the record was never released in any physical format, aside from bootleg copies. Born to Die, however, was Lana’s first big step into the world she would quickly take full command of. Songs like “Video Games,” “Blue Jeans” and “Summetime Sadness” are once-in-a-lifetime star-turns that have come to be definitive anthems of the Tumblr and Facebook generation. The singularity of Born to Die is second-to-none—and you can trace much of Lana’s present-day greatness to this first foray, a truly one-of-a-kind blend of baroque pop and trip-hop. It’s an immaculate alternative record that doesn’t always stand the test of time—especially in conversation with Lana’s most recent work—but it speaks deftly of what the musical landscape looked like 10 years ago. —Matt Mitchell

99. MGMT: Oracular Spectacular (2007)Best Debut Albums
I don’t think that MGMT’s debut album, Oracular Spectacular, has aged particularly great in the 16 years since its release, but the record’s side one is still pretty unbeatable in retrospect. Shouldered into immortality by one of the best three-single runs of this century (“Time to Pretend,” “Electric Feel” and “Kids”), Oracular Spectacular put Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser on the map—and they haven’t left since, despite going long intervals in-between records in their discography. The way side one takes shape as synth-focused dance music, only to bleed into a space rock concerto on side two, was ambitious in 2007 and remains just as such in 2023. If you wanted to know what an electronic record made by liberal arts students would sound like, look no further than Oracular Spectacular—a project penned with intricacy and scholarly inhibitions. With stories of anxiety and drug use coated in candy-colored gloss, MGMT kicked off a career of psychedelic, glam-inspired rock ‘n’ roll that few of their peers have ever been able to mirror. —Matt Mitchell

98. Gorillaz: Gorillaz (2001)Best Debut Albums
Gorillaz’ self-titled debut is the moment every musician pines for. That moment when you’re exploring a new sound or a new series of sounds and just have a breakthrough. Suddenly the tired past is gone and you’re playing with something completely new and foreign to you. It sounds good, great even. You’re not crap at it and really just beginning to see how far this experiment can go. Gorillaz is maybe one of the most successful obfuscations of oneself, reinvention and experiment all in one. A virtual band as a front for Damon Albarn (of Blur fame) to mess around with different genres, the sounds and vibes pioneered on their 2001 debut Gorillaz would solidify the band as icons and make for a revolutionary melding of sounds and visuals that would redefine what it meant to even be a band.

This first record so thoroughly understands the genres it pulls from, it’s a wonder Albarn wasn’t playing dress up as the Gorillaz for longer, and makes for a band and sound that was genuinely cutting edge when it arrived on the scene in 2001. Which is all to say, “Clint Eastwood” blowing up was no fluke. Gorillaz is miraculously psychedelic, funky and soulful all at the same time, and this is before it swerves completely on tracks like “Latin Simone (Que Pasa Contigo).” “5/4” is a remarkably fun garage rock tune with smooth vocals, and where someone else might feel like they’re meandering on “Sound Check(Gravity),” Albarn as 2D sounds more resigned than aimless, which doesn’t just make for a great delivery but solid characterization too. The production across the board only further cements that Gorillaz really showed an understanding early of exactly what the band’s vibe should be. —Moises Taveras

97. Harry Styles: Harry Styles (2017)Best Debut Albums
On his first record post-One Direction, Harry Styles fully adopted his rock ‘n’ roll inclinations—and it was truly for the better. His eponymous debut flirted with those bounds more so than his former bandmates, who’d all adopted mainstream pop instead. The results on Harry Styles—cuts like “Kiwi,” “Sign of the Times” and “Woman”—proved his emulation skills to be admirable, and gave us all a taste of an artistry not yet wholly harnessed. Styles would ditch the art of mimicry two years later on Fine Line, but his charisma was beating so deftly on that debut record. Look behind the obvious hits and you’ll find some of the most introspective, dainty folk-inspired singer/songwriter music of the last 10 years—most notably on songs like “From the Dining Table,” “Ever Since New York” and “Sweet Creature.” However, “Sign of the Times” was a career benchmark for the ex-boy bander—whose career had barely even started in 2017. It’s rare when an artist does that, but Styles pivots between an underutilized falsetto and a full-throated belting make a convincing argument that the million-dollar theatricality he’s now fully harnessed in 2023 was there—and inevitable—all along. —Matt Mitchell

96. Whitney: Light Upon the Lake (2016)Best Debut Albums
Max Kakacek and Julien Ehrlich, Whitney’s songwriting duo, were preparing to release this debut album shortly after their last band, the Smith Westerns, split in 2014. When writing songs together, Kakacek and Ehrlich developed a persona: Whitney is a lonely guy who drinks too much and lives alone. It was probably a pretty easy idea to embody. Both Max and Julien are quick to admit that the songs for Light Upon the Lake were written in the midst of consecutive breakups. They felt a little bit like Whitney, so they built this as a bit of a concept album. But, the weird thing about labeling this record as a breakup album is that it’s both accurate and—paradoxically—widely off base. It’s not angsty, or hastily prepared in a few drunken nights off of some fit of red-eyed nostalgia. Sure, literally speaking, all of the songs off of Light Upon the Lake conjure up failure to maintain a relationship with a loved one, but how can you relate a new band’s debut record—and one that’s so, so fully realized to the point of even having a mission statement in the Whitney, as a man, as a writing prompt and concept—with a break up? If anything, it was the start of something new. —Nikki Volpicelli

95. Arlo Parks: Collapsed in Sunbeams (2021)Best Debut Albums
There’s a reason that Arlo Parks’ debut, Collapsed in Sunbeams, won the 2021 Mercury Prize: It’s a beautiful, visceral portrayal of intimacy, introspection and vulnerability. Songs like “Eugene” and “Black Dog” and “Caroline” were crucial in cementing Parks’ stature as a new, prismatic force in alt-pop—and so few records have cut so deep on the first listen. In the years prior, Parks had carved out a sound that was just as influenced by hip-hop as it was mainstream pop. On Collapsed in Sunbeams, she takes those sensibilities and harnesses them into a magical string of vignettes focused on the people and places that shaped her and her life. Not only is Collapsed in Sunbeams one of the most rewarding first full-length outings in the last five years, it’s a grand testament to the wonders that arrive when a generational artist goes all in. —Matt Mitchell

94. 100 gecs: 1000 gecs (2019)
The cross-continental duo of 100 gecs, comprised of Laura Les and Dylan Brady, are pretty astute disciples of the sounds that they love, and seemingly fervent supporters of the idea of obliterating the last boundaries of taste that have lingered in the last decade or so. The gecs’ homage, debut album 1000 gecs, turns an entire digital library of Very Online Music into a collision course to demolish and reconstruct, resulting in a dizzying, hedonic 23 minutes. Musically, it’s a clusterfuck, a clash of tranced-out Europop, the finest scene music MySpace had to offer in ’06, Skrillex and Diplo’s mainlined EDM collaboration Jack Ü, the hyperreality of PC Music, Dance Dance Revolution soundtracks and more than a smidgen of ska and 2010s rap compressed into an unwieldy repository of noise. It’s a Rorschach test of musical references with new ink being dribbled onto the page, second-by-second, where its interpretation is mutable and entirely dependent on which corners of the internet you lurked on. Like the duos of Sleigh Bells and The Postal Service before them, 100 gecs may very well end up as more generational reference point than artist, a touchstone not just of what music sounded like, but what the act of discovering and consuming music felt like at the time. —Joshua Bote

93. Margo Price: Midwest Farmer’s Daughter (2016)
Back in September of 2015, Third Man Records gave a teaser of the forthcoming Margo Price project. A few months later with the release of Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, there are songs that tug at your heartstrings, and there are songs that encompass the emotions that run the gamut of the human experience from love, loss, confusion, anger, resilience and fear. Price’s voice is equally as engaging as her writing, going from mournful to exclamatory, oftentimes in the same song. There have been comparisons to Loretta Lynn, which must be flattering to the up-and-coming singer. To write, sing and relate to your listeners as she does is a rare trio of traits. While Price has faced a number of setbacks to get where she is today, her talent beams golden bright on this album. —Eric Luecking

92. HAIM: Days Are Gone (2013)
Most of the talk about HAIM has little-to-nothing to do with Days Are Gone, the excellent collection of pop songs the three sisters put out this year. Instead, Este Haim’s SNL “bass face” and a slew of ill-conceived thinkpieces concerning their authenticity (they’re making their debut on a major label performing Wilson Phillips-style pop and yet they get accused of misrepresenting themselves and selling out…why? Because they look like they shop at Urban Outfitters?) dominate the conversation. But when you strip away all the blog chatter and just dig into Days Are Gone, the fact remains it’s an incredibly strong debut. “The Wire” is the obvious, undeniable hit with its Gary Glitter-esque drumbeat and Danielle Haim’s staccato vocals, but opener “Falling” and “Forever” form a potent 1-2 punch as well, and “Don’t Save Me” serves as an emotional centerpiece, as Haim pleads, “Take me back to the way that I was before, hungry for what was to come.” It’s a fitting lyric, considering all the undeserved backlash directed at these talented women. Can’t we all go back to the way we were before, just entranced by their earworm tunes? —Bonnie Stiernberg

91. The 1975: The 1975 (2013)
One of the reasons why The 1975’s self-titled debut might be considered their magnum opus is because every song is an intentional selection to best represent who they are as a band. When approaching the tracklist for the album, the four members aimed to strike listeners hard with every song rather than boast a few hit singles and then a bunch of filler tracks there for the sake of checking certain boxes or appeasing different audiences. Even the album’s interludes “An Encounter” and “12” embody the band’s desire to “soundtrack” their lives, something that they cited John Hughes as being an influence for when crafting and curating the record and their overall aesthetics.

