Apropos of not a great deal, the music nerd contingent at Flavorwire central recently got a-talking about our favorite debut single. The list is nearly endless, but once you start to think about it, picking out the best isn’t quite as easy as you might think — “Alison” wasn’t Elvis Costello’s first single, for instance, nor was “Take Me Out” Franz Ferdinand’s debut or “Unfinished Sympathy” Massive Attack’s. Of course, this discussion inevitably led to list-making, and here’s the result: our picks for the 50 best debut singles the world of music has to offer. (One caveat: we’ve generally avoided one-hit wonders, who are a category of their own, although a couple did sneak in.)
Bad Brains — “Pay to Cum”
Punk accelerated to hyperspeed. Into the course of precisely 86 seconds, Bad Brains managed to cram two verses that delivered a strongly worded critique of consumer society, a brief instrumental break, and coda that manages to strike some note of hope (“A peace together/ A piece apart/ A piece of wisdom from our hearts”). The experience of listening is not unlike having your head put into a blender.
Azealia Banks — “212″
Sure, her career since has been an ongoing exercise in being let down, but this is still a killer single. Also, as a measure of its ubiquity, I heard it being played last year on a flight between Kuala Lumpur and Bahrain — they censored all the “fucks,” but clearly didn’t realize “cunt” was also a curse word. Anyway. Great song.
Bauhaus — “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”
If you weren’t listening to this on Halloween, you were doing it all wrong.
Boys Next Door — “Shivers”
The first the world heard from Nick Cave and the band who would become The Birthday Party, although this song was written by guitarist Rowland S. Howard. It’s since become something of an Australian classic, despite the fact that Howard himself had long since grown tired of it.
Kate Bush — “Wuthering Heights”
One of the most idiosyncratic debut singles the world has ever heard, and one of the most memorable — there just aren’t that many Brontë-inspired oddball singer/songwriters around, sadly. Also memorable: that video, with Bush’s iconic red dress and her equally iconic interpretive dance moves.
Tracy Chapman — “Fast Car”
It’s still remarkable to think this was such a massive hit — it’s as dark and somber a lyric as you’re ever gonna hear in the charts, discussing the persistence of poverty and the difficulty of social mobility in a society that just keeps pushing you back down.
Neneh Cherry — “Buffalo Stance”
Cherry had done a couple of guest appearances with The Wild Bunch and The The before this song was released, but this was her solo debut, and it remains one of the most exuberant and idiosyncratic moments of the late ’80s. It’s remarkable just how well this has held up; 25 years later, it’s still as colorful and fresh as ever.
The Clash — “White Riot”
A song that sounds like a brick being thrown through your window. The Clash would soon move beyond the narrow confines of this song’s stylistic strictures, their musical horizons expanding to encompass all sorts of sounds and influences, but they never sounded quite this dynamic and angry again.
Leonard Cohen — “Suzanne”
Hey, mister epochal genius! Nice lyric!
The Cure — “Killing an Arab”
The first the world saw of Robert Smith’s hair, and still one of the best songs he ever wrote. (Also, just to preempt any “Wait, that’s racist!” comments from people who aren’t especially familiar with Smith’s oeuvre, the lyric and title are inspired by Albert Camus’ existentialist classic The Outsider.)
The Damned — “New Rose”
The first punk single. Year zero started right here. And also, quite apart from the historical significance, it’s a killer song — especially since the whole new rose image rather hearkens back to William Blake’s “The Sick Rose,” which goes to show that the idea of punk as a haven for mohawked illiterates was wrong from the start.
Missy Elliott — “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)”
“We so tight that you get our styles tangled,” Elliott proclaimed of herself and her partner in crime, Timbaland, and the distinctive style they created would revolutionize hip hop production. The song also features an iconic Hype Williams video, including one of the earliest appearances of the director’s trademark fisheye lens.
EMA — “The Grey Ship”
Erika M. Anderson’s previous band Gowns were compelling and dark enough, but Past Life Martyred Saints — and especially this single — represented the fullest expression of her ideas yet. The song pivots at about the three-minute mark, moving from a discussion of the arrival of an ominous ship from the north into a catalog of lost family members — the obvious interpretation is that the ship is a metaphor for death, and the song shares the same feeling of opiated small-town despair that characterized Gowns’ Red State: “Great grandmother lived on the prairie/ Nothin’ and nothin’ and nothin’ and nothin’/ I got the same feeling inside of me/ Nothin’ and nothin’ and nothin’ and nothin’….”
