Sunday, May 19, 2013

Top 25 debut EPs

I was thinking about the sophomore jinx the other day, i.e., artists whose second album is substantially weaker than their first, and it occurred to me that there's another sort of sophomore jinx.  There are a lot of artists who have released hugely promising, critically lauded debut EPs, only to fall flat with their first full length record and/or the rest of their career.

Here's a list (my own, totally subjective as per usual) of the top 25 debut EPs with some added commentary on whether or not the artists ever lived up to their promise.

#25) No Trend - Teen Love (1984)

This EP was primarily a vehicle for the punk "hit" Teen Love, parts one and two.  They went on to make some actual albums, which had their merits, but nothing else ever came close to being the kind of underground hit that Teen Love was.

#24) The Walkabouts - 22 Disasters (1985)

The Walkabouts evolved considerably from this obscure start.  I suspect most of their fans are happily oblivious to the existence of this EP, but I consider it a high point of their career.  They might have sounded like they were aping R.E.M. a little too much, but the female vocals and the varying instrumentation made it more unique.

#23) Blue Giant - Target Heart (2009)

The best songs on their full-length debut came from this EP, which is usually not a good sign, but the jury is out until they make a second full-length record.

#22) Let's Wrestle - In Loving Memory Of... (2008)

Initially, I was let down by their 2009 debut LP, mostly because I didn't like the re-recorded version of "I Won't Lie to You", but the way this band has matured has really grown on me.  The shambling jokey stuff like the original recording of "I Won't Lie to You" still has a lot of appeal, but I appreciate the way they've matured and become more thoughtful on their LPs.

#21) Miracle Legion - The Backyard (1984)

In the mid-80s, there were a lot of records I heard and thought "oh - they could be the next R.E.M.".  This was the first of those records.  Like The Walkabouts, I like Miracle Legion less as they evolved, but everyone else seemed to like them more.  This debut EP falls in the category of showing promise that was ultimately fulfilled.

#20) 3 Teens Kill 4 - No Motive (1983)

The highlight here is the cover of "Tell Me Something Good", which included tapes of news coverage of the Reagan assassination attempt mixed in.  I have no idea what happened to them, but I don't think there was ever a follow-up.

#19) Janelle Monae - Metropolis (2007)

The EP was more adventurous than the full-length follow-up, but you can't hold back somebody on the verge of mega stardom.  The new single Q.U.E.E.N. suggests she might be the rare performer who can remain a little out there while still becoming huge.  We may find out as soon as this summer.

#18) Bongwater - Breaking No New Ground (1987)

I don't think the next 2 LPs lived up to the promise of the first EP, but I know others differ, and eventually I think they did start to break new ground, even while riffing off of classic rock nostalgia.  This EP also helped to launch Shimmy Disc, which was an important player in the awkward transition from 80s underground rock and college rock to 90s alt-rock and indie rock.  Indie rock could have been swallowed by alt-rock if not for labels like Shimmy Disc and band like Bongwater.

#17) The Undertones - Teenage Kicks (1978)

They never fulfilled the promise of their debut, but the overpowering love from John Peel might have just been too much right from the beginning.

#16) Fugazi - Fugazi (1988)

I like this record because they still sounded a bit like Minor Threat at this point, not a whole lot like Minor Threat, but at least a little bit like them.  They got huge in the 90s through aggressive touring, an adoring cult following, and an interesting evolution.  I didn't like the later records as much, but Fugazi also belongs in the achieved-their-promise column.

#15) Black Kids - Wizard of Ahhs (2007)

So much promise.  This rough set of four songs was initially just available for download from the band's Myspace page, with no physical presence.  Now 6 years later, they've released just one full-length record whose best songs were re-recordings from the EP.  If they do release a second record, I'm still going to want to hear it because the first record sounded so fresh in 2007 that there's still a chance of freshness 6 years later.

#14) Jens Lekman - Maple Leaves (2004)

According to Wikipedia there was another EP before this one, but there were only 20 copies made.  I'm an obscurophile, but even I feel comfortable ignoring that first one.  Both Maple Leave and a second EP later in 2004, You Are the Light, were excellent and showed creative growth and diversity over a short period of time.  In contrast, all his full length records have been big disappointments.  I think most of them do have 3 to 4 really good songs, so maybe he should have just kept making EPs and churned them out a little more slowly than his early pace.

#13) Fishbone - Fishbone (1985)

If you're going to blend genres the way Fishbone did, you've really got two choices.  You can crossover to lots of different audiences and get huge (e.g., Prince's Purple Rain) or you can get lost and get mismanaged and confusingly marketed by your label.  The fact that Fishbone fell in the latter category is so well documented that there's actually a full-length documentary about it.  I haven't seen it.  As much as I like them, I think I'd find it too depressing.

#12) Big Black - Racer X (1985)

There were two very poorly distributed EPs before this one, but I consider this one to be their real debut, in terms of being a coming out party, at least with the more adventurous college radio stations.  They continued to pound away with increasingly popular and increasingly polished pounding with their next LPs and leader Steve Albini became a production machine with a huge influence on the remainder of the decade and the next one as well.

