From garages to subways to small gigs in pubs, the path of a struggling musician is gruesome. For some, it might take years for their music to crack the charts. But for others, it’s as if all the stars aligned, and somehow, on the first try, the world decided to grant them that holy recognition they desperately longed for.
This isn’t to say that you can simply back and relax if your debut single was successful. Unless you want to become a one-hit-wonder (shudder…).
In this article, we look at the lucky artists whose debut single turned them from anonymous, struggling artists to number one. We’ve rounded up the best of the best; let’s get into it.
Steven Tyler wrote Dream On when he was in his teens, which isn’t something you would expect from a song that starts with “Every time I look in the mirror, all these lines in my face get clearer.” The song peaked at 59 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and, three years later, stormed into the list again at number six.
Steven didn’t really think Dream On would turn out to be a song: “It was just this little thing I was playing, and I never dreamed it would end up as a real song or anything … It’s about dreaming until your dreams come true.” Good thing he never gave up.
A young and heartbroken Alicia Keys was barely 20 when she wrote her first ballad, Fallin’. “I was going through it bad, but it helped me work things out,” she explained. Her debut single peaked at number one on the charts and won her three out of four Grammy nominations in 2002.
The song’s music video was different from other R&B tracks of the time. Instead of dancing, Alicia Keys kept it cool by playing the piano and walking the streets of New York with her iconic braids and a long leather jacket.
Madonna glided into our lives in the early ’80s with a bold haircut, sick dance moves, and an important message – “Everybody get up and do your thing.” But the journey to stardom wasn’t as smooth. Before the song blew up, Madonna had to convince DJs to play her music at local nightclubs.
Shortly after her debut single cracked the dance charts at number three, Madonna’s face appeared for the first time on a magazine, a 1982 issue of Dance Music Report. Despite how repetitive the song gets, it’s addictive, uplifting, and will surely get you to dance.
The story of a man who shot his wife after seeing her mess ’round, Hey Joe, was written by Billy Roberts in 1962, but a slower version was performed by The Jimi Hendrix Experience in 1966. It landed in the top 10 U.K. Singles Chart, peaking at number six.
Jimi Hendrix’s cover with backing vocals by The Breakaways is arguably the most recognized and loved version of the song. His masterful presentation made him an instant star when it came out, and to this day, his cover is considered one of the greatest hard rock songs of all time.
A dramatic childhood discovery inspired Pearl Jam’s debut single Alive. When Eddie Vedder was a kid, his mom told him that the man he thought was his father was actually his stepfather. Eddie described the song as somewhat of a curse: “…fine, the dad’s dead, but I’m still alive, and I’ve gotta deal with this.”
But through the years, Pearl Jam’s fans helped lift the curse. “The audience changed the meaning of these words, and when they sing ‘I’m still alive,’ it’s like they’re celebrating,” Eddie explained. The single was released in 1991 as a part of their debut album, Ten, which peaked at number two and is considered one of the greatest pieces from the grunge era.
Tired and hungover, producer Chris Moon came up with some of Soft and Wet’s lyrics while sitting at an ad agency and reflecting on the incredibly sexy time he had with two women the night before. Prince added his genius to the song, and the two released it as Prince’s debut hit.
This groovy and somewhat uncomfortable music piece entered the Hot 100 and spent two weeks on the chart. It is not bad for a song with the phrase “soft and wet” repeated repeatedly (sometimes in a whisper).
The Door’s first single didn’t reach as high on the charts as their other songs, but its raw and dark energy managed to get people’s attention. Jim Morrison told Hit Parader magazine that he wrote the single while crossing canals in Venice, contemplating a girl he once knew.
But this is a far cry from your traditional love song. Finding an island in one’s arms and shortly after, noticing a lie in their eyes, was precisely the kind of chaos Jim was going for in many of The Doors’ records.
When Missy Elliot released her debut album in 1997, she was involved in so many other projects that it’s incredible she managed to land a spot on the charts herself. Misdemeanor was busy producing, co-writing, singing, rapping, and dancing with various artists.
But thankfully, all her other works didn’t take away from the genius of her solo project. Her debut single, The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly), peaked at number four on Billboard’s Hot Hip-Hop Chart, and her album ranked at 93 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
Otis Redding’s ballad, These Arms of Mine, is a song gushing with emotion. Redding delivered it with such passion that Stax Records co-founder, Jim Stewart, knew he had to record him the moment he heard him sing. “There was something different about [the ballad]. He really poured his soul into it,” Jim recalled.
The debut single entered the U.S. Hot 100 at number 85, and the R&B Singles at number 20. Redding’s relatable masterpiece tugs at the heartstrings of anyone who listens to it. We all know what it’s like to yearn for your loved one to fall back in your arms.
