Favorite Debut Albums

Debut albums come in all flavors. Some barely hint at the artistry to come; others are solid first salvos only to be eclipsed by stronger and/or further refined efforts. Below, I’ve chosen perhaps that rarest breed: the fully-formed release that kicked off careers both fleeting and venerable and were also arguably never topped by anything else the artist would make. To be eligible, they must have recorded at least more than one follow-up. Here are ten favorites in chronological order:

Leonard Cohen, Songs of Leonard Cohen (1968)

Probably this list’s most contentious choice given I’m Your Man (1988), the first Cohen I ever heard (and loved) is its equal and fully holds up despite radically different and deliberately dinky period production. Alas, this debut plays more like a greatest hits compilation than the one he’d release seven years later: credit the three songs later brilliantly used in McCabe & Ms. Miller, but there’s also “Suzanne”, “Master Song”, “So Long Marianne”, “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye”—even Lenny’s off-key bleating at the end of “One of Us Cannot Be Wrong” still charms me.

Violent Femmes, Violent Femmes (1983)

Maybe the most obvious choice here but this is a textbook example of a debut so definitive, so iconic that Gordon Gano and co. arguably haven’t tried to top it. I don’t know how many officially released singles there were from this, but at least five of its ten tracks are undeniable standards (“Blister In the Sun”, “Kiss Off”, “Add It Up”, “Prove My Love”, “Gone Daddy Gone”) and most nonfans would likely struggle to name more than two or three songs from the rest of their catalog.

Deee-Lite, World Clique (1990)

“Groove Is In The Heart” remains one of a handful of songs I wholly fell in love with on first listen and it’s aged beautifully compared to most hits of its era. To a lesser extent, one could say the same of its parent album. Whether skewed towards Italo-house (“Good Beat”, “Power of Love”) retro-funk (“Who Was That?”, “Try Me On, I’m Very You”) or electro-pop (“What Is Love”, “E.S.P.”), World Clique is exuberant party music with substance that also doesn’t take itself too seriously (unlike their next two albums.) 

Liz Phair, Exile In Guyville (1993)

An eighteen-track manifesto seemingly untouched by the outside world, it’s a pure distillation of Phair’s raw talent. Few first albums have expressed such palpable perspective, much less a feminine one so unapologetically, frankly sexual and forthcoming. It either came out at exactly the right time or it ended up shaping the times even if it didn’t trouble the monoculture much. When Phair did exactly that on Whip-Smart (1994) and the much-maligned Liz Phair (2003), the effect wasn’t as novel or powerful.

Soul Coughing, Ruby Vroom (1994)

A truly strange band that could’ve only ended up on a major label at the height of alt-rock, Soul Coughing’s mélange of beat poetry-derived vocals, jazz rhythm section and sample-heavy soundscapes was both instantly recognizable and really like nothing else. So inspired was their debut that it gave off the impression they could be the 90s answer to Talking Heads. Instead, they ran out of gas after three increasingly conventional albums, suggesting such a notion was too good to be true even if for a brief shining moment it might have been.

Eric Matthews, It’s Heavy In Here (1995)

Whereas most 90s singer-songwriters took inspiration from John Lennon or Neil Young, breathy-voiced Matthews learned his stuff from Burt Bacharach and The Zombies’ Colin Blunstone, crafting intricate, opaque chamber-pop miniatures with guitars as prominent as the trumpet solos, cathedral organ, string quartets, etc. Call it an anachronism, but perhaps Matthews was (however unwittingly) playing the long game as, nearly thirty years on, this debut sounds as out-of-time as it ever did and also as fresh, brimming with little details and nuances ripe for discovery.

Morcheeba, Who Can You Trust? (1996)

The breaking point where “trip-hop” was not yet a genre to emulate but more of a happy accident, a sound stumbled upon when a DJ, a blues guitarist and a one-of-a-kind vocalist with a sweet but alluringly hazy tone all came together and their seemingly disparate contributions somehow gelled like smoothed-out alchemy. From the catchy, loping “Trigger Hippie” to the somber, hypnotic title track, it’s overall more of a sustained groove than a collection of discernible songs—a potency that they only intermittently recaptured when they later mostly eschewed grooves for songs.

The Avalanches, Since I Left You (2000)

Speaking of DJs and sampling, it took nearly sixteen years for this Australian collective to record a second album and a relatively scant four more years to release a third; whenever I listen to the first one, I can fathom why—a triumph of plunderphonics and fin de siècle attitude of “here’s where we’ve been, and here’s what’s next”, Since I Left You remains a singular point continually reverberating and a miracle of reappropriation so far-reaching it feels impossible to improve on—I don’t listen to it as much, but it’s still my favorite album of the 00’s.

