David Bowie’s been away from us for a year now. And it’s taken as long for me to figure out my favorite 50 Bowie songs. The target changes so much because Bowie changed so much. I’ve had many Bowie phases in my life too, beginning — as it does — with the whole Ziggy Stardust period. Soon I had every album. Eventually my favorite era to dwell became 1976 to 1979 (Station to Station, the “Berlin trilogy”). But then, some days, you suddenly need “Unwashed & Somewhat Slightly Dazed.” Or even “Time Will Crawl.” So where to start?
Some Bowie critics say he just takes other people’s ideas and popularizes him. From Lou Reed and Kraftwerk to the Pixies and Nine Inch Nails. Well, so what? What many observers miss, meanwhile, is how much spirituality and the occult play out in his art. That’s why, controversially, the “Ziggy Stardust” period figures minimally in my Top 50. I love it. But I argue his red-hair, Martian days are more novelty and LESS TRUE to the ultimate Bowie aesthetic than almost anything else he did. Who knows?
Anyway, I picked 50 songs because 50 is more than 10. And also because we had 50 years of David Bowie on this earth. (He changed his named from David Jones in 1966, see above.)
Here you go, my Top 50.
50. I CAN’T GIVE EVERYTHING AWAY (2016)
Let me begin with the last printed lyric of the last song of Bowie’s last album:
Seeing more and feeling less
Saying no but meaning yes
This is all I ever meant
That’s the message that I sent
That’s roughly the point of his whole career, sitting at the end of the page, punctuating an unbearably beautiful swan song.
49. SPACE ODDITY (1969)
Let’s compare, for only a moment, Elton John and David Bowie. Bowie, proving he’d always be a step or two ahead of just about everyone, wrote this song of a lost astronaut named Tom weeks BEFORE the moon landing in 1969. Elton John wrote “Rocket Man” for similar reasons. THREE YEARS LATER.
Now let’s stop comparing Elton John and David Bowie.
48. BLUE JEAN (1984)
I always fall for Bowie’s call-and-response choruses. Plus “she got a police bike.”
47. LITTLE DRUMMER BOY/PEACE ON EARTH (with Bing Crosby, 1977)
In No Direction Home, the Martin Scorsese’s Bob Dylan documentary, Dylan speaks of how in his early New York days he’d study the “eyes” of performers, particularly ones who conveyed knowing something that you — the audience — didn’t. “I wanted to be a performer like that,” he said.
Bowie somehow has had that impact too. The first time I saw him was on this weird 1977 Christmas special with Bing Crosby. I didn’t know who Bowie was. But I was immediately transfixed — by his English accent, his trainer-mullet, his dead-serious expression as he tilted his head to hit the notes. This video’s a bit overplayed now, but that one-off viewing stuck with me for years.
46. MEDLEY WITH CHER! (1975)
Besides that Bing thing, Bowie actually made a series of curious TV appearances (morning TV, one-off music specials) that seemed intent to mock pop culture, particularly California’s. In 1977, for example, he sang backups for a shirtless Iggy Pop on the Dinah Shore show, which is one of the most bizarre pairings of all time. Watch. It’s hilarious.
A couple years earlier, on the day the Spanish dictator Franco died, Bowie REFUSED to delay his interview from LA to the UK so news programs could relay news via the world’s lone TV satellite. The result is irresistible, and surreal. Featuring “revelations” like The Man Who Fell to Earth-era Bowie is planning a return to England soon “to be English in England.” Watch here.
Best, though, is this outrageous medley with Cher (and her moonage haircut). It needlessly goes from “Young Americans” to “One is the Loneliest Number,” “Da Doo Run Run” and “Daytripper.” Finally Cher sets up Bowie for his payoff moment in the “Young Americans reprise. She sings “ain’t there one song that can make me…” and lets the note hang in the air. Instead of delivering the punchline (“break down and cry”), Bowie pauses. And fidgets and waits. Seconds pass in silence on national TV. Watching him, Cher nervously smiles. Then Bowie offers a pitiful “…happy?” I think it was unplanned.
