MMM Top Ten: The 10 Best Debut Albums of the 21st Century
“You have 20 years to write your first album and you have six months to write your second one,” said Elvis Costello in 1981. The best debuts bottle up and release decades worth of insight, feeling, and experience into a singular, captivating musical statement. From indie rock and pop to folk and country, below are some of the 21st Century’s most compelling debut LPs thus far.
*Honorable mentions: Kendrick Lamar (Section 80), The Avalanches (Since I Left You), Samia (The Baby), Marina (The Family Jewels)*
#10. Phoebe Bridgers – ‘Stranger in the Alps‘
Phoebe Bridgers’ 2017 debut established her as one of the 21st century’s greatest and most important indie stars. The influence of these songs – like the starkly confessional “Funeral,” the nostalgic “Scott Street” and the downcast but melodic “Motion Sickness” – are already readily apparent in the new generation of indie-rockers molded by Bridgers’ affecting, intimate story-telling
#9. Bon Iver – ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’
The story of Bon Iver’s debut is already the stuff of legend by now: man gets his heart broken, man goes into the woods, and man creates one of the greatest folk albums of all time. But the music of For Emma stands tall with or without the story behind it. The trinity of Bon Iver’s evocative lyricism, his intricate guitar playing, and his soul-shattering falsetto resulted in some of the most quietly powerful music of the 21st century thus far.
#8. Lorde – ‘Pure Heroine’
Like Born To Die a year before it, Lorde’s generation-defining debut rejected the maximalist, joyous pop formulas of the day in favor of brooding introspection. With one inescapable smash hit, “Royals,” the then-sixteen year old did away with an entire pop philosophy by utilizing the no-BS, self-assured, cynical smarts that only a teenager is fully capable of tapping into.
#7. The Highwomen – ‘The Highwomen’
Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires, Maren Morris and Natalie Hemby may have taken their name from one of country’s most famous supergroups, but The Highwomen’s self-titled debut is a singular statement of intent (and one that arguably surpassed anything the Highwaymen released as a quartet). These are warm, classic sounding country songs updated for the 21st Century that speak plainly to the realities of being a woman in the modern age.
#6. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – ‘Fever To Tell’
For a while, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs seemed fuelled solely by hype, a handful of EPs and obsessive media coverage of the band’s charismatic front-woman Karen O. When their debut album finally dropped, it did what seemed impossible – not only living up to the hype, but transcending it. Fever To Tell alternates between acerbic statements of intent like “Black Tongue” to sharp-edged anthems like “Y Control.” At the album’s core is one of the 21st Century’s greatest hits yet, “Maps” – a tender, tear-jerking power ballad about a relationship at its most fragile, desperate and one sided.
#5. Lana Del Rey – ‘Born To Die’
Arguably the most influential debut of the 2010s, Born To Die upended the pop-formula; aestheticising the listening experience and ushering in an era of subdued, reflective, melancholy songwriting. Not all of Del Rey’s tales of femme-fatales have aged well – and Del Rey herself far surpassed Born To Die with 2019’s Norman F***ing Rockwell – but the LP’s towering legacy speaks for itself.
#4. Rilo Kiley – ‘Take Offs and Landings’
Whereas 2000s indie bands like Arcade Fire and Yeah Yeah Yeahs subscribed to the philosophy of ‘bigger is better’, Rilo-Kiley proved that sometimes less is more with their debut Take Offs and Landings. The songs from the cult-icons’ first album are intimate and homespun, carefully tackling the joys and heartaches of living with a communal charm courtesy of Jenny Lewis and Blake Sennett.
#3. Ethel Cain – ‘Preacher’s Daughter’
The most recent addition to this list, Preacher’s Daughter is a staggeringly ambitious debut – a 75 minute concept album that revolves around the character Ethel Cain, who escapes a fundamentalist home only to run into the hands of a man who murders and cannibalizes her. It’s impressive enough as a lyrical feat, but the LP is elevated to ‘classic’ status by its daring sonic choices – be it, the terrifying “Ptolomea,” the sublime outro “Strangers” or the epic, ever-building “Thoroughfare.”
#2. Jason Isbell – ‘Southeastern’
Jason Isbell proved central to some of the Drive-By Truckers greatest hits – be it “Decoration Day” or “Outfit” – and his 2013 solo debut has become a country classic in its own right. Written amidst newfound sobriety, these songs radiate with clarity and emotional honesty – exploring illness, love and heartbreak with breathtaking wisdom and vulnerability.
#1. Arcade Fire – ‘Funeral’
To many, Arcade Fire’s Funeral represents the pinnacle of 2000s indie-rock; a chest-thumping, heartfelt album anchored by the dynamic, larger than life voices (and insights) of Win Butler and Regine Chassange. These anthemic, sincere anthems offer affecting meditations on death and the triumph of living.
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