Music’s Early Birds

Earlier today, the A.V. Club ran a story with the following subhead: “20 respectable rock and rap acts that peaked with debut albums.” The article goes on to detail 20 diverse artists, from Snoop Doggy Dogg to Rage Against the Machine, who couldn’t pull off an album to match their first throughout their entire careers. The entire list, as per A.V., is as follows:

20. Sunny Day Real Estate, Diary
19. Snoop Doggy Dogg, Doggystyle
18. Supergrass, I Should Coco
17. The Sugarcubes, Life’s Too Good
16. Wu-Tang Clan, Enter The Wu-Tang
15. Boston, Boston
14. Marshall Crenshaw, Marshall Crenshaw
13. Black Flag, Damaged
12. The Sundays, Reading, Writing, And Arithmetic
11. Taking Back Sunday, Tell All Your Friends
10. Television, Marquee Moon
09. Kanye West, The College Dropout
08. John Prine, John Prine
07. The Notorious B.I.G., Ready To Die
06. Nas, Illmatic
05. The Modern Lovers, The Modern Lovers
04. The Strokes, Is This It
03. Richard Hell And The Voidoids, Blank Generation
02. 50 Cent, Get Rich Or Die Tryin’
01. Rage Against The Machine, Rage Against The Machine

First, a couple of problems with an otherwise spot-on list. Most notably, Kanye shouldn’t be there; his Late Registration is far superior to The College Dropout, which isn’t even as good as last year’s Graduation. And for what it’s worth, Supergrass’ Life on Other Planets is just as excellent as I Should Coco.

But what’s more fun about this list is the thousands of other examples of this freshman phenomenon. Some great debuts come from artists who never got around to making a second disc; the Sex Pistol’s Never Mind the Bollocks, for example, never received a proper follow-up. Others have already been pointed out around the web: Guns ‘n Roses Appetite for Destruction; The Velvet Underground’s Velvet Underground & Nico; some even argue that Jay-Z never topped Reasonable Doubt.

In that light, I’ve listed five artists who should have made the list by my count after the jump.

5. Creed, My Own Prison
Before they became international superstars via “With Arms Wide Open,” Creed put out a niche album called My Own Prison — an album that sent four #1s to the top of the rock charts. (“One,” “What’s This Life For?,” “Torn” and the title track.) MOP was one of my personal favorite childhood albums; simultaneously dark, heavy and uplifting in all the right moments. Unfortunately, Creed eventually tailspun into an abysmal third album (Weathered) and then into the Scott Stapp-less Alter Bridge — during which Stapp became an internet legend for appearing in a sex tape with Kid Rock. So My Own Prison remains a high point on a career dominated by lows.

4. Alanis Morissette, Jagged Little Pill
Perhaps the biggest gaffe of the A.V. list was leaving off Alanis — who graced the world with the debut of a lifetime back in the ’90s. Jagged, which remains one of the best-selling albums of all time, spawned five massive hits that you undoubtedly know: “You Learn,” “Head Over Feet,” “Ironic,” “You Oughta Know” and “Hand In My Pocket.” But when your debut is marked not only by pop brilliance but also by attitude and sarcasm, it’s hard to repeat the trick. Alanis’ subsequent releases, despite abundant melodic materail, have pigeon-holed her into status as an Adult Contemporary goddess.

3. Portishead, Dummy
Portishead are to electronica what Guns ‘n Roses are to rock — which makes Dummy their Appetite for Destruction. Back in 1994, Dummy was so groundbreaking that fans have waited eons for new material; now, more than 14 years later, Portishead is working on just its third album. There’s no doubt that the brilliance of their debut — check out singles like “Sour Times” and “Glory Box” — has made recording quite difficult.

2. The Smashing Pumpkins, Gish
This is probably the most debatable album of my own short list, but I stand by Gish as the best of Billy Corgan’s career. The only other viable contender, 1994’s Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, was a double album where the band fleshed out completely unparallel ideas in order to mine a few brilliant singles; sure, “Tonight, Tonight” and “Zero” are both classics, but they sound out of place when separated by only one song on the same album. Gish, meanwhile, is a concise, coherent 45 minutes exposing the emo poetry and fuzz guitars that showcase the Pumpkins at their best.

1. The Apples in Stereo, Fun Trick Noisemaker
From the most debatable to the least known: the Apples, indie kings and stars of the legendary Elephant 6 label, will never top their debut. Fun is the sound of a band who doesn’t know how brilliant it is, while the rest of the Apples’ output is marked with subtle hints of ego. Songs like “Tidal Wave,” “High Tide” and even “Dots 1-2-3” have no equivalent in the rest of their career.

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