These are the best debut records of the 1960s.
Did your favorite band emerge from the womb fully formed or did its sound take years to develop and perfect? For some musicians, lightning strikes as soon as the first album comes together. Starting with the tumultuous ‘60s, Spectrum Culture staff will size up the greatest debut albums of all time. Together we can debate whether the first thought was the best thought—and wonder why everybody forgot about The Doors. – Pat Padua
In the American soul canon, there are a handful of voices that hold supernatural abilities. Etta James didn’t have the technical perfection of Ella Fitzgerald, the sheer Olympian power of Aretha Franklin or the pain-filled beauty of Nina Simone. But she had something just as undeniable, if harder to define.
What in the world were you supposed to do in 1961, turning on the radio and hearing the butter smooth flow of “At Last” flow out of your speakers? Probably just sit back and bask in the glory of that Gershwin backdrop bowing in the presence of James’ voice, bouncing between delightful lovey-doveyness and unbridled strength, both extremes needed just to accent how much love there was in the song. But, really, that was every song on At Last! that held that sort of overwhelming quality. “A Sunday Kind of Love” could have fully indulged in its lounging verses, but James dragged the whole orchestra up with her to her own emotional highs. And move over Otis, when James hits the top notes on “All I Could Do Was Cry,” nobody was matching that unrestricted blast of emotional fury in this or any other planet. What she had was flexibility, transforming from a righteous priestess of romance and wrath one moment, then a tender, helping hand the next.
At Last! ended up being her summit, but how could it not be? It reshaped what soul could be for a whole decade and encouraged a sort of wonderful opulence that would even sneak into the funk and disco of the ‘70s, wishing to find that same musical ecstasy that James seem to casually exude. Hell, even Robert Plant owed something to the lustful energy James smacked into “I Just Want to Make Love to You.” Though James never reached the heights of At Last! again, it’s arguable that no one else did either. And, more importantly, the ripples cascading out from this one perfect soul record are still reverberating today. – Nathan Stevens
This is one of the stronger Beatles albums. The math checks out: it has “Please Please Me,” “Love Me Do,” and ‘Twist and Shout,” and, well, a lot of people like “I Saw Her Standing There.” “There’s a Place” is one of their most underrated songs, an early entry in the self-loathing Lennon canon that takes the piss out of songs like Sondheim’s “Somewhere” where idealists dream of a place at the end of the road (for Lennon, the dream is the end of the road). These Beatles were already a fearsome band with an encyclopedic knowledge of the pop of the day, which is why the covers rub elbows with the best originals: they’ve internalized them and understand what makes them good songs. It’s easy to see why Lennon would be drawn to “Anna (Go To Him):” the conflict between the ocean of hurt in his mind and his understanding that the right thing to do would be to let his girl walk away makes it as turbulent an angry-young-man song as any he wrote.
While later Beatles albums have calcified into irrefutable facts whose greatness is a burden to us all, it’s easy on Please Please Me to see these “laughing freemen,” as Timothy Leary called them, as lads: beer-drinkers from Liverpool who’d been forged in the Hamburg crucible into something formidable. This is, above all else, a very good record by a very good band, adept at both covers and originals, with a cerebral approach that proved they wanted to make more than just good rock music. Listening to this album in 1963 it’d be hard to predict how far into uncharted territory the Beatles’ caprices would take them. But to view this as a formative portrait of an embryonic band would be a mistake; the Beatles were already miles ahead of their peers. At its best, Please Please Me convinces us that what was to come, and the profound impact it would have on pop music and culture in later decades wasn’t an evolution of this music but an elaboration. – Daniel Bromfield
For a band that few outside of those with a deep interest in ‘60s psychedelia recall, Love had quite the impact in their time. This is, after all, the band that Jim Morrison claimed that the Doors aspired to be when they started. That statement sounds strange if one’s exposure to Arthur Lee and Bryan Maclean is restricted to “Alone Again Or” or anything else off of Forever Changes, but it makes a lot more sense when one hears Love’s self-titled debut. The album smashes the notion of Love existing eternally as a sort of psychedelic fever dream with flamenco guitars and horns. Instead, Love presents Love as a rock band first and foremost; as it turns out, they were pretty good at that, too.
