Top 40 80s debut albums
By Classic Pop | December 19, 2021
We take a look at the best debut albums of the 80s…
Debut albums are often the purest example of any artist’s work. It can be the result of years of dreaming, planning and writing, so much so that some singers and groups never better their first record. Here then is our list of the very best debut LPs of the 1980s. Let us know your favourite in the comments section at the bottom of the page…
IN THE GARDEN
Often overlooked in the Eurythmics’ back catalogue in favour of the more straight-up pop of Sweet Dreams and Touch, Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox’s Cologne-recorded first LP is a fascinating outlier. Produced by the legendary Conny Plank, the German’s experimentalism coaxes gutsy post-punk material from the duo; Stewart’s heavy guitar on Belinda recalls the razorcut riffing of Keith Levine’s work on PiL’s Public Image single. And the icy synths of Take Me To Your Heart are the first signpost to their eventual electronic direction.
LICENSED TO ILL
A musical prank that got out of hand, the Beasties weren’t anything like the bratty misogynists they satirised on this debut that fully brought producer Rick Rubin’s rap-rock crossover sound into the mainstream. They distanced themselves from the outrageousness on later albums, but there’s still a mischievous delight in hearing (You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party!) and No Sleep Till Brooklyn for the first time. The LP’s influence of bringing rap to the mainstream shouldn’t be underestimated – despite its flippancy.
THE AGE OF CONSENT
Bronski Beat’s only studio album with Jimmy Somerville is a passionate and powerful plea for gay rights. By 1984, many European countries had reduced their age of consent to 16, but in the UK it remained at 21. Cue the politically-charged likes of the Hi-NRG Why? and Smalltown Boy, a poignant tale of homophobia and traditionalist family incomprehension. A pertinent cover of the Gershwin standard It Ain’t Necessarily So was a pointed call for acceptance among fingerwagging Bible followers.
A key encapsulation of the short-lived but hugely influential New Romantic movement, Midge Ure had to play second fiddle to lead vocalist Steve Strange here before moving on to Ultravox. Former Magazine member Barry Adamson provides bass on three tracks, but it’s the vision of Strange, Rusty Egan and Ure that drives things. Fade To Grey became iconic. Perfect as a snapshot of London clubland dandies, there was plenty to delve into elsewhere, too. New Romanticism in microcosm.
SHE’S SO UNUSUAL
A ‘win’ for outsiders all around the world, the title of Lauper’s debut made a major play on her individualistic style. While Cyndi was not given as much input on the record in terms of songwriting as she would have liked (she was told “sing now, write later”), she asserted herself in terms of its arrangements, bringing a freshness to songs such as of Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. She co-wrote Time After Time, which has since become a standard, and managed to get the self-pleasuring raunch of She-Bop past the censors.
LONDON 0 HULL 4
The more outgoing side of the cardigan-wearing 80s indie, Paul Heaton and Norman Cook have both progressed to national treasure status via very different routes, but they first grabbed hold of our collective attention with this upbeat collection merging socialist and religious lyrics with a deft jangly guitar attack; the back cover implored us to ‘Take Jesus – Take Marx – Take Hope’. Happy Hour has become a mainstay at many an indie disco but also there’s quality balladeering via Flag Day and the punk-pop of Anxious.
As UB40 eventually settled into the role of smooth reggae ambassadors, they moved away from the politicised stridency of their debut offering. Signing Off was an instant success, striking a chord in Thatcher’s 80s Britain that also saw the ongoing rise of the National Front. Dub-heavy protest song Tyler sets us on a righteous course before a tribute to Martin Luther King, the unions-related 25% and powerful Burden Of Shame. A fine version of jazz standard Strange Fruit was equally apposite.
