100 Greatest Debut Singles of All Time - Rolling Stone
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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

debut singles

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.

Billy Ray Cyrus on 6/28/92 in Chicago,Il.   (Photo by Paul Natkin/WireImage)

Paul Natkin/WireImage

100

Billy Ray Cyrus, “Achy Breaky Heart”

Lil Nas X knew exactly what he was doing when he recruited Billy Ray Cyrus for a remix of “Old Town Road.” Back in 1992, Cyrus had cracked things wide open for country music with his own debut single. His recording of Don Von Tress’ “Achy Breaky Heart” — a goofy, smirking honky-tonk tune built off of two repeating chords — became a massive crossover smash and kick-started global interest in line dancing, to the dismay of staunch traditionalists. Those folks were clearly in the minority, since “Achy Breaky Heart” hit Number Four, went platinum, and helped shift the trajectory of country music. J.F. 

UNSPECIFIED - JANUARY 01:  (AUSTRALIA OUT) Photo of ZOMBIES and Chris WHITE and Rod ARGENT and Hugh GRUNDY and Paul ATKINSON and Colin BLUNSTONE; L-R: Hugh Grundy, Paul Atkinson, Chris White, Colin Blunstone, Rod Argent - Posed around table eating Christmas pudding  (Photo by GAB Archive/Redferns)

GAB Archive/Redferns/Getty Images

99

The Zombies, “She’s Not There”

One of the catchiest British Invasion hits, and one of the most innovative, pushing outside Beatlesque cheer with its airy groove. Colin Blunstone’s bleary delivery, Rod Argent’s spooky organ, and a spiraling jazz-steeped breakdown already seemed to hint toward the psychedelic possibilities the Zombies would explore a few years later on their classic LP Odyssey and Oracle. “When I wrote and played ‘She’s Not There,’ the last thing on my mind was jazz or Miles,” said Argent, “but those things filtered through.” J.D. 

Singer Ke$ha, aka Kesha Sebert. Ke$ha wears a Sass & Bide dress, Hanro bra and panties and Raphael Young boots.Kesha Sebert, Brooklyn

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98

Kesha, “Tik Tok”

The key to a Kesha party is simple: She has never needed too many accoutrements beyond cheap beer, cute boys, and good music. That’s the basis of “Tik Tok,” her first official single (though she could be heard as the uncredited vocalist on Flo Rida’s hit from earlier in 2009, “Right Round”). The song is the perfect time capsule of sleazy early-aughts electro-pop, with Kesha’s attuned rap-singing over a beeping club beat. It was a breath of accessible fresh air, kicking the era’s reigning pristine pop glamour to the curb with a thrifted cowboy boot. Bonus points: The song’s opening-line tribute, “Feelin’ like P. Diddy,” gets a co-sign from the multihyphenate himself, who delivers some swaggy ad-libs on the first verse. B.S. 

UNITED STATES - JANUARY 01:  Photo of The New Pornographers; The New Pornographers photographed in Los Angeles, CA 2005  (Photo by Wendy Redfern/Redferns)

Wendy Redfern/Redferns/Getty Images

97

The New Pornographers, “Letter From an Occupant”

“I don’t know what a ‘letter from an occupant’ is, but I’m hoping that I will figure it out at some point,” said Carl Newman of the New Pornographers. “It sounds like it must mean something.” The finest power-pop band of the 21st century got off to a smashing start in 2000 with this haloed haymaker of swirling guitar static and overheated drum pump, driven forward by Neko Case‘s five-alarm lead vocal. The members of the NPs had been kicking around the Vancouver music scene for a while (Newman fronted the fine Nineties band Zumpano, Dan Bejar was in Destroyer, and Case was becoming a star on the alt-country scene), and they came together to make something that felt thrillingly organic and exuberantly their own. “Letter From an Occupant” set the indie-rock world ablaze as the standout hit on their near-perfect debut LP, Mass Romantic. J.D. 

