From Led Zeppelin to Arctic Monkeys: The 20 greatest debut albums of all time

The debut album is perhaps the purest form of music we can hold dear. So often that first record lands as musical vomit, a churned mix of every idea, tune or melody the artist or band have ever consumed, left splattering across the floor with its release. More often than not, it is the crystalline moment we are introduced to our favourite bands.

While some artists only grow from this point, others can still look back at that mercurial chunder as their crowning achievement — the moment they made their mark on music. Below, we’re celebrating those moments and sharing with you the 20 greatest debut albums of all time. It’s a list that includes some big hitters such as Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, Kanye West, Led Zeppelin and so many more.

Rapper Little Simz pretty much summed up the need for albums in a culture that champions cut and paste playlist so highly, when she said: “The whole point of an album is to understand the artist and enjoy the music – it’s supposed to make you want to go to a concert to see them in the flesh and get the album on vinyl and be a part of everything.” That last comment is something that stuck with us.

The role of the album has changed but the role of the debut album remains relatively the same. Now, albums are more closely akin to mixtapes, a combination of songs that the artist has made over a set amount of time and put into one release, all with the knowledge that it will never likely be consumed from start to finish with any regularity. However, debut albums are still regarded as the first introduction not just to the band’s music but to everything they stand for.

It’s an introduction to their artistic style, to their visual nous, their conceptual acumen and the myriad of influences that led them to this point. A debut album is still just as vital as it once was and if you’re in need of a benchmark to judge any new record by, then below we have 20 of the best.

The greatest debut albums of all time:

20. Please, Please Me – The Beatles (1963)

Let’s start at arguably the first pure pop debut record to really make an impact — The Beatles and their 12″ debut Please, Please Me. The Beatles recorded the record in just 13 hours but the frenetic pace didn’t diminish from the impact the album had. It, in many ways, redefined rock ‘n’ roll and defined it as the new popular music.

The band had effervescent energy unlike any other band prior, and deliver a sensational ream of songs that feature both original compositions like ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ and fearsome covers like ‘Twist and Shout’. This album launched millions of fans and set Beatlemania on course to sweep the world.

Speaking in 1976, Lennon remembered of the record: “That record tried to capture us live, and was the nearest thing to what we might have sounded like to the audiences in Hamburg and Liverpool. You don’t get that live atmosphere of the crowd stomping on the beat with you, but it’s the nearest you can get to knowing what we sounded like before we became the ‘clever’ Beatles.”

19. Talking Heads 77 – Talking Heads (1977)

When you put it all on paper, there’s something decidedly punk about the beginnings of Talking Heads. Three friends, David Byrne, Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth, who had graduated from art school made their way to the Big Apple, rented a dirt-cheap loft just around the corner from CBGB’s and went about plying their trade in the grime-covered rock Mecca. So far, so good.

The moment the band split from their punk alignment was Talking Heads 77, the group’s debut album. The record not only set out a path for Talking Heads to begin their ascension to the top of the new wave pile but, through its conception, its welcoming of different genres and styles, and its connection to the world around it, David Byrne and Talking Heads ended up quickly making punk look a little bit silly.

The album is rich in texture, drenched in grooves and an essential record for any feel-good party in your future. Don’t pay attention to the songs but be swallowed up by the ‘vibe’. It’s the only way to truly appreciate Talking Heads 77.

18. My Generation – The Who (1965)

Two years prior to this release, The Beatles laid down a marker of what pop was expected to sound like. Their tunes were perfect for the radio and designed to gather up teen pocket money in droves. However, The Who came with a very different proposition — they were there to kick up the dust.

Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle and Keith Moon gathered a sound that supercharged the pop music of the previous years and kicked it up a couple of notches more. Naturally including the seminal song ‘My Generation’, the record provided a place to rebel. The Beatles had been accepted by everyone by 1965, their long hair no longer upsetting parents, The Who made sure those parents had a new target to aim at.

17. Black Sabbath – Black Sabbath (1970)

Black Sabbath’s debut record is one of those albums that we’ll bet few people can name more than one song from. It’s a difficulty not helped by the monstrous noises the record itself made on every revolution and, in doing so, caused its very own heavy rock revolution as it spun.

After the titular opener, the record journeys into a brand new space, one that is both warmed by the bowels of hell and dusted in the snows of the tundra. The real reason to include this debut record in our list of the greatest is not simply because of the music on the album itself but, literally, the thousands of bands who sprung up with a brand new sound after they played his foundational heavy metal album.

A joy from start to finish… we think.

16. Whatever People Say I Am That’s What I’m Not – Arctic Monkeys (2006)

The album remains, to this day, one of the last truly great rock and roll records and rightly takes its place in the pantheon of British music history.

