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Top 100 Greatest Debut Alternative Albums of All Time

Updated: Oct 5, 2023


Top 100 Greatest Debut Alternative Albums of All Time

Pictured - Interpol (Cologne 2015)

The tendency of musicians, particularly alternative artists more often than not is to come out swinging and leave an impression quick, with the early albums often being held in higher regard than the later ones. Although this is not always the case amongst artists with there being plenty of big-name alternative artists who hit their stride later, some of the biggest names in alternative music simply just hit the nail on the head with their first try. As production quality improved over time and the ease of recording music dramatically increased throughout the latter half of the 90's into the 2000's, one of the more interesting realizations was that it was the more modern alternative acts who more consistently produced better debut albums with the need for a major label now being a thing of the past. Interestingly enough though, that leaves the stellar, low budget, DIY alternative albums of the '70s and '80s to shine even brighter, and a lot of them certainly did. For the purposes of this list, our criteria includes albums that are primarily considered alternative rock, college-rock, new wave, Madchester, post-punk, shoegaze, jangle pop, indie rock, indie pop, pub rock or indie/alternative folk. Additionally, what exactly “alternative music” is, will forever be a topic of contention but the general consensus among these albums is that they are considered alternative to listeners and publishers alike from Pitchfork to Rolling Stone. Albums primarily considered, britpop, art-rock, hardcore, grunge, punk-rock, hip-hop or metal have been excluded from the list as they fall into their own more uniquely defined category. A few exceptions have been made on a case-by-case basis for groups whose initial sound at the time of their debut album was more in line with our criteria (Nirvana, The Verve).

1. The Velvet Underground & Nico - The Velvet Underground & Nico

The debut album by The Velvet Underground & Nico gave listeners their first exposure to what would later be called "alternative rock." In mixing avant-garde sounds with garage rock, experimental rock and psychedelic rock, the band essentially created a sound that would not find success outside of the underground for ten years. Being described as a financial failure and largely unsuccessful at the time, listeners had absolutely no idea what to make of the album. Nothing had ever sounded like this before and it took years and years for the sound to catch on. With alternative rock primarily forming following the decline of punk-rock alongside the increasing prevalence of post-punk and new wave, the popularity of the sound just hadn't caught on at all upon the Velvet Underground debut. Nevertheless, to say this album was simply just ahead of its time is an understatement. What the record really did was provide listeners with a direct look into the future of alternative rock. With the Velvet Underground being heavily cited by early alternative rockers as a major influence with this record and Loaded generally being at the forefront, the album has received perfect and near perfect retrospective praise often being called one of the greatest albums of all time if not the greatest album of all time.


2. Unkown Pleasures - Joy Division

Being released a year before the tragic death of frontman Ian Curtis, Joy Division put a new spin on new-wave and gothic rock with Unkown Pleasures. With gothic rock growing in popularity in the late 1970's, there was an innate difference between the more theatrical side of gothic rock and the minimalist and equally nihilist side presented by Joy Division. Nothing about Joy Division's debut hinted at any level of faking it, with Ian Curtis genuinely belting out his bone chilling pain atop distorted, delayed and echoing guitar playing. The band created 10 uniquely brilliant tracks mixed with skillful drumming and guitar playing masking Curtis's pain. Tracks like Disorder and She's Lost Control are among some of the most popular alternative rock tracks of the late 70's while deeper cuts like Shadowplay and Interzone expose a shockingly large amount of talent by the musicians behind Curtis. Since its release in 1979, the album has been reviewed incredibly well retrospectively with its legacy extending well into the 21st century.