Editorial use onlyMandatory Credit: Photo by Total Guitar/Future/Shutterstock (2219017c)Alabama Shakes - Heath Fogg and Brittany HowardAlabama Shakes at the Boston Arms, London, London, Britain - 14 Mar 2012

Total Guitar/Future/Shutterstock

96

Alabama Shakes, “Hold On”

“Bless my heart, bless my soul/Didn’t think I’d make it to 22 years old”: With those words, reportedly improvised on the spot at an early gig, Alabama Shakes frontwoman Brittany Howard carved out a place for herself in rock & roll history. Formed in the small town of Athens, Alabama, the Shakes were something of an anomaly in 2012 — a rock band that could easily reference the Fifties and Sixties without coming across as retro. Howard’s voice sounded more like Prince or Nina Simone than anyone her age, and the song’s message of persistence and patience, delivered by a young biracial woman who addressed herself as if singing to the mirror, remains resonant nearly a decade later. J.F. 

John Illsley, David Knopfler and Mark Knopfler - Dire StraitsDire Straits in concert at the Lewisham Odeon, London, UK - 18 Dec 1979Dire Straits have album sales of over 100 million.

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95

Dire Straits, “Sultans of Swing”

One night in the late Seventies, Mark Knopfler got a pint at his local pub, when a crappy band playing there captured his attention with their mediocrity. When they were done, they introduced themselves as the Sultans of Swing, an idea that seemed preposterous because of how bad they were. So he wrote some humorous lyrics about it, put them to some jazz chords, and casually tossed in one of the most brilliant guitar solos of the era. His “Sultans of Swing” presented the opposite experience of the Sultans he saw that night — smart, catchy, expertly played music — and it set up Dire Straits for superstardom. K.G. 

Dinosaur Jr, Jay Mascis, Lou Barlow, Murph, Futurama Festival, Brielpoort, Deinze, Belgium, 31/10/1987. (Photo by Gie Knaeps/Getty Images)

Gie Knaeps/Getty Images

94

Dinosaur Jr., “Repulsion”

Punk wolf-boys from the wilds of western Massachusetts, taking a giant step into the forbidden territory of expressing actual human feelings — quite the taboo for former hardcore dudes at the time. In Dinosaur’s hugely influential summer-’85 single, J. Mascis sings of loneliness (“I feel your eyes upon me — how should I act today?”) with a guitar full of Neil Young melancholy and Minor Threat energy. Dinosaur soon lost the rights to their name and became Dinosaur Jr., which they still do proud today. R.S. 

 

Tracy Chapman (Photo by Chris Carroll/Corbis via Getty Images)

Chris Carroll/Corbis/Getty Images

93

Tracy Chapman, “Fast Car”

“Somebody asked me what kind of car it was in that song,” Chapman told Rolling Stone at the time, laughing at the absurdity. “I think it was an Aries K car at first. And then it was a Toyota Corolla.” The song isn’t about a car at all, it’s about a failed relationship and a woman trying to escape the cycle of poverty. So how did something so brutal and depressing become a Top 10 hit? Chapman started out on the Boston folk circuit before releasing the song, as well as “Talkin’ ‘Bout a Revolution,” from her self-titled debut album in 1988. After performing it at Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday that year, things exploded. “Fast Car” received two Grammy nominations — for Record of the Year and Song of the Year — and she won Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for the single, as well as Best New Artist. The song has been in rotation ever since, covered on talent shows and even becoming a 2015 trop-house dance remix by Jonas Blue. J.P. 

ROXY MUSIC - 1972VARIOUS - 1972

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92

Roxy Music, “Virginia Plain”

Early Seventies prog rock meets London glam and bubblegum pop for a radical three-minute musical manifesto. Bryan Ferry was an art-school poseur and aspiring star — he failed his audition to sing for King Crimson — when he devised this high-concept ad jingle for an imaginary brand of cigarettes. He croons “Virginia Plain” like an extraterrestrial Sinatra, on top of Phil Manzanera’s psychedelic guitar and Andy Mackay’s oboe. And raising hell on the keyboards: a beret-wearing fop named Brian Eno, one of rock’s first synthesizer heroes. R.S. 

UNITED KINGDOM - JANUARY 01:  Photo of Roxanne SHANTE; Roxanne Shante live at Brixton Ace, London, 1988  (Photo by David Corio/Redferns)

David Corio/Redferns/Getty Images

91

Roxanne Shanté, “Roxanne’s Revenge”

From the golden age of hip-hop answer records: The Brooklyn group U.T.F.O. were all over the radio with their putdown “Roxanne, Roxanne.” So a 14-year-old girl from the Queensbridge projects decided to strike back with her own version, a freestyle she called “Roxanne’s Revenge.” Shanté’s filthy street hit kicked off a wave of Roxanne singles, as everyone tried to get in on the story: “The Real Roxanne,” “Sparky’s Turn (Roxanne You’re Through),” “Roxanne’s a Man.” But nobody topped Shanté, who now hosts her own show on LL Cool J’s Rock the Bells station on SiriusXM. R.S. 

