The 40 Best Debut Album Openers of All Time

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The 40 Best Debut Album Openers of All Time

There’s a certain magic to an artist’s debut album. (Mostly) free of the expectations and pressures that accompany a follow-up record, a debut album is—in many cases—a musician’s most unfiltered display of talent and style. In the spirit of debut albums and new beginnings, our staff looked back at the debut albums of some of our favorite artists—the first tracks on those records, to be exact. In the industry, the first song in the tracklisting on an artist’s debut LP is often called a “lead-off” track. But, whatever you call them, these songs are often a listener’s first introduction to a particular artist. Imagine the first time you got a hold of Patti Smith’s Horses or Weezer’s Blue Album: “Gloria” or “My Name Is Jonas” were probably the first songs you heard (if you do, in fact, listen to albums in order). We reserved this list for LPs only, so you won’t find tracks from debut EPs here. We also allowed artists who went from performing with a band or group but then debuted as a soloist to appear in earnest among these tracks. We ranked our favorite lead-off tracks from across generations and genres—rap, soul, R&B, rock, pop, folk and beyond—and listed them below.

40. The Shins: “Caring Is Creepy” (Oh, Inverted World)

You can’t help but buckle up when you here the fortified first words of “Caring Is Creepy.” “I think I’ll go home and mull this over / Before I cram it down my throat,” James Mercer shouts. “At long last it’s crashed, its colossal mass / Has broken up into bits in my moat.” “Caring Is Creepy” was never released as a single, but it quickly became a fan favorite and remains one of The Shins’ best breakup songs (and best songs in general), blistering with regret and longing. It’s a superb introduction to the indie rock band’s debut album, which remains a succinct and fresh listen almost 20 years later. Oh, and it’s still one of the best reasons to watch Garden State. —Ellen Johnson

39. The Stone Roses: “I Wanna Be Adored” (The Stone Roses)

Though Ian Brown has proved to be a massive knobhead, especially in recent years, his band The Stone Roses definitely had a knack for sun-kissed pop songs. Their 1989 self-titled debut arrived at a time when Madchester and acid house were beginning to fall out of fashion and Britpop was just on the horizon. Their bass-driven songs aligned them more with funk or dance music, but the songs themselves were rooted in druggy yet tuneful ’60s pop/rock, making them an unusual concoction. Some consider the album safe and unimaginative while others swear it’s a stone cold classic, but in any case, its songs have become a permanent staple in the U.K.’s cultural fabric. “I Wanna Be Adored,” their first album’s lead-off track, contains one of their most immediately recognizable bass lines, but John Squire’s nimble, bleary guitar playing is the star of the show. Brown’s lyrics and vocals weren’t exactly the band’s strong suit, but conviction behind such a universal line as “I wanna be adored,” was all the song really needed. —Lizzie Manno

38. Phoebe Bridgers: “Smoke Signals” (Stranger in the Alps)

Phoebe Bridgers adopts a specific songwriting model on “Smoke Signals,” the first single from her untouchable debut Stranger in the Alps, and many of her best songs use the same style. It’s stream-of-consciousness storytelling told with a surge of both wit and dread. Lines like “I want to live at The Holiday Inn / Where somebody else makes the bed,” “It’s been on my mind since Bowie died / Just checking out to hide from life” and “You are anonymous / I am a concrete wall” alerted us in 2017 that Bridgers was a different kind of songwriter. And lines like “All of our problems, I’m gonna solve ‘em / With you riding shot-gun, speeding, ‘cause fuck the cops” (truly timeless!) let us know that she could master both nonchalance and empathy in the same sentence. The slow-burning desperado guitar, the highs of the “pelicans” circling around the chorus, Bridgers’ cool tone: It all points to one of the best dang folk-adjacent songs of the last 10 years. —Ellen Johnson

37. Van Morrison: “Brown Eyed Girl” (Blowin’ Your Mind!)

Originally titled “Brown Skinned Girl,” this Calypso-kissed AOR staple about an alleged interracial tryst and deemed too hot for pop radio upon its release was without question the biggest hit from Morrison’s ill-fated tenure with groundbreaking producer/songwriter Bert Berns and his Bang Records label. Van claimed he never saw a penny of royalties, and the contract he naively signed rendered him liable for all expenses incurred during the recording process, which is probably a big reason why he doesn’t consider it one of his favorite songs from the catalog. However, whether he liked it or not, “Brown Eyed Girl” has since become his reluctant calling card, the one Van Morrison song everyone seems to know about due to its firm place on classic rock radio, its appearance in such acclaimed films as The Big Chill and Born on the Fourth of July and the fact its a song in regular rotation in the iPods of no less than two American presidents. —Ron Hart

36. SZA: “Supermodel” (Ctrl)

For those who’ve had to navigate sex and relationships in the era of DMs and dick appointments, SZA’s debut full-length Ctrl feels as honest and timely as Goth Shakira’s funny, feminist memes about searching for connection in a social media-saturated world. Fittingly, the name of the album is spelled like a keyboard command, but on a deeper level, Ctrl speaks to the simultaneous scariness and liberation of opening ourselves up to others who are equally afraid to be hurt. “That is my greatest fear: that if I lost control, or did not have control, things would just — you know, I — would be fatal,” as SZA’s mother says at the beginning of the stripped-down opening track, “Supermodel.” —Nastia Voynovskaya

35. Pink Floyd: “Astronomy Domine” (The Piper at the Gates of Dawn)

From Pink Floyd’s debut album The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, “Astronomy Domine” is an early showing of the band’s space rock tendencies. With Syd Barrett at the helm, “Astronomy Domine” is suitably psychedelic sounding and features lyrics like, “around the icy waters underground. Jupiter and Saturn, Oberon, Miranda and Titania. Neptune, Titan, Stars can frighten,” which are enough to thrust you into space. —Laura Stanley

34. Lorde: “Tennis Court” (Pure Heroine)

By the time Lorde released Pure Heroine in 2013, the then 16-year-old musician had already become an internet sensation for lead single “Royals.” At the peak of Tumblr culture and the early rise of moody musicians, it was Lorde’s album starter “Tennis Court” that grabbed listeners with its subtle disdain for society and blunt songwriting style. The song spoke to the start of a new mentality and emotional state that both Gen-Z and millennials could relate to. (“Don’t you think it’s boring how people talk?” / “It’s a new art form showing people how little we care.”) —Lexi Lane

33. Miranda Lambert: “Kerosene” (Kerosene)

“Kerosene” is the title track and first song on Lambert’s 2005 major-label debut and one of the best showings of bad-assery in her catalogue. Channeling old Dixie Chicks numbers, Lambert keeps time while a harmonica screeches in the background. Few artists have shown such promise as a real outlaw country rebel on their debut album, but that’s just what Lambert did with “Kerosene.” She’s gonna tear it all down, and nothing will stand in her way. “Forget your high society, I’m soakin’ it in kerosene,” she sings. “Light ‘em up and watch them burn, teach them what they need to learn, ha!” —Ellen Johnson

32. Big Boi: “Daddy Fat Sax” (Sir Lucious Left Foot)

In 2006, Atlanta’s hip-hop powerhouse Outkast released their last album Idlewild to mixed reception. Its mixed bag of marching band, jazz and funk influences proved to be too jarring for even the most open minded of fans. So, when Big Boi released his first official solo album under his own name four years later, he took those same influences and turned them into his own brand of Afro-futurism. “Daddy Fat Sax,” Sir Lucious Left Foot’s explosive first track, sounds like falling headfirst into a trippy rabbit hole and landing in the middle of Big Boi’s own utopia. Mr. DJ’s ability to turn the simplest of sounds into a full fledged ecosystem sets the tone for the album’s journey. With layered drums, synths and lyrical references to his previous work with Outkast, Big Boi’s departure from the duo and into a solo career sounds more like world0building inside the rich history Outkast has staked their claim in. His navigation and manipulation of the English language is hypnotic, and his braggadocio fits with this cocky alter ego he presents. With lyrics such as “This ain’t what you want, let’s be clear from the bungie / I write knockout songs, you spit punchlines for money,” “Daddy Fat Sax” serves as a reintroduction to Big Boi talent with a new lease on the endless bounds of creativity that he explores from corner to corner. —Jade Gomez

