Pop Singer. Glam rocker. Soul singer. Electronica innovator. Young hotshot. Elder statesman. Straight. Bisexual. Character actor. Fashion icon.
David Bowie has been all of these things at various points in his career and, no Wayne Coyne, he ain’t dead yet.
The breadth of Bowie’s influence is almost too vast to consider. From Madonna to Nine Inch Nails to Depeche Mode to Lady Gaga to Blur to Marilyn Manson to The Arcade Fire, many of the top artists from today and yesteryear owe a great deal to the man who put on make-up and sung about space travel, androgyny and a whole bunch of other stuff that us mere mortals will never fully comprehend.
A true rock star, Bowie appeared to bow out from music following 2003’s Reality. After a 10 year hiatus, the man is back with new music.
In honor of the release of The Next Day, Bowie’s 24th official album, we’re taking a look at the top 24 Bowie tracks.
24. “Modern Love” (from Let’s Dance) For many, the phrase “Bowie in the Let’s Dance era” has the same connotations as “Dylan goes Christian” and “The Rolling Stone’s Their Satanic Majesties Request,” which is to say that there’s some great stuff if you’re willing to look past certain established prejudices. At first listen, “Modern Love” sounds like a bit of straight up ‘80s cheese—the synths, backup singers, an expertly placed sax, it’s all there. In fact, one would be mistaken in thinking, based the first few notes, that you were listening to the opening of “Footloose.” Production aside, Bowie’s charisma and expert sense of pop songwriting transforms this into a rousing, head bop-inducing track that’s impossible to resist.
23. “Bring Me the Head of the Disco King” (from Reality) Contrary to some perspectives, Bowie did release quality stuff towards the latter half of his career. Never more was this more apparent than in “Bring Me the Head of the Disco King,” the final track of his final (or so we thought) album, Reality. Sounding like a recording from some dark jazz bar, the song has Bowie reflecting on his career, and it’s not a happy listen. Rather, it’s a song filled with regret and sadness. No wonder people thought Bowie was done with music forever. Though the meandering, seven-plus minute track might prove a bit taxing for some, it’s the kind of song that, if it hits you at the right time, will haunt you long after it’s over.
22. “Cat People” (Putting Out the Fire) (from Let’s Dance) A deep cut from Bowie’s successful but oft-maligned Let’s Dance, “Cat People” was originally composed for writer/director Paul Schrader’s ultimately ill-conceived 1982 remake of the classic horror film Cat People. Much like the film, the song was soon forgotten. Of course, leave it to master revivalist Quentin Tarantino to recognize the greatness of this song and insert it into a pivotal sequence in his 2009 film Inglourious Basterds.
21. “I’m Afraid of Americans” (from Earthlings) Whenever one goes with the “old meets new” model of collaboration, the level of success can be a definite crapshoot. In this instance, it was the right one. Whatever your feelings are regarding Trent Reznor as a songwriter, one has to admire the skill of his industrial production. Certainly, the versatile Bowie fits into Reznor’s musical landscape like a snug glove.
20. “Starman” (from The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust) One of the centerpieces of the Ziggy Stardust concept album, “Starman” has some callbacks to Hunky Dory, especially given its octave leap during the song’s sweeping chorus. That being said, got to say I still prefer Dewey Cox version of the song (I kid, of course).
19. “Rebel Rebel” (from Diamond Dogs) If ever there was a Bowie song that could soundtrack a sporting event, this would be it. Ironic, since the lyrics contain multiple references to gender-bending such as “You got your mother in a whirl/ She’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl.” Often cited as being Bowie’s elegy to his glam rock days, you couldn’t ask for a better exit.
18. “Fashion” (from Scary Monsters) While Mick Ronson is the guitarist most often associated with Bowie, King Crimson’s Robert Fripp here more than rivals that legacy, releasing some intense metallic riffs that augment the song’s reggae-influenced progression.
