The Debut Album Project: October (“Solo Artists”)

Debut Album Project

Another month, another theme. October found our year-long Debut Album Project turning toward debut releases from solo artists. Spanning all the way from the 1940s to the 2010’s, these thirty-one records run the gamut: from sparse folk, to torch songs, to roots reggae, to “No Wave” guitar assaults, to sample-heavy hip-hop. There’s probably something for everybody here, contained within a particularly sprawling and diverse set. Dig in, and enjoy.

We’ll be shifting our emphasis to a new theme — or really “no theme” — in November. To see those picks in real-time — and to read our past and future mini-reviews in full — give our Instagram and Facebook pages a follow.

October 1 (#274)

Woody Guthrie

Dust Bowl Ballads


Rating: 9.7

What We Said: “Everything that made Woody Guthrie an icon — his talent, his empathy, his humor, and his rage — is on full display throughout… Over eight decades after its initial arrival, it remains among the most powerful pieces of American music ever recorded.”

October 2 (#275)

Bruce Springsteen

Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.


Rating: 8.7

What We Said: “To my ears, this is one of his finest records. Sure, its windingly Dylan-esque lyricism comes off as slightly derivative, and the backing band — not yet christened as the E Street Band — hasn’t yet reached its muscular peak, but there’s a lot of charming stuff to be found here.”

October 3 (#276)

Bill Withers

Just as I Am


Rating: 9.0

What We Said: “Right off the top, Withers impresses with as strong of an opening trio as you’ll find most anywhere. And while “Harlem” and “Grandma’s Hands” are both special tracks, even they pale in comparison to Withers’ minimalistic masterpiece, “Ain’t No Sunshine.”That sparse, beautiful, and soulful track stands as the pinnacle, but really, this is a splendid record front-to-back.”

October 4 (#277)

Julie London

Julie Is Her Name


Rating: 8.7

What We Said: “There’s no denying that the vocalist is front and center on this album, and rightfully so, but the simplicity this trio of musicians bring together on this recording helps to set it apart from London’s other albums of larger jazz combos or full blown orchestras.”

October 5 (#278)

Yabby You

Conquering Lion


Rating: 8.4

What We Said: “It shares the same hazy atmosphere and melodicism of a contemporary Lee Perry production — if lacking some of Perry’s signature off-the-wall flourishes. But the material is excellent throughout, and the mood is never less than enveloping.”

October 6 (#279)

Joan Baez

Joan Baez


Rating: 7.3

What We Said: “Say what you will of her [vocal] style — it’s a bit ‘showy’ for some — but Baez had remarkable control of a truly singular instrument. Her voice is instantly-recognizable, and it lends a sense of grandeur to these otherwise-sparse pieces.”

October 7 (#280)

Martin Denny



Rating: 8.6

What We Said: “Ah, but therein lies the dilemma. Is it just harmless fun? Is it a soft reinforcer of harmful stereotypes? Is it post-colonialist, middle-class exoticism run amok? I don’t profess to have a definitive answer. Not even for myself. But as a music fan, as an historian, and as someone fascinated by mid-century cultural artifacts, I find this record — and much of the genre that it named — to be quite enjoyable.”

October 8 (#281)

John Prine

John Prine


Rating: 9.3

What We Said: “Prine is a masterful storyteller, as evidenced by most of these thirteen tracks; and the sympathetic instrumental arrangements are not to be taken for granted either. Throughout, the music ebbs and flows in a manner that expertly captures the range of emotions contained in Prine’s songs. And those emotions reach their most impactful point in the stunning one-two gut punch of “Hello in There” and “Sam Stone.””

October 9 (#282)

Emitt Rhodes

Emitt Rhodes


Rating: 8.6

What We Said: “Sure, one could come up with some other reference points — rather than continuing to run the [Emitt] Rhodes/[Paul] McCartney comparison into the ground — but really, it’s uncanny at times.”

October 10 (#283)

Oscar Brown Jr.

Sin & Soul


Rating: 8.5

What We Said: “Brown was a talented lyricist — he penned the lion’s share of Max Roach’s 1961 landmark, We Insist! — but he’s also a compelling performer. Throughout, his vocals command attention, and work well with the instrumental backing: which ranges from amped up swing to moody, sparse balladry.”

October 11 (#284)

Yma Sumac

Voice of the Xtabay


Rating: 7.9

What We Said: “These songs are rarely less than intriguing, and are often quite beautiful. But be warned, it’s pretty damn weird. But that takes me back to the premise: it’s impressive that so many listeners in the supposedly ‘square’ early fifties were willing to engage with, and enjoy, something so ‘out there.'”

