“For me, that was more important than anything else. That first piece of plastic. You can’t believe how great that was. It was so wonderful. We were on a record!” — Ringo Starr, The Beatles.
As the saying goes, “You don’t get a second chance at a first impression” and, considering the wide variety of imposing and impressive debut singles below, we can be safe in the knowledge that these artists were never going to let their opportunity slip through their hands.
A debut single is one of those things that can rarely be topped. More often than not, for a band or artist to have reached the point of a single being cut and released out into the public, they will have already struggled as an artist for years. They would have broken toes from lugging their kit, lost friends from their touring schedule and left their fingers bloodied and bandaged from practice; the debut single should always be a culmination of that artistic journey — but it doesn’t always work out that way.
Looking down the line, there are countless stars who’ve missed the boat when it comes to their debut single. Of course, the most famous instance is David Bowie, whose debut single was routinely laughed off the radio. There have been other moments missed by musicians across the years, chances that great bands or artists have skipped over in favour of a particular musical direction or a new voice. Some artists, however, use their debut single as a launchpad into the stratosphere.
Below, we’ve picked out 25 of the greatest debut singles of all time, songs that have launched careers, soundtracked summers and defined generations. These songs, simply put, are the songs we’ll always remember. Maybe first impressions are lasting impressions after all.
25 best debut singles of all time:
25. ‘Love Me Do’ – The Beatles
Of course, no list of imposing impressions would be complete without The Beatles, the band who not only kept a generation of teenagers dancing but also their children and their children’s children and on. It all started with a classic teeny-bopping track from Paul McCartney, as John Lennon notes: “Paul wrote the main structure of this when he was 16, or even earlier. I think I had something to do with the middle.”
The real value in the song, however, is that it was a completely Beatles originally song, something which was not done by bands of the time. Covers were the name of the game so for the group to provide their own song as their debut single was a showcase of the landmark band they would soon become.
24. ‘Virginia Plain’ – Roxy Music
Perhaps the measure of ‘Virginia Plain’’s brilliance is that it forecasted the sound of the future so perfectly that it is hard to believe that it was released in the summer of 1972. The song pushed the envelope for the direction of music, catching the ear of David Bowie, Talking Heads and other forthcoming bands as well as young whippersnappers like Nick Cave who revelled in its newness as a boy.
With a melody that races off at an impossible-to-ignore rate of knots and one of the maddest vocal moments of the era with the very last line, the song still proves to be an infectious masterpiece that would get Sir Douglas Bader toes tapping.
23. ‘Radio Free Europe’ – R.E.M.
R.E.M. song ‘Radio Free Europe’ is important for two main reasons. On the one hand, it was R.E.M.’s debut single and put the Georgian band on the map. Secondly, when the single was released in 1983, it planted the blueprint for what an alternative rock band should look like. Named after the United States’ broadcast anti-communist propaganda channel, R.E.M sought to reverse the damage of misinformation and manipulation the US had presided over in the form of an alternative pop song. Of course, I’m saying this in the name of dramatic effect; one could certainly not reverse global policy in a three-minute rock song, right?
What R.E.M. did do with their debut single is create alternative rock’s audience for decades to come. An audience that would not remain content with what they were told by society. Bands like R.E.M. took a retrospective look to find what punk groups had done just a few years prior, in 1977, and tried to emulate it for a new generation — they wanted to start again and reinvent what our culture stood for.
22. ‘Good Times Bad Times’ – Led Zeppelin
Although initially not intending to release singles from their self-titled record, ‘Good Times Bad Times’ would serve as the lead track. However, the band would rarely play the song live, meaning its place as a holy debut single is a little tainted.
All is forgiven, though, when the first notes of the brand new and bruising rock and roll style unfurled for an entire generation. It’s hard to quantify just how impactful Led Zeppelin, just how deliberately and irreversibly they changed rock music forever. If you were in any doubt about the band’s power, then stick this track on and the volume up to the max, and you’ll quickly figure it out.
21. ‘The Weight – The Band
If any group could be described as the distilment of a generation then The Band are it. The group garnered as much mystique as they did musicianship from 16 years travelling the rough roads with Bob Dylan and the likes, eventually infusing their own music with everything they had learnt.