Bowie, it should be noted, loathed Los Angeles “with a vengeance.”
45. SWEET THING/CANDIDATE/SWEET THING (1974)
No one really pays attention to the Diamond Dogs album. This triplet melody is one of its lost classics. He put together the broody song’s lyrics using cut-up lyric techniques stolen from William S Burroughs (whom he interviewed in 1974 for Rolling Stone). For example, he slips in the word “hamburger” at one point. I also like this live version from his expensive, failed 1974 tour that tried to bring 1984 to the stage. Wish I had been there.
44. ALL SAINTS (1977)
In 1977 Bowie made two synth-heavy “Berlin” albums with the second sides filled with long, moody instrumentals. Many are good. None are better than this cast-out track from Low, finally released as a bonus track in 1991.
43. QUICKSAND (1971)
Maybe he’s just showing off with this song as something of a Cliffnotes version of things occult or darker 20th-century philosophies. In it, he confesses he’s “just a mortal with a potential of a superman” and gives appearances of Nietzsche, Churchill, Himmler the Nazi, Crowley the Satanist. The key bit, though, is the mention of “next bardo”– that intermediate state before reincarnation, per Tibetan tradition — and where he sings “knowledge comes with death’s release.”
I long heard that as “knowledge comes with catch-and-release,” which kind of works too. Either way, it makes me think of “Blackstar” (see later in list).
42. LITTLE FAT MAN (2007)
Bowie once said the dorky alter ego he plays on the extended video “Jazzin’ for Blue Jean” is the character most like his true self. So, he loves that painfully awkward humo(u)r. That’s likely why he made his last-ever “live performance.” In 2009, a few years after he stopped doing concerts, he unexpectedly introduced Ricky Gervais at the New York Comedy Festival, by singing this joke song made for Gervais’ HBO show Extras.
Of all things, I was there. And it was the only time I saw Bowie.
41. TEENAGE WILDLIFE (1980)
Apparently Bowie got mad at Bowie wannabes by this stage of his career – Gary Numan for one – so made a neat song about it. (“Same old thing in brand new drag… as ugly as a teenage millionaire.”) I love the effected Ronnie Spector vocals that lead into the freaky guitar solos as well as the conversation he has with himself halfway through.
40. UNDER THE GOD (1989)
Bowie made a couple awful albums in the mid-80s then he formed a rock band, Tin Machine. They wore suits and made a grunge album two years before Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” came out. As a whole, it’s not that good. But, Bowie’s offering a prequel to grunge in 1989. At the time pre–lip sync scandal Milli Vanilli was hitting #1, and even Poison and Warrant were scoring huge hits?
This was the “hit single.”
39. THE MAN WHO SOLD THE WORLD (1970)
Speaking of Nirvana, they made this early Bowie song famous from their Unplugged appearance. Bowie was surprised, not knowing (naively?) how well known he was in the USA at the time. Perhaps Kurt Cobain, who dressed in drag in the “In Bloom” video, knew him well enough from his the UK cover for Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the World, with a long-haired Bowie wearing a dress.
(The US release went for a less androgynous cover.)
Watch the hilarious 1979 performance of the song on Saturday Night Live. Wonder what host Martin Sheen thought of it?
38. DANCING IN THE STREET (with Mick Jagger, 1985)
Stephen Malkmus, formerly of Pavement, claims on his latest solo album that the ’80s were “the best decade ever.” He’s only being partly facetious. Once grunge hit, and hair metal died its overdue death, everything got so DAMN SERIOUS. In the end, the ’90s sucked, as Mickey Rourke says in “The Wrestler.”
The ’80s sure had a lot more fun. And even if Live Aid wasn’t the best time to show it, but Bowie and Jagger sure had some fun with this cover song/video made for that 1985 relief effort for the Ethiopian famine. It was recorded and filmed in a single night (you can see dawn break towards the end). It’s pretty awful. But that’s not the point. It’s hilariously wacky and neatly doubles as a time capsule of pure ’80s for all time to savor.
