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Best Debut Albums: 20 Must-Hear Early Works Of Genius
List & Guides

Best Debut Albums: 20 Must-Hear Early Works Of Genius

From sonic daring to emotional outpouring, the best debut albums set the bar not only for their creators, but for everyone else who followed.

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A debut album is often the most significant release in a musician’s career. While many artists will go on to develop their sound and produce some of their best and most commercial work on later releases, that first record often defines their musical mission. Serving as statements of intent, the best debut albums have enthralled fans, inspired countless other musicians and – sometimes – reshaped the music industry as a whole.

Here, then, are 20 of the best debut albums of all time: game-changing classics that served notice of their creators’ genius.

Best Debut Albums: 20 Must-Hear Early Works Of Genius

20: Sade: ‘Diamond Life’ (1984)

Due to its sophistication, originality and timeless soul sound, Sade’s debut album became an immediate hit whose sales were matched by critical acclaim. Introducing the singer as the new voice of British soul, Diamond Life won a Best British Album BRIT Award and eventually went multi-platinum, selling over ten million copies worldwide. It remains one of the best-selling debut albums of the era, and one of the all-time greatest records from a female British singer.

Must hear: Your Love Is King

19: The Doors: ‘The Doors’ (1967)

Nothing quite amalgamated sex, poetry and rock’n’roll like The Doors, whose self-titled debut album remains a classic-rock staple. Effortlessly bringing a jazz sensibility to rock music, John Densmore’s free-form drumming, Ray Manzarek’s virtuoso keyboards and Robby Krieger’s lysergic blues guitar created a seductive backdrop upon which Jim Morrison laid his smouldering vocals. Singles such as Break On Through (To The Other Side) and the baroque-pop Light My Fire helped the record spend two weeks at No.2 in the US, with only The BeatlesSgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band denying it the top spot.

Must hear: Light My Fire

18: Dizzee Rascal: ‘Boy In Da Corner’ (2003)

Dylan Mills (aka Dizzee Rascal) was just 18 when he released one of the best debut albums in UK history: the gritty and uncompromising Boy In Da Corner. Self-producing his uncomfortably disjointed beats, the Roll Deep crew MC mixed drum’n’bass, garage and British hip-hop to become a pioneer the UK’s grime scene, painting a vivid picture of East London’s social, economic and political landscape. Having unleashed Dizzee’s matchless flow, Boy In Da Corner then went on to win the 2003 Mercury Prize.

Must hear: Fix Up, Look Sharp

17: Linkin Park: ‘Hybrid Theory’ (2000)

Taking its title from Linkin Park’s original band name, Hybrid Theory encapsulated the group’s pioneering experimental sound at the turn of the 21st century. Effortlessly fusing hip-hop, metal and electronica, the six-piece crafted a modern rock classic which became the highest-selling debut album of the era. Alongside singer and MC Mike Shinoda’s rap vocals, Chester Bennington’s melodic singing and raging screams created a perfect duality, while spreading a message of hope for the modern nu-metallist. Originally released on 24 October 2000, the album remains as influential as ever, inspiring groups such as Bring Me The Horizon, twenty one pilots and BROCKHAMPTON.

Must hear
: In The End

16. N.W.A: ‘Straight Outta Compton’ (1988)

In 1988, N.W.A released one of the boldest, most menacing debut albums of all time, revealing the truth behind Compton street life, gang culture and police brutality. The controversial single Fuck Tha Police found them labelled “the world’s most dangerous group” and led to an FBI warning and further police attention – which only added to N.W.A’s notoriety. Many critics at the time ignored Dr Dre’s slick production, the group’s forward-thinking rhymes and the socio-political message of the album’s title track, and focuses instead on the profanity in the lyrics and what was deemed to be a glorification of gang culture; though as Ice Cube put it to the Los Angeles Times: “Our music’s not shocking to people who know that world. It’s reality.”

Must hear: Straight Outta Compton

15: Black Sabbath: ‘Black Sabbath’ (1970)

Often cited alongside Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin as pioneers of heavy metal music, Black Sabbath rather appropriately unleashed their doom-laden sound on Friday, 13 February 1970. After the 17-year-old Tommy Iommi sliced off the tips of two of his fingers while working at a sheet-metal factory in Birmingham, the determined guitarist fashioned prosthetic fingertips for himself and detuned his guitar by a minor third for comfort, establishing the group’s ominous-sounding tone in the process. Nowhere is this more apparent than on their debut album’s opening title track, which featured Iommi’s “devil’s tritone” and is now regarded as one of the first doom metal songs in history.

