Greatest Debut Albums of all Time
What makes a great debut album? Is it sales, influence or the music itself? The best debut albums meet one or more of those requirements.
Many bands knock it out of the park on their first try, then have trouble sustaining that success. Others don't leave much of an impression when their debut is released, only to have critics and audiences recognize its importance in hindsight. It's subjective, but some albums are undeniable.
These are the greatest debut albums of all time.
30. 'Entertainment!' — Gang of Four
Albums sold: N/A
Songs you should know: "At Home He’s A Tourist," "Damaged Goods," "Anthrax"
Bottom Line: 'Entertainment!'
Powerful, potent and angry. Gang of Four are post-punk pioneers, and their first release is their best. The band fused elements of punk and funk with incendiary lyrics that made you think as well as dance.
While the album (and the band) didn't have much sales success in the United States, it was nevertheless well-loved by those who heard it. Countless musicians cite "Entertainment!" as an influence.
Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea said: "I heard 'Entertainment!' and it opened my mind to everything. I didn’t care about virtuosity anymore. You could be a confused kid like me, not knowing how to play that good, and still make something incredibly important, like Gang of Four."
29. 'Grace' — Jeff Buckley
Albums sold: Certified platinum (over 1 million sold) in 2016
Songs you should know: "Last Goodbye," "Lover, You Should’ve Come Over," "Hallelujah"
Bottom Line: 'Grace'
When "Grace'' came out, it was generally lost in the din of grunge and hip-hop, and it was largely dismissed by the critics. However, Jeff Buckley’s musical heroes and contemporaries — Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Chris Cornell and Bono, who called Buckley "a pure drop in an ocean of noise" — loved "Grace," and it wasn’t long before it got its due.
Expectations were high for Buckey’s future, but these were cut short when he died in a drowning accident in the Mississippi River in Memphis, just three years after the album's release, at only 30 years old.
Since then, "Grace" has only grown in significance. It is frequently on best album lists and one track, Buckley’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s "Hallelujah," was added to the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress in 2014.
28. 'Music From Big Pink' — The Band
Albums sold: Certified gold (over a half a million sold) in 2001
Songs you should know: "The Weight," "This Wheel’s On Fire," "Chest Fever"
Bottom Line: 'Music From Big Pink'
Americana wouldn’t exist without this mostly Canadian band who released an album rooted in gospel, country, folk, soul and bluegrass smack in the middle of the psychedelic era.
The Band more than earned their stripes in the years before as Bob Dylan’s backup musicians (then known as the Hawks) who accompanied him on a tumultuous tour around Europe. When they got back to the States, they rented an unassuming house in West Saugerties, New York, and began writing.
They carved out their own niché as The Band and their debut has stood the test of time.
27. 'Straight Outta Compton' — N.W.A.
Albums sold: 3.5 million
Songs you should know: "Straight Outta Compton," "F*** Tha Police"
Bottom Line: 'Straight Outta Compton'
"Straight Outta Compton" introduced the world not only to N.W.A. but also to gangster rap, and the world in which they lived.
The album, particularly "F*** Tha Police," put the world on notice, and that included the FBI, which sent a letter to N.W.A.'s record company to remove the song from the album. The ACLU and some politicians called it a violation of free speech, and the controversy only made the record more popular.
Over the decades, N.W.A. has transcended the rap genre to become icons of free speech through that very song. Though written about the LAPD's mistreatment of the Black community, it has come to represent police brutality everywhere and is now part of protests around the world.
26. 'The Doors' — The Doors
Albums sold: 13.8 million
Songs you should know: "Break On Through (To The Other Side)," "Light My Fire," "The End"
Bottom Line: 'The Doors'
The Doors' dark psychedelic pop sounded like nothing that came before it. The band had no bass player (organist Ray Manzarek essentially took on that role), and singer Jim Morrison was a strange mix of sex symbol and poet, who took his influences from 18th- and 19th- century poets and philosophers like Charles Baudelaire, Friedrich Nietzsche and William Blake.