‘The Weight’ is the culmination of all this experience, both in terms of the highs and hard-knocks of a touring musician and the cacophonous howl of everything that they had learnt musically. To this day, few folk songs rival it.
20. ‘Killing In The Name’ – Rage Against The Machine
If the song fails to get your pulses going and doesn’t make you believe that you can take on the world, there is something wrong. The track has enjoyed one hell of a life since Rage Against The Machine first unleashed it onto the world in 1993. It quickly became the band’s signature song and tackled societal issues revolving around those in power abusing their position and confronting racism in a fierce and direct fashion. The visceral ‘Killing In The Name’ worked as a perfect introduction for the band, and it epitomised everything that Rage Against The Machine stood for within one track.
As first impressions go, they don’t get much more potent than that. Rage showed that they weren’t just another band, but they had principles and stood for something. The commanding anthem was written in response to the beating of black motorist Rodney King by four LAPD officers in March 1991, which was captured on CCTV and shook America to its core. It told the world that the band were not going to go quietly, no matter what they did.
19. ‘Wuthering Heights – Kate Bush
Not every great artist has a great debut single; that much is certain. It takes guts, artistic maturity and bulldozer of bravura to just smash into the music industry with a fully formed identity. However, Kate Bush’s style was so far out of the box that reigning it in would be like having to try to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.
In 1978, at the age of just 19, she was met with a wave of critical lambastings from hacks who were too preoccupied trying to get a handle on punk to be able to deal with yet another reinvention of the wheel. With a vocal take that has been ruined by a thousand karaoke imitations and a literary depth to her songwriting year’s ahead of her age, she billowed out sui generis stylings with a spiritual air of artistry.
18. ‘Losing my Edge’ – LCD Soundsystem
The inclusion of James Murphy’s electro-pulsing classic ‘Losing My Edge’ for his LCD Soundsystem project is one of the purest entries on our list. Crafted out of pure creative despair as Murphy assumed that the art world was no longer for him, he eventually found the niche he was looking for.
The track is therefore brimming with the intent that saw Murphy become a city-wide name in NYC and beyond as his indie label began producing mega-watt hits. LCD Soundsystem are one of the biggest names in electronic music and it all started with this visceral and veracious debut single.
17. ‘Skinny Love’ – Bon Iver
Who broke this Geography teachers’ heart? Why? And where can we send our fan mail? Those were the questions that every beanie-wearing folk renaissance hipster was asking back in 2007.
The Parthenon of break-up songs is gilded in gold and glossed with an endless stream of sacrificial tears, millions of songs rock up and request entry every year and nearly all of them are turned away. ‘Skinny Love’ shuffled over and took its place next to Blonde on Blonde. Justin Vernon’s heartfelt performance could conjure spirits in a vacuum and give goosebumps to a blade of grass and it’s a spiritual oblivion that still proves infectious, no matter how many covers and endless overplays have threatened to dethrone it.
16. ‘Hard to Explain’ – The Strokes
By the time of the millennium, guitar music was flailing. The Strokes didn’t so much pick it up off the floor but rather thrashed around in the gutter a bit, and aside from the rhythmic brilliance of the sound that splashing in the mire of dive bars produced, they very importantly made it cool again. While a term like ‘cool’ might seem frivolous, there is far more depth to it than any cynics would care to accept.
‘Hard to Explain’ rattled indie bars back to life, beginning with the defibrillation of Fab Moretti’s daringly simple drumbeat. With euphonic guitars and snarling vocals that undoubtedly recalled the Velvet Underground of old, the band were the perfect tonic to enliven a hungover music scene in a swaggering declaration that the hair of the dog was the way to go, in a glowing revival of all that was best about the night before.
15. ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’ – The Stooges
The Stooges are a band whose success is measurable by what followed their demise rather than the nonexistent munificent bounty they somehow failed to harness in their heyday. One such band that they have inspired is Shame, and when speaking to their frontman, Charlie Steen, recently, he elucidated perfectly what ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’ is all about. “Only three albums to [Stooges] name and these three records seem to have altered the fate and direction of so much that came after them,” he said. The list of artists that cite this band as the reason they picked up an instrument is endless.