SPEAK & SPELL
The only Depeche album to feature Vince Clarke, the brooding intensity that would become their M.O. was some way away yet. Instead, this is upbeat synth-pop with frontman Dave Gahan still finding the best way to utilise his baritone. New Life and Just Can’t Get Enough boasted irresistible hooks; in an NME review Paul Morley said that the LP was “generous, silly, susceptible electro-tickled pop… that despite its relentless friskiness and unprincipled cheerfulness is encouraging not exasperating.” That’s succinct for Paul…
From out of the ashes of Joy Division came this tentative first step by the survivors of post-punk’s most important group. The shadow of the late Ian Curtis undeniably informs much of the contents of Movement as New Order try to escape the straitjacket of their past while still unsure what musical direction to take in the years ahead. Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook share lead vocal duties on a record that is hesitant yet oddly defiant. An historic document of a band in flux as much as an enjoyable LP in its own right.
Those honeyed vocals of lead singer Garry Christian really are a joy. Liverpool outfit The Christians scored the highest-selling debut album of any act on Island Records with this superb effort that blended socially-conscious lyrics with soulful sophisti-pop. Updating the multi-layered harmonies of Crosby, Stills & Nash for the 80s, emotive pleas for equality are wrapped in gorgeous sun-kissed melodies. Make no mistake, though, there’s a bite to this as evidenced by Hooverville, that shouldn’t be underestimated.
Just who could Steven Patrick Morrissey turn to next after the end of his stellar songwriting partnership with Johnny Marr? Typically, there’s much debate as to who played Mozzer’s musical foil on Viva Hate. Officially, Stephen Street gets most of the co-write credits but guitarist Vini Reilly claims he had a hand in every song with the exception of Suedehead. Everyday Is Like Sunday still sounds extraordinary and Margaret On The Guillotine continued Morrissey’s penchant for baiting the Establishment.
FRIEND OR FOE
With key collaborator Marco Pirroni still on board for this first solo effort, you could argue that Friend Or Foe is an extension of Adam’s tenure with the Ants. Yet this is a new proposition entirely. Gone is the grandstanding confidence of the Dandy Highwayman and Prince Charming as the singer displays more vulnerability, and on a musical level, more experimental urges. Brass and Cajun rhythms replace the Burundi beat of the Ants after Adam discovered zydeco music during his travels in the Deep South of the US.
Howard Jones’ debut shot to No.1 in the UK album charts thanks to a clutch of instantly hooky singles. Back in his Smash Hits days, Neil Tennant declared Jones possessed “a neat talent for writing melodic pop songs with clever hooks and real 1970s singer-songwriter lyrics. A must for all Supertramp fans.” Frontloaded with the best material, Human’s Lib still stands up well as a showcase for a premier exponent of thoughtful heart-on-the-sleeve synth-pop who hit the ground running. A gem in Jones’ back catalogue.
ECHO & THE BUNNYMEN
We’re used to some pretty over-the-top proclamations from frontman Ian McCulloch over the years, but the arrival of the Bunnymen on the scene at the turn of the decade was indeed something to shout about. Produced by future KLF theorist Bill Drummond, as well as Dave Balfe and Ian Broudie, Mac The Mouth formed the perfect partnership with innovative guitarist Will Sergeant. The band would scale even greater heights on Heaven Up Here and Ocean Rain, but Crocodiles bit hard into the post-punk landscape.
ORCHESTRAL MANOEUVRES IN THE DARK
ORCHESTRAL MANOEUVRES IN THE DARK
OMD’s ethos was an attempt to meld Stockhausen with ABBA, where art-school experimentalism met poppy melodicism. Here, though, they take their first steps as synth-pop innovators, and writing hits wasn’t high on their agenda. Early single Electricity is the group at their most urgent, The Messerschmitt Twins broods rather wonderfully and Messages captures the essence of their major influence, Kraftwerk.