Debuting with a Christmas song isn’t the most appealing idea if you’re a hip-hop duo. But, luckily, OutKast’s hit Player’s Ball was nothing like your ordinary Christmas carol. Yes, it had sleigh bells throughout the song and lines like “Getting tipsy off the nog,” but it spoke of a truth that had little to do with a specific time of year.
Player’s Ball was first released on the label compilation titled A LaFace Family Christmas. But it was so successful that OutKast added it to their debut album as the lead single. The sleigh bells were removed, and the lyrics changed from “Christmas day” to “all day every day.”
Kanye West recorded the song that launched his career two weeks after being involved in a near-fatal car accident. He had to undergo reconstructive surgery and ended up rapping the song with his jaw wired shut, hence the song’s title, Through the Wire (the wires that held his broken jaw together).
Kanye’s song landed him a spot on various worldwide charts and a Grammy nomination for Best Rap Solo Performance. West confidently stated, “Through The Wire” is the worst thing that could’ve possibly happen to me, and now it’s obviously the best thing. Look how it exploded!”
The Ramones stormed into our lives in 1976 when they released “Blitzkrieg Bop.” With fast strumming, forceful drumming, and an aggressive “Hey, ho! Let’s go,” the band didn’t leave much room for you to stop and think whether you liked it or not.
The word “blitzkrieg” means “lightning war” in German, and it’s a term that’s associated with WWII. Understandably, this raised a few eyebrows. When your song has the sentence “Shoot ’em in the back now,” you’re pretty much setting yourself up for trouble.
The Sex Pistols caused quite a stir in England when they came out with their single, Anarchy in the U.K. The media portrayed them as these crazy anti-establishment guys who just wanted to wreck things for the sake of it. But John Lydon assured people they weren’t advocating for mindless chaos.
“I have always thought that anarchy is mind games for the middle class,” he told Rolling Stone magazine. “It’s a luxury. It can only be afforded in a democratic society, therefore kind of slightly f–king redundant.” Regardless of their intentions, their single proved successful. Anarchy In the U.K. was ultimately enshrined in the Hall of Fame as a song that shaped rock and roll.
Pink Floyd’s debut single is based on a man who used to steal women’s underwear from clotheslines. But no need to be creeped out too much. According to Syd Barret, “Arnold Layne just happens to dig dressing up in women’s clothing. A lot of people do, so let’s face up to reality.”
Still, the song proved too much for some people. Radio London even went so far as to ban it. But the BBC wasn’t as self-righteous. They said they didn’t know enough about cross-dressing and decided to play it anyway.
We first heard Kesha’s voice in Flo Rida’s 2009 hit Right Round, but her first single, Tik Tok, was what really kicked off her career. With her auto-tuned rap-singing and carefree, wild appearance, she became every teen’s favorite new pop princess.
The basis of Tik Tok is that you don’t need much to wake up like P. Diddy. All you need is beer, music, some cute boys, and you’re set. Kesha co-wrote her debut song along with producers Dr. Luke and Benny Blanco. They did an excellent job because it topped the Billboard Hot 100 for nine consecutive weeks, making Kesha the hottest talk of the town.
If you don’t pay enough attention to the lyrics of Fast Car, you might be fooled into believing it’s a carefree song about driving around with a cigarette in hand and your hair flying in the wind. But it’s really about failed relationships and the cycle of poverty.
Tracy’s debut song climbed to the top of the charts after performing at Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday tribute in 1988. It peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 and is considered one of Rolling Stone Magazine’s greatest songs.
It’s Raining Men always gives off a feel-good vibe. Whether it’s The Weather Girls’ strong soulful vocals or the ridiculously fun lyrics, this timeless song is an instant mood lifter. Fun fact, this single was rejected by Donna Summer, Barbara Streisand, Cher, and Diana Ross.
This song hit the dance floors in 1982 and became everyone’s favorite new tune. It earned the duo a Grammy nomination and spent eleven weeks on Billboard’s Hot 100. Martha Wash proudly told Rolling Stone magazine, “It’s morphed into a song that grandparents, parents, and kids can all sing and dance to.”
LeToya, Kelly, Latavia, and Beyonce first appeared on the charts in 1997 with their debut single No No No. The R&B song had two parts to it. The first, a mellow, slow, sensual rhythm. And the second, a remix done by Wyclef mentioned in the music video, “That ain’t right.” He then added speed, groove, and his rap bit.
The song hit number three on the Billboard Hot 100 and number one on the R&B chart. No No No got everyone saying YES to Destiny’s Child self-titled debut album, which went platinum after selling over three million copies worldwide.