When listening back through the album now in 2023, there is nothing really utterly groundbreaking. Everyone blends genres now; everyone tries to give nods in their lyrics to whatever is happening culturally and politically at the time. Still, The 1975 conjures nostalgia. It’s why, as problematic as Healy can be at times, it’s difficult for fans to detach themselves from a band that was so integral to their personal journey. It’s not so much about why The 1975 were able to embed themselves into the DNAs of teens and 20-somethings everywhere 10 years ago. Instead, it’s about when they did it. Timing for this band was integral to their success; a perfect mixture of word-of-mouth social media—the need for a band that is the right amount of reckless—and teens that wanted someone to put lyrics to their feelings and experiences. —Kelsey Barnes

90. Bartees Strange: Live Forever (2020)
We live in an era when intersectionality is either fiercely celebrated or rejected, and Spotify playlists are the norm—especially for young music listeners. These conditions are perfect for an album like Live Forever by Bartees Strange, a Brooklyn musician whose work is a tapestry of traditions, ideas and sounds. Strange throws curveballs throughout Live Forever’s 11 tracks, but they never seem out of place. Atmospheric soul bookends the album, a style in which Strange excels, but there’s plenty to be surprised and delighted by in between. Promo singles “Mustang” and “Boomer” harness a visceral power, with the former diving into hooky synth-rock and sweltering punk, and the latter dishing out hip-hop verses and giddy blues-rock. Only three tracks in, it’s obvious that Strange’s good-natured charisma and vocal warmth are something special. You can hear the rootsy blues of Black Pumas, the genre-hopping grandeur and vocal dynamism of Moses Sumney, the Southern-rock cadence of Kings of Leon and the punky explosiveness of At The Drive In—and that’s only the beginning of Strange’s reference points. —Lizzie Manno

89.Bad Bunny, X 100pre (2018)
If you currently have a pulse, then you certainly have felt the gravitational stardom of Puerto Rican rapper and singer/songwriter Bad Bunny. So few acts in the last decade—or maybe even this century—have emerged into the mainstream like Bunny, whose work in the realms of Latin trap, reggaeton and pop are deftly singular. With nine of the album’s 15 songs released as singles, X 100pre might just be one of the most accessible debut records made by a non-continental U.S. musician in a long, long time. Some of his most recent albums—like YHLQMDLG and Un Verano Sin Ti—have made Bad Bunny transcend household name status, but you can trace that greatness straight back to X 100pr in 2018, where songs like “NI BIEN NI MAL,” “La Romana” and “MÍA” reign supreme. It’s not that you can see the makings of a star on Bad Bunny’s debut—it’s that he was already a star by the time the record came out, a feat only reserved for the brightest global sensations. —Matt Mitchell

88. Father John Misty: Fear Fun (2012)
The story goes that Josh Tillman conceived of Father John Misty after traversing the West Coast in a van with “enough mushrooms to choke a horse,” resetting his perspective via psychedelics, entering what he would later call “cosmic joke territory” and finding the voice he would unforgettably introduce on his “debut” album Fear Fun. The record itself has the same hedonistic, voraciously seeking quality as its origin story: “I would like to abuse my lungs / Smoke everything in sight with every girl I’ve ever loved / Ride around the wreckage on a horse knee-deep in blood / Look out, Hollywood, here I come,” Father John Misty sings on opener “Funtimes in Babylon,” looking ahead to all the pains and pleasures of the legend to come. He celebrates his Babylon—Los Angeles—on tracks like “Nancy From Now On” and “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings,” inviting, “Oh, pour me another drink / And punch me in the face” to open the former, then having sex in a cemetery in the latter (“You came, I think?”). He spends much of the album chasing both women and a buzz, as best summed up by the “I’m Writing a Novel” couplet, “We could do ayahuasca / Baby, if I wasn’t holding all these drinks.” A torrid love affair and ayahuasca trip make up “Tee Pees 1-12,” while on “Only Son of the Ladiesman,” he casts himself as the heir to a fallen Leonard Cohen character, insisting, “Someone must console these lonesome daughters / No written word or ballad will appease them.” But no matter how you may roll your eyes at his self-mythologizing, there’s something undeniably exhilarating about his joie de vivre. —Scott Russell

87. The New Pornographers: Mass Romantic (2000)
A staple from the first New Pornographers LP is “The Slow Descent Into Alcoholism”—proof that A.C. Newman can spark a power-pop hook from any lyric, no matter how dark or absurd. The rest of Mass Romantic strikes a similar creative balance, fueled by the indie supergroup’s longtime personnel dynamic: Powerhouse Neko Case fronts the windows-down surge of “Letter From an Occupant” and the title-track; and Destroyer’s Dan Bejar leads quirkier deep cuts like “Breakin’ the Law.” The Pornos perfected this recipe on Twin Cinema their heavier, huger-sounding third record. But the legend begins here. —Ryan Reed

86. Wet Leg: Wet Leg (2022)
If Wet Leg’s only achievement had been demonstrating the correct pronunciation of a popular seating option with their 2021 single “Chaise Longue,” that would have been enough. The song is droll and hooky, a blast of anarchic energy packed into three-ish minutes of deadpan vocals and careening guitars. Turns out that’s not their only achievement. In fact, “Chaise Longue” is basically a setup for Wet Leg’s self-titled first album, a gleefully bawdy, often adrenalizing exploration of ennui, lust and catharsis. It can be tempting to think (or fear) that a band that debuts with a funny song is destined to be a gimmick, but Wet Leg principles Rhian Teasdale and Hester Chambers dispel any such concern with a display of range and depth on these 12 songs. They do angular indie rock with precise, metronomic vocals on “Angelica,” there’s a dance-y beat pushing a bright melody on “Ur Mom” as buzzsaw guitars come and go, and “Supermarket” winds around on shambling guitars and loose-limbed backing vocals, like some slacker-rock anthem from people who aren’t really slackers at all. —Eric R. Danton

85. Justice: (2007)
Though they aren’t the most famous electronic duo to come from France, Justice—Gaspard Augé and Xavier de Rosnay—still managed to make one of the best nu-disco house records of the 2000s. found critical acclaim immediately, and it even earned Justice a Grammy nomination for Best Electronic/Dance Album. Coined as “opera-disco,” is a melodramatic, vivid and sophisticated instrumental record that siphons energy from the same magnetism that Kraftwerk once did long ago. Songs like “D.A.N.C.E.” and “DVNO” and “Waters of Nazareth” are cornerstone dance songs of their era, and Justice achieved the double-edged sword of releasing a masterpiece on their first go and failing to make anything as good since. sold a lot of copies in the UK and, 16 years later, sounds better than 90% of the European electronica being made today. Justice is rumored to be putting out their long-awaited fourth album sometime next year, and we can only hope it’s a return to the form they harnessed on . —Matt Mitchell

84. Black Country, New Road: For the first time (2021)
Born of the same South London scene that’s produced the likes of black midi, PVA and Squid, skyrocketing septet Black Country, New Road found their band name using a random Wikipedia page generator. With singles like 2019’s “Athens, France” and “Sunglasses,” and last year’s “Science Fair,” the U.K. up-and-comers are growing and changing before our eyes. On their debut album For the first time, frontman Isaac Wood’s hypnotic speak-singing shifts subtly away from “speak” and towards “sing” so as to more effectively meld with the band’s mercurial instrumental outbursts. Their thunderous post-punk, spiked with discordant jazz and bookended by klezmer squalls, feels both explosively raw and carefully, ingeniously crafted. —Scott Russell

83. Kendrick Lamar: Section.80 (2011)
The Kendrick Lamar we all know and revere today was not really the Kendrick Lamar that arrived in 2011 with Section.80. You might have thought that, given how great and generational it is, that Good Kid, M.A.A.D City was the Compton rapper’s first outing—but the work scales back a year prior. Section.80, though it doesn’t possess the scope or story of its successor, is still a phenomenal debut album. If you want to tap into a record where a young songwriter is growing into his own confidence and finesse in real-time, then Section.80 is the perfect project for you. At 16 songs, length is no issue—as Kendrick aims to tell his story at whatever pace he demands to go. He pulls folks like Schoolboy Q, GLC, BJ the Chicago Kid and Ab-Soul into the fold to shoulder the project along, and you can never go wrong with a cut like “A.D.H.D”—the rapper’s first big star turn that captured the intersection of drugs and growing up. It’s not often you get such an intimate look at a king building his crown, but Section.80 lets its wordsmith run free at the helm. —Matt Mitchell

82. Best Coast: Crazy for You (2010)
Comprising Bethany Cosentino and Bobb Bruno, LA duo Best Coast hit the scene in a hurry in 2010. Their debut album Crazy for You found an immediate home with Mexican Summer and it became an unlikely commercial success. Best Coast very well might be one of the first bands of the 2010s to flirt with mainstream popularity because of the efforts of a loyal internet fanbase. Much of Crazy for You centers on romance and relationships, with Cosentino writing often about smoking weed and hanging out with her cat Snacks (RIP). No one could have ever foreseen that, in 2010, a surf-rock-inspired garage album would endure more than 90% of the guitar-oriented work that captivated the world at that point—but, then again, it’s an unpredictable industry like that that makes music such a worthwhile and exciting devotion. “When I’m with You” and “Boyfriend” are still bonafide bangers, and Cosentino is still churning out huge tracks. —Matt Mitchell

81. Rina Sawayama: SAWAYAMA (2020)
We’ve been inching towards an early Max Martin-esque maximalist pop revival for several years now, between artists like Liz, Kero Kero Bonito, Holiday Sidewinder and, in a strange way, 100 gecs, but SAWAYAMA solidifies the notion that bubblegum pop is back, fully self-aware and ready to conquer. With the help of her longtime producer Clarence Clarity, Rina Sawayama modernizes a sound made famous by Britney Spears, *NSYNC and all who reigned supreme on Casey Kasem’s weekly Top 40 countdown around the turn of the last millennia. More importantly, however, she upholds the integrity of the genre, gently reminding us why we all, deep down, truly love pop music. Right off the bat, SAWAYAMA is powerful. The first three tracks are insanely dynamic, stringing together two vibrant pop songs (the first about standing up on your own, the second about excessive wealth) into what can only be described as Gwen Stefani-meets-nu-metal. As far as the meaning of this record goes, Sawayama sums it up herself in a recent interview: “The album ultimately is about family and identity. It’s about understanding yourself in the context of two opposing cultures (for me British and Japanese), what ‘belonging’ means when home is an evolving concept, figuring out where you sit comfortably within and awkwardly outside of stereotypes, and ultimately trying to be ok with just being you, warts and all.” —Annie Black

80. M.I.A.: Arular (2005)
Hounslow-born rapper M.I.A. would find huge success with her sophomore album Kala—thanks to the massive single “Paper Planes”—but her debut shouldn’t be overlooked, either. Released in 2005 by XL, Arular was a dashing, worldly affair that combined dancehall and hip-hop. Done in collaboration with Diplo, Richard X, Paul Byrne, Switch and others, M.I.A. was able to exert an effortless amount of cockiness while maintaining a singular, scattered and brilliant boasting of pop-oriented rap instincts. Songs like “Sunshowers,” “Bucky Done Gun” and “Galang” have come to define not just the record, but M.I.A.’s career altogether. She claimed that the album’s title is Sri Lankan for “enlightenment from the sunshine,” while “arular” is literally, Tamil for “who is.”