31. *NSYNC: “Tearin’ Up My Heart” (‘N Sync)

It’s hard to imagine a world without Justin Timberlake. But before he was in two of the best films of the 2010s, released two of the best solo pop albums of the 2000s and was one-fifth of the one of the best-selling groups of all time despite only releasing three albums, there was a time when the world had yet to hear Timberlake’s smooth tenor or see his curly blonde hair. That all changed in 1997 with “Tearin’ Up My Heart,” a funky track with an overdramatic a capella intro that largely set the scene for what the next half-decade of radio pop would sound like. They weren’t the first to do it—the band was created as artificial competition for the Backstreet Boys, after all—but “Tearin’ Up My Heart” upped the ante during one of the biggest pop explosions in music history, fully establishing JasoN, ChriS, JoeY, JustiN and JC as household names for the decade to come. The video and its corresponding dance moves are—and were—corny as hell, but “Tearin’ Up My Heart” is a confident debut album opener that put the boy band on track for world domination, and rightfully so. —Steven Edelstone

30. Vampire Weekend: “Mansard Roof”

It’s not that “Mansard Roof” is an especially spectacular song, but can you think of a more proper introduction to Vampire Weekend? Replete with the perky world music beats that would carry the rest of their 2008 self-titled debut, “Mansard Roof” is a bustling, energetic song that captures the energy of the band’s native NYC. “Mansard Roof” is the sound of the feeling you get when strolling a noisy city, horizon in sight, but you’re more focused on the rhythm of your feet hitting the pavement as you stroll to your next destination. —Ellen Johnson

29. Neneh Cherry: “Buffalo Stance” (Raw Like Sushi)

According to my phone, “Buffalo Stance” was my most-played song in 2018, and again in 2019. It came out in 1988. That’s some staying power. Neneh Cherry’s hit was the first song from her first solo album, and it sounds as fresh and powerful today as it did 30 years ago. Musically it’s the textbook definition of a banger, years before that word meant what it means, mashing up hip-hop beats, gritty electro, and then-state-of-the-art dance-pop production to make something that’s simultaneously always futuristic sounding and yet as deeply 1988 / 1989 as it could possibly be. And despite how amazing it sounds, the best thing about it is Cherry herself, and the variety of moods and emotions she runs through in just a few minutes. As tough as Cherry is, there’s a tenderness here as well, and it contrasts beautifully with the music’s electric charge. —Garrett Martin

28. Fiona Apple: “Sleep to Dream” (Tidal)

You have to be careful with “Sleep to Dream,” because it unlocks unparalleled female energy. Rhythmic vocals act like an incantation over an aggressive drumbeat, which Apple punctuates with: “You say love is a hell you cannot bear, well then give me mine back and then go there, for all I care.” If you haven’t yelled those lyrics, you should give it a go. The chorus doesn’t let up the sentiment, though a string accompaniment does help put Apple (and us) in a triumphant posture above the righteous anger: “Don’t forget what I told you, don’t come around, I’ve got my own hell to raise.” The verse then goes right back into that tumbling, insistent, almost spoken-word declaration of brilliantly-crafted hard truths about someone you have been long ready to excise from your life. Do so! And then exalt, middle fingers in the air: “Just go back to the rock from under which you came, take the sorrow you gave and all the stakes you claimed … and don’t forget the blame!” —Allison Keene