Nellie McKay, Get Away From Me (2004)

This “delightful nutcase” (as a friend once correctly described her) released a debut so audacious, precocious, declarative and altogether stunning that I suspected it would be her Bottle Rocket or Reservoir Dogs (a great first effort in a career full of ‘em); unfortunately it ended up more of a Donnie Darko—one great glimpse of promise, followed by weird left turns and outright disappointments to the point where she’s settled for interpreting other people’s work, which she’s often gifted at doing. But I remember how much potential she once had.

Florence + The Machine, Lungs (2009)

Talk about the voice of a generation—Florence Welch, then in her early twenties made that very rare accomplishment of coming off as a *star* from the get-go with excellent tunes (“Dog Days Are Over”, “Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)”) and an arresting, bold sound entirely worthy of and complimentary to that voice. Welch remains the most promising heir apparent to succeeding Kate Bush at the High Alter of Eccentric Female Divas,  even if none of her subsequent work startles or transcends like Lungs (although 2015’s How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful comes close.)

Eric Matthews, “It’s Heavy In Here”

it's heavy in here

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #49 – released September 26, 1995)

Track listing: Fanfare / Forging Plastic Pain / Soul Nation Select Them / Faith To Clay / Angels For Crime / Fried Out Broken Girl / Lust Takes Time / Hop and Tickle / Three-Cornered Moon / Distant Mother Reality / Flight and Lion / Poisons Will Pass Me / Sincere Sensation / Fanfare (reprise)

Some albums you fall for so immediately that you feel forever transformed, as if you could divide your life into two neat periods of before and after first hearing it. Other albums (in fact, most albums) do not have such a direct impact—they may require multiple spins to resonate or even make sense. In general, if nothing’s sticking after two or three plays, I’ll move on because there’s no shortage of new music out there for anyone to sift through and discover.

Still, once in a great while, an album I’ve listened to sporadically over time will suddenly, surreptitiously click into place for me. It’s happened with such disparate releases such as Nilsson Sings Newman, Erotica and Tiger Bay—all albums I enjoyed but didn’t truly love until something in them shifted for me and they no longer felt merely agreeable but absolutely essential (in Tiger Bay’s case, it was when hearing its original UK version). That this sort of thing rarely occurs is why it can seem so profound, especially when you consider the utter simplicity of just hearing something differently.

I first heard Eric Matthews via the video for “Fanfare”, his debut album’s lead track and single on MTV’s 120 Minutes, a Sunday night indie music roundup I watched religiously in the mid-90s. Jubilant, faintly retro guitar pop tinged with a McCartney-esque bassline and a trumpet solo (played by Matthews himself) providing the hook (and clearly influencing the title), “Fanfare” was a heck of an introduction. Matthews’ multi-tracked, breathy choirboy vocals, reminiscent of Colin Blunstone (of The Zombies) were novel at a time dominated by rawer, louder, grittier singers. The Beatles and XTC fan in me responded positively to “Fanfare”; although it never crossed over from college to commercial alternative radio, I still remember it as a definitive single from its time, even if it sounds completely out of step from it.

Within days of seeing the video, I picked up a copy of It’s Heavy In Here and was… well, not disappointed, exactly, but there clearly wasn’t another “Fanfare” on it (apart from its brief, acoustic guitar-and-voice reprise at the end). In between, you had a dozen pretty songs—mostly stripped-down guitar pop, occasionally augmented with strings, woodwinds, an organ here, a horn there, and of course, Matthews’ distinct voice, as if he were trying to channel not just Blunstone but such winsome, psychedelia-era groups as The Association and The Left Banke. It all sounded pleasant enough, but where “Fanfare” was a striking, welcoming call to arms, the other songs tended to turn inward, obscuring potential hooks with trickier chord changes and thorny if not altogether clunky lyrics (have you ever spoken the words “Forget the gold of growing old” aloud?).

And yet, I appreciated Matthews’ attempt at a classier, classical music-enhanced modern rock. Isolated moments, such as the gliding, wordless trumpet and piano sections of “Fried Out Broken Girl” or the continually building strings on “Poisons Will Pass Me” were just too gorgeous to ignore (as if slyly gleaned from one’s subconscious). As previously stated, the entire record also sounded like none of its peers (coming out on edgy, grunge-centric Seattle label Sub Pop, no less). With alt-rock radio wearily grinding into formulaic malaise, dominated by a handful of overplayed artists (Alanis, Live, No Doubt, etc.) just like any top 40 station, It’s Heavy In Here served as a balm, a real alternative—obviously influenced by the past, but also curiously out of time. In fact, it could’ve been recorded anytime in the preceding 25-30 years.

