16 best opening songs on debut albums from the 1960s

This list of the 16 best first songs on first albums from the 1960s shows that some bands and artists get it right on the first track of their debut album.
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Debut albums are certainly not easy. For every classic debut that expertly dovetails with a band or artist’s ethos, there’s another first album that offers up half-baked song ideas and strange musical decisions. Other debut albums are inconsistent and, while they might have a number of good songs, don’t consistently deliver the goods like other, later albums in a group’s discography.

However, some debut albums are masterful, and the first songs on those albums are eternal masterpieces that represent the group or artist flawlessly – or at least presage future triumphs. Read on to explore the 16 best opening songs on debut albums from the 1960s.

Of note, the 1960s represented a period of massive social and cultural change in the U.S. and across the world. Much of that change was wrought via the rapidly evolving musical landscape, which was dominated in the early goings by the "British Invasion," led most notably by The Beatles. As the decade continued, music continued to develop at a rapid pace, and classic albums were released seemingly every week.

A killer opening track was paramount for the success of an album in the 1960s

Note: This list does not include EPs or first singles, as it is strictly limited to the first song featured on the track list of the group or artist’s debut album – simple as that. As such, this list also doesn’t count first tracks on a group or artist’s first “major label” album, discounting their “independent” releases.

“Surfin’ Safari”– The Beach Boys – Surfin’ Safari (1962)

While The Beach Boys would reach greater heights once they became unshackled from the “surf” aesthetics that bedeviled them as well as when group mastermind Brian Wilson stepped away from performing live to focus on writing top-tier material, the group certainly kicked their career off the right way – with one of their most famous songs leading their debut album in 1962. Certainly more amateurish and raw than the elegant, gilded pop confections from Pet Sounds, “Surfin’ Safari” is still an extremely fun time and a terrific opening song.

“I Saw Her Standing There”– The Beatles – Please Please Me (1963)

The greatest band of all time delivered an electric first song on their debut album Please Please Me. While the group would explore far more experimental and eclectic melodies and arrangements on future albums, the sheer exuberance with which bassist Paul McCartney delivers this song’s lyrics is laudable. With the group’s classic “woo” backing vocals and crystalline two-part harmony from McCartney and John Lennon, it’s no wonder The Beatles conquered the world during the ‘60s.

“Mr. Tambourine Man”– The Byrds – Mr. Tambourine Man (1965)

Arguably a better overall song than The Beatles’ first track, The Byrds kicked off the short-lived “folk rock” movement of the mid-1960s with this landmark recording of a Bob Dylan-penned tune, which also served as the first track from the group’s similarly named debut album. Featuring classic song after classic song, all of which are buoyed by the heavenly harmonies the group is known for, America’s “answer to The Beatles” lived up to that billing in spades on the first track from their debut album – and they were just getting started.

“Foxey Lady” or “Purple Haze” - The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Are You Experienced? (1967)

The only “two-fer” on this list, as both of these tracks are staggering achievements in songwriting and sonic exploration from the mid-60s. The reason both “Purple Haze” and “Foxey Lady” are on this list is twofold: 1) “Foxey Lady” was the first track on the original U.K. and international editions of the Experience’s debut album, while “Purple Haze” kicked off the U.S. release, and 2) the songs sound remarkably similar, as they both rely on the “Hendrix chord (7#9)” to anchor the songs melodically. Both are classics from Hendrix’s first recorded output as a band leader.

“Sunday Morning”– The Velvet Underground – The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)

One of the most influential bands of the 1960s, The Velvet Underground’s “everyman” style of playing was on display throughout the group’s first album in 1967, which saw them paired with German chanteuse (or should I say sängerin) Nico. The opening salvo from the album, “Sunday Morning,” serves as a perfectly soothing introduction to the group’s charm – as well as the brilliantly observed lyrics and innate melodicism of Lou Reed.

“Break On Through (To The Other Side)”– The Doors – The Doors (1967)

An urgent, powerfully sung opening track from The Doors' crowning achievement: their self-titled debut album. Featuring plenty of classics including this song, “Light My Fire,” “The Crystal Ship,” “End of the Night,” and the hypnotic “The End,” The Doors were never quite able to reach the heights that this album achieved. Even with that being the case, “Break On Through” was a powerful opening statement that introduced the world to the supreme talents of Jim Morrison – who burned brightly for such a short time.

“Echoes”– Gene Clark – Gene Clark with the Gosdin Brothers (1967)

After his ouster from The Byrds, the band’s nominal frontman Gene Clark (the aforementioned eponymous “Tambourine Man” when the group played lived) embarked on a star-crossed solo career that saw him rarely achieve the fame that he surely deserved. With immense lyrical talent, a beautiful voice and striking good looks, Clark never achieved the fame that was due him. The opening track from his poorly titled first album, Gene Clark with the Gosdin Brothers, showcases all of his indelible talents set to an interesting, mystical-sounding “chamber pop” arrangement. Essential listening on a terrifically underrated late '60s album.

“Let No Man Steal Your Thyme”– Pentangle – The Pentangle (1968)

Even if English folk group Pentangle’s debut album was naught but a precursor to the sprawling, magnificent Sweet Child, which was released a few months later, it still debuted the intoxicating combination of the singular talents of all five members: legendary folk figurehead Bert Jansch, gifted guitar virtuoso John Renbourn, double bass dynamo Danny Thompson, masterful drummer and percussionist Terry Cox as well as ethereal, stunning vocals from Jacqui McShee. “Let No Man Steal Your Thyme” serves as a perfect introduction to the group, though they would reach even more stratospheric heights on subsequent albums.

“Nanna’s Song”– Ralph McTell – Eight Frames a Second (1968)

Ralph McTell is both a brilliant guitarist known for lightning-fast renditions of standard American blues numbers (some of which are present on this, his debut album) as well as for his powerful songs that delve into subjects such as nostalgia, history, love, the joys of childhood and much more. The first song on his debut album is typically beautiful and features his pleasant, impassioned delivery all underscored by gorgeous finger-style acoustic guitar playing. A brilliant folk singer whose career has been sorely overlooked when discussing the greats of British folk.

“Out On The Side”– Dillard & Clark – The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark (1968)

The third and final appearance of Gene Clark on this list, this time with banjo virtuoso Doug Dillard alongside him as part of the bluegrass-leaning group Dillard & Clark. This rather obscure album features a wealth of top-tier “country rock” of the era, as well as some of Clark’s best-ever songs. “Out On The Side” is a moody and somewhat psychedelic-sounding track that is very much unlike the rest of the album, which is very rootsy and littered with finger-meltingly fast banjo picking from Dillard, terrific vocal performances (and often lyrics) from Clark and tremendous vocal arrangements. Highly recommend listening.

“21st Century Schizoid Man”– King Crimson – In The Court of the Crimson King (1969)

Progressive rock was booming when King Crimson leaped into the fray with their first album, which was headlined and led off by “21st Century Schizoid Man” – a frenetic and astounding first track. This song still sounds incredibly audacious 55 years after it was released. Greg Lake on vocals, Robert Fripp delivering fretboard wizardry and cacophonous drums and saxophones clanging throughout, this song is incredible and there is still very little that sounds like it even in today’s fractured, postmodern musical landscape. Clearly, Kanye West thought highly of the track as he sampled it heavily for “Power” from his best album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

“My Whole World Ended (The Moment You Left Me)”– David Ruffin – My Whole World Ended (1969)

A deeply affecting breakup song from the most recognizable voice from Motown's The Temptations, this was David Ruffin’s first foray into a solo career that saw myriad ups and downs due to Ruffin’s mercurial temperament and various substance abuse problems. Still though, on this 1969 album, Ruffin was in fine form, and his voice is among the most potent of instruments that any artist has ever been gifted with.

“Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”– Crosby, Stills & Nash – Crosby, Stills & Nash (1969)

The first album to feature the astonishing combination of voices of former Byrds member David Crosby, former Buffalo Springfield member Stephen Stills, and former Hollies member Graham Nash, this album was a mega-hit when it was released in 1969. A heliocentric group that crossed paths with all of the major stars of the era, the album itself lived up to the hype. The record is home to a number of classic tracks including “Wooden Ships,” “Guinnevere,” “Long Time Gone” and, of course, the first track on the album “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” – a paean to Stills’s soon-to-be-ex-sweetheart Judy Collins.

“Time Has Told Me”– Nick Drake – Five Leaves Left (1969)

An enigmatic British folk artist, Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left was a lucid and literary debut album that kicked off with the wistful “Time Has Told Me.” Drake’s career was sadly cut short due to an overdose of antidepressants, but the three albums he released during his lifetime have left an indelible mark on the landscape of modern music, but it all started with this haunting and reflective first track from his debut album – which is still powerful and moving 55 years later.

“Good Times Bad Times”– Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin (1969)

One of the biggest rock groups of all time, Led Zeppelin remain an enduringly popular group thanks to the brilliant interplay between all four members – who are each gifted musicians in their own right. Jimmy Page is likely the most widely revered – his production methods, incredible guitar-playing, and overall brilliance could certainly outshine his bandmates at times, but John Paul Jones, John Bonham and, of course, Robert Plant all worked together to create an incredible sound that many bands have emulated over the years.

Those bands, however, have never been able to quite match the intensity and novelty of Led Zep. The first song from their first album is a gripping, bluesy number that sets the scene for myriad classics that would follow in its footsteps over the next decade of the group’s existence.

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“Christine’s Tune”– The Flying Burrito Brothers – The Gilded Palace of Sin (1969)

Perhaps Gram Parsons’ best example of his “cosmic American music” can be found on the first – and best – album by The Flying Burrito Brothers. Featuring a half tongue-in-cheek/half-earnest lyric and staggering harmonies from Parsons and his fellow former Byrd Chris Hillman, “Christine’s Tune” is also a touchstone in the “country rock” genre.

Very few bands have been able to reach the synthesis of influences that the Burritos discovered on their debut album, all typified here and underlined by “Sneaky” Pete Kleinow’s wild, fuzz-addled excursions on his pedal steel guitar.

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