Growth is important. Physical. Spiritual. Intellectual. Emotional….you name it. All good stuff and quite necessary. I’ve always enjoyed observing the musical growth of a band or artist as their careers progress. Whether it be the instrumental direction, lyrical tone, or just overall aptitude of the musicians, it makes for an interesting study. It’s cool to recognize that point when a band finally hits their stride or finds their direction. I’d like to think that’s how it goes with most bands, but perhaps it was that way more often back in the day. A great example that comes to mind for me is The Police. Granted, I liked all their albums, but I think each one was better than the previous. A steady growth from album one through five. Additionally, if a band hangs around long enough, we eventually see them build up to that crest and then go the other way. Another one of my favorites, Led Zeppelin, comes to mind here. They were strong out of the gate with their debut, but then built on it with Zepp. II, Zepp. IV, peaked (in my opinion) with their double album masterpiece Physical Graffiti in 1975, and then began their descent.
But what about the bands who nail it right from the start? I’m not solely talking about great debut albums. You can find “Top 100” lists of great debut albums. I’m talking about instances when a band or artist’s debut album was simply their best work. Whether they lasted 10 years in the industry or 40. Whether they went on to have great overall success and many more great albums. What if all those things happened, but their first album was still their best? In this post I’d like to share a few examples I feel fit this description. For some, The Doors debut album may come to mind. Perhaps The Band’s “Music From Big Pink” as well. For this study however, I’m narrowing my focus to artists from my high school / college era.
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Counting Crows – August and Everything After (1993)
The timing of this band was interesting. 1993 was arguably the height of the early ’90’s alternative rock scene. This band was not alt rock, grunge, or whatever other label was being attached to popular bands of that time. I’m not even sure how one describes Counting Crows. A little Van Morrison. A little bluegrass. A little poppy. A little rocky. Maybe just an American Rock ‘N Roll band.
My friends and I stumbled upon this album during our freshman year in college. They already had a hit song called Mr. Jones getting good rotation on local radio and MTV. I don’t recall who first bought the album, but pretty soon you could find a CD of it in every other dorm room on our floor. August and Everything After, as it was titled, did something few albums pull off….every song was good. One of those rare albums you could listen to from start to finish and never feel the need to skip a single track.
Round Here. Omaha. Mr. Jones. Perfect Blue Buildings. Anna Begins. Time and Time Again. Rain King. Sullivan Street. Ghost Train. Raining in Baltimore. A Murder of One.
I really do try to use the term “masterpiece” in moderation. Yet I can’t think of any other word to describe this one. Plus, what perfect timing for the album’s title. Its release coincided with the start of a new chapter in my life. That “August” I started college, and my life since then has been “everything after.” Sorry. I couldn’t resist!
After a dud of a follow-up album (1996’s Recovering the Satellites) Counting Crows would go on to record several very good albums: 1999’s This Desert Life, 2002’s Hard Candy, and 2008’s Saturday Nights, Sunday Mornings. Yet solid as they were, they never quite measured up to the excellence of their debut.
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Pearl Jam – Ten (1991)
Here’s a question: how many people between the ages of 45 and 48 didn’t own this album back in the day? I’m guessing very few. Pearl Jam’s iconic debut album, Ten. This is one of my all-time favorite bands. I’ve blogged about them on more than one occasion. I have so much respect for these guys. Their work ethic. Their respect for and acknowledgement of those who influenced them. Their approach to songwriting, stardom, social issues, the music industry, etc. etc. If you ever wanted to find a group of guys who never let success go to their heads, or forgot where they came from, look no further than Pearl Jam.
Believe it or not, they’ve now been at it for 30 years. I recently mentioned this to a much younger colleague of mine and she was surprised 30 years was all. I guess I get it. To the younger generation, I imagine PJ seems like one of those old bands that’s always been around. Probably the same way I viewed The Stones in the early ’90’s when they were only a 30-year-old band too. For me however, I was there when PJ started. I remember seeing them on MTV and reading about them in Rolling Stone magazine. They weren’t much older than my teenage self. I’ve followed them through their entirety. I own every album. Followed them through every twist and turn along the way. Odd as it sounds, I sort of feel like I’ve grown up with them. Well, their discography now totals 11 studio albums. Some are better overall than others. Every one of them still has those moments that reassure their longtime fans of why we love them.
