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The Ten Best Debut Albums of the 1980s

The Ten Best Debut Albums of the 1980s

These are the best debut records of the 1980s.

The 1980s were a decade of innovation and of consolidation. New, exciting genres and trends were bubbling up from the underground in America and in Europe, while mainstream pop music was more ubiquitous and popular than ever before. It was also the decade that brought us the music video and, by extension, brought back novelty and the one-hit wonder. It seems like the kind of environment that would not be conducive for the album as an art form, but between the beginnings of hip-hop, the rise of the American underground and peak of the megastar, there’s a lot more to the decade than the cheap fads and bad fashion trends would suggest. – Kevin Korber

The Pretenders: Pretenders (1980)

Nico in black eyeshadow one moment, Ohio farmer’s daughter the next, Chrissie Hynde has the poise and sass of someone who always wanted to be in a band and had the skill and vision to start one of the best. Pretenders vacillates between punk strut and almost unbelievable beauty, but everything pours out of the same soul. This is one of the most gorgeous rock ‘n’ roll albums ever made, astonishing because its palate is so sinewy and spare: it’s baroque music extracted from the raw guts of punk. And because its influences converge so totally with the psychedelic, transcendence-seeking ‘60s, the glue-huffing scum of the ‘70s, and the ‘50s sockhop music that informed both (small wonder Hynde’s a former rock critic), Pretenders feels kind of like the history of rock ‘n’ roll seen through Hynde’s idiosyncratic lens—especially when they cover “Stop Your Sobbing” by the Kinks as a tear-jerking rebirth instead of a terse rebuke. She could be anything.

Though Pretenders is by far the most famous and acclaimed of the band’s albums, it’s only given us one classic-rock staple: the lithe, serpentine “Brass in Pocket.” “Back On the Chain Gang” and “My City Was Gone,” their other two most ubiquitous songs, come from 1984’s Learning to Crawl—released after two of the original Pretenders, Pete Farndon and James Honeyman-Scott, lost their lives from drug use. Since then, Hynde’s worked steadily without many hits. Her latter-day records are inconsistent but principled. Listening to Pretenders, though, we think not of the future of the band but the past—about all these songs rattling around in Hynde’s head and her palpable excitement at getting them all on wax. “I wanted to be in a band so bad,” she famously told Rolling Stone in 1980. No wonder. – Daniel Bromfield

Cyndi Lauper: She’s So Unusual (1983)

Cyndi Lauper should have been defeated: bullied insistently as a child, she was a teen runaway escaping an abusive step-father. She quit her survival job at IHOP after a manager made a pass and went bankrupt after an old manager sued. But, despite all the sickly-sweet pop of She’s So Unusual, there had to be a deep-seated sense of vengeance and catharsis for Cyndi Lauper. With that heel turn, she made her debut a Rocky-level underdog tale that dominated the world. How haven’t “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” “She Bop” and “Time After Time,” affected pop culture in the decades since? In an era where the single was undoubtedly king, Lauper managed to create an album brimming with solo shots that still managed to merge into a standard bearer for synth-pop. But this wasn’t any boilerplate chart-topping fodder. “She Bop” caught Tripper Gore’s ire and landed on the “Filthy Fifteen” thanks to its pro-masturbation theme and “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” was a feminist manifesto hiding in plain sight.

More Devo than Corey Hart, She’s So Unusual let a new breed of weirdos to invade the top 40. It’s hard to imagine They Might Be Giant’s Flood going platinum, Everything but the Girl’s chart dominance or Prefab Sprout’s Steve McQueen becoming a touchstone without Lauper. And, even more importantly, indie titans and pop stars alike from this century owe so much to her. From Karen O to Cat Power, Ariana Grande and especially Lady Gaga wouldn’t be here without Lauper’s trailblazing. Even if all that context is drowned out by a wave of sparkling synths, She’s So Unusual is perfect from a pleasurable pop perspective. There’s a reason “Time After Time” has become one of the most covered songs in history and the mad sax line that closes “Yeah Yeah” is as triumphant as it is catchy. But that could be the tagline for every inch of She’s So Unusual. – Nathan Stevens

R.E.M.: Murmur (1983)

R.E.M. is one of the most influential bands of the 1980s and beyond, but they don’t really fit properly into the mold of a trendsetter. The underground before their existence was based around big cities and music that either relied on aggression or avant-garde weirdness. R.E.M., by contrast, was from a small college town in Georgia, and nothing about Murmur is either aggressive or aggressively weird. What Murmur is is slightly strange and surreal. It sounds like it came out of the ether somewhere from the north Georgia wilderness; it certainly didn’t sound like much of anything that had come before it. Here is where R.E.M. laid out their initial sound; while it certainly had its roots in American folk rock, it was shrouded in ambiguity and mystery without being arch or holding any potential listeners at arm’s length. They were strange, but in a way that invited people in rather than kept them out.

