By Avalon Vowles, Second Year Theatre and Performance
Most of the time, debut albums can be hit or miss; a substantial number of successful bands and artists have weak and meagre beginnings.
I recognise that this is a topic subject to opinion, but I believe these albums paved the way for the future of their genres by originating a sound that was new, rousing, and revolutionary right from the get-go. We must acknowledge their humble origins. These artists did it right the first-time round.
The Velvet Underground and Nico - The Velvet Underground (1967)
Surging with nihilistic and avant-garde commotion, The Velvet Underground’s 1967 debut album is arguably a fundamental influence on countless sub-genres in the rock and alternative scene: namely krautrock, punk, garage, and shoegaze.
Under the management of iconic pop-artist Andy Warhol, this hybrid art-rock album enthuses themes of sadomasochism, drug abuse and general experimental deviancy with mesmeric melodies and rhythms. Recorded with the primary formation of the band (Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison, John Cale, and Moe Tucker) and joined by German singer Nico, I honour the album for its tangled instrumentation, which is pleasurably accompanied by Reed’s dispassionate and relinquishing voice.
It speaks for the untamed sensibilities of New York City, and although it is noted for its controversial lyrics, a few of the songs provide a tender complement to its overarching umbrella of merciless concerns, such as 'Sunday Morning' or 'I’ll Be Your Mirror'. Aching with distortion, drones, and detuning, songs like 'Venus In Furs' and 'The Black Angel’s Death Song' will equally hypnotise and violate you, making it an intrinsic selection for my top five.
Grace - Jeff Buckley (1994)
Grace is not only the debut album of Jeff Buckley, but also his only full studio album. Wistful of failed relationships, desire, and loss, this harrowing 1997 album is eternally hungry and energetic.
Concocted with ingredients of classical, jazz, grunge and so much more, the album rose considerably in critical reception after the early death of Buckley, with his tragic passing amplifying its emotional significance for listeners. Buckley’s soul-stirring lyrics, along with his four-octave vocal range, generate an evocative and tender intensity delightfully bathed in vibrato. Songs like 'Mojo Pin' and 'Grace' are distinguished by howling guitars which jangle their way through intricacy and complexity.
The opening harmonium chords on 'Lover, You Should’ve Come Over' were enough alone to warrant this album in my top five; Buckley passionately yearns his way through the song, lamenting on dying emotion and lost love. His atmospheric songs of lust and heartache will enchant you, as the album’s journey lulls you into drowsy relaxation before throwing you back into its exhilarating hubbub of noise. Better put in Buckley’s own lyrics from the song 'So Real', the album ‘sucked me in and pulled me under’.
Songs of Leonard Cohen - Leonard Cohen (1967)
Aged 33 and already established as a Canadian novelist and poet, Leonard Cohen decided to venture into the occupation of music and thankfully got caught in the introspective web of New York City’s folk scene. Wrapped in a sensitive blanket of nostalgia and longing, Songs of Leonard Cohen was released in 1967 and is an immensely reflective and poetic debut album which explores life’s quarrels of romance, religion, politics, isolation, and loss.
Cohen masterfully plays the heartstrings on the guitar of the soul in songs like 'Suzanne' and 'So Long, Marianne' and narrates to the listener an acoustic story of woe in his gravelly baritone voice. Nancy Priddy furnishes a selection of the songs with haunting, feminine backing vocals which supplement Cohen harmoniously. It is notable to mention the range of instrumentation which colours the album, with added flute, mandolin, jaw harp, violin, and an assortment of Middle Eastern instruments.
This album compels you to doze in the evening sun and bask in its sentimental lyrical and musical beauty. It is an album which I believe probably has life’s answers hidden in its melodies.
#1 Record - Big Star (1972)
Although American rock band Big Star were only originally together for four years in the early 70s, their formative accumulation of work never ceases to inspire and influence preceding generations.
#1 Record is a debut album enthused with the authentic essence of rock and roll and power pop, as the band tightly weave through robust and intoxicating riffs that establish their tough rhythmical sound. The record’s driving power is best heard in full, with each song congregating together to form a complete and seminal sound.
The ingenious duo of Chris Bell and Alex Chilton share the song writing credits equally, as they alternate vocals on each song, collectively showcasing a detailed and impressive thick bed of vocal harmonies. 'Thirteen' and 'Watch The Sunrise' serve as an innocent reminiscence of the fragility of youth, through tight harmonies and bright acoustic twelve strings, where songs like 'Feel' and 'The Ballad Of El Goodo' rapture into an upsurge of riffs, rhythms, and refrains. Emerging out of Memphis, Tennessee, but immortalising themselves as rock and roll revolutionaries, this album is a testament to classic rock and its ceaseless splendour.
Five Leaves Left - Nick Drake (1969)
Enrolled at the University of Cambridge and just 20 years old, Nick Drake met American producer Joe Boyd and consequently Five Leaves Left was the first product of their friendship.
Moody, morose and melancholy, this album is an acoustic masterclass as Drake’s fingerstyle techniques sway gently on a riverbed of dense and rich strings. Encircled by an ensemble of instrumentalists, Drake recorded this album live along with the string section and that atmosphere resonates into the organic and sonorous final product.
Acting as a grievance of England’s doldrums, Drake’s lyrics are pensive and contemplative as he troubles over ephemeral happiness and ruminates in the dark corners of the mind. The numerical rhythm of the double bass and the precision picking of the acoustic guitar on 'Cello Song' entwine mythically with Drake’s velvety voice as the cello fluidly twirls in and out. Songs like 'River Man' will wash over you in a mediative wave.
His wickedly plaintive folk stands the test of time, as the album still feels fresh and pertinent. It is an album worth listening to loudly in headphones, and is well deserving to be in my top five.
Featured Image: Ozgu Ozden | Unsplash
What's your favourite debut album?