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The 100 Greatest Debut Singles of All Time

A collection of songs that prove first impressions really can last forever

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    Artwork by Cap Blackard

    This week in 1962, The Beatles released their first-ever single, “Love Me Do”, in the UK. Suffice it to say, our collective concepts of pop music, celebrity, and mop-top hairdos have never been the same since. There are at least a half-dozen maxims in English stressing the importance of first impressions. We won’t bore you with them here. However, for the purposes of this project, we more or less treated debut singles like first impressions.

    Some of those impressions, like The Beatles’, changed how we listen to and think about music. Others found artists penning their signature songs their first time out or releasing a recording that hinted at greatness to come or inspired the musical direction of others. Of course, not all iconic artists shook the world with their first releases, and some of those omissions are also what make a list like this so compelling. As your dear mother might phrase it, these are the songs that dressed neatest, stood up straightest, smiled, and spoke most politely when we first heard them. And boy did they have us from the get-go.

    But first, allow us to clarify a few things before you start reading: Keeping in the above spirit, we defined a debut single as an act’s first real introduction to the public. If the act already put out an EP or an album before pressing and releasing an official single, we didn’t count that. We really wanted to focus on first encounters between acts and the music-consuming public. Now, sure, we knew John Lennon as a Beatle, but we also considered his debut single as a solo artist, “Give Peace a Chance”. We kept that rule constant across the project.

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    Since The Beatles were the impetus for this list, we’ve only looked at singles that were released during or after 1962 – basically starting from around the time when the LP became the standard release medium. We are infallible … but should you see something, let us know below. That being said, click ahead to see our picks for the 100 Greatest Debut Singles of All Time.

    –Matt Melis
    Editorial Director


    100. Foo Fighters – “This Is a Call” (1995)

    After the death of Kurt Cobain, Nirvana’s drummer, Dave Grohl, was, like so many of us, in a state of shock and confusion for months afterward. As a form of personal catharsis, Grohl booked studio time at a spot near his Seattle home and in five days knocked out the first Foo Fighters album, which was introduced to the world three weeks earlier by this bracing, explosive single. The lyrics are a total muddle of images and ideas, but the crux, according to the songwriter, is a nod/farewell to the bands and musicians that helped foster his career up to that point. And before we realized what was happening, Grohl was leading the biggest rock band on the planet with a shit-eating grin plastered on his face. –Robert Ham
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    99. The Byrds – “Mr. Tambourine Man” (1965)

    While there may be a modern stigma against cover songs, it was standard practice for ‘60s rock acts to cut their beaks on borrowed compositions. However, few took that songwriting boost and soared quite as high with it as The Byrds. While members like lead guitarist Roger McGuinn and rhythm guitarist David Crosby would go on to pen their own classics, the significance of “Mr. Tambourine Man” can’t be overstated. Not only did their abridged version fit more snugly on radio than Bob Dylan’s sprawling epic (it flew to No. 1 on both sides of the pond), but it helped pioneer both the folk rock and psychedelic sounds that would come to dominate the rest of the decade and much of the next. The recording also sacrificed none of the original’s sense of confusion, wonder, or hopefulness – a mixture of feelings that makes the song’s opening moments a time portal to ’60s America. –Matt Melis 
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    98. Mudhoney – “Touch Me I’m Sick” (1988)

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    In the twisted cosmos of alternative debut singles, “Touch Me I’m Sick” stands as the celebratory counterpoint to Radiohead’s “Creep”. If this song had a smell, it would be the strangely addicting stink of one’s own body odor. Backed by a Big Muff-powered blitzkrieg of guitars, Mudhoney vocalist Mark Arm screeches as if he’s trying to drown out his own demons. But there’s something wild and reckless and almost gleeful about Arm’s performance, and that’s what separates “Touch Me I’m Sick” from much of the self-loathing grunge it spawned. After all, there’s nothing particularly interesting about hating oneself. Turning that hatred into a party forces the rest of us to pay attention and maybe even join in the festivities. Mudhoney did this better than any of their early grunge-era compatriots, and so they were the perfect band to put Seattle and Sub Pop Records on the map. –Collin Brennan
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    97. Alabama Shakes – “Hold On” (2012)

