Friday, November 19, 2010

Fun Friday: My Favourite Debut Albums

It has been awhile since I've done a "Fun Friday" post and I have been wanting to do a countdown of my favourite debut albums of all time for awhile now. Before I get the countdown started, I need to define what "debut album" means. Basically, it is the first album that is released by a singer or group, which brings them into public awareness. Some singers become famous later on and when I listen to their debut album, even if I really like it, I'm not including it on this list because this is for those who found success with the first album. Also, this list excludes singers who first achieved success in a group, then went on to release a debut solo album. That means no Faith by George Michael (of Wham!), Fur by Jane Wiedlin (of The Go-Gos), The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (of The Fugees), Love Angel Music Baby by Gwen Stefani (of No Doubt), or The Dutchess by Fergie (of Black Eyed Peas).

In the #10 spot is Whenever You Need Somebody by Rick Astley. This album was released in Europe in 1987 while I was a teenager living in Germany. It took a few months before Rick Astley's worldwide smash "Never Gonna Give You Up" hit the American music charts and for his debut album to be released stateside. I was absolutely crazy about this single and could not wait for his debut album to appear in the PX (a U.S. military department store for military members and their dependents on Army bases. Its called a BX on Air Force Bases or NEX on Navy bases). Its rare that I ever achieve the same level of excitement for an upcoming release than I did back then with this album. Not even the latest Johnny Clegg CD inspired the same level of anticipated excitement, and I was really stoked about this album!

To this day, I still don't know why I was so enthralled by Rick Astley's singles and debut album. It could have been because it was really popular in Europe at the time and unescapeable. His songs all sound the same, as they were written and produced by the British hitmakers known as Stock / Aitken / Waterman, which has also produced hits for Bananarama and Kylie Minogue. Rick Astley was a bit of an anomaly because his deep vocals blew everyone away when you heard his song on the radio. Seeing his videos after having heard his songs came as a bit of a shock because he looks nothing like one assumes a person with his voice would look like. In fact, he looked very boyishly young. In 1988, when Rick Astley and Australian singer Kylie Minogue were tearing up the music charts, a D.J. cleverly sped up one of Astley's singles and he sounded exactly like Kylie Minogue! When the D.J. slowed down one of Kylie Minogue's singles ("I Should Be So Lucky"), she sounded exactly like Rick Astley! Weird.

Anyhow, besides "Never Gonna Give You Up" (which is now a popular viral prank known as "Rickrolling"), Astley had follow-up hits with "Together Forever", "It Would Take a Strong, Strong Man", and my personal favourite "Don't Say Goodbye." The album ends with a remake of a Nat King Cole song, which only someone with Astley's voice can pull off: "When I Fall in Love." At the time of this album's popularity, I was not much of a "standards" fan. I didn't care for torch songs or jazz, but I really liked Astley's remake. Celine Dion's remake can't even compare to Astley's version.

#9. Teen sensation Debbie Gibson released her debut album, Out of the Blue, in 1987 and found "competition" with another teenage singer, Tiffany. In the battle of the teen queens, I preferred Debbie Gibson by far. Tiffany's debut album was a little too mellow for my liking and she relied too much on remakes. Debbie Gibson wrote her own songs and they were quite good. Granted, bubble gum pop, but good overall. Those who knew me back in the late 1980s know that I had a HUGE crush on Debbie Gibson. I even fantasized marrying her someday (last time I checked a few years ago, she was still single, which surprises me. She has only grown more beautiful with age, even if her songs don't get played on the radio anymore).

I heard her debut single "Only in My Dreams" when my family was on a three week vacation through the British Isles in August 1987. I listened to British radio and heard a lot of new songs, some of which never charted in the U.S. (such as "Call Me" by Spagna, "You Win Again" by the Bee Gees, and "Everlasting Love" by Sandra). Other singles followed, including the ridiculous "Shake Your Love", the awesome "Out of the Blue", and the ballad "Foolish Beat" hit #1 on the singles chart, making her the youngest person to have written, recorded, and produced a #1 hit single. What does she do to follow that up? She released a throw-away single "Staying Together." "Wake Up to Love" would have been a better choice, as would my favourite song on the album that was never released as a single: "Between the Lines." I love that ballad!

