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The 100 Greatest Debut Singles of All Time

on October 06, 2017, 12:00am
 
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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.

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

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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)

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

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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

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

“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

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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

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

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

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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

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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

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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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80. Britney Spears – “…Baby One More Time” (1998)

When Britney Spears first exploded onto pop radio and MTV, she was 16 years old, a fact that played majorly into her narrative. The time before and since had seen plenty of young performers, but from the first moment, Spears didn’t feel like a child playing an adult’s game. Hell, if her first music video hadn’t been set in a high school, it’s unlikely that there would be much to cling to in the youth narrative. And as Spears graduated from the hooky-as-hell earworm of “…Baby One More Time” to a genuine pop career, her sound became intertwined with pop du jour. In 1998, it was Max Martin crafting a musical moment that would become iconic, but at the heart, it was always Spears tasked with the heavy-lifting of making it strike a chord in audiences. The year following its release, “…Baby One More Time” would become the biggest selling single of the year. Nearly 20 years later, it’s hard to imagine a world without it. –Philip Cosores

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79. Dusty Springfield – “I Only Want to Be with You” (1963)

When we think of rock and roll talent traversing “the pond,” we so often conclude that the United States must be at one hell of a trade deficit. We tally up the British Invasions, Beatlemania, and Britpop, often forgetting that none of these imports would’ve been possible without the influence of African American music decades prior, which, of course, includes the soul singers who made Dusty Springfield’s career possible. The blue-eyed, blonde-haired singer and Swinging Sixties icon first showed that the UK also had soul in 1963 with her debut pop hit “I Only Want to Be with You”. She’d continue borrowing from American traditions, such as Memphis soul, throughout her career on her way to carving out her own glamorous legacy, as well as popularizing US soul music in the UK. —Matt Melis

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78. Queens of the Stone Age – “If Only” (1998)

There’s nothing rough about Queens of the Stone Age’s “If Only”. Josh Homme’s falsetto may seem a little more effortless and the crunchy guitar riffs are bare-bones, but from song one, Queens of the Stone Age had the formula right. The song appeared on both of the band’s early EPs under the title “If Only Everything” and finally popped up on the self-titled debut LP as the first single for the band, and everything that would become synonymous with Queens’ success is present. Of course, it helped that the band sprouted from Kyuss, giving Homme and co. the blueprint for what they wanted to achieve. Still, “If Only” is remarkable for telegraphing the sound that would come to captivate hard rock audiences for decades to come. –Philip Cosores
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77. Violent Femmes – “Gone Daddy Gone” (1983)

Willie Dixon gets a writing credit on “Gone Daddy Gone”, thanks to the verse from “I Just Want to Make Love to You” that Gordon Gano lifted, and though the Violent Femmes’ song — the debut single from a stacked debut album that included classics like “Add It Up”, “Blister in the Sun”, “Please Do Not Go”, and “Kiss Off” — differs from Dixon’s blues musically, it comes from a kindred spirit. Like the rest of Violent Femmes, “Gone Daddy Gone”, written when Gano was just 18, perfectly captures the urgency of teen angst. It’s a tale of lost love, told over one of the cooler xylophone parts in rock music, and though its lyrics are simple (“Beautiful girl, lovely dress/ high school smiles, oh yes”), Gano delivers them with the kind of fire that only comes when hormones start messing with the chemistry of an adolescent brain. –Bonnie Stiernberg

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76. Eric B. and Rakim – “Eric B Is President” (1986)

One of the finest DJ/MC teams of hip-hop’s storied golden age, this New York duo first appeared on the Zakia Records label, then home to less remembered artists Cutmaster D.C. and Dr. Freshh. Credited at the time to Eric B. featuring Rakim, this 1986 single kickstarted their career with panache. Some 30 years later, Eric B. and fellow legend Marley Marl disagree about the song’s provenance and the production process behind its creation on that fateful day in Queensbridge. What’s undisputed is how the inspirations of James Brown’s “Funky President” and Fonda Rae’s club hit “Over Like a Fat Rat” helped make it a classic. Rakim’s fresh flow on the track reflected an evolution in spitting while remaining as braggadocious as his predecessors. Six minutes long, its final two serve as a production showcase of turntable scratches, hooky callbacks, and raw groove. –Gary Suarez

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75. Pet Shop Boys – “West End Girls” (1984)

With “West End Girls”, Pet Shop Boys burst onto the scene with a version of synthpop overloaded with emotion. The song uses some plonky bass synths, silky high-end, and shimmering percussion as a base for an ‘80s London take on Romeo and Juliet drama — and then punctuates it with a lush trumpet solo for good measure. The boys of the lower-class East End pine after the glamorous West End girls, and Neil Tennant whispers in your ear about the shadowy, sensual, seedy intrigue when the two meet in the middle. “Faces on posters, too many choices/ If, when, why, what?/ How much have you got?/ Have you got it, do you get it, if so, how often?” There’s sex, drugs, romance, envy, and more, all in a few soft-spoken lines, a sign of the depth that Pet Shop Boys could build into even the most simple, dance-friendly rhythms. –Lior Phillips
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74. The Weeknd – “Wicked Games” (2012)

In 2010, the idea of a mysterious artist was still a fresh concept. The Weeknd embodied this idea perfectly, to the point that the earliest blog posts for his first releases didn’t know whether the artist was a single person or a collective. It didn’t help that the singer would continue his media-shy persona well into his first actual release, where little was known about the Toronto native right through a trio of adored mixtapes, collaborations with Drake, and a first Coachella appearance. Whatever The Weeknd was doing, it surely worked, as the R&B mainstay is now at arena status. But a song like “What You Need” doesn’t feel quaint by comparison. The smooth vocals and dark production became a signifier for the young performer, with the IRL artist always hustling to catch up to the music’s forward momentum. It might not have been assured that a star was born with “What You Need”, but years later, it’s not hard to see where the star came from. –Philip Cosores

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73. Oasis – “Supersonic” (1994)

The first single from the soon-to-be massive Mancunian rock group was the perfect introduction to what made Oasis tick: infectious melodies, lyrics that sounded great but made zero sense (“I know a girl called Elsa/ She’s into Alka-Seltzer”), plentiful Beatles references like a guitar solo that sounds a little too close to George Harrison’s playing on “My Sweet Lord”, and a sneering, tossed-off vocal performance from frontman Liam Gallagher. For all the insanity of the next two decades that would follow, nothing has been able to diminish the electricity that flows from this song in heaping waves of volume and feedback. –Robert Ham

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72. Outkast – “Player’s Ball” (1993)

Outkast shook up rap with their debut single, “Player’s Ball”. Produced by Organized Noize, the track first appeared on the 1993 LaFace Records holiday compilation, A LaFace Family Christmas, before being de-tinseled and repurposed as the lead single for the duo’s 1994 debut album, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik. Full of A-Town imagery and the Dungeon’s signature booty shake, post-STAX funk, “Player’s Ball” was a pristine street anthem that lifted rappers in the American South to the national stage and referenced the extravagance of actual player’s balls. Laying the drawl and deep-fried gangster on thick, Big Boi and Dre celebrated their difference. “Player’s Ball” preceded their acclaimed 17-track album and the now poignant statement they would make one year after its release at the 1995 Source Awards: “The south got something to say.” Southern rappers have come to dominate major radio in recent years, doubling down on that statement largely because of Outkast’s success. –Karas Lamb

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71. Vampire Weekend – “Mansard Roof” (2007)

It only took 22 seconds and one verse for Vampire Weekend to define themselves. When the New York quartet dropped “Mansard Roof” in the Fall of 2007, it felt as if indie rock had finally turned a new page. After a year of unbelievable albums from unbelievable indie outfits — the likes of which we’ve outlined here and here — Vampy Weeks washed ashore in a small little Wes Anderson-esque boat (literally!) holding copies of Graceland and report cards from Columbia University. There were those who loved it, there were those who hated it, but nobody was really indifferent. It didn’t matter, though, because it was the type of song from the kind of album that let you know these fucking kids were going to stick around long after the punch bowl went empty. And for those who still are haters, you stand corrected–Michael Roffman

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70. The Zombies – “She’s Not There” (1964)