3. Surfer Rosa - Pixies

Before Nirvana kicked off the Grunge scene in the early 90's with their second album Nevermind, bands like Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth, Sebadoh and of course, Pixies raised eyebrows with their use of distortion, pedals, and fuzz on their guitars creating sonically large, "sludgy" sounds. In venturing into uncharted stylistic waters, Pixies debut Surfer Rosa took over college and underground radio in the late '80s. Although not even touching the mainstream, Pixies made a massive impression on the musical landscape with their debut being massively influential on the indie and alternative scenes of the 90s. The record has been cited by PJ Harvey, Kurt Cobain and Billy Corgan as a jaw dropping album, influencing their styles. Track six of the record, Where is My Mind is instantly recognizable to any rock fan whereas tracks like Gigantic and Bone Machine are held in incredibly high regard in the alternative music world. Following the release of Surfer Rosa, Pixies again shocked the world with the release of Doolittle in 1989, another near perfect album resulting in the two albums often being considered among the best albums of the '80s.


4. Slanted & Enchanted - Pavement

After being met with immediate widespread critical acclaim, Pavement's debut Slanted & Enchanted went on to define the sound of '90s indie rock music. Pavement's sound was so unique and so fresh, it spawned a wave of bands striving to get that unique Pavement sound from Modest Mouse, to Built to Spill, to The Olivia Tremor Control, to Flake Music (who later became The Shins). Whether intentional or unintentional by the bands, the Pavement sound became the standard and indie rockers just had to have that sound. Although most bands matching their style eventually developed a sound of their own, the impact of the band with their debut at the forefront has become known as not only one of the finest indie rock albums of all time, but also one of the most influential. With Pavement describing their influences as The Replacements, R.E.M., Sonic Youth and Echo & the Bunnymen, the band tastefully crafted all of their influences into Slanted & Enchanted, marking a drastic change in the direction of indie rock with a modern and slacker-esque twist. Songs like Zürich is Stained, and Here remain some of the most influential songs of the early '90s indie scene.


In a similar vein to Pavement's impact on indie rock in the '90s, The Strokes rejuvenated the relatively stale indie scene of the early 2000's, putting a modern, post-punk twist on the genre, setting the bar high for the remainder of the decade before synth-pop took over around 2010. Is This It was met with massive critical praise alongside the immediate generation of a huge fanbase. Songs like Last Nite and Someday are regarded as some of the finest indie rock songs of the new millennium with us at Melophobe crowning Last Nite as the greatest indie rock song of the century. With britpop and mainstream "alternative" rock dominating the music scene in the late '90s, indie rock remainded underground, far from the forefront. With the decline of britpop towards the turn of the century, the post-punk-revival scene brought indie rock to forefront with Is This It marking the turning point before groups like Interpol and The Libertines followed suit. Never in the modern era has one alternative album marked such a drastic change in the direction of music as the debut of The Strokes.

6. The Stone Roses - The Stone Roses

With indie rock attempting to establish itself as a genre, instead of just a classification of rock without a major label, the Madchester style appeared. Coming about as a mixture of indie rock, indie dance, acid house and psychedelic rock, bands like The Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, Inspiral Carpets and Primal Scream (although they are indeed Scottish), Manchester found itself as a massive hub for alternative music. The self-titled Stone Roses debut is not only one of the finest debut alternative albums of all time, but the quintessential Madchester album. In introducing danceable, rave-worthy indie rock to millions of new listeners all over the world, the band showed the style is far larger than a small, unique, regional music scene. The record not only left a massive mark on the alternative world, it was also heavily influential on the explosion of britpop a few years down the road with The Stone Roses still holding their infectious jangle-pop guitar playing close to their core, alongside the wah and loop pedals. Fools Gold (absent from the UK release, but the closing track on the US release) and I am the Resurrection notably added a new rave-like danceable quality to a fairly familiar style of jangle-pop. With the albums hypnotic qualities alongside stellar musicianship, the debut has lived on well into the modern era.


With The Strokes igniting the rebirth of post-punk, Interpol followed suit the following year with their decorated debut album, Turn on the Bright Lights. Interpol injected melancholic lyrics wrapped in a Nirvana-esque somber aura into the music realm. Interpol built upon some of the darker elements of lyrical writing paired seamlessly with reverb-laced guitar playing and room-filling studio accouterments, which were taking over the indie world of the early 2000s. Taking artistic inspiration from Joy Division and The Chameleons, frontman Paul Banks crafted some of the most introspective and authentically uneasy lyrics of the new century connecting with listeners on many levels. In measuring the magnitude of indie and alternative records, Turn on the Bright Lights hit a level of powerful precision and excellence that few others have since with songs like Obstacle 1 and PDA being some of the most revered songs of the post-punk-revival scene.