It was an apt way to phrase your first record, as Arular became divisive in circles outside of music criticism: MTV refused to broadcast the “Sunshowers” video unless M.I.A.’s team included a disclaimer about the song’s lyrics—which reference murder, gun violence and the Palestine Liberation Organization. M.I.A. set out to critique the Americanized blanketing of terrorism and extremism while also sketching tales of sex, drug-dealing and coming-of-age tropes. Arular was lauded by writers upon its release, and the record has since maintained its own appraisal. —Matt Mitchell

79. boygenius: the record (2023)
The first EP from boygenius—the supergroup composed of three of the greatest millennial rock singers: Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus—felt raw in an almost accidental way, like we were peeking into a quiet evening among friends through a door left ajar. the record travels to a similar space emotionally, but everything about it feels more curated: the tracklist, the sonic mood, and the sharing of the mic (and pen—all three artists are credited as songwriters on every song). Boygenius’ collaboration is harmonious in more ways than one, and the record shows they belong among the ranks of the greatest American supergroups. For every bar of lo-fi folk or pop music on the record, there’s a rock ’n’ roll outburst to match. In the fashion of Bridgers’ “I Know The End” (and a seemingly endless stream of indie rock songs since then), both “$20” and “Satanist” feature guttural screams. “Anti-Curse” is another great, loud moment. Baker initially takes the lead, but then a little glimpse of each artist comes into focus: Dacus’ trembling guitars, Bridgers’ cool soprano against the backdrop, and Baker’s warm-blooded words. Their three voices together are magic, they know this, and best of all, they seem to just really enjoy making music together as much as we enjoy listening to it. Baker, Bridgers and Dacus are nothing if not effective communicators, but it’s clear the most important dialogue is between each other. —Ellen Johnson

78. Paramore: All We Know Is Falling (2005)
Few pop-punk bands have been able to transcend their own box quite like Paramore. The Tennessee-born then-quintet made a perfect emo debut in 2005, as All We Know Is Falling was their first step towards alt-rock immortality. With bandleader Hayley Williams at the forefront of their image, Paramore arrived powerful and poised—a testament even greater now, in retrospect, given how absolutely monumental the band remains 20 years in. All We Know Is Falling was initially met with good reviews, though recent re-appraisals have delved negatively—and it’s confusing as to why. 18 years later, and All We Know Is Falling boasts some of the coolest and most kinetic anthems of its time. “Pressure” and “Emergency” and “All We Know” are still timeless classics in not just pop-punk lore, but in Paramore’s world altogether. Don’t believe everything the critics say—unless it’s us. Paste says that All We Know Is Falling is a bonafide classic. There’s your headline! —Matt Mitchell

77. St. Vincent: Marry Me (2007)
St. Vincent, aka Texas native Annie Clark, loves a crowd. The singer and guitarist spent time in The Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens’ backing band before going solo. She’s also one of nine siblings, so it’s no wonder she sees those bands as big families. “Whenever you get that many people together on stage making music, there’s this transformative thing that happens, just by the sheer volume of heartbeats on stage,” she told Paste back in 2007, while on break from touring with another multi-headed beast, the Arcade fire. Her solo debut, Marry Me, is filled with delicate orchestration, winsome instrumentation and the kind of sweeping fancy that makes you think Paris, France, not Paris, Texas.

Track names like “Jesus Saves, I Spend” hint at the record’s dry wit. “Now Now” is another example in which a nursery-rhyme-like refrain (“you don’t mean that / say you’re sorry”) turns more sinister through each insistent repetition of the phrase. A cheerful children’s backing chorus only adds to the eeriness.

There’s something disconcerting about the maturity of Marry Me, given Clark’s age. Even more surprising? Clark started writing some of the album’ songs when she was 15. But at 15, she’d already been playing guitar for a few years, and was composing songs on her computer and managing tours for her aunt and uncle, two jazz musicians who took her along on European tours. “Having them be successful working musicians … it’s like anything—your dad’s a banker, so you say, ‘Oh, well, that’s possible.’ They were working and traveling musicians, so I said, ‘That’s possible for me.’” —Paste Staff

76. Cardi B: Invasion of Privacy (2018)
Though she found her fame first as a member of the Love & Hip Hop: New York cast in the mid-2010s, Cardi B broke out into an incomparable star on her 2018 debut album Invasion of Privacy. The record debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200 and she would go on to win Best Rap Album at the Grammys in 2019—beating out Pusha T, Travis Scott and the late Nipsey Hussle and Mac Miller. The record is one of a kind, centering an all-star lineup of producers and guest features—including Benny Blanco, 30 Roc, DJ Mustard, Migos, Chance the Rapper, Bad Bunny and SZA, among many, many others. Even if it took a mountain of artists to make what Invasion of Privacy became, it all circles back to Cardi B—who transformed the album into a powerhouse turn of stardom due to her relentless charisma, panache and finesse. Few rappers across the board have had a greater first introduction than Cardi. “Bodak Yellow” and “I Like It” are some of the most exciting, boastful rap hits of the last decade. —Matt Mitchell

75. Fontaines D.C.: Dogrel (2019)
Fontaines D.C. have been pigeonholed as the British Isles’ next great post-punk export à la Shame or Idles, but this Irish five-piece deserve more than that reductive framing. Fontaines D.C. are more poetic than the bands they’re lumped in with, and their debut album Dogrel is a testament to a different set of concerns. Dogrel takes on the degradation of urban cities as lively cultural hubs and launching pads for people to make something of themselves—or at least put some change in their pockets. Frontman Grian Chatten and his bandmates share a love of literature and poetry (the Beats, James Joyce, Patrick Kavanagh, etc.), and they write songs together in Irish pubs, resulting in a brazen-faced, romantic portrait of Dublin and its vast characters. Two of their biggest calling cards are self-belief and authenticity. The uplifting lyrical themes on the lead track “Big” (“My childhood was small / But I’m gonna be big”) are analogous to “Rock ‘n’ Roll Star,” the lead track on Oasis’ Definitely Maybe, though “Big” has more wit and spit. If self-awareness is one factor of the renewed interest in post-punk, the intense, charismatic Chatten certainly has it as he pokes fun at charisma (“Charisma is exquisite manipulation”). Dogrel is an album of tremendous ardor and vivid landscapes, and interspersed with an Irish underdog spirit, Fontaines D.C. are nearly untouchable. —Lizzie Manno

74. Snail Mail: Lush (2018)
Lindsey Jordan’s first EP as Snail Mail in 2016 won over critics and fans with its subdued power and studied melancholy, revealing a songwriter well beyond her 16 years. Since then, she’s graduated high school, toured with the likes of Waxahatchee and Girlpool, and was featured in a roundtable of female rock musicians for the New York Times. Her debut LP, Lush, is a collection of 10 lucid guitar-pop songs that show off her her classically trained guitar skills, structural know-how and an ability to express the inquisitiveness and confident insecurity of youth with a surprising sophistication. “They don’t love you, do they?” she asks during the magic-hour-esque “Intro,” her clear and comfortingly relatable voice singing the first of many questions she poses throughout the album. Her music is laid-back, gently hooky, and complements the poetic vagueness of her lyrics. There isn’t enough detail for you to know exactly what she’s talking about, but you understand the mood. Though the highs and lows of the album are subtle, Lush confirms what the Habit EP first introduced. Jordan is a definite talent. The songs illustrate a wise-beyond-years songwriting style, with none of the self-importance and indulgence that can come with more experience. Nothing feels trite or contrived. She’s a natural, with an impressive sense of restraint, placing points of tension and release right where they need to be. —Madison Desler

73. Chat Pile: God’s Country (2022)
Chat Pile’s debut LP ends with a nine-minute narrative that sounds outlandish on paper: A man is tormented by a nightmare figure resembling McDonald’s mascot Grimace, to the point of suicide. The surreally macabre premise is heightened all the more by the track’s name: “Grimace_Smoking_Weed.jpeg,” a title calling to mind a tossed-off joke file name or online message to a friend in lieu of an actual image. But the song itself is arguably the most chilling selection on an already-bleak record, in no small part due to vocalist Raygun Busch’s tortured contributions that sound an inch from self-destructive action at a moment’s notice—even before erupting into agonized shrieks in protest of the “purple man” who haunts him.

When the track’s back half stretches into a sludgy death march, his lyrics become all the more direct, culminating in Busch crying out, “I don’t wanna be alive anymore / Do you?” The pressure of the track proves to be so suffocating that even Busch’s final scream of Grimace’s name to close the album becomes bloodcurdling, where a more ironic approach would have rendered the whole thing high camp. “Grimace_Smoking_Weed.jpeg” is, in microcosm, emblematic of the tricky balance Chat Pile evokes with visceral ugliness throughout God’s Country. The absurdity and paradox of capitalist landscapes are laid bare, depicted with just as much horror as the band believes they ought to merit. Just as characters for fast-food marketing and toys become taunting reminders of the soul-crushing nature of post-industrialization, so, too, does the illogical nature of houselessness in a nation with buildings to spare, and the pursuit of wealth above personal fulfillment. —Natalie Marlin

72. Tame Impala: Innerspeaker (2010)
Stimulating motifs are just one reason why you could argue that Innerspeaker is Tame Impala’s best album. There’s a palpable energy to songs like “Solitude Is Bliss,” where their classic psychedelic influences are elevated rather than scavenged. Kevin Parker became a gateway drug for many younger listeners into the world of ’60s psych-pop, and “Solitude Is Bliss” surely has to be responsible for the formation of at least a few dozen bands. Their swirling riffs and reverberating drums invite waves of melodic pleasure, and Parker’s heavily-warped vocals steer the ship. “You will never come close to how I feel,” Parker sings, alluding to the heavenly void that he ironically also places listeners in. —Lizzie Manno

71. Kid Cudi: Man on the Moon: The End of Day (2009)
If you were living in Northeast Ohio and at all appreciative of music in 2009, then Kid Cudi’s debut album Man on the Moon: The End of Day was likely heavily featured in your iTunes rotation. It was the first digital album I ever bought with my own money, after I heard “Pursuit of Happiness (Nightmare)” and was convinced it was the best song ever made. There was something innately special about a Cleveland rapper making good, rewarding hip-hop—to see it happen in your own backyard, it felt like the musical world ran through it. Songs like “Day ‘n’ Nite” and “Make Her Say” and “Soundtrack 2 My Life” remain great. Kanye West has produced many records, but so few truly stack up to the ambition that engulfs Man on the Moon. Featuring Cleveland icon Chip tha Ripper and indie mainstays MGMT, the album dares to blur the lines between alt-hip-hop, darkwave and even grunge-inspired rock music. The record is certified 4x platinum in America and cemented Cudi as one of the best MCs and songwriters of his generation. His future collaborations with Kanye would take him to the stratosphere, but it’s his own solo work that let him pierce right through it. —Matt Mitchell

70. Disclosure: Settle (2013)
Disclosure released one of the best electronic/house albums of 2013 with their debut LP Settle. The English duo of brothers Guy and Howard Lawrence gave fans a refreshing dance record to make some noise in the over-saturated market of house DJs and electronic producers. With fiercely catchy melodies and euphoric hooks, Settle standout “Latch” is easily one of the strongest tracks on the album. The track features British singer/songwriter Sam Smith crooning to the beat of Disclosure’s calming, serene composition: “Now I got you in my space / I won’t let go of you (never) / Got you shackled in my embrace, I’m latching on to you.” —Eric Gossett

