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20 Terrible Debut Albums by Great Artists

David Bowie, Billy Joel and 18 more iconic artists who made a bad first impression


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Rome wasn’t built in a day and, chances are, neither was your favorite artist. Not everyone can be the Ramones and emerge fully formed, making a first impression that lasts a lifetime. From Rock & Roll Hall of Famers to Nineties alterna-heroes, here’s 20 artists that prove that slow and steady can win the race — even after a false start.

 

David Bowie, ‘David Bowie’ (1967)

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Looking back on his early performance style, Bowie would later admit, “I didn’t know if I was Max Miller or Elvis Presley.” Miller, a.k.a. “the Cheeky Chappie,” was a giant of the British music hall scene, and you can hear his influence in the broad theatricality of Bowie’s singing here. But if Bowie is imitating Elvis, it’s not the rock & roller whose hip-swivel changed the world in the 1950s but the cracked actor who defeated Bill Bixby in a motorboat race in Clambake. If you’re feeling charitable, you could say that tunes like “Uncle Arthur” are akin to the Kinks’ wry, observational vignettes of British life; or that “Love You Till Tuesday” partakes in the childlike psychedelia of early Pink Floyd. But you’d have to be feeling pretty damn charitable. Keith Harris

George Harrison, ‘Wonderwall Music’ (1968)

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The first release on Apple Records – and the first solo musical recording ever released by a Beatle – was an earnest expression of George Harrison’s genuine interest in classical Indian music. Nonetheless, it reduced a complex tradition to a collection of hip background sounds. Wonderwall Music may be more memorable than the Jane Birkin flick it soundtracked, but it’s still a soundtrack, music meant to accompany and complement a film rather than stand on its own. The best thing you can say aboutWonderwall Music is that it’s probably more historically significant than the LP of experimental twaddle John Lennon released a month later – after all, Oasis never wrote a hit song called “Two Virgins.” Keith Harris

Genesis, ‘From Genesis to Revelation’ (1969)

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The five original members of Genesis were still teenagers at the Charterhouse boarding school in England when Jonathan King, an alumni who recently scored a big UK hit with “Everyone’s Gone to the Moon,” gave them a record deal. He named them Genesis and mandated that they cut a concept album based around the Bible. “Absolutely pathetic,” said keyboardist Tony Banks. “But it did give us something to hang everything around.” They cut the light, Bee-Gees influenced album in three days, and later King added lush strings to nearly every track. “I completely freaked out,” said guitarist Anthony Phillips. “But there was no ‘undo’ button.” The cover merely read “from genesis to revelation,” causing many retailers to file it away in the religious bins. The group parted ways with King, and by the time they got around to their next album they had reinvented themselves as a progressive rock outfit. Andy Greene

Elton John, ‘Empty Sky’ (1969)

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Elton John seemed to arrive out of nowhere when “Your Song” exploded on American radio in 1970 and his self-titled LP flew up the charts. Many presumed it was his first album, but the previous summer he had releasedEmpty Sky in England. The eight-minute title track is a strong rocker and the beautiful ballad “Skyline Pigeon” remained a part of John’s live repertoire for decades, but the majority of the album is simply too twee and slight. The production is thin and simply can’t compare to the work that John crafted in the 1970s with the brilliant Gus Dudgeon. “Making theEmpty Sky album still holds the nicest memories for me,” John said years later. “I suppose it’s difficult to explain the enthusiasm we felt as the album began to take shape.” The rest of the world wouldn’t share John’s enthusiasm until his timeless second record hit shelves the following year. Andy Greene

Yes, ‘Yes’ (1969)

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Fans of Yes fans claim the band expertly fuses the virtuosic intricacy of classical music, the raw power of rock and the melodic commitment of pop. Critics of Yes dismiss them as fussy, genteel noodlers. Probably the most damning thing you can say about the band’s 1969 debut is that there’s not much to get either camp worked up. John Anderson (who hadn’t yet dropped the “h” from his name) hasn’t yet matured into his distinctive keen; he sings like a well-behaved pupil dutifully reciting Tennyson for the class. And though guitarist Peter Banks is a crucial figure in the development of British progressive rock, this band needed Steve Howe to galvanize its sound. The two most notable tunes are covers: a lightweight, jazzy take on the Byrds’ “I See You” and a failed attempt to turn the Beatles’ “Every Little Thing” into a complex improvisation. The rest is a collection of shapeless pleasantries, a pot of lukewarm tea that hasn’t yet sufficiently steeped. Keith Harris

Warren Zevon, ‘Wanted Dead or Alive’ (1970)

