First impressions are everything. And with attention spans what they are, music artists don’t have the luxury of eventually getting around to what they want to say. There’s a good reason so many classic albums begin with their best songs.
From the Beatles and Led Zeppelin to U2 and Nirvana, rock history is filled with great album-opening songs. Whether prologues to LP-length concepts or killer singles, the first song on an album not only helps set mood and pace, it also is a key factor in determining if a listener is going to stick around for the next 40 or so minutes. Without that first hook, the odds get much, much slimmer.
As you’ll see in the below list of the Top 40 Album-Opening Songs, the fundamental starting point is often a make-or-break moment for a classic record. Would the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s debut still matter all these years later without “Purple Haze”‘s famous guitar introduction welcoming listeners? And since we’re on the subject of that color, Prince‘s from-the-pulpit invitation to Purple Rain undeniably had a part in making the album the longest-running No. 1 of 1984.
And the best thing about the Top 40 Album-Opening Songs below is that they’re just the start of LPs worth diving into. But you gotta start somewhere.
40. David Bowie, “Five Years” (From The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, 1972)
The opening track on Bowie‘s star-making LP serves as the prologue to the story of an extraterrestrial rock star who falls to Earth in an attempt to save it from destruction. “Five Years” slowly fades in as news of an impending apocalypse is relayed.
39. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, “Refugee” (From Damn the Torpedoes, 1979)
From the rolling drums that introduce “Refugee,” Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ third album sounded like something big was on the horizon. Damn the Torpedoes proved to be Petty’s first Top 10 LP, filler-free rock ‘n’ roll straight from the heartland.
38. Nine Inch Nails, “Head Like a Hole” (From Pretty Hate Machine, 1989)
The minute-long instrumental intro to the first song on Nine Inch Nails‘ debut album set the template for their career: skittering electronic drums, buzzing synths and chain-saw guitars. Then Trent Reznor‘s scraped vocals show up. A career-making moment.
37. U2, “Beautiful Day” (From All That You Can’t Leave Behind, 2000)
U2 had spent much of the ’90s in the wilderness, experimenting with new sounds and styles. For 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind, they returned to the classic U2 sound, starting with the familiar-sounding guitar leading “Beautiful Day.”
36. Ramones, “Blitzkrieg Bop” (From Ramones, 1976)
The Ramones‘ template was set out from the opening seconds of the first track on their debut album. Power-chord guitars collide with booming bass and a steady 4/4 … and then it’s all over in less than two and a half minutes. Not a second is wasted.
35. New York Dolls, “Personality Crisis” (From New York Dolls, 1973)
New York Dolls made their intentions clear in the opening song of their self-titled debut. The entire band stumbles in as singer David Johansen lets loose with a throat-clearing scream followed by “yeah, yeah, yeah” and then “no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no!”
READ MORE: 40 Songs With Titles Not in the Lyrics
34. Led Zeppelin, “Immigrant Song” (From Led Zeppelin III, 1970)
Brief feedback hiss gives way to a galloping hard rock rhythm that charges through ice and snow on its way to Valhalla. “Immigrant Song” is a deceiving start to Led Zeppelin’s third album, a mostly acoustic record that revealed new layers to the supergroup.
33. The White Stripes, “Seven Nation Army” (From Elephant, 2003)
The most famous guitar riff of the century started life as a potential James Bond theme when Jack White came up with it while on tour in Australia in 2002. His band with ex-wife drummer Meg, the White Stripes, became rock saviors with its fourth LP Elephant.
32. Rush, “Tom Sawyer” (From Moving Pictures, 1981)
Rush had already started moving to a more accessible sound when their eighth album catapulted them to the big leagues. From the opening attack of “Tom Sawyer,” Moving Pictures sharpened the Canadian power trio to their finest points.
31. The Rolling Stones, “Start Me Up” (From Tattoo You, 1981)
An album of castaways dating back to 1972 carried the Rolling Stones‘ streak into a new decade. And Tattoo You started strong, with “Start Me Up” – featuring another in a long line of classic Stones riffs – sailing to No. 1, quickly followed by the LP to the top.
30. King Crimson, “21st Century Schizoid Man” (From In the Court of the Crimson King, 1969)
Thirty seconds of mostly inaudible silence greet the start of King Crimson‘s debut album. But once Greg Lake‘s distorted voice and a hard-rock thump led by Robert Fripp‘s slashing guitar join in, it’s prog mayhem at its most razor-sharp disciplined.
