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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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Boston, “More Than a Feeling”

Boston’s Tom Scholz is one of rock’s greatest studio savants — a musical and technical wizard capable of all sorts of complex tricks, but one whose true genius was his ability to couch all that in something simple and timeless. All of that gets captured on “More Than a Feeling,” one of the greatest Seventies arena-rock anthems, an enduring song about the power of enduring songs. It’s peppered with pieces of proggy ear candy and driven by the kind of vocal performance from Brad Delp that makes you think, “I could do that,” one moment, then, “I absolutely could not do that,” the next. And, of course, at the song’s beating heart, those four simple power chords, a revolving progression that burrows deeper into your brain each time you hear it. Who could ever blame Kurt Cobain for choosing to rip it off on “Smells Like Teen Spirit”?  J. Blistein

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The Monkees, “Last Train to Clarksville”

In the summer of 1966, Micky Dolenz stepped into Studio A at RCA Victor Studios in Los Angeles to sing a song for a new sitcom he’d just landed along with three other photogenic musician-actors. Written by the duo of Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, “Last Train to Clarksville” is a deceptively dark bubblegum tune about a man heading off to an Army base in Clarksville after getting drafted for the Vietnam War. “I was always surprised that the record company even released it,” Dolenz said in 2016, “unless it just went right over their head.” It also went over the heads of teenagers all over  America, who helped bring it to Number One in November 1966. It was the start of Monkee-mania. A.G. 

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Alicia Keys, “Fallin’ ”

“I was going through it bad,” Keys said of the difficult relationship that inspired “Fallin’ ” “But it helped me work things out.” She poured her emotion into this titanic piano ballad. At only 20 years old, Keys was an R&B singer who wasn’t afraid to display her classical chops and very old-school taste, calling on influences that stretched back through decades of soul, gospel, and classical music (“I love Chopin,” she told an interviewer, “he’s my dawg”), while still creating something that felt vibrantly new. J.D. 

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Booker T and the MGs, “Green Onions”

This 12-bar blues vamp from Stax’s budding house band Booker T and the MGs featured a deceptively complex riff from bandleader Booker T. Jones. “What if the bottom bass note went up while the top note of the triad went down, like in the Bach fugues and cantatas?” the keyboardist remembers of coming up with the song. “Green Onions,” which soon became a Number Three pop hit, changed the face of Stax records and introduced the world to the Memphis sound. J. Bernstein

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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.