12 of the best major label debut albums

From Nirvana to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs to Kendrick Lamar, these artists made successful jumps to the big leagues.

March 25, 2016

Every musician has dreamed about what it would be like to hit the big time – the tour bus, the stadium shows, the screaming fans, making money hand over fist (though in 2016 this last one should probably be dialled down to “being able to earn a semi-respectable living”).

Only a small number of artists ever get the opportunity to achieve this kind of success, and signing a major label deal really is no guarantee of anything. You have to deliver an album that takes you to that next level. Most fail. Some buy themselves a second opportunity. But every now and then an artist comes along that takes their shot at immortality and absolutely crushes it. Here are 12 of the best major label debuts.

Nirvana – Nevermind

Pretty much the… well, the Nirvana – Nevermind of major label debuts. There’s nothing else you can really compare it to, since it’s so rare for an album to come out that completely realigns mainstream rock music, style/fashion, and general pop culture the way Nirvana’s DGC debut did in 1991.

Sometimes lost in the countless words that have been written about the band and its martyred frontman’s influence is the fact that, under the layers of distortion and anguished howling, Cobain was a truly gifted songwriter who would have been a success in pretty much any musical era. In any case, Nevermind, to the surprise of everyone involved in its production, became a monster success the likes of which we may never see again, and that we’re still feeling the effects of over 20 years later.

Guns N’ Roses – Appetite for Destruction

Not only is Appetite one of the absolute best ever major label debuts, an atomic bomb of Sunset Strip sleaze that made approximately 10,000 hair metal bands instantly irrelevant, it is quite possibly the greatest American rock album ever made.

Featuring an astounding breakout performance from Axl Rose, incredible guitar interplay between Slash and Izzy Stradlin and airtight production from Mike Clink, not even the debacle that is the next two decades of G n’ R that followed could ever diminish just how far they knocked their shot at the big time out of the park.

Weezer – Weezer (The Blue Album)

It’s not surprising that shortly after Nevermind drastically changed the mainstream music landscape, someone was going to come along and combine the grunge elements they helped popularise with a more radio-friendly pop sound. But what was surprising was that Weezer’s DGC debut turned out to be one of the seminal albums of the decade.

Behind legendary Cars frontman Ric Ocasek’s shimmering production, The Blue Album effortlessly combined distortion-drenched guitars with sunny, Beach Boys-esque melodies, Matt Sharp’s quirky basslines and falsetto vocals, and Rivers Cuomo’s then-revolutionary awkward nerdy rock star aura to create a pop-rock masterpiece.

Lauryn Hill – The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill

The paradigm-shattering Columbia debut solo album from Fugees singer Lauryn Hill completely shifted public perception about not only what a solo female artist could accomplish, but what a hip-hop album could sound like. Its unique blend of neo-soul and rap was like nothing else before or since, and the album sold over 400,000 copies in its first week, produced three top-40 singles (including a number one), was nominated for 10 Grammy Awards, and has since gone on to move over 19 million copies worldwide.

Amazingly, this remains Hill’s only studio album, and she has remained largely out of the public eye since the early 2000s. Her largely self-imposed exile has been subject to much debate and speculation, but nothing that’s happened since, including a brief spell in prison for tax evasion in 2013, can take away what she accomplished with her masterful 1998 debut.

Jawbreaker – Dear You

Jawbreaker were another band whose career was irrevocably altered by the success of Nirvana’s Nevermind, as the punk trio was signed to a massive $1 million contract with DGC Records in 1994 following their landmark album 24 Hour Revenge Therapy.

Their highly-anticipated follow up, 1995’s Dear You, proved to be divisive amongst fans of the band who were turned off by the more polished production, and wound up being their only major label release as they disbanded shortly afterwards. However, the album proved to be a huge influence on the pop-punk/emo tidal wave that began just a few years later, retroactively turning Jawbreaker into a sort of mid-90s emo Velvet Underground.