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The always-plainspoken Warren Zevon didn’t have fuzzy nostalgia for the circumstances following the release of his stark, weird first album, a shambolic, primitive take on folk-rock that included a messy cover of “Iko-Iko.” “In 1969, [rock impresario] Kim Fowley called me up one day and asked very simply, ‘Are you prepared to wear black leather and chains, fuck a lot of teenage girls and get rich?’ I said yes,” Zevon told Rolling Stone in 1981. But those dreams morphed into a thornier reality fairly quickly: “I had a sudden attack of taste,” he said, “and told Kim that I wanted to finish the album myself. And he very graciously waltzed out of the project.” (Fowley recalled the circumstances of his exit differently, telling Zevon’s ex-wife and biographer Crystal, “[Zevon] didn’t listen to anyone about anything, and one day I just walked in thinking I’d had enough.”) The album’s eventual release was a dud both critically and commercially: “Wanted Dead or Alive was released in 1970,” Zevon noted, “to the sound of one hand clapping.” Maura Johnston

Billy Joel, ‘Cold Spring Harbor’ (1971)

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When Billy Joel began his career, he merely wanted to be a songwriter for other artists. “The advice I got from people in the music industry was, ‘If you want people to hear your songs, make an album,'” said Joel. “Then you go on the road and promote it.” So in 1971, Joel signed with the tiny Family Productions label and cut his debut LP, Cold Spring Harbor. The lead-off track, “She’s Got a Way,” became famous years later, but when Joel first heard the album he yanked it off the turnable and chucked it down the street because a mastering error had caused his voice to sound like a chipmunk. The album bombed and he soon moved to Los Angeles where he famously worked in a piano bar. When he returned to the road he played virtually no songs from Cold Spring Harbor – a decision that persists to this day. “They remastered it,” he says. “But I still sound like a chipmunk to me. You don’t have to pay much attention to this. It’s embryonic Billy Joel.” Andy Greene

Thin Lizzy, ‘Thin Lizzy’ (1971)

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The spoken-word monologue that begins Thin Lizzy’s 1971 debut hardly bodes well for what might lay ahead: “The friendly ranger paused/And scooping a bowl of beans/Spreading them like stars.” On this confounding release, Thin Lizzy tried out a variety of styles, from rock to folk to blues, and stumbled awkwardly through all of them. From the ham-fisted Hendrix-isms of “Ray-Gun,” to the formless and flaccid “Clifton Grange Hotel,” to the jumbled “Return of the Farmer’s Son,” which sounds like a jam that they forgot to turn into an actual song, Thin Lizzy offers little in the way of the laser-focused twin-guitar hard rock that the group (with a somewhat different lineup) would ride to glory in the mid-to-late-Seventies. A possible reason why? “A lot of it was ad-libbed,” guitarist Eric Bell told Noisey earlier this year. “The three of us just went for it in the studio because we were all smashed.” Richard Bienstock

Lou Reed, ‘Lou Reed’ (1972)

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Anticipation for Lou Reed’s debut solo LP was quite high in early 1972. As the leader of the Velvet Underground, he’d written some of the most brilliantly twisted songs of the previous decade. And now, after a long hibernation, he was beginning the next phase of his career. Unfortunately, he didn’t arrive at the London recording sessions with many new songs, and wound up simply regurgitating old VU tunes like “I Can’t Stand It,” “Ride into the Sun” and “Lisa Says.” Producer Richard Robinson teamed him up with Yes members Rick Wakeman and Steve Howe, and their radically different musical styles simply didn’t mesh. The resulting album was limp and wildly disappointing, and it stalled out a pathetic Number 189 on the Billboard 200. “There’s just too many things wrong with [the album],” Reed says shortly after it came out. “I’m aware of all the things that are missing and all the things that shouldn’t have been there.” His solo career seemed dead on arrival, but at this exact same time, David Bowie, a Velvet Underground superfan, was finally getting mainstream recognition, and he was determined to use his talents and newfound fame to shine a light on his idol. A few months later, they began work on Transformer. As soon as “Walk on the Wild Side” hit radio that November, Reed’s solo debut was already a footnote in rock history. Andy Greene

Journey, ‘Journey’ (1975)

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Headed by two Santana alumni – guitarist Neal Schon and singer/keyboardist Gregg Rolie – Journey’s 1975 self-titled debut trekked down a similarly jammy, fusion-y path, while also making half-hearted efforts at succinct, hooky pop-rock. The result is an album that hangs out somewhere in the middle, without committing to either style. The prog tunes and noodle-y instrumentals drag on for far too long (though “Kohoutek” features some tremendous playing from former Zappa and Bowie drummer Aynsley Dunbar), while “In My Lonely Feeling/Conversations” wallows in plodding blues. The one genuine bright spot is closer “Mystery Mountain,” a soaring rocker with explosive soloing from Schon that still shows up in occasional set lists. But overall, Journey in 1975 still had a long way to travel – specifically, to singer Steve Perry and 1978’s Infinity. Richard Bienstock