Because I loved this album a lot as a teenager, anticipation grew for her sophomore album, which was released in 1989 (Electric Youth). The follow-up had some good songs on it, but I didn't think it was nearly as good as her debut. A few albums followed until she changed her sound and showed her grown-up side with an album that I consider her "masterpiece": 1993's Body Mind Soul (I especially love her song "Do You Have it In Your Heart?"). But, considering the memories attached, her debut album still conjures up positive memories of my adolescence, when I had a huge crush on her. Marry me, Debbie! (Ha.)

#8. In 1999, breezy pop hit the big time right when I most needed it. The previous year was a dismal one for me because of a combination of factors (loneliness at BYU, the Monica Lewinsky scandal, doubts about my future in my major, an abundance of sad songs on the radio). When a single by New Radicals played on the radio, "You Only Get What You Give", it was such a welcome blast of energy. I really felt energized by the song and when I bought the album, Maybe You've Been Brainwashed, Too, I was stunned by how great it was. I loved all of the songs on there. I couldn't get enough of it. This was the case of a right album being released at the right time: breezy, happy pop when I'm at my most positive, optimistic self. The hit single seemed to allude to karma, which was a topic I was gaining interest in learning about at the time. Their follow-up single was an awesome ballad called "Someday We'll Know", which had a great line in: "Someday we'll know why Sampson loved Delilah." That has to be the most perplexing mystery of all time!

To this day, whenever I listen to this album, I'm brought back to my college years. Perhaps in my next Fun Friday post, I will write about the albums I listened to during my college years. Out of all of them, this is probably my favourite of that time period. Unfortunately, despite their success, New Radicals broke up soon after this album was released. They will always be a one-album wonder. Was success that scary that they couldn't tour or create a follow-up? Tragic.

#7. In the spring of my senior year in high school, a new female group started gaining radio play with a hit debut single, "Hold On." I loved this anti-suicide song so much that I nominated it for my graduating class's official song. My class wisely voted for a more optimistic "Tomorrow (A Better You, A Better Me)" by Quincy Jones featuring Tevin Campbell.

The band, Wilson Phillips, is considered Hollywood royalty, as the daughter of John and Michelle Phillips (Chynna Phillips--the blonde, who is married to William Baldwin) of the Mamas and the Papas, and the daughters of Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys (the other two) formed this vocal trio. Follow-up singles include "Release Me" and "Impulsive." In the summer of 1990, my family attended a Richard Marx concert at Six Flags over Georgia amusement park. Wilson Phillips was the opening act. Though they were underwhelming, I do remember them singing the song "Eyes Like Twins", which I liked.

I did not buy the album, though, until nearly a year later, when I was in Yeoman "A" School for the Navy in Mississippi. The last single from their debut album, "The Dream Is Still Alive" was released while I was in basic training, so whenever I hear this song, I always think about my boot camp experience (which ranks as the greatest experience of my life). I finally just had to buy this album, which I did in Mississippi and listened to it over and over all summer long. Thus, to this day, this album transports me back to the summer of 1991, after all the singles were released, rather than the summer of 1990, when it was popular. The success of this debut album was probably too much for the trio to ever overcome. Their sophomore album did go deeper (particularly the powerfully personal song "Flesh and Blood" about Carnie and Wendy Wilson's father Brian), but it was rather unremarkable. Looks like they're still around, though, as their first Christmas album is out this year. I like their harmonies, so I might just buy it. However, I doubt that they will ever be able to create an album as great as their debut. That's the problem with hitting a home run on your first time out!

#6. When I first heard the single "I Try" by Macy Gray in the fall of 1999, I was stunned by her unusual vocals. She made me stop and take notice. I don't know how else to describe her, but sultry comes to mind. Such a great single and voice made me excited about her debut album, which I bought when I was an intern in D.C. Thus, Macy Gray On How Life Is is time capsuled in my mind to my great internship experience (the second greatest experience of my life). I listened to this album a lot in the winter and spring of 2000. I was stunned when a Mormon lady on the program whom I did not talk to much happened to ask out of the blue one day if I knew about Macy Gray. When I told her that I had bought the album, she asked to borrow it and she loved it as well.

When I described Macy Gray and her debut album to someone, I said that I did not know how to compare her other than to say that she was the new Tracy Chapman, even though their music genres are different. The other person agreed with my assessment. Her debut album is a perfect mix of funk and blues, and her unique voice made this album one of my favourites. However, I have not bought subsequent albums. She was a novelty who laid out all her brilliance on her debut.