Green Day – Dookie

Raise your hand if you owned Dookie, on cassette or CD, in 1995. The fact that most likely every single person reading this who came of age in that era is raising their hand right now (you can put it down by the way, you look silly) is a testament to how successful Green Day’s major label debut was. Dookie made Green Day into huge international stars, and proved punk rock could be a viable driving force in mainstream rock radio. It remains the band’s highest selling album, having moved an astounding 20 million copies.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Fever To Tell

New York City was the epicentre of the indie-rock renaissance of the early 2000s and major labels everywhere were looking for the next Strokes, but with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ debut, Interscope gave a voice to something a little bit different.

Behind the hypnotic vocals of enigmatic art-punk frontwoman Karen O, the album went on to become one of the most prominent indie-rock LPs of the era, selling more than 750,000 copies. Hugely successful single “Maps” crossed over in a big way on mainstream rock radio and exposed to the band to a much wider audience when its accompanying video was nominated for 4 MTV Video Music Awards.

Death Cab for Cutie – Plans

With an assist from Seth Cohen, Death Cab for Cutie’s fourth album Transatlanticism became a big hit for Barsuk Records, leading to the band signing a deal with Atlantic Records in 2004.

Despite their relatively out of nowhere It Band status, there wasn’t any guarantee that Death Cab’s particular brand of sensitive nerd-rock was going to make any dents in a crowded pop landscape (when was the last time you thought about Rooney?). But Plans would wind up reaching number 4 on the Billboard 200, sonically expanding the band’s mainstream appeal without drastically altering what had gotten them there in the first place, and catapulted Death Cab from indie darlings to unlikely rock stars.

Brand New – The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me

Brand New were able to break out of their pop-punk niche in a major way with 2003’s Deja Entendu, earning them newfound critical success and a more diverse fanbase. They were snapped up by Interscope Records shortly afterwards, and it took them a few years to release their follow up, causing tremendous anxiety to fans of the band who began to doubt that they’d ever get to hear new music.

The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me was finally released in 2006, expanding on the more diverse influences of Deja Entendu to truly transcend the band’s pop-punk roots. It became a sprawling, dark, modern alternative rock classic.

Kendrick Lamar – good kid, M.A.A.D. city

Many thousands of words have been spent by hand-wringing, fainting, couch-needing music writers about the deplorable state of hip-hop since, well, since hip-hop has been around, but it’s seemed especially egregious over the last decade. Yes, there have been some unfortunate, substanceless Soulja Boy-types that achieved huge success – but pop music in every genre has always been vapid, while only hip-hop seems to be constantly dismissed as a genre based on its lowest offerings.

The sparse, throwback LA production and nuanced lyricism of Kendrick Lamar’s Interscope debut in 2012 proved that not only was hip-hop going to be just fine, it was always great.

Lana Del Rey – Born to Die

Lana Del Rey caused a big splash with her Interscope debut in 2012, but probably not in the way she and her team were hoping for, putting the old adage that “all publicity is good publicity” to the ultimate test. She faced questions about her privileged upbringing and past career as a model, her artistic authenticity was called into question with many believing her seemingly overnight rise was actually the result of a cynical corporate marketing campaign, and her lethargic performance of hit single “Video Games” on SNL was widely mocked.

Much of this is unfair, as taken in a vacuum, Born to Die is one of the decade’s best and most unique pop albums, like the soundtrack to an alternate universe James Bond movie that takes place in post-apocalyptic Los Angeles.

The Sheepdogs – The Sheepdogs

It would be difficult to have a more eventful, whirlwind year than Saskatoon’s Sheepdogs had in 2011, winning Rolling Stone’s “Choose The Cover” competition and becoming the first unsigned band to grace the magazine’s cover, performing on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and then signing a deal with Atlantic Records to record their followup to 2010’s self-released Learn & Burn.

The end result was their 2012 self-titled LP, produced by The Black Keys’ Patrick Carney, which launched two gold-certified singles and reached number one on the Canadian Albums Chart, bringing the band’s classic rock-twinged sound to a huge audience that would have been unthinkable just a few years earlier.

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