In comparison to the studied psych-pop of later records, Love is purely instinctual. The band wears their influences on their sleeves, as one can hear on the collection of garage and Byrds-influenced tracks. Yet, even in this nebulous form, the dynamic and tension that characterized the band at its peak is very much present. Lee dominates the record, writing and singing over most of it. Yet, Maclean makes his presence known as well, both on his collaborations with Lee and especially his lone solo composition, “Softly to Me,” which offers a sweet counterpoint to Lee’s manic mysticism. Overall, though, the album just has an exciting, unstoppable verve to it; Love thunders forward from the word “go” with the speed and energy of a band excited to be making a record. That spark is the sort of thing one only finds on a debut album, and it’s the last thing one would expect from an artist as enigmatic and particular as Lee. Love may never have fit the template of a rock band (if such a thing existed in the ‘60s), but Love is evidence that they definitely could rock with the best of their contemporaries. – Kevin Korber
The best debut albums capture not only the wild promise of a band bursting onto the scene but serve as state of the union addresses for those scenes, summarizing new breakthroughs in pop. But Are You Experienced? exists on another level. Simply put, no other album has ever so fundamentally redefined the possibilities not of a genre but of a musical instrument. From the fade-up of sustained feedback that ushers in “Foxy Lady” (the original UK version opener), the album ruptures the electric guitar as anyone understood it, forever making feedback and distortion as much an element of playing as the actual chords. Songs like “Manic Depression” and “Fire” are jagged splinters of runaway guitars matched by the frantic rhythms of Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell, who do not hold down the songs so much as hold on for dear life as Hendrix spirals madly within the confines of single-length tracks.
Where the likes of Peter Green and Eric Clapton reduced the soul of blues to hollow, note-perfect jams, Hendrix found a way to transpose the agony of blues into its new electric era through noise. Listen to “Red House,” how the playing is of course extraordinary but how the emphasis on not on speed or precision but the feel, with bum notes and wayward distortion folded into the sense of sorrow. Hendrix became the most emulated guitarist of all time after this album, but it’s remarkable how few truly understood the lessons he was offering, with his true successors found only in the realms of acidic free-funk (Eddie Hazel, Pete Cosey) or the eventual noise underground (Keiji Haino, Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo).
As such, Are You Experienced? is one of the few 1960s albums whose more singles-oriented US iteration may top the more cohesively sequenced UK edition. By jettisoning some of the LP-cut blues tracks, the US version prioritizes the sui generis psychedelic exploration that would define Hendrix’s all-too-brief career. Hearing touchstone songs like “Purple Haze” and “The Wind Cries Mary” foreground Hendrix as not merely a talent to watch but the new leader of the pack in a rapidly changing field. – Jake Cole
At the tail end of the Summer of Love, Pink Floyd gave the season a proper send-off, and their own career a promising start. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn remains a bizarre album even by modern standards, which is littered with echoes of this debut. A song such as “Lucifer Sam” sounds like a release between the James Bond theme song and hard rock elements of the ‘70s; in modern times, the outro of Little Simz’s “Dead Body” recalls the ominous cacophony of “Bike”’s own conclusion. In terms of vocals, Barrett’s voice, unlike Dave Gilmour’s or Roger Waters’, does possess a Beatle-like timbre to it. His wispy, friendly British accent soothes you into a wild ride of psychedelia, blues rock and a heaping amount of nonsense.
Significant for being the only Floyd album with Syd Barrett, Piper marked the start of a torrential output from the band that lasted over a decade. Some of their later work failed to land with the same critical success or legacy, while others entirely eclipsed it. Even still, Pink Floyd’s first album produced hits which would become part of their legendary canon.
However, when you consider its status as Barrett’s only album with the band he formed, Piper also reminds us of the Pink Floyd that never could be. Barrett’s abuse of LSD undoubtedly lends the project its wide-eyed wonder and tendency towards experimentation, heard on the epic jam session of “Interstellar Overdrive”. But his habits also caused his eventual dismissal from the band, which could have entered an entirely different trajectory than the one that led to Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall. Though adventurous in its vision, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn never gets showy with it, eager to invite listeners in rather than exclude them. “I’ve got a bike/ You can ride it if you like” they said in what would turn out to be a one-time offer, and people took them up on it. – Mick Jacobs
That The Velvet Underground & Nico was a massively influential album is a well-known fact; at this point, it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to suggest that as many people have heard the Brian Eno quote about everyone who bought VU & Nico going on to form their own band as have heard the album itself. The territory carved out by the VU’s debut—the intersection of Brill Building pop, avant-garde art, Beat poetry and the Manhattan gay and drug scenes—provided a fertile breeding ground for New York punk in the following decade, before splintering into goth, shoegaze, indie pop and a litany of other subgenres under the umbrella once quaintly termed “alternative rock.”