History tends to sort itself out. Sure, The Zombies scored hits, moved records, and made teens scream with delight on both sides of the pond in the ‘60s as part of the first British Invasion. But while the legends of their contemporaries continued to grow, it took more than two decades after The Zombies’ breakup before critics, publications, and listeners really began rediscovering the band and giving them their due as an influential outfit. And no song more than their debut single, “She’s Not There”, argues for their importance. The harmonies, jazz tinges, and organist Rod Argent’s far-out electric piano are all sounds that would become part of rock and roll’s bedrock. Now, if only the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame would wake the fuck up. –Matt Melis

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69. Interpol – “PDA” (2000)

Though many bands emerged from the early aughts New York scene, there wasn’t necessarily a direct sonic line linking bands like Interpol, The Strokes, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. With “PDA”, Interpol channeled the post-punk that hadn’t been fashionable for decades and dressed it up in a suit-and-tie aesthetic that couldn’t have come from another time and place but New York in the early 2000s. If anything, Interpol proved to be pretty one-note throughout their career, but what a brilliant note it was. With Paul Banks singing about isolation and rejection, Interpol tapped into the language of the disenfranchised, crafting a song and, eventually, an identity that resonated well within that crowd. Today, “PDA” sounds unquestionably like Interpol, which is ultimately what you want from a debut single. –Philip Cosores
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68. Dr. Dre – “Deep Cover” (1992)

For better or worse, Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg were brought into the world as spinners of cop revenge fantasies that weren’t more detailed or wiseass than Ice-T’s but musically more seductive thanks to Dre’s expert knowledge of Blaxploitation flick scores and Snoop’s memorization of George Clinton’s every slippery ad lib. “Deep Cover” expresses incredulity at undercover officers who catch our antiheroes and even offer them leniency. What do they do? “Grab your steel,” Dre responds without looking up. This song is the reason you know what “187” means, and it set the tone for two of the most menacing personalities in MTV history. –Dan Weiss

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67. Counting Crows – “Mr. Jones” (1993)

Counting Crows would go on to release a number of successful singles, but it’s hard to argue that anything would come close to capturing the ubiquity of the first one. Frontman Adam Duritz’s lyrical introspection managed to be intriguing enough that his white-dude dreadlocks weren’t a hard sell. Looking back, it’s easy to write off “Mr. Jones” as being little more than a karaoke staple, but the song occupied a unique and important space in early ’90s alternative culture. While music with a harder edge like Nirvana and Pearl Jam were redefining alternative rock, Counting Crows provided another road map to a more VH1 brand of the genre. Admittedly, fans of the former often decried the value of the latter, but with “Mr. Jones”, an era of a more broad definition of alternative was ushered in, where Dave Matthews and Billy Corgan could exist side by side. Tunefulness was once cool; there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be again. –Philip Cosores

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66. The Go Go’s – “We Got the Beat (Stiff Version)” (1980)

Although Amy Heckerling and Cameron Crowe would iconize the song by making it the de facto theme song of their California-set coming-of-age comedy, 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High, the Go-Go’s “We Got the Beat” actually has its origins overseas. Shortly before it was blaring out of every convertible on Sunset Boulevard, Stiff Records unleashed the song across the United Kingdom, where it found success and brought the Los Angeles rockers credibility across the European club scene. So much so that the song was eventually imported stateside, climbing to No. 35 on the U.S. Hot Dance Club Play chart. Naturally, the group re-recorded the song for their proper debut album, 1981’s Beauty and the Beat, and, well, aloha, Mr. Hand. Today, it’s impossible to think of the ’60s revival without going gaga for this Go-Gos hit. Let’s party. –Michael Roffman

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65. The Smashing Pumpkins – “I Am One” (1990)

Billy Corgan is The Smashing Pumpkins. He’ll be the first to tell you that, and while he’s not wrong per se, he’s also forgetting this nugget of trivia: The band’s first official song, “I Am One”, belongs to both he and guitarist James Iha. Of course, that’d never happen again with any of their singles, which says plenty about the band as a whole, but the fact remains that this collaborative effort is the beginning of the Pumpkins’ legacy. To be fair, it’s really a team effort; there’s Jimmy Chamberlin’s popcorn drumming, D’arcy Wretzky’s chugging basslines, and, naturally, Corgan and Iha’s six-string sludgefest. And while Corgan’s nasally vocals would later separate the Pumpkins from the rest of the alt-rock pack, there’s something about the way everything congeals here. It’s less about the vocal hooks and more about the sizzling psychedelic soup they’re serving — a primordial wave of distortion that would come to define the Chicago rockers. Here endeth the lesson. –Michael Roffman

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64. M.I.A. – “Galang” (2003)

From her very first single, it was clear that M.I.A.’s ability to capture a unique sense of time and place lifted her out of the indie pop masses of the early 2000s. The very first line of “Galang” references The Clash, but the London that’s calling here is decidedly different from the one in 1979. M.I.A. sees the city from another point of view, one of a person of color in the thick of post-9/11 racism and police-state paranoia, powered by dancehall and jungle. The burble, buzz, and scrape of the track provides the perfect platform for M.I.A.’s star turn, peppering the track with slang and specific lyrics that could’ve only been created by her in that moment. –Lior Phillips

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63. Electric Light Orchestra – “10538 Overture” (1972)

Once the mid-’60s arms race between The Beatles and The Beach Boys established the viability of string sections in rock music, it was only a matter of time until a band came along and took that concept to its logical conclusion. Enter Electric Light Orchestra, whose founders Roy Wood and Jeff Lynne came together through their mutual love of the blurring lines between rock music and classical compositions. While it lacks the technical bombast of later ELO classics, the band’s debut single, “10538 Overture”, functions as an overture in the classical sense. In just five minutes, the song gives listeners a tantalizing preview of the band’s musical concerns, with the theatrical tale of an escaped prisoner’s flight functioning as a sonic statement of purpose to anyone happening upon prog rock for the first time. The formula worked from the beginning; “10538 Overture” hit No. 9 in the UK and was the first of 15 Top 10 singles the band would notch over the next decade. –Tyler Clark

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62. Bruce Springsteen – “Blinded by the Light” (1973)

“Blinded by the Light” is the only song Bruce Springsteen has penned to ever hit No. 1 — only it was sung by Manfred Mann at the time. Springsteen and the E Street Band’s version, which appeared on 1973’s Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., never even touched the charts despite being specifically written to be a hit single at the request of Columbia Records president Clive Davis. Regardless, the city-street groove and meandering verbosity of the lyrics were the world’s first introduction to a man who would become one of rock music’s greatest underclass storytellers. It’s also the first E Street song to feature Clarence “The Big Man” Clemons, the addition of his tenor sax becoming as synonymous with the band’s sound as Springsteen’s own cast of “go-cart Mozart” and “Madman drummers” characters. It all just goes to show that chart success has no bearing on the creation of a classic. –Ben Kaye

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61. Snoop Doggy Dogg – “Who Am I? (What’s My Name?)” (1993)

The big departure for Snoop Dogg’s first solo bow after establishing one of the most anticipated pre-release identities in hip-hop is how party-hearty he sounded compared to the underlying intensity beneath every song on The Chronic, even the big hits. Calvin Broadus’ big contribution to rap history is making the gangsta life sound like a cosmopolitan block party, and his heavily George Clinton-indebted debut single makes good on that promise. The splashy femme chorus is nicked right from “Atomic Dog”, but the farting bass and teakettle synth and flutes built something more ominous on top of Clinton’s muscular liquidity. “Who Am I? (What’s My Name?)” ensured Doggystyle would be a No. 1 hit and one of the fastest-selling debuts in rap history even before “Gin & Juice” entered the cultural lexicon. –Dan Weiss
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60. Frank Ocean – “Novacane” (2011)

Whoa, Frank Ocean really loves Miami Vice. That’s the thought that raced through my head in 2011, when the then-Odd Future collaborator dropped his first slice of neo-soul, “Novacane”. Produced by Tricky Stewart, the sultry jam rolls like a Ferrari Testarossa on a moon-scorched Miami highway, floating over Phil Collins synths and Tangerine Dream atmospheres as Ocean does that whole stop-start sing-speak thing that he’s made his own. On the surface, the song tells the story of a young female dental student using the titular drug amidst her double life of porn, but dig deeper and you’ll see it’s really a deep-hearted thesis on isolation and loneliness. On the whole, however, it’s a gorgeous slice of modern R&B that likely prompted Kanye to throw one of his Koons sculptures against his apartment wall and gave that Degrassi jerkstore all the right ideas to make what would wind up being his greatest song to date. In hindsight, it’s just the beginning of a long-standing commitment by Ocean to craft the most surreal R&B the genre has ever heard. Nice to know there’s still a little poetry left in the world. –Michael Roffman
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59. Stevie Nicks – “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” (1981)