JOURNEYS TO GLORY
They went on, of course, to craft stadium-friendly pop, but if you want to experience the full-on sweaty visceral Spandau then you have to check out this debut. Like Duran’s eponymous first LP, this is a scrapbook of their New Romantic phase and stands proudly as a period piece. There’s a spiky funkiness about Spandau’s early sound that was excised in the chase for hits, best evidenced by the choppy guitars of The Freeze. And they certainly knew how to make a stir with the anthemic Muscle Bound. Time to ditch those kilts, though, lads…
24 WHITNEY HOUSTON
For such an iconic pop soul album, Whitney’s debut solo LP was slow to catch on in the States but has since gone on to sell more than 22 million copies and was rinsed of every possible single by record label Arista. Houston’s extraordinary powerhouse vocals changed the face of the singer’s art and the material she’s given here (Saving All My Love For You, Greatest Love Of All, How Will I Know) showed off her prowess in the best light possible. A great introduction to an iconic vocalist.
RAW LIKE SUSHI
A record that changed the musical landscape, Neneh Cherry brought sass and hip-hop attitude to the late-80s pop charts dominated by SAW tracks. As a member of Bristol post-punk outfit Rip Rig + Panic, Cherry came into the orbit of Massive Attack and soon-to-be Portishead founder Geoff Barrow. Utilising many of the brains behind Massive Attack’s seminal Blue Lines (including Cherry’s future husband Cameron McVey), Raw Like Sushi thrilled with the likes of breakout hit Buffalo Stance and the thoughtful Manchild.
A SECRET WISH
A cult classic that has only grown in stature over the ensuing years. Stephen Lipson’s maximalist production made use of every gizmo available at Trevor Horn’s Sarm Studios. A Secret Wish is an ambitious melding of the avant-garde with pop sensibilities. The single Duel saw the group on Top Of The Pops, but the true spirit of Propaganda is equally found in the gorgeous eight-minute Dream Within A Dream, a recitation of an Edgar Allan Poe poem first published in 1849. A high-water mark of adult pop.
HAIRCUT ONE HUNDRED
It’s medically proven that nobody can resist the mile-a-minute scratchy funk of Favourite Shirts (Boy Meets Girl) and there’s plenty more where that came from on this wonderful first effort from Nick Heyward’s Beckenham outfit. The melodic gems Love Plus One and punch-the-air optimism of Fantastic Day are equally delightful but don’t sleep on lesser-known highlights including Lemon Firebrigade, Kingsize (You’re My Little Steam Whistle), the chiming Milk Film and Calling Captain Autumn.
THE PARTY’S OVER
What a journey Talk Talk embarked on across their decade-long recording history – they ended with experimental art-rock the like of which the world had never heard. Yet their story starts here with a synth-pop debut that’s very much tied to its era. Railing against being pigeonholed as New Romantic contemporaries of Duran Duran, frontman Mark Hollis preferred to namecheck Otis Redding, John Coltrane and King Crimson as influences. In fact, the title track arguably is a takedown of the New Romantic movement itself.
FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD
WELCOME TO THE PLEASUREDOME
You have to admire the audaciousness of Frankie; few bands would have the chutzpah to launch their careers with such a kaleidoscopic double album as this. Producer Trevor Horn throws everything into the 16 tracks here. Cover versions of Ferry Cross The Mersey, Born To Run and Do You Know The Way To San Jose are arguably dispensable padding but in the title track, Relax and Two Tribes, FGTH served up three of the greatest singles of the decade.
DE LA SOUL
3 FEET HIGH AND RISING
The Sgt Pepper of hip-hop, De La Soul’s sprawling 24-track opus included skits, hugely imaginative rap skills and the kind of song every teenager had to turn down in his bedroom for fear their parents would be listening (De La Orgee). An astonishing seven singles were culled from it, catapulting Posdnuos, Trugoy and Maseo into the upper reaches of the charts and simultaneously bringing the Native Tongues posse of rap groups into the public’s consciousness. One in the eye for their gangsta rap rivals.
