Rank and File
AN EXHAUSTIVE, COMPREHENSIVE STUDY OF POP-CULTURE ICONS AND ARTIFACTS

The 100 Greatest Debut Singles of All Time

on October 06, 2017, 12:00am
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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

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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

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

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

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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

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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

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85. Lykke Li – “Little Bit” (2007)

“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

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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

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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

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

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

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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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