SCORING ON DEBUT
A supreme moment
says Norman Warwick
When I read a list of ´best of´or ´most liked music´ I always find it intriguing, frequently find it infuriating but never find it exactly matches my own. However, when I read the words of excellent journalists like the staff writers at Paste magazine I frequently so much like what they say that I return to music I had previously under-rated. That was the case recently when I read a Paste list on line of the hundred best initial albums with various writers saying why they had selected the albums. From their hundred I chose the list below to return to because of the strength of the recommendation. In sporting terms this is a list of players ´scoring on debut.´
The Supremes: Meet the Supremes (1962)
The artists formerly known as The Primettes became The Supremes in 1961 and debuted their new sound and image with Meet the Supremes the following year. Consisting of Florence Ballard, Diana Ross and Mary Wilson, The Supremes were Motown’s first and most successful girl group. With the trio’s dynamic vocals—and the musical minds of Smokey Robinson and Berry Gordy Jr.—Meet the Supremes is a masterpiece of ‘60s R&B. The glamorous gals all have stand-out vocal performances on the album, with Ross leading on most of the tracks, but Wilson and Ballard have their moments in the sun with “Baby Don’t Go” and “Buttered Popcorn,” respectively. An album packed with love songs and a tune about a man’s obsession with popcorn shouldn’t have so many standouts, but when you come out swinging with the bluesy surf rock of “Your Heart Belongs To Me” and the snappy drums of “Let Me Go The Right Way” paired with the sultry smooth vocals of Diana Ross, you are bound to have some hits on your hands While the women were only at the beginning of a long journey of success and undisputed reign on the Billboard Hot 100, their iconic potential seeped out in the magic of “Play A Sad Song,” where Ross leaned into the deeper tones of her voice, giving an exceptionally silky vocal performance. You could see the foreshadowing of superstardom in the minor improvements on every song they recorded for the album while still delivering timeless classics so early in their careers. It is the perfect time capsule of ‘60s doo-wop and girl group glory. —Olivia Abercrombie
Big Star: #1 Record (1972)
It takes a lot of gusto to name your debut album #1 Record, but when you’ve got it you’ve got it. Big Star broke through the Memphis scene they came up in and made a bonafide masterpiece right out of the gate. It was the first power pop album to really hone in on the groundwork The Who had laid down the decade prior, and you can feel just how magnetic the songs would remain for years to come. The singular balladry of “Thirteen,” the raucous, raw energy of “In the Street,” the magic of “The Ballad of El Goodo”—Alex Chilton, Chris Bell and company were on another level. #1 Record would go on to influence artists like The Replacements, R.E.M. and Nick Lowe and cement its place as the primitive power pop LP. They’d come roaring back two years later with Radio City, building on their already masterful oeuvre. —MM
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
The Ronettes: Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes (1964)
Ranking the debut of a group who ever made one studio album together might be a stretch to some, but if that group is The Ronettes then I’d say it’s a necessity. The trio—Ronnier Spector (then known as Veronica Bennett), Estelle Bennett and Nedra Talley—are rock pioneers, and I stand by that. How many acts can say The Rolling Stones opened for them? The three teens were known for their exaggerated eye makeup, massive beehive up-dos and (in 1960s standards) tight skirts—all of which were small acts of rebellion against the demure images of other girl groups of the time. Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes is a kaleidoscope of teenage angst, manipulative producers and all the “baby” songs anyone could ever need. The 12-track LP is a compilation of singles and covers with a few originals explicitly recorded for the album. We all know their smash hit “Be My Baby”—in all its snappy romantic glory. Still, this album has so much more to offer, like Ronnie’s velvety smooth vocals on “Walking In the Rain,” the sprawling layered production of “You Baby” and the swaying melody of “So Young” paired with the heavenly harmonies of Estelle and Nedra. Sitting at just over 36 minutes, the album’s brevity is the perfect mirror to The Ronettes’ time as a group—short but sweet yet immortal. —OA
The Byrds: Mr. Tambourine Man (1965)
The Byrds’ musical career began with the jingle-jangle of “Mr. Tambourine Man,” the opening title track from their 1965 debut. In it was all the DNA for their blending of Greenwich Village folk and British Invasion rock into something that felt new—and that would go on to influence scores of bands to follow. And then on track two, they switch gears to the proto-power-pop of “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better.” There’s more filler on this debut than on what would come later, but any debut with those two songs and the bright anthem “Chimes of Freedom” is a hell of an introduction. Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark, David Crosby, Chris Hillman and Michael Clarke changed the trajectory of pop music in America with this release, establishing a West Coast hub for great songwriting and even better harmonies. —Josh Jackson
Leonard Cohen: Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967)
Leading up to release of Leonard Cohen’s debut album, he’d been getting noticed around New York for his poetry and prose. Many years prior, he was a guitarist in a country band called the Buckskin Boys, and the orbits of his writing and musicality were beginning to converge. He wrote a song called “Suzanne” and then Judy Collins recorded it. Folks in the industry, namely John Hammond, came to notice Cohen’s lyricism and he got a contract from Columbia within a year. Songs of Leonard Cohen sets itself apart from most other folk records of its era, namely for how pronounced and thoughtful it was from the jump. Cohen was 33 when he made it, and being that old in New York City was like being 75 in the Midwest. There’s ample wisdom and thoughtfulness across every speck of the record, on songs like “So Long, Marianne” and “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” and “The Stranger Song.” Songs of Leonard Cohen was ahead of its time, with Nancy Priddy’s harmonies and David Lindley’s use of violin, jaw harp and flute; when I listen to it now, 56 years later, it still feels that way. —MM
