If you’ve followed Grantland’s coverage of successful indie bands such as the National, Deerhunter, the Black Keys, and Grizzly Bear and found yourself intrigued, there’s good news: Each of them has a deep and rewarding discography that you can spend a good amount of time digging in to. The bad news is that you eventually get to the debut that you’ve heard suspiciously little about and realize all four of these bands have one thing in common: They all sorta sucked at one point, and did so when most people weren’t really paying any attention anyway.
The upshot is that early failure played a role in establishing the essence of these bands, one that casts them as hard-working, “doing it the right way” types, their success more truly earned than that of a band that made a knockout debut. It’s a Tom Brady–like effect, where they are clearly extremely talented and/or handsome and/or sleeping with models, yet an initial slight a decade previous makes them seem like “people’s champs,” and you fully believe they want it more than whatever band you consider to be an equivalent of Eli Manning, which is probably Vampire Weekend based on the haircut.
That’s not to say that bands should go ahead and make an unlistenable debut as a way to lower the bar for future endeavors; most won’t have to try to be a crap band early in the game. But for every Strokes, every Notorious B.I.G., every Andrew W.K., there are plenty of artists who don’t arrive fully formed and leave only their debut as a humanizing curio of their awkward phase. It’s a curious phenomenon that goes back decades. In putting together the top 10 examples of a debut album serving as proverbial a “naked baby pictures” for otherwise phenomenally successful bands, some rules: These acts have to be currently active in some meaningful way and these debuts need to have been released under a recognizable name. As far as the ranking goes, it’s a very unscientific yet very correct tabulation that takes into account (a) the quality of the record, (b) how embarrassed the band is by it, and (c) how many people are aware of its existence. And don’t necessarily take these as listening recommendations.
10. Björk, Björk-Gudmundsdóttir (1977)
The only album on this list in which “baby pictures” is used in a somewhat literal sense. Don’t let the title of the debut fool you: Björk’s real first album came in 1977 at the tender age of 11, and in featuring covers of “Fool on the Hill” and Stevie Wonder’s “Your Kiss Is Sweet,” it’s proof that she does indeed have music you can actually hum along with. It went platinum in Iceland, but I’m pretty sure you get that certification if it’s purchased by more than 100 people who aren’t blood relatives.
9. David Bowie, David Bowie (1967)
This preceded his first masterpiece, Space Oddity, and, as such, is often relegated to the margins of Bowiealia, along with Tin Machine and black-market action figures from Labyrinth. But consider the subject matter of these songs — a dystopic world that resorts to cannibalism (“We Are Hungry Men”), transvestites who are exceptionally good at darts (“She’s Got Medals”), child murders (“Please Mr. Gravedigger”), and a stunted man-child who runs back to mommy when his new girlfriend can’t cook (“Uncle Arthur”) — and you could easily fool even a fairly knowledgeable Bowie fan into thinking they were B sides from his most coked-out days in Berlin. The haircut on the album cover certainly bolsters your claim.
8. Robyn, Robyn Is Here (1997)
This album fits every criteria of this list — in 1995, she was getting songs from Max Martin and hand-me-downs from Chili, Left Eye, or T-Boz, and now she might have the most spotless critical record in existence. Seriously, I dare you to find one negative word about anything Robyn has said or done since 2005. And we could have laughs at the expense of her Scandi-pop, “opening for Backstreet Boys” phase, even if “Show Me Love” was by no means the worst song you could hear in an Old Navy in the mid-'90s and you’ve likely confused it with the “Show Me Love” by Robin S, which is totally different. But a man has to live by certain rules, and one that could’ve saved me a lot of trouble is the following: “You do not make fun of Robyn under any circumstances.” It’s just not worth it.
7. Prince, For You (1978)
That this album isn’t called 4 U should be all the proof you need that it’s not worthy of bearing Prince’s name.
6. Fugees, Blunted on Reality (1994)
If I’m limiting this to “active” artists, this probably shouldn’t count. Yeah, they did a couple of Rock the Bells reunion shows, but the grim, mercenary and joyless “just cut the check” demeanor of everyone involved makes The Hangover Part III look like Spring Breakers by comparison. Plus, ask me two months ago, and this has to be a top-five “NEVER MAKING ANOTHER ALBUM, FOREVER, FOREVER EVER, FOREVER EVER” band in which every member is still alive. But as Lauryn Hill once said, “it’s funny how money change a situation,” and she’s releasing street singles as a means of paying a ridiculous amount of back taxes, dropping all kinds of incomprehensible third-eye science without adding a “motherfucker” so Uncle Sam hears her. Anyway, prior to The Score, the Fugees dropped this wholly unmemorable disc of East Coast hip-hop that tried to hide L Boogie behind Timbs and skully hats. On “Zealots,” Wyclef Jean recaps the public reception of Blunted on Reality better than his own critics: “The girl should’ve went solo / The guy should stop rapping / Vanish like Menudo.” Wiser heads prevailed, and besides “Ready or Not” and “Fu-Ge-Laa,” the Fugees’ second chance directly resulted in that one song Wyclef did with the Rock and two solid decades of Pras jokes. We owe them more than Lauryn Hill owes us.