8. Psychocandy - The Jesus and Mary Chain

In mixing catchy indie-pop tracks with a massive about of fuzz, reverb and white noise, Scotland's The Jesus and Mary Chain encapsulated listeners, guiding them down a generally unexplored musical path. If the fuzz and noise were to be removed from the tracks, the result would be relatively bright pop tracks reminiscent of the late '60s and early '70s, explaining how the rather harsh tracks on the record are rather pleasing. Coming to fruition alongside the rise in popularity of Sonic Youth, Big Black and Swan, The Jesus and Mary Chain hit their stride quick, with the quality of their debut being top tier. With noise rock being a big part of alternative music in the second half of the '80s and into the '90s, The JMC played a massive role as influencers beyond just noise rock, but into all alternative and eventually into grunge. Psychocandy finds itself as the cornerstone record of '80s noise rock.


9. The Smiths - The Smiths

Although most fans generally crown the bands third album The Queen is Dead as the masterpiece of The Smiths, their 1984 debut album comes pretty close. With The Smiths considered the gold standard for indie-pop, the debut album of The Smiths exposed a new side of '80s pop, focusing on the guitar, instead of the synths, making songs equally danceable, but still very interesting. Capitalizing on the well-established post-punk sound, an explosion of new wave and a growing emergence of jangle-pop, the band hit the perfect split between the desirable styles on their debut. Hints of The Smiths are heard in essentially every indie band post their break-up in 1987, and it was their debut alongside The Queen is Dead which played a massive part in the explosion of indie rock and indie pop around the corner. This Charming Man remains one of the most recognizable and iconic songs in the indie and alternative lexicon with guitarist Johnny Marr establishing himself as one of the finest guitarists of the '80s. Still Ill, You've Got Everything Now and Pretty Girls Make Graves still have some of the catchiest riffs in alternative music, something so common of The Smiths, but especially on the hugely influential debut.


10. Murmur - R.E.M

The debut album of the premiere "college rock" band of the '80s, with its profound blend of jangly guitars, cryptic lyrics, and Michael Stipe's distinctive vocal style is one of the finest rock albums off all time. The appeal of Murmurl lies in its enigmatic lyricism, it's subtle sophistication and its emotion alongside its convincing musicianship propelled by Peter Buck's guitar. With songs like Radio Free Europe and Talk About Passion becoming some of the most dominant rock songs on '80s college radio, R.E.M showed that massive success can follow from unconventional and non-commercial musical styles. REM's innovative approach to songwriting and recording reshaped the expectations of what rock music could achieve. The barriers smashed by this album made way for bands like Pavement, Radiohead, Nirvana and countless others.

