I’m not even going to bother writing some heartfelt letter or detailed explanation of what Bowie meant to people, nor of the legacy his music, his art, holds. To do so would certainly fail to tell the full story, thus tainting such a legendary career. It would also take several essays’ worth. So I’m going to simply explain that, whilst I’ve always liked some of Bowie’s music, it’s rather surprising that only recently have I started really getting into his music; traversing some of its milky musical depths and raising from it relics of ancient song.
I’m attempting to do a sort-of Top Twenty-One for Bowie but, spoiler alert, there are a lot of honourable mentions because he’s one of those artists that just… has more than twenty-one brilliant songs. It’s that simple. Nevertheless, I’ll end up having to miss out some beloved set-staples and chart favourites, I’m sure. Forgive me, David. And in case you’re wondering why I picked twenty-one of all numbers, well, in truth, I discovered a gem after compiling my initial list. And it’s lovably odd, which best describes Bowie.
The honourable mentions (i.e. songs I like quite a lot but couldn’t include because the list would go on too long and become an annoyingly odd number and I can’t be bothered to write a piece about each and every one) are as follows: Black Country Rock, The Man Who Sold the World (The Man Who Sold the World, 1970), Oh! You Pretty Things, Andy Warhol (Hunky Dory, 1971), Soul Love, It Ain’t Easy, Lady Stardust, Hang On To Yourself, Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide (The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, 1972), Watch That Man, Drive-In Saturday (Aladdin Sane, 1973), Sorrow (Pin Ups, 1973 – Would have almost certainly the list if not for the fact it is, of course, a cover), Sound and Vision (Low, 1977), Let’s Dance (Let’s Dance, 1983), I Keep Forgettin’ (Tonight, 1984), Beat Of Your Drum, Glass Spider (Never Let Me Down, 1987 – ‘Glass Spider’ very nearly missed out on the list), Hallo Spaceboy (Outside: The Nathan Adler Diaries: A Hyper-cycle, 1995), Seven Years in Tibet (Earthling, 1997), Pablo Picasso (Reality, 2003), You Feel So Lonely You Could Die (The Next Day, 2013). I strongly recommend exploring these just as much as the final list itself; they hide real deep cuts and unapprised gems.
The Top Twenty-One:
21. Space Oddity – David Bowie, 1969 – Kicking off a ‘Best of Bowie’ list with ‘Space Oddity’ at number twenty-one? I know, I know, I must be clinically not all there. Whilst I love the cosmos-bound ballad which introduced Major Tom to all of us, it’s perhaps a tad overplayed. That said, it was the first single of Bowie’s to hit the UK charts, and that erupting chorus still sends a shiver down my spine. From the get-go with this list, it’s obvious that the mark Bowie left behind on music will never be emulated, at least not in our time. He truly was a starman, and here he was, stepping out. Into the outer reaches of this world, musically, artistically. Totally.
20. Cat People (Putting Out Fire) – Cat People: Original Soundtrack, 1982 – ‘Cat People (Putting Out Fire’ is a nigh-on-seven-minute Gothic masterpiece with Bowie at his most baritone, before squealing like nothing before at the two-minute mark. From there on, the track is a ballistic artillery gun of power and passion; making for one of Bowie’s most underrated musical moments. It was shortened and re-recorded the following year for his seminal Let’s Dance album – but to me this version just doesn’t pack the same punch. The closing synth draws it all to a very 80’s cyberpunk close; Philip K. Dick in song.
19. Underground – Labyrinth, 1986 – 1986’s Labyrinth has become a cult film in the thirty years since its release, flopping at the box office upon initial release and now universally acclaimed for David Bowie’s bulge. Nevertheless, his enchanting portrayal of the Goblin King, Jareth, gave us a few songs on the film’s soundtrack to take in, and eagerly so. ‘Underground’ is a six-minute tour-de-force of pop and soul, with a whole group of back-up singers to help create that real echoing grandeur the track needs. ‘Magic Dance’ is also a great song from the film, but I feel this one doesn’t get enough love. Bowie lets loose here and unleashes his kingly side.