69. Julia Jacklin: Don’t Let the Kids Win (2016)
Growing up is full of anxieties, heartbreak and hard-won lessons. But in the end, the biggest lesson can be how to accept that the world isn’t what you used to think it was. For Australian singer-songwriter Julia Jacklin, finding a way to put that message into song was the perfect way to sum up a debut album about maturity, adulthood and self-realization. Don’t Let The Kids Win is a sharp, witty, funny, sad and exuberant coming-of-age album, a debut album that captures the struggles of early-20s adulthood, rendering some universal feelings with Jacklin’s vivid, detail-oriented songwriting. And though the record is filled with songs that capture different moments and different feelings, it all came together for Jacklin when she penned the title song. —Eric Swedlund

68. black midi: Schlagenheim (2019)
It may be hard to write about, but Schlagenheim is a record you feel more so than anything else. Case in point: First track “953” features one of the hardest hitting lead guitar riffs in recent memory, an opening salvo that makes you want to drop everything and go run a mile—something I actually did, resulting in my fastest time ever. Within mere seconds of hitting play on their debut album, Geordie Greep and Matt Kwasniewski-Kelvin make their case as two of our most inventive contemporary guitarists, all while you try your hardest to keep time with a beat that will still elude you after 10 listens. There’s a high barrier to entry for Schlagenheim, a record by a band who refuses to meet you halfway. Pedantic and pretentious all the way through, Schlagenheim showcases why black midi are generationally great instrumentalists despite our inability to follow what they’re doing and why. By the end of “Ducter’s” anarchic pandemonium, you won’t know what hit you, but you’ll find yourself quickly returning to “953” for another go around of an album that showcases some of the most talented musicians around, coalescing behind an experimental, genre-less and extremely noisy sound to exceptional results. Schlagenheim is beyond weird; Schlagenheim is a legitimate one-of-a-kind record. Schlagenheim is a masterpiece. —Steven Edelstone

67. Beyoncé: Dangerously in Love (2003)
The first three real songs on Dangerously in Love are “Crazy in Love,” “Naughty Girl,” and “Baby Boy.” And that was all anyone needed to be convinced that Bey was much more than anyone anticipated when the Destiny’s Child solo projects were first discussed. Beyoncé took the reigns in every aspect, from writing to hiring to recording. She surrounded herself with the best in the business, including her future husband Jay Z, but the only one responsible for where she is now is Beyoncé, and the five Grammys she took from her debut paved the way. —Philip Cosores

66. Soccer Mommy: Clean (2018)
Amidst the verses of “Still Clean,” the opening track off of Clean, the latest album from Sophie Allison (aka Soccer Mommy), she’s grappling with a temporary tryst, a seasonal fling—the kind we often pretend to have gotten over, while we replay the minutiae of the affair over and over again in the privacy of our own heads. “I guess I’m only what you wanted for a little while,” she sings—still dazed months later from the abrupt departure of her summer love’s affections. Those are the first lyrics that jumped out at me, instantly conjuring up a face, and a name and my own replayed reel of amatory memories and now-hollow words. This speaks to Allison’s songwriting, a craft she honed for years in her Tennessee bedroom before releasing last year’s acclaimed Collection.

With Clean, she may have again left her bedroom for the studio, but her introspective and comfortably confessional lyrics maintain their intimacy and diary-scrawl relatability. Only this time, Allison is zeroing in on the freeing, but often painful realizations that we all experience at one time or another—the kind that usually only come with the ending of something. Allison is young, her slight 20 years evident not only in her youthful voice, but her talk of missed calls from mom, parked cars, and hanging around after school. But she does it all in an honest, uncomplicated, and well-crafted way that Clean is anything but juvenile. You might just forget how old you are for a second, as her bedroom melodies carry you back to when feelings were freely given and many lessons still had to be learned. —Madison Desler

65. Kacey Musgraves: Same Trailer Different Park (2013)
When it comes to humor, straightforwardness and never, ever giving a shit, Kacey Musgraves is taking all the right cues. Lyrics about same-sex kissing and double standards may still be scarce on commercial country airwaves, but that hasn’t stopped Musgraves’ “Follow Your Arrow” from rising as a fan favorite. A top-seller despite its lack of radio play, the song has become popular across genre lines by promoting open-mindedness in a way country music hasn’t necessarily seen before. The writing on Same Trailer Different Park builds on the simplicity and straightforwardness of country classics while mixing in distinctly modern romantic sentiments, freshening the sound for a new generation of music-lovers. —Dacey Orr

64. Camp Cope: Camp Cope (2016)
One of the best punk debuts of the last two decades, Camp Cope is a revelation from Georgia Maq, Kelly-Dawn and Sarah Thompson. As Camp Cope and across a six-year span, the trio made three of the most important alternative records in recent memory—but it’s their self-titled debut that cemented their importance in contemporary circles. Released through Poison City in the spring of 2016, Camp Cope is definitive and minces no words towards the world’s oppressors. Led by Maq’s sharp, acidic tongue and brash, taunting guitar work, songs like “Done” and “Jet Fuel Can’t Melt Steel Beams” set their aim at inhumane politicians, abusers and violence—be it systematic or interpersonal. “Lost (Season One)” showcases the energy and palpability that Camp Cope would embellish even further on their next two albums, where Maq, Kelly and Thompson unite to just try and make sense of the world before them. “I wanna be losers forever, drink coffee in bed together and not talk to anyone and figure out what it is that we had,” Maq sings. I’m still mourning the breakup they announced earlier this year, but returning to the magic of Camp Cope is an undertaking that never turns unworthy of tumbling into. —Matt Mitchell

63. Vince Staples: Summertime ‘06 (2015)
Though Vince Staples’ proof was already in Stolen Youth, the 2013 mixtape he spit out with Mac Miller (Larry Fisherman), his major label debut—and first official full length—Summertime ’06 acts as an all-consuming testament to a talent far beyond its years. Not to sell Youth short, but Miller’s loosely saccharine production fit a Staples who’s cooled quite a bit since then. On Summertime, the rapper is all ice-cold edge, inside and out: refined, honed, sharp enough to cut subcutaneously. And so, on Summertime ’06, an older, wiser Staples digs in with Clams Casino, No I.D. and DJ Dahi, producers who represent the best of most generations of hip-hop, to help him carve out a sonic space better fit for his aging worldview. In turn, the album is more than an ambitious kind of coming-of-age chronicle—it’s a blithely sad thing, one in which institutional racism (“Lift Me Up”), addiction (“Jump Off the Roof”), and even loneliness (“Summertime”) feel impossible to overcome. Staples hasn’t gotten harder, just smarter—and his producers, balancing industrial clank with cloudy dope-scapes, have allowed him a sturdy vulnerability off which he can bounce his feelings. Though Staples hails from Long Beach—and shared a year of assured hip-hop releases with Boogie, another brilliant rapper from the area who’s finally getting his due—his tracks rarely feel exclusive. Here, he was ready to mine deeper bedrock. And rarely has the sound of an artist scraping bottom been this assured. —Dom Sinacola

62. Death Grips: The Money Store (2012)
The first studio album by Sacramento hip-hop trio Death Grips, The Money Store expands on the emotional complexities of their first mixtape Exmilitary while ditching their use of samples for a much more dystopian, organic portrayal of alienation. The album is raw and wildly imperfect—a testament to how non-linear instrumentals and Stefan Burnett’s one-note vocal intoning could merge and coalesce into this brutal, intense and brilliant showcase of punk-infused, experimental and spiritually confounding avant-rap. Burnett, Zach Hill and Andy Morin muse about gun violence and desensitized youth while harmonizing together with a strange, toned up alchemy that hardcore and rap had never quite flirted with before. The Money Store, emphasized by tracks like “Get Got” and “I’ve Seen Footage” and “Hacker,” is utterly brilliant and forever unforgettable. You could only make this record one time, and Death Grips doing it for their debut is a spectacular revelation. —Matt Mitchell

61. Moses Sumney: Aromanticism (2017)
In a 10-year career punctuated by tours with James Blake, Solange and Sufjan Stevens, it’s no wonder why Moses Sumney endures as one our best and brightest storytellers. His work flirts with the margins of soul, art rock and baroque pop—merging them all into a cauldron of distinctive, palpable and passionate colors. His debut album, Aromanticism, set the tone for his artistry way back in 2017. As informed by the pillars of folk music as it is the traditions and heritage of jazz, Sumney focuses on the orbits and the maneuvers of bodies and the radicalism of human desire. It’s a beautiful embellishment of soul and spirit, told through the romantics of emotional structures and silky, dainty arrangements layered with hushed, cosmic thoughtfulness and confidence. “Doomed” and “Quarrel” and “Lonely World” and “Plastic” are as delightful as they are devastatingly powerful. —Matt Mitchell

60. Christian Lee Hutson: Beginners (2020)
Few indie records in recent memory have aged as well as Christian Lee Hutson’s 2020 debut Beginners. At 10 tracks, the Los Angeles singer/songwriter adopts a novelist’s wit and a poet’s tongue to form—what I think is—one of the most literary albums of all time. There are almost no sonic climaxes on the record, as Hutson aims to, instead, tell a story first and surround his musings with lush, folkloric and graceful instrumentals. He welcomed collaborators Phoebe Bridgers, Marshall Vore, Conor Oberst, Lucy Dacus and Meg Duffy. With such a complex, dense guest list, Hutson doesn’t whiff on capturing stardom on Beginners. Songs like “Atheist” and “Lose This Number” and “Northsiders” are so palpable and emotionally immense, it’s hard to not bow to the harmonics and West Coast glow scattered across the record. Beginners sounds even better now than it did three years ago—and Hutson would take his own musings and expand them even further on last year’s Quitters. The best part about a record like Beginners is that it employs a communal delicacy that perfectly captures the intimacy of the project altogether. As is evidenced by how good of a producer and collaborator Hutson is, he is much more concerned with how to make every voice on his record a protagonist rather than a background fixture—which is why Beginners sparkles in perpetuity. —Matt Mitchell

59. The Beths: Future Me Hates Me (2018)
When The Beths came around last decade, the New Zealand quartet did so without missing a beat. I think the 2010s were pretty packed to the brim with really good records being made by young artists who would, eventually, make some of the best albums of the century (The Weeknd, Angel Olsen, Mitski, etc.)—but The Beths were much different, as their debut album was far and away great. Future Me Hates Me is a pretty dang phenomenal first outing for a group of folks who met studying jazz in Auckland. The project is anti-optimism packed with loud, catchy guitars and anxiety personified in hypnotic, energetic melodies. “You Wouldn’t Like Me,” the title track, “Whatever” and “Happy Unhappy” are some of the better, more impressive strokes of confident songwriting this side of 2010. Fronted by bandleader Elizabeth Stokes, The Beths set the stage of their own potential here and did so without compromising their own distinctive, rock ‘n’ roll sound. Employing bright guitars with a thrilling knowledge of construction and deft sense of talent, The Beths are among our very best bands and Future Me Hates Me will hold up forever. —Matt Mitchell