29. Journey, “Don’t Stop Believin'” (From Escape, 1981)
Journey‘s best album starts with their one undeniable classic. Inspired by new keyboardist Jonathan Cain, “Don’t Stop Believin'” pulls off a big tease, saving its fist-raising chorus until the song’s final minute. Surprisingly, it’s not the LP’s biggest single.
28. AC/DC, “Highway to Hell” (From Highway to Hell, 1979)
AC/DC has no shortage of great album openers, but “Highway to Hell” strengthens that position with a killer riff and a Bon Scott entrance that makes the impending road trip sound more than a little menacing. It’s one of their all-time best choruses, too.
27. Aerosmith, “Back in the Saddle” (From Rocks, 1976)
The opening track on Rocks moves from a trot to a gallop in its first 30 seconds, clearing the way for a larynx-shredding scream by Steven Tyler before one of Aerosmith‘s most recognizable riffs kicks in. The LP’s next 35 minutes rarely let up.
26. Metallica, “Enter Sandman” (From Metallica, 1991)
Metallica‘s commercial breakthrough starts with an introduction to their dark, foreboding world. “Enter Sandman” cracked the Top 20 – a band first – and launched the quartet into another level of success. Four more singles from the Black Album followed.
25. R.E.M., “Radio Free Europe” (From Murmur, 1983)
The first song on R.E.M.‘s debut album begins with ghostly static calling from another dimension. Then it gets weirder, as Michael Stipe stitches words together – some real, some possibly made up – that fans still debate. An invitation to Murmur‘s gothic draw.
24. Bruce Springsteen, “Badlands” (From Darkness on the Edge of Town, 1978)
The rolling drums that push “Badlands” into view marked the end of a three-year break between records for Springsteen – almost an eternity in the ’70s. From there Darkness on the Edge of Town goes to other lands, some more promising than others.
23. Black Sabbath, “War Pigs” (From Paranoid, 1970)
Just as Black Sabbath opened their self-titled debut album seven months earlier with the sound of a tolling bell, they slowly work their way into the lead track from the follow-up with a minute-long instrumental intro. Eight minutes later they come up for air.
22. Radiohead, “Everything in Its Right Place” (From Kid A, 2000)
Following landmark OK Computer, Radiohead turned toward electronic music for their fourth LP. The opener “Everything in Its Right Place” had stalled before synths were added and Thom Yorke‘s vocals layered with audio sludge. A new world awaited.
READ MORE: Top 40 Albums of 1983
21. U2, “Where the Streets Have No Name” (From The Joshua Tree, 1987)
U2 had been building toward The Joshua Tree since 1983’s War. 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire revealed the Irish band’s deep interest in American culture, a theme explored more deeply in its follow-up. The opening track goes full widescreen.
20. The Beach Boys, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” (From Pet Sounds, 1966)
From the opening notes of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” the Beach Boys‘ Pet Sounds revealed new layers of depth to their music. Brian Wilson engineered the record as a concept album about experiencing complex emotions for the first time. It’s still inspiring.
19. Boston, “More Than a Feeling” (From Boston, 1976)
Boston came out of nowhere in 1976, quickly breaking sales records with their bestselling debut. From the fade-in of the opening song and first single “More Than a Feeling,” their take on ’70s AOR helped lay a path for the upcoming decade’s shifts.
18. Black Sabbath, “Black Sabbath” (From Black Sabbath, 1970)
Falling rain, a tolling bell, thunder … Black Sabbath made quite an entrance on the opening song of their debut album. Not much happens in the six-plus minutes it takes for “Black Sabbath” to unfold, but it sure sets a mood that shaped their entire career.
17. AC/DC, “Hells Bells” (From Back in Black, 1980)
Like “Black Sabbath,” AC/DC’s “Hells Bells” begins with a ringing bell. And like its 10-year-old predecessor, it serves a purpose: Singer Bon Scott died in 1979, replaced by Brian Johnson for the band’s seventh album. It signals the end and a new beginning.
16. The Beatles, “Come Together” (From Abbey Road, 1969)
There are many noteworthy opening moments from the Beatles‘ catalog, starting with the “one-two-three-four” count-off on their debut album to the bittersweet start of Let It Be. But the snaky bass and drums that introduce their last recorded LP stand out.
READ MORE: Rock’s Most Hated Records
15. The Rolling Stones, “Gimme Shelter” (From Let It Bleed, 1969)
Let It Bleed was the Rolling Stones‘ requiem for the ’60s, and its opening song slowly creeps in like a malevolent storm, bringing with it dread and despair. Not even the gospel voices can save the battered souls looking for shelter. Just pray it passes.
