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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Too much, too soon: 20 respectable rock and rap acts that peaked with debut albums

Illustration for article titled Too much, too soon: 20 respectable rock and rap acts that peaked with debut albums

1. Rage Against The Machine, Rage Against The Machine (1992)

Released a year after Nirvana's Nevermind, Rage Against The Machine's debut did just as much to bring headbangers and alt-rock fans into the same fold. But it was far from typical of its time: Using singer Zack De La Rocha's hardcore militancy to take the macho swagger and frat-boy idiocy out of funk-metal, the album—and its breakthrough anthem, "Killing In The Name"—introduced legions of kids to leftist ideals and the whole idea of funneling unease into activism. Rage Against The Machine is also one of the most blistering, sonically revolutionary rock albums of the decade; the band followed it with two solid but increasingly frustrating full-lengths before breaking up in 2000. Although Rage is now reunited and could possibly record in the future, it's safe to say they'll never top their introductory detonation.

2. 50 Cent, Get Rich Or Die Tryin' (2003)

When 50 Cent burst onto the scene with Get Rich Or Die Tryin', he was already destined for success: With unassailable street cred—although it initially cost him his record deal, getting shot nine times may have been the best thing to happen to his career—and a reputation built on scorching underground mix-tapes, Fiddy caught the attention of Eminem and Dr. Dre, whose combined influence made Die Tryin' one of the most famous rap records ever, before anyone had even heard a note. Once the public got a hit of "In Da Club," 50 Cent became an overnight sensation, and his debut became the bestselling album of that year. Unfortunately, he's been fighting to recapture that swagger since. The corny come-ons of "Candy Shop" and "Disco Inferno" from The Massacre confirmed naysayers' assertions that Fiddy's lyrics were his weakest link—not a good look for a rapper—and he had to resort to publicity stunts like 2007's "feud" with Kanye West to move copies of Curtis. Obviously, fans liked 50 Cent more before he got rich; it remains to be seen whether he'll be able to earn back their love or die trying.

3. Richard Hell And The Voidoids, Blank Generation (1977)

They're often left out of tributes to the late-'70s New York punk scene in favor of bigger names, like Blondie, Ramones, and Talking Heads, but none of those bands would have ever set CBGBs afire without Richard Hell And The Voidoids. Much as Hell's taste for ripped-up clothes and spiky hair spawned endless copycats, Blank Generation was a blueprint for thousands of punk, post-punk, and indie-rock bands, pairing Hell's pinched yowl against Robert Quine's jagged shards of guitar while romanticizing nihilism as a point for poetic departure; its title track, meanwhile, became an international anthem for disaffected youth. Of course, anthems tend to loom large over a career, so it isn't surprising that it took almost five years for Hell to return with 1982's Destiny Street (though some credit must also be given to heroin); a distracted, slapdash compilation of B-sides and covers, the album couldn't help but pale in the shadow of its predecessor, and it spelled the end for one of rock's most innovative bands.

4. The Strokes, Is This It (2001)

Very few albums are asked to shoulder the burden carried by The Strokes' 2001 debut Is This It, which was born in a crossfire hurricane of critical fawning hailing it as an epochal, game-changing moment for rock music not seen since Nevermind. Within months, every group of guitar-slinging dudes on Earth was being compared—favorably and unfavorably—to the upstart New York band, while reviews started referring to music in pre- and post-Strokes terms. (Never mind that beyond all the adulation, Is This It is basically a solid, hooky little album that's heavier on attitude than attempts to define a generation.) To their credit, The Strokes never really bought the hype, but once the torch of "biggest band in the world" has been passed, it's almost impossible not to get burned. While the band's follow-ups, Room On Fire and First Impressions Of Earth, occasionally touch on the offhand brilliance of Is This It, the diminishing returns both commercially and critically indicate that The Strokes have become victims of their own unintentional influence, while the once-revolutionary "Strokes sound" has already curdled into cliché.

5. The Modern Lovers, The Modern Lovers (1976)

Though Jonathan Richman may prefer to think of the lighter, softer batch of songs recorded for 1977's Jonathan Richman And The Modern Lovers as his true "first" album, most fans point to the far spikier sounds of 1976's The Modern Lovers—a compilation of demos recorded in 1972 with The Velvet Underground's John Cale—as the band's definitive work, and that album unquestionably earned Richman his "punk godfather" status. Aided by the pawn-shop organ of a pre-Talking Heads Jerry Harrison, The Modern Lovers' Velvets-inspired drone is the darkest work Richman has ever done: While his lyrics preached innocence and sincerity, Richman only hints at the pie-eyed romantic he would become on tracks like "Girlfriend," maintaining a surprisingly aloof, ironic distance on "Pablo Picasso" and "She Cracked." The record's opening salvo, "Roadrunner"—with its galvanizing count-off and simple chord structure—so perfectly captured the spirit of rock 'n' roll abandon, groups like Sex Pistols practically based their whole careers around it.

