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.)

The Avalanches, “Since I Left You”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #66 – released November 27, 2000)

Track listing: Since I Left You / Stay Another Season / Radio / Two Hearts In 3/4 Time / Avalanche Rock / Flight Tonight / Close To You / Diners Only / A Different Feeling / Electricity / Tonight / Pablo’s Cruise / Frontier Psychiatrist / Etoh / Summer Crane /  Little Journey / Live at Dominoes / Extra Kings

It begins with the words, “Since I left you / I never felt so blue,” on a loop; an hour later, it all ends on another repeated couplet: “Girl, I just can’t get you / since the day I left you.” Both vocals are actually sampled from other records—respectively, The Main Attraction’s “Everyday” and The Osmonds’ “Let Me In”. Between those bookends lies a universe of sound, including but not limited to a horse whinnying, thick grooves pilfered off ‘70s and ‘80s soul and R&B deep tracks, various string-section fanfares, the all-encompassing blare of a big boat’s horn, flamenco guitar riffs, the Cabaret soundtrack, dialogue from John Waters’ Polyester (!), fluttering female la-de-da’s and ba-bap-ba’s and more.

A whole lot more, in fact: Since I Left You is almost entirely crafted from literally hundreds of samples off existing records; it would not surprise me if there were actually thousands imbedded within, given the album’s vast density and near complete lack of silence or open space. An Australian DJ collective whom at the time boasted six members, The Avalanches were hardly the first artists to make a record this way. Plunderphonics, or any music constructed from altering existing audio recordings into new compositions, was a term coined by experimental composer John Oswald in the mid-80s, but its practice goes further back than that, from Saint Etienne chopping up and reassembling ‘60s pop in the early ‘90s to the hip-hop sample collages of Grandmaster Flash and Steinski (not to mention hip-hop as an entire sampling culture, really) to even Dickie Goodman’s novelty “break-in” records of the ‘50s.

However, to go beyond novelty and collage and merely using samples for backing tracks, you’d have to consider DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing… (1996), the first widely recognized attempt to create an entire, unified pop album chiefly made up of found sounds. It’s a rightly acknowledged classic of tone and mood and humor and grace, but SILY is something else: although it has eighteen discernible tracks, it’s far better played, understood and absorbed as a shimmering, complete whole from beginning to end. To start listening to it in the middle or (gasp) play it on shuffle would diminish its impact and power. Only one track arguably stands on its own, although it’s less an outlier than a fully realized song (of sorts) that manages to somehow fit into the album’s entire framework (more on it later). Still, the beauty and brilliance of SILY is that it’s less an entertaining collection of deftly deployed samples and more an orchestrated, sustained work, taking the listener on an aural journey through decades of recorded sounds and cultural signifiers, expertly building momentum by altering tempos, conjuring emotions and forever emitting a sense of exploration and adventure.

And I do mean adventure—on first listen, you have absolutely no idea where SILY will go next. The sheer amount of sounds—vocals, hooks, motifs, basslines, riffs—can easily overwhelm. It doesn’t work at all as background noise unless you’re willing to let it subliminally sink it over ten or twenty spins; the best way to approach it is to immerse yourself completely in its world by listening to it on headphones, bestowing it your full attention. Even better, listen to it at least two or three times this way—it not only begins taking on recognizable shapes, but on each spin, you can hear new things in it; I’ve heard it over one hundred times and details still occasionally surface that I hadn’t detected before. More so than any other album I’ve written about here, SILY requires ample time and patience, but as it gains familiarity and resonates, it emits the unadorned thrill of continual, satisfying discovery. I can’t remember exactly how many spins it took, but within a year of first hearing it, SILY firmly entrenched itself in my ongoing mental list of Favorite Albums of All Time.

It’s a work that easily lends itself to a myriad of interpretations, but I want to avoid taking an overtly technical, music composition-heavy approach, in part because my acumen in that area is limited, but primarily because it would not be much fun for me to reduce this record to an academic exercise. While SILY is exceptional from a purely technical angle, as with the very best pop music, it’s more remarkable for how it makes you feel: the mere breadth of the samples utilized not only creates an aural sensory overload, but the manner in which they’re employed and sequenced turns the whole listening experience into an emotional journey as well. Often, it resembles a series of symphonic movements more than a collection of pop songs through its use of recurring motifs (both vocal and instrumental), cross-fading between adjacent tracks and the sense that an ongoing story is unfolding: it’s a Frankenstein’s monster of samples that more often glides gracefully than it lumbers about due to how seamlessly its disparate parts are expertly, inventively sewn together.