27. Van Halen: “Runnin’ with the Devil” (Van Halen)

Looking back on the history of popular music, there’s an argument to be made that no rock act has ever made quite as eye-popping an entrance onto the world stage as Van Halen did with their 1978 self-titled debut. The damn thing sounds so combustible you can (seriously) imagine kerosene heat waves emanating from your speakers as you listen at high volume. That said, the band chose to set the stage with a fair measure of restraint on the album’s leadoff track “Runnin’ with the Devil,” at least relatively speaking. (This is, after all, Van Halen we’re talking about here.) Mostly free of the guitar heroics that made Eddie Van Halen a household name exactly one track later on the same album, “Runnin’ with the Devil” proceeds at an almost dirge-like pace over a downtempo Alex Van Halen drumbeat as a surprisingly reflective David Lee Roth sings of a bleak, loveless existence driven by little more than blind determination for its own sake. Van Halen weren’t even stars yet, and yet they opened their debut with a weary road song that hints at the pulverizing effect rock excess can have on the soul. “Yes,” sang Roth. “I’m livin’ at a pace that kills.” Maybe so, but that only makes it all the more miraculous that Van Halen sustained the same vitality for six albums in a row. “Runnin’ with the Devil” is a fitting opening salvo to one of music’s all-time dynastic runs. —Saby Reyes-Kulkarni

26. The Go-Go’s: “Our Lips Are Sealed” (Beauty and the Beat)

Artists like Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino, Jenny Lewis and La Sera’s Katy Goodman make the Go-Go’s’ Beauty and the Beat sound surprisingly contempo. The group’s debut album proved not only that they could make a consistent, perky sound that made room for several hit singles, but that they would leave a lasting impression on girl groups everywhere. “We Got The Beat,” “Our Lips Are Sealed” and “How Much More” deliver on the sunny, infectious hooks that make this group so approachable, while “Lust to Love” and “This Town” hit on intricate harmonies and refreshing arrangement. —Annie Black

25. Pavement: “Summer Babe (Winter Version)” (Slanted & Enchanted)

The first song on their first album, this was many people’s introduction to Pavement and it’s pretty much the perfect synthesis of the band in its earliest form. “Summer Babe (Winter Version” is grungy and lo-fi, but not inscrutable. Pavement isn’t’ being too experimental, but the sound still feels fresh, even now. —Chris Morgan

24. Alabama Shakes: “Hold On” (Boys & Girls)

Roots-rock group Alabama Shakes originally intended to be known as The Shakes, only being forced to add the word “Alabama” to their name in order to differentiate themselves from another group with a similar title. However, one listen to Alabama Shakes’ vocalist Brittany Howard was more than enough to set their group apart from seemingly every band recording music this decade. Arriving onto the scene in early 2012 with “Hold On,” Alabama Shakes immediately turned heads with their refreshing take on the traditional music that makes up their influences, headlined by Howard’s stunning vocals. —Brian Tremml

23. Jeff Buckley: “Mojo Pin” (Grace)

If Buckley became a cult legend for his solo live shows, “Mojo Pin” was how he introduced himself as a rock artist, one who could write bruising, massive songs that transcended the folk ballads he was initially known for. But it starts out inconspicuously, like a supercharged take on his Sin-é gigs, as his angelic voice hovers over his fingerpicked electric guitar. But then something happens about a minute-and-a-half in: Drums show up and you get the sense the track is about to absolutely explode. It’s a false crescendo that finally hits another two minutes later as the song continues its slow build. Then, suddenly, it hits you like a ton of bricks, knocking you on your ass as a wall of heavy guitars are built up and torn down by a single scream, which somehow seamlessly transitions from an angry yelp to a beautiful and delicate falsetto all at once. No one in music history has ever had the sort of range Buckley displays in that single scream, let alone on the full song, which is simultaneously full of rage and gentle subtlety. —Steven Edelstone