6. Nas, Illmatic (1994)

Nas created perhaps the greatest hip-hop record ever—it's at least in the conversation—on his first time out, which has been both a blessing and a curse for him. With Illmatic, Nas showed he could make a record that was top-to-bottom brilliant, an impossibly high standard he couldn't hope to match. So while Illmatic bought Nas a lifetime supply of street cred, it also ensured that every record he made afterward would never be good enough, no matter how good it might be on its own terms.


7. The Notorious B.I.G., Ready To Die (1994)

The title of Biggie Smalls' 1994 debut proved sadly prophetic. Within three years of making one of the great rap records of the era, he was dead. But while Ready To Die stands out in Biggie's catalog mostly due to lack of competition (though 1997's Life After Death is no slouch, either), it's likely he would have had trouble matching it even had he lived to try. A record that perfectly balances hardcore New York rap with rock-solid pop hooks, Ready To Die sounds more and more like a summation of rap's golden age.

8. John Prine, John Prine (1971)

There's an old cliché about having a lifetime to write your debut record, and only a few months to write your second. It explains why many artists suffer from the dreaded sophomore slump, but it doesn't quite account for the startling greatness John Prine displayed on his first record. Songs as deep and wise as "Sam Stone" and "Hello In There" don't seem like the reflections of an ordinary 24-year-old, and they weren't. Prine was a fully formed, extraordinary songwriter right off the bat, and while he kept on writing great songs for nearly 40 years, the foundation of his career will always be John Prine.

9. Kanye West, The College Dropout (2004)

When he made The College Dropout, Kanye West already was a big-name producer known for crafting much of Jay-Z's classic The Blueprint, so he was by no means humble. But West wasn't quite the egomaniac he would quickly become after The College Dropout made him one of the biggest popular and critical success stories of the decade. In fact, The College Dropout (from the title on down) is an appealingly self-deprecating, "regular dude" rap record, made by a guy whose genre-defying eccentricities would be fully absorbed by the genre by the time of his second record just one year later.

10. Television, Marquee Moon (1977)

It's a shame Marquee Moon is easily Television's best album: A band this boundlessly creative should have made more records to compete for the title. As it was, Television imploded after Marquee Moon's decent follow-up, Adventure. (A self-titled reunion record was released 14 years later, in 1992.) But while Television was merely a shooting star in the late-'70s New York punk scene, it shone brighter than most bands, finding common ground between Miles Davis and the 13th Floor Elevators with jazzy, exploratory guitar jams that countless indie-rock bands are still trying to copy.

11. Taking Back Sunday, Tell All Your Friends (2002)

When Taking Back Sunday debuted in 2002 with Tell All Your Friends, the Long Island band was part of the rising tide of new emo. (Six years later, few associations could sound more pejorative.) Tell All Your Friends succeeded because of its unpolished mix of punk and pop; the loud/quiet dynamics and big choruses broke no new ground, but they also couldn't have sounded better on songs like "Cute Without The E (Cut From The Team)." They worked so well, they became Taking Back Sunday's rigid stylistic template: subdued verse, louder bridge, big chorus, repeat, breakdown, chorus, end. Guitarist-vocalist John Nolan and bassist Shaun Cooper found it so stifling that they left the band just as the world started taking notice. Two repetitious TBS albums later, they look like the smart ones.

12. The Sundays, Reading, Writing, And Arithmetic (1990)

While the British pop scene of the late '80s and early '90s was dominated by noisy shoegazers and neo-disco acts, the Reading quintet The Sundays took a subtler approach, calling back to the early-'80s sound of Aztec Camera and The Smiths on their delicate, tuneful debut. Songs like "Here's Where The Story Ends," "Joy," and "Can't Be Sure" became staples of college radio and MTV's 120 Minutes, and The Sundays seemed poised to become crossover superstars. But although the band's next two albums were good (especially the third, Static And Silence), neither was as consistently enthralling, and in 1998, the band went on what seems to have become a permanent hiatus.

13. Black Flag, Damaged (1981)

By 1981, Black Flag was famous for three things: punishing live shows, hilariously brutish singles, and burning through lead singers at an alarming rate. DC-area pilgrim Henry Rollins became the band's permanent frontman in '81, and with his gutter-poet soul and macho bluster, he eventually transformed Black Flag into something more like avant-garde metal than bratty punk. But first, the Rollins-led Black Flag dispatched some old business by re-recording the best of its early material for Damaged, the album that best encapsulates the aggression and teen angst of the L.A. hardcore scene. As shouted by Rollins, songs like "TV Party" and "Six Pack" stopped being merely snotty and became almost scary—howls from the stricken soul of suburbia.


