The Hold Steady’s Steve Selvidge, our reader of the month, and PG editors vote on first albums that changed the game and stand the test of time.
Q: In your opinion, what is the best debut album by a band?
Photo by Kelly Shee
The Hold Steady
A: I'd have to go with Van Halen. It's always hard to rate music when so many people's favorites are tied up with memories and personal musical tastes. There have been a lot of “game-changer" debuts. To me, the best serve as an artist's Statement of Intent. Everything that follows from there is set up on that first album. You could point to debuts from both the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Led Zeppelin as examples, and many more.
Van Halen's debut certainly did this and more. As a debut, it's a perfect album. All killer no filler, as they say. The mix of sunny Southern California hooks and groundbreaking riffs has never been equaled. But for me, it's just the simple fact that Van Halen changed so much upon its release and afterward. This is obviously a very guitar-centric opinion, but I can't think of another album that created such a monumental shift in the way the guitar was played, promoted, and even manufactured. The legacy of all of that is still very evident to this day.
Current obsession: Lonnie Johnson. I was always familiar with his earlier acoustic recordings, but I only recently discovered the later period when he was playing electric guitar. I'd actually heard him on electric for a while but was unaware it was him! One of my favorite records is a solo album by the great pianist Otis Spann. It's all solo piano and voice, save for one song that has a beautifully sympathetic electric-guitar accompaniment.
Photo by Russell Lee
I was always so seduced by the tone and phrasing of this guitar, but there were no credits to let me know who it was. Many, many years later I stumbled upon a YouTube video of Lonnie Johnson playing a Kay Value Leader guitar and singing “Another Night to Cry," and it was like finding the Rosetta Stone. There he was! I knew for sure it was him. That was the magic guitar player on that Otis Spann album. Now I'm trying to find as many albums of his from this period as I can. I also bought a one-pickup Kay Value Leader just like his. I don't sound at all like Lonnie, but it's still a lot of fun to play.
Reader of the Month
A: Chicago Transit Authority. Up until that release, there were no bands like Chicago. It was an unheard of for the time—a double album, incredibly well recorded, and every song stands up over 50 years later.
Current Obsession: The session players known as the Wrecking Crew. I knew many of the songs they played on but didn't realize it was the same core of amazing musicians that played the music on those hits. When I happened upon the excellent documentary by Denny Tedesco, Tommy Tedesco's son, I was in awe and it sent me down the rabbit hole of finding and listening to as much music the Wrecking Crew performed on as possible. There will (probably) never be another group of session musicians like the Wrecking Crew again and I want to ensure I take the time to truly enjoy the hundreds, if not thousands, of songs they performed on.
A: A ridiculously difficult question when 20 albums come to mind almost immediately, but I can't not go with Van Halen. Why? It awakened the world to EVH's genius, was a complete rewriting of what a guitar and human are capable of, and introduced us to arguably one of the greatest rock frontmen of all time. Just as important, Van Halen cooked up 11 tracks that remain as fresh and mind-blowingly amazing as they did at first listen.
Current Obsession: Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President. I didn't know much at all about 39's deep ties and friendships with so many legend-level influencers in music, but I now like him even more. Highly recommended!
A: So many albums flash through my head but the one that really sticks with me is Pat Metheny's Bright Size Life. Metheny brought a Midwest sensibility to jazz, which proved that not every chord needs to have a seventh in it and triads can be melodic as hell. Not to mention that this record introduced the world to Jaco Pastorius (his self-titled album wouldn't be out for another seven months).
Current Obsession: The beauty and musical simplicity of a trio is fascinating to me and I've been immersing myself in what that format is capable of. Considering Chick Corea's recent passing, I went back and dived into Now He Sings, Now He Sobs with new ears. The freedom is astounding and inspiring and fulfilling. Other groups that are getting major rotation are Joshua Redman's Elastic Band, Delvon Lamarr's Organ Trio, and anything with Paul Motian.