It’s not often that you’ll get a debut single featuring this much star power. For the first cut from her debut solo album, Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks took on a track that our beloved Tom Petty and Mike Campbell had initially written for the Heartbreakers. Jimmy Iovine, at the center of so many big music moments, pulled some strings to get Nicks onto the track, and the rest was history. The song details a woman’s feelings regarding the end of a tumultuous relationship, equal part attachment to her lover and ready to move on. “I know you really want to be your own girl,” Petty says, playing the role of the soon-to-be ex — which, if you’ve read anything about the inner workings of Fleetwood Mac might seem like it struck a particular chord. –Lior Phillips
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58. D’Angelo – “Brown Sugar” (1995)

D’Angelo was an outlier circa 1995 when he dropped his debut single, “Brown Sugar”. A student of funk who dabbled in hip-hop and had deep gospel roots, D’Angelo combined those things to disrupt the R&B genre. Catapulted by his rich falsetto, “Brown Sugar” signaled the close of a chapter ruled by New Jack Swing. The debut single followed D’s first appearance as writer of the 1994 Jason’s Lyric soundtrack standout “U Will Kno”. The song was a byproduct of D’Angelo’s in-studio shedding that producer Ali Shaheed-Muhammad just happened to record. Building a beat around that happy accident, the pair gave birth to a track that would portend his debut album of the same name and trigger a seismic shift. “Brown Sugar” was fundamental to the future-forward era of music dubbed neo-soul and positioned D as a funk demigod just shy of the rarefied air that Prince had been breathing for decades previously. –Karas Lamb

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57. The Eagles – “Take It Easy” (1972)

The song that put the town of Winslow, Arizona, on the map also introduced the world at large to The Eagles, the country rock band from LA comprised (at the time) of former members of Linda Ronstadt’s touring band. This pleasantly chooglin’ tune was actually birthed by singer-songwriter Jackson Browne, who, legend had it, was stuck on how to wrap it up before his neighbor Glenn Frey came over to bring it to the finish line. Together, they captured the laid-back spirit of sun-drenched road trips, the pleasures of the flesh, and not letting the sound of your own wheels drive you crazy. It kicked off the long reign of The Eagles in the ‘70s pop world and set a template for dozens of good ol’ boys that emerged from the dust cloud Frey and co. left in their wake. –Robert Ham

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56. Arctic Monkeys – “I Bet You Look Good On A Dance Floor” (2005)

Arctic Monkeys have gone through many transformations since they first emerged in 2004, but more than a decade on, “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” still remains the band’s undefeated classic. Although it first appeared on 2004’s Beneath the Boardwalk, the band’s unofficial demo collection that was feverishly shared online, it was properly released in October 2005 as the band’s first single for Domino Records, heading straight to No. 1 on the UK singles charts. “Dancefloor”, all electric riffs and danceable noise, is an undeniable barnstormer. It’s an early but quintessential piece of Alex Turner songwriting, what with Duran Duran and Shakespeare references mixed with louche desire and ironic self-pity (“I wish you’d stop ignoring me because it’s sending me to despair”). The Monkeys couldn’t have picked a better song as a tip-off. –Karen Gwee
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55. Elvis Costello – “Less Than Zero” (1977)

Chained to family life and ignored by every label in London, Nick Lowe and new label Stiff Records finally took a chance on a young Declan MacManus, first as a songwriter and then eventually as a recording artist dubbed Elvis Costello. The genius of My Aim Is True stems from Costello’s deep love and knowledge of all types of music, instilled in him by his musician father. Each song rings of a familiar style that Costello adapts for himself, mixing these sounds with a preternatural sense of melody and lyrics drawing from the frustrations of daily life. From the pain of pre-record deal Monday mornings (“Welcome to the Working Week”) and stress of being a provider (“Miracle Man”) to regretting the girl who got away (“Alison”) and fumbling on the couch as the disturbing politics of the day unfold (“Less Than Zero”), Costello spins the mundanity of young married life into a punk record that actually relates to the average listener. While “Less Than Zero” might not have been most listeners’ pick as his introduction to the world, it does show how stacked the early Costello records are with brilliant songs. –Matt Melis

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54. The Damned – “New Rose” (1976)

Even if they’re not accounted for in the family record collection, British punk bands like The Clash, Sex Pistols, and maybe even the Buzzcocks are probably familiar names in many households. It’s less likely that The Damned will ring as many bells, though, despite the fact that they were on the forefront of the British punk scene. In fact, their debut single, “New Rose”, put out on Stiff Fingers by Nick Lowe, beat out the Sex Pistols for the first punk single released in the UK by just over a month. “Is she really going out with him?” deadpans lead singer Dave Vanian, alluding to The Shangri-Las and 1964’s “Leader of the Pack”, before the proceedings blaze off into a song about a new girl in the singer’s life. While not always as political as their contemporaries, The Damned scored a string of charting singles both as a punk band and later as one of the earlier goth rock bands. –Matt Melis

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53. Alicia Keys – “Fallin'” (2001)

Just 20 years old when her debut single came out, Alicia Keys first scaled the charts on the strength of a song she wrote, arranged, and produced all by herself. “Fallin’”, with its cyclical, intensifying hook and minimalist piano spine, brought the power of negative space back to the 2001 charts. Instead of packing in the production elements, Keys let her beats, strings, and vocals do the work. The precision with which she spliced in backup vocals and multitracks made the song click — and keep clicking all over the radio throughout the second half of the year. You don’t always need a tricky Max Martin formula to dominate the radio. Sometimes, all you need is a simple chord progression, a swinging melody, and a killer ear for detail. –Sasha Geffen

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52. The Velvet Underground – “All Tomorrow’s Parties” (1966)

The very first glimpse of The Velvet Underground’s narcotic haze, “All Tomorrow’s Parties” took a sympathetic look behind the curtain of the 1960s arts scene from which the New York band arose. Rather than glamorize the club kids he’d rub elbows with at his patron Andy Warhol’s get-togethers, Lou Reed peeked into their decrepit bedrooms and tried to illustrate their sadness. His lyrics, rendered in Nico’s heavy, accented voice, paint the dark, isolated moments of a city full of impoverished artists with a warm sympathy. It’s not the fiercest or most memorable track on The Velvet Underground & Nico, but it set the stage for a band who needed little more than a piano, a bass drum, a tambourine, and a guitar or two to drone themselves into the annals of music history. –Sasha Geffen
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51. Nas – “Halftime” (1992)

Nas first became known to the world outside of the Queensbridge Projects as Nasty Nas — the Q-Boro native whose reserved demeanor belied enormous talent. His “Live at the Barbeque” performance on the 1991 Main Source album Breaking Atoms set the bar for his solo debut. In 1992, Nas reprised his Breaking Atoms cameo on MC Serch’s Return to the Product single “Back to the Grill”, to which Serch later recruited Nas once again to contribute to the Zebrahead soundtrack. The song Nas delivered was “Halftime”. Produced by Large Professor and driven by Average White Band’s “School Boy Crush”, “Halftime” became the lead single for Nas’ seminal 1994 debut, Illmatic. Large Pro joined Q-Tip, Pete Rock, DJ Premier, and L.E.S. on production, while MC Serch and Faith Newman served as co-executive producers of Illmatic — a dynamic snapshot of inner city life regarded as a classic album and possibly the best of Nas’ career. –Karas Lamb

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50. Prince – “Soft and Wet” (1978)

It’s still difficult to imagine a world without Prince. Then again, it’s also hard to imagine the reaction most people had when they heard the Purple One for the very first time. The charts suggest a mixed reaction. While Prince’s debut single, “Soft and Wet”, registered as a minor hit, it’s clear audiences weren’t quite hearing the same Prince that would go on to define the ‘80s for so many music fans. However, “Soft and Wet”, and For You as a whole, were definitely a sign ‘o’ the times to come. Not only were that Prince falsetto, disco flavor, and subject matter (“I got a sugarcane that I want to lose in you”) already present, but it was also the first time fans saw the tag “produced, arranged, composed, and performed by Prince.” Oh, and that performance included playing 27 instruments all by himself. Again, it’s just hard to imagine how people reacted to something like that rolling into their town for the first time. –Matt Melis
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49. George Harrison – “My Sweet Lord” (1970)