    If there was one thing missing from the Americana revival of the last turn of the decade, it was a powerful female vocalist. Though Alabama Shakes would never claim to be revivalists themselves, Brittany Howard was certainly that missing voice. Coming in on Heath Fogg’s Muscle Shoals groove and a funky rhythm from Zack Cockrell and Steve Johnson, “Hold On” seemed to present Howard as a husky soul singer with an endearingly slight drawl. Then that bridge kicks in with a sudden drop and the full potential of her voice is realized as she belts, “I don’t wanna … wait!” It was right there that you had to acknowledge the Shakes were something special, and whatever explorations they took in the ensuing years, it would be worth following along to see what heights those thunderous pipes could reach. –Ben Kaye


    96. The Traveling Wilburys – “Handle with Care” (1988)

    Even a Beatle needs a hand sometimes, and a hand from Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, and Jeff Lynne (of Electric Light Orchestra) helps more than most. The supergroup known as The Traveling Wilburys came together quite serendipitously in the late ’80s to record two albums, which featured George Harrison (Nelson Wilbury) at his absolute best since his solo work in the early ’70s. “Handle with Care” was originally to be a B-side for Harrison’s “This Is Love”. The resulting recording, however, was deemed too good to be a B-side throwaway and prompted the group to record a full album of material. The rest is supergroup history. –Matt Melis


    95. The Cure – “Killing an Arab” (1978)

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    “Hey Robert, how about we release the title track to Boys Don’t Cry as the first single?” “No, I think my weird lyrical essay on Albert Camus’ The Stranger would do better for us.” Hey, very few will argue against The Cure being one of the more bizarre outfits in alternative rock, what with that goddamn hair alone, which is why it’s fitting they’d begin their illustrious career with “Killing an Arab”. Then again, it’s exactly the type of song one might expect from a bunch of twentysomething art house rockers circa 1978, and while the subject matter has certainly gone over people’s heads throughout the years (especially moron Islamophobes), it’s a ballsy first chapter to one of the most influential outfits in the genre. –Michael Roffman


    94. Sam & Dave – “Hold On, I’m Comin'” (1966)

    Prior to early ‘60s acts like Sam & Dave, the majority of African American artists had to tone things down if they wanted to do more than crack the R&B charts – that is, if they also hoped to be deemed acceptable by white pop audiences. But much of that “politeness” got flung out the window with songs like “Hold On, I’m Comin’”, a blazing first single hijacked by driving horns and the sweat-dripping urgency of Sam Moore and Dave Prater as they promise a lover that her rescue party is en route. It’s relentless rock and roll and a sermon rolled into one, and no act deserves more credit than Sam & Dave for drawing upon the cadences of gospel singing to bring soul music to the white masses. From day one, these two were the original Soul Men. –Matt Melis


    93. Nine Inch Nails – “Down in It” (1989)

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    The beauty of debut singles is sometimes you get a brief alternate history for an artist that never was. The case in point is Trent Reznor’s first taste of Pretty Hate Machine, which isn’t nearly as aggressive as it is funky, with pseudo-rapping on the verses and burbling synths that sound closer to the Ghostbusters soundtrack than the breakneck Ministry-influenced thrash he’d quickly rev into full gear on 1992’s Broken EP. Pretty Hate Machine had plenty of crunching metal moments, though, and “Down in It” simply wasn’t one of them; it reaches its dork apotheosis when he starts chanting “Rain, rain, go away, come again some other day” in the outro. For its maximum effect, though, you’ve gotta see Reznor’s dancing, ponytail, and hip-hop posturing in his performance of the tune on a show called Dance Party USA. –Dan Weiss


    92. Tracy Chapman – “Fast Car” (1988)

    “Fast Car” shouldn’t be a first single. It’s too perfect, and Tracy Chapman, as shown on her debut album cover prior to her trademark long braids, was too young to be so skilled and possess such a wise soul. In a time when Guns N’ Roses and hair metal still reigned supreme, Chapman’s acoustic self-titled debut and “Fast Car” sped right past the competition on the strength of the single’s small-town narrative and Chapman’s uncanny ability to project her dreams and make listeners feel the sting of her resignation and disappointment. There’d be plenty more platinum albums and brutally honest song craft to come, but the perfection of her first single set the bar for the blitz of singer-songwriters, of all genders and colors, who picked up an acoustic guitar in the ‘90s. The entire era owes a nod and a debt to Chapman’s trailblazing debut. –Matt Melis