22. PJ Harvey: “Oh My Lover” (Dry)

PJ Harvey is arguably the most chameleonic musician to emerge in the last three decades, so it can be easy to forget the sheer strength of her first impression. Her revered debut album Dry is a busted-up vision of grunge, blues and romantic horror that all begins on “Oh My Lover,” a mid-tempo saunter that starts fairly distorted and ends up formidably demonic. Harvey here pines for someone who wants to leave her behind, or at least that’s the gist given Dry’s tales of desperate but unrequited love. Looking at Harvey’s whole discography, which includes cowabunga emasculations, hairdresser disses and caricature-like thoughts about guns, it’s easy to retrospectively find playfulness in “Oh My Lover.” In light of Harvey’s future output, the line “Don’t you know it’s all right? / You can love her / And you can love me at the same time” feels as teasing as it does distraught. Then again, Harvey has also constantly mined suffering, whether war-based, biblical or romantic as with “Oh My Lover,” which aptly previews it all. —Max Freedman

21. Oasis: “Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” (Definitely Maybe)

Oasis’ “Rock ‘n’ Roll Star,” from their 1994 debut Definitely Maybe, was a supercharged introduction to the Manchester band. In hindsight, the song served as a predictor to where they—primarily the Gallagher brothers—saw themselves in the scope of the Britpop scene and music as a whole. Between closing on a distorted instrumental and the repetition of “This is rock ‘n’ roll,” along with the Beatles and Stones allusions, Oasis cemented their favorite things in this five-minute song. —Lexi Lane

20. U2: “I Will Follow” (Boy)

With their blindsiding debut LP Boy, U2 married post-punk’s stark rhythmic force with grandiose arena-rock majesty. Bono is the beacon of spiritual vigor, propelling anthems like “I Will Follow” and “The Electric Co.” The Edge’s echoing guitar is amplified lightning. But the band’s unsung post-punk nucleus is the rhythm section: Bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. keep the songs anchored on Earth, as their bandmates gaze into the beyond. —Ryan Reed

19. Florence & The Machine: “Dog Days Are Over” (Lungs)

If you watched Glee (and if you’re a millennial, who among us didn’t?), then your first exposure to this majestic lead-off track may very well have been through William McKinley High School’s interpretation of the celebratory song. And there’s nothing wrong with what Mercedes, Tina and co. spin together, but Florence Welch’s original is nothing short of pure, pop bliss—with a smidge of woodland princess majesty thrown in. It was our culture’s first real introduction to the English singer and the colorful career she has gone on to paint. And even if you never made it past 2009’s Lungs, Welch’s words in this song remain one of the best reminders that joy is always tangible. —Ellen Johnson

18. Devo: “Uncontrollable Urge” (Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!)

Devo kicked off its first official album with one of its most straight-forward rock songs. Maybe they thought America wasn’t ready for the deeply synthetic nature of true devolution? Either way it was a good call: “Uncontrollable Urge” is an absolutely vital declaration that lets you know Devo isn’t here to screw around. The build-up of tension, the three-chord relief, Mark Mothersbaugh’s impassioned squeals about his undefined but unmistakable urge: It’s all proof to anybody who would write Devo off based on their look or inherent goofiness that there’s way more thought and passion in this band than you might expect. —Garrett Martin

17. Björk: “Human Behavior” (Debut)

If you didn’t know the Sugarcubes—and let’s be honest, how many people did in the early ’90s?—then “Human Behavior” may well have been your first encounter with Björk. And what an introduction: The first song from her first album, helpfully titled Debut, is dark and mysterious, with deep, booming drums and chattering percussion framing Björk’s otherworldly vocals as her voice slides in and out of falsetto. She has said the song is about human-animal interactions as seen from the animal’s point of view, a point made clear by the surreal video featuring a teddy bear stalking through a cartoon-like forest, hunting the hunter who was hunting him. Whatever else Björk has done, from the swan dress to the musical experimentalism of Biophilia and Vulnicura, she had already made a hell of a first impression. —Eric R. Danton