Nobody questioned George Harrison’s songwriting ability once The Beatles broke up. “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, “Here Comes the Sun”, and “Someday” among others certainly make for a compelling CV. However, the breakup was a chance for Harrison to receive more spotlight, and it wasn’t long before he proved he could handle that as well. His debut, “My Sweet Lord”, was the first single by an ex-Beatle to reach No. 1 on the charts. After Billy Preston, one of several musicians known as the “Fifth Beatle,” had minor success with the song, Harrison chose to record it for his first solo album, All Things Must Pass. It would turn out to be both Harrison’s biggest hit and biggest headache. After release, a legal battle ensued concerning the song’s similarities to The Chiffon’s “He’s So Fine”. The courts found Harrison guilty of “unintentional copying.” Harrison would go on to buy the rights to the composition and record “This Song”, a comical courtroom send-up about his infamous legal controversy. –Matt Melis
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48. Weezer – “Undone – The Sweater Song” (1994)

Weezer could have come blazing out of the gates with the closest thing they had to grunge, the caffeine-spiked “Buddy Holly”. They could have gone for the high-risk, high-reward “Only in Dreams”. They could even have swung for the beaches with the salt water taffy hook of “Surf Wax America”. Instead, they debuted with the weirdest song on their first album, “Undone — The Sweater Song”, a tune about fraying clothes and tattered egos and the undying awkwardness of deciding to go to a party with someone you barely know. The sour-toned lead guitar, the spoken-word interludes, and the nonsensical, but oh so tasty hook all swirled together into an unlikely hit, climbing to the middle of the Billboard 100 on the good graces of Generation X. –Sasha Geffen
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47. Rihanna – “Pon De Replay” (2005)

As the only artist to have a No. 1 single from seven consecutive albums, Rihanna’s stature makes it impossible to recall a time when she wasn’t a massive star. In 2005, the then 17-year-old singer from Barbados arrived fully formed with “Pon De Replay”, which is Bajan Creole for “Play It Again”. At a time when dancehall and reggaeton were influencing the mainstream via Sean Paul and Daddy Yankee, Rihanna found the perfect formula of blending the two genres with mainstream pop in a way that was palatable to worldwide audiences without sounding contrived. The song hits with its earworm of a hook in the opening seconds before pivoting to a verse that’s just as catchy, a rush that never lets up over three and a half minutes. Though she wasn’t credited as a songwriter, only Rihanna could have turned the song into a smash with her tremendous voice and buoyant demeanor and gone on to build the illustrious career that came after. –David Sackllah
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46. Bon Iver – “Skinny Love” (2008)

Released during the indie folk revival of the mid-to-late aughts, Bon Iver’s gentle, plaintive debut single introduced one of the movement’s most unique voices in Justin Vernon. While the “popular” side of the genre would shortly become overtaken by gang claps and sudden whooping, Vernon was evidence that loosely dexterous acoustic guitars and soft lyricism had as much vitality in 2007 as ever. Sparser and more intelligible than almost anything else in the Bon Iver catalog, it would be impossible to predict the innovative avenues Vernon would explore in his later releases given this starting point. Even as his take on modern folk has consistently shifted, however, “Skinny Love” remains one of his — and the genre’s — most beloved songs. –Ben Kaye
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45. Fiona Apple – “Shadowboxer” (1996)

In the long tradition of torch songs, few embody the long, writhing wisps of smoke trailing from the burning, forlorn passion as Fiona Apple’s “Shadowboxer”. Released when she was just 19, the debut single pairs Jon Brion’s iconic tack piano and a soulful, string-laden arrangement with a voice far deeper and wiser than one could ever expect from a teenager. There’s a viscous poetry to all the talk of evil, spells, and shadows hangs heavy, Apple smoldering in the midst of a timeless darkness. That old soul intensity propelled Apple into the spotlight and remained a hallmark of her early career. –Lior Phillips
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44. Wu-Tang Clan – “Protect Ya Neck” (1992)

Prior to 1992, Staten Island rappers The Genius and Prince Rakeem had released music through Cold Chillin’ and Tommy Boy, respectively. Yet things didn’t really get going for the guys until they donned the GZA and RZA monikers as charter members of the Wu-Tang Clan. While the five boroughs of New York City served as rap’s spiritual epicenter, theirs had woefully received the least amount of shine. All that changed with this robust posse cut, a miasma of inventive metaphors, pop culture references, outright threats, and unfinished business. While U-God only got a fraction of the bars that Method Man, Raekwon, and the rest did, he was the only one on the track to use the word Shaolin, the martial arts style that both encapsulated the Wu aesthetic and bestowed a proud new nickname upon their home. –Gary Suarez
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43. The Stooges – “I Wanna Be Your Dog” (1969)

“I Wanna Be Your Dog” was simple in execution — distorted guitar, a basic chord structure, a young Iggy Pop — but revolutionary in its impact. Sick of the virtuosic music scene of the ‘60s, The Stooges wanted to make rock really rock again. They ushered in a whole new era of music, one that was just as primal and raw as the rock of the time was grand and self-serving. Pop’s drone, “So messed up, I want you here,”  becomes relentless, repeating: “Now I wanna be your dog.” Confrontational and unabashed, the track set the bar for The Stooges’ now seminal bite. –Carly Snider

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42. Percy Sledge – “When a Man Loves a Woman” (1966)

I’m pretty sure my theory can be disproved by anyone with a spare Encarta CD-ROM laying about, but I still contend that both the shower and power windows on cars were invented so that men could have a secure place to try and belt out the titular line to Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman”. (Likewise, love-struck women, I imagine, do the same with Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You”.) It’s beautifully arranged and yet as primitive as it gets; Sledge, for all intents and purposes, could be just as easily howling at the moon, as he confesses how vulnerable a man really becomes when he falls for a woman. What did Sledge get for betraying men everywhere and divulging our secrets? Well, for starters, No. 1 hits on both the R&B and Hot Billboard charts (rare for a black artist at the time), his ticket punched for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and having set the gold standard for belting out a love ballad.  All in all, not a bad deal. –Matt Melis

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41. Run-D.M.C. – “It’s Like That” (1983)

In retrospect, it should’ve been obvious from their 1983 debut that one of the members of Run-D.M.C. would wind up becoming a minister. Their debut single, “It’s Like That”, starts off by detailing the doom and gloom of life in New York in the early ‘80s (“Unemployment at a record high/ People coming, people going, people born to die”) over a sparse, skittering beat. Even worse, they repeat on the hook that “it’s like that, and that the way it is.” The weight feels further inescapable with each repetition. But then the track turns, and a light appears at the end of the tunnel. “Do not be a fool who’s prejudiced/ Because we’re all written down on the same list,” Run and D.M.C. insist, reiterating that community, school, and church can overcome. It’s a beautiful sentiment and a big part of the reason they emerged as one of the leaders of the early rap wave. –Lior Phillips
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40. Lana Del Rey – “Video Games” (2011)

Few first singles are as controversial as Lana Del Rey’s “Video Games”. When the song emerged with its grainy, home-footage video seeped in classic Hollywood ephemera, Del Rey’s ballad sold as much an aesthetic as it did a tune. Even her own deadpan stare served a purpose, announcing the arrival of an artist that was ready to exist in multiple dimensions — an icon from the moment of conception. It helped that the song sounded like it had been circling around for decades and served to both pique nostalgia and ignite the imagination. At the time, a few indie tastemakers cried foul and tried to tear Del Rey down as quickly as they built her up, mostly because it was discovered that she had attempted a pop career before under her given name and had seen a briefly released LP pulled from iTunes and never released physically. However, years later, it’s remarkable how little this aspect of the narrative matters for the world that Del Rey has built. –Philip Cosores
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39. The Smiths – “Hand in Glove” (1983)

The Smiths struck gold very early on with “Hand in Glove”, a song that founding members Morrissey and Johnny Marr wrote between the band’s second and third-ever concerts. They re-recorded the song multiple times when putting together their self-titled debut album, but The Smiths clearly had touched upon something special here and merely changed the mix up a touch for the final album version. But the melancholy clangor of the single establishes an us vs. them warmth that would go on to define the band and frontman’s entire career. –Lior Phillips
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38. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – “Breakdown” (1977)