The title track/opener practically invites you into this narrative, as nimble guitar filigrees, sweet flutes, onomatopoeic backing vocals and a friendly guide announcing “Get a drink, have a good time now, welcome to paradise!” all coalesce into a blissful Philly soul groove that buttresses the looped sample mentioned at the top of this essay. It continues this way for a few minutes, until the beat (but not the tempo) shifts into a slightly funkier bassline that appears to be submerged in shallow water. As it surfaces and guitar chords and percussion become audible, it reveals itself as one of SILY’s most recognizable and iconic samples, Madonna’s “Holiday”, only pitched down a few beats per minute. The “Holiday” sample officially kicks off track two, “Stay Another Season”, but you wouldn’t necessarily notice that unless you were watching the track’s running time on your CD or mp3 player. Also, the main vocal melody of “Since I Left You” soon reappears and repeats itself, only over a minor key. Additional samples keep popping up, most prominently a looped horse whinny, but so far it feels more like a medley than two individual songs.

This changes as “Stay Another Season” diminishes and “Radio” fades in, suitably like a transmission from distant airwaves. It sports a similar tempo to what proceeded it but also a much tougher groove, which provides the foundation for a series of looped vocal samples all over the tonal spectrum, from the fluttering “Sometimes you don’t / understand” to the slinkier, telegraphic “Sending Out Signals” to the abrupt interjections of people shouting ‘WAH!” The samples are interwoven together to create hooks, but at a level of proficiency and activity that elevates it all far beyond the remedial nature of, say, Sugar Hill Gang building a rap around the rhythm track from Chic’s “Good Times”.

Near the end of “Radio”, the groove comes to an abrupt stop, replaced by a bleary-eyed voice repeatedly asking, “Can’t you hear it? Oh, can’t you hear it?” Other vocal samples immediately enter the mix, most notably two from Cabaret (Joel Grey’s iconic Master of Ceremonies purring “Money” and what can best be described as a coarse trombone fart) before “Two Hearts in ¾ Time” materializes via a series of clipped, sinus-clearing sampled exclamations (OOH! / YEAH! / OH! / YEAH!”). It careens on and on like a faltering merry-go-round, ending with a “WHEE!,” then mutates into a placid, soulful waltz that spools out almost effortlessly, a woman blissfully trilling la-de-da’s over electric piano comp (as if slipping off an early ‘70s Stevie Wonder record.) The track languorously twirls on and on until the beat is subsumed by a purely electronic rhythm, setting up the transition into “Avalanche Rock”.

In just those first four tracks, that’s a lot to unpack and absorb. This relentless pace continues throughout the rest of SILY’s first half; in fact, with “Avalanche Rock” serving as a brief link utterly transforming the mood from light to dark, “Flight Tonight” then pushes it to extreme, in-the-red levels. The electro-rap backing is positively fierce compared to what came before, the vocal samples (“Wicked, she wicked, she wicked” and “I booked a flight tonight”) repetitively ping all over the song like ricochet gun shots and it all climaxes in a frenzied, unintelligible rap (which could be in English, French or just nonsense words). It manages to be intimidating, exhilarating and just plain weird all at once, but importantly, it doesn’t stop the album in its tracks. The momentum, greatly aided by the beat forever surges ahead.

Such force perhaps reaches its most sublime expression and release over the next three tracks. “Close To You” deftly shifts from electro to disco, while a looped flute sample builds like a Steve Reich or Philip Glass piece. After it drops out, samples ranging from the familiar (Kid Creole and the Coconuts’ early 80s hit “Stool Pigeon”) to the painfully obscure (‘70s whistle-heavy electronic British TV show theme “Quiller”) get layered on top of one another—the sensation of hearing them blend into a wall of sound provides a heady rush. However, before it begins to overwhelm, “Diners Only” uses the well-worn DJ tactic of inserting a breakdown in its opening seconds: the beat retreats to the background, and a snippet of women laughing (one of them saying, “Susie, he’s looking at you!”) sits in the foreground. A male lothario briefly raps about champagne and then the beat starts building itself back up. That flute arpeggio from “Close To You” returns with a vengeance, incessantly repeating itself, forcibly growing louder and louder and deeper and stronger until your brain feels like it could just EXPLODE.