58. 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. —Matt Mitchell

57. King Krule: 6 Feet Beneath the Moon (2013)
Unlikely BRIT School graduate King Krule possessed the kind of drunken slurring tones that made Shane MacGowan sound like a coherent teetotaller, dealt in stream-of-consciousness lyrics which referenced everything from Winston Churchill to Jean-Michel Basquiat, and pursued a mish-mash of bedsit indie-pop, post-dubstep, jazz and scuzzy punk. The man born Archy Marshall appeared to scream “acquired taste,” and yet, Frank Ocean, Tyler, the Creator and Beyoncé were just a handful of the major acts who fell over themselves to champion his work back in 2013. Released on his 19th birthday, 6 Feet Beneath the Moon might not have been the game-changer his star-studded champions suggested—a fairly self-indulgent multimedia effort released under his own name two years later immediately halted any momentum. However, you’re unlikely to find a more intriguing, or idiosyncratic, coming-of-age album. —Jon O’Brien

56. Alvvays: Alvvays (2014)
Among the many things to love about Alvvays’ self-titled debut album is that the songs are so deceptively rich. Beneath the fuzztone guitars and Molly Rankin’s sadsack vocals on what sound at first like straightforward indie-pop tunes beats a droll heart shot through with a subversive streak. Rankin strikes an impressive balance in her lyrics between lovelorn woe and deadpan wit, tackling 20-something romantic angst with a sly wisdom well beyond her (and, frankly, most people’s) years. She and her band of Toronto transplants draw on the wistful, plaintive sound of mid-’80s British indie-pop—jangling guitars, swirls of atmospheric keyboards—and twist it on songs that hint at the tumult lurking just below seemingly placid surfaces: she spins a full-life fantasy about an enigmatic stranger on “Adult Diversion,” adds to the catalog of dead-boyfriend songs on the yearning, darkly comic “Next of Kin” and makes her best case for a long-term, low-key commitment to a reluctant beau on “Archie, Marry Me,” the supremely catchy centerpiece of the album. Much has been made of the fact that Rankin comes from a celebrated Canadian roots-music family, but her genealogy is rather less noteworthy on Alvvays than her deft lyricism and knack for pairing it with memorable melodies.—Eric R. Danton

55. Franz Ferdinand: Franz Ferdinand (2004)
Formed in Glasglow in 2002, Franz Ferdinand are, quite possibly, one of the most unsung heroes of the early-2000s rock revival. But, in many ways, their debut album is better than anything else that came from the era Franz Ferdinand has aged beautifully, too, as its momentum continues to be shouldered by “Darts of Pleasure” and “Take Me Out”—which may go down as two of the best debut singles of all time, or at least in this century. Led by singer/songwriter Alex Kapranos and guitarist Nick McCarthy, Franz Ferdinand forged a name for themselves immediately, making one of the flashiest dance-rock records of the last 25 years. It’s a platinum-certified endeavor that culminated in a Grammy nomination in 2005. I mean, “Take Me Out” still rocks pretty fucking hard, with a machine-gun riff that can still explode 20 years later. On Franz Ferdinand, rock ‘n’ roll isn’t a fad; it’s a communal way of life—and the Scottish quartet played such an integral part in wiping nu-metal off the globe with blistering melodies and catchy precision. —Matt Mitchell

54. 50 Cent: Get Rich or Die Tryin’ (2003)
What a time it was to be alive when 50 Cent was the biggest rapper on the planet. 2003 was so sick for making that happen. I mean, “In da Club,” “Many Men,” “21 Questions” and “P.I.M.P.”? Unmatched run of star-making rap right there. While “In da Club” overshadows everything else on 50’s debut album Get Rich or Die Tryin’, it’s hard to argue against a song like “21 Questions”—where Nate Dogg lends his flow to the track, turning it into an absolute powerhouse fusion of R&B and gangsta rap. Get Rich showcases 50’s incredible sonic range, as he could showboat and flex one moment only to get sappy and introspective the next. Either he’s making some of the hardest West Coast shit you’ve ever heard, or he’s leaning into gentleness in ways that were taboo and untouched in the early days of the new millennium. That’s the stuff living legends are made from. —Matt Mitchell

53. Jockstrap: I Love You Jennifer B
The debut album from London duo Jockstrap—Georgia Ellery, also of Black Country, New Road, and Taylor Skye—takes all of one minute to announce itself as something remarkable. Opener “Neon” draws you in with sparse acoustic guitar and Ellery’s lithe vocal, only to wallop you with rib cage-rattling bass, a film score-esque theremin sample and a ghostly chorus. It’s the first “holy shit” moment of many on the record, “a collection of Jockstrap tracks that have been three years in the making,” per the duo. Dramatic strings, synths and chanting usher “Concrete Over Water” into EDM banger mode; harp plucks flicker between organic and artificial to introduce “Angst”; closer “50/50” feels like a club anthem for the end of the world. Euphoric and disorienting at once, their deconstructed dance-pop music brings cubist art to mind, assembling familiar shapes into structures that are altogether alien. As Jockstrap leave the launchpad, you can either crane your neck at their dizzying ascent, or hold on for dear life and enjoy the ride, wherever it may take you. —Scott Russell

52. The Smile: A Light for Attracting Attention (2022)
I went back and forth on this one and whether or not to include it—because, is it really a debut album? By all technical points, yes, it is. But, The Smile is just Radiohead without Colin Greenwood, Ed O’Brien and Philip Selway. You might be thinking, well, that’s over half of the band—and yes, you would be right about that. However, Radiohead is nothing without Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood—the visceral lifeblood tandem of that outfit, the brainchildren of some of the most legendary albums ever put to tape. When I think of debut albums, I think of artists not yet proven in the scope of modern music (a sentiment that will contradict with my own philosophy when you scroll and see the first Postal Service record later on).

If we must consider A Light for Attracting Attention to be a bonafide debut, then you can’t ignore that it’s a very good one—one that puts Radiohead’s own debut, Pablo Honey, to shame. “The Smoke” and “The Same” and “Free In the Knowledge” are great tracks that showcase both Yorke’s ever-unflinching vocals and Greenwood’s constructional genius. The album is better than anything the two Radiohead members have done together since In Rainbows, though the work is also devastating and poignantly original and untethered to the band that changed the landscape of experimental rock ‘n’ roll forever. It taps into Greenwood’s sprawling, classical techniques he uses when scoring films, as much of the record is as progressive and avant-garde and cinematic as anything Radiohead have ever made. A Light for Attracting Attention is truly brilliant, though, and exceptional. It doesn’t reinvent music, but it’s a force of perfection that dares to be reckoned with. —Matt Mitchell

51. Young Fathers: Dead (2014)
Young Fathers make such good music, and how they were able to strike such a hot iron on their debut album Dead should be studied for decades. The Scottish experimental trio—Alloysious Massaquoi, Kayus Bankole and ‘G’ Hastings—deservedly won a Mercury Prize for Dead nine years ago, and the record has endured as one of the most primitive examples of what can happen when soul, avant-pop and rap merge together in a limitless space. There’s complexity and passion and strangeness throughout the tracklist, and songs like “No Way,” “Low” and “Get Up” polish grit into lush, staggering greatness. If you were around and hip to synth-rap in 2014, you likely had never heard anything like Dead before. And, surely, you’ve never heard anything quite like it since. What’s most terrific about Dead, though, is that there’s nothing to compare it to. Young Fathers made their own unique world on the record, and they continue to do so even now. —Matt Mitchell

50. Joanna Newsom: The Milk-Eyed Mender (2004)
I am convinced that anything Drag City Records touches turns to solid, unabashed gold. When California singer/songwriter and harpist Joanna Newsom signed to the label, she released her debut album The Milk-Eyed Mender in 2004 to much deserved critical reverence. It was produced by Noah Georgeson and spawned tracks like “Sprout and the Bean” and “Peach, Plum, Pear” and “The Book of Right-On.” Newsom’s childlike harmonics and angelic octaves take their first steps here, as her gentle arrangements and warm, quirky delicacy arrive in spades, too. Her sophomore album Ys would take Newsom to uncharted heights, but not without first building upon what she first fashioned a world on The Milk-Eyed Mender. To look back on a debut and be able to pinpoint exactly where a visionary was born is a gift; to be able to attribute that truth to any of the 12 tracks on The Milk-Eyed Mender is an unbelievable stroke of brilliance and grace few of Newsom’s peers have ever been able to match. —Matt Mitchell

49. Drake: Thank Me Later (2010)
It’s difficult to manage expectations when you’ve been called the Next Big Thing in the hip-hop game for a year running. So it went for actor-turned-rapper Drake with Thank Me Later, the debut studio album from Lil Wayne’s brightest and most visible Young Money protégé. And it’s a problem Drake created for himself, or certainly didn’t try to solve—this is the same guy who once bragged about “buzz so big I could probably sell a blank disc.” The front end of Thank Me Later sees Drake addressing his fame head-on with a trio of barebones, confessional songs about lost love, money, women and fame. “Fireworks” is the most interesting of these—a minimalist duet with Alicia Keys that sounds like an 808s & Heartbreak b-side. Then, with the opening strings of ubiquitous first single “Over,” he kicks off the album proper with a string of star-studded club bangers and sticky-sweet Autotune-fueled sex jams.