Adding in an inadvertent perfect summation of their debut single: “It seems as if this band has nothing to lose when you listen to them. No willingness to sacrifice their sound in hopes of achieving a high rank in the charts. No sign of trying to mould themselves to be something they were not. Nobody had seen anything like them at the time and nobody has seen or heard anything as real as them since.”
In short, punk starts here.
14. ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ – The Velvet Underground
When the pounding opening piano riff races into action and Nico’s unique muezzin-like vocals follow, it announced a band who would ensure that the term “ahead of their time” was the least tired cliche in the tome of musical platitudes. All of the singles in this list had some sort of immediate impact. Although The Velvet Underground were a commercial disaster akin to Blockbuster’s snub of Netflix, they did indeed have an enormous influence, even if it was purely subterranean in the grittier joints of New York City.
As Brian Eno once said, “I was talking to Lou Reed the other day, and he said that the first Velvet Underground record sold only 30,000 copies in its first five years. Yet, that was an enormously important record for so many people. I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band! So I console myself in thinking that some things generate their rewards in second-hand ways.”
13. ‘Hand In Glove’ – The Smiths
When The Smiths arrived on the music scene in the mid-80s, they arrived at a world dominated by synthetic sounds and contrived pop stars. The landscape of music had been rapidly changing for some time and, according to Morrissey and Marr, had lost its way. The group’s principal members went about crafting songs with the intensity and power of The Stooges and New York Dolls but the intellectual affectations of Oscar Wilde. And so, their debut single ‘Hand In Glove’ was born.
Johnny Marr once said of the song’s inception: “I was round at my parents’ house and they had this old crappy toy guitar. I was playing this riff that I thought was a Chic hit. I thought I really like that, but I had no means to record it.”
“Angie [Marr’s girlfriend, now wife] had just passed her driving test and her parents had loaned her this little VW Beetle that we used to sort of hang out in. I said, ‘Get me round to Mozzer’s!’ Cos he’s got a tape machine. So we got in the car like I was going to have a baby, you know?” The duo got together, laid down the bare bones of the track and got the instant feeling that things were about to kick off. They certainly did.
12. ‘Ceremony’ – New Order
How do you follow a band like Joy Division, especially with the rhetoric that surrounded them at the time? That near-impossible sounding feat was achieved with Tom Cruise-Esque ease as the band left their brooding past behind and ventured into the future with a soaring anthem.
‘Ceremony’ retained the hymnal quality that songs like ‘Atmosphere’ had seemingly snatched from the ether a year earlier, but this time it was imbued with something ineffably new. Escaping the shackles of gloom that sadly had landed upon them, they were in the same grubby suit but with a dazzling new tie and a dashing pocket square.
In short, the single picked up from where one of the greatest British bands ever had left off without ever trying to imitate.
11. ‘Suzanne’ – Leonard Cohen
‘Suzanne’ was first penned as a poem in 1966, but it cried out for the cushioned edges of a guitar to coax the reader along. The tale of a muse engaged with another, leaving nothing but platonic scraps for the singer to eagerly feed on, and then lament, in leaner times, is as dissonant and sparse as the melody and musical choices.
Whilst the mentions of Montréal landmarks may well have symbolic implications, they also imbue the song with imagery and the sort of café culture creature comforts that we associate with the smartly sartorial songsmith. The song is as complex but pure as the impetus that spawned it.
In no uncertain terms ‘Suzanne’ announced the arrival of the troubadour who sung words like an almost mystical chanted incantation, and sunk into a same plashy mire of wisdom, reverence and exultation for the cleaned-up back catalogue of transfigured life experiences that was to come.
10. ‘Supersonic’ – Oasis
Taken from their debut album, ‘Supersonic’, as a word, epitomises the walk-on-water abilities that the band possessed during their early years. As debut singles go, they don’t get much more emphatic than ‘Supersonic’, which immediately perked up people’s ears and, within twelve months, everybody knew who Oasis were.
Even though nobody recognised the Mancunians before ‘Supersonic’, they already acted as though they were bonafide superstars, and the single proved that they were no pretenders. Apparently composed by Noel Gallagher in “10 minutes”, the song is built on bustling bravado and the rock star energy the two warring Gallagher brothers would imitate for decades to come.