From then on, I returned to the album occasionally, even liking Matthews’ slightly more lyrically (and also musically) straightforward follow-up, The Lateness of The Hour (1997). Still, it didn’t occur to me to reserve a place for It’s Heavy In Here on my first list of 100 favorite albums in 2004. Matthews himself disappeared for a while, re-emerging in the mid-00s with a trio of records (I’ve heard just one, 2006’s Foundation Sounds, which I dismissed as overly long and hook-deficient), then promptly vanishing again. In the meantime, I cultivated interest in the sort of chamber pop that inspired Matthews, absorbing records both old (The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, The Zombies’ Odyssey and Oracle) and new (a few artists still to come in this project).

Sometime in the past decade, It’s Heavy In Here turned a corner for me. I don’t remember when, exactly, but with each spin (usually while at my office job), I felt a little more drawn to its sonic puzzle pieces. Qualities that once seemed obscure and tough to get a handle on, such as the unexpected way “Angels For Crime” just slows down and stops, unresolved or the uncharacteristically alien, high-pitched noise that weaves in and out of “Distant Mother Reality” (actually a “tenor recorder”) now felt like subjects for further research, rather than deterrents to be brushed away. I also began noticing nice little transitions in the album’s sequence, like the dramatic, effective pause between the Simon and Garfunkel-like, guitar-and-harpsichord etude “Faith to Clay” and crisp-sounding-but-also-softly-glowing “Angels For Crime”.

However, I only really “got” this album when I paid less attention to its lyrics. I don’t want to disavow what lyrics lend to a song, but if you have no trouble enjoying and finding meaning in music whose lyrics are in a language you don’t understand, then words decidedly aren’t always essential. That’s not to say Matthews isn’t capable of the occasional good couplet (like “this heaven it needs fixing / looks so much like hell”) but his overall sound is compelling yet grounded enough that he almost doesn’t even need lyrics for these songs to register; this wouldn’t work if his melodies weren’t so nimble and complex or the arrangements so intricate and luxuriant.

Naturally, the orchestral parts of It’s Heavy In Here command the most attention. Some tracks, like “Soul Nation Select Them” and “Angels For Crime” start off in the usual guitar-bass-drums mode (often played by Matthews and ex-Jellyfish member Jason Falkner) but are eventually seasoned with flute and clarinet interjections or the sudden appearance of a string quintet for a few bars. Other songs, like “Fried Out Broken Girl” and “Poisons Will Pass Me” do away with the rock trio instrumentation entirely; in the context of a rock album, they would normally seem like outliers, but tonally they fit almost seamlessly into the entire melancholy fabric. Even “Three-Cornered Moon”, a mostly instrumental waltz heavy with harpsichord, muted trumpet and strings feels like it belongs, in part because it’s so exquisitely beautiful but also in how it just seems to linger there in the air, repeating the same delicate melody to the point where it almost achieves a Zen-like bliss.

For all his arty pretensions, Matthews can be just as appealing when he leaves the orchestral stuff out. “Forging Plastic Pain” slowly fades in on a knotty, repeated guitar figure that’s not worlds away from one off a Pavement song; it also has a multi-tracked electric solo that could’ve come from a much mellower Brian May. “Lust Takes Time” gains momentum from a two-chord angular riff that’s equal parts Talking Heads and The Smiths. “Flight and Lion” contains jazz chords and a sparkling piano solo, yet it’s not really jazz but subdued, ever-so-slightly sinister balladry. “Hop and Tickle” almost makes me want to recant my earlier claim that the album doesn’t have another “Fanfare”, for its bright, catchy jangle pop now feels awfully close to it.

In considering what makes it so special, I keep returning to the idea that It’s Heavy In Here doesn’t belong to any singular moment in time. Sure, arguably only in the mid-90s could Matthews have put out a record like this on such a major indie label and get MTV play. It endures precisely because it doesn’t sound anything at all like 1995, or 1975, or 2015, for that matter. What Matthews did, and it’s something I believe not many artists are capable of, was to make a debut album that was a genuine expression of his aesthetic and considerable talent, forgoing trends while remaining true to his influences. You sense this is exactly the album he wanted to make and I can’t help but admire him for that, plus the likeliness that it will sound just as fresh and untethered in another ten or twenty years.

Next: A New Stereophonic Sound Spectacular.


“Three-Cornered Moon”: