100 Greatest Debut Singles of All Time - Rolling Stone
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

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.

LOS ANGELES - SEPTEMBER 2: (L-R) Bassist Prescott Niles singer Doug Fieger, guitarist Berton Averre and Drummer Bruce Gary of the rock and roll "The Knack" pose for a portrait on September 2, 1980 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

50

The Knack, “My Sharona”

A mi-mi-mi-mind-blowingly awesome blast of New Wave guitar lust, full of sha-sha-sha-shameless sex yelps. The Knack blew out of L.A. in the summer of 1979; as the late, great Doug Fieger told Rolling Stone, his tongue firmly in cheek, they were “a legitimate rock & roll band from the streets of Hollywood.” They hit Number One for six weeks with an ode to Fieger’s real-life girlfriend, now one of L.A.’s most famous real-estate agents. “Sharona was 17,” he said. “I was 25 when I wrote the song. But the song was written from the perspective of a 14-year-old boy. It’s just an honest song about a 14-year-old boy.” Weird Al turned it into “My Bologna”; Cheech and Chong turned it into “My Scrotum.” R.S. 

CIRCA 1986:  Rapper LL Cool J holds a boombox outside a concert, circa 1986. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

49

LL Cool J, “I Need a Beat”

LL Cool J was only 17 when he started out as an MC without a beat. Luckily, he befriended the Beastie Boys’ Ad-Rock, who passed his demo to Rick Rubin — the man responsible for writing the music for “I Need a Beat,” allowing LL Cool J to find his true calling. “I’m your vocalist, your party therapist, beat programmer, and lyricist,” he raps over Rubin’s heavy-hitting bass drum and screeching squalls. “Back then, I would say LL was kind of a nerdy 16-year-old kid,” Rubin recalled of making the track. “He’s one of the more hardworking artists I’ve worked with.” K.G. 

LOS ANGELES - NOVEMBER 1974:  Singer/songwriter Patti Smith poses for a portrait session in November 1974 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Suzan Carson/Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images)

Suzan Carson/Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images

48

Patti Smith, “Hey Joe” / “Piss Factory”

Patti Smith was just a boho NYC scenester poet, crashing at the Chelsea Hotel, writing music reviews for Rolling Stone and Creem. But she knew she was born to be a rock star. She started performing her songs at poetry readings, with Lenny Kaye on guitar and Richard Sohl on piano. “Piss Factory” is her autobiographical rant about being a teen dropout working in a South Jersey factory. On the A side, she turns “Hey Joe” into a lament for kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst, with guitar from her muse, Television’s Tom Verlaine. R.S. 

NEW YORK - 1987:  Rappers Eric B & Rakim pose for a portrait session in 1987 in New York, New York. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

47

Eric B and Rakim, “Eric B Is President”

If I were given hip-hop’s timeline wand and asked to draw the line in the sand that would define the moment that hip-hop stepped into the postmodern age, this song would have to be my choice,” Questlove once declared. Producer Marly Marl’s beat strung together a crate-digger’s delight of funky samples, including James Brown’s “Funky President” and the Honeydrippers’ Nixon-era classic “Impeach the President,” and Rakim, the Eighties’ greatest rapper, asserted his presence with cold-eyed authority, even as he dropped the hilariously wry lines, “You scream I’m lazy?/You must be crazy/Thought I was a donut, you tried to glaze me.” J.D. 

X-Ray Spex in BrightonVarious

Ian Dickson/Shutterstock

46

X-Ray Spex, “Oh Bondage! Up Yours!”

London punk at its fiercest and funniest, from a band led by a biracial teen rebel with braces named Poly Styrene. It begins with Poly mumbling, “Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard. But I think …” Then she screams: “Oh bondage, up yours! 1-2-3-4!” It’s all feminist-punk adrenaline, with her sidekick Lora Logic honking away on the sax. X-Ray Spex fell apart after one classic album, 1978’s Germfree Adolescents; Poly Styrene died of cancer in 2011, at only 53. But her Day-Glo spirit lives on in “Oh Bondage! Up Yours!” R.S. 

LONDON - DECEMBER 7:  James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem performs at the Brixton Academy on December 7, 2005 in London, England.  (Photo by Jim Dyson/Getty Images)

Jim Dyson/Getty Images

45

LCD Soundsystem, “Losing My Edge”

Grand introductions are rarely inspired by inevitable obsolescence. James Murphy has said LCD Soundsystem’s “Losing My Edge” came from the inner turmoil he felt when younger DJs began biting his sets, and the song expertly channels that initial burst of anger into the inner monologue of a neurotic music nerd fretting over records and clout. Murphy cleverly buries this person — and effectively himself — under the weight of the song’s references, but the track really succeeds because of the kind of empathy and compassion that would become central to LCD Soundsystem’s big-tent dance punk. When consternating over the “better-looking people with better ideas and more talent,” Murphy can’t help but blubber out, “And they’re actually really, really nice.” J. Blistein

UNSPECIFIED - JANUARY 01:  Photo of Replacements  (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

44

The Replacements, “I’m in Trouble” / “If Only You Were Lonely”

The Replacements were just a brew crew of Minnesota hardcore brats when they cranked out “I’m in Trouble.” (“Spend my cash, waste my time, take out the trash, not this time.”) As Paul Westerberg told Rolling Stone in 1986, “I’m in Trouble” was the first good song he ever wrote. “It was melodic and it rocked,” he said. “It was everything I wanted, and it was easy to write, although I still blow the bridge every time we play it. I shit you not. We’ve played it for six years, and when we come to the bridge I’m still not sure if it’s a B or an A chord. Every goddamn time.” Fans who flipped over to the B side got a surprise treat: Westerberg’s callow honky-tonk ballad “If Only You Were Lonely.” R.S. 

Oct 1983-new York City Madonna Performs at Studio 54Madonna 1983

Mediapunch/Shutterstock

43

Madonna, “Everybody”

The obvious standout from a four-song demo that the extremely ambitious young singer was shopping around in 1982, “Everybody” caught the ear of a DJ friend, who slipped into his sets at New York’s famed Danceteria. She’d quickly go on to bigger things, and sharper material, but the song patterned the ebullient electro-pop sound of her early classic hits, eventually landing in the Top Five of the Billboard dance charts after Sire Records put it out as her debut single. As Sire founder and President Seymour Stein later recalled, “I would’ve gone down to the bank and withdrawn my own money to sign her if I had too.” J.D. 

The Jimi Hendrix Experience - Jimi Hendrix, Mitch Mitchell and Noel ReddingVARIOUS

Dezo Hoffman/Shutterstock

42

The Jimi Hendrix Experience, “Hey Joe”

The origins of “Hey Joe” are murky — Hendrix’s original single credited the tune as “traditional,” but later pressings cited Billy Roberts, who’d copyrighted it in 1962 — but regardless, Hendrix made it his own. From the cucumber-cool way he sings “I’m going down to shoot my old lady/I caught her messing ’round with another man … and that ain’t too cool,” to the way he builds the song up to a devastating, remorseful guitar solo, Hendrix’s recording was emotional, confessional, and masterful, and it made him an instant star when it came out in the U.K. K.G. 

UNITED KINGDOM - MARCH 14:  Photo of JOY DIVISION; L-R: Bernard Sumner, Ian Curtis, Peter Hook performing live onstage at Bowdon Vale Youth Club  (Photo by Martin O'Neill/Redferns)

Martin O'Neill/Redferns/Getty Images

41

Joy Division, “Digital”

Joy Division were still kids from Manchester, England, in 1978, having already cut an album’s worth of demos when they were a punk band calling themselves Warsaw. But they made “Digital” with producer Martin Hammett, who used his brand-new AMS Digital Delay to create one of the Seventies’ most influential drum sounds, with Ian Curtis pleading, “Don’t ever fade away.” “Digital” was for their side of a Factory Records double EP sampler of two singles from each of four bands — Tony Wilson had just started his Factory label, but he was already in a league of his own when it came to brilliantly complex collector-bait packaging. As Joy Division bassist Peter Hook said later, “We were giving away the chance to have a hit single. Not the cleverest move in the world, surely.” R.S. 

UNITED STATES - JANUARY 01:  Photo of Chris STEIN and Debbie HARRY and BLONDIE; Debbie Harry w/Chris Stein  (Photo by Roberta Bayley/Redferns)

Roberta Bayley/Redferns/Getty Images

40

Blondie, “X Offender”

Only Debbie Harry could take Blondie bassist Gary Valentine’s story of getting charged with statutory rape at age 17, after he got his underage girlfriend pregnant, and twist it into a sexy, girl-group–inspired romp about a prostitute seducing a cop. Even though the song had a catchy Shangri-Las feel, sand buckets full of beach-rock Farfisa organ, and Harry singing her heart out on lines like, “You wanted the love of a sex offender,” the track wasn’t a hit. But it did establish Blondie’s aesthetic with a playful wink. K.G. 

Black Flag - Greg Ginn, Dez Cadena, Robo and Chuck Dukowski. (Photo by Gary Leonard/Corbis via Getty Images)

Gary Leonard/Corbis/Getty Images

39

Black Flag, “Nervous Breakdown”

Black Flag’s 1979 debut offering, “Nervous Breakdown,” lasts only two minutes, with the band’s conniption-prone frontman, Keith Morris, capping off his performance by screaming “I just wanna diiiie.” By the time he gets there, you feel like you’ve been through a meat grinder that’s at least 10 times as long. It felt like much more than punk. Where the Ramones’ take on the genre three years earlier was fun and inclusive, Black Flag hated everything, including themselves, and wanted to rip everything apart, giving birth to hardcore. “I won’t apologize for acting outta line,” Morris sang, and he has never said “I’m sorry” since. K.G. 

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 21:  (L-R) Niall Horan, Zayn Malik, Harry Styles, Liam Payne and Louis Tomlinson of One Direction appear in store to meet fans and sign copies of their debut album, 'Up All Night' at Whiteleys Shopping Centre on November 21, 2011 in London, England.  (Photo by Matt Kent/WireImage)

Matt Kent/WireImage

38

One Direction, “What Makes You Beautiful”

Every boy band has a song about reminding a girl that she is special and beautiful to them. One Direction led off their whole career with that exact statement: “What Makes You Beautiful” is a pop confection all about how perfect you are to them. It was the ideal introduction to these particular five boys, a heavenly, playful, guitar-and-cowbell-driven anthem that is built to be sung back at the boys by thousands of screaming girls in a stadium. Even though One Direction have separated to pursue solo careers, this unimpeachable debut is still beloved by the former members, most of whom have performed the song at solo shows to the thrill of their longtime stans. B.S. 

NEW YORK - MAY 8: Rap group Wu-Tang Clan poses for a portrait on May 8, 1993 on Staten Island in New York City, New York. (l to r:Method Man; GZA; Ol' Dirty Bastard; RZA; Raekwon). (Photo by Al Pereira/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Al Pereira/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

37

Wu-Tang Clan, “Protect Ya Neck”

In 1992, eight men walked into Firehouse Studios in New York, paid the owner $300 (in quarters!) and came out with some of the rawest, most primal verses ever recorded. “There were so many people in the control room, and everyone had an opinion,” Firehouse engineer Blaise Dupuy said in 2018. Bolstered by a low-budget, fly-on-the-wall video, the song — with RZA’s kung-fu-film samples and each charismatic rapper battling the others for ears — would set the group’s template for decades. Nearly 30 years later, it’s easy to see why Questlove called the song the “purest uncut entry” on his list of Top Hip-Hop Songs of All Time. J.N. 

The Eagles perform on stage at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, Netherlands, 1972. L-R Bernie Leadon, Glenn Frey, Randy Meisner. (Photo by Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns)

Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns/Getty Images

36

The Eagles, “Take It Easy”

Nothing ushered in the easygoing wave of Seventies California rock quite like “Take It Easy,” written by the two kings of the genre: Jackson Browne and Glenn Frey. The Eagles emerged from Linda Ronstadt’s backing band, and “Take It Easy” showcased their abilities as an independent rock entity, from Don Henley’s drums to Bernie Leadon’s rollicking banjo. With “Take It Easy,” they set the vibe for all of Los Angeles at the start of the decade, where peaceful, easy people took peyote, hung out in the desert, and took it to the limit one or more time. A.M. 

Frank Ocean near his home in Los Angeles, June 27, 2012.  Ocean, who was written for Beyonce and Justin Bieber, has his first full-length studio album, "Channel Orange," set to release in July. (Kevin Scanlon/The New York Times) -- PHOTO MOVED IN ADVANCE AND NOT FOR USE - ONLINE OR IN PRINT - BEFORE JULY 08, 2012.

Kevin Scanlon/The New York Times/Redux

35

Frank Ocean, “Novacane”

In a way, Frank Ocean’s “Novacane” was a false advertisement. Released the same year that the Weeknd captured critics’ attention during the so-called “PBR&B” wave, Ocean’s L.A. noir tale of a numbing interaction with a dental student at Coachella seemed like a sibling to Abel Tesfaye’s drug-fueled, “haunted strip club” aesthetic. But “Novacane” doesn’t revel in the high; much like any attempt at human connection gone wrong, it hypnotizes you before leaving you just the slightest bit hollow. It would be only a taste of Ocean’s brilliantly enigmatic work to come. C.S. 

D'Angelo at Battery Studio, New York, New York, December 13, 1995. (Photo by Steve Eichner/Getty Images)

Steve Eichner/Getty Images

34

D’Angelo, “Brown Sugar”

D’Angelo stumbled on the beginnings of “Brown Sugar” working in the studio with collaborator Ali Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest. With a live-jam ambience, Southern juke-joint feel, and jazzy hip-hop swing, the molasses-smooth results were at once classic and forward-looking, a showcase for an R&B innovator whose old-school vision would help inspire an entire neo-soul movement. “Soul music is not limited, because there’s so much blues and gospel in it” D’Angelo recalled later. “I tried to stay true to that.” J.D. 

 

NETHERLANDS - FEBRUARY 14:  Photo of PEARL JAM; 14-02-1992 Amsterdam, Pearl Jam  (Photo by Paul Bergen/Redferns)

Paul Bergen/Redferns/Getty Images

33

Pearl Jam, “Alive”

Eddie Vedder was living in San Diego and working as a security guard in 1990 when a tape containing three instrumental tracks by members of defunct Seattle band Mother Love Bone came in the mail. Their frontman, Andrew Wood, had died of a heroin overdose earlier that year, and mutual friend Jack Irons (a former drummer in Red Hot Chili Peppers) said that Eddie might be a good fit for their music. Vedder played the music, went surfing, and the lyrics to “Alive” came to him. As soon as the band heard his mighty growl and anthemic tale of survival in the light of a horrifying personal revelation, they knew they had their man. Before long, he was traveling up to Seattle and they were cutting even more music. But it all began with “Alive.” A.G. 

Portrait of the music group the Go-Go's as they pose backstage at an unspecified venue, Chicago, Illinois, July 30, 1981. Pictured are, from left, Kathy Valentine, Charlotte Caffey, Jane Wiedlin, Belinda Carlisle, and Gina Schock. (Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

Paul Natkin/Getty Images

32

The Go-Go’s, “Our Lips Are Sealed”

Though they had released a 45 of “We Got the Beat” in the U.K. via the punk label Stiff Records, it was here that the queens of California New Wave introduced themselves to American listeners, singing about a secret love over all that surfy Sixties-guitar sweetness, and splashing around a fountain in the song’s classic video. The lyrics were ripped straight from real life, co-written by Go-Go Jane Wiedlin and Terry Hall of the Specials, who were carrying on a romance on the down-low during a 1980 tour, despite the fact that Hall had a fiancée back home in England. J.D.

LOS ANGELES - NOVEMBER 26 :  Singer song-writer and musician Prince performs at the Roxy Theatre on November 26, 1979 in Los Angeles (now in West Hollywood), California.    (Photo by Sherry Rayn Barnett /Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Sherry Rayn Barnett /Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

31

Prince, “Soft and Wet”

Never shy or subtle, Prince introduced his dirty mind to the world with innuendos about his sugarcane, feeling the burning flame, and, of course, the phrase “soft and wet” repeated over and over again. The song recalled Stevie Wonder and Sly Stone, and it was catchy enough to notch it a spot on the lower half of the Top 100 — an impressive feat for a 20-year-old who produced, arranged, and performed the song himself, with only a little help on the lyrics from a friend. But what stands out most about the song now is just how uniquely horny Prince sounded, singing, “If this is lust, then I must confess I feel it every day.” K.G. 

Bernard Edwards, Norma Jean Wright, Nile Rodgers and Tony Thompson pose for a studio portrait in 1977 in the United States. (Photo by Gilles Petard/Redferns)

Gilles Petard/Redferns/Getty Images

30

Chic, “Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah)”

One night, after seeing Roxy Music live in London, guitarist Nile Rodgers called his bassist, Bernard Edwards, back in New York and declared, “I got it.” Got what? “The concept for our next band.” The duo formed Chic, aiming to combine the suave elegance of Roxy Music and the theatrical anonymity of Kiss. They cut right to the chase with their first single, “Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah)” — a disco mantra and an instant Top 10 hit. R.S. 

Australian singer Lorde poses for a portrait, on in New YorkLorde Portrait, New York, USA - 8 Nov 2013

Victoria Will/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

29

Lorde, “Royals”

Lorde’s debut song follows a long lineage of breakthroughs inspired by the feeling of not being seen. On “Royals,” the then-teenager was reflecting on the luxury of the time (“gold teeth, Grey Goose, trippin’ in the bathroom”) that didn’t represent her reality. For such a critique of excess, the song sounds absolutely luxurious, with Lorde making her lifestyle sound like the type of makeshift glamour that anyone her age could relate to. B.S. 

MANZAREK Members of the Doors pose for an undated publicity photo. From left; John Densmore, Robbie Krieger, Ray Manzarek and Jim Morrison. Morrison died in 1971 at age 27. A four-CD boxed set of Doors material has been released, breaking sales records for boxed sets this year in its first week of release, according to Electra RecordsTHE DOORS, USA

AP/Shutterstock

28

The Doors, “Break on Through (to the Other Side)”

While the meandering, spacey “Light My Fire” gave Jim Morrison and Co. their first Number One, “Break on Through (to the Other Side)” captured the raw rock-band power of the Doors. Keyboardist Ray Manzarek cribbed from Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say” and guitarist Robby Krieger aped a timeless blues lick to create the succinct howler (it’s less than two and a half minutes), but the group transformed those petty thefts into something entirely its own. A slice of Sunset Strip psychedelia, the song sounds as vibrant today as it did in 1967. J.H. 

NETHERLANDS - JANUARY 01:  NETHERLANDS  Photo of Liam GALLAGHER and Noel GALLAGHER and OASIS, L-R:Tony McCarroll, Paul 'Bonehead' Arthurs, Noel Gallagher, Liam Gallagher, Paul 'Guigsy' McGuigan - posed, group shot  (Photo by Michel Linssen/Redferns)

Michel Linssen/Redferns/Getty Images

27

Oasis, “Supersonic”

“You can have it all, but how much do you want it?” Liam Gallagher sneered in this 1994 gem, announcing Oasis as the most ambitious — and arrogant — band of the burgeoning Brit-pop era. Written by guitarist Noel Gallagher and opening with a nails-on-chalkboard pick slide, “Supersonic” made rock fans sit up at attention. It also gave the Manchester, England, lads the boost they needed. “On the day that ‘Supersonic’ came out — bang, the crowd were right there,” Noel Gallagher said. “They’re singing your words back that you’d nonsensically wrote down at fucking three in the morning.” J.H. 

Editorial use onlyMandatory Credit: Photo by ITV/Shutterstock (790518kk)'Celebration' - New OrderITV ARCHIVE

ITV/Shutterstock

26

New Order, “Ceremony”

Four days before Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis hanged himself, the band entered a recording studio to cut a haunting new song that reflected his fragile mental state. “This is why events unnerve me,” he sang in a droll monotone. “They find it all, a different story.” After Curtis’ death, the shell-shocked members of the group changed their name to New Order and launched their new band by covering this final work of their previous one. “Ceremony” has been a cornerstone of their live show ever since, and remains the perfect tribute to the genius of Ian Curtis every time they break it out. A.G. 

UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1970:  Photo of Creedence Clearwater Revival  Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

25

Credence Clearwater Revival, “Suzie Q”

John Fogerty stands as one of the all-time great rock songwriters, yet Creedence debuted with a cover of a Fifties rockabilly classic by Dale Hawkins — and even though it was somebody else’s song first, they turned “Suzie Q” into their own musical mission statement. It maps out all the American bayou country CCR would spend the next few years exploring. Fogerty’s guitar rumbles like an apocalyptic doom show — the sound of the Vietnam War isn’t far away, which makes sense since he was still in the Army. The whole band choogles into the abyss. R.S.