UNSPECIFIED - circa 1970:  (AUSTRALIA OUT) Photo of WEATHER GIRLS  (Photo by GAB Archive/Redferns)

GAB Archive/Redferns/Getty Images

90

The Weather Girls, “It’s Raining Men”

Donna Summer songwriter Paul Jabara knew he had a hit in 1981 when he called his arranger — a pre-Letterman Paul Shaffer — and told him the idea for a new song. “Paul was openly gay and said to me, and I’m quoting him here, ‘The faggots’ll love it,’ ” Shaffer told Rolling Stone in 2014. Summer, Cher, Diana Ross, and Barbra Streisand all declined. But former Sylvester backup singers Martha Wash and Izora Armstead’s catchy, campy pop hit was quickly embraced by both the gay community and Hollywood, and sold 6 million copies worldwide. As Wash told Rolling Stone in 2014, “It’s morphed into a song that grandparents, parents, and kids can all sing and dance to.” J.N.

Destiny's Child - Kelly Rowland (2nd l) and Beyonce Knowles (2nd r)VARIOUS

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89

Destiny’s Child, “No No No“

Imagine — the first time the world got to hear the magic voices of LeToya, Kelly, and LeTavia! OK, so even at the start, one member of this girl group was slightly more equal than the others. “No, No, No” was the first bow from Beyoncé, when the group was still getting packaged as Wyclef’s latest protegées. In the immortal words of Ed McMahon on Star Search, “Your challengers are a young group from Houston.” Hearing the song now means going back in time to when this was the only Beyoncé song anyone knew — but it was already obvious she had hot sauce in her bag, and “No, No, No” hit Number Three on the pop charts. She woke up like this. R.S. 

Pink Floyd - Nick Mason, Rick Wright, Roger Waters and Syd BarrettVarious - 1967

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88

Pink Floyd, “Arnold Layne”

Pink Floyd were already legends in the London underground scene for their psychedelic live jams at the UFO Club. Yet their first single was the lighthearted (and very English) ditty “Arnold Layne.” Syd Barrett wrote it as the Kinks-style story of a small-town eccentric with a fetish for stealing ladies’ underwear off of laundry lines. As Syd explained at the time, it was all in good fun. “Arnold Layne just happens to dig dressing up in women’s clothing,” he said. “A lot of people do, so let’s face up to reality.” R.S. 

DURAN DURAN - MAY 1981DURAN DURAN

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87

Duran Duran, “Planet Earth”

The New Romantic lifestyle summed up in one song. Duran Duran made “Planet Earth” an anthem for dressing up and smearing your lipstick and dancing with mysterious strangers all night, even if it’s just in the privacy of your own mind. They set out to combine their two favorite bands in one song: Chic and the Sex Pistols. “Planet Earth” has the disco flash of the former (via John Taylor’s bass line) and the punk bravado of the latter — a true breakthrough. Taylor Swift’s “New Romantics” is proof this aesthetic will never die. R.S. 

UNITED KINGDOM - JANUARY 01:  Photo of John LYDON and PIL and PUBLIC IMAGE LTD  (Photo by Virginia Turbett/Redferns)

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86

Public Image Ltd., “Public Image”

The Sex Pistols were done, and Johnny Rotten — who had now matured enough to go by “John Lydon” — knew what people thought of him, so he got ahead of the story. “You never listened to a word that I said/You only seen me from the clothes that I wear,” he sings over a sleek gliding guitar riff that sounds like it doesn’t have a care in the world. Whatever you thought of Lydon, you were wrong, and his new band, Public Image Ltd., showed he was capable of far artier things than the Pistols had ever dreamed of, if he was in control. “The public image belongs to me,” he sings. “It’s my entrance, my own creation, my grand finale, my goodbye.” K.G. 