But if the album’s reputation precedes itself, it also obscures the extent to which it remains an anomaly in the VU catalogue. As the title suggests, VU & Nico was a debut for both the Velvets and their mononymous guest singer, a German-born model-turned-“chanteuse” shoehorned into the group by their shared manager and producer Andy Warhol. Much to the chagrin of the band’s chief songwriter Lou Reed, Nico took lead vocals on three of the album’s 11 songs, her sepulchral monotone lending a paradoxically vulnerable impassivity to early Reed classics “Femme Fatale,” “All Tomorrow’s Parties” and “I’ll Be Your Mirror.”
Another, related element setting VU & Nico apart from its successors is the prominence of Warhol himself. Though the legendary pop artist was a “producer” only in name, his hands-off approach in the studio allowed multi-instrumentalist John Cale’s arrangements to flourish on their own terms: from the hammering piano of “I’m Waiting for the Man” to the droning viola of “Venus in Furs” to the weirdly muffled dual guitar mangling of closer “European Son.” The Velvets’ Tom Wilson-produced 1968 follow-up White Light/White Heat would be a proto-punk album through and through, but VU & Nico remains harder to classify. It sounds like the work of enthusiastic amateurs: lunatics running the asylum. No other VU album sounds quite like it, and, as influential as it may have been, neither does anything else. – Zachary Hoskins
Of course one of the strangest relics of the psychedelic era was recorded in Los Angeles. But its roots burst from a seed deep in the Bayou. Mac Rebennack began his musical career in his teens playing Catholic school dances before he became a versatile New Orleans session man. Yet he dreamed of fronting a band built around the persona of a 19th century “root doctor” who gave him the stage name he has used ever since.
Dr. John, the Night Tripper, made his studio debut courtesy of a most unlikely connection. Rebennack’s friend and collaborator Harold Battiste, who wrote the arrangement for Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe,” hooked him up in the studio during some down time for the hit-making duo. Battiste produced an album with a group of what its leader called “New Orleans exiles” and even though the results tapped both the burgeoning counterculture and its musicians’ homegrown music, Gris-Gris sounded like nothing before it—or after. Its vivid voodoo mythology (Rebennack’s original liner notes leaned into the shtick like a master salesman) set the foundation for wild experimentation, but unlike so many freak-outs of the era, this experiment had hooks: the snake-charmer’s clarinet line that Battiste plays to open the album, the Arkestra-like percussion of “Danse Kalinda Ba Doom” and even the more conventional funk of “Mama Roux.”
Gris-Gris still sounds out of this world, but with an unmistakable beat. Ahmet Ertegun famously wondered “How can we market this boogaloo crap?” They couldn’t; the album was never a big seller, but its cult grew. Dr. John would drop “the Night Tripper” from his stage name as he shed psychedelia for more mainstream fare such as In the Right Place, the hit 1973 album recorded with Allen Toussaint and members of The Meters. Rebennack used his real name for composer credits and left voodoo behind; he even recorded a fast-food chicken jingle. Yet even in his more commercial ventures, Dr. John has always been distinctly himself. – Pat Padua
In 1968, as jazz was splintering off into an increasingly hermetic underground and an increasingly saccharine mainstream, Alice Coltrane released her solo debut, A Monastic Trio. Already, her art was markedly unique, taking the spiritualism of early avant-garde jazz to new extremes. In the track titles, album art and, especially, the music, there’s an appeal to higher powers, Eastern spirituality and cosmic justice. After opener “Ohnedaruth,” which features drummer Ben Riley and an overly skronk-happy Pharoah Sanders, the core trio of Coltrane, bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Rashied Ali settle into an album of contemplative, ecstatic jazz.