October 12 (#285)

Tim Hardin

Tim Hardin 1


Rating: 8.3

What We Said: “[It’s] truly defined by three standout tracks: the oft-covered “Reason to Believe,” the closing “How Can We Hang On to a Dream,” and the sneakily remarkable “It’ll Never Happen Again.” For me, it’s the latter track that truly synthesizes the best of what Hardin brings to the table: engaging melodies, contemplative lyrics, and charmingly vulnerable vocals.”

October 13 (#286)

Glenn Branca

The Ascension


Rating: 9.1

What We Said: “Despite its grounding in dissonance and pummeling rhythms, there’s an inherent beauty in what Branca presents in these five tracks. These piece ebb and flow, often violently, but they also establish a sense of safety inside of the chaos; forgive the metaphor, but they’re almost like witnessing an intense thunderstorm from a secure location inside.”

October 14 (#287)

DJ Shadow



Rating: 9.5

What We Said: “Composed from thousands of (mostly) obscure samples, Entroducing emerged as something truly singular, but its influence can be heard in the work of countless followers. The mix of mood present across these thirteen tracks would be astounding in any circumstance, but considering that this record was created entirely from ‘pre-existing’ material makes it all the more impressive.”

October 15 (#288)

Ray Charles

The Great Ray Charles


Rating: 6.5

What We Said: “This isn’t going to hold your attention in the same way as contemporaneous works from the likes of Miles, Monk, Mingus, Rollins, or Coltrane. And while that’s admittedly a tough curve to grade an album on — especially a debut — we all know that this guy was capable of producing some pretty earth-shattering music, even at this relatively early point of his career.”

October 16 (#289)

David Crosby

If I Could Only Remember My Name


Rating: 8.2

What We Said: “The cumulative effect of [these tracks] is significant. This album meanders in something of an ethereal haze, but it creates a warm and welcome atmosphere that few other records achieve. Chances are you won’t be blown away by it — though some apparently are — but it’ll leave an impact nonetheless, even if it is a subtle one.”

October 17 (#290)

Cat Stevens

Matthew & Son


Rating: 7.8

What We Said: “While it’s generally overlooked in favor of his better-known later works, there are some legitimate gems amongst these dozen tracks. The title track — in which he basically “invents” Belle & Sebastian — is great. The Rushmore-famous “Here Comes My Baby” is also splendid. And even if it wasn’t heavily sampled in one of my favorite songs (Panda Bear’s 2007 masterpiece, “Bros”), I suspect that “I’ve Found Love” would still be a personal standout.”

October 18 (#291)

Roberta Flack

First Take


Rating: 8.3

What We Said: “While not a “singer-songwriter” album in the traditional sense, Flack takes full possession of these eight tracks, making each feel as if they had sprung from her own pen… Jazzy elements come to the forefront on several tracks, but there’s a songly/storytelling feel that is maintained throughout. Most compellingly, it’s the centerpiece, “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” that best splits the difference between the direct/winding sides of Flack’s artistry, but nothing here lags in the least.”

October 19 (#292)

Syl Johnson

Dresses Too Short


Rating: 8.2

What We Said: “[It] contains nods to soul giants like James Brown, Sam Cooke, and Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell, but this is definitely the work of a talented artist with his own unique voice. That voice contains a healthy dose of the then-nascent funk scene, and as such, the rhythm work throughout (especially the bass) is outstanding. One might argue that it’s front-loaded — the first half is particularly excellent — but Johnson and his band bring it on each of these dozen tracks.”

October 20 (#293)

Carole King



Rating: 7.4

What We Said: “For an album announcing the ‘arrival’ of a songwriter, these tracks are often instrument-forward. While that’s not exactly a bad thing — the musicianship here is generally splendid — Writer often lacks the personal touch that would make Tapestry such an era-defining work. But it’s all good, and occasionally excellent. Any journey through King’s extensive catalog is bound to begin with Tapestry, but Writer is a wholly worthy predecessor.”

October 21 (#294)

Lô Borges

Lô Borges


Rating: 8.6

What We Said: “Like [Clube da Esquina], Lô Borges features an eclectic mix of sounds, both classic and contemporary. It veers toward the pop/rock side of the spectrum more often than Clube, but even those more conventional moments are still marked with the lushness and nuance that characterizes the more folk-inspired material.”

