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The Ten Best Debut Albums of the 1970s

The Ten Best Debut Albums of the 1970s

These are the best debut records of the 1970s.

The late ‘60s had established the album as an art form—leaving the early ‘70s, the long hangover for the psychedelic era, to bear the yoke of Album-Oriented Rock. But the decade wasn’t all so ponderous: The explosion of punk and new wave debuts in 1977 alone could have filled their own Top Ten list, and interspersed with the bloated supergroups of the first half of the ‘70s were milestones in the development of heavy metal and power pop. No 10 albums can tell the full story of a decade, of course—particularly when at least one major ‘70s genre, disco, was decidedly singles-oriented. But these 10 are a good start. – Zachary Hoskins

Black Sabbath: Black Sabbath (1970)

Rarely if ever have the stars aligned so perfectly to announce a band’s arrival than they did for Black Sabbath. With the ‘60s already aging like milk left out on a hot summer day, 1970 arrived on a sea of bad vibes as the realization of dashed dreams sank in for disillusioned idealists. Brits only had to wait until Friday, February 13 of the new decade to get the perfect encapsulation of this new era. Black Sabbath, refined metaphorically and, in Tony Iommi’s finger-shortening industrial accident, literally by working-class misery, churned their blues ‘n’ folk background into something new and terrifying. From the moment Iommi’s tritone-laden riff for the band’s eponymous album opener roared through the speaker, there was a before this album, and an after.

It’s not enough to say that Black Sabbath invented heavy metal. Every element here is perfectly pitched toward hell. Geezer Butler’s nightmarish lyrics, Iommi’s plunging riffs, the diseased variation of acid rock colors on the album’s hazy cover. Feed it all through Ozzy Osbourne’s manically terrified vocal performances and you get arguably the purest distillation of rock since Little Richard’s debut, albeit swapping out that record’s teenage joyousness for the clear-eyed horror of childhood’s end and the emergence into a broken, perhaps irreparable world. The album’s subject matter careens between wizards and (on the original track list) bluesy laments of manipulative women, but its fears are pitched as primal, with life itself a series of eldritch terrors that take many forms but remain outside of time. Yet for all the bands who followed who attempted to crib Sabbath’s dark energy, many missed that the most fundamentally scary aspect of the band is how rooted they were in reality, giving voice to working-class despair and rage that tore lingering hippie optimism to ribbons. Black Sabbath has been thoroughly vivisected, expanded upon and flatly stolen from, but their debut retains all of its manic power, the peak of the British blues rock explosion that happened to signal the death chime of the genre’s flimsy, showier poses. – Jake Cole

Big Star – #1 Record (1972)

It may be a cult album, but it sure doesn’t sound like one. Alex Chilton and Chris Bell were swinging for the fences and, from the band’s very name and their debut’s hopeful title, took aim at the top of the pop charts. That they didn’t get there can only be blamed on several things going wrong all at once, but it’s no fault of the songs. #1 Record is equal parts wistful and of the moment, mature yet adolescent. It encapsulates the pop optimism of the ‘60s while infusing it with the sense of melancholy that everyone seemed to feel as they came down from the decade’s high. This is an album that everyone was meant to hear, even if hardly anybody did at the time.

Written by two songwriters at very different places in their careers, it’s astonishing that #1 Record is as cohesive as it is. Chilton was seeking a sense of rebirth after briefly topping the charts with the Box Tops, and that’s borne out in more pensive, reflective songs like “The Ballad of El Goodo” and “Thirteen.” Bell, on the other hand, was looking to make his first statement, which explains why his entries (notably “Feel” and first single “Don’t Lie to Me”) kick a little more ass. Yet both seemed intuitively focused on the same central theme: Of pop music as a soundtrack to reckless, well-spent youth. It’s there in future sitcom theme “In the Street,” where Bell sings about going on a joyride and scoring some weed; it’s also on “Thirteen,” where Chilton makes young love sound sweet and somewhat epic all at once. Eventually, Bell would leave and Big Star’s music would become more fractured and geared towards a narrower audience, which makes #1 Record’s ability to encompass so many young experiences all that much more precious. – Kevin Korber

Patti Smith – Horses (1975)

While Patti Smith’s debut is wonderful as a whole, its opening track is both its unquestionable high point and a perfect distillation of the album’s strengths. It reads as both a precursor to the punk boom and an extension of its sounds. A minimal chord progression and rapid tempos join with a nonlinear structure based around narrative development, not an inherited form. “Jesus died for somebody’s sins/ But not mine” interrupts the stoic piano chords that open “Gloria,” immediately tossing the album headfirst into its defining darkness and dejection. As the narrator’s desire intensifies, Smith guides her band towards the explosive conclusion. Following all the best covers, Smith and her band not only pay homage to the original work but expose its unheard nuances. Van Morrison’s vocals and Them’s garage rock are an obvious precursor, but Smith blows the composition up into a blistering romantic epic.