5. Wilco, A.M. (1995)
Before they basically invented the term “dad rock,” Wilco had been frequently known as the “American Radiohead,” a meaningless term even if you still know what it means. My best guess is that they’re both bands that play acoustic guitars and like computers, and if you find out a potential roommate or blind date are into them, they’ve expressed a minimal competency in terms of good taste. All that aside, A.M. kinda is the Americana Pablo Honey — it’s got its fans and maybe four good songs, it’s definitely of its time, and if the band broke up immediately afterward, it wouldn’t be considered anywhere near the embarrassment it currently is. But even if Wilco sounds like a particularly scrappy version of the Jayhawks on A.M. rather than one of the most forward-thinking mainstream rock bands of the past 20 years, it’s quite the curiosity. The album is not only reminiscent of a strange period when alt-country was something cool people were assumed to be listening to, but also a time when saying Son Volt had a brighter future than Wilco after the Uncle Tupelo breakup was the No Depression version of “Derrick Williams over Kyrie Irving” or “Emeka Okafor over Dwight Howard”; it made sense at the time, didn’t it?
4. The National, The National (2001)
On Trouble Will Find Me’s “Demons,” Matt Berninger moans “I am secretly in love with everyone I grew up with,” and I suppose it’s breaking his suave character to imply that he spends any amount of time adding his high school friends on Facebook. But the guy appears to have trouble dropping grudges — as Steven Hyden pointed out in his profile of the National, Berninger mentioned the Strokes six times, and I’ve received potentially apocryphal information that Interpol was every bit as much of a bugaboo back when the National released their debut. And why not? This was the extremely rare time when America was feeling any modicum of sympathy whatsoever for people living in New York City, and as such, would allow its residents to look, sound, and act as NYC as possible. The National would eventually grow into quintessential city dwellers, but in 2001 they picked a bad time to make the only album that made them sound like they were from Ohio. It’s by no means a terrible album, and “Theory of the Crows” and “American Mary” have their proponents. But the National basically stopped playing all of these songs live as early as 2005. I mean, even Radiohead would bust out “Creep” every now and again in the 2000s.
3. Genius, Words From the Genius (1991)
GZA/Genius is generally the Clan member of choice among Wu-Tang fans who still think “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’” caters a little too much to the female demographic. So imagine someone thumbing through the used-CD rack at Disc-Go-Round back in 1995 and finding him recast as some kind of Big Daddy Kane–esque lover-man rapper on Words From the Genius. The real shock of it all is that he sounds exactly the same as he does right now. As such, “What Are Silly Girls Made Of” isn’t some discussion about ribosomes or other cellular organelles, and “Stay Out of Bars” isn’t some kind of obtuse battle-rap metaphor, but instead a recounting of a time when he manually pleasured some girl in a phone booth after picking her up at a nightclub. So ashamed was Gary Grice that he went ahead and made Liquid Swords, the single least sexual hip-hop album ever produced, so ascetic in its content that no one’s even bothered to mention over the past 18 years how its title is a potential double entendre that even Lil Wayne wouldn’t touch.
2. Deftones, Adrenaline (1995)
Deftones ostensibly have an enviable position: Beyond having a die-hard fan base, these days they’re the closest thing we have to Nine Inch Nails or Smashing Pumpkins, a premier crossover hard rock band for kids who will eventually get into art rock, the one that introduces teens to the Cure, the Smiths, My Bloody Valentine, and Radiohead. And yet, they are basically ignored by every hip publication and they’ve never even played Coachella. Is there any band whose name has cost them more dearly? And that includes all bands that use a “ska” pun somewhere in their name. Had they changed their moniker after even Around the Fur, perhaps they’d be more welcome among the cred-conscious. But anything short of a total Beastie Boys post–Licensed to Ill rebranding would be futile since “Deftones” still makes people think of them as a bro’d-out, yelping rap-rock band that introduces teens instead to 40-ouncers of King Cobra, VHS skateboard videos, and the kind of decision-making that leads to covering Ice Cube songs with Korn. And that is exactly the kind of band they were on Adrenaline, which occasionally gets confused with Adrenalize, a fairly crappy Def Leppard album. I mean, “Bored” still rocks live, but Adrenaline should serve as a warning to anyone who’s considering a tribal tattoo: No matter how much it reflects your current reality, you’re stuck with it forever.
1. Radiohead, Pablo Honey (1993)
One day, you’re just some punk who wants to be, wants to be, wants to be Jim Morrison, quoting the Jerky Boys, maintaining a hilarious haircut and making an ass out of yourself at Beach Week. Then, you finish college as a person of refined tastes and political views, praying to god nobody knows what you were really like four years ago. Now just imagine everyone with basic cable had access to your high school yearbook, and that’s basically the story of Radiohead from Pablo Honey to OK Computer.
This is the granddaddy of 'em all, and for reasons that could fill thousands and thousands of words, this was absolutely the single best thing for Radiohead — without it, The Bends is just a commercial flop instead of a critical turning point, and they probably don’t have the major-label green light for OK Computer, which finally was certified double platinum in 2006. All of which means that nine years of topping every single '90s list and almost as many “Best Albums of All Time” lists had a roughly equal effect as four minutes of “Creep.”
Ian Cohen (@en_cohen) is a contributing editor at Pitchfork and has reviewed Ron Artest's rap album for ESPN: The Magazine and Gene Simmons's restaurant for Rolling Stone.