UNSPECIFIED - JANUARY 01:  Photo of Missy ELLIOTT; posed, holding glass and bottle of champagne  (Photo by Mick Hutson/Redferns)

Mick Hutson/Redferns/Getty Images

24

Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott, “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)”

Missy Elliot built an impressive track record in the Nineties, writing and rapping on songs by artists like Aaliyah and Total. Expectations were high for her first solo LP, Supa Dupa Fly, in 1997. But few could have expected the otherworldly sound of her debut smash, which rode Timabaland’s slow-drip beat and a lonely sample from Hi Records soul singer Ann Peebles straight into the R&B Top 5. The song’s eye-popping video was one of the best of the era, with Elliott looking at once supa and dupa while rocking what appeared to be a trash bag. ”It was never a trash bag, it was a patent-leather blow-up suit,” she said later. “And why was I in that? I don’t know.” J.D.

 

Buddy Holly (dead February 1959) And The Crickets No Date Given Buddy Holly (dead February 1959) And The Crickets No Date Given

ANL/Shutterstock

23

Buddy Holly and the Crickets, “That’ll Be the Day”

Buddy Holly was just 20 in the summer of 1956, when he and his drummer Jerry Allison went to the movies in their hometown of Lubbock, Texas. They saw the Western classic The Searchers, where John Wayne scoffs at any challenge with the line, “That’ll be the day.” The boys liked it so much, they wrote a song around it; the world heard that hiccup and fell in love. “That’ll Be the Day” got credited to the Crickets, since Buddy was legally entangled with another label. It hit Number One in September 1957. Barely more than a year later, Holly was killed in a plane crash, only 22. R.S.

 

MEMPHIS, TN - 1962: Soul singer Otis Redding poses for a full length portrait in 1962 in Memphis, Tennessee. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

22

Otis Redding, “These Arms of Mine”

The devastatingly short career of Otis Redding kicked off with this heart-wrenching ballad, a song so intense and relatable that Stax Records co-founder Jim Stewart offered him a record contract upon hearing it. The song practically invented the yearning art of peak Sixties soul, capturing Redding’s irresistible vocals that break down as he pleads “Come on baby/Just be my little woman.” It foreshadowed “Pain in My Heart,” the shattering title track to Redding’s 1964 debut LP; on “These Arms of Mine,” he ends up getting the girl, but getting her to come back and stick around proves to be a trauma that’s even worse than unrequited love. A.M.

The Beatles - Ringo Starr, John Lennon, George Harrison, Paul McCartneyThe Beatles at the BBC Studios, London, Britain - 1963

Shutterstock

21

The Beatles, “Love Me Do”

You can hear how scared they are — four lads from Liverpool with no idea what they’re doing in a real studio, making their own record for the first time. (Backing up Hamburg, West Germany, chancer Tony Sheridan on his grotty version of “My Bonnie” definitely didn’t prepare them for this.) When they did “Love Me Do” onstage, John Lennon had always sung the hook, but George Martin decided John should play harmonica instead. So you’re listening to Paul McCartney sing it for the first time ever — as he says, “I can still hear the nervousness in my voice.” But that just adds to the edgy excitement anyone can hear in “Love Me Do.” Spoiler: The band got even better after this. R.S. 

(MANDATORY CREDIT Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music/Getty Images) Kate Bush relaxing in a hotel room, Tokyo, June 1978. (Photo by Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music/Getty Images)

Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music/Getty Images

20

Kate Bush, “Wuthering Heights”

If you think debut novelty singles with kooky visuals becoming massive hits was a phenomenon born in the internet age, think again. “Wuthering Heights” launched 19-year-old Kate Bush’s career in 1978 with four weeks at Number One on the U.K. Singles Chart, and remains the hugely influential pop auteur’s biggest hit to date. Re-enact Bush’s flowing, subtle movements in the music video all you want, but only the brave should attempt singing this tune at karaoke. C.S. 

DEPECHE MODEDepeche Mode photoshoot - 1981

Fraser Gray/Shutterstock

19

Depeche Mode, “Dreaming of Me”

English synth-pop narcissism, with disco beats and all the bittersweet pathos of a doo-wop ballad. Depeche Mode were just beginning to learn the stylistic potential of leather suspenders and handcuffs, but they had the sound down. “Up to that point, I didn’t like dance music or disco music at all, because that was what my big sister liked,” mastermind Vince Clarke told Rolling Stone in 2000. After their 1981 debut, Speak & Spell, Clarke bailed for a great career with Yaz and Erasure, but Martin Gore took over the Mode songwriting — and it’s been one long black celebration ever since. R.S. 

CIRCA 1968: The Box Tops pose for a portrait circa 1968. Singer Alex Chilton is in the center. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

18

The Box Tops, “The Letter”

Years before he fronted the groundbreaking Seventies power pop band Big Star, Alex Chilton was a 16-year-old kid singing lead in the Memphis-based soul outfit the Box Tops. In 1967, they entered the studio with producer Dan Penn to record a new tune written by songwriter Wayne Carson. His father had the idea to start a song with the line “Gimme a ticket for an aeroplane” and Carson took the rest from there. Chilton’s gruff, throaty vocals sound a little like his future work in Big Star, something he always attributed to heavy coaching by Penn. The one minute, 52 second song (complete with airplane sound effects) shot to number one and was covered by everyone from Joe Cocker to country singer Sammi Smith. Despite all the brilliant music Chilton created in Big Star, this remains his most well-known song. A.G. 