The Band: Music From Big Pink (1968)
As the legend goes, The Band knocked out their debut album live in the studio in a matter of just two weeks. Apocryphal or not, Music From Big Pink certainly sounds as organic as that—the product of five musicians that have spent years on the road or in rehearsal spaces with one another, honing a sound that combined their varying interests in folk, R&B, jazz, country and soul. Why wouldn’t these 11 songs come out in one great big gush of inspiration as if guided by the Holy Spirit and a mess of weed and beer. Following their lead were folks like George Harrison and Eric Clapton, envious that this Canadian-American group were as authentic as it gets and trying desperately to ride their collective coattails toward a rootsier sound. But as Big Pink lays out, these boys had this sound in their bloodstream, in their bones, in their muscle memory. It all came natural and sounded as perfect and lived-in as could be. —RH
Fiona Apple: Tidal (1996)
The ’90s were a peak time to be an angsty teen girl. With riot girl taking over and Alanis Morissette telling men what they oughta know, it was the perfect moment to enjoy the grit of female rage. However, hidden in the grime-covered musical landscape of the grunge era, Fiona Apple was taking a different approach to that anger. The jazzy poetry of Apple’s debut album Tidal is a fully formed deep-dive into the female condition. Writing most of the songs at only 17 years old, she proved the depth women could carry at such a young age—and in a world where female emotions are belittled and disregarded no less. “The Child Is Gone” is a raw expression of the harsh reality of love in adult relationships, while Apple sings about sexual empowerment in “Criminal.” She exposes her forced maturity in “Sullen Girl,” singing, “But he washed me ‘shore and he took my pearl / And left an empty shell of me” in an all too familiar musing of exploitation. The quiet contemplation of Tidal remains a mecca of womanhood for all the girls out there who just want to be heard. —OA
John Prine: John Prine (1971)
For all of the ways that Bob Dylan became one of our lifetime’s greatest storytellers across 40 studio albums, John Prine achieved all of that on his very first record. Released in autumn 1971, John Prine is a perfect assembly of 13 songs, many of which endure as some of Prine’s all-time greatest. From “Illegal Smile” to “Flashback Blues,” the Illinois folk troubadour took us through a century’s worth of stories told from the attic of a nasally voice. Prine was a poet with no interest in fashioning a catchy imprint; the work was hard-nosed and blunt, compassionate and universal. Some of the cornerstone tracks, like “Hello in There” and “Sam Stone” and “Angel From Montgomery,” are their own novels, populated with characters that arrive like we’ve known and loved them forever—from drug-addicted war veterans to strip miners to middle-aged women to junkyard treasure hunters. There is also “Donald and Lydia,” Prine’s ode to a young couple who’ve become narrow-minded in their own love. And then “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You into Heaven Anymore” comes at us as an anti-war tune waging critiques at performative patriotism. From top to bottom John Prine is not just one of the greatest debut albums ever; it’s the greatest folk record ever written. —MM
John Stewart: California Bloodlines
However, not included in this Paste top 100 debut albums was the record that is actually my own number one. California Bloodlines by John Stewart was released in the UK in 1969, making no significant impact at the time, despite containing some wonderful lyrics, great guitar riffs and high production values. This was the man who had written Daydream Believer, as covered by The Monkees and Anne Murray et al, and was subsequently performed live at BBC Radio Merseyside a quarter of a century later by Jeff McDonald, Pete Benbow and Norman Warwick. John Stewart was The man Who Would Be King and this was the man around whom I would build my entire music collection.
I had actually heard Pete Benbow perform the title track on several occasions as we bumped into each other on the folk club scene of the time. Having bought the album I realised on first hearing that this was a life-changing moment. I immediately fell in love with each track including Omaha Rainbow which led me to a marvellous fan zine of the same name published by Peter O´Brien that focussed massively not only in depth features on Stewart and his writing, but also on writers like Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark.
The Pirates of Stone County Road was one of my favourite songs on the album, evoking the excitement of imagined childhood adventures and July You´re A Woman became minor hits for several artists but also became indelibly linked with its writer.
The stand out track for me was Mother Country, a song in which Stewart celebrated the spirit not only of the country but also of its people. (that became recurring themes in his music throughout his career). Embedded in the song lyrics is a story of an old man, now totally blind, who was sitting in his wagon holding the reins in his hands and steering his way round a paddock being watched and cheered by his family as he took his horse, Sweetheart On Parade, on one final ride.. Stewart perfectly captured the mixture of sadness and pride at the event.
I would see a dozen or more John Stewart concerts in my time, and interviewed him on half a dozen occasions. I bought every title on his discography as it was released and I would employ his writing techniques to encourage students whenever I delivered my peripatetic creative writing sessions in secondary schools.
When Stewart spoke of California Bloodlines it always seemed as if I was being given a blood transfusion, and I and the world, seemed a healthier place.
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