The 100 Best Debut Albums Ever

30. Derek & The Dominoes – Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs

If great music comes out of tragedy, then it’s little wonder this album is a masterpiece. It was recorded amid drink and drug abuse and undiagnosed schizophrenia. But for all the travails surrounding it, the five musicians involved – Eric Clapton, Duane Allman, Jim Gordon, Carl Radle and Bobby Whitlock – created something passionate and timeless that would stand as arguably the finest album of their respective careers. Layla is obviously the most high-profile song, but the likes of Bell Bottom Blues and Tell The Truth are just as beautifully realised, combining pin-sharp musicianship with earthy spirituality and a true sense of joy. The overall impact is diverse, devastating. 

“What I really loved about that album was, nobody knew who we were,” says Clapton. “We did a tour of England playing little clubs and there would be nobody there, because nobody knew who we were – so they didn’t come! And yet there was this quartet that was one of the most powerful bands I’ve ever been anywhere near – and I was in it! It was the most pure experience I’ve ever had in terms of making an album and then promoting it anonymously. It’s almost unheard-of.”

Most of the songs Clapton wrote for the Layla album were co-written with Bobby Whitlock, an American keyboard player who’d recently quit Delaney & Bonnie, a band Clapton had befriended and toured with. But Layla itself is credited to Clapton and Dominos dummer Jim Gordon, who came up with the lengthy piano coda. 

Whitlock remembers that Clapton already had Layla when they started writing together: “He wrote that song by himself at home”. 

“I’m incredibly proud of that song. To have ownership of something that powerful is something I’ll never be able to get used to,” Eric Clapton said of Layla in 1988. “It still knocks me out when I play it.” One of the most recognisable rock  songs, Layla begins with a seven-note riff 
of awesome expectancy, followed by an intense, intoxicating cry of unrequited love: ‘What’ll you do when things get lonely?’

It was directed at Pattie Harrison, wife of George. Clapton was trying to lure her away from her husband, with whom he was good mates. That wasn’t widely known when the song appeared in 1970 on Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs, but it was obvious to all concerned.

The opening riff was also there – taken from Albert King’s As The Years Go Passing By – but the song was much slower than it finally appeared. “Eric took the song to Miami with him. We’d gone through it before,” says Whitlock. “Eric brought that seven-note lick with him to the recording sessions. And then Duane stirred ’em up.”

Duane Allman, guitarist with the Allman Brothers, was introduced to Clapton by producer Tom Dowd soon after sessions began on the album at Criteria Studios in Miami. According to Dowd, the sessions had been sluggish before he took Clapton to an Allman Brothers concert. Afterwards, Clapton invited the band back to the studio, where they jammed for the next 18 hours.

Within days, Duane Allman was playing at the album sessions, transforming the atmosphere as he and Clapton brought the best out of each other. 

Whitlock’s appreciation of Allman’s playing with Derek And The Dominos is more measured. While he credits him with some inspirational performances – “The majesty of those opening chords on Little Wing is all Duane for sure” – he has a problem with some of his other contributions. “Layla would have been just as great without Duane on it,” he says. “In many ways it would have been better. Both the slide parts he put on to the coda are out of tune. If Eric had been playing them it would have been different.”

Derek And The Dominos attempted to record a second studio album, but the project was sunk by drugs and paranoia. Layla remains a stellar legacy. “It touched people where they needed to be touched,” Bobby Whitlock says. “In their soul.”

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29. Velvet Underground & Nico - Velvet Underground & Nico

Famed for not only its experimental approach, but also the fact that the songs tackled taboo subjects such as drug abuse (Waiting For The Man and Heroin) and sadomasochism (Venus In Furs), TVU&N was also watched over by Andy Warhol, who additionally designed its iconic sleeve. Said Lou Reed of the artist: “He just made it possible for us to be ourselves”.

