Splendid Debuts, 1990-2000

May 6th, 2010 · No Comments ·

I liken a stunning debut to falling in love. For better or worse.

I’ll tell you a secret. For several years I’ve made it a habit to see bands play that I’ve never heard of. Especially if I am traveling, I’ll pick up a newspaper and find a show that sounds cool and go. Why? Because I may thus see Beck before he was signed by Bongload, or members of Sonic Youth playing with friends, all under assumed names. And since so many of the brightest stars in music and art burn out early, none of us wants to miss the next Hendrix playing in coffeehouses or the next Van Gogh showing in neighborhood parks. You never know where that coffeehouse or park will be and so you keep your vigilance up, ready to pounce and proclaim the Next Thing.

To some, it is vitally important to be on top of the Next Thing before everybody else has caught on. These are the nice boys and girls that know the short list for the Booker Prize in fiction before it has been made public. They have inside information. Nine months before your British and French friends were telling you Daftpunk was It, these boys and girls had found Daftpunk and looked at you tenderly when your eyes looked uncomprehendingly at the debuts from St. Etienne and Helium. But there is another reason to adore the fine debut: it is like falling in love.

It is like falling in love in many respects. The artist may only produce one or two more albums and then disappear. Then you revisit your thorough investigation of American pilseners. Or the artist may do the same exact thing four times in a row and you lose interest and become disillusioned after the third album. A handful of times you will catch an artist as they begin and follow them faithfully. But, like falling in love, you must forget that chances are you will be disappointed and disgruntled eventually. Put it out of your mind and play the record again, it sounds like the songs always existed and the singer clairvoyant and mesmerizing. Below, in alphabetical order, a remembrance of debuts that felt like the first sip of an ice-cold martini.

10 Splendid Debuts, 1990-2000

Air, Moon Safari (Source, 1998). Before Ms. Coppola brought them to worldwide attention, this debut felt like a snowstorm, pretty and a little wicked.

Belle and Sebastian, Tigermilk (Matador, 1996). Scottish, brilliant, and ambitious.

Digable Planets, Reachin’: A New Refutation of Time and Space (EMD/Pendulum, 1993). Stunning, luminous, smart. Hip-hop was changed irrevocably with this album.

PJ Harvey, Dry (Island, 1992). Chilling and unforgettable. Ms. Harvey’s blend of drama, vulnerability, and intensity is singular.

Magnetic Fields, Distant Plastic Trees (Red Flame [UK], 1991). Stephin Merritt’s first release, featuring Susan Amway on vocals, ushered in a quintessentially new pop sound evolving out of ABBA and Phil Spector. The last track on this album, 100,000 Fireflies, was covered by Superchunk.

Massive Attack, Blue Lines (Virgin, 1991). Haunting in places and consistently brilliant.

Pavement, Slanted & Enchanted (Matador, 1992). Like Nirvana, Pavement sold a ton of records all the while marketed as an indie act. Playful, catchy, and varied, this album endures.

Tortoise, Tortoise (Thrill Jockey, 1994). Insisting on abandoning classical blues and punk influences, Tortoise releases enchant and elude. Comprising the brightest stars of Chicago’s indie community, Tortoise singlehandedly invigorated experimental rock music in America. The remixed Tortoise albums are extraordinary.

A Tribe Called Quest, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythms (EMD/Pendulum, 1990). Tribe redirected hip-hop with this and the release of the seminal LP Low End Theory the following year.

White Stripes, White Stripes (Sympathy for the Record Industry, 1999). Rather like malt liquor on a hot night.

Tags: Music