Morrison’s untimely death at just 27 enhanced his legend and the band’s legacy. Their debut is played as much if not more than it was when it was first released as generation after generation continues to discover this uniquely timeless band.
25. 'The Pretenders' — The Pretenders
Albums sold: Certified platinum (over 1 million sold) in 1982
Songs you should know: "Brass In Pocket," "Mystery Achievement," "Kid"
Bottom Line: 'The Pretenders'
The Pretenders' self-titled LP was one of the more explosive and fun albums to come out at the end of the 1970s. It is an expression of great rock and roll with pop vulnerability. Both elements came courtesy of bandleader Chrissie Hynde, whose mix of rebellious snark and sweetness make this a debut for the ages.
Her backup band was solid, too, but unfortunately, short-lived. After the band's second album, original members James Honeyman-Scott and Pete Fardon died within a year of each other. The band regrouped with new members and have several other hits, but the chemistry of the first record hasn't been replicated.
24. 'Paid In Full' — Eric B. and Rakim
Albums sold: Certified platinum (over 1 million sold) in 1995
Songs you should know: "Paid In Full," "I Know You Got Soul," "I Ain’t No Joke"
Bottom Line: 'Paid In Full'
Critics often state that "Paid In Full" is the most important hip-hop record ever made. Rakim changed the way rappers delivered lyrics going forward by making them more conversational.
According to hip-hop historian, Nelson George: "One thing that almost all the MCs up until then [did was that] they all rhymed like they were at a party. There was a lot of grunting and shouting. And what Rakim introduced was rhyming conversationally. ... To this day, anyone who rhymes in a conversational voice is coming in the legacy laid down by Rakim."
It was also one of the first records to combine samples with beats before the copyright clampdown that followed in the 1990s. One of these was from Ofra Hazra, an Israeli singer whose voice helped make the title track a dance floor classic.
23. 'Ramones' — Ramones
Albums sold: Certified gold (over a half a million sold) in 2014
Songs you should know: "Blitzkrieg Bop," "Beat On The Brat," "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend"
Bottom Line: 'Ramones'
At just 29 minutes long, the Ramones' debut sounded nothing like what was charting at the time. While its sales numbers reflect how underappreciated the album was at the time, its influence looms large over everyone from the Sex Pistols to Green Day and Nirvana.
This album full of short songs with simple lyrics cut through the ponderous stadium rock with a jagged knife. The Ramones' debut is often regarded as the first punk album, and it shaped guitar-driven rock for decades to come.
22. 'My Generation' (U.K.)/'The Who Sings My Generation' (U.S.) — The Who
Albums sold: N/A
Songs you should know: "My Generation," "The Kids Are Alright"
Bottom Line: 'My Generation' (U.K.)/'The Who Sings My Generation' (U.S.)
During the early days of the British Invasion, the Beatles and Rolling Stones were competing boy bands, which had legions of female fans screaming for their every move. The Who were different. They represented and appealed to young men of their day and were the soundtrack of the mod scene.
While their debut still sounds like a band trying to find its feet (much like others at the time, it's filled with covers), the Pete Townsend-penned tunes, particularly "My Generation," would become classics and introduce the world to one of the most seminal bands of the past 50 years.
21. 'Are You Experienced?' — The Jimi Hendrix Experience
Albums sold: 5 million
Songs you should know: "Purple Haze," "Foxey Lady," "Manic Depression"
Bottom Line: 'Are You Experienced?'
Over five decades after "Are You Experienced?" was released, the Jimi Hendrix Experience is still leaving jaws on the floor as generation after generation discovers its brilliance.
The band fused the psychedelia of the day with traditional blues and soul to create a sound that remains well ahead of its time. Even though fans have heard these songs dozens of times since the album release, there's always something new to discover.
Its sound has often been duplicated, but never replicated, and Jimi Hendrix is one of the best guitar players of all time. Drummer Mitch Mitchell and bass guitarist Noel Redding are no slouches either. They had to be on their game to work with Hendrix, and solid rhythm buoys Hendrix's masterful guitar work.
