Best Debut Albums of the 20th Century By Newcomers Who Aren’t Somebody Stupid Like Foreigner

Posted: December 4, 2011 in music, Record reviews
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I finally watched The Doors, which I meant to see in 1991. (I’ve been busy.) Two hours of Jim Morrison self-destructing is not what I’d call a date movie. I did enjoy the Thanksgiving scene at the home of Morrison and his saintly but scatterbrained girlfriend, which ended with a burnt duck and a knife fight. I’m willing to add these features to next year’s feast if we could do it at someone else’s house.

Doors fun fact: Val Kilmer with long hair and a beard looks just like Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski.

The best Doors movie is still Apocalypse Now, but I was glad I saw Oliver Stone’s depressing film because it made me reconnect with his subject. For those of us who are lucky enough to have reached middle age, The Doors are like the authors we read in high school or college and haven’t touched since. Returning to their 1967 debut album for the first time in maybe 20 years, I was stunned. The Doors  rocks, mocks, and mesmerizes. “Break on Through (to the Other Side)” would be the big radio hit for most other acts. Here it’s just the opener. It’s followed by the funky weirdness of “Soul Kitchen.” And we still have “Light My Fire” and “Twentieth Century Fox” waiting in the middle of the record.

It’s hard to believe that four guys who had been working together for a year could have accomplished so much in so short a time. You could pick and choose from The Doors’ other records and create a standout listen. But even if it included songs such as “Touch Me” and “Love Me Two Times,” this new album still wouldn’t be as good as The Doors.

It’s not as if each member of The Doors was an instrumental wizard. They’re good (the drummer is adequate), but together they manage to be unique. And then there’s Jim Morrison. As a songwriter, he can be brilliant or lame, and he can do both in two consecutive lines, as in “LA Woman”:

Motels, money, murder, madness

With four simple nouns, Morrison pins LA like a butterfly.

Let’s change the mood from glad to sadness

Sadly, this is something I could’ve written in 6th grade.

But only Jim Morrison could lead us through the slow-motion asteroid belt that is “The End,” with its plaintive repetition of “the end,” which he finally rhymes with “I’ll never look into your eyes…again.” The song climaxes with enough murder and madness for anyone, along with some trenchant observations along the lines of “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Yeah fuck!” (Here in the U.S., this line is usually printed as “Kill! Kill! Kill! Yeah kill!”) I could only play The Doors when my parents weren’t home. This was the ultimate trip when I was 12 and I was delighted to discover that I’m still transported by it.

The Doors is the best debut ever recorded
Being me, I wondered which albums would fill out the Debut Top 10. So I made a list. And being me, there are 11 contestants in the Top 10.

The most important part of any project is making sure you can get it done before you die. To keep things manageable, I set these rules:

* 20th century only. I’m not confident picking rock albums after about 1995.

* No country, alt-country, neocountry, outlaw country, or in-law country. Metal is ridiculous. Reggae isn’t, but it doesn’t appeal. I made one exception for rap.

* Since The Doors is named for The Doors, each album must have the same name as the band. A few disqualified yet very worthy discs will appear in my next post.

* I don’t care if the album has the same name as the band, I won’t consider any band named after a U.S. city or state, or any members of the REO Styxjourneywagon military-industrial complex.

* The band has to be composed of newcomers. Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, and Crosby, Stills & Nash are out of bounds.

Here then are my picks for Best Debut Albums of the 20th Century By Newcomers Who Aren’t Somebody Stupid Like Foreigner:

The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967)

Creedence Clearwater Revival, Creedence Clearwater Revival (1968)

The Clash, The Clash (1977)

The B-52s, The B-52s (1979)

The Undertones, The Undertones (1979)

Pretenders, Pretenders (1980)

Run-D.M.C., Run-D.M.C. (1984)

The Smiths, The Smiths (1984)

Tracy Chapman, Tracy Chapman (1989)

Moby, Moby (1992)

Some thoughts on each:

The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground and Nico
Maureen Howard, the drummer, has no sense of rhythm, and Lou Reed sings like Bob Dylan. If you call that singing. They make The Doors sound like the Vienna Philharmonic. But this garbage scow of a record has left miles of ripples behind it. The Doors had the talent, but the Velvets incited people to make their own music. I don’t know what Nico actually contributed here, and I hate her voice, so I’m pretending that “and Nico” isn’t in the title.

Creedence Clearwater Revival, Creedence Clearwater Revival
This one is a tour of American roots music. In that respect it resembles The Beatles’ debut, Please Please Me, which is about half covers of American R&B artists. Creedence Clearwater Revival has their lengthy cover of “Suzie Q,” which fills the A and B sides of one 45. “Porterville,” one of their originals, showed us where CCR was going.

The Clash, The Clash
The Clash, The Sex Pistols and The Damned all released their first records in 1977, but Johnny Rotten gets on my nerves and The Damned, while riotous, were less technically accomplished than The Velvet Underground. The Clash was a revolution and is one of the most serious competitors to The Doors. “I’m So Bored with the U.S.A.,” “White Riot,” and most of the rest of this lineup hit you like a flight of airborne watermelons.

