There's an old saying in the music industry: You have your entire life to make your debut album. While some artists definitely need time to find their artistic voices — it took Britpop champions Pulp quite a bit of time to hone their sound before their 1995 masterpiece, "Different Class," dropped — some musicians come out of the gate swinging with a fantastic collection of songs brimming with uniqueness and a true sense of identity. Sometimes it's the opening salvo to a great career. Other times, it's the album they spend the rest of their lives trying to live up to.
Let's look back at 50 years of incredible records and determine the greatest debut album of each. (One note: We're saying these are great debuts, not the most influential. There's a difference.)
George Clinton was always a great funk and soul songwriter, but for his group Funkadelic he shocked all of his funky prowess straight into a psych-rock blender and came out with an otherworldly, genre-breaking funk record that remains unlike anything heard before or since. While his other group, Parliament, also dropped its debut record this year, Funkadelic's first foray remains as fresh and fierce as ever.
Runner-up: "Black Sabbath" by Black Sabbath. The basis of modern heavy metal can be traced back to this great record, even if its sound was perfected on its sophomore set, "Paranoid."
While "jazz fusion" became a bit of an overused phrase in the 1970s, nothing quite shook the jazz world to its core like this astonishingly progressive record from Joe Zawinul, Wayne Shorter and Miroslav Vitouš. The group's approach to structure, striking use of negative space and elongated grooves set it apart and changed the face of jazz forever.
Runner-up: "Earth, Wind & Fire" by Earth, Wind & Fire. The funk soul greats started out strong on an effort that was inspired by the times and pushed funk forward all the same.
Alex Chilton topped the charts when he was a teenager with "The Letter" by The Box Tops, but his true and lasting legacy rests with his songwriting partner, Chris Bell, and "#1 Record," the debut effort by the duo's band, Big Star. From Bell's "In the Street" (aka the theme to "That 70's Show") to Chilton's yearning "Thirteen" to the group's closing collaborative lark, "St 100/6," there has never been a better power-pop record than this.
Runner-up: "Can't Buy a Thrill" by Steely Dan. There are those who loved Steely Dan's jazz moments, but for a certain group of purists, the band's pure-pop debut remains its masterpiece.
In a year that saw the debut efforts by disparate groups like Aerosmith, ABBA and Queen, The Boss' opening salvo was one for the ages. While he never really returned to this exact sound again, the staples of Springsteen's writing were all apparent: everyday kids finding their places in the world, often with Springsteen's wry sense of humor shining through.
Runner-up: "Closing Time" by Tom Waits. That gravelly voice we know and love was still developing, but the songwriting showed up in spades.
Never taken seriously by the critics — especially once they started leaning hard into the merchandising aspect of their careers — Kiss' debut album was still a stellar slice of radio-friendly rock. Every band member was a songwriter in his own right, with each of the distinct voices leading to iconic numbers like "Deuce," "Firehouse," "Cold Gin" and especially "Black Diamond." You wanted the best? You got the best.
Runner-up: "Meet the Residents" by The Residents. Captain Beefheart was weird, but even he had nothing on these avant-garde oddballs.
AllMusic's William Ruhlmann said it best when it came to Patti Smith: "Smith is a rock critic's dream, a poet as steeped in '60s garage rock as she is in French Symbolism." Raw, sly, at times brazenly unfinished sounding, Smith's debut album is a truly striking record. But don't let its basic production fool you: Beneath the budget studio craft are concepts and melodies that sound like they've existed forever, especially during the nearly 10-minute "Land" suite, which boogies like the Stones with words as rambling and comical as Dylan, all imbued with a spirit that would do Jim Morrison proud. Patti Smith is a force unto herself and one to be reckoned with.
Runner-up: "High Voltage" by AC/DC. Don't be misled: Although the 1976 album of the same name made waves stateside, "High Voltage" was the hard rockers' proper Australian debut, and it was relentless.