Frankie Goes to Hollywood — “Relax”
A how-to guide to gay sex that went straight to the top of the charts? They just don’t make songs like this anymore.
Garbage — “Vow”
Garbage seem to have gone out of fashion of late, which is sad, because their first album, in particular, still sounds great. This song was both eminently hummable and pleasantly sinister — when Shirley Manson sang “I came to cut you up/ I came to knock you down/ I came to tear your little world apart/ And break your soul apart,” you believed her.
Ginuwine — “Pony”
God — “My Pal”
One of the greatest guitar riffs of all time, courtesy of four precocious kids from Melbourne, Australia. The members of God were in their mid-teens when this was released in 1987 (vocalist Joel Silbersher was 16, which seems scarcely believable given how much older his throaty voice makes him sound). The band made two albums, but never really lived up to the promise of “My Pal” — and sadly, both guitarist Sean Greenway and bassist Tim Hemmensley were to die of heroin overdoses in the early 2000s — but they left one hell of a debut single to remember them by.
The Gun Club — “Sex Beat”
It’s hard to listen to The Gun Club without thinking of what became of Jeffrey Lee Pierce, but this song — and, indeed, the rest of Fire of Love — is a reminder of what a vital, visceral force the band was in its youth. This came on a double A-side with “Ghost on the Highway,” but this is the highlight, a manic, rockabilly-inflected romp through the politics of sex: “I know your reasons and I know your goals/ We can fuck forever but you will never get my soul.”
Guns N’ Roses — “It’s So Easy”
Say what you like about Axl Rose, but when his talents were combined with the songwriting prowess of the much-underrated Izzy Stradlin, the result was some of the most memorable hard rock moments of the pre-grunge era. There’s a lot to dislike about “It’s So Easy” — its nihilism and its casual misogyny, in particular — but it’s a perfect evocation of the empty hedonism that comes from small-town alienation.
PJ Harvey — “Dress”
A bleak discussion of the woman’s role in the eternal power game of relationships, with the dress symbolizing the pressures on women to adopt a role that fits uncomfortably (not unlike Pulp’s “Pink Glove,” a song that explores similar territory). It’s a strikingly good lyric, and Harvey’s delivery is still coruscatingly powerful.
HTRK — “Ha”
HTRK’s early career was a frustratingly stop-start affair — it took ages for their fantastic debut album Marry Me Tonight to get released, but before it finally saw the light of day, it was preceded by this killer single. The song’s built on a slow, hypnotic drum pattern and the late Sean Stewart’s sinuous bassline, which snakes in and out of the beat.
L7 — “Shove”
This debut single set out everything there was to love about L7: guitars that sounded like large, terrifying cars, Donita Sparks’ snarling vocal delivery, and lyrics that were both angry and kinda hilarious. In this case, they were a catalog of things that were on Sparks’ shitlist (which would itself, of course, later be celebrated in song): “Some guy just pinched my ass/ Drunken bums ain’t go no class/ The club says I won’t get paid/ It’s been months since I’ve been laid…”
LCD Soundsystem — “Losing My Edge”
James Murphy’s wry, self-deprecating humor was just as much a feature of his career as his talent for producing cerebral electronic music, and both were on display here. As far as debuts go, it’s an unlikely one — an aging DJ poking fun at his own sense that he’s losing his grasp on what’s cool — but it resonated with both young and old, perhaps demonstrating that deep down, we all fear we’re losing our edge. But we were there, dammit!
Le Tigre — “Hot Topic”
Not “Deceptacon,” curiously. For some reason, despite being one of the best songs of the ’00s, it wasn’t released as a single. Instead, Kathleen Hanna’s pop-tastic Trojan horse wheeled this track into the mainstream on a deceptively jaunty yé-yé beat. Listen without paying much attention and you could imagine Megan Draper singing it; listen carefully and you realize that what you’re hearing is a catalog of feminist icons and inspirations, all being implored to keep on doing what they’re doing.
