This old chestnut gets rolled out every so often – recently I’ve heard it mentioned by Gibbo on the excellent The Rider podcast, and by one of the magical men on another podcast, Trust The Wizards (sorry, I forget which wizard. Find them at http://www.trustthewizards.com).
Now, clearly, this isn’t true, but that hasn’t stopped me conducting my own analysis into the question. I think people tend to be led down this path because first albums are often if not the best one by an artist, then usually amongst the very best. A further temptation to think this way is by considering all those bands or singers who only put out one album – of course the first album by Chris Bell, The La’s, Jeff Buckley and Sex Pistols are their best as they basically never put out any more.
There are of course plenty of examples where a band or singer’s first album is clearly their best – anyone who argues that “Three Feet High And Rising” (De La Soul), “Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!”, Patti Smith’s immense “Horses” and the self-titled debuts by The Stone Roses or New York Dolls, to name but a few, aren’t the peaks of their respective oeuvres is probably clinically insane. Or profoundly deaf.
There is still a healthy debate to had, therefore. And those who know me well will not be surprised to learn that I took a pseudo-scientific approach to this. I decided to restrict myself to acts which I own at least 10 albums by, to see how often I considered their debut to be their best. Now, this sample is somewhat self-selecting as it is quite likely that there are many bands with lots of albums that I have only bought a few of, as their first album is the best and things went downhill from there in my opinion… like Pink Floyd’s “Piper At The Gates Of Dawn”, “Ramones” and “Roxy Music”. Still, we’ll ignore that and plough on.
Of the 24 artists that qualify for this experiment, I would rate just five of them as having produced their best work at the first time of asking:
- “Heartbreaker” by Ryan Adams (whose ridiculous productivity explains how I manage to have eleven albums of his, despite the first one only coming out in 2000).
- “Safe As Milk” by Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band. A difficult choice for the Captain, suitably so for such a difficult artist. “Trout Mask Replica” is the most widely revered, but let’s face it, far from the most listenable.
- “Back In The D.H.S.S.” by the mighty Half Man Half Biscuit. Every one of their eleven proper albums is well worth a listen, but to my ears their first remains clearly their best. Fred Titmus, Len Ganley, Bob Todd and Jim Reeves would all no doubt agree.
- George Harrison’s audacious triple album “All Things Must Pass”, although we should gloss over the third disc of jams. How songs like the title track were passed over for “Abbey Road” and “Let It Be” by the rest of The Beatles is a mystery. The inclusion of this album in the list means that I am towing the party line of ignoring two experimental albums (“Wonderwall Music” and “Electronic Sound”) and looking upon this as his first proper release.
- “The Modern Dance” by Pere Ubu – a sheer work of post-punk genius from 1978.
If finding out I owned eleven albums by Pere Ubu slightly surprised me, I was even more amazed to realise I have ten by Of Montreal (as well as two compilations and four e.p.’s). Now there’s a band that I’d love to know if any of the countless (!) readers of this blog have ever heard of! I came across them purely because they had an album released by Track & Field, a label I got rather obsessed with in the mid-1990’s. Oddball (British) psych-influenced indie pop, if you’re interested.
In addition to these five, there are another eight of the 24 acts whose first album may not be absolutely their best, but is still fantastic:
- “Please Please Me” by the fab four – a stunning album by any standards, but probably not even in my top five Beatles albums. Number one for me is “Rubber Soul” (#6), just about.
- “Life’s A Riot With Spy Vs Spy” by Billy Bragg. Raw and uncompromising, with great songs like “The Milkman of Human Kindness” and “A New England”, later beautifully covered by Kirsty MacColl. My fave is “Workers Playtime”, his fourth.
- The Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man” is an excellent piece of work, but is easily topped by “The Notorious Byrd Brothers” (#5), and probably one or two others.
- 1967’s “Songs Of Leonard Cohen” is a wonderfully lugubrious listen (I did have to check the meaning of that word: “looking or sounding sad and dismal”, which I think is a great summary of Leonard Cohen). I love “I’m Your Man” from 1988 the most, though. Only his sixth studio album, despite coming more than two decades after his first.