CIRCA 1990: American hip hop duo Outkast poses. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

17

Outkast, “Player’s Ball”

It’s the greatest forgotten Christmas song in music history. Originally released as part of label compilation A LaFace Family Christmas (hence the sleigh bells heard throughout the song and lines like “It’s beginning to look a lot like…” and “Getting tipsy off the nog”), Big Boi and Andre Benjamin — the “3000” would come later — launched their career rhyming about an Organized Noise-produced yuletide player’s ball. When the group released their debut album the following year, label head L.A. Reid removed the Noel references, changed the hook from “Christmas day” to “All day, ev’ry day,” and watched as the duo became one of hip-hop’s most successful groups. J.N. 

NEW YORK - OCTOBER 1993:  (EDITORS NOTE: SPECIAL FILTER WAS USED ON LENSE TO CREATE THIS IMAGE) British rock group Radiohead, (clockwise L) , singer/guitarist Ed O'Brien, guitarist Jonny Greenwood,  lead singer Thom Yorke, bassist Colin Greenwood and drummer Phil Selway pose for a 1993 portrait  in New York City, New York. (Photo by Bob Berg/Getty Images)

Bob Berg/Getty Images

16

Radiohead, “Creep”

In 1992, five guys from Oxford, England, that named their band Radiohead after an obscure Talking Heads song took the basic melody of the 1972 Hollies hit “The Air That I Breathe” and sprinkled in some grunge guitar sounds, while frontman Thom Yorke sang of self-loathing and romantic infatuation. Much to their surprise, “Creep” became a worldwide hit, even earning the coveted endorsement of Beavis and Butt-head. Even though it was followed by some of the most innovative and acclaimed music of the past 30 years, “Creep” remains their most famous composition. They still occasionally play it live, although very begrudgingly. “It can be cool sometimes,” Yorke told Rolling Stone in 2017, “but other times I want to stop halfway through and be like, ‘Nah, this isn’t happening.’” A.G.

(MANDATORY CREDIT Ebet Roberts/Redferns) The B-52's performing at Max's Kansas City in New York City on May 27, 1978. (Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns)

Ebet Roberts/Redferns/Getty Images

15

The B-52’s, “Rock Lobster”

When the B-52’s first crawled out of their clappin’ clamshells, they were too weird and fun to be easily classified. On their first single, “Rock Lobster,” frontman Fred Schneider ranted beautifully about a rogue’s gallery of beach dwellers — mermaids, mermen, boys in bikinis, catfish, dogfish, sea robins, a bikini whale! — and it was so groovy you’d barely notice the song was basically a seven-minute prog epic disguised a surf-rock rave-up. The band’s look was part Annette Funicello, part John Waters, but when Schneider and singers Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson made the sound of a piranha chattering on “Rock Lobster,” it was the stuff of an instant classic. Pass the tanning butter! K.G. 

Kanye West showing off his teeth, London, UK 2004STOCK

James Pearson-Howes/Pymca/Shutterstock

14

Kanye West, “Through the Wire”

Rapped with his jar wired shut while he was recovering from a car accident that might’ve upended his rising career, “Through the Wire” was the perfect underdog anthem to set West apart from the rap world he’d soon transform and dominate. Speeding up a vintage Chaka Kahn sample, West made a splash with his “chipmunk soul” sound while turning the story of his near-fatal ordeal into a gripping personal narrative. We’ve been living in his drama ever since. J.D.

The Clash - Paul Simonon, Terry Chimes, Mick Jones and Joe Strummer - c 1976Various

Ray Stevenson/Shutterstock

13

The Clash, “White Riot”

On August 31st, 1976, months after forming the Clash, Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon found themselves in the middle of a riot in Notting Hill, England, when longtime tensions between the black youth of the neighborhood and the police boiled over into violence. The experience inspired Strummer to write a song about the incident and the need for white people to join the battle against oppression. “Black man got a lotta problems,” he wrote. “But they don’t mind throwin’ a brick/White people go to school/Where they teach you how to be real thick.” It became their first single and, even though they became much more musically adventurous than the Ramones-inspired tune, set the template for everything that followed. A.G. 

 

lil nas x

Christaan Felber for Rolling Stone

12

Lil Nas X, “Old Town Road”

Lil Nas X’s Wrangler-wearing tale of couttry/hip-hop deliverance was the moment when the rest of the country caught up to the fact that pop music and internet-meme culture could no longer exist without each other. With “Old Town Road,” 20-year-old Montero Hill understood the cultural moment better than any A-list pop star, writing a hit for the era of TikTok virality as masterfully as Phil Spector tailored his wall of sound for a transistor radio. Meanwhile, his less-than-two-minute song seemed to seamlessly infuse decades of American pop, country, rap, and R&B history. “Especially with the ‘horses in the back line’,” he told Rolling Stone that year, “I was like, ‘This is something people are gonna say every day.’” J. Bernstein

LAS VEGAS - MAY 15:  Singer Taylor Swift (R) greets singer Tim McGraw after performing her song titled "Tim McGraw" onstage during the 42nd Annual Academy Of Country Music Awards held at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on May 15, 2007 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Kevin Winter/ACMA/Getty Images for ACMA)

Kevin Winter/ACMA/Getty Images

11

Taylor Swift, “Tim McGraw”

Taylor Swift began writing this ballad in math class her freshman year. “I was dating a guy who was about to go off to college,” she said. “I knew we were going to break up.” With her first song, Swift immediately showed her Nashville peers she could beat any of them at their own game, acing the classic genre trope of “nostalgic country song about how country music is nostalgic.” But the majesty of “Tim McGraw” is just how much of Taylor’s own writerly sensibilities shine through beginning with the unforgettable opening couplet: “He said the way my blues eyes shined/Put those Georgia stars to shame that night,” she sang. “I said, ‘That’s a lie.’” J. Bernstein. 