And it very nearly seems like it does with the stop-on-a-dime shift into “A Different Feeling” via a massive, four-on-the-floor beat, big rhythm guitar funk chords and siren noises. The volume rapidly lowers, only to BLAM! hit you at full force again. If this wasn’t already delirious enough, as the song grows quiet again, The Avalanches play their trump card with the unlikeliest of famous vocal samples: Debbie Reynolds’ anodyne ’50s hit “Tammy”. It’s damn near unrecognizable in this setting, but sure enough, that’s her dreamily warbling, “Tammy, Tammy, Tammy’s in love” over the disco beat. It works in and of itself as catchy, hook-laden, danceable music, but the real pleasure comes out of identifying that it is, in fact, “Tammy” you’re hearing. The joy emanating from that kind of discovery is where plunderphonics approaches the sublime.

“Electricity” opens SILY’s second half with an exquisite, almost baroque female chorale and soon settles into a wickedly comfortable mid-tempo strut, utilizing as its chief hook the shouted exclamation “Rap Dirty!” (sampled from an X-rated comedy album, of all things). After maintaining such a relentless energy level throughout, the album only really calms down at the next track, “Tonight”. Its slower tempo and relatively sparse use of samples (a wonky, treated piano riff and Nancy Wilson silkily singing, “Tonight / may have to last me / all my life”) provides much needed space to catch one’s breath, as does “Pablo’s Cruise”, the brief, nautical themed interlude that follows (fans of late ’70s soft rock will recognize the titular pun.)

It clears the air for “Frontier Psychiatrist”, one of the album’s three singles (along with the title track and “Electricity”) and arguably the only track on SILY that can easily stand alone. An ideal gateway into the band, it also fits comfortably into the album’s framework, for it does best what SILY as a whole sets out to do: cleverly, expertly stringing together a disparate, symphonic array of vocal and instrumental samples, shrewdly manipulating them to sound like they all belong in the same room. It opens with a callback (the return of the horse whinny from “Stay Another Season”) and a conversation lifted directly from Polyester, where straight-laced high school principal Mr. Kirk breaks the news to flustered Mrs. Fishpaw (drag diva Divine, of course) that her teenaged son Dexter is “Criminally Insane!”, setting the scene for a madcap narrative underscored by an overtly dramatic Enoch Light orchestral sample.

Like much of SILY, the track re-appropriates unironic sounds as camp, and vice-versa. Some of the vocal samples are looped until they become big, fat hooks (“That boy needs therapy”) while others are strung together to push the story forward (a woman exclaims, “He was as white as a sheet!” followed by a man who matter-of-factly notes, “And, he also made false teeth.”) At one point, they pilfer a child’s educational record about animal sounds and convert both a hacking crow and a verbose parrot into freestyle rappers via a flurry of turntable scratching. Still, even though it’s the most accessible track here (in part because it’s also the funniest), “Frontier Psychiatrist” draws to an abrupt end on an extended snippet of the Italian pop standard “El Negro Zumbon (Anna)” in order to once again reset the decks for the album’s fourth quarter.

Speeding up and modulating the dit-dit-dit’s from The Five Americans’ 1967 hit “Western Union” is the first but hardly the last sample “Etoh” loops unto oblivion; there’s also an underlying flute melody, vocal gibberish that lends the track its title (“eet-oh-eet-eet-eet”), falsetto do-do-do’s, a funky robotic scat and what resembles a ringing phone. It builds momentum like the incongruent layers of “Close To You” did, and some of its samples stick around for “Summer Crane”, which sustains the tempo but adds even more samples: a cooing Francoise Hardy, the positively glowing backing of a War song (not “Low Rider”), da-da-da’s from the Fifth Dimension, the instantly recognizable, swirling orchestral fanfare from “Love’s Theme” by Love Unlimited Orchestra, an ascending Theremin, etc.