Seeing how this is a list about first impressions, it only makes sense that Tom Petty would make the cut. As Noel Murray wisely pointed out over a decade ago, the Gainesville rocker has always had a knack for first lines, and “Breakdown” is no exception. “It’s alright if you love me/ It’s alright if you don’t/ I’m not afraid of you running away/ Honey, I get the feeling you won’t,” he sings in the song’s first verse, and like that you’re hooked. Well, not only hooked, but totally enraptured in whatever world you’re about to enter, and as I recently outlined following the singer’s death, it’s a world of Southern pastures, where true love’s in all the right places and heartbreak’s only a few lawns over. The vibe is also great, achingly ’70s with its smoky cantina moods, as if we’re pulling off to the side of the road for a little R&R with similar strangers in denim. –Michael Roffman

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37. Sugarhill Gang – “Rapper’s Delight” (1979)

Hip-hop may have begun with DJ Kool Herc’s infamous party in 1973, but the genre didn’t break until 1979. Credit that game-changing moment to this crew of New Jersey natives unironically named for the Harlem neighborhood that also adorned their record label. Released with a 15-minute-long version on one side and a shorter edit on the flip, the now-iconic, disco-derived beat of “Rapper’s Delight” found Big Bank Hank, Master Gee, and Wonder Mike trading off verses in a marathon session of boastful rhyming and bebop-esque scat. While the level of lyricism would leave today’s elites nonplussed, the feel-good and funky track became the first rap single to reach the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at No. 36 during its historic 12-week run. –Gary Suarez

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36. The Clash – “White Riot” (1977)

“White Riot” is all thrashing id, unencumbered by the bells, whistles, and moral complexities that defined a more mature version of The Clash. This is punk rock concentrate, a formula still finding its legs in the early months of 1977 but fully possessed of its teeth. And, boy, it needed those teeth. We’ve seen how difficult it is to pop the bubble of white privilege in 2017. Imagine trying to do the same four decades ago, equipped with just three chords and an unfocused blend of rage and righteousness. Small wonder “White Riot” received scant radio play upon its initial release, but the debut single from the only band that mattered continues to find an audience among those who hear music as a call to action rather than a place to hide away from the world. –Collin Brennan

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35. James Taylor – “Carolina in My Mind” (1969)

Written while in London, “Carolina in My Mind” is a song of homesickness and longing. From the opening trill of guitar, it is clear that James Taylor’s potential for great songwriting is boundless despite his young age. Taylor’s smooth and earnest sound served as a foil to the rock ‘n’ roll of the late ‘60s. He instantly had a knack for making evocative, emotional music that was still listenable and somehow comforting. Though just a neophyte, “Carolina” places Taylor among those beyond his years, singing of mortality and memory. Four decades later, the track is still one of his best. –Carly Snider
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34. Lady Gaga – “Just Dance” (2008)

Fun fact: It took me longer to get a six-inch turkey from Subway this afternoon than it took for Lady Gaga to write the boozy misadventures of “Just Dance”. Maybe that’s fuel for anyone’s argument against the song, but damn, you’d have to be a total schmuck to neglect the song’s modern pop schtick, the likes of which would go on to influence an entire generation of pop maestros. Yet what really makes “Just Dance” such a captivating song is how it sounds like something from the future, and that’s still the case nearly a decade later. Akon and RedOne’s production roams around like one of those cars from Minority Report as Gaga’s voice shifts around like one of those NASA mixtapes sent off into the infinite abyss of our universe. Seriously, one moment she’s singing like a ’60s doo-wop singer, the next she sounds like a third member of Salt N’ Pepa — it’s outrageous. But isn’t that how we’ve come to define Gaga? Better yet, isn’t that why we love Gaga? –Michael Roffman

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33. 2Pac – “Brenda’s Got a Baby” (1991)

Look no further than Tupac Shakur’s debut single if you’re wondering why he’s been so mythologized. Long before “conscious rap” was a (dubious) buzz phrase, he chose this song of all things to introduce the world to his music, because he wanted rap to know he was about something different. He introduces the titular pregnant, abused 12-year-old, but doesn’t stop there: “Well, let me show you how it affects the whole community.” He goes on to tie her to incest, crack, robbery, prostitution, and, rather than merely telling Brenda’s story, illustrates the trappings of the ghetto while still name-checking social workers, foster homes, and insisting there are ways out for this poor woman. Years before The Wire, here was one man tying together slum socioeconomics into mere “storytelling.” And it was his first shot out the gate. –Dan Weiss

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32. Janis Joplin – “Kozmic Blues” (1969)

Researching these articles can be a sad affair sometimes – like staring at tombstones with accomplishments engraved on them. So many endlessly talented people on this list were cut down not only before their time but before their prime as artists, leaving fans to wonder what might have been. Janis Joplin nears the top of that list. She had already broken out as a formidable frontwoman and live performer by the time she left Big Brother and the Holding Company to go solo. And few performances will convert more nonbelievers than her debut single, “Kozmic Blues”. Listeners can picture a lounge with piano and dim lights as Joplin’s voice wafts in like smoke atop bluesy backing, only to erupt wildly throughout. It’s a remarkable, emotional tug-of-war between eloquent restraint and her singular ability to both conjure and tame chaos with her voice; it’s the type of performance that transcends description and maybe even explanation. Sadly, Joplin would only record one more album – her best, Pearl – and not even live to see its release. –Matt Melis
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31. Big Star – “In the Street” (1972)

If you pump someone for the best rock and roll songwriting teams of all time, you’ll no doubt hear back Lennon-McCartney, Jagger-Richards, or maybe even Waters-Gilmour. All great picks. Never have I heard, though, anyone respond Chilton-Bell, which is a bit of a shame. While they don’t have the legions of fans or massive back catalogs those other songwriting duos do, Big Star’s Alex Chilton and Chris Bell were as good as it gets at writing pop songs that capture and celebrate the confusion, pain, and adventure of adolescence. It’s undoubtedly why a cover of their debut single – the hazy, clacking “In the Street” — became the beloved theme song for That ‘70s Show. As long as being a teen involves cruising around with friends in an effort to outlast boredom, this song will stay forever young, as will Big Star’s records, which have gone on to influence multiple generations of rock bands. –Matt Melis

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30. Radiohead – “Creep” (1992)

Though they may have eclipsed it a few dozen times since, Radiohead fans still go crazy anytime they hear “Creep” — whether it’s on a dive bar jukebox or whenever the iconic outfit pull the song out for their live shows as they increasingly have as of late. While they’ve consistently reinvented themselves since the 1992 single, the reasons they’ve remained essential are all in this first single: the intensely personal lyrics, the premiere hook-writing, the high-wire guitar, and Thom Yorke’s inimitable growl. Even after the band had gotten sick of it, re-accepted it, and back again, “Creep” will never go away. There will forever be power in singing that chorus: “I’m a creep!” –Lior Phillips
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29. Sex Pistols – “Anarchy in the U.K.” (1976)

It can feel awfully preposterous to be referred to as a “subject” virtually any time beyond the 19th century, but, well, that’s the nature of a modern-day monarchy. The Sex Pistol’s raucous debut single, “Anarchy in the U.K.”, perfectly captures the angst incited by governmental frustration and wraps it in a delectable package of punk. With its swirling guitars and cheeky lyrics calling for nationwide lawlessness, the timeless anthem encompasses each and every cornerstone of great rock ‘n’ roll: it radiates its own electricity and raises a little hell. Despite having one album to their name, the Sex Pistols catalyzed the punk movement in England, and this song solidified their place as one of the most noteworthy acts in rock history. –Lindsay Teske

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28. The Doors – “Break on Through (To the Other Side)” (1967)

Soaked with percussion and doused with grooves, “Break on Through (To the Other Side)” packs an overwhelming amount of power into its relatively short duration. The debut single of The Doors is riddled with unhindered potency, encompassing tenacious psychedelia in its rawest form. A large portion of that flair comes from the vocal stylings of frontman Jim Morrison, who effortlessly fluctuates between a low croon and a gravely wail, all of which channels the grace and rage of the tumultuous late ’60s. Following the release of this iconic single, The Doors went on to become rock ‘n’ roll legends, having been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, received multiple Grammy Awards, and honored by a myriad of films and documentaries that capture their legacy and story and mythos. –Lindsay Teske