NEW YORK - AUGUST 26: Rivers Cuomo (left) and Brian Bell (right) relax at their hotel before a Weezer show on August 26, 1994 in New York City, New York.  (Photo by Karjean Levine/Getty Images)

Karjean Levine/Getty Images

85

Weezer, “Undone — The Sweater Song”

Never has knitwear been so tragic as in Weezer’s 1994 debut, “The Sweater Song.” The malaise-drenched intro is thoroughly Nineties, with the chiming, spare guitar line setting the blueprint for decades of indie-rock to come. To start, it’s all build, Rivers Cuomo singing both as if he’s supine in bed and nearing a nervous breakdown. The guitar feedback stands in for today’s proverbial drop, as Cuomo gives into the angst, wailing, “If you want to destroy my sweater/Hold this thread as I walk away.” A push and pull between boredom and breakdown, “The Sweater Song” transcends dated heartbreak, despite being thoroughly part of the fabric of the era. B.E. 

Jackson Browne plays guitar backstage at the Troubadour in circa 1971 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

84

Jackson Browne, “Doctor My Eyes”

Right at the beginning, the thumping piano chords of “Doctor My Eyes” signaled big things for rock’s most blissfully bummed out 24-year-old, just then entering the airwaves for the first time. His words of feeling weary and run-down were masked by a sunny Seventies rhythm — featuring Russ Kunkel on congas and David Crosby and Graham Nash on backing vocals — so much so, that it required a few listens to notice the upbeat song’s bleak lyrics. Browne was two years away from releasing his masterpiece Late for the Sky, but this charmer hinted at the greatness that was to come. A.M. 

Ana Da Silva and Gina Birch of The Raincoats performing at Alexandra Palace, London, UK, 16th June 1980. (Photo by David Corio/Redferns)

David Corio/Redferns/Getty Images

83

The Raincoats, “Fairytale in the Supermarket”

A wildly experimental missive from a band of London punk women stomping clichés under their feet. Their Rough Trade single “Fairytale in the Supermarket” is ragged, rowdy, but full of humor in the strangely friendly singsong voices. (“Cups of tea are a clock! A clock! A clock! A clock!”) Ana Da Silva’s guitar clatters over the high-speed power-drone of Vicky Aspinall’s violin, Gina Birch’s bass, and Palmolive’s drums. The Raincoats chant about figuring out your identity, steering clear of misogynistic traps, warning, “No one teaches you how to live!” As Birch says in Jenn Pelly’s book on the band, “It was a homemade, chaotic sound.” R.S. 

 

CASTAIC, CA- SEPTEMBER 26: Guitarist Steve Turner, guitarist and vocalist Mark Arm, bassist Matt Lukin, and drummer Dan Peters perform in Mudhoney on September 26, 1992 at Castaic Lake Natural Amphitheater in Castaic, California.  (Photo: Lindsay Brice/Getty Images)

Lindsay Brice/Getty Images

82

Mudhoney, “Touch Me I’m Sick”

With a gritty guitar riff and scuzzy lyrics, “Touch Me I’m Sick” was the first genuinely great grunge song. It starts with what sounds like a burp, a sound that can only be followed by frontman Mark Arm boasting about being a creep, a jerk, and diseased — “and I don’t mind,” he sings at one point, as he tries to seduce a sweet young thing with probably the worst pickup line ever … “Touch me I’m sick!” It turns out, it was the start of something beautiful. Cameron Crowe later appropriated it for the movie Singles, in which Matt Dillon’s fictional band, Citizen Dick, sings, “Touch Me I’m Dick.” K.G. 

M.I.A. during M.I.A.in Concert at Metro in Chicago - September 28, 2005 at Metro in Chicago, Illinois, United States. (Photo by Paul Natkin/WireImage)

Paul Natkin/WireImage

81

M.I.A., “Galang”

Nothing much sounded like M.I.A.’s “Galang” in 2004. A minimalistic collision of stuttering dancehall rhythms, buzzing electronic noise, and Maya Arulpragasam’s brash, slang-filled rapping, “Galang” (co-written by Elastica’s Justine Frischmann!) was as singular as it was danceable. It was also a big step forward for globally minded pop music, with M.I.A. — a London-raised performer of Sri Lankan Tamil descent — adopting a Caribbean patois in the song’s chorus and calling up a Buddhist-style chant for its rapturous final vamp. She delivered it all with a punk attitude befitting its lyrical reference to the Clash’s “London Calling,” describing scenes of paranoia and violence that sounded alternately murky and sexy. It was a fitting introduction to one of pop music’s most adventurous and provocative figures of the past decade and a half. J.F

Ronnie DeVoe, Bobby Brown, Michael Bivins, Ricky Bell, and Ralph Tresvant of New Edition pose together.   (Photo by Debra Trebitz/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