    91. Mumford and Sons – “Little Lion Man” (2009)

    We’re not here to argue whether “Little Lion Man” deserved to be nominated for Best Rock Song at the 2011 Grammys or whether Mumford and Sons have positively impacted the direction of folk music this decade. That’s all debatable, sure, but it’s undeniable that the band did change the course of modern folk, and “Little Lion Man” is the track that set the heading. It’s a booming, literary number that brought banjo to the forefront of a popular hit for the first time since Beck’s “Sexx Laws”. Though folk had been hot in the indie scene for a while beforehand, this was the song that thrust it into the popular limelight. It launched the career of the first new festival-headlining folk band in what feels like decades while also likely sending listeners back to explore artists ranging from Emmylou Harris to Old Crow Medicine Show. Whether you’re satisfied with the direction popular folk took after this track or the career of its creators is irrelevant; “Little Lion Man” is an assertive debut single that led to the explosion of not just one band but an entire genre. That’s impressive any way you slice it. –Ben Kaye
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    90. Booker T. and the M.G.’s – “Green Onions” (1962)

    Green Onions is an album everyone should know and own. It’s the first release by Stax Records and arguably one of the label’s greatest, teeming with an assortment of soulful covers, from Ray Charles’ “I Got a Woman” to Smokey Robinson’s “One Who Really Loves You”. But, really, the one song you’re going to want, and the one song you’re going to recognize within seconds, is the title track. Booker T. and the M.G.’s are legends, yes, but “Green Onions” will always be their claim to fame. It’s the sound of cool, partly due to its inclusion in dozens of films and television shows (from The Sandlot to this summer’s revival of Twin Peaks, the latter of which used the song to add some edge to … uh … sweeping), but also because Booker T. Jones managed to turn his Hammond M3 into the coolest son of a gun this side of headphones. It never gets old. –Michael Roffman


    89. The xx – “Crystalised” (2009)

    Though it was just a decade ago, it already seems crazy that there was a time when throwing rough demos up on a Myspace page was a legitimate path to superstardom. That’s how The xx started out, and now they’re playing arenas. Life’s crazy. The London-based schoolmates were scooped up by XL’s Young Turks and recorded a debut album that still stands out because of how fully formed and singular it is. The xx came out with a very specific sound and aesthetic — minimal, smokey, woozy, romantic, and harmonious. On their first single, “Crystalized”, everything that would become a trademark of theirs is present. Oliver Sim and Romy Madley Croft trade verses, eventually meeting in the middle to provide reflective vocals with each other, all over Jamie xx’s production, which recedes and rushes in like the tides. The song would catch the attention of music critics and even garner moderate radio love, leading the way for the accent that was to come over the next decade. –Philip Cosores


    88. New York Dolls – “Personality Crisis” (1973)

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    New York Dolls made their knack for combining grit and glam a hallmark of their career, and their debut single is certainly no exception. “Personality Crisis”, from the band’s debut self-titled album, is sheer sonic energy from start to finish. The track is lyrically dark but musically electrifying – an intriguing combination that fit the vibrant proto-punk band well. Vocally and musically, “Personality Crisis” encompasses a blend of snarl and skill that’s inherently inviting to the ear. New York Dolls took the traditional stylings of glam rock and colored it with their own magic, resulting in them becoming widely regarded as glam-punk pioneers. –Lindsay Teske


    87. N.E.R.D. – “Lapdance” (2001)

    In the early 2000s, rap rock was at peak mainstream popularity, but also peak punchline thanks to acts like Kid Rock and Limp Bizkit. Enter N.E.R.D. with their 2002 debut LP, In Search Of… The product of successful production duo The Neptunes (Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo) and MC Shay Haley re-establishing a collaborative relationship that began in high school, the band set out to blend hip-hop vibes with live instrumentation. This hybrid has worked to varying degrees over the years, but “Lapdance” is almost unimpeachable in its success. The song’s funky synths and guitars put it in a far different class than the chart-topping nu-metal of the day, while its ferocious lyricism and aggressive percussion gave it a much more visceral edge. Add in the politically attuned metaphors and “Lapdance” is a far superior successor to Rage Against the Machine than almost anything else under the rap rock banner. –Ben Kaye


    86. Toto – “Hold the Line” (1978)

    It’s 1977 and the radio has never sounded so good. The horizons for precision and musicianship in popular music were constantly being expanded, and the artists at the epicenter? Toto, only they weren’t called that yet. To the outside world they were unknown, but in the studio they were an elite team of session musicians who put their skill to task with chart-topping acts like Steely Dan and Boz Scaggs. It should be no surprise that when these genius craftsmen combined their forces and became a band, their first track out of the gate was a timeless pop rock jam. That distinctive kick of Jeff Porcaro on the drums, David Paich’s percussive keys, and, of course, the snarl of Hungate and Lukather’s guitars made “Hold the Line” a stone-cold classic in the first 20 seconds. –Cap Blackard