Yes, their sound and songwriting have grown and expanded throughout the decades. Sure, I imagine some of their most hardcore fans will argue albums like 1994’s Vitalogy or 1998’s Yield are actually their best efforts. Hey, I love just about all their albums. However, when you really break it down, and just take it at face value from start to finish, there’s really no argument at all. Ten was, is, and will likely always be their best album.
Once. Even Flow. Alive. Why Go. Black. Jeremy. Oceans. Porch. Garden. Deep. Release.
Look at that. I was able to list the entire album on almost one line. They would obviously shed this trend on their follow-up album with the track, Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town. Haha. I must admit, I sort of dug the minimalistic song title approach.
What I dug even more was the quality of those songs. Granted, Oceans, Garden, and Deep were a little weak in comparison to everything else, but that everything else set the bar rather high. It wasn’t nearly as experimental as future efforts. They certainly didn’t take as many risks here. But so what? Ten is such a tight, efficient, well-oiled machine. It’s perfect. It absolutely holds up 30 years later. As great a career as they’ve had, I just don’t think they’ll ever top the greatness of Ten.
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Weezer – a.k.a. The Blue Album (1994)
Weezer’s self-titled debut launched during summer break between freshman and sophomore year of college back in May, 1994. I can’t recall when I first heard it, but I guarantee it wasn’t until I returned to Bloomington that fall. They first got on my radar with the catchy single, Undone – the Sweater Song, but it was their second release, Buddy Holly, that got everyone talking about Weezer. The song was aided by a very popular “Happy Days” themed video on MTV. I sort of recall my roommate getting the CD first, but like the other two albums I chronicled here, eventually you could find The Blue Album playing from just about every other dorm room that year.
I think a lot of folks simply bought the album because of those two popular singles, but once we started listening however, we all quickly realized this band was good. Not only weren’t Buddy and Sweater the only good songs, they weren’t even the best songs on the album. Far from it in my opinion.
My Name is Jonas, No One Else, The World Has Turned and Left Me Here, Buddy Holly, Undone – The Sweater Song, Surf Wax America, Say It Ain’t So, In The Garage, Holiday, Only in Dreams.
There’s a common theme among the albums featured in this post: there really aren’t any bad songs!
There is, however, a big difference between my history with Weezer vs. the other two bands. I own every Pearl Jam studio album, and am extremely familiar with their catalog. With the exception of their 2nd album and their limited work the past decade, I’m also well-versed in the totality of Counting Crows’ work.
Weezer is a different story. Following their fantastic debut, Rivers Cuomo and the boys followed it up with 1996’s Pinkerton. Nobody (present company included) seemed to like it. In fact, it appeared that was it for Weezer. Two and done. Inexplicably though, since rebounding in 2001, Weezer on gone on to release 13 studio albums in 20 years. It’s probably fair to say they’ve been the busiest well-known band in the industry the past two decades.
Thing is though, I couldn’t really tell you. I’ve tried several times the past two decades to give an ear to whatever their latest offering happened to be. In fact, I just tried a couple weeks ago when I saw they unveiled a new album, Van Weezer. I sampled every song. I drew the same conclusion from each one…….blah. BLAH has been the way I’ve felt about 99% of this band’s output the past 27 years. Apparently everyone can’t feel this way. I imagine there are some loyal Weez-heads out there…..somewhere. If you’ve never viewed this skit from Saturday Night Live, do yourself a favor and check it out. I think it sums it up pretty well.
Perhaps Weezer is the perfect example of a band’s debut album being their best work. Whatever it was….the quality of the songs, the charm of their sound, the uniqueness compared to other popular music at the time…..whatever worked so well for Weezer’s debut album just never gelled or clicked again. Maybe it’s timing, inspiration, all of the above. Maybe sometimes lightning only strikes once. Sometimes that brightest bolt is the first one in the sky.
Thanks for reading,