Celebrate March Madness on a high note and see how we crowned the best debut albums from some of our favorite artists. Far-ranging in levels of experimentation and encapsulating multiple genres of music, this category’s picks were especially tough. Beginning with the first round, certain matchups swiftly eliminated some of music’s most widely acclaimed debuts, such as Lorde’s sultry, enigmatic Pure Heroine or Ed Sheeran’s ballad-filled, explosive debut +. Another surprising loss was The Beatles’ rockabilly Please Please Me, the very album that popularized what is often considered the greatest band of all time.
The first round also saw the defeat of Talking Heads: 77, which allowed the band to burst onto the rock scene with its catchy and iconic single “Psycho Killer,” infusing funk and rock with a truly memorable droning bassline. Some contemporary musical icons suffered a shocking defeat right off the bat, including Bruno Mars’ Doo-Wops & Hooligans — chock-full of chart-topping hits such as “Just the Way You Are” and “Grenade.” The soft-at-times, large-at-others voices of both Florence and the Machine with its Lungs and H.E.R. with H.E.R. Volume 1 appeared to falter, despite the bombast of both artists.
The next round saw multiple matchups involving powerhouse female artists, starting with SZA and her R&B neo-soul infusion CTRL. SZA utilizes her album platform to express her frustration with everything from her love life to mental illness and, finally, to her own decisions that have come back to haunt her. The album, however, didn’t manage to beat out Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange, a record that catapulted the singer-songwriter into the spotlight.
On a less subtle note is Cardi B’s boisterous, unabashed Invasion of Privacy in which Cardi recounts her rags-to-riches tale while never losing her distinguished voice — contributing to the success of standout track “Bodak Yellow.” But the album lost to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, which popularized hip-hop and expanded the genre to future female rappers and singers internationally.
Lady Gaga’s The Fame changed the state of pop music forever. With her debut, Gaga was able to provide empowering music for everyone despite one’s race, gender or sexual orientation, shouting from the rooftops the importance of self-love and dealing with one’s inner monster. But the album was no match for record-shattering pop and R&B sensation Beyonce’s Dangerously in Love, a combination of bouncy, booty-shaking hits and soulful ballads that made one of the top contenders for best debut album.
Last but not least is the album that generated hip-hop’s most controversial and often misunderstood figure, Kanye West’s The College Dropout. West had been an industry leader from behind the scenes, producing for the likes of Nas, Alicia Keys and, of course, JAY-Z, but with his debut, he was able to break free from the industry bubble and become unapologetically himself. The album lost, however, to Fleetwood Mac’s first self-titled debut album, a record that characterized the British blues movement despite it having no breakout singles and relatively poor commercial success.
The Final Four saw matchups between Miseducation and Dangerously in Love, and Fleetwood Mac and Channel Orange, before proceeding into the championship round that came down to Miseducation and Channel Orange.
Our runner-up for best debut album is none other than Channel Orange. After working as a ghostwriter for industry juggernauts including Beyonce, John Legend and even Justin Bieber, Ocean released the follow-up to his debut mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra. Channel Orange granted Ocean sudden success and fame because of the unconventional, cinematic nature of the tracklist and the songs’ insightful lyrics, strange structure and Ocean’s melodic flows, as the artist distanced himself from his previous reliance on samples and instead favored live instrumentation from Om’Mas Keith and Malay.
But ultimately, our champion reigned supreme: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Mixing elements of hip-hop, R&B, neo-soul and reggae, Hill was able to break away from her previous work with the Fugees through Miseducation, finding a new sound in the process. Hill funnels the pain from her past relationships into her voice, displaying a brutal honesty with effortless ease. For this reason, Hill’s iconic work took our top spot for best debut album.