    85. Lykke Li – “Little Bit” (2007)

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    “Little Bit” is proof perfect at how to make a lot with very little — and yes, that pun is intended. With only a touch of mandolin, flourishes of percussion, and a steady digital beat, Lykke Li’s debut single remains a masterclass in minimalism, a wooden frame for the Swedish artist to blossom out of — and that she did. Co-produced by Björn Yttling and Lasse Mårtén, the song grooves with the same kind of sexy hooks that made Yttling’s “Young Folks” such a ginormous hit for Peter Bjorn and John. It’s rugged and sleek, a post-modern house in the middle of the Salton Sea, and that juxtaposition turns downright beautiful once Li’s whispery vocals kick in. At the time, very few artists made this much of an impact on the first go-around, and those who got a “Little Bit” stayed for a whole lot more. Thank you. I’ll walk myself out. –Michael Roffman


    84. Superchunk – “Slack Motherfucker” (1990)

    In 1989, Mac McCaughan and Laura Balance did what many DIY musicians have done both before and after them: form a band,  start a label, and release new music for themselves and their friends. That label, Merge Records, would turn into one of the most successful indie labels of the next 30 years, and the band, Superchunk, was the spark that started it all. Rarely does any band deliver the anthem of a generation on their debut single, let alone a noisy power-pop group from Chapel Hill, but that’s exactly what they did with “Slack Motherfucker”. A cathartic kiss-off to shitty bosses everywhere, the song bursts at the seams with unhinged squalor as McCaughan shouts the now legendary proclamation: “I’m working, but I’m not working for you.” The song’s wry energy was antithetical to the “slacker” generation that reigned in the ‘90s, even if they shared a title in common. This was a brilliant punch of furious determination that has never lost relevance in the years since. –David Sackllah


    83. Spice Girls – “Wannabe” (1996)

    Pop hits are notorious for their meticulously manicured nature, the product of hours and hours of work by a handful of writers. But within one second of the Spice Girls’ “Wannabe”, you’ll note a severe lack of that controlled feeling. During the track, they create the impression of a band getting lost in their own energy without pausing to fine-tune their vicious bite. The passion and freewheeling fun the song creates in listeners is apparent in the recording process, too. The song was reportedly written in half an hour and recorded in about as much time. And while that fact and all the zig-a-zig-a-ing might make it seem like nothing but goofy fun, the beginning of the Girl Power wave added a dose of much-needed female empowerment into the pop conversation. –Lior Phillips


    82. Jackson Browne – “Doctor My Eyes” (1972)

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    By the time Jackson Browne scored a recording contract of his own, he’d already penned a boatload of classic songs for acts from The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band to Nico. That kind of toil in (relative) obscurity may have inspired some of the lyrics for his debut single, “Doctor My Eyes”, which cautions listeners about the potential long-term damages of keeping a stiff upper lip. The jaded vulnerability in Browne’s story sneaks up on listeners by way of a rollicking piano riff, whose own good-time beat both amplifies the isolation and hints at the possibility of a still-unwritten happy ending. Browne’s years of hard work paid off; “Doctor My Eyes” helped fully confirm his viability as a performer as well as a songwriter and even landed in the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100, a feat that Browne wouldn’t replicate until “Somebody’s Baby” hit No. 7 in 1982. –Tyler Clark


    81. A-ha – “Take on Me” (1985)

    “One-hit wonder” has long been used as a pejorative, and that’s not likely to change anytime soon. Just ask Norwegian trio A-ha about their synonymous single, “Take on Me”. “It’s no better to be safe than sorry,” urges singer Morten Harket, and it seems like the entire globe took the plunge with him and his bandmates in 1985 when a reworked version of the song, coupled with its revolutionary charcoal-sketched music video, topped music charts around the world. Some of the songs on this list can be credited with influencing and inspiring entire genres and movements within music, but “Take on Me” will be remembered more as a time capsule. Whether it be Harket’s falsetto, the unmistakable keyboards and drum machines, or the video in which the lead singer pulls his real-life girlfriend into a comic book world, there’s something quintessentially ‘80s about this YOLO plea for love done up in a perfect pop song. Being the ambassadors of all things romantic and adventurous for a decade remembered for cold conservatism isn’t a bad legacy for a one-hit wonder. –Matt Melis


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