These are the 20 best debut album lead-off tracks of all time

How Beyoncé, The Beatles and other legends kicked off their careers with greatness

Published February 3, 2018 2:00PM (EST)


In the coming week, Van Halen's self-titled debut album turns 40 years old. The record offers many gifts — David Lee Roth's rowdy, ribald "Ice Cream Man"! Eddie Van Halen's legendary instrumental solo "Eruption"! The mighty "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love" — as well as one of the best album opening tracks ever: "Runnin' With The Devil."

Van Halen weren't the only future stars to come out of the gate with a strong showing, of course. For example, Prince placed the gospel-tinged title track of his 1978 LP, "For You," front and center, seemingly as a way to illustrate his production and arrangement gifts, and Michael Jackson's debut, "Got To Be There," found the then 13-year-old(!) covering Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine." But certain other major artists launched their debut records with songs that turned into instant classics.

The rules for this list are simple. These are all the first songs on the first side of an artist's first full-length record. These albums must have also kickstarted the most well-known, successful period of an artist's career. (In other words, any discarded side projects or ill-advised one-offs don't count.) And although songs may be previously released singles or brand-new recordings, all heralded the arrival of greatness — and became signature tunes.

Van Halen, "Runnin' With The Devil" ("Van Halen," 1978)
When a video of David Lee Roth's isolated vocals for "Runnin' With The Devil" went viral a few years ago, it underscored not only his unintentionally hilarious delivery (those screams!) but his incredible, vibrato-rich voice. Then again, DLR himself oozed charisma — think the exuberance of a Broadway star crossed with the unselfconsciousness of a class prankster — that meshed well with the band's loose, bluesy rock 'n' roll. That came across especially well on "Runnin' With The Devil," a supremely confident tune that feels like a panther stalking its prey. Eddie Van Halen's guitar riffs are both fluid and aggressive, especially on his brief solo during the bridge, and hint at seedy danger. Bassist Michael Anthony's roasted bass (and indelible backing vocals) adds wrinkles of worry. And when DLR sings, with a swing in his voice, "I found the simple life ain't so simple/When I jumped out on that road," the song pivots and becomes something even more interesting.


R.E.M., "Radio Free Europe" ("Murmur," 1983)
There are several different mixes of "Radio Free Europe" floating around — including the steamrolling version found on R.E.M.'s 1981 debut 7-inch and a charmingly oddball "dub" mix found on the flip side of an early demo tape. However, the slower, twangier take that kicks off the band's debut full-length record, "Murmur," adds enigmatic layers. The song starts off with an eerie sound effect that resembles ping-pong balls ascending into space, before four beats of smacking drums signal the arrival of loping guitar riffs and Michael Stipe's keening vocals. From there, the song gains buoyancy with each airing of the chorus, which creates noticeable intensity. Still, the "Murmur" version of "Radio Free Europe" also illuminates the album's subtle sonic gifts: For example, the song has a funky bridge with crisp triangle, as well as snappy piano mirrored with bustling bass. "Radio Free Europe" only peaked at No. 78 on the Billboard singles charts but established R.E.M. as a force with which to be reckoned.


De La Soul, "The Magic Number" ("3 Feet High And Rising," 1989)
One of the biggest records missing from digital stores and streaming platforms is De La Soul's debut, "3 Feet High And Rising." The culprit is the album's myriad samples, which need to be cleared for online use — a time-consuming nightmare that no label has wanted to tackle, as the band lamented in 2016. Unfortunately, this absence means cutting-edge cut-and-paste gems such as "The Magic Number" don't have as prominent a place in pop culture as they should. That's a shame: Coming right after a brief intro skit, the song mixes snippets plucked from "Schoolhouse Rock," as well as bits from Double Dee & Steinski's hip-hop classic "Lesson 3" and samples of Johnny Cash and Syl Johnson tunes. The resulting song makes for precise and erudite disorientation, especially after De La Soul's MCs unleash tongue-twisting profundity such as, "Focus is formed by flaunts to the soul/Souls who flaunt styles gain praises by pounds."


Beyoncé, "Crazy In Love" ("Dangerously In Love," 2003)
Sure, Beyoncé was already well on the path to musical domination with Destiny's Child before deciding to launch a solo career. But the brassy "Crazy In Love" is a bold statement of independence that underscored her artistic versatility and catapulted her into the stratosphere. Although the tune possesses a distinctive throwback vibe — thanks to the sample of the horn bursts from the Chi-Lites' 1970 R&B hit "Are You My Woman? (Tell Me So)" — its strutting grooves and her crisp, melodic verses are firm nods to modern hip-hop, pop and R&B. As an added bonus, "Crazy In Love" features a motor-mouthed bridge from Beyoncé's future husband, Jay-Z, with whom she had also collaborated on "'03 Bonnie And Clyde." The end result is that "Crazy In Love" sounded like the future of music and (deservedly) spent eight weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100 during the summer of 2003, cementing Beyoncé's superstardom.


Chuck Berry, "School Days" ("After School Session," 1957)
Not only did this song zero in on the everyday high school drudgery (i.e., no seats in the lunchroom, being annoyed by classmates), but it also celebrated the sweetness of afternoon freedom: listening to music and dancing. "School Days" is also notable for giving us one of music's most indelible phrases: "Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' roll"


James Brown & His Famous Flames, "Please, Please, Please" ("Please, Please, Please," 1958)
Etta James has said this song was inspired by three little words Little Richard wrote on a napkin: "please, please, please." What's not in question is that his tender No. 6 R&B chart hit hinted at The Godfather of Soul's future greatness: Brown's vocal performance is magnetic, and underscored by gritty romantic longing.