14. Marshall Crenshaw, Marshall Crenshaw (1982)

After kicking around New York as a songwriter and Beatlemania cast member, Marshall Crenshaw kept his Lennon glasses on and became guitar-pop's brightest hope with the release of his 1982 debut. Steeped in reverb and cooing background harmonies, Marshall Crenshaw was a throwback to doo-wop and mid-'60s West Coast pop, though songs like "Cynical Girl" and "I'll Do Anything" also had enough post-new-wave edge to keep any fan of Talking Heads and The B-52s happy. Crenshaw's second album, Field Day, was almost as good, in spite of the heavy-footed Steve Lillywhite production, but the albums that followed over the next 25 years have largely had one good song surrounded by a lot of filler—just like the bands Crenshaw loves.

15. Boston, Boston (1976)

Recorded in a basement by a band that preferred the confines of home studios to smoky nightclubs and concert halls, Boston's debut album produced a string of album-rock hits: "More Than A Feeling," "Hitch A Ride," "Rock And Roll Band," "Peace Of Mind," and so on. According to guitarist/engineering wizard Tom Scholz, Boston's label released the 1978 follow-up album Don't Look Back before he'd gotten the sound just as he wanted, so in the years since, Scholz essentially stepped away from the hitmaking game, periodically re-appearing with another Boston album that nobody cared about.

16. Wu-Tang Clan, Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (1993)

It's hard to overstate the importance and influence of Wu-Tang Clan's iconic 1993 debut Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) on hip-hop and pop music as a whole. Offering infinitely more than just a radically new sound and image, Wu-Tang Clan gave listeners an entire B-movie world to get lost in, complete with an elaborate kung-fu-based mythology and a sprawling cast of larger-than-life characters, from deranged court jester Ol' Dirty Bastard to charismatic anti-hero Method Man to enigmatic mastermind RZA. The aftershocks of Enter The Wu-Tang's revolutionary fusion of blaxploitation atmospherics, gutbucket soul, and kung-fu exoticism can be felt throughout hip-hop even today, in the work of acts as dissimilar as Kanye West, Mobb Deep, and MF Doom. Wu-Tang Clan's subsequent albums have been full of great moments, from the messy, sprawling, and overstuffed Wu-Tang Forever to its ODB-free last album, 8 Diagrams, but nothing the group has done since has come close to recreating the wall-to-wall greatness of its legendary debut.

17. The Sugarcubes, Life's Too Good (1988)

The Sugarcubes—better known as the Icelandic band that launched Björk and left a bunch of other people in the dust—started off remarkably strong with Life's Too Good, introducing the singer's incredible voice and pixie-like weirdness to the world via "Birthday" and "Deus." They stuck around for two more albums before Björk ascended, but neither came close to the goodness of Life's Too Good.

18. Supergrass, I Should Coco (1995)

Supergrass is still around and making excellent albums—in fact, it's perhaps the most consistent outfit born of the mid-'90s Britpop boom. But something about its 1995 debut, I Should Coco, sets it above the rest. Rarely has such deft, immaculate, and even subtle songcraft been wed to an all-out frenzy of pure punk fury. Zooming along breathlessly, the then-teen trio mashed an instinctive love of David Bowie, The Jam, and Buzzcocks and into a shaggy, scruffy ball of fun that celebrates everything from juvenile delinquency to, um, adult delinquency. As solid as Supergrass' subsequent output has been, it has definitely evened out as the band has grown older and wiser. But I Should Coco stands as one of the great spontaneous eruptions of unfettered youth in pop history.

19. Snoop Doggy Dogg, Doggystyle (1993)

Snoop's career-making guest appearances on Dr. Dre's The Chronic worked hip-hop heads into such a fever of excitement and anticipation over his solo debut that he probably could have released an album of didgeridoo solos and still gone platinum. When Snoop's smash-hit debut Doggystyle finally hit shelves after numerous delays, it almost lived up to the hype. Snoop can always be counted on for great singles, but Doggystyle boasts a cohesion and consistency otherwise missing from the marijuana enthusiast's ferociously uneven oeuvre, thanks to Dr. Dre's fussily perfectionist production and a supporting cast of Death Row role-players (Daz, Kurupt, Lady Of Rage, Nate Dogg) who thrived in guest spots, but floundered in the harsh glare of the solo spotlight. In the winter of 1993, Doggystyle brought a tantalizing taste of the eternal Southern California summer to a thankful hip-hop nation.

20. Sunny Day Real Estate, Diary (1994)

In a way, Sunny Day Real Estate never got a proper chance to top its 1994 debut, Diary, which pretty much defined emo at the time. But instead of being whiny, Diary is dramatic, dynamic, and passionately introspective, and though it isn't head and shoulders above the rest of the group's catalog, it's still the clear winner. But that's hardly a surprise, since the Seattle quartet was imploding while recording the 1995 follow-up LP2, an album they didn't bother to name or design artwork for. A reunited SDRE offered a pair of albums, though neither quite hit the mark: 1998's How It Feels To Be Something On is unfocused and occasionally proggy (and not in the good way), while 2000's The Rising Tide wins points for combining disparate elements: Eastern-inspired drones, vocoder, and pop influences. But neither is ultimately as satisfying as Diary.

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