Rihanna blew our minds the moment she stepped out on the dancefloor and swung her hips to Pon De Replay. This bronze, Barbados beauty was a refreshing sight in the music industry, and her dance-pop debut single was an incredible hit.
Pon De Replay translates into “play it again,” and, trust us, radios everywhere got the memo. Stations were playing Rihanna’s song again and again. It won Rihanna Song of the Year, Best Dance Single, and Best New Artist in 2006.
Toto’s self-titled debut album received mixed reviews, but there were a few songs on it that made it to the charts, their most famous one being Hold the Line. With a dramatic piano hook and relatable lyrics (love isn’t always on time), Toto’s debut song peaked at number five on the Hot 100.
While it’s true that Africa remains a fan favorite, Hold the Line is where it all began. When Steve Lukather first heard their song on the air, he started running around the house in his underwear, screaming, “I’m on the radio!”
What amazed everyone about Billie’s debut single was how vulnerable and sincere her voice sounded. At only 14-years-old, she managed to sing those lyrics in a way that resonated deeply with anyone who’s been in love. Her voice carried the pain, the excitement, the highs, and the lows; basically, the whole rollercoaster one goes through as they fall deeper and deeper in love.
Billie’s brother, Finneas, originally wrote the song for his band The Slightly but gave it to his little sister after he realized her vocals were a better fit. Today, Billie Eilish is a record-breaking sensation who has won five Grammys in one night. But it all started with those ocean eyes…
When Lana Del Rey came out with Video Games, listeners were flooded by a sense of refreshing nostalgia. The song was new, but the music video had old film shots that accompanied her low and jazzy voice.
Video Games was a massive hit in Europe, peaking at number one in Germany, Iceland, and Luxembourg and entering the top ten in several other countries. In the 2019 Q Awards, it was crowned the Song of the Decade.
The recording of Supersonic was a spontaneous event that none of the bandmates saw coming. They were in the studio working on their song, Bring It On Down, but warmed up first with a little jam session. That jam session turned into the band’s first single.
Noel Gallagher wrote the lyrics at 3 a.m. and found it incredible that fans already knew the words by heart just a few weeks later. “They’re singing your words back that you’d nonsensically wrote down at f*cking three in the morning,” Noel told Rolling Stone.
In the summer of 1956, the boys went to the movies to see The Searchers, a film in which John Wayne repeatedly used the phrase “that’ll be the day.” The film inspired them to write their first single, and they used the line for both the song and their debut album.
It ranked number one for three weeks in the U.K. Singles Chart and continued to win awards as it resurfaced years later. Sadly, a little more than a year after its release, Buddy Holly was killed in a plane crash.
Love Me Do is the result of two fresh-faced kids experimenting with words and melodies without overthinking it. McCartney mentioned they sat down, “without either of us having a particularly original idea. We loved doing it. It was a fascinating thing to try and learn to do, to become songwriters.”
The Beatles released their debut single in the U.K. in 1962, where it peaked at number 16. When the song came out, the boys from Liverpool were nervous, thrilled, anxious, and hoped for the best. “I can still hear the nervousness in my voice,” McCartney recalled.
Is there anything more magical and kookier than Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights? Only 19 at the time, Kate flowed in a ghost-like manner across the field in the song’s music video. Her debut single ranked number one in several countries globally, including Australia, U.K., and Ireland.
Wuthering Heights is arguably one of the most challenging songs to cover. It’s tailor-made for Kate’s voice, and not many artists can reach the towering vocal heights this song requires. Incredibly, Kate recorded this song in a single take.
Depeche Mode’s spacey, electropop single was released in the U.K. in 1981, and although it didn’t rank that high (No. 57), it was good enough for the guys. It encouraged them to go ahead and record their second single, New Life, which ranked way higher at number 11.
At first, Dreaming of Me wasn’t included in their debut album. But Depeche Mode quickly came to their senses and added it as a bonus track in the CD’s re-release. So, the song might not be considered Depeche Mode’s best by any means, but it’s where it all began.
Radiohead has created some of the bleakest songs in the world. Bleak, yet relatable. And Creep is a perfect example of that. The self-loathing in this song is both despicable and enchanting at the same time. Thom Yorke was a college student when he wrote the lyrics and admitted he “thought they were pretty crap.”
But a lot of people disagreed. Creep found itself on the charts of countries all over the world. From Israel to France to New Zealand. It looks like feeling like a creep is something all humans have in common.
Elvis took Arthur Crudup’s blues tune. That’s All Right and turned it into a rock n’ roll sensation. He recorded it one hot summer evening in 1954, after he messed around with Crudup’s version, speeding up the tempo.
