The debut album, for most artists, is seen as a definitive moment. From that point on, it can either be a carefully managed slow decline, an immediate slip into obscurity or, if you’re one of the lucky few, a breakthrough moment to establish a path into the arts forever. However, here we are focusing on the artists whose debut albums came too soon.
Of all the artists chose to feature on this list, they are quite rightly revered as musicians firmly of the highest calibre, and their debut album finds itself etched out of their history. In some ways, it’s a blessing in disguise for every name collected on this list as their debut arrived at a time when they could afford to grow from their mistakes, being offered a period of freedom to avoid the stare of the world’s eyes fiercely focusing on their creative output.
Of course, being allowed time to develop as an artist is the ideal situation. No budding musician needs to be hailed as the messiah of the arts, one who is descending upon the industry here to save music because of the strength of their first album. A lack of hype means an increase in freedom, and it allowed many bands to prosper, enlightened by the removal of heavy expectation.
Some of the most beloved artists of all time didn’t truly find their voice until their second album, or sometimes even later. By the time they do eventually break into the mainstream, there’s no risk of an identity crisis because of their experience. This feature is celebrating ten artists whose first album is the sound of an artist firmly in development and yet to find the voice that we all love them for.
10 great artists with bad debut albums:
Pulp’s breakthrough in the mid-1990s evolved them from cult Sheffield heroes into Glastonbury headliners, but the road they took to the Pyramid Stage was a long and winding one.
Their debut album, It, was released back in 1983, and it arrived at little fanfare. While it would be simple to sit here and say how unjust it was that Pulp were slept on by the masses, to be brutally honest, they weren’t the same band that the nation would eventually get hooked on.
It still has moments that allude to the band that they would eventually become, and Jarvis Cocker is allowed brief moments to show signs of his budding brilliance. Still, that sparkle and incandescent charm is missing from the record that would become synonymous with Pulp.
Red Hot Chili Peppers
Red Hot Chili Peppers’ eponymous debut album, which arrived in 1984, is another album that came too soon and sounded like a band that struggling to formulate a cohesive idea of who they want to be.
Their unique blend of funk-rock is undercooked, and they didn’t quite have the musical nous to pull it off until later in their career. The jewel in the RHCP crown has always been John Frusciante, and the guitarist’s arrival in 1988 would change the course of the band’s career. Frusciante had the innate talent to bring their vision to life, and he was the missing piece in their jigsaw that they’d been crying out for over their first three albums.
Rush’s eponymous debut album in 1974 failed to capture the imaginations of the public and critics alike. In truth, they sounded like a run of the mill driving-rock band who were incapable of fully showcasing the talent that was hiding away inside.
Original drummer John Rutsey left the band shortly after the release due to health issues that prevented him from spending a long time on tour, and his replacement Neil Peart became the beating heart of Rush. Not only was the late Peart one of the finest drummers of his generation, but he was also a fine lyricist, which would give Rush that extra dimension that they were missing during their early days.
Following the death of Ian Curtis, the surviving members were left in a quandary both personally and professionally. They were all struggling during this period and still reeling over the death of Curtis. Movement offered some sonic departure from Joy Division as they increased the use of synthesizers, but nothing like the sharp change they put into motion on their sophomore album, Power, Corruption and Lies.
Perhaps New Order needed to make Movement to bridge the gap between Joy Division and the electronic entity that they confidently grew into over the next couple of years following the release.
While they were making the record, there was tension between producer Martin Hannett, who they also worked with as Joy Division. On Movement, there wasn’t enough separation between the two bands, and to survive without Ian Curtis, they had to dramatically shift their sound, which they duly did with their next record.
The Rolling Stones
The Rolling Stones recorded their debut album in just four days, and the rawness of it is unavoidable. The album was an ode to the past and the songs that influenced them to become The Rolling Stones, featuring just one song written by The Glimmer Twins.
They were yet to stand on their own two feet and failed to stand out from the crowded field of blues bands who were producing records like their debut. While the album sowed the seeds for their future, The Rolling Stones were a band that had much more to display than they first showed off on their debut, and eventually, they showed they were much more than another blues band.
Before Eminem’s fortunes dramatically changed and he became the hottest rapper on the planet, his life couldn’t be further from the glitz or glamour associated with hip-hop. He had a young daughter, Hailee, who he was trying to provide for while struggling with substance abuse problems.
Rapping offered him an escape and developed his Slim Shady alter-ego, which gave Eminem the perfect vehicle to plough all his pent up anger into, unleashing a style and flow that few have ever truly grasped. In 1997, he recorded and released his first EP under his new guise, which allowed him to get deeper and darker than ever before.
However, before he landed on his Slim Shady identity, Eminem released his debut album, 1996’s Infinity. The album was a resounding failure, but it taught the rapper lessons that would help him on his journey. He later remarked: “Infinite was me trying to figure out how I wanted my rap style to be, how I wanted to sound on the mic and present myself. It was a growing stage. I felt like Infinite was like the demo that just got pressed up.”
The Flaming Lips
Over the last 35 years, since The Flaming Lips shared their debut album, they have owned their weirdness and have become a band truly incomparable with anyone else around. Who else would ever dream of performing in a Zorb?
If you heard their debut, Hear It Is, in 1986, then you’d have had to be an absurdly bold character to suggest that anything on the record indicated that The Flaming Lips would go on to have the longevity they’ve endured. Their wild live shows were honed over the next few years, which would see the band gain a reputation, and eventually, they would discover how to capture this energy on their records.
David Bowie’s career started young as he released his debut single as a teenage starlet aged just 17. However, his career never accelerated in the way he envisaged. His eponymous self-titled album arrived on Decca in 1967, but Bowie sounded like an artist who was unsure of his creative identity and sounded lost.
Every single released on the record monumentally flopped, as did the album. Rather than maintaining a belief in Bowie, Decca Records decided to throw him to the wayside and released him from his record deal. Getting dropped was a make or break moment for Bowie. He could have easily given up hope on becoming an artist and settled for a life in the real world, but that wasn’t Bowie.
Green Day’s breakout album, Dookie, was the record that really should have been their debut, but in fact, they’d released two before, and 1990’s 1039/Smoothed isn’t going to get an anniversary tour anywhere soon.
The record is exceptionally green if you pardon the pun, and they sound lightyears away from the band that would share Dookie four years later. Helpfully by having two albums under their belt by the time Green Day arrived in the public consciousness only paid dividends in the long run through going through that learning curve at such a young age.
Primal Scream’s 1987 debut, Sonic Flower Groove, arrived on major label Elevation and sold okay by independent standards but was a far cry from what the label expected after pouring time and money into the group. They were abruptly dropped by Elevation after the album and back at square one.
The reviews were less favourable than the semi-moderate sales and nothing like the band that would serve up a masterpiece in the form of Screamadelica a matter of years later. The Scottish group removed producer Stephen Street during the recording process, replacing him with Mayo Thompson from Red Krayola and also sacked member Tom McGurk just before they headed to Rockfield Studios.
Following the album, Bobby Gillespie moved to Brighton to restructure the group and work out exactly what he wanted Primal Scream to be, which later paid off in style.