12 best opening songs on debut albums from the 1980s

This list of the 12 best first songs on first albums from the 1980s shows that some bands and artists get it right on the first track of their debut album.
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Debut albums are difficult to get right. For every flawless debut that carefully explores an artist’s overall style and ethos, there’s another first album that only delivers poorly conceived song ideas and bad musical decisions. Other debut albums are patchy and, while they might be home to a few notable tracks, they don’t consistently deliver the goods like future albums from a group’s discography.

However, some debut albums are flawless, and the first songs on those albums are surefire classics that represent the group or artist perfectly – or at least hint at what triumphs may await the group or artist in the future.

The 1980s saw the continued “postmodernization” of pop music, with ever more genres being created and embraced by fans and musicians alike throughout the decade. In particular, indie music a la R.E.M. became a major force, as did synth pop and metal (all of which can be traced back originally to the ‘70s).

The 1980s saw a number of notable debut albums kick off with near-perfect first tracks

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.

“Rise Above”– Black Flag – Damaged (1981)

In the late 1970s, punk music was borne out of an overall frustration surrounding the malaise that modern society was seemingly stuck in. By 1981 in California, that malaise had only intensified, and punk music needed an even stronger reaction to it musically. Enter hardcore punk and its progenitors Black Flag, whose 1981 debut album Damaged kicked off with the anthemic “Rise Above,” which featured a bellowed chorus that exhorted its listeners: “We are born with a chance; Rise above, we're gonna rise above; And I am gonna have my chance; Rise above, we're gonna rise above.”

“The Hurting”– Tears for Fears – The Hurting (1983)

A classic synth-pop album from perhaps the best-known representative of the genre, Tears for Fears’ The Hurting showcased the group’s tremendous writing, production, and musical chops right out of the gate with the first song on the album. While the group would hit greater commercial heights on the follow-up album, Songs from the Big Chair, the group’s debut album is home to a number of hugely influential tracks, including the original version of the Donnie Darko “theme song:” “Mad World.”

“Radio Free Europe”– R.E.M. – Murmur (1983)

Immediately sounding light-years ahead of its time, Athens, Georgia’s R.E.M. were darlings of the burgeoning indie and “alternative” scene throughout the 1980s, but nowhere did they capture the spirit of the times better than with the first song on their debut album Murmur. Featuring Michael Stipe’s obtuse lyrics and catchy melodies underpinned by chiming, jangly guitars, “Radio Free Europe” in particular and Murmur in general represented a changing tide within indie rock.

“Hit The Lights”– Metallica – Kill ‘em All (1983)

A blistering opening salvo from one of the primogenitors of the thrash metal movement, Metallica’s debut album is fast-paced, frenetic, and packed to the brim with heavy metal riffage – enough to make parents the world over quake in fear of what the future may bring for their child listening to an album with a bloody hammer on the cover called Kill ‘em All. Pretty tame by today’s standards, though! Still rocks hard as hell, however.

“Script for a Jester’s Tear”– Marillion – Script for a Jester’s Tear (1983)

Delightfully out of touch with the musical tastes of the time, Marillion’s debut album was as proggy as can be and wouldn’t have been out of place during the genre’s heyday in the early 1970s. Instead, Script for a Jester’s Tear fell on deaf ears despite featuring top-tier musicianship and the heavily Peter Gabriel-influenced (Genesis era) vocals and lyrics of Fish (the group’s singer. “The game is over, over over!”

“Just Like Honey”– Jesus and Mary Chain – Psychocandy (1985)

A one-trick pony of an album, but what a slick trick it is. A massively influential album that transposed the melodic sensibilities of 1960s girl groups and The Beach Boys to hugely fuzz-laden and feedback-stacked instrumentation, Psychocandy influenced everything from shoegaze to dream pop to Britpop and everything in between. “Just Like Honey,” the album’s opening track, is the platonic ideal of this songwriting style, and it sounds just as fresh and earwormy as it did close to 40 years ago.

“Rhymin & Stealin”– Beastie Boys – Licensed to Ill (1986)

While many other hip-hop albums certainly could qualify for this list, a massive quantity of them begin with a non-song “skit” or “intro” that knocks them out of contention as, technically, the first track on the album is not an essential cut. That is not the case with the Beastie Boys’ first album Licensed to Ill, which begins with a mission statement from the trio featuring sampled snippets of songs by Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and The Clash. As the Boys bellow in the song: “Most illingest B-boy, I got that feeling; 'Cause I am most ill and I'm rhymin' and stealin’.”

“I Ain’t No Joke”– Eric B. and Rakim – Paid In Full (1987)

From one classic hip-hop album to another, Eric B. and Rakim’s first album introduced the entire world to one of the most gifted emcees of all time – Rakim. While Eric B.’s production can be spellbinding at times, it is Rakim’s incredibly well-crafted bars that truly serve as the centerpiece of the group’s first album.

Rakim’s talents are on full display on the first song on the album, which details his extreme talents through clever lines such as: “When I emcee I'll keep a freestyle, goin' steadily; So pucker up, and whistle my melody; But whatever you do, don't miss one; They'll be another rough rhyme after this one.”

“Welcome to the Jungle”– Guns ‘n Roses – Appetite for Destruction (1987)

A hugely influential album that brought classic “rock ‘n roll” back to the top of the charts in the U.S. and overseas. Featuring a bevy of outlaw anthems and stuffed to the gills with major guitar riffage and pyrotechnic solos, Appetite for Destruction was everything that rock needed in the late 1980s. “Welcome to the Jungle” is perhaps the platonic ideal of what a GnR song is, and it still holds up 37 years later.

“Straight Outta Compton”– N.W.A. – Straight Outta Compton (1988)

N.W.A.’s opening salvo from the group’s first album still hits incredibly hard over 35 years after it debuted. While culture and music have become somewhat desensitized to hard-hitting tracks such as this, the frenetic, powerful energy that emanates from this song is still hypnotic, heady, and contagious. Ice Cube comes out swinging in the first verse (literally in the video), which serves as a terrific introduction to the group that popularized hardcore gangsta rap in the late '80s.

“Talkin’ Bout A Revolution”– Tracy Chapman – Tracy Chapman (1988)

A simple and powerful call for change was delivered by one of the more unique singer/songwriter voices to debut in the 1980s. While she might be better known today as the writer and original performer of the all-time classic “Fast Car,” Chapman's debut-album-opening “Talkin’ Bout A Revolution," serves as the perfect precursor to what is a powerful and singularly moving debut album from the late ‘80s.

Next. Overlooked 1980s. Overlooked albums from the 1980s. dark

“I Wanna Be Adored”– The Stone Roses – The Stone Roses (1989)

The best album from the final year of the 1980s starts off with a fade-in featuring squalls of guitar noise and feedback underpinned by a throbbing bassline. The feedback fades out as the bass gets louder and then finally John Squire’s guitar line reveals itself, followed by Ian Brown's enigmatic, sensual vocal line.

“I Wanna Be Adored” is a sinewy, sexy, and mysterious first song on The Stone Roses’ debut album, which set the scene for both the Britpop and Madchester genres that ruled the airwaves during the 1990s in England. Seminal.

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