20. 'Unknown Pleasures' — Joy Division
Albums sold: 100,000 as of 2019
Songs you should know: "New Dawn Fades," "Shadow Play," "She Lost Control"
Bottom Line: 'Unknown Pleasures'
Three of Joy Division’s members were at the legendary Sex Pistols gig in Manchester that had a little over 100 people and launched several well-known bands. In fact, Peter Hook, who became Joy Division’s bass player, bought his first instrument the next day.
"Unknown Pleasures" didn’t make much of a splash when it was first released. It was cold, bleak and discordant. But it also was oddly captivating to audiences, who attempted to figure out the album's every mystery.
The suicide of singer Ian Curtis at the age of 23 on the eve of the band's first U.S. tour only added to its allure. Decades later, "Unknown Pleasures" remains a highly influential enigma.
19. 'Murmur' — R.E.M.
Albums sold: Certified gold (over a half a million sold) in 1991
Songs you should know: "Radio Free Europe," "Pilgrimage," "Pretty Persuasion"
Bottom Line: 'Murmur'
A decade before Seattle became the next big thing, Athens, Georgia, put college rock on the map with bands like the B-52s, Pylon and R.E.M., who created something entirely new with their debut album, "Murmur."
Critically acclaimed from the get-go and somewhat mysterious (due to Michael Stipe’s impossible to understand lyrics), R.E.M. was openly influenced by everyone from Patti Smith to Gang of Four, Wire, and the Byrds.
Yet the band was uniquely its own thing — melodic guitar rock sandwiched between the behemoth that was Michael Jackson's "Thriller" and a legion of synth bands that have since been largely forgotten.
18. 'The Cars' — The Cars
Albums sold: 6 million
Songs you should know:"My Best Friend’s Girl," "Just What I Needed," "Good Times Roll"
Bottom Line: 'The Cars'
If Gen-X has a soundtrack, the Cars' first album would probably be it. Such was its success, the band has referred to it as a "true greatest hits album." Legend has it that producer Roy Thomas Baker (responsible for several albums in Queen's catalog) was sent to scout the band in a Boston school gym, recognized their potential and signed them immediately.
The Cars debut sold a million copies within the first few months of its release. Its first three tracks (listed above) were immediate top 40 hits, and most of its songs are still on radio playlists to this day. The mix of guitar rock and synth-pop caused diehard rock fans to dip their toes in new music and launched more hits over the next decade.
Most importantly, where would "Fast Times At Ridgemont High" be without "Moving In Stereo" during one of its most memorable sequences?
17. 'Van Halen' — Van Halen
Albums sold: 20 milion
Songs you should know: "Runnin' with the Devil," "Eruption/You Really Got Me," "Jamie's Cryin'"
Bottom Line: 'Van Halen'
Sure, every band on this list has made a seminal album, but how many changed guitar playing as we know it in just 1:42? "Eruption" showcased Eddie Van Halen's groundbreaking two-handed, finger-tapping technique that would challenge players everywhere to change their style, which they’ve done with varying degrees of success ever since.
Nearly every track was a single. "Jamie's Cryin," "Runnin' with the Devil," "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love" and their cover of the Kinks' tune "You Really Got Me" were all instant radio classics. With this release, Van Halen had its feet firmly planted in the stadium rock of the era, but with an eye clearly looking toward rock's future.
Even with a change of singers (Sammy Hagar took over for David Lee Roth, who eventually returned), they dominated the charts for the next decade and continued playing sold-out shows until Eddie Van Halen's death in 2020.
16. 'Elvis Presley' — Elvis Presley
Albums sold: 300,000
Songs you should know: “Blue Suede Shoes,” “I Got A Woman,” “Blue Moon”
Bottom Line: 'Elvis Presley'
The first Elvis Presley album wasn't a sure bet. At the time, teens didn't buy full albums — they bought singles, and Elvis was a virtual unknown.
