An epic debut single can change the course of an artist’s career. If it’s received well by the critics and becomes a hit, record companies suddenly become more patient, responsive to phone calls, and liberal with their wallets. The strongest debuts released at just the right time can galvanize listeners, launch legendary careers and sometimes change the face of music, all with just one song. Here are 37 tracks—from recent indie bands to classic rock and hip-hop artists—that launched some of music’s most legendary careers.
Inspired—as many were—by The Strokes, the Arctic Monkeys rode the wave of success of their massive debut single all the way to No. 1 in the U.K. in 2005. The squealing, scrabbling indie rock song propelled the English band’s first record, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, and helped create the defining sound of the 2000s.
New York City rock ‘n’ roll was back from the dead with the 2001 release of this lead single off The Strokes near-perfect debut Is This It?. Although some claim “The Modern Age” off The Stokes’ lesser-known debut EP of the same name as the breakthrough song, it was this track that really brought the band international recognition. The Stokes’ effect on rock ‘n’ roll in the early aughts continues to reverberate today.
In 2002 the New York borough of Brooklyn was deep into the throws of a cultural shift. Scene vet James Murphy both perfectly skewered and intelligently documented what was going on around him through his band’s first synthy single. Through hugely publicized breakups and reformations, this song still captures LCD Soundsystem at its pre-drama purity.
When Stone Gossard presented Eddie Vedder with an instrumental called “Dollar Short” and asked him to provide lyrics, Vedder added the crushingly personal story about finding out the man who raised him was not his birth father—and that his biological father had already passed away. The rest, for the Seattle grunge band, is history.
G N’ R exploded onto the Los Angeles rock scene, and seemingly captured the world’s attention overnight with 1987’s Appetite for Destruction. “Welcome to the Jungle,” the first track on the album, was the band’s first U.S. single. As the story goes, “Welcome to the Jungle” didn’t do well until Geffen Records founder personally asked MTV to integrate the music video in its rotation. Once heavy metal fans started discovering the song, G N’ R’s fate was sealed.
The Righteous Brothers—the musical duo of Bobby Hatfield and Bill Medley—are blue-eyed soul legends. This song, while successful in 1963, foreshadowed The Righteous Brothers’ future mega-hits like “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin,” “Unchained Melody,” and more.
Joe Strummer’s lyrics were to “White Riot” meant to inspire white youths to wake up from their malaise and find something to riot about. Although some misinterpreted the brash young ruffians as calling for a race riot, The Clash of course became one of the most influential English punk bands ever.
Aaliyah started recording her debut album Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number when she was just 14 years old. With the help of producer, writer, and mentor R. Kelly, the R&B singer went on to start her career with this gold-certified single. “Back & Forth” felt appropriately youthful, but mature enough to elicit excitement for her tragically short career.
“Creep” is notable not just because it became such a hit, but because the English rock band has since essentially shunned the song once it became huge. Radiohead set a precedent of never doing the expected—something that’s come to define the band in the years since.
Despite releasing three EPs before this song, “Summer Babe” was actually Pavement’s first single. The song, off the lo-fi band’s first album Slanted and Enchanted, set the tone for much of the indie rock, noise, and slacker music that defined the ‘90s.
As you may have noticed, Kanye West has a flair for the dramatic. Releasing this song—which he famously wrote with his jaw wired shut following a serious car crash—as his debut single showcased West’s supreme confidence and fierce determination right from the jump. Kanye’s first record, 2004’s The College Dropout, proved his ability as a rapper and songwriter in addition to his work as a producer.
After N. W. A. broke up, Dr. Dre came back with this menacing track from the Deep Cover soundtrack. Joining forces with the weed smokin’, slow lopin’ SoCal rapper Snoop Dogg, this song established two of hip-hop’s biggest solo careers and their reputation for killer collaborations. The duo would later set the world alight with “Nuthin But A G Thing” later in 1992.
PJ Harvey certainly doesn’t sound like an artist just starting off on this biting song off 1991’s Dry, Although “Dress” didn’t actually chart when it was released, it garnered enough critical and fan support to kickstart the English singer/songwriter’s career. Even 25 years after this debut single, Harvey remains as thrilling and essential as ever.
Tupac’s brief life was filled with a seemingly non-stop succession of intensity, something his music so often and so brilliantly reflected. Pac wasted no time demanding the plight of those in American ghettos was heard with this harrowing tale of a pregnant 12-year-old-girl running out of options. This song, off 1991’s 2Pacalypse Now, revitalized the genre of conscious hip-hop.
Despite the absurdity of the Gallagher brothers’ inability to coexist, their Britpop band Oasis became one of the biggest English band of the modern era. This sneering, confident anthem off 1994’s Definitely Maybe served as both a mission statement for the band—“I’m feeling supersonic, give me gin and tonic/You can have it all but how much do you want it?”—and an anthem for England’s working class.
No one could have known how rare and cherished Portishead singles would become after their landmark album Dummy first blew minds in 1994. Of course, the rock band has only released three albums in its 22 years, but “Numb” launched the cultish band’s career in a big way.
After the disillusion of her band The Sugarcubes, Björk launched her experimental solo career with this classic track off 1993’s Debut. The song also marks the first time Michel Gondry and the Icelandic singer/songwriter/performer collaborated on a video, the beginning of one of the art form’s most fruitful, effective partnerships.
Considered by many to be the Rage song, the politically-driven group couldn’t have picked a better track to loudly announce to the world that they were mad as fucking hell, and were not going to take it a second more.