It is this fearless grandiosity that defines Horses. The seamless fusion of pop hooks and art song rambling on “Gloria” is never matched, but the extremes of each are reached for in just the next two tracks. The faux-reggae of “Redondo Beach” is a little stiff, saved slightly by the cloudy, dangerous mood Smith paints. “Birdland,” whose structural idea is more fully realized in “Land,” disregards all convention in favor of a loose, repetitive climb towards harrowing yowls of “we’re not human.” The back-and-forth between catchiness and wandering experimentalism continues, combusting during “Land” and blankly receding on the album closer, a foil to “Gloria:” Nearly emotionless and instrumentally grey. “Elegie” is an anticlimactic ending to such an unhinged album, furthering the overall disarray rather than binding it together. Smith opens her record with something flawless, proceeds to tear apart its structure then builds more ambitious sculptures out of its broken parts. One style conceived, created and cremated in 40 minutes. – Connor Lockie

Ramones – Ramones (1976)

It’s the perfect punk album—and was never really supposed to be “punk.” Singer Jeffrey Hyman (Joey) was a gawky long-hair who wanted to be David Bowie; guitarist John Cummings (Johnny), a construction worker equally obsessed with the Stooges and the Beatles; drummer Thomas Erdelyi (Tommy), a Jewish-Hungarian recording engineer with a love for pre-British Invasion pop and surf music. The closest thing to a recruit from punk central casting was bassist Doug Colvin (Dee Dee): a street kid and hustler who was kicked out of an early lineup of Television because he “couldn’t play good.” But if the Ramones invented punk as we know it, it’s because they were incapable of doing anything else.

Listen to Ramones with an ear for its incongruity and the album verges on outsider art. Opener and lead single “Blitzkrieg Bop” cops its chanted hook from the Bay City Rollers, but shoots itself in the foot commercially with lyrical references to the Nazis; second single “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” pays homage to girl-group pop with a bargain-basement facsimile of the Wall of Sound. Strip away the lyrics about sniffing glue and beating on the brat with a baseball bat, and the majority of the songs could pass for bubblegum pop: “structured the same as regular songs,” Johnny later explained, “but played fast, so they became short.” The Ramones wanted to be as big as the Beatles; and their failure gave birth to a new, mutant form of pop perfection.

Ramones didn’t come out of nowhere. Its buzz saw-wielding reinvention of assembly-line pop is inextricable from early rock ‘n’ roll and the original punk of mid-‘60s garage rock, not to mention predecessors from closer to home: see, for example, how the backing vocals at the end of “Judy is a Punk” mimic the New York Dolls’ “Jet Boy.” But it fell to these four misfits from Queens, sharing nothing in common but a stage surname and a penchant for black leather motorcycle jackets, to turn the music into an accidental movement. – Zachary Hoskins

The Congos—Heart of the Congos (1977)

For all the Black Ark bells and whistles Lee Perry throws on the Congos’ first album, the lasting impression is of the searing voice of Cedric “Congo” Myton, possessor of one of the purest falsettos in pop. Roy Ashanti knows well to play the straight man, his lower voice blending into the mix instead of cutting through it, but Cedric Congo is always straining skyward, his prayers yearning to crack the firmament. His singing on “Can’t Come In” is some of the most wounding in pop. This isn’t soul; this is surrender.

Heart of the Congos is a deeply religious album, sifting thoughtfully through tangles of Old Testament wisdom, approaching evangelism by a jagged path. It’s not so much about what it wants you to believe so much as what it believes. The Congos do not approach us with the arrogance of pamphleteering preachers but the helplessness of specks on the wind, orbiting the divine like a helpless child. Perhaps it’s because it was made by relatively early adherents of its religion and Rasta dogma is felt as true faith rather than hoary tradition, but Heart of the Congos really seems to believe in what it’s singing about. And the production seems wreathed in smoke and just out of reach.