The album was a hive of buzzing intent and frenetic energy when it roared on to our turntables in 2006, marking the beginning of the most important artist of recent years, Arctic Monkeys. The Sheffield band, just young upstarts at the time, already had a number one song under their belts with ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’ and, despite protestations from their lead singer Alex Turner, many people had already begun to believe the hype.

Whatever People Say I Am That’s What I’m Not would go on to win the Mercury Music prize in 2006, the LP’s concept album status growing by the minute. The record would encapsulate the crystalline feeling of stupid youth and saw the band launch into the stratosphere the likes of which nobody had seen since the glory days of Britpop. The difference being that AM’s contribution had been a level above the rest.

15. Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols – Sex Pistols (1977)

We needn’t introduce you to the flamboyant anti-establishment of Sex Pistols and their only album Never Mind the Bollocks. The record has been so resolutely eulogised for its life-changing power, that to prattle on once more about how and why a band and album that challenged everything about music that was previously held dear is so important feels a bit redundant. However, there’s one thing that people overlook when considering the album; the music.

The Sex Pistols may have become a pastiche of sorts, people will always highlight the consumerism they ironically inspired, but what should be remembered is that before the T-shirts, phone cases and other tat, there was the music and the music was everything.

Clattering three-chord wonders which made the industry scream with desperation. The record possesses a snarl which made tigers wince with fear and a vocal which made Johnny Rotten the voice of a disenfranchised generation.

14. College Dropout – Kanye West (2004)

Kanye West is now a name so fervently attached to the idea of celebrity that we tend to forget that he is an acclaimed producer first and foremost. The musician and rapper may have been quietly working away before the release of College Dropout, but he was quickly thrust into the spotlight when it landed.

Tunes like ‘Through The Wire’, which explored Kanye’s traumatic car accident which saw him have to wire his mouth shut, with no indicator that he could ever rap again. It was an emotional moment that signified a change in rap music. It wasn’t all about bravado but about expression.

When you add to that Ye’s unstoppable ear for a tune and his selective soul samples, you have a genre-defying classic.

13. The Smiths – The Smiths (1984)

The Smiths is a band who many now feel a little bit strange adoring so deeply. Not only do they have the, at best, polarising figure of Morrissey as their former frontman but they’ve been so acutely attached to incels, simps and other social media defamation, that it can feel a bit dirty to pick up a Smiths record with glee. However, if you remove the guff that surrounds their debut LP, you have one of the decade’s defining albums.

Released only a few months after The Smiths had begun to make a name for themselves with their new indie jangle-pop sound, this album gave a generation of adolescents a unique sound and a brand new idol. Punk, and everything that had since followed it, provided the public with a voice of frustration and anger. The Smiths, however, rolled their eyes at the world and went back to their books.

There’s some real gold on the record too. ‘Pretty Girls Make Graces’, ‘Still Ill’ ‘Hand in Glove’ and ‘What Difference Does It Make’ all feature on a landmark indie record. Forget this one at your peril.

12 Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin (1969)

To ignore Led Zeppelin’s debut album as one of the pivotal moments in rock history would be to forget a large chunk of modern music as we know it today. The blues-heavy sound laid the foundations for heavy metal and countless other genres and it shook the music scene to its core. While The Beatles and The Stones were getting trippy, Zeppelin had got heavy, real heavy.

Many people would have this LP much further up the list and, we bet, if you witnessed the explosion of Zeppelin first hand, and picked up this record as it was released, then chances are it will be your favourite record they ever made—such was its incredible impression on the kids of the day.

It’s an album that changed the entire face of music.

11. Ready to Die – The Notorious BIG (1994)

Christopher Wallace – AKA The Notorious BIG – is widely regarded as the greatest rapper who has ever lived. An expert at determining flow and delivering killer punchlines, BIG always operated on an upper echelon that few could match. His debut album Ready to Die was a proclamation of the future.

Wallace had spent much of his life “waking up every morning, hustling, cutting school, looking out for my moms, the police, stickup kids; just risking my life every day on the street selling drugs,” something he confirmed to Rolling Stone. Throughout the record, he showcases that life and provides every proof of why it will soon be a matter of history to him as hip-hop legend status awaited him.

His classic vocals are accurately mixed with dry humour, searing wit and the kind of flow that makes rivers blush.

10. Is This It – The Strokes (2001)

The album isn’t just the most delicious piece of work by New York garage cool kids The Strokes, but one of the truly great alternative rock records. The 11-songs would change the future of guitar music and whilst it did inspire useless imitators, without this album there would be no Arctic Monkeys and a flurry of other indie greats whose life was changed by this album.

From the moment that the first line from the titular opener kicks in, you know that you’re in for a treat of the highest calibre. Getting to re-listen to this album in its entirety for the first time is something that I’d do silly things to do, and I’m sure I speak for a lot of people in saying that. While ‘Last Nite’ and ‘Someday’ are the headline stealers from the album, the whole record is an enthralling ride that ends in raucous fashion with the timeless, ‘Take It Or Leave It’.

