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The 100 Greatest Debut Singles of All Time

Here are the bands and artists who got it right the very first time

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A great debut single is the opening line in a conversation you never want to end, and hearing a band or artist get it right on their first try is one of the greatest thrills in music. Unlike debut albums, there’s some gray area involved in determining exactly what constitutes a debut single. We decided that solo debuts by well-known artists didn’t count (so classics like Lauryn Hill’s “Doo-Wop (That Thing)” or Snoop Doggy Dogg’s “Who I Am (What’s My Name)” weren’t eligible). But singles by new bands that happened to include established artists (like Public Image Ltd) were fair game, as were bands that had released music under a previous name or in an earlier form, like the Grateful Dead, CCR, and New Order. We also gave a pass to a couple of artists who put out local records no one heard or promotional singles that weren’t available commercially.

The list we ended up with is heavily titled toward singles that became building blocks to great careers, though there are a couple of seismic one-hit wonders here as well — after all, there’s something to be said for perfecting your musical vision in three minutes, remaking the world, and getting out of the way to let future generations make sense of the mess you’ve created.

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Aaliyah, “Back and Forth”

“Back and Forth” is a perfect distillation of the Aaliyah sound: The production is all jagged edges, from the slicing synthesizer to the gunshot snares high in the mix, and Aaliyah’s sly vocals lap over those sharp corners like waves on the beach, gradually making them smooth as glass. The beats beneath Aaliyah would get more agitated as her career progressed and Timbaland became her go-to producer, which only made the contrast more appealing — why is the beat working so hard while Aaliyah barely seems to break a sweat? “Back and Forth” has hints of Zhane’s “Hey Mr. DJ,” a party anthem from eight months earlier; like many successful R&B singers, Aaliyah knew the best place to win over listeners with a debut single was the club. “It’s not a song about love or whatever; it’s about going to a party and having fun,” Aaliyah said. “I have songs about love, crushes, or whatever, but that song is about dancing.” E.L.