Debra Trebitz/Corbis/VCG/Getty Images

80

New Edition, “Candy Girl”

“Candy Girl” was a knowing echo of early Jackson 5 hits — an “ABC”-like melody spruced up with the latest blurting synthesizers, thunking drum programming, and an endearingly goofy rapped bridge. Ralph Tresvant did his best impression of a young Michael, innocent and squeaky as he lathers on charm like a Hallmark card: “You are my world/You look so sweet/You’re a special treat.” In May 1983, New Edition actually beat out their inspiration — “Candy Girl” hit Number One on the R&B chart ahead of Jackson’s “Beat It.” “That was amazing to me because I had been watching the Jacksons and Michael Jackson’s success for most of my life,” New Edition member Ronnie Devoe said. “At that point, I realized we had something going for us, and as long as we stayed together and focused … we could last a long time.” E.L. 

NEW YORK - APRIL 1995: American indie rock band Archers of Loaf (L - R)  drummer Marc Price, bassist Matt Gentling, guitarist Eric Johnson, and  lead vocalist/guitarist Eric Bachmann pose for a April 1995 portrait in New York City, New York. (Photo by Bob Berg/Getty Images)

Bob Berg/Getty Images

79

Archers of Loaf, “Web in Front”

So many indie bands were jumping all over the South in the early Nineties. Archers of Loaf turned out to be catchier than most, but the brilliance of “Web in Front” is how archetypal it is. These Chapel Hill, North Carolina, jokers debuted with this two-minute punk wonder, later the highlight of their 1993 gem, Icky Mettle. “Web in Front” has snotty, slack-ass vocals and raggedly glorious Pavement-style guitar clatter, hammering away at the hook with total conviction: “All I ever wanted was to be your spine.” R.S. 

 

GERMANY - AUGUST 18:  Photo of RIHANNA  (Photo by Rob Verhorst/Redferns)

Rob Verhorst/Redferns/Getty Images

78

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. 

CIRCA 1957: Bo Diddley poses for a portrait with his Gretsch electric guitar in circa 1957 in New York City, New York. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

77

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. 

 

Editorial use onlyMandatory Credit: Photo by ITV/Shutterstock (788503fm)'The Tube' - Sade'The Tube' TV Series

ITV/Shutterstock

76

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. 

LOS ANGELES - MAY 1982:  Rock group Toto (L-R Steve Porcaro, David Hungate, Steve Lukather, Bobby Kimball, David Paich and Jeff Porcaro) pose for a portrait in May 1982 in los Angeles, California (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

75

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. 

Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant of The Pet Shop Boys pose for a photo circa 1983. (Photo by Lester Cohen/Getty Images)

Lester Cohen/Getty Images

74

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. 

 

Portrait of, left to right, drummer Curtis Crowe, guitarist Randall Bewley, bassist Michael Lachowski and singer Vanessa Briscoe Hay of Pylon at Tuts in Chicago, Illinois, May 20, 1983.  (Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

Paul Natkin/Getty Images

73

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. 

David Thomas of Pere Ubu performs on stage at The Roundhouse, London, United Kingdom on 30th April 1978. It was the band's first London concert, supporting Graham Parker. (photo by Gus Stewart/Redferns)

Gus Stewart/Redferns/Getty Images

72

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. 

 

France, Paris, 1994NasEric Mulet / Agence VU

Eric Mulet/Agence VU/Redux

71

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. 

UNITED STATES - CIRCA 1965:  Photo of Grateful Dead when they started playing as the Warlocks  (Photo by Paul Ryan/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Paul Ryan/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

70

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. 

CHICAGO - 1989:  Rapper KRS-1 from Boogie Down Productions performs at the Arie Crown Theater in Chicago, Illinois in 1989.  (Photo By Raymond Boyd/Getty Images)

Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

69

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. 

NEW YORK - APRIL 4:   (L-R) Jarobi White, Q-Tip, Phife Dawg and Ali Shaheed Muhammad of the hip hop group 'A Tribe Called Quest' pose for a portrait session on April 4, 1990 in New York . (Photo by Al Pereira/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Al Pereira/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

68

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. 

UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 16:  Photo of Dave ALLEN and GANG OF FOUR and Andy GILL and Jon KING; L-R. Hugo Burnham, Jon King, Dave Allen, Andy Gill  (Photo by Virginia Turbett/Redferns)

Virginia Turbett/Redferns/Getty Images

67

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. 