Three chords and tireless energy were all the Ramones needed to conquer the world, but who knew that songs this short and simple could be this lasting? Packing just as hard a punch today as it did when their self-titled debut dropped, the classics just never seemed to end: "Blitzkrieg Bop," "Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue," "Judy is a Punk" and so on. Punk rock perfection.
Runner-up: "Blondie" by Blondie. The New Wave favorites announced themselves here, with nearly every band member contributing shiny original songs.
While the Ramones may have had 1976's best debut effort, 1977 was the year that punk broke, ushering in a ton of new voices ranging from Buzzcocks to The Damned to The Sex Pistols. Yet the rockers at the top of the heap remain The Clash, whose debut album elevated the platform from bops and screeds to something approaching anthemic territory, to say nothing of a few genre experiments here and there, notably with their pioneering love of reggae peeking through.
Runner-up: "My Aim is True" by Elvis Costello. There were pub-rock records before and after Elvis Costello's debut, but rarely were any of them as good as Elvis Costello's debut.
Van Halen's debut album is an enjoyable record that has more than held up over the decades, but a casual listen now can't replace the impact it had when it came out. After all, there had been guitar virtuosos before, but never anyone with skills as mind-bending as Eddie Van Halen. Heck, the second song, "Eruption," is less than two minutes of Eddie proceeding to melt the ears off anyone within listening distance. Couple the histrionics with classics like "Running with the Devil" and you've got a debut album for the ages.
Runner-up: "Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!" by Devo. In many ways, the first true-blue synth-pop album was filled with its share of quirky touches, but its ace musicianship has lifted it to true icon status.
As the decade drew to a close, rock music discovered just how weird it could get, with everyone from The Cure to Christopher Cross to The Specials to Stiff Little Fingers debuting this year. Yet The B-52's eponymous debut was more than just the album that "Rock Lobster" came from. At turns brash ("52 Girls"), playful (their cover of "Downtown") and oddly sensual ("Dance This Mess Around"), this Athens, Georgia, collective turned quirky kitsch into lasting songs with a next-level feel for songwriting and guitar tone. A slept-on classic, even to this day.
Runner-up: "Unknown Pleasures" by Joy Division. Moody, arty, abstract and innovative. Before they became New Order, the members of Joy Division were playing by their own rules.
Yes, the ska revival is real (and happens every couple of decades or so), but few showed such absolute mastery of the genre like The English Beat. Wiry, brisk and fun, "I Just Can't Stop It" lives up to the title as the group members just can't seem to prevent themselves from churning out classics like "Tears of a Clown," "Mirror in the Bathroom" and the great "Click Click."
Runner-up: "Crocodiles" by Echo and the Bunnymen. Sure, there were great neo-psych guitarists in the '80s, but were any of them as good as Will Sergeant?
Blending a punk ethos with pure pop decadence, The Go-Go's debut stunned not just because of how accessible and clean the instant-hit songs were, but also because the women in the band did it themselves, with Jane Wiedlin, Charlotte Caffey and Belinda Carlisle coming out of the gate as songwriters to be reckoned with. "Vacation" (from their sophomore effort) may have charted higher, but "Beauty and the Beat" was truly their album to...beat.
Runner-up: "The Time" by The Time. We can spend all day debating where Prince ends and The Time begins, but doing so will make you miss out on the thick grooves found on this dance classic.
Although her album debuted in 1982, Laurie Anderson was not some mere newcomer. A long-running performance artist with a knack for the nuances and strangeness of language, Anderson's experimental "O Superman" went as high as No. 2 in the U.K. charts in 1981, soon attaching itself to her first-ever, full-length record a year later. While "Superman" is the undeniable hit, the rest of the album's bizarre grab bag of synths, trumpets and spoken word sounds like a mess on paper but remains a cohesive, captivating work that dared listeners to consider what a pop song truly is.
Runner-up: "Kissing to be Clever" by Culture Club. With cutting-edge production, a defiantly queer image and music kissed with a light tropical aesthetic, Boy George and Co. illustrated just how far dance music was changing in the '80s.
