Home Music Music Lists

The 100 Greatest Debut Singles of All Time

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

James Pearson-Howes/Pymca/Shutterstock; L. Busacca/WireImage; Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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.

Play video

Rob Verhorst/Redferns/Getty Images


Rihanna, “Pon de Replay”

Rihanna has lived a million different pop lives: EDM singer, rapper, soulful belter. Her 2005 debut, however, was a simple launch to nearly two decades of party-starting. “Pon de Replay” is not only a product of dancehall and dance-pop’s sonic melding of the time, but also a tribute to her home of Barbados, with the title translating to “play it again” in Bajan Creole. It’s her version of Madonna’s “Music,” with Rihanna making demands no DJ could resist obliging. It was a runaway hit for her, but it’s not even the biggest of the runaway hits in her unmatched catalog. B.S. 

Play video

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images


Bo Diddley, “Bo Diddley”

Elias McDaniel turns into the great Bo Diddley, a self-described “young hoodlum from Chicago,” rising out of the South Side with his distorted guitar, his theme song, and his own shave-and-a-haircut beat. “The words was a little rough,” Bo told Rolling Stone in 1987. “It had lyrics like, ‘Bow-legged rooster told a cock-legged duck/Say, you ain’t good lookin’, but you sure can … crow.’ The old folks didn’t understand that. It took me about seven days to rewrite it, and that song became ‘Bo Diddley.’ ” R.S. 


Play video



Sade, “Your Love Is King”

“I’m not over the top; I’m not wacky,” Sade Adu (a.k.a. Sade) told Rolling Stone in 1985, a year after “Your Love Is King” became the urbane opening shot in a singular four-decade career. “I’m fairly understated, and that reflects in the way I sing.” While Van Halen and Culture Club were battling for the most popular song in the country, Stuart Matthewman’s jazz sax and Adu’s vocals — an intensely sultry coo that blended the romantic (“Crown you in my heart”) with the erotic (“I’mmmmm commmmmminggggg”) — found their own place on the charts by eschewing bright synths and drum machines for a worldly, sophisticated sound unlike anything heard in pop music at the time. J.N. 

Play video

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images


Toto, “Hold the Line”

Unpopular but true opinion: “Africa” is merely Toto’s second-best song, because “Hold the Line” is even better. (There will be no questions taken at this time.) The guys in Toto were the cream of the 1970s L.A. studio pros, playing on session after session. When they hung out their own shingle and started their own band, they went for the golden ratio of Seventies rock. “Hold the Line” has a stuttering piano hook, Steve Lukather’s power chords, and a sad-but-true chorus: “Love isn’t always on time/Whoa, whoa, whoa.” R.S. 

Play video

Lester Cohen/Getty Images


Pet Shop Boys, “West End Girls”

Two of the pastiest English boys MTV had ever seen, with a synth-pop rap about gay cruising that hit Number One in the USA, mostly because it was cleverly disguised as an ode to shopping. Neil Tennant was already a big-name U.K. pop critic when he formed this duo with Chris Lowe. The original 1984 “West End Girls” was a raw club 12-inch with producer Bobby Orlando, but the lush 1986 Stephen Hague production was the radio hit. They had just released their excellent new album, Hotspot. Cardi B has often cited the Pet Shop Boys as one of her huge childhood influences. R.S. 


Play video

Paul Natkin/Getty Images


Pylon, “Cool”

Pylon rode out of the Southern boho scene in Athens, Georgia, along with kindred spirits like the B-52s and R.E.M. When R.E.M. covered a Pylon song on Dead Letter Office, Peter Buck noted, “I remember hearing their version on the radio the day that Chronic Town came out and being suddenly depressed by how much better it was than our record.” “Cool” is Southern-gothic post-punk designed for boozy dance floors, with Vanessa Briscoe Hay chanting art-school sex magic (“Pure form! Real gone! Like wiiiild! Good viiiibes”!) over the herky-jerky rhythm guitar. R.S. 