Must hear
: Black Sabbath

14: Daft Punk: ‘Homework’ (1997)

Perfectly encapsulating Daft Punk’s love of technology and house music, Homework is rightly regarded as the finest bedroom-produced record of all time, and will forever stand as one electronic music’s best debut albums. Their rawest work in terms of sound, musicality and feel, Guy-Manuel De Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter composed the record with live performance in mind. Homework’s use of creative sampling, whomping beats and razor-edged, vocoder-treated vocals crafted a disco-infused sound that remains unrivalled to this day, with such cuts as the gritty Da Funk, the aggressive Rollin’ & Scratchin’ and the unforgettable, chart-topping Around The World revealing the intricacies of their sound.

Must hear: Around The World

13: Rage Against The Machine: ‘Rage Against The Machine’ (1992)

Rage Against The Machine’s debut album offered a master class in the fusion of hard rock and hip-hop, and remains a landmark record at the intersection of music and politics. The combination of frontman Zach De La Rocha’s politically-charged vocals and guitarist Tom Morello’s filthy tone placed the group in a league of their own, with songs such as Bombtrack, Killing In The Name and Bullet In The Head propelling the record to critical acclaim. Just as impactful today as it was in 1992, Rage Against The Machine is also, ironically, home to one of the most unlikely UK Christmas No.1s of all time.

Must hear: Killing In The Name

12: Lauryn Hill: ‘The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill’ (1998)

To understand the importance of Lauryn Hill’s debut album is to remember the state of mainstream hip-hop at the time of its release. Misogyny seemed to fuel every 90s hip-hop video, with women being represented as objects for men’s pleasure while sexist rhymes filled every other bar. Released on 25 August 1998, The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill provided a voice for black feminism in hip-hop culture, with the former Fugees member preaching a message of love, equality and peace through an infectious blend of soul, reggae and R&B that set her apart from other artists of the era. One of the best debut albums of the 90s, it picked up five Grammy awards, including Record Of The Year, and its popularity sparked a generation of future stars (Beyoncé, Janelle Monáe, Kendrick Lamar) to speak boldly on world matters and personal identity.

Must hear
: Doo-Wop (That Thing)

11: Guns N’ Roses: ‘Appetite For Destruction’ (1987)

Appetite For Destruction was the biggest thing to happen to hard rock since Led Zeppelin’s legendary fourth album. Though not immediately popular upon release, sales soared once the Welcome To The Jungle video aired on MTV, swiftly followed by the unforgettable Sweet Child O’ Mine single. It would then go on to sell over 30 million copies worldwide, becoming the best-selling debut album of all time.

Must hear: Welcome To The Jungle

10: Björk: ‘Debut’ (1993)

Technically, Björk recorded her debut album aged 11. Officially, however, Debut is where her solo career began. After first finding fame as part of The Sugarcubes, Björk set out on a solo career that would cover almost every type of music imaginable. Uniting electronic, pop, house, jazz and trip-hop music, Debut is packed full of alternative hits (Human Behaviour, Venus As A Boy, Big Time Sensuality) that set the stage for her further experiments in sound.

Must hear: Human Behaviour

9: Kanye West: ‘The College Dropout’ (2004)

Kanye West originally made a name for himself as a producer for artists such as Jay-Z and Talib Kweli. Soon taking the hip-hop world by storm, his production style would be one of many reasons for The College Dropout’s glowing success, with the album displaying a master class in sampling, drum programming and song arrangement. At the time, few were ready to place their bets on Kanye as a solo artist, but he set himself apart from his peers, steering away from the gangsta persona and finding peace and conviction in religion, family and humour.

Must hear: Jesus Walks

8: The Jimi Hendrix Experience: ‘Are You Experienced’ (1967)

In 1966, Jimi Hendrix arrived in London as a force to be reckoned with. A mere week later, he dominated the city’s rock scene, jamming with Eric Clapton at a Cream concert and stealing the show so convincingly that Slowhand not so slowly left the stage. Are You Experienced revealed Hendrix’s virtuosic guitar skill to the world, with singles such as Purple Haze, Hey Joe and Foxey Lady unveiling a visionary, psychedelic approach to the blues.