It’s the record that slapped pop out of a simpering rosie-cheeked childhood into delinquent rock adolescence. As 1967’s West Coast offered flowers, jangles and a doobie, the East Coast’s Velvets countered with S&M, feedback and smack.

Lou Reed’s nihilistic punk cynicism sought to choke the hippies’ Nutopian optimism at birth, and this album was its glorious garrotte.

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28. Heart – Dreamboat Annie

The first Heart album was both a million-selling hit and an artistic triumph, featuring three signature songs that would become classic rock anthems: the rollicking Crazy On You, the funky Magic Man and the gentle title track. Guitarist Roger Fisher, a founding member of pre-Heart band The Army, was still present, but it was Ann and Nancy who were calling the shots. Only they were on the album’s cover, and they were doing the lion’s share of the songwriting. Much attention was paid to the sleeve by certain sleazy factions of the notoriously sexist music industry – the artwork showed Ann and Nancy bare-shouldered and back to back – and before they knew it it was being suggested in the press that they were lesbian sisters.

There were echoes of Zeppelin in Heart’s blend of hard rock and folk-inspired acoustic textures. But as this album proved, Heart had their own unique style.

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27. Pink Floyd – The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn

The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn represents the slim argument for Syd Barrett’s genius, but it’s enough: a transcendental debut that reaches for the stars on Interstellar Overdrive, then settles for parochial British humour on Bike. “We couldn’t play at all, so we had to do something stupid and experimental,” recalled Roger Waters in 1992.

With Barrett liberated by LSD, his songs took flight on a magic carpet of cosmic philosophy (Astronomy Domine, Chapter 24), surreal whimsy (Matilda Mother, Flaming) and sublime, nursery-rhyme lyrics (The Gnome, Scarecrow, Bike), bolstered by trippy, technicolour instrumentals (Interstellar Overdrive, Pow R Toc H). The rest of the band were willing and able fellow travellers.

"For me, the joy of Pink Floyd was going backwards and discovering what they did before," Soundgarden's Chris Cornell told us in 2016. "And the important thing about The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn was the music’s strange juxtaposition – sometimes whimsical and pastoral, but simultaneously desperate and sad. I don’t think I ever found another record which that type of dichotomy worked so well. With Syd Barrett, it never felt like an invention."

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26. AC/DC – High Voltage

The album that introduced AC/DC to the world beyond Australia was not met with universal acclaim. Rolling Stone described High Voltage as an “all-time low” for rock music.

The album was comprised of the best tracks from the band’s first two Australia releases from 1975: the original High Voltage, and T.N.T.. Two of those songs have remained in AC/DC’s live set ever since: T.N.T. itself, with its wonderfully yobbish sensibility, and the dirty blues The Jack. And in Rock ‘N’ Roll Singer and It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘N’ Roll) – Bon’s tales of dreams and heartbreak – there is a hunger in his voice that burns.

The production, by Harry Vanda and George Young, is crisp and simplistic, in its way every bit as good as Robert John ‘Mutt’ Lange’s more sophisticated knob-twiddlings on later AC/DC diamonds such as Highway To Hell and Back In Black. And you gotta admire the audacity of including bagpipes on opening track It’s A Long Way To The Top, AC/DC’s Scottish heritage not being widely appreciated at this early point in their career. An international debut to savour.

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25. Ramones – Ramones

John Peel famously heard this album and completely revamped his show on Radio 1 that night. “I just thought it was one of the most incredible albums I’d ever heard,” he said. Although The Ramones were really more about high-energy rock‘n’roll, this record was seen by many as the birth of punk.

Listening to the album today, you have to wade through 40 years of hype before you can make your mind up. Even if you’d never heard it before, virtually every note, of Side One at least, is recognisable: the language of cartoon mayhem – Blitzkrieg Bop, Beat On The Brat, Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue, Chain Saw – and Joey Ramone’s pretty-vacant vocals, the ‘Eh-oh, let’s go!’ and ‘Wun-tew-free-faw!’ chants, Dee Dee’s pummelling bass, Johnny’s sped-up dentist-drill guitars and Tommy’s double-time glam beat. As with Taxi Driver, that other significant 1976 arty-fact, you could pause it anywhere and ‘freeze-frame’ an iconic moment.