The gloriously self-indulgent “Up All Night” sees him waxing rhapsodic about his nightlife over a menacing beat while trading verses with Nicki Minaj, who ends up out-swaggering Drake. Young Jeezy joins Drake for “Unforgettable,” smoothing out his trap-rap rasp for one of the album’s surprise highlights, and Lil Wayne drops some of his trademark stream-of-consciousness wordplay on the wistful ballad “Miss Me.” “Light Up” is unquestionably the album’s centerpiece—Drake lays out all of his insecurities over thunderous synth drums and plaintive piano stings: “And I’m a motherfuckin’ missed target / but a target nonetheless, and I just started.” Then, Jay-Z steps in to lift Drake up by his shirt collar and play elder statesman and mentor to his charge: “Drake, here’s how they gonna come at you / with silly rap feuds, trying to distract you.” —Michael Saba

48. shame: Songs of Praise (2018)
Citing influences like The Fall and Eddy Current Suppression Ring, Shame make familiar but not unawesome post-punk. Think tightly-wound, jittery guitars, mile-a-minute hi-hat and an exquisite bleakness that stems from their municipal origin (Gang Of Four-flavored “Concrete,” a song about an unhappy relationship that will have you beating on your steering wheel, embodies this sound perfectly and already gives me hope for a better 2018). What sets these lads apart is their beyond-their-years songwriting, riotous live shows (they were once fined for ripping a chandelier from the ceiling) and frontman Charlie Steen’s arresting vocals. There’s something hardscrabble about them, something working-class, in the proud, rosy-cheeked English sense. And while they do carry on the political edge of their forebears, it’s not inherently so, but present in the rapid-fire fury of “Lampoon,” with Sheen shouting “my tongue will never get tired,” the giant middle finger to insecurity of “One Rizla” and the whip-smart examination of the fine line between sexual exploitation vs. empowerment on the filthy “Gold Hole.” Delivered with a heavy dose of grit and honesty, there’s some teeth marks there, but not the whole bite. It makes for their own, unique brand of sociopolitics-lite, done with a nudge, a wink, and just enough of the unexpected. All the way down to the cheeky image of the band wholesomely posing with baby pigs that graces the album’s cover. The seven-minute closer, the doomed-love dazzler “Angie,” features Steen’s first attempt at real singing, and shows that these guys are definitely playing with a full deck, delivering a more-than-solid first effort with plenty of anticipation for whatever they choose to do next. —Madison Desler

47. The Shins: Oh, Inverted World (2001)
The Shins don’t just have one of the best debut albums of the last 23 years—they have one of the best debut singles of all time in “New Slang,” which found more reverence three years later in the film Garden State. “New Slang” was released many months before Oh, Inverted World, and the latter only exists because the former did so well that Sub Pop couldn’t help but offer The Shins a record deal in response. Bandleader James Mercer had previously been fronting a crew called Flake Music, which was heavier and more alt-rock-oriented than the Elephant 6-inspired sonic kaleidoscope of The Shins. Oh, Inverted World is only the third Sub Pop album to be certified platinum—but its legacy stretches much further than that. Songs like “Know Your Onion!” and “One by One All Day” are such jubilant, psychedelia-inspired pop-rock tracks that they helped cement The Shins as the new practitioners at the forefront of primitive, song cycle-inspired arrangements. Oh, Inverted World wasn’t a revival, though—it was its own marvelous invention. —Matt Mitchell

46. Avril Lavigne: Let Go (2002)
It’s hard to quantify just how important Avril Lavigne’s 2002 debut album Let Go was in the grand architecture of Y2K pop music. It was the perfect blend of pop-punk and post-grunge that greatly shaped not just Lavigne’s importance in contemporary music circles, but it cemented the rock revival of the 2000s as an unbreakable, undeniable monolith of excellence. Let Go went 7x platinum and remains the best-selling album of the 21st century by a Canadian musician. Propped up by lead singles “Complicated” and “Sk8er Boi,” Lavigne’s greateness never reached such unparalleled heights and Let Go was definitive for a generation that didn’t have one singular musical identity to latch onto. —Matt Mitchell

45. Earl Sweatshirt: Doris (2013)
Richard Wright’s existential left-turn The Outsider opens with the book of Dread, and the post-exile release by Odd Future’s odd man out creeps heavy with the stuff. The kid is crazy smart, by which I mean wicked smart, by which I mean he’s blessed with the type of superb intellect rappers used to shield behind alter-egos. That life makes you wonder. Earl’s got poetry in his blood and cuts to the veins of his own identity without the just foolin’ safety net of Doom or Lord Quas. The endless piano loop of “Chum” might say it all, rising marionette notes falling time and again into a melancholy let down, but Earl gets the last word in reflective slants and internal rhyme. A joke stuck in his throat and up to his neck in the medicine cabinet, Sweatshirt stares through a grimy bedroom window while the instrumental “523” staggers like a pilled-out echo of Wu Tang’s “Tearz.” But because this is Earl’s wildly intertextual life, he wades out of that eggy pharmacetical wooze and passes the mic to the the real RZA. “I’m fucking famous if you forgot,” says Earl, his words doubled with irony, truth, and loads of outsider dread. —Nathan Huffstutter

44. Japanese Breakfast: Psychopomp (2016)
Psychopomp is the perfect moniker for this devastatingly dreamy noise-pop album from Japanese Breakfast, the first solo project from Michelle Zauner (of Philly punk fame). Named for the deities whose responsibility it is to escort newly deceased souls to the afterlife, Psychopomp was created as a cathartic personal exploration after Zauner watched her mother suffer through illness before passing away. The artist doesn’t waste any time asking listeners a question she was surely struggling with herself while writing and recording. “Do you believe in heaven?” she sings on the opening track, setting the tone for a catchy, yet complex body of work that explores lo-fi loss, loneliness and love. Like denial turns into grief, lighter crystalline melodies early on eventually give way to a heavier experimental rock sound. The title track is a short, swirly instrumental piece. Ending on the motherly words, “It’s okay sweetheart. Don’t cry,” “Psychopomp” leads into the darkest, most dynamic song on the album. Stylish production makes it easy to overlook Zauner’s incredible range, that is until she confronts you with the assailing vocal performance on “Jane Cum.” Definitely makes a believer out of me. —Emily Ray

43. Amy Winehouse: Frank (2003)
It’s easy to forget given her heartbreakingly tragic descent, but before the erratic live performances, self-destructive private life and increasingly unmanageable beehive hairdos, Amy Winehouse was once a relatively well-behaved, down-to-earth youngster who needed nothing more than her majestic soulful tones to attract attention. Winehouse was just 19 when she entered the studio for her 2003 debut album, Frank. But her commanding presence and relatable, refreshingly honest tales of relationship woes, not to mention a loose, organic sound suggested she’d spent decades honing her craft in smoky jazz clubs. That a record so personal, so raw, so subtle came from an artist signed by pop Svengali Simon Fuller only makes it even more startling. —Jon O’Brien

42. 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

41. 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

40. Perfume Genius: Learning (2010)
After battling addiction for years, Seattle-based songwriter Mike Hadreas, better known as Perfume Genius, willed himself out of a downward spiral, moving into his mother’s house and removing himself from his previous lifestyle. During this transition, Hadreas wrote Learning, a harrowing look back through his darker, troubled years. He mastered his debut album from second-generation mp3s because he lost the original tapes. Ultimately, those rough cuts earned him a spot on Matador’s roster and garnered him enough attention to tour with the likes of Beirut and Sigur Rós. Learning captured an intimate snapshot of Hadreas’ state of mind during a rough period of his life before he turned to more optimistic ballads in the face of despair on his follow-up. —Max Blau

39. Dua Lipa: Dua Lipa (2017)
Personally, I’m a bit of a Future Nostalgia truther, but there’s no denying that Dua Lipa’s self-titled debut is just as perfect and confident and catchy. The album was teased with eight (!) singles, which made up 75-percent of the final tracklist. Songs like “IDGAF” and “New Rules” and “Lost in Your Light” are some of the best pop cuts of the last 10 years—and the first introduction to the kind of starpower Dua now holds in spades. Collaborating with folks like Miguel and Coldplay’s Chris Martin, she hit the scene with incomparable vocals and a knack for earworm melodies. Merging influences of everything from R&B to electropop to disco to tropical soul, Dua Lipa is a wondrous adventure brimming with magnetic charisma. The sensational stature she amassed on the tracks all culminate in album closer “Homesick,” where she brandished a stadium-sized balladry that would first cement her pop destiny. —Matt Mitchell

38. Big Thief: Masterpiece (2016)
Before Big Thief became the most important folk-rock band in the world, they were just a quartet based out of Brooklyn making kickass, country-inspired gems. For every way in which their most-recent album Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You shines, delivers and juxtaposes beauty with sorrow, their debut offering—Masterpiece—is where they laid the first bricks in 2016. Spurred by then-spouses Adrianne Lenker and Buck Meek, the world of Masterpiece is a gorgeous one. At times lo-fi, at others deftly Americana, the album greatly positions Lenker’s generational lead vocal front-and-center. Songs like “Masterpiece” and “Real Love” and “Paul” are so legendary in the Big Thief cannon that they almost feel too primitive to have appeared on the band’s debut—but, then again, the quartet have always been ahead of the curve, making tunes that outrun expectations and normalize otherworldly ambition. Tracks like “Vegas” and “Interstate” don’t get enough love, but they are some of the most captivating entries in the entire Big Thief catalog. Tapping into Masterpiece now that the band is one of America’s biggest is a rewarding undertaking, if not for seeing how their greatness was bubbling over but not yet fully set in stone. But you could see the glimmers from a mile away. —Matt Mitchell

37. Rilo Kiley: Take Offs and Landings (2001)
Before Rilo Kiley hit the big time with The Execution of All Things in 2002, Jenny Lewis, Blake Sennett, Pierre de Reeder and Dave Rock struck gold on their debut album—Take Offs and Landings—a year prior. The album, at 13 tracks composed by Lewis and Sennet, is full of so much heart and beauty that you can see every intricacy that would morph into folk-rock stardom for the quartet. Songs like “Science Vs. Romance” and “Pictures of Success” and “August” are such vivid, perfect pop songs with punk and blues inflections and influences. It’s here where Rilo Kiley established their calling card: upbeat arrangemetns (accentuated by Lewis’ sunny, twangy vocal set) that often unravel into heavy, darkened storytelling. Take Offs and Landings is dazzling indie rock harboring spellbound secrets; a monumentous first offering from a band whose breakup we’re all still mourning deeply. —Matt Mitchell

36. Bill Callahan: Woke on a Whaleheart (2007)
On his millionth album and first under his own name, Bill Callahan dropped the Smog moniker and finally completed his two-decade transformation from malevolent provocateur to aphoristic folk-rocker. Smog was a concept—inscrutable, misogynistic; he peppered his daunting lo-fi albums with abrasive no-fi experiments. In truth, Callahan could’ve dropped the Smog moniker a couple albums ago, and it makes sense that the creator of A River Ain’t Too Much to Love‘s dreamy naturalism, and Woke on a Whaleheart‘s upbeat trad-folk might want to distance himself from the persona he’d finally escaped. The way that time-tempered baritone patiently enunciates wry wisdom on the gospel-tinged Whaleheart is deeply familiar—rivers and sycamores are condensed symbols; a girl dances until she becomes a diamond—and one feels glad for Callahan, for his long-delayed emergence into a spiritual clearing. —Brian Howe

35. Caroline Polachek: Pang (2019)
A handful of pop songs in the past decade—think “Teenage Dream” or “Run Away With Me”—bottle the lightning feeling of whirlwind love perfectly, the sound of a saxophone horn or a vocal swell sublimating the yearning of a new romance. Pang, Caroline Polachek’s first album under her own name, stretches out that feeling, eking out the intricacies of feeling simultaneously liberated and trapped by the feeling of being overwhelmed by someone else. It’s a big task, but Polachek might be the ideal candidate, an indie darling who shaped her last band Chairlift’s twee-pop origins into big-budget, emotional cinema to brilliant effect. The most sublime moments on Pang match the all-cylinders feeling of falling into new love, each neuron so stimulated by the feeling that they threaten to overload and collapse entirely. The divine title track is, at once, twee and lustful, as if The Postal Service were tasked with making a quiet-storm track—the base feeling of unexplored love compounded with each touch of the skin. By the end of Pang, Polachek has fully opened up to the headrush of new love—both in the chance that it could devastate, and the very real possibility that it could result in something transcendent. “The parachute, I’ve got to trust it now,” she sighs on album closer “Parachute,” her voice weightless, at ease. It’s a relief, for her—and for us. —Joshua Bote