Jagger is the funniest in the video (from his pastel sneakers to the can of Bud he sips while Bowie sings), but Bowie has his moments with the “streets of Brazil” line and the over-the-top jumping intro.
37. BLACKOUT (1977)
“I’m under Japanese influence! And my honor’s at stake!” Bowie’s life was a coke-fueled mess going into his Berlin trilogy, and this whole disjointed spastic call-for-help carries that spirit. Still he manages to (briefly) find composure to kiss someone in the rain. I can’t say for sure, but I think it’s the same person that drinks milkshakes in the apocalyptic “Five Years” (see later in the list).
36. AS THE WORLD FALLS DOWN (1986)
Bowie’s role/music from the 1986 film Labyrinth have their cult fans. Though a Bowie freak at the time, I couldn’t quite bother with a teen fantasy film. And never saw it. And so initially missed this little classic from the desert of Bowie’s ’80s.
I always like his little tender songs like this. In fact, “Thursday’s Child” from 1999 nearly made my list.
35. ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS (1986)
But this tender soundtrack song — from an apparently worse film I also never saw — is better. I’m not sure he’s ever sounded more genuine than we he says “I absolutely love you,” even if it is with an over-the-top British accent. (Or prefaced by “the rest can go to hell.”)
34. WITHOUT YOU (1983)
But still! I’m giving my Sweetest Bowie Ever Moment to this creative little lost song from Let’s Dance, a quietly forgotten fourth single from the album. Yep, that’s Stevie Ray Vaughan on guitar.
33. ‘TIS A PITY SHE’S A WHORE (2016)
Enough of sweetness. This song, sandwiched between ones about blackholes/death and Lazarus/rebirth, borrows its name from a 17th-century play about incest. It’s a relentless aural express, charging towards somewhere the cryptic lyrics won’t reveal. I like the competing saxes and little ’80s keyboards in the breaks. But how we are to react that a woman punches him like a dude, and “keeps his cock,” isn’t made clear.
JOHN, I’M ONLY DANCING (1972)
This little bisexual anthem didn’t make an album. Some say it’s a poke at John Lennon, who swiped at Bowie for his cross dressing.
32. DIAMOND DOGS (1974)
Sorry, John. I like that song, but not enough for my Top 50. So “Diamond Dogs.” I only ever made one radio request to Tulsa’s KMOD. It was 1984. And I wanted to hear “Diamond Dogs” on the radio. Because, I felt, if Tulsa (finally) heard it and realized how good it is, it’d start a resurgence of Bowie’s “1984 album” IN 1984.
“Bowie huh?,” the Tulsa DJ said. “I’ll try to get it on.”
I waited four hours. Then it came on. And, yet, nothing changed.
Maybe 2017 is a better time to recall 1984?
31. SOMEBODY UP THERE LIKES ME (1975)
Long live “plastic soul!” This is perfect.
30. THE STARS ARE OUT TONIGHT (2013)
Tilda Stardust is a Tumblr site hilariously dedicated to the belief that Tilda Swinton and David Bowie are the same person. (Spoiler alert: They’re not. We know that partly because they appeared together in the video for this 2013 song.)
It’s not really my favorite on the album, frankly, but I pick it for its superb video and because — we mustn’t forget — that before Beyonce’s Lemonade ever dropped the “greatest surprise album” of all time, Bowie did it with Next Day. Much of it is great. The title track’s video (with Marion Cotillard and Gary Oldman) gets seriously bloody and even cuts off before the song is half over, while the eerie “Heat” nearly made my Top 50.
Seems Bowie ended his life by having the time of his life.
29. CYGNET COMMITTEE (1969)
“I want to live!”
28. OH! YOU PRETTY THINGS (1971)
There’s a lot of debate about what his lines about the “Homo superior” and “the earth is a bitch” mean. Me, I just find that chorus too catchy to overlook.
27. REBEL REBEL (1974)
Bowie often tried to out-Stones the Stones. He covered “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” while “The Jean Genie” and “Diamond Dogs” went after Stonesque blues. But “Rebel Rebel” is the most direct of Stonesy maneuvers. Peter Doggett claims, in his Bowie song survey book, The Man Who Sold the World, this rips “Satisfaction” riffs (sounds more like “The Last Time” to me) and that the “doo doo doo” backups deliberately mock the Stones’ tepid 1973 single “Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker).”
Whatever. It’s great. But over the years, Bowie seemed to tire of it. During his 1999 rendition for VH1 Storytellers, in fact, he cuts off the song after the first verse with a jeering “LA DI DA….” Check out the 7:25 mark.
26. STATION TO STATION (Live, 1978)
The “stations” of this extended prog-rock anthem from 1976 supposedly regard Jesus’ hallowed walk. (Plus robust doses of cocaine.) No other Bowie song is quite like it. The live 1978 version is superior to the studio version in my view, for its swing, its speed, and its “ooh ooh ooh hoo” backups during the “it’s too late” bridge. This was my favorite Bowie song for several years in the bright light of the Oklahoma mid ’80s sky.
25. TIME (1973)
Rule: Any song that busts out with a heart-felt “I HAD SO MANY BREAKTHROUGHS!!!” will make my Top 50. So here it is at the list’s half-way mark.
24. MOONAGE DAYDREAM (1972)
I’m contractually obliged to put one of the real, in-deep “Ziggy Stardust” songs — the ones where he talks about “space guns” or “jamming with Wierd and Gilly” or a starman trying to blow our minds. And this one is the best of that bunch.
Incidentally did you know that Bowie-as-Ziggy traveled across the USSR on the Trans-Siberian en route to the UK from Japan? He did. It should be a movie. Want to write it?
23. ROCK’N’ROLL SUICIDE (1972)
But this one is so much better than most of that Martiany “Ziggy Stardust” stuff. When Bowie killed off his Ziggy role live, he played this last. Jagger tried to play up its self-destruction theme — or mock it? — with the middle verse of “It’s Only Rock’n’Roll” a couple years later (“suicide right on the stage”).
22. LOVING THE ALIEN (1984)
You’ll think this is too high. But you should listen again. Sure the Tonight album that followed Let’s Dance was a real disappointment at the time. (I find its jazzy feel fitting better in the 21st century.) The first single “Blue Jean” is wonderful (see #48), but the seven-minute opener says as much of the Bowie myth as any song he ever did. Particularly the line “and your prayers, they break the sky in two.”
The video is so trippy, my dad seeing it said, “that guy is kinda weird.”
Insider tip: Also hear the scaled-down version that Bowie came to prefer.
21. FAME (1975)
John Lennon, who apparently stopped by Bowie’s recording session and sang “AIM” into the mic to fill space of this song, gets a co-credit here. (Which surprised Lennon at the time.) It eventually turned into “Fame” and went to #1. I love the low guitar staccato notes hitting the 1/3 beats – tuned way down, with reverb on high.
Here’s Bowie singing “Fame” on the Cher show:
20. FASHION (1980)
Bowie code alert: in Bowieland, words don’t always mean what they mean. Here, “Fashion” means “fascism” as tipped off with the “goon squad” lyric. Notes from his handwritten lyrics indicate a violent theme. The rambunctious lead guitars balance well off Carlos Alomar’s disco guitars. May Pang, John Lennon’s girlfriend from his “lost weekend” period, is subversively in the video, which is fantastic. Bowie’s absurdist, half-hearted dance moves get mimicked by dancers (including early MTV host Alan Hunter); the same are repeated in “Ashes in Ashes.” Notably, Bowie doesn’t care to be followed (“listen to me/don’t listen to me”). Or at least claims as much.
19. WILD IS THE WIND (1976)
Bowie covered a lot of songs. None are better than this one of Nina Simone. Simply ridiculous vocal performance. Brilliantly he adds that defining breakdown bit for the line “don’t you know you’re life… itself!?” All the more amazing is that he did at a time when he pretty much subsisted off a diet of cocaine and milk. (He once claimed to not remember recording the entire Station to Station album.)