The Congos never again worked with Perry, whose label disputes with Island meant Heart of the Congos had to be released on his Black Ark label and received neither the promotion nor the financial bonuses that come with a label. Most latter-day Congos albums have been middle-of-the-road roots reggae albums with terrifically sung vocals, their best work since being a 2012 collaboration with L.A. hipsters Sun Araw and M. Geddes Gengras. Some have criticized the producers from abroad for smothering the singers on that record, but Cedric Congo’s voice still soars like a dove to the heavens. – Daniel Bromfield

Television – Marquee Moon (1977)

Who woulda thunk that one of the defining albums to emerge out of CBGB would be a mystical guitar-heavy epic whose title track ran 10 minutes? What is this, prog-rock? Yet Tom Verlaine and Television, after shedding the angrier punk ‘tude of early member Richard Hell, came out of 1977 with an album that was nothing like the Ramones or Blondie or any number of New York scene-mates’ perfect debuts. What Television achieved with Marquee Moon was one of the most gorgeous and lyrical debuts, its virtuosity an anomaly in a cultural moment built for raw amateur speed.

Its seemingly anti-punk caveats aside, Television launched its debut album with one of the most undeniable riffs of the era. “See No Evil” taps the adrenaline of 1977 and acknowledges its fury: “I understand all/ Destructive urges.” Yet Verlaine has an alternative to underground vitriol: “Don’t say doom!” With Richard Lloyd’s exuberant solos and Verlaine’s more contemplative improvisations, the twin guitar attack has more in common with John Coltrane than with Johnny Rotten, with the leader’s nervous voice a perfect distillation of New York anxiety.

It’s on the title track that Television aims for the moon and goes into orbit with a mid-tempo dream that’s a perfect storm of melody and invention, the clarity of its musical vision matched by the enigma of a graveyard drama that invokes the Delta blues and takes it somewhere no other punk could dream of. “I remember/ How the darkness doubled,” Verlaine starts, as if telling a ghost story that leads through such well-worn tropes as “Down at the tracks” and Cadillacs. With patient solos from both guitarists, the track takes you to the underworld and leads you out of it—or does it? As released on vinyl in 1977, the last verse fades out, but the versions of “Marquee Moon” on Spotify “restore” the track to a final conclusive beat. Don’t be misled; the magic of this album is in that fade-out, the questions that, to this day, remain unanswered, still caught in a deep sleep. – Pat Padua

Talking Heads – Talking Heads: 77 (1977)

Music that makes you cringe—in a good way. Talking Heads: 77 is tangibly awkward and nerdy, grabbing a crippling nihilism and combatting it with a bookish, self-referential sense of freedom. It thrives on musical and lyrical naivete, like backing the exaggerated emotional crises of “Uh-Oh, Love Comes to Town” with steel drums, or the hokey melodies that accompany an ode to luxury condos on “Don’t Worry About the Government.” David Byrne’s voice, from start to finish, yelps, moans and shakily sings these diatribes against the trappings of modernity and capitalism, always taking on the role of a smiling consenter while he winks at his knowing listeners.

If Byrne’s vocal messages are a touch sarcastic, the sincerity of the music balances 77 out. Between Byrne, drummer Chris Frantz and bassist Tina Weymouth, the tracks are a set of contrapuntal acrobatics, each musician trying to fill every visible space without bumping into the other, a search pinnacled on “The Book I Read,” whose disco breakdown is a tireless enjoyment in its perpetual ascent. The groove is remarkable, buoyed by funk-inspired guitar strumming and dry, dissonant piano arpeggios that shouldn’t complement each other this well. “Who Is It?” toys with large bits of silence, proving that music can have comedic timing. The group’s core rock ensemble is sporadically peppered with kitschy keyboard sounds from Jerry Harrison, giving the whole album a sonic color not unlike the blinding red of its cover.

The only glaring issue on this personality-filled album is its bland production. The band’s next three records famously feature Brian Eno, and his here lack is felt. The mix is brittle and flat, nowhere near capturing the obvious live energy that birthed these tracks. The songwriting and performances are enough to earn a place on this list, but the rougher, more expressive recordings on the live album The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads are truer to the aggressive oddity of these tracks. Byrne’s voice on the live version of “Don’t Worry About the Government” alone shows that, at this point, a studio record was only a slice of the true character of this band. – Connor Lockie

The Clash – The Clash (1977)

From the get-go, the Clash felt important. Joe Strummer arrived at the mic practically out of breath, as if relaying news he carried straight from the scene itself. He and the Clash cared less about how they sounded and more about being heard.