Play video

Gus Stewart/Redferns/Getty Images


Pere Ubu, “Heart of Darkness”

A garage band of Cleveland art-noise crackpots sends a roar out of the mid-Seventies’ Midwest industrial wasteland. Pere Ubu released “Heart of Darkness” in December 1975 on their own Hearthan label, an obscurity that nonetheless went on to reach like-minded bands and listeners around the world. “Heart of Darkness” is a full-on psycho-destructo breakdown — a hypnotic bass line, primitive synthesizer swoops, Crocus Behemoth’s paranoid whispers, and proto-punk guitar from the doomed Peter Laughner. R.S. 


Play video

Eric Mulet/Agence VU/Redux


Nas, “Halftime”

Eighteen months before Illmatic, 19-year-old rapper Nasty Nas recorded this Zebrahead soundtrack cut that would later become the debut single off of his landmark album. Crate digger, producer, and friend Large Professor — who would go on to introduce Nas to many of Illmatic’s producers — flipped everything from Average White Band to the Japanese cast of Hair into a beat that almost went to Busta Rhymes. But it was Nas’ tenaciousness and raw drive on every syllable that made New York hip-hop fans salivate. “The idea behind it was that it was like intermission for rap music because something new is being introduced,” Nas told Rolling Stone in 2014. “I knew I was onto something, and I knew it would go over well. You just know.” J.N. 

Play video

Paul Ryan/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images


The Grateful Dead, “Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)”

When the Dead turned in their debut album, the record company had a question: Where was the single? The band didn’t have one. So they banged one out, whipping up a just-plain-perfect, simple two-minute rock & roll song on the spot, for the specific purpose of making a single. “The Golden Road” was a total fluke — they quit playing it live in 1967 — but it’s as catchy as prime Monkees, with Pigpen freaking out on his Vox Continental and Jerry Garcia getting his Mick Jagger on with the dancing hippie girls. (“Take off your shoes, chiiiild!”) It’s an experiment the Dead never tried again — the golden road not taken. R.S. 

Play video

Raymond Boyd/Getty Images


Boogie Down Productions, “South Bronx”

“Now way back in the day when hip-hop began,” KRS-One raps on BDP’s bowshot first release, spinning a vivid story of his teenage years during rap’s earliest golden days. DJ Scott La Rock looped a James Brown sample into a hard-hitting beat, while the Blastmaster went off on the ascendant borough of Queens, then testing the Bronx for New York regional supremacy. The beef blazes radiantly, but it’s his loving sense of history and hyperlocal pride that make the record so great. KRS-One would go on to be an essential torchbearer of the hip-hop faith for many years to come. J.D. 

Play video

Al Pereira/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images


A Tribe Called Quest, “Description of a Fool”

In 1990, few rappers besides Q-Tip could pull off using words like “doltishly” and “big galoot” in the same song. On Tribe Called Quest’s debut 12-inch, Tip calls out toxic masculinity, drug dealers, and domestic abusers (“Who would love a woman, turn around and abuse her?,” asks the rapper. “Only a fool as described by the Tribe”) over a propulsive track anchored by a sample of Roy Ayer’s 1977 jazz-funk hit, “Running Away.” The group wouldn’t start to see success until their travelogue-gone-wrong next single, “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo.” But the jazz-rap hybrid that the group pioneered starts here. J.N. 

Play video

Virginia Turbett/Redferns/Getty Images


Gang of Four, “Damaged Goods”

There’s no other way to put it: “Damaged Goods” rips. As does the rest of Gang of Four’s 1979 debut album, Entertainment!, but if you’re looking for a succinct way to understand the post-punk quartet’s perfect blend of rock snarl with danceable groove, you can find it here in three and a half minutes. Andy Gill’s lightning guitar entwines around Dave Allen’s bass line and Hugo Burham’s feverish drums so neatly that you’d be hard-pressed to find the end of the knot to pull, and Jon King’s barking, satirical message of sexual entitlement still feels prescient to this day. C.S. 

