It takes a rare combination of chemistry, preternatural skill, intuition and luck — right people, right place, right time — to make a bona fide killer debut album.
Some of heavy music's greatest bands, like Judas Priest and Pantera, took at least a few full-lengths to find their sound and start making genre-defining masterworks, proving that a truly spectacular debut isn't required for a historic career.
That said, roaring out the gate with an act of singular brilliance — whether raw like Korn's and Slipknot's or breathtakingly fully formed like Black Sabbath's or Alice in Chains' — is a surefire way to make a lifelong impression. Below, are the 20 greatest debut albums in heavy-music history
New American Gospel isn't the first album that the founding members of this titanic NWOAHM crew made together, but it is the one where they became Lamb of God. Following an incendiary 1999 debut released under the name Burn the Priest, the Richmond band pivoted to a slightly less blasphemous moniker, added drummer Chris Adler's brother Willie on second guitar, and made an album so relentlessly heavy, nasty and unhinged (see live staple "Black Label") that it's hard to believe they're as popular as they are today.
It's hard to express how much of a shock to the system the Dillinger Escape Plan's spasmodic debut LP was when it dropped onto the unsuspecting rock landscape of 1999, dominated as it was by nu-metal and pop punk. An act of frenetic mad genius, the album is a teeth-rattling thrill ride from front to back, but the sublime brutality of the main riff to "43% Burnt" — arguably DEP's signature song — is basically impossible to top.
In the Nightside Eclipse was by no means the first black-metal album, but it's arguably the genre's most impactful. Insahn and Co.'s genius layering of orchestral keyboards, medieval choirs and grander production quality atop black metal's evil, lo-fi groundwork established the genre's symphonic offshoot — a sound that has reached as far as Ed Sheeran, Demi Lovato and the current wave of blackened deathcore innovators. Monumental influence aside, tracks like "Into the Infinity of Thoughts" are downright stunning.
On their self-titled debut, System of a Down sound like they were beamed in from another dimension where the only Earth music they had access to was Slayer, the Dead Kennedys, Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" and traditional Armenian music. As playful and wacky as it is politically incisive, the foursome's opening salvo scales operatic melodies one moment ("Spiders") and thrashing anti-war screeds the next ("War?"); then it's repeating the word "sugar" in a funny accent before you've even have a chance to digest SOAD's humanitarian pleas. Its open-palmed cover art is instructional: Try and grab on.
Napalm Death's Scum wasn't just the debut of a band, but also the launching point of a genre. Yes, there were other groups tinkering with the pieces before them, but Napalm Death were the first to complete the grindcore puzzle — snapping together anarcho-punk, the fastest U.S. hardcore they could find, the early extreme metal of Celtic Frost and Venom, and the primal thrash of motherfucking Slayer. At 20 blast-beat-ridden songs in 28 minutes, Scum is a throbbing, boot-stomping assault that rips harder every time you press play.
If there were to be a Big 5 of thrash metal, instead of just a Big 4, all experts, including one Kerry King, agree: Exodus would round it out. Unfortunately, though their landmark debut, Bonded by Blood, was recorded in 1984, a wider release was postponed until the following year, which may have held the band back in both reach and renown. Still, to those who know, the group's only studio recording to feature wild-man vocalist Paul "Poser Killer" Baloff is a genre-defining essential.
From the opening drum roll and needly panic chords of "Davidian" to the ear-bleeding distortion that suffocates the end of "Block," Burn My Eyes is a groovy, thrashy triumph that rarely lets up. Having cut his teeth in Bay Area thrash outfits Forbidden and Vio-Lence, Machine Head mastermind Robb Flynn concocted a noisy, discordant, altogether fresh-sounding slab of groove metal that had the power of Pantera and the dark, clangy atmosphere that defined so much of Nineties metal. Let freedom ring, indeed.
"Die! Die! Die!" It's a fitting first word — screamed three times, each with more throat-shredding gusto — for death metal's opening gambit. Scream Bloody Gore isn't even Death's most accomplished masterwork, as Chuck Schuldiner made a career out of elevating the genre he crystallized up until his tragic passing in 2001, but his 1987 debut is aguably the band's most important. The unrelenting speed, the butt-ugly guitar tones whirring at full volume, and the haggard voice moaning odes to "Regurgitated Guts" and bloody baptisms — welcome to death metal.
Simply put: When Slipknot was released in 1999, there was nothing else like it. Today, there still isn't. Following their rough but promising 1996 demo, the Iowa maniacs filled out their lineup to nine strong and synthesized a brutal onslaught of deafening percussion, hulking death-metal guitars, glitchy electronics and decimating, verbal machine-gun fire from new frontman Corey Taylor. It's all the energy of extreme metal crossed with all the style of nu-metal drenched in all the atmosphere and attitude of a grisly horror flick.