Must hear: Purple Haze

7: The Notorious B.I.G.: ‘Ready To Die’ (1994)

Christopher Wallace, otherwise known as the legendary rapper The Notorious B.I.G., had been displaying his lyrical abilities on Brooklyn’s Fulton Street since the age of 13, in an attempt to step away from the drug-dealing lifestyle he felt destined for. As he put it in Things Done Changed: “If I wasn’t in the rap game/I’d probably have a ki, knee-deep in the crack game”. Biggie’s life experience flooded into Ready To Die– not only one of the best debut albums in hip-hop, but one of the most brutally honest records of all time. Upon its release, Biggie became an overnight star and a patron for East Coast rap, restoring New York’s visibility at a time of West Coast dominance.

Must hear
: Juicy

6: Led Zeppelin: ‘Led Zeppelin’ (1969)

Led Zeppelin’s debut album laid the groundwork for one of the most influential musical careers in rock. While many groups, such as The Beatles, pushed music forward with their increasingly experimental approach to recording, Led Zeppelin took music in a heavier direction, stretching their blues roots to new extremes. The unison of Jimmy Page’s dizzying fretwork, John Paul Jones’ dexterous bass, John Bonham’s thunderous grooves and Robert Plant’s yowling vocals created a rock synergy unlike any other.

Must hear
: Good Times Bad Times

5: Massive Attack: ‘Blue Lines’ (1991)

A masterpiece of whatever genre you label it, Blue Lines incorporated elements of hip-hop, dub, funk, soul and R&B, becoming the first-ever trip-hop album in the process. At a time when US groups such as Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden were breaking through with an alt-rock/grunge sound, Bristol’s Massive Attack were something entirely different, underpinning their dark textures and an array of voices with experimental beats. Over three decades after its release, Blue Lines continues to stake its claim as one of the best debut albums of all time, casting a shadow over so many other electronica artists that followed.

Must hear: Unfinished Sympathy

4. Patti Smith: ‘Horses’ (1975)

A singer-songwriter, musician, author and poet, Patti Smith delivered a moment of musical history with her debut album, Horses. Reimagining 60s rock’n’roll with a lyrical flair and a unique punk aesthetic, the record cemented the already-established Smith’s place as a key figure in the New York punk rock movement. From the opening lines of Gloria (“Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine”), to her requiem for Jimi Hendrix, Elegie, Smith set herself apart while perfectly conveying the importance of poetry within music.

Must hear: Gloria

3: Jeff Buckley: ‘Grace’ (1994)

As Anna Calvi once noted, listening to Jeff Buckley’s fabled Grace feels like falling in love for the first time. The only album completed by the talented singer-songwriter before he accidentally drowned in Memphis, aged 30, the record has grown in stature since its original release, and is rightly acclaimed for Buckley’s unusual approach to songwriting, his virtuosic guitar playing and his almost operatic vocal ability. From the angelic rendition of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah to the exceptionally passionate performance of the title track and the heart-wrenching original album closer, Dream Brother, Grace rightly paints Jeff Buckley as one of the most talented artists of all time – one whose legacy is not likely to fade.

Must hear: Dream Brother

2: Nas: ‘Illmatic’ (1994)

Released at the height of hip-hop’s Golden Age, Illmatic showed the lengths to which rap music can go and set Nas apart as one of the best MCs of all time. Despite enlisting the hottest producers around – including Pete Rock, DJ Premier and Q-Tip – for a sample-heavy masterpiece on which to spit his rhythmic New York narrative, Nas did not score the chart-topping success he expected. Now, however, Illmatic stands as one of the most groundbreaking and poetic debut albums in in hip-hop history.

Must hear: NY State Of Mind

1: Joy Division: ‘Unknown Pleasures’ (1979)

Even those who haven’t heard Unknown Pleasures will have seen its iconic artwork. Topping our list of the best debut albums of all time, Unknown Pleasures found Joy Division forging their own sound and leading the way for post-punk in Britain. At the time of its release, no other album sounded like it – and still nothing else comes close. Ian Curtis’ dramatic lyrics and unparalleled baritone vocals were perfectly matched by producer Martin Hannett’s extraordinary sonic sculptures, constructing a raw yet futuristic sound that continues to point the way for sonic innovation in rock music.

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