Play video

Michael Buckner/Variety/Shutterstock


Billie Eilish, “Ocean Eyes”

It’s the stuff streaming dreams are made of. Still 14 at the time, Eilish sang those opening lines, “I’ve been watching you/For some time/Can’t stop staring/At those oceans eyes,” which her older brother, Finneas, who was also still a teenager at the time, wrote and produced. Originally meant for her dance teacher, who’d asked for a song to choreograph a routine, they uploaded it to SoundCloud for the teacher to access. After it went viral, a music video directed by Megan Thompson was released in March 2016, before it was released officially on streaming services later in November. As Eilish told Teen Vogue in 2017: “Danny Ruckasin, who is now my manager, reached out to my brother and was like, ‘Dude, this is going to get huge and I think you’re going to need help along the way. I want to help you guys.’ We were like, ‘That’s swag!’ ” J.P. 

Play video

Rich Fury/Invision/AP/Shutterstock


Maren Morris, “My Church”

The 26-year-old Texas native Maren Morris took country radio by storm with an ode to the spiritual power of Johnny Cash and Hank Williams, delivered over a stomping beat and backed by a praiseful choir that kicked her sentiment skyward — as it was being lofted out of an open church window or a blasting from a passing SUV on a summer afternoon. The theme wasn’t novel, but the passion and belief of her delivery definitely were. After years of writing for other artists and a couple of her independent releases (none of which came with any official singles), you could hear her finally grabbing her chance to enter her own voice into the canon of car-radio legends she honored. Indeed, “My Church” set the table for her debut LP, Hero, and more hits that established Morris as a Nashville star who didn’t pay a ton of attention to Nashville’s rules. J.D. 

Play video

Paul Natkin/Getty Images


Mission of Burma, “Academy Fight Song”

The members of the pioneering Boston band were always art-rockers at heart — as bassist Clint Conley said, “I think we’re just a closet prog-rock act that happened during punk.” Their 1980 indie single, “Academy Fight Song,” was a blast of guitar rage, full of punk menace, but without any posturing. (“I’m not judging you, I’m judging me” was a line years ahead of its time.) On the flip side, guitarist Roger Miller and drummer Peter Prescott power the Dada trip “Max Ernst.” The single was just a taste of Burma’s sound — ignored at the time, yet influential ever since. “Being pissed off is really helpful to me,” Miller told Rolling Stone in 2012. “Stuff just explodes.” R.S. 

Play video

Andy Sheppard/Redferns/Getty Images


Lana Del Rey, “Video Games”

The self-dubbed “gangsta Nancy Sinatra” took the internet by storm when her mysterious debut, “Video Games,” went viral. While she has become the blueprint for many major stars who’ve come in her wake, there was no one quite like her at the time, simultaneously pulling from the history of jazzy torch songs and modern rap production. On the song, Del Rey pines for a man who ignores her. Her reference to playing video games feels almost anachronistic against the nostalgic sound, but only Del Rey could make it work. The song, video, and Del Rey’s own aesthetic launched a million debates about her authenticity, but she has only strengthened the sound she introduced nearly a decade ago. B.S. 

Play video

Jeffrey Mayer/WireImage


Aerosmith, “Dream On”

Aerosmith kicked off their career in 1973 with an underdog anthem about feeling old and tired while waiting for their big break … and it became a self-fulfilling prophecy, since “Dream On” didn’t become a hit until two years later when it was rereleased. Luckily for Steven Tyler, who drew musical inspiration for the song’s baroque arrangement from his childhood hanging out under his dad’s piano and listening to Papa Tyler play classical music, he had the foresight to include the lyric “Dream until your dream come true,” because that mantra gave them the perseverance they needed to stick with it until they finally achieved fame. K.G. 