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27. Erykah Badu – “On & On” (1996)

Erykah Badu emerged in 1996 and promptly disrupted the R&B charts with the release of “On & On” — the lead single from her debut full-length album, Baduizm. Written and produced by Badu, Madukwu Chinwah, and the god Jaborn Jamal, the song was a booster shot of soul and Supreme Mathematics that felt like water in a desert for fans weary of the polished and heavily programmed fare that was standard for the genre by the late ’90s. “On & On” was an introduction to the incense and mysticism that would underscore Badu’s seminal release and her career. Capturing lightning in a bottle, Badu drew comparisons to Billie Holiday while the single preceded a body of work that garnered a Grammy for Best R&B Album and broke the seal on “neo-soul” — the subgenre-turned-artistic-renaissance that was heavy on the Fender-Rhodes and mainstreamed black counter culture well in advance of Afropunk Festival. –Karas Lamb

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26. John Lennon – “Give Peace a Chance” (1969)

As The Beatles were heading towards dissolution in the late ’60s, John Lennon was laying the groundwork for a solo career as a peacenik artist. While he was already seen as a strong voice in the anti-Vietnam War movement sweeping the country, “Give Peace a Chance” was when he became the movement. Written during his second Bed-In protest with Yoko Ono in 1969, the song quickly became an anthem for those championing a nonviolent end to conflict. Although the ranting rhymes of the verses may be specific to the era, calling out the divisive cultural hot topics of the time, the repeated chorus is simply timeless. Almost 50 years on from the song’s release, its words are still a vital chant for peaceful protesters the world over. –Ben Kaye
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25. Peter Gabriel – “Solsbury Hill” (1977)

Moving on from an incredibly successful band and out on your own is a remarkably difficult decision to make, and that struggle inspired Peter Gabriel’s debut solo single, “Solsbury Hill”. The song’s 7/4 time signature shambles forward incessantly, his heart pounding against the push and pull of the rhythm. Gabriel was no stranger to unexpected changes and reinventions from his prog days, and the honeyed warmth in the face of a new adventure propelled the song into the hearts of millions, starting up a new string of Gabriel brilliance. –Lior Phillips

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24. Rage Against the Machine – “Killing In The Name” (1992)

For a song so defiant and unbending, “Killing in the Name” has proven surprisingly malleable throughout its 25-year history. Released November 1992, months after the Los Angeles Riots and in the wake of the Gulf War, it was and still is a furious tirade against police brutality and white supremacists who lurk within law enforcement. But in a stunning stroke of irony, “Killing in the Name” has also been used to torture prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, and in 2009, it topped the charts in Britain as part of a campaign to block the winner of the reality show The X-Factor from securing a Christmas No. 1. There are numerous chants contained within the segmented track, and the most memorable and controversial one – you know it – has fueled the song’s rep of blunt, unthinking edginess and Rage Against the Machine’s wider association with what Jason Heller at The A.V. Club called “the kind of rabid, oversimplified polemics favored by undergrads flush with their first taste of Noam Chomksy and Howard Zinn.” Sure, “Killing in the Name” isn’t the most nuanced of singles, but as career starters go, its conviction and power are hard to beat. –Karen Gwee

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23. Patti Smith – “Hey Joe” (1974)

Not to play spoiler, but “Hey Joe” appears one more time on this list. You can probably figure out the name of that other artist. What’s remarkable isn’t that two very different artists successfully tackled a traditional cover song in exceedingly different styles, but rather how assured and confident each was in his or her approach and performance at such a young age. If Jimi Hendrix (spoiled!) gets credited for making the guitar a physical extension of his own body, then Patti Smith, from the very beginning, must be credited with showing a minimalist punk scene that a frontperson could transform a song into a piece of full-on performance art. Smith’s version alters between noise rock and spoken-word segments commenting on the kidnapping of publishing heiress-turned-terrorist Patty Hearst, recasting Hearst in the role of Joe. It’s just the earliest of many examples of Smith treating songs like found objects and being able to repurpose them to create something uniquely her. Hey Joe, all hail the punk poet laureate! –Matt Melis

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22. Leonard Cohen – “Suzanne” (1967)

Leonard Cohen sort of fell into singing and writing songs. That’s kind of like saying Pablo Picasso fell into painting and sculpting. Regardless, that’s more or less the case. Fed up after a string of critical and financial failures as a poet and novelist, Cohen moved to the States to try to make it as a songwriter. After singer Judy Collins had a hit with his poem “Suzanne”, she urged him to start singing as well as writing. Many prominent artists have been drawn to covering the song, and it’s not hard to identify the reason. Cohen’s debut brought the details, precision, and economy of a poet to modern songwriting. Once rhythmic lines like “Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river/ You can hear the boats go by/ You can spend the night beside her” hit radio airwaves and began being printed on record sleeves, the case for music as poetry became all the stronger. Cohen would continue to develop as a singer and cover countless themes as a songwriter right up to his death in 2016, but look no further than his startling debut to truly understand what Cohen brought to the world of song craft. –Matt Melis

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21. Van Morrison – “Brown Eyed Girl” (1967)

Cut from the same cloth as his work in blue-eyed R&B group Them, Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” launched a solo career that would see higher highs and lower lows, but nothing so instantly recognizable as the “Sha la las” that punctuate its easygoing chorus. It’s not just the catchy melody that has caused this one to ring through the years and decades. “Brown Eyed Girl” is a song about memory and specifically about committing love to memory by way of song. It’s also masterfully written from a lyrical standpoint, offering just enough in terms of scene and setting for the mind to paint the rest. As such, it’s uniquely suited to mean any number of things to any number of listeners. Van Morrison’s 1968 masterpiece, Astral Weeks, is easily his best record, but best doesn’t count for everything. Sometimes, you just want the song that takes you back, and “Brown Eyed Girl” does the trick more often than most. –Collin Brennan

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20. LCD Soundsystem – “Losing My Edge” (2002)

It’s rare that the story of a song and the story within a song find such a parallel as they do with LCD Soundsystem’s “Losing My Edge”. At the time of composition, James Murphy was in his thirties, DJing in New York City, and, for the first time in his life, feeling kind of cool. The newfound experience led him to being almost repulsed by the feeling and crafting a debut single full of all the insecurities and posturing that pushed and pulled him at the time. “Losing My Edge” was ultimately adored because it captured both the sounds of a music obsessive and the reality that even taste and knowledge can be a disposable currency. The fact that Murphy channeled all of this and was able to create something both original and timeless speaks to the redemptive quality of art as a whole. And the career that spawned from it is just icing on the cake. –Phillip Cosores
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19. Mariah Carey – “Vision of Love” (1990)

If you’ve got a five-octave range, it’d be silly not to show it off right out of the gate, and “Vision of Love” isn’t so much a debut single as it’s a show of force. It’s a display of technical skill and precision from Mariah Carey, one guaranteed to wow fans and let other singers know they better start practicing their whistle registers. Its slow, 12/8 groove and gospel underpinnings set it apart from everything else on pop radio at the time, but it’s Carey’s vocal prowess that sent it into the stratosphere, propelling it to the top of the charts for four straight weeks and earning her a Best Pop Vocal Grammy along with one for Best New Artist at the 1991 ceremony. Whether it’s the huge, seemingly endless note she holds almost immediately after her biggest run or the backing vocals she sings for herself (honestly, who else is worthy?), everything about “Vision of Love” feels uniquely tailored to her ability, and the result is a song that heralds the arrival of a singular talent while simultaneously daring a generation of aspiring singers to try their best to replicate it. Its influence can be felt everywhere from the catalogs of Christina Aguilera and Beyoncé to countless melisma-heavy American Idol performances, but really, “Vision of Love” is best left to the professional. –Bonnie Stiernberg

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18. Led Zeppelin – “Good Times Bad Times” (1969)

Part of the allure to Led Zeppelin was their ability to take facets of the human experiences and explore them through monstrous rock epics. But, this is a power the English quartet had down to a science from the very beginning, as evidenced by their first single, “Good Times Bad Times”. The track, which kicked off their 1969 self-titled debut, contains all the key dynamic elements that made their work so illustrious: Robert Plant’s wailing vocals, Jimmy Page’s intricate guitar work, John Paul Jones’ potent bass lines, and John Bonham’s booming drumming. As the track exemplifies the innate creativity and technical precision that Led Zeppelin possessed, it set the foundation for the renowned career to come: inductions into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the UK Music Hall of Fame, astronomical record sales, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and a permanent status as one of the most celebrated and influential bands of all time. In other words, mostly good times. –Lindsay Teske