LONDON - 1st JANUARY: Johnny Marr (left) and Morrissey from The Smiths pose under the branches of a willow tree in London in 1983. (Photo by Clare Muller/Redferns)

Clare Muller/Redferns/Getty Images

10

The Smiths, “Hand in Glove”

“To me, the two-minute-ten-second single was power,” Morrissey told Rolling Stone in 1986, recalling his prefame days of obsessive music fandom. “It was blunt, to the point.” The Smiths proved themselves masters of the form right out of the gate. With its striking fade-in intro, slashing drums, reel-’round-the-cemetery harmonica, and Johnny Marr’s searing jangle, “Hand in Glove” was an anthem of loneliness and disaffection that touched a communal nerve, launching an astonishing run of U.K. hits for the band. As Morrissey recalled in his memoir, “The release of ‘Hand in Glove’ told me, at least, that I existed.” J.D.

UNITED STATES - JANUARY 01:  CBGB'S  Photo of Johnny RAMONE and RAMONES and Dee Dee RAMONE and Joey RAMONE, L-R. Johnny Ramone, Joey Ramone, Dee Dee Ramone  (Photo by Roberta Bayley/Redferns)

Roberta Bayley/Redferns/Getty Images

9

The Ramones, “Blitzkrieg Bop”

Hey, ho, let’s go! The Ramones dropped a punk-rock bomb called “Blitzkrieg Bop” on the world in early 1976. Joey, Johnny, Tommy, and Dee Dee sincerely thought they were writing a potential pop smash — their template was the Bay City Rollers’ “Saturday Night.” Instead, it was a commercial flop, out of step with the times. As Tommy boasted to Rolling Stone in 1976, “We play rock & roll. We don’t do solos.” But “Blitzkrieg Bop” has been blowing bad brains ever since: two minutes of buzzsaw guitar and teenage-lobotomy drums, all revved up and ready to go. R.S.

 

1954:  Rock and roll singer Elvis Presley with his bass player Bill Black on tour with the Louisiana Hayride show in 1954. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

8

Elvis Presley, “That’s All Right”

Elvis Presley was a dirt-poor Mississippi hillbilly kid, but he was cocky — he even wore a pink suit to his audition. You can hear that confidence blast out of “That’s All Right.” Elvis was just trying to cut a straight country ballad one night at Sun Studios, when he started messing with a blues tune, Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right.” Sam Phillips rolled tape, and the rest was history. It didn’t much resemble the previous version — Elvis revamped the chords, the lyrics, the tone — and it became something new. He also added his own girlish sighs at the end: “I need your looovin’!” It made him a legend overnight. R.S.

English rock group Led Zeppelin posed sitting on car bonnet during their first photo shoot for WEA records in London in December 1968. L-R John Paul Jones, Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and John Bonham. (Photo by Dick Barnatt/Redferns)

Led Zeppelin is one of Warner's most prominent legacy artists.

Dick Barnatt/Redferns/Getty Images

7

Led Zeppelin, “Good Times Bad Times”

If you ever doubt the genius of Jimmy Page, give a fresh listen to Led Zeppelin’s debut single: It’s under three minutes, but it gives everybody in the band a star-making solo spot. You don’t even reach the first verse before Bonzo hands your skull to you. “Good Times Bad Times” was calculated to be the world’s first taste of Zeppelin, their calling card for a whole new rock aesthetic. The Zep legend rests mostly on epics where they travel time and space out, but “Good Times Bad Times” proves Page understood the pop virtues of pace and concision as well as Berry Gordy or Phil Spector. R.S.

Portrait of the band REM posing outdoors next to a sculpture at Park West, Chicago, Illinois, May 26, 1983. (Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

Paul Natkin/Getty Images

6

R.E.M., “Radio Free Europe”

R.E.M. changed the world in so many ways with their 1981 seven-inch “Radio Free Europe.” Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, Mike Mills, and Bill Berry broke every rock-game rule: They were from a nowhere town (there’s an Athens in Georgia?), on the local label Hib-Tone, no power chords, no keyboards, no machismo, no clichés. A low-budget, high-energy DIY sound that was clearly Southern — not a hint of New York or L.A. or London in it. (Though maybe a bit of Manchester or Boston.) So down-home, yet so far out. There was no such thing as “indie rock” yet (the catchphrase wasn’t coined until the end of the decade), but “Radio Free Europe” was a song full of ideas you were invited to steal for yourself. A couple of years later, every town in America had a few of these bands. R.S.

