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.

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


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)

Dick Barnatt/Redferns/Getty Images


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


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


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


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


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


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


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.

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