The nautical theme implied by SILY’s lifeboat-infested album cover (and in tracks like “Pablo’s Cruise”) reaches its fullest expression in this sequence. Both “Etoh” and “Summer Crane” seem to practically float or undulate, echoing like dub reggae as opposed to swaying like a sea shanty. Although “Little Journey” is another brief interlude, it’s a crucial one, beginning with a literal SPLASH! (signaled by a Gabor-like starlet announcing, “Well, I would say, “Bon Voyage!”). Its title comes from a Mamas and The Papas sample which soon gives way to another callback—Madonna’s “Holiday” from “Stay Another Season”, only this time thrillingly sped up. It leads into another orchestral fanfare, only this one’s accented by a stirring, rumbling beat straight out of South Pacific (or perhaps a mid-century documentary on Hawaii.)

A swift crescendo of horns then leads into a looped, decades-old recording of peppy voices announcing, “FLIGHT 22 IS OFF TO HONOLULU!” and “Live At Dominoes” takes SILY into its home stretch. More so than even “A Different Feeling”, it’s the album’s climactic banger, swiping its floor-filling groove from Boney M’s 1977 Eurodisco hit “Ma Baker”, with a Daft-Punk style vocoder spouting nonsense syllables on top along with strings launching the song towards the stratosphere. It releases some of the tension that has been stored up since “Etoh” while also continuing to build momentum, gradually attaining a euphoric high as the beat turns all techno, totally drops out and the strings gracefully sigh into the ether.

“Live at Dominoes” conceivably sounds like a natural ending to SILY, but “Extra Kings” is a more effective one.  It presumably wraps a neat bow on the album with its numerous callbacks—the Francoise Hardy and War samples return (at the opening and closing, respectively), plus there’s a lyrical callback I noted at the top of this essay. But this only tells part of the story, for it also collects all that forward-surging momentum and tension and pushes it to the absolute breaking point. The track’s midsection loops a flute-led melody while first piling on orchestral filigrees, then a growing, sinus-clearing electronic noise—the harshest sound on the entire album. That noise eventually subsumes nearly everything, resembling the aural equivalent of an atomic meltdown. It dissipates all that tension on contact, carrying the sensation that your brain is dissolving, rather than about to explode. And yet, although barely audible, that melodic flute-loop is still there—it’s buried under a tonnage of ugly noise, but it persists, “do-de-do-do, do, do-de-do-do” ad infinitum, just as that final lyrical callback repeats, gradually fading to black.

Arriving in Australia in November 2000 and approximately a year later in the US (the delay mostly due to required sample clearances), SILY was born out of what increasingly seems like a crucial time in pop music’s development. A new century, millennium, even, encouraged many to take stock of what had come before, while also looking ahead to new configurations and technologies. After all, digital formats and file sharing had just begun significantly altering the ways we were obtaining and consuming music. Even at the time, SILY felt like it bridged both the end of an era and the beginning of a new one. By cherry-picking through the past and reshaping it for the present, The Avalanches couldn’t help but point towards the future, reminding us that art does not exist in a vacuum or always appear out of thin air; instead, it bespeaks multitudes of references and influences—in this case, modifying and re-contextualizing the sources, rather than merely emulating or entirely re-creating them.

Although SILY would go on to influence a large swath of DJ culture and mash-up artists like Girl Talk (or whoever’s trending on YouTube this week), it didn’t exactly breed longevity for the men who created it. The Avalanches all but disappeared in the following years, apart from a few commissioned remixes and occasional updates that they were working on new material. As time passed and the album’s cult following swelled to the point of becoming legend, it seemed less likely a follow-up would ever surface, for how could anything possibly top, let alone live up to the first one? In an age increasingly beholden to remakes and reboots, The Avalanches finally did return in 2016 with Wildflower. Reduced to a core duo, they opted for a far less unified structure and employed guest rappers (Biz Markie, Danny Brown) and vocalists (Mercury Rev’s David Baker, Father John Misty) alike. It doesn’t even try to equal its predecessor, which ends up working in its favor. Although it falls apart somewhat in its last stretch, it does feature a great eight or ten track sequence of perfectly pleasant psychedelic pop.

But it’s not SILY, and that’s fine. More than 15 years on, The Avalanches’ first album remains a singular endeavor, a high water mark in re-appropriation, its encyclopedic summation of late 20th Century Pop a cultural crossroads forever etched in vinyl. SILY stands as a reminder of where we came from and how we arrived at that pivotal moment in time, but also what it felt like to look ahead towards an undefined, potentially limitless future.

Up next: “Experimentation, familiarization—it’s all a nature walk.”

“Frontier Psychiatrist”:

“Diners Only / A Different Feeling”: