As a music fan, there may be nothing more exciting than putting on an album for the first time and being blown away by the initial notes that come out of your speakers. The rising tension of Smells Like Teen Spirit, the strange rhythms of Sympathy For The Devil, the charged atmosphere of Sgt. Peppers… all let you know that you were hearing something you’d never heard before.
This sense of discovery is heightened when it’s also coming from a band that you’ve never heard before. Ideally, the first song on a band’s first album should serve as a sort of overture for the band’s career, planting the seed for what’s to come.
So, who has come out of the gate the fastest? When judging the best first songs on first albums, we have to set a couple of ground rules. First, EPs don’t count… we’re talking about first LPs. Second, fluky self-released albums don’t count (for example, Paul Simon had a 1965 album before he and Garfunkel hit it big… however, his 1972 post-Garfunkel effort would generally be considered his first record). And thirdly, it has to be not only a great song, but emblematic of what was to come.
Let’s count them down.
The Runners-Up (11-15)
Reel Around The Fountain – The Smiths
Talkin’ Bout A Revolution – Tracy Chapman
Holidays In The Sun – Sex Pistols
Break On Through – The Doors
Mass Romantic – The New Pornographers
10.) Round Here – Counting Crows
Counting Crows may be kind of a joke to most people today, but they’ve quietly put together one of the best collections of songs in the past twenty years. Round Here may be their most emblematic song, and was a great kickoff to their career.
9.) Head Like A Hole – Nine Inch Nails
If somebody wanted to know what industrial rock was like in general, and how angry Trent Reznor was in particular, this song would pretty much tell them. Reznor’s now moved on to make awesome movie soundtracks, but as Nine Inch Nails, he was able to combine noise with song structure like nobody else.
8.) Both Hands – Ani DiFranco
If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a music fan, it’s that there are certain artists that you will never be able to talk people into liking. Some performers simply cause a visceral reaction in people, good or bad. Personally, I think Ani DiFranco is one of the great American songwriters, helping a point in the line that runs from Guthrie to Dylan and Oberst (three other visceral reaction guys, actually). Some other people want to throw the speakers out the window at the sound of her voice. But they’re idiots.
7.) Radio Free Europe – R.E.M.
If you didn’t think this song would make the Top Ten, then you haven’t been reading P.C.H.A.
6.) 1969 – The Stooges
Pretty much the first punk song. Even if you were to first hear The Stooges today, they’d change your perceptions of the ’60s with their first song. No matter what history books tell you about 1969, for most working class Americans it was just “another year with nothing to do”.
5.) My Name Is – Eminem
Rap artists usually don’t do well with initial efforts. Even if you disregard skits (which we are), it usually takes a while for a rapper to find his footing. Eminem, however, stated his purpose right away, happy to slap his dick across the mouth of anybody in his way. (Note: Eminem had an independent album, Infinite, three years before, but we’re invoking the Paul Simon rule… most people would say his career started with his first Dr. Dre collaboration.)
4.) My Name Is Jonas – Weezer
When Buddy Holly first hit the airwaves in ’94, it was hard to know what to make of Weezer. Were they legit, or just some poppy poseurs? After the guitar chords of Jonas kicked in, you had your answer.
3.) Purple Haze – The Jimi Hendrix Experience
The further you go back in rock history, the harder it is to find a great first song on an artist’s first album. Most artists from the ’60s or earlier started with albums of covers, and took a while to find their groove. Jimi Hendrix, however, came out of the gate strong. Like 1969, trying to imagine what this song sounded like when it was first released is mind-blowing.
2.) Blister In The Sun – Violent Femmes
Although they had some decent songs later, the first Violent Femmes album stands far and above anything else they ever did. A landmark in the evolution from punk to alternative, the opening notes of Blister will still get any party going.
1.) Welcome To The Jungle – Guns N’ Roses
Anybody who didn’t see this coming just don’t know P.C.H.A.