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

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A great debut single is the opening line in a conversation you never want to end, and hearing a band or artist get it right on their first try is one of the greatest thrills in music. Unlike debut albums, there’s some gray area involved in determining exactly what constitutes a debut single. We decided that solo debuts by well-known artists didn’t count (so classics like Lauryn Hill’s “Doo-Wop (That Thing)” or Snoop Doggy Dogg’s “Who I Am (What’s My Name)” weren’t eligible). But singles by new bands that happened to include established artists (like Public Image Ltd) were fair game, as were bands that had released music under a previous name or in an earlier form, like the Grateful Dead, CCR, and New Order. We also gave a pass to a couple of artists who put out local records no one heard or promotional singles that weren’t available commercially.

The list we ended up with is heavily titled toward singles that became building blocks to great careers, though there are a couple of seismic one-hit wonders here as well — after all, there’s something to be said for perfecting your musical vision in three minutes, remaking the world, and getting out of the way to let future generations make sense of the mess you’ve created.

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)

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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.

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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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