There are subtleties to Murmur that make it a unique piece of music in ways that one wouldn’t expect. The band were clearly inspired by the simplicity of punk rock, but the tight, controlled rhythm playing of Mike Mills and Bill Berry and the jangling restraint of Peter Buck’s guitar are anything but amateurish. And there are still few singers in pop history that are as unique as Michael Stipe, particularly on this and the band’s other early records. The version of Stipe that appears on Murmur is inscrutable and obscured, yet he’s also very emotive when he needs to be. (His performance on “Perfect Circle” is deeply moving even as his lyrics don’t say much of anything.) Murmur is the sort of album that could have only come together with this group of people at this particular time, which is why so few artists ever dared to try to replicate Murmur with any success. Right from the start, it was clear that only R.E.M. could be R.E.M. – Kevin Korber

ESG: Come Away with ESG (1983)

As punk was dying down and early DIY hip-hop experiments were underway, the climate was perfect for a self-consciously amateurish, party-centric album like Come Away with ESG. The quartet of the Scroggins sisters (Renee, Deborah, Marie and Valerie) emerged with a set of tracks that, both in substance and message, delivered an album-length ode to dancing that remains mostly unrivaled to this day. The music here is so unapologetically simple that it can disappoint on first listen: mid-tempo 4/4 beats and repetitive basslines guide each track, and the ambiguous lyrics delivered through shouts and yelps are more hype-up chants than actual singing. The production is sparse, only in the occasional dub-inflected echo or reverb does anything stray from a starkly clean vibe. The musicianship is sloppy at best, worlds away from the razor-tight funk grooves that ESG draws from.

Despite what should be shortcomings, Come Away offers endless enjoyment. Out of the minimalist shells of funk and disco, ESG build a unique sound world. The album’s strange non-place between a host of musical genres gives it an unmissable identity, such that any group that draws from this style—LCD Soundsystem, The Derevolutions, Sneaks—is immediately placed in ESG’s shadow. No matter how far-reaching the group’s influence is, however, few have managed to reach a level of careless glee as infectious as that found on ESG’s debut. The music here reaches for the highest plane of ecstasy, as evidenced on feel-good tracks like “Dance” and the group’s signature song, “Moody (Spaced Out).” Even though the record is barely a half-hour in length, its atmosphere is that of all-night house parties. For as long as dance music holds an escapist edge, ESG’s debut will stand as a hallmark of what this escape feels like and sounds like. Come Away with ESG is essential listening for anyone who finds their musical expression in four-on-the-floor beats and looping bass grooves. – Connor Lockie

Sade: Diamond Life (1984)

Robust, dazzling and complex in design, diamonds possess strength and sophistication appropriate for an act like Sade. While recognized for its titular vocalist, Sade technically consists of four band members. All credited with songwriting, each member contributes an equally important ingredient to Sade’s polished music, a solid catalog that begins with perhaps its finest: Diamond Life.

Few debut albums open with a track as resolutely honest as “Smooth Operator,” which sets the stage with Sade Adu’s distinctive contralto. Like the two-timer she sings of, Adu moves with grace through across the tempo. Here, listeners become familiar with Stuart Matthewman’s tenor saxophone, an integral piece of the album’s sound.

Forgoing the shimmering synths and electric guitars that filled the stadiums of others like Prince and Madge, Diamond Life incorporates sensual horns, pianos and soft hi-hats for a more jazz club atmosphere. The album introduced this band to the world as a classy lounge act rather than amphitheater filler. Its ambiance, though suited for a more intimate setting, foreshadows sounds to come. The keyboard lines of “Cherry Pie” set the stage for the cinematic synths which flourished in the later ‘80s and into the ‘90s.

Behind its relaxed demeanor, Diamond Life expresses its own anxieties and sorrows, albeit with a bit of grace. Adu addresses difficult matters candidly, for instance tackling unfaithfulness as an observer (“Smooth Operator”) and as a friend (“Frankie’s First Affair”). Turning that perceptiveness inward, “When Am I Going to Make a Living” wears hardship on its sleeve.