"Heartbreak Hotel" was the song that had the most potential to introduce him to audiences. When it was released, it didn't make waves until Elvis appeared on TV in all his hip-grinding glory, and it shot to the top of the charts, making him a household name.
Elvis's self-titled debut showcased his seductive vocals and influences, which ranged from blues and county to soul and pop. Teens bought it by the droves. It, too, went to top of the charts and influenced nearly everyone who would come after.
A side note: The Clash's "London Calling" cover art is an homage to this LP.
15. 'Surfer Rosa' — The Pixies
Albums sold: 705,000
Songs you should know: "Bone Machine," "Gigantic," "Where Is My Mind?"
Bottom Line: 'Surfer Rosa'
By the end of the 1980s, alternative (then known as college rock) bands at the beginning of the decade had either become mainstream or broken up, and the genre had become as staid as what it had replaced a decade earlier.
The discordant, feral, guitar-driven energy of "Surfer Rosa" paved the way for '90s alternative and grunge.
Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain admitted to its influence when creating "Nevermind": "I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies. I have to admit it. When I heard the Pixies for the first time, I connected with that band so heavily that I should have been in that band — or at least a Pixies cover band. We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard."
14. 'Marquee Moon' — Television
Albums sold: N/A
Songs you should know: "Marquee Moon," "Prove It"
Bottom Line: 'Marquee Moon'
Bands like the Ramones, Blondie and Television were all lumped together under the "punk" label in the mid-'70s, but they couldn't have been more musically different.
Television's debut is an art-rock masterpiece from start to finish and features a blistering, weaving 10-minute title track that is the centerpiece of the album. NME’s Nick Kent once described it as "a 24-carat inspired work of pure genius, a record finely in tune and sublimely arranged with a whole new slant on dynamics."
Over 40 years later, "Marquee Moon" sounds like it was released yesterday. R.E.M., the Red Hot Chili Peppers and U2 all have cited it as a major influence.
13. 'Here’s Little Richard' — Little Richard
Albums sold: N/A
Songs you should know: "Tutti Frutti," "Long Tall Sally," "Rip It Up"
Bottom Line: 'Here’s Little Richard'
Little Richard started singing in Georgia gospel choirs at an early age, and when he brought his confidence, charisma and intensity to rock and roll, audiences were immediately hooked.
His first album, "Here’s Little Richard," was comprised of songs that were already hit singles, and it was the highest charting album of his lengthy career.
The Beatles, Rolling Stones and a host of other well-known artists cite Little Richard as the reason they began playing music.
12. 'Rage Against The Machine' — Rage Against The Machine
Albums sold: Certified 3x multi-platinum (over 3 million sold) in 2000
Songs you should know: "Killing In The Name," "Bullet In The Head," "Freedom"
'Rage Against The Machine'
Rage Against The Machine's self-titled debut LP feels like it was released decades too early as much as it is of its time.
The songs, a combination of rock, hip-hop and political activism, struck a chord with audiences who were quick to recognize the societal injustices that the band spoke about, and that still continue to this day. They voiced their anger with how things were and gave voice to ours.
At the same time, they were teaching us, and their unbraided energy and love of playing are evident throughout their debut and won them legions of fans around the world. They are scheduled to make a much-anticipated comeback, and we need them now more than ever.
11. 'The Clash' — The Clash
Albums sold: Certified gold (over a half a million sold) in 2001
Songs you should know: "I'm So Bored with the USA," "Janie Jones," "Police & Thieves"
Bottom Line: 'The Clash'
The Clash's debut was released in the U.S. nearly two years after its original release because record company execs felt it was too controversial for stateside audiences due to its topics of imperialism, racism and unemployment.
They repackaged it, removed what they felt were the more divisive tracks on it, and put other non-album songs on the album. What they couldn't do, however, is bury its message and its rage.
The Clash's debut is a window into the lives of disaffected British youth of the 1970s, which was imminently relatable to and adopted by young listeners in America. They continued to write iconic albums ("London Calling" among them) and never wavered from the punk ethos.