#11) The Bees - Punchbag (2001)

The strength of the debut 2002 LP was in the songs that were already on this EP and the 2004 follow-up was quite weak by comparison, possibly due to an effort to assimilate into a more commercially viable sound.  They didn't achieve their true potential, as the ninjagos would say, until their third LP in 2007.

#10) Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Yeah Yeah Yeahs (2001)

This was such an unexpected jolt in 2001, it's hard to see how they could have followed it up in a way that would have pleased everyone who loved it.  They've maintained an edge, but a lot of it has been an image edge as opposed to a real music edge.  The songs from the 2001 EP are very good, but a lot of what made this great was that nobody else sounded quite like this right then.  A few years later, it just wasn't nearly as unique, and so the EP stands alone as the most special thing they've done even though they've managed a very respectably lengthy career.

#9) Jurassic 5 - Jurassic 5 EP (1997)

For a hip-hop band with such a pure respect for the old school style of boasting and scratchin', it's impressive that they've had as much success as they have.  I was shocked, for instance, to see 2002's "What's Golden" show up on one of the music video channels even though they hadn't come close to selling out.  Put J5 in the achieved their early promise column, even if they've been handicapped by the public's taste.

#8) The Embarassment - The Embarassment EP (1981)

This was an excellent EP, and way ahead of its time.  They would have had much more success as contemporaries of Sebadoh and Pavement in the early 90s.  It was followed by the excellent mini-LP (another EP, really) Death Travels West, and then they all went their separate ways.  Though they eventually re-formed, nothing came close to comparing to the early singles and EPs.

#7) Fleet Foxes - Sun Giant (2008)

They peaked on this EP, as far as I'm concerned.  I know the critics continue to give them kudos, and the LPs haven't been bad, but they've been softer and safer.  For all the CSN comparisons, this EP was something new and different.  The later records haven't been.

#6) The Honeydrippers - Volume One (1984)

Nile Rogers and others join Robert Plant and Jimmy Page to do the best conceivable oldies covers possible in the 80s.  It's funny that they called it Volume One, right?  I guess Robert Plant couldn't cope with his success on the adult contemporary chart.  They should have just replaced with with Rod Stewart.  I'm sure he wouldn't have cared.

#5) Bangles - Bangles (1982)

I really don't understand how Faulty Products managed to go broke after releasing this.  The debut LP on Columbia was a whole lot slicker, but still very good.  The second follow-up LP was much slicker and hugely popular, but not at all what led me to love this EP.  This hard-to-find rough gem remains one of the best items in their catalogue.

#4) TV On The Radio - Young Liars (2003)

A debut EP of such complexity and sophistication in sound is a rare thing.  Today it does sound rough compared to what they became, but the songs themselves are among the best they've ever written.  They did suffer a sophomore jinx with the follow-up that really didn't have anything new that was half as catchy as anything from the EP, but they came back strong with their second and third full-length CDs and definitely fulfilled their early promise.

#3) Billy Bragg - Life's a Riot with Spy vs. Spy (1983)

It calls itself a 7 track album and not an EP, but as far as I'm concerned a 7 track album with short songs is an EP.  He wrote plenty of excellent songs after these, but this was by far his highest concentration of excellence and the stark production on the EP played to his strengths more so than just about anyone else on this list.

#2) Beta Band - The Three EPs (1997-1998)

They started out with not just one spectacular EP, but three, and had a debut CD that was the collection of the three.  The follow-up had at least one very good song, but it was a huge disappointment compared to the 3 EPs.  Their later records are quite good, but everything suffered in comparison to the consistent strength and impressive evolution of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd EP.

#1) Mission of Burma - Signals, Calls, and Marches (1981)

This post-punk record dispensed with punk purism as quickly on the heels of punk as it was really possible to do so, and it provides one of the clearest templates for what became indie rock roughly 10 years later.  Their follow-up full-length, Vs., gets nearly as a high a rating at, but I think 3 of their 4 best songs are from this EP and the 4th is from a single that preceded the EP.

Final thoughts

I think I went into making this list thinking that the early 80s had been a heyday for EPs and that there had been a resurgence in the 2000s.  It's possible I missed some great 1990s EPs, but I think cool new bands tended to roll out a string of 7-inch singles rather than going the EP route in the 90s.  If a band had enough money to put out a CD, they tended to cram it full with as many songs as would fit.  I think by the 2000s, bands and labels had begun to see the error in that approach, and it was also more critical to have a digital release as turntable owners became a narrower audience.

I see iTunes and their ilk as having revived the pop single format, albeit without b-sides for the most part.  That the EP has also made a come back over the last dozen or so years also feels like a positive development in music.  Not every great writer is a novelist, nor should we expect that every band excels at making full albums, especially not modern-era CD-length albums.  It does occur to me that I don't have anything on this list yet from the 2010s.  Hopefully that doesn't mean we have to wait for the 2020s for another resurgence of the EP, but, if we do, so be it.