18. Golden Years – Station to Station, 1976 – I still remember hearing this for the first time during the ballroom scene in 2001’s A Knight’s Tale, featuring the late Heath Ledger as a budding jouster. The film is great, and its soundtrack even better; but this funk/disco track really stuck with me. Once on the cards to be its parent album’s title track, it’s more akin to Bowie’s previous work, Young Americans, than ‘76’s Station to Station. Nevertheless, it’s flittering groove is nigh impossible to stay static to, and Bowie’s vocals are just sublime. So gentle, and yet packed with such emotion. One of Bowie’s best works.
17. Changes – Hunky Dory, 1971 – I’ve already covered this one in a recent Hunky Dory review, but it warrants another in-depth look. The song is perhaps a reflection on Bowie’s own life; of how it changes, and changes us. It’s hardly a secret Bowie felt the need to re-evaluate who he was more than others; shifting from persona to persona in a matter of months. But ‘Changes’ feels also like an attack on those who fool themselves into thinking something lasts forever, telling those ‘rock ‘n rollers’ that pretty soon, they’re going to be old. In that regard, ‘Changes’ is Bowie’s ‘Death or Glory’ from The Clash’s London Calling, with as much poignance but perhaps less audible battering. The song is, perhaps, sullied as being ‘that one from Shrek’ but regardless, it sounds great, all these years later. And just as accurate.
16. Five Years – The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, 1972 – Honestly, depending on my mood, this song could easily be in the top ten for me. Retrospectively ranked as a consistent champion of many such lists, it encapsulates best the feel of true despair, depression and desolation; as the world discovers it has only five years left to go on. Bowie’s unique, often personal, observations of a girl nearly murdering two children and ‘queer’ throwing up at the sight of a cop kissing a priest’s feet create a real sense of genuine darkness – and more than make for a chilling, and memorable, opener of his best-known work. Bowie’s closing wails are downright haunting, accompanied with epic string arrangements. Nevertheless, the hopeful weaving of needing ‘so many people’ throughout proves a note that stings with realism. Just brilliant.
15. Kooks – Hunky Dory, 1973 – British band, The Kooks, got their name from this song (baffling, that); a tribute to Bowie’s then-recently born son, Duncan Jones ,and inspired by early Neil Young. The result is a trundling three-minute piece of art pop whose choruses implement acoustic guitar (like much of Hunky Dory) to prove wonderfully enchanting. Bowie proves playful and self-aware here – far from …Ziggy Stardust but nonetheless utterly magnificent.
14. Cracked Actor – Aladdin Sane, 1973 – Packing a downright dirty glam rock riff, what other album could claim parentage? From the point of view of an aging Hollywood star talking to a lady of the night, Bowie’s lyrics deal with fleeting success, coping with fame and a reflection of Ziggy at his height. The choruses are full of lascivious drug-infused innuendoes, and hammered home with every punching drumbeat. Great stuff; and performed expertly onstage.
13. Life on Mars? – Hunky Dory, 1973 – Early Bowie is perhaps linked thematically by grandiose despair, and boy does this track pack it. A strange kind of ballad told from the POV of a young girl whose life is dull and dismal; it deals with how there must be better ones out there; bigger, better, more fulfilling lives so tantalizingly close… but just out of reach. She wonders if they even exist. Is there life on Mars? Though Bowie would later strip down the song and play it more mournfully (embodying the song’s tone better), it’s crescendo of a chorus backed with Martian spider Mick Ronson’s strings is nothing short of enchanting. One of Bowie’s most lauded, and for good reason.
12. The Jean Genie – Aladdin Sane, 1973 – Honestly, who can slate this song given the legendary riff it has? Its name taken from French author and activist Jean Genet, persona from Iggy Pop and American-obsessed lyrics create a real avalanche of culture and paint such a vivid image. ‘Slashed back blazers’ and reptile smiles could be complete nonsense. But they fit the song so well, and probably remain the magnum opus of Bowie’s 1973 record, Aladdin Sane, of which this track was the lead single. Never has the tale of ‘Poor little Greenie’ proved so enthralling. And so headbang-worthy.