There were hard rock albums before "Kill "Em All," — even ones that played around with the very concept of thrash — but few captured the in-the-red ferocity of the genre like Metallica did. Although "pummeling" frequently comes to mind when describing their sound, the group's secret was that they knew how to write real songs, tempering the tom-punch onslaughts with actual melodies and real lyrics — nice reprieves that gave their ferocious moments that much more bite.
Runner-up: (tie) "Madonna" by Madonna and "She's So Unusual" by Cyndi Lauper. Diva dance-pop hadn't really been a thing since the demise of disco, but Madonna's sleek premiere and Lauper's colorful debut truly ushered in a new era of radio-defining dominance.
On its surface, The Smiths' debut is unassuming: jangly guitars and melodic choruses; Brit-centric lyrics sung by a morose poet frontman. Yet the more time people spent with The Smiths, the more their uniqueness shone through. The song structures were looping and irregular, and Morrissey's lyrics were as informal as they were romantically morbid. An army of imitators followed, but few could match The Smiths' greatness.
Runner-up: "Diamond Life" by Sade. Not quite jazz, yet not quite pop. No, "Diamond Life" exists in a sensual in-between genre that was created by Sade and is occupied only by Sade.
Obsessed just as much with Brian Wilson as they are with amplifier fuzz, the Reid brothers (Jim and William) came out of Scotland with one of the most iconic indie rock albums of all time, baking honey-sweet melodies inside loaves made out of electric feedback. The combination was indelible, and "Psychocandy" is still the best iteration of their sound.
Runner-up: "Whitney Houston" by Whitney Houston. The songs could've been hits in any capable diva's hands, but Houston's voice was unparalleled, turning every track into a Whitney standard.
The thing about the three white guys who called themselves the Beastie Boys was that at the end of the day, they could rap. With a rich knowledge of rock history and a love of everything hip-hop had to offer, the Beastie Boys (along with masterful production by Rick Rubin) managed to fuse rock and rap in a way that opened the genre up to a whole new audience. Plus, "No Sleep Till Brooklyn" still bangs.
Runner-up: "Control" by Janet Jackson. Her teenage albums don't count here: This defiant, boundary-pushing hard dance album was the true debut of the confrontational Janet (sorry, Miss Jackson) we know and love.
There are hair-metal albums, and then there's "Appetite for Destruction." Dismissing the entirety of the spandex-clad L.A. circuit in a single riff, Slash, Axl, Duff, Izzy and Steven constantly walked a fine line between hard rock authenticity and radio-ready melodies. "Welcome to the Jungle" and "Sweet Child O' Mine" are the staples, but it was the album cuts like "Mr. Brownstone" and "My Michelle" that proved the group had staying power.
Runner-up: "Paid in Full" by Eric B. and Rakim. With deft productions and a rap flow that was unlike anything anyone heard before, "Paid in Full" advanced the entirety of rap music by a quantum leap.
Following a string of acclaimed EPs, no one was quite prepared for Kevin Shields' otherworldly sounds in the form of My Bloody Valentine's debut full-length album. The guitars swirled and churned unlike any other record on the planet at the time, making everyone wonder what the band's studio secret was. Shields isn't telling, but this atonal, alien, yet richly melodic record broke new ground and set the stage for its sophomore record, which is hailed as one of the greatest guitar rock albums of all time.
Runner-up: "Critical Beatdown" by Ultramagnetic MCs. Debuts by the likes of Slick Rick and Big Daddy Kane proved the diversity of styles in late-'80s rap, but Kool Keith's versatile group upped the bar on both lyrical and production fronts handily.
In a rap landscape that was turning increasingly street-centric, leave it to New York's own De La Soul to completely flip the script on its head. Essentially calling themselves hip-hop hippies, the rappers made songs that were goofy, uplifting and freewheeling, completely going against commercial rap culture at the time. The gambit paid off for them, but Prince Paul's shamelessly sample-heavy production work rewrote the rules on what a rap song could sound like, and the rap game has never been the same since.
Runner-up: "Pretty Hate Machine" by Nine Inch Nails. The effective birth of the industrial rock movement can be traced to Trent Reznor's striking, chaotic debut.