18. LIFE ON MARS (1971)
Barbara Streisand covered this song. This is important because it means Bowie TRICKED Streisand to sing lines like “look at those cavemen go” and “Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow.”
(As he put it on a VH1 special, she must have been “going through one of her slightly more lost periods.” See 4:00 mark.)
17. CHANGES (1971)
We’ve heard it a lot, but it’s very good. And the perfect Bowie template for what will come as his ’70s takes off.
The key part:
I turned myself to face me
But I never caught a glimpse
Of how the others must see the faker
I’m much too fast to take that test
16. STAY (1976)
In 1973 and 1974, Bowie pretended to be an alien with a red mullet. In 1975, he kept the red dye, but lost the mullet and did a “plastic soul” album with Philly musicians. In 1976, he went prog-rock funk, as his natural blond self. Very clearly prog-rock funk should have been a full-fledged genre. Here’s the song live on US TV.
Earl Slick (center, below) wears head bands. He plays the main guitar part in the 1976 recording.
15. LADY GRINNING SOUL (1973)
I once saw Tina Turner on MTV talking about Bowie and the Rolling Stones. “Bowie is such a gentleman,” she said. “Mick Jagger treats you like one of the boys.”
To illustrate, compare the Rolling Stones’ crude “Brown Sugar” with this gorgeous closing song from Aladdin Sane. Both are, reportedly, about the same woman: Claudia Lennear. Mick’s version is crude. Bowie immortalizes her:
She’ll come, she’ll go, she’ll lay belief on you
But she won’t stake her life on you
How can life become her point of view?
And, after promising “she will be your living end,” he hits that closing high note that fades seamlessly into the guitars. That’s sweet.
14. TVC-15 (1976)
Iggy Pop dreamt his girlfriend got sucked into a TV, so Bowie – in typical Bowie fashion – made a song about it. (Bowie says “Jim” in hushed tones throughout song; Iggy’s real name is Jim Osterberg.) I love the Jaggery verses best. In 1985, I was amazed he started his Live Aid set with it. Of course, Bowie was aware that show wasn’t for Wembley Stadium, but the millions watching on TV.
13. LAZARUS (2016)
Dare you to watch the video. (Note it’s an abbreviated version of the song.)
12. ASHES TO ASHES (1980)
Forget Godfather II or Empire Strikes Back, this 1980 single – with one of the creepiest videos of early MTV – is the greatest sequel ever made*. It comes off as a interwoven conversation following the revelation that Major Tom, of “Space Oddity” (#49) has been found! (Bowie deadpans: “oh no, don’t say it’s true”). Plus, slap bass! I love the murmured gossip during the pre-choruses and the pre-CNN news reports (“sordid details following”) that appear in a suddenly very British accent. (Incidentally, the video’s outrageous costume appeared on the back of his 1969 Space Oddity/David Bowie album.)
Incidentally the song was a #1 hit in the UK, and only managed #101 in the USA. Jeez.
* Consideration should also go to Brian Johnson-era AC/DC, which debuted the same year as “Ashes to Ashes” with the perfect rock’n’roll album Back in Black.
11. SUFFRAGETTE CITY (1972)
In 1984, Chip Dalby bought me the Ziggy Stardust cassette. And until I made it to late in the second side, I had no idea that this Tulsa KMOD staple was Bowie at all. The album changed everything for me, and launching my first real Bowie phase – the one where I bought every album (but Pin Ups) over the next year. (A more recent Bowie phase led me to tricking National Geographic to publish this article on Bowie “travel sights.”)
Also, this song taught me what a “suffragette” was (Oklahoma public schools never managed to cover the women’s right to vote.)
Incidentally, glam rock’s greatest soundbyte – “wam bam, thank you mam” – was stolen from a Small Faces’ album title, which was stolen from Charles Mingus.