In the early 1980s, few hardcore bands even made full-lengths, only a small percentage of the ones that did materialize were any good, and you can count those that held a candle to the Bad Brains' on one hand. Faster, tighter, catchier and more vibrant than any other group of their time and scene, the Bad Brains set the goal posts for NYHC ("Supertouch/Shitfit" and "Banned in D.C." are mosh-part fundamentals) and inspired everyone from Minor Threat's Ian MacKaye to Black Flag's Henry Rollins to make hardcore a national movement.
Although Trent Reznor would spend the next couple decades trying to distance himself from the synth-pop beauty of his 1989 debut by dousing his iridescent soundscapes with sheets of noise, Pretty Hate Machine will always be one of his greatest accomplishments. From the club-drunk "Head Like a Hole" and stabbing "Terrible Lie" to the menacing pseudo-rap of "Down in It" and the wailing EBM of "Sin," industrial rock was never the same again once Nine Inch Nails entered the scene.
Supergroups can be a recipe for disappointment, but Down are a blistering exception. On their 1995 debut, NOLA, the band comprised of Pantera's Philip Anselmo and heavyweights from Crowbar, Eyehategod and Corrosion of Conformity emerged form the swamp with possibly the greatest sludge albums of all time. Seared with Anselmo's Southern swagger and scorched with some of the fattest, meanest doom riffs imaginable, these 13 songs — from "Temptation's Wings" to "Bury Me in Smoke" — are a masterclass in the bayou's finest heavy-metal export.
Relentlessly brooding and terrifying, Tool's breakthrough first full-length saw the L.A. quartet take a huge evolutionary leap from the Opiate EP's rough-hewn attack. From the unnerving and controversial artwork to mercilessly pitch-black songs like "Sober," "Prison Sex" and "Bottom" (the last of these featuring inimitable guest spoken word from Henry Rollins), Undertow represents the encompassing vision of the alt-metal band before they found any light at the end of the tunnel and dove fully off the prog deep end.
Alice Chains weren't the most popular or influential of Seattle grunge's Big 4, but they were the darkest and most metallic, and they came out of the gates with the strongest debut LP of bunch. 1990's Facelift was a striking statement of intent: morbid, druggy and sludgy yet full of irresistible earworms. Smash singles like "Man in the Box" and "Sea of Sorrow" were hooky enough to rule rock radio, but Facelift also had such gut-punching heaviness that Alice weren't (completely) out of place on 1991's Clash of the Titans tour with Anthrax, Megadeth and Slayer.
By the turn of the Eighties, metal was becoming faster, harder, darker and more technical — and then it became all of those things thanks to Kill 'Em All. Metallica's first of many masterpieces is scrappy by their own skyscraping standards, but when was the last time a group of wild-eyed kids wrote a riff like the one in "Seek & Destroy"? Or "The Four Horseman"? Or "Hit the Lights"? Or "Jump in the Fire"? The number of bands — hell, genres — this record influenced is incalculable, and this was their first fucking go!
Korn's seminal 1994 debut simultaneously birthed nu-metal and created a sound so singularly raw, fucked-up and funky that no one, try as they might, could ever truly follow these leaders. Korn is a timeless scrum of feral vocal freak-outs, trunk-knocking hip-hop bass lines, steely guitar spasms and grooves that shadow Jonathan Davis' manic psyche — bouncing, bashing and breaking down in a fit of tears whenever necessary.
Appetite for Destruction has become such a fixture of pop culture that it's hard to even remember just how game-changing GN'R's debut was when it first hit the streets in 1987. At the time, Whitesnake, Poison, Bon Jovi and Mötley Crüe were all firmly ensconced in the Top 10, but only Crüe's slick Sunset Strip sleaze even came close to the feral sound and street-smart attitude of Appetite, and its unabashed celebration of sex, drugs, booze and rock & roll. Over 30 million sold copies later, it stands undeniably as one of the greatest debut LPs ever — rock, metal or whatever you wanna call it.
Rage Against the Machine made it abundantly clear from the jump what they stood for and how they were going to say it. Fusing Public Enemy sociopolitical outrage with Beastie Boys exuberance, Van Halen guitar heroics with Sly and the Family Stone funk grooves and Bad Brains-ian magnetism, Rage's 1992 manifesto includes the hardest-hitting songs in their catalog ("Bullet in the Head," "Freedom"), some of the best riffs ever ("Know Your Enemy," "Bombtrack") and an abundance of righteous "fuck you"'s. A true piece of art, it's not just timeless, it's more relevant than ever.
Really, how can this not be No. 1? Black Sabbath's self-titled debut is heavy-metal ground zero. The beginning of it all. Forty minutes of groundbreaking perfection, as revelatory today as it was when it was released in the grim winter of 1970 — from Ozzy Osbourne's otherworldly yowl and Tony Iommi's immortal riffs to Geezer Butler's rumbling bass lines and occult-tinged lyrics, and Bill Ward's thundering drums. Doom metal and stoner rock owe the album a particular debt, but there's no heavy subgenre that doesn't bear its mark. What is this that stands before me? The greatest debut album of all time.