11. Rebel Rebel – Diamond Dogs, 1974 – Bowie’s back catalogue is full of some impressively timeless riffs, but this one has to reign supreme in that category, right? Perhaps a farewell to glam rock, this lead single from ‘74’s Diamond Dogs boasts Bowie on lead guitar himself (with the departure of his typical backing group, the Spiders from Mars), regaling us of rebellion even in the midst of worldwide desolation. Words Bowie himself lived by; and perhaps one we should, too. Because God knows Ziggy’s dystopian nightmares are coming true.
10. Starman – The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, 1972 – How could I not include this one? It’s iconic, it’s quintessential, and it just rocks. Playing from the despair of the album’s opener, ‘Starman’ gives us hope, and warmth, in the hope of everyone’s favourite cosmic-inspired guitarist, Ziggy Stardust. The chorus, reminiscent of Judy Garland’s ‘Over the Rainbow’, is a titan of melody and string, with verses driven by guitar. It’s phenomenal live, phenomenal on record and turned Bowie into something of a legend at the time of its release; the lead single from …Ziggy.
9. I’m Afraid of Americans – Earthling, 1997 – Bowie visited Java (Indonesia) and saw its first McDonalds built, prompting him to express his infuriation of homogenous culture in the form of a song; sonically similar to something Rammstein or Depeche Mode would put out (and lyrically not unlike the former’s ‘Amerika’). His ’97 Earthlings explored the genre of industrial rock, and Bowie conquers such a sound with surprising ease. Though his lyrics are few here, he gives it his all, and an all-round fascinating attack of the classic ‘American’ image, particularly when pasted in other parts of the world. It was made yet more popular by Nine Inch Nails’ remix, doubling down on the intensity of it all. One to devour if Bowie’s later career is yet unknown.
8. Blue Jean – Tonight, 1984 – ‘Blue Jean’ is a piece of sexist rock ‘n roll.’, Bowie once wrote, admitting it’s ‘not very cerebral’, but nevertheless it remains a pop-rock anthem that passes by in an instant; with infectious call-and-response choruses and simple verses. The twenty-minute tie-in short film to this song, ‘Jazzin’ For Blue Jean’, is well worth a look, too – granting a really quite hilarious insight into Bowie’s acting skills and humility, as well as adding exposition to the oft-cryptic music video – though one which features the ever-enthralling ‘Screaming Lord Byron’. This one fails to warrant a skip.
7. Absolute Beginners – Single, 1986 – The theme song to Julien Temple’s film of the same name (itself adapted from the 1959 novel), ‘Absolute Beginners’ is a far cry from the days of ‘God given ass’ and coked-up rock. But it’s beautiful. A real, genuine love letter put into words, Bowie carves such meaning into each and every line, with unrelenting choruses and some damn nice sax from Don Weller. I never get tired of this one, cheesy as it is.
6. Time Will Crawl – Never Let Me Down, 1987 – This was the track that ultimately prompted me to reconsider the list. Bowie would later reveal that the late 1980s were his artistic downfall; when he sold many albums but was critically panned for following a more ‘generic’ path. But at the time, especially on ’87s Never Let Me Down album, Bowie firmly believed he was returning to a more guitar-based sound, after the likes of Let’s Dance and 1984’s Tonight. Shortly after, he would look back on the album as being somewhat mistreated, re-recording its songs for what would later become a 2018 release (Never Let Me Down 2018). But, whilst I have a soft spot for most of the album, actually – from singles to deep cuts – Bowie was right in naming ‘Time Will Crawl’ as his favourite. Lyrically returning to the early ’70s cityscapes of desolation and destruction, it was inspired by the disaster at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. But musically, it remains a guitar-driven funk-pop masterpiece; dark in tone with a simple chorus that proves contagious. ‘When your mask went on/We only smelt the gas/As we lay down to sleep‘ is a particular haunting line, and Bowie delivers its macabre indifference masterfully. It also set the scene for the starman’s impending Glass Spider Tour, which still remains his live zenith.