34. Chief Keef: Finally Rich (2012)
What makes Chief Keef’s debut album Finally Rich so special is how it really was such an important, enigmatic precursor to the trap moment that would become a movement. Where were you when Keef took over the world in 2012? There’s something truly singular about how the Chicago rapper was able to distill elements of gangsta, trap and drill rap into his arsenal. Finally Rich was spearheaded by lead singles “3 Hunna,” “I Don’t Like” and “Love Sosa”—all of which tapped into a complicated brutality and nihilism centered around being young and trying to survive in such a close proximity to dangerous power and oppression. Chief Keef released Finally Rich when he was just 17 years old, calling upon peers like French Montana, Rick Ross, Young Jeezy, 50 Cent and Wiz Khalifa to bring the project into the stratosphere. Talk about lightning in a bottle. —Matt Mitchell

33. Youth Lagoon: The Year of Hibernation (2011)
The debut album from the Idaho-based experimentalist Youth Lagoon—aka Trevor Powers—is, just maybe, the single most wondrous album on this entire list. The Year of Hibernation, in all of its lo-fi, psychedelic glory, is a labor of love that Powers crafted while suffering from debilitating panic attacks. He took to writing about anxiety and heartache in ways that intertwined with coming-of-age in Middle America, as the record tapped into solitary landscapes and the absence of young, fleeting joy. “17,” “July” and “Montana” are startlingly beautiful, but it’s the one-two punch of “Afternoon” and “Daydream” that solidify the monumental and devastating power that The Year of Hibernation holds. It’s a document of survival, as is much of what Powers writes under the Youth Lagoon name (and his own). “I have more dreams than you have posters of your favorite teams, you’ll never talk me out of this,” he sings on “Cannons.” There’s an enduring dreaminess across the album that doesn’t aim to mask the complex subject matter. Rather, the arrangements underline the complicatedness of growing up and growing into yourself—as they beckon us to tap into our own nostalgia for past lives no longer touchable. No other album from the last 20 years can still conjure just as dense a kaleidoscope of emotions on the 1,000th listen as it did on the first. —Matt Mitchell

32. The Killers: Hot Fuss (2004)
You could just say “Mr. Brightside” and leave it at that, but The Killers’ debut album Hot Fuss is much, much more than a hit single that everyone on Planet Earth has heard before. Released in the summer of 2004 via Island Records, Hot Fuss was a convergence of new wave and alt-rock in a way that let the Killers deviate greatly from the rock revival occurring all over the country. They were able to puncture through the thick film of underground poignancy and flirt with the mainstream—I mean, “Mr. Brightside” has damn near transcended almost every categorization at this point. But, even then, the best song on Hot Fuss is actually “All These Things That I’ve Done” (that “I’ve got soul, but I’m not a soldier” line still goes, and I’ll fight anyone who says otherwise). “Somebody Told Me” and “Smile Like You Mean It” are also great, standout moments. You might think “When You Were Young” is on this album and, sadly, you’d be wrong—but, even if their best song isn’t on the tracklist, Hot Fuss is still perfect and rid of any skips. Though the album is never held in the same regard as Is This It or Fever to Tell, there’s still time to make things right and call a spade a spade: Hot Fuss is one of the most idyllic, polished and energetic rock records in the last two decades—at least in terms of rock records that managed to find wider audiences beyond the niches of the underground scenes. —Matt Mitchell

31. Sky Ferreira: Night Time, My Time (2013)
Many in the acting and modeling fields also find their way into music, but Sky Ferreira’s foray was no ill-advised stunt. Ferreira had been putting out music on MySpace since she was a teen, which resulted in a major label bidding war and album deal with EMI that turned sour. She scrapped plans for her debut album and put out two EPs with Capitol instead—2011’s As If! and 2012’s Ghost. While electronic met acoustic on the disjointed Ghost, Night Time, My Time arrived with much more gusto than many would’ve thought. Equipped with soaring pop hooks and smudged textures, Ferreria sounds melancholy yet mature. “I Blame Myself” is a vulnerable display of self-loathing (“I know it’s not your fault / That you don’t understand / I blame myself”), “Kristine” is a biting roast of abhorrent rich kid behavior (“Stabbing pens in my hands / And I’m never working, I’m just spending”) and the title track is a glimmer of morbid transcendence (“I wouldn’t feel anything / When we burst into dust forever / And no angels will help us out”). Her dense, rough-edged pop proves both danceable and insightful. Despite its yearning melancholia, it’s a constant rush of instrumental and emotional uplift. —Lizzie Manno

30. Japandroids: Post-Nothing (2009)
The world that Brian King and David Prowse have created as Japandroids cannot be understated—though it might be easy to, given that they’ve only made three records across a 17-year career. However, the Vancouver duo’s 2009 debut record Post-Nothing remains one of the biggest, loudest and coolest first offerings from a band this century. Originally self-released in April before being picked up by Polyvinyl for worldwide re-release in August, Post-Nothing is full of punk, garage rock and pop affection—and all culminate in a brash, volcanic eruption of ambition and creativity. “Young Hearts Spark Fire” is an unbelievable first-ever single to put out, while “Wet Hair” and “Crazy/Forever” and “I Quit Girls” are raucous barn-burners worth their weight in noise. There’s a reason why so many criticism outlets gave the album immediate praise: It rocks, and it rocks exponentially. Even if Japandroids never make another record together, at least we’ll always have Post-Nothing. —Matt Mitchell

29. Sleigh Bells: Treats (2010)
Treats, the debut effort from noise-rock newcomers Sleigh Bells, is the logical conclusion of the loudness war; it manages to challenge basic assumptions of how music can (and should) sound. You either buy the Brookyln duo’s central conceit or you don’t: bombastic synth-rock for bombast’s sake, with mixing cranked so high your speakers sound like they’re about to combust. It’s a preposterous juxtposition—Alexis Krauss’ way-past-sweet vocals as the sugary glaze on Derek Miller’s gritty and serrated riffing and beats—until the soaring power chords of opener and single “Tell ‘Em” kick off the album with a thunderclap, and you barrel through a 32-minute sonic rollercoaster that’s totally, gloriously, devoid of subtlety and restraint. Treats is engrossing, and urgent; Krauss and Miller toy with noise and listener expectations with Reznor-esque glee. It’s a supremely raw and visceral pop masterwork, one appropriate to rocking out with headphones on, windows-down bumping on car stereos, four-A.M. warehouse dance parties and countless other summer moments.—Michael Saba

28. Joyce Manor: Joyce Manor (2011)
It should be noted that Joyce Manor—a quartet that originated in 2008 in Torrance, California—came onto the scene in 2011 with a debut album that is just as good now as it was 12 years ago. Joyce Manor is what Pinkerton would sound like if a pop-punk band made it 20 years after the fact. It’s hard to truly comprehend just what kind of legacy Joyce Manor forged on this record, as it found a niche through Tumblr, MediaFire blogs, leaked physical copies and word of mouth. Many entries on this list are important in their own right, but so few can claim to be as iconic as Joyce Manor’s first foray together as a band. At 10 tracks and 18 minutes in length, there is no filler on this thing. Instead, it’s a stone’s throw of hooks and heavy choruses that are such immense earworms that you’ll be humming them after only a few listens. “Constant Headache” is, likely, the cornerstone of Joyce Manor—but “Beach Community,” “Leather Jacket” and “Call Out” are just as primitive and immediate. An ADHD kid’s (me) dream, you can digest and fall in love with Joyce Manor without having to dedicate a chunk of your day to the project. It’s what dreams are made of, and the fact that the band is still churning out sub-20-minute heaters in 2023 makes it all worthwhile and then some. —Matt Mitchell

27. Ethel Cain: Preacher’s Daughter (2022)
Ethel Cain is on a brilliant ascent. 2021’s Inbred EP solidified her position as a force to be witnessed in American music as she wrestled with the uniquely Southern version of the American dream that shaped her young life. The divinity of gospel, the audacity of heartland rock and the frankness of 2010s Tumblr-era pop collide into an arresting narrative spectacle, portraying the experience of a woman who is intimately familiar with depraved violence, the gospel and the strict social hierarchies of the South and the Plains. The EPs have only revealed a portion of Cain’s lore, but on her whopping 75-minute debut LP Preacher’s Daughter, Ethel Cain, the narrative figure and the musical sensation, manifests a breathtaking account of a woman, her mysterious partner and her troubled family.

Much as Inbred mangled Americana, ambient folk and slowcore into a terrifying sonic experiment, Preacher’s Daughter is a sound all its own. Imagine what would happen if singers as familiar as Bruce Springsteen or Nichole Nordeman were backed by Midwife or Sunn O))). The glamorous and aphrodisiac sound of Lana Del Rey is undoubtedly there, but the thematic and instrumental elements on Preacher’s Daughter possess a weightiness and impulse away from ironic glamorization of the American dream and toward outright criticism that render the comparison only so relevant. At times the record throbs with a noisy, immersive intensity before transitioning into the kind of epic guitar solos that decorated the cult of rock personalities in generations past. This collision of dark ambient and Def Leppard is uniquely American in the best way conceivable. —Devon Chodzin

26. Run the Jewels: Run the Jewels (2013)
Coming off the high of the previous year’s respective Cancer 4 Cure and R.A.P. Music, El-P and Killer Mike’s inaugural collaborative album as Run the Jewels caught the new duo on the high-end of an upswing, with their project seeming like a clever play on what smart people do while others are watching the throne. And the others can have the throne; El-P and Killer Mike were having too much fun to be stagnant and watch anything. Yes, a lot of the album is clever self-aggrandizing rhetoric, meant for “ohhhhhhh” reactions or just flat-out laughter, and yes, the beats are not elegant, most of them happy to be filthy and cheap and something that will make you move; leave the fancy production for those self-proclaimed kings and queens. Rather, Run the Jewels is a summer album made from a crafty use of a keyboard, melody lines and 808 beats, perfect for listening with a friend. And the album’s heavy moment, closer “A Christmas Fucking Miracle,” hits heavier because of the album that preceded it. It’s powerful in both delivery and in effect, without being heavy-handed or sacrificing form. Both rappers take the opportunity to show their longtime supporters that they were right all these years, that they bet on the right horses. And to those bandwagoners jumping on just now, pretty sure you are welcome, too. —Philip Cosores

