Top Seven Debut Albums of the 1980s

The 1980s were a decade of outrageous fashion, great pomposity, and synthesisers. Bad haircuts and daring pop music went together like bird to seed. Look at the technological advances in how people consumed music – the compact disc emerged as the new medium at the end of the 1980s, and the Walkman established itself as the coolest thing since the invention of the phone card. Manufacturers built hi-fi stereos with the assumption that you wanted to experience music in your bones as well as through your ears. We needed a king and a queen to symbolise this era and settled on Madonna and Michael Jackson.

In the world of heavy music, the 1980s might be the most fertile since Black Sabbath paved the way for the metal genre in 1970. Heavy metal started the decade with one of its loudest and most menacing disruptors carving out a genre that we’d later class as extreme metal, and it came from Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the form of Venom. By 1983, the Americans had eclipsed the Geordies, with Metallica and Slayer creating a faster and crunchier upgrade for what we now know as thrash metal.

MTV might have embraced the Van Halen-inspired “hair metal” of Los Angeles in its rise to dominance, but the underground had no time for this corporate rubbish. Death metal emerged in Florida towards the end of the decade; grindcore burst out of England like a plague; black metal sowed its seeds through the pioneering music of Bathory. Likewise, the industrial experimentation of the late 1970s solidified into a more coherent rhythmic proposition and cut its ties to punk. Even the indie and alternative music of this era had its fair share of innovators, with the likes of The Pixies, Cocteau Twins, Dinosaur Jr., The Cure and Depeche Mode evolving into highly influential artists on a wide spectrum of musical genres, including rock and metal.

Few of the great bands of the 1980s produced great debut albums. Often, the sophomore or third or fourth LPs would be the ones that established them as legends – Ministry, Faith No More and Voivod come to mind here. For this list, we base our choices on the criteria below:

  • The immediate impact of the debut album
  • Is it the best one in the artist’s discography?
  • It’s long-term influence on other artists
  • How synonymous it is with the zeitgeist of the 1980s

These shortlists always create arguments among passionate but stubborn music critics with no clear consensus, and we are no different. Therefore, we attempted to bring a semblance of scientific method to our choices and scored each of the four categories on a scale of 1 to 10 and added up the totals.

For the record, we know that Appetite for Destruction would make this list if we applied the criteria above, but we don’t cover traditional rock & roll at Scream Blast Repeat.

These are the SBR Top 7 debut albums of the 1980s…

7. Nine Inch Nails – Pretty Hate Machine (1989)

Though beatified as one of the great artists of the 1990s and the solemn voice of Generation X, Trent Reznor emerged in 1989 with a stunning debut record built on quirky synths, grinding bass lines and forceful beats. America embraced Depeche Mode in 1988 and soon found something as dark – but with a more vicious undercurrent – in Pretty Hate Machine. The likes of ‘Head Like a Hole’ and ‘Down in It’ became staple MTV hits within a year, but Reznor’s strains of young adulthood find their angst here in obsessive love, self-hatred, vengeance, and unrequited lust. Racy numbers like ‘Sin’ and ‘Ringfinger’ are classics to this day that’ll get you dancing and eyeing up potential sex partners like pieces of meat.

6. Jane’s Addiction – Nothing’s Shocking (1988)

The alternative rock that dominated the 1990s can trace its origins to Los Angeles at a time when Motley Crue, Poison and Gun ‘N’ Roses were the kings of Sunset Strip. How ironic, then, that a band of art-school misfits with shredding solos, Led Zeppelin riffs, and post-punk origins would produce one of the most important records of the 1980s. Perry Farrell’s unhinged and overzealous tenor voice sounded like nothing else in rock. From the heroic rock beauty of ‘Ocean Size’ to the bass-led prog of ‘Ted, Just Admit It’ to the exhilarating guitar extravaganza of ‘Pigs in Zen’, you can relive the edgiest and most self-destructive thrill of the decade without feeling the sleaze of the cock rock bands eating away at your brain cells.

Guitarist, Dave Navarro, might be famous these days as a reality TV star-cum-tattoo judge and ex-member of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, but he achieved his rock god credentials on this record.

5. King’s X – Out of the Silent Planet (1988)

Perhaps the most surprising entry on this list, people forget how unique Texas trio, King’s X, sounded when they burst onto the scene in 1988 using a strange guitar tuning called drop-D. Yes, they permed their hair and could write ballads, but they also wrestled with the big questions of the Christian faith and composed some of the most iconic riffs of all time in their first five albums. Make no mistake, this band created the blueprint for the 1990s grunge and groove metal guitar techniques with songs like ‘In the New Age’ and ‘What is this?’ at a time when glam metal ruled supreme.