16. The Jesus and Mary Chain: “Just Like Honey” (Psychocandy)

Maybe it was a bit bold for the not-yet-famous Reid brothers to lift the game-changing beat from “Be My Baby” for their debut album single “Just Like Honey.” But, thankfully, their accompanying song could more than hold its own. The Jesus and Mary Chain’s entire 1985 debut Psychocandy changed noise-pop and shoegaze forever, but “Just Like Honey” was next level. It didn’t matter that Jim Reid couldn’t sing like Ronnie Spector—his low, echoey voice and almost lackadaisical delivery were perfect. There are few pop songs that sound as good stripped-back or simply hummed to yourself. Hell, if anyone can match this song’s wistful melodic power, they deserve the moon. —Lizzie Manno

15. Liz Phair: “6’1”” (Exile in Guyville)

For more than 25 years, the least interesting thing about Liz Phair’s landmark debut album, Exile in Guyville, has been the vague theory that it’s a song-by-song reaction to the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street. What’s more interesting than that? How about Phair’s underrated skills as a guitarist, or the persistent quiver in her imperfect voice, or her preternatural ability to translate Everywoman’s experiences into clever turns of phrase? Or perhaps it’s simply the courage of her convictions back then. All of the above is on display in “6’1”,” which kicks off Guyville with a prickly chord progression and Phair in full kiss-off mode, with Everyman dead in her sights. “I loved my life,” she sings gleefully, “and I hated you.” The rest of the album is an emotional roller-coaster of infatuation, heartbreak, anger and regret, with Phair playing all those roles and everything in between. But “6’1”” is important because it heralds a new force to be reckoned with, in Guyville and beyond. —Ben Salmon

14. LCD Soundsystem: “Daft Punk Is Playing at My House” (LCD Soundsystem)

Daft Punk never actually performed at James Murphy’s house (as far as we know), but that didn’t keep the LCD Soundsystem vocalist from writing an entire song about it. Murphy decided that he couldn’t have been the only punk rock, house partygoer who was introduced to dance music through Daft Punk, and imagined a kid saving enough money to fly the French duo over for a basement show. The band arrives to a literal house party with 15 cases of beer, a PA consisting of everyone’s amps put together, Sarah’s girlfriend working the door and enough furniture moved out of the way to make room for the robots. And, like most house parties, no one there has any idea what this band is called. —Natalia Barr

13. Weezer: “My Name Is Jonas” (Weezer [Blue Album])

Like any great lead-off track, “My Name Is Jonas” compresses many of Weezer’s most appealing qualities (save perhaps for the angst of Pinkerton—that’s a different animal) into one sugary, three-and-a-half-minute gem. Lyrically, it’s one of the band’s more complex offerings, weaving together references to a car accident survived by Rivers Cuomo’s brother (whose name is not, incidentally, Jonas), Lois Lowry’s novel The Giver (whose protagonist is, in fact, named Jonas), and the fleeting pleasures of childhood. And speaking of nostalgia, few things sound as joyful to a ’90s kid’s ear as the acoustic arpeggios that open the track, a kind of pop-punk clarion call that remains founding guitarist Jason Cropper’s most significant contribution to Weezer. This song will never get old (unless your name really is Jonas, in which case, sorry). —Zach Schonfeld

12. The Strokes: “Is This It” (Is This It)

“Is This It,” the opening track to the debut album of the same name, opens simply, the calm before the storm. Nikolai Fraiture’s bass line influenced a generation of musicians, like Jared Followill of Kings of Leon, who says that when he was 15, this was one of the first bass lines he ever learned, and that this album was one of the main reasons he wanted to be in a band. —Ross Bonaime

11. Nine Inch Nails: “Head Like A Hole” (Pretty Hate Machine)

The debut album from former Cleveland studio assistant Trent Reznor was released in October 1989. It didn’t have much impact upon release, but its slow burn success helped shape 1990s alternative music culture. Pretty Hate Machine helped get rock fans to accept that samples and keyboard could thrash like guitars, helped make anguished confessionals the default lyrical outlet for bands and proved that independent labels could compete with the majors, even if Reznor and TVT’s relationship was troubled and short-lived. The video for “Head Like A Hole” juxtaposed images of performance and tribal dance; from punk to goth, raver to metalhead, few albums helped unite the myriad tribes of alternative rock like Pretty Hate Machine. —Michael Tedder