Calvin Broadus stepped out from behind his mentor Dr. Dre’s considerable shadow in late ’93 with Doggystyle. Although Dre still produced the record, this was Snoop’s first foray into the spotlight and he made sure listeners took note of his burgeoning solo career with “What’s My Name.”
One would think a band made up of cartoon characters from the minds of Damon Albarn and illustrator Jamie Hewlett would have a hard time becoming an international smash, but Gorillaz achieved just that. The otherworldly fun of “Clint Eastwood” served as the perfect introduction to a band that actually sounds like it exists and records in the animated realm created by Albarn and Hewlett. The success of Gorillaz continued to foster Albarn’s reputation as one of England’s most formidable musicians.
Who’s The Man, Ted Demme’s 1993 film starring Ed Lover and Doctor Dre (the other one), stands as a time capsule as to what was going on in hip-hop scene in the early ‘90s. Biggie’s debut album Ready to Die dropped the following year after the film; both releases helped him return glory to the East Coast’s hip-hop scene.
“Player’s Ball” introduced Andre 3000 and Big Boi to the world back in 1993 with Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik. The Atlanta duo began a career that mixed rap styles of both coasts, while also integrating pop, funk, and R&B elements. This debut single details the realities of living in the American South and Outkast’s allegiance to Hotlanta made them leaders in cultivating that scene and legitimizing Southern hip-hop as a genre.
Dr. Dre’s greatest strength (other than his taste in tech stocks and headphones) is perhaps his unparalleled ear for discovering and then surrounding himself with top-notch talent—Snoop, Kendrick, Anderson .Paak and Marshall Mathers among them. For over a decade this Detroit rapper and ruled the charts, and this song—and its sometimes abhorrent lyrics—started it all.
“Hand in Glove” was released as a single before The Smiths even had a record contract. The alternative song ended up pushing Rough Trade to sign them and release the band’s eponymous debut. Of course, the dour band would later become one of the most important bands ever to come out of Manchester.
Once you’ve heard these thunderous opening cords, they’re permanently etched into your brain. Iggy and the Stooges exploded onto the scene with one of those absolutely classic songs that have inspired untold thousands to pick up guitars and start bands of their own.
“Protect Ya Neck” is gritty blast of a debut that demands your attention. Masta Killa hadn’t joined, yet, but Wu Tang’s eight intense and talented individuals all made their presence undeniably felt here.
Missy Elliot is one of the most influential women in hip-hop and this Timbaland-produced debut single is about as strong a song as one could ask for. “The Rain” features one of hip-hop’s most memorable samples, with Ann Peebles’ “I Can’t Stand The Rain” used as the chorus.
Lou Reed’s observation of the goings on at Andy Warhol’s Factory served as the inspiration for this darkly unique song that was supposedly Warhol’s favorite VU tune. Both the song and the Velvets in general are all the more impressive when considering the musical atmosphere at the time was the antithesis of what Reed and company created.
Once MC Serch included this track on the 1992 soundtrack for Zebrahead, Nasir Jones’ life changed forever. “Halftime” would go on to be the centerpiece of Nas’ game-changing debut Illmatic, which itself went on to change the face (and the sound) of East Coast hip-hop.
A quintessential Doors song from the band’s classic debut concerns two of Jim Morrison’s favorite topics—death and consciousness expansion via psychedelic drugs. Although later singles off the band’s self-titled 1967 debut achieved high ranking and greater success, “Break On Through (To The Other Side)” became one of the band’s most beloved songs.
This song marked the beginning of the punk movement in the U.K. in 1976. Throughout their brief existence The Sex Pistols were notorious for provocations, controversy, and non-conformity, and this single encapsulates all that in just three-and-a-half minutes.
Queen B’s post-Destiny’s Child reign began with 2003’s “Crazy In Love.” Featuring husband/rapper Jay-Z, “Crazy In Love” forged Bey’s path into multi-genre stardom. At its core a pop song, this single also incorporates hip-hop, dancehall, and R&B, which contributes to its diverse and nearly universal appeal.
Elvis began his cultural takeover with his cover of this Arthur Crudup song released in 1954. While his first single for RCA, 1956’s ‘“Heartbreak Hotel” really launched The King’s career, That’s Alright” had enough staying power to peak at No. 3 in the U.K. when the single was released there—exactly 50 years after its original release in the States. Presley still holds the title of the bestselling solo artist in recorded history.
Led Zeppelin arrived in top form with the release of “Good Times Bad Times.” It’s all here—Bonzo’s ridiculous drumming, John Paul Jones’ bass riff (which he said was the most difficult he ever wrote), Jimmy Page’s guitar experiments with a Leslie speaker and Robert Plant’s sexualized yelps. “Good Times Bad Times” is classic Zeppelin that cemented their reign in the blues-rock tradition.
Few of the songs on this list have come to so utterly represent their genre than “Blitzkerg Bop” has for punk. The Ramones’ debut was so ubiquitous in everything from films to sporting events to commercials that even your mom knows, (if she didn’t introduce you in the first place).
Considering the effect this legendary and oft-covered song has had on rock n’ roll history, it’s fun to imagine what Van Morrison’s career arc may have looked like had he chosen raucous garage rock over the unique blend of Irish mysticism and jazz, R&B and rock he has so deftly conjured over the years. However, Van the Man began pushing boundaries almost immediately after going solo, and this legendary 1967 track launched a career that’s approaching its fifth decade.
It all began for The Beatles with this 1964 single, which reached No. 1 in the U.S. Even the greatest band in the world has to start somewhere, but if you want to see where they went from here—don’t fret—we already ranked The 50 Best Beatles Songs right here.