A true modern masterpiece.

9. Definitely Maybe – Oasis (1994)

When five lads from Manchester took on the world with their seminal debut album Definitely Maybe, nobody could have known that the album would kick off a legendary career like Oasis have had. Except, maybe, Oasis themselves.

Fronted by Liam and Noel Gallagher, the album the brothers alongside Paul Arthurs and the rest of the band produced is one of the finest British rock ‘n’ roll has ever seen. A generation-defining album the likes of which we have hardly seen since. Celebrate the album with our definitive ranking.

There are few albums that define an entire generation but Definitely Maybe wasn’t just a good album, the record and Oasis changed the way people spoke, what they listened to, who they listened to and what they looked like. 11 tracks of Britpop magic that speaks of the British Gen-X. While America was knee-deep in grunge, the British public were taking a look back to their rock ‘n’ roll heritage and bringing it into the modern world.

8. Horses – Patti Smith (1975)

With the rumbling of punk rock a mere whisper in the wind, Patti Smith delivered one of the foundational music history moments. A combination of poetry and electrified rock ‘n’ roll, Smith gathered a reputation in New York as one of the most visceral artists on the scene — no mean feat considering the company of The Stooges and New York Dolls. But there was something altogether more potent about somebody standing in front of a mic, without the armour of costume and make-up, and plainly expressed the very intimate moments of their life.

That’s one thing that is inextricable from Patti Smith even to this day — poetry is at the heart of everything she does and, as a poet, she sees it as her duty to share these moments in the hope that they attach themselves to her audience and provide a bridge of consciousness that only art can provide the keystone for.

Whether it’s the arresting first lines of ‘Gloria (“Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine”) or the welcomed bounce of ‘Redondo Beach’, Smith provided in Horses and album that would work as the bedrock of modern rock as we knew it. There’s no album with greater internal rhythm and reason than Horses.

Credit: Patti Smith

7. Straight Outta Compton – N.W.A. (1988)

In 1988, eleven years on from the incendiary explosion of punk rock, N.W.A, a group of rappers and producers led by Easy-E and including Dr Dre, Ice Cube and MC Ren, produced the most vitriolic response to an album in living memory. With Straight Outta Compton, N.W.A. not only put gangsta rap on the map, but they created a record that would transcend genre and define an entire generation of kids.

“Do I look like a motherf**king role model?” asks Easy-E on ‘Gangsta Gangsta’, clearly amused by the duality of not only being bonafide, gun-toting gangbanger but now, it would seem, a pop star. Throughout the record, these assertions are meditated on and returned with full force and straightforward “f*ck you!” while others, including the themes of race, police brutality and making it in a system designed to keep you down, are given their first mainstream airing.

It’s easy to get caught up in the language, the attitude and the persistent antagonism of N.W.A. and, after all, that’s a pretty large chunk of why they grabbed so much acclaim. But to ignore their socio-political message and their slick schemes and expert production would be to do the group a sincere disservice. Instead, this album should be listened to with care, concentration and as loud as it can go.

6. The Clash – The Clash (1977)

The Clash’s first burst onto the music scene was a powerful, deliberate and ultimately legendary one. Recorded over three weekends in the depths of winter in London back in 1977, there isn’t an album that more accurately captures that moment in time—imbued with the hopeful energy of a new movement yet batted down by the world around it—than this record.

14 tracks of fearsome and potent moments of wasted youth and untethered revolution make The Clash quite possibly the best record the genre ever produced. Certainly the purest. The album is split between a desperate need to highlight the plight of working-class youth and an unwillingness to accept the role as their lot.

Of course, the album is full to the brim with Clash classics. From their first single ‘White Riot’ and on to album opener ‘Janie Jones’, the songs on this album did more to cement the band’s iconography than any other moment in their history. An album made by a bunch of young hopefuls with nothing to lose is the usual tale for a debut punk record but there was something altogether more authentic about this LP which let you know that The Clash were, without doubt, the only band that mattered.

5. Illmatic – Nas (1994)

The perfect rap album? You’d be hard-pressed to find a record, rap or otherwise, more purposeful, potent and poignant than this epic.

”When this album dropped I had to be nine, so I give myself a pass for missing out on this at first,” acclaimed artist J. Cole said of the landmark record. “It wasn’t until my cousin forced me to listen to ‘I Gave You Power’ off of It Was Written that I realised Nas was one of the greatest, and I had some homework to do! Illmatic is one of those albums that demonstrates the highest level of lyricism possible.”

Coming from Cole, that’s some praise. It’s founded in truth too. Nas displays not only the keen penmanship that would define his own illustrious career but set the benchmark for how hip-hop should evolve. While certain factions concentrated on being a gangster on the streets, Nas was proving he was the king of hip-hop. Illmatic is the definition of excellence.