#5. This debut album, 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life of Arrested Development was released in March 1992, but I did not discover them until January 1993 when Bill Clinton was inaugurated as president. A cousin of mine had sent me a video tape of MTV's coverage of the inauguration and the music of Arrested Development featured quite prominently. I was living in Italy at the time, so their music did not make it to European radio. Perhaps they were too African-American-centric for the white continent, but this was the kind of rap that I liked: positive and political (no NWA, 2 Live Crew, or Ice-T for me). The single that really captured my interest was "Mr. Wendal", about a homeless man who has the kind of wisdom that a person who pays a lot of money for a college education usually don't receive. Its an awesome song. "Tennessee" was their debut single and one shipmate I worked with hated that song because he was from Tennessee and did not appreciate the line about "climbing the trees that my forefathers hung from."

I thought it was interesting that Arrested Development had similar titled songs back to back: "Fishin' 4 Religion" and "Give a Man a Fish." I like both songs. Another awesome song is "People Everyday", which was played at Obama's Waterfront Rally in Portland in May 2008. I hadn't heard the song in years, but I noticed that people around me we getting into the funk and groove of that song. I had forgotten how good that song was.

They came along at the right time, and on the heels of another positive message rap group PM Dawn. In the early 1990s, the negative rap of 2 Live Crew, NWA, Sista Souljah, Ice T, and Ice Cube became the focus of media attention for their lyrics that degraded women, promoted crass materialism, or even encouraged killing police officers. Thus, it was a breath of fresh air that rap groups with a positive message emerged on the scene. I never really got into rap, though I liked some songs by LL Cool J, Run DMC, the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, Salt n' Pepa, and PM Dawn. Arrested Development was the first rap group that I truly liked. This debut album is a reason why.

#4. Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D'Arby is an amazing, soulful album. The dreadlocked D'Arby first found success in England, even though he was an American ex-patriot in the mid-1980s and pretentiously changed his last name "Darby" to a British styled "D'Arby." I heard his first single "Wishing Well" during my family's vacation in the British Isles in August 1987. I loved the whistling part of the song. Though he might be American, I think of his album as English / European. Other songs that I love are "If You Let Me Stay", "If You All Get to Heaven", "Seven More Days", "Rain", and "Let's Go Forward."

Besides "Wishing Well", his other big hit from the album was "Sign Your Name", which I love. I remember in the fall of 1988, when I was a new student in my last high school, the English teacher passed around a piece of paper asking us to sign it. One girl in the class, who was the class clown, passed it to the next student while singing the chorus of this song. We laughed at her antics. Its strange that one person could capture the memory I have of this song by one simple act of singing the chorus of the song in 11th grade English class. I always think of her whenever I hear this beautiful song. Sheryl Crow sings a cover version of the song on her most recent album, 100 Miles From Memphis, but no one compares to the smoky style of Terence Trent D'Arby.

#3. This debut album was released early in 1985, but did not take hold until a year later. I don't know what it was about Whitney Houston, but she captured my heart with this amazing debut album. Though I was never big on ballads, it was her voice that made me take notice. It did not hurt that she was the most beautiful African American I had ever seen since Lisa Bonet played Bill Cosby's eldest daughter on The Cosby Show. I admit that until Lisa Bonet and Whitney Houston came along, I did not find African American women to be attractive. Those two ladies, followed by plenty more in the years since, opened my heart and mind.

From the debut music video, of "You Give Good Love", I was smitten by this lady. Its a simple video and a great introduction to a great new singer. She's singing in an empty ballroom of a hotel and one guy is filming her while the kitchen staff stop working to watch her belt out the song. This is signature Whitney. Though her first song did not reach #1, the next three singles would, starting a chain of #1 singles that continued with her sophomore album. "Saving All My Love for You" is about her as "the other woman" in an affair with a married man. "How Will I Know" is my personal favourite on this album, and one of her few up-tempo songs. "Greatest Love of All" became one of her biggest hits. It has a powerful message, about loving oneself. After all, its hard to love someone else if you don't love yourself first. Unfortunately, though, whenever I hear this song, I can't help but think of Eddie Murphy's off-key version of the song in the film Coming to America.