The B-52s, The B-52s
Wall-to-wall party, featuring “Planet Claire,” “Dance This Mess Around,” and the greatest song of all time, “Rock Lobster.” I wish I could go back in time and swap some babies. My Hanukkah wish is to hear Fred Schneider handle the vocals on “The End” and Jim Morrison tackle “Rock Lobster.” If you imagine the albums on this list existing on a spectrum that runs from serious to frivolous, Tracy Chapman and The B-52s would be the farthest apart.

The Undertones, The Undertones
Take The Clash’s ferocity about politics and focus it on teenagers and their pitiful troubles and you have The Undertones. Cons: This record is a monoculture. The only variation between songs is in the speed with which they’re played. Pros: The 14 songs on this disc are barely half an hour long. The uniformity of sound doesn’t have time to wear out its welcome. “Teenage Kicks” still gets the airplay, but wait’ll you hear “Jimmy Jimmy.” Bonus: As good as this record is, their second album, Hypnotised (which includes their masterpieces, “There Goes Norman” and “My Perfect Cousin”), is even better. Of all the bands I’ve reviewed here, only The Undertones and CCR turned in a substantially superior performance the second time around.

Pretenders, Pretenders
Women have always had to fight for their right to rock. Bands like Heart don’t help. But Chrissie Hynde not only rocked, she disemboweled. There is no song in rock like “Tattooed Love Boys” and few women who can write words and music at Hynde’s high level. Pretenders is still a beacon for the ages. I wrote about the Pretenders at Ladies of the Eighties.

Run-D.M.C., Run-D.M.C.
Recently I ate lunch at a hip Portland burger place full of pale white 20somethings uniformly dressed in black and listening to 50 Cent with the volume cranked to 11. Given my stage of life, I deserved a free burger for correctly identifying 50 Cent. The cashier didn’t see it that way. I came along too late to get into rap, but in 1984 even I could tell that Run-D.M.C. was an early clue to a new direction. I don’t want to listen to it, but I have to acknowledge it. Now get off my lawn.

The Smiths, The Smiths
I always thought these guys were pretty funny, though I’m guessing that they weren’t trying to be, like when they sang about people dying. Here on The Smiths they already sound like veterans, and in fact in the four short years they were together they hardly varied their sound at all. I like to think that The Smiths’ collective philosophy of relationships is summed up by two back-to-back song titles on this disc: “What Difference Does It Make?” and “I Don’t Owe You Anything.”

Tracy Chapman, Tracy Chapman
Makes you want to reach through the speakers and hold her. Chapman was only 25 when Tracy Chapman appeared, but it was already obvious that she was in total control of her talent and able to tell someone’s life story in a couple hundred super-sharp words. What’s more heart-breaking than “Fast Cars” and the vicious life pattern the narrator struggles to escape? As for “Talkin’ ’Bout a Revolution,” this song has never gone out of style. Just ask Occupy Wall Street.

Moby, Moby
In the ’90s I discovered trance, house, and other forms of electronica. Once I found that I could sink into stuff like Moby and literally enter a trance-like state while I was writing, I was sold. Moby is an odd one, a vegetarian Christian who makes dance music for 24-hour party people who majored in recreational drugs. Praise the Lord and pass the beets.

Next post: Best Debut Albums of the 20th Century By Newcomers Who Didn’t Name Their Debut After Themselves and Who Aren’t Somebody Stupid Like Foreigner. Until then, the Twentieth-Century Fox I married asks you to remember that when the music’s over, turn out the lights.

Comments
  1. That is august list. I was surprised to see Aqua, omitted, but I suppose “Aquarium” doesn’t meet your title constraints.

    Still, the Doors remain one of our favorites. The End never fails to cheer one up. And Break on Through is perfect to slow your roll when agitated.

    • Run-DMSteve says:

      Cowboy meant it is an august list, as in impressive, as opposed to August, as in overheated. I don’t know who Aqua are, but naming their first full-length “Aquarium” is a top move! Probably safer, legally, than naming it “Aqualung.” Thanks for the tip, Cowboy (unless you’re the Vamp?).

  2. terry says:

    Steve, I enjoy reading your posts but I swear I haven’t heard of some of these bands. But most days I don’t listen to anything done before january 1,1999 🙂

  3. Barb says:

    Lest you think I spent my entire college career in a fog of Pink Floyd, I’ll cheerfully confess that I wore out an 8-track (yes!) of Boston: “Boston.” As I recall, this brew was best served when bouncing around on a dingy dorm linoleum floor in my bare feet, belting out song after song into my hair brush!

    • Run-DMSteve says:

      Barb, meet Accused of Lurking. Lurk, meet Barb. Yes, this has been a Long Time coming. But I had More Than a Feeling it was on the way. There goes my Peace of Mind….Regarding Boston, AllMusic.com put it best: “the songs stick in your head like dirt on a dog.”

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