Johnny Cougar, ‘Chestnut Street Incident’ (1976)

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On his debut LP, John Mellencamp – make that Johnny Cougar – was shooting for Springsteen-style populism. But saddled with defanged teen-idol reworkings of “Oh, Pretty Woman,” “Jailhouse Rock” and the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Do You Believe in Magic?” he came off as little more than the pillow-lipped, popped-collar pinup he was portrayed as on the album’s cover. The music and image – not to mention the Cougar surname – were styled by then-manager and producer Tony Defries, of David Bowie and Iggy Pop fame, but on the handful of originals, the insipid words are all Johnny’s. Opener “American Dream” finds Mellencamp working hard to paint a picture of a town that rips the bones from your back, only to retreat into clichés about factories, homecoming queens and Saturday-night fights. Ditto the dead-end imagery in “Chestnut Street,” where he hits on one moment of perhaps unintentional clarity, singing, “I’m just a small-town boy, bein’ used like a toy.” Richard Bienstock

Prince, ‘For You’ (1978)

12

When 19-year-old Minneapolis wunderkind Prince earned a three-album deal from Warner Bros., he and his management somehow convinced the label to let him self-produce his debut. The resulting sessions were riddled by tensions with executive producer Tommy Vicari and left the musician more than $100,000 in debt and a physical wreck. “It wasn’t really me, it was like a machine,” he’d later reminisce in a 1982 Musician magazine interview. Perhaps that’s the problem with For You: It’s slickly overproduced and formulaic disco without the inspiration to back it up. Prince sounds coy and kittenish on “In Love” and “Just as Long as We’re Together,” but with none of the witty songwriting that informed his later work. Only the double-entendre-laden “Soft and Wet,” a modest black radio hit at the time, and the terrifically underrated funk-rock closer “I’m Yours” bear some hints of what would emerge. Mosi Reeves

Adam and the Ants, ‘Dirk Wears White Sox’ (1979)

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“It was the album that got the shit kicked out of it by journalists at the time,” said Adam Ant of the all-pretentious, oft-laborious Dirk Wears White Sox. And a shit-kicking Dirk deserved for the singer’s forced vocal affect and the Ants’ tinny, under-rehearsed performances. Even when heard by kinder, revisionist ears, the New Wave pop pirate’s debut is merely second-rate post-punk. At best, “Never Trust a Man (With Egg on His Face)” and the Beatles-lifting “Family Of Noise” approach the rhythmically sure-footed fun and jubilant call-and-responses of 1980’s Kings of the Wild Frontier. For the most part, though, the album is a sloppy attempt to capture the prickly and subversive sounds of Wire, Television or Talking Heads. Reed Fischer

Sonic Youth, ‘Sonic Youth EP’ (1982)

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It’s tempting to dismiss these five tracks as arty noise, but actually the debut from Sonic Youth doesn’t have enough art or enough noise – pretty amazing when you consider that Kim Gordon repeatedly intones “Fucking youth/Working youth” on one track and a power drill is prominently featured on another. This arid, doomy, third-hand post-punk is proof that music can sound simultaneously avant-garde and generic. Guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo hadn’t yet hit upon their distinctive guitar tunings, and it doesn’t help that the band’s drummer at the time was a Rototom enthusiast named Richard Edson. Typical is the ominous tedium of “I Dreamed a Dream,” which could soundtrack a horror movie where someone walks through a dark basement for two hours and no slasher ever leaps out of the shadows. Sonic Youth would never have become such a great band if they weren’t pretentious, but Sonic Youth would never have become a great band if they’d stayed this pretentious. Keith Harris

Janet Jackson, ‘Janet Jackson’ (1982)

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“When I was 17, I did what people told me,” Janet Jackson sang on her chart-topping 1986 smash Control. The self-titled album she released four years prior underscores that statement. It’s light and entertaining, but ultimately most effective as a harbinger of what would later come from Jackson’s creative liberation. A celebrity in her own right, not just because of her famous siblings, but because of her roles on Good Times and Diff’rent Strokes, Jackson signed to A&M when she was 16. Her debut, which came out two months before her brother Michael’s massive Thriller, had the likes of Rene & Angela assisting on songwriting and production duties, but Jackson’s voice, which she would find later in commanding fashion, feels lost among the album’s vaguely articulated lyrics. Maura Johnston

Pantera, ‘Metal Magic’ (1983)