It’s quite an achievement that after four decades of extreme metal and hip hop, the references to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (on Chain Saw), male prostitution (53rd & 3rd) and Nazis (on LP closer Today Your Love, Tomorrow The World) still have the power to disconcert, if not outright disturb.

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24. Mike Oldfield – Tubular Bells

Tubular Bells, as we know, became a global phenomenon when its opening theme was used in William Friedkin’s movie The Exorcist. The first album released by Virgin Records, Oldfield’s ambient rock opus was a quirky start. As producer Tom Newman says: “We gave Richard Branson the album and left it to him to sell. It was destined to be a disaster. Only to sell millions.” 

The album kept the label afloat through its early years before the arrival of the Sex Pistols and then the full commercial rebirth of the label in the 80s.

"It was a wonderful thing," said Oldfield. "At the time, I didn’t think it was that special. I always felt my real masterpiece was yet to come. I didn’t realise the most successful thing I did would be the first thing I ever did.

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23. The Sex Pistols - Never Mind The Bollocks

The shock of the new: Jamie Reid’s stark cover art was as uncompromising as the music contained within, which boasted at least two unsinkable punk anthems in Anarchy In The UK and God Save The Queen. Filth, fury and bye bye Bill Grundy.

They weren’t musical revolutionaries like Emerson, Lake & Palmer. They were naughty boys with foul mouths and little talent. It was a widely held belief among affronted contemporary hippies that if you gave infinite working-class yobs infinite stolen guitars they’d eventually bang out Never Mind The Bollocks.

This is, however, an opinion that disregards all available evidence, because what we have here is not only the best punk album ever made, but it’s also one of the most powerful, enduringly influential and complete recorded statements crafted in any genre. Disagree? Go tell it to your religious fundamentalist flat-earth brethren, because you’re wrong.

In Chris Thomas, the Pistols found their Visconti. Their savant genius was already there – all they needed was an interpreter to translate passion into the language of vinyl, and here it is. A titanic wall of guitars, The Stooges Spectorised, the Dolls Anglicised and John Lydon distilling a lost, dismissed and disenfranchised generation’s directionless, nihilistic fury into succinct spitballs of vented spleen as intense, uncompromising and affecting as any dead poetry.

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22. Lynyrd Skynyrd – Pronounce Leh-nerd Skin-nerd

In the shape of Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd, in 1973, vocalist Ronnie Van Zant and the triple guitar line-up of Gary Rossington, Allen Collins and Ed King had produced a monstrous debut.

Almost all of Skynyrd’s pre-plane crash output could be regarded as essential, but it was their debut album that defined not only the band but in many ways the genre itself. No Southern group has ever matched what’s here in terms of musicianship, songs or sheer exuberance. Ronnie Van Zant’s storytelling drawl, the gunslinging guitars, the easy swagger – it’s all written across songs such as Tuesday’s Gone, Gimme Three Steps and Simple Man. And as for Free Bird… while it might have been overplayed down the years, it’s undeniably one of the truly great pieces of rock music. A magnificent record.

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21. The Darkness - Permission To Land

Justin Hawkins and co gave early noughties rock a shot of humour on their debut album. But beneath the gags, the gymnastics, the ludicrous catsuits and that extraordinary voice was a classic hard rock album that felt like an entirely natural progression from the past and an entirely sincere tribute to it.

Was it a joke? Was it legit? Who cares when you can roll out a debut that stands up to most rock legends’ greatest hits albums? The Darkness would ultimately be broken by the weight of their own expectations, but song for song, Permission To Land remains one of the greatest debut albums of all time. Just find a line you don’t know off by heart. Go on.

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