DEXYS MIDNIGHT RUNNERS
SEARCHING FOR THE YOUNG SOUL REBELS
Kevin Rowland has always been a master of providing conceptual angles to his work – although the less said about that cover art for My Beauty the better. The rough-and-ready wooly-hatted Dexys look for Searching… fitted perfectly with the authentic brass-laden Northern Soul sound of this debut – a combative, fiery affair with Rowland so engaged he’s barely comprehensible in parts, especially on the stomping closer There, There, My Dear.
Also featuring Steve Jansen and Richard Barbieri, this is as much the last Japan album as the first David Sylvian one. The ever-imaginative Sylvian pushes the envelope on a collection that fuses prog, funk, jazz and the avant-garde. It’s immensely confident, helped by a stellar cast of collaborators that included bassist Danny Thompson, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Jon Hassell and Kenny Wheeler. For an apparently left-field affair, the appearance of Red Guitar as a Top 20 single also came as a rather pleasant surprise.
The production is very much of its time, but such is the pop nous of its hook-laden songwriting, Madonna’s eponymous debut still stands up 37 years later. For those more familiar with the singles, the extended LP versions of Holiday and Borderline will come as a nice twist. Even slight inclusions here such as I Know It and Think Of Me are elevated by the sheer weight of charisma in Madonna’s performance. Physical Attraction is a perfect example of spiky disco-flavoured pop, too.
TEARS FOR FEARS
Rolling Stone’s David Fricke baulked at what he called the “adolescent angst and bleak, pained romanticism” of TFF’s first album but its seriousness has stood the test of time. Inspired by the writings of psychotherapist Arthur Janov (John Lennon used his ‘primal scream’ techniques to kick heroin), Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith poured their studies of the controversial technique into this debut, an unflinching examination of the painful transition from childhood to adulthood. A No.1 hit, Tears For Fears were huge from the get-go.
NON-STOP EROTIC CABARET
On the face of it, Soft Cell had little in common with their synth-pop contemporaries. However, the art school radicalism of Dave Ball and Marc Almond saw them smuggle subversive, seedy glamour into the charts. Mining influences such as the dark romanticism of Jacques Brel and Hi-NRG disco, they became iconic through their cover of Gloria Jones’ Tainted Love and infamous via the outrageous Sex Dwarf. Meanwhile, Say Hello, Wave Goodbye was a torch song that few have ever bettered.
If you want to capture 80s pop lightning in a bottle – that effervescent sense of fun and optimism that cocked a snook at the harsh realities of Thatcher’s Britain – then here it is. While George went on to make more wide-ranging and artistically fulfilling albums, Fantastic did exactly what it set out to do, chronicling a ‘lads about town’ joie de vivre in full flow. Yet dig deeper into the lyrics and you’ll still see how Michael placed social commentary into Wham Rap!, Young Guns and Bad Boys.
Although they’ve forever been tagged with a New Romantic label, it’s only Duran’s eponymous debut that fulfils that criteria. The year before they went supernova, their first LP found them at their most experimental. An innate pop sensibility and the dancefloorfriendly grooves of Chic-loving bassist John Taylor battled for ascendancy with strident synths and punk aggression. Japan were recording seminal album Gentleman Prefer Polaroids down the hall at AIR Studios and their influence is stamped all over this.
THE BLUE NILE
A WALK ACROSS THE ROOFTOPS
Paul Buchanan’s quest for sonic perfection and uncompromising purity of creative vision was matched only by Talk Talk’s Mark Hollis. With their frontman sounding old beyond his years, there’s a breathtaking maturity to The Blue Nile’s A Walk… as they capture an after-hours Glasgow that’s never been bettered. Somehow managing to sound expansive yet brittle, the band blend synthetic textures with a wracked human quality. Musically, they’re a law unto themselves.