Play video

Gie Knaeps/Getty Images


De La Soul, “Plug Tunin’ ”

“That was an important record,” De La Soul’s Trugoy told Rolling Stone, “because I think that sorta signed how we were gonna approach writing rhymes, in terms of style.” Mission accomplished. Rhymes like Motions of the Soul is a positive stride/One step forward is the space we consume/Vivid as the moon, you have yet to assume/How the Soul found the motto of a naughty noise called/ Plug Tunin’ “ were resolutely out of step with late-Eighties rap fare, parodying MC brags while taking our collective consciousness to a higher plane over Prince Paul’s beautifully hazy beat. De La’s psychedelic hip-hop gospel was truly revolutionary, inspiring a whole new movement of playful positivity.  J.D. 


Play video

Peter Noble/Redferns/Getty Images


Bauhaus, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”

The goth national anthem — anywhere in the world, whenever a club DJ drops the needle on “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” the children of the night take over the dance floor. Bauhaus had existed only a few weeks when they cut this morbid single, stretching out for nearly 10 minutes on a groove that combines post-punk, dub reggae, and vampire movies, with Peter Murphy’s sepulchral voice chanting, “Undead, undead, undead.” The bats have left the bell tower! R.S. 


Play video

Roberta Bayley/Redferns/Getty Images


Television, “Little Johnny Jewel”

Television kicked off the NYC punk scene at CBGB — but the guitar jam “Little Johnny Jewel” was closer to the Grateful Dead than to the Ramones. As Tom Verlaine said, “Lou Reed asked me, ‘Why’d you put out this song? This is not a hit.’ I said, ‘What band playing a bar in New York, issuing their own single, is gonna have a hit?’ ” “Little Johnny Jewel” was a showcase for the urban grime in their guitars — check out the definitive brain-shredding, 12-minute 1978 version on Live at the Old Waldorf. Television still bring this song to cosmic heights onstage. R.S.

Play video

Ross Marino/Getty Images


Metallica, “Whiplash”

Nobody knew who Metallica were when they wrote “Whiplash,” an ode to their music’s power. Luckily, they had enough vision to know the effect that their hyperfast, locomotive-chugging riffs and lightning-fast guitar solos would have on young thrashers: “Bang your head against the stage like you never did before,” James Hetfield sings. “Make it ring, make it bleed, make it really sore.” They actually wanted their fans to have to go to the hospital with whiplash or (probably) brain damage, and they knew even then they’d build a life out of their noise, with Hetfield promising, “We’ll never stop, we’ll never quit, ’cause we’re Metallica.” K.G. 

Play video

Anthony Barboza/Getty Images


Spoonie Gee, “Spoonin’ Rap”

One for the treble, two for the time. Spoonie Gee was one of the old-school rap pioneers, a Harlem MC with a ladies-man style, but with his own thugged-out edge. His epochal 1979 debut single, “Spoonin’ Rap,” set the tone for Eighties hip-hop, one yes-yes-y’all at a time. He kept scoring hits through the decade, and wherever the East Coast action was — Sugarhill, Enjoy, Marley Marl, Teddy Riley—Spoonie Gee was in there. Best moment: “I jumped the turnstile one summer day/I seen the cop and then I ran away/He pulled his gun but he did not shoot/So come on everybody, let’s Patty Duke.” R.S.


Play video

Mike Prior/Getty Images


Hanson, “MMMBop”

Some sad souls may have derided it as hokey cheese, but for the rest of us, there was simply no denying the magic of Zac, Isaac, and Taylor Hanson’s singalong masterpiece. A banger before the word even existed, “MMMBop” is bright Archies bubblegum pop held aloft by the optimism of the Nineties. It’s also made up of mostly nonsensical lyrics (“In an mmmbop they’re gone!”), proudly delivered by a group of Oklahoma siblings who harmonized like the Beatles. Need even more cred? Beck’s Odelay architects, the Dust Brothers, produced it. J.H. 


Play video

Ron Pownall/Getty Images


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

Play video

NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal/Getty Images


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. 

Play video

Anthony Barboza/Getty Images


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. 

Play video

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images


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

Play video

Catherine McGann/Getty Images


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.