10. The Jimi Hendrix Experience: “Purple Haze” (Are You Experienced)

The year before the release of his landmark album, Are You Experienced, Jimi Hendrix was simply an expat musician looking for his big break. Discovered by Animals bassist Chas Chandler, he relocated to the U.K., assembled a sympathetic trio, and then turned the world upside down with his initial performances in London’s swinging, star-frequented clubs. His explosive performance at the landmark Monterey Pop Festival attracted notice worldwide, but a subsequent U.S. tour as opening act for The Monkees did nothing to advance his efforts. However this song, brimming with psychedelic suggestion, announced the arrival of a groundbreaking artist whose influence resonates even today. —Lee Zimmerman

9. Joy Division: “Disorder” (Unknown Pleasures)

Joy Division’s “Disorder” not only set the tone for their album, Unknown Pleasures, but also the future of post-punk itself. A thick bassline against a drum loop opens the song, with this former treated as a separate entity entirely from the guitar rather than a complement to it. The song constantly builds up the speed, agitation and busyness of the guitar against the steady bassline, all while Ian Curtis’ lyrics give the song a somber depth. The song ends with the bass, guitar, and vocals all clashing together in a desperate jumble that seems impossible to follow up. But that’s just what the next song in the album does, and the next, and the one after that. Before you know it, the album ends, and it’s time to hit the repeat button. —Nicolas Perez

8. The Velvet Underground: “Sunday Morning” (The Velvet Underground & Nico)

There are only a handful of songs that can be described as the musical equivalent of the cool side of the pillow, or an omelet prepared by someone you love, or a coffee table you can kick your feet up on while you do the crossword puzzle—and “Sunday Morning” is one of those songs. Don’t let John Cale’s heavenly celesta part fool you though: It’s about moving past any regrets, letting all those Saturday-night toxins work their way out of your system. Lines like “watch out, the world’s behind you” and “I’ve got a feeling I don’t want to know” lend an appropriate sense of darkness to the otherwise-sunny track. —Bonnie Stiernberg

7. Ramones: “Blitzkrieg Bop” (Ramones)

We can argue about whether the Ramones were the first punk band, or released the first punk album, or whatever. What is irrefutable is that the surly foursome from Forest Hills in Queens played a huge role in launching a movement with their self-titled debut in 1976, in no small part thanks to opening track “Blitzkrieg Bop.” How many other punk songs have become so deeply ingrained in the popular consciousness? “Blitzkrieg Bop” has popped up on TV, in the movies and in video games, and no wonder. With buzzsaw guitars chugging through a basic three-chord progression over a simple drumbeat embellished with cymbal hits that sound like somebody dropped a box of saucepans, the song fairly leaps out of the speakers. And that refrain: “Hey! Ho! Let’s Go!” is anthemic, instantly recognizable and unmistakably distinct. —Eric R. Danton

6. N.W.A.: “Straight Outta Compton” (Straight Outta Compton)

The title track from N.W.A.’s 1988 Straight Outta Compton embodies the bold, provocative nature of West Coast hip-hop, and it’s the kind of song that makes parents and the FCC clutch their pearls—and apparently it worked since N.W.A. were banned by many radio stations in the ’80s. Ice Cube’s opening verse needs no introduction (“Crazy motherfucker named Ice Cube / From the gang called N***** With Attitudes”), and it foreshadowed the album’s fiery next track “Fuck Tha Police” (“See, I don’t give a fuck, that’s the problem / I see a motherfuckin’ cop I don’t dodge him”). —Lizzie Manno