14. Prince and the Revolution, “Let’s Go Crazy” (From Purple Rain, 1984)
“Dearly beloved, we have gathered here today to get through this thing called life,” Prince preaches at the top of his monster-selling album, Purple Rain. And then the music – a mix of pop, funk and rock – rushes in, and everything is going to be all right.
13. Queen, “We Will Rock You” (From News of the World, 1977)
It’s not much of a song, just 135 seconds of repetitive percussive hand claps and foot stomps accompanied by a group-sing stadium chant. Then a guitar solo barges in and goes into repeat mode. But what a way to start an album.
12. Led Zeppelin, “Black Dog” (From Led Zeppelin IV, 1971)
Is there a more perfect intro to one of the all-time greatest rock albums than a swaggering Robert Plant intoning, “Hey, hey, mama, said the way you move / Gonna make you sweat, gonna make you groove“? A filler-free 42 minutes follows.
11. Van Halen, “Runnin’ With the Devil” (From Van Halen, 1978)
The slow fade-in signals something big is on the horizon. The opening song on Van Halen’s first album makes a grand entrance, effectively shifting the landscape of hard rock music moving into the ’80s. Everyone here gets a show-stopping showcase.
10. Marvin Gaye, “What’s Going On” (From What’s Going On, 1971)
Casual conversations start one of the all-time best protest songs before a wounded saxophone brings in the rest of the band. All these years later, “What’s Going On”‘s message is still needed. Marvin Gaye‘s sublime song cycle hasn’t aged one bit.
9. Bob Dylan, “Like a Rolling Stone” (From Highway 61 Revisited, 1965)
Bob Dylan‘s first fully electric album starts out swinging. With a single drum hit leading, the rest of the band joins in with one of the rock’s all-time-greatest LP openers. Dylan snarls, accuses and spits his way through a bitchy putdown that made it to No. 2.
8. The Clash, “London Calling” (From London Calling, 1979)
One of the greatest albums ever made begins with a declaration over a marching beat: “London calling, now don’t look to us, phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust.” The next hour flips through punk, pop, rockabilly, jazz, R&B, reggae, new wave and classic rock.
7. The Who, “Baba O’Riley” (From Who’s Next, 1971)
Pete Townshend fed the opening repeated notes of “Baba O’Riley” into an organ, kicking off the Who‘s 1971 classic Who’s Next with something futuristic-sounding. The LP was scaled back from a more ambitious project; it remains their leanest work.
READ MORE: 25 Under the Radar Albums From 1973
6. The Jimi Hendrix Experience, “Purple Haze” (From Are You Experienced, 1967)
“Purple Haze” first appeared as the second single by the Jimi Hendrix Experience in their native U.K. But the song was their introduction to U.S. listeners, leading their debut album with guitar heroics never heard before. A great start to an essential debut.
5. Guns N’ Roses, “Welcome to the Jungle” (From Appetite for Destruction, 1987)
Stuttering, echoed guitars introduce one of the most potent rock bands of the late 20th century. By the time Axl Rose closes the intro with an anguished howl, the rest of Guns N’ Roses roll in like a heavy storm. One of the fiercest welcomes ever heard in music.
4. Nirvana, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (From Nevermind, 1991)
The opening guitar riff of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is not only one of the most famous in rock history, it was also a rallying cry for a revolution. With Nevermind, Nirvana fired a warning shot for a new generation of artists. Nothing would be the same after this.
3. Led Zeppelin, “Whole Lotta Love” (From Led Zeppelin II, 1969)
The start of Led Zeppelin’s second album features one of the most iconic guitar riffs in rock history. By the time the song fades to a close five and a half minutes later, there are canyon-filling howls, thundering drums and a midsong freakout.
2. The Rolling Stones, “Sympathy for the Devil” (From Beggars Banquet, 1968)
Ghostly percussion ushers in instruments one at a time until nearly six and a half minutes later “Sympathy for the Devil” winds down in a flurry of screams and guitar squeals. The Beggars Banquet opener launched one of music’s all-time greatest runs.
1. Bruce Springsteen, “Thunder Road” (From Born to Run, 1975)
“Thunder Road” slowly sneaks in from the opened screen door Bruce Springsteen sings about in the first line of his legend-making LP. It proceeds to lay out the theme of Born to Run: everyday losers looking for new starts. No song sets an album’s scene better.