Arguably the most consistent band of the 80s, The Smiths rarely put a foot wrong. However, their first offering was not without its problems. When Rough Trade boss Geoff Travis heard the results of their sessions with producer Troy Tate he was less than impressed, ordering the band to re-record it with John Porter. It ended up a somewhat compromised affair but hey, it still features This Charming Man, Hand In Glove, Reel Around The Fountain and What Difference Does It Make?. We’ll take that…
PENTHOUSE AND PAVEMENT
An intense rivalry with The Human League meant that former member Martyn Ware very much had something to prove on this first album with new outfit Heaven 17. With the two groups recording on a shift basis in the same Sheffield studio so that they didn’t bump into each other, the split with his former colleagues sparked “a great explosive supernova of creativity unlike anything I’d experience before or since,” explained Ware. It’s an album that positively bristles throughout with righteous ire.
The epitome of soulful sophisti-pop in the mid-80s, Sade looked like a supermodel and sang like a superstar. Confusingly, Sade was the name of the band that grew out of the outfit Pride as well as name the frontwoman born Helen Folasade Adu went by. Whatever the logistics, in just six weeks this nine-track introduction took shape. First among equals were the indelible singles Your Love Is King and Smooth Operator. An international soul icon was born who would go on to huge success, particularly Stateside.
UPSTAIRS AT ERIC’S
Their collaboration was but brief, but Yazoo’s legacy has rung through the ages. Vince Clarke and Alison Moyet may have rubbed each other up the wrong way (although their battles were more about uncommunicative silence rather than blazing arguments), but they made a huge splash within the space of less than two years. And the fact that Situation was originally only a B-side of Only You proved that the duo had inspiration to burn. It’s just a shame that their creative flame fizzled out so quickly.
HUNTING HIGH AND LOW
Without the success of the iconic Take On Me video, would we have been robbed of A-ha’s wonderful debut album? Quite possibly. Their stock-intrade – melodic Nordic melancholia – is already in place here. A-ha’s trump card has always been their ability to meld ear-candy hooks with desolate, introspective lyrics; see I Dream Myself Alive and Here I Stand And Face The Rain for evidence. Meanwhile, the group’s performance on their sole UK No.1 single, The Sun Always Shines On TV, is quite exquisite.
PET SHOP BOYS
Although it wasn’t quite true that Pet Shop Boys came straight out of the box as the finished article (their early flop singles were a sticky start), their collaboration with producer Stephen Hague is a match made in pop heaven. Neil Tennant’s arch humour shines through in his witty lyrics, set against Chris Lowe’s melodic keyboard riffs and pulsing percussion. The singles West End Girls, Opportunities and Suburbia were quite perfect and there was little to choose between those and a plethora of all killer, no filler album tracks.
THE STONE ROSES
THE STONE ROSES
“The past was yours but the future’s mine” crooned Ian Brown on a totemic LP that defined the baggy generation. Routinely described as one of the greatest British albums of all time, debut or otherwise, The Stone Roses boasted three world-class instrumentalists as well as a mesmerising frontman who exuded Manc swagger. The Roses lost their way due to record label lawsuits, but this was all they needed to cement their place in music history as one of the most important quartets of all time. A landmark indie release.
A dazzling display of finessed songwriting, few artists have made the transition from teen idol to serious songwriter like George. Faith seamlessly shifts through the gears to take in urgent R&B, homage rock’n’roll, soulful ballads and pristine electro-pop. Its first single was the headlinegrabbing audaciousness of I Want Your Sex, the title track was a rockabilly joy while the visceral One More Try and social commentary of Hand To Mouth proved George could do substance as well as frothiness.
THE LEXICON OF LOVE
A perfectly crafted concept from start to finish, this is a finely-honed classic. In fact, after a career of trying to live up to his first masterpiece, in 2016, Martin Fry admitted its dominance in his creative life by penning a well-received sequel. Another iconic Trevor Horn production that melds wriggling basslines, sleek synths and lush strings, the likes of Tears Are Not Enough, Poison Arrow and The Look Of Love are indelible 80s singles. The album as a whole, though, is a peach; the ultimate in sophisticated soul-pop.