Where De La Soul created a movement of hip-hop optimism that it then turned around and rejected (peer pressure's a hell of a thing), A Tribe Called Quest took a lot of the same elements — inventive sample use, creative new story songs, a wry sense of humor — and expanded them onto an even larger sonic canvas. Swiping the bass line from Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side" at one point, Roy Ayers' "Running Away" the next, the group's dynamic musicality was anchored by star-turn bars from Q-Tip. It still sounds fresh today.
Runner-up: "Mariah Carey" by Mariah Carey. Love her or hate her, there's no denying the way that Mariah's slick debut shaped pop radio for the decade that followed.
The start of the '90s is right when grunge started taking a foothold on the American airwaves, but it was The Smashing Pumpkins who took the alternative rock movement to art school. Their absolutely psychedelic debut had hard rock numbers to spare, but frontman Billy Corgan's obsession with shimmering dream pop gave the group — and its debut — an edge its contemporaries lacked. The Smashing Pumpkins went on to conquer the world, but some argue that they never bettered "Gish."
Runner-up: "Blue Lines" by Massive Attack. Ground zero for trip-hop as we know it, this group took rap production and applied it to soulful vocals, resulting in classic cuts like "Unfinished Sympathy."
As hip-hop culture evolved, so did its music, and "hip-hop soul" became a real thing, perfected early by Mary J. Blige with her stellar debut, "What's the 411?" While Puff Daddy and other of the era greats gave some solid beats, it was Mary who sealed the whole package with her striking, straightforward delivery, generating classics like "Real Love" and "Sweet Thing." The best part? She sang every line with sharp intention, meaning every song felt like she was spilling the whole damn truth.
Runner-up: "Slanted and Enchanted" by Pavement. Indie rock was never the same after these rambunctious kids with too much time and far too much wit remade the underground in their own slacker image.
Where the living hell would pop music be without Björk's astounding innovations on the form? Once in a weird art-rock group in her native Iceland, Björk called this album "Debut" because it effectively was her fully coming into her own as a songwriter, singer and producer. From tribal drums to jazz horns to cutting-edge electro-pop beats, Björk's true introduction to the world refused to stick to a single genre, proving to be a modest commercial success but an album people would be stealing moves from decades to come.
Runner-up: "Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)" by Wu-Tang Clan. Wild in nature, overstuffed with MCs and brimming with next-level production, virtually every track is a certified rap classic.
"I rap for listeners, blunt heads, fly ladies and prisoners," Nasir Jones spits on "Memory Lane," and it turned out that was only a small sampling of his fans. While the production was never bettered in Nas' career (thanks to heavy hitters like Q-Tip, Large Professor and DJ Premier behind the boards), Nas' deft, crystal-clear lyricism reinvented the way that everyone rapped, his flow utterly impeccable. Rap debuts rarely get better, or more influential, than this.
Runner-up: "Weezer" by Weezer. Often referred to as "The Blue Album" due to its cover, the nerd-meets-metal mashup was about as perfect a pop-rock record as you could ever imagine.
Comprised of three prominent producers — Duke Erikson, Steve Marker and the man who helped usher Nirvana's "Nevermind" to the masses, Butch Vig — along with the striking pipes of Shirley Manson, the band that is Garbage initially seemed like a lark, or at the very least a side project for all involved. As it turns out, this quartet's combined energy ended up crafting out a distinct niche for alternative rock, with lasting hooks and songs that tackled issues like depression and female sexuality in bracing new ways.
Runner-up: "Brown Sugar" by D'Angelo. A lot of people have tried to do the retro-soul thing before, but few understood the inner workings of soul music quite like D'Angelo, writing and producing virtually every sensual moment here.
As hip-hop production continued to get evermore daring and innovative, DJ Shadow (Josh Davis) eventually took things to the next logical level: He made an album with no rappers but instead hypnotic musical suites compromised of nothing but spliced-together old records. Every song morphs before your very ears into a new genre, creating a sonic universe of scratches, drum breaks and spoken-word edits that feel both alien and familiar at the same time. Even repeat listens are rewarding, as it's guaranteed you'll catch a new detail from this dense mix every time. Revelatory.