17. “Rock and Roll Suicide” (from The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust) Without ever having laid eyes on Bowie or his numerous elaborate costumes, you could probably safely guess from this, the closing track to the Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust, that he was a man who enjoys the flamboyant and the theatrical. In less than three minutes, Bowie progresses from quiet acoustic guitar strumming to a bombastic blast of strings, brass and shredding guitar.
16. Ashes to Ashes (from Scary Monsters) Beginning with a wonky synth line that sounds like a lost sound effect on an oldDoctor Who episode, “Ashes to Ashes” revisits the character of Major Tom (from another Bowie composition that shall be mentioned later). According to the song, Tom is now a junkie and wasting away. Certainly one of Bowie’s most oft-kilter songs, it’s also, naturally, one of his best.
15. “TVC 15” (from Station to Station) The more one listens to the Kraftwerk-inspired greateness of Bowie’s Station to Station, the sadder it becomes that the man himself—emotionally despondent and walking through a cocaine haze at the time—barely remembers recording it. Reportedly inspired by a hallucination Iggy Pop once had, “TVC 15” spins a simple yarn about a woman who is sucked into a television, leaving her man behind. The surreal lyrics make a jarring contrast with the honky-tonk piano intro that sounds straight up Dr. John. But, then again, what is Bowie about if not contradictions?
14. “Suffragette City” (from The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust) “Wham bam thank you ma’am!” Only David Bowie can make an inconsiderate quickie sound so damn charming. Of course, that only scratches the surface of this relentlessly catchy, furious blast of rock that sounds like a speed-up Chuck Berry number.
13. “Changes” (from Hunky Dory) The lead-off single of Hunky Dory, Bowie reportedly wrote this song as a parody of nightclub songs. Considering the chameleon-like nature Bowie’s career would take, hoping from one musical persona and one genre to the next, lines like “Changes are taking the pace I’m going through” make the song feel less like a pop single and more like an artistic manifesto.
12. “Sound and Vision” (from Low) Let’s face it, Low may be an exceptional album and a major highlight in Bowie’s career but it’s not exactly easy listening. With its layered sonic textures and ultra crypic lyrics, it purposely lacks the poppy accesbility of a Hunky Dory or a Ziggy Stardust. That being said, the mostly instrumental “Sound and Vision”is a hypnotic track that deftly builds upon layers of instrumentation. By the time Bowie gets around to actually singing, it almost feels unneeded. And seriously, could listen to that up-tempo guitar riff all day and not get tired of it.
11. “Queen Bitch” (from Hunky Dory) Written in honor of The Velvet Underground and Lou Reed, “Queen Bitch” introduced the kind of thrashy Mick Ronson guitar riff that helped characterize some of Bowie’s later glam-rock numbers. Clocking in at just over three minutes, the song stands as perhaps the most infectiously catchy song in an album filled with them.
10. “Golden Years” (from Station to Station) In a record primarily characterized by electronic textures and Euro-influenced techno, “Golden Years” serves as a pleasant oddity. Propelled by the kind of funk/soul beat that would have not seemed out of place on Young Americans, “Golden Years” casts Bowie in a lounge lizard role, albeit with one sleek backing track that you just want to soundtrack whatever Saturday Night Fever-esque strut you’ve got.
9. “Oh! You Pretty Things” (from Hunky Dory) Originally prepped to be Hunky Dory’s first single, Bowie opted for “Changes” instead.While that seemed to be the correct decision in retrospect, one cannot help but wish this track had been given more attention. Anchored by some cabaret-esque piano, the song rises to a hooky chorus that probably made Paul McCartney jealous.
8. “The Jean Genie” (from Aladdin Sane) David Bowie greatly admired The Rolling Stones. If you ever needed proof, give this track a whirl. Spearheaded by a killer guitar riff and some great blues harmonica, this cut easily stands as a major highlight on Aladdin Sane.