Loved for its bolshy attitude the track really hangs on the line “feeling supersonic, give me gin and tonic,” which is sung with abandon almost every time it’s put on.
9. ‘Hey Joe’ – Jimi Hendrix
One thing that Hendrix did perhaps better than anyone else at the time was to take other people’s songs and turn them into something unique and singular to his sound and vision. He did so with his cover of the rock standard ‘Hey Joe’, creating, without doubt, the essential version of the song. Included as the additional songs added to the Are You Experienced? CD, it is easily one of his best tracks.
Released as his debut single with ’51st Anniversary’ on the B-side, Hendrix was proving that he wasn’t only the present and future of rock but he had a great grip on the past too. In fact, it would build the foundations of his awe-inspiring sound. The song is certainly slowed down in Hendrix’s version of the track and it allows his virtuoso playing to be given ample room to breathe.
What becomes quickly apparent with the song is that if any other artist was to have guitar playing on their song as fantastic as this, they would have made it the focal point of the track. As it is, his playing just melts into the background and creates the setting for the song’s story.
8. ‘Blitzkreig Bop’ – Ramones
The first song of the Ramones self-titled debut album was undoubtedly the first powerful notes of a band determined to make an impression, and it’s only right that it was their debut single. The song rattles out at just over two minutes and was a firm fan favourite from the very beginning, proving itself as one of the ultimate punk anthems.
Played at pretty much every Ramones gig over their 22-year career, if there was one song to symbolise their undying influence it is this punk number’s infiltration of the mainstream.
Who can resist the “Hey, ho, let’s go!” whenever they hear it? Truly, there isn’t really a ubiquitous punk song like it. The track traverses genre and style to become as vital as the beating heart of the one listening to it.
7. ‘My Sweet Lord’ – George Harrison
One of Harrison’s most iconic solo efforts the track is a perfect summation of All Things Must Pass LP and the path he intended to carve out for his solo career. Another moment of higher-thinking meeting pop music, it could have easily been missed by the general public.
In the autobiography, I, Me, Mine, Harrison said: “I thought a lot about whether to do ‘My Sweet Lord’ or not because I would be committing myself publicly and I anticipated that a lot of people might get weird about it.” He continued, “I wanted to show that ‘Hallelujah’ and ‘Hare Krishna’ are quite the same thing.” And he did.
The track remains a moment of transcendent joy as he blends the warmest of celestial moments with the comforting glaze of pop revelry to make a song that can feel at home in heaven or hell.
6. ‘Anarchy in the UK’ – Sex Pistols
The release of ‘Anarchy in the UK’ represents a first and last for the music industry. In their short existence, the Sex Pistols emerged in a chorus of awestruck utterances of ‘you’ve seen nothing like it’ and left ensuring that it was the last time anybody would use that phrase in regards to music.
In his memoir, I Wanna Be Yours, the eponymous punk poet John Cooper Clarke details his first experience of seeing the Sex Pistols live and the profound impact it had. “After reading the reviews I was expecting ineptitude,” he writes, “That never materialised. All concerned seemed reasonably proficient in their respective capacities… The Steve Jones I heard was a one-man orchestra, a high-voltage practitioner with no visible equal. In fact, the sonic overload had me scoping around for the other nine hundred and ninety-nine guys. The gig couldn’t have been a better introduction to the punk phenomenon.”
Now the dust has settled on that once raucous phenomenon, it is ‘Anarchy in the UK’ that remains its defining monolith.
5. ‘Break on Through’ – The Doors
You don’t just casually champion a song to be your debut single in the same way that you do with everything that follows. More so than anything else you will ever release as an artist, your debut is a statement. ‘Break on Through’ was not just a statement; it was an urgent outcry and a thrilling one at that.
In 1966, Jim Morrison said in an interview, “I like ideas about breaking away or overthrowing of established order. I am interested in anything about revolt, disorder, chaos, especially activity that seems to have no meaning.”
