10 Essential Debut EPs

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It’s easy to discuss what makes a great first album, or a great debut single. Those are things we talk about on a pretty regular basis, and when I say “we,” I mean music writers and critics at large. But it gets a bit murkier when we discuss debut EPs. First off, what separates an EP from a mini-album from an album? Short answer: Length. Long answer: Depends on how you look at it, but for the purposes of this exercise, anything that’s less than 30 minutes and comprises four to eight songs is basically an EP. So the qualities that make a great first short-player are basically the same as those of a great first album, just compressed into a more concise package. You want to hear something powerful and cohesive, but leaves you wanting more. So it probably won’t surprise you that more than half of the items on this list are by punk bands. There’s more where that came from on our list of 10 essential debut EPs; queue ’em up and get right to the hooks.

Buzzcocks - Spiral ScratchBuzzcocksSpiral Scratch
(1977; New Hormones)
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Punk debuts should all have the raw energy and spunky sense of fun that The Buzzcocks’ four-song EP Spiral Scratch displayed upon its release in 1977. Not that any of that energy or spunk has been diluted or lost in the 37 years since it dropped. The self-funded, self-recorded set is neither the first of its kind, nor as strong as the band’s actual debut album, Another Music In a Different Kitchen. But man, it is so close to being that. In fact, one track — “Boredom” — is basically that album’s leadoff track, “Fast Cars,” in demo form. What the band assembles here is the first glimpse of something that’s about to get very exciting. It’s raw, melodic and raging — and also the only recording of the band’s in which they’re fronted by Howard Devoto, who would shortly thereafter split and form Magazine. Spiral Scratch is a blurred portrait of a band, caught just at the transition point before they became a slightly different band.  – JT

Joy Division An Ideal for LivingJoy DivisionAn Ideal for Living
(1978; Enigma)
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The band you hear here are, quite frankly, not the same legendary players we know from “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and “Transmission” and such. Sure, the name is there, and the lineup is intact, but An Ideal for Living is important as much for where Joy Division came from as for where they were heading. Much of this debut is rooted in punk and proto-punk; Ian Curtis was often joined in unison vocals by Peter Hook and company, and had yet to develop his distinctive mush-mouthed drawl. The A-side starts with the relentless and disruptive “Warsaw” — the group’s old name — before hitting career pivot point “No Love Lost,” hints of MC5’s brutal psychedelia underpinning scenes from the Nazi history that birthed the band’s new name. The B-side, meanwhile, looks forward to coming contemporaries (the guitar twists and turns in “Failures” presaged Gang of Four) and future fans (in “Leaders of Men” I hear a lyrical flow suggesting, of all people, The Killers’ Brandon Flowers). – AB

Undertones Teenage KicksThe UndertonesTeenage Kicks
(1978; Good Vibrations)
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Depending on who you ask, the first release by Irish pop-punksters The Undertones might technically be a single and not an EP. But with four single-worthy tracks — including a title-track that would soon reach legendary status via DJ John Peel’s support — it makes more sense to view it as an earlier version of what we now think of as an EP. So, even though opener “Teenage Kicks” takes the prize with its bouncy groove and catchy melody, be sure to spin this handful of tunes all the way through. – AK

Mission of Burma Signals, Calls and MarchesMission of BurmaSignals, Calls and Marches
(1981; Ace of Hearts)
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Any EP that begins with a track called “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver” is bound to be one that comes with a bit of an edge, and while that’s certainly true of Signals, Calls and Marches, it only seems to grow more intense with each track. “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver” is Boston-based Mission of Burma’s signature track, a powerful post-punk number that rises to an anthemic climax, but it gets louder and weirder shortly after that. “Outlaw” scratches and scrapes. “Fame and Fortune” stomps and soars. And “This is Not a Photograph” just comes right off the rails. Punk rock should always be so lucky as to feel this dangerous, this close to the edge. – JT