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17. Public Enemy – “Public Enemy No. 1” (1987)

The hip-hop game changed forever when Public Enemy dropped 1987’s seminal Yo! Bum Rush the Show. Gone is the pull-me-up braggadocio of most ‘80s hip-hop, replaced instead by the anger, frustrations, and concerns of a community voiced by its own members. What gets filed as a hip-hop record acts more like a neighborhood assembly you can bust a move to. Introduced, hyped, and punctuated by hypeman extraordinaire Flavor Flav, Chuck D barrels through the gates, humorously and mercilessly announcing PE’s presence atop the hard-hitting, melody-destroying beats of the Bomb Squad production crew. Bundle this hyper aggressive, no-nonsense style with the Public Enemy logo (a black man in crosshairs) and the group in a dimly lit bunker wearing paramilitary gear on Bum Rush’s cover, and you had a voice that wouldn’t just be ignored or drowned out. Thirty years later, “Public Enemy No. 1” remains the type of rare, frustrated cry that can still unite friends and send chills down the spines of foes. –Matt Melis
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16. Joy Division – “Transmission” (1979)

Much like “Blitzkrieg Bop” and punk, the same goes for “Transmission” and post-punk. Yet, it’s not only the defining track of said movement, but of the band itself. There’s also been a historical bent with Joy Divison — it’s in the Manchester outfit’s controversial name, for Christ’s sake (look it up) — and their first single has all the trappings of their aesthetic. The Orwellian allusions to the radio, the haunting monotony of Ian Curtis’ vocals and Bernard Sumner’s guitar line, and the very title of the track itself. It conjures the bleak imagery of their industrial English hometown, where big factories and plumes of smoke came to define their upbringing, adding a sense of malaise and uselessness to their lifestyle. That inherent sense of apathy became the de rigueur of the genre, something so many acts still struggle to emulate, even those that come from the same area. But, what makes it so mystifying is how it’s all such a brilliant subversion: you don’t want to sit and sulk, you want to flail and dance. That’s the genius of Joy Division and why there will always be tears on the dance floor as long as they’re invited. –Michael Roffman

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15. The Band – “The Weight” (1968)

“The Weight” may not top this list, but it’s arguable that no track above it has become as much a staple of the American Songbook. Its pleasantly wary narrative about a Southern wanderer rolling into Nazareth, Pennsylvania, to do young Miss Fanny a favor works both as a typical Americana travel tale and a religious parable thanks to references to “the Devil” and “Miss Moses.” But it’s the blend of native genres — Levon Helm’s dusty country drums, Robbie Robertson’s shambling acoustic guitar, Garth Hudson’s uplifting gospel piano — that captures The Band’s essence best and alludes to the defining career that would follow. Though Aretha Franklin’s cover (No. 19) would out-chart the original (No. 35) just a year later, that only serves as proof of the track’s status as a true cross-genre standard. –Ben Kaye

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14. The Beatles – “Love Me Do” (1962)

Yes, we get it, The Beatles’ early years will always cower in the shadow of their post-Revolver work. But, you know what? That’s also kind of bullshit, because when you go back to their earliest works, particularly songs like “Love Me Do”, it’s downright fascinating how much they were able to do by being minimal. No doubt inspired by the likes of The Everly Brothers, aka one of the most cruelly underrated duos in pop history, The Beatles not only started stretching their muscles on these little ditties but also honed in on their strengths. With “Love Me Do”, the song that started it all for the Fab Four, their strength is obviously in numbers, a divine culmination of John Lennon’s bluesy harmonica, Paul McCartney’s drunken bassline, their conjoined vocals, George Harrison’s backyard acoustic guitar, or whatever drummer is on whatever track you’re listening to — all three (Ringo Starr, Andy White, and Pete Best) recorded various renditions. The song’s stunning for its simplicity and yet cunning for its singularity, as so many hitmakers were doing the same thing around this time, but not this sharp. For that, we can only whistle along and thank the rock ‘n’ roll heavens that this was the golden ticket to the Apple hit factory ahead of them. –Michael Roffman

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13. The Killers – “Mr. Brightside” (2003)

“Mr. Brightside” wasn’t just the first single from The Killers; it was the first song that frontman Brandon Flowers and guitarist Dave Keuning wrote together. Inspired to start a rock band after seeing Oasis, Flowers notoriously crafted “Mr. Brightside” without a second verse because the process for making it was so fast and full of chemistry. The song stands as the kind of pop perfection that could only exist in a moment where the planets aligned. The song’s ability to exist as an anthem, as a meme, and as a cultural tentpole all revolve around a similar sentiment: “Mr. Brightside” is larger than the band that created it. Sure, The Killers would go on to have plenty more successes, becoming one of the biggest bands in the world for the next couple decades, but “Mr. Brightside” has become a virtual standard at this point. Triumphant and transcendent, it’s a once-in-a-generation tune that even Oasis would be jealous of today. –Philip Cosores
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12. Lauryn Hill – “Doo Wop (That Thing)” (1998)

In the video for “Doo Wop (That Thing)”, there’s not one but two Lauryn Hills, and that’s far more than a bit of camera trickery: it’s a sign of the amazing versatility of the former Fugee. Hill’s first solo single showcases both her extraordinary soulful singing voice and nimble rapping skill, capable of star turns at two different positions — and that was just the tip of the iceberg. Hill also wrote and produced the song herself, a song that fuses one of the biggest beats in R&B history to an inspiring message for African-American men and women to overcome the trials and tribulations of modern life. Upon the song topping the charts, Hill became the first woman to have written and produced her own No. 1 song since Debbie Gibson. The enigmatic Hill is a unique talent, and this song encapsulated all of her various strengths. –Lior Phillips

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11. New Order – “Ceremony” (1981)

Technically, “Ceremony” isn’t a New Order song; it’s a Joy Division anthem, one of the last to be written prior to the tragic death of Ian Curtis. Although three recordings with Curtis do exist, one of which (a snippet of a live take) appeared on the band’s compilation album, Still, none of them were good enough to be released as an actual single. Which is why remaining members Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook, and Stephen Morris, decided to regroup, re-record the song, and release it as the first official offering from New Order. To their credit, they couldn’t have orchestrated a better bridge between the two acts, as “Ceremony” swells with all the depressing pastiches of Joy Division and yet teases the upbeat rhythms of New Order that were still to come. There’s also a ghostly fragility to Sumner’s vocals, who unceremoniously became the group’s defacto vocalist, that embellishes the song’s angsty feelings of immortal love, making him sound almost like a medium for the dearly departed Curtis. While some have suggested the song’s a portrait of a beautiful wedding, one can’t help but see this as the score for an ornate funeral, particularly with that third verse: “Avenues all lined with trees/ Picture me and then you start watching/ Watching forever, forever/ Watching love grow, forever/ Letting me know, forever.” In reality, it was a new birth. –Michael Roffman

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10. Kanye West – “Through the Wire” (2003)

The story behind “Through the Wire” reads like something out of a Marvel comic: Around three in the morning on October 23, 2002, Kanye West was leaving a California studio, where he was producing the likes of Beanie Sigel, Peedi Crakk, and The Black Eyed Peas, and was struck by a car after falling asleep at the wheel. He survived, thankfully, but his jaw had to be wired shut for reconstructive surgery. Two weeks later, he hit the studio to record his debut single, which would more or less serve as his mission statement, one that finally won over the suits at Roc-A-Fella Records. It’s a quintessential origin story and one that Kanye totally embraced by expanding upon the song’s triumphant themes of self-pride and determination for his proper debut album, The College Dropout. Mythology aside, it’s also a downright brilliant song, wired with a curious Chaka Khan sample and a litany of pop cultural references, ranging from Vanilla Sky to Unbreakable, all of which foreshadowed the guy’s creative genius and his dazzling proclivities toward the avant-garde. He’s a geek who would have made Gucci blush. –Michael Roffman

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09. The Jimi Hendrix Experience – “Hey Joe” (1966)