Ultimately, Diamond Life introduces the world to Sade, soldier of love. Whether she feels love on “Your Love is King” or fights for it in “Hang On to Your Love”, her conviction holds tracks together as much as the beat. Companions, as much as romantic partners, feel the depth of her love on “I Will Be Your Friend”. In pop music, love can come across as clichéd, sappy or impossible. In Sade’s hands, it is more durable, multifaceted and valuable than any old gemstone. – Mick Jacobs

Beastie Boys: Licensed to Ill (1986)

Imagine telling someone in 1986 that the cultural juggernaut from which, like so much beer spewing out of an exploding keg, emerged the parenthetical sandwich of “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!)” would someday espouse Buddhism and an indie-rock enlightenment that made them stalwarts of a functioning, polite society. You would have been diagnosed clinically insane.

Somehow, that’s what happened to the Beastie Boys, their adolescent minds and bodies changing to grow past the homophobia of the album’s original title and the constant middle-finger of frat boy lyrics to become…respected elders? Ad-Rock would interject a Jerry Lewis spit take of cold Bud at the very thought. In the ‘80s, Licensed to Ill represented everything I thought I hated about my peers’ youthful bacchanal, its thudding beats the favored soundtrack of jocks all over. In retrospect, while its sensibilities have fallen out of favor, its standing as a pop manifesto of startling originality is clearer than ever.

The Beastie Boys long ago apologized for youthful indiscretions and subject matter and have put away childish things. But the thrill of that obnoxious swagger and distinct sound makes a convincing argument for the value of adolescent stupidity and impropriety. It helps that the floor-shaking timbres they laid down were so strange, practically an avant-garde minimalism that happened to be layered with the most relentless, infections beats that ever bust out of a boom box.

Listen to that sinister glassy keyboard line in “Girls” or the disruptive samples anywhere on the album, the Beastie’s early punk aesthetic transformed by Rick Rubin’s dorm-room alchemy. Its ubiquitous spring break hit is hilarious, their idiosyncratic sneer pitched to maximum Dennis the Menace brattitude from square one: “You wake up late for school and you don’t want to go!” Shredding and slamming as powerfully as it did more than three decades ago, Licensed to Ill has endured long enough to be the obnoxious aging frat boy uncle making off-color remarks at a family barbecue; you cringe a little, but you love him, and, man, he knows how to sample. – Pat Padua

George Michael: Faith (1987)

Few people have combined religious iconography with gratuitous ass shots like George Michael. Though if you A) had an ass like that, and B) were trying to prove to a condescending British press you were more than a teenybopper, you would do exactly the same. Faith was the teen heartthrob gone sexy that every male pop star since has tried to recreate.

But this was no overly curated fluff. Michael wrote every song on the album except for “Look at Your Hands” and performed keyboards, bass and drums throughout the record. And, of course, there’s no denying that voice. His trademark hushed whisper could turn into a stirring, soaring line at the drop of a dime. And the music matched that vocal ambition. “I Want Your Sex” is a nine-minute-long romp that essentially birthed Justin Timberlake, as his solo albums and monster jams like “Mirrors” and “Love Stoned” owe their entirety to Michael. And Frank Ocean’s own deliriously long slow jam, “Pyramids,” might not exist without Michael’s passion.

The sex symbol and burgeoning political voice wasn’t out yet, but there was a focus and a fury that underlined every note of Faith. The atmospheric seduction of “Father Figure” might be the album’s most iconic sound, but penultimate song “Monkey” punched like a proper industrial cut, and it’s impossible not to hear the DNA of Nine Inch Nails slowly mutating from the pop smash. In 2004, the Radio Academy declared that Michael was the most played British artist over a two-decade span. In his insistence of being taken seriously and make something more mature, he had changed the course of pop history and blown a series of pretenders off the charts. And he made it look effortless. – Nathan Stevens

Eric B. & Rakim: Paid in Full (1987)

The timeless debut from Eric B. & Rakim is an unargued landmark in the development of hip-hop. A perfect match between musician and lyricist, Eric B.’s forward-thinking beats firmly support Rakim’s winding, internally-rhymed bars. The best part about Paid in Full is the duo’s calm and collected attitude. In the hands of Eric B. and Rakim, all this innovation, all this braggadocious decimation of the competition sounds effortless. Unlike his peers in Boogie Down Productions or Run DMC, Rakim didn’t rely on aggression or bombast to sell his skills. He treated his rhymes like delicate spoken word, never raising his voice above a steady monotone.