"All At Once" and "Take Good Care of My Heart" should have been released as singles as well. However, the songs all added up to a great debut soul album. I was so crazy about this album that I could not wait for Whitney's sophomore album. It was probably one of the most highly anticipated albums of all time for me. In the summer of 1987, I could not wait until it was released in stores so I could rush out and buy it with my allowance money. Whitney managed to do what few people with a great debut album have been able to do. I actually love her second album, Whitney, even more than her debut. I think its a much stronger album. My interest in Whitney only increased through the end of 1988. By the time her lackluster third album was released in the fall of 1990, I had outgrown my crush. Though I loved her songs on The Bodyguard, Waiting to Exhale, and The Preacher's Wife soundtracks, I pretty much lost interest in her after her brilliant role in The Preacher's Wife. It has been sad to see what being married to an abusive, jealous, drug-addicted bad boy has done to a woman who had everything. When I was a teenager, I saw her marrying a distinguished gentleman, likely an actor. Though I did not hear about him at the time, an actor like Denzel Washington seemed to be the kind Whitney would marry, not a trashy bad boy with a bad reputation.

Several attempts at a comeback have failed to revive her career. I'm thinking that the damage she did to herself is unrepairable. What a shame to watch such a talented, beautiful singer self-destruct before our eyes. At least we'll have her first two albums to cherish.

#2. The Retrofits was a Portland group that created an album I did not expect. I was blown away when I first heard Away From Here and to this day, I still never get tired of listening to it. This is one album that I wish had found radio success all over the country because I'm certain that if people listened to it, they would love it. I actually love every single song on this album, which is rare for me to like every song on an album. Only a few groups have managed to create what I consider to be "the perfect album." This is one of them.

One thing I love about this album is that the opening line of the first song ("Anything You Like") just sets the tone in a very good way. The line is: "Love is changing and unfolding now..." Sometimes, this line will just come to me when I'm not thinking of anything in particular.

I first came across The Retrofits when they played a few songs at the announcement rally of Jeff Merkley in the fall of 2007, who was starting his campaign for the Senate (he won in 2008). When they played, I noticed that people were moving to the songs. Even I couldn't help myself. They perform such happy pop that you can't help yourself. I wish more music was like this. And I wish that they had found success on the radio and music charts. A song or a few of their songs should be featured in key scenes of a movie, which could ignite the album into the consciousness of people seeking awesome new music.

Unfortunately, the band no longer exists. The lead singer Jake Oken-Berg has his own music projects going on. Not sure if that was a wise thing. Each time I listen to this album, I'm just amazed how one local band could manage to create such a perfect album on their first try. I wish they had stuck together to create more awesome music. Sometimes, it takes awhile for a band to catch on (Dave Matthews Band and Maroon 5 come to mind). Though we'll never know what could have been, this album will remain in my memory as the soundtrack of my first couple years in Portland when I was just learning about the local political scene and developing a friendship with Christine before losing her to another guy and seeing her move away.

Finally, the #1 best debut album of all time for me is Tracy Chapman's self-titled debut from 1988. The album opens brilliantly with a rousing anthem, "Talkin' 'Bout a Revolution" which I'm sure that conservatives probably think is communist. The song always makes me think of Jesus, though. This was the kind of revolution he'd be talking about. The next song is her hit single "Fast Car." I love the line: "Tonight we've gotta make a decision: leave tonight or live and die this way."

Two standouts that I really love are "Baby Can I Hold You" and "Mountains O' Things" (about the accumulation of unnecessary things). Really, though, there is no bad song on this album. It is perfect and flawless, catchy and deep, covering a broad range of ideas from homelessness to poverty to spouse abuse to materialism to questions about the inconsistencies of our society. I was never really a fan of folk music, but Tracy Chapman's songs fall under the genre of folk and it worked quite brilliantly on this album.

During my internship in D.C., nearly everyone was three to eight years younger than me but I was surprised that quite a few agreed that Tracy Chapman's debut album was one of the best ones they've ever heard as well. I had bought Chapman's sophomore album, Crossroads, but wasn't impressed. Each time I decide to give it another chance, I'll listen but it simply does not grab me the way her debut did. I doubt that I will ever hear an album by anyone that compares to the brilliance and overall impact of Tracy Chapman's debut.

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