10. 'The B-52’s' — The B-52's
Albums sold: Certified platinum (over 1 million sold)
Songs you should know: "Planet Claire," "Rock Lobster," "Dance This Mess Around"
Bottom Line: 'The B-52’s'
The story goes that John Lennon heard the B-52’s in a Bermuda club, and their music brought him out of retirement. "Upstairs, they were playing disco, and downstairs I suddenly heard 'Rock Lobster' by the B-52’s for the first time. It sounds just like Yoko’s music, so I said to meself, 'It’s time to get out the old ax and wake the wife up!'"
The B-52’s debut wasn’t for everyone. Its mix of 1950s-kitsch, surf and dance beats was so out there that commercial radio stations wouldn’t touch it.
However, college radio did, and the B-52’s, who forged their own path from the beginning, gained a faithful following that led to a successful mainstream career.
9. 'Madonna' — Madonna
Albums sold: 8 million
Songs you should know: "Lucky Star," "Holiday," "Burning Up"
Bottom Line: Madonna'
Most of the female singers you know and love today — Lady Gaga, Ariana Grande and Britney Spears among them — would simply not exist were it not for the Material Girl. Madonna’s first singles were an intoxicating mix of disco, synth-pop and funk and were popular dance tracks in the New York clubs of the day.
While it took a while for her music to gather steam with the general public, once it did, there was no stopping her. "Madonna" spent a whopping 168 weeks on the Billboard charts.
That was pretty good for a girl who came to New York with just $35 and a dream.
8. 'Ten' — Pearl Jam
Albums sold: 13 million
Songs you should know: "Evenflow," "Jeremy," "Alive"
Bottom Line: 'Ten'
When grunge came calling in 1991, the music industry changed overnight. "Ten" sent ripples through the world of hard rock and made hair metal all but obsolete while becoming one of the best-selling debut albums of all time.
Pearl Jam rose from the ashes of Mother Love Bone, which dissolved after its singer Andrew Wood died of a drug overdose in 1990. Led by intense, gravelly voiced frontman Eddie Vedder, who wrote lyrics about dark topics, including depression and suicide, Pearl Jam’s debut defined alternative music in the 1990s and sold millions of copies right out of the gate.
7. 'Licensed to Ill' — Beastie Boys
Albums sold: 10 million
Songs you should know: "Fight For Your Right," "No Sleep Till Brooklyn," "She’s Crafty"
Bottom Line: 'Licensed to Ill'
Hip-hop was largely ignored until "Licensed to Ill," which was the first No. 1 in the genre's history. While the lyrics aren't exactly mature (the Beasties have since apologized for their overt misogyny and sexism of the early years), the album is still great fun and a testament not only to the band, but Rick Rubin's producing talents.
Rubin is almost solely responsible for the fusion of rap and rock, but it's the Beastie's irreverent humor and their ability to walk the tightrope between rock parody and serious musicianship that makes "Licensed To Ill" a classic.
6. 'The Rolling Stones' (U.K.)/'England’s Newest Hitmakers' (U.S.) — The Rolling Sontes
Albums sold: Certified Gold (over a half a million sold) in 1989
Songs you should know: "Route 66," "Not Fade Away," "I Just Want To Make Love To You"
Bottom Line: 'The Rolling Stones' (U.K.)/'England’s Newest Hitmakers' (U.S.)
The Rolling Stones were promoted as the anti-Beatles in their early days. While The Beatles were the pretty boys of rock with their matching suits and songs that bore the mark of innocence and teen romance, the Stones, were mad, bad and possibly dangerous to know.
Their manager Andrew Loog Oldham, who was young himself (only 19), wanted to prove himself and knew the Stones needed to set themselves apart from the Beatles. So he marketed the Stones as the boys you wouldn't want to bring home to meet your parents.
Their debut album reflects this. It's one of the first with no text on the front cover (at least on U.K. copies), further enhancing their mystery. The songs are more than respectable covers of blues and early rock classics that proved the band's mettle and gave us a glimpse of what was to come.
