Editor’s Note: The Albumism staff has selected what we believe to be the 100 Most Dynamic Debut Albums Ever Made, representing a varied cross-section of genres, styles and time periods. Click “Next Album” below to explore each album or view the full album index here.
The first time I head Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” on the radio, I dismissed it. Overdosed on pure pop sugar that mostly contended with unrequited young love, a narrative about escaping poverty wasn’t relatable subject matter to a twelve-year-old white kid living in a middle class neighborhood. But then I heard it again. And again. Chapman’s mournfully soulful voice was arresting—strong yet heartbreakingly vulnerable.
Eventually, I listened.
The uncluttered production of “Fast Car”—the album’s first of three singles—was vastly disparate from most of its contemporaries, leaning on Chapman’s unpretentious acoustic guitar rather than programmed synths and thundering percussion. Drummer Denny Fongheiser’s understated hi-hat rhythm and Larry Klein’s minimalist bass line—sweetened with wisps of Ed Black’s steel guitar—are effective propellants while still permitting Chapman’s distinct vocal to be the focus of the listener’s attention.
A few other tracks on the album follow “Fast Car” in conveying earnest storylines with hopeful interjections, like defiant protest anthem “Talkin’ Bout A Revolution” and the reggae-shaded “She’s Got Her Ticket.” Others are more sobering. “Across the Lines,” “Mountains O’ Things,” and “Why?” explicitly call out racism and privilege in no uncertain lyrical terms. “Behind The Wall” uses only Chapman’s voice and a subtle condensed echo effect to depict a stark, startling account of domestic violence. While romantic love isn’t one of the record’s common threads, the longing heart-note “Baby Can I Hold You,” which Chapman had written several years earlier, is beautiful in its simplicity and remains one of her most compelling compositions.
Tracy Chapman brought its creator almost immediate success; “Fast Car” would eventually land in the top ten in eight countries, and the album would climb to the pole position on The Billboard Top 200 album charts, in addition to winning Chapman three Grammy Awards.
Her carefully crafted organic soundscape maintains relevance within its genre exceptionally well thirty years down the road. Unfortunately, so do Chapman’s distressing pleas for justice and equality for black communities in America.