10. THE FIRST SIDE OF LOW (1977)
Any hipsters will tell you that this is Bowie’s best album. (Not me.) It certainly has the best cover: that iconic orange-on-orange profile. I love the sounds of the short, nervous songs, with their farty snares and drippy arcade synths. The casual lyrics, too, can be downright comic (“don’t look at the carpet, I drew something awfulonit, see?”).
But for me, none of the songs quite flourish outside the context of the album. So, because this is my list dammit, I’m picking the whole first side. Sue me.
Oh, note that the harmonica melody from “A New Career in a New Town” is reprised in Bowie’s last song (“I Can’t Give Everything Away” from 2016; see #50).
9. GOLDEN YEARS (1976)
I prefer this to “Fame,” his #1 similarly soul-ish song from the previous album, for three reasons:
a) the reverb on the hand claps in the left speaker,
b) the line “run for the shadows” (which is exactly what the song about golden years is about – and a good message for Trump America), and
c) and that he played it on Soul Train.
8. FIVE YEARS (1972)
When the apocalypse comes, as Bowie tells it, you might as well drink “milkshakes cold and long.” He opens Ziggy Stardust with sparse piano chords borrowed from Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band in a sea of mayhem. The world is dying in five years. There are soldiers in arm slings, priest-kissing cops, vomiting drag queens, then that one serene person in the ice cream parlor, drinking it all in. I’ll take one.
7. MODERN LOVE (1983)
“I catch a paper boy” is a great way to start a song. I was once a paper boy. And one thing you never wanted was to get caught, early morning, by some mad customer because their paper was wet the day before. So, if there was one Bowie song I could steal, to call my own, it’s this. Mostly for the PERFECT call-and-response chorus. Actually I’ve already tried to steal this technique on nearly every song I ever wrote.
6. BOYS KEEP SWINGING (1979)
Tulsa’s Peaches Records lined its roof with oversized album covers, making it a museum of late ’70s rock’n’roll. I love to look at it. It’s where I saw my first Bowie album cover, for Lodger, though I didn’t know who or what it was at the time. Like Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, it’s sideways. Showing a shot of a broken man (Bowie), with his nose pressed to the side, as if against glass. I had no idea the sound of the music it contained. But I was sure it held something subversive and fascinating.
Later I saw the wonderful “DJ” video from the album, but ultimately I found “Boys Keep Swinging” is the best song, for its searing machine-gun guitar solos that duet over a basic song structure that brutally slays male culture. (Sample lines: “Luck just kissed you HELLO!!!! when you’re a boy” and my favorite “you get to wear a uniform.”)
And the video is truly Bowie’s best. It is absolutely hilarious. I never saw this on early MTV, likely because programmers were shy of the Bowie triplets in drag. If I can ask only one thing of this list — and are you still here? — watch this:
5. UNDER PRESSURE (with Queen, 1982)
Soon after Bowie’s death, people laughed at a story of how Bowie once snubbed Coldplay when they asked to duet on some song and Bowie said, “it’s not a very good song, is it?”
His standards were evident even in this, the greatest duet of all time. When I visited Montreux, Switzerland a couple years ago, I bee-lined for the Freddie Mercury statue on the Lake Geneva shoreline and toured Queen’s studio where this song was made. A lot is made of it in the exhibit, including how guitarist Brian May was upset how Bowie took over the sessions. I’m really happy Bowie did. The song could not be better.
4. LET’S DANCE (1983)
First, “Let’s Dance” is NOT about dancing. Notice Bowie with boxing gloves on the album cover, or his shadow boxing during its performances in 1983’s Serious Moonlight tour. He’s fighting. At what? Check out the video – set in the Outback – which links the song with aboriginal rights in Australia. (Bowie said at the time he set it in there because he wanted a place “newer than the USA.”)
I didn’t get all this in 1983, so asked Alfie Mizer, the worst player on the Key Cobras baseball team while we wasted time in the outfield. (I was the second-worst player.)
“The red shoes in the video, they mean culture,” he said.
Thanks 14-year-old Alfie.