Led Zeppelin — “Communication Breakdown”
A blast of hirsute riffery with liberal doses of Robert Plant’s primal howl — Led Zeppelin went on to write better songs that this, but they rarely again approached its simple charms and its brevity.
Manic Street Preachers — “Motown Junk”
I’m clearly in a Manics frame of mind this week, but although this strictly wasn’t the band’s first release — that honor goes to limited-edition homemade 7″ “Suicide Alley” — and was also preceded by the New Art Riot EP, it was for all intents and purposes their debut single. And what a debut it was — a gloriously quixotic shot across the bows of the rock ‘n’ roll establishment, with a chorus that went, “I laughed when Lennon got shot” and an outro that contained the bald declaration, “We live in urban hell/ We destroy rock and roll!”
MGMT — “Time to Pretend”
Yeah, it got played to death, but that doesn’t change the fact that this really is a pretty ace song. It’s this generation’s “Groove Is in the Heart” — a song that everyone was ready to never hear again by the time its popularity finally waned, but remained prime for rediscovery a decade later. (Also, that bit in the video where Andrew VanWyngarden rides a giant kitten is still amazing.)
M.I.A. — “Galang”
M.I.A.’s genre- and culture-hopping aesthetic emerged fully formed on this debut single, which mixed London slang and Eastern-influenced chants over slamming polyrhythmic beats. True fact: the song was co-composed by Elastica’s Justine Frischmann, for whom M.I.A. was working at the time.
Mötley Crüe — “Live Wire”
Yes, this is awesome. Yes, the Crüe are entirely worthy of not one but two rock ‘n’ roll umlauts. No, I am not ashamed.
Mudhoney — “Touch Me I’m Sick”
For all that people venerate Nirvana, there’s an argument to be made that this is the single best song to come out of the grunge era, a two-and-a-half-minute blast of rock ‘n’ roll perfection. It’s probably the one song in the world that Iggy Pop wishes he had written.
The Notorious B.I.G. — “Party and Bullshit”
It’s fascinating listening to Biggie’s early work. A tape surfaced a couple of years back of him participating in some sort of radio competition, and it showed that his distinctive, sing-song style was there from the start. It was certainly in full effect on this song, which combined a flow smoother than 18-year-old scotch with a certain urban grittiness. Apparently The Last Poets, who were sampled for the song’s hook, hated it; hopefully time has mellowed their rage somewhat, because this is a classic.
Gary Numan — “Cars”
In fairness, it was hard to know where Tubeway Army ended and Gary Numan began, but this was his first release under his own name, which makes it, technically, his debut solo single. It remains perhaps his best-known song. Apparently it was inspired by getting caught up in a road rage incident, but its declaration of feeling safety in technology tied in beautifully to Numan’s hypermodern synthpop aesthetic.
Frank Ocean — “Novacane”
All the themes that have made Ocean’s solo work so compelling are here: West Coast cocaine alienation, the feeling of derealization that come when the drugs have long since stopped being fun, hollow hedonism and long, empty nights. It’s like Bret Easton Ellis’ Less than Zero put to music.
Radiohead — “Creep”
As has been well documented, Thom Yorke hates this and has done for years. This doesn’t change the fact it’s a great song, though.
The Ramones — “Blitzkrieg Bop”
One two three four!
R.E.M. — “Radio Free Europe”
There were never any singles released from the Chronic Town EP, so this was R.E.M.’s debut single proper. The lyrics were characteristically obtuse, still inviting a variety of interpretations (which was, most likely, the point), and the music was quintessential early-period R.E.M., allying a jangly, Byrdsian guitar sound to murky production values that seemed to hint at hidden depths and meanings.
Roxy Music — “Virginia Plain”
Named after a brand of tobacco, which you could just imagine Bryan Ferry smoking out of a vintage pipe in some sort of artfully dissipated English tea room. (Also, “For your pleasure” was apparently the brand’s slogan, a phrase that’d later get repurposed for the title of the band’s second album.)
Run-DMC — “It’s Like That”
In which Run-DMC set down a new blueprint for hip hop as the genre moved inexorably toward the mainstream, moving away from the funk-influenced flamboyance of Grandmaster Flash et al to a more streetwise, gritty image. Also, it was a hell of a lot of fun.