5. Ziggy Stardust – The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, 1972 – I’m going to use the word ‘definitive’ a lot in this list, but this song epitomizes it the most. That opening riff is unmistakable, bringing applause to all who behold it, and a tear to those who wish they could. Detailing the ego of our beloved Ziggy getting the better of him until his group, the Spiders from Mars, grow jealous, it’s full of potential and pain; often blurring the lines between the two as its album often does. There’s only so bright a star can burn before it goes out. ‘Ziggy Stardust’ is pure glam rock and the centerpiece of Bowie’s most iconic creation; drawing from the likes of T.Rex and going ten steps further.
4. “Heroes” – “Heroes”, 1977 – To many, Bowie’s signature; a chugging rhythm full of anguish and hope. Perhaps the pinnacle of Bowie’s ‘Berlin Era’, the song gives me goosebumps to this day; the tale of two lovers whose stars are crossed but who choose to reign rebellious, albeit just for one day – inspired by real-life events in the shadow of the Berlin Wall. ‘”Heroes”’ packs a chorus that builds and builds in classic Bowie fashion. His vocals really shine here; can anyone resist singing along to those opening lines, especially as an increasingly unhinged Bowie screeches them three minutes into the song’s six-minute length?
3. Suffragette City – The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, 1972 – Mick Ronson likely made history when he thundered into that blistering glam riff in the song’s memorable opening. ‘Suffragette City’ combines sexuality and the raw power of rock ‘n roll with Bowie’s influence of The Velvet Underground, as well as the work of Stanley Kubrick (namely A Clockwork Orange) masterfully. Bowie gave us ‘Wham, bam, thank you ma’am’ as it stands today, and one of the finest songs ever put to record. That fleeting riff and chugging backbeat is nothing short of spectacular, with the track’s false ending garnering universal applause as it jumps right back in again. And thank Christ it does.
2. Queen Bitch – Hunky Dory, 1971 – This could so easily have taken the top spot for me. Since the first time I heard this song, I was hooked. That electrifying riff which repeats throughout is simply contagious, accompanying this vicious tribute to Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground (1972’s Hunky Dory was not short of such odes to influences and interests of Bowie’s). In case you’re wondering, both the lyrics and riff went on to be lifted quite heavily for The Killer’s 2004 colossus, ‘Mr. Brightside’, but I have to say Bowie does it better. Pure, unadulterated venom as Bowie curses his interest for getting with another guy; leading to home-hitting lines and a malicious starman at the song’s wheel. Perfect.
1. Diamond Dogs – Diamond Dogs, 1974 – ‘This ain’t rock ‘n roll! This is genocide!’ – To thunderous applause, what a way to open a song, full of vocoded vocals and prophetic visions of dark ages and Star Wars-esque bounty hunters. This lengthy, Stones-inspired rocker is rambunctious from start to finish, settling down and picking up time after time (not that we’re complaining). It also introduces us of the post-Sane Bowie persona; Halloween Jack, embodying the streetwise rogue, yet full of seamless grace. Seen by many to be an unconventional single, ‘Diamond Dogs’ sounds so fresh to me; and I never tire of that roaring opening. Many Bowie songs come close, sure, but this one hits just that one spot for me.
So there, my Top Twenty-One. I wouldn’t normally add to the list but I’d like to address the fact that, as you may have noticed, there’s not a lot of later Bowie in this list. It must be said that I prefer my rock – especially that of Bowie’s glam days – and therefore earlier DB reigns supreme throughout (save a few honourable mentions in the late 90s/00s). But I hold nothing but respect for Bowie in all the work he did. 2016’s Blackstar was the last work of his; and though it may not be my thing musically (most definitely in the realm of ‘art rock’ at best; complex, lengthy and the symbolism cup having frequently overfloweth), it clearly provided something for Bowie. So to that extent, much of the album, and previous works, make the list if it was based on admiration alone.
But, as I said, the ranking system here is really rather arbitrary. Each and every song fits a mood perfectly, and at that, Bowie was no simple starman; but a downright deity. He never died. He just went home.