So it’s that, plus great music. Bowie’s return to pop, with a mix of ‘50s doo-wop backing vocals, an echoed guitar playing a staccato beat, sparing bass over a big drum.
I always wonder what happened to Alfie.
3. YOUNG AMERICANS (1975)
Only a couple weeks after Richard Nixon’s resignation, Bowie recorded this, with the baiting line, “do you remember (your) President Nixon?” Pretty timely.
But who are Young Americans? The answer begins on the back of most Motown record sleeves. “Sound of Young America” it reads. Bowie extends the message beyond to discuss all of African Americans, I think. This album – recorded a year off the “death” of Ziggy Stardust character – is his “plastic soul” record with Philly soul musicians (including the first gig for Luther Vandross). And lines dividing the races are peppered through the song. When he has his backing vocalists borrow John Lennon’s line (“I heard the news today, oh boy”), he cuts the follow-up “the one who makes the grade” line, letting you know he’s singing of those who don’t always make it so well.
See his 1974 performance on the Dick Cavett Show. It’s my favorite Bowie performance, even if he’s too coked up to hit the high notes.
2. “HEROES” (1977)
“Heroes” – quotes intended – is the perfect anthem for the losing underdog. And probably his best song. Few listeners, however, have heard the song in full. My favorite verse is ONLY heard in the full-six minute version, which adds a different slant to the scene:
And you, you can be mean
And I, I’ll drink all the time
‘Cause we’re lovers, and that is a fact
Yes we’re lovers, and that is that.
(Listen to the full version of “Heroes.”)
The full line doesn’t make the video either, which mesmerized me in MTV’s early days, with Bowie in his leather jacket, before a foggy backdrop, and looking grimly past the camera to a doom he only hints at.
1. BLACKSTAR (2016)
Bowie had the best death in history. He made it fun (note his last photo: sockless, stepping onto a New York sidewalk with a huge smile). He did it by timing his death with one of his best albums. The theme seems “dark” until you understand how much it connects with the full Bowie philosophy made clear from his whole career.
Bowie has more listenable songs than “Blackstar,” the album’s eponymous lead-off single. But all ten minutes of it make up the the heart of the album, and the heart of Bowie’s legacy.
Sleepy notes drag down a simple half step, prefaced by flutes and backed by clashy trip-hop drums and chorused vocals. Spacey sounds quiver while spastic, bleak sax notes hover between vocals. After several minutes, the song collapses, then quickly transforms as if passing through a black hole. On the other side, it settles onto a more comforting bridge. “Something happened on the day he died… somebody else took his place.” Finally he returns it to the opening again – this time with drums at ease with the rhythm.
And this is why it’s his best song.
What exactly is “Blackstar” though? A blackhole? Singularity? Bowie knows exactly what he’s doing. It’s just that I don’t. But the song is filled with clues. Start by reading the opening lyric, “in the villa of Ormen,” as a cipher for “the revealer of all men.” Sure sounds like it. And a nice echo to 1971’s “Quicksand,” where Bowie notes – as his career is just getting going – that “knowledge comes from death’s release.”
Can you even imagine what he could tell us now?
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
It’s hard to whittle down Bowie’s work to 50 songs. I toyed with this list literally for 10 months, and survived losing a nearly finished draft along the way. The next 20 or songs on my list would include ample doses of secondary songs from Scary Monsters, Aladdin Sane and Lodger, three of my very favorite Bowie albums. Thanks for reading.
By any chance have you made this list into a Spotify Playlist? That would be great.
Oh, you can do that? I haven’t. I’m not very Spotify. Yet. Will check that out.
Endlessly played David Live in ’74. Saw Bowie live in ’76 at Montreal Forum. Incredible. Jean Genie running on the brain.
Wow, ’76? Amazing time to see him. You’re lucky!
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Love it. Thanks for taking the time.
I remember arguing with friends in the 80’s: “was it a good decade for music or not?” I loved it! thanks for reminding me how much and why – it was fun.
Why only 50 songs 😉
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