Billie Eilish at UMG's Music Is Universal at Antone's.Portraits, SXSW Festival, Austin, USA - Mar 2017

Michael Buckner/Variety/Shutterstock

66

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. 

Maren Morris poses for a portrait at the Spotify House during South By Southwest, in Austin, Texas2016 SXSW - Maren Morris Portrait Session, Austin, USA

Rich Fury/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

65

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. 

Mission of Burma at Tuts in Chicago Illinois, March 19, 1983.  (Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

Paul Natkin/Getty Images

64

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. 

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 16:  American singer Lana Del Rey performs on stage at Scala on November 16, 2011 in London, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Andy Sheppard/Redferns)

Andy Sheppard/Redferns/Getty Images

63

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. 

Brad Whitford, Tom Hamilton, Joey Kramer (drums), Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith on "Midnight Special" in Burbank, CA - June 1974. (Photo by Jeffrey Mayer/WireImage)

Jeffrey Mayer/WireImage

62

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. 

Kelvin Mercer, David Jude Jolicoeur, Vincent Mason, De La Soul, Paradiso, Amsterdam, Holland, 04/04/1989. (Photo by Gie Knaeps/Getty Images)

Gie Knaeps/Getty Images

61

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. 

 

UNITED STATES - JANUARY 01:  Photo of Kevin HASKINS and Daniel ASH and Pete MURPHY and BAUHAUS; L-R: Daniel Ash, Kevin Haskins, Pete Murphy, David J photographed at the Waldorf Astoria  (Photo by Peter Noble/Redferns)

Peter Noble/Redferns/Getty Images

60

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. 

 

UNITED STATES - JANUARY 01:  Photo of TELEVISION; L-R. Billy Ficca, Richard Lloyd, Tom Verlaine, Fred Smith  (Photo by Roberta Bayley/Redferns)

Roberta Bayley/Redferns/Getty Images

59

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.

ROYAL OAK, MI - FEBRUARY 1: (L-R) Bass guitarist Cliff Burton (1962-1986), drummer Lars Ulrich, vocals, guitarist James Hetfield and guitarist Kirk Hammett pose for a studio portrait during the Ride the Lightning Tour at the Royal Oak Music Theatre on February 1, 1985 in Royal Oak, Michigan.  (Photo by Ross Marino/Getty Images)

Ross Marino/Getty Images

58

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. 

Portrait of American Hip-Hop musician and rapper Spoonie Gee (born Gabriel Jackson), New York, 1981. (Photo by Anthony Barboza/Getty Images)

Anthony Barboza/Getty Images

57

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.

 

American pop band Hanson pose for a group portrait on a roof in London in 1997 L-R Taylor Hanson, Isaac Hanson and Zac Hanson. (Photo by Mike Prior/Getty Images)

Mike Prior/Getty Images

56

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. 

 

PROVIDENCE, RI - OCTOBER 7:  The band BOSTON (l-r) Brad Delp, Tom Scholz, Sib Hashian, Fran Sheehan, Barry Goudreau pose for a portrait backstage at the Providence RI Civic Center on October 7, 1976 in Providence, Rhode Island.  (Photo by Ron Pownall/Getty Images)

Ron Pownall/Getty Images

55

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

THE MONKEES -- Pictured: (l-r) Pictured: (l-r) Peter Tork as Peter, Davy Jones as Davy, Micky Dolenz as Micky, Michael Nesmith as Mike -- (Photo by: NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images)

NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal/Getty Images

54

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. 

Portrait of singer Alicia Keys, New York, 2001. (Photo by Anthony Barboza/Getty Images)

Anthony Barboza/Getty Images

53

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. 

MEMPHIS - CIRCA 1962:  (L-R) Drummer Al Jackson and band leader Booker T. Jones of the R&B band Booker T & The MG's record in the Stax Records studio in circa 1962 in Memphis, Tennessee. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

52

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

NEW YORK - OCTOBER 5:  American R&B singer Aaliyah, aka Aaliyah Dana Houghton (1979-2001) poses for a photo backstage at Madison Square Garden for Lifebeat's Urban Aid benefit concert on October 5, 1995 in New York City, New York.  (Photo by Catherine McGann/Getty Images)

Catherine McGann/Getty Images

51

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. 

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