Runner-up: "Spice" by the Spice Girls. Call it disposable, call it a guilty pleasure, call it whatever you want. Just make sure you call out a pitch-perfect girl-group dance-pop album when you see one, OK?
As the '90s rolled on, more and more rock groups were embracing dance and electronic elements, effectively creating a genre known as "electronica." Yet the French duo behind Daft Punk decided to bring house and club music to the masses, pioneering the subgenre known as Big Beat by taking simple grooves and ideas and expanding them out to their entertaining limits. "Around the World" is a classic, but deeper cuts like "Revolution 909" feel like they're soundtracking a party that will never end.
Runner-up: "Supa Dupa Fly" by Missy Elliott. The beats provided by Timbaland were innovative and surprising, but the star of the show was Missy, proving herself not as a great female MC but as one of the greatest rappers, period.
While Lauryn had a long career in the influential Fugees before going solo, her "debut" album still felt like a proclamation to the world, showcasing her skills as an MC, a singer and a next-level songwriter. The hits ("Doo-Wop," "Ex-Factor," "Everything is Everything") are all classics, but the rest of the disc — from "Every Ghetto, Every City" to the lovely "To Zion" — proved that Hill was unmatched in virtually any field she touched.
Runner-up: "System of a Down" by System of a Down. The American/Armenian alternative metal fiends would find success with "Toxicity," but their debut effort was striking, weird and remarkably composed.
Britney Spears put out better albums than this. There were better vocal groups during the millennial teen pop boom to be sure. Yet few things matched the power of Britney Spears' debut LP, crafted by future uber-producer Max Martin and his battle-tested team of Swedish songwriters and producers. The pop singles were frothy, filly and unbelievably catchy, but even the filler tracks spun off a sense of cotton-candy whimsy, all of this making for a record that, while undeniably popular, ended up defining generations of pop music to come.
Runner-up: "American Football" by American Football. These Chicago darlings who mixed emo and indie in a gloriously understated way broke up after this disc came out, but it has been rediscovered by legions of fans in the years since.
Indie rock wunderkinds seem to come and go with each passing year, but Badly Drawn Boy's Damon Gough put everything he had into his debut full-length album, and the end result was the sound of him creating an entire galaxy in the comfort of his basement. Santana-styled guitar workouts over disco beats ("Disillusion")? U2-indebted night-drive soul-searchers ("Cause a Rockslide")? Jazz-affected pop fusion numbers ("Once Around the Block")? There was no limit to the creativity Gough expressed at this time, and while he tried all genres over the course of 18 tracks, they all felt like they came from a singular creative vision. His sad fate? He never came close to reaching these heights again.
Runner-up: "Who Is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds Vol. 1" by Jill Scott. Mixing observational and sensual poetry with music steeped equally in jazz and soul tradition, Jill Scott broke out of the gate as a true original.
Before rap music became the most commercially dominant genre in the world, there were sharp divides between the mainstream and the underground, the latter sometimes referred to as "backpack rap" (aka scrappy, homegrown, creative, non-formula). Similarly, Company Flow's El-P had started his own record label and served as its head and in-house producer, imbuing the debut album of Cannibal Ox with "Blade Runner"-like beats that felt fresh, futuristic and untouchable. Rappers Vast Aire and Vordul Mega laid out some solid punchlines, but their combined power made for one of the greatest indie rap albums of all time.
Runner-up: "Is This It" by The Strokes. Although they kicked off the new garage rock movement, Nate Bethea said it best: "The Strokes wanted more than anything to be the Velvet Underground when in fact they are the Cars."