CHICAGO - CIRCA 1958: Rock and roll musician Chuck Berry poses for a portrait session in circa 1958 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

5

Chuck Berry, “Maybellene”

In 1955, Chuck Berry was a hairdresser with a side hustle as a guitar man, already pushing 30 with no acclaim or loot to show for it. But he had a vision: What if you took country music and tricked it up with the blues? And then — most importantly — sped it all the way up? The result would be “Maybellene,” the founding rock & roll anthem. Berry based it on a hayseed tune he loved — the Bob Wills classic “Ida Red.” But he invented something new under the sun: the Chuck Berry riff, a revolutionary sound. He changed Ida’s name to Maybellene and piled on his rapid-fire cars-and-girls poetry: “As I was motorvating over the hill/I saw Maybellene in a Coupe De Ville.” All of American music is in that guitar somewhere. R.S. 

Run DMC's Jason "Jam-Master Jay" Mizell, Darryl "D.M.C." McDaniels and Joseph "Run" Simmons pose in Central Park, New York, circa 1984. The group from Hollis, Queens, N.Y., was an influential act in the history of hip-hop music. (Photo by Oliver Morris/Getty Images)

Oliver Morris/Getty Images

4

Run-DMC, “Sucker M.C.’s/It’s Like That”

Run-D.M.C’s bombshell debut flipped hip-hop from club music to street music. As Jam Master Jay said, “There never was a B-boy record made until we made ‘Sucker M.C.’s.’” It’s two rappers from Hollis, Queens, boasting about their wild style — “I cold chill at the party in a B-boy stance” — over the toughest stripped-down DMX beats, built to blare out of boomboxes. The stance was the star. Like Run says, “You’re a five-dollar boy and I’m a million-dollar man/You the sucker M.C., and you’re my fan.” On the flip side: the hard-ass hood realism of “It’s Like That.” Suddenly everything else in rap was old school — the golden age was about to begin, with Run-D.M.C leading the way. R.S.

Sex Pistols - Glen Matlock, Johnny Rotten and Steve Jones El Paradise. Apr 1976Various

Sex Pistols - Glen Matlock, Johnny Rotten and Steve Jones El Paradise. Apr 1976 Various

Ray Stevenson/Shutterstock

3

The Sex Pistols, “Anarchy in the U.K.”

The opening of “Anarchy in the U.K.” feels like a bulldozer coming right for you, and then the song’s engineer, one Johnny Rotten, makes it even scarier by piping up, “I am an antichrist, I am an anarchist!” It sounds like Lucifer himself ascended from hell, ready for the final judgment. Yet the song is also somehow very catchy and really funny, with one of Rotten’s suggestions for anarchy being giving someone the wrong time. Despite “Anarchy” sounding like a declaration of war, Rotten told Rolling Stone in 2017 that he wasn’t totally serious with the song. “Why would we want to destroy [the human race and culture] willy-nilly?” he said. K.G.

UNSPECIFIED - JANUARY 01:  Photo of JACKSON FIVE and Tito JACKSON and Marlon JACKSON and Jermaine JACKSON and Michael JACKSON and Jackie JACKSON; Posed studio group portrait L-R Tito, Marlon (front), Jermaine, Michael and Jackie Jackson  (Photo by Gilles Petard/Redferns)

Gilles Petard/Redferns/Getty Images

2

The Jackson 5, “I Want You Back”

At the very end of the Sixties, Berry Gordy was determined to put the whole Motown empire behind a hit to define the new decade. “I Want You Back” had an all-star production team, tellingly credited as “the Corporation,” bringing in jazz players from the Crusaders as well as L.A. session wizards. (They worked on it so long that nobody’s even sure who plays what on the final product.) And at the heart of “I Want You Back,” five brothers from Gary, Indiana — Tito, Marlon, Jackie, Jermaine, and lead singer Michael, already a soul virtuoso at the age of 11. Every moment is perfect, from the opening piano swirl to the seven-note bass hook. It hit Number One in January 1970. But for once in his life, Gordy was guilty of thinking too small — because “I Want You Back” not only defined the Seventies, it has summed up the essence of musical joy ever since. R.S. 

(EXCLUSIVE, Premium Rates Apply) (EXCLUSIVE COVERAGE – PREMIUM RATES APPLY)  Britney Spears poses during a portrait session on October 2, 1998 in Los Angeles, California.

Larry Busacca/WireImage

1

Britney Spears, “…Baby One More Time”

One of those pop manifestos that announces a new sound, a new era, a new century. But most of all, a new star. Planet Earth, meet Britney Jean Spears, the 17-year-old pride of Kentwood, Louisiana. “…Baby One More Time” is an apocalyptic thunder-clap of a song, with Max Martin’s mega-boom production: The only detail he screwed up was the incredibly annoying ellipsis in the title. As Britney told Rolling Stone in 2000, she stayed up late the night before listening to Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” (“What a sexy song”) to get the growl she wanted. “I wanted my voice to be kind of rusty.” 

In the great tradition of debut singles, it was a divisive statement that drew a line between past and future. “So much attitude in that song,” Spears said. “I was so happy because there’s a lot of good songs out there, but it’s rare when you can take a song and really put your name all over it and put your personality into it.” With “…Baby One More Time,” this girl changed the sound of pop forever: It’s Britney, bitch. Nothing was ever the same. R.S.

Arrow Created with Sketch. Calendar Created with Sketch. Path Created with Sketch. Shape Created with Sketch. Plus Created with Sketch. minus Created with Sketch.