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From corny, lascivious songs like “Ride My Rocket” and “Nothin’ On (But the Radio),” to singer Terry Glaze’s melodramatic David Coverdale impression, to the band’s copious use of synthesizer, to album art you’d expect to see airbrushed on a van – Metal Magic is not the Pantera we know. The 1983 album is an embarrassing knock-off of the omnipresent hair metal of the time, so garish that no major label would touch it. “I always looked at Pantera as the heavy-metal Van Halen,” drummer Vinnie Paul said years later, citing seeing a Metallica show in 1983 as the band’s catalyst to get heavier. Nevertheless, for years, the group would shrug when interviewers asked about the record and the two Glaze-fronted LPs that followed (with equally ridiculous titles Projects in the Jungle and I Am the Night). They would change the conversation to point out that their thrash-y, tougher, Phil Anselmo-led 1990 LP Cowboys From Hell was their “first major-label record.” Don’t expect a deluxe reissue anytime soon. Kory Grow

Y Kant Tori Read, ‘Y Kant Tori Read’ (1988)

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The 1988 album by Tori Amos’ synthpop band is a cautionary tale. An album that remains out of print to this day, it’s a classic example of how major label trend-chasing can result in artists being stuck in niches where they don’t fit. Amos’s then-nascent songwriting ability is all but obscured by the maximalist production and Matt Sorum’s crashing drums, with instantly dated electronics creating a mass of clutter. However, the still-out-of-printY Kant Tori Read was essential to the breakthrough Amos had on her minimalist, nakedly emotional LP Little Earthquakes. “There was a part of me that really wanted to be a rock chick … and I failed at it,” Amos told theWashington Post in 1992. “But I had to crack before I was willing to strip … I could not have written Little Earthquakes without skinning my knees.” Maura Johnston

Kid Rock, ‘Grits Sandwiches for Breakfast’ (1990)

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Though a lot of white kids in the Eighties loved hip-hop, not many of them got to release an album on Jive a few weeks before they turned 20 – and judging by Kid Rock’s debut, Grits Sandwiches for Breakfast, that’s probably for the best. Despite production from D-Nice and Too $hort, Kid Rock’s debut LP is so insistently generic its like he tossed everything current about hip-hop in 1990 into a giant colander and sifted out all the individuality. If he hadn’t successfully reinvented himself six years later, the Detroit kid with a high top fade might only be remembered as part of a historical footnote: A college radio station played the unedited version of lead single “Yo-Da-Lin in the Valley” (on which the Kid brags about his oral sex skills) and got hit with a record $23,700 fine by the FCC. Keith Harris

Blur, ‘Leisure’ (1991)

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After Food Records convinced their new signees to change their name from Seymour to Blur, the group delivered about an EP’s worth of decent Nineties alternative rock on their full-length debut. Leisure has but flashes of the band’s dissonant pop on lyrically bland singles “She’s So High,” “There’s No Other Way” and “Bang” — all of which subsequently arrived in the first three slots of the album’s retooled U.S. tracklisting. The reshuffling further amplified side two’s irrelevance: There’s the amateur shoegaze stab of “Birthday,” the half-assed Smiths retread “Fool” and several other underdeveloped concepts bereft of the rich, Ray Davies-esque storytelling that arrived on 1993’s Modern Life Is Rubbish. Singer Damon Albarn has called Leisure awful, and said in the 2010 Blur documentary No Distance Left to Run: “Thank God that was a time when you could still make a record that wasn’t right and not become discarded the next minute.” Reed Fischer

Mobb Deep, ‘Juvenile Hell’ (1993)

20

Originally known as the Poetical Prophets, Havoc and Prodigy gained notice in 1991 through The Source magazine’s “Unsigned Hype” column. They earned a deal with 4th and Broadway, just in time for the teenagers to catch wreck as part of the short-lived kiddie rappers fad. But compared to Kris Kross and Da Youngstas, Mobb Deep’s tales of growing up sounded horrifying. Peer pressure means getting drunk and toting burners on the block, “Locked Up in Spofford” details a stint in the notorious juvenile detention center and, on “Hit It From the Back,” the duo celebrate rough sex as Prodigy crows, “Fuck love makin’.” Unfortunately, the duo didn’t illustrate their hard-bitten street tales with memorable choruses, and the album’s production is boilerplate boom-bap. There’s little of the enigmatic menace and indelible hooks that would make their next album The Infamous a classic. Undeterred, Havoc blamed Juvenile Hell‘s failure on the label. “They didn’t push our shit,” he told Rap Pages in 1995. “We had mad potential — that’s why when we got dropped, we got picked up real quick.”Mosi Reeves

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