Savages — “Husbands”
There’s been a curious Savages backlash since the release of Silence Yourself, perhaps just because the levels of anticipation that surrounded that album were almost impossible for the band to deliver on. In view of this, it’s worth reminding ourselves just why we liked them in the first place: this single, which was a statement of intent if there ever was one. If you’re going cheekily lift the chorus of Patti Smith’s “Horses,” you want to make sure that the result does that song justice — and this does, and then some, blazing with the sort of intensity that Smith would be proud of.
Sex Pistols — “Anarchy in the UK”
The sound of a hand grenade lobbed into the charts. More than three decades on, it still sounds dangerous, which is the highest compliment you can pay it.
Patti Smith — “Hey Joe/Piss Factory”
It wasn’t a double a-side, but for all that Smith’s version of “Hey Joe” was great, it was the b-side that really introduced the world to a spectacular new talent. It was the sort of fusion of poetry and rock ‘n’ roll for which Smith would become justifiably famous, and its closing lines are a manifesto of sorts, as well as an inspiration for generations since who’ve wanted to bust out of their own piss factories: “I’m going to go on that train and go to New York City/ I’m going to be somebody/ …I’m going to be so big/ I’m going to be a big star/ And I will never return/ Never return/ No, never return to burn at this piss factor/ And I will travel light/ Oh, watch me now.”
Snoop Doggy Dogg — “Who Am I? (What’s My Name?)”
The world had already heard from Snoop via his appearances on Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, but his debut solo single proved that he was a star in his own right, and then some. This borrowed heavily from George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog,” repurposing it as an intro to the style of the slickest, slyest new rapper on the block. Slim with the tilted brim; what’s his motherfuckin’ name?
Britney Spears — “Baby One More Time”
The perfect pop debut. It all seems so long ago now.
The Stooges — “I Wanna Be Your Dog”
This song is so ubiquitous these days that it’s worth stopping and thinking about just what in god’s name it must have sounded like in 1969, with its grinding, descending power chord riff and Iggy’s borderline deranged barking during the outro. At the time, of course, it sank without trace; in the decades since, it’s been rightly acclaimed as one of the best and most important songs the 1960s have to offer.
Suede — “The Drowners”
That buzzsawing guitar riff; Brett Anderson’s decidedly fey vocal delivery; the seductive, sexually ambiguous lyricism; and dear god, that video, too. Suede didn’t really release a bad single (or, indeed, a bad song) between 1992 and 1995, but even with the flawless quality of their output at the time, there’s an argument to be made that this remains their finest moment.
Sugarcubes — “Birthday”
One of the more disconcerting songs you’ll ever hear, and one whose lyric has perplexed generations of listeners. It’s about a girl and the old man (her grandfather?) who lives next door. She adores him, clearly. They share a birthday. They make chains of flowers. They… smoke cigars together? She sews a bird in her knickers? Um. The most comforting explanation is that it’s about a little girl’s fantasy crush — still, it’s not exactly easy listening.
T La Rock & Jazzy Jay — “It’s Yours”
A paean to the possibilities of hip hop, and an inclusive declaration that this really was music for the people. T La Rock’s lyrics are tongue-twistingly thrilling, reveling in the intricacies and possibilities of language: “Commentating, illustrating, description giving/ Adjective expert, analyzing, surmising/ Musical, myth-seeking people of the universe… this is yours!”
Townes Van Zandt — “Waiting Around to Die”
The finest country songwriter of his generation introduced himself to the world with a cheerful ditty about depression, domestic abuse, alcoholism, heartbreak and codeine dependency. Apparently, it was the first song he wrote after his first marriage. Good grief.
Warren G feat. Nate Dogg — “Regulate”
If you haven’t sung along to “I got a car full of girls and it’s going real swell/ Next stop is the East Side Moteeeeeeeeeeel” at least once, well, you haven’t lived.
The Wu-Tang Clan — “Protect Ya Neck”
And we’ll finish with what might just be the best hip hop debut of them all. There’s a lot of fascinating reading to be done about how the deal RZA signed for the Wu-Tang essentially changed the nature of the record industry — but just as importantly, the gritty, minimalist flavor of this single put NYC back on the hip hop map (as well as achieving the nearly impossible task of capturing quality contributions from eight markedly different rappers on one track).