Rolling in like a sudden thunderstorm, the debut full-length album by this group of Manhattan lads caused a sensation upon impact: Mixing the postrock guitar tones of Joy Division and American Football with a nuanced and moody sense of songwriting, few bands have ever debuted with such a confident sense of identity. From its all-timer opening number "Untitled" to mid-tempo explorations like "Hands Away," Interpol was slated to be rock's next big thing until every album it put out since simply tried to improve what was already perfected here.
Runner-up: "Original Pirate Material" by The Streets. Mixing U.K. garage and two-step with a sloppy but charming cut-and-paste production style, Mike Skinner's one-man rap outfit rewrote the rules on this still-charming, still-funny, still-dramatic little record.
Hyped to the heavens and back following a furious bidding war, 50 Cent's debut studio album couldn't have possibly lived up to expectations — which is why it was so surprising when it did. From dismantling Ja Rule's career to anointing his entire G-Unit crew as chart-gaming forces to be reckoned with to landing an omnipresent amount of guest verses, none of 50's career would've been possible without this brash return to gangster rap basics, all done on the largest stage possible without missing a (Dr. Dre-produced) beat.
Runner-up: "Frank" by Amy Winehouse. A modest hit in the U.K., the soulful Amy Winehouse had attitude to spare on her debut record, which still retains its fire all these years later.
When Merge Records offered to sign the Canadian multi-instrumentalist collective to its humble label, the band insisted that before doing so that the label heads see them perform live. Once they did, they saw why: Blending drama and pathos with songwriting that was both lyrically personal and musically panoramic, this note-for-note stunner turned into the pillar of modern indie rock as we know it.
Runner-up: "The College Dropout" by Kanye West. Love him or hate him, Mr. West's debut was a seismic collision of wit, sass, ego and attitude. Stunning.
Following a run of hipster-baiting underground dance singles, few would have expected James Murphy's LCD Soundsystem project to transform into the sleek pop songwriting outfit that it would become. But with tight grooves and tongue firmly planted in cheek, his group's debut took mixed synth-rock goofs ("Daft Punk is Playing at My House") with Beatles-indebted psych ballads ("Never as Tired as When I'm Waking Up") and ended up as a music nerd's workout that's only gotten better with age.
Runner-up: "Arular" by M.I.A.. Mixing every conceivable contemporary style of dance music into one pot and adding a dash of political commentary, M.I.A.'s debut was as unclassifiable as it was undeniable.
Before Skrillex ended up being associated with a bastardized version of the term, "dubstep" was a moody, underground dance genre that evolved very quickly, as a litany of new artists and labels popped up in short order to give the scene its true definition. Yet the first great dubstep album belonged to Burial, a Warp Records-loving devotee who knew the power of the silence between every beat of the drum machine, crafting a nighttime electronic album that brought a whole new audience to a genre that was previously cordoned off by the record store literati.
Runner-up: "Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not" by Arctic Monkeys. Bathed in hype but surprisingly deserving of it, this U.K. outfit's smarmy, smart and swinging rock debut proved to be just one highlight in a discography full of 'em.
While Daft Punk took an awfully long wait between albums and The Chemical Brothers kept a Chemicalin', it seemed like the genre of Big Beat was a mere memory of Fatboy Slim's commercial heyday by the time 2007 rolled around. As it turned out, all the scene needed was a youthful injection of energy, which Justice was more than happy to provide in its arena-rocking, floor-pounding debut release. Everyone from Kanye to Gesaffelstein copped moves from this record, and your local dance club is all the better for it.
Runner-up: "The Bird and The Bee" by The Bird and The Bee. Inara George is an intriguing vocalist and lyricist, and her producing partner, Greg Kurstin, went on to become a generation-defining hitmaker. To think, it all can be traced back to this sleek, confident indie-pop effort.
Initially rounded up as "promising newcomers," the power of the Seattle-based Fleet Foxes' debut record has only magnified in subsequent years. From their astounding group vocal arrangements to their effervescent guitar work, Robin Pecknold and company found a perfect mix between American indie rock and British folk tradition, resulting in such staples as "Your Protector," "Blue Ridge Mountains" and "White Winter Hymnal." By the time Pecknold is singing a cappella at the end of closing track "Oliver James"? Heavenly.