Minor Threat EPMinor ThreatMinor Threat
(1981; Dischord)
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Why is everybody in such a fucking rush?” So asks Ian MacKaye on the title track/theme song of Minor Threat’s debut EP. It’s the last of eight compositions in nine minutes, their virulently anti-establishment words and ragged melodies spilling off of vinyl faster than I can type about them. This quartet drops desperate science that includes “Straight Edge,” 46 just-say-no seconds establishing the namesake lifestyle that thrives to this day, as well as its anti-booze bookend “Bottled Violence” and tracks quickly slamming bullies, liars, and religion. It also put Dischord on the map, begat Fugazi, and helped legitimize a music scene in Washington, D.C. Why the rush, indeed? The answer’s in that “Minor Threat” song, too: Youth ain’t wasted on the young, it’s age that’s wasted on the old, so we gotta matter while we still matter, right? – AB

REM Chronic TownR.E.M.Chronic Town
(1982; I.R.S.)
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Here’s a challenge of writing for new electronic media, media which must be constantly relevant: How to once again review an album you’ve already described in glowing terms. I said a bunch about R.E.M.’s first major release back when we celebrated their catalog in 2011. The best way I can promote it now is to have Chronic Town speak for itself, using words from song four, “1,000,000”: “Secluded in a marker stone/Not only deadlier but smarter too/I could live a million years.” Translation? “Underneath our gargoyle cover is a form of jangly, anarchic artistry that hits you harder because it hits you different. And that’s gonna make it timeless, man.” Or, you know, something else entirely. We are, after all, dealing with Michael Stipe at his earliest and murkiest here. – AB

Pixies Come on PilgrimPixiesCome on Pilgrim
(1987; 4AD)
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The Pixies’ eight-song debut Come on Pilgrim is just ever so close to being a full-length. It feels fully formed, cohesive and carefully curated to exclusively comprise highlights. And yet, it feels chaotic and tense, in a league with their real first full-length, Surfer Rosa, as being one of the best examples of the Boston group’s manic energy compressed into one, digestible release. Pretty much everything here is gold: The eerie build of “Caribou,” the surf-inspired punk rock anthem “Holiday Song,” the raw, early version of “Vamos” and the fiery string-snapping stomp of “Nimrod’s Son.” When The Pixies released this year’s Indie Cindy, they more or less proved that they weren’t capable of recapturing the ferocity of this early period, which is both a shame and perfectly understandable. If there were a dozen Come on Pilgrims, just one wouldn’t seem quite so incredible. – JT

Fugazi EPFugaziFugazi
(1988; Dischord)
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Some Fugazi fans dismiss the D.C. post-hardcore band’s early EPs from their oft-celebrated full lengths. And, given that the Fugazi EP lacks Guy Picciotto’s distinctive second guitar and feels a little bit more like Minor Threat than, say, Repeater, there are some understandable arguments for that. Still, Fugazi’s efforts to break through and emphasize musical and philosophical independence from existing hardcore scene was nothing short of transcendental — and it all starts here. From the explosive “Waiting Room” to the grinding “Glue Man,” and at every step in between, the band created an energy and approach that would serve as a brilliant foundation for the band they were to come. Why hold the fact that they got so much better against them? – AK

Mudhoney Superfuzz BigmuffMudhoneySuperfuzz Bigmuff
(1988; Sub Pop)
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Grunge might have technically been born before Mudhoney’s first EP, but this is where it got really good. Like Dinosaur Jr. made murkier, Neil Young & Crazy Horse turned up louder, or The Stooges with slightly more updated recording technology, Superfuzz Bigmuff is a testament to the two distortion pedals that give the record its name. Steve Turner somehow manages to wrench the dirtiest, fuzziest and downright nastiest sounds from his guitar, while Mark Arm sneers at a range just between smart-assed and deranged. It’s hilarious and disturbing, and too much fun — with or without the aid of a beer or six.  – JT

TV on the Radio Young LiarsTV on the RadioYoung Liars
(2003; Touch & Go)
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While it’s true TV on the Radio self-released a demo (OK Calculator) before any of their official releases, Young Liars can still be seen as their actual debut. After all, what song better encapsulates the band’s unique quirky combination of soul, electronica, and post punk better than “Staring At The Sun?” Add to that the pulsing “Satellite,” the slow burning “Blind,” the moody-yet-groovy titular track, and a soulful a Cappella cover of Pixies’ “Mr. Grieves,” and you have the perfect introduction to this strangely savory act. – AK

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