Rock ‘n’ roll began as a form of rebellion against the man, and The Clash rallied further against the many systems that kept his order. Dead-end jobs (“Janie Jones”), economic anxiety (“Career Opportunities”) and the limits of leisure (“48 Hours”) all become fair game for Strummer and Mick Jones. Their rally cry came alongside the birth of punk, which faced an uphill battle for credibility much like the origins of rock. Instead of toning it down, The Clash turns up the volume and draws parallels to their rage and the events of the day. “White Riot” and “Hate and War” draw their fervor from witnessing violence occur, which in turn inspires and injures their characters respectively.

The Clash, as much as it shouts in your face, also directs its critical eye inward: “I’m not who I want to be,” Strummer declares, his life and circumstance pushing him further away from decency and reason. Whether it does so consciously or not, “White Riot” acknowledges the looming influence of Black culture upon rock music. The same youthfulness that gives them conviction brings along with it uncertainty, both qualities any young generation knows all too well. It’s largely why the album feels equally applicable to today. Just like in the ‘70s, contemporary people still hate their jobs, have no time to themselves and feel extremely disillusioned by the direction of so-called leaders of the free world.

The record’s parting shot holds nothing back. “Garageland” warns critics of an unstoppable new genre closer to most people than they realize. The sound came from inside the house, the garage to be exact. It was punk. – Mick Jacobs

Gang of Four – Entertainment! (1979)

Why does a freshly 40-year-old record still feel so terrifyingly relevant?
Entertainment!, now and then, is a starkly anti-capitalist album, razor sharp and sickly. Andy Gill was helping invent the “guitar menaced by an icepick” scratch that would go on to dominate noise-rock. And that ear-scraping tone reinforced that the nervy rhythm section was the core of Entertainment!. Hugo Burnham’s drumming was absurdly tight, punctuating each roaring screed with a rattling snare fill. And Dave Allen’s bass tone was the sort of growling, rubbery texture that every post-punk bassist since as attempted to capture. Joy Division moaned their way through darkness, Gang of Four cut directly through, creating the “angular” tag that would follow their genre through Interpol to Preoccupations.

And the political revelations were just as piercing as the music. Is there anything as damning to British life as “At Home He’s a Tourist”? That’s a miraculous diss just through the title, even ignoring the flaying of a lazy, despondent culture looking for its next high. “Ether” unravels a plot of a supposedly noble country declaring war to steal oil (Britain verses Ireland, what did you think it would be?) and “Natural’s Not in It” gives a disgusted sneer to advertising using sex to prop up anything that can be branded with abs or boobs. “Why make yourself so anxious?” they smort, all of their lyrics still ringing uncomfortably true.

And that scathing view on the world at large informed their interpersonal politics as well, leading directly to “Damaged Goods.” This is post-punk perfected. Gill’s guitar being fed through a woodchipper, Burnham practically stitched into the pocket and Allen with a still unmatched bass performance. It wasn’t until the Walkmen’s “The Rat” two and a half decades later that there was even a semblance of a challenge to “Damaged Goods” as the finest, angriest post-punk song ever made.

The fact that from New Order to Nirvana, from the Strokes to Iceage, no one’s been able to break away from the outsized influence and aggression of Entertainment! proves Gang of Four were musical and political prophets. – Nathan Stevens

The B-52’s – The B-52’s (1979)

Gnarlier, gayer and artier than the novelty party records that made them ‘80s-night staples, the B-52’s’ self-titled debut is night-out music rendered in unsettling post-punk. Fred Schneider doesn’t even sing until two minutes in. Now, of course, we wonder where he is, so familiar are we with his deranged carnival-bark. But it must’ve been a terrific surprise in 1979 to know that the singer of this band sounded like that—even more so when he starts dueling with the girls.

The B-52’s is sinewy and stripped-down, the work of a college-circuit kegger band not entirely groomed for pop success. It might strike those familiar with “Love Shack” or even “Rock Lobster” (which appears here, in an impressive seven-minute version) as forbidding, even a little too stiff and academic. But in a scene choked with bands like Wire, Television or Gang of Four, the B-52’s would’ve obviously stood out for their space-age camp. This is a band that liked to play with Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies and transmuted Yoko Ono to an impressive undersea menagerie. This is also a band that met over tiki cocktails and sounds every bit like it.

This is one of those early albums that’s less well-known than what came after but more likely to appeal to those who might dismiss a radio staple such as this band on general principles. It’s probably their best album, but slick production suited them on albums like Wild Planet and Cosmic Thing, and it seemed inevitable they’d shake off their art-rock affectations and become one of the biggest things in the world. It’s not too great a loss. The B-52’s are one of the greatest party bands ever conceived, but The B-52’s is like the mysterious guest at the back of the room, lips tight, waiting for someone to talk to them so they can spill their secrets.  – Daniel Bromfield

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