25. Kara Jackson: Why Does the Earth Give Us People To Love? (2023)
What the Chicago-based interdisciplinary writer and musician Kara Jackson accomplishes on her debut LP Why Does The Earth Give Us People To Love is not “raw,” at least not in the sense that the writing is unrefined or off-the-cuff. Instead, that distinction comes through how the listener is made to feel listening to Jackson’s cosmic country jams. Lines like “Some people take lives to be recognized” are delivered with nonchalance, and the way she belts “don’t you bother me” over swirling harp notes elicits chills. Jackson is communicating her message with precise orchestration for optimal impact. As a listener, you may feel exposed, maybe even singled out. Jackson starts the album with “recognized,” a lo-fi exercise contemplating what people do for validation and why. As she and her piano arpeggiate, she raises the stakes. It contrasts with the lush “no fun/party,” where her theatrical voice balances with a racing guitar and reclining strings. She reckons with men who won’t rise to the occasion and take that out on her and, as much as she laments the loss of companionship, she remembers that the other person is just as liable to miss her, too. Across the album, Jackson’s expert guitar work and lyricism reveals an extensive archive of her relationships with peers, partners and more who she’s entrusted with her love. Many of those people are men who’ve mishandled that love. When Jackson is solo, she is a force. With her friends’ help, the result is divine. —Devon Chodzin

24. Shabazz Palaces: Black Up (2011)
Seattle experimental rap duo Palaceer Lazaro and Tendair Maraire—aka Shabazz Palaces—have done more for music in the last 12 years than many artists have done in an entire, multi-decade lifetime. Their debut album, 2011’s Black Up, might go down as one of the most ambitious, mighty rap records of this century when it’s all said and done. Few debuts in the genre have ever been so revered so deftly out the gate, but, then again, Black Up is unlike any rap record you’ve heard. It’s an explosion of complex hip-hop measured up against anti-maximalist instrumentation. The samples aren’t overwrought, instead serving their purposes as space-fillers so Lazaro can show off his penmanship. Songs like “Free Press and Curl” and “An Echo from the Hosts That Profess Infinitum” and “Are You… Can You… Were You? (Felt)” are ridiculously mind-bending in how groovy and artful they are—especially the latter, which merges mid-1970s soul affections with oldhead flows. Maraire is no longer a part of Shabazz Palaces, but the work he did with Lazaro on Black Up is forever. —Matt Mitchell

23. Arctic Monkeys: Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not (2006)
When their debut album arrived in 2006, Arctic Monkeys were the kind of new blood no one guessed would pack such a punch. The reason this record is essentially betrothed to the number-one spot is simply because of how incendiary it was when it hit the airwaves. It was truly something different. It’s a chatty record, one that relies on fast talk and even faster guitars. Tracks like “Red Light Indicates Doors Are Secured” or “Perhaps Vampires Is a Bit Strong … ” capitalize on Turner’s quick tongue and flash fingers, as well as the band’s ability to keep up with the nearly boundless energy the young frontman radiated into the microphone and through amps. There’s no denying the album takes influence from so many incredible rock acts of the era—you know the ones: The Strokes, The Libertines, those types—but it also takes pages out of older books, too, like those of The Clash and Oasis. Ultimately, the cool thing about the record is it never stays in any of those places for very long, not before dragging itself back to the bar for another one, and one for that bird near the end, as well. It’s a concept album, which, as we now know, is not an anomaly for the Sheffield group, but at the time, the idea that a messy rock-and-roll group would debut with a concept record, no less one about the clubbing scene in northern England, was totally unheard of. Naturally, it struck a chord within the country for its catchy relatability, and the rest is history. —Lex Briscuso

22. 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

21. LCD Soundsystem: LCD Soundsystem (2005)
LCD Soundsystem’s self-titled debut came out 18 years ago, yet it still—somehow, confoundingly—sounds like it’s not of this millennium. The record is alien and futuristic, pulling off the greatest trick of enigmatic dance-punk and electronic fantasies we’ve seen in the last 25 years. Point out any track from the sequence and it’ll be a hit, I’m sure. From “Daft Punk Is Playing at My House” to “Losing My Edge,” you can hear everything from The Stooges to New Order to Devo roaring through James Murphy’s veins. AltPress once wrote that LCD Soundsystem would “survive the fleeting tastes of cosmopolitan hipsters,” but, perhaps, they didn’t account for the cyclical nature of any lineage—that each new batch of hipsters loves LCD Soundsystem. The band’s debut is not as reflective or methodical as something like Sound of Silver or This Is Happening, but it’s such a reward to tap into an hour of relentlessly good work made by a band not yet at the height of their craft. You can tell that Murphy wanted to be Suicide wearing George Clinton’s clothes here—and LCD Soundsystem is the perfect, encyclopaedic electronic masterpiece that would carve out a lifelong destiny of supremo taste-making for him. —Matt Mitchell

20. Kali Uchis: Isolation (2018)
“There’s no tracking where I’m going / There’s no me for them to find.” The riddle-like words drift in covered in mist. The sounds of Tropicalia and bossa nova surround your ears with humidity. Are you dreaming? Are you flying? This is “Body Language,” the lush intro that transports you to the world of Kali Uchis, a world the Colombian-American songstress invites you deeply into, as she compellingly keeps herself a mystery. From the all-Spanish, dancehall romance of “Nuestro Planeta” to the boss-ass-bitch anthem ”Miami”—as sexy and diverse as the city in the title—Uchis gives ample nods to her Latin roots, while asserting herself as a strong, independent woman. “Why would I be Kim? / I could be Kanye,” she sings on “Miami,” never content to be anywhere but the driver’s seat. On the Reggaeton highlight, “Tyrant,” she’s pondering the question of whether or not to give her man any power, the slightest control only hers to hand over, even when she’s head-over-heels in love. For this self-preservation she sacrifices never being truly known—perhaps even to herself—a trade she seems eager to make, holding back to avoid being hurt on her road to ruling the world. “You never knew me then / And you’ll never know me now,” she sings on “Just A Stranger,” which infectiously glides over a bouncy groove courtesy of whiz-kid Steve Lacy, one of several promises she makes throughout the album to be untouchable. —Madison Desler

19. Vampire Weekend: Vampire Weekend (2007)
When a record has not only no bad songs but no bad moments, when basslines bounce like rubber, when drums do more than keep time—when they roll and tumble in hypnotic patterns—and when vocals glide between the mannered crooning of an over-privileged indie boy and the spastic yelping of a shocked dog, well, what are we supposed to do? Not love it? Vampire Weekend is Anglo-Afro fusion on par with Graceland. It sounds like David Byrne fronting Orchestra Baobab. It sounds like The Strokes with a sense of humor. It sounds like indie rock simultaneously gentrifying and miscegenating—despite rumors to the contrary, the neighborhood’s getting better, more interesting and more colorful. These days, it ain’t just surly white dudes playing shitty guitar for other surly white dudes. Indeed, this cosmopolitan quartet has streamlined ska, post-punk, chamber music and Afropop into a glorious ultramodern groove. —Nick Marino

18. 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. —Matt Mitchell

17. 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

16. 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

15. Phoebe Bridgers: Stranger in the Alps (2017)
“Jesus Christ, I’m so blue all the time,” Phoebe Bridgers sings in “Funeral,” one of the best songs on her incredible debut album, Stranger in the Alps. “And that’s just how I feel. Always have, and I always will.” No doubt about it: Alps is, at its core, a collection of sad folk songs, presented with nifty sonic accoutrements (mournful fiddle here, electro-noise there) and clever references (David Bowie, Jeffrey Dahmer) that give them added dimension. But it’s Bridgers’s plainspoken lyrics and airy, inescapable melodies that make Alps one of the best albums at any stage of their career. At 23-years-old, she already had a masterpiece under her belt. —Ben Salmon

14. 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. —Matt Mitchell

13. Bon Iver: For Emma, Forever Ago (2008)
Not since a creek drank a cradle in 2002 had anyone so quietly overtaken the indie-folk world as Justin Vernon did in 2008 with Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago, when Jagjaguwar gave the album a wide release after Vernon pressed 500 copies himself the year before. This lonesome post-break-up album—with its mythic origin story in a remote Wisconsin cabin—is drenched in the kind of melancholy that feels a lot like joy, and sounds just as vivd. Rather than wallowing in loss, Vernon’s otherworldly falsetto and warm acoustic guitar provide a hopeful contrast to impressionistic lyrics like “Saw death on a sunny snow.” Vernon’s real trick was imbuing such hushed music with so much feeling and such seemingly nonsensical lyrics with such specific meaning to individual listeners. It was less like the end of a relationship and more like the promise of a new beginning. —Josh Jackson

12. 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

11. Interpol: Turn On the Bright Lights (2002)
The ’80s are known as the period when artifice smothered musical soul like so much lip gloss. Interpol’s post-punk-derived atmospherics belie that notion. Turn on the Bright Lights revels in minor keys and clear, wiry bass/guitar tones that bring to mind Wire, New Order or early U2, while lead singer Paul Banks combines the flat delivery of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis with the wounded shakiness of the Violent Femmes’ Gordon Gano, or David Byrne at his most sensitive. It adds up to a pained and compelling sound that feels like it’s mostly their own. The album kicks off with Banks mumbling his lines over a building swarm of guitar and drum echo—Joy Division’s and U2’s way of disseminating a mood. “I’ll surprise you sometimes / I’ll come ’round / when you’re down,” he repeats, until it becomes the untitled song’s mantra and Banks’s promised coming-round (who he’s speaking to, and why, is unclear) takes on a sort of eschatological significance. There’s always something grey and misty about their sound, which reaches its peak on the just-slightly-majestic “NYC,” as strings drift like searchlights over the slashing, pinprick guitars while Banks, who seems to be walking through the city, tells its streets that he’s “Sick of spending these lonely nights / training myself not to care.” A strong, dramatic debut. —Philip Christman

10. 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

9. Purple Mountains: Purple Mountains (2019)
For 15 years bookending the turn of the 21st century, David Berman was not only the primary creative force behind indie-folk faves Silver Jews, he was considered by many to be the poet laureate of the underground. Across six solid albums—peaking with 1998’s American Water—his songs spilled over with double-take-worthy wisdom and witticisms built from approachable language. On his latest and, sadly, last album—self-titled and released under the name Purple Mountains—Berman doesn’t sound like a different person than the one that walked away a decade ago. He sounds like himself, an endlessly thoughtful and unnervingly honest master arranger of words. He sounds rejuvenated, perhaps buoyed by his new backing band, the Brooklyn psych-folk group Woods. He was just as bummed out as ever on Purple Mountains, and he still makes being bummed out sound better than just about anyone else. —Ben Salmon

8. 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 her: ”’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

7. 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

6. 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

5. 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. —Matt Mitchell

4. 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

3. 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

2. 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

1. 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. —Matt Mitchell

Listen to a playlist of songs from these 100 albums below.

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