- “Live At The Witch Trials”. Now obviously The Fall’s first album is absolutely glorious. All their albums are (OK, nearly all, don’t hold me to “Seminal Live, for example). However, their finest hour or so is probably still “Hex Enduction Hour” (#5) from 1982, although it could be “This Nation’s Saving Grace” (#9) from three years later. I’m now up to 34 studio albums proper by The Fall. Funnily enough, I believe they have released 34…
- “McCartney”. A lovely, oddball thing, but topped probably by “Band On The Run” (#5) from three years later. I appear to own 25 Macca albums (plus several compilations of course).
- “Murmur” is often rated as R.E.M.’s best album, and I nearly chose it, but decided I slightly preferred “Lifes Rich Pageant” (#4), but I could well be wrong on this one.
- Neil Young’s self-titled debut is excellent, but his second album, and first with Crazy Horse, “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” remains my favourite (nice dog on the cover too – called Winnipeg after his home town, apparently).
Those paying close attention will know that there are eleven remaining acts which I own at least ten albums by, but whose first album I don’t think is at least absolutely fantastic. Often their first album is still a good album, but sometimes I don’t even own it…
- I think my favourite by The Beach Boys is 1970’s “Sunflower” (#16) not the much more critically-lauded “Pet Sounds”.
- David Bowie – I’ve not heard all of his first album from 1967, but what I have heard is a long way from his 1970’s heyday. My favourite is probably “Hunky Dory” (album #4), just ahead of “The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars” (#5).
- Johnny Cash – “Johnny Cash With His Hot And Blue Guitar” came out in 1957 and includes four of his early hit singles, “I Walk the Line”, “Cry! Cry! Cry!”, “So Doggone Lonesome”, and “Folsom Prison Blues”. I’ve just discovered that this was the first ever album released by Sun Records, which is some milestone. However, I doubt it’s anywhere near as good an album as “American Recordings” from 1994, which by my reckoning was his 59th album (I only have 11 proper albums of his!).
- Bob Dylan’s self-titled debut is a case of an artist learning who he is, in my opinion, only including two of his own songs. I have thirty of his albums (I knew I had quite a few, but that also slightly surprised me), and I think my favourite remains the first one I ever owned (on cassette), “Bringing It All Back Home” (#5). I vividly recall clearing the sixth form common room by putting that album on the tape deck!
- Lambchop’s first album is “I Hope You’re Sitting Down”, but their best for me is #6, “Nixon”.
- I’ve mentioned Of Montreal already – their first album is “Cherry Peel”, but to my ears their finest work is #6, “Satanic Panic In the Attic”.
- The Rolling Stones’ self-titled debut was a nothing-special collection. I don’t believe they really took albums all that seriously to start with (and they surely aren’t doing so these days…), so they came into their own at the turn of the decade. My favourite isn’t the beloved “Exile On Main Street” but “Let It Bleed” from 1969 (#8). But I’d claim that even their finest album isn’t a patch on The Beatles’ weakest album (if we ignore the “Yellow Submarine” soundtrack).
- Frank Sinatra is part of my holy trinity of musical artists who can do no wrong in my ears (along with The Beatles and The Fall). I therefore have managed to amass 51 of his albums in various ways (box sets, mainly). My absolute favourite Frank album is probably his seventeenth, “Come Dance With Me!”.
- Another surprise was to discover that I own fourteen Sonic Youth albums. I was actually mildly surprised to find that they had even made that many (15 in all, I think as I am actually missing the very first one – I used to own it but sold it many moons ago). Their best for me is #5, “Daydream Nation”, a sprawling, majestic album.
- Bruce Springsteen’s first album was the OK “Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.”. I have eleven of his eighteen albums, and I can’t decide if my favourite is the hit-packed, stadium-pleasing “Born In The U.S.A.” (#7) or the preceding “Nebraska” that was recorded originally just as demos to be ‘properly’ recorded later. I’ve put the image of “Nebraska” above rather than the gazillion-seller, just to main some cool points…
- Tom Waits’ “Closing Time” is another case of an artist learning his craft on his first album. Again, somehow I have acquired thirteen of his records, with the best definitely being #7 for me, “Swordfishtrombones”.
So what have learned? Probably very little! However, I found in my sample of 24 acts that I consider the debut album to be the best for five of them – the exact same number as the fifth and sixth albums, oddly enough. In only one case do I think the second album to be the best, and none of them their third album – perhaps there’s something in those old ‘difficult second/third album syndrome’ stories?
No doubt anyone reading this will disagree with many of my ratings, so feel free to tell me!