7. “The Man Who Sold the World” (from The Man Who Sold the World) “The Man Who Sold the World” stands as one of the creepiest songs in Bowie’s oeuvre. The fact that the vocals sound reminiscent of a snake hissing through water do little to alleviate this. Like many Bowie songs, this proved to be a popular standard. The most famous cover of which no doubt remains Kurt Cobain’s haunting, anguished version in Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged special.
6. Ziggy Stardust (from The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust) Boasting one of Mick Ronson’s most recognizable guitar licks, “Ziggy Stardust” has Bowie summarizing the story of the Ziggy Stardust album (and, The Man Who Fell to Earth if you’re so inclined). In the end though, the story plays backseat to the pure exuberance that is this titular track.
5. “Under Pressure” (from Queen’s Hot Space) Yes, this is technically on a Queen album. And, yes, it’s been overplayed to death in countless movie and TV trailers. Need to make a character’s intense anxiety look charming? This is the song for you. Ultimately, however, this does not detract from John Deacon’s bass line or the way in which Freddie Mercury’s soaring vocals and Bowie’s understated crooning so perfectly complement each other. There are some songs that just deserved to be overplayed. This is one of them.
4. “Heroes” (“Heroes”) Whenever one discusses the career of David Bowie, the word chameleon inevitably find its way into the discourse. And, yes, Bowie was indeed a master of adjusting himself to fit different trends and stage personalities. Yet such a characterization also implies a cold, disconnection. It connotes one who keeps emotion and heart-baring sentiments at an arm’s length. Such are the criticisms often thrown at Bowie and those of his ilk.
Then there’s “Heroes.” Gone is the theatricality. Gone is the subversive musical throwbacks. Gone is any sense of irony. All that’s left is a man singing self-consciously over the beautiful, hypnotic waves of undulating electronic noises that surround him. Bowie originally wrote the song after spotting a pair of lovers rendezvousing under the Berlin Wall. Intrigued, Bowie envisioned their story. Like all the best Bowie tracks, this one is a build. It begins with whispered, cooing, with the narrator imploring his companion to be his queen. Approximately three minutes in, the tone of Bowie’s voice dramatically shifts into an emotional wail. By the time he gets to the line “We’re nothing / And nothing can help us,” his voice is cracked with emotion.
Despite its progressive sound, “Heroes” betrays some very old-fashioned sentiments. It’s the emotionally gripping tale about a man desperately seeking the comforts of love and the always effervescent warmth of happiness—if just for one day. Bowie had written sad songs before but never has he sounded so, well, achingly human.
3. “Young Americans” (from Young Americans) The words “English glam rocker” and “Philly soul” sound like they should go together about as well as Morrissey and McDonald’s. Yet, not only Bowie doesn’t only pull it off but the result is one of his strongest songs to date. Over a blaring sax and soulful backup singers, Bowie constructs—a happy song about a decidedly miserable situation. He even manages to slip in a “Day in the Life” reference in there. If there were ever any doubts regarding Bowie’s range as a musical artist, this shattered them all in one fell swoop.
2. “Space Oddity” (from Space Oddity) It’s telling that, 40-plus years after its initial release, “Space Oddity” remains a weird, weird song. Inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey, the song spins the tale of “Major Tom” an unfortunate astronaunt trapped drifiting in space. While many of Bowie’s best are based around the gradual build or surprising the listener, this is by far the one that does it best. “Space Oddity” certainly feels like two or three different parts of songs melded together. That Bowie makes it seem so seamless is a sign of his mastery. And who doesn’t inadvertently clap along to that middle section? Just sayin’.
1. “Life on Mars?” (from Hunky Dory) Hunky Dory remains Bowie’s most consistently enjoyable album. And never has his penchant for sweeping, cabaret-esque theatricality been more apparent than on this surreal track. Beginning with Bowie wailing over a lonely piano, the track quickly builds in intensity, adding a soaring string section that gives the track its Broadway-worthy punctuation.