4. Ramones – The Ramones (1976)

We’ve already seen The Clash and the Sex Pistols on our list and their place in history is certainly guaranteed. But to imagine a world without the Ramones and their foundational album Ramones would be not only to lose the aforementioned punks but the majority of our list. Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Tommy were the original rulebreakers and proved that music had been too snobby for too long.

Before 1976, a real rock band were full of noodling guitar solos; drum fills that lasted months and the kind of high-pitch screeching that made eagles land atop rock venues looking for a mate. The Ramones showed that you didn’t need all of this pomp to get your point across. You just needed three chords, some jeans and a leather jacket and you were good to go.

“Our early songs came out of our real feelings of alienation, isolation, frustration – the feelings everybody feels between seventeen and seventy-five,” singer Joey Ramone said. It’s an accurate depiction of the album which, at less than 30 minutes long, flies by without a breath. If you’ve never had the pleasure, introduce yourself to the Ramones, you won’t be disappointed.

3. Are You Experienced? – Jimi Hendrix (1967)

When Jimi Hendrix arrived in London back in 1966 he did so like a breath of fresh air. London had been brimming with musical talent for some years by now and had officially made it a swinging place to be. But it wasn’t until Hendrix arrived that everything kicked up a notch. When he got up to play with Cream back in 1966 and blew everybody away, Hendrix was making a statement. It was chaotic, frenzied and produced tangible energy that thickened the air like soup. But could he transfer that energy to record?

The iconic debut album would be recorded across a few months that joined 1966 with 1967, Hendrix eventually managed to capture the iconic otherworldly sound that he became famous for. For every moment of hard rock and fuzzy riffs, he married it with a jazz-like delicacy and the intention of creating. Its impact on music is unchartered yet undoubted. We imagine most artists who heard this album, either when it first came out or just for the first time, had a chill of excitement.

“When it came out, nothing else had ever sounded like this. Super special,” Iggy Pop once said of the record. With a tracklisting that has a wealth of gold, the record boasted tracks like ‘Hey Joe’, ‘Purple Haze’—arguably the finest album-opening song ever— ‘The Wind Cries Mary’, ‘Foxy Lady’ and more which sums up its brilliance.

Credit: Hendrix

2. Unknown Pleasures – Joy Division (1979)

Rightly regarded as one of the most poignant and potent albums of all time, Joy Division’s debut effort redefined post-punk and offered up a brand new route for the anger and frustration that encircled Britain at the time. As Black Flag frontman said of the album: “When they finally write the real book on rock and roll, when all the dust settles and the truth is finally told and they get it right. One of the bands at the top of the mountain along with the David Bowies and The Rolling Stones will be Joy Division because they are easily as great as any band that has ever existed.”

He continues, “Their first album Unknown Pleasures is an absolute masterpiece.” One can’t disagree either. It provided a sense of artistic evolution and the purity of art itself and suggested a new avenue of the mainstream for us all to explore by including a reem of bruising songs that captured the attention of everybody who heard it.

Not just relying on pure intensity to see them through, Ian Curtis’ lyrics are both marred in the tragedy of his eventual suicide and enlightening in understanding the man behind them. Peter Hook’s basslines are, for want of a better word, unfathomable, all the while Bernard Sumner gilds the tunes with his guitar work and Stephen Morris provides metronomic rhythm.

It’s the kind of album that can change your life.

1. The Velvet Underground & Nico – The Velvet Underground (1967)

“The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band,” said Brian Eno.

For that reason alone, the album should rightly be considered the greatest debut LP of all time. The sheer weight of bands, both contemporaries and those that followed, who cite Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, Mo Tucker and Nico as major influences in their musical journey, ensure that this album will never be forgotten. Of course, it has a couple of other reasons it will remain in memory too.

Not only did it have an audacious album cover form the band’s de facto manager, the pop artist Andy Warhol, which featured a peelable banana on the front, but inside the gatefold, there was a record deeply entrenched in the golden hues of music itself. The songs on this album expertly walk the line of self-expression, observation and uncanny subversion.

Songs like ‘Sunday Morning,’ ‘Run Run Run,’ ‘Venus in Furs,’ ‘Heroin,’ and ‘There She Goes’ are all included and all shine. It sees Lou Reed in the form of his life as he delivers subverted pop ditties ready for radio but too dangerous to play. It was the perfect combo for stoking a fire of passion in rock music. In 1967, there was a danger that rock and pop had merged to the point of no return, that music had been so sanitised by chart sales that the real expression of the people may never be given room to breathe again. Luckily, this album changed it all.

It showed a generation, and countless others to follow, that it was okay to live by your own rules, to wear your own clothes, enjoy your own books and, most importantly, make your own music.

The album that launched 10,000 bands deserves its place at the top.

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