Runner-up: "Hold on Now, Youngster..." by Los Campesinos! Packed with raging-fast tempos, furious glockenspiels and tag-team girl/boy vocals, this Welsh group's debut album had more pop hooks crammed into its dozen songs than most bands write in a lifetime.
As contemporary pop music seemed to get more epic in scope with each passing year, London's The xx did something remarkable in response: They stripped everything away. Although an indie rock band by broad definition, their incredibly selective use of instrumentation resulted in a debut album that was sleek, confident and undeniably cool. While the textures were sometimes icy, the songwriting was anything but, resulting in pop songs and instrumental passages that felt shiny and new despite being rooted in deep post-rock tradition. An album that works for almost any occasion you can think of.
Runner-up: "Lungs" by Florence + the Machine. With a baroque but bracing style all her own, one of the year's better pop albums is rocketed into the stratosphere on the strength of Florence Welch's once-in-a-generation pipes.
On paper, the debut album from Los Angeles' Local Natives sounds like virtually any other indie rock album: dry guitar strums, the occasional vintage keyboard or violin break, immaculate group harmonies — you know the drill. Yet in the case of "Gorilla Manor," the group's sense of pacing and arrangement makes all of these tired tropes sound neoteric instead of hackneyed. When those full-band sweeps of backing vocal harmony hit during the chorus of "Sun Hands," you know you're in for something truly special.
Runner-up: "Innerspeaker" by Tame Impala. Unabashedly psychedelic and determined in its trippiness, Kevin Parker's first outing as Tame Impala honored the stoner greats while still crafting his very own kind of high.
While Shabazz Palaces are technically a hip-hop group, the combined talent of Palaceer Lazaro (aka Digable Planets refugee Butterfly) and instrumental/production savant Tendai Maraire makes for something that borders the line between rap and experimental electronic music. The beats hold things together, and Lazaro's lyrics are unafraid to address the current political state of the world. But the instrumental passages conceived by the duo take the listener into new hybrid genres so regularly and so casually that "hip-hop" feels like an easy out in describing it. Even to this day, we still don't know how to classify it.
Runner-up: "Torches" by Foster the People. Anchored by one truly inescapable hit, the rest of this L.A. pop group's debut was filled with too many earworms to count.
While his 2011 "Nostalgia, Ultra" mixtape put him on the map, the hype surrounding his debut full-length "Channel Orange" was a fever pitch, with his reveal that he is gay shortly before its release driving an unprecedented level of casual interest into a mainstream R&B album. What a wonderful surprise it was to see "Channel Orange" live up to the hype, leaving us with all-timer jams ranging from "Super Rich Kids" to "Pyramids" to "Pink Matter" to "Forrest Gump." Nearly every song became an instant classic in its own right.
Runner-up: "Devotion" by Jessie Ware. A glorious amalgam of electro-pop and soul music is what makes Ware's striking, emotional and pointed debut record something that hooks you on your first listen and is still fascinating during your 100th go-through.
"We might be hollow but we're brave," sings the teenaged Lorde on "400 Lux," and boy, howdy does she capture that sense of cultural disaffection experienced by so many when pop culture is trotted in front of them. She doesn't want to put her hands in the air or have blinged-out accessories; this New Zealand wunderkind wants to empower, and she does so over an album of glorious pop minimalism that's infused with a melodic sense of wanderlust that proved Lorde was wise beyond her years.
Runner-up: "Run the Jewels" by Run the Jewels. While both El-P and Killer Mike had put out solo albums before, their first full-length collaboration kick-started their run as one of the greatest hip-hop duos in history.
While Björk and iamamiwhoami/Jonna Lee have long been go-to figureheads of the modern experimental pop movement, FKA twigs (a.k.a. Tahliah Barnett) went one step further by rooting her alien production and cryptic comedowns in contemporary soul, the result being an unusual hybrid that could be gobbled up by the masses even as it pushed the envelope forward. Working with pop greats like Paul Epworth and boundary-breakers like Arca and Clams Casino resulted in a debut album that sounded like little else at the time. Alluring and lasting.