Doug Pinnick’s voice soars like James Brown and cuts like a Delta Blues eulogy on ‘Goldilox’ and ‘Wonder’, while six-stringer, Ty Tabor, combines The Beatles and Black Sabbath like a master alchemist. Kerrang! awarded it album of the year, and King’s X soon became the band that deserved to dominate the 1990s. It didn’t work out like that, but their next four albums were just as good as this momentous record.

4. Napalm Death – Scum (1987)

How did a group that started out as an anarcho-punk outfit from Birmingham end up tossing Slayer aside and creating the most extreme form of music in the world? And they weren’t even a metal band. The likes of Siege and Repulsion might have opened the door to a crusty form of unmelodious noise shaped in psychopathic rage, but Napalm Death popularised the blast beat drum technique and reached the fastest tempo known to man on their debut effort. Nobody had heard anything as hostile or as barbaric, nor could many in the rock and metal community accept it as music. Yet beyond the incredulous reactions of the time, you can hear snippets of Discharge, Celtic Frost, Black Flag and Slayer.

The group experienced momentous instability during this era with the first twelve tracks of side A featuring a different line up to the sixteen cuts from side B. But is there a greater immediate impact than creating a new genre of music overnight? Napalm Death birthed grindcore with this record and continue to influence thousands of extreme metal and hardcore bands to this day.

3. Metallica – Kill ‘Em All (1983)

It might feature a late adolescent rock voice unrecognisable from the muscular power of James Hetfield’s pipes of today; it might pull as many rock star poses as a Ted Nugent stage show; and it might feature corny lyrics like “When we start to rock / We never want to stop again” and “Here on the stage the Marshal noise / Is piercing through your ears.” But Metallica’s debut is a tour de force through Venom, Motorhead and Iron Maiden rolled into a fierce whirlwind of rapid alt-picking riffs and chugging palm-mutes as sharp as a butcher’s cleaver. How could guitar music be so fast and so abrasive yet so thrilling? Crispy amp frequencies sear through the mix like power drills in ‘Motorbreath’ and ‘Whiplash’ and circle your senses with menacing delight in ‘Seek & Destroy’. The tempo and crunch of ‘Metal Militia’ are ferocious enough to strip your fingers of their prints.

We started the decade with Venom as the most dangerous band in the world, but that badge of honour landed on Metallica after this rousing piece of heavy metal madness. Thrash metal came into being from this LP and millions have imitated its guitar techniques, spirit, and invincible energy ever since.

2. Death – Scream Bloody Gore (1987)

How can a debut record from two teenagers make number two in this list? That answer should be obvious – it launched the genre of death metal. Sure, you can hear the imprint of Slayer and Kreator on this LP, but nobody produced the demonic mouth noises of Chuck Schuldiner or captured the gore of the notorious video nasties doing the rounds in the VHS trading networks of the late 1980s. From the opening outcry of “Die!” in ‘Infernal Death’ to the outro mosh of ‘Mutilation’, you can relive this record like a time-traveller watching a new music scene developing before your eyes. The virtuoso guitar of later records has little presence here, but you can hear snippets of a tech death blueprint in the title-track and the outlines of a grindcore sound minus the blast beats on ‘Baptized in Blood’.

Thrash metal fans had no trouble embracing Scream Bloody Gore, and Chuck’s malevolent vocals soon became a legitimate artistic style replicated by metal singers the world over. Look at this LP’s influence on Morbid Angel, Obituary, the entire Florida death metal scene, all thrash bands starting out from 1987 onwards, and every death metal band in the period 1987-1991.

1. The Sisters of Mercy – First and Last and Always (1985)

He spent most of his career distancing himself from the goth scene that celebrates him to this day as one of its Mount Rushmore heroes, and there’s no doubt that Andrew Eldritch has a pernicious sense of humour. Whether you call it gothic-rock, post-punk, or psychedelic rock, the debut Sisters of Mercy record racked up a colossal budget and produced two failed singles, but is there anything that captured the decade with as much mischievous romance and drama as First and Last and Always? Eldritch’s fog-horn bass vocals linger over every song like a dead person watching their own funeral unfold, while Wayne Hussey’s arpeggiated guitar riffs could teach Johnny Marr a thing or two about the full capabilities of the instrument in this style. The likes of ‘Black Planet’, ‘Walk Away’ and ‘No Time to Cry’ are timeless goth classics with anthemic choruses that sway between self-deprecation and martyrdom. How does Hussey unearth his glowing guitar melodies in the impenetrable mist of ‘Possession’ and the cheeky Yorkshire in-joke of ‘Nine While Nine’?

The band imploded not long after this album, and Eldritch resurrected the name for his triumphant Floodland comeback of 1987, but this is the record that exported gothic rock to mainland Europe and beyond. Play it today and you can revisit an era of absurd self-consciousness, wanton self-destruction, and dark music venues with powerful smoke machines and minimal lighting. Humourless music by humorous people can be a winning recipe – ask the members of Tool.

Honourable mentions…