“All of a sudden, Elvis just started singing this song, jumping around and acting the fool, and then Bill picked up his bass, and he started acting the fool, too, and I started playing with them,” Winfield Moore explained. Producer Sam Phillips loved the trio’s spontaneous jam so much that he decided to record it.
Some songs are so incomprehensible that you think the singer is mumbling on purpose because the song lacks lyrics. Radio Free Europe is one of them. The song existed before the lyrics did, and Michael Stipe intentionally didn’t want his voice to be understood because he hadn’t written the words yet.
After many babbling in live performances and improvisations, the lyrics were published in Song Hits magazine in 1983. With or without lyrics, Radio Free Europe was a huge success when it came out in 1981. “This song was pivotal to the continuation of our career,” Bill Berry explained.
The Jackson 5’s debut single is a story about a man who took his girl for granted and is now desperate to get her back. The world was amazed when a tween Michael Jackson sang those lyrics as if he could really feel the desperation burning in his 11-year-old soul.
The family’s debut single launched a period of Jacksonmania. It peaked at number one on all the U.S. charts and sold six million copies worldwide. Rolling Stone Magazine ranked it as the runner up for the 100 Greatest Debut Singles of All Time.
17-year-old Britney changed the world of pop forever when she released Baby One More Time in 1998. Swedish producer Max Martin wrote the legendary hit. Martin had the Backstreet Boys in mind when he wrote it, and he even suggested it to TLC as well. Both bands rejected it.
Luckily, not Britney. When she heard the song, she knew “it [was one] of those songs you want to hear again and again. It just felt really right.” Britney spent the night before the recording listening to Tainted Love and working on her rusty growl. I think we can all agree that she absolutely nailed it.
My Sharona is a song you either love or hate. You either think it’s brilliant, or it gets on your nerves. And we really don’t know if the song would have had such a ma-ma-ma-massive effect if it weren’t for the catchy stuttering.
This 1979 ode to Sharona Alperin, Doug Fieger’s then-girlfriend, became The Knacks number one hit single and remained in that position on the charts for six weeks. All in all, The Knack’s energetic debut single is an unforgettable hit that’s sure to grab your attention.
Not many bands can survive the death of their lead singer. Let alone release a song that he wrote. But when Joy Division became New Order, they came out with Ceremony, a haunting song that Ian Curtis wrote a few days before committing suicide.
The band re-recorded the song with Bernard Sumner as the lead vocalist and released it in March of 1981. A second version was released a few months later after Gillian Gilbert joined. Ceremony peaked at number one on the U.K. Independent Singles Chart and was reviewed by Allmusic as “a beauty.”
Susan Lewis, daughter of record label owner Stan Lewis, was the muse for this legendary song. It initially appeared on The Rolling Stones’ album before blowing up a few years later as Credence Clearwater Revival’s debut hit.
“I decided to pick something that existed because it’d just be easier. I’d be less self-conscious about doing things,” John Fogerty explained. CCR created incredible pieces afterward, but the recording of Susie Q was a pivotal moment for them.
Music journalist, Simon Goddard, described Hand in Glove as “a bleak proclamation of doomed happiness.” Which is exactly what Morrissey aimed for when he wrote the song in just two hours. Along with Johnny Marr, they finally created what they believed was their best song yet.
The inspiration for the song’s riff came from David Bowie’s Rebel Rebel, and the inspiration for the title came from a detective novel written in 1947 by the same name. Despite not climbing too high on the U.K. Singles chart, Hand in Glove ranked number one on the Indie chart.
Mr. Brightside is a tale of sickening paranoia. It’s about a man whose love and passion drives him to the edge of his mental capacity (happens to the best of us). “It was only a kiss, how did it end up like this?” is a line that’s likely to intrigue even the most cynical person.
The song’s catchy dance rhythm, along with its disturbing lyrics, ensured The Killers a spot on the charts. It became the longest-charting song in U.K. history, remaining for a total of 208 weeks on their Top 100.
Parting ways with your band is always tricky because you never quite know how things will turn out. But for Icelandic legend Bjork, things turned out pretty good. She wrote Human Behavior while still with The Sugarcubes, but she decided to wait it out to release it on her own.
Her debut single was an instant hit in underground clubs and peaked at number two on the dance charts. Inspired by the relation between humans and other animals, Human Behavior is a unique work of art.
There was a lot of noise surrounding Florence & The Machine’s debut single when it first came out. It’s basically a song about smashing plates, throwing fists, and ending things off with a kiss. But the thing is, Florence never meant for it to be about domestic abuse.
“It’s just a silly rhyme I thought up when I was 18!” she told The Independent, adding, “It wasn’t about personal experience. A lot of the stuff I write about is imaginary relationships and, like, imagining chaos.”