Kicking off your career with a cover of someone else’s song is a risky move, but manager Chas Chandler knew exactly what he was doing when he had The Jimi Hendrix Experience record “Hey Joe” as their first single. It’s the only non-original on their debut album, Are You Experienced?, but it still managed to spark an argument between Hendrix and Chandler about how loud the guitar god’s axe should be, and to say Hendrix made it his own would be a gross understatement — his version now stands as the definitive rendition of the rock standard. However, even though its success immediately raised the profile of Hendrix, Mitch Mitchell, and Noel Redding in the UK, we were embarrassingly slower to catch on on this side of the pond, and “Hey Joe” failed to chart in the US. In fact, Hendrix wouldn’t even crack the top 20 in America until “All Along the Watchtower” — fittingly, another cover that blows the original out of the water. –Bonnie Stiernberg

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08. Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott – “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” (1997)

Prior to releasing her debut, Missy Elliott and Timbaland rose in the music industry and chased their dreams together, sharing writing credits for the likes of Aaliyah. And when it finally came time for Missy’s solo debut, their chemistry unleashed her undeniable star power. “Me and Timbaland, ooh, we sang a jangle/ We so tight that you get our styles tangled,” Missy spits on the hook with a shine that powered through even the black trash bag that she wears in the video. Missy’s verses bubble and bounce over Timbaland’s thick, rubbery electronic beats and an enchanting sampled hook from Ann Peebles. Missy Misdemeanor thundered through the charts on her debut and never looked back. –Lior Phillips

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07. R.E.M. – “Radio Free Europe” (1981)

Four guys from a college town record a tune. It’s the story of so many bands, but for R.E.M., that first tune ended up igniting a movement. Many will focus on the mumbling lyrics that would become a trademark for frontman Michael Stipe early in his career, but “Radio Free Europe” manages to soar whether you can sing along or not. From the song came a record deal, and from that record deal came a run of some of the most important independent rock albums of all time, and from that run came the majors where R.E.M. would grow into the role of arena rockers, with arena-ready anthems in tow. Decades later, it’s hard to imagine a world where an ascent like this was possible. But R.E.M. largely broke the mold, parlaying a great song into the beginnings of one of the most revered careers in rock history. There may not be a better example of the true power of a great debut single. –Philip Cosores

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06. Lorde – “Royals” (2013)

Amid the deluge of 2013 pop — think: Robin Thicke’s infamous “Blurred Lines”, Miley Cyrus’ tongue, and Macklemore poppin’ tags — there was Lorde. The then 17-year-old New Zealander quietly presented us with “Royals”. Despite its decadent name, the track was humble both in its execution and its subject matter; her voice and mature lyricism were given room to breathe. Listeners latched on to Lorde’s jumping pre-chorus (“But every song’s like gold teeth, Grey Goose, trippin’ in the bathroom”) and haunting melody. Lorde’s finger was on the cultural pulse before anyone else could detect even the smallest sign of life, playing up reality over opulence. –Carly Snider

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05. Pearl Jam – “Alive” (1991)

In many ways, the grunge genre can be seen as a direct response to the early and mid-‘80s. Bands from, musically speaking, Nowheresville USA (initially Seattle and its satellites towns) couldn’t see themselves following in the neckties of Alex P. Keaton-style Young Republicans or shimmying into leather, caking on makeup, and keeping appointments at the salon just to fit into LA’s heavy-but-hollow hair metal scene. Instead, bands like Pearl Jam dressed casual and sang about more introspective issues as they tapped into a hybrid of punk and metal as distorted as their alienated views of the world. Apart from maybe Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, no other grunge song can make a stronger case than “Alive” for being the scene’s de facto anthem. While Eddie Vedder’s desperate pleas and Mike McCready’s guitar heroics are ocean-like and able to flood stadiums, it’s often lost that the extremely personal song is really about a disturbing family secret that drives a young man to madness and violence. It’s just not the type of story you can tell while wearing spandex and rouge. –Matt Melis

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04. Ramones – “Blitzkrieg Bop” (1976)

You know, “Blitzkrieg Bop” is a lot like Stephen King’s Carrie. Both became calling cards for their respective creators, both served as a new template for their respective genres, and both came to fruition around the same time — roughly the mid-’70s. Hell, they both even went about destroying high schools, but that’s not really important for this argument. (Or maybe it is, depending on how you view punk rock.) What’s important to note is how ubiquitous both properties were for their namesakes, and since we’re not talking about horror novels right now, we’ll chat up the Ramones. At the time of the song’s 1976 release, punk rock was already a furious underground lifestyle, one overrun with scrappy garage outfits from the late ’60s and early ’70s, and the Ramones were arguably on the outside looking in. Although it wasn’t the case from the get-go, “Blitzkrieg Bop” wound up becoming the anthem of that movement, and today it’s impossible to think about the word “punk” without hearing those four iconic chords. Of course, it helps that the whole thing sounds like it came from a school assembly that quickly devolved into a messy pie fight. But hey, sure beats a bucket of pig’s blood. –Michael Roffman

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03. Kate Bush – “Wuthering Heights” (1978)

Some pop stars announce their entry into the industry with an iconic hook, others with a breathtaking vocal performance. Some have an intriguing look or personality, and others offer a unique alteration to the genre while still delivering a radio-friendly hit. With “Wuthering Heights”, Kate Bush had all that and more. Her eccentric, soprano voice may be the first thing to register, but her ability to turn casual phrases into an operatic apex shines just as bright. That dramatic depth comes from the fact that the song is based on and directly quotes the Emily Brontë masterpiece of the same name — but it’s also clear that Bush is far more than a mimic of great moments. She takes theatrical performance, burning passion, and a fantastical whimsy into an otherworldly place, a mystic, misty realm in which she floats. Kate Bush is irresistible. At just 18 years old, fresh off of being discovered by Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, Bush tapped into a well of inspiration beyond time and came out with a debut equally on its own independent wavelength. –Lior Phillips

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02. The Jackson 5 – “I Want You Back” (1969)

Sure, it’s called “I Want You Back”, but in reality, The Jackson 5 had us from the very beginning, sliding into our hearts with the ease and speed of the piano glissando that opens the track. The Motown classic isn’t just one of the best debut singles of all time, it’s one of the best songs of all time, period. Everything about the song is pop perfection, from the chord progression to the iconic bassline to the pleading vocals from the boy who would be King. The Jacksons’ talent (led by a beyond-his-years Michael, who was just 11 when “I Want You Back” was released) was instantly apparent — to Gladys Knight, who first brought them to Berry Gordy’s attention; to Diana Ross, an early champion who lent her name to their debut album (Diana Ross Presents The Jackson 5); and to all the fans who never left after “I Want You Back”, giving The Jackson 5 an impressive run of five consecutive No. 1 singles. –Bonnie Stiernberg

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01. Phil Collins – “In the Air Tonight” (1981)

The song’s unmistakable. You’ve heard it on the streets of Miami, the train lines of Chicago, the historic tapestries of London, the Cold War-ravaged frontlines of Washington D.C., the decorated halls of Las Vegas. You’ve seen it covered by pop stars and rockers; you’ve seen it cited by rappers and producers. You’ve felt its presence before every important game. You’ve put yourself in his shoes. When Phil Collins released “In the Air Tonight” on January 9, 1981, he wasn’t just making a statement about himself, he was ostensibly capturing an era before it happened. The first single off his stellar debut from that year, Face Value, is one of those songs that can only be described as epic. It’s a super sleek blockbuster, a mesmerizing tour de force, a universal masterpiece in action, one that continues to haunt listeners from yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

For that reason alone, “In the Air Tonight” exists both within and outside the ’80s, serving as a timeless piece of pop music. It could soundtrack tortured love as fast as it could score a scene of terror. That transmutative property is partly why it’s remained so culturally relevant all these years and why it never tires, even if it’s been used in countless mediums. It’s as if Collins crafted this sonic portal, where time just stands still whenever it’s on, pulling everyone into this meditative void. That’s quite a feat for a guy who came to define his generation, not to mention the pop genre itself, and he couldn’t have painted a better starting line for himself. Because from there, he would go on to drop hits for days, whether it was by his lonesome or with a juggernaut like Genesis, who would release their most successful (and arguably their strongest) albums in the wake of this hit.

Was it all real? You bet it was, and it always will be.

–Michael Roffman

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Playlist

Below, you can listen to the full list, barring a few exceptions, via Spotify.

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