11. Pretenders - The Pretenders

12. My Aim is True - Elvis Costello

13. Nothing's Shocking - Jane's Addiction

15. Rage Against the Machine - Rage Against the Machine

16. Mass Romantic - The New Pornographers

17. Apologies to the Queen Mary - Wolf Parade

19. Funeral - Arcade Fire

20. Violent Femmes - Violent Femmes

21. Crazy Rhythms - The Feelies

22. Pink Flag - Wire

24. Up the Bracket - The Libertines

25. Entertainment! - Gang of Four

26. Sleater-Kinney - Sleater-Kinney

27. Grace - Jeff Buckley

29. Talking Heads: 77 - Talking Heads

30. Dry - PJ Harvey

31. Soul Mining - The The

32. Look Sharp! - Joe Jackson

33. Fever to Tell - Yeah Yeah Yeahs

34. The Scream - Souixsie & the Banshees

35. Repeater - Fugazi

36. Franz Ferdinand - Franz Ferdinand

37. Marquee Moon - Television

38. Exile in Guyville - Liz Phair

39. In the City - The Jam

40. Another Music in a Different Kitchen - Buzzcocks

41. London 0 Hull 4- The Housemartins

42. Crocodiles - Echo & the Bunneymen

43. Pod - The Breeders

45. Rattus Norvegicus - The Stranglers

46. Give Up - The Postal Service

48. LCD Soundsystem - LCD Soundsystem

49. Ride the Tiger - Yo La Tengo

50. Broken Bells - Broken Bells

51. The Hour of Bewilderbest - Badly Drawn Boy

52. Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash - The Replacements

53. I Just Can't Stop - The Beat (Later The English Beat)

54. The Only Ones - The Only Ones

55. Movement - New Order

56. Gish - Smashing Pumpkins

57. From Her to Eternity - Nice Cave and the Bad Seeds

58. Desperate Youth, Bloody Thirsty Babes - TV on the Radio

59. In the Flat Field - Bauhaus

60. Dinosaur - Dinosaur Jr.

61. Weezer (The Blue Album) - Weezer

62. Public Image: First Issue - Public Image Ltd

65. For Respect - Don Caballero

66. Viola Beach - Viola Beach

67. Beautiful Freak - Eels

68. Ben Folds Five -Ben Folds Five

69. Music from the Unrealized Film Script: Dusk at Cubist Castle - The Olivia Tremor Control

70. Telephone Free Landslide Victory - Camper Van Beethoven

71. The Psychedelic Furs - The Psychedelic Furs

72. A Storm in Heaven - The Verve

73. The White Stripes - The White Stripes

74. Innerspeaker - Tame Impala

76. Pablo Honey - Radiohead

78. On Avery Island - Neutral Milk Hotel

79. Takeoffs and Landings - Rilo Kiley

80. Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit - Courtney Barnett

81. Carnavas - Silversun Pickups

82. Starlite Walker - Silver Jews

83. Everybody Else is Doing it So Why Can't We? - The Cranberries

84. They Might Be Giants - They Might Be Giants

85. The Idiot - Iggy Pop

86. The Back Room - Editors

87. Oh, Inverted World - The Shins

88. Hot Fuss - The Killers

89. Spirit They're Gone, Spirit They Vanished - Animal Collective

90. Old World Underground, Where Are You Now? - Metric

91. Copper Blue - Sugar

92. Today - Galaxie 500

93. Psychic... Powerless... Another Man's Sac - Butthole Surfers

94. Real Estate - Real Estate

95. This is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About - Modest Mouse

96. OK Go - OK Go

97. I Could Live in Hope - Low

98. Tourist History - Two Door Cinema Club

99. Blunderbuss - Jack White

100. Oracular Spectacular - MGMT

 

Just Outside the Top 100

101. Broken Boy Soldiers - The Raconteurs

102. Yerself is Steam - Mercury Rev

103. Antidotes - Foals

104. Down Colorful Hill - Red House Painters

105. Everything All the Time - Band of Horses

106. Wagonwheel Blues - The War on Drugs

107. What Did You Expect from the Vaccines - the Vaccines

108. Something About Airplanes - Death Cab For Cutie

109. Lost Souls - Doves

110. United - Phoenix

111. You're a Woman, I'm a Machine - Death From Above 1979

112. Employment - Kaiser Chiefs

113. George Best - The Wedding Present

114. White Music - XTC

115. Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes

116. Only a Lad - Oingo Boingo

117. Almost Killed Me - The Hold Steady

118. Language & Perspective - Bad Suns

119. Some Friendly - The Charlatans

120. Castaways and Cutouts - The Decemberists

121. Waterloo to Anywhere - Dirty Pretty Things

122. Garland - Cocteau Twins

123. Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi - Camera Obscura

124. The Slow Wonder - A.C. Newman



For a broader look at many iconic alternative albums be sure to check out Top 100 Greatest Alternative Albums of All Time. For a more expansive collection of songs from many of these albums be sure to check out the accompanying playlist.




2000's alternative & indie rock playlist cover 2.JPEG
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