Eric. B, rightfully hailed as one of hip-hop’s legendary producers, is in peak form on Paid in Full. While much of his production sounds like standard fare among other golden age beats, there’s an equal amount of bizarre musical choices. He drops in harpsichord samples on “As the Rhyme Goes On” like its no different from another Motown-era soul clip. The whistling woodwinds on “My Melody” aren’t a long shot away from the suaveness reached for decades later by Metro Boomin on Future’s “Mask Off.” Purely instrumental tracks like “Eric B. Is on the Cut” and “Chinese Arithmetic” are baffling show-offs of his scratching and mixing skills, the latter being a particularly strange sound collage of mismatched styles that still doesn’t make sense.

More than anything, Eric B. & Rakim’s debut is a love letter to hip-hop’s defining qualities. Right from their breakout, this duo asserted that they cared little about anything save pushing their craft into new directions. The album is about the beauty of hip-hop and its musical potential. There’s little in terms of lyrical substance other than clever boasts, little in the music that deviates from sunny sample splicing. Eric B. & Rakim’s legacy forever extends through New York’s bookish wordsmiths, from A Tribe Called Quest to MF Doom, from Aesop Rock to MIKE. – Connor Lockie

Pixies: Surfer Rosa (1988)

For better or worse, the Pixies will always be remembered as the pioneers of the quiet verse-loud chorus dynamic that dominated so much of alternative rock in the ’90s. Yet much of the lasting appeal of their 1988 debut Surfer Rosa is in the weirder, more personal touches that didn’t make it into the ensuing decade’s Lollapalooza mainstream: the Southern Gothic grotesquerie of “Broken Face” and “Cactus”; the berserk flamenco-punk of “Oh My Golly!” and “Vamos”; the silk-and-sandpaper pairing of bassist Kim Deal’s choirgirl-clear backing vocals with frontman Charles Thompson’s blood-curdling howl on “River Euphrates” and “Where Is My Mind?”

Accentuating these sonic and lyrical eccentricities is the work of engineer and producer Steve Albini, who captures the band’s performances with a kind of hyperreal intensity: most notably David Lovering’s drums, which explode out of the speakers on opening track “Bone Machine” like an indie-rock “When the Levee Breaks.” For the ever-cantankerous Albini, the album was just another job: he’d later notoriously dismiss it as a “patchwork pinch loaf from a band who at their top dollar best are blandly entertaining college rock.” But it was arguably this job – along with Pod, the 1990 debut by Deal’s side project the Breeders – that made him one of alt-rock’s most in-demand producers, leading directly to his hiring for PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me and Nirvana’s In Utero.

As for the Pixies themselves, they’d go on to bigger things – particularly in the UK – with their 1989 sophomore album Doolittle; then, on 1990’s Bossanova and 1991’s Trompe le Monde, they’d gradually shed the endemic weirdness that made their first two albums so striking, before ignominiously splitting in 1993. Critical opinion is more or less evenly divided on whether Rosa or the more polished Doolittle stands as the band’s finest hour. But one thing is for sure: they’d never again sound as raw, as punk or as earth-shakingly massive as they did their first time out of the gates. – Zachary Hoskins

De La Soul: 3 Feet High and Rising (1989)

The rapid artistic evolution of hip-hop in the final years of the 1980s produced more stunning, groundbreaking debuts than any period since the punk explosion of 1977, yet even among a crowded field of peers it’s impossible to argue that De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising doesn’t deserve to be at the top of the pack. Stuffed with as dizzying and dense an array of samples as Paul’s Boutique or It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, the album not only made elegant tapestries of its sounds but also pulled from such a diverse range of sources that the sonic limits of hip-hop were proved to be boundless. Everything from Johnny Cash to Hall & Oates to a French language lesson tape are used, creating a playful bricolage that stands as one of the pantheon entries of sampling’s golden age.

Lyrically, De La Soul diverged even more sharply from the norm. Neither obsessed with their own rhyming prowess nor politically ferocious, the trio instead home in on positive messages that filter even the most pressing social concern through optimism and spirituality. “Say No Go,” to name but one example, updates the anti-drug talk of “The Message” into a vivid narrative that is rife with fraught details but also overflowing with support and love for addicts and adamant about helping others get clean. Even “Potholes in My Lawn,” a diss track for MCs jealous of the group’s writing skill, has a casually bemused tone, and every time it might escalate into something harder, the chorus arrives on the soothing, funk yodeling of Funkadelic’s “Little Ole Country Boy.” Practically inventing alternative hip-hop, 3 Feet High and Rising remains an outlier, an enduring statement in a class by itself that inspired many but was never remotely replicated. – Jake Cole

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