5. 'The Stone Roses' — Stone Roses
Albums sold: N/A
Songs you should know: "Fool’s Gold," "I Wanna Be Adored," "I Am The Resurrection"
Bottom Line: 'The Stone Roses'
“The Stone Roses” didn’t make much of a splash in the U.S. when it was first released, but the band’s debut is undeniably solid from start to finish and has become an influential early alternative record in its own right.
The Roses put "Madchester" on the map but without the druggy rave consciousness of the Happy Mondays and other bands that came and went without much fanfare.
Instead, the Roses pulled their influences from acid house, jangle pop and psychedelia to create a sound that was highly danceable and heady at the same time.
4. 'Led Zeppelin' — Led Zeppelin
Albums sold: 8 million
Songs you should know: "Good Times, Bad Times," "Dazed and Confused," "Babe I’m Gonna Leave You"
Bottom Line: 'Led Zeppelin'
Jimmy Page formed Led Zeppelin with a few unknown musicians after he left The Yardbirds. Not everyone was sold. Who drummer Keith Moon said it would go down like a "like a lead balloon."
They were initially dubbed "The New Yardbirds," and the band took its influence from American blues, psychedelia, early rock and Celtic rhythms to create their self-titled debut album. It was not well regarded by critics at the time — Rolling Stone said it contained "weak [and] unimaginative songs" — but even the experts can get it wrong.
Every track on Zeppelin's debut is a standout, and nothing like anything else that was out there at the time. "Led Zeppelin" immediately captured the band's extraordinary talent and cemented their place in rock's pantheon.
3. 'Never Mind The Bollocks' — The Sex Pistols
Albums sold: 1 million
Songs you should know: "God Save The Queen," "Anarchy in the U.K."
Bottom Line: 'Never Mind The Bollocks'
By the mid-'70s, rock and roll was stagnant with corporate, self-indulgent stadium rock and was in desperate need of a shake-up. Enter the Sex Pistols and punk rock.
Formed by fashion impresario Malcolm McLaren, the Pistols were seen as offensive, talentless bad boys who were put together merely as a shock-laden marketing gimmick, but the years have proven otherwise.
"Never Mind the Bollocks" proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that the band could play (despite rumors they couldn't, Sid Vicious notwithstanding), and its members had undeniable chemistry that many have tried to replicate but can never quite achieve.
2. 'The Velvet Underground and Nico' — The Velvet Underground
Albums sold: 560,000 (since 1991)
Songs you should know: "I’m Waiting For The Man," "All Tomorrow’s Parties," "Heroin"
Bottom Line: 'The Velvet Underground and Nico'
With songs about copping and using drugs, prostitution and sadomasochism, The Velvet Underground were light years ahead of their time.
Although the band had a wealthy benefactor in Andy Warhol, they didn’t make much of a splash in their heyday. They weren’t very well known outside of New York City and were scorned by critics who did know who they were.
However, few bands can claim their influence. The genres of glam, punk, new wave, alternative and goth would likely not exist were it not for this record. According to Brian Eno, "The Velvet Underground and Nico" only sold about 30,000 copies in the first five years of its release, but "everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band."
1. 'Please, Please Me' (U.K.)/'Introducing the Beatles' (U.S.) — The Beatles
Albums sold: N/A
Songs you should know: "Please, Please Me," "I Saw Her Standing There," "Do You Want to Know a Secret"
Bottom Line: Please, Please Me' (U.K.)/'Introducing the Beatles' (U.S.)
For causing a monumental shift in the evolution of rock and roll, the Beatles’ debut was somewhat rushed. The band did not have 14 complete songs (the standard for records in the U.K. at the time) and no concept. In fact, the album simply mirrored their live shows at the time.
The Beatles' debut took less than a day to record and cost only £400 (about $10,000 today), but that small investment paid off as it marked the beginning for what may be the biggest band in the history of popular music.
It also gives fans a window into what the band was before they went to the "toppermost of the poppermost."