The Beatles, "I Saw Her Standing There" ("Please, Please Me," 1963)
The Beatles didn't emerge fully formed, of course; the band members honed their skills in clubs for years before the British Invasion. But this Paul McCartney-John Lennon tune makes a good case for the group's genius: Although obviously indebted to '50s rock 'n' roll, the twisting rhythms, brisk tempo and giddy exhortations— "I'll never dance with another/Oooh!" — make "I Saw Her Standing There" sound fresh and edgy.

Dolly Parton, "Dumb Blonde" ("Hello, I'm Dolly," 1967)
Although not penned by Parton, "Dumb Blonde" was eerily prescient. In particular, the kicky country song "Just because I'm blond/Don't think I'm dumb/'Cause this dumb blond ain't nobody's fool" might as well double as her career manifesto.


Led Zeppelin, "Good Times Bad Times" ("Led Zeppelin," 1969)
In less than three minutes, "Good Times Bad Times" established Led Zeppelin's bona fides. Each band member contributes a seismic part — there's John Bonham's monstrous rhythmic precision, John Paul Jones' nimble bass and Jimmy Page's proto-metal wailing — although Plant's rakish tone ("I know what it means to be alone/I sure do wish I was at home/I don't care what the neighbors say") ties it all together.


Ramones, "Blitzkrieg Bop" ("Ramones," 1976)
A two-minute burst of locomotive guitar riffs, bashing drums and, of course, one of punk's most famous rallying cries — "Hey! Ho! Let's go!" — "Blitzkrieg Bop" set the blueprint for the Ramones' career.


The Cure, "10:15 Saturday Night" ("Three Imaginary Boys," 1979)
A marvel of post-punk minimalism, "10:15 Saturday Night" captures the angst intrinsic to romantic uncertainty. When Robert Smith repeatedly murmurs, "drip, drip, drip, drip" in time with drums and guitar, the tension in his voice and phrasing is agonizing.


U2, "I Will Follow" ("Boy," 1980)
Superstardom wasn't a given for U2 — but on the ebullient "I Will Follow," the Irish quartet was already acting like a stadium-filling rock band. A promise of fidelity and loyalty, the hopscotching tune applies a glossy polish to propulsive post-punk.


The Go-Go's, "Our Lips Are Sealed" ("Beauty And the Beat," 1981)
If there's any justice in the world, the forthcoming Go-Go's musical will serve as a reminder of the band's greatness. Exhibit A: The punkish new-wave gem "Our Lips Are Sealed" remains one of the best singles of the '80s, courtesy of a live-wire bass line and undulating guitar licks.



Duran Duran, "Girls On Film" ("Duran Duran," 1981)
Back in 1981, the space-age, disco-glam single "Girls On Film" sounded like it was beamed from another planet. To this day, the song sounds like the future, which is no doubt one reason why it remains a Duran Duran setlist staple.


Madonna, "Lucky Star" ("Madonna," 1983)
Madonna announced her formidable presence with this glittering encapsulation of early '80s New York City dance clubs. The electro-pop song's details — a fluttering guitar riff here, disco grooves there and nods to hip-hop throughout — are sublime, while the lyric "shine your heavenly body tonight" doesn't get enough credit for its depth.


LL Cool J, "I Can't Live Without My Radio" ("Radio," 1985)
After the grassroots success of his debut single, "I Need A Beat," LL Cool J continued to innovate with his debut's lead-off track, "I Can't Live Without My Radio." The '80s hip-hop cornerstone merges skeletal beats, boombox metaphors and LL's clever boasts: "Cause I make the songs, you sing along/And your radio's def when my record's on/So get off the wall, become involved."


Salt 'n Pepa, "Push It" ("Hot, Cool & Vicious," 1986*)
There's a slight asterisk to this entry: The swerving remix of "Push It" that kicks off Salt 'n Pepa's debut record wasn't on original pressings of the album. In fact, the song was only added to "Hot, Cool & Vicious" after it became a hit.


N.W.A., "Straight Outta Compton" ("Straight Outta Compton," 1988)
The title track of N.W.A.'s debut record doubles as an introduction to the group's powerful voices — Ice Cube, MC Ren and Eazy-E — and a mission statement for the hip-hop legends. Based around a smart array of samples and vivid lyrics, "Straight Outta Compton" had an enormous influence on hip-hop in the '90s and beyond.


Tori Amos, "Crucify" ("Little Earthquakes," 1992)
An incisive, unsparing examination of self-sabotage, "Crucify" combines ornate classical piano with percolating drums and Amos' inimitable, expressive vocal delivery. When she sings "Nothing I do is good enough for you," it cuts to the quick.


JAY-Z, "Can't Knock The Hustle" ("Reasonable Doubt," 1996)
The title of the first song on Jay-Z's debut says it all: The ambitious tune (and its mind-blowing, intricate lyrical contortions) underscores why he became a hip-hop icon. A cameo from Mary J. Blige is simply the icing on the cake.


By Annie Zaleski

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

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