5. Patti Smith: “Gloria” (Horses)

“Gloria” has been covered or redone by dozens, if not hundreds, of artists, but Patti Smith’s rendition from Horses is one of the most compelling punk performances of all time. It’s not exactly a cover or an original as Smith plucked the tune and chorus lyrics from the Van Morrison-penned Them track, but incorporated her own poetry and dramatically reworked the song. She had been performing (both solo and with a guitarist) a poem called “Oath,” which contained the line “Christ died for somebody’s sins but not mine,” for years before her debut Horses was ever recorded, and it eventually became the foundation of “Gloria.” Smith was known to improvise over simple rock standards, and that’s exactly how this classic song came to be. Them’s version was nothing more than a harmless rock tune about doing the deed with the girl next door, but Smith’s version was biting and radical, subverting norms of gender and sexuality and espousing unabashed autonomy. It would’ve been brilliant enough to reimagine the song with such intellect, but Smith’s delivery is really what brings the song to life—she’s playful and coy one minute and recklessly violent the next. Her use of emphasis, tone and pitch is simply unparalleled and paved the way for generations of rock vocalists. —Lizzie Manno

4. Tracy Chapman: “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution” (Tracy Chapman)

“Talkin’ Bout a Revolution” is also the first single on Tracy Chapman and is widely known for its political message. It’s arguably right up there with “What’s Going On,” “The Times They Are A-Changin’” and “Fight The Power” (also the recurring song from Do The Right Thing) as one of the best protest songs ever written. While it’s no less subtle than those three tunes, it is a little softer as Chapman actually “whispers” over acoustic guitar before shouting the “run run run!” of the fiery chorus. It’s straightforward, and therefore, powerful: “Poor people gonna rise up / take what’s theirs.” It’s no wonder Bernie Sanders played it before rallies during his 2016 presidential campaign. —Ellen Johnson

3. Sade: “Smooth Operator” (Diamond Life)

Somehow, the biggest hit by sophisti-pop’s biggest artist is also the first song on that artist’s debut album. Sade’s “Smooth Operator” is a soothingly sensual anthem, a track you’re as likely to encounter at an overpriced speakeasy as in your parents’ (or grandparents’) record collection. Over three decades after its release, the song still sounds endlessly alluring, but given its extensive, virtually incalculable influence on R&B and even dream pop, it can be hard to appreciate how wildly it functions as an album opener. In the mid-1980s, people threw on the first album by this brand-new band and heard this. Soft keys, drifting sax, frontperson Sade Adu’s spoken-then-crooned vocals, a smoky yet summery feel that predicted the 2010s Balearic trend, drums that jump forth and recede at the song’s tensest moments, Adu’s now-classic tale of a heartless, criminal lover whose comeuppance is due. Although it was an introduction in every way, it was perfectly primed to become universally, timelessly loved—and it rapidly did, in far more than seven languages. —Max Freedman

2. Frank Ocean: “Start / Thinkin Bout You” (Channel Orange)

Frank Ocean’s 2012 masterwork channel ORANGE has many moments of chill, reverb-soaked R&B, but none sound quite as moving as “Thinkin Bout You.” The album is firmly rooted in Southern California where Ocean interacts with a wide array of outcasts, of which he also considers himself, too. In beautiful falsetto, Ocean welcomes listeners into his circle and provides an intimate portrait of an artist trying to parse through his emotions. On “Thinkin Bout You,” Ocean describes the complexities of his first love against minimal beats, windy synths and occasional swells of strings, and the result is a painful, wistful tune that sounds like his whole world has come crashing down. It captures a deep anguish outside of time and space, and after Ocean posted a Tumblr post divulging that his first love was a man, it adds another layer of powerful, brave frankness. —Lizzie Manno

1. R.E.M.: “Radio Free Europe” (Murmur)

You know about the mumbling, the muttering, the indie success story, the simultaneous conquest of college radio and Rolling Stone—and subsequently, the world. But maybe you don’t know how punk never quite married Rickenbacker arpeggios until “Radio Free Europe” and “Sitting Still” made it safe for bands like the dB’s. Maybe in retrospect it’s amazing how “Talk About the Passion” and “Perfect Circle” were such power ballads. And maybe you don’t have to understand a word of “Moral Kiosk,” “Catapult” or “We Walk” to hear how every odd harmony, surf lick and overdubbed billiard ball made perfect sense. — Dan Weiss

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