Artwork by Cap Blackard
This week in 1962, The Beatles released their first-ever single, “Love Me Do”, in the UK. Suffice it to say, our collective concepts of pop music, celebrity, and mop-top hairdos have never been the same since. There are at least a half-dozen maxims in English stressing the importance of first impressions. We won’t bore you with them here. However, for the purposes of this project, we more or less treated debut singles like first impressions.
Some of those impressions, like The Beatles’, changed how we listen to and think about music. Others found artists penning their signature songs their first time out or releasing a recording that hinted at greatness to come or inspired the musical direction of others. Of course, not all iconic artists shook the world with their first releases, and some of those omissions are also what make a list like this so compelling. As your dear mother might phrase it, these are the songs that dressed neatest, stood up straightest, smiled, and spoke most politely when we first heard them. And boy did they have us from the get-go.
But first, allow us to clarify a few things before you start reading: Keeping in the above spirit, we defined a debut single as an act’s first real introduction to the public. If the act already put out an EP or an album before pressing and releasing an official single, we didn’t count that. We really wanted to focus on first encounters between acts and the music-consuming public. Now, sure, we knew John Lennon as a Beatle, but we also considered his debut single as a solo artist, “Give Peace a Chance”. We kept that rule constant across the project.
Since The Beatles were the impetus for this list, we’ve only looked at singles that were released during or after 1962 – basically starting from around the time when the LP became the standard release medium. We are infallible … but should you see something, let us know below. That being said, click ahead to see our picks for the 100 Greatest Debut Singles of All Time.
100. Foo Fighters – “This Is a Call” (1995)
After the death of Kurt Cobain, Nirvana’s drummer, Dave Grohl, was, like so many of us, in a state of shock and confusion for months afterward. As a form of personal catharsis, Grohl booked studio time at a spot near his Seattle home and in five days knocked out the first Foo Fighters album, which was introduced to the world three weeks earlier by this bracing, explosive single. The lyrics are a total muddle of images and ideas, but the crux, according to the songwriter, is a nod/farewell to the bands and musicians that helped foster his career up to that point. And before we realized what was happening, Grohl was leading the biggest rock band on the planet with a shit-eating grin plastered on his face. –Robert Ham
99. The Byrds – “Mr. Tambourine Man” (1965)
While there may be a modern stigma against cover songs, it was standard practice for ‘60s rock acts to cut their beaks on borrowed compositions. However, few took that songwriting boost and soared quite as high with it as The Byrds. While members like lead guitarist Roger McGuinn and rhythm guitarist David Crosby would go on to pen their own classics, the significance of “Mr. Tambourine Man” can’t be overstated. Not only did their abridged version fit more snugly on radio than Bob Dylan’s sprawling epic (it flew to No. 1 on both sides of the pond), but it helped pioneer both the folk rock and psychedelic sounds that would come to dominate the rest of the decade and much of the next. The recording also sacrificed none of the original’s sense of confusion, wonder, or hopefulness – a mixture of feelings that makes the song’s opening moments a time portal to ’60s America. –Matt Melis
98. Mudhoney – “Touch Me I’m Sick” (1988)
In the twisted cosmos of alternative debut singles, “Touch Me I’m Sick” stands as the celebratory counterpoint to Radiohead’s “Creep”. If this song had a smell, it would be the strangely addicting stink of one’s own body odor. Backed by a Big Muff-powered blitzkrieg of guitars, Mudhoney vocalist Mark Arm screeches as if he’s trying to drown out his own demons. But there’s something wild and reckless and almost gleeful about Arm’s performance, and that’s what separates “Touch Me I’m Sick” from much of the self-loathing grunge it spawned. After all, there’s nothing particularly interesting about hating oneself. Turning that hatred into a party forces the rest of us to pay attention and maybe even join in the festivities. Mudhoney did this better than any of their early grunge-era compatriots, and so they were the perfect band to put Seattle and Sub Pop Records on the map. –Collin Brennan
97. Alabama Shakes – “Hold On” (2012)
If there was one thing missing from the Americana revival of the last turn of the decade, it was a powerful female vocalist. Though Alabama Shakes would never claim to be revivalists themselves, Brittany Howard was certainly that missing voice. Coming in on Heath Fogg’s Muscle Shoals groove and a funky rhythm from Zack Cockrell and Steve Johnson, “Hold On” seemed to present Howard as a husky soul singer with an endearingly slight drawl. Then that bridge kicks in with a sudden drop and the full potential of her voice is realized as she belts, “I don’t wanna … wait!” It was right there that you had to acknowledge the Shakes were something special, and whatever explorations they took in the ensuing years, it would be worth following along to see what heights those thunderous pipes could reach. –Ben Kaye