October 22 (#295)

Johnny Cash

With His Hot and Blue Guitar!


Rating: 8.5

What We Said: “Don’t forget that half of these tracks — and all of the best ones — were original compositions by the Man in Black himself. Cash was just embarking on what would become a legendary career, but — aside from his pair of earth-shattering live albums — this may be the finest display of the essence of his artistry on record.”

October 23 (#296)

Angel Olsen

Half Way Home


Rating: 8.2

What We Said: “Stark and intimate, [it] keeps the focus squarely on Olsen’s two greatest strengths: affecting wordplay, and a fantastically expressive voice. The grander production of subsequent highlights like 2016’s MY WOMAN and 2019’s All Mirrors are nowhere to be found here, but — depending on perspective — this may be the ideal setting for Olsen’s aforementioned strengths.”

October 24 (#297)

Chris Bell

I Am the Cosmos


Rating: 8.4

What We Said: “Bell was something of an enigma: the most tragic figure in one of rock’s most tragic bands. And while the vitality and vibrancy of these twelve songs is only more heartbreaking when knowing his backstory, they’re still genuinely beautiful pieces.”

October 25 (#298)

Randy Newman

Randy Newman (Creates Something New Under the Sun)


Rating: 7.7

What We Said: “The two standouts here are among Newman’s finest tracks. The first, “Love Story,” is an affecting life-in-miniature: one whose expansive chorus shows off the fanfare that would mark some of Newman’s most iconic work. Even better however is the understated beauty of “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today.” Soon to become something of a standard, it’s a genuine gem that stands among Newman’s peak accomplishments.”

October 26 (#299)

Dr. John



Rating: 8.9

What We Said: “Granted, it’s not as ‘out there’ as say Trout Mask Replica, or Exuma, but there is a reason why those two records seem to come up in conversations surrounding Gris-Gris. From the former, the barked vocals and willful distancing from pop conventions make [this] a kindred spirit. From the latter, it’s the combination of rhythm, psychedelia, and occult imagery that form a connective thread.”

October 27 (#300)

Erykah Badu



Rating: 8.6

What We Said: “It’s the rare case of an album that pushes the hour-long mark, but drifts by in a breeze. One gets the sense that it was intensely labored over, and yet, it never seems overcooked; or all that interested in diverting from its mid-tempo groove. Other classics from this era may do more to demand your attention, but few of them are likely to reward both passive and active listening as much as this one.”

October 28 (#301)

June Christy

Something Cool


Rating: 7.7

What We Said: “While its opening title track is the standout, the remaining tracks are all worthwhile and wholly pleasant — ranging from downbeat torch songs to swinging uptempo jazz, and often in the same song. The orchestral arrangements by Pete Rugolo are on the more flowery end of the era’s spectrum, but are rarely, if ever, overblown. And even if she doesn’t have the range and/or expressiveness of her aforementioned contemporaries, Christy is an affable and charming presence throughout.”

October 29 (#302)

Jim Sullivan



Rating: 8.6

What We Said: “While the songs are uniformly strong, and the playing throughout is superb, it’s that hard-to-quantify vibe that ultimately defines U.F.O.. But that aspect, while ever present, is subtle. It takes multiple listens — or at least it did for me — to suss it out.”

October 30 (#303)


Operation: Doomsday


Rating: 8.9

What We Said: “One of the great hip-hop debuts, the late MF DOOM’s first LP is a sprawling, eclectic, and positively nerdy set from a genuine master of the craft… It’s all dense — and there’s a lot of it, for sure — but even though you might still be unpacking new elements after a couple hundred listens, it’s plenty accessible and inviting from the start.”

October 31 (#304)

David Bowie

David Bowie


Rating: 7.2

What We Said: “This Bowie kid is pretty interesting in his own right. He’s got an expressive voice, with a lot of different modes. He’s a clever lyricist, who seems to enjoy poking some fun at stereotypes (including gender-related ones). He seems pretty adept at genre hopping. Yeah, this guy might be going places; but where he’s at on this record ain’t bad.”


  • Matt Ryan

    Matt Ryan founded Strange Currencies Music in January 2020, and remains the site's editor-in-chief. The creator of the "A Century of Song" project and co-host of the "Strange Currencies Podcast," Matt enjoys a wide variety of genres, but has a particular affinity for 60s pop, 90s indie rock, and post-bop jazz. He is an avid collector of vinyl, and a multi-instrumentalist who has played/recorded with several different bands and projects.

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