“Gospel Trane” is the only straight-ahead track, feeling closer to the modal structures of previous artists than the more blanketed approach Coltrane would pursue down the road. It also features a much-too-long solo from Ali, which takes up over a third of the track’s runtime. The trio immediately redeem themselves on “I Want to See You,” a more group-oriented track that features some overtly gorgeous melodies. Coltrane’s repetitive, sustained piano arpeggios against Ali’s jangling percussion and Garrison’s bowed bass form the perfect soundscape for the track’s ethos of intimacy and devotion. The track defines what would become a hallmark of Coltrane’s music: instead of singling out solo voices, each group member is responsible for one part of a fluid, synchronous whole.
While Coltrane’s piano playing was—and would continue to be—stellar, it’s side two of A Monastic Trio that fully introduces her singular approach to jazz. She takes up the harp for three tracks of transcendental music that merge the competing worlds of drone and improvisation. Of the set, the standout is “Lovely Sky Boat,” which remains one of the most intoxicating pieces of Coltrane’s early career. The trio forge a stunning mix of proto-New Age washes of sound, thick bass grooves and adventurous, nearly-free improvisation; it’s both wildly experimental and stoically tranquil. Already with Huntington Ashram Monastery the following year, Coltrane’s focus would tighten, but her debut solidly paves the way for her religious and musical pursuits in the following decade. – Connor Lockie
Five Leaves Left is perhaps the least regarded of Nick Drake’s albums, but given that it’s one of three beloved albums from the reclusive singer/songwriter, that’s actually not as scathing as one may think. Still, even taking that into consideration, it still seems an unfair assertion. True, Five Leaves Left doesn’t have the aching personal touch of something like Pink Moon, but the former remains very much a remarkable album itself, both as an announcement of who Drake was as a songwriter, and yet the album is also perhaps the most collaborative of Drake’s works. With a collection of studio sidemen that included the likes of Richard Thompson and Danny Thompson, Drake crafted something filled with creativity and an assuredness that sadly would not follow him for the rest of his brief career.
What stands out most about Five Leaves Left is how lush the albums sounds. Credit has to be given to Joe Boyd, who creates a warm, earthy feeling from each note played on each song, but Drake’s compositions are equally as inviting and enveloping at first. It’s only once one parses through the lyrics that one gets a sense of what made Drake such a distinctive songwriter. There’s little of the ham-fisted poetry of psychedelic folk on Five Leaves Left; instead, Drake plays coy with his audience, setting a mood and choosing to imply rather than state outright his intention. Yet, when one hears the deep, passionate-yet-subdued tone of his voice, one can only imagine what these songs meant to Drake as he performed them. Sadly, Five Leaves Left would not receive the sort of acclaim that it deserved in its day, but it remains astonishing while bucking the notion of Drake forever being a sad loner with an acoustic guitar. – Kevin Korber
Even for a decade filled with as many “what the hell?” moments as the ‘60s, nothing spun heads, earned sneers and scared the crap out of parents like The Stooges. The young Michigan proto-punks didn’t know they were helping invent a genre. They were bored, broke, pissed-off and barely knew how to sing or play. Iggy Pop’s yowl sounded like a cowboy croon fed through a woodchipper, giving a youthful derangement to it all. The hormones still flooding the quartet’s brains, ungainly arms unsure how exactly to work the instruments but knowing, absolutely convicted, that this was the only way to express just how they were feeling everything at once, this was The Stooges entrance into public consciousness.
MC5 might have had the audacity to scream “motherfucker!” But The Stooges still felt more dangerous. The rest of the punk prototypes were very aware of their political fury, calculating their next strikes. The Stooges sounded like they were going to fall apart at any moment, either passing out, sobbing or setting the studio on fire. Each outcome was equally likely and they all might happen in a single night. Idle hands are the devil’s playthings and as soon as the electric guitar was invented, he pointed The Stooges straight for the six-string. It was that underlying sense that these kids would be just as interested in robbing you blind or trashing a police station that gave The Stooges all its disconcerting, addictive buzz. The lustful chug of “I Wanna Be Your Dog” didn’t just enter rock legend from that plinking, one-note piano riff, nor the guitars scotched with feedback; it was the deep, lumbering sense of wrongness that slunk its way into every note Iggy wailed. Can you hear the bratty bounce of the Sex Pistols in “No Fun”? Of course, but you can also hear the rumblings of Metallica and even the lo-fi howls of Bathory. Alienation isn’t as universal as music, but it comes damn close. – Nathan Stevens