96. The Traveling Wilburys – “Handle with Care” (1988)
Even a Beatle needs a hand sometimes, and a hand from Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, and Jeff Lynne (of Electric Light Orchestra) helps more than most. The supergroup known as The Traveling Wilburys came together quite serendipitously in the late ’80s to record two albums, which featured George Harrison (Nelson Wilbury) at his absolute best since his solo work in the early ’70s. “Handle with Care” was originally to be a B-side for Harrison’s “This Is Love”. The resulting recording, however, was deemed too good to be a B-side throwaway and prompted the group to record a full album of material. The rest is supergroup history. –Matt Melis
95. The Cure – “Killing an Arab” (1978)
“Hey Robert, how about we release the title track to Boys Don’t Cry as the first single?” “No, I think my weird lyrical essay on Albert Camus’ The Stranger would do better for us.” Hey, very few will argue against The Cure being one of the more bizarre outfits in alternative rock, what with that goddamn hair alone, which is why it’s fitting they’d begin their illustrious career with “Killing an Arab”. Then again, it’s exactly the type of song one might expect from a bunch of twentysomething art house rockers circa 1978, and while the subject matter has certainly gone over people’s heads throughout the years (especially moron Islamophobes), it’s a ballsy first chapter to one of the most influential outfits in the genre. –Michael Roffman
94. Sam & Dave – “Hold On, I’m Comin'” (1966)
Prior to early ‘60s acts like Sam & Dave, the majority of African American artists had to tone things down if they wanted to do more than crack the R&B charts – that is, if they also hoped to be deemed acceptable by white pop audiences. But much of that “politeness” got flung out the window with songs like “Hold On, I’m Comin’”, a blazing first single hijacked by driving horns and the sweat-dripping urgency of Sam Moore and Dave Prater as they promise a lover that her rescue party is en route. It’s relentless rock and roll and a sermon rolled into one, and no act deserves more credit than Sam & Dave for drawing upon the cadences of gospel singing to bring soul music to the white masses. From day one, these two were the original Soul Men. –Matt Melis
93. Nine Inch Nails – “Down in It” (1989)
The beauty of debut singles is sometimes you get a brief alternate history for an artist that never was. The case in point is Trent Reznor’s first taste of Pretty Hate Machine, which isn’t nearly as aggressive as it is funky, with pseudo-rapping on the verses and burbling synths that sound closer to the Ghostbusters soundtrack than the breakneck Ministry-influenced thrash he’d quickly rev into full gear on 1992’s Broken EP. Pretty Hate Machine had plenty of crunching metal moments, though, and “Down in It” simply wasn’t one of them; it reaches its dork apotheosis when he starts chanting “Rain, rain, go away, come again some other day” in the outro. For its maximum effect, though, you’ve gotta see Reznor’s dancing, ponytail, and hip-hop posturing in his performance of the tune on a show called Dance Party USA. –Dan Weiss
92. Tracy Chapman – “Fast Car” (1988)
“Fast Car” shouldn’t be a first single. It’s too perfect, and Tracy Chapman, as shown on her debut album cover prior to her trademark long braids, was too young to be so skilled and possess such a wise soul. In a time when Guns N’ Roses and hair metal still reigned supreme, Chapman’s acoustic self-titled debut and “Fast Car” sped right past the competition on the strength of the single’s small-town narrative and Chapman’s uncanny ability to project her dreams and make listeners feel the sting of her resignation and disappointment. There’d be plenty more platinum albums and brutally honest song craft to come, but the perfection of her first single set the bar for the blitz of singer-songwriters, of all genders and colors, who picked up an acoustic guitar in the ‘90s. The entire era owes a nod and a debt to Chapman’s trailblazing debut. –Matt Melis
91. Mumford and Sons – “Little Lion Man” (2009)
We’re not here to argue whether “Little Lion Man” deserved to be nominated for Best Rock Song at the 2011 Grammys or whether Mumford and Sons have positively impacted the direction of folk music this decade. That’s all debatable, sure, but it’s undeniable that the band did change the course of modern folk, and “Little Lion Man” is the track that set the heading. It’s a booming, literary number that brought banjo to the forefront of a popular hit for the first time since Beck’s “Sexx Laws”. Though folk had been hot in the indie scene for a while beforehand, this was the song that thrust it into the popular limelight. It launched the career of the first new festival-headlining folk band in what feels like decades while also likely sending listeners back to explore artists ranging from Emmylou Harris to Old Crow Medicine Show. Whether you’re satisfied with the direction popular folk took after this track or the career of its creators is irrelevant; “Little Lion Man” is an assertive debut single that led to the explosion of not just one band but an entire genre. That’s impressive any way you slice it. –Ben Kaye