In many ways, this was a mantra for The Doors, who arrived in the sanguine peace and love scene of the era swinging with discontent and a healthy dose of darkness. Music rarely came out in such an adrenalised sonic maelstrom in that era, and it still rattles like the seismic epicentre of mid-to-late 1960s rock ‘n’ roll to this day.
4. ‘Creep’ – Radiohead
If you’re a diehard Radiohead fan, then the inclusion of the Oxford band’s debut single ‘Creep’ on our list will likely be bittersweet. The track has gone to be placed in the centre of a weird Venn diagram of outsider anthem and mainstream MTV hit. However, taken in isolation, it’s hard to stay too angry at the landmark hit.
Radiohead had been a band for some time before releasing the track and they likely hadn’t expected such a reaction to the song. Instantly they were snapped up by MTV as the hot new prospect form across the pond. Over the next couple of years of touring, the band began to lose patience with the track and the sort of clientele it attracted to their concerts. “We seemed to be living out the same four and a half minutes of our lives over and over again. It was incredibly stultifying,” Johnny Greenwood said on those early tours, even recalling how audience members would scream for ‘Creep’ and then leave immediately after it was performed.
It has since become a marker of your devotion to Radiohead. If you like ‘Creep’ then you’re probably a fairweather fan. However, such a justification is for snobs and purists. The joy of music is that it can connect with millions of people all at once. ‘Creep’ did that effortlessly.
3. ‘Transmission’ – Joy Division
Like so many on our list, when the needle dropped on the debut single, ‘Transmission’ from Joy Division the music world changed forever.
Hearing Ian Curtis scream out “Dance, dance, dance, dance, dance, to the radio” is still a sincere pleasure. The way the singer yelps and squirms is all part of what made him such an attractive proposition as a frontman. Finally, we had a performer and a singer who was shy like us, who was afraid of unadulterated fame like us and who could be sad and ashamed like us. The opening lines of ‘Transmission’ said that right away.
The song was a wake-up call to those who blindly followed mainstream media and a reminder to those that didn’t follow, that there was a new voice to be listened to. As modernity seemed to promote obedience and subservience, Curtis was trying to sound the alarm bells and he did it like nobody had ever done before. Joy Division would go on to be one of the most beloved bands of all time.
2. ‘White Riot’ – The Clash
The Clash’s first single, ‘White Riot’, may have a habit of hitting the ear wrong in the 21st century. With all of the racial tension surrounding us, coupled with Strummer employing a distinctly seventies-leaning set of lyrics, it’s easy to see why Mick Jones has distanced himself from the track in recent years.
While the song has struggled after being wrongly appropriated by White Nationalist groups who tried to take the song’s lyrics for their own use rather than see them as a call to arms for all of the oppressed, the song still remains a vital moment for the band. It’s a misunderstood punk masterclass.
The song was written after Strummer and Paul Simonon were caught up in the 1976 Notting Hill riots and sees the singer strum his Telecaster harder and faster than he ever has done since. It’s a powerhouse punk tune and acts as a flurry of fists to the face, reminding you just who The Clash were.
1. ‘I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor’ – Arctic Monkeys
You can’t take a call like the ‘greatest debut single of all time’ lightly, and the sweat pouring from my brow attests to that. But in truth, when a single fetches record breaking sales figures, revives guitar music and retains cultural relevance indefinitely, it is a relatively easy sell despite all the inevitable naysayers who refused to climb aboard the bandwagon as it sailed by last laugh lane in the first place.
Arctic Monkeys burst onto the scene like mainstream bank robbers. They were pockmarked bandits of benevolent intent, and all everybody wanted to know was whether they could believe the hype. With an atom-splitting opening riff and a one-person blitzkrieg behind the drums, the band suddenly not only made sense of the working-class adolescence that lay ahead of many fans but coloured it with the fluorescent palette of piled-up passions in a poetic punch-up of visceral rock ‘n’ roll and snarling lyrical introspection.
There have been very few singles released in the interim 15 years that rival ‘I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor’ for quality, fewer still where you can say ‘I remember where I was when I first heard that’, and absolutely none where an entire generation can recite every word. It is this that singles it out from other debut singles; whether you loved it or loathed, continue to cherish it or have moved on, there is nobody who was left untouched by the record’s impact on youth culture.