Runner-up: "Queen of the Clouds" by Tove Lo. "On the good days I am charming as f—k," exclaims everyone's favorite stoner pop queen on an album that takes loneliness and ennui and sets it to a damn beat.
While Kamasi Washington has played tenor saxophone on tracks for artists like Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar and George Duke, few could've ever imagined that his debut album, a three-CD epic appropriately titled "The Epic," would ever live up to a title so grandiose. Yet with his exceptional grasp of song structure and clever arrangements — to say nothing of the elaborate orchestration and wailing choirs — made this overambitious debut less of a chore and more of a constant delight. And his "Clair de Lune"? Masterful.
Runner-up: "Surf" by Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment. While Chance the Rapper tried taking a "smaller" role here following his debut mixtape, this jazzy hip-hop collective soon captured our hearts with its lively arrangements and once-in-a-lifetime guest list.
If you looked at the charts, no, Margo Price's debut album didn't make a lot of units in the country world. If you looked at the critics, however, you'd think this album marked the second coming of Loretta Lynn herself. Her songwriting was crystal-clear and her lyrics sometimes devastatingly honest. "The men they brought me problems / And the drinking caused me grief / I thought I'd found a friend, but I only found a thief." Before too long, this will go down as one of the greatest country records of the decade, no contest.
Runner-up: "99.9%" by Kaytranada. Long loved as a remixer before turning into a distinct hip-hop/dance artist, Kaytranada's studio debut was immersed in history but used its lessons to point to the future of dance music.
Championed early by the likes of Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper, it took people a bit to warm to the charms of the St. Louis native known as SZA. Yet once her extraordinary studio full-length album dropped, people were shocked by her casually confrontational lyrics and gift for crafting an incredible vocal hook. Surprising yet seductive, familiar but not a mere facsimile, "Ctrl" announced SZA as one of the new leading voices of R&B — and for great reason.
Runner-up: "Nothing Feels Natural" by Priests. Riding a wave of critical love, these Pixies-indebted punk revivalists shocked everyone with just how utterly considered every song was on this fiery little debut.
While Cardi B fully embraces her inspirational stripper-turned-rapper origin story, some were ready to dismiss her as a flash in the pan, not too unlike Desiigner all those years ago. Yet Cardi wasn't selling her funniest lines or lyrical dexterity to the world; she was selling her attitude, which, as we've learned, is something that she has in spades. With its wild guest verses and top-tier production, "Invasion of Privacy" is more than just a good rap album. Songs like "Be Careful" showed us her vulnerable side, which, when coupled with the braggadocio, helped paint Cardi as a three-dimensional personality that you just want to spend more time with. Thankfully, we'll be spending a lot of time with her in the years to come.
Runner-up: "Isolation" by Kali Uchis. Following guest spots with Tyler the Creator and Gorillaz, this Virginia-bred singer calls up favors and digs into her Colombian heritage to come out with one of the most compelling R&B-pop records of the past decade.
Dave's debut album "Psychodrama" didn't come out of nowhere. The Streatham, London-born rapper and son of Nigerian parents worked the mixtape circuit gradually, building his way up to tours, Drake co-signs, and even a chart-topping single in the U.K. His approach was mannered and measured, so by the time "Psychodrama" dropped, anticipation was at a fever-pitch. What many people weren't anticipating, however, was an album as layered, cutting and honest as "Psychodrama." Using clips of his actual therapist as segues between movements, Dave postures like a street-hardened badass one moment before admitting to crippling bouts with depression on the next. "You ever fall 'sleep ''cos you don't wanna be awake?" he asks during the brutal, shifting opener "Psycho," and the line proves to be as palpable as it is downright chilling. These unrepentant confessionals have struck a chord with divided Britons, which is part of the reason why at 21 years old, he won the prestigious Mercury Music Prize against heavyweights like The 1975 on his first go. Even though his stage name is un-Googleable, you won't be forgetting about Dave anytime soon.